Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The New Thing: In Closing

When I started this series of New Thing posts I simply wanted to find out whether any of my ideas had an audience, but I very quickly realised that your questions (and my focus on answering them) was helping me get a feel for each project. At the same time as we were discussing each pitch, I explored each idea, and now I've got a good sense of what needs to happen next. There are 2.5 projects I want to dig into further(*), and 1.5 projects that I realise now are more for fun (and can slip a little down my to-do list).

(*) I'll go into details about those, below.

Another thing I didn't realise when I started was how much I'd appreciate people getting involved in and commenting on each project. Your comments continuously surprised me (people wanting a female bully, the positive reaction to Artificial, Matt disliking the narrator of my excerpt from Left Coast). My conclusion is that discussing your projects is good - enthusiasm is good and criticism is also good (and not as off-putting as I feared I might find it). So, thank you very much for all your thoughts and feedback.

The big lesson for next time - because I do think I'll do this again - is to handle the online conversation more carefully. I made an effort to answer everyone's comments and questions - which forced me to pay attention to what was really being said, and to think about each project in more detail. However, I failed to be as interactive as I wanted to be - due to some privacy concerns, I stopped auto-linking each post on Facebook, and I didn't follow twitter as much as I wanted to (... and I'm not exactly sure why I didn't). I also have to be careful to not suffer from blogger's syndrome - to not to let the buzz of getting really involved in answering questions (and discussing the ideas) to substitute for working on the idea

What's next

Workplace Bully is definitely one of the projects to dig into further (and I want to thank everyone for their enthusiastic and challenging comments about it). During the last month I've been researching and outlining it, specifically trying to get an idea of how the second half of the story might work. Turns out there's a danger that I could write it so that it's too plotty rather than about the characters (Billy's 'educational video' effect). The next step is to explore its ideas and develop its plot.

Artificial wasn't as easy to write as I'd hoped. I am going to have to sit down with it for a ... fortnight? a month? and investigate it further. This is an idea I like, but I could easily see myself abandoning it if I don't think it's worth working through the Dip on it.

As for The Orphans, I love the characters, I made good progress on outlining the story and I'm desperate to know how it all turns out. I'm just not sure if it's a movie, and I'm not sure if I will want to take it any further once I've finished outlining it. For the moment, I'm gunna consign it to PLAY!

Finally, Left Coast. Judging from the number of idea-bombs that exploded in my brain while I was thinking about this, I believe can be a good game. From what I can tell, the effort I need to put in to making it something that others can playtest is reasonably small. I think if I dedicated a couple of weeks to it, I could get it into shape.

So, from here I'm going to concentrate on getting outlines together for Workplace Bully, Artificial, and one other idea (which I'll hopefully confirm with the people involved in the next three weeks). In the downtime from doing that, I'll work on a rough-n-dirty playtestable draft of Left Coast for me and others to have fun with. The outlines, though, are definitely the main priority.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Left Coast: Why I write

I wanted to pull out a couple of comments from the previous post about Left Coast. A asked:

I think the question is what do you want to do? What are your priorities? Cash? The widest possible audience? Creative satisfaction? And what would be the opportunity cost of prioritizing this project? 

And then Karen asked:

If you do this, do you think you'd learn enough from the process to make it worthwhile anyway? (Whether it succeeds or fails in attracting a wider audience/making money/being an awesome creative endeavour or however you are measuring it... I reckon any experience you learn from is worthwhile in some sense) 

These are excellent questions. And complicated - Sean has a whole blog devoted to examining his answers to them. I had a discussion with J recently that helped me start to answer the first of A's questions, about my priorities. Two of the big reasons I write are 'to realise a project's potential' and 'for the sense of creative engagement'.

I love the satisfaction of taking a project to its conclusion and making it the best it can be. Oddly, as I've noted before, this sense of satisfaction seems to be completely independent of the size of the project. A script I've been working on for seven years gives me the same buzz as feeling like I've written a blog post that clearly articulates what I'm trying to say. The only difference is in the amount of complexity that the project has or the amount of layers it contains, which changes how satisfying it is to revisit something. So I write to finish things, but also to revisit them and see that they've lived up to their potential.

In this case, writing a game is interesting because the amount of times I can revisit it and experience it is probably higher than with a TV series or script.

I also value the sense of total mental engagement that I have when I'm creating something. A combination of puzzle-solving, intense visualisation, feeling deeply about characters who don't exist, and discovering the core of an idea (then figuring out how to express it). That sense of engagement is like crack for me ... in that I find it addictive and rewarding, rather than rendering me a non-viable member of society.

So, to flip to Karen's question: I do think I would learn enough from the process of writing Left Coast to justify doing it. I think it's an interesting game and one I want to play, and it contains a whole bunch of ideas (about who is actually telling the story) that I want to work out how to execute. It's also about characters I care about. Writing the game would be a chance to apply some experiences from writing Bad Family, as well.

... Yes. I would learn enough from writing (and especially from playtesting Left Coast) to make it worthwhile.

But it's A's question about opportunity cost that really hits home. I have something I want to work on now that has a hard deadline of October this year. That'll involve working up three projects for a Film Commission scholarship. Anything else I do will have to fit around that. For the meantime, then, Left Coast will probably fit into the category of things I play around with during the breaks between those three projects.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Just a quick note: I'll be taking a couple of days off blogging. Got quite a few things on, and my hands are a little strained.

Still keen to do posts answering a few of the comments: A and Karen's questions about why I write, and Simon's questions about what the characters 'do' in Left Coast.

In the meantime, consider this an open thread. Talk about anything, but here's something to get you started: what's the next project *you* want to do?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Left Coast: A day in the life of a writer

Here's a little something I wrote up for Left Coast, my game about drug-addled science fiction writers struggling to write their books.

6 am. Can't sleep.
6.07 am. Baby wakes up screaming.
6.30 am. Wash baby poo off hands.
7.34 am. Score.

8.40am. Sit down to write.
8.43am. Breakfast.
9.04am. Sit down to write.
9.11am. Tidy room.
9.15 am. Blink.

Sometime. Sit down to write.
Afternoon. Blank.

2.14pm. Realise I’ve been staring at a wall for a long time.
2.15pm. Wash unidentified brown substance off own hands.
2.something. Blank.

4pm. Driving north.

4.23pm. Coffee with the gang.

5.05pm. Steal TV back from Eddie.

6.10pm. Pick up more nappies. For baby.
6.11pm. Score.
6.13pm. Phone dealer.
6.15pm. Phone dealer.
6.16pm. Phone dealer.

7.48pm. Party with dealer & the gang.

8.09pm. Replace smashed painting with vase of flowers picked from front lawn.

1am. Where am I?
1.02am. Call wife.
2am. Walk 5 miles back to home.
2.50am. Scribble short story idea on borrowed napkin from diner.

4am. Write on front porch while drinking beer and ignoring screams of baby.

Friday, June 11, 2010

New Thing: Left Coast

Five years ago I wrote a role-playing game called Left Coast, in which you play science fiction authors living in a dreamy, drug-addled version of 1960s and 1970s California. The game is about trying to help these authors balance their family obligations with writing a novel, and hopefully doing that before they go insane.

Not only was Left Coast a lot of fun to work on, it also won an award and still has people who like it today. As far as I'm concerned, that's success ... but it's a form of success that brings up two questions for me:

First, is something worth writing if its audience will probably be intensely passionate but small?

Because the thing is: there's an audience for Left Coast. Like I said, there are people who still bring it up in conversation five years later. There are people who've volunteered to playtest it. Let me restate: five years after I wrote it, people are volunteering to play my game, and encouraging me to finish it. That is amazing.

And shouldn't I capitalise on that?

I feel churlish making the following calculation (like I'm scanning a free iPad for spyware), but I find myself balancing that audience enthusiasm against the numbers of people likely to like, play, and buy the finished game and against the effort involved in finishing it.

In fact, this is the first project I've mentioned here where I think Seth Godin's 'viral idea' post really applies. Let's say I execute Left Coast perfectly - I create a game that's fun to play and lives up to its potential, and I publish it in either (a) an attractive format, or (b) for free. Let's say the game reaches a bunch of people through the enthusiasm and evangelism of the people who already like it, and through whatever marketing efforts I make to reach more people who are into the sorts of things that Left Coast is about.

How many people will that second generation of people tell? Will the number of people who know about the game expand exponentially or will it flatten off? I'm fascinated by and uncertain about this. I know Malc's told Joe, who's into it. Jesse talked about it at Story Games a little bit (with no prompting from me).

My gut says that a game about sci-fi authors trying to write novels while they deal with weird shit that's either the result of them going insane or might be an alien invasion from an alternate dimension is an idea that (by its very nature) will have a small but intensely enthusiastic group of supporters: it's not people who play games, ... it's people who play role-playing games, and who are interested in the lives of drug-addled science fiction authors.

But ...

... that logic apply to every single RPG ever written on every single subject ...

... my gut instinct could be completely wrong.

So, really, let's rephrase my first question and ask: Does this game sound interesting to you?

Second question is: Am I into it?

Let's say that I shouldn't be concerned with how wide-spread the appeal of Left Coast is. As a creator, surely the only thing that matters is whether I'm excited by it?

That question, that phrasing, is the whole point of the New Thing. Am I excited by it?

Well, I like Left Coast. Even though I'm wondering if it's the best use of my time, I do want to make it better because it's a game I want to play.

So let's figure out what 'make it better' entails.

I think Left Coast's got the potential to be a pretty weird and awesome game. At the moment, it has a good process for setting up a bunch of eccentric characters who are involved in difficult relationships with the authors and for creating some conspiracies for the authors to become involved with. But while the set-up's fine, the process of playing the game, of generating conflicts and stories, is not so much sorted out.

Talking with Joe Murphy (who's keen to playtest Left Coast) about this, he gave me an insight into what needs to happen next:
I don't know if it'd help, but don't worry about producing a finished game. Literally, don't concern yourself with that. Just produce something that works enough that we can poke at it at the table and see where the system doesn't work.

This is similar to the Pixar philosophy of sharing your unfinished work as soon as possible. Rather than be terrified that something doesn't work, playtest as soon as possible. Joe continues by saying:
Try to create something that allows you to at least paper over the cracks in the system with fun roleplaying. Left Coast [has] such a strong premise that I've no doubt charitable groups would give it a shot and paper over the cracks.
So, for Left Coast to take a step forward in the next three to six months, I'd need to create a version of the rules that other people could playtest. That'd involve:
  • revising the game based on the notes I took and the feedback I received from the previous playtest
  • running a one-off playtest specifically to test and break the new scene framing mechanisms (and to brainstorm new ones)
  • starting a discussion about scene framing (perhaps on The Forge, or Google Wave)
  • running a second playtest (either a one-off or a 'fresh start' using setting and characters from playtest one
  • producing a draft of an unfinished game that "works enough" so that Joe, Malc, et al, can poke at it at the table and see where the system doesn't work.
Beyond that, success for Left Coast would involve publishing it in a format that evokes its subject matter, and it being a game that's not only fun but it also clearly explains how to play it. I'd also find out how to tell the audience for this game that it exists. ... And 'Wild Success' would be for Left Coast to be popular, to reach a dedicated audience, and for it to have decent word of mouth

I'm interested in your thoughts. What does this sound like to you: Interesting? Worthwhile? What's your assessment of the effort vs. the reward?

Monday, June 07, 2010

Games: March to June

Here's some game-related stuff that I've been into over the last couple of months:

ImmorTall is a lovely little Flash game with an simple interface (move left or right) that forces you into some tragic choices.

Air Pressure is a gentle, ever-so-slightly depressing Flash game about a break-up.

Mike gave me a copy of Sorceror and Sword, a supplement for Sorceror which focuses on the pulp fantasy Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Elric (among others). It's an inspiring book - in the sense that it inspires me to want to run games using it, and it provides a methodology for creating stories in a fantasy setting without getting bogged down in pre-planning an epic story for a seven-year campaign.

Continuity is my favourite Flash game in a long time - a combination of platformer and sliding puzzle. Have a go. The first level should only take you a few seconds to work through.

Shade was a nice little Twilight Zone styled piece of interactive fiction. When in doubt, consult your to-do list!

I gave a little bit of feedback on Love in the Time of Seid by Jason Morningstar and Matthjis Holter and Blowback by Elizabeth Shoemaker. Providing feedback on games I'm excited about is one of my favourite things about my game design hobby.

Love in the Time of Seid is a game set in a royal court that creates a situation filled will the potential for betrayal and love (of both the doomed and true varities). It relies on a few simple rules (and no dice) to draw out the players' creativity in creating scenes, and to make them challenge each other to go deeper into the scenes (in order to create a story that matters).

Blowback is a spy game to create stories much like you'd see in Burn Notice (highly competent spies trapped in suburbia). The basic ideas of mission planning and how to handle the big conspiracy are excellent, and I'm looking forward to reading the next draft.

Rock Band and Singstar continue to be the greatest games ever created. Pure fun encoded onto a disc. Singstar, in particular, constantly surprises me with its ability to keep me playing until midnight.

I've enjoyed this Minesweeper variant, which crosses Mindsweeper with a D&D-esque reward system of 'levelling up' in order to tackle tougher squares. I also enjoyed Warp Shot - it's like golf, with gravity wells and Portal-esque wormholes.

I also attended two sessions at Day of Games, a day-long convention where people rock up, choose a game they're interested in, and play for a couple of hours. I ran Poison'd, Vincent Baker's game about pirates for Malc, Donna and Karen (with Mark, who showed up about 15 minutes after we'd created characters). This is the second time I've run it with really fun results. The game is slightly internet-notorious for encouraging the players to make nasty, pervese, and sexually reprehensible dramatic choices. What I realised during this play of it is that players engage with (or veer away from) that sexual and violent content as they're comfortable with. In particular, the game has a few questions in its character creation section that I consider to be like the safety on a handgun. If you ask questions about whether the characters have committed particular sins, then you're taking the safety off, which in terms of this game means that you can expect those sexually violent behaviours to be part of the story of the game. But you can equally leave those particular sins off your list of questions, which - I think - creates a safer environment (useful, if you're not sure about the comfort levels of the group you're playing with).

Day of Games also gave me the opportunity to playtest two fantasy games by Simon Carryer. On Mighty Thews is pulp fantasy with a (as we played it) ironic, light-hearted attitude (think Fritz Lieber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, ... with dashes of Elric and Conan thrown in there too). Simon's other game (which I shall not name here because I don't want the google hits) is fantastic - he describes it as D&D ... if it had been invented by David Cronenberg. Still very much in development and in need of rules that distinguish it from old-school D&D dungeon crawls, it's a great mix of a grim mood, character classes that examine gender roles in a primitive society, and biological horror (of which I want to see much much more). I expect this to be an unsettling hit once it's completed.

I've also played and finished a seven session game of Bliss Stage, which I think will have to be a separate post. Great fun, though. Creatively challenging, and also socially challenging as I got to know and respect the playstyles of some people I haven't played much with. I thoroughly recommend Bliss Stage, and I think I'll be taking some design lessons from it and applying them to my own games.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

New Thing: The Orphans

So, when I was a kid I loved watching scary shows on TV ... and I had a nice give-and-take relationship with Mum and Dad about it:

Doctor Who: no problems; I could watch as much as I want
Sapphire and Steel: they let me stay up late, and then were pretty kind and low-key with the 'I told you so' after it had finished and I was in bed freaking out about plagues and men hiding in photographs
The Andromeda Strain: had to sneak into the living room at my grandparents' house and hide behind the couch watching it without anybody noticing.

For the last two years, I've been working on a ghost story for kids. A horror movie for kids, really. That's my goal: to create something that just slightly too scary for my target audience to handle, and thus begin the cycle again.

The Orphans is a little bit Sapphire and Steel and a little bit Silent Hill. A bunch of pre-teenagers live in with their parents in an old building that's been renovated into a bunch of apartments. One day the kids wake up and their parents are gone. As in missing, with no trace of them.

When the children try to leave the building they find that the doors won't open, the windows won't break and the walls can't be cut through. No-one outside can hear them or seems to notice them at all. The children are trapped.

And that's when the ghosts start showing up.

The Orphans mixes in a whole bunch of different influences: Lord of the Flies, my nightmares about Victorian orphanages, bodysnatchers, and a bit of survival horror.

For me the cool thing about it is that I have no idea how it's going to turn out. I've been outlining it, for fun, for about a year - coming back to it whenever I get some free time, and discovering what happens in the next bit of the story. At the moment, I'm trying to decide exactly how unhappily it's going to end; it's definitely not a safe movie.

As a feature film, I have a feeling that it'll look slightly animated - like Waking Life, or this trailer for Mars:

MARS - The Movie [HD Trailer] from Geoff Marslett on Vimeo.

The next step (in the next three to six months) would be to finish the outline and see if this is a story I want to take any further.

A reasonable success would be to write a draft of the script.

The wild and outrageous success would be to get enough funding to make the movie (and make it live up to its potential), so that it scares one 9-12 year old child hiding behind the couch and gets them in to horror movies.

Handwriting recognition

I've decided to try out some handwriting recognition software. In fact, this post has been constructed using it. I have borrowed a tablet, and downloaded a free trial of a package called 'ritepen'.

For the most part, it is good. It recognises nearly every word I enter. Correcting words is slower but not too painful. The biggest problem's adjusting toT. the interface: it is not entirely like like writing words on paper - it's, slower and ghtchiev(asthePc pauses to register what's happening. ) The fact that I'm concentrating on how to use the interface means the way I express myself i s ...stunted, and this simple post has taken 20 minutes to compose.

It's getting easier to use, but more practice is required.  The verdict so far: It's cool, but not fun.