What makes a good editor?

Had a splendid chat with the Megan Geuss the other day, which got me thinking about work. And thinking about work means I post it here, so there you go.

We were batting around ideas for a sentence, trying to figure out if a particular turn of phrase was too clever to keep. (I know you’re sitting at the edge of your seat waiting to hear this story come to its conclusion. She decided to kill it.) Of course, this is the question of the ages. Does anyone (besides other writers/editors) appreciate a particularly witty turn of phrase? At what point will we sacrifice immediate readability for what could be a more entertaining read? Basically, how am I supposed to do my fucking job?

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Finding Your Build

I reckon you could consider this something of a continuation of my Playing to Win (at Life) post over at Insert Credit, where I mostly talked about how to seriously develop skills. Wawro said to me the other day that he gets the impression I spend my free time “casting a steely eye toward the limits of productivity”. I don’t think that’s quite the case, per se–I just think, well, if I’m gonna spend my time playing Marvel/training BJJ/working at a magazine/etc., I might as well be the best Marvel player/BJJ fighter/magazine editor I can be.

But if that post was basically saying “Go big or go home”, this one is saying “train smarter, not harder”. That is to say, with games–and with life, I think–hard work alone can only get you so far. Hard work will get you the day-to-day gains that inevitably open doors for you later on, but a big-picture look at whatever it is you’re trying to excel at will help make sure that the doors you’re opening are leading in the direction you want to go toward. And eventually, when you hit the point at which you simply can’t dedicate more time/energy/thought to whatever it is you’re trying to improve at (in other words, the point of compromise), it’s the big-picture look that makes sure that despite whatever compromises you have to make, you’ll be able to maintain whatever standards you personally want to meet.

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Making things, and making things better

I decided a few weeks ago that a lot of the stuff I’m doing on the side–including this blog–are really done with the intent that one day I’ll be in a position to actually make some games myself, so I mapped them all out into a spreadsheet and started logging the time I’ve spent writing/reading/prototyping/playing etc. (The specific process involved with that is material for a different post, someday.) Then I showed it to Wawro, and he said something along the lines of “Why do you want to do that, anyway? Is there actually a game that you are worried won’t exist if you don’t make it?”

I thought that was a funny question for a few reasons, least of which is that I don’t necessarily do much of anything for fear that if I don’t do it, no one else will. But it did remind me of something Brandon Sheffield says when people ask him why he got into games: “I felt that everyone had already said everything interesting there was to say with film, and that wasn’t the case with video games.”

I’ve mostly been playing Skullgirls for the last week or, and it’s not really the kind of game that says anything “new” at all. Of course, it’s a fighting game, and those tend to be not really the kind of place to “say” anything at all. What Skullgirls does do is take disparate elements of Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Guilty Gear XX and distill them into a comparatively more simple product. Sticking with only 8 characters and introducing an optional team-based mechanic (you can choose to pick 1, 2, or 3 characters, and more characters means each one is weaker) let the designers put more work into creating interesting matchups and team dynamics per character. There is no Pandora mode, no X-Factor, no gems, no Custom Combos, no Burst meter, no Faultless Defense, or any other relatively frivolous mechanics. In some respects, it’s very stripped-down, and I like it a lot for that.

To be sure, the art is beautiful, the music exquisite, there are a ton of gaming/Internet in-jokes, and a lot of other things to love. But at its core, Skullgirls shows what you can do with subtraction, rather than addition, in game design, and I like it a lot. There is something to be said for making things more simple when they need to be more simple, and ultimately making things better

I’ve had an idea stewing in my brain more or less since I stopped playing Starcraft 2 with any regularity. Right now, SC2 is more or less synonymous with real-time strategy; anyone who would have been playing Command and Conquer back in the day is probably playing SC2 or maybe one of the many MOBAs. I will always have a place in my heart for the Starcrafts, but the real-time strategy game that made a dent on my heart way back when was Myth: The Fallen Lords. 

For those who never played Myth: Shame on you. 😉 It was more “tactics” than “strategy”, I guess–you played on a 3D map, and there were no structures or bases of any sort. Instead, you started each game with a set amount of points, and could choose a selection of units with those points (each player had access to the same units, which varied from map to map). Once the game started, you ran around with your army trying to win at whatever game mode you had chosen–capture the flag, king of the hill, last man on the hill, body count, etc.

Compared to StarcraftMyth is simple, fast, and a bit more elegant, I think. Each map and game mode combination is basically its own gamewith its own balance and design (thanks to the map creator’s ability to select which units are usable on that map). To be sure, the skill ceiling is undoubtedly lower, which is fine with me. Ultimately, what I want is an RTS game that I can play in 5-10 minutes.

The game I wanted to make (and tried to prototype in the SC2 Galaxy Editor, until I got frustrated and gave up) was even simpler; there are only three unit types. Basically, the game would start like Myth, except you’d use your points in the beginning to pick an assortment of light, medium, and heavy mechs. Light mechs are basically Terran Marines, Medium mechs have an AoE attack, and Heavy mechs move slowly but use a long-range attack that can hit about 3-4 times further than they can see. Cost for cost, Light mechs beat Heavy, Heavy beats Medium, and Medium beats Light, though the better you micro your army (splitting Light mechs up, maximizing Heavy mech range by using Light mechs as spotters, ambushing your opponent’s unguarded Heavy mechs, etc.) the more cost-effective your army will be. (The fundamental combat design is somewhat similar to playing Marine/Tank TvT in SC2.) Now combine that with the kind of game types Myth used (Capture the Flag and so on) in 1v1, team-based, and FFA variants, and we’ve basically got a noob-friendly, simplified RTS–something like the NBA Jam of real-time strategy games. (Anyone wanna make this with me?)

Fact is, there are plenty of things that this hypothetical game wouldn’t be better at than Starcraft 2. It probably wouldn’t make as good an eSport, and there are specific elements in SC2 (the race mechanic, for instance) that make SC2 a lot of fun to watch and play. But when it comes down to it, this game is one  I’d play a lot more than I play SC2, because I could fit it in my life, and right now, I can’t/don’t want to fit SC2. In that respect, I think that would qualify as “better”.


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Random Mobile Game Idea #1: Co-Op “Painting” Platformer

It’s no secret that most of the games I’ve been playing lately have been on my iPad. They’re cheap, some of them are really good, and I always have the thing with me, so it has become my de facto gaming platform of choice for the last year or so. However, I don’t see a whole lot of people really using the touchscreen all that well–I cringe whenever I see the “virtual d-pad” setup–so I’ve been taking notes on things that would be way cooler with a touchscreen than what we see now.

Idea number one is an autopilot platformer. I’m actually borrowing the idea from Super Mario Bros. X, a fan-made Mario megajam that included a rather unusual character: The mouse from Mario Paint (SNES). While one player was going through a level as Mario, another player could use the mouse to “paint” onto the level like a real-time level editor however he liked. (Yes, the troll potential here is impressive.)

What I’d want to see is a “platformer” on the iPad–except the player isn’t controlling the guy jumping through the level, he’s a benevolent spirit trying to help him out by using the touchscreen to “paint” what Jumpman needs to get through the level. So Jumpman progresses through the level on a (rather dumb) autopilot, but he needs the player to put bricks he can jump on, powerups to get past powerful enemies, paths to secret areas with more items or shortcuts, and he won’t stop to wait for the player to paint the right stuff–he’ll just plummet into oblivion or whatever. Of course, the player has a limited amount of “resources”–powerups, bricks, coins, whatever–for any given level, and he has to build a path for Jumpman that collects more of those resources to get through an entire level. As the difficulty increases, you could even have the player try desperately to counter-design fiendishly difficult levels like the ones that made the Asshole Mario videos so famous (http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6204903272262158881).

Since the game design itself is fairly modular, you could release this on the App Store with a set of three basic free levels, and then sell level packs and/or additional tools (and maybe even a full-fledged level editor that you can use to trade home-made levels with your friends).


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How I’d Make The Hunger Games Video Game

Since this blog isn’t being put to much use, I’ve decided to use it to publish some game design brainstorming posts I’ve been working on. They’re not really polished by any stretch of the imagination–this is really more just kind of like wanking in public, honestly. Maybe someday someone will read these and want to make a game with me! (Hey, it worked for Tim.)

Anyway, I started reading The Hunger Games series, finished the first book, and giggled a little bit when I realized that, basically, it’s a story about a bunch of tyrannical game designers. Which is kind of fun. (Spoiler alert, by the way–I am probably going to reveal some critical plot points.) So then I thought about how I’d make it into a video game, if I could.

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Does The Internet Make Us Boring Writers?

File this one under “editor”, I suppose.

So I’m one week into the new gig, and today I finally got a chance to start wrangling with a first draft of an article on particle effects systems in a certain up-and-coming console game. If that doesn’t excite you, well, I don’t want to know you. Anyway, I was reading through it and realized a few things:

  • Technical writers love awkward sentence structures.
  • Awkward sentences make my eyes glaze over.
  • Despite that, it still might actually be better for technical writing–especially on the Web. (Lucky me, I’m working in print.)

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Pinterest: Define Yourself Through Consumerism

I read this neat article about Pinterest Sexism and it reminded me that I should do a blog post about why I find Pinterest somewhat disconcerting after using it a few times over the last month or so.

For starters, I should probably point out that I agree with pretty much everything from the original article. I actually pitched some Pinterest-related stuff to PCWorld back when I was an editor there (I moved over to Game Developer Magazine last week) and got an arched eyebrow and a “don’t mostly women use Pinterest?” Yes, of course–and since PCW’s audience is predominantly old tech geezers, it wasn’t really of interest to anyone. Continue reading

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Mass Effect 2

So I finished ME1 and started up ME2. Just like before, there was an initial stumbling-around phase where I get used to the new controls and systems, and then everything starts to just feel way better than the original did. Combat is no longer about making their bars go down faster than yours; I am forced to aim, pick the right targets, use the right weapons, and take advantage of my teammates’ abilities, which you don’t really need to do much of in ME1.

I will say that I do miss the RPG elements of ME1 more than I did the first time I played through these games. I still find a lot of ME1’s weapon and upgrade system extraordinarily tedious, but I think that ME2’s relative lack of customizability isn’t any better. Honestly, I think the problem is that the guns and abilities in both games simply lack personality–which is a failing of both the FPS and RPG elements of the series.

I’m playing through as a soldier this time, since I played as a Vanguard in my first run. I like the tanky, in-your-face classes. Vanguard was perfect for this since they have that one ability that basically Psycho Crushers you into the heat of battle, shields charged and shotgun at the ready. Soldier, by comparison, is a bit more straightforward. Find cover, activate bullet time, use appropriate gun/ammo combo. Use squad abilities as necessarily. It’s entertaining enough, but there’s no soul to it. Just a handful of standard boring guns.

You know who made some great fucking guns? Bungie, back in the Marathon days. DOOM‘s weapons basically differed in a few predictable ways–you had the rate of fire, or you had area of effect, with damage more or less related to ammo scarcity. Marathon‘s weapons each had their own personality. Akimbo pistols for long range, akimbo shotguns for close range, finesse charged shots with the Fusion Pistol and spray-and-pray with the Assault Rifle and Grenade Launcher. Those were some fine guns.

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Why I Love PC Gaming

Started playing Mass Effect again in preparation for ME3; I played through the original 2 over holiday break last year but my saves were lost when I migrated to the desktop PC a few months ago. Not a terrible loss; I lost a few characters in the ME2 ending, and I kind of rushed through the first one anyway.

I could barely bring myself to finish the original, thanks to its clunky battle system and stupidly long elevator rides. That hasn’t been fixed in my second play through, but a few console tweaks make the game far more playable. All you have to do is type slomo 3 to speed the game up 3x and/or setrunspeed 1600 (I think) and Shepard will be zooming around the Citadel tagging Keepers like nobody’s business. Tank level? No problem, just crank up the speed. It’s like playing classic SNES RPGs with fast forward on, only it’s a modern PC game. Far more playable this way.

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IndieCade 2011

IndieCade 2011

Guys, guys! Guess what’s happening in downtown Culver City next weekend?

No not the Step Out Walk to Stop Diabetes, IndieCade! Every year some of the most creative independent game developers in the world assemble in this godforsaken corner of L.A. County to drink, dance and play games together.

Also, there’s like some awards show and some conferences and such. But mostly it’s about cool games and cheap booze! I’ll be there next weekend to express my love for both, and to prepare I thought I’d highlight a few of the lesser-known games I’m excited to play. Everyone knows how great games like Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery are, but there are plenty of innovative and exciting projects on display at IndieCade every year that just get lost in the shuffle. Here are a few finalists from this year’s show that can’t slip under your radar.

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