Tuesday, November 15, 2011
I take full responsibility for it. If you've ever read Bird By Bird, Anne Lamont advocates the "shitty first draft", used often by Hemingway and later on the pieces of Hemingway. I broke this rule while chasing my new style and caused myself a lot of indecisive fussiness. And at the end of that experimentation, I didn't really gain any new insight.
They say "failure is feedback", true. If you want to supercharge your work and improve your business, experimentation is essential. And in its own way, learning new concepts and piecing them together to make a Frankenstein of an idea is pretty rad. But there's going to be a lot of dead ends when you experiment. Sometimes your Frankenstein will flip out or he'll be afraid of fire or the bolts in his neck intimidate most of the stock at Lowe's. How can you avoid the emotional crash-and-burn that can result?
How To Win Your Thumb War
Another thing you hear a lot is to find passion in your work. And if you're going to experiment, you might as well jazz around with it and not fret about reaching the end goal, though I admit that would make football a weird game of keep-away where all the bullies earn salaries. But you know what has a lesser chance of bombing? Cutting down resistance. If you can do that, you don't have to be wildly in love with your mad science - you can maintain brimming enthusiasm while keeping the work as painless as possible.
I've got a huge two ways you can do this! To stay productive I like to use Mark Forster's Autofocus system. Click the link for the full rules, but it's easy to harness - make one long list, consider each item in turn. When you feel ready to do stuff on it, do it, then re-enter at the end when you're done. Result = mucho pronto task handling, and it builds a momentum you can ride all day. Even better - it works great with breaking down huge tasks.
But external trickery isn't all you need. You gotta have the right mindset to work smooth. For that, I shamelessly recommend Havi Brooks' Procrastination Dissolve-O-Matic...namely, the practice of "acknowledge, allow, act." Because once you ACKNOWLEDGE you're being a royal fuss, you can ALLOW it to exist, calming down enough to take a tiny bit of next ACTION, even if it's practicing your ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. See how my capitalized words match the mantra? That's called CORRELATION. But seriously, if you can buy the Dissolver, do it - a bit pricey but insanely useful since no one else ever addresses internal rationale for procrastionation.
Bottom line. Experimentation is a tough, neccessary bitch goddess. Part of that should be how to manage your emotional feedback so you can experiment more and take your work and business to new heights. If you don't want to worry, you gotta learn how to be happy. How do you ensure happiness for yourself while doing that all-important tinkering?
Posted by Matt Willard at 10:12 AM
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
In fact, it's so great that I'm now going to point at you and ask why you aren't doing the same! Yes, you, game designer! Think hard about me pointing at you in accusation, using all of my GIGANTIC comic book muscles!
Here's the thing. I played Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition a few times. And I played 3.5 x+5 times. And if a plane leaves Chicago at 100 miles per hour crossing a timezone, I would only like these games yesterday. I felt it hard to achieve a certain role. I was a fighter in both games, and these games offered so many feats and powers that I didn't know which one to use in which situation. This is strange for a fighter, seeing as how his only God-given purpose is to divorce head from body. But these games asked for paperwork. And the last thing I want to do during a game is roleplay with some accountant splat book.
Back on topic. I wanted options as a fighter. But it had to feel natural. Checking mechanics for each feat or power to see if it could apply now or if it had recharged yet felt like homework. Remember that algebra problem I asked earlier? It's called "foreshadowing". But I didn't want all of these moves and abilities to check on constantly. I would've been much happier with a smaller set of abilities that each had enormous use. I wanted a Swiss army knife, not a Swiss army. I may be kinda big, and look exactly like a military bunker whenever I wear a grey shirt, but having a lot of men inside me is a joke that will lead to an uncomfortable pause.
One Uncomfortable Pause Later
But FATE is great for my Swiss army knife needs. All you need are Skills and Aspects. Aspects let you gain advantages on tasks. Skills gives you bonuses for the task. They both handle so much of the game with so few mechanics to wrestle with. Other mechanics don't do much and take up company time with water cooler talk. These other guys are the movers, the ones with vision. They're the ones that say, "Hey, we want everyone to stop gathering around the water cooler. Where can we get that poison from The Princess Bride?"
Let me present it another way with an example from my briefcase of anecdotes, this time from video games. Remember Devil May Cry? It's a video game that gave you a ton of gadgets and asked you to switch them around to rack up combos. It also rated you too, in a bout of video game insecurity. I personally didn't see the point - a few sword slashes plus lightning from my magic demon guitar usually took care of things. It just makes more logical sense.
Now let's switch to Batman: Arkham Asylum. You get an array of tricks there too, but direct combat is way simpler. You can attack, stun, counter, or use an item. I'd say there aren't many frills but that's girl language and this is a blog for men although it is kind enough to accomadate me too. But each move is useful in many situations, and you'll be relying on each of them. We're returning to that Swiss army knife metaphor. You aren't overburdened with stuff to use, and your attacks plus your items equal a no-algebra Batman experience.
Now let's switch to Super Mario World because this is actually a season of Quantum Leap, twist ending!
What I'm trying to say here is that I'm right. By giving a player a few number of tools that fit many situations, instead of a bunch of tools with one real use each, players will have less headaches trying to wield them all successfully. "Wow!" they'll say. "Matt was right!" And I'll get a little smug about it, I admit. But even then, these tools need to fit a useful role, or players won't bother. Think of it like having four-five skeleton keys on a ring. Instead of "which key do I need to have", it's "which key fits the best in this situation?"
That Is A Really Small Toolbox
Now, there are some games that are trying to simulate real-life experiences. Maybe they want to simulate things that could never happen, like a zombie apocalypse. And trust me, when the dead rise from their graves and feast on the living, you'll want to sort it all out in an orderly fashion. That's fine and dandy sometimes, but I find the best games are easy on both player and GM. Providing a basic toolbox that covers most of the game is the best way to do it, because once you master that toolbox, both sides can apply it to any problem. There's that adage about everything being nails when all you have is a hammer. What that guy didn't realize is that it totally works, in games and in life.
Honestly, you'd be surprised how often you can solve the problems you cause with a hammer using the very same tool.
What about you? Do you think it's better to have a few, diverse options over many? Be sure to reply with words, I haven't figured out the telepathy plugin for this yet.
(Oh yeah, the key up there's from The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker.)
Posted by Matt Willard at 1:24 PM
Sunday, October 23, 2011
Money is a psychological barrier. It represents an investment. And games challenge this barrier. Video games spring for 50-60 bucks a pop. Some roleplaying games go that high too. Collectible card games take money over and over again like a Nigerian prince playing a Ponzi scheme during a bank robbery. And there's no guarantee that these games won't suck when you drop the bomb. How can you tell? Easy. You try and get it for free first.
And for some people, that opens the big city gate to Piracyville.
And people try to fight against all the torrents and Rapidshares. They throw down free previews, 30-day software trials. They understand that education kills fear, that if they learn what the game's about with free previews, they might fork over their green and copper presidents. But there's still the prevalent thought of prevention, that it's all intended to shut down would-be pirates, postponing their plot to plunder because once they've procured the prize, then what's the point of trying to get them to make the purchase?
Objection - there is a monster point! Because with the right attitude, a bippity-boppity-boo of marketing magic, you may win that pirate to your side just yet.
The assumption is that once a pirate has pirated something, he will never buy. It could happen. It could ALSO happen that you apply such splendid charm that he offers his wallet ammo anyway. However, the barriers of PayPal and RPGNow and whatever don't apply at this point. You can't try to force him to double back and cross them - at this point, as far as the pirate's concerned, he's already won.
How to Free Your Andrew Jacksons from Blackbeard
So don't try to win. Unleash your inner Gandhi powers. Acknowledge that he may have downloaded your game without paying, and that's fine. Because now your goal now isn't to get him to buy out of an "obligation", a societal belief that he's already chosen to ignore. Here's the new goal - getting him to buy as a "compliment".
I dig how Maid RPG did it. Near the beginning they acknowledge that Blackbeard might've swiped their PDF, and they answer that to the effect of "Hey, if you like what we do, paying for an actual copy tells us we're doing it right and that you want to see more cool stuff, which we'll be happy to make". Instead of asking for a customer/retailer relationship, you're asking for a partnership. Now the pirate has the chance to contribute to that company's future, and feel awesome about it. "Yeah, I downloaded it at first, but they did such a great job that I went back and bought a copy. I want to see what's next."
Postmodern Press did something like this too. They're behind a little cosmic freakout called Eclipse Phase. Piracy was inevitable, so hell, they just dumped it onto Creative Commons anyway! It's free to download and redistribute. And by letting that drive their marketing, running on a donation model for this prime and free RPG, their sales have never been better.
Now, you don't have to take the Postmodern Path. You can still ask for payment up front, set up the normal barriers like buying through RPGNow. And you'll still get people cashing in through these channels. But never quit reaching out, even at the post-piracy phase. Try offering a hand of partnership instead of a fist of die. And you never know. Maybe Blackbeard will hang up his beard. Totally ripping it off his face like a total badass. Because he liked the cut of your jib.
Not that piracy doesn't have its own inherent evils. What do you think? Can piracy be turned around and used as a selling tool all its own, or is it far too risky to be used for good?
Posted by Matt Willard at 11:09 AM
Thursday, October 13, 2011
But then here comes Revenge of the Fallen and oh God why. The big hooplah was that two of the robots were racist caricatures. The big hooplah we should've raised instead should've been about "oh this writing is five-year-old territory" or "well Hop on Pop might've made a more thrilling PG-13 film than this." (And this is the part where you ignore that Cat in the Hat movie and pretend it happened entirely in an alternate universe, which was then collapsed by an all-powerful deity.) I haven't even seen Dark of the Moon but I heard it actually tanked more, which I didn't think was even possible. Then again I guess if you want a wizard of mediocrity, Micheal Bay's got those spells memorized for life.
So here's my point. They say we should make interesting characters for fiction, like our novels and RPG scenarios and game scripts, but sometimes we're all lazy so we reach for old hat. Making good characters is tough stuff, no doubt. But I am one of a new breed of lazy people. If there's a simple, systematic way to get great results, I'm all over that. And during my quest to make writing great characters way, WAY easier, I stumbled upon a great trick. By itself it makes more interesting characters out of the box, but you can easily use the results as a starting point for further fix-it-ups.
Here's what you do.
1. Throw down a stereotype. High schooler who can't talk to women, fat guy married to hot wife. Just get something down to work with.
2. Now, twist the expectation. I got this from Orson Scott Card and I have used it ever since. By expectation, I mean what the audience usually expects. So Dorklad can't talk to women. Why? Oh, uh...he's just a goof. That's the normal expectation. Pass. Change the answer. So maybe now the geeky nerd can't talk to women because he's misogynist and proud of it. Or maybe he thinks they're all shallow and only values REAL relationships. You see what I mean.
3. Do this ten, twenty times with different details. Pick at least the third answer that pops in your head each time. First two answers are usually more stereotypes and we're trying to avoid those. So now he doesn't offer lame comebacks to bullies. Maybe he's Zen, thinks there's better stuff in life to fuss over. Or maybe it gets to him, BUT he's so smart, he usually sets up a gambit to get revenge like a chessmaster. Just try something besides "W-Well, YOU'RE a butt too!"
I'll stress my disclaimer now: this may not get you supremely intricate characters. But a half hour's thought sure made something cool to work with, right? From there you can easily toss this guy into situations and watch him fumble, see what he does now that you've got enough to work with. And for scenarios and scripts, this is your instant-NPC-in-a-bottle right here that isn't just "Welcome to Cornelia!" guard number four. Your world will seem more alive and feasible with a few dozen unique, if simple, folk running about.
I'll do it right now with a character. Name: Arnold Winchester. Stereotype: snooty old white American businessman. What do you expect from this guy? He's rich, has a big house, wife and two adult children, a yacht, dabbles in the financial district...so on and so forth.
Let's change things up.
1. He doesn't have a big house. He actually lives in normal suburbia. Why? He loves the energy of activity around him. Hearing children play outside, hearing the neighbor mow his lawn, having the radio and TV on while he works...it charges him up.
2. Let's keep him in the financial district. But he didn't work to where he was from the ground-up, he was given his assets by family. Now let's imagine that, eager to learn and create his own success, he's maintaining his assets while building another company on the side, learning as he goes. No, better idea. He's working as an unknown to take over someone else's company, learning as he goes. Evil, yes. To him it's just business.
3. But then again, ruthless old businessmen bore me. Let's change it again. He's back to building another business, but not to validate himself. He knows he can do it. He's just going to give the business as a present to a woman he wants to charm. What better way to show your intelligence than to build something incredibly successful like that? She'll get a kick out of his smarts.
4. This raises another question. If he's trying to charm this woman, where's his family? Does he even have one? You assume he either never married or got divorced or they were killed or whatever. Here's a notion: what if this guy married a woman whose husband was AWOL, and then the husband came back? Well, now this woman's torn, because she likes her husband, but Arnold's a swell guy too. Arnold doesn't want to deny her the love her husband can provide, so he willingly divorces her and is now questing to find something else. And maybe that business he's building is a parting gift. That's rife for relationship drama.
I just sat down and blathered on paper, twisting expectations, and already I've got some interesting stuff to explore. If I shot down a few more birds I could have a full character to run with. The point is that I barely invested any effort, and here I am in happy-character land.
The next time you want to make a compelling character to drive your scenario, give this a shot. Whatever you come up with, it'll probably be better than Revenge of the Fallen. Domo Arigato for sucking, Ethnic Robot Sidekick.
But this is only one of many potential tricks. What do you do to write decent characters without any hassle? Or do you think toughing it out is the only way to make good characters?
Posted by Matt Willard at 1:36 PM
Friday, October 7, 2011
You should do the same too, but not just in card games. When you netdeck blindly, you're just plugging and playing. Not even thinking if anything could make it better. Oh, this printer works fine enough, whoops running out of virgin blood ink, better go a knifin'! Same's true for your writing process. If you plug and play, you might miss out on some great ideas that could make your writing kick ass.
In fact, I'm gonna suggest that you'll be the King or Queen of the Sucking Prom UNLESS you quit netdecking. And I'm not talking about changing up your word quotas or writing different genres or other low-level stuff. If you really want to quit netdecking your writing, you need to quit netdecking life itself. And that means challenging all the beliefs and opinions forced on you by The Colloquial MAN.
I Gotta Believe
I mean, think about it. You started writing because it was fun. And I bet you kept doing it anyway even though you got sick of bopping through life listening to people tell you that it's a waste of time, that you'll never make serious dough off of it. "What a load of crap!" you said. "Eat THIS, Grandma!" And then that Christmas would never be mentioned again. But I think you can take that further. Hell, I think we all can stand to look at what we've accepted as true and really see which beliefs worth keeping, especially the ones we have about writing.
I used to believe that, to write good fiction, you had to practice with stories first, then move up to the novel, and writing outlines was evil and my sentences had to pass some imaginary CIA skillful-metaphor pop quiz in my brain to be good. Nowadays? I just play RPGs. Got no problem with telling cool stories about interesting characters there.
I used to believe that networking and promotion wasn't my bag because I needed self-confidence to talk to people about "business". Le screw that. I decided to make it fun and rewarding, and I'm doing the same to cold-calling/pitching because thinking that I have to pitch prospects that ONE EXACT WAY is no good.
Getting back to that whole writing topic. When you quit netdecking your writing, you start asking yourself what you can do different. You ask how you can be unconventional, but effective. "How can I do it the way I want and still get the results? And if there's no getting around some things, what angle can I approach it from to make it easier and worthwhile to do?" Ask about everything. Writing, revision, getting ideas - the whole brain factory.
Kick, Punch, It's All In The Mind
Now, I'm not saying everyone else's ideas suck. In fact, I want you to learn even MORE. But then you do the Bruce Lee thing. You absorb what is useful and discard the rest. You don't toss it into the garbage along with Mom's Russian Roulette of a casserole because you never know if it'll help you later, but right now...eh, doesn't suit your thing. And that's fine. Your path to success is gonna change over time, but right now you're better off doing it the way you want.
It's all about taking the road less travelled, passing the one that everyone says is full of gangster wolves with tommy guns and taking the one over that sweet river that doesn't shoot back. "Oh, it's hard to write this much a day." Oh yeah? I'm gonna shake-a my fist at you and find a way to do it with mimimal effort and maximum fun. It's not about trying to show up people, though. Don't be one of those fist-shaking buttheads of legend. But just don't buy what you hear at face value.
It can be tricky, no doubt. But I love working that way - strategizing over how to make everything smooth and fun. Life's all about making this current moment as awesome as possible. Why shouldn't your writing be like that too?
Posted by Matt Willard at 10:47 AM
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
1. The game uses the FATE rules system, which has a heavy focus on creating a cool story.
2. Characters can influence that story by invoking and compelling Aspects.
3. Aspects are an instant shortcut to awesome storytelling and great characters.
Aspects are basically little phrases that describe your character. The spicier, the better. So a strong guy can be "Strong Like An Ox", but it's better if he's "The Colossus of Oakdale". Aspects can be invoked in-game to do better on challenges, but the real fun is when they're compelled - in exchange for Fate Points that can be used to change the story later, something interesting happens now.
For example, here's Mr. Hacker with "This Script Kiddie Flatlined The Pentagon", and he's trying to get into some secret bank accounts because if NASA won't send anyone else to the Moon, he'll buy a shuttle and do it himself. But if he takes a compel on "No Plan B...or Even A Good Plan A", he gets a Fate Point in exchange for security catching his data trail. Then later he can use that FP to do something else he wants to succeed on. Maybe hack into someone's heart monitor and spell out limericks or whatever playful hacker scamps are wont to do.
It's so simple. A bunch of Aspects, and a set of ranked Skills. That's basically it. The game mechanics take care of the rest - you capture an instant, credible feel for what your character will and won't do once you dangle those tempting points in his face. You don't have to answer lists of questions or write journals or OKCupid profiles or "what he did before he got hit by a Boeing" obituary. All you need is the heat of the moment.
Choose Your Destiny
But let's say you don't play tabletop RPGs. Let's say four guys in the basement sound more like a Saw film than a social event. Can you still make great characters with basic RPG character sheets? Sure. And you don't even have to stick with FATE. There's tons of narrative RPGs out there like FATE with great character mechanics. But FATE gets RPG neophytes up and running fast. Let me show you what I mean.
1. Figure out his Defining Aspect. If you had to describe this guy in four-five words, this would be it. Maybe he's a "Guardian Scion of Freya" or the "One-Shot Outlaw". Remember - spicy enchilada!
2. Figure out four more Aspects. What four things about this guy stand out the most, either to others or his own mind? Strengths, weaknesses, hobbies, quirks, whatever.
3. Rank his skills. You can just rank them from 1-5, but you can also rank them with adjectives if numbers aren't your thing - Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good, Great, Superb. Here's some skills you can consider giving your character, taken from several different FATE games:
Alertness, Art, Athletics, Burglary, Contacts, Conviction, Craftsmanship, Deceit, Discipline, Empathy, Fists, Guns, Intimidation, Investigation, Might, Peformance, Pilot, Resources, Science, Sleight of Hand, Stealth, Survival, Weapons...
4. Figure out how often he'll spend his Fate Points. If the chips are down and he's aching for a smoke, but he's Dating Cold Turkey, will he take a Fate Point and light up?
That's pretty much it. Not a blow-by-blow FATE character sheet but close enough. Now what happens? Well, good Aspects are dynamic enough to be interpreted in a lot of ways. Ask questions about them and why. Go for the third answer, at the very least - the first two tend to be old hat, but the third may offer an interesting twist to the standard.
* Why is he the One-Shot Outlaw? Did he get this name by chance of the draw or did he work hard for it? Why? How does it affect his world?
* Why does he have these four other aspects? How do they influence his past, present, and future? Does he try to fight against them or accept them?
* When did he get the training for these skills? Why does he have them? Are there some parts of a skill that he struggles on? Is he satisfied with his skill-set or does he feel they all need to be Superb?
* What pushes him hard enough to give in to challenges? What might give him the willpower to see them through even if they go against his nature? How often would he succumb to what fate throws at him in exchange for points to use later?
These are just some of the questions you can ask. Go ahead and ask more. Hell, you can ask none if you want. You can just make a sheet and toss him into a scene, go from there. Maybe he's caught in an exploding knife factory and he has to get out. Take this as far as you want, but if you want to write and need a starting point, a simple sheet offers layers of detail for minimal effort.
So next time you're hashing over a character for a story, do it like your local gamers do. And even if you play tabletop RPGs, give some other character creation systems a try on the side. You might roll something pretty good.
Posted by Matt Willard at 12:11 PM
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
A blank piece of paper is God's way of telling us how hard it to be God. -Sidney Sheldon
I love being a writer. What I can't stand is the paperwork. -Peter De Vries
Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead. -Gene Fowler
Not shown: a teacher asking students to write a poem during a hurricane of tossed chairs.
Make no mistake...there's also quotes about how words stir the soul. It's fun to write. ("And then Blake Morrison was hit by a Boeing - the fate of all who messed with me in 2nd grade.") But it's so easy to stumble. Maybe you realize this client's copy has to be perfect. Or maybe you're trying to capture the perfect metaphor. Maybe you're like me and you realize your fiction needs to be sealed in the places they make Indiana Jones movies about.
And then what happens? Bam. The running engine chugs and the dream is over, Rudy.
That really sucks!
Look. I'm am American. And as the rest of the world is keen to point out (THANKS, England!) we're lazy. I can live with that to a degree. I don't hate all work, I just hate overwrought work. The concept of struggling to finish something is undesirable to me.
And lately, after trying to hammer out these posts, thinking I should be writing like some sort of Richard Pryor-Graham Greene-April O'Neil hydra, I think to myself, "wow, I shouldn't be struggling like this." I love writing funny stuff. So why should I have to suffer some internal critic to do so? Just look at him! Chilling in the back of my brainspace, nagging me to tighten these words up, eating entire KFCs so he can cosplay as Jabba the Hutt's ass this year!
Now that's when the standard advice comes in for writers who battle the block. And I'm not saying it's not useful. It's just that it feels like you shouldn't have to silence the critic. There shouldn't even be a critic. He should be a Frankenstein of half-director, half-flower child - effortlessly guiding your writing while he prays for the village mob to end his authority hippie existence.
If there's one lesson I learned in this crazy life, it's that we all operate on assumptions. And just because people say writing can be work doesn't mean it should be at any point.
Now, don't get me wrong - I haven't entirely mastered this. I can't give you a microwave-ready answer to this problem just yet. But looking back on my own successes and failures as a writer, I've noticed a definite pattern, one I'll be taking further as I create my own unique solution. Like shoving a puzzle piece into a different one you're working on. Yes, that dog has a river for a stomach, it was totally like that when we got him from the pound.
As I've said before, I used to write fiction. It sucked even though I learned the tricks and tried to meet the quotas. I even tried to slam down drinks like Hemingway but I got nausea after my first Mr. Pibb. Looking back, I think those quotas and tips were the problem. Write like this, damn it, because I'm Writer's Digest, and I rule a small country of books whipped by Orson Scott Card in a turban.
But then I started playing tabletop RPGs. Suddenly I was writing fiction again. Sure, I played as a character fighting through scenarios, but isn't that how fiction rolls anyway? And those techniques I learned just enhanced the game's story even further. See, when I approached fiction like everyone else, my battleship sunk. But through the lens of a game, tons of stories suddenly exploded from my brain. Coherent, viable, badass power stories that could unfold on the side of Dave's tour van. It was because I ignored the typical way of doing things and made up my own.
This isn't a perfect solution, but thinking this way's opened up a whole new world for me. Think about what it can do for you. If the act of creativity is hard - no matter what field you roam - try pulling back. Ask yourself if it needs to be hard. Ask yourself if ignoring common ways of doing things and finding your own path would rock the hell out.
Writing doesn't have to be difficult. Maybe all it takes is a little brain matter. And in the case of giving Dave something for van space, it takes grass that lets you see the color Paraguay.
Posted by Matt Willard at 6:50 AM