Saturday, June 30, 2012

GenCon 2012: Why “Spouse Activities” is the Worst Thing

This is my first-ever guest column. The young lady who wrote it doesn’t have a blog of her own, but expressed her concern regarding GenCon’s off-putting programming for non-gamers, and I agreed to share her thoughts on my little corner of the web. I hope you find it as interesting and thought-provoking as I do.

So I guess I should start by introducing myself. My name is Natalie, I am 20 years old, a child and youth care worker and a nerd. I’ve attended Gen Con once, had an absolute blast and I just bought my badge for this August. There is, however, one thing that still sets me off in a red-faced rage: the “spouse activities” (SPA). Seriously, I’ve screamed in the faces of strangers about this, something I’m not too proud off. What enrages me even more is that in my courtesy Google search I found a few bloggers who were displeased by the issues, frustrated even. But not pissed off. I saw a gap and I plan on filling it.

Gen Con is amazingly diverse in its attendees and from what meager programing I attended out of the 2+ inch activity book it’s clear to me that the organizers did a damn fine job of providing for every kind of nerd. From table top gamers of all breeds to zombie lovers, anime freaks and LARPers; you name it there was a seminar, class, tournament or show about it. There was also a good selection for maturity/age level. Hit up the hentai cafe or chill with your younglings at the training grounds. No matter who you are or what you like, pull-ups to Depends Gen Con has something for you. Unless you’re female. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is good stuff for the nerd ladies, please refer to the 2+ inch program book. I’m referring to the Con Widow, the poor chick that gets dragged along by their boyfriend/husband to the biggest tabletop geekfest in North America. Upon arriving these ladies aren’t directed to Gen Con, instead they are provided with spouse activities. And what do the organizers think a non-nerd lady wants? Knitting.

The section for those, mostly female, who are not at the con for the con is full of activities like scrapbooking, beadwork, belly dancing and self-defense. Oh, and then there is “Crochet for Your Gamer” where you can “learn to crochet… so you can make fun little things for the gamer in your life.” The D 20 Girls project is running this event. They are also running “The Red Light District” and “Killer Bunnies: Quest for the Golden Carrot” among others. But not for the Widows. Rather than learning about a Dr. Who RPG (a free event, no experience required) or playing a Killer Bunnies game (always a recipe for fun times) the Widows get to crochet things for their gamer partners. Some, if not most of these events are things I can see being worked into the regular programming. They may not be inherently nerdy but as a family focused con it makes sense to have non-gamer activities for people to attend. And with some creativity any nerd can integrate their new self-defense knowledge into a RPG experience. But nope! Instead the randoms are labeled For Spouses Only and gifted to the partners of nerds in assurance that there is a space for them. A nice, safe and quite space away from all the hustle and bustle of the unwashed masses, not to mention their partners, where non-nerds can pass the days until they go back home. Which is just dumb.

So, ladies, if you’re at the con with your nerdy lad and you don’t want to game at all, have no fear for there are many other things to do. Into making or watching films? Maybe you could check out a seminar like “Film Budget and Finance” or “Trailer Park Jesus”, one of many featured films. Like anime? Learn with “The Guide to Anime Tropes” or watch with a room full of fellow fans with “Epic Battles of Amine”. Like crafty things? There are classes like “learn to make chainmail” and “21 days to a novel”. Have kids? Take them to the “Peter Pan Dress Parade” or “Create a Game” which as you may have guessed will teach your young geek how to create their very own game. Not to mention a whole butt load of child care giving you the freedom to check out all these events. And then there is the Misfit events section which has “Spot the Geek” a cosplay photo scavenger hunt and “BattleTech: Firestorm Tesla 11 Virtual Reality Cockpits”. That’s right ladies and gents, for 7 minutes you can command a battle mech on a 31st century battlefield. These are all event sections that require no playing of games and many of the events themselves involve less then nerdy things like watching movies or writing a novel. Yet none of them are marketed to Con Widows. So why have a completely different section for Widows full of non-gaming programing when there are already a few non-gaming activity sections?

If SPA was just another non-gaming category I think it would be pretty damn cool. Learning how to make your own yarn, taking a haunted walking tour of the city and learning the Thriller dance are all fun things that nerds and non-nerds can enjoy. The problem is this: the SPA is girlfriend daycare. Not to be left alone in the con to find the many non-gaming options the lowly Con Widow is dropped off at the SPA center to be entertained until the men folk return home. It is an unnecessary segregation of a group who could be having just as much if not more fun without the penned-in safe zone. There is no need for this category. It perpetuates the misconception that women lack ability or interest in gaming, and more annoyingly that they lack interest in peripheral nerdly pursuits. The insistence that women who do not want to game will be soothed by traditionally feminine hobbies is both condescending and rooted in a strange sort of sexism. For a convention that encourages families to attend it should be reaching out to those with less experience or exposure to the world of geekdom not shutting them up with zumba classes. One massively simple way to fix this would be eliminating the SPA.

It’s an easy solution; all they have to do is integrate the programming. Have an icon for non-gaming activities instead of activities for non-gamers, any overflow can go towards filling out the Misfit section. Design the programming so that gamers are invited to take part in knitting just as much as non-gamers are invited to take part in a D&D game. Don’t make it so that a person coming into the scene for the first time is shown the door to their roped in section of the party while their partner is off riding in a mech suite simulator.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

God Damn You, Wil Wheaton

I have a new nemesis.* His name is Wil, and he's this ridiculously popular Internet guy. He did some really cool stuff in the 1980s as an actor and now he is a blogger and writer and game designer and basically too cool for school.

He's been doing this thing lately, and it's a thing that is really good for the games industry, and I hate him for it because it makes my life moderately more difficult. He has been reviewing games. Good games. Games people then want.

And then I can never buy that game for my store again.

See, Mr Wheaton, being the incredible nerd icon that he is, has a lot of reach when he reviews a game. He gets a lot of people interested in his game, and then I have people asking me for it. Except, I'm not the only games retailer in Canada. I'm one of hundreds, and all of them are calling the same distributors trying to get a bunch of copies of whatever was just reviewed. In the past six months, I haven't had one request for Castle Panic. This week, I've had a dozen or more. And I know I'm not the only retailer who has to deal with this.
So my distributor runs out in the sudden deluge of orders, and then they have to wait for more from the producers of the game, and the producers need to wait to reprint because Wil Wheaton is something like a localized board game Armageddon.

What the hell, Wil? How am I supposed to sell people a game I can't get anymore? Why do I have to look like an idiot because you decided to like a game nobody's asked me for in months? At least send me an e-mail or something, letting me know you're going to be publishing a review of Game X so I should stock up In a big way. Or, y'know, return any of my calls. Or just to chat or whatever. Dick.**

* For the record, I actually dig Wil Wheaton, and wish him and his all the best in all of their endeavors, even those that have me fielding calls for games I don't have, or have enough of. What he's doing is great for the games industry and I'm really happy that he's devoted some of his time and energy towards introducing people to games they don't own.

** Wil Wheaton isn't actually a dick. And I've never actually sent him emails, nor phoned him. Though, having a retailer Advanced Warning list would actually be awesome.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Ghost of D&D Third Edition

Wizards of the Coast announced yesterday that they were going to be re-releasing the Dungeons & Dragons Three point Five core books. I’m sure there are a lot of people who are tickled pink by the news, and as a person who sells D&D books for a living, I’m certainly not against having the version of the game people want to play on my shelf. But it seems like a strange marketing choice to me, especially with D&D Fifth Edition currently in the pipes.

When the PDF battle was at its highest pitch, I came out swinging for the minority opinion that it would be deeply silly of Wizards of the Coast to release digital copies of earlier editions of the books. There’s a pretty vocal group of people that are suggesting that it makes good business sense to have all of the various versions of D&D available at once; they’d like to be able to buy First Edition core books and modules and things, and so they assume that there is a sufficient audience to warrant those books’ continued availability. And while that might actually be true, it doesn’t address the fact that Wizards of the Coast is a company that survives primarily by publishing books you don’t own, and that to continue to be successful, they need to be able to sell new and interesting material. You’re quite a bit less likely to buy something new if you can still get the thing that is familiar to you. Pathfinder proved this in a big way, by continuing to support the most recent version of D&D while Wizards of the Coast did its best to kill it so that D&D Fourth Edition could be successful. Pathfinder is a continuous best-seller, not just in my store but in many others, while Fourth Edition languishes under poor reviews and the persistent clarion shriek that it’s “Just like World of Warcraft.”

And it’s not because D&D 3.5 is a better game than D&D Fourth. It isn’t a better game than D&D Fourth, though they are radically different in scope and tone. It’s a different game from D&D 3.5, and different isn’t something people, and gamers especially, deal with very well. This fear of change is exactly the reason that D&D Fifth is going to have the same six attributes that the game has had since the beginning of the hobby. It’s the reason Vampire the Requiem is largely vilified when it is just better at what it sets out to do than any version before it. It’s one of the big reasons RIFTS books continue to sell like crazy. People generally don’t like to do new, different, weird things, and the games we play need to account for that trend if they want to be popular.

It doesn’t take a marketing genius to see that this is a catastrophically silly move on the part of the company. All of the potential issues that come from releasing PDFs of earlier editions exist here (piracy only marginally less so), with far greater impact on future sales. At this point, putting out a 3.5 Player’s Handbook both detracts from your current line and actively supports a game that has been gnawing away at your player base. This cannot possibly be anything more than a desperate grab for popularity in a beauty pageant Wizards of the Coast has already lost. It stinks of fear and distress from a company that has made a number of critical marketing mistakes in the past few years. The small gains to be had from re-releasing a sure-seller are certain to cause problems in 2013, as the marketing machine for D&D Fifth starts rolling out in earnest.

If you absolutely must try and sell older versions of a game, it makes much more sense to at least package those older versions with the edition you’re currently trying to make a market for. Put out a new core set for all four editions of Dungeons & Dragons when Fifth Edition hits stores. When you buy a core set, you get one Fifth Edition book packaged in with it. First Edition comes with the Player’s Handbook. Second Edition comes with the DMG. Third Edition comes with the Monster Manual and Fourth Edition comes with a setting book for whatever the assumed setting of D&D Next is. At least that way, if you sell an old edition of your game to people, they’re getting the thing they want and a pretty decent incentive to give your new game a try. I mean, hey, we’ve already got one of the books, right?

Friday, June 22, 2012

SIFT: A Free One-Page Role-Playing Game

So, I’ve been pounding my face against the keyboard for the last little bit trying to put together a role-playing game based on Avatar the Last Airbender. There’s a 4E hack for the series, but I don’t think that the D&D treatment really hits on what Avatar was about, so I’ve been trying to mash together a version that hails to some of the better narrative-centric role-playing games of the past little bit.

But, I’ve got writers block, mostly in the sense of “I don’t want to work on this project right now.” And partially because my work doesn’t exist until I show it to you.That’s part of why I started a blog in the first place, was to get writing for an audience instead of just putzing around on a project, not finishing it, and not caring because fuck it, no one was ever going to read it anyway.

So rather than languish in my feelings of “Writing conflict resolution chapters suuuuuuuuuuuuucks,” I decided to write a new game in the meantime. It’s just one of my little one-page role-playing games, and it’s here for your enjoyment. It’s a military-mystery game based on an alternate reality game.

The ARG itself was sort of poorly put together and didn’t make a ton of logical sense, but the people who were invested in it were invested to the hilt. I have some pretty hefty criticisms of it, and those criticisms were eventually responsible for my leaving the game, but this isn’t really the place to air those. In the role-playing game, a United States military operation has recruited civilian help to crack codes and gather intelligence on an important mission. This more-or-less mirrors the ARG (where the role the civilians played was much less clear). There is something crazy going on somewhere in the world, and it’s up to one agent, one strike team and a group of asshats from the internet to stop it.

If you’d like to take a look at the game, you can find it here.

If you’d like to take a look at the source material, you can find most of it here.

If you’d like to take a look at the source material for the source material, you can find it here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

So You Wanna Work in the Games Industry

One of my most valued co-workers has put in his notice. He’s moving on to bigger things, and I wish him the best in his new ventures. He’s good at what he does, and whoever steps up to take his place has some big shoes to fill.

That’s put some of my own focus on what it takes to work in the games industry. I’m pretty happy with my job as it is, and while I’m looking at moving on myself in a year or two, whatever I move on to will be involved in games and gaming. It’s an industry I know and I’m good at what I do. There are a lot of people who want to work in this industry, though, and to be perfectly honest, most of them aren’t going to and aren’t suited to it. For those of you reading who would like to work in the industry, whatever piece of the industry you’re looking at, I’ve compiled this post to aid you in that endeavour. Hopefully, it helps.


You Don’t Need a Degree, Go Work at McDonalds

The co-worker who is leaving us has a degree in English, and it serves him fairly well. I don’t have a degree in anything, and that’s served me fairly well. What we both have is experience working shitty jobs. And that’s really important, because what you’re applying for at the entry level in games is invariably a shitty job.

You’re going to be a lackey to begin with. You’re going to stock shelves or alphabetize games or dust or shrink wrap millions of books. Sometimes you’re going to have to lift heavy stuff. None of this is glamorous, none of it shows up in your school transcripts, and we can’t really tell what sort of a worker you’ll be from a blank resume.

If you want entry-level work in the games industry, you need to work shitty jobs first. Those are what we’re looking for: are you willing to do occasionally crappy work, and are you good enough at that sort of work that you can keep a job doing it for a while?


You Need to Know Your Stuff

This one should probably speak for itself, but you need to know what you’re talking about. Play games. Play a lot of games. Read gaming blogs. Keep up on news and rumours. Become involved in forums. Talk about game design. Talk about organized play. Get involved in organized play. Learn. Actively go out and learn more about what you’re aiming to do.

I’ve been working in the games industry for just over five years, but I have over twenty years of experience with hobby gaming. If you want to steal my job, you will need more than that (and you’ll need to convince my boss that you’re worth more to him than I am, and if that’s true, we can’t afford you). If you want to get a  job selling Dungeons & Dragons, you need to play some Dungeons & Dragons.

Likewise, if you’re going to write dialogue trees, you should probably be a solid writer. Designing systems? Might want to know something about design. And games. And games design. And math. Programming a computer game? Best know some programming. And even selling D&D requires that you know something about sales, and specifically the sale of intangibles (because while the book itself might be an object someone can buy, what you’re really trying to sell is fun). If you want to work in a specific job, you need to know how to do most of that job.

Note that I didn’t say you need to know how to do the whole job. I didn’t know everything there was to know about being a games manager when I started being a games manager. I had to learn some stuff on the job. Merchandising, event management, ordering, these were new things to me. But I knew games and I knew how to sell stuff, and that’s the biggest part of the job. If you don’t know how to do at least the basics of the job, no one is going to hire you on.

To learn those things, sometimes you need to do stuff that isn’t directly related to the job you want to be doing. I used to sell timeshare. That was where I learned to sell stuff and got some experience under my belt.


Know Your Abilities

Not everyone is a salesman. Not everyone knows how to program. Not everyone is a writer. Not everyone is an artist. But you, you are good at something, and that something can probably translate into the games industry somehow. Find out what you’re good at, and get as good at that as you can be. Then find ways to apply that thing to the world of games.

A lot of people start out in Quality Assurance when they’re trying to break into video games. And for a lucky few, that’s a good way to break into the games industry. For a whole lot of others, it’s a lot of backbreaking labour in an industry that doesn’t care about the guys doing the backbreaking labour. When’s the last time you heard of a famous game tester? How about a famous game designer?

But Quality Assurance isn’t the only entry-level position at a game company, and if you’re not classically “entry level,” you increase your chances of getting a better job exponentially. If you’re a pretty good programmer, you should apply for programming positions. If you’re a decent writer, apply for positions in design or writing. If you’re a kick-ass salesman, sales and marketing always need more feet on the ground. And all of these positions are going to come into contact with the parts of the company you’re actually trying to break into. And if you want to break into a career in games that has a few different options going forward, why not do something that doesn’t suck as a baseline?


Know Who You’re Working For

I knew about Warp One long before I’d ever walked through the door. Back in the nineties, a friend of mine used to run a comic shop called Front Page Comics in the thriving metropolis of Stettler, Alberta. The shop did pretty well for itself, and was my first real introduction to nerd culture as a whole. When I was looking to get into the industry myself, I foolishly thought the best way to do that would be to open my own store, and I went about thrashing around like an idiot for a few months trying to do just that. When I went to Jeff for advice, he told me “If you want to make money at this, be like Warp One.”

Fast forward a whole lot of years, and I live a few blocks away from Warp One, slinging pitas at the local Pita Pit. It’s not a terrible job, and it’s a pretty great place to live, and one day my girlfriend comes into the Pit and says “Warp One is hiring. You should drop off a resume.” I’d been in there a handful of times, picking up a copy of Secrets of Xen’Drik for Eberron and a horrible 3.5 Africa-inspired rulebook, but it hadn’t even occurred to me to drop off a resume. When I finally did, I was hired on the spot.

I included a list of all the games I’ve played and/or still play on the back of my resume. It was a long list.


Be Awesome

I can’t really teach you this one. Ironically, I think it’s the most important point. You are going to need to fit in with the rest of the crew where you work. A lot of employers don’t hire for talent or education, especially in the games industry. They hire for personality. You need to be personable. You need to be generally likeable, or convince whoever is doing the hiring that you can be, and if you force it, people can tell.

I’m not the hiring authority at our store, but I take in a few resumes a week. Some of them get put in the File. Others get put directly into the garbage. The difference is the first impression they gave me. The ones that get put into the File are the ones that I could possibly see myself working with in the future. The ones that go into the circular file have probably failed somewhere, and it’s usually at this point.

When we keep a resume on file, by the bye, it’s kept in an enormous stack of other resumes. Sometimes for a really long time. Sometimes forever. But if you made it that far, that means that either someone who doesn’t think like me got your resume in there, or someone at our store thought you were cool enough to vet.

And if someone at our store thinks you’re cool enough to vet, other nerd locations are going to think you’re pretty cool too.

Playing Games for a Living

The people who work in this industry don’t do it for the money or the glamour. You aren’t going to make more than a decent living wage in this industry. Working in timeshare, I made a lot more money for a lot less work (and those of you who know me personally know how little work I must be talking about here…), but I choose to do this because I love it. I love games. I love gamers. I love events that bring people together and create shared experiences. And I get to play games for a living, which is pretty great.

If you’ve got what it takes, maybe you can too.

Pokemon Should be an MMO. On my iPhone.

This one doesn’t have anything at all to do with tabletop gaming. You have been warned.

I’m not the first person to suggest this. In fact, from what I hear, it’s some sort of wagon. With a band. There are a lot of Pokemon fans in the world, and a good chunk of those fans have grown up on the internet hoping that their favourite franchise would grow with them. And in some ways, it has. The graphics are better, the storylines actually bring the morality of Pokemon training into question, and gameplay has certainly grown more robust over the course of the last sixteen years. But that doesn’t really scratch the itch, here. What people really want is some Massively Multiplayer Pokemon love.

Now, Nintendo has come out pretty strongly against the idea, and I understand some of their reasoning. Pokemon was built on a mobile platform from the get-go. The key word there is “mobile,” they want to make playing Pokemon something of a social experience. You can’t capture all of the Pokemon in the world by yourself, you need to walk up and talk to people to get the trades you need, to get into battles with a real-life opponent. Nintendo has made a pretty solid name for itself in the mobile market with moves like that, and what they really don’t want to see is more people sitting in front of their computers playing games like World of Warcraft. When Nintendo talks about something being “social,” they don’t mean Facebook-style social. They mean classic social, actually-having-to-see-another-human-being social. Which is, honestly, something about which I’m totally in favour. The shirt I’m wearing right now says:

Click through to buy it!

for exactly that reason. I love it when people get together to play games, and that’s definitely something I’d want to further encourage, but I don’t think that keeping Pokemon from being an MMO is encouraging anything. It’s discouraging a style of play in which a solid number of people have expressed interest, and discouraging one style of play does not automatically encourage a different style of play. The people who want an MMO are still going to play an MMO, whether it’s the one you’re making money on or not.

Instead of keeping people from playing the game they’re begging you to make for them, it would seem to make better sense to make that game, and then reward the style of play you’d like to see more of. While it certainly won’t make everyone play the way you want them to play, it will encourage more people to throw their money at you, and to play the game the way you want them to. Provide bonuses to groups that are playing within proximity to one another. Give people a reason to battle face-to-face. Provide actual encouragement to players, and a solid portion of them will do what you’re encouraging them to do.

I think it behoves Nintendo to put together a game that does this, and I think it would make them a lot of money to do so. I also think they should make that game for iDevices and Android, for a few reasons.

The first is that these systems together cover an insanely large sector of people who own electronic gaming devices. I own one of each myself (an iPad and an Android phone), and I don’t actually know anyone in the 18-35 demographic that doesn’t own at least one. Moreover, nearly every iOS and Android device has a GPS system in it that would allow for rewards based on playing around other people who are playing the game. Also, having played some Final Fantasy III on my iPad now, I can really see where touch devices are going to be the best platform for rejuvenating classic games, and similar game play and graphics update (though, personal preference, I would look at cell shading as an alternative to polygons) would work beautifully for Pokemon.

I’m not saying anything new, here. Other people have said pretty much everything I’ve written. I’m just adding my voice to the chorus. If Nintendo put out a Pokemon MMO app on the app store and in Play, I know a number of people who would buy it and play it. I would buy it myself (and I’m an unrepentant app pirate; I would walk across the street, buy one of those stupid itunes cards, and buy this fucking game, just like I have for other apps I’m particularly psyched to see).


Better, though, would be a Free-to-Play model in which players pay for particularly awesome things. Master Balls, out-of-area pokemon, pokemon “pets” like the pikachu from Yellow, faster bikes, stronger repel, some weird power-ups… the list of cool things you could buy in a cash store for Pokemon is intense. Also, add-on apps like a pedometer that keeps track of your steps to power-up your pokemon or an ARG akin to Pokemon Snap that allows you to take pictures of pokemon you find around your house to add them to your pokedex. The possibilities (and the money) are endless.

Friday, June 15, 2012

New Name, New Layout

When I first started this blog, its name was an obscure reference to an obscure piece of information from a setting book for Eberron. Under the Giant’s Bridge, there’s a nightclub called Glitterdust, and I thought “Well hell, I’ll make the URL, and under that, I’ll make the title Glitterdust, I’m so clever. Bwah ha ha!” I picked the most evocative theme I could find in less than an hour and started typing my heart out.

That was in 2007. I’d like to think that in five years I’ve matured some. So the name of the blog is now Giantsbridge, much like it should have been from the start. And the layout is simple and clean, with higher contrast which should hopefully make it easier to read. Hooray!