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22-Feb-2010: Cutting the Cord

It is over. It is out. It is done.

Crown of Byzantus opened up to the public on two servers today, one in English and one in Finnish. There were some "incidents" with it but overall the launch was a success and the new content slid into place quite smoothly. Or who am I kidding? Me and the lead programmer crunched over a week, including the whole of last weekend to make it work. And now I am faced with the most difficult task in game design: acknowledging and accepting that it is time to stop. Sure, I would like to change things more. How about a different glory award scale, one that would not depend on the enemy step system working (which was a tad buggy today)? Whatabout some extra limits here? A little boost there? Adding a progress bar to that corner..?

Some of that will happen in the near future but for the most part the game is there, with all its perks and flaws. If something is skewed now, it is likely to remain skewed for a long time and if you can take advantage of that, well, the more power to you. Programmers have been wisely (and quietly) discouraging me from introducing further tweaks for some time now. The game is what it is and further changes are cosmetics and some added content to prolong the user cycle. We are now pretty focused on the first half of the level spectrum. Over the next weeks and months I would imagine the content development focuses on the upper end of the spectrum, helping to retain long-term players.

One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the aggressive passion of the Crown of Byzantus regulars. It stunned me already in Beta. The game is designed to be like Mafia Wars. You check in at long intervals, play away the accumulated Legend points and get back to the dreary grind that is your daily life. The colourful graphics serve partly that purpose as well.

But no. These people keep their browser windows open all day and within minutes or seconds of receiving a Legend Point, make a move and then the waiting game begins again. It reminds me of the hunting tactics of a crocodile. Had I known this from day one, we would have made a different game for them.

Oh well, that's the next game.

Yep. It is time relocate Crown of Byzantus into the "updates" section of my workflow and move on. We've already had one person complaining that the game is nothing like a football manager game he was fond of and another person complaining that Finnish games are all shite unless they're made by Remedy. Given the general nature of gamer feedback you can take that as a sign of having done something right. Unless, of course, you ARE Remedy AND making a browser-based fantasy sports game on football.

I have good news for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. fans. Call of Pripyat played through? The awe of desolation turning into boredom? Missing the monsters and mayhem from Oblivion Lost, or running through dark forests in a panic with something growling and breathing at your neck all the time? Can't get it up except after taking a controller out in a knife-fight? Have wet dreams about looting corpses for medkits and ammunition?

S.M.R.T. is the answer!

While I liked Call of Pripyat the way it was the first time round and its sense of desolation had a certain meditative romance to it, my attempts to keep playing the game past the end (it is technically open-ended ) soon faltered. Once I experienced the game the first time-round, there just wasn't enough content. Fortunately S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games have a very eager (and skilled) core fandom of modders and parts from all three games in the series are apparently interchangeable. Already well-versed in the secrets of the X-ray engine, they leapt into action when the Russian release of Call of Pripyat came out.

S.M.R.T. is a massive overhaul of the basic Call of Pripyat and to make the long story short, it plays like a deadlier version of Oblivion Lost. Hell, I am playing at the Beginner difficulty level and the game still kicks my ass! More guns, more realistic combat, enemies abound, monster types removed from the game are re-inserted and this time graphically perfected, more anomalies, more assholes, traders accept all kinds of crap but costs are five times what they used to be, cheat features like human presence count and visibility meter removed from the HUD and so on. I began the game anew, this time with much crappier equipment and getting my character up to speed with guns and armour was straight out of horror game. Now, with a Stalker suit, a modded-out AK and an assault shotgun I am coping... but let's just say that I have new-found respect for shotguns overall.

And there is something in the way you can hide in the superstructure of a bridge, watching from above as a mercenary patrol marching straight into a pack of True Zombies. The battle is epic and when it is finally over, you can finish off any survivors and loot the corpses. The only thing I am missing are the levels from the two previous games. It would be so cool if I could return to the 100 Rad bar now. Skadovsk is cool. But it is not that cool.

20-Feb-2010: Avatar and Nomad

I saw Avatar yesterday and although I had more than my fair share of prejudices about it, I found it to be a great film. I can also sympathize with those who've been depressed after seeing it. Coming out of the theatre (and especially when watching the Malminkartano railway station through the train windows) I had to agree: compared to Pandora, our world looks like a turd. The 3D technology worked beautifully but whoever got the bright idea that you can do 3D movie trailers in the same music video fashion you do 2D should have his eyes put out. He almost put out mine. Fortunately Cameron knows his stuff.

Many people have used the Avatar plot as a punching bag but I think that was great too. It had two layered story arcs and all the right moments (although producers had been a little too eager at the cutting table again). It had Sigorney Weaver, an almost unprecedented sense of epic, a romance sweet enough to make me jealous, Sigorney Weaver, a cool concretization of the shamanistic principle, Sigorney Weaver, an epic bossfight over a cause well worth fighting for and finally Sigorney Weaver. Sure, it had a lot of political baggage but it was nice to see a fantasy about a better world where there is more to life than material gain, where the Indians can push back the white land-stealers and wildlife itself is winning over the forces of industrialization. No Oscars but definitely better than, say, any part of Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy.

Finally, as a bonus gift to the geek crowd, the Avatar Art Department had brought together every vehicle and gadget in the history of Geek Film. The weapons, the vehicles, the sleep-pods, tools, sensors, displays, wires under your skin, it was all there. I Shall Not Want. Avatar has made something like 2 billion dollars by now and I don't regret adding some more money to that pile. If 2 billion dollars is what it takes to convince studio boards to greenlight stuff like this, so be it! I hope this film will be the start of a new scifi-boom.

NOMAD does not have bright sunlight and pretty colours (well, it can in some places and the xenosystem can look pretty wild at times). It's people tend to be pale, short, malnourished and suffering from a variety of nutritional deficiences. Cyber stripped off the dead can replace lost limbs but with the organic plastics long gone it looks like sticking bare bones into your body. It's a world of rust, decay and debris being recycled to the point of desperation. It is a post-holocaust setting inside a spaceship.

NOMAD has been at a standstill because I couldn't make the original concept of players being freshly awakened crewmembers work. There was no connection between them and the other survivors. There was no emotional charge in the distinction between sanctuaries and non-sanctuaries. And this whole idea of the social development inside the ship being manipulated by a cabal of the First Generation crewmembers... while it was not bad, it was more interesting as a backstory element than something the players are involved in. You wouldn't think a scifi-dungeon game really needs such deep thought but I just couldn't force myself to write it out. It would suck and it wouldn't be me. There are different ways to do roleplaying games out there but only a couple of them are mine.

So, unable to get past the primary character role block, I didn't do anything. My illustrator coughed up a few inspiring images for the game but to no avail since my writing didn't budge. All that for clinging to an idea that just didn't work. And now I am dropping it. The penalty of discussing design choices in public is that every change to the original concept tends to alienate your audience a little and I am expecting a bit of whining about this one as well. Fine. Don't play it. It was not going to be on sale anyway.

Nomads are my characteristic "professional adventurer" -class, a motley collection of bounty hunters, scraphunters, traders and runners turn their back to the isolationist credo of their homes and instead venture out into the ship, band together and see the world. With over 2 million kilometres of corridor there is plenty of world to be seen. Especially since you are on foot and picking your way through collapsed structures, debris, xenojungles and other hazard spots. The Nations and Outcasts usually tolerate Nomads because they bring in valuable goods and news from elsewhere in the ship, as well as being a tough bunch that you in general don't want to mess with. Still, there is a certain amount of rejection, prejudice and stigma comes with the job. Becoming a nomad does liberate you from the social constraints of your home community but at the price of greatly increased physical danger.

Yeah. That's the new angle.

Net activists have been very incensed by Ubisoft's new DRM scheme that requires constant online connection to be played. I agree it is a stupid, annoying and an unnecessarily heavy-handed system but they do have the right to do it. Just as we have the right to decide whether their games are still worth buying. I might be pissed off about the DRM but I am still going to buy Silent Hunter 5 and Assassin's Creed 2 in the near future. I am then going to do my damnest to get the DRM cracked and be damn proud of it if I succeed. I am not going to pirate games that I want if they are commercially available. If the DRM bothered me too much, I just wouldn't want the games in the first place, would I? Penny Arcade makes a good point about the whole DRM vs. Piracy argument.

Oh well, it is back to work. Crown of Byzantus launches on Monday and it HAS to work!

13-Feb-2010: I Heard The Call

It is the dead of night (14th already) and I am slightly drunk for a birthday bash (not my own) in Restaurant Saslik. Since I am in the mood for all things Russian right now, this is a good moment to talk about S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Call of Pripyat. Yes, I know it is from Ukraine.

As you have probably guessed, I preordered my copy and got it soon enough. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, BitComposer, the publisher of Call of Pripyat, are a bunch of morons (they are not assholes, just idiots). The game was released on DVD only. This is a Bad Idea with a capital B and the only logical explanation is that BitComposer wanted to sabotage its own sales and encourage piracy. Call of Pripyat is a rare PC-exclusive AAA release. In this day and age, many retailers are cutting down their selection and stockpile of PC games which meant that their stockpiles were completely swallowed up by pre-orders. So the game never made it to the shelves on the launch date.

This strategy doesn't make any sense for the publisher. Call of Pripyat is a mature title targeted at hardcore PC gamers. Now these grizzled old geeks are not only the most connected group out there but also making the most of D2D stores like Steam or Gamersgate. In one self-inflicted financial gunshot BitComposer decided to both neglect them and piss them off.

Trick question: Guess which customer group also has the easiest access to warez sites and the technical knowhow to use DVD images?

A single financial mistake does not a moron make but BitComposers' next move seems almost calculated to make them look bad. First: they got Securom DRM on their DVDs. When dealing with PC hardcore gamers this is enough to make some of them skip the game or switch exclusively to a pirate copy. Second, the game has a critical (and quite common) bug caused by the DRM that can only be fixed by applying a No-CD-Crack on the game executable, courtesy of the pirates. In short, to be able to play a legal copy of the game you need to crack it with warez anyway. The fact that the 400kb crack is much easier to download from Pirate Bay than the DVD image of the whole game (4GB) is a poor consolation to the angry gamers who have already handed out money for it.

Guys (and gals), you know that PC premium game development is a dying art. Pulling off stunts like this is not helping!!!

The bug I am referring to prevents the spawning of NPC characters when you arrive to a location. Thus mission locations, trading stations and the like are usually empty when you get there. Sometimes the NPCs are spawned if you wait long enough but usually only Quicksave/Quickload on the spot makes them appear and chances are you'll find yourself standing the middle of a group of enemies. It also screws up missions if they depend on finding human enemies somewhere. Fittingly the first map has plenty of just that.

Well, I got the crack. I also did some hacking of the game files by myself and halved the hit points of all the monsters. Maybe its cheating but god damn it: if I give a bloodsucker a burst to the back of the head from an AK at a point blank range and it doesn't die, that's Bad Design. So yes, Call of Pripyat and I had a rocky start. While most reviewers have been gracious enough to overlook these problems, it's in for some rough treatment outside its immediate fan base. But once I had made my little fixes in place, I realized something:

S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Call of Pripyat is a great game!

It is not as atmospheric as SoC but nothing ever will so it is forgiven. Also, I don't agree with the Art Director on their use of some terrain textures but that I can live with it. Other than that, it was stable, smooth, bug-free and superbly optimized. I guess purists will find a lot to argue about its graphics but I don't and unlike in Clear Sky, running it with full graphical settings and all the fancy DX10 tricks didn't make an impact on the performance. They have cut down on the terrain polygons but the larger, Fallout 3 -style maps are more than enough to compensate for it. You can move between the maps using guides, so no border transition zones are needed and I really like this idea of being able to stand on a hill and look for shapes painted on the horizon (i.e. beyond the visual drawing range), knowing that if you go into that direction the thing you're seeing does really come up. I loved it in Fallout 3 and I love it here.

This time they also give you a decent gun to start with. While weapons feel a little underpowered, it did not strike me across the face like it did in Clear Sky. If I shoot someone he usually staggers back and hitting him a few more times will drop him. It is enough and now that I've rebalanced the monsters I have to say I like the way the combat works. At least on the easiest difficulty setting. Besides, you can no longer make a mint by dragging home weapons collected from the field. Traders accept only guns good condition and repairing them costs always more than the sales price would be. I am making a fraction of the money I made in the previous games and being a loot whore, finding a weapon you can sell is a gameplay reward in itself.

I don't know why they gave up visible artifacts like they had in Shadow of Chernobyl but at least they made the best of it this time. In Clear Sky, anomalies abound and you soon gave up using your detector in hopes of finding anything. Besides, reaching the artifact would mean entering an anomaly and closing in on the artifact until it became visible. Since Clear Sky anomalies were about as deadly as SoC anomalies you soon gave up this foolish sport since it ruined your armour and all you found was crap anyway.

In Call of Pripyat, anomalies are much more sparse. Some of them are also truly massive, scarring the landscape and creating bizarre natural formations. Anomalies and artifacts move about within these "pockets" so if you are good, quick or well-kitted (preferably all three), you can probably run the gauntlet to the artifact and back mostly unscathed. It's like a game within a game, making the best out of a bad design choice. Scarcity of anomalies in itself is not a bad thing. And I like the big anomalies and can imagine something like this to exist in the Zone Russia of Stalker RPG as well. In fact, I can imagine most of the game landscape existing there, minus all the people, of course.

Speaking of people, there are still way too many of them out in the Zone. However, things have improved since Clear Sky. While I miss the desolation of Shadow of Chernobyl, the crowds in Call of Pripyat are tolerable because they are almost never hostile. You can even go chat with bandits if you don't have your weapon drawn and this is realistic given the bandit lifestyle of extorting protection money from people they consider weaker than themselves. You, a stalker-agent going by the name "Degtaryev", don't fit the bill. I've made a fortune by selling loot to bandit camps instead of traders. While Marked One remains my favourite stalker, I am not ashamed of playing Degtaryev the way I was ashamed of playing Scar (CS).

So, what's not to like?

Monster balancing. The way some locations are built to be linear which is at odds with the otherwise open world. There is hardly any incidental loot so there is less to gain by exploration, even if you sometimes find stashes left by other stalkers. Most artifacts still emit radiation, so unless you luck out by finding some radiation-blocking artifacts at the start, they are rubbish (maybe it was design and not luck that made my first finds radiation blockers, though). While the weapon and armour upgrade system works much better than in Clear Sky, I still think it is stupid I cannot fit a Warsow Pact scope on an AK without having to modify it first. And I need a better armour. As usual.

But these are minor gripes. All in all, Call of Pripyat is a successful closure to the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. trilogy. It brings together the best parts of its predecessors and cuts out most of the crap, giving an old fan like myself an impression that GSC really listened to their fans this time (even if the publisher didn't). The game runs smoothly, is virtually bug free and the level design conspires with DX10 to create very memorably scenes (my favourite is the morning sunrise). The open world of the Zone has never felt quite this open before, the storyline is interesting enough and they even got their character right this time. While Shadow of Chernobyl will always have a special place in my heart as one of the best videogames ever, Call of Pripyat is a worthy successor and it does even better in some areas. It just can't win.

08-Feb-2010: Core Elements

I have to confess I still suck at this newfangled roleplaying terminology. According to majatalo.org, Old Skool roleplaying is supposed to be auteur-driven roleplaying forced to follow a set storyline. This goes completely against my tenet of Otherwhere, which is the primary reason I play roleplaying games in the first place; the possibility to go off from the beaten path and explore the game world, with new and interesting things waiting everywhere you go even if it can give the gamemaster a brain stroke. Otherwhere and character roleplaying are the two things where pen&paper RPGs retain their edge over videogames. I find it completely non-sensical that anybody would be giving them up and the idea that I would be the spokesperson for that is downright insulting. I take pride in my Otherwhere. A lot of pride. You have been warned.

Then there is Narrativism. This is supposed to be something I am not but it sounds counterintuitive as Hell. As the gamemaster, I am the setting around the players as they perceive it. Descriptions of events, NPCs and the consequences of their previous actions within the setting form a narrative that is complemented by the players' own action and intention descriptions; I always use it but the system is enforced in Stalker by the FLOW rules. I try to make my descriptions sound like I was writing (or reciting) a book since I've found that this is a delivery format both me and all the players I've ever had like a lot. And as an author of several books, I feel like I'm up to my neck in a narrative for as long as the session lasts. Yet somehow Narrativism means something completely different to the point of being an antithesis of what I just wrote.

Mind boggles.

Whenever I've published something, everybody wants more setting information but also applaud my attempts not to curtail content for the promise of some obscure supplement in an equally obscure future. It try to give a coherent and complete picture of the setting, even if it means glossing over some of the details, or more commonly hiding them into cultural analogues or keypoints the owner can then extrapolate from. I see table-top roleplaying gaming as a form of interactive literature and if people can begin writing their own stories based on the setting information I've given them, I have succeeded. This requires an approach that "leaves enough room" around and in between the elements of canon for writers, players and gamemasters to create their own minisettings and pocket storyverses. It also helps creating the otherwhere because with enough creative freedom it doesn't really matter if you go off-canon. Since speaking about Tibet in the last entry, I have realised that my in-game descriptions of the cult of Tiraman in Praedor are based on Tibetan Buddhism, complete with the prayer flags fluttering in the wind. I have no idea how Petri had thought it would work but it has fit my games and if I were to write another novel on the subject that's how it would go. At least until Petri would say no.

It also occured to me (and hopefully this will be part of NOMAD) that while I dislike encounter tables, a bullet-point list of sample encounters or events typical to the locations described in the setting information could help others in creating the sense of Otherwhere. For example, you would have the shortlist descriptions of Toulouse in the Stalker World Book and then 10 bullet points for every part of the city: "typical events or sights". These could be anything from religious processions to gangs trying to kick a Living Corpse, or an Institute patrol having just had a head-on collision with a truck on the twisting streets of the medieval Old City. Local flavour, atmosphere tips, potential adventure seeds, the like. So yes, there is still room for improvement with my format.

07-Feb-2010: Everest, Season 3

Standing tall amongst all the shit coming from the TV these days, nothing says Stalker to me like the reality-show/documentary Everest: Beyond the Limit. After skipping the climbing season 2008, the climbing season 2009 has now come out on the Discovery Channel US, Amazon Video-On-Demand (again only in the US) and BitTorrent everywhere. It's quite apparent that this will be the last season. Budget has been by cut 50% and the format changed from a single story spanning 8 episodes to five episodes each telling the story of a specific group. There are rumours circulating that the show was premiered at a worst possible time in the US with the first three episodes shown at one go. If true, Discovery Channel is obviously trying to get rid of one of its best shows ever. US-only Amazon Video-On-Demand release hints that a DVD is not coming out anytime soon either.


The magic is still there. The landscapes are as beautiful as ever, even if they are using helmet-mounted and handheld cameras much more than before (no budget for HD Steadycams?). The mountain is still the Zone, the climbers are still the stalkers, the anomalies of the slopes still claim lives right there on the screen. Even the opening intro has a corpse now. All what's missing are the artifacts. I don't understand what makes these people crazy enough to climb Everest but I am glad that they do. It makes great and inspirational television programming. It will be sad to lose it and it feels like Discovery is just asking for me to drop them from our cable package. Heh, without the Discovery channels, History and BBC documentaries we would not have a channel package in the first place.

Speaking of Himalayas, I ran into Cursed Mountain on Gamersgate. I had read the reviews of the Wii version but since I don't do console shit unless I get paid for it didn't pay much attention. But this is a PC port and a surprisingly good one. Of course, there are spots of trouble. Wii is not the most powerful thing around so the graphics would have looked iffy back in 2004. I am not bothered by it but many will be. The other problem is that while console control specialties like shaking have been reworked pretty well (much more so than in "Lost Planet" where the game tells me to press the "Start" button on the console pad), at times the camera angle changes into a forced "artistic perspective" and the otherwise functional third-person control scheme changes with it. Fortunately you can't fall of a cliff here (kinda odd on a mountaneering game, though) or these sudden camera shifts would have killed me a long time ago.

Cursed Mountain is set in Tibet in the 80's. Frankly, I would have put it in the 30'ies but in the backwater mountain villages of Tibet you can't really tell the difference. The protagonist's brother has gone missing while looking for some Tibetan artifact up on a sacred mountain and I had to go rescue him. Turns out that he has really messed with the thing because the villages are abandoned, there are ghosts lurking around and an angry old hag of a shaman tried to feed to a demon. Amongst the adventure-game style clues and secrets I've gotten the feeling that an angry Tibetan goddess wants her toy back and I'll have to give it to her. And hopefully get my brother back alive in the bargain although his diary notes suggest he is such a prick I would like to push him off the cliff myself.

So what's to like here? First of all, the controls aren't too bad and despite the low polygon count, the creative director has done his job. Tibetan imagery is positively horrifying, Stalker-like desolation with howling winds tugs at my heartstrings and the Tibetan chanting chills me to the bone. They've done some research concerning Tibetan mythology and so far all the opposition has been based on their mythology, such as the hungry ghosts, which are positively creepy. Encountering one usually traps you half-way into the spirit world and you can either hack away at it with a climbing pick spiced up with some Tibetan artifacts (now that is a Pulp Adventure solution if I ever saw one), or you can use the Inner Eye and fire occult energy at them from the very same pick. On occasion, the Inner Eye can also reveal sigils that trigger simple tracing minigames. If a ghost has been taken to low hits, the sigil can be seen on it and killing it with the minigame heals you a little, which is a good idea. The system is also used to open doors and reveal secrets. And I like their portrayal of Tibetan shamanism.

So, the atmosphere is excellent, the many items, journals and prophecies to be picked up remind me of old-school adventure games and not in a bad way (this is not some illogical item puzzle). At times even the graphics make an impression, although their attempts to dizzy you with heights are a bit off. The wind, the flags... the way ghosts move through inanimate objects and try to circle around you, or trap you into some bewitched pocket with glowing sigils... so far no complaints. I would have done this game differently but then again I would not have done it for Wii and thus be subject to its idiosyncracies at the design stage. For a PC port of a console game, especially from a console that is so far from the modern PC in both power and control methods, this is brilliant.

06-Feb-2010: Black Tide

Black Tide (and I've been desperately searching for a Finnish translation that would carry the same effect; unfortunately "Musta aalto" was the best I came up with) is a roleplaying setting that came to be when three things converged; Risto Isomäki's novel "Sands of Sarasvati", a British disaster movie "Flood" and my as of yet unfinished cooperation with Kalle Marjola, "Syndicate VI". Or rather, Syndicate created the need to come up with a new dark future setting. I began writing and Black Tide was one of the elements in the draft. Then it spun off at tangent and became a world of its own. I don't really have time for it because of HAX but I wanted to write it out here so it won't be entirely lost.

Black Tide is set in the year 2052. Five years before the central glaciers of Greenland collapsed, emptying a meltwater lake almost the size of a continent into the North Atlantic. The resulting megatsunami was unlike anything seen since prehistoric times. Out at sea, the 50-metre wall of water moving at hundreds of kilometres per hour wiped out anything and everything in its path. A quarter of the world's shipping vanished overnight. Closer to land the contours of the sea floor slowed it down but also forced the water upwards. The peak height remains disputed but satellite imagery confirms waves over 200 metres tall in places. The tsunami crashed into the coast of Europe with enough force to reshape the continent. Netherlands ceased to exist. Brussels, the capital of EU, was completely wiped out. The Jutland Peninsula became an island. From Portugal to Nordkapp, the coastlines were devastated to a depth of hundreds of kilometres. It will take decades or even centuries just for the floodwaters to drain away. The survivors called it the Black Tide.

Five years later, the Western Europe is an archipelago riddled with uncharted debris reefs. Nuclear power plants have turned into radioactive geysers with waterspouts hundreds of metres high. The destruction of chemical plants, oil rigs and storage facilities have created a toxic spill of apocalyptic proportions. There are no government, roads, seaports or infrastructure. The surviving settlements have been reduced to microstates, pirate bases and illegal corporate enclaves. Some are built on solid ground. Other are adrift. Of all the major hubs only London remains standing, severely flooded but spared of the crushing wave. While European Union still claims London as its territory, it is actually governed by a group of macrocorps using the 70-year old King William V as a figurehead to legitimize their actions.

London might be governed but not controlled. Much of the city remains lawless and stuffed with refugees. Outside their Control Sectors macrocorp mercenaries settle on keeping the main routes open. True power on the streets rests with militias, communal governments, armed extremists, urban collectives, organized crime and vicious gangs. London has become the hub of the European underworld and one of the engines driving organized crime worldwide. But while smuggling across the disaster area is a major concern to the European Union, at present there is little they are willing or able to do about it.

Oh yes, the European Union. Recognizing that reconstruction was financially, politically and in many places geographically impossible, the European Union has turned its back to the Atlantic. Milan is the new Union capital and Mediterranean the new strategic focus. Some of the member states relocated their survivors from the disaster area but certain member states effectively ceased to exist and their survivors either remain dispersed in survivor settlements, or have fled to London.

Life in Western Europe is bizarre mix of old and new, or advanced and primitive. The Black Tide hit the most modern society in the world when it was just about to undergo a low-level post-humanist transformation. With the infrastructure blown apart it is in regression now but what technology survives or has been salvaged is still often incredibly advanced. People tend to have cybernetic implants of every variety, taken before the Black Tide. These days the only way to get new cyber is to cut it out from the dead and have some dubious street doc implant it into you. The global datanet is still there, although bandwith can be a problem out in the archipelago. Energy systems are based on electricity and fuel cells, although again the loss infrastructure has resurrected combustion engines, sails and even steam as forms of propulsion. There is less famine than most would expect because of advanced ways of cultivating edible bacteria or farming genetically modified animals and plants. On the other hand, disease is on the rise, including some exotic ones that haven't been seen for centuries. Like the Black Death.


There you have it. I had been thinking about calling the player characters "privateers" and defining them as mercenaries specializing in the more colourful ops like tracking down pirate gangs in the archipelago or salvaging prototype tech from the heart of the hazard zones. Shadowrunners (from Shadowrun RPG, obviously) are based on a similar idea but since Black Tide was so much more water-oriented, I felt "privateer" had a better ring to it.

Unfortunately I am living in Terminal Complex right now; a much more advanced place even if there are many parallels between it and the Black Tide London. It is only natural for the two settings have influenced each other. I don't have the extra time and energy to work on Black Tide so if anyone else wants to pick it up, be my guest. As for myself, I want to start cracking on the next piece of HAX Fiction. By the way, here is the "Praedor skill list" for Black Tide (in Finnish, I'm afraid):

Ajoneuvot VAL/2
Alamaailma 6
Budolajit 6
Elektroniikka KOU/2
Ensiapu SIS/2
Erätaidot SIS/2
Esiintyminen KAR/2
Hakukone KOU/2
Hallinto SIS/2
Heittokäsi VOI/2
Hiivintä KET/2
Huhupuheet KAR/2
Hylkytavara VAL/2
Hyppy ja kiipeily KET/2
Johtaminen SIS/2
Jouset KET/2
Juonittelu 6
Infrastruktuuri KOU/2
Katutietous 6
Kaupankäynti KAR/2
Kierrätys 6
Kiväärit VAL/2
Kovistelu SIS/2
Kybernetiikka KOU/2
Käsiaseet KET/2
Lentäjä VAL/2
Lyömäaseet VOI/2
Lääketiede KOU/2
Lääkkeet ja huumeet 6
Media KAR/2
Mekaniikka VOI/2
Merikartat 6
Moottoripyörät KET/2
Näppäryys SIS/2
Ohjelmointi KOU/2
Politiikka 6
Raskaat aseet VOI/2
Rikospaikka VAL/2
Räjähteet 6
Saasteet 6
Sotavoimat 6
Taiteet KAR/2
Tappelu VOI/2
Teknologia KOU/2
Teräaseet KET/2
Tietoverkot 6
Tiirikointi 6
Turvajärjestelmät VAL/2
Tutkimus KOU/2
Uhkapeli VAL/2
Uiminen VOI/2
Uskonto 6
Vakoilu VAL/2
Valeasut KAR/2
Veneet 6
Vieraat kielet KOU/2
Viettely KAR/2
Väistö KET/2
Yhtiöt KOU/2

If you don't want to add Koulutus (education) as a seventh stat, make the base value for all KOU-skills 6 and add a skill for general education, like "Yleissivistys".

04-Feb-2010: HAX Fiction Page

I've made a separate page for HAX fiction and copied all the previous entries there. If the story ever continues, it will do so there. Okay, it will continue; I am on a roll here and the continued development of HAX the Game provides constant inspiration). So how to find the HAX Fiction page? I'll give you a tip: it has a button somewhere on this page (although the draft logo I've used reads HOX rather than HAX to me).

Wednesday was a big day for me. KAJAK, or the Kajaani University of Applied Sciences, has a game developer study program and they wanted to me to do a lecture course; not just a lecture but a whole series of them, on game design. Obviously I can't fly to Kajaani and back every Wednesday morning, so I am lecturing from the comfort of my own home. I had never done a serious e-lecture before and was so nervous I could hardly sleep on Tuesday night. But when the moment came, I suddenly calmed down and did not even start talking too fast, which is my usually problem when my nerves start playing tricks on me. The organizers were really happy with the lecture and even the students showed signs of life, asking me questions over chat, which was great. I am really looking forward to the next session.

Majatalo.org has a very interesting thread on "What RPGs will come out in Finland in 2010" (read: what RPGs are known to be in the making and do they have any chance of making it out this year). There is quite a few of them actually and it seems somehow unnatural that Fantasiapelit, the first and the largest RPG retailer in Finland is rumoured to be about to give RPGs entirely in favour of Manga. I don't believe it will come to that but we will continue to lose shelf space. Fantasiapelit still has one of the biggest (okay, second only to Orc's Nest) selections of RPGs I've seen in any game store anywhere and believe me, I've made a point of finding a game store in every foreign city I've visited. I should probably mention Puolenkuun Pelit here as well since they are a Stalker RPG retailer :)

The most recent session of Stalker: Japan ended with a Kill Bill -style bloodbath. Our no-nonsense female stalkers decided they had taken all the shit they were going to take from a bunch of Yakuza. They first stunned them with a heavy dose of CS gas and then demonstrated how much damage one of the power-augmented Zone Exploration Suits (Toshiba ZXO) can do. When Fang's fist took the face of the first Yakuza clean off, there was no stopping them. Quentin Tarantino would have been proud and I know the Osaka Yakuza was rather impressed to receive a package containing Oyabun Abe. Or rather, his severed head with his genitals stuffed into his mouth. You know, the two organs he did all his thinking with.

04-Feb-2010: Okay, No More

You can tell a blog has only a few readers when it takes this long for someone come tell me that my fiction was not worth even announcing that the blog had updated. It is depressing as hell but since we aim to please, you win. There won't be any more of it. Some of you already guessed this was not strictly speaking fan fiction but stuff inspired by HAX, the game I am working on at Wirepunk. God damn, that logo needs to be fixed. While I am definitely a fan of it, it is also my own creation so my writings are more like novelizations than fan fiction.

Since HAX isn't out yet and nobody outside our circle can know what it was all about, I included as much setting exposition as I could comfortably fit in. For example, when writing about Rogue Roy this wasn't necessary because the likely readers (if any) could be expected to be familiar with the world of EVE Online already. It was also an interesting excercise because the fiction dealt with a part of a setting that definitely exists but only acts as a background element for the game itself.

No, we don't have the resources to create a Neocron-style futuristic city with a 3D engine. We focus on what we can do and the larger setting is a backstory element and a mission catalysts. I just wanted to do a little bit of exploration on the side and hence the fan fiction. But the jury has spoken.

No more of that shite.

04-Feb-2010: Fan Fiction 3

It always rains in the evening. In the Chasms, man-made canyons yawning between the massive city blocks, walkways lining the edges were covered either by more walkways above them or by makeshift canopies of plastic and steel. Those venturing onto the bridges and spans thrown across the chasms, seemingly at random, were not so lucky. A sheet of rain and mist so thick you could hardly see the other side of the chasm run right in the middle. The crowds didn't really permit running, so those worming their way across either held something above their heads or sported a bewildering array of hoods and brimmed hats. Some took advantage of the violent downpour and stripped naked or down to their waist, showering on the bridges or in places where rainwater was allowed to pour down from the roof. Some of them where just showing off: pirates their scars, prostitutes their breasts, sometimes three or four of them.

It was a freakshow. Even now, after three weeks, Arkangel had to constantly remind herself that she was part of the show now. Her hair was growing back and it was black and spiky all over, with a muscled flap covering the new plugs in the back of her head. It had about the same strength as her lips and she quickly found other uses for it. For example, it allowed her to contort her scalp in many bizarre ways, which made her hair spikes move about. She had since then spent hours watching herself in a mirror and practicing hair moves to emphasize her facial expressions. She was also growing paler. Back in the arkology she had been proud of her rich tan but it was bleaching out. Occasional visits to the roof did little to compensate for the lack of sunlight elsewhere. Startled by her own blue-veined hands she made a mental note to get a dermal mod when she could afford it.

”Eat more! No catch men with reedy legs!”

Her food vendor didn't need a dermal fix. She'd come with pirates from the continent over a dozen years ago and the years had done little to blemish her dark brown skin. Arkangel had been doubtful whether her few Cartel Stock would be valid scrip to a foodstall vendor in the Chasms. It was. The Stock were good everywhere. Instead of having to pay for every meal, she had given Zemu some Stock and now ate for free since the credits generated by that Stock covered her meals. This time it was algae noodles, assorted nuts and a handful of vat-grown shrimp, all cooked in a delicious African sauce that could have doubled as battery acid. Zemu always wanted to chat her up even while she was cooking like crazy. She ran an application in her Interface that monitored everything going on in the kitchen stall, from hardware performance to food orders and portion readiness. She had seen the whole world through this virtual kitchen for a decade now and had a habit of thinking about everything in terms of food. But Arkangel had a job tonight so she just grabbed her food and left after a few failed attempts at a graceful exit. Zemu was strangely quiet as she watched her go.

Zemu was by no means exceptional. This side of the chasm was lit up with with so many billboards, holograms and ad boxes you could barely see the actual wall behind them. And you might have been forgiven to think they were real, until you noticed they did not illuminate their surroundings and appeared crystal sharp even through rain, mist and sometimes the crowds. It was all virtual, a data stream from the Link to the Interface. While you could surf the local operators and get a slightly different offering of notices on each, or have services highlighted with search terms, you couldn't turn the Interface off. Or most people couldn't. Arkangel remembered reading from somewhere that 30% of all visual signals in an urban environment were actually virtual and the number was creeping up every year. Some called it the virtual light. These days everybody saw the world through a virtual filter. Cyberdrugs would make it go berserk, dropping you into virtual fantasies until your brains couldn't find their way back. Simple, really. Why use drugs to fool biochemical receptors when you could abuse the Interface to feed the same data straight into the gray matter? And with a much higher bandwidth.

On second thought, maybe Zemu was an exception. At least she had been able to create her own reality on top of the infomercial crap, even if it meant her entire world was a kitchen stall.
Arkangel could freely channel-surf with her Interface. She could even turn it off at will which was a felony in most microstates. Arkangel could also use it to spy on channels restricted to public, like low-level security networks, merc channels, pirate Net stations and Hax darknets, although the last were often superbly encrypted. The first thing any self-respecting ghost runner or Hax adherent would do was to hack his or her own Interface.

Yeah, the Hax. A street culture from somewhere between the Hivers and the Cyberpunks. The most visible secret organization in the world. Originally it was just about fooling around with the Interface, doing and writing cyberdrugs, pirating and mixing software, or hacking into restricted smart systems for shit and giggles. Then some evil incarnate came up with ghost running and Wham! They were hardcore criminals all of a sudden. Not all Hax are ghost runners but all ghost runners are Hax. All the Datathieves, Info Mercs and Link Spies. You name it, we've got it.

As Arkangel turned away from from the Chasm walkways and headed down an alley inside the block, she could tell where the walls were by the virtual ads and billboards. However, in places where lighting was poor, you would still bump into people because the ads shone right through them. Occasionally there was an exception, like when someone was wearing sponsored clothing or had paid extra for a personal Interface beacon. Arkangel did bump into a few people but mostly because her mind was on the Hax. She had been a hang-around back in New Singapore but went straight as soon as the prospect of becoming a Cadet came into view. Besides, the Hax scene in South Asia Hub didn't hold a candle to that in Terminal Complex. As a matter of fact, no Hax scene anywhere in the world did. Maybe Zemu was right and she should have been catching men. She could use some friends and back up tonight. She could use the Hax.

For Arkangel, one of the main benefits of being able to turn off the Interface was being able to see the entrance to her hideout. If the Interface was running, the door simply wouldn't be there. It was a small maintenance hatch in a back alley, never very visible to begin with. But someone, somewhere, had painted it over with virtual light. It was a useful gimmick but also a terrifying reminder of the power the Link had over reality.

01-Feb-2010: Fan Fiction 2

The Sun beat down on the rooftop without mercy. Even with the sea breeze heat haze was thick as a fog, turning the forest of antennas, solar panels and black-painted water heaters around her oily blobs. She had never been to the rooftops before. In the arkologies that was strictly forbidden but out here nothing was off limits. Sure there would be some micro-state militia hanging about in vital spots but if you kept out of sight you were okay. There were simply too many holes to plug.

Heat haze and structures blocked her view of the horizon but above her was Starspinein all its glory. It was like a gigantic spider's web, stretched to the breaking point. At night the strands would glow white and blue with the vast energies flowing through them. Now in broad daylight they seemed made of out glass. She had never seen them this close before. Bundles of strands, spreading out from the dozen or so ground terminals and joining together to form a complex web that hovered over the much of the city. Then, towards the middle it narrowed down into a dozen or so mainlines that vanished up into the blue.

Somewhere high up Starspine left a contrail of its own as it met the high atmospheric winds. And beyond... the space. It was unreal. Too massive to contemplate and yet too sparse and airy to cast a shadow. It was ghostly. And in itself a force to be reckoned with. Terminal Complex had originally been just the surface installation for the orbital elevator. After WorldCrash the city mushroomed right on top of the facility. The Cartel claimed some parts. The artificial intelligence operating Starspine claimed others. Between them lay a patchwork of slums, red light districts, industrial zones and microstates.

Most people called the city ”the Complex” and it fit. For Cartel, it was the unofficial if also undisputed global capital. But it was also the only place where they were openly defied. For Singularity, all Humanity may have been a necessary evil. Yet sovereign shards broke off from the Singularity Cloud and created physical avatars, Meks, to interact and sometimes mingle with the humans. And in the no-man's-land between the two an explosion of subcultures defied the very definition of both human and society: neosapients, gestalts, cyberpunks, hybrids, clans, hax...

Her three weeks outside the Corp Sector had taught her more about life and people than the previous three years inside it. And she had changed too, more than she ever thought possible. The brave but nerdy Angea would not survive a week out here. Maybe she died? Maybe she got lost somehow? Memories of being her felt distant and strange now. Being Arkangel was both more fun and definitely more useful. It also opened more doors. What a difference a little attitude adjustment can make!

She laughed out loud. After the throng of the chasms the silence and brightness of the rooftop was making her philosophical. Either that or it was the warning shot of an impending sunstroke. While her cryocloak kept her comfortable she wasn't wearing any headgear and the Sun wasn't taking any prisoners today. Better make it quick, then. She checked the Interface for coordinates and found she had walked past the cache already. Getting to it meant dealing with a jumble of pipes and a rust-spotted antenna tower but she figured she could use the exercise.

The package was right where it was supposed to be, in a nook between the pipes and the upper mountings of an antenna tower. It was a capsule, about the size of her two fists and with a wireless codelock. Undoubtedly left here by some free-running courier who'd laugh his ass off if he saw her clumsy climb up these same pipes. It was necessary to avoid the package being found by some random sun-stroller but an annoyance nevertheless. The package linked up with her Interface as soon as she touched it. She mentally punched in the reference number the fixer had given her and it opened with a puff of air, revealing a chipboard wrapped in plastic. It also brought up a notice of an open comms request on an encrypted channel. Strange. That hadn't been part of the deal.

She grabbed the chipboard and left the empty package in the cache to wait for the courier but climbing down proved even harder. Sweaty and exhausted, she removed her cloak and sat down under a solar panel to catch her breath and let the sweat dry off. Direct sunlight might have worked even better but after three weeks in the cave Azure left her she wasn't about to risk her skin. To pass time she took out the chipboard and unwrapped it. A plastic grip that doubled as a connector and acrystal plate with all the colours of the rainbow. She could not make out the individual nano-engineered components and connections. Instead, the whole thing looked as if swirls of multicoloured smoke had been frozen in place and encased in synthetic crystal.

Chipboard was a piece of Tek, probably from a nanoforge somewhere in Chumamji. It was also a breach of a couple of hundred Cartel patents but Street Sectors of Terminal Complex were the one place on Earth where those patents were not valid. Of course, that did not stop the corps from sending mercs after the pirate workshops from time to time, or smugglers taking Tek out to be sold in the black markets of Cartel Hubs around the globe. The chipboard also reminded her of the mysterious comms request. Maybe it was better to open it here, rather than through the landlines of the ghost deck.

Leaning back on the panel supports, she called up the Comms Request from the Inbox and accepted it with two-way audio and no outgoing visuals. Almost immediately a visual screen popped up into the interface. She moved it out of her field of vision and since it was fed into the optic cluster of her brains rather than the optic nerve, she could see it clearly even when it was outside her physical field of vision. Such a trick used to disorientate Angea but for Arkangel it was second nature.

Using visual feeds in comms was largely a tradition as there was no way to check if the visual feed was authentic. Besides, with so many people communicating via the Interface they'd have to have a camera trained at their face or stare at a mirror to show live feed of themselves talking. However, some things were clues, like the poor visual reception and the very poor background lighting on this one. The man must have used an external terminal and the light from it barely illuminated his face. He seemed to be an older man, a corporate type that could have passed for a doctor or a personal teacher in better days. Now he looked a little haggard and a couple of days past his last shave.

”Arkangel? I need your help and will pay for it if I live.”

He was talking fast and she could hear the panic and lack of sleep in his voice loud and clear. She knew her own voice would be steady and controlled since she wasn't actually speaking. Her replies were fed into the comms mentally through the Interface.

”Slow down. Who are you and how did you find me?”

The man closed his eyes and Arkangel could see how he pulled himself back together. This guy didn't have the hawkish aura of the macrocorp execs but it was obvious he was used to being in a position of authority.

”I paid my fixer for a ghost runner contact. I am trapped inside Mextron Arkology. I'll pay you 3000 Cartel Stock and start a fan site if you can get me out of here.”

”I am still waiting on the first question.”

”Uh, yes. My name... I guess it won't matter. Melk Ziroska. I am... was a science project administrator in Mextron working on... well it was top-secret. Mextron could burn in a Cartel inquiry if it leaked so when they canned the project they canned most of the team as well.”
”So how did you escape?”

”I was expecting foul play. I also knew the infrastructure from my junior engineering days and prepared a hideout in the biocycle maintenance shafts. Lucky for me they went for the other team members first.”

”So you knew this might happen and didn't warn them?”

Even in the dim light of his console Melk Ziroska seemed offended.

”There was still hope that the project might be salvaged! Almost to the very end! Such a thing would have been bad for morale!”

Arkangel smirked but realized with some regret that Melk would not see it.

”I guess that's one definition of team spirit. What kind of help do you need?”

”Orders for my termination are classified. Even the Mextron Internal Security is in the dark. However, scanners at all the exits have been set to trigger a Class-A biohazard alarm upon recognizing my face. If I try going through, I'll be trapped in a quarantine box filled with formaldehyde. They'll say it was an accident related to my work. Case closed.”

She thought about it for a while. It all sounded very daunting but part of the Hax creed was that complex meatspace problems usually had simple solutions in the Link.

”Hmm. If I can break into Mextron datacore, I can hack the security protocols. Then you could just walk out with a smile on your face and the guards wouldn't be any wiser. Mextron Datacore is in the InfoGrid network, right?”

Melk thought about it for a moment but did not seem convinced.

”There are three successive security layers in InfoGrid. The security servers are synchronized across all three. It can't work.”

”It's a hidden protocol so it can't be part of the regular backup transfers. If I can hack the security server and fix it on all three levels it doesn't matter if they're synchronized.”

”You can do that?”

Melk seemed so astonished that Arkangel had to bit her lip not laugh. She didn't know if the laughter had translated over to the comms but she didn't want to risk it.

”I can try. You're the one who is risking his life here. How long can you stay there?”

”Couple of days. It's mostly about water.”

”That's long enough. Can they trace this comm?”

”Not likely. This is an engineering console and I am using a faked ID with sapient encryption. They won't pick it out from the overall traffic.”

”If you say so. One final question. Can you really pay me 3000 Cartel Stock if you get out? What if they erase your Citizenship Account?”

”Mextron Credits would be wiped but Cartel Stock can't be erased. It can't even be transferred without an independent verification of my death. I have been promised an asylum with IKAI. I will arrange the transfer from there.”

”You'd better or I'll hack into IKAI and drown you in formaldehyde myself.”

”So it's a deal?”

”It's a deal. You'll hear from me again in 24 hours.”

And with that the channel was closed.

Her sweat had dried up so she put on her cloak and started walking towards the maintenance exit. Mextron, eh? Until now she had done only quick free runs into the first level networks and scooped up low-level data for Azure by intercepting package transfers. She'd been paid with small amounts of Cartel Stock and most of it had gone into the chipboard she now had in her pocket. This would be her first real gig and the 3000 Stock alone would be more than she had made until now. But even more importantly, this would make her look good. The Hax scene would take notice and she'd be somebody. She could use allies in this strange new world.

But she didn't dare to ask for a friend.

31-Jan-2010: Fan Fiction 1

It began with a throbbing pain. A ball of pain, floating in nothingness. Then it began to glow with soft but growing light. The nonexistence became gray mist, boiling as it came to contact with the newborn star. And just as she was getting intrigued, the pain and the light separated, the latter snapping in place at the back of her head and the former stinging her eyes. She must have opened her eyes because the world came into view but it took a while before she could focus her eyes on anything. Visual Interface booted up, expanding the edges of her field of vision with its symbolic controls. ANGEA, it said in crisp letters. But there was no Feed. No signal. For the first time in her life there was no one to talk to, no news feeds to tell her what she needed to know, no status updates, no comforting call cards from friends she'd never seen in flesh.

She was lying on a bed that had seen better days, in a room where walls seemed to be held together by faded posters of artists she'd never heard of and graffiti that was fading fast as the crumbling plaster became coarse and crystallized. ANGEA... it must be her name but it took a surprisingly long while of staring at the ceiling until brains accepted the connection. When they did, it triggered an explosion of memories. Consciousness reasserted itself, memories flooded in and took up their temporarily vacated places. But there were still gaps. Like how she ended up on this bed in such a godforsaken hole.

”Awake, are we?” a low feminine voice asked. The woman was sitting in a surprisingly good-looking chair at the centre of the room. She was dark-skinned and her hair hung down in dreadlocks, weighted with metallic studs. No, blades. If she swung her head, her hair would lash out like a clawed whip. A merc or a pirate. Someone from the other side of the wall. Angea glanced down on her own body and was relieved to find it clothed, even if she did not recognize the blank shirt and shorts she was wearing. No chains. No cuffs. Her head hurt but there were no scars where organs might have been cut out for the black market.

”Am I kidnapped?” she asked, biting down on her rising panic.

The woman laughed and the motion sent her hair blades jingling. Now Angea could see she had no eyes. Just round black lenses where the eyes should have been. It gave her a disturbingly snake-like look. And she was not alone. Behind her the entire back wall was covered with electronics, pipes, wiring and holo displays, now reduced to blobs of fog because of the distance. There was someone else by the wall, apparently busy with the wiring. And she could see a naked pair of withered feet, probably belonging to a corpse. The rest obstructed by the woman and her chair. Probably on purpose.

”You don't remember, do you? You are not a captive. You're our partner.”

The woman flashed a radiant if also somewhat predatory smile at Angea before continuing: ”You got booted from the Cadet Program for breaking into the test results database. My boss Azure here has a fondness for people who can crack Cartel databases. He pulled you off the street and struck a deal with you. Now we'll see if you can hold your end of it.”

The Cadet Program. Oh yes. That memory too.

The one memory she didn't want back but it came anyway. The crime. The trial. And worst of all the sensation of becoming an outcast. She wanted to go to the stars. Or if not the stars, the off-world colonies anyway. She got into the Cartel Cadet program and had trained, eaten and slept with her potential crew mates in every sense of the word for two years. They were going to be a team. A unit, perhaps for life. To be engineered physically for the alien environments of Solar Space was tough. To be engineered socially to live and work together in such a place for the rest of their lives was far tougher. It was all to be pre-programmed; love, sex, competition and social tensions.

But she had been a little too competitive and showed off her hacker skills by looking up classified data on the Program. She would not alter anything, of course, but it would prove a point and settle a score. Then someone ratted on her. She got the boot and the rest of the team... well, the social programming back to square 1 or worse. She had ruined it for everybody, including the one she was to love, the one she was to compete with and the one she was to have tension with. They would become “flunkies”, old cadets whose program had been screwed up somehow. They would hang onto low-level administrative tasks, hoping for a reassignment to a new team but it almost never happened. The sensible thing to do would have been to walk away but very few did. The dream was too big for them to let go. She got off easy, with no hope at all. When the Cartel Security Agency finally erased her Citizenship Account all she was left was her name. Striking a deal with someone, even with what the Cartel considered criminals, certainly made sense.

Angea sat up and gasped when when the pain in the back of her head suddenly pulsed. She felt it with her hands and found that her hair been cropped short, or more likely shaven off and had a few days worth growth on it now. There where hard blocks in the back of her head, each the size of a fingerprint and slightly sore to the touch. She counted six of them and felt them continue right down into her skull.

“The pain you feel is from the holes cut in your skull”, the dark woman said. “The brains don't feel pain but can do funny stuff for a while.”

“You did brain surgery on me?”

The woman shrugged like it was no big deal.

“Some. The Cartel did us all a big favor by installing the cranial socket in your head. Having that done in some black clinic could have killed you. We're not exactly a match for the med-labs in Luxor.”

The pain was subsiding a little, probably because of an adrenaline surge. Angie swung her legs onto the cold concrete floor and stood up, only to fall forwards and into the woman's arms. She had been up and next to her in a blink of an eye. So fast in fact, that Angea was not really certain she had moved at all. But now she could also see the entire console wall and a sudden realization had her gasping for breath.

“A ghost runner”, she said through clenched teeth, struggling to regain her balance and to push the woman away. “You turned me into a ghost runner. That thing on the wall is a Link controller module, spread out. I recognize the components...”

And then she saw the body. Or what she had thought to be the body. The man was alive but withered down to skin and bone. He was also naked, covered in grime and sporting a mane of unkempt hair and a scraggly beard. He seemed to be asleep and leaning against the console wall but actually all that held him sitting up was a thick bundle of cables attached to his. By the smell alone she would have thought him dead by now but she could see him breathing ever so slightly. Someone else, probably the man in the long coat now kneeling next to this living corpse, had rigged up an impromptu life support system, feeding the man on the floor with fluids, nutrients and even blood through a vicious-looking set of pipes and needles.

Satisfied that the system was up an running, the coated man stood up and turned to face her. For a moment Angea thought he didn't have eyes either but he was wearing dark goggles, undoubtedly packed with vision-enhancers. He seemed to be in his forties but that could have been just a fashion statement. In stark contrast to the woman he was almost bone-white. For some reason the short-cropped hair standing on up on his head gave Angea a strong impression it should have been white too. Instead it was striking blue, as were his eyelashes and even the shadow of a stubble on this jaw. A mutation or a genemod. In any case the only difference between the two was that one of them came with a price tag. The cryocoat was running at full power. Angea could see vapor drift down from the lining. She would freeze wearing it but apparently the man would have liked it even colder as he was sweating.

“No, Miss Angea”, the man said, “You made yourself into a ghost runner. You asked for the tools and we gave them to you”.

He extended his hand and after a moment's hesitation Angea took it.

“I am called Azure”, the man said and smirked, “I'd like something less descriptive but the streets kind of decide it for you”.

She glanced down at the living corpse at Azure's feet.

“And this is..?”

“The owner of this particular hideout”, Azure replied with a sigh, “I've brought you here so that this place wouldn't become his tomb.”

“I am not a medical specialist.”

“No. You are an information warfare specialist. This poor fellow is a info-casualty.”

“So what happened to him?”

Azure turned to one of the holo screens. It lit up, showing an endless stream of numbers and symbols, milling about like floodwaters with nowhere to go. He then tapped the screen with his finger, distorting the holograph for a while.

“That's what you're here to find out. Somehow this stream of garbage is holding him captive. I nearly killed him trying to pull the plug.”

“So what can I do that you can't?” Angea asked with a growing sense that she was not going to like the answer. Azure pointed to one of the components on the console wall. She did not recognize it.

“This is a ghost deck. It projects your avatar into the Link and translates the information back into your brain. I've rebooted it and set up a parallel connection. You should able able to ride this guy's connection to whatever the hell he has jacked into. I want you to find the source of this garbage and turn it off.”

“And what if I end up like him?”

“Then I'll find someone else to save the pair of you”, Azure said sharply and Angea became suddenly aware of the dark-skinned woman behind her. She was so close that Angea could feel her body heat. Angea had not seen a weapon on her but it did not mean she would not have one. Azure let this realization sink in before he continued: “I own the wiring in your head. If you go back on the deal, I'll take it out right now. With a pair of pliers.”

Now she could feel the breath of the dark-skinned woman on her heck. She was sniffing it, like a beast sniffing for the best place to sink her teeth in. Maybe the dark-skinned woman didn't need a weapon. Tall, athletic and undoubtedly loaded with cyber, she could probably break Angea's neck with a twist of her bare hands. It was a test. A test of nerves and control. The boundary between an equal partner and a frightened slave. Angea locked her gaze into her own defiant reflection on Azure's goggles. Suddenly the man looked very, very tired. He averted his eyes.

“Look. If you succeed, I'll make it worth your while. I promise. But I can't have you see this and just walk away. I'm sorry but it is not going to happen.”


“So there's no choice?” she asked with a crooked smile. The answer was there already, she just wanted Azure to say it aloud.

“Not really, no”, Azure confessed and held up a bundle of cables identical to those attached into the dying man's head. They terminated in long black spikes, covered with lacy patterns of pure gold. They were contact surfaces, thousands of them on each spike. Angea had a brief but disturbing vision of them puncturing her eyes from behind and pushing out past her eyelids, caked with blood and goo. She shook it off and instead thought about space. The Colonies. The High Frontier. The last, great unknown. Despite a lifetime working with computerized systems, she knew more about the Great Unknown than she knew about the world at the end of those spikes. Officially, it didn't exist. Then again, officially quite a few things didn't exist according to the Cartel. In this room alone were three people from that world and they were holding a door open for her.

And if she had become a Pioneer, what would that have meant? Anyone this far into the training knew the reality was a far cry from the adverts. Being a Pioneer meant a life scheduled all the way to the grave. It meant becoming a cog in a machine and being thrown away or even destroyed once broken down or obsolete. It meant total submission to whatever designs the social engineers had planned for her. And she would be constructing a system to enforce all that on the millions still to come. Cadet recruitment may have drawn on the lust for adventure but once you got into the Program the psych training spent years hammering it out of you. Now she felt it once more. Fear. Excitement. Arousal. She was struggling with her feelings when she suddenly heard herself say it.

In a thick, hoarse voice.

“Plug me!”

25-Jan-2010: Winter And Assembly

This was definitely an intermediary year for Assembly Winter. They moved from Pirkkahalli in Tampere to Kaapelitehdas in Helsinki and the place was not really up to spec. They also had the event one-and-a-half months earlier than usual and the brisk -20 degrees centigrade weather outside was painfully re introduced to the attendees every time the loading doors were open. I was comfortable for most of Saturday but if there will be a death toll from pneumonia as a result of Friday and Sunday, I am not surprised. Also the programme took a bit of a hit and some good items got cancelled. I am not really blaming anybody here but it does kind of bug me because the seminars they had last year were outstanding and Robowars is my special favorite. Without them all that's left is the atmosphere and that's why I'm there: to write game specs while saturated in it. I find the atmosphere in both Winter and Summer Assembly events very inspirational for my own work but I have always wondered what all the other people are doing there.

I guess the other people must wondering about the same thing. Me and my fellow wirepunks must have over 20 years on the average Assembly visitor these days. For the record, it is the Wirepunk Studio. We come in, we set it up and do game development. Right there.

Another thing I like about the Assemblies is the cybersports. My favorite spectator events are Modern Warfare 1 (none this year and apparently MW2 doesn't have compos: is it because of the lack of dedicated servers?) and Team Fortress 2 but I'll sit through a few Counterstrike Source matches as well, provided that gaming.fi guys are there to provide commentary. Without their running commentary it would be about as interesting as watching Formula 1 with the sound turned off. Team Fortress 2 has been purpose-built for this. The graphical style is easy to make out even with the picture moving at high speed and the large smooth colour surfaces look good even in crappy resolution. Furthermore, whereas all CS players are doing the exact same thing, the complex strategies involved in TF2 role distribution are a beautiful thing to watch.

This may have been the low point of my Assembly Winters so far but it wasn't a disaster (because the Saturday was pretty good) and I believe in the concept (arranging 2000+ people events so that Wirepunk can come there), so I will be there also next year. Especially if the rumours of a possible next year location are true... It is a bit sad that all these subculture events are so Capital-centric but then again you have to go where the people are. I just wish they had took the cybersports audience stand from Pirkkahalli with them.

I just opened a Facebook account with my real name and picture. And I already feel like I had stepped in cow dung. The bloody thing asked for a permission to rummage through my email addressbook! It sure as hell isn't getting it! I did this because A) my employer insists that I should be more familiar with the bloody stupid crap people call "social media" these days and B) Wirepunk will eventually have a facebook page for its main product anyway, so I might just well bend over and be done with it. I don't understand why people use these kinds of sites, which is probably why my employer told me to do this. I have previously used Facebook with an alias so I could spy on the game applications but this is different. Like going to Big Brother House without leaving your home.

Fuck.Hmm... looks like my Internet connection is trying to save me by dying. As much as I appreciate the effort it is not really helping.

A couple of hours later and I have... 45 friends. The news section is filling up with trivia on what's happening with those people. Groups link does not give a me list of groups to join but instead a group-related events list involving my friends. People on the IRC (a social media that I do use) tell me that those lists of trivia and events are the whole point. Check. I feel like a Peeping Tom and click the browser shut. I have hard time thinking Facebook as anything more than an awkward LinkedIn clone and treat is as such. If you want to find some deep, inner secrets about me, that's the wrong place to look (and if you ever find any anywhere, be sure to tell me because I've been looking for those myself).

Not exactly a good advertisement, is it? Still, my Facebook presence is here to stay, which is more than I can say about this blog. Yes, this blog is having a bit of an identity crisis.

I am writing bi-weekly updates here now. And when Wirepunk gets its product pages together there will be another genre-conscious dev blog. But Designer's Notes? Well, apart from occasional flashes of gaming fiction there isn't that much to talk about anymore. I don't have the time or the energy to come up new stuff all the time and majatalo.org is doing my job as the announcer of upcoming Finnish RPG publications. I do like blogging as a form of literary expression but I have other blogs now. Designer's Notebook is not a bad name but the RPG stuff is being drowned out by my work with videogames. Even my friends don't read this anymore and small wonder; it's been ages since I've had anything new to say.

The first entry in Designer's Notebook is from September 27th, 2003. If I stopped writing now for good, that'd make it a 6-and-a-half-year run. Pretty good for a private blog.

16-Jan-2010: Tale of Shadow

NOMAD is a world of light and shadow. Light means energy, energy means heat, heat means functional systems and functional systems mean life. The laws of life are the same for everyone. Everything is clustered around light and while some xenopredators might hide in the dark to ambush their prey, they can't stay there forever. Our looters venture into the shadows only to bring goods back to light. Our conflicts, our epic battles, our pitiful wars, they are all about light. Even KROY; the bots might cover vast distances on their patrols and use a wild battery of spectrums to find their way in the dark but they are still moving toward light. Or rather, they only move between points of light.

Lights are islands in an ocean darkness. Warm rooms, scattered throughout two million kilometres of dark and frozen corridors. And while the life support can still have centuries left in it, the system as a whole is failing. Our lights are going out, one by one. I can already picture the end. The last survivors huddling together around the last light, their barricades failing as the xenos tear at them to get to the light themselves. Then there is darkness.. Frost climbs over walls and corpses, until it gets so cold that air will rain down on them as snow. The bots will go on for a while yet, even if KROY crashes when the power levels go below critical. They'll have nowhere to go anymore, so they stand still, maybe for decades, encased in snow and ice. The thermal imaging systems glow red in the frozen dark. Then they too will fade and the darkness will have won.

The way I see it, us Nomads have only one job: protecting the lights. Xenos are just animals even if the xenosystem as a whole smacks of intelligent design. The Nations and Outcasts are a weird social experiment that might have interested me back on on Earth. But here, we are the guardians of Light. Because for as long as there is light, there is also hope.


My illustrator has drawn a few more good pictures on NOMAD but I have difficulties with the player roles. This is usually a sign of bloat: remember, this was originally a Code/X -title, which means putting together an adventurer party and going into a scifi dungeon to stomp monsters and hoard loot. That's not so very complicated, is it? But somehow I just get the feeling I am wasting too much potential with it. Or atmosphere? Or something. Lucky me that I don't really have the time to do this right now.

14-Jan-2010: Crown of Byzantus

It's been well over a week since my last entry and yesterday the reasons for my absence were made public: http://blog.byzantus.com/press

It's been all over the IT industry news already and naturally the armhair experts in the comments section of Taloussanomat have already labelled us "failures", "fraudsters", "daydreamers" and "toymakers for little children". On the other hand, Casual Continent must have poked some kind of geek nest with this thing because they are buzzing around us like a black cloud. Frankly, we are a little intimidated by the level of interest we've received. Let's hope those invited into the Beta like what they see. It is still only a beta, mind you.

But it is also all very encouraging and I hope it's a sign that our focus group has grown tired of farming, building log cabins for smelly peasants or managing sweaty hunks on the Colosseum. For an asynchronic browser game Crown of Byzantium brings something different to the table and quite frankly, if you are afraid of competition stay the hell out of the games industry! I guess that goes for any industry to some extent but this is the one I know best.

Crown of Byzantus project includes a dev blog I am partly responsible for, so my blogging output is now split between two blogs. Since CoB is an MMO, this is not going to end at game launch as the development will continue throughout the lifecycle of the product. Assuming Casual Continent keeps launching more Browser MMOs (and it better), there will be more blogs and Wirepunk will inevitably follow suit in a near future, so we might be looking at four or five blogs instead of one. I could dedicate one day a week just to blogging for all that.

Now, if I could only develop a tougher skin against all that ill-wishing on the comment sections. I know it is an Internet Thing but it still makes me sad.

05-Jan-2010: Sulk

This was a bad day at work. And I can't even complain about it publicly because it is all about company secrets. But it is one of those days that make me question my my decision to stick with game development no matter what. "Bad days exist so that we learn to appreciate the good ones" some wise guy somewhere must have said once upon a time. Maybe the new freelance artist is right: you have to take your job only as "a job" or it will burn you out. It is very difficult for me not to be passionate about the games I make but that makes it hurt really bad when you face unrealistic demands. Nobody can do "guaranteed hits" as Digital Chocolate (what the fuck is up with their website?) found out the hard way. And I sure as hell can't shit out something rivalling Bejewelled on command, no matter how many plums I eat. However, it is not my company and thus not my decision to make. I guess I'll be sitting on the toilet boilet trying to squeeze industrial diamonds between my ass cheeks.

Fucking hell.

*3 hours later*


Never give up. Never. Ever. Give. Up.

The worst thing that can happen is I become unemployed and I could use the extra time to write my next book, wrap up my studies and prepare for my upcoming online lecture sessions for Kajaani game development students. So, I'm telling the Man what I think, consequences be damned!

04-Jan-2010: Planet Alcatraz

As you know, I have a habit of buying weird shit from Gamersgate and elsewhere. I am calling it "weird shit" and not indie because this stuff actually does have a publisher, 1C in Russia, and they can have been fairly big games in Slavic areas long before anyone in the English-speaking world heard anything about them. Over the years I've bought a fair assortment of crap, a quite few decent games, a couple of pearls and a few games that defy classification. For a game designer, bad games are not necessarily bad purchases. What really gets me down are games that go with the classification *meh* because they usually could have been better.

Planet Alcatraz is no exception. I really, really, want to like this game because this is the closest I'll ever get to my Hellhole RPG idea. Unfortunately, the game does its best to turn me down. Planet Alcatraz is a Russian action-roleplaying game of a dude called "Boar" who gets dropped on a prison planet. The manual hints he might be something more than a convict but if so it didn't come out in the time I spent with this game. You start with a character generation system that is very obviously a poor man's version of old Fallout but at least Boar looks the part. There is no way to turn him into a pretty boy and hell, I'd be scared to death if I met something like him in a dark alley. Select two primary skills, tweak the characteristics around a bit, select two perks and off you go.

The orbital drop capsule lands hard. Most of the other convicts die on impact or are killed by some ragged bandits who just happen to have their base nearby. Whoever designer the first level should be lined up against the wall and shot. It is too shitty and loaded with scripted sequences to be anything but a tutorial level but it does a piss-poor job at that. If you don't read the manual, you're lost. Period. The game uses the kind of tilted-top-down view that seems to be very common in Russian titles. My best guess is that 1C owns one and licenses cheaply to its developers because things look really familiar. Sometimes they look pretty awkward as well. Human characters are trogdolytes and your own character is... well, let's just say that the neck of the 3D mesh needs work.

Then there is the voice acting. I am seriously considering to switching back into Russian audio because the cheerful British accent is tearing at my ears. For a guy who looks so rough, Boar has a suprisingly high-pitched voice. I have it too but at least when playing games I don't want to sound like a eunuch.

Developers have been unable to decide if they want to do a Fallout-style turn-based combat or a diablo-style flowing combat, so they did a bit of both. You have to target your opponents (and holding down a number key while doing so targets a specific body part) to close in for the attack. This would be almost impossible in moving combat but you can pause the game with spacebar and issue your commands in the paused mode. Boar can fight (and die) aggressively or defensively (you hit something once in a blue moon but enemies don't hit you either) but the system of switching from firearms to melee weapons when the enemies get close is so slow and awkward that you are better off using rifles all the time.

Not that it seems to matter. Despite having firearms skill of 28 and melee skill over 60 I hit more often and do much more damage when firing a rifle in close combat than using any of the game's melee weapons. Different weapons also seem to have different firing/striking rates, which have been inexplicably left out from the weapon details. All in all, combat is slow and unsatisfactory affair but at least you can regain health by eating potatoes while fighting. I shit you not.

Finally, there is the camera. This is a flaw shared by many of these tilted-view (or older isometric) Russian games. The camera and the player character simply aren't pals. You can move and rotate the camera almost freely and in compensation it does not move with you, so unless you are using maximum zoom all the time you have an annoying tendency to run right out of your own field of vision. I would also like to be able to tilt the gamera a little more but no. Zooming out, so that you have a playable field of vision, also means that you can't see objects on the ground because they are not highlighted in any way. If the mouse pointer chances upon them, it turns into a grabbing hand but that's the only clue you get.

So there you have it. Planet Alcatraz has potential but the current execution warrants a rating of 2/5. Or "meh". I hope the Fall would come out in English next. Germans are better at this action-rpg thing.

30-Dec-2009: Working

While the rest of you are on Christmas vacation, game designers around the world are working their ass off to bring you entertainment for 2010. Remedy is probably on the verge of a collective burn-out if they really mean to get Alan Wake out by Q1/2010. I am not saying they wouldn't make it but it is never easy. There is always some more tweaking you can do. As for myself, I am buried under a glacier of feedback from my next game, which will also be the very first browser MMO I have ever designed. I've been lucky: every time I switched jobs, I ended up doing something completely new. Since I moved to game development full-time in 2004, my life has been an endless journey of discovery. Unfortunately it means there are constantly new mountains climb and lessons from one category are not always directly applicable to another.

So what was, or is, the most difficult part in Browser MMO design? I'd say it is the temporal scale. A mobile game needs to keep you entertained for about an hour (Rovio Mobile games used to offer much, much more than that but it never helped sales). A console game like Earth No More would have been planned for 20 hours, actually aimed for 10 hours and apart from rare exceptions, ended up with 6. A browser MMO on the other hand ought to keep you playing for months, or anything up to a year. This is of course balanced by the fact that you would be playing for a few minutes at a time a few times a day. Most browser games have some kind of an activity limitation.

Those that do not, like Deepolis, make damn sure that even if you are glued to the computer 24/7 you still can't achieve as much as those who play less but pay more. There are also a few subscription-based games out there which can plan for much longer play session but on the other hand have to stretch the content to last for ages. Hence the repetitive actions more commonly known as "the grind". It exists in asynchronic games too, of course but the dynamics of the player experience are very different. As a rule of thumb, if the grind works, the game works. At least for most players.

Wirepunk is also making a browser MMO, or should I say MMBRPG (Massively Multiplayer Browser Roleplaying Game). This one has neither action limitations (okay, there is one mechanic that goes some way into that direction but still) nor compulsory paid content. It is still up in the air if it will have any paid content to start with. Probably not. It can be added later on when we can be sure it won't make your computer catch fire and explode (read: using customers for beta testing isn't really abuse if you don't charge them anything).

25-Dec-2009: Merry Christmas

Bloody Hell. I am coughing again. I can only hope it is irritation from cold air and not a resurgence of the bronchitis because then I would be in deep shit. I am not going on a third antibiotic and that's final.

I bought THQ and Eidos Collections from the Steam Christmas sales and now have new games up the arse. However, the game I have been playing most is Deepolis and it is running on the background even now. Deepolis is a browser-based MMO of a future where Humanity is living in the depths of the oceans and three factions struggle to coexist while competing over resources and fighting off terrifying monsters from the deep. It plays in the Internet Browser window (is that Flash?) and the graphics are sort of isometric with a parallax scrolling sea-floor and some sprite-zoom tricks to make the game look pseudo-3D. Deepolis reminds me of Archimedean Dynasty (which I loved). While it is much, much simpler, some of the ideas are even better, like using sonic cannons instead of underwater projectiles and creative approach into the whole deep-sea monster theme. Sonics also explain why monsters can shoot back. Dolphins can stun or kill fish with projected sonic blasts even now.

The default gameplay methodology is to go out from a station area, collect floating debris as loot, kill monsters and then come back in to sell off the loot. You can also do PVP or trade goods between stations (this is what I am doing) but monster killing and looting is where the XP and big bucks are, plus missions which usually consist of "kill X" or "loot Y" in sufficient numbers for some extra experience and money. However, that takes concentration. Since I am mostly doing other stuff while playing, I check back in every now and then to sell cargo, buy something else, look for a good place to sell it and telling the ship to go there on autopilot. Apart from the most hazardous places the ship usually gets where it is told to go as long as it keeps moving so no input during the trip is required. I have to start playing Deepolis properly again at some point if I want to level up. For now I am content to raise capital with minimum effort (okay, I mapped out the best trade routes; that is true feat).

Professionally, what draw me into Deepolis was the monetizing model. Deepolis goes against the current (har har) by tossing out micropayments. Instead, the minimum purchase is 10 euros and the practical purchases start at 25 euros. The game uses an alternate currency called "Helix" that is mostly available by trading real money for it. Most of the packages you can buy are Helix-priced premium goods packaged into context-sensible lots and sold off at a discount. Helix-priced goods are always superior to anything you can buy with Cel (the all-in-game money) and do not have level limitations. This means that by burning Helix (i.e. real money), the player can effectively bypass the levelling ladder and play in the big league from the start. Statistically, he would actually be superior to the old hands who have played the game through to get where they are. In short, when playing for free, Deepolis is an action-RPG in the videogame sense of the word, with a slow but steady climb up levels and to better equipment. If you pay for it, you can proceed in leaps and bounds, or Deepolis can be made into an aquatic-themed scifi shoot-em-up. It is like two games in one. While players of both occupy the same game world, they don't really mix.

Some might say this is unfair. Others might say that it is only sensible to sell players what they really want; in this case a 99+ euro option of starting from "above the top" if you want to get into the big-league PVP and bossfights right away, with a million cheaper options in betwee. With close to three million registered players the user base does not seem too offended and both my dayjob and Wirepunk are busy taking notes.

On the RPG front, my new artist for NOMAD has been drawing up concept art and I really like what I see. I originally envisioned the graphical style of NOMAD to be close to Necromunda but we are now drifting away from it, into a cleaner and a more realistic style. In a project like this a good artist can influence the outcome quite a bit because I am just as susceptible to inspiring artwork as the players are. Even more so, perhaps. By adding stuff into his Burger Games commission gallery, he can steer my inspiration into any direction he wants. I let it happen with STALKER and it worked out extremely well.

19-Dec-2009: Christmas Hurdles

It's been over a week since the last entry? I feel like it was Yesterday. Anyway, my second dose of antibiotics ran out today and I am not coughing nearly as much so I guess I'll live. And I'd better since there is no way in hell I am going to go back to the doctors and ask for more antibiotics. These two make me feel sick enough and I know from personal experience that five would put me into a hospital. Staying on sick leave wasn't really an option this time because at work our big launch is approaching and every day brings new playtesting issues to the forefront.

That, and Christmas shopping. Mostly books and chocolate, again. When you get to a certain age, you kind of own everything you need and gifts are either leisure or useless crap. We are all at that age now; family, spouse, friends, so it is like a big circle of books and chocolate going around (okay, chocolate has a natural half-life which eventually takes it out of circulation).

I've bought some new games (yahoo!) and instead of playing those I've been playing Silent Hunter 4 instead (eh.. what?). I actually fired up Dead Space for the first time today and immediately noticed that whoever designed the mouse response ought to have his head checked. The pointer acts like it is on the end of a rubber band. You move the mouse and the pointer starts moving slowly and then picks up speed, usually flying a past its intended target. I could not find anything in the control menu to make it behave and using the menu with such a bouncy thing was a tad complicated in itself. A mouse is intended for real-time precision responses to hand movements and nothing else. Designers of Dead Space and A.I.M, take note!

In our series of "Indie-Titles-You've-Never-Heard-Of" we have GREED: Black Border. This is a diablo-style scifi game of running down corridors and gunning down foes from a tilted top-down angle. Again, the designer could use some talking to as the controls are asinine. They are not as bad as in Space Siege but for fuck's sake designers, pick either the Crimsonlands or the Diablo control model. Something "in between" usually fails and this is no exception. Bloody hell. While the first-level battles are not too harrowing, I have yet to pass any of the "circular lights" rooms without cheating. These are rooms where damaging circles of light are projected onto the floor. They rotate around poles, creating and closing openings as they move. Unfortunately the crappy controls make it almost impossible to get through them as the lights do close to insta-kill damage.

I like the GREED soundtrack (they actually released it for free on their website) and the graphics have nothing wrong with them as such... however, you can tell it is a German game because this is the tidiest mining ship I've ever seen. Not a speck of dust anywhere and even zombies vomiting caustic liquids seem to have behaved themselves. Apart from a rare mangled body it is all spit and polish and even the furniture is lined up perfectly. Still, I would have played this game far longer if it was stable. As it stands, it inevitably crashes every 20 minutes or so. Since saving is possible only in pre-selected save points this can get a bit frustrating. I already hold Torchlight in a very high esteem but for some reason the World keeps rubbing its excellence into my face by making everything else feel like shit from the start.

Then we have... The Witcher. I have yet to get past the opening intro which lasts forever and the character in it looks like a hybrid between Elric of Melnibone and the creepy German they had playing Jack Carver in Uwe Boll's Far Cry. I usually don't like fantasy RPGs on computer but I am going to give the Witcher a go after I have tried out Dead Space a little more. After all, with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat is coming out in February I have two months to kill time before my life has any meaning again.

In the meantime I've given the Scorpio 3.0 rules a spin into the direction of ENOC and ended up with a system of 20 skills and 60 edges to define those skills. As you undoubtedly noticed, the number of skills in the system is going down and the number of edges is going up. The game will treat both skills and edges as fluid variables that can be improved over time. Now I just need to get those lists Nomadized. Because of the edges, task tresholds in Scorpio 3.0 can be fairly high. The next effect is that if you are good enough in the skill in general, you can do cool stuff but the edges determine what you have really done with your skills so far. I like the way the system forms two axis regarding the character's abilities and past life. Reminds me of Stalker, really.

11-Dec-2009: Postcard From Death

I got one of those today. Nailed me, really. Right there on the couch. Just when I was about to have lunch. It wasn't the first. It won't be the last. Just another Season's Greetings from the Grim Reaper. I've heard the last one is always an invitation and so far nobody's turned it down, so it must be one hell of a party.

For the first time, it looks this cough is going to beat Codesan Comp hands down. I wonder what the hell they will prescribe me next? Codesan Comp is about the strongest stuff you can get this side of the law. "I'm afraid we don't have anything stronger, Mr. Vuorela, but I'll give you a shot of morphine." To be honest, I can consciously suppress the urge to cough most of the time when high on Codesan Comp but it does take an effort. And when my lungs decide to vomit, there is no stopping them. Not even if I wanted breathe every once and a while. My sickness made me both the workplace Christmas party and theK30 Christmas party today and IGDA Christmas party earlier this week. The meteorological department says that next week we are all going to freeze until our butts fall off. So this is just bronchitis. Next week we could be talking about a pneumonia. And I am not having a second treatment of antibiotics, oh no. Peijas Hospital gave Diacor a B- for attempted murder with those in 2007.

Majatalo.org has had some vivid discussions lately. One is of course another of its periodic and pointless discussions on the merits and flaws of gamemaster autocracy vs. shared narrative in roleplaying games. The outcome and really the only possible outcame, is that old battlelines are reinforced and old neutrals stay neutral avoiding all the fuss. I was not really a contributor this time as me and Tanan have discussed and resolved our respective stances on this issue a long time ago.

A more interesting discussion was the idea of a three-stat system (Body, Mind, Soul) in a Victorian/Steampunk/Fantasy setting (those sure are fashionable right now). The author had this idea that you could take damage into every stat. The effects of bodily damage are obvious and the effects of Mind damage would be insanity and the usual quirks but he was perplexed about the effects of damage on the Soul. I, being an atheist saw Soul as courage, self-image, creativity and expression. Sami Koponen, a Christian theologist, suggested religious and moral identity and that the loss of soul would lead to depravity and corruption, not necessarily in the supernatural sense but for example by vices and compulsions ruining your life. No matter which alternative is better, it does bring out an important observation: I have an intuitive tendency to ignore the religious angle for a character or a setting, except as a cultural force. When working with settings where gods are real this is a problem and I've often had it, knowingly or unknowingly.

For the record, I think the three-stat division works really well for Steampunk. Anything more complicated would feel out of place. That, and I am old. Too old be arsed with complex systems anymore (except in Rogue Trader where the intricacies of the badly written character creation section continue to confuse us).

The third conversation is about problem players in forum roleplaying games. I don't have much to offer there either. I haven't had a problem player in my home groups for decades and when running games in youth clubs or Ropecon it is a temporary affair and nobody's been disruptive on purpose. I have no qualms about kicking a player out of the group but there has almost never been any need. But I have often wondered about the idea and methodology of forum roleplaying: How is it done? Where does the setting material come from? What mechanics are there? What are the limits of player freedom? Some of the settings I have thought of might actually work better as forum roleplaying games but it is just a hunch. I don't know anything about forum-assisted roleplaying (or whatever the hell the FARP acronym means) and I don't have the time and energy to start yet another project. But it is interesting. Very interesting.

I bought Dr. Ned's Zombie Island DLC for Borderlands and since I wasn't expecting that much anymore, I was positively surprised by how fun it was. I am usually not into zombies but they fit the setting and the challenge was well-balanced. They are easy (and satisfying) to kill but show up in hordes and the real danger isn't the damage they do but the special attacks that can bog you down. If you lose mobility, if you get overwhelmed, you are dead. Also the bosses can sometimes be a pain in the ass but on the other hand I do love the self-destructive gasoline-barrel-throwing brutes. Taking one of those out can clear out a whole group around it. Also psychos that run slow until knocked down and then run screaming and red-eyed once they get up is a nice touch. The graphics still work their magic on me and the island has pretty lush vegetation, proving that the engine is very adaptable. Good fun, although I still lament the lack of depth and setting in the primary game.

I also bought the Witcher. Haven't played it yet but my god, who do people put up with Steam? It took me ages to download thing, not because of connection speeds but because the fucking thing has to start over from 0% every time there is a glitch. Gamersgate is and remains my top choice for digital game stores.

07-Dec-2009: Borderlands Finale

I finally finished Borderlands, which means playing the storyline to its conclusion. The game continues if you left click during the end credits so I think it is open-ended, which is always a plus. It was an interesting experience, especially since I have Torchlight to compare it with. Both games are descendants of the mighty Diablo and have had members of the Diablo dev team working on them. Both are level & skill-tree based action RPGs with very rapid action-reward cycles and loot up the ass. Both are graphically appealing and hit the visual genre spot dead on. Torchlight looks like World of Warcraft and unlike many people I find that a good thing. The cartoony, simplified graphics make it pleasing to the eye and homely to the mind. Torchlight does not have much of a setting but still the village of Torchlight seems a nice place to live (and frankly, when I first played World of Warcraft, I had hard time leaving Kharanos because the dwarven inn was such a lovely place. And if I could, I would live in Booty Bay in real life.

In Torchlight, you kind of took the effect of levels for granted: if you go up against too many high-level monsters you'll get your ass handed to you. In Borderlands I had to re-learn this attitude the hard way because it is a first-person shooter and the illusion of it being much more player skill -driven is strong. But I did get my ass handed to me over and over again, until I concluded that since I was playing solo, it was safe to have an edge of at least three levels over your opponent. Picking up the right guns from the piles of crap the game unloaded on me was a bit tedious at times but when you had a weapons layout you were happy with, it was a fairly good shooter. Especially the mobile fights with monsters were something I enjoyed; circle strafing, dodging, avoiding a leaping ball of claws and then turning to give its soft backside a load from my shotgun. When shooting people you sometimes felt like the game was cheating: grunts with crappy weapons could sometimes hit from impossible ranges and sometimes the game was a bit unclear on what is or isn't a sufficiently high cover.

Of course, the graphics in Borderlands will knock anybody's socks off if they are into that kind of thing. If Torchlight was a cartoon for children, Borderlands was one for adults. It is a shame that such a powerful tool for atmosphere building was completely wasted on the Pac-Man of a setting they had. If Borderlands had gone for the true sandbox effect of Fallout 3, or even the wide-pipeish S.T.A.L.K.E.R. I would have bought myself an Nvidia graphics card just to get rid of the graphics glitches and given the game same kinds of hours I gave to Fallout 3. As it stands, I am unlikely to even try out the other characters. I just can't be arsed and the setting is to blame.

Borderlands world of Pandora is basically a series of interconnected dungeons with infinitely re-spawning monsters. There are almost no "normal" people in it and the crap they tell you about "making a good impression on the locals" is a bunch of horseshit. Maybe they ran out of budget or something but narrative design really isn't rocket science (even if some people treat it as such and establish committees to do it). This is how I would have explained it:

Pandora used to be a hardcore prison planet for lifers who were dropped off and left to fend for themselves with occasional orbital supply drops into designated points. This is where the primitive tribes of masked and crazed psychopaths come from; they are felons who have created their own societies and tribal colonies. Then it turned out that Pandora was the cradle of a long-lost alien civilization and the felons had been doing business with alien artifacts with smugglers and corrupt officials for years. The planet was partitioned into corporate interest zones and No-Gos but what was intended to a be a tightly controlled exploration program became a mad gold rush. With the artifacts you could bribe anybody to do anything and soon millions of prospectors, adventurers and other scum and villainy were pouring in, building clandestine colonies and shantytowns wherever there was water or energy to sustain one. Beyond the corporate-controlled space ports, Pandora was a lawless frontier from pole to pole.

Also, the planet ecology was now confirmed to be of "deathworld" class, with predators so terrifying they often proved more than a match for the human technology. It could have probably been tamed but no one had any interest in doing so when they could be digging around for artifacts. You and your posse are fortune-seekers, making friends and enemies of various factions, choosing sides in on-going conflicts, looting the dead and scouting out places most people would leave alone. A rumour has it that some kind of an alien vault on Pandora is about to open soon and the alien civilization, long thought dead, is showing increasing signs of life...

Now that wasn't so hard, was it? Look at Rage trailers to see how such colonies are done right. Anyway, this was a Borderlands adaptation of my "Hellhole" Arcade RPG concept, originally inspired by Harry Harrison's Deathworld. It is a near perfect Arcade Roleplaying setting:

"You are seeking alien artifacts on a dangerous planet contested by many factions and megacorps."

See? You can fit the genre (aliens, planet, megacorps), the player roles (you are seeking alien artifacts), the rewards (alien artifacts) and the opposition (dangerous planet contested by many factions) into a single sentence. If you tell THAT to the players they really don't need any more information and you can get on with creating characters and having them shoot shit. Almost any possible mood or atmosphere you are going for is already familiar to them from television or videogames. Doing something like this would have also enabled 2K to come up with something more inspiring for their first DLC than "Zombie Island". But maybe I am just an artsy hippie and they just don't care.

In many ways, mixing Torchlight and Borderlands would have been the perfect game. If you are going for gear tweaking and micromanagement, it is best to go whole way and not dick around with three different types of goods like the Borderlands did. Dude, where's my armour? My sensors? My cool caps? Next time give me less guns and more variety. And once I've killed the shit out of some place, don't refill it the next time the game starts. Killing some boss three times over for the sake of experience tends to ruin the immersion. Again, Torchlight does it right: The main dungeon does not have re-spawning enemies but other dungeons and side quests are instanced as needed, so it never really runs out of content. Since the Borderlands maps are pretty genericl, it should have been possible to copy the modular terrain-building used in Torchlight in all but the storyline focus points of Borderlands as well.

Borderlands was not exactly a failure, it just pains me to see such potential wasted. And Torchlight has given me an excellent return for the money, all 15 euros and 90 cents of it. If this is the future of PC-exclusive gaming, I am not all that worried. Btw, the same guys had previously done an MMORPG called Mythos. While waiting for the proper Torchlight MMO, I may have to check if Mythos is still around.

06-Dec-2009: Foreword

Record on. Audio only.

I am Alia "Axe" Matsuhiro. I was part of the original development team of KROY, the shipboard AI back on Old Earth and when the opportunity to get aboard CBS NOMAD as a cyberneticist, I leapt. I was young and thought I was prepared for anything. So with much fanfare and pomp we boarded the damn thing and went to sleep. I remember my grandmother warning me against it. She said there were evil spirits hiding in the great dark, beyond the reach of our Sun. Unfortunately my specialty was Adaptive Robotics Software and not ancient wisdom. But she was right and sometimes... sometimes I wonder if we, the Humanity, had encountered something like this before. That there was a grain of truth in the old tales of Outer Dark, or Hell beyond the sphere of the world and the light of our Sun. Old tales carried their warning through the millenia until the modern times when we ceased to listen. I am not trying put xenos into a mythological context but I do find the parallels with Old Earth religions intriguing.

I wasn't awakened by the ship medical team but a mutated abomination chewing on the cryopod cables. How I survived it I'll never know. What I do know is that I was struck with amnesia for some time. A group of outcasts found me naked in the corridors and took me in. By the time my memories returned I had learned the ways of my hosts and had hard time reconciling the new me with the old me. I became... many things. Adventurer... Explorer... Mother... I had always wanted something more from my life than a desk job and I certainly got it. CBS NOMAD has the floorspace of a good-sized Earth metropolis but a fraction of the population. Lots to do, lots to see and and an awful lot of things that can change in nine gigaseconds... or three centuries of Earth time. Just think of the changes the Old Earth metropolises went through.

When I returned to my adopted home and they made me their leader. For the last 200 megaseconds I have tried to rule them well. It occurs to me that this is not all that different from our original mission profile. A colony on a strange new world. And as one of the high professional members of the civilian crew I am bound to accept any position of responsibility within the civil administration, if offered. As I now lay on my deathbed, I consider it a life well spent. My people have already immortalized me into a legend. Even now, they bring gifts to my door or ask me to bless their children and watch over them from the next world.

I have no last will or testament. This audiofile is encrypted with the crew key so the survivors can't access it. Chances are that some day they'll find another Nomad in the corridors; naked, cold and scared. This file is for her. In it, I have tried to make sense of this strange world that we both woke into. If it helps her survive, I want her to record her own on top of mine. There are still thousands of sleepers out there. There will be more Nomads, just as much in need of guidance as we were.


Happy Independence Day. Nothing puts me into a festive mood quite like a fresh diagnosis of bronchitis :(

02-Dec-2009: Bacon Flu

How the fuck can I feel this sick without fever (okay, occasional spells of very low fever)? I am coughing like my lungs were trying to vomit and it fucking hurts. Even my old friend Codesan Comp does not seem to be helping anymore. This sucks. Bad. It is not Swine Flu, or at least the symptoms do not match, but I am fairly sure I picked it up in England so I've nicknamed it the Bacon Flu. If I die, I want Olorin from majatalo.org and #praedor to finish writing NOMAD. If he doesn't, I'll come to haunt you and curse your dice.

Yes, NOMAD took a baby step forward. The enthusiasm of my artist is contagious and I decided to pick it up again, although I don't have the faintest idea of what will become of it. What I do know is that if Scorpio 3.0 works, I have a diced alternative system for CyberFlow. The step taken today was to create the basic layout drafts for different types of pages. Since NOMAD will be edited first and foremost for laptop viewing, all the important stuff will be in a roughly widescreen-shaped area on the upper part of the page. On the bottom I am planning to have some idle graphics, page numbers and hyperlinks to other topics within the same chapter.

There has been some discussion about the system in majatalo.org. Here is how it works: NOMAD has roughly 20 abilities ranging from 0 to infinite, although anything beyond +6 is hell of a lot. Then the player can pick 2 dice of worth of Edges for each 1 die of Flaws. These are a little more comprehensive than before. Weapon specialisation is an Edge; the player shoots with his Aim ability (Aim + 2D) but if he has specialised in the weapon type he is using, he can roll one or two extra dice and pick the best two dice from the lot. Fear of the dark is a typical flaw and a pretty bad one for a Nomad. If the player attempts to do something in poor light, he rolls one extra dice and picks the two lowest scoring dice. If both edges and flaws apply, the dice cancel each other out. Snake eyes are a fumble, double-six are explosive upwards.

This goes for character classes and cyber as well. If the character is a nano-engineer and has a batch of repair nanobots available to him, he gets the extra dice. If he does not have the edge, he would not even recognize a repair nanomodule when he sees one. If the player has a hackerjack implant, he has extra dice for all computer- and wirehacks, as well as the ability to contact Kroy. If he doesn't have the implant he can still program or run applications, but mind-hacking systems or talking to Kroy is beyond his comprehension. As a rule of thumb, a cybernetic or a bionic system that is not easily detected is a +1D edge. A full cybermod is much more powerful (+2D) but it cannot be hidden. So while a pair of beautifully crafted camera eyes provide +1D to visual perception, a sensory visor covering both eyesockets provides +2D. The mathematical effect of a single bonus die is roughly +2, discounting the increased likelyhood of double-six. If the human ability curve flattens out somewhere around +6 or +7, edges can push the abilities of Nomads to clearly superhuman levels.

The injury system is mostly the same as in Mobsters but I am adding critical effect rolls for severe injuries. This also enables things like damage to the armour and cyberware. Getting cybernetics repaired in NOMAD is almost impossible without the help of other Nomads, or even *gasp* Kroy. Weapons overall need to do some serious damage. Even Mobsters could also use a weapons damage boost.

A good start for the winter, eh? Assuming I won't die of this cough.