The Life of a Playtester – Part 1

Well, it’ s been a good long while since my last post. In my excuse I had a nice long holiday, then came back from that holiday, got over feeling sullen that I had to come back and be broke, got cheered up with payday, got depressed that so much was spent on basic groceries, got even more depressed that there were a lot of bills to pay, got sick, got busy, got happy that payday came again, got even happier when I discovered that my local supermarket was having a sale on rib-eye, got ecstatic that my wife made me an awesome steak and finally completed playtesting and proofreading a new product, which brings me to the whole point of this.

For the past several months I had the distinct pleasure to be a playtester for Dream Pod 9 on their up and coming Heavy Gear: Arena.

Big Giant Stompy Robots coming soon to a store near you!

The game takes place away from the front lines of the Heavy Gear universe and instead drops you head first into a gladiatorial arena where pilots in big stompy robots try to disassemble each other with a blinding variety of weapons. I won’t go into the details of the game yet (I’ll save that for after the release) as that isn’t in the scope of todays lecture. Instead I will regale you with tales of high adventure, daring deeds and the absolute agony of being a play-tester. Yes, you read right, agony! A lot of gamers out there have the notion that being a play-tester for a product you love is the best thing since sliced bread; well it is but that’s not the point. The point I’ll be making here is that play-testing, when done properly, is a lot like work.

When the call went out at the beginning of the year for play-testers I jumped at the opportunity. It had been almost a year since I had to leave my dream job working for Battlefront Miniatures and I was quite desperate to maintain my exposure within the industry (pretty hard to do when you’re living in Saudi Arabia). I figured since I was stuck at home having to play Mr. MOM, I might as well put what free time I had (and trust me it’s not a lot when you’re raising 2 children) to good use doing something I enjoy.

The fact that I was 2000 km away from home with none of my usual gaming buddies within reach may have put a dampener on things if it wasnt for a very handy program – Vassal.

The Vassal Engine is a virtual tabletop program available from http://www.vassalengine.org for free. It allows players to meet up online and play their favourite tabletop/boardgames.

Initial attempts to rope in my mates back home to get a game in proved to be unsuccessful; inertia is a hard thing to beat especially when you’re trying to get someone to learn a completely unfamiliar interface. Left with no other option I decided to simply play with myself (get your mind out of the gutter and put things into context). I’ve never even tried to solo chess before – never had the need, but then as they say necessity is the mother of all invention.

Solo play isn’t as easy as it sounds, first up you got to be very careful not to cheat. It’s too easy to bias your moves in such a way to benefit your favourite faction, to test something in a way that may forward your own personal agenda, to just plain cheat when you dont like the outcome of the roll you made. I found myself face to face with these inner monsters, and it was only through an awesome act of will that I was able to silence them =P .

Secondly, you have to make your moves in a logical manner, the thing about playing with yourself is that you’re prescient. You already know the move your going to make, you can’t be surprised so instead you have to plan your moves in such a way that any trap laid out is the only move you can make. You are literally forcing your own hand here and it is a lot harder then it sounds.

Thirdly, solo play is dull. I’d argue that the thing that makes tabletop gaming so much fun is the social context of it all. You are showcasing the work and effort put into assembling and painting your army, you are spending time with friends or taking it to a rival. Jokes and barbs are traded and at the end off it, you all go out to catch a bite to eat with each other. Playing solo takes a game, guts it and leaves it cold and lifeless like one of those corpses on the coroners table from CSI. The fact that you will be playing a lot of games during the period of testing does nothing to alleviate this. On the plus side this does leave you with the ability to focus on mechanics and filter out unnecessary distractions.

Despite these hurdles I was committed, in their announcement Dream Pod 9 was offering a free soft copy for testers as well as USD50 in shop credit to the player who posted the most games. What’s not to like about that offer, I’d get a book for free and be in the running for a chance to get certain figures that I wouldn’t buy otherwise. I was determined to crank them out as hard and fast as possible and on top of that I aimed to impress. My goal was to be as thorough as possible, gain some cred and maybe even work it to land myself a position with the company as a contract employee (something that DP9 was known to practice).

My schedule was 3 games a week and miraculously in the first phase of the testing when the was a lot to be hashed out I actually kept to it. With two children and other familial and household duties that was a tall order, I ended up waking up at the crack of dawn for the chance to sit down and play. Once the game was done came the report, a 10 page document that had to be attached with every game. It required a blow by blow so that the supervisor on the other end could figure out what was happening, the fact that I was on playing on vassal meant that I could take screenshots of the board after every turn which turned out to be a huge boon as I could then cut down on the amount of descriptive text and let the pictures do the talking.

When you play a game normally, it doesn’t really take all that long. However when you have to stop, record and analyze what it is you just did it becomes a rather drawn out and tedious process. There were some days where I had to literally drag myself out of bed, my joints aching and head heavy from slumber. The post game effects were no party either, rather more like the after effects of one. Headaches, tired eyes and sore shoulders were all hallmarks of having just completed another match. You see you’re not just playing a game to test it out, you’re trying to break it. As a play-tester you seek out those odd circumstances where the rules just don’t quite fit and then try to recreate them in a game. How often does an issue come up? What chain of events will lead up to the issue? Does the issue really warrant a fix or a change? These are questions that need to be addressed and when you’re kicking around a new set of rules they’re bound to come up a lot.

Things would have undoubtedly continued in this vein if it wasnt for the emergence of some very-very good company. That unfortunately will have to wait till part 2 as right now I’m just about ready to call it a night and hit the hay! Be sure to tune in next week once I have hopefully re-focused myself enough to write it.

This is my Soap Box

First off I’d like to thank everyone who submitted comments on my latest posts. I find it especially important when such comments provide me factual corrections, hints tips and tricks to building a better blog or direct me to other things that you feel might interest me. Just so you know, I really- really appreciate your feed back so I hope that no one takes it personally that I do not post up your comments for others to read.

The reason for this is… well this is my “Soap Box”, there are plenty of forums and message boards that provide avenues for discourse but this website right here is mine & mine alone. This blog is more for the stroking of my ego and is for me to state my views – right or wrong. It’s kind of like a form of therapy, an avenue for me to feel good about me and my world view without having to justify it to anybody.

Anyway thanks for the feed back, keep it coming!

ODBD correction

In my last post I was commenting on how awesome the new art direction for the Heavy Gear books and posted two images as comparison. I attributed the first image to their resident artist Mariko.

This was actually done by Greg Perkins

Unfortunately I didnt realize at the time that the above picture was actually done by Greg Perkins aka Mason on the DP9 forums. Credit where credit is due.

Here’s something that MAY have been done by Mariko, (Greg told me she did the “painterly” character portraits.

New art direction

Old art style

I dont know about you but I find the old anime style art really beginning to show its age. Nothing wrong mind you, it’s just a matter of taste.

Operation Drop Bears Dive! ODBD

Copyright DP9 2010

There is always a rush, a sense of excitement when a company whose game your following releases an expansion. The promise of new fiction to read, new units to field and new models to paint, it’s all quite invigorating. It often leaves us fanboys frothing at the mouth, waiting expectantly for the latest serving of make-believe for us to gorge upon. Well that’s how it is for me at any rate; I guess it’s the collector in me.

However sometimes expectations and reality don’t really match up, a worst case scenario would be akin to what happen to that poor sod in the film “500 days of Summer” where he accepts an invite from his ex girlfriend to a party expecting that they will get back together only to realize when he gets there that its her engagement do. Thankfully this is not one of those times, eagerly awaited and released with a slew of accompanying discounts for related products, ODBD is a joy to behold. The book is filled with page upon page of top quality artwork and accompanying fiction makes for a fun read.

Just so no one can accuse me of being biased, I took my time to try pick this new offering apart before embarking on this review. Try as I might there wasn’t much ammo to be found, the worst thing I found was a cumulative error which starts on one of the datacards and proceeds to present itself on every character card in which that model is used and there are only 2 of them. So enough talk about the “issues” with ODBD – every product has them, get over it already! – and on to the unabashed gushing.

Naughty naughty!

First up the artwork in this thing is amazing, DP9’s current resident artist Mariko has done a masterful job of bringing to life the game world through her illustrations. The art is completely different from the dated anime style used in the core rulebook and continues in the direction started in DP9’s previous offering, “Terra Nova Gambit”. One thing I consider to be a nice touch are the photoshoped action shots of the various models. My favourite is the one where a Killer Koala Heavy Gear is unleashing its flame thrower on some poor unseen victim. It my opinion that such quality photo manipulation goes a long way towards capturing the hearts and minds of audiences and is just as important as the game itself.

The new stuff

The old stuff

Next is the diversity of content. For the uninitiated, Heavy Gear started off as an RPG way back in the day. Currently the RPG is in its third (or is that fourth?? I don’t really know nor care) iteration. The reason why I’m pointing this out is because ODBD contains quite a wealth of info for the RPG as well. All the new characters (major, minor NPC and Gears) are fully statted out and ready to play if you swing that way, they even go as far to provide plot hooks for adventurers. Now I don’t play RPG’s at all (unless PC games count), so I can’t really comment on the significance of this addition but I must admit, that being able to flip through all the extra stuff that usually gets cut from a universes wargaming version made for quite an interesting read. I especially liked the piece on the Koala’s development as it gave quite a bit of flavour to what would otherwise be just another squad option.

I found that the wargame scenarios provided with the book were a nice touch. Though they aren’t really campaign friendly, they do allow players to play out significant milestones in the protagonist regiments history. In hindsight I think that this is actually more for the RPG as they tie in nicely with the scenarios hooks and provide interesting center pieces for the more action oriented group.

Burn baby! BURN!

Did you really think I'd let you see the new RPG stuff?

Despite the fact that this book is mainly a Northern release, the guys DP9 were astute enough to realize that it needs to appeal to players of other factions. As such the South and CEF get honorable mentions especially in the “War of the Alliance – aka WotA” section. This in effects opens up an aspect of Blitz that I think a lot of players have been waiting for, for a long time ie historical scenarios. I for one have been scratching my head trying to figure out how to do a St. Vincent’s War era army list just for the fun of it, I’ll probably still have to wait a while for that but in the mean time I can keep myself occupied with all the WotA stuff being offered.

One of the most controversial additions to Blitz in DP9’s last offering was the introduction of special characters. DP9 has continued in this direction for ODBD, a decision I think that will reap dividends in the future. Let’s face it nobody wants to play a game where everyone is anonymous, the addition of special characters adds drama and flavour to any game. Whether you as the player choose to use them or not, well that’s entirely up to you. What I find most interesting about the characters offered here is the fact that not all of them are combatants, in fact I personally feel that the most interesting of the lot are actually the two grease monkeys. Finally a reason for us to go out and buy those Camel trucks

Final thoughts, ODBD is a solid book worthy of the mere USD15 that it cost and the time it takes to download (which isn’t actually that long). Even if you don’t play the North or WFPA especially, this book has a lot to offer as its chock full of pretty pictures and interesting tall tales. If you’re sitting on the fence wondering whether you should get this then stop and go click on that little button that says “add to cart” if only just for completeness.

SEX & SCI-FI: Tell me what its good for! Absolutely nothing!

Ok so here it is, after a brief hiatus from updating my blog. SEX & Sci-Fi.

First off let me clear the air by saying that I am no prude. I like catching a glimpse of skin and pink bits as much as the next guy. However I do feel there is a time and a place for it, yes even in sci-fi. However whenever I manage to catch anything new in the genre nowadays I tend to find that it’s just thrown in there for posterity’s sake and not for any other reason.

I just recently managed to catch “BSG-The Plan” and Caprica, being a fan of the reimagined series I was quite excited to finally get my hands on a copy and see the direction the David and Ron would take with these new installments. What I did see however was poor story writing being covered up by gratuitous nudity.

Scenes like the topless bartender in “The-Plan” and the virtual sex rooms in Caprica were unnecessary and didn’t really contribute anything to the quality of the story telling. Rather in my opinion detracted from it by providing unneccessary distraction.

Now looking at the genre as a whole I find that sex is being used indiscriminately, be it plunging cleavage on a buxom female character or out an out on-screen intercourse it just gets thrown in there to make the 120 minutes that most movies can’t even reach nowadays.

Nudity and sex are not necessarily sexy, especially if the characters involved look like quarter backs (ie square bodied). Looking back at movies like Total recall, Sharon Stone was absolutely hot!!! Yes there was a bedroom scene but it was used in a suitable context – Arnie awakening from a nightmare and not just thrown in there for kicks as was in the case of the more recent Repo-Men, there was also a lot of T & A in Total Recall but then again that was confined to a red-light district in which the plot revolved around. Stone’s character continues to remain alluring throughout the movie even up to the point where she gets shot in the head, in that scene she’s wearing a power suit and still looks hot.

For too long producers and directors of sci-fi have in my mind been acting like anime producers. Sex and nudity is used as a form of fan service to lure male audiences. However this kind of implies that the sci-fi audience mainly consists of spotty prepubescent males who can’t get their hands on proper porn. Speaking of which if the goal of producers is to help get the audiences rocks off by having “Muscles McBam-bam” and “Shelly SpreadHerLegs” have a romp in the bedroom together then they are failing  there too and rather miserably at that. The whole excercise seems to me to be rather masturbatory – pardon the pun.

Abuse of sex in sci-fi however is not limited to the screen, even in print media it is used unnecessarily. Characters get their kit off for no reason, there is often no personal attachment between the characters and yet they gravitate towards boinking each other. In Greg Bears “Anvil of Stars” there was a lot of that going on, but contextually it too was suitable as the main protagonists were a bunch of teenagers who grew up apart from the mores and guidance of discerning adults. Even in reality teenage promiscuity is not uncommon so in that case it was acceptable if not a tad tasteless. In more recent cases as in Jack Campbell’s “Lost Fleet” series the scenes were not only unnecessary but were also formulaic, they did not contribute to character growth in any way and in the end they just felt as if the author was practicing writing sex scenes for a future romance novel perhaps.

There is nothing wrong with having sexual relations in sci-fi but sometimes there is really just no reason for it. Case in point, would Mass Effect have been any less of a game if it didn’t have the built-in sex scene that caused so much controversy, in short the answer is no. Jade Empire (though not sci-fi) was better able to convey the blossoming romance between two characters, and they didn’t even have to take their socks off, and this bring me to my next point.

Often an emotional response is better generated to a situation when less information is presented not more. Showing something in its full high-resolution detail serves only to pander to voyeuristic tendencies in people whereas implying that something is occurring leaves the imagination to fill in the blanks. A far more effective tool, especially if the goal of the storytelling is to allow the reader/watcher/player to drawn in and live as the character in that moment. The silhouetted kiss in Jade Empire between the player character and the love interest was far more sexy than the interactive zombie sex scene that was present in Indigo Prophecy (aka Farenheit).

In the end I guess it boils down what people want, there are probably some people out there who enjoy reading about Muscles and the way he penetrates Shelly’s quivering lovebox with his manhood, and there are those who balk at it. I like to think that I sit firmly in the middle, I enjoy the bit of porn-lite that is offered but only if it fits contextually into the story thereby expanding it purposefully.

Well that was it, for those who were waiting with bated breath to hear my erudite views on the matter I hope it was worth it.

PS If any would-be authors are reading this I’d like to pose a challenge. In your next opus, contain as many love/sex scenes as you can muster but do so in a way that it matches up contextually with the premise of the story, afterall it is the story that you are selling.

Hard at work or hardly working

Masturbation as it turns out is actually hard work, well at least it is when you’re doing it to our ego. Between the kid’s, work and well life I just havent been able to muster up the energy needed to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning (since it’s the only solid chunk of time I actually have to myself) and write something insightful.

Excuses aside I have had a niggling thought in my mind as to why contemporary sci-fi seems to be so full gratuitous and needless sex, but that is a rant for another day. In the mean time to hit the sack ZZZzzzz

Sci-fi or Sci-why?

Science fiction is one of those genres in literature that despite the fact that it has produced some of the best dialogues and commentaries on social consciousness, continues to be marginalized and judged based off its lesser works.

I think it was  OSC or Ben Bova who said that 90% of sci-fi out there is crap, that may be so but what the 10% that isn’t? Sci-Fi just like any other genre in literature has produced some classic works that captured the imagination of entire generations. Works the like of HGW’s War of the Worlds, FH’s Dune, Asimov’s Foundation and more recently Lucas’ Starwars (the original of course) have been no less important to our identity than classics from other genre’s.

Recently though as I flip through the odd Sci-Fi novel I find the same old regurgitated crap. Unwilling/moody/emo/disgruntled hero/ marine/ soldier etc –  is thrust into the fore front to save civilization as we know it from some very bad aliens/zombies/gene-enhanced monstrosities that want to eat us for breakfast. Humanity stands on the brink of destruction but miraculously finds a weapon that allows our protagonist to save the day Yaaaaay-Ho Hum!

Unlike other genre’s, Science Fiction in particular is positioned to enable astute authors to write about issues that really matter without incurring the firestorm of hate that would ensue if it were written in a more “serious” format. Seriously do you think that someone could, at the height of the cold war and nuclear arms race write about the failure of democracy the way Heinlein did in Starship Troopers and get away with it? Even in todays liberal and pseudo tolerant  society, such a piece of work would not be published in a more mainstream format. Actually I take that back because in todays liberal and pseudo tolerant  society it wouldn’t get published at all.

In a major twist of irony, artists, authors and publishers alike who champion the right to free speech seem to be censoring what we can and cannot read and instead push a placebo of action, sex and angst to keep us satiated.  I really hope that someone somewhere is able to wield this genre like the mighty force it is for social awareness thus establishing a classic for this generation.