The Problem With Reality Is It Is Too Much Like Minecraft

Minecraft is not a game for me, but I am impressed at the kind of experience it can provide. Not only did my lego-mad friend build a house with a waterfall/waterslide on the roof, but he also went for a very real-feeling explore which he writes about below. “Real feeling” is indeed the power of Minecraft, I think. Unlike the Sims or other things, there’s very few trackers for success. No goals, no points, just stay alive, and add value that you see fit. And since the “from behind” view doesn’t work well, it’s all first-person. Add the mad, nigh-infinite discovery of an open-world without the roleplaying of being in the Old West or Thedas or Skyrim, and it feels soul-crushingly real, in both senses. In the sense that it is incredibly immersive, and in the sense that it is as philosophical self-defining as our own world.

And as such, perhaps best left to those who appreciate the journey as much as the results…

(In this quote, Tom and Miranda are his kids, who like to watch him play various games)

So, on the assumption that we’re going to ditch the current map, I decided to have a bit of an adventure.  Miranda and Tom wanted to watch, so I set off east with some tools, stone and my bed. I found the desert, then the sea, then turned aside to find some huge overhanging caves.  After three nights of making myself a small cabin each sunset to sleep in I stumbled upon some Jungle ruins, some kind of Incan style structure full of traps, red stone, gems and gold.  I sacked, um, archaeologically investigated the place and stayed there that night, and then determined to head back home.  Then I got hopelessly lost.  I’d left my bed somewhere so I had to take out some sheep, much to Tom’s distress (for the rest of the game I was vegetarian, mostly).  I wandered for several days, with Miranda getting very anxious each time the night approached, but I always managed to put together a simple shelter.  But I had absolutely no idea where I was.  Then eventually I stumbled over a fortified village.  I was near starving due to Tom’s aversion to slaughter, but luckily one of the villagers was willing to trade 9 cooked chickens for one of the gems I’d found.  Another villagers said if I had 7 gems he’d give me the eye of Ender, (I only had 2).   I spent the night with these lovely people and set off in the morning with renewed determination.  I decided to try to find the X,Y co-ordinates 0,0.  Then, after a day, I realised that Y was height and I should be looking for the X,Z co-ordinates 0,0.  I thought that might be our initial spawn point.  Turns out it wasn’t, but it did happen to be pretty much the exact spot of one of my little huts!  I felt like Arthur Dent.  That put me less than a day from home, which I did in double time, bringing back the spoils of travel, including cocoa beans (which I used to make chocolate biscuits).

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Five Reasons You Should be Playing Conclave

Yeah, so I’m writing everything in lists now, because that’s where the money is. Sue me. Also, for context it’s worth pointing out that I don’t like most computer games. As in, find them literally unplayable. So when a computer game makes a dent in that, it’s a big deal. Context.

Conclave is an asynchronous D&D-inspired fantasy RPG in the mould of the old SSI games. You can find it at http://www.playconclave.com and you and three (maybe four?) buddies can team up and play through a pretty awesome fantasy campaign on any device that can run the internet – it doesn’t even use java. If you’re yearning for some old-school RPGing in your life but are worn down by the tyrannies of time and distance, this could be your port of call. But it’s not just Tiny Adventures all over again. It’s much, much better than that. Here’s why.

1. It’s free, for real

Tiny Adventures and other social media type games are free but they don’t want to be. They want to go viral and sell numbers, so they want all your friends to play. Others want to sell you microtransactions, to get all the extra goodies. Conclave doesn’t have any of that. You can pay for it, but it’s a single (cheap) transaction to get the full version, but so far we haven’t seen a need to. What’s more, if just one person in your team pays, the whole team can unlock things. Not only does this suit my budget (and everyone’s budget) this fact filters through every aspect of the game design. It also makes it easier to sell to your friends: it’s not going to cost them anything, and it’s not going to drive all their friends on facebook mad asking them to join.

2. It’s team-based but asynchronous

The game can be played solo, but it thrives in team play – the classes are nicely complimentary (see the below for more), and the text chat supports conversation, as does the cool voting system when the story branches in different directions. This is, as mentioned, an artifact of being really free – facebook games want all your friends to play with you, which could never work for hundreds of them, so when you’re playing Marvel Heroes, you’re always alone. But in Conclave you’re very much both a team of heroes and a group of gamers, sharing an experience, which pulls it closer to the D&D feel. But unlike linking up to play Diablo or D&D online, this is asynchronous. Once everyone has had an attack (or a vote on a story choice), the game will start a new round, and if you’re a bit late getting back on line, your friends can just act before you that round (although that might not be tactically sound). Got a friend who can’t play at your rate? The game will automove you if you are offline for more than 24 hours. Going away for a while and don’t want the game to do that? Set it to vacation mode to wait for you to return. It can accommodate all paces, so you can all share the fun.

3. The system is very good

Some might say this is a no-brainer, or that it’s most kept invisible, but the system the computer is running is a really solid RPG system – so much so it would definitely be worth playing off-line. It has the D&D 4E cleverness of making every ability interesting, but without going over the top, and of focussing on status effects, but not being crippled by them. Like 3E and WFRP, it breaks down into minor and major actions, some of which have the 4E conceit of only triggering once (or twice) per encounter, or only when wounded or acquiring some other status. In the few cases where it might get as fiddly as 4E with all the effects, it doesn’t because a) the computer is doing them and b) they’re almost all elegant and simple, just a single modifier or such. Yet in this simplicity the choices are extremely meaningful, especially because you can’t win an encounter (in fact, you must restart it) if even one party member dies. This nicely balances out the advantage of having extra party members and keeps the tension high and the tactical choices extremely weighty. Sometimes, who moves precisely when will change everything, and that’s fantastically engaging.

4. The character building is strong

Characters have a familiar race/class build, but both options are strong and have options within. Niche protection is high, and the standard roles of 4E/MMOs are present, but in a way that has a new feel to it. Clerics (Buffers) are now Beacons, which means their role as a “leader” (as it was in 4E) is built into their in-setting explanation, and provides them with Warlord-esque ways of leading others to greatness. The fighter is the Vanguard who is basically the tank, but not in such a way that he can sit on the front lines without thought, especially at low levels. The rogue, runecaster and truebow are the striker-types: high damage, low squish, but in different ways from each other. Extra skills unique to each class add to make each feel distinct, as does weapon access. It is hard to make a pole-arm vanguard as a result (Beacons have that option) but you can respec if you go down a dead-end and with a simple but decently sized trait list, no two Beacons need to feel the same. Races too, are strong archetypes but with a new twist: the lumyn and the nix are mostly just high elves and gnomey-halflings, but then we have the chameleonic stealthy lizardmen, the satyr-esque wood-elf-sort-of-trollish trow and the gigantic living furnaces of the forgeborn (not like warforged; more like klingon-Azers)

5. The writing is fantastic throughout

I’ve played Mass Effect and Dragon Age and Guild Wars and more, and this is the best writing I’ve ever seen in a CRPG. The world design is elegant and clever: for hundreds of years, empires have fallen, one after the other, until only Bastion was left, the last free city, which just so happens to be where your characters come from. Why they’ve fallen and who caused it is still becoming clear; the game does not make the mistake of doing infodumps about the world but reveals it in elegant inches, as you explore and gain allies and respect, but at the same time never makes you feel small. One lovely twist is that whatever force of darkness is out there has taken away the ability to dream – except in rare, magically important situations: a perfect macguffin to draw your PCs into the story, and to trigger lovely subplots (like the cult that develops around another Dreamer who believes his nightmares have made him a messiah).  It’s not just the structure and world that are well written though: the characters and language are vivid and direct, and each quest or scene introduced with short, clear vignettes that deliver powerful emotion and clear goals in the minimum of words, then vanish – just like a good GM should do.

And that’s the real glory of Conclave: it is the best D&D game I’ve ever been in, including all the ones I’ve played on the tabletop, because it feels like a tabletop game, and what’s more, one being run by an excellent GM. Here is a CRPG that hasn’t tried to reinvent the wheel but rather taken all the best lessons on good GMing from the table, and implemented them as elegantly as possible on computer, and then stepped aside to let you fill in the blanks. It’s not, of course, an RPG. You don’t get to act in character or make any choices you want. On the other hand, if you do that in the textbox, it is as much an RPG as anything Gygax ever wrote, and certainly as much as anything from SSI was, or even Planescape: Torment was. So-called narrative control and on-screen dialogue does not necessarily the RPG experience make, and if you’ve found things like Dragon Age to be glorified adventure games that don’t feel anything at all like gathering around a table to match wits with hideous enemies in dungeons foul, then all is not lost. Conclave is here, and it is OFF THE GODDAMN HOOK. If it was any more D&D, it would make cheetoes shoot out of your screen, plus you can play it on your goddamn phone, even if your buddies are at the North Pole.

What more can you ask?

Five Reasons Good Games Hurstville is the best gaming store I’ve ever seen

I’ve been to game stores in over a dozen countries. It was a bit of a feature of my world travels. So when I say Good Games Hurstville is the best one I’ve seen, that definitely has some weight to it. But enough of qualified hyperbole. Let’s talk about the why.

1. It has a bargain bin

I put this one first because most stores I’ve seen have figured this one out. But outside of the US, this isn’t as common as you might think. And many stores with discounts only offer them on second-hand material, but their core merchandise. Why not? Because it’s a niche market and people will buy things eventually (a copy of D&D is, until the next edition, never out of date), and because most game stores don’t have the kind of volume that suggest discounts. It’s not as if they order in bulk, and every unique item has its own shipping cost. Every item marked down is therefore lost money. Unless of course, it attracts gamers to your store over and over again, keen to see if anything might be marked down. It might even attract those with a love for material from the past, and if that market was small, Pathfinder wouldn’t be the juggernaut of 3E love it is. As someone who has spent most of my life dirt-eating, save-all-year-to-buy-one-game poor, a bargain bin tells me I’m welcome to the store even if I’m not there main source of income.

2. It has a game library

When I was a kid I used to dream of this concept: a place where you can go and play games for free. There are some wonderful game clubs that provide this dream, but because they’re clubs their only source of income are their club dues, which means they are often in terribly out of the way places. And being clubs, they can often be dominated by the mood of their members, whereas shops can afford to be a lot more strident about behaviour standards. But regardless, it’s a store with all the virtues of a club, so I can shop AND play at the same time. Two birds with one stone makes me a happy customer.

3. It has an enormous gaming space

What good is a game library without a game space? Again, most game stores know about this one (the Good Games chain in particular), but it’s not just about whether it exists, it is about the place it has in the store. At GG Hurstville, the store is far up the back and 90% of the space is dominated with tables and chairs. Not only is this a bigger and more comfortable space than most clubs, it’s also the first thing you see when you come in. That subconsciously tells you something about the stores priorities. Gaming isn’t something that happens here up the back, in whatever space we can squeeze in. Gaming is the primary thing that happens here, the first thing you see when you enter, the last thing you see when you leave, and buying things might be forgotten. Especially since all their updates on social media aren’t about new product but about what games are happening that day or night. The gaming not only never stops, it is front and centre.

4. It has a customer loyalty program unlike all others

Customer loyalty is another no-brainer, but again, it’s not usually done thoughtfully. Customer loyalty usually focuses solely on sales, because for the most part, that’s all a store offers. But a gaming store can offer so much more, so why not tie the loyalty to that? GG Hurstville gives you power-ups not just for buying games, but for playing games, joining tournaments, and running games. There’s also fun things like buying snacks and drinks, bringing friends along and lurking in the store for many days a month. All of these things add up to making your games cheaper to buy, the best possible reward. So not only is it a great place to be, I feel like just walking in the door is making me win valuable prizes. And I want to game there more, run there more and bring more people.

UPDATE: I scanned in the awesome loyalty card

I love the suit one. Suit up, chaps.

I love the suit one. Suit up, chaps.

so you can see how clever it is.

5. It has game swaps

The general objection to the these kinds of non-sale-services I’m listing is they don’t lead to more money for the store, so why bother? Which is nonsense because the less your store feels like a marketplace and the more it feels like home, the more people actually shop there, because it doesn’t feel like shopping any more, it feels like investing in something your have a share in. But this last one could be the exception, the one that sends GG Hurstville totally broke: they encourage people to bring in their old games and rather than selling them on second hand, they swap them directly with other people, with no money changing hands at all. Capitalism is dead, and gaming fun stands on top of its corpse like a triumphant Vallejo barbarian.  But the very fact that this happens makes me want to not just buy stuff from this place, but go home and mail them cheques for being awesome.

Good Games Hurstville makes you believe in things, things like gaming being fun, and important, and a shared experience for everyone, something bigger than money and bigger than ourselves. Even if we know its just good marketting, we still love having that faith instilled and rewarded. And faith will outsell anything else, in the short term, and the long.

You can’t fake it, of course. You have to believe yourself. But if you build the religion, the faithful will come, and they will want to prove their faith with offerings.

So now you know.

Emotional Environmentalism, or The Care And Feeding of Your Creative Urge

Pollution is something we talk about a lot these days, but sometimes we forget what it means. If an oil tanker crashes on the road, and the oil leaks out, that’s not pollution, because it can be contained. But if the oil catches fire and the smoke goes everywhere, that is pollution. The difference is containability. What makes it pollution, in other words, is that it is all-pervasive. Inescapable. It is part of our environment, where we live, eat, drink, breathe, and so becomes part of us. And we know, now, that these things can make us very sick indeed, even kill us, even if they are invisible, because we live with them. Eat enough fish and you can die of mercury poisoning even though the doses themselves will be tiny.

So we’re learning – slowly – to control our environment. To ensure that our air and our water are clean, because we take them in so often we can’t afford anything less.

But what we also need to think about is emotional environments, and the pollution that gets into that.

Emotional health and physical health have much in common. Particularly in that they have levels of resistance, and that that resistance can be overcome both with single strong attacks and by long-term small ones. And when that resistance runs down, we cease being able to function properly, and need to hole up somewhere safe until either the threats die down or the resistance builds up again.

We’re familiar with the big, strong attacks to our resilience. Some of them are massive, crippling attacks, like the loss of a loved one, or a sudden change in our lifestyle. They’re the getting hit by a bus attacks. Then there’s the thumbtack in the foot attacks like negative feedback or breaking your favourite thing. There’s the slow cancer of not liking what you see in the mirror. We know these ones.

But there’s others. Some we can’t avoid. There’s missing the bus even when you ran for it. There’s the elevator being broken and there’s vomit all over the stairs. There’s not having a shirt without a hole in it to wear. There’s the screaming kids in the restaurant, the rude person at the traffic lights. The cold look from a stranger who decides to disapprove of you. Coming home to a messy kitchen, where the doorknob’s still broken and the stove smells funny all the time. All the little things that fill us with weltschmertz as the Germans call it: the sense that things are not necessarily bad, but not what they could be. Bad enough to notice.

This is emotional pollution, and like the mercury in fish, it can build up and up, and it can – it absolutely can – kill.

One thing I’ve learnt in the last few years with my excellent psychologist is there are two ways to attack mental health. One is building up your inner resistance – making your self image, self resilience and self esteem strong so it can repel attacks. The other is reducing the attacks coming in. Avoiding or lessening the attacks. And where possible, purifying the toxins from your environment.

Some toxins will always get in. No matter how much you plan, there’s always going to be a bus you miss; eventually there will be a soup splash on your favourite shirt. But some of these things can be fixed, but we often don’t think to, or we think they’re too small to bother with, or that they’re just part of life. And then they build up, and then they kill you.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that dealing with a lot of these things takes emotional strength in the first place, so sometimes we’re so worn down we can’t solve these problems, or can only tap away slowly at the tiniest levels. It’s also really important to note that most of these things require money to solve, and if you’ve ever been poor you’ll know what I mean. All the little things that money could solve, like catching a taxi when you miss that train. Buying a new shirt when the old one tears. Having insurance so you don’t have to worry so much about running for the bus on a slippery road. Being able to afford the gym so you don’t have to go running in the cold, freezing rain. If you’ve been poor, you know. How they break you down and kill you by inches, and how just trying to stop them wearing you through to bone uses up every resource you might have used to fix them.

Being depressed is a lot like that, too. It is a poverty of emotional strength, an impotence to change anything at all about your environment. Depression’s friend, anxiety, is more like having massive immunodeficiencies: everything is an attack, or a potential one. Together they make your environment so poisonous you can barely breathe, and give you no strength to do anything about it. Little wonder we depressives retreat to the comfort of bed – like the boy in the bubble, it is the only way to survive.

But for those of us who are doing better, all of this is still useful, still important. If you’re struggling with something, if you’re going beyond yourself, if you’re pursuing something creative or ambitious, you are running your emotional reserves ragged. Whether it’s a marathon or a sprint, you need your reserves strong. And while we often do a few things to pep us up (like taking some vitamins for the soul) we often forget to control our environment.

It can be simple, tiny things. If you are trying to write something, and you can see the dirty washing pile, your mind may turn to something else you “should” be doing. It can be big, life-planning things, like having a day job or savings so not every word is life and death. I’ve done that kind of writing – where if it cannot be sold that week you will literally starve – and it kills creativity and enthusiasm pretty fast. The environment is too toxic, there’s too much terror of survival, eating away at your emotional reserves. But it doesn’t have to be that critical; it could also be that you’re not going to write your best with your current computer because the keyboard sticks a lot or the screen flickers; it could be your novel isn’t going to come until you’re in just a generally nicer house or better neighbourhood or can afford some new shirts, because right now, your goal to live in a nice place or better clothes is eating those reserves and you can’t eat into them further.

It can be adding the positive, by hanging up motivational posters or making plans for the future or visualising goals. It could be giving yourself restoratives, like buying yourself lunch on the day you do your big writes, so you don’t have to lose that tiny bit (or not so tiny bit) of your reserves making your lunch. It could reducing the chances of attacks, like taking a taxi on writing days so there’s no chance you can miss a bus. It could be as simple as walking home a different way so you don’t see the cold strangers or hear the screaming kids. They are tiny things so they might seem frivolous, if you even think of them at all. But again, it’s about pollution: if you eat the tiny thing every day, it might not kill you but it will make you weaker.

A lot of writing is learning to be a resilient writer: to write every day no matter what, no matter how sick you are, or tired, or whether you have no ideas or no motivation. That’s the resilience part. But you can’t learn resilience when you’re being attacked all the time. Yes, I’m sure the fire makes the steel, but the human body doesn’t work like that. If the wound isn’t cleared, the blood can’t clot and the scabs can’t form. You have to wrap it up in gauze and keep it clean and dry. Writing – designing, creating, changing, striving – is much the same.

A better metaphor might be keeping a plant. You need one with strong roots, but you also need a good pot, good soil, potting mix, water, sunlight, and to protect it from all the things that could hurt it. You know how to spray the aphids, yes, but sometimes we leave them in too hot a sun, or above the exhaust fan. These are the little deaths, the slow, invisible killers. Yours are out there too. Some of them you might have to be a millionaire to fix, or at least well off. Others you might need to think really hard or wait a long time for them to get better. But if you’re aware of them, you might be able to do the tiniest thing.

There are spiders in my backyard. Every day I go out that way, they take away a bit of my strength. It’s a tiny thing. But it matters. And all I have to do is remember to go out the front door instead, and I stop that bit being chipped away. And I grow stronger, bit by bit. Day by day.

In Which I Am Cranky At Netrunner for No Good Reason

I am cranky with Netrunner. I bought it, and now I don’t know if I can play it.

This is not Netrunner’s fault. This is my fault. Netrunner is a living card game, a game which is built around gathering cards in a large pool, and then building decks to face off against others in competitions. Those are its design and production goals. It is not a game which you can play straight out of the box and expect everyone to have a balanced deck to play with. Indeed, the factions are specifically designed to have holes in them that other factions can plug – but rules limitations are placed on how much cross-faction stuff you can use.

This means I am now screwed, because what I really want is a game that I can play out of the box. That, in fact, is the ONLY thing I want.

I figured what I’d do is try and fix this by buying a few booster boxes. Slot in some of the new cards to help cover the weak points in each faction’s deck. Problem is, now I have a bunch of decks which STILL aren’t balanced against each other. They can’t be, without rigorous testing. And I’d have to figure out what level I wanted to balance them at – harshly, demoralisingly brutal lunges for victory, or fun romps for all involved, or wacky experiments in storytelling, or everything in between? And I’d have to rejig those decks depending on which one of those games I’d want to play. Yes, I have the option of rejigging those decks in the first place, but that’s a lot more work than just finding the game that suits the mood and players and pulling it off my shelf.

The only real option is to go for the jugular so you can win, and thus only play in tournaments, because that’s the easiest to calibrate. But I hate going for the jugular, and I hate playing to win. They’re the things I try to minimise as much as posisble in my game-playing and game purchases.

This is not Netrunner’s fault. I had a square hole, it is a round peg. Netrunner is still a beautifully designed game with a sexy setting and seems to be well set up for tournament play and collecting. But this is why I gave up playing Shadowfist, and why I shouldn’t have gotten into Netrunner: it is way too hard to control the experience I have, and turn it into the experience I want. All too often in Shadowfist, I just wanted to have fun, but my opponents had built to crush, and I felt I had to compete with that or have no fun at all – but competing with that killed my fun.

Sigh. Live and don’t learn, I guess. But at least I know more about my tastes now.