Mass Appeal

A while ago, I downloaded this app that lets me see how much time I’m spending playing games. I seem to get about an hour or two a week in. The most I’ve spent with any one game is Star Trek Online; I’ve played it for a total of 25 hours over the last 2 years.

Those felt like pretty big numbers to me. I showed the stats to my wife, and she was appalled that I’d given a full day of my life to this one game.

I showed those numbers to some people in the local game dev group, and later on to some other friends, and they were appalled at how low those numbers were.

It’s becoming quite clear that I don’t really have a grasp of how people who are really into this stuff engage with it.

* * *

So I started playing Mass Effect. As with most big, popular video games, I wouldn’t necessarily say I like it. But the act of playing and trying to figure out what it’s trying to do, who it’s trying to appeal to… that, I find fascinating.

It seems a lot of it is about world building. I’m really, really not at all into world building normally. Whenever people start gushing about the richness of this or that built world, it actually makes me angry. I feel like it’s a waste of time, concentrating on emotionally inert minutiae that has no real value outside the context of a narrative.

But if I’m playing this game to figure out the mindset of its target audience, a big part of that is figuring out the appeal of world building, really figuring it out without being dismissive of it.

* * *

So what is this whole world building thing about, anyway? Here are some guesses:

  • Historical context. Can add more layers of meaning to dialogue and events.
  • Suggesting unwritten scenes. I’m a big fan of this in general. Suggesting an unwritten scene can be used to gloss over something that would be boring if you actually saw it; it can create comedic how-did-they-get-here moments, or efficiently hint at where a relationship has been going. I can see something here where the more world you’ve got, the more you can suggest using the costume, iconography, etc of your world.
  • Sandbox. Fantasy/sci-fi worlds frequently exist just so the author can explore a what-if sort of scenario, and I suppose a good, robust world will also invite the audience to pose what-ifs of their own. At its worst, this can descend into self-indulgent wallowing in one’s favorite bits of a fantasy world, but I’ll admit there is real value in encouraging people to explore these kinds of things.
  • Suspension of disbelief. Some people will just get annoyed if you present them with an artificial feeling world. I don’t want to pander to those people just to get them to buy my stuff… but to look at it another way: while I’m not going to be taken out of a mass-market period movie because the costuming is inaccurate, many people will, and saying that it’s ok to be lazy about costume research because the masses as a whole aren’t that picky is making your work more insular, not less.

* * *

It has always been my intention to make Tinselfly appealing to people who didn’t normally play games, or only played casual stuff. But it occurred to me the other day that the last thing I want to do is be too opinionated about what sort of audience I want to reach.

It’s about depth. Being appealing to a casual audience shouldn’t be about finding that lowest-common-denominator, simplistic presentation of Stuff That Common People Like.

I think it should be more about the union, rather than the intersection, of appealing things. It’s about having most everything that’s appealing about your product in most every scene, but also letting those things stand on their own and shine once in a while.

So if you’ve got one person who’s just into the visuals (say, me ;) ) and one person who’s just into the snappy dialogue (totally not me), you’ve got a good chance of getting both of those people. But that’s not the important part. The important thing is that any audience member has a variety of things to latch onto at any given moment, and can experience the work on multiple levels simultaneously, if they so desire.

* * *

This new, vignette-filled structure I’ve hit upon for Tinselfly opens up some opportunities for world-building. I was gonna pepper my main plot with these little, tangential, fairy-tale style stories set in little fairy-tale style universes, but I could just as easily package these up as little bits of history, set a hundred or a thousand years before the story proper.

If there’s an organic opportunity to give world-building fans something to play with, I should probably do it.  I would do well to go ahead and put real effort into those dimensions  of my product that I’m not the biggest fan of, like the dialogue and the world building; as long as it doesn’t interfere with the visuals and the story structure that I want, it can only make this better.

Fun with Mashups

I was working on this UI mockup for Operetta, and it was a little like Zeus, with all these tabs for looking at your empire and ship in different ways, which I prefer to the multiple-screen approach you get in many other empire building games. So there was a research tab, and a power management tab with all these sliders — you have to have power management in spaceship games, right? — and there would have been some sort of system inspecting tab too, so you could manage the production of the planet you were currently at…

…and it was starting to feel kind of disjointed.

So I thought I’d try to unify things a bit.

I recently finished playing Stacking, and one of the stated goals was to take the inventory, verbs, and characters you find in point & click adventure games and make all those things one unified thing that was easy to manage. Conceptually, I love that sentiment, even if I thought its implementation within the game was problematic.

So the new mockup has a combined equipment/power/weapons display, consisting of a single list that the player can re-order at will. The basic idea is that every item is capable of providing this thematically related suite of passive buffs, combat effects when you press fire, and non-combat effects related to firing. The higher up something is, the more it does for you.

Say you have a tractor beam. If it’s at the bottom of your list, it does absolutely nothing. If you move it to the bottom of the Ready bucket, then you get a passive effect: power-ups and resources on screen drift towards your ship instead of sitting around waiting for you to pick them up. If you move the tractor beam higher in the Ready bucket, power-ups drift towards you quicker.

If you move the tractor beam to the Armed bucket, it’s now one of couple things that fires when you press your fire button. Any resources in the line of fire of the beam are instantly collected, and any enemy ships have to stay a fixed distance from you for a while.

If, say, you also had a mining laser armed, you could shoot an asteroid and make it explode into a shower of resource tokens, and since you’ve also got the tractor beam equipped, the resources would gravitate towards your ship and be easier to collect. Hopefully, you could combine items in interesting ways like that.

You’d be encouraged to re-order your list for different situations, and I think it could be pretty fun.

* * *

The UI font is my football font family I’ve been working on; I figured this is a good way to find out if it’s working as a family, and see what needs to be fixed.

I also need experience working with type families; it can be kind of tricky it seems.

Let Go

Random epiphany of the day (which I might have said before, but that would just mean I haven’t internalized it yet, so it deserves to be said again):

No matter what the medium, no matter what the genre, I will always, always turn any media-consuming activity into an opportunity to learn about what works and what doesn’t in said medium/genre, and approach it from the point of view of learning instead of relaxing and opening up to someone else’s work.

The only way I’m going to relax is to take frequent breaks to stop thinking so much, which means (a) neither consuming nor building anything or (b) building something using the precise application of skills well within my comfort zone, wherein you hit a mindset not so much unlike that of (a).

I should probably swap out ‘games’ in my rotating schedule with something like ‘doodle’; relaxing with games just isn’t working…

Mark II Shields

There’s a new Operetta build up. Clicking moves; spacebar fires; the only way to reset the level (say, if you actually destroy the bad guy) is to refresh the web page.

I’ve been working on re-doing the shields mechanic detailed in this old lj post, though since I can’t depend on there being a constant frame rate, I ditched the ‘zillion tiny shield arcs’ approach and actually did multiple segments with arbitrary, floating-point starts and ends.

And yes, it was a pain, but I think it’s working.

There’s also collision detection; I’ve been using the stuff I learned at a recent Unity talk. Yay!

I’ve gotten a renewed interest in working on this project, as I’ve got a story I think could work within the format I’m planning, and Marie’s on board too and hopefully can help with the writing.

All the City’s a Stage

Apparently, there’s this YA, vampirey series of books set in a prep school in my childhood home town of Tulsa — not the prep school I went to, mind you, but a big rival of ours; and much of the action in the books takes place in places I’ve been. I’m tempted to give it a shot. I vaguely remember getting a kick out of Dragons of the Cuyahoga because it’s set in my current home of Cleveland; it’s kind of a different way of engaging with ficton.

* * *

Saw The Avengers last night. Much of it was filmed in Cleveland, though Cleveland is standing in for New York City and, in one scene, some place in Germany. I was afraid that would be kind of distracting, but it wasn’t, really; most of the time, everything’s going by so fast you could really be anywhere.

There’s one part, though — no spoilers, just talking about locations here — where they’re outside in this square downtown, and all these dressy people are happily walking on red carpets going into this shopping center/skyscraper I know as Tower City… and when they switch to an interior shot, it’s not Tower City, it’s some gallery. (Marie and I were thinking it might be the Cleveland Museum of Art, but we can’t confirm that.)

I found that kind of fascinating, because I didn’t find it at all jarring. It just kind of made sense.

Also, there’s this exterior shot looking up at the skyscraper part of Tower City, and it just works so well because of the way that place is lit with ominous red lights even when they’re not filming movies there.

There was another shot of a random street with some scaffolding over a sidewalk, and some Lion King and other Broadway posters on the wall behind the scaffolding, and nothing said New York City to me like that little section of street. That could have been any street in Cleveland I guess; just make it look like it’s under construction and add a zillion musical ads and boom, it’s New York. That sold me on the location better than the aerial shots, better than the view of the Chrysler building outside of someone’s office. Probably because that’s a view of New York City I’ve actually seen myself. It’s interesting, the details you latch onto. I don’t really think of the skyscrapers when I think of Manhattan.

Marie has this one football friend who was in the background of a scene, playing a random scientist. I didn’t see her, but I found myself paying a lot of attention to the extras, thinking about those here in Cleveland who were lucky enough to be a part of this and see how this all gets put together and meet the stars of the movie.

It’s funny, the last movie we saw was The Cabin in the Woods, also written by Joss Whedon, also starring Chris Hemsworth… and that, plus the enthusiastic midnight showing audience, plus it being in Cleveland, plus Marie’s friend who I’ve given water to on the football field, all that kind of added up to this unique way of engaging with the movie, like you’re watching a school play put on by a bunch of people you know already in other contexts. And it’s comforting and familiar and you’re not just there to consume something made by some faceless studio; you’re there to be supportive and see how it turned out and it’s a strangely personal thing at that point.

I like that. I like a big dose of artificiality with my fiction, and I kind of like the idea of being aware of the craft of the movie while watching it, just so long as that awareness doesn’t break you out of the story being told.

In an odd sort of way, the occasional familiar Cleveland building made it easier to imagine that this was all happening right here; it made it more immediate — not less.

Failure: The Secret to Success

I think it’s safe to say it’s been years since I screwed up any one day as completely as I did this last Saturday. I’ll not itemize everything I did wrong here, but suffice it to say that it started with me trying to troubleshoot a relatively innocuous internal toilet leak, entering into a comically endless cycle of trying to make things better and actually making things worse, and ending with frighteningly massive plumbing bill.

(Now, said plumbing bill would eventually have come anyway, but it really couldn’t have come at a worse time.)

Mostly, I blame the general disorientation that comes with being sick.

* * *

I kind of value my lack of cognitive abilities while sick. It is a reminder to me that, even while healthy, my perceptions are not guaranteed to be accurate; my words are not guaranteed to convey my intent; my judgment is not guaranteed to be reliable.

I would do well to remember that focus is something you have to work for. Been a bit lazy about that lately (again, even while healthy).

* * *

To that end, I’ve gone ahead and slapped together a functional, but not particularly polished app to help me organize all the stuff I’m doing. (To recap: I’ve settled on a fixed rotation for my projects, so any time I sit down to work, I just do what’s at the top of my list, and after a fixed amount of time, I move it to the bottom of my list and work on the next thing. Not allowing myself to deviate from the rotation is important here.)

While it’s mostly pet projects, there are a few items of note in there that are more general.

  • Games. As I mentioned in a previous post, I need to schedule in downtime or I won’t take it.
  • Calls. This will sound like a really sterile way to approach it, but I’ve included calling relatives in my project rotation. Said relatives are themselves in a rotation, so I can make sure everyone gets a call on a regular basis. I want to keep in touch, I really do; but I literally forget that people exist if I don’t have frequent contact with them.
  • Rescheduling. While my whole fixed-project-rotation thing generally works, I’m slow to make changes to the rotation. So now, questioning the contents of the rotation is itself part of the rotation. Yay checks and balances!

So there ya go. It’s been working out well the last few days.