Category Archives: Gaming

Making Character Creation Count

paper-pile-lgMy wife and I have been getting back into gaming, most notably board gaming, but at least kicking around the idea of playing RPGs too.  I used to be a big tabletop gamer, I started playing in 1974 with Chainmail, then moved into the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons.  While it’s not something I’ve played in many years, mostly because I’ve grown horribly allergic to fantasy, I was a big time roleplayer at least through the early 90s.  I didn’t meet my wife at our gaming group but that’s where we started going out, so it’s played a big part in my life over the years.

We’ve been testing a couple of podcasts, trying to see which ones we like and we happened across The Secret Cabal Gaming Podcast, a bi-weekly podcast that covers both board and roleplaying games.  It’s a great podcast, the only downside is that every episode is close to 3 hours long!  Anyhow, we were listening to the most recent episode and they had a segment on getting out of the character creation rut.  Mostly, they had the complaint that nobody bothers to do any kind of character background or pay much attention to character motivation, it’s just roll some dice and play the game and make the rest up as you go along.

It made me think back to some of the ways that I used to not only be invested in the characters I created, but how I would get my players, when I was GM, to become involved and interested in the lives and backgrounds of their own characters, which I think is really important for getting players immersed in the game and the game world.

First and foremost, for the individual, I think a lot of that motivation has to come from within.  I never played with GMs that would force people to sit around a table and roll up characters in his presence to make sure they weren’t cheating, but I think that plays to the character of the people involved.  If you can’t trust the people you’re playing with, why are you playing with them?  So we all created characters at home when we had plenty of time to sit down and do it right.  Myself, I’d roll up characters by the dozens, just to have them.  I had manila envelopes full of characters of all shapes and sizes, all with completely fleshed out backgrounds, so when I sat down at the table and the GM said he wanted a specific type of character, I had one available.  That way, I had my pick and could shore up the party where they might otherwise be weak, there were plenty of times that the group showed up with mostly fighters or mostly thieves and there wasn’t a cleric or a mage to be found.  I could fix that.

When I was running games, I would have everyone bring me their character sheets a week early so I could take them home and weave elements from their back stories into the narrative.  I might slip them something here or there, unbeknownst to the other players, that fit into the story I was trying to tell.  Of course, we planned these games weeks, sometimes months ahead of time, so everyone knew what day they had to have things ready, we didn’t just show up at our weekly game night and say “what does everyone want to do?”  Organization is very important to getting people invested and getting them looking forward to what they’ll be doing for the next couple of weeks.

But I think the best suggestion I can give, that always worked for me, is to play in a consistent game universe.  Get people familiar with your game world and make their characters a part of it.  No, that doesn’t mean that they save the world every week, I find that pretty boring, but their deeds and exploits ought to be known and commemorated somewhere in the world, for good or bad.  Also, keep them playing the same characters for a long time if possible.  I don’ t have them re-roll new characters at the end of the campaign if it isn’t necessary, the same characters will go on to have other adventures, sort of like Indiana Jones.  When they die or when we decide to take a leap forward, maybe it’s their children that become the new focus?  Or maybe it’s a character that idolized the old one?  They’ll run across people singing the praises of their old characters or find references in encyclopedias detailing their adventures.  I had one game where they found a pile of wanted posters for their old characters, reminding them that the outcome isn’t always going to be positive.  For my sci-fi universe, I wrote a weekly newspaper where, in the advertisements, there was a long-running gag of bounty hunters searching for old characters.  I’ll also randomly reward players with bonuses on their rolls based on some aspect of their backstory.  The more detailed the story, the better chance of getting a lucky break when you need it the most.  When we came back to the table, it was always within the same universe, with the same history and the same physics, it was just like coming home.

Because people knew that they’d be playing these characters for weeks, perhaps years of their lives, they got really invested in the characters, they didn’t take them for granted and put them into dangerous situations because… so what, they’d just roll a new one next week.  What they did mattered and there are former players of mine who have written stories, and in one case, a couple of books based on characters designed during my campaigns.  I’ve had players become even better experts on my game worlds than I was because they enjoyed the universe.  They’d run into things they’d seen before and have that spark of remembrance and that’s a really fun thing to see as a GM.

I know it’s hard, especially when you don’t play the same game regularly, to implement some of these changes.  If you’re playing D&D one week, Traveler the next, Shadowrun the week after that, etc., then generating a cohesive game world in each game is going to be difficult, that’s mostly why I never played that way, I kept to one or two RPGs, at most, with board or card games available to play between campaigns or if a session finished up early.  There was never a time when people forgot about a game world or it’s history, they just didn’t stay away from it long enough and maybe that’s part of the secret too.

I really miss my days gaming.  I wish I could do it now.  I’ve looked, there just aren’t any gamers in my area and while I can play online, so much of the experience requires sitting down around a table with people you have a lot in common with and that you like and admire.  Best friends are made that way.  So are wives.  It’s a shame I will probably never find groups like that again.

MMOs: Those Who Fail To Understand History…

PeabodyYou know, I’ve come to realize that you get clueless fanatics in all walks of life, not just religion.  There’s a small but vocal faction of the MMO community who are old-school gamers, people who started with Ultima Online and Evercrack and they just can’t understand why the gaming world doesn’t still revolve around the same kind of gameplay featured in those games.  Now granted, I started playing at the same time, but unlike them, I understand that things change and evolve and that relying on one and only one type of gameplay forever is ridiculous.  I’ve tried to explain why things are different, but they don’t want to understand and typing it out over and over and over to an audience with their eyes clenched tightly shut and their fingers in their ears, yelling “I can’t hear you!” is frustrating.

So set the Way-Back Machine, Sherman, we’re going to go back and deal with a bit of reality.

See, back in the old days, the newfangled computer game genre now known as the MMO did, indeed, have a particular audience in mind.  These were the geeks and the nerds.  They weren’t targeted for their geekdom, but  because they tended to have the powerful computers necessary to run the games and, most importantly, they were the most likely to have access to the higher speed Internet that the games required.  When these people got together in the games, they tended to have similar interests and thus, naturally gravitated toward online in-game socializing.  There was a time when you could hardly join a group where you didn’t have something in common with them.  I remember discussions about Star Trek, the whole group quoting Monty Python and the Holy Grail simultaneously, etc.  It was very commonplace because most people were from the same socio-geek group.

However, along came World of Warcraft, which just so happened to hit a “perfect storm” in Internet technology.  See, before that time, broadband Internet was relatively rare, but at the time WoW came out, it was just starting to go mainstream, thousands and millions of normal, everyday people got high-speed access in a relatively short period of time and all of these people were looking for something to do with this sudden explosion of bandwidth.  They turned to WoW by the millions and the MMO industry realized that it didn’t have to rely on a few tens of thousands of nerds, they could have millions of paying subscribers.

Socially, of course, this caused problems.  Instead of having a single online gaming culture, the mainstream audience that came to take over the industry brought dozens or hundreds of different beliefs, interests and ideas.  No longer could you rely on getting into a group of like-minded individuals, in fact, it was rare that people in a random group would have anything, other than the game itself, in common.  You couldn’t talk about music, TV, movies, you couldn’t be sure anyone else would like  George Carlin or Red Dwarf, groups largely went silent because there was no point in trying to have a conversation about those formerly-common geek topics.  Instead of knowing you were mostly playing with guys living in their mother’s basements, you could be playing with grandmothers, wives or 8-year olds.  All of the geeky dirty jokes and innuendos went right out the window.  MMOs stopped being for nerds and started being for everyone.  In fact, it was around the same time period that video games in general stopped being for nerds and started appealing to the mainstream.

But that’s the thing, the nerds didn’t want to accept that a genre they considered their own personal property no longer valued them as their exclusive customers.  These people still want to believe that MMOs are made for them alone and that anyone who isn’t willing to play a game 12 hours a day shouldn’t be playing MMOs.  Yet that just isn’t the world we live in anymore, whether they like it or not.  We live in a world where casual gaming is the norm, where obstacles and hassles in games are eliminated to allow more efficient gameplay in a shorter amount of time, and this is the big one, people want to be able to play on their own so they are not stuck in those uncomfortable groups where nobody has anything in common to talk about.

Yet that doesn’t stop the old-school geeks from fantasizing that if only they could force everyone at gunpoint to do what they want, if only they could make the games difficult and time consuming and make everyone group up, that it would all go back to the way it used to be in the good old days.  They don’t understand that the gaming landscape has forever changed and can never go back to how it was.  The gaming world is fundamentally different than it was in the pre-WoW days.  It would be like demanding all cars go back to crank-starters and if only people didn’t have a choice, they would soon embrace old technology.

Sorry, that’s just not how it works.  Old school gaming is largely dead.  If you really want it, you can go back and play Ultima Online or Evercrack.  They’re still limping along, but they, too, have had to change to deal with the new paradigm, which sets off a lot of old-timers to claim that there are no games left for them.  Maybe they’re right.  Maybe, like the  dinosaurs, the world has changed to such a degree that it’s time for them to go metaphorically extinct.  The planet advances whether you like it or not.  I just wish they’d stop whining endlessly about it.  Don’t like the games out there today?  Go find something else to do.

Games: I Don’t Want to Accomplish Anything

challenge12
I could probably still beat this machine.

To be perfectly honest, I get really tired of people telling me that I need to “accomplish things” in games, that I should struggle and fight to be better than anyone else and that when I complete a goal, I ought to be proud of myself.

Fuck that, I play games to have a good time.  I recognize games for what they are: a way to waste free time and enjoy myself while I’m doing it.  It doesn’t matter what kind of game it is either.  I just want to have some mindless fun to fill those hours that I don’t have anything better to do with myself.

Don’t get me wrong, I am competitive when it matters, I strive to be #1 when it actually makes a difference but playing a game isn’t one of those times.

Let’s look at Tetris.  I’m good at Tetris.  In fact, I’m absurdly good at Tetris.  It’s not that hard to be good at Tetris though, all it takes is an understanding of the game mechanics and decent reflexes.  I can play Tetris all damn day, in fact, I used to.  When I was growing up, there was a liquor store right by my house that had a couple of video games and, at one  time, had a Tetris machine.  I’d go in there and play for hours on a single quarter.  This probably pissed off the owners of the liquor store.  In fact, I virtually never actually lost a game of Tetris, I’d play until I had to leave, then purposely kill myself and walk out the door.  I could play that game forever, at least until I got bored with it.  There was another game called Super Don Super_Don_Quix-ote.jpg.w300h281Quix-ote, a laserdisc-based game in the same vein as Space Ace, that was in the student lounge back when I was in college.  To win, you just had to have quick reflexes and know which way to move the joystick at what time.  Once you have it all down, you never lose and you can go through the entire game over and over and over on a single quarter.  I always had my initials on the leaderboard.  So what?  I usually had an hour or so between classes and I’d spend my time playing.  To be honest, there were times when I got so engrossed in it, I forgot to go to class.  Did anyone ride me around on their shoulders for being good at a game?  Of course not.  Did I ever feel that I accomplished something by rolling the machine over a half-dozen times?  No.  Did I ever have any sense of personal pride because I was good at the game?  Are you insane?

Yet there are so many people who insist that if I’m going to play a game, any game, be it an MMO or a shooter or Angry Birds, I have to be competing against someone, I have to be pushing myself to be #1, I have to be posting my scores online somewhere, I have to sign up for some tracking service, I have to be swinging my e-peen around so that everyone knows how bitchin’ I am.  I understand that everyone is different and some people live such a pathetic existence that they can only feel good about themselves vicariously through playing video games, but I keep running into people who insist that the only way anyone ought to play these games is by being the best, having the strongest build, wearing the best armor and outfits, etc.  In other words, by showing off.

See, I used to play MMOs a lot, back in the day.  I started out with Ultima Online, played through EverCrack, etc.  The games I’ve played over the years are numerous and varied, but I’ve really lost interest in playing most of them and the reason isn’t the games, it’s the mouth-breathers I have to play with.  There really seem to be two kinds of people in most MMOs today.  The old-school “you have to spend 12 hours camping a spawn site before you’re worthwhile” idiots and the “we have to race to end-game faster than everyone else” morons.  I hate both of them.  They’re all a bunch of type-A knuckle-draggers who are only interested in knocking people over with their massive gamer’s cock.  Me, on the other hand, am a very clear type-B gamer.  I place games in what I think are their proper context.  I’m not adverse to a little fun competition from time to time but I recognize that this is a game, a form of light entertainment, an “interactive movie” for lack of a better term and I don’t place any more importance on it than that.  This seems to piss the shit out of people who are convinced that anyone who doesn’t take it all very seriously is somehow doing it wrong.

That’s really why I largely walked away from playing MMOs, the douchebaggery of the majority of players.  Honestly, I’d much rather play the occasional single-player shooter, such as Halo or Crysis or Bulletstorm.  They’re superior games in all respects, plus you don’t have to deal with morons trying to fuck you over, but unfortunately, there aren’t that many of them out there and they don’t tend to last that long.  I can run through a good single-player game in a week or two.  Sure, if you’re talking about something huge like Skyrim or Fallout, especially if it has a lot of downloadable content, it’ll take a while, but otherwise, games just don’t last that long.  MMOs are, although inferior in design and implementation, a place where tons upon tons of content exists.  It takes months at the outside to burn through what an MMO has, and with the wealth of free-to-play MMOs out there, you can go from game to game to game and never really run out of things to do.

Except you have to deal with the competitive asshats who not only think they get to dictate how you’re supposed to play, but they think it’s their job to explain to you constantly that if you’re not doing it their way, you must be doing it wrong.   Is it any reason I largely detest the online gaming community and the games they hang out on?

Mistaken Fantasies of Ownership

Its Dead JimWondercon is coming up at the end of the month and, of course, we’re going.  Don’t worry, I’ll do what I always do, post progress reports for the convention on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights and will have regular posts those days as well.  However, that’s not what this article is all about.

I see a lot of old-school MMO players who seem to think that because they’ve been playing in that particular genre of video games for a long time, that somehow that gives them some say in how modern-day video games are made, like someone ought to have consulted them before daring to make any changes in the genre.  Far too many of them feel entitled to get a game made specifically for them, whether or not it’s financially viable, just because they’ve somehow “earned” it.

But that brings us back around to Wondercon, or more properly, Wondercon’s big brother, San Diego Comicon.  I started going to that convention back in the mid-70s when it was only a few years old and attended for close to 40 years straight.  Hell, I’ve not only been an attendee, not only been a volunteer, I’ve been on staff for the convention.  Today, I don’t go anymore, I don’t really like what it’s become and it’s just not fun anymore.  However, does my longevity in attendance and organization mean I somehow have some control over what they do with their convention?  Should they have come and consulted me before they made any changes?  Of course not!

To be sure, this is all a bunch of entitlement nonsense, people thinking that they deserve to be rewarded with exactly what they want, just because they want it.  We’ve raised a generation or two of people whose entire mindset is “gimme gimme gimme!  mine mine mine!”  They think that the planet owes them whatever they can wish for and if they don’t get it immediately, then they’re entitled to sit there and whine about what an unfair place the world is.

What’s worse, even after you explain to them why it’s unlikely that they’ll get what they want, they just don’t care.  I’ve had people tell me “I’m a consumer, not a stockholder, I don’t care about their business considerations, all I care about is getting what I want!”  What would happen if I took that attitude with regard to SDCC?  I don’t care that all businesses exist to make money!  I want them to be a smaller convention that only caters to those things I’m interested in!  If they don’t do exactly what I want, I’m going to sit here and hold my breath until I turn blue!  Waaaaaaah!

They’d tell me what to go do with myself and rightfully so, just as MMO developers ought to tell these old-school nuts where they can shove their entitlement fantasies.  It’s one thing to say “I’d really like to have this but I understand that in the current gaming market, it’s just not popular enough to engender the millions of dollars and years of development time required”.  I can live with that.  It’s the people who jump up and down and demand that someone out there cater just to them that make me want to knock people in the head.

And finally, for those people who say “you don’t know that the game I want will fail”, you’re right.  I don’t know, to any absolute degree of certainty, that your game will financially combust, but neither do I have any reason to think, nor evidence to support, a claim that it will be financially successful.  Luckily, business decisions are not made on the basis of spending money on every cockamamie idea that comes down the road that cannot be proven wrong, they require good evidence that the project will provide a significant return on investment.  There is no reason to think that an old-school MMO will do that, therefore, nobody makes them.

Logic, whatever will they come up with next?

Game Review: Far Cry 3

FarCry3I don’t usually do video game reviews, most games that I play just don’t warrant the time, they’re fun while they last and when I’m done, I uninstall them, put them away and probably won’t even think about them for a year or so when I’m bored.  Very few games have any longevity for me, most games are a linear adventure, you get to the end and that’s it, they have virtually no replay value whatsoever.

The story is pretty simple.  A group of rich kids go on a series of extreme sports adventures, culminating in a skydiving expedition in Bangkok.  When things go wrong, they land on a small pirate island and are captured by the local pirate warlord Vaas, who takes them prisoner and plans to ransom them and then sell them into slavery anyhow.  One of them, Jason manages to escape and meets up with some of the local villagers, Rakyat warriors, who adopt him into their order and start tattooing things all over his body.  Seriously, you get knocked out a lot in this game and half the time when you come to, there’s someone tattooing something on your arm.  Made me want to punch someone.  Jason wants to escape from the island and sets about rescuing all of his friends from their pirate captivity with the help of the local villagers, a washed up FBI agent and a questionable moral sense.

Probably my biggest problem with this game is that the main character, Jason Brody, is just a complete fucking dick.  He is, without a doubt, a douchebag.  Yes, he gets thrown into a dangerous situation, he has to fight for his life and learn to kill, but he’s really a very unlikeable character through and through.  He starts off as an obnoxious rich shit.  He rescues his friends but he really doesn’t treat them like friends.  In fact, his emotional attachment to his girlfriend is minimal at best, he rescues her and there is no emotion, there is no tenderness, he finds her and sticks her in a cave like a trophy.  Then he goes off and screws the high priestess of an island cult and the next time he sees his girlfriend, all he can say is bye and walk away.  What a fucking asshole.  Granted, the game  designers intended him to be that way, it was an ethical quandary of some sort, but I’ll say the same thing about this as I do with all morally ambiguous or even morally reprehensible characters in movies, TV and games:  you have to have some reason to care if these characters survive beyond getting your money’s worth out of the game.  You still have to have characters that you care about and there is no one in this game that I gave a shit about.  It’s the same reason I hated the Battlestar Galactica reboot from a couple of years ago.  Those characters were not just morally ambiguous, they were downright evil.  I’d much rather see a storyline where essentially good, moral characters are put into situations where they have to act against their natures.  There is nothing admirable about Jason Brody or any of his friends.  There is nothing noble about Citra, the warrior queen, nor Denis, the guy who keeps tattooing shit on your arm.  They’re all assholes.  It wouldn’t hurt my feelings in the least if everyone in this game got killed.

I’m not a stealth guy.  I’m more of a stand-up-and-fight guy.  Lots of games give multiple paths through and let you pick which path you prefer.  Take Crysis 2, for example, which I replayed while waiting for Crysis 3.  In a combat situation, it almost always gave you a number of well-defined options, go around by stealth, go in guns-blazing, take the high ground and snipe away, etc.  Far Cry 3 has none of that.  There is only one way to do anything.  You are going to be stealthy.  You are going to have a stand-up fight.  You are going to go here or go there, no matter what.  This becomes a massive problem during one sneak mission near the end of the game, you have no weapons, you have to sneak past a dozen or so guards until you can steal a uniform.  I tried it about 25 times and couldn’t do it, throwing rocks to distract guards, but they wouldn’t go where I wanted them to go and turned around again at the most inopportune times.  It was stupid that I couldn’t sneak up behind them and gut them, which would have made the section much more palatable.  After all, corpses don’t set off alarms.  Anyhow, I got frustrated so I figured I’d go back to the main island and screw around for a while, take out some enemy camps, etc.  But no… now I have no goddamn weapons and can’t pick any up!  Until I finished that section of the game, there was literally nothing I could do in the entire game because I was locked out of all weapons, with the exception of my knife which I could use to stealth kill, but most camps don’t offer the ability to reasonably use that.  Bad design, very bad design.

Speaking of going here or going there, it presents you with a large map, but you are really pretty limited, especially on a mission.  In fact, there was one point near the end of the game where you get to the final boss’ island and have to go to a bar.  I’m walking along and, maybe 500 feet away is a radio tower that if you climb it, it will give you a portion of the map.  Hell, it’s really on the way to where I was going so I tried going up and getting the map, the game tells me I’m out of the mission parameters and if I don’t return immediately, I lose.  Um… thanks.  If you’re going to present a sandbox layout for your game, stop limiting the player’s movement!

Another annoying element, and this is a long-time problem in other Ubisoft games, is the wallet.  You can only carry so much cash around and need to keep building larger and larger wallets.  Unfortunately, once you get into the game, money begins to be pointless, you unlock weapons and once unlocked, you can get them for free from any safehouse or gun shop, there is tons of ammo laying around so you don’t have to buy that, so you fill up your wallet and your loot sack gets choked with tons of useless garbage that you’d normally sell, but now you can’t sell because you can’t hold any more money.  You spend a considerable amount of time emptying crap out of your rucksack and their removal system is not quick, it’s click on the object, click on discard, verify the discard, lather, rinse, repeat.  You ought to be able to grab a group of objects and delete them, especially considering how often you have to do this.  You can’t just stop searching bodies and boxes, there are things in there that you need, but you can’t pick and choose what things to take, you take whatever is there.

I don’t know, maybe my expectations were bad, but coming from a game like Crysis or Halo or just about any other first-person shooter, this was a serious letdown.  What’s worse, it had all the elements to make it great, the actual gameplay was good, there were lots of weapons, there were lots of different things to do, but the story was just crap.  There’s something about a storyline where, even if you do everything right, you spend a lot of time getting the shit kicked out of you, getting drugged, getting captured, getting tied up, getting things cut off, etc.  I hate games where you know that if you walk through that door, something bad is going to happen and there’s nothing you can do about it.  That, I think, is the biggest failure of this  game, that you’re dragged kicking and screaming through a horrible story and even when you can see the pitfalls, you know you’re going to be shoved off the brink anyhow, no matter what you do.

I will say that once I finished the storyline, once Citra died since I chose to go back with my “friends”, it wasn’t too bad to run around the island and finish the things I hadn’t done.  That was fun.  Speaking of finishing the storyline though, seriously, do you guys need to list the entire population of Bangladesh in your credits?  I sat through the entire credits, which seems like it took a half hour, hoping for something at the end and got nothing.  Zero payoff.  At least Halo has a scene at the end as a reward for wasting your time.  This… nothing.

Oh well, it’s not like there aren’t lots of other games out there, just waiting on Bioshock Infinite next.

Being a Rational Skeptic: The Hobby Edition

Planet RationalI’ve spoken at length about being a skeptic, as opposed to just being skeptical about a few sundry subjects.  We even dedicated a segment to it on our podcast, The Bitchspot Report.  I made it very clear that you can differentiate between someone who is skeptical, that applies logic and reason to one or to several areas of their lives, and someone who is a skeptic, who applies those logical rules to every aspect of their life without exception.  I definitely fall into the latter.

However, I find that most people simply cannot manage it, they cannot maintain their skepticism full time.  Hell, for a lot of people, they cannot even maintain it a small percentage of the time.  Nowhere is this more plain to me than when it comes to hobbies.  I know I’ve talked about some of these things before, but not from this particular angle, so please bear with me.

Collecting: Stamps – It really doesn’t matter what you collect, it seems, there are always complaints about how it’s produced, how much it costs, how hard it is to find, etc.  Take U.S. postage stamps for example.  Everyone always complains how many stamps are released each and every year, the USPS releases even more stamps than the year before.  In 2013, for example, they’ve already either released or announced for release in the first quarter, more than 100 face-different stamps, making 2013 almost certainly the history-leader in number of different stamps to be issued.  Why?  Certainly it isn’t for the envelope-mailing public, it is aimed specifically at the collector market and designed to bring in more revenue for the nearly bankrupt USPS.  Collectors everywhere complain long and loud about how expensive it is to collect U.S. stamps and condemn the USPS for their tactics,  yet they refuse to consider the obvious solution to the problem:  stop collecting new U.S. postage stamps!  In fact, not only do they refuse to consider it, they refuse, by and large, to even talk about the possibility.  The moment the idea even comes up, conversation virtually stops.  The very idea of not mindlessly buying everything that comes out, no matter how ugly, overpriced or overproduced it is, it’s like suggesting sawing the head off their cat.  The same person will scream about how terrible what the USPS is doing and then, in the next breath, say they’ll be in line Friday to buy a whole pile of these stamps, in every conceivable format, to stick them in an album.  Seriously?!?!?!?

Collecting: Action Figures – It’s not like  action figure collectors are any better.  The whole of the collector fanbase has been abuzz with the severe reduction in articulation in both Hasbro and Mattel figures.  Many lines are now coming with 5-points of articulation, which is utterly absurd considering at one point, some figures were coming with 30-35 points of articulation.  Lots of modern action figures are essentially lumps of poorly painted plastic that hardly do anything, they’re more like inaction figures.  The prices suck too.  The figure quality becomes cheaper, the prices become more expensive, the selection of figures becomes more limited as well as companies are taking fewer risks and over-producing the most popular characters again and again.  Add the fact that so many stores, after getting burned by the poor case packing schemes, are just not ordering much, if any, new product and the shelves are bare.  So what do action figure collectors do?  Do they rationally consider their purchases?  Of course not!  They whip out the credit card and buy everything, no matter how badly made or how expensive it happens to be.  In fact, some of them are convinced that if they only support the manufacturers who, according to them, are doing everything wrong, that maybe things will improve, so they’re buying even more things that they scream about!  How is this rational?

Pets –  Yes, I know pets really aren’t a hobby, but I see the same kind of fanatical nonsense here as well.  So many people act like their pets are really their children and treat them better than they treat themselves.  Of course, don’t dare suggest that people with a dozen parrots, who can hardly afford macaroni and cheese for themselves shouldn’t have that many birds, or that they should stop desperately looking around for more birds to adopt, or that they should stop treating their birds lavishly, they’ll scream at you and call you names.  In fact, if you don’t adopt their methods, they’ll call you names anyhow.  That’s not how rational people work, it’s how fanatics function.  If you remember, not too long ago I wrote about a bruhaha that happened on a forum where the bird crazies were criticizing the ASPCA for giving what they viewed as a bad impression of the costs of pet ownership.  While I agree there may be some bad numbers in there, they screamed because they viewed their absurd spoiling of their birds to be the norm that everyone ought to be doing.  I think it said that for a small bird, $25 a year in toys would suffice.  Oh hell no!  These people spend over $100 a month on toys!  they order raw materials online and spend all their time building toys!  They spend half their days arranging and re-arranging the toys in the cage!  They have tubs of toys that have never even been used and they’re still getting more!  They feed their birds the most expensive premium food money can buy and that’s not even good enough, they have to cook their own organic food, designed just for the birds, as a supplement.  In fact, I know of at least one person who planted a variety of fruit trees in their back yard because they didn’t trust any other source for fresh fruit without pesticides, etc.  Then, these people take their birds to the vet several times a year, just to have a battery of tests done, on the off chance that something might be wrong.  They spend thousands of dollars a year in preventative care and all they accomplish is keeping their vet in BMWs, while they drive around in beat up 20-year old cars.  And then, because that’s what they do, they expect that everyone else out there ought to do the same or they’re a bad pet owner.  It’s just ludicrous.

Gaming –  Yup, it happens here too and for a lot of the same reasons I noted above under collecting.  If you’ve ever hung out in a gaming forum, you’ll see all manner of bitching and whining about how horrible MMOs are today, how there isn’t a single game out there worth playing, that the  games are all stupid and dumbed down and the people are horrible, but these same people who complain about every aspect of gaming will advance purchase every damn new MMO that comes on the market!  Every single solitary one!  And then, they’ll sit there and complain how awful they are, while plunking down a monthly fee every month!  But don’t suggest that if they hate these games so much, they should go find something else to do.  Oh no!  They think they deserve to have the perfect game to play, even if it would be a massive financial failure in the real world.  Many of them are convinced that because they’ve been playing these games that they now hate for so many years, they are uniquely qualified and somehow deserving of being able to define what they games are and how they’re made and damn it, everyone ought to listen!

It’s not just the religious people who are fucking stupid, it’s EVERYBODY!  Is it any wonder I spend so much time looking at humanity and being frustrated?

Hobby Loyalty

Einstein InsanityEinstein InsanityI seriously don’t get the desire of hobbyists to have utter loyalty to the source of their hobbydom, even when that source is really screwing up.  I see this kind of fanatical devotion in a lot of hobbies, in fact, maybe in all hobbies, where people think they somehow owe it to companies or organizations to overlook their shortcomings, even when they have nothing but criticism for those shortcomings.

Case in point, as everyone knows, I collect stamps.  I have been highly critical of the number of stamps the United States Postal Service releases every year, it’s an absurd amount and increasing year after year, specifically to sell more stamps to collectors.  There was a time when you could buy an entire year’s output of stamps, adjusted for inflation, for a few bucks.  Today, it’s a few hundred dollars.  There’s no reason for it, other than to screw the collector.  So in 1993, I opted out.  I no longer collect new issues of U.S. stamps and have never regretted that decision.  However, holy shit, you tell most U.S. collectors that you’re not buying everything the USPS puts out and they are aghast.  How dare I not support them to my very last dollar!  In fact, when I tell people that I hardly send anything through the mails, I get criticized for sending the USPS spiraling down into bankruptcy.  Sorry, their mismanagement is not my problem and since I couldn’t care less what stamps they put out today, I really don’t care if they go out of business entirely.  In fact, I hope they do.

The same is true of action figures, which I pretty much gave up on this year.  I still keep a toe in the hobby so I know what’s going on, but likewise, there are people who think that no matter how expensive it gets, no matter how bad the quality gets, no matter how horrendous the distribution of action figures gets, we somehow owe it to Hasbro and Mattel to keep buying every crappy thing they put out, no matter how much we don’t want to.  It’s our responsibility to prop up an industry, no matter how bad it gets, because we’re fanatically devoted to getting our new plastic fix.

Another group that has this same problem are MMO gamers.  Over the years, many of them assert that the MMO industry has gone downhill, the games are simplified to the point of absurdity, they’re not fun, they’re stupid, yet the concept of not playing an MMO, even one they hate with a passion, is beyond considering.  They will pay money month after month for a game that they detest and spend all of their time sitting on a forum bitching and whining about because they cannot bring themselves to admit that they’ve outgrown the industry and they want something that so few people want, there’s no chance that a developer is ever going to make a game they’ll like.

To be honest, the more I think about it, a lot of hard-core comic book fans are the same.  They complain long and loud about how awful comics have become and how much they hate all the decisions made by comic companies.  When DC came out with their New 52, lots of people were up in arms, claiming it would ruin the industry.  However, suggest to those people that they stop buying the comics they detest and you hear cries of “heresy”!  They can’t possibly do that, how else will they get their comic fix?  They would rather pay for things they detest and then complain about it than to take a stand and vote with their wallets and just go find something different to do.

Hey, not to leave anyone out, what about music or movie fanatics?  I can’t tell you how many times I see people whining loud and long about how bad music is or how expensive it is or how horrible anything coming out of Hollywood is, but they’re the ones with terabytes of music on their MP3 players and they’re the ones standing in line all night to get into the first showing of the next movie.

Sorry, that’s not for me.  I have never been fanatical about, well, anything.  I collect because I want to collect.  I get what I want to get.  When I stop wanting to collect a particular thing, I stop.  I don’t get the jitters.  I don’t get upset.  I don’t have withdrawal symptoms.  I just stop.  It was fun while it lasted.  I will enjoy what I have and move on to something else.  I do not understand the kind of obsessive/compulsive personalities that have to get a particular thing, no matter how awful it gets.  I play games because they’re fun.  When they stop being fun, I stop playing them.  When books stop being good, I stop reading them.  When movies aren’t interesting, I stop watching them.  I don’t have any absurdly strong attachment to any particular thing, my life does not revolve around any specific action or event.  If I stop wanting to do something, I simply stop doing it.  I just don’t get people who cannot bring themselves to do the same.

Unfortunately, I see the same thing happening in the atheist community as well.  So many people bitch and whine about how much they hate Atheism+, how they wish it would just go away, yet they spend all their time following all the asshats around, following their every move and commenting on their every word, even though they know for a fact that it’s that very attention that keeps Atheism+ going.  It’s about as ridiculous as the people who hate religion, who say they wish religion would vanish, who adamantly want religion to stop impacting on their lives, then they follow the religious around like rabid lunatics, they constantly harass them on Twitter, post to religious hashtags specifically to cause an adverse reaction, then whine about how the religious are bothering them.  It really gets ridiculous.

People seem to be their own worst enemies, they don’t seem to be able to just walk away from things they hate, they don’t understand that nothing will change for the better if they keep up the status quo.  You don’t like how video games are?  Stop playing those video games.  Vote with your wallet.  You don’t like those toys or stamps or comics?  Don’t buy them!  You can’t stand being around a particular group?  Stop being around them!  I don’t think this is rocket science, it’s common sense, but unfortunately, as is all too painful these days, common sense isn’t terribly common.

I Could Use Some Input

johnny5-need-inputAs anyone who reads the blog regularly knows, I write about a wide variety of subject matter here, from atheism and religion to movie and TV reviews and I think that a lot of the non-atheism-related posts go largely unappreciated.  You know me, I don’t really care about readership, but as I was talking to someone on Twitter earlier, my TV Thursday posts, for example, hardly get any hits, they virtually never get any comments, and while I like doing them and want to continue, it’s become pretty clear that Bitchspot may not be the venue for them.

So I’ve been kicking around the idea of spinning off a new blog that only focuses on the more geeky subject matter so that this blog can just be about atheism and religion and closely related subjects.  It’s not like I don’t have a ton of posts available to fill in the gaps here.  I have no idea if anyone else does this, but I am scheduled out an absurd distance at all times.  As I write this, I already have posts scheduled 5 days in advance and it could be more except some things, like TV Thursday, require writing almost up to the deadline.  I also have other complete or near-complete drafts that I could schedule, currently I have 35 drafts in my queue, over and above what’s already scheduled, and I tend to add 3-4 new post ideas every day.  I’m not going to be hurting for posts, I tend to write so damn fast that it honestly bugs me to have so many things sitting in the queue for so long.

Now we come to my questions.  Does anyone actually read or care about the non-atheism material?  I know there’s an audience out there, probably even a bigger audience than for my atheism material, for TV and movie reviews, books, comics, collecting, games and the like, I just feel like I’m boring people with it where it is and probably driving away any legitimate audience with all the anti-religious stuff.  It’s two separate interests that really don’t go that well together.

I’ve been trying to expand my reach a little, people are aware that I rejoined Twitter a while back and have now added a Tumblr account, both of these really function in a lot of ways as a means to keep the blog interesting, Twitter lets me post short comments, etc. that really don’t qualify for full blog posts and Tumblr is a means to post pictures and videos that, again, aren’t interesting enough to make into a real post.

Therefore, I beg of people, please give me some input, tell me what you think I ought to do.  Keep it here or move it elsewhere?  My inquiring mind desperately wants to know.

Writing, and often Writers, Sucks!

There was a time when I fancied myself a pretty good fiction writer.  I have always written and created stories in one form or another, I suppose I got that from my mother who, for many years when I was young, worked on various mystery novels that she intended to get published.  While she never did, and gradually lost time and interest in it, I worked alongside her, pounding out my own stories on an old manual typewriter.

When I wasn’t writing mysteries, or science fiction that came along later, I was heavily involved in tabletop role-playing games, where, when I wasn’t playing through other people’s adventures, I was carefully crafting my own.  One thing I was always certain to do was make my tales logical, I wanted them to flow intellectually from one scene to the next, I never wanted a player to point out an inconsistency in a character or a situation.  I also encouraged my players to act naturally, do what they thought their characters would actually do instead of what the story seemed to call for.  I refused to railroad my players or drag their characters around by the nose.  If my scripted story called for the characters to go left and they decided to go right, that was fine with me, I’d just re-write on the fly and come up with something else.  Having a good story that made sense, didn’t feel forced and didn’t make anyone stop and scratch their head was my goal.

While I haven’t seriously done any tabletop role-playing in many years, I have still kept writing, off and on.  There was a period about a decade or so ago when I started seriously kicking around the idea of getting a book or two published.  I had been writing stories within an original tabletop role-playing sci-fi universe for a very long time, I knew every nook and cranny of the universe and therefore, I concocted the idea of writing a series of books within that universe, but not as a directly linked set of sequels, but independent, stand-alone works that simply happened in the same world.  I had already written a couple of books in that vein, the first two were a duology, plus an entirely separate, stand alone superhero book.

I have a friend who was, at the time, a literary agent for one of the leading sci-fi imprints.  I sent him the first two sci-fi books, just to see if he liked them and, to my amazement, he did.  He told me that, with very little editorial work, they were certainly salable, but as we talked further and I told him my plans for putting disparate works in a single universe, we agreed that those books were not the right vehicle to launch a series of books.  They occurred in the middle of a war and, had they been stand-alone books where the beginning or end of the war were unimportant and would never be seen again, that wouldn’t have been a big deal, but because other tales from the war may be told in other books, it would probably confuse readers.  We decided that a better first novel should be entirely stand-alone and should give a better explanation for the foundation of the universe.  I actually wrote that book too.

Yet one thing I really valued from my friend was his honesty.  He told me that I’d hate writing for a living, or even writing for publication at all.  Luckily, he knows me and knows what drives me.  First, there is very little money in getting published, unless you are a big-name author or getting movie deals.  For a $10 retail book, for instance, the author may be lucky to get 50-cents out of it.  There are no big-dollar contracts unless you’re an established author selling millions of copies and that’s becoming less and less prevalent these days.  Secondly, the publisher really does very little for you, other than sticking your book on bookstore shelves.  You are expected to do virtually all of the publicity for your book, at your own expense.  You are usually expected to set up your own website and get the word out so people buy your book.  You are expected to attend, and often arrange, book signings, convention appearances, etc.  I really have no interest in doing any of those things.  I am a writer.  I write.  I do not do public appearances.  I don’t want to be on TV.  I don’t want to sit behind a table at a convention and hawk stuff.  I want to write.  What happens to it after I write it, I really have little interest in.

See, when I used to hang around with a lot of prospective writers, the overwhelming majority just wanted to walk into a bookstore and see their books on the shelf.  I’m not like that.  I have very little ego.  I don’t need anyone to like me.  I don’t need anyone to agree with me.  My purpose in writing books is much like writing this blog.  It’s a great mental exercise and it’s a way to get something out there that you enjoy.

Wait, you say, a mental exercise?  Most certainly and this is one of the reasons I wrote this post.  There are a lot of books, not to mention TV shows and movies, that are just bad.  Oh, not bad in the sense that they’re poorly written, I suppose, just that it’s clear they were pounded out very quickly without the time spent actually thinking about what was going on.  I write about this repeatedly, how many stories require the heroes to be stupid and overlook blatantly obvious clues because it’s required to get to the intended ending.  That drives me up the wall when I see it and it’s far too commonplace for professional writers, regardless of their schedule, to engage in.

This is especially true in science fiction.  When I create a new piece of technology for a story, I put a great deal of thought into it.  I understand, at least in the broad strokes, how it works.  I know it’s limitations and I make sure they’re logical.  I also think about how that new piece of technology fits into the existing universe to make sure that, with a little creativity, someone can’t do something wholly absurd by combining it with other already-established tech.  Yet this is not the case in plenty of science fiction writing, TV and movies.

Take Star Trek, for example.  It’s pure sci-fantasy.  All of their technology is just magic hiding behind technobabble.  They have no real idea how it works, since it couldn’t, but they also have never considered the ramifications of the technology on the universe.  I remember way back when Star Trek: The Next Generation first aired, I spotted massive holes in just the first couple of episodes.  I’m going from memory here (yes, I did look it up), but it seems to me that in the seventh episode “Lonely Among Us“, they established that the transporters could recreate someone, in this case Captain Picard, from their buffered data and bring them back to life, albeit a life slightly younger than the one who died.  In episode #2×07 “Unnatural Selection“, they demonstrated that the transporter could take DNA from a single strand of hair and re-generate a person from it, editing out disease and genetic damage, as was done with the doctor.  There was another episode that, for the life of me, I can’t remember enough about to find, where a character had their mental patterns put into a younger transporter-created version of themselves, thus making them a younger but mentally identical version of themselves.

Which, you know, reminds me of an old and very funny commercial

[youtuber youtube=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIfNv9qLvy4′]

So why is there death in the Star Trek universe?  Why does anyone die?  Oh sure, it might be expensive, but with that kind of magic technology at your disposal, death and disease should be virtually unknown.  So why isn’t it?  So long as you have a person’s buffered data, and we know it can last in a buffer without  being saved to some storage medium for decades or more, why can’t you just stick a sick person in a transporter and have it interpolate the healthy DNA and simply recreate the person without cancer or without disease?  Heck, why not send everyone through the transporter on their 20th birthday?  Keep the buffer records saved somewhere and when you get old, send you through again, pull out your mental patterns, reintegrate them with your 20-year old self and you’ve got a fully-educated modern-day you with a 20 year old body.  No disease, no death, no hassle.  So why doesn’t it exist in the Star Trek universe?  Because it destroys the story so they just don’t talk about it.  Nobody stopped to think when they wrote the three episodes above how their story would impact the overall Star Trek universe.

But I do.  I know what the ramifications are when one piece of technology is mixed with another.  In fact, I’m looking for interesting interactions that I can make plot points out of.  If something can be a horrendous mess down the line, I change it from the start so that those interactions cannot happen.  I put in the time early in the process so I don’t have the headaches down the line.  I actively try to break my universe and I enlist lots of smart friends to help me.  More than helping me proof-read or read for content, I have people read for continuity.  I want them to point out potential problems so I can head them off at the pass.  I care that much about what I write, even though I don’t get paid for it.  Why don’t people who do make a living at it give a damn?

What To Do With Skyrim?

I love Skyrim.  It’s probably one of the best games to come out in years.  I’ve loved all of the Elder Scrolls games but there’s something about Skyrim that just beats them all.  No matter how glitchy it is, you go back to it time and time again and those glitches look good.  However, while there’s an absurd amount of content in the game, that just isn’t enough to get your character maxed out.  Supposedly, once you max all of your skills, you get to level 81.5 and you’re done.  However, once you’re out of content to play, it’s hard to max skills via gameplay and I just don’t want to run around leaping or casting spells or whatnot, just to get skill levels up.  I’ve played a couple of MMOs where people jumped everywhere, just to get their jump skill up, and it seems absurd to have to do that.  So, a while back, I just stopped playing.

I’ve been listening to the Skyrim soundtrack in the car lately and it got me back in the mood for playing the game.  I fired it up… and was almost immediately bored.  See, I’ve done it all. I’ve already:

  • Ended the civil war
  • Killed Alduin
  • Become Arch-Mage of the Mage’s College
  • Become leader of the Companions
  • Become leader of the Thieves Guild
  • Wiped out the Dark Brotherhood
  • Found all the masks
  • Did all the daedric quests

In fact, other than 5 quests that are glitched, I think I’ve done them all, except for the eternally repeating fetch-quests (go get this book/go clear out these bandits/go kill this dragon).  I’m running around in full enchanted legendary daedric armor, carrying nearly 300k in gold, not to mention the thousands of items I have stashed in chests that I can’t find anyone with enough gold to buy off me.

So now what?

I ask, only because the game is supposed to go up to level 81ish and I’m sitting at level 44.  Oh yeah, sure, I could go do the book cheat and get up to level 81, with all of my skills and perks maxed, but I don’t want to cheat.  I am going to download the new expansion, probably this weekend, but it just bugs me that I haven’t gotten much more than half-way to the level cap and I’ve run out of things to do.  It also bugs me that there’s no real point running around killing things because nothing is a challenge anymore.  Dragons?  Whoopie.  A couple swings of my legendary enchanted daedric war hammer and they drop like flies.  Giants?  No challenge.  Mammoths?  Big deal.  And it seems like challenge or not, none of them provide much experience.  I ran around for a couple of hours, killing everything in sight and didn’t gain more than 1/8 of a level.

So what do I do?  Yeah, I’ll go kill vampires and have fun doing it, but what else do I have to do to get my character maxed out?  As much as I love the game, as much as I enjoyed playing through it, this is one thing that is really pissing me off.

“I Hate Tombs”?!?!?!?

They’ve got another trailer out for the new Tomb Raider game, now coming first quarter next year.  I used to like the old Tomb Raider games, even with their awful controls.  My wife was a big fan, it’s one of the few platformers that she was really good at.  The original series of games done by Core Design were pretty decent for the time they were done, especially the first couple of games.  I’ll be honest, I agree with their decision to kill off Lara Croft following the fourth game, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation.  They had done as much as they really could with the character without just releasing an annual copy of the game before.

When Crystal Dynamics took over in 2006, it looked like the series would go back to what made it special in the first place, but after a while, we sort of lost interest and even the movies with Angelina Jolie couldn’t do much to reinvigorate our interest.  They had made a very nice, interesting background for Lara, but now…

I had really stopped looking out for any further games, I think the last one I even bothered playing was Legacy, but I recently stumbled across this trailer for the new game.

Um… that’s not Tomb Raider, people.  That’s survival horror.  Okay, granted they’re trying to “reimagine” the franchise, but reimagining hasn’t really produced anything good that I can remember.  The new Battlestar Galactica?  Utter crap.  Batman and Superman every time they do it?  Just worse and worse.

The problem is, they’re not “reimagining” Lara Croft as Lara Croft, they’re doing it as Claire Redfield from Resident Evil.  All we need now are the zombies.  There’s nothing particularly tomb-raidery about that clip except the names.  Change those and you can do anything you want.  It’s like  taking the Indiana Jones franchise and making a romantic comedy about people in a modern-day skyscraper in New York.  Just because you use the names doesn’t make it a worthy continuation of the franchise, even if you slap “reimagining” on it.

I know I’m probably alone these days, but I just wish that they’d let these franchises die a noble death at the top of their game rather than remaking them over and over and over because they can’t come up with anything better.  Originality seems dead these days.  Everything is a remake or a reimagining or a “do-over” because they’re desperately trying to appeal to nostalgia.  If you want to make a new Tomb Raider game, make the best damn Tomb Raider game you can.  Don’t make a different game and slap the name “Tomb Raider” on it.

Whatever Happened to Fun?

I don’t know why I bother reading the MMORPG forums since I don’t play MMOs anymore.  It’s mostly that I have no time for them, but to be honest, they’re not that much fun for me.

That said though, someone started a humorous thread about what needs to change in MMOs and while I agree with the majority of it, one thing, and especially the responses to it, hit home for me.  Someone pointed out that giant monsters ought to be far too powerful to ever defeat, they can just step on you and your puny swords shouldn’t be enough to bring them down.  Someone else came back with the claim that giant monsters are required to make it “epic”.

Fuck epic.  That’s actually one of the biggest gripes I have about most games in general is that they’re focused on saving the world and being a hero and all that nonsense.  In other words, they’re aimed at people who want to live vicariously through a game.

All I want to do is have fun.  I just want an enjoyable experience that I can have in my limited free time.  I don’t want it to mean something, I don’t want to achieve anything, video games are ultimately a waste of time anyhow, I just want them to  be a fun waste of time.

I really don’t  care about the story, I’m just playing to have a good time.  Take Skyrim.  It’s not an MMO, but it’s a lot of fun.  I’m pretty much ignoring the storyline right now and just wandering the countryside killing what I find, exploring and clearing the various dungeons scattered everywhere.  I’m just swinging my warhammer and having a ball in the 2-3 hours a week I can find to play it.  Nothing epic, nothing heroic, just action and bloodlust.  I could do this for a long time to come, at least until I go back to doing the main quests and finish the game.  I’m not in any hurry, I’m not competing against anyone, I’m having fun.

Isn’t that what it all ought to be about?