Recent Develop(ments)

For those not in the know, I started writing for Develop about two months ago. For a mere 3-5 articles a day I am paid in cash and exotic titles like: “North American Correspondent”, and “Lord of Dance”. I’m not actually called the second one yet, but don’t worry, we’ll get around to it.

I think it’s time I wrote a bit about how I got the job. You know, in case you wanted to follow in my glorious footsteps or, more likely, are confused as to how someone as completely unqualified as I got into a very competitive position.

It started, like many decisions, with beer. I was sipping a pint in my local pub when I noticed a call for U.S. writers. The listing was for Develop- miles out of my league- but, strong with the dutch courage, I hastily assembled a resumè, and sent it in. Mind you, this was back in December, and I had yet to be published anywhere, aside from this blog and some ghostwriting stuff. It was a long shot.

To my great suprise, I got a response pretty quickly. I sent a thank-you letter, and started a brief e-mail conversation with Rob Crossley, Develop’s online editor. Without knowing it, I had stumbled on the first tenet of journalism: persistence. Simply by being a bother, I had worked my way into the final running for the postition as U.S. correspondent.

As time wore on, I was sure I’d been left out of the running. In the middle of January, I still hadn’t heard back. So I sent another e-mail, and mentioned I’d gotten published, and thanked Rob for his encouragement. This one changed everything. As it turns out, they’d lost the applications when the e-mail server was reset. This meant resubmitting our applications, and in the meantime, my resumè had gotten stronger.

Realizing I had a chance, I made the necessary changes. I may very well have been the first to send my info in. I also decided to be sporting about it and re-tweet the information to my fellow applicants. In a few weeks, I got the news: I had the job.

The basic lesson here is that if you want to write for a living, start writing now. Even without being published, I had already assembled a decent bit of writing here at Thinkings. This was crucial. You aren’t going to get a paid position or freelance gig without some evidence that you are a writer. Some places ask for a writing sample specifically penned for your application. This does not mean that they won’t look at other samples if you enclose them. A one-off piece doesn’t do you any good if there’s no evidence you can’t perform at that level on a daily basis. For a job like the one at Develop, consistency is key.

The next thing, and probably more important, is that if you want to be a journalist, you’re going to have to be persistent. When I first spoke with Rob on the phone, he said I wouldn’t have gotten the job if it hadn’t been for all the e-mails I sent. You may think this means being irritating. It is irritating. But it also shows interest. It shows you care. And most importantly, it show’s you’re willing to keep at it. As a journalist, you have to hound people to get a story- they don’t just hand the good stuff to you. Hounding an editor about an application, provided you’ve got the chops to make it worth their while, shows you’ve got the drive for the job.

Third, be polite. If you’re being persistent, you don’t want to be rude. You are going to be annoying to people before they get used to you. But that does not mean you can get away with being a jerk. There are only a handful of journos out there that every PR agency will immediately respond to. It takes years to build up that kind of rapport. Editors work the same way; they give precedence to those writers whose names they already know and trust. Getting the job means being persistent, but polite persistence means you’re building a relationship that will help your career in the long run.

So let me recap: be proactive, be persistent, be polite. If you’re looking for work, this will get you most of the way there. I got lucky. I probably wouldn’t have gotten the job if it weren’t for a series of fortunate strokes. If that e-mail server hadn’t crashed, if I hadn’t just recently published my article with Indie Game Mag, if I hadn’t felt comfortable enough with Rob to keep sending e-mails, I would probably still be a blogger struggling to get an article here and there. But the fact is none of this would have mattered if I hadn’t been ready to take advantage of good fortune. The application process is the best training you can get for your future job in journalism. If you can get published, and capitalize on that success to get more paid work, you’re ready for the industry. Go make it happen, and best of luck to you.

Holy Shit! Pandora’s Matchbox

About a week ago I stumbled on the delightfully creepy Pandora’s Box by Terror Bull Games. It was begun as a project for Ludum dare, but I think we can all be glad they took the extra time with it. It is chilling and brilliant, and makes me wonder if the satirical board games by the company are worth a go. This game is an exception to many rules, and I suggest you download it here, and give it a go, because there are some spoilers ahead.

Pandora’s Box is a text-based mystery game. That’s a lie. It’s text based. It is a mystery game. But the fact is it’s something else. If I knew what it was I’d tell you and you’d be all like, “Oh Seth Tipps, the Great Reviewer of Artsy Games!”, and I’d be all like, :”Yes.” Well that’s not how this is going to work. I’m going to talk to you about the most disturbing thing in the whole game; vanishing poos. Continue reading

About those workings, and in response to Mr. Walker.

So I’ve been spending almost my whole day in front of my computer. Nine in the morning to Midnight when I don’t have other commitments. What am I doing? I’m working. Reading, tweeting, writing e-mails… an endless stream of words in front of me. You’d think a games journalist would be playing more games. Continue reading

My article on IGM.

So I’ve been published, paid, and made an official guy who works on the internet. I wonder if there’s a union. Thing is I edited my article down to 1500 words, which is a lot, but not nearly half what I wanted to include originally. I got a quote from Jeff Rosen that could have given me three articles, and I may actually wind up using it later. He did some fancy juggling with my questions that I really shouldn’t have let slide, but I only needed a small bit of his response so I suppose I wasn’t being too lazy. Just lazy enough. Continue reading

Thinkings on hold for workings.

So my writing has become more of a professional thing lately and with the holidays there isn’t much time to keep up with the silly stuff. I assure you there was plenty of it in the world of Middle Earth. But with a number of freelance projects going, my spare time is quite taken. On the upside you’ll be seeing a link to some actually paid for work pretty soon. Stay tuned.

Occupy Free 2 Play

So I’ve been spending time with the current free 2 play MMO market. This is a poor writers dream, being able to cover an emergent market thoroughly with no money down. I’ve been doing games like this for some time, but the market has begun to adopt some uniform practices and I don’t really remember anyone going through and saying, “here’s what you can do in a free 2 play game, and here’s what you have to pay for”. Seeing as this is one of the largest markets available exclusively on the PC, it’s a must-cover for thinkings.

Starting this week, I’m going to be playing around in one MMO and writing a bit on it. The main goal here is to determine what makes a free to play game different than a subscription based product, other than the price tag. The secondary goal is to figure out how games make the paid content rewarding, and if it is balanced with the free stuff.

First off I’ll be doing Lord of the Rings Online. Stay tuned!

 

10 Games for Kids, and Computing with Children

Well it’s been an interesting fifteen minutes, but despite my temptation to talk about the iOs and Android ports of Minecraft and Frozen Synapse, I promised myself that this would be something I haven’t seen on another games site, so I’m going to talk about a little article that ran in Friday’s USA Today. Apparently they know the 10 best games for kids. The results are;

  • Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster
  • Team Umizoomi
  • The Magic School Bus: Oceans
  • Monkey Quest
  • Kirby Mass Attack
  • Super Mario 3D Land
  • Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure
  • Lego Harry Potter: Years 5-7
  • Lego Pirates of the Caribbean
  • Professor Layton and the Last Specter

I may have to do a follow up on this. My gut reaction was that the author, Jinny Gudmundsen, had just sort of picked these names out of a hat. I can’t describe how wrong I was without making this article child unfriendly. Though I appreciate the irony, I’d rather spend time telling you about what my 15 minute search for news has told me.

Gudmundsen may be one of the few people who really knows kid’s software. She makes it her bleeding specialty, and runs a site dedicated to it. These games are the best of the best as she’s reviewed them for the past year. Though there are a few games I may have included instead, I can see objections to them. To be honest this is pretty sweet, and if I get the chance you’d better expect an interview to follow. I highly recommend visiting the site (you’ll have to subscribe to read the reviews), but it seems like the relationship between our children and games are getting some much needed positive attention.

PerpetuUpgrade

Perpetuum Online released a major update on Thursday to coincide with its first anniversary celebration. The milestone is being marked by a treasure hunt, alliance corporation tournament, and the launch of Intrusion 2.0 (patch notes here). This is an important marker for the Mech-based sandbox MMO, which many regard as the only competition for EVE online. Continue reading

Game Mechanics: Ready, Set, Go!

What is a game mechanic? I talk about them a lot here. Sometimes I worry I’m throwing the term around a bit lightly. Since getting more interested in board games, I’ve discovered “mechanic” is one of the more misused terms in games writing. I don’t know why this is. It’s probably because the word itself is so weighty; a good solid Greek root, it catches attention and conveys importance better than saying “rule” or “feature”. But what is a mechanic? Is it anything you do in a game? What else is a game besides a series of mechanics? I believe there are three elements to any game: environment, rules, and mechanics. To illustrate, I’m going to talk about a board game so seemingly simple, it nearly defies explanation. That game is Go.

Go is a simple game. That’s a lie, but it seems true if you look at the basic information needed to play it. It is played on a square board with a grid drawn on it. You take turns placing little black and white stones at the intersection points, and if you surround your opponent’s stones with stones of your color, they are removed. The player in control of the most open spaces at the end of the game wins. That’s it. That’s all there is to Go. And there’s that nasty lie again.

Playing go is not so simple. From start to finish you have virtually limitless possibilities. At the start you can place a stone anywhere on the board. The game ends when there are no more legal moves, or both players pass on their move.

The learning curve this presents is astounding. Empty spaces next to a stone are called “liberties”. A stone with no liberties is “captured”, and is removed from the board. Stones placed next to each other are called groups, and share liberties. From these rules, a number of patterns arise that form the heart of the game. Spotting the patterns, and applying them correctly, is the key to success.

In my understanding, a mechanic is a means by which the player interacts with the environment. In go, the mechanics are the placement and capture of stones. The rules govern those mechanics. You alter your game environment by putting stones down. The rules determine what effect that has on the environment. The goal is to alter the environment in such a way that you control more territory than your opponent; surrounding bits of the board with groups that cannot be captured.

The rules, then, are the limitations placed upon your ability to put a stone down. To my current knowledge, there is only one- you cannot place a stone in a position in which it will automatically be captured. If an opponent has a space surrounded, you can’t place a stone there unless you are capturing with that move. Consequently, if you have a group of stones that surrounds two separate open spaces, that group cannot be captured, as no single move can occupy both liberties.

This gets very very complicated. There are any number of patterns that will produce these open spaces, called “eyes”, and make capture impossible. The depth of gameplay this offers is immense. The game is so simple that it leaves the environment open as a vast desert inhabited only by the possibilities afforded by the imagination of the player.

Let’s compare this with the old school first person shooter. Back before the puzzles of half-life, and the reactive environments of Duke Nukem 3D, an FPS was a maze with a series of NPCs that served as obstacles. The goal was to get to the end of the maze. You could run, shoot, jump, and maybe push a few buttons. In short, you had four mechanics.

Pretty doggone simple, right? Then you get to the rules.

Rules tell you how fast you can run. Rules tell you how much damage you can take, how much ammo you can hold, how many guns you can carry, and what kind of damage they do. Rules tell you how the baddies react to you, how barrels explode, and if you drown in water or if you burn in lava. The rules are the thousand little things you never think about in a game because they are tacitly implied by your environment. A new player in go will have to have the rules explained. The only thing a player needs to know when sitting down with an FPS is what the controls are. There may be other mechanics stuck in there if it’s a squad based thing, or has some RPG stuff thrown in there, but as far as classic shooters go, it’s all pretty intuitive. “Here is a gun. Shoot things. Don’t die.” No one has ever needed that much instruction.

When we say the mechanics of a game feel off, we are almost certainly talking about the rules. People complaining about a stealth mechanic are almost always (I say almost because there may be an exception I don’t know about) talking about the rules governing that mechanic. They mean there is a mechanic, and the rules did not connect it to the environment in a way they found convincing or enjoyable. Why are all those useless items you pick up in RPGs so frustrating? Because the mechanics allow you to have them, but there are no rules let you use them through the existing mechanics. It means there is something in the environment you should be able to manipulate with the tools you have, but the rules don’t let you. That is nothing short of poor game design.

If we stopped for a moment and thought about the best games we’ve played on the PC, it should  become apparent that they’d work pretty well as a board game. In fact, most of them do have something of a board game equivalent. The trouble is that so many games you get in the computerized world don’t really cut it as games, or are the same game played on a different board and with slightly different rules. The joy of video games is that they allow the game itself to fade into the background and the environment to take center stage. When designers forget what their mechanics are for, or have arbitrary rules that prevent you from using those mechanics to participate in the game world, it all falls apart. Games are about new environments, new worlds to explore. Mechanics are just the handle on the door to that experience.