Flood Control

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Fantasy Authors: Please Stop Doing These

  • Prophecies. They are a cliche, and as such should only be used with the knowledge that they are a cliche and they aren't very interesting. Moreover, the whole point of prophecies is that they spoil the future, and this is the last thing you want to be doing. All the readers know that the main character is going to fulfill the prophecy, because otherwise why are we following them around? Don't give in to cliche, as we all know what you're doing. The best idea is to make the prophecy unreliable, but then there's certainly an interest factor in a world with magic that is still subject to the ravages of the future. For once. If you want to do a prophecy right, use it as a plot point - there is no way that the hero can satisfy it, but in the dying minutes of the story it becomes obvious that somehow the hero's basically satisfied the prophecy. Readers will remember it, though, so you want some sort of filter, like using the snowballing power of rumours or something, or introduce a flaming red herring and come up with some othe way to justify the central character's point-of-view - for instance, the central character becomes the champion of the favourite to fulfil the prophecy. Matthew Reilly's Temple does this really well - the main character gives us a prophecy, explains that a particular character satisfies it and how, and then it turns out that there's one extra line there that hasn't been covered. (Sorry if I spoiled the book for you.)
  • Madness. I haven't read a single fantasy where a mad character even remotely rang true. They always seem to be almost entirely lucid but merely pretending madness, even if they are actually completely insane. Never mind that madness itself is a cliche - there are plenty of ways to make an important person in the story impotent - but until authors actually do their research, I'd like them to stop it. (I actually knew someone suffering from a mental illness once. Her brain was regressing, and she had lost the ability to feel full. I don't think I'll ever forget her going to bed then updating up over the next five minutes whether she was sleeping on her good or bad side.)
  • Entire worlds that are useless until the Earth heroes show up. So many books pit the tiny American against some sort of Great Evil that only they can defeat. That's fine, so long as it's credible. But there's really no excuse for the hero needing to solve every problem that crops up because apparantly no-one's managed to get around to it yet. If you have special support networks set up to provide help via subterfuge to the hero, one would expect that network to have already been working on the minor bad guy designed to really really piss off the hero.
  • Improbable Runs of Luck. I know it's supposed to be a story, but the hero being a hero because of a series of thousand-to-one chances isn't particularly satisfying. It makes the author look like they didn't actually know how a hero could become one, which is probably a weakness in fantasy authors. There are sometimes reasons why you want a sequence of improbable events to happen, in which case you should note that this is a series of improbable events and come up with an explanation for it, like a hidden mentor secretly manipulating events in order to shape the hero.
  • Hidden Mentors Secretly Manipulating Events In Order To Shape The Hero. There's a principle in movies that within the first act, the hero of the story has to become a willing participant in the events that follow. Roleplaying gamers call it a 'hook' - your hero has to say, 'yes, I will do this thing' and then, using the assets they have, set out to achieve it. Having a hidden mentor screwing with things takes away that choice. It detracts from the hero's successes and dashes the possibility of heroic failures. The hero becomes a sucker, basically, and that's not the point.
  • Taking Seventy Pages To Get To The Point. Again, in movies, you need to establish interest very quickly. Ideally, you should develop some sort of conflict within the first five pages, and let things escalate from there. Similarly, you should decide ahead of time how many books you have to play with things and try and keep things as self-contained as you can. It means that you can't write that great sprawling messy epic, but then readers would like the story to keep moving along a bit and to not have to reread the other books just to know where to start in the latest. I understand that it helps to only pay attention to characters if you need to get them into position, and focus on a small set of characters who have a reasonably self-contained adventure. Sort of like Lost is doing.
  • The Perfect Hero. It's highly irritating to read a book where the hero already has all the skills to complete the quest, or fits some prophecy like a glove that you don't find out about until the second book, or anything where the author has decided that they're going to nix possibilities for tension and character development by making their main character too awesome. Don't - we all hate seeing nice guys go through hell, but we'll accept that it's a great way to develop characters. For all our sakes, be heartless.
Anything else people can think of that they're sick of fantasy authors doing?

Thursday, January 12, 2006


There may be content outages.

I mean, longer ones.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Doin' Their Own Thing

(From Scribs. Click on the thumbnail for full-size stealing-other-people's-jokes!)

I am probably the only person who might possibly blog about this, but I've been watching Greg Galick's with interest pretty much from day 1.

Apparantly, Spinn has been around the Internets for a while. He's even friends with Lore Sjoberg. First time I met him, though, was while playing Puzzle Pirates - he'd built a, well, let's call it a megaguild for the time being, basically on the idea of having some fun. His events (yeah, the players actually run events in that game. Suck it, WoW) were almost always creative, and he was just an entertaining guy in general. So I kept an eye on what he was doing.

He's done a fair few things in the past - apparantly his "What Kind of Quiztaker Are You?" gag was somewhat widespread - and he's never been shy tabout taking things and running with them.

Scribs is a good example - it's deliberately minimist. The idea is for it to be quick to do so an idea can go from head to image file in a minimum of time, and the website reflects that. And yet, it's a conscious choice - most of his promotional comics are unique, Spinn being a man who knows where the line between minimalist and lazy is. And he's been quick to use it as a parody - Scribs reached about the 30s, I think it was, on one of the comics lists before Spinn took the box away in disgust when it started passing comics he thought were better, and he's placed advertising for the comic, again because it was funny to advertise such a piece of shit.

It's deceptive. The comic's sharply written and plays off the artwork, the point of the comic being that the characters are probably going to be perpetual third-tier webcomics characters no matter what they do, so they might as well make themselves comfortable where they are. The Spinnwebe tradition of interactivity returns in a hugely entertaining letters section. There's all of the trappings of a 'real' webcomic, injokes and plot and character development when it's just these two scribbles where one has hair or fire or shit I dunno.

The thing it reminds me of most is Checkerboard Nightmare, without the pretension and the pressure to be 'satirical'. In a way, the whole 'bein' lazy (without being lazy about it)' is probably an added layer Kris Straub didn't want to go to. Scribs is just goofy. It's good stuff.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Welcome To The Internet, Kids

Oh lordy. There are people out there who don't know about Bonsai Kitten.

More importantly, that it's a hoax.

I'm going to assume that they're all new to the Internet, because otherwise it's just sad and/or stupid of them.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A Sense of History

Before you ask, my New Year's wasn't especially exciting. I went out with some of my housemate's friends, and subtlely bailed when it turned out they were only interested in talking about their favourite drugs.

I have many beefs with drugs, but honestly that's one that never occured to me.

While I was bailing, I happened to walk past a park in which about twenty magpies were standing, all spread out, all looking in the same direction. It was like they were waiting for the fireworks. (Stupid birds were standing the wrong way. The fireworks were behind you, idiots.)

Around New Year's, it's hard not to start thinking about where one has been, and by extension where everyone else has been. Thinking about history is almost encouraged at this time of year, and so I'd thought I'd share some thoughts. Which is why we're going to cut to gay people.

In the opening of Cryptonomicon, the POV character wonders how homosexuals evolved. Surely, if a person's sex drive wasn't geared to producing children, wouldn't natural selection kick in? The answer arrived at is that, perhaps societies can support non-breeders if they contribute to society in other ways. It seems like a throwaway idea, but think carefully: essentially, what it suggests is that a society doesn't need to have the individuals at their genetic peak so long as the society is running efficiently.

Now this is a lot more interesting! Not only does it suggest that eugenics, the idea of perfecting individual genetics (usually by killing off the undesirables and controlling breeding patterns), is unnecessary and possibly even dangerous because it's the society that determines survival more than the individual; not only does it explain what has happened to human natural selection (it's just shifted up a gear - it's societies competing, not individuals); it suggests that societies have a 'genetic code' in their laws and memes, and that the features of societies today emerged, at least in part, due to natural selection. (Of course, it's not evolution as we know it because the laws aren't randomly chosen, those ones about not feeding ducks on Saturdays notwithstanding.)

Still, it suggests that perhaps in the more competitive areas, such as Europe, the cultures that flourished were the ones with the most favourable genetic code, which were probably adopted by other countries. (In less competitive areas, no pressure, so no need to change. There's a strong suggestion that for these areas, geography played a much greater part than the cultures which eventually formed.) For all of its (usually unfair*) maligning, Christianity is a religion that's well-crafted to stay in as many minds as possible. There is, by design, something for nearly everyone in the Bible, and it plays off the old notion that people will disregard what they won't accept. Much of religion, however inappropriate it may seem now, was probably crafted to ensure its survival at some point in time.

I'd guess that we'll see some new major religion crop up soon - perhaps we already have. I'd doubt it, though: I think the point of religion is that it reminds people that there is something greater than what they normally deal with, and a lot of the moments I've heard people describe as 'spiritual' seem to have this element of outside the self to them, even when they're not really trying to be. I don't really think any more recent religions really fit the bill in that regard - Wicca probably comes the closest, but it's got a real individualistic streak in it that goes against the traditional religious thingie. Scientology is right out - it's got the lock in, but it doesn't teach people how to deal with that information, and it doesn't concern itself with the idea of humanity as a group and how to deal with that. It doesn't even preach, and while less preaching is good, you have to wonder about a 'religion' in which the members don't want to get out there and get the word out any way they can.

On a less cosmic note, I resolve to do work on DROD; I resolve to start and maintain my webcomic idea, , which you will hear things about shortly; I resolve to have a working, playable game (I've sort of planned it out, and for now I'm calling it Ochre Dreaming - it will be a console-style RPG, but I'll be using it to play around with interactive storytelling and to smooth out all those little irritations that have always bugged me about console RPGs, like chests) by the end of the year; and I resolve to lose ten kilograms. I'm overweight, though I carry it well enough that usually you can't notice, but I want abs, dammit.

Also, I think Technorati would like to hear about , and .

Friday, December 23, 2005

Take That, Christmas

You know all those trees? I mean, 'holiday trees'? I mean, 'Christmas trees, dammit'?

The Bible, once again, demonstrates that it has an insight for any occasion.

Also, I think it's time to experiment with Technorati, so green links lead back to Technorati and count as search terms. 'Cause I don't what I'm doing. Complete here.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Not Dead

I've been quite busy, waiting on a job call and being a ring-in at a post office.

There may be more details later, I'm just cleaning up now. I just got back.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Outpost Report From My Brain

There's been talk of episodic content as it applies to games. I think someone should call episodic games 'haikus'.

...because they're short, self-contained and they often have something to do with seasons.

This has been an Outpost Report From That Odd Place Called My Brain.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Oooh Shiny

Acclaim is having its publishing rights auctioned off.

I wouldn't mind owning the rights to Worms 3D or Ecco or something. I fully expect the interesting licenses will get snapped up, though, for more than my measly $50 or so.

Why Shallowness Scares Me

I have some misgivings about the current march towards collective intelligence and grouping with like-minded people. Nevermind for now that it's giving rise to dating services that split down party lines. I'm firmly of the opinion that conflict builds character - finding your weaknesses, and dealing with them, to me appears to be the way to learn how to deal with whatever life can throw at you.

"But Mr. Merus," you might say, "in this day and age one can never encounter something that will rock your world. Is it even necessary to learn how to deal with whatever life could throw at you when you'll probably never encounter it?" Which is a fair point, as I am a lazy lazy person.

The problem with that, though, is this: who ends up running the show? How does the democratic process deal with people who know lots about their own area but jack about anything outside of it? What about contentious issues for which there is no one right answer, like abortion? How about those issues where those who know nothing about it are nevertheless exceedingly interested in what happens, such as games legislation? How about issues where wisdom is more important than knowledge?

Is wisdom more important than knowledge? I would contend that, especially in cases where one keeps their areas of knowledge focused, wisdom is indeed more important than knowledge. It is impossible to avoid treading into uncharted waters at some point, and out there wisdom works where knowledge doesn't.

But then, I'm a fan of wisdom in general. Because I'm lazy, and I'd rather be able to extrapolate than to have to learn everything.

10 Things I'd Do If I Owned A Game Publisher

#1: In-House Prototypes Posted On The Website

The interest in the Experimental Gameplay Project and games like Cloud suggest that people are willing to give prototypes of experimental games a whirl. Although it'd be a real bandwidth sucker, polishing up the in-house prototypes and posting them for public consumption lets people 'prove' gameplay concepts by seeing which prototypes cause the most buzz. And let's not forget the publicity and ready audience you'd be fostering.

#2: Company-Wide Blogs

There's evidence to suggest that the growth of anime in North America and the general lack of pirated product is due to the strong community around anime. The main publishers keep the fans in the loop, and in return the fans self-police the community and will stamp out piracy in order to keep the anime industry profitable, and thus able to continue to release things. Joel Spolsky is trying a similar approach with his company Fog Creek, and suggests that giving a company a face and personality of its own might be an effective way for people to identify with the company and, you know, not pirate their products. I've personally seen what happens when the actual creator of the game comes and harasses people for pirating their game that they worked on, and you'd be surprised how cool people are about it. Building a community - absolutely critical.

#3: Don't Hire For A Love Of Games

I guess they say this because wages in the game industry are pretty bad. Honestly, though, if you can't convert people to loving games you're not making exciting games, and bringing people in that aren't traditional gamers means that you get fresh perspectives. Sit someone who doesn't normally play games down and watch them muddle through it and get their thoughts. (Here's what happened when I did it.) You'll be surprised just how much of the game-playing experience we take for granted. That non-gamer outlook is valuable, especially as games start asserting their worth as an entertainment medium.

#4: Find A Better Collective Name Than "Video Game"

Totally an image thing, this, but it has some practical considerations. A fancy name is useful for overcoming limitations in thinking - "interactive model" has much loftier ambitions than "video game" even though a video game is basically an interactive model designed for entertainment. But see what I did there? You can make 'interactive models' not expressively designed for entertainment.

#5: Use Your Technology For Other Things Than Games

Serious games look like they'll be a valuable market, especially for training and simulation purposes. Fostering a strong game design team means you can reuse your technology and chase after the business sector, which while unglamorous, is a great way to insure yourself against the expressively hit-driven games business. (I'm glad that Double Fine is still alive, even after their most excellent game Psychonauts flopped.)

#6: In-House Developers Probably Shouldn't Be Craftsmen Designers

I'm leveraging off Danc's terminology here: craftsmen designers are people like Ron Gilbert, who are very good at designing within certain genres but can't grasp game design theory. You want people who do, so you can move with the genres as necessary and get a lock on any new genres your in-house designers come up with. You'd be able to afford this so long as you've got business customers from #5 and prototype extensively in line with #1.

#7: Re-Use The Engines

Build a modular design for your graphics engine and use it for all your in-house projects. It takes ten years for software to get good, and so if you have people from multiple projects writing on an engine that's well-designed, in ten years you'll have a good engine, which will be a huge asset.

#8: Use Quadrant-Style Product Line Development

The quadrant is the famed old/young male/female demographic breakup used by movie studios and radio. It's been successful enough for movies, except they don't have quite the same distribution options we would. The AAA titles, naturally, would go to stores, but then you'd have the comapny store, which if set up well enough would go gangbusters if it leveraged the prototypes and web traffic from #1. The appeal of this is that the female, particularly the old/female, part of the quadrant is traditionally underserved, which makes it highly profitable to shore up your spread of demographics by shipping a couple of AAA titles for that market and filling the rest out with web sales.

#9: Fund Explicitly Artistic Games

Video games/interactive models are a new medium. We don't know their implications or what they can do. Thankfully, there are people who can find out for us, and these people are called artists. Governments probably won't give art grants to artists explicitly to make art using interactive models, but companies might. And the potential for art is there - you have the ability to express ideas, sculpture, possibly landscapes: what forms the eventual artworks take give you a good indication of what you're able to achieve and which directions might be profitable. And the goodwill and buzz you generate, especially if you organise an exhibition, is worth more than some crazy marketing scheme.

#10: Experiment With Alternate Business Models

Development costs are rising, and getting money off people has never been easier. Why not exploit the possibilities? I can see two interesting experiments right now. The first, which Caravel Games is trying at the moment, is to sell after-game support and additional content as a subscription service. People pony up $20 a year or something, and they get expansion packs, hand-selected fan content and new content and bug-fixes and game play and so on. Not only does this give people clamouring for a sequel to a new franchise the ability to put their money where their mouth is, it means that you have two possible directions for a franchise - using the same engine, but with new assets and expansions and essentially mission packs, and an actual sequel that's allowed to play much faster and looser with the premise because the people who just want the old game but newer are already being served.

The other option is derived from an idea by Ernest Adams, which is basically to set-up a preorder tank for a beloved but ignored franchise, and say to people to Paypal the company money to fill it up. After enough money is collected, they'll start development, and the contributors get to beta test it if they want; at a certain money level they'll release it as a retail product; at a larger value they'll send out free copies to everyone who chipped in some money and at some final value that properly reflects development costs with a little kick-back for the company they'll release the thing public domain instead, open-sourcing the engine (which would, after all, be a competitive quality game engine), opening the property and assets for anyone to do whatever they wanted with it, and did I mention a free full-price game available for anyone to download? That'd just be huge if it worked.

So, that's ten things I'd do if I owned a game publisher. Some have the potential to be profitable, some would be expensive but good from a marketing/PR perspective, and some would be very useful for just preempting more conservative competitors.

And I've just guaranteed that I'll never get to own a game publisher, haven't I? Ah well.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Harping On About Innovation

I think I worked out where innovation got to with games.

People want it, are crying out for it, in fact, but they don't want it at the expense of the tried-and-true titles. Which means that , seeing as every game is competing for players' dollars, it means that people will buy tried-and-true over innovative. And thus innovative games won't sell as well. So people get tried-and-true games until they're played out, and beyond.

Saturday, November 26, 2005


I don't want to spend a whole lot of time on a long post, so hey look it's a short one.

I'm single again. Michelle's a nice girl, but she can be infuriating. And honestly, I'm seeing what all the peoples say about Internet relationships. To be quite honest, I was never entirely sure whether it was real or I was just another toyboy, which works in my favour because I don't have to 'break off' the relationship if there wasn't much of a relationship in the first place. Which sounds like I was being manipulated, but she has many admirers. And really my insecurity over the whole thing can't have been pleasant for her, so it's probably the best thing all round.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Random Rapidfire Game: Emotion Cascade

A quick five-minute idea: you're in a building full of people, and each one of them is either angry, happy or sad. You have to make as many people a particular mood as you can, and then you move on to the next building. Your mood depends on what people are feeling around and how you've been moving - if you move quickly and turn a lot, you'll become more angry, and if you stand still, you'll become more sad. Your mood's infectious, so if you make people in an area happy, they'll start being happy and move to reinforce that feeling, which spreads it. People can start out as sad or angry, which sets up feedback loops of its own.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Enough Is Enough

Okay, FF7 fanboys:

"Aerith" is not her name. Not even the name she was supposed to have that Square's translators botched up. There is no 'th' sound in Japanese.

Her Romanised name, in Japanese, is Earisu. Please note: This is closer to "Aeris" than "Aerith". And, incidentally, it's closer to "Alice" than "Aeris".

You sound retarded, like you're huge fans of the game and you don't even know the real name of one of the main characters.

It just sort of bugs me.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Why I Love This Country

I just found out how they opened the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The premier of the time was going to open it himself, instead of deferring to a member of the Royal Family. Just as he was about to cut the ribbon, a general on horseback breaks ranks, raises his sword and shouts "In the name of common decency, I declare this bridge open!" and cuts the ribbon.

They tied the ribbon back up, but some horsebacked general breaks ranks to open the bridge. I just love that irreverance for authority.