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Reason #3 Why I Rule All Things This Week

March 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Since writing about Magic: The Gathering was getting me all hot and bothered, I decided to buy a Mirrodin Besieged Fat Pack today, which contains nine booster packs.

I got two of these, one regular and one foil, in my first three packs:

 

Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas is the most valuable card in the new Magic set, selling anywhere from $45 to $60 USD on websites, and that’s for the regular version only. The foil one sells for as much as $125 on TCGPlayer. Tezz is so expensive because he, like the rest of his Planeswalker ilk, is supremely overpowered. Reading his ability, I had flashbacks of the time I experienced a lapse in keeping updated with technology, saw a flash USB drive that could store 2 GB, and said, “What the FUCK?”

I wish I had been following Magic intensely enough to where cracking (that’s cool kid terminology for pulling certain cards from packs) two Tezzerets in a row would be enough to produce more than a “keen!” and “neato!” from me, but I’m happy nonetheless.

Basically, life has been very good to me this week. With two days left to go, I can’t wait to see what happens next. My human noble warrior wasn’t able to seal the deal with Morrigan in Dragon Age: Origins in any of my playthroughs. Maybe she’ll be down for some hot, intimate action with Sedra, my foxy female rogue in Dragon Age 2. I rule all things, Morrigan. Including you.

On To The Next [MMO]

March 11, 2011 Leave a comment

 

I’m not sure what degree of cynicism is required to maintain this type of reverse-pessimistic detachment from reality and authority that I’ve harbored all my life, but conspiracy theories and the cross-pollination of secret societies with occult practices is fascinating to me.

One of my hobbies that I’m confident will never fade away is my love of not so much playing pen-and-paper RPGs, but digesting sourcebooks, campaign settings, and monster guides. Countless hours of my youth that should’ve been spent honing my Street Fighter and later, Starcraft skills were squandered on flipping through White Wolf’s “World of Darkness” campaign settings. I’m as much a fan of wracking my brain through a series of encounters built around deterministic systems as the next D&D fan, but what’s always piqued my interest more is the deconstruction of these fictional worlds, and then putting them back together and seeing what makes them tick.

I think my fascination with occult conspiracy began in elementary school, when I tore through books on the afterlife, Dante’s Inferno (not the EA version, although that happened years later over the course of a very bland weekend), and reincarnation. This fixation grew with religious viewings of “X-Files” and “Millenium”, the latter of which had greater appeal to me due to the suffocating dark and nihilistic atmosphere that made viewing each episode from start to finish an exercise in willful masochism. I wonder, if Deus Ex wasn’t packed with as many references to New World Order, the Illuminati, and Ufology, would it still rank as high up on my list of all-time favorite games? I prefer not to answer that, out of fear of making myself seem superficial. Also, let’s not forget volumes of Lovecraft that sit on my shelf. Yeesh.

 

 

This is why Funcom’s Secret World probably is and has been my number one most anticipated PC game for this year, taking a close tie with Deus Ex: Human Revolution (multi-platform, doesn’t count, ya console kid!). To some people who know me, it should be Diablo III. To my friends I hung out with in high school, it should be Star Wars: The Old Republic. “Anticipation” in this sense does not equate to “eagerness to play”, but more on that later.

My earlier musings deserve a little bit more clarification in that my detachment extends more towards institutionalized channels of authority and ages-old establishments. I’m skeptical towards intangible precepts of “order” and “truth” that we’ve grown so accustomed to. That’s not to say I’ll balk outright at the established order either; my absentee ballot had Obama’s name on it, after all, and I voted for Meg Whitman just to spite Jerry Brown. Deep down, I know he felt it. I don’t believe there’s any greater “truth” out there, either; I’ve been a respectful atheist my entire life, and I’m comfortable saying this without fear of repercussion from the zero people who stumble across this blog because I state my position without a hint of malice or claiming that my belief is the correct one.

 

 

Talking about the Georgia Guidestones with my friend Elliot the other day (he is perhaps an even bigger conspiracy hound than myself), we both expressed similar sentiments of disbelief at how a place like this could exist. Like the Pyramid on the back of the Dollar, masonic symbols and architecture scattered throughout our nation’s capital, and the eight-point star of Isis appearing on just about any marble-tiled floor, I’m amazed at how symbols like these have penetrated American consciousness so deeply to a point that we don’t question their existence and meaning. And like my love for RPG campaign settings, occult conspiracy is so engrossing to me as a form of entertainment because of the amazing amount of detail, research, and ability to link these patterns together throughout history and then stack layers upon layers of meaning on top of one another in a purported search for the “truth.” Believe in conspiracies, secret societies, and New World Order or not, I think it’s undeniable that the formulation of said theories is evidence of a very observant, meta creativity at work amongst bored Americans. What sets Dragonlance apart from the numerous copycat Tolkien fantasy worlds is the cohesion and unity of the campaign setting’s history. Patterns that grow organically (these days, we say “virally”) are a sign of civilized society, and one thing we do best as humans is recognize patterns and assign meaning to them. There’s an order behind all the chaotic randomness we come across each day, and as a species, we’ll go through Lot 49-like stretches of narrative meta-realism to sort these patterns out. What conspiracy theory is is this recognition and ordering of patterns taken a step further. Once a person has seen and identified patterns they should not have seen, so begins the manifestation of their inability to remain willfully ignorant any longer.

That being said, the release of Secret World both excites and terrifies me on the same level. Ragnar Tornquist and his talented band of developers have a proven track record, one I’ve been privy to with Dreamfall: The Longest Journey and Age of Conan, which was interesting up until when I finished all of the single-player “night” missions. AOC demonstrated that Funcom could not only deliver a solid MMO experience, but that the studio knows how to pay respect to source material. Robert E. Howard’s Cimmeria is a land of washed-out grays and volcanoes dictated by Darwinistic rules of nature, and Funcom relayed this design philosophy through what was at release touted as an innovative, action-packed melee system in which the winner of a stand-off was determined through linking combos, finding weaknesses in the opponent’s defenses, and knowing when to attack from what direction. Brutal, yes, but a little superficial if one was to tinker with the combat system in the later levels.

 

 

What kind of source material does Secret World pay homage to? The obvious answer is conspiracy theory, occult, and secret societies, but I’m not quite sure how this translates into something that’s fun for players. In any instance of popular media, protagonists have traditionally been the ones uncovering the conspiracy, not the puppet masters. Even popular shows like Buffy and Angel made it clear that the titular protagonists were pawns in unseen conspiracies existing in the darkest of places that neither of them could comprehend. Conspiracy theory as a whole makes sense objectively, because the operating word here is “theory”. It always has and always will. To put this into “g4m3” terms, conspiracy theory is a procedural, “player-created” process in that there’s no right or wrong way of looking at things. The proposed outcome of conspiracy theory is to educate the ignorant masses to the great occult evils that wish to enslave us, but no one can say for sure whether or not there really was a demon’s face in the smoke on 9/11 or in the drops of water in, ahem, Rihanna’s “Umbrella” music video. And no, no one can say for sure if Jay-Z’s music video for “On to the Next One” really contained a subtext that illustrated his ascension to the 33rd tier of Masonic hierarchy, except for Jay-Z himself. It’s procedural because it’s making meaning out of nothing, and then running wild with that meaning. How does this translate to Secret World‘s design?

On some level, the class-less system and “battle how you wish” conceit that surrounds the progression design of Secret World is making meaning out of nothing, but like AOC‘s combat system, it’s a superficial representation of the source material. And that’s what bugs me about the conspiracy, shadow organization setting of Secret World. Conspiracy theory’s role in our society has always been about choosing sides; either you give in to the power that pulls the strings behind the curtain, or you join the ranks of free-thinking individuals that will not be swayed by a power elite. Deus Ex communicated this perfectly; the aptly named JC Denton is a blank slate for the moral and political decisions the player makes, ultimately choosing one of three outcomes. The great part about the three unique endings of the game is that they can all be achieved in the final area of the game; there’s no linear path of objectives that the player needs to complete that might bar them from viewing other outcomes. And like modern conspiracy theory, the player as Denton has to make sense of all of the patterns they’ve thus far come across and choose an outcome for not only themselves, but all of society. This point is driven further home in the ending of Deus Ex: Invisible War, where the player as Alex Denton has to choose his or her allegiance to one of many different shadow organizations, each with their own philosophy on governance and a selected quote from John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, Aristotle, John Locke, et al. to correspond with the outcome the player chooses.

 

 

Thematically, conspiracy theory-based entertainment has always centered around a solitary protagonist’s search for meaning or to uncover a truth, whether or not the so-called “truth” in question happens to be a Macguffin that strings the plot along. The more people the protagonist interacts with and the more events transpire, the less and less the protagonist starts to share anything in common with the people he or she once knew and it is upon reaching the truth, however it might be defined, that the protagonist is finally alone, trapped in a psychological island of their own design. Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49, Fox Mulder in The X-Files, and Richard in The 39 Steps are all examples of people who are very much alone in their struggle to make some sense of their reality, a tradition of which was carried on by Deus Ex‘s JC Denton. You might argue that for Mulder, he had Scully, but her original function on the show was to act as a thematic foil for Mulder’s hare-brained theories and matter-of-fact view on extraterrestrials, colonization, and El Chupacabra. Conspiracy-based entertainment is ultimately about, as John Tynes’ pen-and-paper Unknown Armies‘ subtitle states, “power and consequences”. In this case, knowledge equals power, but as is always the case, it’s pretty lonely up top.

I’d hate to see conspiracy theory romanticized in the player’s role in Secret World, as the appeal of such franchises as X-Files and older shows like The Prisoner has always been about what the audience doesn’t know as opposed to what they actually know (or think they know). In an MMO setting, the last thing I want to see is player-to-player interaction boiled down to mafioso-type power struggles for turf and respect, where highly organized paramilitary groups battle one another with laser-scoped SMGs and intricately crafted katanas. True, all games are wish fulfillment rolled into power fantasies, and Secret World promises players the license to go after the dark forces that hinder mankind’s cultural and societal progress, but again, it’s about thematic consistency and whether or not this type of power-granting makes sense given the source material. The game holds a lot of promise, don’t get me wrong, and I remain cautiously optimistic about its release. Elliot and I came to a consensus that conspiracy theory was fascinating to both of us in that the intricate timeline theorists have set forth details an alternate lens in which to view the power structures we’ve grown accustomed to in these modern times. It’s not so much the hidden truth as it is simply someone’s truth, and it’s really fascinating to read about. On the same note, I doubt there will be much fanboy-like bouts of Asperger’s possible with a game based on the game’s source material; after all, conspiracy theory has always been about making sense of patterns and the context in which they are presented. Let’s just hope Funcom’s using the right patterns this time around.

Getting Carded

March 10, 2011 Leave a comment

While cleaning up all the crap I’ve since accumulated in my closet for the umpteenth time this week, I came across my old CCG, or collectible card game collection, stored away unceremoniously in a DVS shoebox and a Linksys wireless router box. Although I’ve since curbed my packrat tendencies of yore, this is one of those instances that I’m glad I held onto things that ostensibly served me no outright purpose and only seemed to take up space at the time of cleaning.

Finding my old Magic: The Gathering cards was a delight; multiple copies of Balance, Necropotence, Hypnotic Specters, Crusade, Wrath of God, all of my Tolarian Academies, and my full playset of Cursed Scrolls were just some of the singles I forgot I owned. Digging deeper into my collection, I unearthed swaths of different games that I at one point entertained the notion of playing full-time. Amongst the good (Doomtown, L5R), the obscure (Mythos, X-Files, Kult), the criminally underused (Illuminati: NWO, NetRunner), and the shitty (Spellfire, Overpower, Galactic Empires), were stacks of random Marvel Universe and DC trading cards that I religiously collected in my elementary school days, before Richard Garfield added a layer of functionality on top of these otherwise unusable pieces of cardboard.

From an outside perspective, lots of these games that came out after Magic‘s CCG renaissance were copies attempting to cash in on some kind of trend and for many of the games of lesser quality that came out, this statement holds true. But there was also this undeniable sense of creativity and freedom of expression that emerged as games came and went. Designers started to utilize then-underused mechanics such as bluffing and, my favorite, non-violence to define victory conditions for players that were used to Magic‘s melee/damage-based player interaction (in L5R, this was aptly known as the “Enlightenment Victory”). It didn’t take long for games to shrug off the moniker “Doom clones” and grow into “First-person shooters”, which then gave us games like Deus Ex, System Shock, and Oblivion, and it saddens me to come to the realization that the CCG boom, oversaturation, and eventual implosion was a one-time fluke that will probably never replicate itself again.

I think that happened to the CCG movement as a medium of entertainment was unique in that Magic gave birth to and subsequently quashed the market’s chances of evolving. Because Wizards of the Coast trademarked “tapping” a card (to turn the card 90 degrees and indicate that it’s been used), lots of CCGs that came out had to either find ways around tapping as activation. Take a look at any card from those anime-based CCGs and place it next to some Magic cards; to this day, Magic has the most streamlined, easy-to-read visual design in contrast to many later CCGs that had a gajillion different icons with various numbers squeezed onto their cards. And try as they might, no card game ever came close to emulating the stable of artistic talent Magic cards had behind them. Artists like Anson Maddocks, Mark Tedin, and Brom created a flexible yet uniquely recognizable aesthetic for the game that continues today with newer artists like Jason Chan and Raymond Swanlund. That’s not to say that, like always, the internet didn’t play some pivotal role in paving the CCG industry’s path to destruction, either.

As someone who was introduced to the game before 4th edition, I consider myself to be an old-school Magic player. This was when the Serra Angel, Shivan Dragon, and Lord of the Pit were considered to be the best creatures in the game. This was when we all took the game-changing power of Counterspells and Lightning Bolts for granted. This was when I ran 2 copies of Demonic Tutor in any Black deck, mono or multi, that I created (natch for Balance in mono-white). This was when we, much like early Street Fighter II players discovered linkable combos, figured out how to get the most out of 60-card decks by creating tribal themed decks before Lorwyn introduced the mechanic, Black-blue control before the combination became a paradigm in today’s Type II metagame, and the “Red Deck Wins” design strategy was called “Sligh”. This was when combinations and effective deck types grew organically out of the groundwork Wizards of the Coast’s game designers provided for players, a toolbox of sorts that gave birth to the insane power of the Necropotence deck, along with recurring champion Mark Justice’s bizarre creations. This was before the internet and net-decking.

When I get a chance, I’d like to write some retrospectives on some of these card games I’ve since abandoned, but sounds like positive, feel-good bullcrap. As it’s hardly my intent to abandon the humorless curmudgeon of an alter-ego I’ve thus created for myself on this blog, I’m going to bitch about Magic when the opportunity presents itself. My fingers are too tired from a combination of typing and organizing thousands of cards that I can’t bear to part with. Also, my brain’s fried from the different deck combinations I’ve come up with while trying to write this blog. Ugh.

Level 15 Moment of Doubt

March 3, 2011 Leave a comment

As the eldest son of a mother with numerous successful Chinese friends, I’ve had to justify my decision to major in English on numerous occasions. The first and most obvious question I’d get all the time was, “So… you want to become a writer?” If it wasn’t that, the topic of discussion would inevitably turn towards prospective careers in education and academia, of which I had no interest in. “Well,” I’d offer, “majoring in English is a great stepping stone towards building a fruitful career in law or business.” Many of my classmates, I explained,” although this statement would often blow up in my face, as the parent I was talking to would ask, “So… you want to become a lawyer?” to which I would sheepishly reply, “I’m not sure.” I’d look up furtively, appearing to be in deep thought. “No. No, I don’t.”

“I can’t stand it,” I’d moan to my friends or whoever was willing to listen at the time. “I can’t stand how all of these people depend on these neatly-packaged prescribed life choices so as to lend more meaning to their meaningless lives.” And then, once all of that was out of my system, I’d start to panic.

English? ENGLISH? What the f– what am I doing?

What I’m going through now doesn’t reek of the same degree of loathsome self-doubt and insecurity that plagued my remaining quarters at college. And yet, I’m still hit with those same undertones of deja-vu every now and then.

The fact that I’m willing to describe myself as a game designer is liberating, but there’s still a lingering degree of not so much insecurity, so much as self-consciousness, made all the more significant due to the fact that I am currently, and some might argue willfully, unemployed. Namely, I’m having a hard time describing what my skills actually are.

Since my return, I’ve come across the same parents that unmaliciously sprinkled those doses of doubt into my brain, and I’m still coming up empty. “So, you write programs?” Nope. I can do very basic scripts, but that’s it. “Oh. So you create the graphics?” Nope. I have artistic ability, but none of it’s digital. “Oh. I see.” An awkward silence inevitably ensues before they follow up with, “So, what exactly do you do, then?”

That’s an excellent question. I guess I could say that my job is to make sure the game is fun, but that’s a loaded statement. “Fun” in the sense I’m using to describe games is a collaborative effort, as bugs and crappy art do the opposite of contributing to fun. I could say that I establish the rules and setting, but it’s not really my say, either. We had a lead design and project director for that. When confronted with this question, I’ve stammered out a list of things I’ve done befitting my job description: I have created characters, their attributes, and the various pieces of gear that augment their performance. I’ve created playing fields for these characters to do what they do best. Order out of chaos, I’ve then created rules and logic for programmers to create a sustainable environment, a social contract of sorts for my characters to ensure that what my characters do best also elicits some type of positive reaction from the end-user. And finally, if and when everything falls apart, I’m one of the guys that has to come up with ways to fix and then improve things without pissing away months spent on art assets, environments, code, and not to mention my metagame design. Please, don’t ask me what “metagame” is. It’s for the best, really.

While I do appreciate it and respect it on a profound level, I want to have little, if anything to do with the “intellectual” theorizing about what games have, can, and should be. Not because I don’t agree with what theorists say, because I really do, but simply because I’m hard-pressed to see the point. I’ve been biding my time by reading Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun, and it’s been, echoing what the numerous positive reviews on amazon say, an absolute joy to read. I can’t say I’ve spent too much time analyzing documents that contain buzzwords like “emergent gameplay” or treatises that refer to game design as “Ludology” (my spell checker just registered that as a typo; make of that what you will), but Koster’s book essentially streamlines and then distills everything I’ve ever asked for in a quasi-intelligent  discourse on games as both a measured art form and as an educational device. Koster’s book has been a quiet revelation for me, as I’m finding more and more of what I’m creating to be broader, more expressive, and to be of a more primal level, as well as parsing what I’ve been experiencing when playing games on multiple levels of thought at once (while also having fun, natch). I can’t say whether the quality of my work and observations is any good, but for me, it’s significant, because it’s progress.

Another altogether humbling and ultimately gratifying book I’ve been following closely and clinging onto is Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber’s Challenges for Game Designers, which offers exactly what the title of the book states: non-digital challenges meant to test, push the limits of, as well as call into question the methodology and output of one’s skill in game design. When I interviewed for the first time at my old company, Possibility Space, I was asked, “Why do you think you’d be a good designer?”, to which I responded, “because I love to play games” without a hint of irony. Granted, a love of experiencing games of all forms and genres is undoubtedly important, but it’s not enough. Smash cut to a year later, I was the person in the meeting room raising an eyebrow at the poor, idealistic individual sitting in front of me, saying, “That’s really awesome and I definitely think it’s an important passion to have! But I need you to tell me more about your skills and qualities. What is it about YOU that is suited towards making games?”

I guess, to answer my own question, it’s what separates good teachers from bad teachers, or effective, observant parenting from ineffective, doting parenting. It’s being able to analyze a specific type of person and determine how to best challenge them, hook them into this device you’ve concocted for them, and keep them coming back to your creation without frustrating them. Honestly, without sounding too idealistically utopian, I think the core tenets of game design surround our everyday lives. While making my rounds slowly but surely through Challenges for Game Designers, I’ve hit dead-ends on numerous occasions and I’ve banged my head against the wall past my fifth dead-end in rhythmic percussion: “WHY-AM-I-SO-FUCK-ING-DENSE” And you know what? It feels great.

Great in the sense that I’m starting to get an idea of what my skills are, regardless of whether or not they jump off the page and throttle the reader’s attention. I have an appreciation for prescribed systems that allow freedom, and illusions that are actuated in a person’s mind. And if there’s one thing that gets under my skin, it’s self-conscious design that lacks confidence, as evidenced by my previous ramblings. I’m not one to talk at the moment, but my greatest wish is that someday, I will be.

Have I told you about my design for a 4-player competitive card game centered around assassinating other players in a cooperative game setting? No? Well good. It’s an absolute piece of shit. But, believe me, I’m working on it. And I’m having a blast.