Archive for December, 2008

Montreal International Game Summit

December 27, 2008

Last month, I had the honor and pleasure of giving the opening keynote at the Montreal International Game Summit. I’ll leave it to others to assess whether my comments had any merit, but I can tell you the rest of the speakers put on a heck of a show.

This was my second time attending MIGS and it really seems like a show on the rise — just keeps getting better and better.

Attendance seemed significantly higher than 2005, the last time I was there, and the roster of speakers was stellar. Sadly, I face-planted myself on a Montreal sidewalk at the end of the first day (gave myself a concussion and everything!) and was unable to attend the second day of the show, but on the first day I attended talks by Randy Smith, Chris Hecker, Petri Purho and Laura Fryer, all of whom proved enlightening and entertaining. I also got to see a bunch of folks I don’t get to hang out with often enough — Disney’s own Michelle Jacob, NYU’s Katherine Isbister, Jason Della Rocca of the IGDA, Jon Blow and others. And I got to meet a bunch of new people I hope to spend more time with at other shows. All in all, a great experience.

Randy Smith’s talk about games as art was eye-opening — weirdly like a talk I’ve given several times over the years, about the unique characteristics of the games medium, but Randy supported the argument with data in a way I never thought to do and illustrated it with visuals that brought the argument to life in a way my word-oriented nature doesn’t allow me to do (at least not without a lot of effort!). There have been enough blog posts about the talk that I won’t recount it here but just throw in my vote for this as “talk of the show” (or the part of the show I was able to attend when I wasn’t at the doctor getting my freakin’ head x-rayed…).

Chris Hecker blew me away, too, by throwing so much data at the audience it was all a little overwhelming. His talk was about user-generated content and, at least by implication, how it will come to dominate the world of gaming. He had more amazing visuals of more amazing player-creations from Spore than you can possibly believe. The number of people uploading Spore content for others to enjoy is mind-boggling. Still, I remain sceptical.

Depending on users for content seems less than ideal to me — the example I usually cite when defending my luddite stance — that professionals should provide content and players should enjoy content — is the old TSR story. Basically, there were, back in the day around 15 million D&D players, of those, probably 10% acted as DMs. Of THOSE 10% were good DMs and 10% of the good DMs generated their own adventures. Of those who generated adventures, probably 10% were pretty good. And, finally, 10% of those were publishable. That adds up to about 150 adventures worth playing from a user-base of 15 million. And finding those good ones? Pretty darn hard. My odds are better sticking with the pros and paying for their work.

I’m probably dead wrong about this (given Will Wright’s level of success relative to mine!), or maybe I’m just trying to preserve my own job, but I remain a believer in providing tools for collaboration with players, with pros offering the things WE’RE good at and giving players power to do the things THEY’RE good at, rather than just handing over authorial control to everyone. (And, yes, before anyone throws it back at me, I HAVE played Little Big Planet, and my opinion remains unchanged on the topic of user-generated content…)

Kloonigames’ Petri Purho gave a talk about indie game development and the creation of Crayon Physics (which, if you haven’t tried it, is a MUST play you should go grab right now…). I mean, I do NOT get how the guy does what he does. Come on! (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Purho is the “game a month” guy!) The idea that any game made in a month might be any good is mind-boggling. The idea that one of them could be as amazing as Crayon Physics is, well, it’s whatever’s more incredible than “mind-boggling.” The fact that he repeatedly said of himself in his talk that he wasn’t much of a designer is just ridiculous.

Honestly, as a non-programming, non-artist with deep roots in the commercial game business, there wasn’t much for me in the talk, in terms of career guidance, but there were some ideas that seem hugely applicable to folks in my situation, specifically: New ideas are out there and need to be grabbed and played with, rather than sticking with the tried and true; and you can and should turn ideas around as quickly as possible and with as little bureaucratic interference as you can manage, to cull the good ideas from the bad as quickly as possible. Frankly, “fail quickly and leave time for recovery” is my new motto and one that a lot of developers need to embrace. Petri came on that idea earlier and more productively than most.

Laura Fryer’s talk on being a producer was pretty swell, too. I spent most of the time wishing I’d been told all this stuff when I was a producer — and wondering how I could bring back the key points to my own production team at Junction Point. She really nailed the idea that being a producer isn’t about — or mainly about — schedules and budgets and all; it’s about fostering a culture of “production.” You want to create an environment in which everyone on the team is freed to do what’s best for the project. It’s about communication and doing whatever’s necessary to remove impediments to progress. It’s about ensuring that everyone on the team does whatever it takes to achieve greatness. Amen to that.

Sadly, that was all I got to see of MIGS this year, thanks to my nose dive into concrete that first evening. (Seriously, my face looked bad enough that I scared small children at the Montreal airport a couple of days later…) Still, though, I had a great experience at the show and look forward to attending again in the coming years. For all of you who didn’t attend, web search the various speakers and read up on what they had to say. Quite an education…

My Pet Kindle: Saving Trees, Setting Fires

December 19, 2008

So, about six weeks ago, I bought an Amazon Kindle. How do I feel about it? Let me cut to the chase:


The first week or so, I wasn’t sure it was the life-changing thing Jeff Bezos and Oprah made it out to be, but man was I wrong. I love my Kindle (and, just to be clear, I’m not being paid to say this, have no connection with Amazon and have no stake in the Kindle’s success in any way, shape or form — I’m just a newly minted True Believer, won over by a seriously cool piece of hardware).

If you do a lot of traveling, just go buy one. Now. If you love books, at least consider it, even if you never spend any time in airports. If you have the scratch, go buy one even if you hate to read. Yes, it’s that cool. 

The fact that you can carry around an entire library everywhere you go is just incredible. Heck, the fact that you can carry around all of George R.R. Martin’s Ice and Fire series (well, as much of it as he’s written so far!) without giving yourself a hernia is amazing. Miraculously, all books are now, for me, the same size and weight (which probably drives designers mad but now means I don’t have to think about whether I want to lug some meaty tome around in my backpack — I just read what I want, when I want).

I mean, I just love this thing.

Here’s why:

  • For starters, it makes it easy to buy books — almost too easy, if you’re as weak-willed as I am. Yeah, yeah, you can go to Amazon, turn on 1-click and get a “real” book pretty easily, but there’s nothing that compares with downloading a sample chapter of a book (takes about ten seconds), reading said sample, ordering the whole book and just, well, reading.
  • If you’re feeling cheap, there are several websites that offer tons of books in Kindle format for free — the usual Project Gutenberg fare, plus some legit publishers clearly trying to get authors in front of readers by offering their work for free. (You know, the “first one’s free” concept…)
  • If you wear glasses shout a few hosannas ’cause you can adjust the Kindle’s font size at will.
  • If you tire of the book you’re reading, open up another one. You can skip from book to book as mood and whim dictate.
  • If you want to immerse yourself, the e-ink stuff (which I now think of as pure magic) allows you to read for hours. Just like a real book. Try THAT on your cell phone or laptop. I’ve done it. It doesn’t work. by contrast, you can stare at the Kindle screen for hours without eye strain. The only downside to the e-ink screen is a distracting reverse-image flash that appears every time the screen updates (i.e., when you “turn” the page). However, to my surprise, I stopped noticing it completely after just a few days — the virtual page-turn happens quickly and it’s almost as if you just naturally blink when you update the screen. The annoying flash isn’t much more distracting than turning a page in a “real” book and, for me, is no longer an issue. In fact (and I know this is heresy) I think I actually prefer reading on the Kindle to reading a “real” book… And I’m a guy who LOVES real books. (Just ask the folks who’ve had to help me and my wife move all of our books. It ain’t pretty…)
  • The battery life is good enough that I couldn’t tell you how long the battery lasts — I’ve never run it down far enough to have a clue.
  • You can add notes, highlight sections of text and look words up in the included dictionary or online.
  • Plus, the Kindle works pretty well as an audiobook player and general music player. Nifty secondary features, to be sure.

So, is the Kindle perfect? No way.

There are some wacky UI and form factor issues that should have been addressed before the product shipped.

  • It’s simply way too easy to press the Next Page or Previous Page buttons by mistake (though, to be fair, I got used to the buttons pretty quickly and now find this to be much less of a problem than I expected it to be).
  • The keyboard, split in half, with the space bar on one side, is a total hack and not very useful.
  • The scroll wheel takes some getting used to and having to access menus and use the wheel and the keyboard (sigh!) certainly makes it tougher to take notes or highlight stuff or look things up than I’d like.
  • Deleting content should be a one-step process but it actually takes several steps, which is a royal pain.
  • Determining how much space stuff takes up on the device is still a mystery to me.
  • A lot of people think the Kindle looks clunky (though I kinda like it, and it feels good and fits nicely in my hands).
  • Graphics are not good. It takes a longish time to change pages when the contents of the page you’re going to contains a graphic. And once the screen loads, images don’t look good at all. Graphics display — slowly — in grainy grayscale only, which is at best suboptimal.
  • Finally, who thought it was a good idea to put the tiny on/off switch (and wifi switch) on the back? That’s a real pain, especially when the device is in its protective cover, which makes reaching the back difficult, at best, and far too often results in the battery cover falling off. (And, for the record, the battery cover is always coming off — probably my biggest peeve.)

Let me be clear: All of these problems don’t, as they say, amount to a hill of beans. For a first generation device, they add up to “minorly annoying” at most. The Kindle’s downsides are trivial and far outweighed by the pluses outlined above. And there’s still that one, great, unprecedented thing about it that trumps everything else: You Can Carry An Entire Library With You Wherever You Go! This simple fact makes the Kindle one of the coolest devices I’ve played with since I got my first iPod.

If you’re still not sold, let me just put this into perspective for you by sharing what’s on my Kindle right now: The complete works of Charles Dickens, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. P. Lovecraft, Carey Rockwell (i.e., the Tom Corbett: Space Cadet series. Hey, it got me started reading SF books…), Mark Twain and S. S. Van Dine (author of the Philo Vance mysteries).

Oh, yeah, I have a few other books on my Kindle, too:

  • Doc Sidhe by Aaron Allston
  • Edge of the Jungle, The Log of the Sun by William Beebe
  • Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm
  • One Shot by James Blish
  • My Own Kind of Freedom by Steven Brust
  • Sketchbook: Concepts from the Virtual World by Don Carson
  • Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin (I’m reading this right now and so far so fascinating.)
  • Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow
  • The Beautiful and the Damned, The Great Gatsby, The Pat Hobby Stories, Tender is the Night, This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
  • Walt Disney: American Dreamer by Neal Gabler
  • Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (Read this. Now. Not quite up to the standard set by The Tipping Point, but very, very close, utterly fascinating and better than Blink.)
  • Space Prison by Tom Godwin
  • Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman
  • Conan the Barbarian Omnibus by Robert E. Howard
  • Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
  • The Cosmic Expense Account by C.M. Kornbluth
  • Retief! by Keith Laumer
  • The Aliens by Murray Leinster
  • Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig
  • Fevre Dream, Game of Thrones, Storm of Swords, Clash of Kings, Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin
  • Inside Straight edited by George R.R. Martin (and including a story by my lovely wife, Caroline Spector.)
  • Mothers and Other Monsters by Maureen McHugh
  • Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • Vintage Murakami by Haruki Murakami
  • The Antichrist, Beyond Good and Evil, Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
  • Common Sense by Thomas Paine
  • Pandolfini’s Ultimate Guide to Chess by Bruce Pandolfini
  • A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink (Please read this! Terrific, terrific book. If you’re a game developer, it will likely change the way you think about what you do — at the very least it’ll confirm that what we do is right in line with changing cultural needs.)
  • The Cosmic Computer, Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper
  • Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds (another book I’m actively reading, which should make everyone who’s had to sit through one of my bullet-point and text-heavy talks very, very happy!)
  • Adaptation by Mack Reynolds
  • Topper, Topper Takes a Trip by Thorne Smith
  • TOON: The Cartoon Roleplaying by Warren Spector (!)
  • The Big Bounce by Walter Tevis
  • Have You Seen by David Thomson
  • Anna Karenina, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • The Coming Technological Singularity by Vernor Vinge
  • Metropolis by Thea von Harbou
  • Dream Factories and Radio Pictures by Howard Waldrop
  • Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
  • A Damsel in Distress, My Man Jeeves, Right Ho Jeeves, A Wodehouse Miscellany by P.G. Wodehouse
  • Gladiator by Philip Wylie

If you’re counting (and I admit I’m guessing here), that means I have somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 books on my Kindle. And, on top of all that, I have a bunch of sample chapters from a dozen or so other books lined up and ready to read — novels, non-fiction… just a ton of stuff.

I expect a psychologist could have a field day with people’s What’s On My Kindle list but I didn’t share mine as an act of self-revelation. I shared it simply to make the point that I Will Never Again Be Bored As Long As I Live.

Used to be, I could scour the sagging and double-stacked shelves at my house until I happened upon Just The Right Book To Read Right Now, but away from home, I was out of luck — stuck with whatever I happened to have on hand. Now, I carry my library with me — to the doctor, on a plane, at a restaurant, everywhere — and I’m loving it.

Much as I love “real” books, I think Amazon’s discovered the future of reading in this e-ink/wireless download stuff. And the future is good.


December 14, 2008

It’s kind of sad when you find yourself writing about the death of a hero. This year saw the passing of not one, but two of mine. Earlier this year, it was Gary Gygax. Now, it’s Forrest J. Ackerman, who died on December 4th.

Among the people who’ve inspired me and set me on the path I’ve followed through life, Forry was one I encountered very early in life. Ray Harryhausen was first, but Forry followed soon after — I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 when my dad brought home a copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland, the magazine Forry created and edited for so many years.

I’ve always wondered if my dad read the magazine himself (which implies that he had some secret horror-movie-fan life I was completely unaware of!) or if he just bought it and gave it to me with no clue what was in it — my guess is he just knew I was a sci-fi and horror freak, even as a kid, and figured there was no harm in indulging that interest. “Hey, my kid loves King Kong and there’s the big ape on the cover of a magazine. Bet Warren’ll love it.” Yeah, that sounds right.

Whatever my father’s motivation, he kept giving me issues of Famous Monsters for years — I actually never bought a copy for myself. They always came from my dad. It was kind of private and mysterious and probably especially cool as a result. But as much as Famous Monsters established a personal bond between me and my father, it established another bond — between me and Forrest J. Ackerman. Reading Famous Monsters was as much a journey through Forry’s mind as it was a lesson in Hollywood history. And Forry’s mind was a very cool place, at least to a young kid.

He was funny, witty, a punster, and he loved the same stuff I did! An adult thought horror movies were important and worthy! How cool was that? Thanks to the Ackermonster, I was able to submerge myself in the world of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon — the world Forry knew better than anyone, the world he loved to share with fellow fans. And Forry led his fans into all sorts of strange and uncharted territory.

Nowadays, when everything’s available on DVD, it’s hard to remember a time when it was nearly impossible to see Lon Chaney films or stuff like Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Metropolis or The Old Dark House (look it up…). Forry introduced me and a generation of film fanatics to all sorts of obscure stuff.

But it wasn’t just what he shared with us, it was HOW he shared it. I mean, the man had a way with the language that was witty, goofy, endearing, adolescent, exhilarating, all at the same time. His puns were legendary. He was an adult who expressed himself with the unself-conscious enthusiasm of a kid. Which, of course, made him an uber-nerd (before being a nerd was cool) and which made it okay for oddball kids like me, who loved stuff other kids didn’t understand, to be uber-nerds, too.

But the nerdiest — and coolest — thing about Forry was the fabled Ackermansion. The guy had an incredible collection of film memorabilia. And all you had to do to get a look at the collection was to show up at his house for a private tour. Ho-Ly-Cow! Can you imagine? Forry opened his home full of the Coolest Stuff on the Planet to anyone who knocked on his door.

He had King Kong’s hand and the Thing’s arm… he had Dracula’s cape and the freakin’ robot, Maria, from Metropolis. In his house! Do I have to say how jealous I was? I didn’t have the opportunity to visit the Ackermansion myself, when I was a kid. And, to my everlasting regret, I was too shy or something to visit as an adult — even though I spend a fair amount of time in Forry’s old neck of the woods.

Thankfully, I did have an opportunity — two, in fact — to tell Forry how important he was to me and how he changed my life.

The first time was at WorldCon, in Anaheim, in 2006. He was speaking there, and there was a zero per cent chance I was going to pass up an opportunity just to be in a room with the guy. There were probably thirty people in the crowd, a pathetic turnout at the World SCIENCE FICTION convention, when you consider the guy coined the term “sci fi,” but I didn’t care. By the end of his talk, my face hurt from smiling so hard. Forry was obviously frail, physically, but he was still sharp as a tack and funny and full of incredible stories. I was completely entranced and, after his talk, I pushed through the mini-crowd of people surrounding him and stammered out my thanks. (Emphasis on “stammered” rather than “thanks” — I was pretty over-awed.)

Earlier this year, I had another opportunity to see Forry, at ComicCon in San Diego. (I blogged about this in my August 3rd post, “The San Diego Zoo.”) He seemed even more frail this time and you could sort of sense that he might not be around much longer. That made his talk poignant, of course, but he was still surprisingly sharp and still hellbent on entertaining his audience. This time, I stood on a pretty darn long line to get his autograph and probably annoyed a bunch of people behind me by going on at length, heaping praise on him for all he’d meant to me. He thanked me for my kind words and took up a pen to sign the photo and the book I’d brought with me. His hand shook as he scrawled his autograph and I didn’t dare to look to see what he’d written until later.

“Beast Witches! Forrest J Ackerman”

A pun! Just like the old days. The guy still had it, right to the end. Man, I’m glad I had the chance to tell him how much I appreciated him. The world’s a poorer place for his passing.