Saturday, November 30, 2013

Bad at Games VII – Brick by Boring Brick

Last entry of “Bad at Games” I proclaimed my love of Rock Band. Seriously, I still love Rock Band in all of its incarnations. The sheer gorgeousness of The Beatles: Rock Band has to be seen to be believed, and Green Day: Rock Band is a real blast. But there were dark times on the horizon, and the band split up – it happens to most bands, even the Beatles. I found myself going solo, and that’s when I had the revelation about my gaming.

I was bored.

While I love Rock Band, the DLC stopped, and playing solo (or even singing and playing guitar as two players) wasn’t enough. I returned to the games of the past, at least the newer incarnations, and found them all the same. I bought games second hand, and found the same old formula. It was like a classic D&D dungeon crawl.

For example, I loved Halo. But I still haven’t finished Halo 4. Partly because I’m rubbish, but partly because I became bored of the formulaic way they play – it’s the same with Call of Duty, and dozens of other FPSs. Go into a room, kill all the bad guys, move to the next room. Or maybe they’ll shake it up a bit, and it’ll be – go into a room, shoot all the baddies, throw a switch or find a key to open the door to the next room, more baddies will appear, kill them, open the door, rinse and repeat.

And there was something about the themes of the games too – kill, kill, kill, kill, kill. With Halo, at least, you were shooting aliens, but modern shooters are all about killing people. With the events in my real life I was finding myself valuing life a lot more.

My lovely wife tried to expand my gaming horizons, and knew of my love of all things Lego (especially as I played Lego Rock Band until everyone became sick of playing the Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters” over and over again), and she bought me Lego Indiana Jones 2 one Christmas.

The fantastic and peaceful Lego Harry Potter
I enjoyed it, but found it a bit frustrating that I couldn’t do everything on every level, and when I’d completed the game it said 28% complete. I figured that was it, and I couldn’t be bothered doing the whole thing again to find bits I’d missed, so I gave up, and later traded it in…

It wasn’t until I’d discussed this with Alex, one of the Rockathon players, that I’d been approaching the Lego games in completely the wrong way. I’d bought Lego Harry Potter for my Potter-obsessed wife, and inspired by Alex’s advice put the game in knowing what to expect this time around.

The Lego Harry Potter games became a bit of an obsession. Every brick, every character, every secret, every possible part unlocked in a pair of fantastic games. 100%’d them both, and 1000G’d. I’d found gaming again. Mostly because of my love of Lego, and my love of Harry Potter (there’s a whole blog post there, coming soon – “How I learned to stop muggling and love Harry Potter”), the XBox had never seen so much activity.

While Debs was playing “serious” games like the new Tomb Raider and Assassin’s Creed, I was casting my little Lego patronus charm in Hogwarts.


That just about brings my videogaming history up to date. I’ve been lured back to the non-Lego games by the amazing powerhouse that is Grand Theft Auto V – with Rockstar once again proving they are the masters of storytelling and open world design, but it’s going to be a long time before I try another first person shooter, and even longer before I purchase a new generation console.

I mean, seriously, what is the point of a console that isn’t backwards compatible? All those Rock Band instruments, the DJ Hero turntable, and the downloadable content. All the games you love. Just cast aside for a better processor? Thanks, but no thanks.

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Sorry I haven’t written a blog post in a while, there has been a good reason that I’ll come to in a minute. However, it’s a bit of a special day today, and I couldn’t let the occasion go by without writing a little about the cause of all of these celebrations – Doctor Who.

The Doctor Who jigsaw that's
currently in my loft...
On the very day I’m writing this, it will have been exactly fifty years since the first episode of Doctor Who aired on BBC TV. Before you say anything, no I didn’t see it. I’m not that old. I just act like it sometimes… No, my first memory of Doctor Who is the legendary Jon Pertwee driving Bessie about. I can’t have been that old, but my mum was a bit of a Pertwee fan from his other roles, so I have a memory of her having it on TV and watching it on our old Rediffusion set, complete with the dial on the wall to change the channels. I had a jigsaw (which I still have) that appeared recently in the massive BBC publication – the Doctor Who Vault, and watched intermittently, but I don’t think I was old enough to actually take in what was happening or to follow a complete story.

Strangely enough, considering the amount of horror movies I watch now, I was never very good with scary stuff as a kid. I was a bit of a wuss. In fact, I could write a whole blog post about the traumas of a certain holiday in north Wales, in a little cottage next to a cemetery, where I could hear my parents watching The Omen after I’d gone to bed. But that’s a whole different story. Needless to say, when the classic and awesome Hinchcliffe and Holmes era of Doctor Who kicked in, with Tom Baker, I was too much of a wuss to watch. All it took was a shot of the decaying Master and that was enough for me. It wouldn’t be until much later that I started watching Doctor Who again.

There was a certain feeling of a televisual event in 1981. It was announced that Tom Baker was leaving Doctor Who, and it felt like everyone in the country was going to tune in for his final story, Logopolis. I was older, wiser, and less of a scaredy-cat, so like millions of others in the UK I tuned in. That was probably the moment I really discovered Doctor Who. Peter Davison’s first story, Castrovalva, really marked the start of me watching week after week to follow the story.

My copy of the old FASA Doctor Who RPG
Signed by Tom Baker.
Thanks to one of The Eight, my old roleplaying group from school, John introduced me to some of the classic stories I’d not seen. John has to be one of the biggest Who fans I’ve known (and I’ve known and encountered many) but he approached the series in a very appreciative way. He also was our Call of Cthulhu “Keeper” and ran a really good Who RPG game using the old FASA RPG. His experience of running Cthulhu, paired with his love of the Hinchcliffe and Holmes era lead to a particularly cool and creepy investigative game.

However my love of Doctor Who would falter a bit by 1986. For two glorious years my young and impressionable teenage eyes were mesmerised by a veritable vision called Perpugilliam Brown. When the lovely Peri left the Doctor’s side in the middle of Trial of a Time Lord, I was devastated. I’d grown up watching an awful lot of TV, so when they replaced Peri with Mel, I couldn’t get the image of Violet Elizabeth from Just William out of my head. I watched the first episode of Mel, and I just couldn’t face it. My beloved Peri was no longer on screen, the appeal had gone, and I stopped watching. (I should, however, point out that I have since watched many of the Mel episodes. Such is the fickle nature of youth!)

It wouldn’t be until two years later I’d try the series again. John had returned to the hometown during one of the holidays from University, and urged me to try watching Doctor Who. I think his exact words were, “You should watch it! The new companion is Ace and she keeps wanting to blow things up!” So I did. I tuned in to catch the final episode of Silver Nemesis, and I was back – watching every week until that fateful final episode of Survival.

"There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea's asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke, and cities made of song. Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere else the tea's getting cold. Come on, Ace — we’ve got work to do!"


Setting TARDIS controls to 1996, it had been a pretty quiet time for the Doctor, but the announcement of the TV Movie produced another sense of televisual event. It was something that simply had to be seen, though a lot had changed both with the Doctor and myself. No longer living at home, I’d moved nearly 200 miles to go to art college (now a University), and was living in a terraced house in the city with my future wife. I remember her initial reluctance to watch it, but I had a strange curiosity. Maybe it was a sense of nostalgia, the memory of sitting in my bedroom on Saturday evenings, with my bacon and chips (as we always had every Saturday) watching Doctor Who on my little portable TV while my parents watched something else in the living room.

Needless to say, we both enjoyed it. Sure, it had its flaws, but McGann was excellent, and it still is one of the best looking TARDIS console rooms ever in my opinion. But once again, for a while, Doctor Who had vanished, and things went quiet.


By the time the publicity started for the revival in 2005, life had progressed again. I was married and we were both working in Ottakar’s, possibly my favourite job to date. Looking after the SF / Fantasy section, I’d been given free reign to order in roleplaying games, and started to stock Big Finish CDs. With the announcement of Russell T. Davies’ revival of Doctor Who, you couldn’t help but get caught up in the wave of excitement. The shop already had a full sized replica Dalek, and for years I’d listened to kids asking their parents what it was.

Along with most of the country, we watched that first episode – “Rose”, introducing a new generation to the Doctor. Christopher Eccleston was fantastic, and RTD made the genius decision of following Rose, the companion, rather than the Doctor, giving the new generation of viewers a character they could empathise with, to experience the weird and the danger with, and to gradually get to know the Doctor – this changed Doctor, visibly haunted by unseen events from the Time War. We watched and enjoyed. By The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances it was obvious that the series was going to be huge, and by Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways I was completely hooked.

Nicola Bryant looking beautiful,
me looking like a freak.
Shortly after the demise of Ottakar’s, I found myself working in a shop where the old BBC shop used to be, in a store that was 70% dedicated to Doctor Who merchandise for the first year of its existence. While it was cool getting to sell Daleks and TARDIS models to kids who now couldn’t help but know what that Dalek was, the great thing about it was the signings. We played host to a number of actors from Doctor Who, with our grand store opening being celebrated with a visit from the legendary Tom Baker – and what a legend he is!

We’d hosted lots of signings, and through this I’ve managed to meet some fantastic actors from Doctor Who. And every single one of them were just amazing. Not just Tom Baker, but also Nicholas Courtney, Katy Manning, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, Terry Molloy, Peter Purves, Kai Owen, Gareth David-Lloyd, Tom Price, Richard Franklin, Deborah Watling and of course, Nicola Bryant. All of them, lovely people who made the signing days incredible special for the customers and fans, and made them brilliant for the staff too.

I do have to apologise to Nicola Bryant though. The signing was fantastic, but I get the feeling that more than once during the day my sixteen year old self took over and I lost the ability to speak coherently and may have just burbled noises like someone who’d just had dental work. So, if you’re reading this Nicola, I’m sorry!


With the fiftieth anniversary episode, The Day of the Doctor, I’m frantically making notes to make adjustments to character write ups for the limited edition of the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space Roleplaying Game (a process that’ll probably involve multiple viewings – not exactly a hardship). But how I came to design the current incarnation of the Doctor Who roleplaying game is something for a future post.

I’ll finish by wishing everyone’s favourite Time Lord a very happy anniversary, and here’s to the next fifty years!!!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Bad at Games VI - We’re putting the Rock Band back together

Last entry I wrote on “Bad at Games” I talked about Halo and how we quickly became a bit obsessed with the game. We hosted LAN parties, created our own multiplayer variant games, and I continued to demonstrate how rubbish I am at most video games.

Lips video game cover
Sunday night was always Halo night. Friends from work would come to our place, often loaded with an extra XBox to network and we’d shoot the hell out of each other. However, our circle of video gaming friends was growing, and Halo was not everyone’s game of choice.

In the winter of 2008, I was hogging the TV again and I’d put on an episode of GamerTV or something similar that played on the obscure cable channels, and they were demonstrating a game called “Lips”. Possibly one of the worst names for a video game ever, but the wife saw the feature and she was intrigued. It made a change from the usual shooting, and seemed to be a great excuse to jump around the living room, singing along to various songs. The thing that seemed to sell it for her was the idea that you could import your own CDs into the game and sing along to any song you liked.

She put it on her Christmas list that year, and I bought it for her with a pair of motion sensitive microphones.

It was great fun, even if the choice of songs were not exactly our usual choice of music. We tried the import feature, but it seemed like a hastily tagged on extra to the game with very little skill. You could mumble any nonsense at it and it seemed to score – it was only on the songs that had been programmed in on the game disc that required some singing ability. It was either that, or I shouldn’t have tried importing Limp Bizkit.

That was the problem with the game really. Only two players, and the mainstream pop selection of songs. However, the game did have a bit of a blast during one of our Sunday night Halo gatherings, and everyone had a bit of a go. While it wasn’t the hit it could have been, the thing it did do for us was get us over the initial embarrassment of singing in front of a group of friends. We racked up the achievements, went through all the songs, and then Matt suggested the following week that he’d bring around his Rock Band kit and we’d give that a try.

I’d seen clips of Guitar Hero and Rock Band on TV, on similar video game TV shows that introduced us to Lips, and I have to confess I thought they looked pointless. To me it was just timed blocks coming down the screen, press a button, or bang the drum at the right time. What was the fun in that? But I was game, and as promised theGuitar Hero controller, and Rock Band.
following week Matt appeared on the doorstep with microphone, drumkit, guitar and a spare

It seemed to take a while to set up, but eventually the game was ready, the disc fired up,

We were all initially cautious, not having played something like this before except for Matt, so we played on Easy. Even then I was still having difficulty on the guitar (admittedly, I did opt for Enter Sandman for the first track we played), but we got the hang of it, and I was starting to see the appeal.

We swapped instruments and I ended up on drums. Obviously, none of my father’s drumming talent was passed on to me (he used to play in the work’s band when they had dances. I later discovered that he had a number of certificates in piano from a prestigious London music college!) I could drum with my hands, or one hand and one foot, but putting the three together was a bit of a disaster. Luckily, on Easy Rock Band seemed to know this and alternated between the two. I was drumming.

Rockin' in the free world. Charles, Matt, Me and Adam
There’s something about Rock Band that you just don’t get until you play it. Maybe it’s the physical position you’re in – you’re not playing a video game with a controller, the Rock Band controllers are instrument shaped so you feel like you’re actually playing an instrument. The game cheers at you, you feel like you’re in a band, and if someone falters and fails your bandmates can bail you out and help you along.

It’s the difference between playing Risk and playing D&D. Risk is all about defeating your opponent, and sometimes even making false alliances that you quickly betray for an easy victory. D&D is about working together for a common goal. And in Rock Band no one was suffering. Even in Halo when we played as a team you could get picked on or feel like you were letting the side down. Rock Band there were no opponents to badmouth you online. It was about playing gigs, entertaining a virtual crowd, and getting through the songs intact.

The evening flew by, and Matt packed up the kit and headed home. I sat with the wife afterwards and we just looked at each other with massive grins on our faces. She felt it too. The adrenaline of the game, the roar of the crowd, the feeling of making music. We were hooked.

That week I got the credit card out, bought Rock Band 2, the drums, the guitar and microphone. Then visited our local musical instrument supplier and bought a microphone stand, and drum stool.

Months passed, the Sunday evening Halo nights became Rock Band nights. We toured the world, downloaded new songs, and rocked the planet.

Rocking in public for Charity. Me, Adam and Alex
We took it a stage further – the Endless Setlist was challenge in the game to perform every song on the disc in one “concert”. There was also the “Bladder of Steel” achievement for completing the Endless Setlist without breaks or failing. We saw this as a challenge we couldn’t pass up. We’d progressed to a fairly good ability with the game, some of us were playing on Hard-Expert by now, and we figured we’d do the Endless Setlist in a different way – in public.

We’d round out the setlist to 100 songs, and with the help of a particularly cool venue – Fusion, a giant digital gallery that would project the game on screens behind us, we would play in public, without breaks, and raise money for the Brain Tumour Trust. Harmonix, Rock Band’s creators, sent us T-shirts. We were mentioned on Inside XBox. We were in the newspapers. Fame beckoned.

It was exhausting, but awesome. We were rock gods. Nothing could stop us. Or so I thought.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

It's Written in the (WILD) Cards...

Okay, I have a confession. I’m terrible at motivating myself.

I’m one of the Kings of procrastination, and I will often find myself sitting and staring at the newsfeed on Facebook rather than actually doing anything even remotely productive. If I have a project I’m enthusiastic about, I’ll put every waking moment into it, but after time I can become tired and bored.

What I need is deadlines. Luckily, I’m in a little group of writers we like to call “Write Club” (though we do not talk about Write Club), and we meet once a month to chivy ourselves along. We hear how each other’s projects are coming along, and offer advice and encouragement. Last month we decided to set goals, to give ourselves something to aim for. I knew that NaNoWriMo was approaching in November, and while I have an idea of what I’d like to write, I thought it would be helpful if I finished the Tarot cards for the WILD RPG before then.

The roughs for the Suit of FOCUS, for the WILD RPG's Tarot

The benefits of completing them were many –

* I’d be able to actually start playtesting the game. The cards are fairly integral to character creation, and I’ve been wanting to try that out for a while.

* If I got stuck for a direction of where to go with writing the NaNoWriMo book I could draw a card and see if it inspires a plot twist or more.

* I wouldn’t be drawing cards when I should be writing.

So I set myself the task of completing the full set of WILD Tarot cards by the next meeting, and thankfully, I managed to hit my goal. It required drawing roughly two or three cards a day, but I did it. They’re only rough, but they give the impression of what the cards will do in the final game, and I can use them to generate some characters and see if that process works at least.

I mentioned the cards briefly in a previous post, but the tricky bit has been working out the images for each card. I’ve tried to incorporate not only the classic meaning of the Tarot card, but also some aspect of the most commonly recorded dreams, as well as keeping a narrative element that you’d normally find in Tarot cards only this time telling the story of the characters who were involved in pioneering the dreamshare technology.

The roughs for the STRENGTH Suit for the WILD RPG Tarot

Rider-Waite version
of The Lovers
I showed the cards to some of the Write Club group at the most recent meeting, and one of the comments was exactly what I’d hoped. “The Lovers card, it doesn’t look like they’re supposed to be together, it looks like it’s an affair.”


In the traditional and Rider-Waite imagery of the Tarot, the Lovers card usually depicts a couple as you’d expect, but sometimes it’s about the choice between two people. In the narrative of the Tarot suggested by a couple of books I’ve read, they’ve said that it sometimes represents the man’s choice between staying at home with his mother, or leaving with the new love in his life.

For WILD, I’ve interpreted the card slightly differently, with the card showing the wife of the creator of the dreamshare technology, having an affair with another man. This is part of a long story of her being ignored by the tech inventor, as he spends more and more time working on his computers and creations, than being at home with his wife and daughter. There’s a tale of separation and redemption, about creating the device to be with his daughter, and… well, I won’t give it all away here.

Very, VERY rough
version of WILD's
The Lovers
So the card not only reflects the traditional imagery of the Tarot, it also tells part of the story of the dreamshare device, and the people who made it. On top of that, some of the most common dreams that people have are incorporated into the cards as well. In this case, it can be many of the most common themes in dreaming – showering or bathing, being discovered somewhere you shouldn’t be, finding yourself naked, having an affair, having an argument, or simply a sexual encounter. The GM can take any of these dream-elements and incorporate them into the game if control over the dream is lost and the expected narrative succumbs to the randomness of dreams.

On top of all that, the card suits have been renamed to the four Attributes in the game – they seemed to match their Tarot counterparts perfectly – and the Court Cards, when paired with the Ace of each suit, can be adapted to match the five “Skills” in the game (I put Skills in quotes as they are more than just Skills, they’re more descriptors – broad areas of ability).

All this and I haven’t really touched upon how the cards are used in character creation. We’ll come to that after I’ve given it a try to see if it works.

Until next time, stay multi-classy!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Bad At Games V - Follow the Master Chief, he'll know what to do...

I purchased Halo for the original XBox second hand and loaded it up. I knew I was rubbish at first-person shooters, but there was something about Halo that was different. I don’t know whether it was the ease of the controls, the intuitive design or just how cool the whole darn thing looked, but I loved every moment of it… except maybe the driving at the end, which was frustrating as hell.

The best thing about Halo was the two-player split-screen. It meant that the wife and I could play through the campaign co-operatively and experience the game as never before. I’d drive the warhog while she blasted the crap out of the grunts. We were a team of awesome.

Halo had become such a phenomenon that everyone we knew seemed to play it. People we were at work with (this was back when the wife and I worked together at the same bookstore) knew of the game, and some were avid players – it was just a matter of time before some of our work colleagues were invited back to our humble abode for a little four-player split-screen action.

There was something addictive about it, and Halo night became an almost weekly affair. And it grew on occasion, where we’d invite many people around and we’d experiment with ethernet cables and network multiple XBoxes together to grow to 8, 12 and even 16 player battles. These LAN parties were not as frequent, as they’d involve the transportation of television sets and XBoxes, and placing them around the house in multiple rooms.

But it was fun. We enjoyed ourselves. The neighbours may not have enjoyed it quite so much – this was before we had headsets to communicate and “teams” would end up shouting at each other tauntingly from one room of the house to the other. And we discovered that our XBoxes had names (strangely, ours was called “Goat”).

There were a couple of players who were particularly good at Halo, who dominated the playing field, but that was okay. We had fun, despite reaffirming my belief that I was inherently bad at games.

We instantly snapped up Halo 2 upon release, and the Halo night continued. Our favourite game (“Rockets on Prisoner”) was replaced by a variant of Crazy King of the Hill on Coagulation we called “Arg! It Moved!” (as the place you needed to stand to gain points and win would move every 30 seconds, usually just as you were about to stand there).
How I usually looked online in Halo3

And then something stupid happened. We gained broadband internet access, and I hooked up the XBox. The trial month of XBox Live was activated, and I sampled the world of Halo 2 online.

While the regular players who visited would repeatedly and frustratingly kick my ass at Halo, it wasn’t until I had access to online gameplay that I really sampled the nerve-wracking bloodbath of my continual fragging.

We still loved Halo, and the games we played were still fun, but when we found out that Halo 3 would be on the newly launched XBox360, we upgraded and were introduced to a far harsher sport online. The abuse would flow - the taunts and the colourful language - until it became necessary to plug the headset in for game-chat, turn the volume right down and leave the headset on the sofa next to you.

Halo night continued weekly, sometimes with a simple 2x 360 LAN or just meeting up online and connecting with private channels to team up against the constant onslaught of “Pro Gamers”. We had our moments of glory, but I was just too bad a player and I was obviously bringing everyone down. The frustration was starting to set in, and that seed of being bored by shooters had been planted.

Sure, there were other games out there that I loved – GTAIV and Red Dead Redemption to name a couple, but it was getting to the pitch where my interest in video gaming was dwindling, mostly due to being generally rubbish at it. I’d have given up right there and then if it wasn’t for one game. A game I’d initially discounted because it just looked silly. A game called Rock Band.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Put Your Cards On The Table

Tarot has always been a bit of an odd one for me. It has always fascinated me, even though I have very little belief in any "mystical" connections to it, I do feel that the symbolism used in the cards is incredibly clever. Not only does this mean that almost anyone can see themselves and their current situations in the cards, but this ability to relate to the cards can produce some incredible insight and help people who had previously become "stuck" in their situations.

I remember my first exposure to Tarot was through my love of James Bond. I mentioned in an earlier post that I was introduced to James Bond at an early age through my parents taking me to see The Man With The Golden Gun. From then, I was hooked and I have fond memories of keeping the blueprints and diagrams of the stunts from Live and Let Die that were printed in the TVTimes when the movie first screened on British TV. And it was from Live and Let Die that I first saw Tarot, in the hands of the lovely Solitaire.
Solitaire (Live and Let Die)

I hadn't seen Tarot before, so I was confused as to why the cards looked different to playing cards, and it was then that I discovered my father's passing fascination with the Tarot, and he let me see his deck. I don't think he'd ever used it - just bought it and filed it away. It was an old Tarot of Marseilles set that came with a book. A set I still have today.

Of course, when I started roleplaying, the interest started again when I started running the James Bond roleplaying game for the group, with SPECTRE replaced by TAROT.

The years passed, and I didn't do a lot with Tarot until the time I came to apply to do my degree at art college. As part of the interview process for that particular college (now university) they asked each applicant to produce a self portrait to bring along to the interview which would not only show off their artistic skills, but maybe also give the tutors an insight into the way their prospective students saw themselves.

For my self portrait I produced a set of Tarot cards. Just the 22 cards of the Major Arcana, but I used photos (some shot especially) and got creative, covering the images in paint, illustration and weirdness, interpreting the meaning behind each card to show an aspect of my life at that time. It was all very horribly angsty and personal, and I don't think many people have seen them outside of the interview. Luckily, they did the trick and I was accepted on the course.

Thanks to relocating for art college, and getting back into reading comics, I became a fan of the the weirder DC titles such as Sandman and especially Shade: The Changing Man. When these became part of that first wave of Vertigo titles, and they announced a special Tarot set illustrated by Dave McKean, I placed my order straight away.

Vertigo Tarot - 0:The Fool
The Vertigo Tarot was a lovely set, and the book was incredibly easy to use. I was inspired for the first time to actually use the set for the intended purpose, and after a few readings, the various friends I'd done readings for said that the results had been strangely accurate. It was odd, because I wasn't really reading anything special into the spreads. I didn't know the cards very well to begin with so most of the readings involved looking at the cards, and looking things up in books, and writing an interpretation for the querant. Maybe this was what produced the "accuracy" as it allowed the querant to interpret the results themselves, projecting elements of their own life - maybe elements they didn't realise were there - onto the results the cards had produced. It was odd, but it seemed to work, and the people I read for seemed to be inspired, motivated, and above all happy with the results.

I'd rediscovered gaming again after relocating for art college, and after playing Vampire: The Masquerade, we moved on to playing Mage: The Ascension. When they produced a set of Tarot cards, inspired by the cover image of the corebook, we had to invest. I never used them for the game, or for traditional Tarot readings, but it did sow the seeds of inspiration that the names and images on the cards could be tweaked to fit a specific setting - or in this case, to suit a roleplaying game.

Something that has obviously stayed with me over the years - for when I started to write WILD a couple of years ago, when I considered an interesting element for the RPG I immediately thought of the Tarot.

Initially, I wanted a set of random cards that could represent the 100 most common dreams. The traditional things like being late for an exam or test, being naked in public, descending into a dingy cellar, flying or floating around a room, losing your teeth... that sort of thing. Then I realised that these dream images also inspired Archetypes, and the more I researched, the more I discovered the connection between the Tarot, and Jungian Archetypes and dream imagery.

Very rough version of XIV
So I set to making another deck of Tarot cards. I took index cards and wrote the divinatory meanings of each on them, and took the 100 or so most common dreams and wrote them on post-it notes. Then it was a case of laying the cards out on the floor and matching the dream to the card it best suited.

But things started evolving as the game was being written. It was taking on a life of its own. The four suits seemed to fit the four Attributes of the game, so it was a logical choice to change out Coins, Cups, Swords and Wands to become Control, Focus and Vision. The court cards, if you took the Ace into account, also fit the five "Skills" of the game, so it worked if you took out King, Queen and Page and replaced them with the Skills, such as Deceiver, Creator and Operator.

As the NaNoWriMo novel took shape, and the background of the game was formed, detailing the events that would lead up to the creation of dreamshare technology and the dreams of the inventor's daughter, the more the imagery of the novel would inspire the cards, especially the Major Arcana.

The more I looked at the cards, and how they would be used in the game as a way of influencing events in the dreamshare, the more I realised that I was putting a lot of work into these cards for a device that wouldn't be used all that often. I put the cards aside, and I went back to writing the game...

The first few VERY ROUGH prototype cards

I went back to writing the character creation chapter, and, frankly, got a bit stuck. Until I thought of the cards again. Now the cards have become an integral part of character creation, and also a bit about the relationship-mapping between the characters. I won't go into great detail, as I don't want to spoil it, but I'm quite excited by how its worked out. However, it needs testing. And in order to do that, I needed the cards - complete with the imagery that I wanted on them. A load of index cards with notes and scribbles wouldn't do.

So, on a recent trip to London, visiting the Atlantis Bookshop, I picked up a deck of blank Tarot cards. A whole deck, Tarot card shaped, with a patterned back, but a plain white front. The only problem is, the cards are very glossy and the only thing that'll really stay on the cards is working directly in permanent marker pen. No pencils, just scribbling straight onto the card in pen and hoping for the best.

Some of the cards have come out better than others, and, if the game makes it to production, the cards would be illustrated by someone with a LOT more skill than me. But, they serve the purpose.

As of yesterday, I've completed the Major Arcana. Now, about to start on the Suit of Control. As you can tell, WILD is still a way off yet, but it's evolving and changing with every new development, shaping itself in a fluid form like the dreams it takes its inspiration from.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Distraction, Displacement and Delusion

Today marks an anniversary, and not a very happy one at that. It was exactly a year ago today that my mum lost her fight, and we, in turn, lost her.

It's been a tough year to say the least.

This year also marked the tenth anniversary of losing my dad. When he passed away, I dealt with it in my usual way. I was a mess for a while, but the week before he died I'd signed the contracts with Eden to write the new edition of Conspiracy X, so I did possibly the most unhealthy thing you can do and I compartmentalised. I knuckled down and wrote, and edited, and wrote, and compiled, and managed to get those four core rulebooks beaten into shape. I worked through it... and when Conspiracy X was finished I stumbled onto another project, and another project. Anything to keep my brain busy and to stop the harsh reality from catching up with me.

It did, of course.

Last year, I didn't have any projects that needed to be done. Sure, I had WILD to write, but that was for me, it wasn't really commissioned or contracted. There was no distraction. So I actively went looking for it.

I volunteered to blog for SyFy, attending press screenings and even a celebrity premiere so that I could write reviews for the site.

I put together pitches for roleplaying games that would never happen.

I signed up for NaNoWriMo, writing a novel in a month that acts as the background setting for WILD, which not only helped to shape the game but also gave me a vent for fiction where I could pour all my crazy thoughts, my dreams and fears.

But when it came to writing WILD, I just struggled. I'd stare at the screen, and then find something else to do. The washing up. The vacuuming. Lego. Staring at the feed on Twitter. Anything.

Which is odd, because I've been working on it for a couple of years off and on, and it's still something I'm passionate about. It's a game where your dreams are your reality. Where anything can happen.

Maybe that's why I like Inception so much, as only two* people really die in the whole film. It's not the carnage of most Hollywood blockbusters (*Maurice Fischer and Mal - everyone else who gets shot in the movie never really existed to begin with).

I found my tastes had changed, I spend time in the cinema concerned for the people in the tower blocks that were getting smashed, or in the cars that were being totalled in the car chases. Just don't get me started on video gaming, we'll come to that in my "Bad At Games" posts...

It's only over the last couple of weeks that I've managed to gain some progress on the game - finally finishing the character generation chapter, and now drawing roughs of the cards that'll allow me to test the process.

But the anniversary has come again. And my thoughts are not my own, as they say. The hurt is still there. That weird feeling is still lingering that your childhood home is no longer there to return to.

All I can do is remember, and soldier on. To keep writing. To be there for those I care for. And to hopefully produce something that would make both my parents proud.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Edgar Wright Can Read My Mind

A bit of a geek-out blog entry this time, but it’s worth sticking with it as I’ll relate my brief chat with Edgar Wright towards the end. But first, some backstory. 

I’ve been a fan of Edgar Wright’s work for many years, especially the stuff he’s written with Simon Pegg, but on many occasions I’ve had to question reality a little. It started back when Debs and I used to visit our friend Jason who worked at the local video store. If you remember, he was the guy who introduced me to Conspiracy X all those years ago. Well, that’s not his only claim to fame. We used to chat, and as he got to know us he had a revelation – “Have you guys seen a TV series called ‘Spaced’?”

I’d heard about it, and seen the print ads but knew nothing about it. The title made me think it was trying to be a Channel 4 TV equivalent of Trainspotting, so I wasn’t really interested. I admitted to Jason that I’d not seen it…

“You need to watch it. It’s a TV series about you two!”

Jessica Hynes (Daisy) and Simon Pegg (Tim)

Jason went on to explain how the lead characters were basically me and the wife, and how we must immediately watch the next episode. We’d missed the legendary third episode (“Art”), but tuned in the following week to witness our first exposure to Spaced“Battles”, including the did-it-ten-years-before-Community paintball battle. We watched avidly every week, and bought the DVD the moment it was released.
Substitute "Colin" the dog with Marla the cat,
and basically you have me and Debs...

For those of you who are unaware of the genius of Spaced, the series was geek comedy years before The Big Bang Theory, filled with so many geeky references that the DVDs even came with a Homage-o-meter to help you keep up with the pop culture nods. It told the tale of two people who become friends out of desperation for somewhere to live when they both find themselves homeless. Tim (Simon Pegg) is a video game playing comic artist who hasn’t had anything published but is desperately trying, while Daisy (Jessica Stevenson / Hynes) is a struggling writer who battles with mundane distractions. 

At the time when Spaced first aired, I was a video game playing slacker, who was desperately trying to get into comics. Just like Tim. It was scary. Debs was working in graphic design / reprographics while writing fiction in her spare time. We watched horror movies, Debs shouted at Tomb Raider just like Tim, I played too much Resident Evil 2, we had friends who were painters, knew someone just like Mike, and even Twist. 

It was like the writers had spy-cameras in our house, or were tapped into my brain or something. 

Spaced lasted just two series, but we’ve watched it countless times, and followed the careers of the actors, the writers, and Edgar Wright ever since. 

When we joined with similar-minded individuals and started work on a comedy webseries, my love of Spaced bubbled to the surface. SFX even reviewed the series and said “Ever wondered what a new series of Spaced would look like?” Debs and I finally became Daisy and Tim, albeit with different names. Things had gone full circle. But the tale of the webseries is a whole different story…

While the webseries is in my dim and distant past, a legacy remains. I’d dropped the SyFy Channel a press release for the series, and got chatting to them. One thing lead to another, and I started blogging for them, reviewing movies, promoting series they had coming up, writing about comics that were being unnoticed, and doing features about towns in Stephen King novels. Thanks to this I’ve managed to see a few movies early, and even went to the press conference for The Avengers.

A couple of months ago I was asked if I’d be interested in popping down to London to see the first 45 minutes of Edgar Wright’s new movie “The World’s End”. Initially I thought “Hell Yeah!”, but then there’s always that cost of travel and you’re not seeing the whole film… and then they said the magic words – “Edgar Wright will be there…”

The only problem was I was sworn to secrecy. The embargo on The World’s End meant that not only could I not discuss the footage I’d seen, I wasn’t even allowed to mention that I’d gone to the screening. Not a tweet, not a peep. Anyway, the reviews are out now, and the embargo has been lifted and I can tell my tale…

I’d seen the trailer for The World’s End, and to show that I was keen I dug out my old Sisters of Mercy t-shirt, just as Simon Pegg’s character Gary King wears in the movie (yes, it still fits, even after twenty years), and promptly hopped on a train to the big smoke. 

I was expecting it to be a fairly large affair, but in the end there must have only been twenty or thirty people at most at Universal’s screening room. Drinks and nibbles were laid on, and a lot of the people who were there seemed to know each other. I recognised one of the BBC entertainment people, and a couple of famous faces, and I felt incredibly out of place. What was I doing here? I just wrote for the SyFy Channel every now and then. It’s not like I’m paid for it, I just enjoy doing it. I’m nobody special, and yet there I was, in a relatively small reception area, shaking hands with Edgar Wright’s assistant and lurking in the background wondering when someone was going to throw me out.

Edgar Wright came in and was chatting to various people he seemed to know, when he noticed my t-shirt and came over. 
Edgar Wright - No, I didn't get
a photo, I had to borrow this
from IMDB

“Did you wear that deliberately?” he asked.

Yes. I am that big a fan-boy. I really am. 

He stood and chatted for a bit, telling me how they contacted Andrew Eldritch of the Sisters of Mercy for permission to not only use “This Corrosion” in the movie, but to have Simon Pegg’s character wear a Sisters of Mercy t-shirt for the entire film. Apparently, Andrew Eldritch is a big fan of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and was very happy to allow it. Edgar Wright then went on to tell me how he called Simon Pegg to let him know, as the Peggster is a huge Sisters fan.

I was very good. I didn’t grab Edgar Wright and say “You made a TV series of my life!” or “You inspired me to write a webseries!” I didn’t even stand there and say “Oh my god! You’re Edgar Wright!” despite wanting to. Luckily, before I could embarrass myself, we were ushered into a small screening room to watch the first half of the film.

Before the footage started, Edgar Wright explained that it wasn’t quite finished, that it needed the mix tweaking and some effects finishing, and then explained how Shaun of the Dead was all about your home being invaded by nasty things, and Hot Fuzz was all about being uprooted from your home and put into a completely alien environment. The World’s End is all about going back to your hometown and feeling like you don’t belong.

Again, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg had tapped into my brain. There’s something about leaving a little town, possibly to go to university or art college as I did, and then going back to visit. Things change, but the town looks mostly the same. Maybe it’s something to do with how you remember things from your past, but it feels odd. The locals that you used to see walking the street are still there, heading to the shops, but they seem to stare at you. It’s probably because they recognise you but can’t quite place from where, or are wondering why you’re back, but in that moment you feel like an alien. Or that they have been replaced by Cthulhoid Deep Ones or something…

But when I do go home to my little hometown, I meet up with the old D&D group, and we inevitably end up in the pub and it’s like it’s 1986 all over again.

They stopped the movie just after the pub toilet scene (you’ll understand where that is when you see it), and everyone shuffled out of the little screening room filled with mixed emotions. Elated and excited by the footage we’d seen, yet disappointed and saddened that we’d have to wait another couple of months to see the rest of it.

Debs and I saw the movie this week at the press screening, and you can read my spoiler-free review on the SyFy Channel website here. (Link no longer working as SyFy's Blogs have been deleted). Needless to say, I loved it, and it resonated with me on many levels. It reminded me that I hadn’t watched Spaced for a couple of years, reminded me of the fun of writing a comedy webseries, and once again felt like a part of my life was being adapted for the big screen.

So, thank you Edgar Wright! It was very cool to meet you, and I hope I didn’t come across as a weirdo. Thank you for simultaneously mirroring my life and inspiring my creative pursuits! 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Bad At Games IV - Joss Whedon killed my Playstation

Let’s get this out there straight away – I used to hate Microsoft. Okay, maybe not Microsoft as a whole, but I have never owned, and probably will never own, a traditional PC. It comes from my education background going through Art College and then to the “University of the Arts” as they now call the college where I did my degree. Doing graphic design lead you down a very specific route in my day, and that was purely Apple Mac. We have an old Centris in the loft, a G4 carbon tower that hasn’t been switched on in years, and had a variety of Mac laptops from the “wall street” upwards. Bill Gates was not welcome in our house - we were very much Mac-whores.

When it came to gaming, the Macs were never really gaming machines. All you really had was Marathon, so we did all of our video gaming on the PS2. Final Fantasy dominated most of my time, along with the legendary GTA: Vice City with its uber-cool soundtrack of 80’s pop and Miami Vice colour scheme. The wife continued through the various incarnations of Tomb Raider, but all that would change with a simple competition entry.

Buffy the XBox Game (2002)
Wifey and I are huge fans of Joss Whedon. This came originally from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, first with the movie, and then with the TV series. The pop-culture referencing snappy dialogue, the cool action, the great plots. We were hooked. I spotted a competition online on one of the larger UK sites to win a copy of the XBox video game of Buffy and I did what everyone would do in that situation and clicked enter without really thinking about it. It was Buffy. So what if we couldn’t play the game, we were devouring all things Buffy and it would be nice to add to the collection.

Typically, we won. The game arrived in the post and we were unable to play it for months. Months and months. The idea of owning an XBox really hadn’t crossed our minds, but we had this game, and the urge to play it grew and grew. Again, the offer of a second hand console cropped up and as it was cheap we thought we’d get it so we could finally play the game. 

Buffy kicking the vamps in the XBox game
And what a game it was! Brilliant stuff, running around decapitating ghouls with a shovel, staking vampires, and running around our beloved Sunnydale. Neither of us actually finished the game though, as the final levels decided to try to become a 3D platformer and it really was not built to be the next Tomb Raider. We just couldn’t get over some of the jumps, and in frustration the game was cast aside. 

But the local Game store had an XBox running in the shop with a demo of a particularly popular FPS called Halo. I’d not really heard of it before, and I had a few minutes to waste waiting for wifey to finish her shift at work, so I had a quick blast…

I didn’t know where I was or what was going on, but I was in a dropship just like Aliens again, jumping out onto a sunny beach with other troops running around. It was intuitive to control, looked fantastic, and I knew there and then that something was different about this game. Little did I know it would change my social life completely.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Bad At Games III - Demo Disc-overy

Where was I? Oh yes, the wife and I had bought a second hand Playstation and she was busy jumping through tombs in the legendary Tomb Raider.

In these days before the consoles hooked themselves up to Skynet and could read your heartbeat from a room away, the only real way to discover (pardon the pun) what new games were coming out was to buy the magazine. If you were wise, you’d go for the Official Playstation Magazine and eagerly slam in the demo disc that was glued to the front of each issue. The demo disc held samples of around half a dozen games, just the first level usually, so that you could tell if the game was going to be worth your hard earned cash.

Some months it was a bit of a waste of time – a handful of rather bad games that were not worth the time or the energy. But once in a while, there was a gem on there that had you instantly hooked. A demo you kept reloading over and over again.

There were four demos that really stood out for me as being real high points in my gaming history. These are in no order really, just ones that come to mind.

MTV Sports: Snowboarding
The first was MTV Snowboarding. Yeah, I know. A snowboarding game. How could that be cool? Well, it had an awesome soundtrack. My first real exposure to Blink 182, and there were also cool tracks from Fear Factory and Ministry. The controls were simple, you could play two player, and although the demo only had two slopes we played it over and over and over again. Of course, when the game came out, we did eventually buy it, and blasted through it in about two hours… and then it was kinda over…

Hogs of War PS1 Game
The next of the demos that grabbed me by the face and kept me reloading the game was Hogs of War. A simple 3D version of Worms that had a comical Rik Mayall voiceover that you would eventually turn off after half an hour in the full game. You took it in turns, shooting bizarre weapons at each other as odd little racial stereotyped pigs in a WWII style setting. I don’t know what it was about this game, but I did rather enjoy it. Possibly too much. Of course, I played for the glory of the Soviet Union in most of my games.

Thirdly was Final Fantasy VII. The demo was a disc to itself, and took Cloud through to placing the bomb early on in the game. Playthrough of the demo took easily twenty five minutes to play, and it was just stunning. I think I only played the demo through a couple of times before I realised that I needed to buy the full game. And what a game it was. I loved FFVII. And it is, still, to date, the only Final Fantasy game I’ve actually completed to the end. 
Final Fantasy VII - Genius!

The final boss battle with Sephiroth took nearly three hours, and I only managed it thanks to getting the Knights of the Round Materia and the Mime Materia to copy its effects over and over. Man that was a hard fight. Sweaty palms, shaky hands and a weak bladder by the end of that, but FFVII is still a work of genius. At a time when I didn’t get to tabletop game very often (if at all) it filled a hole in my gaming life, and made me wonder why there wasn’t an official Final Fantasy tabletop RPG…

A special mention should also go for the demo disc that included the opening title sequence to FFVIII. Good lord that was amazing…

The original Grand Theft Auto game
Finally, and holding the record for the most times I reloaded the demo had to be one of the most unlikely and simplest games ever – one that would produce a series of amazing games – Grand Theft Auto. The original GTA was a top-down and incredibly basic game, with a little guy who was barely more than a dozen pixels jumping into cars and causing carnage. The whole of the city was open to you, and the complete game seemed to be there on the demo disc, but it cunningly timed the demo to switch off after five minutes. But every time you reloaded it you could do something different, explore a different part of the city, try some of the missions, cause more mayhem, try to jump that gap, steal that police car, and more.

I loved GTA, bought the game after almost wearing the disc out. I played GTA and FFVII so much we had the regular PS1 problem where you had to stand the console on its side or upside-down to get the discs to load. 

And then, Sony announced the PS2… it had to be done…

Friday, June 14, 2013

E3 Special II - "I Got Your Open World For You Right Here!!"

A bit of a follow up to this week’s earlier E3 post (“I got your backwards compatibility right here!”), I’ve been following the big announcements from E3 to see if there was anything that remotely made me excited for video games again. On the whole, it’s just been shooty-shooty-shooty.

There was the surprising announcement that Microsoft were launching a new Xbox360 and were dedicated to supporting the console for the next twelve months. Lots of new games coming out for it, but it’s really just putting off the inevitable – when the 360 has become a thing of the past and all my old games are redundant. Microsoft were not doing themselves any favours with their comments about the 360 being their product for people who don’t want to be connected to the internet all of the time, and Sony’s potential library of back catalogue being available may give us some hope that older games are going to be available to keep in some form or another (though probably not).

But on the whole, besides a couple of interesting exceptions to the rule, the whole of E3 was about carrying a gun, and shooting someone. Or carrying a sword and stabbing them. Or maybe just punching them in the face.

I’m not the only one bored by it all. 

Variety reported an interesting panel at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where the biggest names in cinema – George Lucas and Steven Spielberg – discussed the future of movies and video games. Lucas said, “the games industry can and will create empathic characters, but it hasn’t so far because it’s been driven by hard-core gamers who enjoy onscreen violence.”

I’ll come back to that panel in a future blog post to discuss Lucas’ theory of entertainment taking to controlling your dreams.

However, in amongst all of the bloodshed, shooting, fast cars and the inevitable zombie plagues, there was one phrase that kept being repeated over and over again.

Open World Environment.

They’re taking it to mean that you can go anywhere, and do anything you like. 

The first one I really remember being like this was Grand Theft Auto, though (in my opinion) this was truly perfected in Red Dead Redemption. But let’s stick to GTA shall we? 

GTA IV - Gorgeous looking isn't it?
Before I start, let’s just get this clear – I LOVE GTA. GTA IV, and Red Dead Redemption are possibly my favourite video games ever. Sure, you could say they’re the usual men-shooting-each-other games, but certainly in Red Dead’s case, the shooting was done reluctantly, and there was an emotional plot that would but many blockbuster movies to shame. 

Grand Theft Auto IV is another work of genius. The “open world environment” is huge, the whole of Liberty City (though this is tiny compared to the open plains of Red Dead). Once the plot had opened up all of the islands of Liberty City, you could drive around everywhere. Get in a boat and go out in the sea, or take a helicopter around the city. Fantastic. You could do lots of cool and crazy stuff, like jump out of helicopters, drive cars off of rooftops or through the subway system, or just take in the sights. Go to the bar, have a few drinks. Go to the golf driving range, play darts, or just cause mayhem and wait for the police to take you down.

Seems pretty open world doesn’t it?

Let's look at this...

It’s an image of the game, looking at a borough of Liberty City. Fantastic isn’t it? The detail, the size of it all. 

However, can you go in the buildings? Well, you can, but only a select few. You can go into the shops, the bars, the houses that you own, and ones that are either locations of prearranged action scenes and missions, or the houses of the filthy crims you’re working for. But that's it. The rest are just blocks that have graphic images of fake windows and doors.

Suddenly, your open world isn’t quite so open.

You can drive into the airport, but you can’t book a flight on a plane. You can steal a helicopter, but you can’t leave Liberty City. You can hijack a boat, but you can’t sail off into the sunset. 

Your open world is a snowglobe, filled with fake plastic buildings with fake doors that don’t open.

This is not a criticism against Rockstar Games. As I’ve said, I love GTA, I love them all with a passion, and I still play GTA IV now, many years after it came out. I can’t wait for GTAV, though I get the feeling that I’m going to be rubbish at it (because, as I discuss elsewhere on this blog, I’m bad at video games). No, this is the limitation of the console, of the computing power, and what it can do.

My wife is brilliant. I’m not just saying it because she’s my wife, but she has this knack – this ability to think outside of the box. She loves video games too – she plays a lot more than I do. She’s actually finished Assassin’s Creed (all of them), the new Tomb Raider, and all of the Halo games (I still haven't finished 4 yet). But while she’s playing video games, you can see the frustration there. She doesn’t want to run into the next area to start shooting at the next wave of pre-destined goons. She wants to have a look around, see the scenery, look for any little areas she may have missed, look for secret passageways, and find the cool stuff.

This may come from the first couple of Tomb Raider games where you could take your time, find new ways around, find secret areas and investigate. But this seems to be lost with modern games and their “run in blasting and don’t look at the surroundings” mentality.

If she was playing GTA, she’d be off wondering why she couldn’t go into the neighbour’s building, go into that shop, climb to that roof… all of the things you can’t do. 

In order to be able to go into every house, to leave the city, to talk to random people, to go off on new adventures that are spontaneous you'd need a computer the size of a college dorm, or to get into MMORPGs.

But you know what does have a truly open world environment?

Tabletop roleplaying games.

Yes, we’re back to that argument again. Want to go into the neighbour’s house? No problem. Talk to the neighbours and ask if there have been any strange happenings recently? Maybe the neighbours have been having a problem being hassled by a cruel and manipulative landlord in an unexpected plot that the gamemaster is making up on the spot. A plot that’ll lead to a whole new adventure going off on a tangent that’ll last weeks. Who knows?

That’s one of the wonders of tabletop gaming. No limitations. Sure, the GM may have put a lot of work into an adventure or setting, but the option is certainly there for the player characters to do something different, leave the area, and find something new to discover.

Not only is wifey brilliant at questioning the logic of games (not only video games, but also roleplaying games – certainly keeps me on my toes when game designing) but she’s great at doing the unexpected. I remember we’d been playing Kult quite intensely, and I’d just purchased the epic and gorgeously designed Judas Grail adventure for it. I set the game up, tweak a couple of the characters so it fits with our current storyline, and start the game… only to have her lead the entire group to a completely different location, and end up in a nightclub full of vampires. 

But it didn't matter. The game was still awesome, and everything that came out of it was just as unexpected and cool for me as the GM as it was for the players. And that's something video games cannot do. At least not yet. Not for a long while.

Speaking of game designing though, I should get back to that. WILD isn’t going to write itself.

Until next time, stay multi-classy.

Monday, June 10, 2013

E3 Special: "I Got Your Backwards Compatibility Right Here!"

It’s E3 again this week, and this has to be the first year when I really don’t care what they announce. As I started covering in my Bad at Games features, I used to love video games. There was a time when I did little else except watch little pixels fly about the screen. My childhood was filled with video games, playing in my little room, headphones on, listening to music because the bleeps of the game didn’t really matter - well, they certainly didn't when you had a ZX Spectrum. 

All that changed over the last couple of years when I realised what I was doing. The big releases were all the same – run into a room, shoot everything, move onto the next room. The only thing I found interesting to play was Rock Band, and that time has passed for most of the world.

Then along comes the new console releases from the big-boys – the Playstation 4, and the XBox One. And you know what? I don’t really care at all. New hardware that isn’t compatible with anything I have – what a great idea. All those games I’ve kept because I love them – GTAIV, Red Dead Redemption, and even Halo. Can’t play them on the new console thanks to a new operating system.

And the hardware I’ve bought. Rock Band guitars, drums, microphones, drum-stools, mic-stands – every incarnation of Rock Band… The Kinect sensor, the Lips mics, the Scene It buzzers… all hunks of useless plastic when the new XBox comes out. They’ll all be worth about £2.50 when you try to trade them in as well, because no one will want them. The hardcore shoot-em-up gamer will have bought the new consoles without thinking and they’ll have no need for these peripherals anyway.

So I guess I’ve been well and truly XBoned. 

Backwards Compatibility

You know what IS backwards compatible though?


Okay, so there are always new versions of games coming out. The market leader of the roleplaying game hobby is previewing its Fifth Edition at GenCon this year. But still, five editions (well, more than that if you count revisions an 0.5’s) in forty years is pretty good. The other biggies like Vampire has revised once or twice (if you count the recent nWoD update), and sometimes game systems change altogether – I’m one of the biggest culprits of this both in my GMing and professionally (after all, I was behind the massive change to the game system of Conspiracy X, stripping out the old game system and plugging in Unisystem). 

But you know what? You’re not forced into the changes. Because the game’s operating system is the most powerful one on the planet – your brain. If you were a hardcore Conspiracy X player and didn’t like Unisystem, but wanted the updates to the setting – you buy the new books and keep playing with the old system. Nothing is stopping you. 

You want to play D&D but prefer 1st Edition to 4th, but quite like the adventures and the settings of the newer games? You keep using 1st Edition rules, and with a little tweaking by the Dungeon Master, the new information can be plugged right in. 

Campaign Length

One of the regular gripes about roleplaying games is the price. It’s an odd one, really when you think about it. Let’s look at a couple of examples (and excuse the UK pricing).

The core set for the 11th Doctor edition of Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is £39.99. Sure, that’s a lot, but it’s the same price as BattleCall of Halo 4. Let’s look at one of the heavy hitters of the games industry of the last few months – Bioshock Infinite. There main game itself takes around 10-15 hours to complete, so that’s already double most of the shooters out there (your average Halo / Call of Duty campaign is around 6-8). And then what?

GTA Multiplayer lobby.
To quote Nine Inch Nails - "Where is everybody?"
It’s kinda over. Most of the shooters have the online multiplayer that’ll give you hours and hours of the same rooms, and repetitive gunfire, or watching the screen while you wait to respawn if you’re as good at FPSs as I am. And if you find a game that you really love, there’s a good chance that the rest of the world may give up on it and leave you behind. My favourite multiplayer video game? Grand Theft Auto IV, especially GTA Race. Sure people still play it now, but I have to sit in a lobby for ten-twenty minutes until the few people around the globe who still play the game decide to log on. 

Once that wait becomes too much, or if they retire multiplayer servers for that game, it’s over. You can play the campaign again, but the villains appear at the same moments, you know what’s coming and it’s all a bit linear.

Tabletop gaming however, going back to the Doctor Who core set, you’re given a main adventure to get you going that’ll take about three or four sessions to play (so you’re looking around 9-12 hours for the basic adventure). Then you have a couple of smaller adventures that you can run, or expand into something bigger. There’s 6-12 hours there on top. And in addition to of all that, there’s a host of little story ideas that you can turn into adventures that’ll last you another… oh, I dunno… you could run a 4-6 hour game a week and still have a year’s worth of gaming there. 

Then, when you run out, you can just make up your own! Go onto one of the many fan sites and download some free adventures, and you don’t need to buy anything else!

You can stop playing for a year, put it on the shelf, and if you fancy a game with some friends, you can dust the game off and play any time you like. The servers for it aren’t going to be shut down from lack of use. You won’t have to go onto a new system or download countless updates. You can just play.

On that subject…

Downloadable Content.

DLC seems to be a big part of the video games industry. The big companies have realised that you don’t need to give everything to the gamer in one package. You can hold some of it back and release it for more money later.

Sure, this happens in RPGs too, but in most cases the additional material is being held back purely because of the cost of producing the game. Imagine if Doctor Who was all in one game – every possible creature from 50 years of Doctor Who… the game would be massive. And cost so much that you wouldn’t want to buy it. Or be able to carry it...

It’s another thing when video games companies put the content on the disk and just not let you access it until you’ve coughed up some extra cash. That’s just not on.

Anyway, back to the point. If you want to download a new map for Call of Duty, that’s fine. It adds a bit more multiplayer. In some cases, there are expansions to the single player campaign – and in some rare cases this expansion is huge and fantastic (I’m looking at you GTAIVLost and the Damned, and The Ballad of Gay Tony showing you how DLC should be done).

The same can be done with tabletop RPGs. Expansions, with new rules and settings are common, as well as extensive campaigns and adventures. But you know what’s controversial? You don’t have to buy the expansion for the game you’re playing.

I know, it’s a surreal concept. But imagine you’re playing World of Darkness and fancy something a bit different. You could buy a Call of Cthulhu supplement, or adventure, and run that with it with just a few system tweaks. I own many supplements for games that I don’t have the core set for. It’s a bit like downloading a map pack for Halo and being able to use them in Call of Duty.

Radical, huh?

Anyway, the first big seminars from E3 are about to start, and I'll be watching - hoping to be surprised. I'm not saying roleplaying games are better than video games, or vice versa. But when you're frustrated by the new announcements from E3 or from the new console launches, just remember tabletop gaming. It gets your brain working, it's social without just being a mass of insults on headsets, and it survives the tests of time.

Until next time, stay multiclassy!