Hoppy Birthday to Me

My birthday was yesterday (yes, on Easter this year—sorry about the title-pun). Every Saturday, we take the kids to one of our friends' house and play roleplaying games (currently alternating between D&D and Champions). Since three of us have birthdays within a week of each other, we tend to throw a little birthday celebration on the first Saturday in April. Jay Barnson, our DM and one of the birthday boys, has a post with the incredible cake the ladies put together for us this year. Check it out, they made us a battlecake! The cake was put together by Julie, Kelly, and Melissa (with John lending the die rolls). Birthdays were celebrated by me, Jay, and Bryan.

UPDATE: Doh! Left Jena off the creators list. Since she's our resident baker, that's just wrong...

8. April 2007 05:33 by Jacob | Comments (6) | Permalink

Vanguard - A Review

I like game systems and always have. They fascinate me. It started out with my generation's standard: D&D. I bought my first game manual in 1981 and haven't looked back since. This fascination manifests itself in a masochistic desire to explore new MMOGs when they come out. If a game claims to innovate away from the standard mob-hunt, monster bash level progression, I'm particularly interested.

So when I read that Vanguard has three separate spheres for character advancement and that you didn't need to advance at all in the "Adventure" sphere (i.e. killing stuff) to advance in the others, I was pretty much doomed. Other games have tried this before with tragic results, but Vanguard is a part of the Sony empire so I expect that the game will actually be playable. And I have to say, they did something mildly wonderful with the Craft and Diplomacy spheres. Too bad Sony is run by pointy-headed morons who can only see customers as dollars with legs.

The Good

I explored Crafting first and I have to say, they did some interesting things here. The beginning crafting quests give you everything you need to get a feel for the ropes including some minor crafting equipment. This is where I first discovered one of the best things Sigil created: sphere-specific character inventory. My crafting stuff doesn't clutter up my bags and require complex item switching to maintain, just as my adventuring gear doesn't get in the way when I craft. This is nice, though 9 players in 10 won't even be aware of the pain-that-might-have-been (which is a sign of good design).

One thing that took some getting used to in both the non-killing-stuff spheres is that they incorporate colorful "gamey" abstractions. In Diplomacy, for example, you earn "conversation cards" that you play during a conversation to determine who is "winning" a discussion. The cards interact in certain ways that make diplomacy something of a challenge. While a touch odd at first, I came to admire this solution to making these sphere's attractive. It seems that Sigil remembered what others seem to have forgotten--this is a game. If all you have to do to craft something is push a button, then crafting is going to be boring.

These "gamey" abstractions both give you opportunities for random events and introduce the possibility of failure (to be clear, I'm not actually linking those two--while you can have an awkward run of luck in crafting, success or failure is still in the hands of the player). You choose whether to continue pursuit of an "A" quality item or decide that you've had too many muscle cramps to make that feasible and be happy with a "B". This dynamic means that your brain has to be engaged as you play these spheres, keeping them fun and precluding boredom as you pursue them.

My favorite sphere, by far, was Diplomacy. The "gamey" aspects of it were the most abstract but it also had the best writing. This makes sense, but it's good to see they actually spent the money to get some quality stories. I experimented with a couple of different races and each one had some compelling diplomatic storylines with factional interplay and manipulation that pulled me in. I'm not as big a fan of the "town levers" dynamic (which allow your diplomats to boost certain aspects of towns that then give players there interesting buffs--usually with a one-hour timer). I wish they had done more diplomacy quests, but I can see how there's only so much individually crafted, unique content you can create. They could also improve the availability of information before going into a conversation, but the information is there (you just have to remember who you are talking to and what that means about their conversational proclivities). Don't let these nit picks distract here, though: this is an excellent innovation, fun to play, and others would do well to learn from Vanguard.

Finally, a class I think they did extremely well with is the bard. Vanguard has 15 different classes (which is a little excessive) so I haven't experimented with them all, but I'm always interested in what people do with bards. Bard fighting skills in Vanguard are about what you'd expect (though dual wield is a fun non-common perk), but their songs are fantastically well-done. First, you don't actually get songs as you level--you get movements, rests, embellishments, lyrics, and other pieces of songs that you then put together to craft masterpieces to your liking. This lets you fine-tune your energy expenditure and song effects in a very bard-like manner. Second, Vanguard lets you name your songs. The buff tool-tip on mouse-over actually contains your title, allowing you to be publicly creative in a very bard-like way. Nice touches, both.

The Bad

As innovative as some aspects of Vanguard are, there are aspects of the game that grate. The most obvious is that Sony chose to skimp on quality. The graphics, while nice, aren't anywhere near what you'd expect given the system specs on this thing. In addition, the voice acting is... spotty. Some of it was okay, but mostly it was pretty bare-bones (and some of it was downright cringe-worthy). I don't consider myself a voice guy--I don't normally notice voice acting in games. This was occasionally bad enough to draw my attention.

The thing that drove me to cancel my subscription and head back to World of Warcraft, though, is the stupid insistence on a death penalty. Traveling the world is a dangerous activity what with wild boars and other aggressive bad guys wandering around loose. Also, sometimes you want to go out and exercise your inner barbarian. Even though you can theoretically spend all your time in non-adventuring spheres, it remains your core gameplay and central dynamic. If it sucks, everything else is affected. And make no mistake, ramped up death penalties suck.

I truly don't get how people aren't learning from City of Heroes and World of Warcraft on this. Failure is its own penalty. Adding an XP hit and corpse retrieval is just adding insult to injury. Games put you in the position of playing the extraordinary. Games let you play a risk-taking, tough-talking, potentially swaggering larger-than-life character that takes the world on through brains, brawn, or maybe just persistence. Hitting me hard when a risk turns out badly adds suck to a game that I don't think needs to be there.

An additional suck in Vanguard is also that you run out of quests before you run out of level (even more so if you die at all). That means that some time spent running around killing random stuff is, to an extent, mandatory. Here's a tip to anyone designing games: random killing is only fun for people with a lot of time on their hands and/or psychopathic tendencies. Yeah, that's a good portion of your male teen demographic, but games aren't dominated by that group as much as you think (witness WoW's continuing phenomenal, broad-based popularity).

The death penalty suckage is particularly vivid with a player used to World of Warcraft. In WoW, quests will tend to take you places where a single "add" during a fight, while risky, isn't likely to end badly if you're careful. Hard-core players bemoan the wussification of MMOs brought by World of Warcraft, but that's because they're jerks. Well, okay, that's probably not the case, but heavy death penalties do tend to be championed by people looking to prove that they are better than all the noobs running around who have a mere hour or two a night to play.

My final gripe is that Sony, as a company, seems to be deep into self-destruct mode when it comes to pricing and marketing. In Vanguard, this is manifest through their Station Players site. You can, for $1 a month each of four "services" (or $2.99 a month for all four) have access to a couple of character information pages. Gee, thanks. This is actually a cool feature that I first noticed and loved with Planetside. Being able to check out your stats without having to be logged in opens up new obsessive horizons and gives players opportunities to be involved with your game without drawing down all the resources they would if they were logged in. It's a classic win-win for any company with half a clue. Which is why Sony is trying to extort $3/month for something other, more enlightened, companies are giving away for free.

The Conclusion

As I said above, I canceled my Vanguard subscription. I got as much play from the game as I typically do for your standard single-player releases, so I'm not upset about wasting money. It gave me some good memories and I have to admit that exploring the Diplomacy sphere still has an attraction. Unfortunately, the rest of the game seems to be targeted more for your hard core, death-penalty-loving, noob squashing l33t playaz than for someone like me. Also, a company that seems to be looking for every opportunity to squeeze the last dime from my pocket offends me. Note to Sony: you are not the only game in town and your competitors are generous with their offerings. Extorting an extra 20% a month for something others provide for free is a really bad idea™.

7. March 2007 19:33 by Jacob | Comments (5) | Permalink

Torchwood Needs to Fire a Writer

We've been enjoying Torchwood lately, but there's a problem with the series that stands out and threatens to ruin my ability to watch it at all. Since the major suckage seemed to originate with a single person, I hit tv.com and left a review there which I reproduce below for your edification.


"Talentless"

The problem with a series as excellent as Torchwood is that it tends to show up the weaknesses of talentless writers such as Chris Chibnall.

We’ve been enjoying the new Dr. Who spin-off series Torchwood. The characters are unique, fresh, and explore that edge where really bad things happen in the absense of good guys taking forceful action (and often being hurt in the process--both emotionally and physically). In this respect, Torchwood holds its own with shows like Buffy: Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Veronica Mars.

Almost all of the episodes are awesome and have the characters struggling to do right in tough situations where the demarkation between good and bad are blurred. Almost all. Unfortunately, two episodes so far have proven to be complete disasters with the characters behaving uncharacteristically in what appears to be a naked appeal to emotional drama. Those episodes have something in common: they were written by Chris Chibnall.

Chris has Jack acting so completely out of character in Cyberwoman that I found myself literally staring at the screen wondering if I had actually seen what I thought I saw. I lost track of the number of times Chris had Jack making threats to Ianto only to back down for no reason whatsoever. I mean, who goes from threatening to shoot you in the head if you go down and help the enemy right into giving you the gun and telling you that you have 10 minutes to kill that enemy you’re bent on "saving"? How on Earth would Jack think that Ianto would do something he had steadfastly refused to do throughout the entire episode?

Jack’s actions could have been just temporary blunders, though, if it weren’t for the portrayal of the episode’s title character. Caroline Chikezie did a fine job portraying Lisa given what she had to work with from Chris Chibnall. But Chris had the Lisa character changing from cyber voice to normal voice and from professing love to promoting upgrading apparently based solely on what he felt would be most emotional at that moment. He displayed no discernable thought to consistency or rational behavior or plot development.

In a later episode, Countrycide, Chris again has the whole team making threats and failing to follow through on them and acting in ways that make no sense to the series dynamic or the characters as developed thus far. I mean, when Jack came into the final scene shooting people’s knee-caps I practically dropped out of my chair laughing. I mean, seriously, a room full of armed villians and Jack is going to be careful to make sure they are still capable of shooting him or, more importantly, his friends? It makes no sense.

And that’s the core of the problem with Chris’ episodes. He has no sense of rational actions or behavior, relying instead on raw emotion and drama. It’s as if he’s hoping that if he works fast enough nobody will notice that he actually has no grip on the characters, the plot, or even basic cause and effect.

I shudder to think how he is preparing to screw up the season finale. Maybe I’ll stop watching the show now and save myself the coming aggravation and disappointment of seeing the characters and plot circle back on themselves in an emotional vortex sucking the strength and resolve out of a story I enjoy and respect.

9. December 2006 09:08 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink

Cultural Translations and Observations

 

Okay, more Bollywood. I can't help it, it's interesting to me.

Tere Naam

We saw Tere Naam a couple weeks ago. I was underwhelmed. It's a Romeo & Juliet/West Side Story cultural translation, but it just didn't work for me. More specifically, the guy worked, but the girl was incomprehensible. Seriously, I couldn't figure out what she saw in him. He was violent and loud and she was a relatively together, smart kind of person. He kidnaps her and threatens to kill her so she decides she's in love. Makes no sense. The description does the hero something of a disservice, actually. He's shown from the beginning to be a rough character with a core decency that makes you care about him. Her attraction to him simply makes no sense. It makes even less sense that she'd get all tragic when asked to marry a guy who is genuinely nice, cares for her a lot, and is honorable to a fault. Yeah, she'd rather marry Mr. Broody, but that wasn't an option (and I mean because he's functionally brain-dead, not because he's being a dork). Or hey, here's a thought, don't marry anybody for a while. Sheesh. I admit there may be some cultural nuances I'm missing and the bit about her dad pressuring her to marry may be more potent if I understood the expectations better, but her dad hadn't been played as all that domineering or unreasonable to that point.

Anyway, this is the first Bollywood movie that felt long to me. Funny thing, it's one of the shortest so far. The best part of it was the special features on disc 2 of the DVD we had borrowed. It turns out that Salman Khan only looks really bad with the stupid haircut he had in this movie. Disc 2 has a bunch of his song and dance numbers from his other movies (which go back two decades if you can believe that--he looks half his 40-odd age). The best ones are his latest ones because he's bulked up a lot in the last decade. It looks good on him. Definite eye-candy for the ladies (and the men who are comfortable with their sexuality). Seriously, that man exudes cool despite the pouty lips.

Rather than buy the DVD for those numbers, though, I'd look up anything from his later work and get those instead. They look good from their numbers.

Paheli

Shahrukh Khan is fast becoming my favorite actor (in any industry). He exudes charm and an irresistible likability that makes you want to get to know him better. In Paheli, he shows that it isn't the roles he's getting and that the charm is completely under his control. He plays two roles in this film--the son of a business man just married but compelled to leave the following morning because it is an "auspicious" day to begin a business venture, and a ghost who falls in love with the bride while they are traveling to their new home. The ghost decides his best bet for getting with her is impersonating the poor sap while he's away (for five years--long business venture). Playing the son, Khan is completely unsympathetic in a very strange way. It isn't that he's repulsive. He's obsequious and rather self-involved is all. And he ignores his new bride on their bridal night because he has to "get the accounts done". Seriously, the man is an idiot.

Anyway, Paheli is based on a common story and the setting is (probably deliberately) vague as to time period and location. What is interesting to me are some very subtle cultural interactions in the film that struck me. Some spoilers ensue, but I don't consider them terribly earth-shaking.

First off, the brother that left his wife and young child because he lost a camel race. To me, that's just stupid. The other people seem to think it's stupid too, but more in a "I'm sorry he felt so dishonored" kind of way rather than a "he did what?!?" kind of way. That's not the interesting part of this side-story, though. The interesting part was when he returned (because his "brother" won a camel race--which is even weirder to me, but there you go). When he comes back, he begs his wife to forgive and his son to embrace him. Funny thing: his family isn't pressuring her one way or another. This is left entirely up to her (bearing in mind that they've supported her this entire time so it's not really a surprise I guess). The young son (he looked 10 or so) when facing his father's request for a hug takes his cue from his mother. There is no hint that this would be weird or wrong or abnormal in any way. The husband doesn't see this as odd. He says nothing about his rights and does nothing to plead directly to the boy or forestall and/or override her potential denial. The whole scene was very indicative of a culture centered on large-family units that had a real sense of obligation and internal justice. One where the parents (who owned and ruled the compound) were more loyal to their daughter-in-law and her boy than to their son. I found that fascinating, particularly as the era was so deliberately obscured which would seem to argue that such values are long-standing.

The second incident that made me pause was at the end when both a) the son returned and the family is faced with two men completely identical--one obviously an imposter, and b) the original bride has a child that can only be from the one who has been around all this time. The whole time they're trying to determine which one is the real son/husband, there seems to be little or no worry about who the child's father is. It seems to be enough that he is the child of the daughter-in-law. Or at least, the question of parentage is forestalled and considered tangential to the question of which is the real man and which the imposter. Further, when it comes out that the child is from the imposter, the household opinion is (specifically, carefully, even lovingly expressed) that it is no fault of the mother or child for being deceived. In other words, the expectation was that they would support the mother and child as if both men had been legitimately their son/brother/whatever. This is extremely magnanimous and open handed considering that, again, the extended family was geared to support those who were technically no blood-kin of theirs both emotionally and materially. Now, I don't know how extensive that support would have been over time. I don't know what might have played in later rights of inheritance or anything because the movie ends pretty much there. Even so, this is a cultural strength that seems to be a given and not emphasized like it would be if it were odd.

These cultural moments may be distinct to the single movie and certainly there are Western movies that might have decided those crisis points the same way. Still, these moments earned my respect and made me love the people in the movie and wish I knew more people like them. And it confirmed that I'll gladly watch anything with Shahrukh Khan in it. At least, until I find the one that sucks. So far, they've all been outstanding.

 

21. August 2006 14:01 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink

XM Radio Rant

Here are some tips if you have customers who want to cancel their account:
• If you can sign-up online, you should be able to cancel online. Period.
• Voice recognition may be cool to you, but speaking to a computer is less fun to your customers than you’d think, and repeating themselves to one is infuriating.
• A cancelling customer does not need to be cajoled into staying or find themselves speaking with somebody explaining why their reasons for cancelling are bad ones.
• A cancelling customer complaining about billing irregularities from a three-month free offer isn’t going to respond well to another three-month free offer.
• A cancelling customer who has been on hold for fifteen minutes and transferred three times should not be hung-up on by a faint voice with an Indian accent saying “Is anybody there?”
• A customer who cancelled because the note on the account that said they should receive three free months wasn’t applied should not receive a call from a collection agency the following Saturday morning demanding payment for those three months.
• If your collection agency is going to call on a Saturday morning to demand payment for bogus account charges, your customer should probably not find they can only take care of the bogus charges during business hours EST.

 

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31. July 2006 18:27 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink

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