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11:26 PM on 01.10.2012

Dark Souls - A Little Bit of Faith

Itís when the silence sets in. Thatís how you know theyíre coming for you.

The world of Lordran is always quiet to begin with. Other than the hum of wind, the occasional crackling of a distant bonfire, and the quiet mutterings and growls of those few strange creatures that still cling to life in these vast abandoned ruins, there is precious little sound. But when even these few noises die down to a muted hush, so quiet you can hear your own heartbeat, it means only one thing. An invader wandering the cold Abyss between worlds has gained a foothold in your world. That invader is coming to kill you. You can always hear it, as long as you listen.

The second thing you hear will be the unmistakable sound of that spirit gaining coherence in your world, spawning into full reality nearby. It may only a be few seconds, or nearly a minute, but itís barely enough time to prepare.

And then I hear the spawning sound. A message banner rolls across the bottom of the screen. ďSpirit of Vengeance Manitoba87 has invaded.Ē

There are many types of invaders that can make their way into your world. This type, Spirits of Vengeance, belong to the Darkmoon Covenant - the karmic police of Lordran. When I was a much younger spectre, 20 or 30 soul levels ago, I belonged to the covenant of Forest Protectors. I wandered for many moonless nights in Darkroot Garden, hunting down intruders for their souls and the materials needed to forge my weapons. Many of them, as they fell, indicted me - wrote my name into the pages of the book of Sin, so that warriors of the Darkmoon might find me later and exact their vengeance. And I deserve it, of course. We all sin, and we all bear the cost. But so long as I am armed, and at full health, I refuse to die. The souls Iíve collected are my only means of getting stronger, my only means of escaping from this forsaken place. They will take them from me by putting the business end of a length of steel through me - or not at all.

My heart is pounding. Has been since the silence fell.

Iím on the third floor of the Library in the Dukeís Archives. Itís a precarious situation. Iíve never been this far into the Archives before. Invaders may be escaped by rushing into the boss area at the worldís end, but I donít know where that is, nor how far away. I donít know where the enemy is coming from. And Iím full of souls, tens of thousands of them gained from slaughtering my way out of Seath the Scalelessís gruesome prison tower. Souls that will end up in a bloodstain on the floor, in the middle of an armed mob of shamans and crystal warriors, if I am not careful. I stop moving, so that the clank of my plate-armored footstep canít give me away. I slot in my remaining Estus potions of healing, click through my few offensive options. I lurk in the shadows on the catwalk, and wait.

And then I see him from over the lip of the railing, scurrying across the bottom floor silently. Invading spectres make no sound.

My hands are shaking now.

I have one small advantage - control of the arena. There is only one way to get up to my level - via a rotating staircase that connects the second and third levels of catwalks. He can make it up to the second level, but he canít get up here unless I turn the staircase for him. But thereís no other way for me to get out. So I must face him. It still takes me several minutes to build up the courage.

None of us want to die. Not again.

I take a breath, and walk out onto the staircase, audible and clearly visible now. At the staircaseís midpoint landing is the lever that will rotate it 180 degrees, connecting it to the second level catwalk on the roomís opposite side. I pull the lever, and wait.

As expected, he is there at the foot of the staircase when it completes its rotation. An energy pattern of coldly flickering cobalt blue light in the shape of a man.

We stand there, regarding each other for at least five seconds. It would not have surprised me to see a tumbleweed roll past. This is a test of the opponentís character. Hungry, thuggish, inexperienced souls will come charging in immediately. When enough time has passed to established that neither of us is that type of warrior, then we bow simultaneously - he with a courtly sweep of the arm, me with a formal, from-the-waist eastern bow.

Then, just like in any samurai movie youíve seen, we charge.

He has a one-handed sword. I hold a Crescent Axe, a long-handled headsmanís blade. It is not a popular weapon, but it has better reach than any other axe, and delivers damage commensurate with the strength of my Faith. As we draw near, just before Iím inside the reach of his sword, I drop the axe and palm my talisman - the symbol of that faith. And as he draws back to swing, I take a knee and pray.

And the air erupts with the Wrath of the Gods.

My opponent is lightly armored. The force of the miracle scatters him to the foot of the stairs like leaves in the wind. And I make a mistake. In my nervousness, Iíve double-tapped the cast. Wrath erupts a second time, but it washes over my prone opponent harmlessly. Worse, it eats away a precious second of my time. As fast as I can, I heft the axe once more and bring it down in a brutal overhand chop, but itís too late. Heís recovered. Quick as a blink, he vaults to his feet, backflips twice, and goes sprinting down the catwalk in the other direction.

I run after him as fast as I can, but Iím in full paladin armor, bearing no charms or enchantments to lighten the load. He outpaces me easily. A smarter fighter than I would have pulled out a ranged weapon and fired at his back. This is my belated thought process as, barrelling down the hall, I see him turn back to face me with a halo of glowing spheres rising up around his head.

Crystal Soul Mass. Itís nothing to me. Charging forward still, I wait for the spheres to leave his orbit and come streaking towards me like small earthbound meteors. I dive forward in a roll, and they zip overhead, harmlessly. I have to think of them as harmless. Because if you stop, if you try to run, even if you just freeze and hold up your shield, then the first one will knock your shield aside, and the rest of them will rip you open and leave you broken on the floor.

Coming up from the roll, I leap forward to bring the axe overhead in a downward smash. He flinches aside just in time, but fails to get out of the way in time for my follow-up swing. I can hear the gasp through his teeth in the stillness of the Archives as my blade cuts through his armor once, twice. But again, Iíve been overeager. I barely caught him with the tip of my weapon; the third swing hits only air, and leaves me off balance. I have a moment to see him lean forward, to see the glimmer of a Pyromancerís Flame in his sword hand. And then the air around me combusts into a terrifying cloud of fire.

My faith protects me to some degree from direct magical damage -- but fire is an older, rawer form of magic. I try to swing the axe again, but the fire has ripped through my defense - I can only stagger, arms twisting in pain, withering in the deadly inferno as the air explodes again, and again.

With the last of my strength I throw myself into another roll, past him, tumbling until I can get clear. I have a second to myself, maybe less. Itís not enough, but in a haze of panic, I down a flask of Estus. My health bar, shrunk to a thumbnailís width, springs back to half-full.

A second later, and that Pyromancerís glove is at my back again, the air once more burning. But Iíve recovered just enough to take the hit without flinching. Pivoting, I level the axe into a wide horizontal sweep.

He sees it coming, and flips backwards, but his timing is off, and my range is good. I clip him as heís coming down on his feet. He panics, turns, and sprints a short distance before turning to regard me once again.

Weíre both torn up. At this mid-range distance, whoever flinches first loses. The sword re-appears in his hand. And just like in the samurai movies, it ends as it began. We charge.

Iím late on my swing; he gets clean past the axe. His sword tags me as he passes; the blade is enchanted with flame, and once again, I am burning. My health bar is a sliver.

Any second now, there will be a backstab. Iím wide open, and out of options. I donít think about alternatives; my fingers do the math for me. Reflexively, one last time, I drop the axe, take a knee, and pray for the air to fill with the sound of Godís Wrath.

Iím waiting for the backstab sound to happen. Waiting to see my avatar snap into that all-too-familiar shock animation as my opponentís weapon enters her back and explodes through her chest, lifting her clean off the ground in the process. Iíve already seen it as vividly as though it were real, when my ear finally registers the soft double-thump of my opponentís body hitting the ground knees-first, and the sighing whisper of his soul leaving this plane of existence.

Iím a scrub, when it comes to PvP. A humble vessel, who entreats greater powers to help him deal with the skilled, vicious, and deadly obstacles in his way, and hopes -- against all odds -- that somehow he will make it through each encounter alive. Hands still shaking, I had to put the controller down at that point, and reflect on what it is to have a little bit of Faith.   read

10:31 PM on 09.21.2011

PAX: "This should be fun. When do we leave?"

"This should be fun. When do we leave?" - Gogo the Mime

It's been about a month since PAX. I keep meaning to write something about it, when work isn't kicking my ass. Thus far, the ass kicking has been relentless.

They say they'll lay off the brass knuckles if I get all my spreadsheets done.

Also, I'm kind of lazy. And I didn't take any pictures, because I have the attention span of a flea with a mood disorder and a Red Bull problem.

But that doesn't mean I haven't been thinking about it.

The last time I went to Seattle was more than ten years ago; passed through it, I should say, rather than "went to." I was visiting a friend in Snoqualmie, and really didn't see much of Seattle other than that it seemed rainy and full of coffee shops and flannel and the spirits of long dead alien scouts from other worlds, hungry and in need of fresh, untarnished, virginal souls - which is pretty much what everyone expects Seattle to be. But convention time is different.

During PAX - well, I guess all I really saw was downtown. But because of the massive convention clustered right near its heart (like a cancerous growth, but very slightly less expensive), it really became something Other - like a city in a novel, full of weird and wonderful sights. You roll out of your bed in the morning, as early as you can stand, because awesome is happening right outside and you need to be part of it (and why can't waking up be filled with that feeling more often?).

You stumble towards coffee, and a bunch of N7 troops from the Normandy are lounging near the counter in fatigues and tank tops, ordering espressos and blearily trying to remember where they parked their ship. As you're chewing through your thing-that-was-a-pastry-once, you can see Mario outside posing for a picture with someone - no, wait, that's Ron Jeremy. Ron Jeremy in a Mario costume? Probably wouldn't be the first time. Maybe itís not Ron Jeremy. You're not quite awake enough to figure it out.

Give this man a mushroom. Right now.

As you trundle towards the convention center, the streets are teeming with Soul Collectors and Creepers and BlazBlue warriors and "sexy" Pikachus and a sad man in a yellow blanket who thinks he's Pac Man and may have diabetes. And so much more. It's like a forum exploded, and everyone is dressed as their avatar. It makes just walking around a heartlifting experience. It's beautiful.

Forums! Geez, I never go there, which is my own damn fault. I spend too much time on the internet to begin with. But did you know that the forums are filled with awesome, and that everyone in there is bombsauce? I met so many cool Dtoid forum people I don't even know where to begin. Jack Shadow and Hei, Diverse, GOBUN!, Fleet3000 and lady, Glitchy, the amazing Changston, Scion of Mogo, and many other rockstars whose names I cannot remember right now because BOOZE. Also met a handful of the many community leaders whose names you may not see that often if you're a front-pager only, but who do an amazing job of helping people have a good time, on the site and off - Tactix, Powerglove, and so many more. Also met the incomparable Elsa for a few minutes, which was an absolute treat, as well as the polite Mr. Kraid, sublime intern Ali D, Heiyu who is a hilarious friend of mine that needs to delurk - the list goes on.

All of these people are awesome, and are only one tiny piece of the Dtoid army which lurks in secret. Okay, they lurk in public. And they are actually kind of loud and sometimes wear funny hats and foam swords and are not actually that secret. My point is, they are all as awesome as you could possibly expect; hilarious and legit and straight up nerd-sexy, and the meetups at E&C and Pink, not to mention the Dtoid panels, absolutely made my damn show.

Want to know a secret? Every once in a while when there are no new texts from my friends or material in my RSS reader, I'll flip open the GroupMe app on my phone and look at the chat record of that weekend - hundreds of fellow Dtoiders greeting each other, meeting up to get food, get booze, find trouble to get into, and sometimes something or other about gaemz. For a second, if I'm stuck in a line or doing a really boring task, it's a breath of fresh air.

What is there to say about PAX?

I mean, most of it has been said already. Everyone who wasnít there is sick of hearing about it already, and everyone who was there - well, they were there, and the moment doesnít translate into words very easily.

Mostly, I think I want to set some of it down just for myself.

Because over the course of this year, there are going to be some bleak moments. Iíll end up stuck late at work, sleep-deprived and laboring away on something I donít care about. Or one of those foul moods will sneak up, the ones that convince me that nothingís worth doing, no oneís worth seeing, and that if the earth would just sink right back into the water before I have to put on my shoes and go out the front door, that would be the best of all possible outcomes.

Unless I had slick shoes, and didn't use the door. That'd be fucking awesome.

And when that grim breath passes, I remember all the things worth doing in this world, and the fact that I just found a new one, and that it happens every year like magic.

Eleven months to go. See you in 2012.   read

11:55 PM on 07.20.2011

Downloadables: A Hoard of the Game

Well, let's get this thing started. Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to visit - find a seat anywhere, it's a spacious cave and there's plenty of room down front. My name is fulldamage - thanks, hi, thanks - and I'd like to take a moment to talk to you a little bit today about a serious problem facing dragonkind. Something that impairs our ability to focus on long term goals, to develop ourselves, to grow as a species, and to contribute to life on this planet. Drakes and gentlewyrms, I'm here today to talk to you about hoarding, and how it is ruining us.

Now, just hold on a minute. I know what you're thinking. "Fulldamage, hoarding is what dragons do. It's just a part of how we behave! It's natural. We attack towns, we raze crops, we kidnap princesses, we slay knights, we fight each other, and we hoard gold. Forever. Look it up on wikipedia, it's just how we are! You can't change what you are." I know, believe me, I've heard it all before - I've thought the same things myself over the centuries! I'm not here today to tell you to apologize for that. These are great qualities - rightfully belonging to gorgeous beings at the top of the food chain such as ourselves. What I'm saying is this - there's a right way to go about things, and a wrong way. And if we don't go about things the right way, then as a species, we're simply not going to make it.

It's a problem.

Now, show of claws - who in here is a big fan of Gold? Yep, yeah - okay, you can put them down. That's about what I thought. Gold is a wonderful thing, and it comes from many places in the world - mostly from humans! You can get it from burning down their farms, burning down their towns, ransoming kidnapped princesses, ambushing royal caravans - it seems like it's everywhere, so who cares how much we collect, right? But I'm here to tell you today that gold, and the humans that create it, are a limited resource. If we hunt them to the point of extinction, then there's less gold in the world, and our sweet gold beds get less fluffy with each passing year. I need you to think about cultivating humans. If you want to succeed at the long game, you need to let them build up their towns and farms to a certain level before attacking them - they're much more valuable that way, and you'll save a lot time, which can be put to use napping and dreaming of sweet, sweet slaughter.

Why keep them in here? They make gold. GOLD, you understand.

I'm already hearing some grumbling in the back - settle down, you malcontents. I'm no peacemonger. Listen, what I'm talking about is a balancing act. You have to be an activist, you have to engage daily in the process of improvement. If you let them build too big, all of a sudden there are castles and wizard towers all over the map, taking potshots at you if you so much as stick your nose out of your lair. That's obviously a fatal situation. What I'm talking about is harvesting them sustainably. Let them build up to a sufficient level - and burn them down just as they become a threat. Or even better - show them fear. Cause just enough havoc to terrify them, without destroying their cities entirely - and when they rebuild, they will worship you, and deliver money right to your hoard without you having to so much as flap a wing, leaving you free to expand your control of the map and work on your long term goals. Think about it.

And you should have long term goals. For Ouroboros' sakes, you need to better yourselves. All dragons are blessed with innate strengths - flight speed, fire breath, carrying capacity, and armor. If you really want to run the map, you need to not only develop those skills, but develop them tactically. Because let's face it, the world is a small place, and we're competing with each other, not just the humans. You need to be able to take care of yourself and strategize for your long term gain. A maxed-out breath attack is handy, but not if other dragons are making it to all the gold deposits faster than you! Sneaking into other dragon's hoards to steal from them is a time-honored trick - but if you're not strong enough to carry out more than a couple clawfuls, then it's a total waste. You'll often find spells all over the map that will let you freeze targets, blast things across the length of the map, and more - but you need to focus on the ones that apply to your current situation, and you need to use them when the time is right.

Humans, again, are the same way - you need to use them tactically. Think about protecting towns and castles that are close to your enemies' lairs. If you can do this, eventually your opponent will be plagued with archers and magic bolts downing them prematurely, leaving you free to eat up their resources and build your powers.

My friends, there are at least thirty maps out there, all featuring human settlements in different locations and arrangements. There are thieves sneaking into your hoard from every which direction, who will zero your score multiplier and ruin your ability to meet your money making goals in a timely manner. There are princesses being carted around in flimsy conveyances, begging to be kidnapped. There are knights which come charging into your hoard after princesses. There are wizard towers guarding valuable gems, if you can dodge their devastating blasts. There are archers, there are massive giants, there are plunderable caravans, and most of all there are other dragons.

Dragons interfering with your tribute wagons, dragons decoying you into chasing princesses so they can steal from your hoard, dragons nabbing your powerups, dragons leading trains of knights in your direction, dragons ambushing or sniping you when you're in mid-raid and far from home. Managing each map requires an ability to react quickly, to strategize, to adapt, to make critical decisions between offense and avoidance, and to shift focus between short and long-term goals. It's frenetic, and it is challenging.

The lives of dragons span aeons, and the rise and fall of your entire empire can hinge on the events of what seems like 10 or 20 minutes. Fellow dragons, I challenge you to take an active part in managing this world of ours, in overcoming its obstacles, and in becoming the bravest, strongest, richest creatures this world has ever seen. With your help, I believe we can accomplish this goal, and accumulate hoards the size of which our ancestors could never have dreamed possible.

And if I catch any of you within seven leagues of my lair, I will straight-up murder you into ashes.

Thank you for your time. Be safe.
(with apologies to Big Sandwich)   read

11:50 PM on 07.14.2011

I've got your Intro Post, right here.

So uh, it occurs to me that I never really did the Introductory Post thing.

Hi! I'm fulldamage. I liek games. I write thangs.

I space out very easily, and occasionally space out during conversations, adding several lines to the conversation in my head and then jumping back in so no one really has any idea what I'm...

... yeah, and so that's why armadillos, right? Because they have leprosy in their toes.

Right? What?

If enough people went in on it with me, I think we could buy this house as a timeshare, and rule during the zombie apocalypse.

Games have been helping me get through life for practically as long as I can remember. The first computer game I recall playing was Dino-Warz on the TRS-80. The gameplay was kind of like thumb-wrestling with boxing gloves on, only less precise.

My first console was a ColecoVision. Venture was one of the games on it. Those green fuckers would appear out of nowhere with a fucked-up 8 bit serial killer noise if you stayed in any room too long. Venture was the first game that made me shriek out loud. I think I'm looking for a game that can still do that.

When we got an Apple IIe, I played a hell of a lot of Ultima IV. I don't think I ever won. The path of the Avatar is hard indeed. But goddamn if I didn't learn my way around spell reagents. What was in middle school, had two thumbs and knew what the hell nightshade, ginseng, and mandrake root were? This kid! (so ronery...)

My most-fondly-remembered console was the good old NES. I think we rented every game the video store had to offer. When I discovered that there was a 2nd quest in Zelda JUST AS LONG as the first quest with all-new dungeons, my mind was officially blown. Has any game done that, since? Why the hell not?

But... Second Quest! Where is it?

Final Fantasy I kept me and my brother sane during the summer that my mom decided that she'd snap and strangle us with a vacuum cleaner cord if she didn't send us to the grandparents' house for a few months. I've been fascinated with leveling, progression, and character/party builds ever since.

Final Fantasy 4 and 6, Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, Legend of the Mystical Ninja, and basically the SuperNES's entire catalog made high school bearable.

College was all about Diablo, Street Fighter Alpha, and Mario 64. Also, the internet had just started happening. The internet helped me make friends, and helped to balance out the realization that even though suddenly alcohol and parties were closer at hand than they'd ever been, I was still kind of socially retarded. I started writing more, online and off. The writing would eventually lead me to making friends that I'd stay in touch with, meet in real life, room with, and that have stuck with me to this day.

FFVII blew my mind. It was released the year I graduated. It showed me things I'd never realized games could be capable of. After I completed it, my own world map opened up. I got more into punk rock, and learned that a little bit of applied anger could help me to assert myself and find my Limit Breaks in the real world. I took an airship to London with a few hundred gil in my pocket and lived there for six months. Came back to L.A. and dipped into the rave scene a bit. My budget mostly went to beer and gas, but on my friend's Dreamcast we kept the Soul Calibur rocking at all hours. I never could pick a favorite - I was an Edge Master man.

A strong soul makes a strong warrior, not their choice of weapon.

I was an environmental canvasser for a little while, in a total hippie house. I wasn't a heavy gamer at that point in my life, but I had a busted old Playstation to play FFVIII on. It wasn't as good as VII, to me, but I respected the emotional struggles of the main characters. Squall gets lambasted for being "emo" these days, and he was surely cliche, but he stood out among heroes at the time - he had a sarcastic, wry, somewhat ironic character that I could sympathize with - as though he was legitimately pointing out the ridiculousness of this entire world that kept coming to him to solve its' problems and have lengthy emotional discussions. I learned to be a party leader. I made sure everyone made it to the club and back safely. Arguments got mediated. Passed-out kids got safely tucked into bed. They promoted me to field manager at work. I was crap at hitting quotas, but I knew how to get other people to hit theirs.

The millennium turned. I said the hell with it, and went road-tripping for like half a year. Lived in New York for three months. Actual games faded out of the picture for a while, but in my head, I was always leveling up, learning to deal with new challenges, adapting and surviving while I built up hit points.

With a trusty steed and some gas money, EVERYTHING is an open-world game.

Ran out of places to crash. Headed back towards CA. On the way, I wandered into high-level territory in New Orleans, and got the crap kicked out of me somewhere in the French Quarter. That was the first time I'd taken serious punches in a real, non-moshpit, physical altercation. I've taken and given a few more since then, but I definitely learned that keeping your wits ready is often more effective than keeping your fists ready. Level Up.

Stayed in the old hometown for almost a year. Took up doing some spoken word at a coffee shop, where I met some great, funny, talented people and improved at expressing myself. Kept writing. I also discovered both Chrono Cross and Persona 2 - Eternal Punishment during that time. And again, I had my horizons expanded. I learned that you could cross time itself to find a place to fit in, and if you weren't careful, you might discover that you were the bad guy in your own story. I learned that people are nowhere near as simple as they look - we all house a near-infinite number of different faces we show to different people, angelic and demonic and beautiful and ugly personalities all vying for attention, all mixing with each other and turning into new personalities as we meet each of life's challenges.

I found this, randomly, in a locked case at Sears. Never heard of it before. Insta-buy.

I moved to San Francisco. The Playstation 2 came out, as did the Xbox, and a golden era of amazing games started to bloom. I got back into them slowly, over the years. I wrote when I could, I got into trouble all the time, I met all kinds of crazy people - and eventually stumbled into being kind of a grown up, somehow, with my shit kind of together, and something like a career, and friends who like to write and create things with me now and then. And games - and the people who play them - have been along for the entire ride, helping me to make sense of this crazy world by working through it in little simulations, one piece at a time.

I'm at the top of my game right now.

I've hopped out of a plane before. I've been to the green and black sand beaches of Hawai'i. I once interviewed a guy who made angels in his living room out of mannequins and meathooks. I've fallen in and out of love. I've crashed cars. I'm older than I ever thought I was gonna be, and still too young to know what I'm doing. I'm not sure I really count as a grown-up, and I don't really have a plan, still! But at the end of the day, I know the things I like best are getting a sentence exactly right - and plunking down on the couch with a friend to play some games. (okay okay, I like whiskey and drunken makeouts too, but I'm trying to stay on topic.)

And Destructoid is full of game news and gamers and writing and ideas and crazy, and it doesn't have a stick up its' ass, and there are a lot of personalities, and you have adventures and express yourselves with righteous style, and I am a massive fan of all of those things. (I mean, I'm short, not really massive, but you know what I mean.) And that's why I'm here, and happy to meet all of you.


See you at PAX!

(also I am sorry my blog is naked, I'll fix it I swear)   read

10:02 PM on 01.24.2010

The Future: Game of Life

Youíre driving to work. (Yes, sadly this is in your future.) The SO calls (this may or may not be in your future) to remind you to pick up a quart of milk on your way home. The phone is actually built into your car, hands-free, with a mike in the steering wheel. She can send the address of the store, and the location will pop up on you carís GPS minimap along with an alarm that will ring you when you start your evening commute.

Just then some asshole cuts you off without signaling. You brake, and simultaneously hit the ďfuck you buddyĒ button, which is situated comfortably between the sunroof and cruise controls. The button lights up whenever your carís camera and proximity sensors detect that youíve been cut off. Itís doubly irritating because these same sensors in assholeís car should have informed him not to switch lanes, and he clearly ignored them for the sake of a 4 second time gain.

Once pressed, the button uploads to the auto makerís server, and outputs via a variety of third-party applications to your Facebook, Twitter, and Live accounts. Driverscores are displayed on Live, accessible to everyone on the network; your carís HUD informs you that this guy is a natural griefer, and your thumbs-down will be added to his growing list of poor reviews. Good driving, proper signaling, and sticking to the speed limit are all strategies for building a higher driverscore, which can result in bonuses and cheaper DMV fees.

The HUD system in your carís windshield can display other driversí names, driverscores, and statistics reactively, as the carís internal cameras track where your eye is focusing, and match it to the positional data of the surrounding vehicles. Moreover, when you turn on the ďassistanceĒ feature, then it will help to guide you to proper driving with proper incentives. Virtual pickups will appear in areas where you should go, granting you points for making your turns and lane changes in the right places Ė in addition, lights on the corresponding controls in your car will illuminate when a recommended maneuver occurs Ė the speedometer will show what the recommended speed is, and will grant you a bonus for maintaining it.

Operating from satellite data, the carís computer knows where you should position your car in order to reduce traffic congestion and accidents, and the better you react to its instructions, the more points you receive. Chaining together correct maneuvers and combos can enable you to unlock other incentives, like free smog checks or HUD skins Ė for those who want to drive to work in space, weaving in and out between lanes of gargoyles, dodging potholes that look like banana peels or green shells. As people tag more transitory features, like potholes and deep puddles, the data improves. It turns out all we needed to make people drive better is trophy support for our actual cars. Who knew?

Arriving at work, you breeze past the receptionist whose name and face you can never remember. It doesnít help that she changes them every week or so. A light web of holographic tattoos crisscrosses her face invisibly, projecting new temporary tribal designs or tweaking her features each time she updates her live Avatar and screenname. In the bigger cities, given names have fallen into the same layer of personal information as social security numbers Ė good for identification on forms, but when you actually refer to someone, you go by their current screen name if you want them to respond to you.

You reach your desk, and as you get in range of the webcam at your station, Outlook clicks to life. You have eight active quests (which at the turn of the century were still being called ďtasksĒ). You need to finish three of them today in order to keep your performance meter above 80%, which is what you need in order to score a bonus at the end of the quarter. If you finish five tasks, youíll score a combo bonus, which will net you a Starbucks gift card if you do it enough times. If you finish all tasks, youíll gain an experience level, which comes with the ability to add another active task to your queue, and one perk youíve been waiting for, the ability to delegate one additional task to someone else while still receiving a percentage of their completion credit. Youíre convinced that, given enough time, you can arrange this system so that you can level while doing whatever the hell you want. But enough musing; the clock is ticking, and itís time to get to work.


As game fans, we spend a lot of time thinking about games, playing them, talking about them, and comparing them Ė and with each passing year, more and more people pick up a controller or a mouse and keyboard to become gamers. But, if you look around, youíll see not only more games and more gamers, but more places where game technology is influencing how we live and behave. Game-like systems of incentivization are showing up all around us Ė and if youíve spent a lot of time gaming, youíll have a better natural understanding of how to make these systems work for you, now and in the future. But just be careful; if you donít stay on your toes and stay well-informed, youíre going to find these systems playing you, instead of the other way around.   read

3:10 AM on 10.28.2009

Nothing is sacred: Character stats


STR 10
DEX 13
INT 11
CON 12

I love building RPG characters.

Hell, I'm one of those people who can take 20 - 30 minutes pondering my character name, before I even get to my initial stat arrangement. But figuring out whether to spec for speed or strength, wizardry or armor, stealth or personality - it's seriously a buzz to me. I'm not even a min-maxer -- I just need to get the character so that it matches the picture and/or origin story I've got in my head. For my imaginary character. Because I'm crazy in my brain.

But what's even crazier is how many of you immediately understand what you're looking at when you see a list like the one above -- and not because of tabletop games, where character attributes were born. You recognize what these stats are because they are in so damn many video games that it is almost impossible not to have encountered this type of system before. Because any time you slap the bullet point "RPG Elements" onto a game description, then suckers like me will give even the snooziest game a second glance. And this is why we need to move past them - not just for hopeless RPG addicts like myself, forsaken and damned beyond all hope of redemption or normal conversations. But for everyone, because we can do better.

Problem #1: The stepchild stats - Personality and Luck
How many times have you gone to a forum, looked up some information while thinking about a character build, and heard people saying the same things -- "Charisma is useless. With (x) spell or (y) amulet you can get anything you need from any conversation in the game. Luck doesn't do anything." Whether you're playing an action-RPG, an FPS-RPG, a straight up dungeon crawler, whatever it is, people are saying these things about that game right now. Sometimes they are dead-on correct, and sometimes they just don't understand the game system as well as they could (understandable, given that the actual mechanics in these games are often hidden way down in the basement, like adopted children after the social services worker leaves).

We don't need to get into all that, but the amount of conversation about it indicates that it is, in fact, an issue. This is because, for a beginning player, these types of stats represent a gamble. In nearly all games of this type, you absolutely can get to the end by hitting, shooting, or magicking opponents, and avoiding their attacks. Why, then, gamble on values like your personality or your luck, when it's not clear at the start how and when these things will help you? And when your choice guarantees that you will get hit harder and dodge less? And yet we keep seeing them, over and over. Wisdom is lucky enough to have clerical magic or spell resistance attached to it, otherwise it'd be in the basement with the other kids.

Problem #2: They limit what we can experience
I'm totally going to quote myself: "In nearly all games of this type, you absolutely can get to the end by hitting, shooting, or magicking opponents, and avoiding their attacks." Why? Because your character is valued by strength, agility, and magical ability. And because 9 times out of 10 you're playing a juvenile power fantasy about dominating your opponents and saving the world.

Understand, I'm not complaining about these types of games -- I play them, I love them. But you can see how sort of closed-off this cycle becomes. Why have we let Steve Jackson and Gary Gygax tell us that those values up there are, for all time, the way by which we rate game characters? Why are THOSE stats the only stats we really use?

Think about all of the other things that go into making up a real person. I know there's way more to you than the amount you can bench press, or how long you can jump rope, or how many books you've read. Why isn't Memory a stat? It's a very real aspect of you, it differs from person to person, and it governs how long you can retain skills, how many skills you can retain, how you react to the world around you because of your recollection of past events. What about Attention Span? Some people are really focused and can get very expert at what they work on, but suffer in other areas because of that focus. Some people seem to have no focus, but are in fact really excellent multitaskers and can do more things at once... they have "more menus open" at a time than your average person. What about balance? Some people would argue that balance is far more important than strength or speed when it comes winning a fight. Or there's creativity, which can let you see solutions and opportunities that no one else can see.

Now you can stretch the definition of any of our established stats to cover some of those situations. But I'm not criticizing the system for being bad - just overused. Take a moment to imagine a game where your character was defined by their growth in Memory, Focus, Balance, and Creativity. If you were to put that on a marketing bullet point, it would get my attention just as surely as "RPG Elements." Because it describes a type of character that I've never played before, a different type of experience. What else do you think could be used as a stat?

Problem #3: Marching in straight lines
So you have attribute points. And you want more points, because more points is better. And the more points you have, the more powerful you are, and the more points you can get, and so on and so forth. All very standard, easy to work with, makes sense on paper.

But people don't really work like that. You don't just get better and better at everything forever. Sometimes you stop working out in order to focus on class, and you get smarter but lose some tone. Sometimes you're good at martial arts, and then you quit training and get into music, and you develop a good ear but lose some of your reaction time. Sometimes you're good at drinking, and then all of a sudden you're that dude that keeps taking off his pants at parties and never remembers meeting you. Whatever, my point is, people change and develop in different directions, and it's not always straightforward.


What if you had sliders, instead of raw points? In this type of system, you couldn't "accumulate" points, there is only a finite number to go around. But suppose your actions in the game caused those sliders to be in constant movement, adapting to the way you play the game. Suppose that you could unlock new skills and abilities based on the positions of those sliders in relation to each other? (Achieve High Cleverness, Medium Flexibility, and Neutral Morality to acquire "Steal", for example). Or what if you got new skills, HP or abilities based on how far you move a certain slider, to reward your changing potential.

That's just one possibility. I'm going to skip the other ones I thought of, because they involve graphs, and this is a wall of text already. My point is simply that there must be other ways to express character growth, and the more we explore them, the more we stand a chance of discovering new ideas and new types of gameplay. And I think we're all in favor of that!

In closing: RPG Stats, I'm really happy for you. And I'ma let you finish. But there's more out there waiting to be discovered, and we're going to have to learn to change up the game if we want to see it.   read

9:44 PM on 09.28.2009

The Forgotten: Robot Odyssey

Being an incredibly nerdy kid, I spent a lot of time in bookstores. And being that I was a kid that lived way out in the sticks, the best the local mall had to offer at the time was a B. Dalton. Do they still have those? If I remember correctly, I was wandering amongst the shelves without any particular agenda, probably hunting around for anything by Piers Anthony or Madeleine L'Engle or maybe a guide on how to not get called a girl for wearing an oversized shirt in PE class.

This particular Dalton had a Software Etc. We had a Colecovision console at the house, but actual computer games were still a thing of mystery to me. So I really didn't have much of an idea what to expect when I pulled a white and green box off of the shelf, with "The Learning Company" featured prominently on it, and a simple-looking premise involving an "Escape from Robotropolis." It reminded me a little bit of Asimov, and it was dull and inoffensive-looking enough for my folks to cough up the cash for it. Once at home, boxy two-button joystick in hand, I loaded the 5 1/4" floppy into the disk drive and fired up the hardest game I would ever play, though I didn't realize it yet.

That game was Robot Odyssey.

Apple IIe graphics. Awwww yeah.

You start with a rockin' cutscene in which the lead character wakes up in the middle of the night, from a prophetic dream of enslavement at the hands of octagonal metal overlords. In desperate need of a warm glass of milk, a cookie and a hug, he puts one foot over the edge of his bed, and falls through a surprise hole in the ground that has somehow appeared in his room. Oops! After tumbling head over heels into the bowels of the earth, he finds himself in the sewer system of a robot city.

The terror is real!

In the next room are three robots, your tools for surviving this mad mechanical hell. You can walk inside them, and see that they're wired up in a way that is exactly like an actual blueprint for a circuit. Not "like," in fact -- it IS a blueprint for a working circuit. The robots each have batteries, thrusters for moving in the four cardinal directions, antennae that can generate (and receive) signals from the other robots, sensors that can tell when they're hitting a wall, and a grabber arm. In order to get them to help you out, you have to actually wire them up yourself, using a virtual soldering iron and a selection of logic gates, nodes, and flip-flops.


Needless to say, this blew my head right the hell open. It'd be awesome if that was the story of how I grew up to be some badass electrical engineer, but in truth I can barely remember how to jump start my car. I never did win this game, and I figure it'd be quite a challenge even today. But I still remember the way the possibilities unfolded for me with each new challenge I encountered. Using this humble toolset, you were basically coming up with programs for simple A.I. You'd have to get one robot to navigate a maze, maybe pick up a key at the end of it, then send a signal to another robot to start moving towards a switch that would open a gate to get a third robot moving... and so on.

Let me be honest. I never made it past the third level of this game, though I came back to it now and again over a period of years. But although I failed technically at a lot of the circuit-building exercises, I credit this game with helping me develop the lateral-thinking skills I have used throughout my gaming career to figure out exploits and such. I spent a lot of time trying to "cheat" by forcing objects through walls, or riding a robot through half of a puzzle and then attempting to jump out and get across the screen before I got caught. Every once in a blue moon one of those half-baked plans would actually work, and those were some sweet, sweet victories.

In some ways, this is pretty dreamy from a design point of view -- you've got all the tools you need at the outset, but as you travel, the puzzles you encounter force you to use them in increasingly intricate ways. At ten years of age this level of logic was way beyond me, but it had the capacity to do some pretty complicated things. I mean, check out this page of advanced circuits that I never used.

You gotta be kidding me.

Decades later, I still think about this game from time to time. As an example of how a game can actually be an educational tool, this one set a high water mark that not many other games have come close to. Robot Odyssey isn't here to baby you, or provide you with an auto-assisted victory after you fail a few times, or make sure you don't get frustrated. Robot Odyssey is here to tell you that, if you are ever sucked deep into a nightmare world populated only by silent, ghostly droids who live a life completely alien to our experience, then by god you had better learn to solder together a single pulse flip-flop input into a nested delay chip if you expect to ever see the light of day again. And if you finish the game, you will actually have learned to do that. I think that's kind of a more important lesson than "Everybody wins!" But maybe that's just me.

If you're crazy enough to try it yourself, you can find it here at Abandonia. May take some effort to get this sucker to run on your machine.

I can't in good conscience recommend Robot Odyssey to you as "fun" in the strictest sense. But you might want to check it out nonetheless. The reason it's important to me is that it reminds me of a time when I had no preconceived notions about games -- what they could be, what they could do, what you could get out of them. In a box in the bookstore, I found a tool that wanted to teach me how to build robots. How sweet is that?

Can you program me to love?

It wouldn't be long before I discovered Ultima 4 and started learning about meditation, virtues, and strategic unit placement. Super Mario Bros. would follow that up with a purely mechanical, unique, and addictive challenge, as well as being the gateway to the whole wondrous world of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Back then, I wasn't thinking about games in terms of genres, or franchises, or review scores. Rather, they were like the books I spent so much time with - I'd pull one down from the shelf and sometimes, every once in a while, I'd get a glimpse of a world that I didn't even know was possible.


Opening sequence and some gameplay footage
This game is based on the puzzles in the original.
This guy is trying to build a working version on the Nintendo DS.
And this other guy put together a functioning version in Java.   read

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