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This is my last blog entry for the Spring and I hope to provide Machete Girl with maximum exposure with it. MG is a stunning, outstanding cyberpunk-culture e-zine from Australia. The first issue for Q1/2010 can be downloaded for FREE and from the looks of it any future issues will be free too. And hell, I would have paid good money for a magazine like this. Since I don't have any way to pay them and Australia is too far for the ads to be relevant, I am doing what little I can to help them: Promoting them here. Check out the website and download the magazine. Give them numbers they can throw into the faces of potential advertisers. Help them survive, grow and prosper. I was an instant fan when I found this and I want this site and zine to be around for a long time to come.
Machete Girl is also an excellent example of how e-zines ought to be made. It knows it is not print and mixes links and embedded videos on its pages. There are both real and fake ads, carefully tailored to fit the mood and preferences of the audience (the drug ad is my personal favourite). If I ever start something to succeed the late Roolipelaaja magazine, Machete Girl would be my idol, role model and goal. As it stands I am just another grizzled old cyberpunk and overjoyed to find myself among friends, even if they are half the world away.
When HAX is out, I'll be calling these people. For now I am just a raving fanboy.
Making games is hard work. HAX is no exception. But some things about game development are just so fucking cool. Having finished the levels (yeah, right, as if those would survive the playtesting), I am now working on storyline missions and traded my Lead Designer hat for a Narrative Designer hat for a while. The player provides the action scenes even in the storyline missions but I must weave around them a plot that gives them guidance, motivation and a touch of emotion. HAX webcomic format to carry its narrative forward but we are still restricted to the handful of core features in the game. My job is to make the best possible dramatic use out of them.
There are 16 story arcs in HAX, including the tutorial. Strung together, they would fill out a reasonably large comic book and when played through they'll take the player from the Street Sector gutters to the vast conspiracies of the Van Allen Station (it is the space station at the far end of Starspine). However, the player is unlikely to be able to do that on a single sitting because of the rapidly increasing power level of the opposition as he moves into higher security networks. The mission is often "in the background" and its completion requirements are slowly being met while the player does the "usual" stuff.
I am not going to spoil you by telling the stories here and now. Let's just say they involve corporate conspiracies, rogue AIs, technothriller mysteries among the microstates and exploring the chaos of Link grids lost to the Entropy Effect. Writing them is a blast and I hope playing them is at least half as fun. Although I am scripting all 16 right now, we only need four to be implemented at launch. More can be added later on and story content is also excellent stuff for special events and campaigns. Especially since it is fun to do.
Storylines also enable us to explore aspects of the setting that our otherwise Link-centric view into the game doesn't cover. I have a distant dream that some day we could make an MMO set in the meatspace or somehow include meatspace gameplay into HAX. Yes. A very distant dream.
F.E.A.R. 1 is kicking my ass at the lowest difficulty. I know old fogeys like me are supposed to be nostalgic about the old days when games actually presented a challenge but frankly, it also meant that I rarely finished games back in the day. While the difficulty reduction has been necessary because of the crappiness of console controllers, it has also played a vital role in the explosion of the games market into what we have today. The masses do not want to be "frustrated to perfection" like the geeks who started the gamer culture. The ordinary consumer wants to find success and accomplishment in games to compensate for the lack of in everyday life. By numbers, it looks like the geeks might be grumbling but they are doing the same. FEAR 2 felt easy. FEAR 1 tests my skills even at the lowest difficulty setting. And there is no way in hell I could ever pass even the first mission in Monolith's earlier game: TRON 2.0.
HAX has ten security levels of progressive difficulty. The challenge increase is algorithmic; in theory, it could be increased indefinitely. The lowest security levels are very easy, even for beginners. The highest security levels can be absolutely murderous regardless of how advanced the player is. Friendly advice: bring a friend or become very, very good at stealth.
The heat wave is over and so is my brief vacation. Now it is all grind and toil for the next 5 weeks or so, until my real Summer vacation kicks in on July 5th. It ends with Assembly, on August 8th. Wirepunk has a two-seat "office" in the great hall of Assembly but unfortunately we don't have anything more than T-shirts to promote it so we will blend into the crows. Starting from next year, I hope to make the "Wirepunk Office" a visible promotion feature of relevant Finnish events. That includes getting a roll-up or something to advertise our presence.
Valve has began converting their portfolio on Steam for Mac as well as PC and while everybody else lamenting the downfall of PC gaming market, they appear to be doing very well. I suspect Steam partners will follow suit, finally making Mac a viable option for a gamer/user. I originally treated the Steam service with suspicion because of the network-based DRM check at start-up but they are winning me over. The keyword is quality of service. Fallout 3 Game of the Year Edition included all DLCs and the game editor (G.E.C.K.) for a quite reasonable price. Call me a traitor but I love Fallout 3. The only thing better would be to have the content of Fallout 2 with the Fallout 3 FPS engine and interface. Come on, modders! It can't be that hard! :)
I played Fallout 3 through again with normal difficulty and I have to say the game still feels custom-made for me. What S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games achieve with the atmosphere, Fallout 3 achieves with exploration. Unfortunately it is the levels 8 - 15 that tend to be the most fun; you are now powerful enough to do some serious exploring and there are still better weapons to be found and new skills to be learned. The game also suffers from a serious lack of content towards the higher end of the power curve. Levels 25-30 are a joke as far as character progression is concerned. I've heard that some people have tried to turn the levelling off completely. I wouldn't go that far but I can see where they are coming from with that stunt.
Steam offers F.E.A.R. 1 and both expansions (Extraction Point and Perseus Mandate) for 8,99. I already owned FEAR 1 as a boxed retail copy and my troubles with the broken graphics are well documented. Something akin to the Sixth Sense found among Stalker still made me buy the Steam version. I am glad that I did! The graphics problem seems to have been fixed! Yeah, I know it is insane: it is the same game, the same version updates, the same everything... but Steam version has working textures! Have the Valve guys re-programmed it or something? Or is Monolith putting out some fixed crack of the game like the Steam version of Max Payne was? Either way, this was the best 8,99 I've ever spent on a videogame.
I love the F.E.A.R. series, both 1 and 2. They belong to the genre of "pure shooter" which is all but extinct these days. The level design is excellent and beats many modern shooters hands down (so does Quake 2, so I guess I should not be surprised). Yet the sense of exploration is there: this is something that modern level designers usually can't pull off. And I disagree with the rest of the world on FEAR 2 storyline: I think it rocks. I can't make head or tails of the events in FEAR 1 (horror scenes feel like a disjointed music video) as enjoyable as it is otherwise. But FEAR 2 story was clear-cut, epic, tragic, exciting and to the fucking point. I am a fan of Alma and all current FEAR games would make good Code/X scenarios.
Unfortunately the game critics of the world do not agree with me on FEAR 2 story quality. This wreaks havocs on my prospects of becoming a game writer again but honestly, apart from Sami Järvi all the game story guys I've met seem to have something wrong with them. Back at Recoil, one of the games I was supposed to use as a model for good storytelling was Prey. I tried playing the thing and frankly, I have never, ever, been that disgusted with the protagonist, the storyline and the way it was told that quickly into the game. After 10 minutes I would have killed the lead character myself if I had been there. A whiny git. Serves him right not getting rescued.
Now, if only FEAR 3 would be named better (who the hell came up with F3AR? And what's next, FE4R?). And if only they stopped making those moronic live-action trailers...
My Stalker: Japan campaign has been plagued by a string of cancellations and it has been ages since I've last roleplayed. If Nihon Stakeru does not cut it, I hope that Stalker: France campaign can come out of hiatus soon.
Some things in game development are both so difficult that they cannot possibly win back as much as they cost but also unavoidable. Product name is one and responsibilities involved, real or imaginary, are almost beyond the pale. And once you've got the name figured out, there is still the logo. Nobody makes a "game" with a serif font text saying on the cover it is a game. Name and logo are a single unit, a brand stamp, ideally used to communicate things to the customer and as often as not to confuse the hell out of him. We ended with the name "HAX" in a very awkward and unintuitive way I will reveal at Tracon but that was almost a year and a half ago. Would you believe that we didn't have a proper logo text for it until now? And believe me, we tried. Actually, the logo succeeded only after we had given up on the damn thing!
Something old. Something new. Something futuristic. Something African. I am actually quite pleased with that: I always wanted the Hax subculture to have a symbol they could tattoo with blacklight ink or even virtualize on their skin for selected recipients. And that thing even incorporates the diamond shape which has come symbolize HAX. Hell, you can turn it vertical and it still looks good. When and if (okay, it is "when" at this stage) the game comes out, I am sorely tempted to have that thing tattooed on me somewhere.
In the meantime the Finnish copyright and trademark lobbyists have launched *this* to deter young people from illegally downloading their goods. I don't know how the target audience is reacting but my response after watching the first 5 minutes of Widenation was to start browsing the Pirate Bay for something, anything, that I could download in retaliation. Working in the games industry I have no love for software piracy either but sheesh! This is a crime against Humanity!
Reminds me of the Butt Out -antismoking Rap band in South Park, actually.
Ronnie James Dio
We search for the truth
All is well in the world. The weather is perfect and I've just had about as much Sun as I dare (I burn easily). There is a Country Fair in Myyrmäki and I just spent a fortune on delicacies like (really!) fresh rye bread, monstrously overcooked (melty!) side of pork, 2-year old Dutch gouda, Baileys fudge and flamed salmon. Then again, I can afford all that because the book grant just landed on my account. The workroom fan is on and rotating. I enjoy the feeling of warm, yet cooling breeze washing over me in waves. I have just booked myself 5 straight weeks of summer vacation, finished the basic groundwork of HAX network maps last night, bought tickets to Myötätuulirock, been invited to a gig of my cousin's band tonight and will also be going to listen to Accept next Tuesday. My book hasn't moved that much forward since the initial burst but I am not particularly worried. Neuhanse should be out by Ropecon, although I really do wish they'd publish it on paper. I finished Fallout 3 on "normal" difficulty and to my surprise found that I can't really be arsed to replay the extra content through as well. The main story is such a good package.
So all is well in the world, at least as long as you turn off the news.
Jiituomas wrote into the Stalker Facebook Group that he still waits for the supplement to come out. He has my sympathies but with me being so busy with other projects it is unlikely to happen. However, this weekend I should reinstall Pagemaker and send the Stalker text files to Arkkikivi for translation. Yes, the English translation of Stalker RPG has risen from the grave once more and is now shuffling about, moaning for brains. We'll give it some. Details are still in the air but at the moment it looks likely that Arkkikivi will get to do the legwork of selling the game internationally. Obviously we need to draw up a royalty contract for that but I don't expect any major hassles.
I still pine for an opportunity to write fiction instead of these semi-autobiographical pseudo-factbooks. You could argue that while Elämäpeli was still strictly about the Industry, Häirikkötehdas falls somewhere in the realm of social sciences and political pamphlets and I am skating on a much thinner ice. Besides, my interest in the well-being of the society is sporadic at best and usually brought about by anger over some stupid meme, policy or trend. My number one beef with the world are apparently well-meaning idiots promoting further restrictions on our already curtailed freedom of speech. I am not that interested in privacy issues but I do recognize (unlike most people, perplexingly) that if these idiots get their way in the former, the latter will become a problem for politically incorrect dissenters like myself.
Poorly defined thought-crime and worldview-adjustment laws should be illegal in themselves. Small wonder all my characters or RPG character roles are always outside of whatever is considered to be the mainstream society in their respective setting. HAX is no exception. Somehow, the mainstream society always sucks.
Now that was a long gap. A week short of a month. I've been sick as a parrot and once I got better, my computer got a flu virus of its own and none of the remedies were working. I had to reinstall the whole damn thing. Meanwhile, stuff's been happening. I agreed to talk at Tracon about HAX. Basically, it is a "coming out" for the HAX project and timed to coincide with the first version of HAX web pages, which have been a source of quite a hassle. Our planned web guy quit for personal reasons and we've been scrambling to find a replacement to do the website. Fortunately we've had a few good candidates and if they stay good until Midsummer we might actually pull this promotional thing off yet.
Besides promotion, I've been doing the levels, or "networks" as they are called in HAX. You'll hear more about this at Tracon but basically a network in HAX is a stack of 1-N two-dimensional levels, one for each security level of this network and closely if not entirely mirroring each other's content. Higher security levels have more formidable defences, more valuable paydata and access points to other networks reaching even higher up in the security hierarchy. For example, to complete one of the first storyline missions in the game the player needs to hack security servers of a specific datacore but he has to do that on all the security levels that network entails. Another example is ComNet, a street network that stretches halfway through the entire Link, forming a bridge, or highway that players can use to infiltrate other networks along the way. Once you've tagged the hackpoints on a network you can ghost dive straight to them. But until you do, you're in for some exploring.
One of the few good things about Wirepunk not getting the Nordic Game Fund Grant is this MacGyver mentality about game development. Work small, work cheap, work smart. In this case, we figured out a way to make HAX levels using an RPG map editor. HAX reads the mapfile and interprets the terrain and symbols to mean various things in the HAX context. Hell, it would have taken us a month to code a tool that is half as good. I always thought drawing up the levels would be a real pain in the ass in this project but while it counts as work it is still orders of magnitude easier than I expected it to be. HAX is a browser game and session length is likely to be fairly short. Thus the game world is no Azeroth but it is "big enough". Rather than increasing the map size later on to accommodate growing player populations, we can just add more networks and use hackpoints and inter-network portals to control the player distribution throughout the Link. Fucking brilliant!
So that's what I am doing next.
In other good news, Neu Hansa is showing signs of life again. I haven't made much headway with NOMAD but Häirikkötehdas is inching forward again since my lecture series at KAJAK has ended, freeing up resources for it. I try to get the script ready before Midsummer so I can again free up some bandwidth. I also run into BBC's Supervolcano miniseries, in which the Yellowstone supervolcano erupted causing a juicy nuclear-winter style global holocaust. It's been a while since I've seen a good a post-holocaust pen & paper RPG, btw. Come to think of it, the best I've ever come across is Death Valley Free Prison, stand-alone campaign supplement for Cyberspace. It's not perfect but comes close.
I still dream of Taiga 2.0 on dark nights. But while waiting for that miracle to happen the videogames industry is doing its best to keep me happy: Brink looks good enough to eat, combining Mirror's Edge-style freedom of movement with a post-holocaust scenario (it is not an all multiplayer-shooter even if this trailer looks like it). RAGE is looking better the more previews I read: it is like Borderlands but without the Suck. Fallout: New Vegas had me restart Fallout 3 so that my VATS reflexes are honed to perfection when it arrives. Finally the End of Nations developers picked a single person at random to be the focus group of their upcoming co-operative RTS-MMORPG and out of the entire population of the world they picked me. I don't usually do RTS but now I am sold. I love that idea.
As if my life wasn't perfect enough, Myötätuuli Rock has tailored its band list with scientific precision to draw me in: TAROT, LOS BASTARDOS FINLANDESES, AMORPHIS, PEER GÜNT... from my Finnish favourites all that are lacking are Turmion Kätilöt and Kotiteollisuus. The rest are there.
Los Bastardos Finlandeses came up a genre name for their style of music: Motor Rock. I like it. Motörhead is the obvious root of the genre and Los Bastardos have never been shy about it (just look at the Viva! video). But in retrospect, I have to say Peer Günt is pretty much part of this genre as well. Here is some music for the masses:
There you have it. Motor Rock is metal by and for us fat and ugly men.
Back in the Golden Age when cyberpunk roleplaying was still alive well, the genre was dominated by two games: Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun. Although almost every major RPG publisher had released some kind of a cybergame or cybersupplement to cash in on the trend, they were mere curiosities. CP2020 and SR were the real deal and the 'punk gamer fanbase was pretty much split between the two. CP2020 was particularly strong in Finland because of the excellent translation by Finnish Game House that improved on the original in many ways. I was firmly in the CP2020 camp and thought that Shadowrun's combo of cyberpunk and fantasy was a distraction at best and a childish travesty at worst.
17 years later it is a different world. RPG sales are a fraction of what they used to be. Cyberpunk has been absorbed into the mainstream scifi and turned into a collection of special effects that you can throw at almost any futuristic setting. The genre still exists as a scifi-niche but it has been buried under so many genre derivatives from biopunk to steampunk (which I am really starting to loathe) that it has almost lost its identity. And what became of the roleplaying games?
My opinion of Cyberpunk 3 is well documented. It is the most epic failure in the history of mainstream pen-and-paper RPG franchises, outdoing even that god-awful franchise killer Traveller: The New Era. GURPS Traveller and revisits to the Classic Traveller concent have breathed a little life back into that franchise, while Talsorian's Cyberpunk lives on only in memories and the few crumpled copies of CP2020 to have survived the 2K.
Shadowrun lives on. It's been a turbulent ride in the 21st century and at the time of writing Catalyst Games seems to have forgotten that the society has not collapsed yet. But even if Catalyst sinks, Shadowrun franchise is likely to float and be picked up by someone else. The game is now in its 4th edition. With the apparent demise of Catalyst at hand, the next print run is likely to also be the 5th. With CP3 dead in the water I've been picking up stuff for Shadowrun 4E by personal interest and by their apparent relevance to HAX. I still think "shadowpunk", the mixing of cyberpunk and high fantasy is a travesty but honestly, there is a lot to like here as well.
Scifi-RPGs are fond of world-altering catastrophes whenever the setting needs an upgrade but SR4 has at least tried to tie its changes to the normal progression of world history. On the wings of these changes they've also progressed their tech into something that feels plausible to a player living in the wireless and highly networked society of today. They've even scratched the surface of netrocentric subcultures like blogging; something CP was always completely oblivious to. SR4's move away from tech specs and into technosocial concepts was smart and I predict this setting will have more longevity than the last. They have also wrapped their heads around the problem of netrunning as part of the gameplay and the game has hacking both as a spell-like component for dynamic group play and as traditional cyberspace runs when the player has the opportunity to do stuff without boring the rest of the party to death. The ability to spot-hack your opponents' cybernetics is brilliant.
Character creation is an open point distribution system and archetypes are only meant as pre-packaged examples of what you can do. Power level is relatively high and given the somewhat lighter tone of the game (at least compared to many of its old rivals) this disguised superhero stuff works quite well. I am also very pleased with the way the characters are defined. Instead of the hopelessly mismatched mercenary groups of CP2020, the Shadowrunners are all part of a distinct subculture of "professional adventurers", like praedors or stalkers in my own games. Gamemasters are free to deviate from this formula if they wish but this kind of focus makes it easy to come up with adventures for almost any kind of group. That's why I use it.
Finally, mixing fantasy elements into the setting has helped writers, players and gamemasters to think outside the box. It expands the canon, allowing the gamemaster to bring in themes from other genres like horror or space opera without compromising the setting integrity. In short, you can have much more outlandish ideas in Shadowrun that you could in Cyberpunk 2020. This is something I fully intend to copy to HAX (withough elves and dragons) but it means I have to make the concession that HAX setting is not cyberpunk. It's "street scifi". Shadowrun doesn't have to make the concession because either you can deal with fantasy elements being part of a cyberpunk setting and don't care, or you can't deal with it and don't matter since you are not a prospective customer anyway.
Makes me kind of envious, really.
After reading (and replying to) this deplorable entry in majatalo.org forums, having held a remote-lecture on game mathematics at KAYAK and looking back on the many, many, many occasions I've had to correct the basic math of people who are actually much better at it than me, I decided it is time to write out the story of my relationship with mathematics. It is a tale of great hopes, epic tragedy, broken hearts and triumphiant comebacks.
And just so we start with the correct tone: I Suck At Math.
I have been interested in natural sciences all my life. While others of my age were still playing with toy soldiers I read every "children's science" book I could get my hands on and tried to make sense of my father's collection of National Geographics. I have never lost that interest although life, studies and personal gifts (or lack thereof) have taken me into an entirely different field. My particular favourites were astronomy and planetology, two fields of science and physics packed with numbers and difficult equations.
My father is a geologist, a genuine, real-life scientist. He is retired now but once held a very prominent position in his field. He was pleased with my interest in science and succeeded in giving me a very scientific worldview to the extent that while he is an agnostic, I grew up to be a hardcore atheist and a skeptic. He was also well aware what fields of knowledge and understanding were crucial for a career in any scientific field. He taught me to respect mathematics and when in the elementary school we had a system at home where good grades were rewarded with small sums of money, the rewards for maths were double compared to everything else.
To both his and my disappointment, I sucked at math. No matter what we did, my ability with numbers just did not seem to improve. My math grades in the elementary school were barely average, then sunk to mediocre at the comprehensive school and went from crisis to crisis in high school. He gave up and I was devastated. I chose Short Math at High School because I knew I would have a snowball's chance in Hell of surviving the Extended Math and it was still a struggle. I see nightmares of second-degree equations or whatever the hell it was called when you had to move X's, Y's and parentheses around to make the line shorter. I think even my high school math teacher was surprised at how my performance with equations could be so random.
However, my high school math teacher, the venerable Hannu Salimäki who might be dead by now but was certainly an excellent teacher back in the day, noticed one big difference between me and most of the other intellectual giants (I've never seen so many bimbos in such constrained space before) that had landed on his Short Math classes: I respected mathematics, I never questioned its importance and I *wanted* to learn. My exam grades were a disaster but the final grades were salvaged by eager participation and diligent (if faulty) completion of homework assignments. So it was 7... 7... 7... until the end of the high school and the last math course: Probability and Statistics.
I had already been playing roleplaying games for years and written a few systems myself. I introduced Mr. Salimäki to the concept using dice terms (2D6, 3D8) as part of mathematical equations and he loved it. It made explaining of math tasks very easy. I, on the other hand, had an almost intuitive knack for figuring them out. I scored an easy 10 and since at that time the final subject grade was the average between the last grade and the average of all preceding grades, my grade for Short Math in the final High School report card was 9. Way above my real level.
Then a miracle happened.
The matriculation exam for Short Math in Spring 1992 was the easiest for years. The exam was by far easier than the excercises we had done using the previous years' exams so even a braindead Sea Sponge like myself was able to squeeze 39/60 points out of it. Let's see, 39/60 = 0.65. In other words, I got 65% of the total possible score. I think the paper went out as a low C, which was fair and just. It came back as an L! (note that Eximia did not exist back then)
For reasons beyond human comprehension, the Short Math class of '92 sucked so bad that the Laudatur limit was set to just 38 points! Matriculation exam grades are based on national score averages. This means that the same percentage of students gets the same grade from year to year. I think the L back then was reserved for the top 5%. An L-limit of 38/60 meant that the national average in 1992 rivalled the Red Army tactics grade for Winter War. In our High School alone, mine was the third highest Short Math score! All in all, I got four L's and the overall grade of Laudatur for my matriculation exam.
So after a brief 330-day visit to the Army, I applied to both University of Helsinki and the Helsinki University of Technology in the "really good Short Match score" -group. Getting into HUT that way required completing the missing Extended Math courses, however and just as I had predicted before High School, it was a disaster. So I dropped from HUT and made a half-hearted attempted to be a Humanities student in the University of Helsinki. I am still there, you know? 15 years and counting.
I was already writing my own roleplaying games when the Internet revolution happened. This brought me into wider contact with other gamers including some who were also making their own games. I also noticed that compared to many of them, my numbers actually worked. I personally don't think much of the Miekkamies/Taiga game system (the original Scorpion). 2D6 systems are popular among homebrews mainly because the number-crunching in a two-dimensional probability matrix is easy. Three or more random variables create a multidimensional probability matrix and are consequently harder to grasp. However, Miekkamies was sold out and some people praised the rules for being simple and yet functional. I did not know the concept of algorithm back then but I knew how to make them because that's what the game mechanic rules in RPGs are. I also got better at it, not least because I learned from other people's mistakes, even in published games (yes, I am looking at you, Chaosium!)
Out came Praedor and the rest is history. Well, almost.
Moving into videogames industry in 2004 taught me three things during the first three days:
First, algorithms are mathematical machines that take in variables and spit out outputs based on them.
Second, programmers love it when you can include algorithms into the Game Design Document, written out in an easily understanble RPG rules item format.
Third, most people, including programmers who are by default better at math than me, can't see the big picture. Any game is a network of algorithmic machines and a change into a single variable spreads through them as a butterfly effect, easily bending the entire gameplay experience. All this has to be taken into account when planning the numbers or making changes based on testing.
It is not about the size of your Math, it is how you apply it!
Honestly, when I had to explain the difference between a Gaussian and a Linear distribution to a computer programmer for the first time, I felt my world turn upside down. Even today, stuff like this has me gasping for air. It is not the first time I have had to set people straight about how numbers work and I fear it won't be the last. I just cannot understand how it is possible that someone like me has to teach perfectly sensible, well-educated people Applied Mathematics. Think KAYAK. I probably would not even get accepted into the Game Development Program because of my bad math skills, given all the programmers and number nerds they have aboard. But it does not stop ME from teaching THEM Applied Math.
Cough hits like a clockwork, although I suspect my stupid decision to wear a lighter coat last Friday is partly to blame along with whatever germs I may have picked up from the crowd on Thursday's gala. Whatever the cause, now my throat hurts, my head is filled with cement and ears are blocked up so bad that they make noises whenever I tilt my head. And of course, coughing is my specialty. Bad time to be sick work-wise but then again, when is it a good time to be sick? So I am staying at home, doing what I can and struggling to get enough sleep. I am a bad sleeper at best of times. Troubled breathing sure isn't helping. Damn, my ears. I am having more problems with ears this time ever before.
The last entry provoked a small but measurable wave of public sympathy towards HAX, which was nice. I am having quite a bit of inspiration for the setting myself. It is actually awkward because Häirikkötehdas must take precedence. The script about 20% there but being sick saps my creative energies. I hope to push it forward next weekend, assuming I ever get better. I think the cough is drying up but it is also making it abrasive to the throat and lungs. But I digress. Häirikkötehdas comes first because TJNK already paid for it with their grant. But after that I am headed back to fiction. I am kind of spoiled by having had it so easy with the grants until now but the truth is that most Finnish works of fiction sell a few hundred copies and that's it. There is no real income except the grants. If I go back to fiction, I may end up as yet another pathetic self-publisher.
And no, I don't trust myself enough to write a fiction novel straight in English, thank you very much. And in any case, HAX novels should be in Spanish. I'm told that cyberpunk is big in Mexico and judging by the news they are already LARPing it. With live ammo.
Speaking of cyberpunk and shootouts, the movie Gene Generation tends to get 2 stars or less in most reviews but I like it. It does not really have the time and budget to make most of its biopunk theme but the concept is great and Bai Ling is hot. I wish they'd turn into a TV miniseries or something. Also getting some more Forbidden Science would be nice, if we can have it without the softcore porn scenes. While well-done softcore is one of the most erotic audiovisual thing there is, if you're not going to show anything beyond breasts and occasional pubic hair, you have to get creative or it starts to repeat itself really quickly. By the third episode I was fast-forwarding through the many, many, many sex scenes to get back to the story. Which wasn't too shabby, btw.
So far, Total Recal 2070 is by far the best cyberpunk television series I've seen (and Ghost in the Shell SAC of course rules the animation category). TekWar gets at least points for trying (but failing) and the less is said about Cleopatra 2525 the better. It is a tricky genre for authors, roleplaying game authors, script-writers and Hollywood producers alike. I hope we will get the next measure of how game designers coped with the sometime this year.
Most of you would be shocked to see me in a suit and tie but yes, it does happen on occasion. I just got back from the FIGMA gala and did not get any wiser about why I was invited. The seating lists read "Ville Vuorela/Burger Games" and I am at loss trying to figure out the connection between my roleplaying game publishing label and anything FIGMA might stand for. But I was there and although one hour of the event was televised, I seem to have done good job at avoiding the cameras. I didn't know very many people but fortunately I did know some so there was someone to talk. No major complaints about the food, although this was the second smallest tenderloin steak I've eaten.
The event was very retailer-sales centric. If a game didn't come in a box, it didn't exist. Very shallow and commercial but that's games industry for you. The television broadcast mostly made sure that games that were already bestselles received even more free advertising. Modern Warfare 2 was chosen as the game of the year for 2009, so no surprises there. Every once in a while some Rap band called Fintelligens assaulted our senses with badly performed poetry. Fortunately there was also enough quiet moments to chat with people.
One thing dominating the discussions was how Social Games, Browser Games and Facebook Crap are riding high right now. So high, in fact, that I am afraid we might be observing another bubble. Now this is the stuff I am working on and everybody I met was just bubbling with questions on Crown of Byzantus. How are we doing? How many players do we have? Is it a good business? Etc. NDA obviously prevents me from going into detail to but to avoid this conversations in the future here are some answers.
Crown of Byzantus could really use a larger player base, especially on the .com side. The numbers we are getting are actually pretty well on par with other mainstream Browser and social gaming titles released recently but they are nowhere near the earlier figures we are using as a benchmark. On the other hand, the players we have are burning money on it. ARPU (Average Revenue Per User) is insane. Now if only we we could apply this effect on a crowd three times larger... well, that's what the content upgrades are for. And there will be some in the near future.
Personally, I am not a fan of the micropayment model. They seem to work financially and are all the craze now as trends go but they are also a bit of a dirty trick. It is often very difficult for customers to estimate the value they get for their money. Games like Byzantus or Deepolis enable several very different configurations of premium features leaving the player guessing if he is optimized or being screwed. And while I've rationalized the fairness of premium features to players in the game chat more than once, micropayment system makes the game feel intuitively "off". And despite all their free play, Browser games are shameless money sinks. Going all-out on premium features in Byzantus or Deepolis can consume months worth of WoW subscription in a single week.
HAX isn't here but I can already promise you it will have neither premium content nor micropayments. There are other income models and Wirepunk will try them out first.
Some break. There is a ton of work waiting to fall on me on Tuesday (along with some very unpleasant business with the dentist) and I just got Häirikkötehdas started with a 24000+ char explosion of writing on a single night. For the record, that is like 5-8% of the total work at a single sitting and it was all about my elementary school experiences. It's like the text just exploded out of my fingertips while the bad memories flooded in. Reading it now, I think I may have to soften it up a little for the release version. Wouldn't want people to think I am nutjob who has been fighting the same demons for 28 years. Especially since the original antagonist died of cancer already years ago. But some things can be neither forgotten nor forgiven.
In somewhat related news, my girlfriend has discovered that I can be weaned off work and calmed down from an impending burnout by putting me on a couch with some House MD running on the 50-inch telly in our living room. After I finished Metro 2033, this rather unorthodox medical mystery drama has replaced gaming as my primary pastime. I will run out of episodes soon so it won't last but I honestly feel like I needed to take a break from games. My other breathing hole has been Wirepunk. While I'm not exactly happy that HAX is proceeding as slowly as it is, the upside is that whenever I get really pissed at something that "had to be done" at work, I can then sit down with the HAX GDDs in the evening and do it right.
It is a pity that my regular readers rated my short-lived attempts at HAX fiction as utter shite. I kinda liked it myself and at one point dreamed of actually writing a cyberpunk/street scifi novel based on it. Now it is just a couple of shorts set between the actual game narratives, fleshing out the background. I am Old Skool in more ways than one and the "Terminal Complex" setting pushes all the right buttons for me. If I was a millionaire I'd have a battalion of concept artists working on inspirational images and HAX RPG illustrations. Then again, being a millionaire would solve a host of other production issues with HAX as well.
I wonder how my e-lottery is doing?
Speaking of lotteries, the Nordic Game Fund grant winners will be announced soon. Last spring Crown of Byzantus (the English version is here) hit the jackpot and brought home one of the two 65K grants awarded to Finland (Earth No More by Recoil Games got the other one so it felt like I had scored twice in that draw). Crown of Byzantus has since then become reality and Earth No More has become vaporware but smart money is still betting against Casual Continent this spring. There is going to be close to 200 applications and there's bound to be some questions if it's always the same companies that get the big grants. Still, with so many application it is going to be really hard to choose between the top-20 on the merits of the concept alone, so they will pick studios with a proven track records. And that's what's wrong with this picture. The whole system was meant to help new outfits to get started. But if they are new they won't have a track record, will they?
By the way, congratulations to Remedy Entertainment (and especially to my old pal Sami Järvi) for finally releasing Alan Wake. It's an Xbox 360 exclusive so I won't be playing it but I am still pretty sure they've done a superb job. Remedy tends to do that. I also hope that it will come out on PC in about a year. Lost Planet did eventually and Lost Planet 2 was cross-platform right from the start. The original LP kind of sucked in my opinion but I am still going to give the sequel a chance. After all, the concept is cool and LP2 has a first person option to it.
And finally some great news for Sniper Elite fans: check this out. City Interactive is best known for low-budget shooters using the ancient Chrome Engine but now it looks like they are trying something a little more ambitious. And we all just love bullet time, don't we?
Oh yes, you knew I was going to say something about this, didn't you? Metro 2033 is Russian/Ukrainian production based on a Russian Scifi Novel by some dude with lots of consonants in his name. In short, the world has nuked itself and in the Moscow Underground, built to be a mega-shelter for such an eventuality also in real-life, has been the only known sanctuary for humanity for 20 years. It is especially touching to see the radio guy in Exhibition Station trying to contact possible colleagues elsewhere but all they get is static. "There must be survivors in St. Petersburg! There must be!". Well, unlike the Moscow Metro, St. Petersburg metro fills up with water in a matter of hours if the infrastructure goes down. For the Helsinki metro, it takes a couple of days.
Humans live in settlements built on old metro stations and use hand- and motor-driven rail cars to move goods and people around. Or that's how it used to be. Now the tunnels are swarming with mutants, stations are being cut off and some have been or are in process of being overrun. There are rumours of strange new beings in the tunnels and I personally got to witness some of the coolest ghosts I've ever seen in a videogame, even if they ripped off my idea of "Shadows" in STALKER RPG quite heavily. Still, very cool. And yes, there are stalkers in this world. They are people who explore the surface of Moscow, a ruined wasteland with howling nuclear winter winds, choking radioactive dust (I am going to have nightmares of the visual and sound effects of wearing a gas mask in this game) and big-ass monsters.
Sandbox it isn't. I wish it were and if anybody from the Hellgate: London team is reading this, I hope you feel stupid about yourselves. Your MMO could have been about this instead of the pseudofantasy you ripped from Diablo. Ditto for Fallen Earth team as well. If Hellgate had the format and Metro 2033 had the setting, why couldn't you two put two and two together?! As it stands, it is a linear shooter and even open-looking landscapes have a precise, if often convoluted path you have to follow. Often you are under some kind of a time limit, generous though it may be: radiation hazard, respawning monsters, running low on filters for your gas mask (yes, they do get clogged up and have to be changed). Their idea of bossfights is nigh-endless monster rampages in some dead end or another and that is my major hate with this game.
But other than that, once I got over the fact that this was not S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and not a sandbox game (although you may risk doing some exploration and looting from time to time), I have very few complaints. It's a kick-ass adventure, a kick-ass setting and once the level designer pulled his head out of his ass after the home station, a kick-ass game in general. It reminds me of Fallout 3 rather than of a straight shooter but a shooter it is, with a fair bit of adventure, puzzle solving and stealth thrown into the mix. There is supposed to be some kind of a moral choice system with two endings but I am not there yet.
However, shooter fans will find that Metro 2033 has some of the typical Russian/Slavic game design flaws. Firstly, while combat against people feels classy, even beautiful, monsters fights are stupid. They attack in a crouch, move impossibly fast and have way too much health. Also, the Russian hatred for shotguns makes a comeback and by God, their shotguns are even shittier than in S.T.A.L.K.E.R! I didn't think that was humanly possible! I've killed more critters using my shotgun's melee option than by shooting at them! Grenades, in this case pipe bombs, are also a cruel joke! They kill you (or anyone else) if close enough but it takes ages to pull it out, light it (at which point the enemy usually spots you) and your character Artyom can't throw to save his life. And after the bomb lands, enemies have an instinct that tells them exactly where it is and are half-way to Siberia before it goes off. And throwing one down a monster spawning hole does nothing. I wish I could just sell the stupid things. Vehicle sections I can forgive since you are not driving them yourself. It is a rail-shooter, har har!
But these are minor gripes. I have the reflexes of a garden slug so "Easy" setting has been challenging enough for me and some of my fights, especially when going ninja on some enemy outpost, have been truly epic. This game is also going to be a major influence on NOMAD, because the society is structured in the same way. As for creatures and anomalies, the US Zone might look somewhat like this at times in STALKER RPG. Bonus points for a hand-cranked personal power generator and a pneumatic gun with a manual pump. Thumbs up all around.
Cool. Fine. Right?
Of all the purchases I've ever made from Steam, this is the first one that flat-out failed to run after install. It was missing a physix file. Being a humanities students and a tree-hugging hippie I went looking through the installation folder in steamapps, reran the physix installation program twice to uninstall and re-install that part of the engine, rebooted and the game worked just fine from then on. But how the hell is someone who is not a Humanities students and hippie to boot know to do that? For all intentions and purposes, they are selling a broken game right out of the box! If PC gaming is going to be saved on AAA-level (it is doing great at lower price points and social networking games, thank you very much), fuck ups like this are not helping! Maybe go for something a little less "bleeding edge" and a little more "stable" the next time around, okay? If there is going to be a next time. PC is projected to have a 6% share of the stand-alone videogames market in 2010. Gee, I wonder why?
To get some actual use out of the bloody thing, I founded Facebook Groups for STALKER RPG and PRAEDOR RPG. Someone suggested founding one for Burger Games as well but that's a bit too much. I can see some of having a game-specific group as it at least allows gamers to find each other, voice their concerns and share relevant links. But with Burger Games the idea of a "become a fan" button feels dirty somehow. Anyway, it's an interesting experiment. Both games have sold hundreds. But can they have as many fans? And will anyone else but me actually write something on the group walls?
A month ago I was worried about the need for this blog since there is Facebook and stuff out there. But now I am getting so fed up with Facebook I wish I could just ignore the damn thing. For professional reasons alone I obviously can't. Facebook is the perfect example of a million flies voting me wrong on the taste of shit and those flies pay my salary. My only hope is that the Facebook inventor/owner Mark Zuckerberg, a massive douchebag, would get into such a deep shit over his abuse Facebook information that the whole thing would be shut down. Not bloody likely but hey, I can dream, can't I? I have hundreds of "friends" and some of you are my actual friends, so don't take this the wrong way. I care about you. Deeply. But there is only one among the lot of you with whom I want to share my life, or whose life I really want to share. And that is best done face-to-face (or, being the massive nerds that we are, over the IRC).
Yeah. I still design games utilizing Facebook Connect or otherwise using FB as viral means of marketing and information distribution. If you are a Facebook fan, yes, I am still designing games for YOU even though my respect for you has taken a hit. Now I should get myself acquainted with Twitter. You can probably feel my enthusiasm all the way there via the monitor. The good news of this whole affair is the resurgence of my interest and motivation regarding this blog. Especially since all sorts of side projects keep me away from Crown of Byzantus dev blog.
While I have been trying to make sense of Facebook, a few things have happened. First, I got a vague invitation to Tracon and possibly will give a small presentation there assuming the Traconites ever get back to me on it. While Tracons have been a little claustrophobic because of the Anime phenomenon, I have usually liked them and will be attending it this year as well. Second, an online casino wants to buy a banner or linkspace from Burgergames.com. Don't ask me why. I've usually said no to banner requests but an online casino... maybe I can somehow pair their banner with the Mobsters download link. Casinos and gangsters go hand-in-hand.
Third, Tiedonjulkistamisen Neuvottelukunta (Informative Publishing Advisory Board?) has again granted me a pile of money for writing Häirikkötehdas. That was the final cue I've been waiting for. The material has been collected, the contents planned out and the actual writing will start next week with the goal of averaging two sheets a day. With three applications I now have a 100% success rate with grants applications to TJNK, which is pretty amazing. It also makes writing immediately worthfile as the sales of Finnish factbooks are not that hot.
Fourth, at majatalo.org "Sasioglu" (I assume that is not his or her real name) is trying to seduce me with a description of his/her upcoming MiniRPG "Neu Hansa". A kind of post-apocalyptic scifi thing set around the Baltic after a collapse brought on by a global pandemic. And it is working. While my feelings towards Sasioglu remain strictly Platonic, I do want to make passionate love to his/her roleplaying game. Unfortunately this might count as incest since he/she mentions Praedor, Stalker and Taiga as his/her inspirations.
Fifth, I've completed the PC version of Bad Company 2 with the easiest difficulty setting ("Normal" was kicking my butt). While I am reluctant to give a non-sandbox game top scores, it was a good experience, looked gorgeous and felt more like an action-adventure game than an FPS-take at a wargame with its constant cast of acted-out characters. I still consider the Frontlines: Fuel of War single player campaign to be the peak of single player campaigns in what are clearly dedicated multiplayer games (it was amazing, especially since it only applied the multiplayer concept to a single-player story!) but BC2 makes a good effort and I am definitely getting my hands on any single player-DLC for it in the future. *Sigh*. Here's to hoping that Frontlines would get some of that. I really dig that futuristic setting and it is explained in much better detail. And if they ever made a single player game out of Battlefield 2140... well, now, that would be a blast!
No, I don't think BC2 was a particularly violent game. Why do you ask?
Ever since my lungs broke down I've preferred Summer over Winter. However, late February and most of March remain one of my favorite times of the year. The weather is usually excellent, just like today. Skies are blue, the Sun is bright and snow is blinding. Unfortunately the Sun and the snow don't really mix but we have so much snow on the ground now that shadow spots will retain it well into the May. Experts believe that the city snow dumps are likely to survive until next Winter, making them officially man-made glaciers. Heh, that's a funny thought.
As if the release of my first Browser MMO and the excellent weather weren't enough to put me in a good mood, Fantasiapelit ordered more Stalker RPG today. That's the first Stalker order in a year, meaning they've sold the previous lot of 60 at the rate of hmm... one book a week? For a Finnish RPG that's excellent! And it means that there are 50-60 new Stalker owners out there. I am not going to fool myself into thinking they'd all play it but if, let's say, 5 of them do, that's 20-30 more Finnish stalkers roaming the Zones.
What do I care? Me who rejects the concept of Designer Intent?
Roleplaying games are not art by themselves but I am a roleplaying game author (a wonderful phrase coined by Mike). Making one is a creative process and while Praedor was at times coldly calculated to please its core audience, Stalker RPG compromises for nobody. It's my Magnum Opus, it is everything I know about writing and running pen-and-paper roleplaying games, how to gamemaster them, how to work the advantages and disadvantages of "interactive literature", how to make use GM fiat and fudging to the point of turning them into a game system, how to build an atmospheric setting or create characters in a way that stimulates players to reach new creative heights. I will never write a better RPG. Mostly because I feel I have very little if anything more to give. And sometimes, just sometimes, because I have this insane feeling that a better RPG cannot be written. Not by me. Not by anyone.
My only regret is full dicelessness. FLOW is diceless and that's all good. But I tried to be holier than Pope and excluded all dice, even in cases where they would have been really helpful. The game would have benefited from better artifact and anomaly generating tables, loads of encounter tables, zone and Border Region loot tables, mutation generators etc. These random tables would have been factories Gamemasters can use to churn out firewood for their creative bonfires. Running Stalker can be rough on the grey matter, especially if the players venture out into the Zone. Leaving some decisions to chance makes it that much easier and stimulate new events and encounters. I am already making good use of Marjola's Shit Die myself (1D6, big is good, small is bad). At least that's mentioned in the rules.
Every now and then somebody tells me about their Stalker sessions. Almost invariably they have been strong emotional and atmospheric experiences. I am getting all fired up about Stalker RPG again. I have already written a treatment on Zone Japan on this blog. Now I have my eye on Zone Russia. Looking at the map, I find it actually extends way into Azerbaidjan and those places would be Border Region even if the Visitation had never happened. Also, the city of Derbent on the norteast edge is one of the most interesting Border Cities around and one of the holy sites of Islam. Actually, the whole setup would work pretty well in a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game.
While Zone Russia is relatively poor in artifacts, it has certainly got some people's hopes up. This is Central Asia! Chechens, the Taleban, the Al-Qaida, they'd all love to find something special from the Zone. Something that would negate the superiority of Western Powers in the War on Terror. Apparently nothing truly spectacular has been found yet but occasionally xenotech weapons and dangerous artifacts find their way into Afghanistan or to the hands of Palestinian rebels. And if any these radicals ever penetrated into the heart of the Zone and found the "Room", it would be all over for the West. No wonder every intelligence service in the world has its eyes on the ground there.
What will become of us, my dear old blog? I am writing the dev blog for Crown of Byzantus, sadly neglected this week because of other projects. I am in the Facebook now and my boss wanted to start Twitter. Frankly, I don't have the time and energy to deal with all this social media. If the western civilization fails, I blame Facebook.
Meanwhile Ubisoft took a dump on my dreams. They rigged both Silent Hunter 5 and Assassin's Creed 2 with DRMs that keep constant contact with the publisher servers and disable the game (deleting your unsaved progress) if that connection is disrupted for some reason. Ubisoft is also coming out on what information is being passed in this "contact", so they could be scanning your computer for suspected warez for all you know.
Assassin's Creed 2 is out on consoles as well as PC so no one will notice if the PC sales sag because of the DRM scheme. However, Silent Hunter 5 is a PC exclusive and aimed at a very tight niche (and hardcore) audience. If the world's subsim gamers decide that they are not going to put up with crap, their whole department in Ubi is a total write-off in a matter of weeks. Silent Hunters, being hardcore simulators, are also one of the least-pirated games out there, so the decision to go full DRM on SH5 is just looking for trouble.
And they found it.
Reports are in that Ubi's new DRM scheme was broken on the first day and once again, pirates provide better production quality and service than legitimate publishers. And third, the launch week sales of SH5 are rumoured to be 45% below expectations.
Come on, Ubi! We are subsim gamers! We are fucking starved of games! We've been paying for Silent Hunter 3 and 4 out of sheer willingness to support subsim development. You have an unpredented niche penetration among us, somewhere above 90%, I think. The vibrant mod scene was bursting with goodwill towards you. But we are also tech-savvy old-school nerds in our thirties and forties. We are not going to take such deliberate shit from Ubisoft or anyone else.
You know what? I am not buying Silent Hunter 5. Coming from me, this is a bit like a priest saying he's not going to buy the Bible. Since I work in the games industry I am not pirating it either but I kind of sympathize with those who do. I regret missing out quite possibly the final installment in the SH series but I appreciate turning Ubisoft into a warning example to the rest of the industry even more. Of course, Ubi is now saying that removing the DRM also removes game content and those using pirate cracks won't have the full experience (whatever that means). Gamer forums argue otherwise and gee, who am I to believe? A bunch of bona-fide assholes? Or people who actually care about their reputation, customer satisfaction, ease of access and the quality of the consumer experience? AKA "the bad guys"?
Sure, if your network connection hangs up on you, you ain't going nowhere in Crown of Byzantium either. But Casual Continent never asked for 50 euros in advance or pretended that you could actually "own the game". It's a service. You can buy privileges in it but that's all. And we have an actual, valid, unarguable reason for your Internet connection to be on whenever you play.