Playing Word Games

January 2, 2009

I’ve always been fascinated by word games. I love Scrabble and Boggle and Upwords and crossword puzzles and bowl-a-scores and TexTwist to death. But those aren’t the sort of word games I’ve been thinking about recently.

No, I’ve been thinking of word games of a different sort — the kind I grew up reading in the back of New York magazine. Anyone remember the old New York Magazine Competition, edited by Mary Ann Madden? My family used to gather around the dinner table and read it aloud each week, roaring with laughter at the witty responses of readers to Madden’s humorous problems. Some of these were hysterically funny.

In one Competition, readers were asked to submit brand names for products found in a drugstore. Responses included a bunch of fake birth control pills (Shed Roe, Off Spring, Junior Miss, Scionara, Kiddy Foil, Ova Kill, Bumbino, Heir Pollution, Teeny Bopper, No Kidding, Gene Fowler, Antiseedant, Womb Forwent, Absorbine Junior, Infant aside); deodorants (Pit Stop, Arrivederci Aroma); hair restorers (Hair Apparent, Balderdash); tranquilizers (Damitol); and a children’s antibiotic: (Mickeymycin).

In another, asking for names of prequels, some of the entries included: Kindergarten for Scandal;
Two Dalmations; Prince Kong; Malcolm IX; Little Richard III; We’re Running Low on Mohicans; Wee Willie Loman; Mrs. Warren’s Entry Level Position; The Personal Ads of J. Alfred Prufrock; The Baggage Check-In of the Bumble Bee; Cogito Ergo Subtotal; A Man Called Horsie.

That was pretty typical, though sometimes the Competitions got far more literary (and more challenging for 15-year-old me to suss out!). And if it whets your appetite for more, the bad news is the Competitions are nowhere to be found online (though this site at least cites some of them) and Mary Ann Madden’s three books of Competition complitions — Maybe He’s Dead, Thank You For the Giant Sea Tortoise and Son of Giant Sea Tortoise — are all out of print (how can this be?!). They’re available used if you dig a bit, but pretty pricey.

So, you’re kind of out of luck on the New York Competition front. And that’s why I’m so jazzed about my recent discovery that The Atlantic magazine runs a column by Barbara Wallraff (called, variously, Word Court, Word Fugitives and In a Word) that is clearly in the same vein as the old Competitions. And, like Mary Ann Madden back in the day, Wallraff and her readers routinely have me furrowing my brow, trying to keep up, and laughing out loud as I read.

There was one Word Fugitives recently that asked readers to submit words that described that peculiar phenomenon of things “that seem ubiquitous when you aren’t looking for them but that are nowhere to be found when you are.” Among the answers? Neverywhere… unbiquitous… ubiquitless… fewbiquitous… omniabsent… omnevanescent… ameniteases… elusiversal… You get the idea.

Another one I loved asked readers to submit words to describe the universal tendency to rearrange a dishwasher someone else has already loaded. The answers there included the thematically linked redishtribution, obsessive compulsive dishorder, dishorderly conduct, redishtricting, dishrespect and dish jockying plus the outlier (and my favorite) onecupsmanship.

If these pun-ishing pursuits didn’t make you laugh, there’s not much I can say to change your mind and you might want to stop reading right now. I live for this stuff. And reading Wallraff’s stuff got me thinking about some other word games I’ve been obsessed with and addicted to over the years:

  • The New Yorker’s last-page caption-writing contest. This fills me with admiration for the wit of the readers, mostly because I’m so god-awful bad at turning visuals into wordplay. Frustrates the heck out of me…
  • National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo), which I find so impossibly, wonderfully goofy I’ll have to join several of my friends who’ve tried it and give it a whirl someday. (That’ll happen after I retire or something, since I can’t imagine having even a month of free time to devote to writing a novel!)
  • The Six-Word Memoirs web page, where people sum up their lives in, yes, exactly six words. I first discovered this in The New Yorker, back in February. Read the article here and then come back. I’ll wait. Did you notice anything odd about the story? Like the fact that EVERY SENTENCE IN IT HAD EXACTLY SIX WORDS! I caught onto that about halfway through reading it and just about died. Talk about wit and obsession in equal doses. A simple idea, but genius. I mean, it’s one thing to write a really (REALLY) short autobiography. It’s another thing to try to craft an entire article that’s as readable as anything in The New Yorker, while working under the constraint of sentences exactly six words long. I was in awe…
  • The books written without a specific letter. (This is called a “lipogram” and the number of examples is, to my mind, pretty horrifying, if incredibly entertaining. The most remarkable of the lipogram texts are the ones that eschew the letter “e” (just try it…). Amazingly, there have been at least two, that I know of, Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright and the even more remarkable A Void by Georges Perec. (Perec’s work is the most amazing word-thing of all time, by virtue of the fact that it was originally written, e-less, in French as Las Disparitions  and then translated into English by Gilbert Adair who crafted a translation that ALSO includes no e’s whatsoever. That, my friends, is just crazy!
  • And if you’re still with me and at all into words, by all means check out the BBC radio program I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. By far the word-wittiest program in history and a laugh-out-loud hour you can count on.

Finally, in my catalog of word-game-wondrousness, is the “One-Pulse Word Game.” We used to play this at Steve Jackson Games all the time. I’m pretty sure Steve Jackson came up with it himself and I’ve often wondered why he’s never turned this sure-fire bit of gameplay goodness into a real game — surely, fame and fortune would quickly follow.

For those of you who’ve never experienced the…ahem… joys of the One-Pulse Word Game, here’s how it goes: Someone starts talking in words that have just one part — not two, nor three, but a lone part. Others join in the fun, in a mode of speech just as short. And they would do this, back and forth, as long as they could and as fast as they could — no pause to think, no stops or halts at all, when things went well (and if you could pull it off). It was tons of funs — it IS tons of fun. I play it now, in text, you see. Get good at it and wow your friends, or drive them off, as this can get old in no time.

I’ll stop now…

Twenty years after my departure from Steve Jackson Games, the One-Pulse Word Game remains one of the great joys in my life — not least because I’m pretty good at it — and that “it” is something most people aren’t good at. Call it a gift (as I do) or a curse (as the lovely wife, Caroline, does), it’s mine and I love it. Plus, there’s good, clean fun in doing something completely offbeat that most people don’t even notice you’re doing. And then there’s the annoyance factor once people do figure out that what they thought was a real conversation was just an excuse for you to have some private fun (something they usually realize only after you tell them you’re doing anything odd at all). But you have to get good at the one-pulse word game to reach the point that people don’t notice, so start practicing (not with ME of course!). Anyway, if you get good, you can rip — talking without pause for breath and offering up opportunities to annoy your friends no end. Life, as they say, is good!

And, as long as we’re on the topic of words, and one-syllable word stuff in particular, if you get into the One-Pulse Word Game be sure to check out the “books in words of one syllable” published toward the end of the 19th century by McLaughlin Bros. You can find some of these books in e-book form, but I strongly recommend seeking out the real thing — the books were quite beautiful, something e-books, even on my beloved Kindle, are not. You can find the actual books on antiquarian book sites or ebay once in a while and they’re utterly fascinating — an early attempt, as I understand it, to encourage immigrant literacy by offering classic, uplifting fiction and works of American history in simple language for folks learning English as adults. I have a bunch of these books now and treasure them — and I owe it all to Steve Jackson’s One-Pulse Word game.

Anyway, I wish this was all going somewhere, that I had a point to all this. Sadly, I don’t, really.  The closest I can come to a point is that the word games I love all involve work on the part of the “user” — if you don’t think about what you’re reading, or hearing or whatever, the “jokes” don’t mean a thing. Reading a Competition or a Word Justice, or listening to I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue or playing the One-Pulse Word game requires thinking, interpretation, interaction. You’re not just regurgitating memorized data… you’re not just mashing buttons… you’re actually thinking, collaborating with the creator of the “gag.” And that typifies the games I most enjoy playing and, I hope, the games I make.

So, maybe there’s a point to all this, after all. But truth be told, I just spent a bunch of time reading a year’s worth of The Atlantic and laughing at the word games in the back, which got me thinking about the New York Competition back when I was a kid, which got me thinking about all those other word-oriented pastimes I’ve come to love over the years. And that led to this — yet another overly wordy blog post.

And on that note, I will end. In words of one syll… er… part.

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.

We’re Number 23!

September 27, 2008

Most people aspire to be number 1 — you know, the sports fan’s cry of “We’re Number One!” and all that. Well, not me. I mean, it’d be great to be #1, but I now have a new goal.

You see, in its June 27/July 4th issue (which I only just got around to reading recently, proving I’m behind on all sorts of things in my life — not just blogging!), Entertainment Weekly did a cover story on what they called The New Classics — “the 1000 best movies, TV shows, albums, books & more of the last 25 years.”

Well, games fell into the “& more” category, and Deus Ex made the cut. Check it out, it’s right there on page 128.

Here’s what they had to say: “Vast conspiracies abound in Deus Ex, a smart cyberpunky RPG where you play a nanotechnology-enhanced agent.” The description isn’t likely to get anyone’s heartrate up, but it’s nice to be recognized, for sure.

I mention this not to brag or anything, but because I started wondering how DX stacked up against comparable titles in the other lists. (Some of you may remember an earlier series of posts where I confessed to a fondness for… okay, an obsession with… lists.) I wondered what movie was ranked #23, what album, what book and so on. Here’s what I found:

Movie: Memento
Television: West Wing
Music: The Soft Bulletin (from The Flaming Lips)
Book: The Ghost Road (by Pat Barker)
Style: Andre 3000 (of “Hey Ya!” fame)
Stage: M: Butterfly
Tech: Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader

Ni…ice! Yeah, being #1 would be cool, but #23 is, apparently, all about quirkiness. And that appeals to me, big-time. But when I look at the #23 slot, I see more than “quirk.” For one thing, I see stuff I really like a lot — I mean, Memento blew me away. West Wing was, for years, my favorite television program. The Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin? Come on — enchanting. And I lust after a Kindle with every fiber of my being — if Amazon would drop the price another 50 bucks I’d have one in a hot second!

More than just “I like them,” I see in the 23’s (we’re all part of a club, now, at least in my warped imagination) work that set out to to make a political or cultural statement (assuming there’s any difference between the political and the cultural…). At #23, I see creative enterprises that set out to challenge assumptions — sometimes public assumptions, sometimes a creator’s personal assumptions about his or her own work. I see projects that changed things, that influenced the content or aesthetics of their respective media or changed the direction of the businesses of which they were a part.

And I’m proud that something I worked on is in such august company.

So that’s my new goal. No more “#1” aspirations; I’m shooting for #23, where all the quirky, cool things are! (Okay, just kidding, Disney — #1 would be cool, too!)

Has it really been that long?…

September 21, 2008

I was watching TV with the Lovely Wife, Caroline, the other day when a commercial came on for some teen-oriented anti-perspirant or something. Aside from being appalled that someone was targeting teens with something like that (and note that I said “appalled” not “surprised”…) I was kind of weirded out by the commercial’s overuse of the acronym “OMG.”

Being an old fart, and not knowing, I assume that stands for “oh my god.” And, while I understand the need to abbreviate when texting (I do a LOT of texting myself…) it still got under my skin that, in commercials and everyday non-texting life, we couldn’t actually, you know, use our words.

But, despite what you may think, this isn’t a post about the corruption of our language and so on and so forth. In fact, kind of the opposite. I love the fact that language changes and that I can embrace that change. In fact in fact, I’m writing this because I just had my own genuine OMG moment — my first!:

I was awakened from a pretty sound sleep with a heartfelt “OMG” about to burst from my mouth (which I stifled when I realized such an outburst would wake up the aforementioned Lovely Wife — and that wouldn’t be good for anyone). Anyway, what was my OMG moment?

I realized that this month, September, was my 25th anniversary in the game business. Yow!

I remember vividly walking into Steve Jackson’s house for my interview back in September of 1983. (Heck, I remember exactly what I was wearing: a khaki shirt, green military-style pants, a green vest and some stupid brown suede-covered athletic shoes — Italian, which at the time I guess signified cool, to me, even if they did hurt like the dickens.) Anyway, I remember marching up to Steve’s house for an interview that felt like a fun conversation with a gaming buddy, and I remember him offering me a minimum wage job as an Assistant Editor, and I remember leaving feeling like the happiest guy on Earth.

Since then, I have learned a TON in the game business, and have wracked up debts I’ll never be able to repay. At risk of annoying all sorts of people, I have to thank in some semi-public way (which, I guess, this blog qualifies as) the folks who’ve made the last 25 years great and terrible and educational and absolutely, wouldn’t-trade-it-for-anything incredible:

Steve Jackson – for giving me a start and for providing me with a great education in game design. SJG was like a college course in game design.

Allen Varney – for being a fantastic collaborator for most of the last 25 years. In the world of tabletop games, I did my best work with Allen (though I hate to admit it!) and we’ve continued doing great work together this whole time. It’s weird working with a guy who’s so different from me and yet so much on the same wavelength — Allen’s the only person I’m not married to who routinely finishes my sentences. It’s freaky…

Richard Garriott – if Steve Jackson was Mentor #1 and gave me an undergrad eduction, Richard was Mentor #2 for me and represents my gaming Masters degree and PhD. He taught me the difference between electronic games and tabletop games. Working with him on the early design of Ultima VI was a revelation and a privilege. And let’s not forget that Ultima IV was the game that proved to me that games could be so much more than they were at the time. Utterly inspirational.

Paul Neurath – for teaching me how to flowchart, on Space Rogue, and for getting the Underworld project off the ground and for starting Blue Sky Productions (later Looking Glass Technologies) and for… oh, man, we don’t have space.

Doug Church – for being, probably, the best designer, programmer, project director, you-name-it I’ve ever met. Oh, and a great friend, too! It’s totally weird encountering someone who’s basically better than you are at everything you do. If I have to admit I did “my” best tabletop game work with Allen Varney, I have to do the same, looking back on my years in electronic gaming, and say Doug’s been there for all of “my” best videogames. Doug wins the Unsung Hero award in videogame history — we should all start singing…

There have certainly been others I ought to thank — Bruce Sterling and Walton “Bud” Simons for getting me into the whole gameplaying thing in the first place and without whom I wouldn’t even have known there was a game business to be in… Greg Costikyan, for writing the original manuscript that became TOON: The Cartoon Roleplaying Game… the amazingly talented writers and designers at Steve Jackson Games and TSR, all of whom I SHOULD single out and mention by name… Mike Dobson, for offering me a life-changing job at TSR… Chris Roberts, for showing me what it takes to manage the kind of large-scale projects that would come to dominate gaming, and for showing me the power of uncompromising commitment to a creative vision… John Romero, for making me the offer I couldn’t refuse to become a part of Ion Storm… The Deus Ex team, for being utterly inspired (and inspiring), if at times painfully dysfunctional! (DX team leads Harvey Smith, Chris Norden and Jay Lee, you deserve more credit!)… Art Min, Mike Grajeda and Stan Herndon for being terrific partners and friends… Bob Picunko, Mike Ryder, Mark Meyers and Graham Hopper for signing me up with Disney and allowing me to put a check by the “Work for Disney” box on my to-do list of life… Seamus Blackley, for being both friend and agent, and hooking me up with some truly amazing people and opportunities… the JPS team, especially the folks who’ve stuck with me from the start (no easy feat, given the roller coaster ride it’s been)… and, of course, all the non-game friends who’ve been there with me the last 25 years (with a special thanks to the Saturday Breakfast Bunch, with whom I’ve had breakfast, without fail, every Saturday since 1989 — without you guys anchoring my week I’d have gone crazy… okay, crazi-ER… long ago).

Most of all, though, I have to thank the Lovely Wife, Caroline, for putting up with my crazy hours, wild mood swings, days and weeks away from home on business, and all the other nonsense I’ve put her through. I’ve often described her as “the most understanding woman in the world” and that still stands. I don’t know how or why she’s put up with me, but I’m sure glad she continues to amaze me with her love and support.

Anyway, here’s to the next 25 years, and a bunch of new names on the “thank you” list I write up in September of 2023!

D&D Victorious or When Did Life Become About Leveling Up?

September 14, 2008

I’m trying to scale back on my Facebook time. As I said in an earlier post, I find the site curiously addictive, but I think I let things get a little out of hand. (Thank god Scrabulous went away — talk about a time sink!)

Anyway, all the time I’ve spent on Facebook got me confused and enthused about something:

When did life — I mean REAL life, not game life — become all about “leveling up”?

Dungeons & Dragons really has taken over the world, in ways Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson never could have predicted.

Sure, there’s always been an element in life of “I make more money than you do, so I win!” or “My house is bigger than yours” or “My car goes faster than yours (not that I’ll ever see that kind of speed in real life).”

But what’s really brought home for me the reality of “Life as Leveling” is the ascendancy of Facebook and, to a lesser extent, World of Warcraft (a pastime I gave up a while back — though the lovely wife, Caroline, is still well and truly hooked, keeping it in the forefront of my thinking).

WoW‘s D&D-ness is obvious. Yeah, yeah, it’s all about community. Sure, it’s about cooperating with friends to accomplish goals together. Whatever. Cut past all the stuff and nonsense and it’s about “I’m level 70 and you’re not.” It’s about achieving vicariously, virtually, a “level” of success most of us will never achieve in life. And then, most important, it’s about lording it over our friends.

In other words, WoW‘s a little obvious in its game-ness (it’s a game, after all!) and in its D&D-ness. But Facebook… Ah, Facebook. That’s something different. It has its non-leveling uses, to be sure. It is a useful tool for keeping in touch with friends and reconnecting with schoolmates you haven’t thought about in years. But let’s be honest — if that was it, would millions of us care? We could accomplish most of that by writing letters or picking up a phone. Facebook offers far, far more than that — and that “more” is D&D-ness.

Facebook turns community into currency. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had over the last few months that sound something like this:

“Darn. You have more friends than me.”

“How did you get to be level 54 in Packrat?”

How much money do you have in Parking Wars?”

“Damn. I’m only ranked 10,000,000 in the world in the movie quiz.”

Much of the Facebook experience (like World of Warcraft and, let’s not forget, high school) is about status. And status, in this case, is measured in concrete terms not unlike a traditional roleplaying game.

I realize I’m sounding pretty negative about this but, mostly, I find this phenomenon odd — and oddly comforting. I mean, at least leveling is a mechanism I understand, unlike a lot of social stuff.

And speaking of social stuff, would someone please clue me in on Facebook etiquette? I’m thinking specifically about all the folks you’ve never heard of who want to be your friend. My first instinct is to say, “Sure, let’s be virtual friends.” What’s the harm in establishing a virtual connection with a fan or with a friend of a friend of a friend? But then I start thinking about the fact that accepting someone you don’t know gives that someone access to the profiles of every other someone you know and that kind of freaks me out. So what do you do? Ignore folks you don’t know and look like a jerk or a snob? Let everyone into the fold and dilute the value of “true” friendship (or as close at you can get online)? I’m kerflummoxed. Help!

Beyond that, I’m still wrestling with whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing (or just a thing) that the world — at least the part of it on Facebook — knows I’m having lunch with my sister at the Museum of Modern Art in New York… or awake at 2 a.m. stealing stuff from my wife and friends in Packrat… or just generally feeling good about myself…

Bottom line — I get World of Warcraft. It’s a game. You play it. You level up. You get cool stuff. It has a social component lacking from singleplayer games. Rah, rah, rah. Not so different from games of thousands of years ago. Facebook, though… Facebook, this thing I don’t quite understand, is a real agent of change in the world. And I don’t have a handle on the rules of this non-game. Still, I’m enjoying playing. So far.

The San Diego Zoo

August 3, 2008

No, I’m not talking about the amazing animal park in San Diego — I’m talking about Comic-Con. Now THAT’s a zoo!

Four days… 130,000 people… a single building three-quarters of a mile long. Man, was I not prepared.

I’ve been to big conventions before, notably the 50,000+ person E3 shows (in its old incarnation, of course), but Comic-Con was so much bigger it was different in kind, not just in degree. The crush of humanity, the ridiculous lines to see anyone or anything, the exhibit hall aisles so crowded they looked like a New York Subway train at rush hour only worse, the (ahem!) aroma of massed humanity. Sheer craziness. At one point, I ran into game designer, David Jaffe (as we both stared forlornly at the mile-long line to get into the Peter Molyneux/Cliffy B talk) and we both just sort of shook our heads knowing we’d never get in. Even being friends with the guys on the stage wasn’t going to get us in that room. Sad (but nice to get to hang with Dave for a bit…).

Anyway, I did get to do and see a bunch of cool stuff that made the trip worthwhile. For starters, my wife was on a panel about writing superhero fiction — check out her story in the latest Wildcards anthology, Inside Straight — and I always enjoy being Mister Caroline Spector at shows. Beyond that, Steven Moffatt (creator of the UK comedy, Coupling, and writer of some of the best Dr. Who scripts ever) was on a panel talking about what he’s going to do now that he’s Da Man on Dr. Who and I’m filled with optimism about the upcoming season. (Ditto for Torchwood, which also promises to be hugely entertaining next year). Moffatt was everything I hoped he would be, and that’s saying something given how sky-high my expectations were.

What else did I do and see?…

On the media side, I attended a session about production design on the Star Wars: Clone Wars movie/series and was struck by how similar movies and games are nowadays, in the kind of planning and the level of quality required. I also managed to pick up a few pointers I can take back to Junction Point, which is nice.

I was fortunate enough to grab a seat for a jam-packed session with ex-Disney animator/story guy (and ex-Disney comic writer/artist) Floyd Norman. Man, oh, man, did he live up to his Disney Legend status. I’ve always been a bit in awe of his talent but he also proved to be a funny, funny man and terrific storyteller. The combination of wit and cynicism he brought to the con was a breath of fresh air. If you’re not familiar with his stuff, check out his blog, Mr. Fun, and his columns on the Jim Hill Media website — well worth the price of admission.

On the comics side (and, man, the show could have used more comics programming!), I was thrilled — THRILLED — to listen to Jim Starlin (my absolute fave comic artist and writer) as he recounted, with almost unnatural humility, his life in comics. His Captain Marvel and Warlock stuff in the late 70s/early 80s revitalized my interest in comics and, as far as I’m concerned changed comics forever. The guy’s layouts completely broke the mold and the range of subjects he tackled (death, religion, disease), was just incredible. After Starlin’s solo panel, the lovely Caroline and I hot-footed it over to a “Comics in the 70s” panel featuring Starlin, Mark Evanier, Joe Staton, Mike Grell, Mike Barr, Bernie Wrightson and Len Wein. Man. I was floored. Talk about a collection of talent. Men among boys…

But, cool as all that stuff was, the coolest thing by far was a panel with James Warren, Verne Langdon and (wait for it…) Forrest J Ackerman! Warren published Famous Monsters of Filmland. Langdon, among other things, made masks for Don Post — masks I lusted after with every fiber of my being when I was a kid reading about ’em in Famous Monsters (but could never afford…). And then there was Forrie… Forrie… Ah. The editor of Famous Monsters was a towering figure in my life — right up there with Ray Harryhausen and Robert Heinlein. He was a friend (though it was a one-sided friendship only I knew about) and he made it okay to be a geek about movies and monsters back when geeks most definitely did NOT rule the world. He was smart, clever, a punster, a role model, a mentor. Damn. And even now, at 92 or something, he’s still sharp and willing to sit for hours signing autographs for goobers like me who drone on and on about how he changed our lives. Meeting Forrie made the whole trip worthwhile.

Good thing, ’cause that’s about ALL I got to see. The lines to get into the Disney and Pixar presentations were insane. Ditto any of the big movie previews, like Watchmen. And anyone who thought they were going to see Joss Wheadon was delusional.

Luckily, there was plenty to see (and buy!) in the football-field-size exhibit hall. Man. The designer toy scene is amazing these days. And it’s pretty cool to walk the dealers room and see Neal Adams over there at one booth, Bernie Wrightson at another, Stephan Martiniere, Michel Gagne, Al Feldstein, Paul Gulacy, Steve Rude, Bill Willingham…. Nice. (And if you don’t know who those guys are, well, isn’t that what Google’s for?…)

Cool as the show was, the whole crowd thing has me wondering if I’ll go to Comic-Con again. Probably not, unless I’m working the show — it really is an amazing place to get a game or movie or comic book in front of people and I wouldn’t be surprised if more game companies started attending. meaning, odds are, I’ll be attending, too. As an old comic book fan, I kinda wish it were more comics-centric and a bit less of a media extravaganza. Still, whether I go again or not, I’m sure glad I experienced it at least once.

I’m ba-ack…

July 13, 2008

Has it really been four months since my last post? Man… I don’t know how some of you guys keep up a regular pace. I mean, with work and family and friends and traveling and all, finding time to blog is pretty much a not-happening thing for me.

Needless to say, I don’t even remember what I was going to say about GDC back in March, when I promised to post additional thoughts! Since then, my game (about which we will say nothing) has made amazing progress. My team and I have been working hard on our own and (get ready for the cool factor to go way up) in collaboration with folks from Disney Feature Animation and Pixar. If I say anymore, I’ll get in trouble, so let’s just leave it at that.

In addition to “work-work,” I’ve been doing some “semi-work” — speaking at the Game Education Summit at SMU’s Guildhall, with my boss, Mark Meyers (Disney Interactive’s VP of North American development) and, solo, at MIT’s Gambit lab. I’m pretty blown away at the quality of student projects at both places. Folks are really pushing the boundaries out there in ways that I hope feed back into the commercial space someday (soon!).

Been doing some gaming, too, though not as much as I’d like. Lots of research play (and I won’t be saying much about that, either, since to do so would be to reveal far too much about the game… and then we’re back to cone of silence, not ready to announce anything territory…). In addition to research play, I’ve managed to put in a fair number of hours on Professor Layton and the Curious Village, but the game that has my shorts in a knot right now is Guitar Hero: On Tour. Other than some wicked hand cramping, I’m loving it. I’ve beaten it on Easy and Medium, and am well into Hard. I can see myself falling to pieces when I get to Expert, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. I’ve got a bunch of stuff on my to-play list, but I think I’m going to dive into Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past (again!) next. I’m getting that itch and it must be scratched.

The final (and probably worst) distraction from blogging — wait, when did blogging become the thing I’m distracted FROM, rather than the thing that distracts me from other activities?!… anyway, the big distraction right now is Facebook. I’ve resisted the siren call of social networking sites and, as I’ve made clear over the years, I’m basically immune to MMO-addiction. So imagine my surprise when a desire to play Scrabulous with my sister (and mother, if I can ever convince her to sign up for something she perceives as being for kids) led me to a place where I have hundreds of friends and play a dozen games (and often a dozen instances of those dozen games, simultaneously). It’s totally weird. I don’t quite grok the whole Facebook thing — I mean, it isn’t exactly a “place” but it isn’t exactly a “site” and it’s oddly difficult to navigate around and find stuff… But I do find myself spending an inordinate amount of time “there.” And the asynchronous communication paradigm really appeals to the control freak in me — I get to determine the level of interaction I have with people. Nice…

Anyway, put that all together and it adds up to no blogging. But recently, a bunch of stuff has come up that has my keyboard fingers itching, so it’s likely I’ll be back here again soon. (It’s not like I have all sorts of free time all of a sudden, but I should be able to post some stuff sooner than four months! And I tend to do this in spurts, so there could be a little tidal wave of posts from me. Who knows?…)

For those of you wondering why you’ve slogged through all this confessional stuff, the things I’d like to talk about are a bit less, well, confessional. Let’s leave it at that for now — every time I say I’m going to write about something specific, or make anything resembling a promise here, I get myself in trouble. See you again soon (I hope).

We Interrupt this GDC retrospective…

March 27, 2008

I still need to finish writing up my thoughts about GDC (assuming anyone still cares, given how much time has passed since the show!), but I had to get something out there first:

The latest online issue of The Escapist magazine includes an article by Brenda Braithwaite called “The Myth of the Media Myth.” It’s quite good, a nice, personal, but generalizable look at the way “normal people” and the media see us, see games and gamers.

My attitude toward the “Games are evil” dialogue is to ignore it as much as possible — I see “us” winning in the end, as the population of people who don’t play games…er…go away (as in, well, to be frank, age and, eventually, die off…). The enemies of games aren’t, by and large, kids — they’re not even young adults. The folks who fear games and their effect on society are older, non-gamers, and like similar populations of the past — anti-movie folks, anti-TV folks, anti-rock-&-roll folks — time passes, the older folks go away and the medium the kids love and adults hate becomes mainstream. Then something comes along that the erstwhile kids don’t understand and the up-and-coming kids love and the cycle repeats itself.

This is all a long way of saying, “Wait. Games will become mainstream. The grownups can’t kill the medium. Time heals all wounds.”

At least that’s my attitude.

Brenda’s article takes a somewhat different view of things and I strongly encourage you to check her article out. But, the thing that really go me going was Clint Hocking’s closing comments on the subect, which I quote here (apologies to Brenda for blowing the Big Idea with which she chose to close her essay). It’s Brenda talking about Clint talking about the anti-game folks and what he’d like to see happen with them:

Clint Hocking says what I didn’t think to say at dinner that night. “If I had a choice, I would want to include these distrustful folks in finding solutions. I would prefer it if they understood. I would prefer it if they could see the long sequence of events that is going to address their fears and create the medium they will inevitably love and participate in, whether they expect to or not.”

“What’s sad is that their ideological, ignorant, hostile, one-dimensional attitudes oversimplify one of the most beautiful problems in human history. It makes me very sad that many of these people will diefearing games. I would so rather include them, but they have to meet us in the middle or become sad, lonely, reclusive luddites.

“In the end, we will stamp them out if we have to, but it would be nicer if we all tap danced our way into the future together.”

Reading this, I felt kind of ashamed for counseling an ostrich-like approach to the situation when we could actually be doing something proactive to bring people into the fold. Damn, Clint’s a smart guy.