Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Escaping the Bitch Grip of Experimentation

You know, I've had blogs before and I never had trouble writing posts for them.  Granted, these days it's higher-quality when back then it was more like Betamax, but at least I could get them done consistently.  Still...even then, I had a problem.  Since I like writing humor, I'm always trying to find way to blend jokes into my posts, preferably without being a perfectionist about it.  This got particularly bad lately as I wrote an article with seamless gags, and I thought it was a breakthrough.  Yeah, the one you get when you're five and you first look directly at the sun.

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?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Skeleton Key of Gaming And Why You Need It

In my Dresden Files campaign, I've been hard at work destroying the machinations of an elder god.  Flipping it the metaphorical bird, that one they teach you at Miskatronic U that offends them from the fourth dimension.  It's another thing that makes me appreciate how good the FATE roleplaying game system is.  Whatever kind of bird you flip at someone - a metaphorical bird, a real bird, a flat rock you found with enough room to write "BLUEJAY" on it - it's simple enough to cut down on dice rolls and paperwork, yet versatile to cover a gamut of situations.  And if there's anything I like in my games, it's that thing I just wrote about.

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.)