Just before Tekkoshocon, Pez lent me his copy of Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken: How Games Can Make Us Better. I regret to say, actually, that I didn’t get a chance to crack it open until well after the show was over. On the flip side, though, it only took me about twenty pages before I realized I needed a copy of the book myself.
McGonigal doesn’t waste any time in providing her argument. She starts off with a mythological story about how the ancient Lydians survived an eighteen-year famine through the effective use of games. (Which put the other purchase I made at the bookstore that day– Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games– is a markedly less pleasant light.) She then breaks her argument into three parts, detailing along the ride eleven ways that reality could be improved through the strategic implementation of behaviors that are seen in gaming of all stripes.
While McGonigal focuses predominantly on electronic gaming, only breaking out of it for a handful of her examples, she presents an incredibly strong case that the mechanical aspects of gameplay in general are worth far more than the condescension that most people have for players of games. And, while fundamentally I agree with a lot of her points, I also have to take issue with her assertion that making everything a game will make life better. This is mostly out of the incredibly poor way that a lot of “gamification” efforts have been implemented in the past.
When dealing with incredibly boring or tedious tasks in my childhood, I was often told that I should make a game out of it. The problem is that fun cannot be “enforced” in that way. It didn’t matter how I compelled myself to accomplish whatever I was told to do, only that I did it. And if I wasn’t invested in the task to begin with, there was no way I was going to put in the mental effort to compel myself to do it. Now, if the game had developed organically among the other people I was working with at the time– or hell, even if there were other people to engage in the game– it would be a different story. But solo, it was just frustrating to be told that I should somehow force myself to enjoy something objectively boring.
That’s why I take a jaundiced eye to games like Chore Wars or Fitocracy: it’s great to compete with other people in these games, but for someone on their own, if they’re not already committed to the tasks, they sure as hell aren’t going to be motivated by a little number or avatar. It’s a bit like having a competition to see who can finish their homework first. There might be a reward at the end, and it might not be any more substantial than bragging rights; in the end, though, you’re still doing your homework, and if you just plain don’t want to do homework, no reward is going to be good enough. More to the point, games of any sort get boring after an extended period: when people ultimately get bored of Chore Wars, the dishes will start to pile up again.
Do I think that making reality more fun is going to make people happier? Absolutely. I love games, and I play them constantly; earlier this month I was introduced to Tiny Tower, and I’ve been using it alternately as a time-waster and as a productivity monitor (work for x minutes, check on the tower for one or two, then back to work for x more). But I have some issues with the assertion that gaming can become a force that will make kids do their homework or eat their broccoli, or make adults save for retirement or mow the lawn. Games are only so powerful, after all.
I’ll spare you all the boring minutae of how I’m handling the transition back into public transit, as they get a little squicky if you’re not into the thought of envisioning me naked. Honestly, I don’t blame you; I don’t even like to look at myself naked. Still, there’s something to be said for preparation beforehand, and that’s all I’ll say.
Let’s talk D&D, shall we? I picked up the last of the Essentials books this afternoon, and now I have a complete set of those. The DM kit and Monster Vault proved to be pretty valuable purchases in that if I want to start up a campaign amongst some friends, I can. That’s a pretty big if, but I’m getting sidetracked. The Essentials books seemed a little strange to me, because they’re shallow enough to be considered “starter” kits, but in-depth enough to warrant the thought that this was where 4th Edition was headed. WotC’s marketing of the books didn’t help that, either. For the longest time I resisted picking up the two “class” books, because I thought their content was more or less duplicating the three Player’s Handbooks I already own.
To a certain extent, it is, and then again, it’s also more constrictive. Each of the two class books– Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms– details the basics of a handful of the classes. Fallen Lands provides clerics, fighters, rogues and wizards, while Forgotten Kingdoms offers druids, paladins, rangers and warlocks. That’s where things get tricky, because of each of the classes offered, you’re provided a single buildout path. Your powers are mostly selected for you, your paragon path and epic destiny are also chosen, and it’s all very cut and dried. That’s great for a player just starting out, and each of the books offers a pretty good mix so that a new player can try something different without being overwhelmed, but overall the books aren’t as valuable for experienced players as the hardback Handbooks and (X) Power books. There’s also a handful of changes to the existing races and feats, and a crapton of ease-of-play charts and pointers. Most of the critical stuff in the books are available on the Insider service, and what’s not does sort of lend some value to the paperbound copies.
What I’ve found to be pretty damn worth the cost, though, are the other three core books: the Rules Compendium, the Dungeon Master’s Book, and the Monster Vault. Of these only the RC is available “standalone”; the other two are in the DM’s Kit and Monster Vault box, respectively. Honestly, though, those aren’t bad deals either. For me, one of the things preventing me from DMing effectively was a lack of miniatures or figures to place and block out encounters. Both of the boxes contain cardboard tokens for monsters and players, printed with nicely-detailed artwork. This is mostly because WotC discontinued the D&D Minis game, as (like me) nobody wanted to buy randomized miniatures if they really just wanted a dozen goblins for an encounter.
Right, the books. The RC is basically everything you need, at an absolute minimum, to play the game once you’ve got characters rolled up and a DM ready to go. It’s organized far better than the PHBs and DMG, everything is clear and concise without being terse… Think of it like this: if the Player’s Handbook is a boring ol’ human, then the Rules Compendium is an elf: just plain better, and it knows it. There’s some updated charts here for DCs and suchlike, which may be useful to some players, but for the clarifications and the ability to leave at least one or two hardcover books back on the shelf when you go to a game, it’s a steal at twice the price. Despite the fact that it’s not red, I can promise you you’re likely to find what you’re looking for in the book three times faster.
The DM’s book is less impressive in that it covers a lot of the fluff of the Points of Light setting, but it also goes into some of what makes a proper or thrilling adventure. DM guides and advice are a dime a dozen, but like the RC, the DM Book streamlines a lot of the tedious parts and makes it easier to quickly and efficiently find stuff. (A side note: it bothers me that there’s no real “Trap Manual”– basically, doing for traps, hazards, and dungeon features what the Monster Manual does for the flora and fauna of the world.) The DM’s Kit isn’t a bad deal, honestly, as it includes some dungeon tiles and a few handfuls of character and monster tokens as well as a short adventure to run. The main complaint I have with the DM’s Book, and this may just be a first-print issue or something, is that the cover isn’t made of the same paper or whatever as the other Essentials books. It looks and feels cheap and flimsy… but I’ll get to that in a bit.
Finally, the Monster Vault book is pretty much the Monster Manual, shrunk down and stripped of some of the cruft that served comparatively little purpose. While fewer monster illustrations sounds like a bad thing, the overall effect is that the illustrations now correspond to the tokens included in the kit, and there are in fact more monster listings for each monster type (so for example, under “Elf” there’s listings for Lv2 Scout, Lv2 Minion Hunter, Lv3 Guard, etc. etc. up to Lv13 Drow Arachnomancer). The standard amenities of list by level and so forth are included, but again the chief advantage is the compact size. Upon further inspection, the Monster Vault uses the same flimsy cover that the DM’s Book does, but it’s a thicker tome than the DMB, so it’s a bit harder to notice the cover’s cheapness.
So that brings me to the downside of the line, beyond the fact that two of the most useful elements are saddled with tokens that I realize not everyone might need or want. The Essentials line is bound in a softcover format, along the lines of a mass-market book. It’s roughly 10% or so larger than the standard manga page size (or roughly the same size as the oversized omnibus page size becoming more popular these days), and while it’s a very well-printed book, its binding… well, I just fear for the day when something happens to this book, and I fear that day may be unnecessarily soon. On the other hand, I defy you to find a nicer full-scale RPG manual for a Jackson; when the pages do start dropping out, it won’t be an arduous task to replace the thing entirely.
WotC’s been releasing more and more Dungeon Tiles sets and flogging their overpriced dice sets alongside the books, but overall between the Essentials, the new Red Box set (which, I kid you not, I saw at Target once, and when I went to get another copy later on, the clerks said they couldn’t keep it in stock), and just some general nice press here and there, I think they’re doing a damn good job of opening up the hobby to more and more mainstream people. It doesn’t hurt that the generation that’s taking the reins of the world now– mine– is on the whole more receptive to nerdery than peoples past, either. I’m really impressed with the concept behind the Essentials books, but I wish WotC had made it clearer on the “where do you go from here?” aspect.
(Okay, the title’s a lie. This started out “quick” and spiraled out of control. I’d say I’m sorry, but really I’m not.)
On Sunday, Japanese telecom giant NTT announced plans to expand their e-manga business into North America. Initially, this sounds like a great idea, but when you get to the details, there’re a few flaws. I’ll just cover the most obvious ones as they pertain to the Barnes & Noble nook reader, as that’s the one I have– you’ll quickly see that the issues are more or less universal.
The biggest issue is the size difference. The standard, traditionally-accepted size for manga volumes in North America is 5 inches wide by 7.5 inches tall, giving a surface area of 37.5 square inches. The nook’s main screen is 3.5 inches wide by 4.75 inches tall, giving a surface area of 16.625 inches– only 44.33% of the paperback’s space; margins notwithstanding. This also doesn’t get into the issues of resolution, though in reality the resolution of the nook’s e-ink screen is far more than sufficient for manga. The size becomes a deal-breaker because the two most prominent e-book readers– the nook and Amazon’s Kindle line– don’t offer any kind of zoom functionality.
The size issue poses another problem; even if the images were to be resized so that it could be clearly readable in the adjusted speech bubbles, the image would still be distorted. The standard paper-bound manga has an aspect ratio of 2:3, while the nook’s screen has a ratio of 14:19– just slightly too short. Increasing the vertical size of the e-ink screen to 5.25 inches would solve this; if that were to happen, the device would need to be lengthened, or the color touchscreen (the nook’s defining feature) would have to be downsized or eliminated. In my opinion, neither option is feasible.
A slightly odd issue is the fact that manga is read right-to-left; most e-readers use a right-facing arrow to advance the page, and start with the left-most page. It’d be a tricky thing to program, I think, but it’s hardly a deal-breaker– just a matter of retraining, as it was when right-to-left manga was introduced to begin with.
Finally, there comes the issue of the logical size of a manga volume. My sample “standard” manga is volume 13 of Hayate the Combat Butler, which has 187 pages of actual content (about another 5 pages or so at the end– the leftmost end– are used for advertising and promotions). Even in monochrome, a high-resolution scan of one of those pages, uncompressed at 400 DPI, is 1.83 kilobytes. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? The full book is therefore 342 kilobytes. Slightly larger than an average text e-book of that length (I picked Coraline as my exemplar, at 323 kilobytes). Assume that the metadata and formatting for the e-book is negligible compared to the space needed for the content. Let’s now assume that the e-book is in 16-bit greyscale, and each page can be compressed by about 33%. Doing this changes the size of each image to 19.34 kilobytes, bumping the size of the full volume to a whopping 3.53 megabytes! In contrast, Quicksilver, a text e-book that is 927 pages in its print form (its very small-print print form it should be noted), is only 1.29 megabytes. Granted, these days that still doesn’t sound like a lot– unless you’re the one footing the bill for the data transmission charges on the 3G cellular networks that feed these devices. (Consumers don’t, it should be noted, or at least don’t directly pay the costs; they’re usually lumped into the cost of the e-book.)
It’s a sad thing to say, but I think e-manga is more or less dead in the water right now until the devices can support it better and data charges are brought down out of the ludicrously high levels that they are now. A firmware patch for the devices could solve that issue (at least giving zoom and RTL reading functionality a green light), and it’s a given that data will become as cheap as– well, let’s say basic bottled water– at some point. I’d probably estimate about three years for the tech to be ready (as a stupidly out-there outside guess)… but the market’s here now, I think. I wish NTT best of luck, but it’s gonna be a while ’till this really catches fire.
Now that I can talk about trademark stuff again, there’s a lot that I want to talk about– mostly because it seems like a ton of really awesome things happened while I restricted myself from mentioning them. So, while I know that in internet terms this news is mostly so old it’s ancient, dead and buried, there’re a few topics worth going over. This post is just a quick little list; some of it might be expanded on in the future (if I don’t go into ridiculous detail enough here).
1) The K-On! manga was licensed. I still need to see the anime. Or perhaps I should say I still need to see the animoe?
2) NIS America enters the NA anime market with Persona and Toradora!, online-only sales. I think it’s a pretty smart move, in point of fact. It certainly makes as much sense, if not moe, as K-On.
3) Halo 3: ODST didn’t suck. Well, okay, it’s just too short, but with Nathan Fillion as your commanding officer (and playable character in certain circumstances) it’s hard for the game to suck. Also, Halo: Reach continues to look interesting, though rumors are it’ll retcon some if not all of the Fall of Reach novel.
4) Video Games Live! Bonus Round wasn’t quite as good as the first time it landed in Pittsburgh– I think they were using a different choir last July, and unfortunately this one just seemed to be phoning in their performance. The rest of the orchestra was good for the material they were working with (they picked some weak selections, I think).
5) Watching the Olympics at my family’s house was fascinating. I made mention of how curling is such an interesting sport to begin with– and I reiterate that my interest is completely without irony– but hearing the genuine Canadian commentary on it was a real treat. Sometimes I miss living near the northern border.
6) I read through all of Miyuki Miyabe’s The Book of Heroes over that same trip; overall I thought it was a little weaker than Brave Story was, but still enjoyable. It has this weird metafiction-meets-Lovecraft-meets-juvie-lit thing going on, and I kinda think it should have been about a hundred pages longer. Might be worth grabbing from the library if you liked the other book.
7) Speaking of books, my late-Christmas gift arrived. I now own a Nook e-reader, and so far I really like it. I loaded The Baroque Cycle onto it first thing, and am going through that– it’s nowhere near as easy reading as anything Miyabe writes. Hell, it makes The Lord of the Rings look like The Cat in the Hat by comparison. Fortunately I’m not carting around three monstrous tomes to read all of Stephenson’s big show. It reads PDFs as well, with a minimal amount of fuss; this basically means that I have a new tool to bend to my will in interesting and unique ways.
8) Funimation announced that they’re re-releasing Trigun, with its original (Pioneer) dub. That’s good news for folks who don’t yet have it (I managed to swing a good deal on it at the beginning of ’08). Now moe folks can watch Milly being her inimitable self!
(Call this “8A”: Come to think of it, there was another interesting Pioneer-related moment, but restricted to being just me: I managed to locate the El-Hazard OVA set for extra-cheap. The first VHS episode of El-Hazard was the very first anime tape I bought– $30 for a half-hour episode, dubbed, that was practically not even engaging enough to get me to get the rest of the series. Fortunately I got to see it marathonned at Tekkoshocon a year or so ago and loved it, and so when I found it in Erie, I only hesitated slightly.)
9) Once my sister figured out how to play completely broken card combos in Munchkin Cthulhu, she became uber. Once my mother figured out the scoring in Carcassonne, she became vicious.
(9A: The iPhone spell-checker recognizes “Cthulhu”, but Firefox does not.)
10) Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei was licensed by Media Blasters. At the time, there was no news whether or not a dub would be produced. Insert remark about uncertainty leaving many people in DESPAIR!!!, but honestly I think it’s still pretty damn good news no matter what (well, it would be better if there was a season set instead of old-style single-disc releases, but I’ll take my Pink Supervisor where I can get it).
11) I am totally not sorry about all the moe puns up top. In fact, there’s gonna be a whole lot moe. (No, there’s not. Yes, I know how it’s really pronounced with two syllables.)
12) Media Blasters also managed to rescue Record of Lodoss War from the defunct-company pile. I haven’t seen the OVA series, but do have CPM’s DVD set of the TV series– and have not seen the ending to that, either. If Media Blasters does a decent job repackaging the OVAs I may pick them up.
13) On a slightly related note, remember all that nonsense I wrote up about how the anime market in Japan worked? Turns out it’s really skewed towards DVD sales… and, in some somewhat unsurprising news, revenues from those sales, both domestic and foreign (read: Japan and not-Japan), are dropping sharply. Japanator estimates that a core market of only about 300K North Americans can be counted on for sales. Honestly? That’s more than I expected. At least NA localizers offer their series in reasonably-priced sets– the two-episodes-per-disc model still reigns supreme in Japan.
14) Working with the Nook a little bit more, I managed to find Calibre, which converts pretty much every document format into the open ePub format used by most portable readers. I’m gauging the interest for an e-book release of A Civics Lesson; keep your eyes on Linguankery to see if and when it’s available for purchase/download.
15) My rant on the 24th was directed at Wal-Mart. Trust me, folks, as soon as I move, I’ll be making a concerted effort to never shop there again. The problem lies in that it’s close to my house and I tend to value time pretty highly, so long trips out are “costly” to me. Gonna find a new apartment close to a grocery store, or at least a bus line to somewhere decent.
16) The reason I was in Wal-Mart, though, was to get passport photos. (Won’t make that mistake again.) I fudged my travel plans a bit– I’m planning a trip to Canada for a day or so in the immediate, but will probably wind up planning a trip further abroad later on– but odds are good that within a month or so I’ll be prepped to go fully mobile.
17) The 24th was rough. But it was all made up for by the Nintendo summit. In (extreme) brief, and in descending order of OMGs: Cave Story Wii has a date for March 22nd (three weeks from today– mark your calendars, there will be a test on it); Picross 3D lands on the DS on May 3rd; Super Mario Galaxy 2 hits May 23rd; the end of June sees the release of Metroid: Other M; and Monster Hunter Tri lands on NA shores on April 20 (free-to-play, Wii Speak integration (for the three people worldwide who own Wii Speak units), and a March 8 demo disc and a $5 Nintendo Points card for GameStop preorderers). I think I speak for everyone when I say “yay gaming”.
18) Oh, and on the 25th, Grandia became available on PSN for the PS3 and PSP. It’s a great game, easily one of the best of the PS1/Saturn-era RPGs, and unfortunately it didn’t age well… and its sequels got overlooked (II) or sucked (III). I reclaimed the first game in early ’09 and have the second one, on Dreamcast, on order as I write this– more on that in a bit.
19) Just as I hit the 14K mark on Gamerscore, Pez decided he wasn’t gonna play 360 all during Lent. This makes him, officially, more Catholic than me, ’cause I’m not exactly sacrificing anything this season. I don’t know how that’s really making me feel, honestly. Also, there’s the question of, can he play if it’s on someone else’s profile (ie Rock Band nights which we have to get back to doing)?
20) For some silly reason, whenever I wanted to kill some time gaming, I spent a not-insignificant portion of time playing Modern Warfare 2′s multiplayer. I’ve said before that I’m not a huge fan of multiplayer gaming, first-person shooters in particular; but for some strange reason, I just wanted to play this. Anyway, the solution was quite simple: I sold off the two CoD games yesterday towards my FF13 and Pokemon SoulSilver pre-orders (which was a good time to do it given the 50% bonus value promotion going on). I really only wanted Call of Duty for the single-player story; by the time I get the itch to play them again (read: near the end of the 360′s life span) they’ll be ludicrously cheap because the market will be flooded with copies.
21) Oh yeah, the Grandia II thing. See, I was out of town during the middle of February, and unfortunately that’s when an order of mine was sent out. The USPS says it landed on my door on the 19th; when I got in on the 21st, there was no package. I’d assumed it hadn’t arrived yet and waited until the 25th to talk to the sender… and that’s when I realized someone stole it. Long story short, it’s amazing what threatening to call the police and then feigning actually going through with it will do; the package spontaneously generated itself on my doorstep yesterday afternoon. Who knows, maybe I’ll run Grandia II as my next game before FF13!
22) But probably not, because yesterday I also managed to swing an incredible deal on Borderlands. The best phrase that can describe the game is “first-person gleeful redneckery”. It’s not immediately obvious that the game is going for the sci-fi-western thing that Trigun pulled off, at least not until you’re actually playing the game, but when they say “bazillions of guns” on the back of the case, you better believe it. You get guns for anything in this game. My only gripe right now is the excruciatingly dumb pickup system: when you pick up a new gun it’s automatically equipped, and whatever gun you were using gets put back in your very limited inventory space– or dropped, if your bag is full. I hit level 10 (it’s got RPG elements, but then again these days what doesn’t?) and I’ve had my bag full on more than one occasion, which cost me a really nice shotgun that was a quest reward (yeah, it takes its cues from MMOs). While some folks may not have cared for the single-player campaign, I think it’s pretty damn good, and I might give it a second run as a different character class once I’m through; nor would I terribly mind mixing it up in the online co-op mode.
That really about covers it… I know, far from “quick” or “little”. But honestly, that’s all, there ain’t no moe. (You knew I had to sneak one more in there.) From here on out, I should be up to “current” with my talking points, so let’s just get into March, folks.
Ever read more than one book at a time? Not, you know, with one in each hand. Dual-wielding books would be kind of obsessive and a little weird. I mean, reading a chapter of one, then jumping to another. It’s less weird than the fiction-akimbo scenario above, but still weird, particularly when your long-term memory starts to get fuzzy and blends the two books together. Weird, but funny, particularly when you fuse steampunk-alternate-historical-fiction and young-adult-coming-of-age with very-old-far-future-scifi.
When the brass automaton dumped Kyle because he wasn’t willing to go to the Sea of Tranquility on Saturday evening, I almost cried. Really.
I’m still reading, this time tackling a large set of tomes that I’ve had on my list for a ponderous amount of time. I would say a long time, but honestly the weight these books have kind of implies the word “ponderous” even without being metaphorical. I mean it. These are big damn books.
Of course, some other interesting things came across my path, and once March rolls around I’ll be glad to tell you all about them. Patience.
I honestly have been trying to be more interesting, and to provide you with a fair amount of content to discuss here this month. The problem is, in doing all this stuff, I’ve found it a little hard to make time to blog about it… Still, I finished reading a book today, got primer on about half of the miniatures I’ve assembled (the other half will come tomorrow or Thursday), ran some errands, and watched curling. This last point is of paramount importance, I think, because I also understood it.