Archive for October, 2012

My Game Design I Keep Talking About

Monday, October 29th, 2012

I’ve been designing games since I was kid. The first one I can remember creating actual components for was a board-based wargame for my Battle Beasts; the rules are long gone, but I still have the board somewhere. I designed a massive game of Clue with dozens of rooms and characters and weapons (and motives and accomplices, etc.) which was specifically intended as a joke and was, as expected, completely unplayable. When I realized that the Reading merit badge for Boy Scouts had a requirement that could be filled by designing a game I created one based on Douglas Adam’s Dirk Gently series–that was a weird one–and somehow I talked my sixth grade teacher into letting my final project on Central America be a board game about Manuel Noriega. I’ve designed roleplaying games and miniatures games and collectible card games and just about every kind of game you can imagine, all mostly just for fun and just for myself.

I consider game design to be very similar to fiction writing, at least in terms of why I do it and what I get out of it. Both are creative outlets that let me tell a story and craft an experience for my audience. If I can get you to feel something while reading my books or playing my games, I’ve done a good job; if I can get you to feel something specific, I’ve done a great job. Both have a bit of a puzzle-solving vibe to them, as you attempt to use a limited amount of resources in different permutations to create a desired outcome. My various notebooks and computers are as filled with notes for game ideas as they are for novel ideas. And most of them are just as untenable :)

One thing I eventually started doing was, instead of creating new games from scratch, just modifying the games I had. This is especially prevalent with games that didn’t work right to begin with, like Marvel Heroes, but sometimes I do it with games I love, like Hollywood Blockbuster, which had great gameplay but not nearly enough theme to go with it. I wrote all over my game pieces for that one, and in the process realized that it could be rethemed to make an awesome Star Trek game: instead of collecting actors and directors and effects and such to make a movie, you could collect captains and science officers and so on to complete missions in space. With that, the wheels were turning, and I drafted up long lists of crew members and ships and on and on until suddenly the idea crashed into another idea in my backlog of “use this someday” files, and I realized I had a much bigger opportunity here.

As it accrued new ideas, the game I was designing diverged massively from Hollywood Blockbuster, becoming different enough that I realized it was actually sell-able as its own game. It was also, in my opinion, good enough to actually sell, which is important. It was not, however, sell-able as a Star Trek game, because I didn’t want to mess with the licensing issues that would require, so I re-themed it once again into its current form: Heist, a game about crews of thieves and hackers and masterminds carrying out elaborate capers and cons. The basic mechanics are the same–you recruit specialists, form them into teams, and perform missions (now called jobs)–but the flavor was new and unique. I chose Heist movies as a theme partly because I love them, and partly because it’s not a theme I’ve ever seen in a game before, which struck me as a great opportunity. (There may well be other heist games out there, I just haven’t seen them.) As I transferred everything to the new theme I tweaked it here and there to make sure it felt right, so you were legitimately playing a heist story and not a Star Trek story in a costume, and then I was done, and it was pretty good, and…what now?

I’ll tell you what now: I don’t have the time or the resources for a what now. Producing games is very, very different from designing them, and while Kickstarter has made the idea a lot more approachable than it used to be, that’s still not very approachable. The sheer investment of time, not even counting the money, would carve months off my writing, and I have so much writing these days that I start to drown if I miss a week, let alone months. So once again, the idea was shelved. I had vague plans of someday writing a heist book just so I could sell the game as a tie-in, but if that ever happened it would be years in the future.

This is where AEG comes in, a game company I’m already a huge fan of (they publish Legend of the Five Rings, which you may have heard me proclaiming as my favorite roleplaying game ever). They had a massive booth at the Essen game fair, where I went two weeks ago with a friend, where they were debuting a new line of shared-world games that I’d heard a bit about, and was excited to try. The shared world is called Tempest, a kind of renaissance-era city-state in an imaginary (but non-fantasy) world, and they were using it to tie together a bunch of political and economic games. I was a cool idea, and I was excited to see if the games were as interesting as the concept behind them, so we hung around the booth and waited for an empty table and ran through a quick demo of both Courtier and Love Letter. They were so awesome I bought them both instantly, but more than that, the Tempest setting itself was great: it’s very character-based, full of plots and schemes and underhanded deals. And here’s the key: they were actively looking for new game ideas to expand it. My first thought was “My heist game would be a pretty good fit for this.” My second thought was a slightly more excited “that would actually work out great, because they’d take care of all the artwork and production and distribution and advertising that I don’t have time or experience to do.” My third thought was basically just “ohmygoshthiscouldactuallyworkIcouldpublishagamethiswouldbesoawesomeohmygosh.” The friend I was with was obviously thinking along the same lines, as the first thing he said when we walked away from the booth was “The Tempest world might be a really good fit for that game you were telling me about.” Yes. Yes it could.

AEG has a neat Tempest development site set up to work with prospective game designers, which I applied for, and when I got into that I used their submission system to pitch my heist game. This was pretty much exactly what it felt like back in the days before I published any books, sending out queries and desperately hoping somebody liked them enough to ask for more. A few days later AEG asked for more: they want a full prototype of my game, and think it would be a great fit for Tempest. But they were careful to say (and wise to say it) that I should playtest it and polish it and hone it to a killing edge before sending it in. “We’d rather have one great game than ten good ones,” the letter pointed out, which seems awesome to me. This is essentially the same thing as an editor saying “I loved your pitch for this book, please send me the full manuscript but make sure it’s as good as possible first.” So on the one hand I have to make it clear that I have not as yet sold anything, and this is basically just an editor reading a manuscript to see if they like it. On the other hand, as you aspiring writers out there can attest, getting an editor to request your full manuscript is a huge deal, and you get very excited, and you feel like jumping up and down and celebrating like a crazy person, never mind the fact that it doesn’t technically mean anything will ever happen and you’re still more likely to get rejected than sell the story. That’s where I am with this game design: it doesn’t really mean anything, but at the same time it means everything.

I’ve already had this game designed for months, like I said, so it was relatively easy for me to print it out and and play a few rounds with my family. My wife and two older kids loved the basic version, and I was delighted to see that the pacing held up and the game was fun to play. When we tried the advanced version it kind of fell apart, though, which sucks because that’s the version I was really excited about, but that’s what playtesting is for. So here’s what I’m going to do: once I get this prototype a little prettier (there’s a lot of post-printing work my kids and I had to do, that I can do a lot more simply digitally), I’m going to post it here in full and let anyone and everyone download it, print it out, and play it. I’ll keep a running commentary on the known issues and design goals, and as I get your feedback I’ll tweak the game and put out new versions. I want you to tear this game apart (lovingly) so we can make it as awesome as possible. That will take me a couple of days to set up, though, because as I mentioned, I have tons of writing to do and no time to waste. Contracts I’ve already signed come first, and Heist will remain, for now, an after-hours hobby.

But if we can make it as good as it is in my head, oh baby.

Cryptogenic Organizing Pneumonitis

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

Let me tell you a story.

A little over a month ago, on September 9, my Mom emailed me a short, panicked message: “Call Me.” She couldn’t just call me herself, of course, since she lives in Utah and I live in Germany, an 8-hour difference, and her mid-afternoon email arrived long after I should have been in bed. But I’m never in bed when I’m supposed to be, so I was awake, and I gave her a call. The news was bad, but not really shattering: my Dad was sick, and had been for weeks, and now it was worse than ever and he refused to go to a doctor. This is not surprising, because Dad never goes to doctors when he can help it. There was a lot of “Oh, you know Dad,” and “It’s probably just his asthma,” and so on, but my Mom wasn’t mollified. She’s known this man for decades, and she can tell when he’s legitimately sick. He could barely walk without turning gray and gasping for air, and she was worried.

The next day Dad went to work, walked up the stairs to his office, and called the doctor. That’s how we knew it was serious–he called the doctor on his own, voluntarily. He went in and was almost immediately diagnosed with pneumonia, and “maybe a heart attack,” which is a weird thing to hear from a doctor. You want to know if it is or isn’t a heart attack, none of this “maybe” nonsense. The doctor did ever test he could think of, held Dad as long as he could without actually hospitalizing him, and made another appointment for the following day. Dad’s condition worsened, and when he went back in the next day the doctor did some more tests and sent him straight to the hospital; the pneumonia had now been upgraded to “double pneumonia,” which makes about as much sense as “maybe a heart attack,” but at least now the “maybe” had been downgraded to “probably not,” so that was something.

All through this, of course, my Mom would call me–or email me to call her–every day, because she needed someone to talk to. Of her three children, my sister lives in Ohio and has crippling health problems of her own, and my brother, the only one still left in Utah, has a panic disorder: not exactly the kind of person you can unload all your troubles on. She needed someone she could call and say “I think he’s really sick this time, and I don’t know what to do,” and getting those calls and knowing there was nothing I could do from the other side of the world was maddening.

Dad ended up on oxygen, three liters of pressure, which was low enough that he could leave the hospital and push around one of those little tanks of wheels. This was just in time for my grandparents’ 60th anniversary cruise, which is one of the more surreal parts of the story: in the middle of his mysterious “double pneumonia,” my Dad took off for a week long cruise to Mexico. This sounds luxurious, but in hindsight it may have been a lifesaver, because the move from Utah’s thin, high-elevation, full-of-smoke-from-forest-fires air down to Mexico’s warm, rich, humid air did wonders for his lungs. He could even walk around the boat a bit without the oxygen, which was a bigger deal than we realized.

(The cruise, by the way, was hilarious: it was my grandparents’ 60th anniversary, and my grandpa’s 80th birthday, so they’d invited all their children–my aunts and uncles–and bought the tickets a year in advance. Then my aunt broke her leg, and my dad got pneumonia, and my uncle had a cold, and in the end my 80-year-old grandpa and my Mom with MS were the healthiest people in the group.)

With two days left to go on the cruise, my Dad got suddenly worse–still healthy enough that he could fly home, but barely. Instead of three liters of oxygen and leisurely walks around the block, he was at ten liters of oxygen just to lie in bed doing nothing; fifteen if he had to get up to use the restroom. He was back in the hospital full time, but in a better one this time, and my complete inability to do anything about it was driving me up the wall. My mom would send out positive updates, assuring us all that everything was fine, but the situation only got worse. The doctors would try a sure-fire pneumonia cure and it would do nothing; they’d try another, and the same thing happened. On Sunday, October 7, his lungs failed completely. He required 60 liters of oxygen pressure just to live–the machine was literally breathing for him. He was rushed to the ICU, and my Mom put on her bravest face, but there’s only so many ways you can spin “his lungs have failed and nothing works and he’s getting worse faster than the hospital can keep up.” I decided to hell with the Atlantic ocean, I was going home, and I booked a flight for the next morning. I was home within 24 hours of hearing the news, and my sister soon after, and though none of us would say it out loud, we were all starting to wonder if this was it. If we were going home to help, or to say goodbye.

But a lot, it turns out, can happen in 24 hours. After days and weeks of diagnosing and treating and trying and failing, the doctors figured out what it was: Cryptogenic Organizing Pneumonitis, which is a fancy way of saying “there’s something growing in your lungs but we don’t know what and none of our medicines work on it.” Most pneumonia is bacterial, and the rest is viral, and all the drugs they use to treat it work on those two causes, but with COP the muck in your lungs is something else–I don’t know what, fungus maybe, or some kind of evil spirits. It’s very rare, and very dangerous, and it’s called “organizing” because it literally gets in and starts remodeling your lungs to suit its own purposes, none of which are breathing. But in every other way it looks and acts like normal pneumonia, so the only way to diagnose it is to try and fail with every other pneumonia in the book, and when none of them work you know it’s COP, and you know exactly how to treat it. This happened while I was in the air, and the doctors started him on prednisone, and by the time I landed and raced to the hospital he had turned a corner. He had gotten slightly–every so slightly–better, the first time in over a month that a change had been positive.

My sister finally made it (her flight itinerary on US Air involved not one but two broken planes, a full day of delays, and an overnight stay in Phoenix), and together we set about trying to help. I cleaned some of the house. My sister took our Mom shopping. We spent hours in the hospital talking to Dad–he rarely talked back, of course–and hours more hanging out with Mom, watching movies, doing laundry, doing whatever we could to make life easier, or better, or at the very least more normal. Inspired by Mary Robinette Kowal, who reads her manuscripts aloud as part of an editing pass, I read my latest manuscript to my Dad, who loved it. We watched him progress through various benchmarks of breathing ability–using less pressure, using different masks, taking longer walks, achieving higher levels of oxygen saturation. We became intimately familiar with the minutia of the equipment, and the nurses, and even the terminology.

The first day I arrived I talked to the doctor, who introduced COP to my Dad as “that long confusing word we talked about before.” I asked what the word was, and he asked if I had a medical background. “Not really,” I told him, “but I’ve published five medical thrillers,” which is only a slight exaggeration: the John Cleaver books are not overtly medical, but they are directly concerned with psychiatric evaluation and profiling; PARTIALS is at least one third medical thriller, with a very detailed study of virology, and THE HOLLOW CITY is set in a mental hospital with a plot centered around diagnosis, neural chemistry, and drug interactions. I didn’t mention BLACKER DARKNESS. The doctor was impressed enough that he started taking me much more seriously than the rest of the family, opening up about that their theories and treatments and even inviting me to their meetings. I had a front row seat to everything they thought and tried and did, and it was awesome. And every day, my Dad got a little bit better.

My last night in Utah was Sunday, October 14. He was on a canula now instead of a mask, and they were giving him 40% oxygen, and he was maintaining a steady 91% saturation rate. The feeding tube was gone, and he could have real food again. He was still in the ICU, but only because they were concerned that something COULD go wrong, because he’d been so bad for so long they didn’t dare believe that he was good again. I set up my laptop on the little rolling hospital table, and we watched THE AVENGERS and ate pumpkin pie. It was the most normal thing he’d done in over a month. The next day I flew home, and the day after that they moved him out of the ICU, and somehow, whether through prayers or miracles or drugs or sheer force of will his numbers went up. Instead of 91% saturation he was maintaining a strong 95%, and even when he got up to walk it didn’t drop below 90%. I suspect that the simple act of moving out of the ICU–the most tangible sign of progress yet–gave him a renewed vigor, and as he cheered up his body started fighting harder. This morning I had another message from my Mom, not urgent but jubilant, saying that he is probably going home tomorrow. You have to realize that this is amazing: even with the progress we’d seen the week before we expected him to be in the hospital at least another week; his improvement was steady, but it was slow. And then for some reason it wasn’t slow anymore. The doctor was almost in tears, and Mom said she could see him physically trying not to say “just one week ago we thought he was gone,” because everybody thought he was gone. In ten days he’d progressed from “alien monsters are eating your lungs and we can’t do anything about it” to “you’re great, we’ll send you home tomorrow.” It was shocking, but it was exactly the kind of shocking we love.

My Dad’s health isn’t perfect, and it might never be again. The disease had a whole month to remodel his lungs, and they never did figure out what was up with his heart. Life is crazy, and anything can happen, and if there’s one thing I learned from the doctors it was “Don’t make predictions because they’re almost always wrong.” I don’t know what will happen next, but my Dad’s alive, and breathing, and going home, and for now that’s the best news ever.

In which I whine incessantly about that terrible SKYFALL song

Friday, October 5th, 2012

So apparently I’m blogging on Fridays now? Okay. Cool.

In this week’s episode of our pop culture podcast, Do I Dare To Eat A Peach?, my brother and I took a long (probably too long) look at the Bond movies, and specifically at the Bond theme songs. Our goal, inspired by a similar Tor.com article, was to determine which movie had the widest gap of quality between movie and song: a terrible song with an awesome movie, or vice versa. This was timed, in part, to get us ready for the release of the new Skyfall theme song by Adele, which came out last night. Obviously we haven’t seen the movie yet, so we can’t do our full quality differential analysis, but we can at least comment on the song.

That terrible, terrible song.

Adele, to be fair, is a fantastic choice for a Bond song. She’s got the kind of power in her voice that Shirley Bassey would be proud of, and her classic, old school sound is what made her famous in the first place. That’s part of what makes this song so disappointing. Admittedly, the song doesn’t really give her a lot to work with, but she still manages to sing it with as little personality as possible. If I hadn’t found the song on her personal YouTube channel I’d be convinced I’d accidentally stumbled onto the leaked demo version that’s been floating around, because there’s no way this feels like a polished version of a real performance.

The lyrics are the worst offender, so I’ll save those for last. First I want to complain about the way the music doesn’t build to anything. Yes, we get a full orchestra coming in on the chorus, but there’s no power behind it. It’s the most laid-back orchestral kick you’ve ever heard. Meanwhile, the verses themselves are as straightforward as they can possibly be, without anything interesting to distinguish them. Compare, for example, the first two verses of Goldeneye: the second one has a wonderful little high part behind it, almost like the music is sneaking around behind Tina Turner’s voice. It’s telling a story. It has personality. All Skyfall has is a nonchalant dedication to finishing the song without dropping the book it’s trying to balance on its head.

And now: the lyrics. The first stanza is actually pretty good:

This is the end.
Hold your breath and count to ten.
Feel the earth move, and then
Hear my heart burst again.

It’s determined to keep that rhyme going, but it does it smoothly, without cheating on its rhythm and always maintaining a standard flow of speech. That’s how a normal human would construct a sentence, which is more than a lot of songs can say. Then we get to the second stanza, where this all goes out the window and she really has to stretch to get the right syllables on the right beats:

For this is the end.
I’ve drowned and dreamed this moment
So overdue, I owe them
Swept away, I’m stolen.

Cheating on the rhythm? Check. That’s not how “moment” is pronounced, Adele. Cheating on the cadence of normal human speech? Check. I couldn’t even figure out how to punctuate the two middle lines. And we haven’t even gotten to the worst part yet, which is every time she says the word Skyfall:

Let the sky fall, when it crumbles
We will stand tall
Or face it all together
At skyfall.

Skyfall is where we start
A thousand miles and poles apart.

I was with you on that first instance, when you broke the word in half. “Let the sky fall” is a great apocalyptic line, and very fitting for a Bond song. The second instance, referring to the falling of the sky by the compound noun “skyfall,” is less forgivable, but it’s the name of the movie so I’ll let you get away with it. “Skyfall is where we start,” on the other hand, is just lazy writing. It doesn’t mean anything, and it’s a baldfaced attempt to cram in the title of the movie again, in case we forgot it. It’s verbal product placement, like including a line where she sings about how Coke is so refreshing. This seems like a weird thing to complain about after I’ve just praised the Goldeneye song, which uses the word “goldeneye” pretty constantly despite it never really meaning anything, but the difference is that Tina Turner sells it. She sings with attitude, and that covers a multitude of sins. Adele sounds like she’s sight-reading to see if the song’s in her range, and it never gets off the ground, and that makes every lyrical shortcut sound worse.

Part of the problem, of course, is that Bond songs traditionally use the movie’s title as a refrain, and there’s just not a lot you can do with “Skyfall.” They could have done better than the elementary-school rhyme “we will stand tall,” but even then, it’s not a lot to work with. Compare The World is Not Enough, which is at least a phrase, and which Shirley Manson followed up with some interesting new ideas (“But it is such a perfect place to start” is deviously fun). Compare Die Another Day, which Madonna uses as a mantra in the chorus and then augments with weird, disjointed phrases in the verses (mirrored by weird, disjointed tuning effects, which holds it all together). If you really want to feel depressed, compare Another Way to Die, the theme song from Quantum of Solace, where Jack White and Alicia Keys just threw the title out all together and wrote a brilliant song full of clever lyrics, impressionist imagery, and a perfect suggestion of Bond, without just beating it over the head by saying “Skyfall” a hundred times.

To it’s credit, Skyfall is not the worst Bond song ever. We’ll always have All Time High. But as awesome as it could have been to hear Adele go back to Bond’s Shirley Bassey roots and sing the hell out of some killer nightclub torch song, that’s not what we got. The lyricist phoned it in, the composer painted by numbers, and Adele acts like she doesn’t know the mic is turned on. A solid remix with some new arrangement and more personality could save this, but they’re touting it as the official movie version, so I doubt it will change.

I just hope the movie’s better. History has proven that bad Bond songs tend to be paired with bad Bond movies. I really want to like this one.