Archive for April, 2010

dresden

How I Learned Professional Wizardry Was Tough

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When it comes to books, the geek in me has always been a sucker for a good series. Yeah, there are always those one-offs that are a treat to read, but when it comes to spending some nights voraciously devouring a new book instead of updating blogs, I like me a good series. The reason for this is that an established universe of characters is always more interesting to read about than a snapshot where you only get a brief look at a set of fictional lives.

So when my good friend Kristen told me about a set of books with compelling characters entitled the Dresden Files series, I had to take a bite at the bait. I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve always loved fantasy novels slightly better than sci-fi, magic over futuristic, so these books were right up my alley for a variety of reasons. Take that and combine it with the fact that the books are set in my native, urban Chicago, and author Jim Butcher hooked himself another reader.

The basic plot of the books revolves around Chicago’s only “professional” wizard, Harry Dresden, and his attempts to keep its citizens safe from magical and supernatural evils while trying to make a decent buck. Normally, this is where things turn formulaic, where “hero goes up against bad guy and wins, getting the girl” would make sense, but Butcher brings in a couple of unique elements to the mix that make for some interesting reading. The first is that Harry is, in essence, a wiseass. Whether it’s talking to his friends and associates, narrating a particularly introspective sequence, or even facing death in the form of killer faeries, werewolf crazies, or giant plant monsters, Harry always has a jab, joke, or other such remark to toss out there. In a fantasy world where wizards are either portrayed as serious business or doddering comedy acts, Harry strikes a perfect balance between skill and entertainment. The fact that he’s also portrayed as having power, but also vulnerable at times despite it is also another dichotomy that works well in the books.

Other characters provide not just backdrop but their own additions to the Dresden universe. From Karrin Murphy’s tough-as-nails cop, to Michael Carpenter’s gentle knight-paladin to Bob the Skull’s constant perversion, each person makes the setting of the novels come alive. Harry’s interactions provide a dialog that is both simple and direct to follow but also hilarious in its execution. Combine that with some fairly riveting action sequences involving spells, creatures and gunplay and you have yourself a set of books that is hard to put down – especially when the actions of Harry and company carry over into consequences in future novels. Always nice to have that continuity thing.

Anyway, now you know another reason I haven’t been updating as much. If you’re looking for some decent books to read and need a series that won’t take up too much of your time, pick up Storm Front, the first in the Dresden series, and see if you like it. I’m on book seven, so that gives you a good idea of how much this geek likes a little magical fantasy and sarcasm in his life.

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The RSS Rolling Freight Train

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Over at Kill Ten Rats, Ravious talks a bit about unsubbing from a blog and what it takes to get people to go away from following various writings on the intenret. I peered intently at this article, and the comments that followed it, not just because the subject was interesting and caught my eye, but because I have a real problem. I know, right – the great optimist having an issue is unheard of – but trust me, this is serious business.

My name is Frank, and I’m addicted to RSS.

Ravious seems to find it easy to unsub from a blog, whether it’s due to change in subject or resonance. I can’t seem to do it. Of the 246 rss feeds I’m currently subscribed to, I think I might have only unsubbed from 1 of them, and I think it was mine because I was changing over to Feedburner. Maybe I need help. But hear me out – I kinda like it this way, ok?

The first logical question is how I am able to keep up with the hundreds if not thousands of articles that arrive every day. For one thing, I think I’m finally able to put my BA in English to work for more than just being the butt of jokes about working at McDonald’s. I’m able to quickly scan, digest, and read content. Sure, it’s a challenge sometimes and I tend to miss the articles that my bloggery friends really, really want to read (“what do you MEAN you missed my article on donating to the Buy A Cute Puppy Fund ._.”), but I get a nice little global snapshot of what’s going on regardless.

The second reason is that I simply like enriching my own viewpoint with others’, no matter if I disagree with them or not. The sheer variety of missives that exist on the internet is seemingly limitless, from crazy life stories to serious analyses and more. And I’m subbed to just about all of them. How can I abandon any of them, even the long-dead ones? You never know – they might just come back and post, and with my luck it would be on a day when I’m dealing with something more important like cleaning up cat poop or trying to kill zombies.

I guess it’s really a matter of a little blind loyalty. I like seeing what people have to say, no matter ho often they say it. When I add someone or something to my blogroll, I do it for a reason. Most of the time that reason comes from a genuine desire to be entertained, and the things I subscribe to do that for me. While I can generate plenty of sunshine on my own, it’s always a nice boost to get it from others – and why not RSS?

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Mythic’s Marvelous Mea Culpa

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If there’s anything that sucks to say sometimes, no matter if you’re an individual or a company, it’s “my bad”. Whether it’s in everyday interaction as simple as bumping into someone and causing them to scald themselves with hot coffee, or as complex as a fender bender car accident, we’re all going to be put in the place to say “I’m sorry” at some point. Sometimes it helps (“oh, that’s ok, I was freezing and the coffee warmed me up”) and sometimes it doesn’t (“I’m gonna sue your ass for rear-ending my Mercedes, bitch”), but the key in any apology is how you go about doing it.

This is especially true for MMO developers, who have to handle being wrong while at the same time explaining what happened. In the waters of online forums, fansites, and blogs, posters and writers of a particular MMO are at times sharks, smelling blood in the water and attacking with ruthless ferocity. Such as it was with Mythic Entertainment, which experienced a billing snafu two weeks ago that had people charged a ton, some at least over 20 times, for their monthly subscription fee.

Mythic’s been raked over the coals (understandably so) by a number of folks for the messup.  I’ve got friends at Mythic, and it pained me to see the hardship they had to go through trying to fix the nonsense that had occurred because of payment processing craziness. It’s because of this personal interaction I’ve had with them that made me had faith. Faith that when the inevitable apology came, it would be a good one.

Today’s letter from Mythic’s Jeff Hickman about the payment issue comes through by explaining first, in detail, what exactly happened, second, what they are doing to fix it, and third, what the current status is. Normal stuff, right? But then comes the in-game compensation, which is as follows:

Over the past 15 years we have always strived to do what’s best for our players. We are truly sorry, and want to work to make things right and restore our relationship.  We hope you will accept this small token of our appreciation for your continued commitment to our games:

For starters all players will earn 100% bonus experience and renown when killing enemies and monsters for two weeks. As well, during this time we’ll be hard at work designing and implementing a special vendor. This vendor will only accept special tokens that will be sent to your mailbox, using these two tokens each of your characters will be able to receive two of the following items:

  • Bottomless Chaos Black Dye
  • Bottomless Skull White Dye
  • Imperial Griffon Mount (Order)
  • Enslaved Manticore Mount (Destruction)
  • WAR Tract – earn a free level
  • Choose from any of these pets – Order: Imperial Hunting Hound or Dwarf Keg Handler; Destruction: Warlord’s Fell Hound or the Goblin Bar-Back.
  • Change your appearance with any of these illusion items: Skaven Skin Cloak (skaven), Kossar’s Helm (bear), or the Signet of the Cursed Company (skeleton)

Please accept this gesture as a step towards rebuilding our relationship. From all of us at Mythic, we thank you for your time, your commitment, and your trust that helps us to make great games year after year.

Bonus experience, and the choice of what appears to be an amazing set of items normally only preserved for contests and special events. The in-game benefits of said compensation will be huge for some players of WAR, that’s for sure.

Say what you will about WAR‘s struggles, and the fact that this doesn’t completely wipe out the inconvenience some people went through – the latter is especially true. This is pretty much what sets Mythic apart from other MMO companies. They have a deep connection to their community, and an understanding of their customers that makes their service top notch. Ever since DAoC, when I first started interacting with them on forums and fansites, Mythic has always gone above and beyond when it comes to talking to their players. This is basically their stock in trade, making the fact that their design has struggled to take hold in the MMO playerbase all the more unfortunate.

When you do something wrong, you’re never going to totally eliminate the fact that it happened, or make people forget. It’d be unrealistic to think as such. But the effort to apologize and make amends is always huge when you’re at fault – and Mythic understands that. WAR‘s been in the public eye a lot lately – both for good and bad reasons – and one can hope that with so many eyes on it currently, that this will go a long way towards making people believe they empathize with their players.

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Fulfilling Dreams of Ponies, and Other Assorted Microtransactions

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You know, if I actually wanted to get “moar subs” when it comes to this little blog of happiness and sunshine, I’d try to keep up on current events and respond to them as they happen. The whole idea of “breaking news” and being able to comment on the things that are currently occurring is wildly valuable to blog traffic. I’m sure if I inserted my little bit of optimism into everything right away, I’d probably have people who A)read me more and B)got annoyed with my perpetually bright outlook on things.

The advantage of waiting, however, is to be able to speak with a bit more knowledge considering everyone else has already put in their two cents. It’s like being fashionably late to a party – you’re confident and content in your ability to stick to your own schedule and you know the lay of the land just a bit better in your quest to make friends or get laid or both.

Such as it is that I’m a bit late commenting on this whole news about Blizzard selling its first in-game item that isn’t just a pet. The Celestial Steed, even though it apparently is not something that provides a buyable advantage, has had people railing against Blizzard, microtransactions, and greed in general.

To be honest, and not surprisingly, I can’t see the inclusion of such an item for sale as some kind of MMO apocalypse on the horizon. For one thing, the fact that alternate pricing models (stress on the alternate) exist shows flexibility on the developers’ part. It balances perks for players while creating revenue streams for investors, something that MMOs who have depended purely on subscriber numbers have had trouble with. For another, the slippery slope of pet items moving to wholesale abilities or other such game breakers is probably a long ways away, if it ever happens. C’mon – if you were a developer making things that were under great scrutiny by people who could praise you in one breath and rake you over the coals the next, you’d want to take the cautious approach too. Besides it could be a lost worse in terms of items. I don’t care how well-organized they are, trying to sell a Flying Purple Monkey Dishwasher is hard, damnit. What about a Giant Giraffe? A Ferocious Anteater? Just be happy they thought of a shiny ghost horse before those things and I think you’ll be a little less upset.

Ultimately, because you have a choice to purchase the item, I’m not too bothered by the whole affair. Sure, good marketing and the lure of shiny are hard to resist, but considering all it is is shiny, I think I can live without it being a problem.

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Simple Hyperbole

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In terms of this blog, I’m under no illusions of grandeur here on this fine, fine Monday. The blog I write has a very modest, small following, with a couple hundred Twitter followers to my name and just shy of 100 subscribers. It’s nice to know that optimism is at least mildly read. It’s why for many posts I do a bit of research, try to come up with some witty repartee, and generally try not to ramble on so long that your eyes bleed from the wall of text.

But sometimes, simple is best. That’s why thanks to one Jess Folsom, I got hooked onto a new blog called Hyperbole and a Half, crafted by Allie Brosh. The whimsical, somewhat simple content of Allie’s writing is enhanced by Paint drawings that are impressive in their message yet simple in their presentation. The Mission Statement of the blog mentions only a like of “velociraptors, pirates, sharks and boats” as a requirement to liking her writing, and in the face of so many blogs, even mine, that include lofty and somewhat philosophical statements of intent, this one is humorous and a breath of fresh air.

It’s funny how sometimes when you write about how you feel naturally, you can be as meaningful and entertaining as some of the most professionally written (and by professionally I mean “for the moneys”) articles. Allie uses a blend of hilarious visual aids, a writing style that is conversational, and a bit of randomness that charms people – and entries like “The Alot is Better Than you at Everything” show this off pretty well. Part of building a readership and writing is trying to find a way to connect with people who read, and sometimes, when it comes down to it, simple is best.

I’ve always been more of a wall of text writer than I have been a natural one, and it’s only now that I have come to realize that writing how you feel is a lot easier than writing to an audience with a goal you’re only vaguely aware of. It’s nice to know that in an online world full of crazy serious business mission statements and objectives that there are still folks out there who write (and in Allie’s case, draw) for fun and sincerely enjoy it. I know I do when I write, and I hope that most other fellow bloggers out there do so as well.

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The Facebook Gaming Extravaganza

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Lately, thanks to some good folks at Mythic Entertainment who’ve been idly playing it in their free time, I’ve finally gotten into the rush of Facebook games with Warstorm, a trading card/battle game that tickles my little Magic: The Gathering teenager still lurking inside me. The free-to-play, beta title is a game you can play for 10 minutes to hours, and features both single-player and player vs. player card conflict, using fantasy elements.

After the article I wrote regarding Zynga vs. Valve, I suppose it’s really a good thing I’ve gotten addict-er, I mean, interested in at least one casual Facebook game. The reason being, of course, to expand my exposure and knowledge of the gaming world. There’s a certain kind of value to actually touching and playing a game before you choose to write about or judge it, and the rush of casual games, especially on Facebook, has always been something I’ve been apprehensive about. Most of it has to do with the fact that I was afraid that Facebook games would take away time from me playing more traditional titles that I’ve been working on. The fact that some people spend hours a day on their farms in Farmville was more than enough intimidation to scare even an optimist like me away.

The pleasant discovery I’ve made, however, is that Facebook games, because of their very casual nature, can be played in a variety of circumstances, whether that is multitasking on other projects, over lunch, or just to engage your brain a little if you’re bored. With Warstorm, I can knock out a match or two in about 5 minutes (especially with the play speed turned all the way up), and even better yet, once I strategize, the game basically plays itself, allowing me to do other things at the same time – such as write blog posts. If I want to see something unfold I’ll click back to check, or wait til I have more time to watch a match in progress to see if I need to change my card strategy. It’s quite refreshing from the micromanagement needed for games that require all your attention.

Systems which automatically manage the heavy lifting while you make the decisions are things that have appeared in traditional games, too. EVE, for example, allows you to train your skills while you are offline, ensure that you are making progress even when you are off doing other things. A side element in Assassin’s Creed 2 that allows you to collect and earn income from your villa while you are off stabbing people in the face is another such example. The obvious counterargument is the idea that if a game plays part of itself for you, there’s no point to playing, but really I see it more along the lines of removing the dull inconvenience of management you’d normally repeat – leaving you to the relaxing joy of playing when you have to.

Ultimately, this is probably why Facebook games, or casual games in general, aren’t going anywhere for a while. Not everyone is a geek, sadly, but more people want to play games for entertainment and escapism these days more than ever. Providing a medium and a set of titles that meet that simple goal is a good thing, not a bad thing. Besides, after all the unjustified public hullabaloo over games like Grand Theft Auto, Mass Effect, and other such bombastic examples, gaming could use a little reputation boost.

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The iPad’s Short Term Curiosity

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So in the midst of all this food writing I did, I sort of missed the fact that Apple’s iPad, the “magical and revolutionary” multi-touch device, came out to excited Apple users everywhere a few days back. Touted as a mobile tool of convenience with the power of iPod Apps, the iPad has caused a bit of a stir these past few days as early adopters fall in love and haters engage in methods of wanton destruction.

Me? I think that even though Apple has made a living out of touting forward-thinking tools that end up having mass appeal, that much of what the iPad has to offer is really short term interest and curiosity. I say this because the iPod and iPhone, two devices whose success speaks for themselves, came out during a time when there was a gap to be filled in their respective communities. We didn’t have a massive, easy, online music store that went along with our mp3 players and we didn’t really have a phone that offered more than just the basics. But the iPad, whose features seem a bit too similar to both tablet PC’s and iPod/iPhone, seems to straddle a market that already has dedicated devices in it.

Not to worry though – this -is- an optimistic blog after all – I can’t think that this isn’t be a good thing. For one, touch devices have had a bit of a success story after initial trepidation. Many of today’s phones, for example, tout touch technology and app strength as a selling point for users wanting to find convenience without too many button presses. Tablet PC’s have seen a bit of a slower uptick in mass appeal. The iPad, even if it tanks after a couple months of initial buzz, will at least drive the market awareness of touch devices as something that is worth pursuing in the mobile arena. Mistakes may be made, but based upon those a good foundation can be built for people who want to take advantage of the technology in the future, when it’s a bit more refined. Someone has to be the trailblazer who dies of dysentery on the way, right? (Go go old school game references)

For now, whether you love the iPad or hate it, take some pleasure in the fact that a lot of people are paying attention to it – even if it’s to see if it handles itself under, well…..pressure:

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Geekery Food Goodness

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You know, I’m starting to think with the last two posts about foodstuffs, that maybe I’m either A)a little too hungry lately or B)coincidentally just finding out about too much crazy food lately. Oh well – at least it’s good for some short-term entertainment, right?

Today’s missive is inspired by the revelation that someone actually put together an AT-AT made of bacon, from Star Wars fame. Three feet tall, with pounds and pounds of bacon over a foam shell, this monstrosity is the latest in a line of geekery worship via food. I went looking around, for example, and found at least two books that had supposedly Star Wars-related recipes, and a cursory search found more dedicated to recipes of a geeky nature.

Even though it might feed into some crazy geek stereotype about how we’re all fatty couch potatoes, food has always been an occasional, secondary way for geeks to show their appreciation for a particular series or movie. From drinks that simulate what is ironically simulated exotic alcohol on a sci-fi show, to food that’s made specifically to pay homage, geek food has always been one crazy idea away from being made into a reality. And if you think the marketing departments for these shows haven’t taken notice, well – there’s always the empirical evidence of a few officially sanctioned items for discerning geeks and fans.

To be sure, geekery-themed food should be a delicacy occasionally indulged in – I mean, one can only take so much Cylon-printed toast and bacon AT-AT’s before it gets a little tired (not to mention a bit unhealthy, depending). But they’re a great novelty for themed parties, celebrating premieres and finales, and for just plain sharing with friends. Bacon AT-AT, you’ve not only provided some measure of entertainment, but given me a few new Twitter followers and a bunch of laughs. As long as I get those, how can you see it as anything but a good thing?

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Excuses, Excuses…

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You know, some people have a legitimate excuse for missing a weekday post. They say that they’ve been busy with housework, or perhaps that they needed time to study for school, or in the case of Syp from Bio Break, welcoming a new addition to the family (belated congratulations).

My excuse for missing this stuff? The KFC Double Down:

By the way, there’s a neat little timeline impression of the Double Down from NPR, if you want to be amused.

Perhaps I need to do more exciting, yet enjoyable things in my life…

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Glee Incoming

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Come Tuesday, there’s going to be more than one kind of glee coming back into my life. When you’re an eternal optimist like me, that’s pretty hard, you know?

But yes – I’m referring to the fact that my own personal enjoyment is going to be raised when one of my favorite TV shows of the pats year comes back for more episodes. Glee on Fox is coming back next week, and with it, hopefully more delightfully entertaining drama, comedy, and of course, music from what has become America’s most famous Glee club.

I’ve written about Glee before – multiple times in fact – and plan on continuing to do so as geekery has never really had an underdog champion on TV in a while. The much-maligned mix of athletes, outcasts, and misfits got their first taste of success at the end of last season when they emerged victorious at sectionals despite a ton of behind the scenes shenanigans. Now they move on to trying to win victory in regionals, with a powerhouse of a rival glee club to overcome.

It’s funny, because the challenge that Glee‘s characters face is much mirrored by the challenge their actors face as well, and that is answering the question of how they handle success. Much like the club itself has to deal with their issues at school despite their victory, and find out about newfound fame, the cast also has to figure that out for themselves. Since their whirlwind, sudden success, the Glee actors have won awards, traveled around the world, and appeared at the White House and major media outlets. To them, this is all new and fresh and interesting, and the fame is something that they’ll definitely have to adjust to as they move forward.

Still, I have confidence that both fictional and real characters are going to have no real issues succeeding and moving forward. After all, the collective talent that they all have as well as the camaraderie they’ve made together are things that will definitely take them far. I’m looking forward to seeing up it all pans out, and if you haven’t yet, I’d definitely recommend catching up in the next few days!

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