I last week accepted a part-time position at Northeastern University, teaching a lab section attached to Games & Society, an intro-to-game-studies class taught by Brian Sullivan. I'm so far signed on just to handle the fall semester, but if I'm not terrible at it and I don't hate it, I'll likely do more afterwards.

Teaching this lab involves guiding groups of students through the play of a by-the-syllabus game (which may be a tabletop game or a videogame), and then gathering as a class to discuss it. As with many other games-studies classes in universities, it's only a year or two old, so its structure and content are rather malleable; while I'll have the materials from past semesters, others in the program have made it clear that I can help reshape it this fall, should I wish.

While I fully expect this to represent a significant time investment -- I've also agreed to help grade papers from Brian's class -- the pay doesn't really match, so I've no plans to change my position or workload at Appleseed. I chose to leap at this opportunity because even though doing a good job writing software makes me feel awesome (and puts money in the bank), my real passion is with games, and the study thereof. I have no reservations accepting an adjunct's stipend in order to finally, finally become a paid member of the game-scholar community, even just an entry-level one. I had thought last year that when this moment arrived, it would be via my selling an article or essay to some publication. I have no complaints about the surprising form it ended up taking.

This is also me backing down from my brief fling with iOS game development from a couple of months ago. While that's a topic I remain interested in, there's just no way I can pursue that, Appleseed, and now teaching without doing a bad job at probably all of them. I had to put one of them away, and sadly, the iOS project was the obvious choice: it offers no guaranteed income, and represents a much weaker expression of my passion to work in game studies than the NEU opportunity does.

I feel really happy about this, and hope that it will give me the opportunity, in time, to grant more attention to my own game-studies pursuits. I'd love to return to making mature and intelligent videos about games, for one thing. I have pipe dreams of new video series, but have lacked the backing, both resource-wise and spiritually. This opportunity might help change that, down the road. We'll see.
My game The Warbler's Nest tied for 9th place (of 26 entries) in this year's IFComp, which wrapped up a couple of weeks ago. I am quite pleased with this outcome; it was a very strong year, and the games in slots 1 through 9.5 all had it coming. Furthermore, nearly all the entries have something to recommend them; there were arguably no utter-garbage games this year, quite unusual in the comp's 16-year history.

I mention this now because I have just released the "post-comp" version of Warbler, which fixes all the bugs and integrates many of the stylistic critiques offered to me by its many players and reviewers. I consider this version its "1.0" release: I will continue to welcome feedback and bug reports, and quietly release fixed versions, but do not plan on any further significant changes to the game.

You can play, download, or just read more about the game at its homepage: http://jmac.org/warbler. Enjoy!
Hello friends,

I am pleased to announce that the 16th annual Interactive Fiction competition is now underway, and that I have an entry in it: a short work of horror fiction called The Warbler's Nest.

Competition judging is open to all, so if you have an interest in (or a curiosity about) interactive text games, I'd very much appreciate it if you played and rated this years' entrants by the mid-November deadline. Please visit http://ifcomp.org/ to play the games and learn how to judge them. (You don't have to play all the games to rate them, but the rules do hold you to rating at least five games, if you rate any at all.)

This year looks like a pretty solid comp, actually, so if you haven't judged the comp before -- or haven't in several years -- now's probably a good time to get into it.
I've been continuing to write columns every week for The Gameshelf. I still spend a solid work-day laboring at each one, but have yet to regret my time so spent.

Most recent work:

My Vicarious GDC Takeaways

St. Gulik Added You as a Friend

Then PAX happened, and I didn't write anything the following week. Then I wrote only about PAX for a while:

What I Bought at PAX East 2010, Part 1

PAX East 2010: The IF Videos (Mostly)

What I Bought at PAX East 2010, Part 2

I posted that last one today, and I think it wraps up everything I had to say about the expo, finally. This does not count the many column ideas that came from conversations had or overheard at PAX, and with luck and fair winds I'll be digging into those presently.
To give myself reason to pick up this sty a little, am having an off-the-cuff video game exhibition thing at my house starting at 2PM. (Yes, less than two hours from my typing this.) Plan on pawing through recent finds on my Xbox, incl. divers strange Indie titles, and showing them to Zarf while saying "Yeah you should have a look at this".

Will be done by supper. Send phone-ping if you wish to join us!
• Final bizcard design. This is the actual image I sent to overnightprints.com yesterday; I expect to have a bucketful of cards by PAX day. Thanks be to various Arbitrarium denizens for helping me fine-tune it.

I wrote another column on comics and video games. It's a bit wanky and therefore everyone seems to have ignored it, but I had fun with it anyway. (Because: wanky.)

• Spent the weekend in DC with Amy, visiting our friend Monica and eating things and looking at things. I'd been to the city before, but never for its own sake.

The high point was our tour of the monuments on Sunday. Walking through the (very) different war monuments put me into an unusually quiet and receptive state, and perhaps I should have paused before moving on to the Lincoln memorial. But I did not, and so suddenly finding myself standing in the presence proved such a crescendo that I nearly broke down. I had to exert real effort not to sob loudly as I scuttled, trembling, behind one of the big pillars. It took me long minutes before I could look directly at the statue, and even then I had to sidestep slowly from behind my hiding place, making its revelation gradual.

I have never before experienced such a reaction to a piece of static artwork.
Work is work. There's stuff worth talking about but nothing I'd want to blog about; so goes working for oneself. The overall status of Appleseed and my relationship with it remains stable.

I want to finish the next Gameshelf before PAX, which affords me another five weeks. I've put a lot of work into it (as have many friends), but my motivation level now is not nearly as strong as it was a couple of months ago. This is in part because of the resurgence my interest in -- wait for it -- gaming, or anyway gaming of a particular nature, and the novel creative paths this activity has been urging me down.

I found my interest in multiplayer online digital games re-ignited last month. This started with my rediscovery of TF2 on Xbox, built itself up with my ensuing seeking out and palling around with certain online communities of mature gamers, and most recently culminated with the surprise re-launch of Planbeast.

I'm not sure what pushed me to actually do it, but at the start of the month I made a post about Planbeast to Geezer Gamers, a web-based community of grown-up Xbox Live fans I'd been hanging around long enough so that I could make a project-pimping post without feeling like a spammer. The next thing I knew, the Planbeast website actually grew a bunch of events from people other than myself. The interest has died down somewhat from its initial spike, but it remains far higher than it was at any earlier point.

Tending to this effectively sopped up all of my attention for an entire week, and made my thoughts wander even further afield. And: I loved every minute of it. I am starting to cultivate a new obsession. Planbeast, after all, is the child of a greater interest: researching the state of multiplayer video games, isolating its faults, and investigating the ways it could be improved. I have a lot of loose notes about this which I'm presently choosing to spare you. You will be informed when I have patted them together into some more concrete shape.

To give you a taste, here are four tweets I made on the topic:
Shooters are the superhero comics of the multiplayer videogame world. The medium's potential is vast, but nobody wants to leave the house.

Spider-Man (the character) and TF2 are best-case scenarios of their respective sub-genres, building on decades of art. I am glad they exist.

But the continued super-ultra focus on gun-fetish games or underwear-crimefighter stories rolls on anyway, as if there's no other path.

Part of what I wanna do with Planbeast is help strengthen the signal of all the other MP games that are unheard in the chattering gunfire.
My guiding light, here, is a piece of self-realization about my relationship with games, come to me a good decade after I got back into the tabletop gameplay hobby: I am far more interested in media that bring people together through play, rather than solitaire play experiences. This is true in both face-to-face games, and the much (much) newer world of online games. As for the latter, for all its good press, its exploration beyond the familiar is so goddamn timid it drives me up a wall. I want to do something about it.

One related whim of particular interest is an untitled web game project, based on a design I scribbled together last fall while I was thinking about Facebook games. It's a web-based multiplayer game of a sort that I've never seen before, and might not actually work, but deem Absolutely Worth Creating just the same. I really want to block out a month or so of free time and make it happen.

And now, the whinging. )
The 2010 MIT Mystery Hunt was as typical of IIFish glonous history and cultual as ever. I love all my teammates, from those I see al the time to those I see only annually. This year I especially loved being able to hang out with [livejournal.com profile] aspartaimee again, who I hadn't seen in way too long.

It was an up-n-down experience for me, with a high-energy Friday followed by a mostly frustrating Saturday, and general failure to meet my hopes that I'd be able to participate in metapuzzle solving at all, for once. (Have still never even touched the damn things.) I found the hunt structure itself among the most clever I've seen, though I saw so little of it live, and didn't feel like I contributed much to IIF's total solving.

I might take advantage of [livejournal.com profile] temvald's increasingly ingenious team web app, as well as our team's accumulated self-training in working with remote solvers, and just telecommute next year. Dunno yet - it's a whole year away now, and we're already talking about some fun team activities to do in the meantime that aren't nearly as draining.

[ If you believe this to be the second LJ post about the 2010 hunt by me that you've read, surely you are mistaken. This is the only post that I've written about it! The historical records all back me up... ]



"Sherlock Holmes", meanwhile, provided the perfect balm for massaging away the last of the Huntish brain-cramp. I found it an excellent and loving work of fanfiction. Goofy smile on face throughout. All bad reviewers are grouchy prescriptivists.
Howdy y'all. I've been quiet on LJ, even though I've been melting my keyboard under the fury of my frantic typing into Twitter, so feel free to read my recent stuff there. I've been far too deep into the end-of-year gravity well action playset to organize my thoughts into more than 140 characters at a time. (Or, sometimes, more than 280.) I have no doubt that I shall return presently.

However, [livejournal.com profile] ahkond recently expressed surprise at my tweeted assertion that I found the Xbox 360 version of Team Fortress 2 more fun to play than the PC version, and I wanted to write up a deeper examination of my reasons in a longer format. So, yes, the rest of this post is video-game neepery, and you will probably want to skip it unless you're into that sort of thing.

Earlier this month, Valve hosted a special TF2 free-play weekend, and I jumped right in, blessing my good fortune that it happened right after I had set up the used PC I'd recently bought from a friend. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that, for one reason or another, the game didn't work very well on my machine. Simply put, my framerate was either rather bad or completely unacceptable, depending upon how many other players were in my immediate vicinity.

Several friends, hearing my dismay over Steam-chat, suggested various fixes: What kind of video card had I installed? Was I running all the latest drivers? Did I google to see if my particular setup need some more patches somewhere? Perhaps I could try playing with some of the game's graphics-quality sliders?

After spending a couple of hours in frantic configuration-wanking abandon, I paused to catch my breath, lift my head, and look down the road. What looked back at me were the dully glimmering eyes of a hundred yaks, all lined up, waiting to be shaved.

Now, I am totally down with people who can get into the sub-hobby / metagame of keeping their PCs up to date with the latest bits n pieces of hardware, drivers, and operating system patches necessary to keep them aloft for another month or two. If that works out for you, then by all means, please pursue it with all due relish.

But, look: A key reason that I enjoy playing video games on consoles (and not PCs) is the same as a key reason I do all my work exclusively on Macs (and not PCs): I don't want to think about any of that stuff. The thought of having to think about any kind of low-level hardware configuration, and the mid-level firmware and software diddling that necessarily comes with it, makes me shudder with dread. I can just feel all the tufts of matted yak-hair scratching against my skin. Ugh.

TF2 is a great game, and it is a shame that I can't currently enjoy its more recent features, since ol' Valve isn't hurrying to add them to the Xbox version. But I am so not into the idea of paying dollar-sign question-mark question-mark question-mark, and burning up gord knows how many hours from my life, just to bring one of my secondary computers the ability to play a game which, er, I already own a perfectly good copy of for my game console. So, yeah. No.

(Also, it happens that I learned to play modern FPSes on the two-stick, two-trigger console controller, and so am quite comfortable with their use, to the perpetual befuddlement of my WASD + mouse-using friends. So be it!)

Steam

Friday, 18 December 2009 18:28
Early in the year I bought a surplus PC from [livejournal.com profile] taskboy3000 to help me work on Project X, and we all know how that went. So I ignored it for a while, until long after the bitterness had faded. Last week, following a burst of energy from no particular direction, I shouted "Quick, someone sell me a small desk", and [livejournal.com profile] dougo came through. So now I have a nice little begging-your-pardon gaming rig in my office, separate from the console setup in the living room. I like this.

As a result I'm on Steam now, as "zendonut", and feel free to react to this news in any way that makes sense to you. I've been also taking the opportunity to play various little amuse-bouche-sized commercial Windows games that I never quite had the gumption to play via virtualized-Windows on my MacBook, and which Steam makes very easy to find and tempting to purchase. Have gulped down Samorost 2 and Loom (though, yes, the latter, hailing from 1990, could hardly be called a "Windows game"), and next on my inevitable-buy list are Osmos and the locally-grown AaaAAAaaAAAaaAAAAaaA!!!, which is probably the only video game that doesn't care how badly you misspell it, because it's still close enough.
Wii Fit Plus is a fantastic piece of software, a $20 upgrade to the original that fixes its most annoying flaw. In the original Wii Fit, exercises lack flow. You choose one from a menu, work at it for a minute or two, then have to click through screenfuls of text and a high score list before getting dumped back to the menu where you must choose another exercise. (Sometimes it will suggest a follow-up exercise based on the one you just did, but infuriatingly, leaves it to you to paw through the menus to find it.)

You can still use Wii Fit Plus that way, but you can also instead use it to build up a custom regimen either from individual exercises or thematically linked blocks of three. You can also just say "Gimme N minutes of exercise" and the Wii will oblige you. I find that after working through a Wii-scripted regimen, I actually enjoy spending a few more minutes poking around the full menu in the old style, just to wind down. And then I'm done for the day.

I've been hitting the balance board every other day for a weeks and I feel super duper, working muscles that I ordinarily barely use. Even though some of the yoga poses cause my belly to become twisted or pinched in ways so unfamiliar that my guts misconstrue the context, and then I have to actively resist the urge to retch. Downward-facing BLARRGGHHFFF!

Anyway, if you own Wii Fit and are disappointed with its not-quite-thereness in the way that I was, please go pick up this update. You will like it.

Gaggle? GAGGLE?

Saturday, 5 December 2009 00:20
prog: (what_you_say)
I just got to play in a really-real nationwide game show and blew it within - literally - the first few seconds of my appearance. Details here.

Despite my best all-smiles efforts I can't help but feel upset about this, being driven from "heh I'm doing good at this tonight" to "HOLY SHIT I'M PLAYING FOR REALS" to complete choking flameout defeat, within the span of a minute. I hear the ghost of the laughter of every 7th-grade gym-class tormenter ringing in my ears.

This will be erased by the time I wake up next, so hooray for it being so close to bedtime now. But: ugh.

More hooray to [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel for also getting called up to the stage and making a much more impressive show of it!

Update: Fuck you, "contrarycoho". Now is so not the time.

Update:

Wedding

Sunday, 25 October 2009 19:44
Before I start talking about some other damn thing: warmest congratulations to my dear friends Jess ([livejournal.com profile] dictator555) and Nate-of-no-real-social-media-presence on getting married yesterday evening. I was pleased and honored to be in attendance for the relaxed and friendly ceremony out in Western Mass, which turned into kind of a con (of the fannish variety)... eventually nobody was left except a gaggle of gamer geeks staying up late, and many of us slept over. (The venue had a B&B conveniently attached.)

I just realized that this now means more than half of the seven players from the Diplomacy episode have gotten married since we filmed the game in early June. Wow. And they call that game divisive?

Alea iacta est

Tuesday, 13 October 2009 00:56
Earlier today, ran into a reference to Julius Caesar's The die is cast, and its meaning in context. Here we are crossing the river, and while I have stacked up the odds in my favor to the best of my ability, from here on out its all down to ol' dame fortuna. Roll 'em.

As someone who loves the mechanisms and the history of cards and dice, this should really be one of my favorite quotations, right? But the fact is, for the time being anyway, I get vaguely irritated when I hear it. For most of my life, I thought the metaphor had a completely different referent: one of my well-meaning teachers, at some point early on, introduced me to this phrase, and taught that Caesar was comparing his crossing to metal-casting. ("Die" as in "tool and die", see.) And that made enough sense at the time - Caesar, in this version, was saying that the blow had been struck, the metal had been cut, shaped, and cooled, and there was no unbending it now. I had no reason to question this interpretation.

And indeed, I don't think that I did reëxamine it until, honestly, only a year or two ago, when it occurred to me that he was talking about rolling dice - as if he had just committed all his units in a tense war game! Luckily, the web had been invented and distributed in the intervening years, so it took only a moment for me to confirm that I was correct. It floored me. Not only was that a cooler version - because, you know, games and all - but it makes a so much more compelling story. Caesar at the height of his ambition, making the move that would forever seal his place in the tale of human history, and his pull-quote utterance is his admission of uncertainty despite it all. That's awesome.

So yeah, running into the quote now makes me itchy, annoyed that I was mis-taught something that strikes me as so relevant, and yet probably wouldn't have had a huge impact on my life had I learned it correctly. Whew.
Or rather, go ahead, but I'll just tell you the same thing I tell everyone else, when they say "Hey, you should make Volity for $SOME_NEW_THING" (most recently, this has been Google Wave). "No," says I, "you should make it. It's an open protocol. Knock yourself out."

My attitude towards Volity today is something like borderline hostility. I consider it an aspect of what William Gibson has called "the great clomping foot of nerdism", the kind that is always more interested in taking things apart and exhaustively cataloguing the components than it is in creating wonderful new stuff. Obsessed with categorization and taxonomies, of finding the common root to all things, and then trying to capture that in code, or at least in sprawling wikis. And then, when it's "done", wondering why nobody except for one's fellow robed adepts show any interest at all in it.

It's the video-game equivalent of spending more time writing and trimming an enormous, detailed "world bible" than in creating any stories set in that world. Or of tabletop-game "systems" like Icehouse or Piecepack, which despite their aspirations never sold to anyone other than hardcore game geeks (hi).

If you want to make a video game, go make it. The tools, community and resources to help you do so are all there for you. And yet, if you're a certain kind of geek, the temptation will exist to instead treat your game idea as the top level of a stack: the real prize, you're sure, lay in generalizing all the lower levels, paring and refactoring them into some sort of Ur-Game technology that will solve gaming, somehow, and lead inevitably to lifelong fortune and glory.

My advice is: don't go there, because I know you have great ideas and you're a ninja and everything, but that is folly. Please just make your game instead. I guarantee that you'll be happier with it, and you'll make more fans that way, too. If you're new to making games, the fans might not come, but you'll be so thrilled at what you made - even though it sucks - that you'll do it again, and again, and it will keep getting better. And eventually you'll really be onto something.



I started writing this post with the intent that it'd accompany a release of Webgamut source code to Volity's Sourceforge account. I had a burst of energy to do so earlier today, but it didn't take long to peter out. I am loath to put context-free, commented-but-otherwise-undocumented code out there, because that sounds worse that nothing. I'd instead want to spend a day or so writing some nice farewell documentation for it, first. And I just can't muster the energy right now to re-learn how to get this 18-month-old glop of Perl, Mason and Javascript to run on my laptop.

What do you think? Would it be useful to you or anyone you know were I to just paste a couple of my hard disk's directories into Sourceforge and just put a "Here, you figure it out" README next to them? I don't know, I'm asking. Would the fact that the target for this maneuver would intentionally be obsessed game geeks make it OK?



This post also briefly had a concluding thought along the lines of "I wish someone told me all this six years ago, alas," but that's just dumb, and I apologize for the five minutes of wrong-idea-giving it gave.

I don't regret my work on Volity, nor the work that others have put in, and certainly not any interest that others still have in the project. I think that's great, and I wouldn't even be asking about Sourceforge if y'all didn't exist. I just wanted to put my own current attitude about Volity into words. I'm proud of what we did manage to build, and I am wiser - the real kind, not the cynical kind - for the experience.
Reading the most recent post on Play This Thing, where the writer (not G. C.) refers to the relatively recent Knytt as being the first freeware game they ever downloaded, reminds me of a small discussion I attended at last month's GameLoop. It was about game visuals, and most of the handful of attendees were actively employed as artists for modern video games.

Two things happened there that neatly confirmed the fact that I have moved into a new age demographic among game-players. The first was when the discussion's leader said "I'm going to date myself here, but..." followed by an allusion to Sonic the Hedgehog. This is a game that was published as I was starting college, so I don't automatically consider it a very old game, even though our prickly blue friend is old enough to vote now.

The second occurred when I casually mentioned the art style of arcade game cabinets as part of a larger point, while I was participating in the discussion. Nobody in the room knew was I was talking about - they may have been lifelong gamers, but it was well before their time! They all gazed at me like tell us about the war, grandpa, so I felt obliged to pull together a tiny art-history lesson about it. If you're at all familiar with my recent video projects you can correctly imagine that I took some enjoyment out of this.

Honestly, I'm kind of grinny about this realization, especially since I'm setting myself up to dive deeper into independent game journalism (c.f., c.f.). Having an air of experience isn't at all a bad thing!
Notes on a talk I led on game criticism, and a list of links I dropped in the middle of other peoples' talks: http://gameshelf.jmac.org/2009/08/notes-from-my-gameloop-talk-an.html
I shall be going to GameLoop on Saturday, the BarCamp-style "unconference" for game professionals. I had a great time at its inaugural event last year, and I've been especially looking forward to it since attending Boston BarCamp in April. I appreciate these sorts of nerdly social stewpots, and the combinatorial ideas that can come out of them.

Big fail, alas, on the work-goals I set for the weekend. I will have neither a finished Gameshelf episode, nor completed personal-bizcards. It's for the right reasons, I guess - I got surprised by a surge of Appleseed work this month, and have been putting in one fully billable day after another despite myself, with no desire afterwards to work on anything else. It's what I deserve to have stuffed into my gob after bitching so much about money problems. Here you go, then! Eat up. Oh well; they'll get done in the fullness of time.

And anyway, showing off one's own shit is a secondary reason to go to these things anyway. I go to meet interesting and smart people, and talk about games with them! My own status as a "game professional" status is very in-betweeny right now, but that doesn't mean I don't have a lot of stories to tell. Since last August, I've:

• Gotten serious about a commercial video game project, and then had it die in IP-licensing negotiation
• Launched an entirely new initiative in the online-gaming space, worked feverishly at it for six months, and am now (slowly but surely (but mostly slowly) ) looking for business partners
• Had more cockamamie ideas about new (as far as I know) styles of online gameplay that get me excited, and also reticent, because having some dork blather at you about their AWESOME completely unimplemented game idea is worse than someone telling you about this CRAZY dream they had last night, but anyway
• Revived Jmac's Arcade and the Gameshelf, and became filled with idears about what I'm going to do with the latter and how it will be different from what I've done so far

Yeah, so, it'll be a good time.

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