Friday, July 27, 2012

The Tide May Be Changing In San Diego

I'm probably wrong, knowing the history of the Padres franchise, but I think a corner is being turned in San Diego. After decades of mediocrity, and being a perennial seller at the July trading deadline, I think the Padres are actually building for the near future and holding onto their best players even though they are in the middle of another losing season.

The Padres signed CF Cameron Maybin to a big contract before the season. They just signed OF Carlos Quentin (the team's best power hitter) to a three-year extension, and they are trying to get a deal done with All_Star closer Huston Street. Third baseman Chase Headley is coveted by no less than six teams right now, but it looks like the Padres are planning on keeping him in SD. All of these moves are against the norm of what San Diego usually does this time of year, and I think it signals that they are serious about putting a contender on the field as early as next year.

The front office of the Padres, including their ownership, has been a mess over the past few years. But amidst the turmoil and the losing product on the field, the padres have been able to bolster their farm system to become one of the best in all of major league baseball. They are rich with priospects and great young players, and they have several guys who are poised to really break out in th next couple of years. When you combine they with their recent efforts to actually keep their veteran talent, things are starting to look up for the near future of the franchise.

If the Padres continue on this path, there is a good chance they can actually compete for the division on a consistent bases as early as next season. While that doesn't change the fact that this year's team has no shot at making the playoffs, it does soften the blow of another losing season. Also, if there is a solid plan in place moving forward, the young players who will form the roster of the future can have a chance to get some experience during this lost season, and better prepare for next year.

The Padres have the lowest payroll in the majors this year, and if that doesn't change, there's on so far they can go as well. But, the new ownership coming in will find that there are a lot of pieces already in place, the farm system is healthy, and a little spending could go a long way. So, if the Padres keep their veterans in place, and cultivate that young talent, the future is bright for the Padres.

Of course, I could be wrong, and the roster could be decimated by the trade deadline. Call me an optimisit though, I think it's different this year.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

My Lovable Losers--Why Liking Bad Teams Has Made Me a Better Sports Fan

I don't usually write about sports, but I am a huge sports fan, especially when it comes to baseball and football. I am also a fan of unsuccessful teams, and have been a follower of the San Diego Padres and Chargers since the early 1980's.

Why San Diego? My dad was a big Dan Fouts fan when Fouts was quarterbacking the best offense in the NFL for the chargers in the late 70's and early 80's. His love of Fouts, and those cool lightning bolts the chargers had on their uniforms made me fall in love with the Chargers as well, and I've been a fan ever since.

When I started to get into baseball, I noticed that San Diego had an MLB team as well, and a guy named Tony Gwynn was establishing himself as one of the best hitters in baseball. So, my love of the Padres began and I haven't looked back. Little did I now at the time that I was rooting for two small market teams that, while they have has some bright spots, are generally pretty lousy. The San Diego Chargers, after being very successful in the American Football league, joined the NFL in 1970. In over four decades since joining the NFL, they have been to one. Super Bowl. One. That appearance was on January 29, 1995, when they faced the Steve young-led San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX. I will never forget that day, not just because my team had finally made it to the big game, but because they were absolutely destroyed by the 49ers. The final score of 49-26 wasn't even an indicator of how bad the Chargers got beat. Steve Young threw for six touchdowns, Jerry Rice caught three touchdowns, and the 49ers led 49-18 before a late touchdown made the score look respectable. I was crushed by that loss, and that was at a time when i thought the Chargers would be going back to the Super Bowl on a regular basis. It's even worse to think about that loss now, as they have never gotten a chance to redeem themselves. While the Chargers have put some good, even great seasons together in the ensuing years (especially in the last 10), all of them have inevitable ended with disappointing losses. In fact, history may likely look back on the Chargers of the last decade as the best team to not win (or even make it to) a Super Bowl. The legacy of the franchise is one of underachievement.

Now let's take a look at the Padres. They've actually been to the World Series twice--once in 1984, and once in 1998. They lost both time, first to the Detroit Tigers, and most recently to the New York Yankees. My happiest moments as a fan of the Padres were when they beat the vaunted Atlanta Braves in the 1998 NLCS (I openly wept for joy),and when Tony Gwynn surpassed 3,000 hits. While there have been great moments for the franchise, and some playoff appearances over the years as well, the padres have pretty consistently been one of the worst teams in the league. In the last several years, they've had one of the lowest (if not THE lowest) payroll in the majors leagues, which makes it difficult to turn things around quickly.

My point is that I like teams that either aren't very good, or have bad luck. I don't know why, but I gravitate to the teams that most people don't care about. In hockey, I was a Hartford Whalers fan until they left, and I've been a Vancouver Canucks fan ever since. No team in the NHL has under-achieved more than the Canucks over the past few years, who a season ago blew a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup and lost to the Boston Bruins (this year they were knocked out in the first round). When I was big into basketball, I was a die hard fan of Charles Barkley, who never got to win an NBA championship. For the past several years, I've been a Clippers fan. Until they got Blake Griffin, they were the laughing stock of the league, which is probably why I rooted for them. No professional team I have rooted for has won a championship in my lifetime.

Here's the thing though--when you like bad teams, instead of taking joy out of your team winning, you actually have to take enjoyment from the sport itself. You find yourself becoming a student of the game, taking pleasure out of the nuances of the sport, and recognizing the little positive things that happen over the course of a game, instead of just the final outcome.

So at the end of the day, I think the fact that I root for bad teams has made me a better sports fan. I have a deeper appreciation for the sports themselves, and the intricacies of each, because I have had to look harder for things to be happy about.

At least, that's what I tell myself as I watch the Padres drop another game to the Giants.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Rewind: 2008 Mass Effect Interview With Drew Karpyshyn

Back in 2008, I had the good fortune to be able to chat with writer Drew Karpyshyn about the Mass Effect series, Drew had been the lead writer for Bioware's Knights of the Old Republic, one of the most acclaimed roleplaying games of all time. When I spoke with him in February 2008, the original Mass Effect had been out for three months,and it was already a monster hit. Drew had been the lead writer on that game, and had also written the first tie-in novel to the game series, called Mass Effect: Revelation.

I'm re-posting this interview for a couple of reasons. One, our old Secret Identity website has been archived and a lot of old content (including this interview) is no longer easily available. Second, my friend Dan Evans and I did a special episode of  Secret Identity called Co-Op Critics, in which we discussed the first two games. I've re-posted that episode on the SI podcast age, as we also recently recorded a new episode where we talk about Mass Effect 3 (which will be posted next week). So, I wanted to have this interview accessible to people for their reference if they listen to the show.

Without further ado, here's the interview I did with Drew back in 2008:



Drew Karpyshyn has worked as a writer for BioWare on many of their most successful games, including Neverwinter Nights, Jade Empire and Star Wars: Knights of the OldRepublic. Most recently, Drew was the lead writer on the award winning Mass Effect, which has sold over 1.5 million copies to date. Secret Identity chatted with Drew about the game and the universe that he helped create.

Secret Identity: Having been the lead writer for both Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) and Mass Effect, how did the writing process on KOTOR inform what you did with Mass Effect?

Drew: Obviously with each game we see the writing process evolving and improving. BioWare has always excelled with branching narrative storylines, ever since the days of Baldur's Gate. However, with KOTOR we made the dramatic leap to full non-player voice over, which forced us to change our writing style to make it more cinematic; dialog became tighter and punchier. This paved the way for us to add player voice over in Mass Effect, and to once again take another step towards a fully immersive dialog experience.

Mass Effect is a game that players can experience in a myriad of different ways. How do you craft a story that people will be approaching from multiple angles?

Branching narrative is the most difficult part of writing BioWare style games; it really is something unique to the games industry. To manage it, we have a team of writers who are each responsible for a specific area, planet or region in the game, as well as a lead writer who oversees the writing process and helps to keep all those different areas and player choices on track. There isn't any real secret to it, however; it's just a talent the BioWare writers have developed over years of creating our unique style of games.

In Mass Effect, players always have two NPCs in their party, which they pick from a roster of six. How difficult is it to make each NPC interesting enough that players will want to experience playing with each of them, as opposed to always picking the same two and overlooking the others?

Drew: The interesting thing about the NPCs is that we don't actually worry about players picking only their two favorites and using them all the time; if that happens, we're okay with that. What we focus on is making each character unique from each other character, and interesting on their own merits. That way we insure every player will have two (at least) party members they care about. Often, of course, players are intrigued by 3, 4 or more different party members, but we don't specifically set out to make this happen.

It was great to see that Captain Anderson is the main character in the prequel novel Revelation. Was he always intended for the prequel story, or did that decision come about during the development of the game?

Drew: Anderson existed in the game before the novel was even begun. It took us almost 4 years to create Mass Effect, but only about a year to go from blank page to on the shelves for the novel, so the game had to come first. When I set out to do the novel, I knew I wanted to introduce Saren to the readers, and I knew I needed a strong, moral center in the novel to balance Saren's actions. Anderson - the player's mentor in the game - seemed like a perfect fit, and his history with Saren was already part of his background. All the pieces just fell into place.

You’ve written games and novels based in the Forgotten Realms and Star Wars universes, both of which have established “rules” that you must play within. Do you find it liberating to write in the Mass Effect universe, in which you are making most of the rules?

Drew: There are good and bad elements to working in your own setting as opposed to an established setting. Obviously, Star Wars and Forgotten Realms have a huge audience, and as a fan of both settings I understand what readers are looking for when they pick up a SW or FR novel. With Mass Effect, the audience isn't established, so as an author you're taking more of a risk... you hope your instincts are correct, but you're never quite sure if you know what the fans really want. Also, the freedom to create everything from scratch also comes with a responsibility to explain everything so the reader can follow the action. For example, I don't have to explain the Force in a SW novel, but when I mention biotics in Revelation, I knew readers would need some exposition to help them grasp the concept.

Is there anything you do differently when writing for a game like Neverwinter Nights, which has the potential for user created content, as opposed to KOTOR or Mass Effect, which do not?

Drew: We treat the user created content separately from what we are doing, so they don't really overlap. We used the same process on NWN to create the stories (and on the Hordes of the Underdark expansion) as we did on KOTOR and Mass Effect. The end user tools have more of an impact on the technical side of the game than the writing.

Are there plans to take the Mass Effect into other mediums, either in-house or through licensing, such as comics or pen-and-paper RPGs?

Drew: Obviously we've already expanded into novels, so we are open to exploring other mediums with Mass Effect. However, there are no official plans in place at the moment.

Last, but not least: Will the second installment of Mass Effect pick up immediately after the events of the first game, or will it be similar to KOTOR 2 where it will take place in a different time period, but feature cameos by some members of the original cast?

Drew: I can't say too much about ME 2, but you will expect to see both familiar and new faces. And of course, Shepard (your Shepard!) will be the main character.

Thanks again to Drew for taking time to answer our questions! For more info on Drew, head over to www.drewkarpyshyn.com. To find out more about Mass Effect, check out www.masseffect.com.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Shooting Gallery at Boardwalk Arcade (Wells, ME)

One of the first things me and the kids do when we get to Wells, Maine each year is visit the Boardwalk Arcade. I took a bunch of pics, but figured I'd start with a classic--the shooting gallery. If I remember correctly, you get 16 shots for 50 cents. You earn tickets for hitting targets.

As shooting galleries go, this one is actually pretty cheesy. Everything is behind a plastic barrier, and the targets are pretty generic. They used to have a much better  one in this very arcade. The best one I've seen is still at Hampton Beach, though--it's gigantic.

Still, my son had a blast with this one.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Why the Death of the Dungeons & Dragons Virtual Table Isn't 2008 All Over Again

Back in 2008, I attended DDXP, the Wizards of the Coast sponsored Dungeons & Dragons convention (Max Saltonstall, Alana Abbott and I were covering the show for Secret Identity). The show as a special one, as WOTC was on the verge of releasing the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. We got a chance to playtest the game with a bunch of developers, and we also interviewed a who's who of game designers and industry legends.

As exciting as the new edition itself was, one of the things at the show I was most excited about was the Virtual Table, an online suite of tools that would allow players from around the world to gather around a virtual table and play D&D together. For me personally, the inability to get people together for various reasons was one of the main reasons my playing of D&D had lapsed. I was ecstatic about the prospects of getting old gaming groups back together, and starting new ones with friends from across the country.

The Virtual Table was part of a very ambitious group of digital initiatives that WOTC was planning on launching alongside D&D 4E (another of their planned initiatives was to give customers digital copies of any rulebook they purchased in print form). While there was a ton of excitement over WOTC's digital strategy, there were also concerns about whether or not WOTC would be able to implement that strategy, and bring initiatives like the Virtual Table to fruition.

So the fourth edition of D&D launched, and the Virtual Table was nowhere to be seen. Over the past several years, WOTC has released a set of online tools like a character builder, a rules cyclopedia, and encounter building tools, but the Virtual Table never came to fruition. In my personal opinion, this was one of the main factors why 4E was not as successful as it could have been, and I'm not alone in that opinion.

Fast forward to the present, and WOTC is actively playtesting the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Once again, WOTC had planned to release the Virtual Table alongside the new edition, and they had actually been beta testing it up until very recently. A few days ago however, WOTC announced the following to their community on the official forums:  

"While we appreciate the enthusiasm and participation in the Beta phase, we were unable to generate enough support for the tool to launch a full version to the public. Effective July 30, 2012 the D&D Virtual Table Beta will be coming to an end and the VT will be closed." 

So, for the second time in the last five or six years, WOTC has tried to bring the gaming table into the digital age and failed. While I was really bummed the first time this happened, my disappointment about the VT dying again is mitigated for a few reasons:

  1. After 2008, I never fully expected WOTC to get the VT off the ground (fool me once...);
  2. The company that had been helping WOTC develop the VT (Game Table Online) is planning on releasing their own version of the Virtual Table that will be compatible with D&D rules;
  3. Paizo, the company behind the Pathfinder RPG, just announced they will be launching an online table for their game;
  4. Two words: Google Hangouts

It's really the last reason above that has me optimistic about my online D&D future. Google Hangouts is already pretty robust tool for gaming, and with a few add-ons in the future, could completely replace the concept of the Virtual Table. Right now in Google Hangouts you get video chat and the ability to share documents with the group. Those two features right there are almost enough to get by with. As I was getting ready to post this article, I stumbled across a recently funded Kickstarter campaign for the Tabletop Forge, and application designed to run inside of Google Hangouts that includes a dice roller, maps, tokens and more.

I am currently planning on running some Basic D&D (Red Box) adventures using Google Hangouts, so I'll be putting it through its paces soon enough, and I plan on writing about it here.

So for me, the main difference between 2008 and 2012 is that there are already viable alternatives to WOTC's online initiatives, and there are more on the way. While it's sad that the developers of D&D can't seem to get their own suite of digital tools together, I'll be happy if they just focus on making the next edition of D&D a great roleplaying game, and leave the development of digital tools to those more suited to it.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Disney's So Random Was the Reincarnation of In Living Color

I believe I’ve mentioned this on the podcast before, but I am fascinated by the Disney’s Channel’s sketch comedy show So Random. With a five and eight year old in the house, we watch a lot of Disney Channel, and So Random was one of the best comedy shows to come along on any channel in years.

So Random rose from the ashed of Sonny With a Chance, the Demi Lovato comedy about her character’s experience working on a sketch comedy show (called So Random). When Lovato left due to personal issues, the creators decided to take the idea of So Random and make it into a full-fledged show, starring all of the supporting cast that was originally on Sonny With a Chance, as well as some newcomers.

The show was absolutely hilarious, and very family friendly, which is one reason I loved it. But what really fascinates me about So Random is how the creators clearly used the brilliant 1990s sketch comedy show In Living Color as the blueprint for So Random. Check out the intros for both shows below (notice the use of color and how they introduce each character).



The way the sketches flow into one another, the sets used on the show, and the tone of the humor all feel inspired by In Living Color as well. So Random also features musical guests on each show, much as In Living Color did. While So Random also bears some resemblance to Saturday Night Live and Mad TV, I think anyone who loved In Living Color will notice that it was clearly the strongest inspiration for So Random.

Sadly, despite getting great ratings and critical acclaim, the show was not renewed for a second season. I would highly recommend tracking down the 26 episodes they did do however, especially if you are a fan of In Living Color.

In the players below are one of my favorite sketches from each show. From In Living Color, it’s the Mike Tyson/Robin Givens Love Connection skit, and from So Random, it’s Angus the Australian Supermodel.

Enjoy!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Reflecting on My Mass Effect Experience Part 2--My Commander Shapard's Story

WARNING--I am about to get a little spoilery about the Mass Effect story, so feel free to stop reading now. In my last post, I talked about why I love the Mass Effect games, and now I want to talk a bit about the narrative I created for my character. For that, I will need to spoil some story elements from all three games. 

Still here? Great. Beacuse I want to tell you the story of my Commander Aja Shepard. My Commander Shepard was a female marine who was the sole survivor of an incident that occurred on Akuze, a planet that humans were beginning to colonize when subterranean wormlike creatures called Thresher Maws attached and killed the colonists. A unit of Marines went in to investigate and suffered a similar fate, with Shepard being the only survivor. I chose this background for my character out a possible three backgrounds. I wanted a character that had been though some trauma, but had developed a mental and physical toughness that most others don't possess. Humanity at this point is very new to the larger galactic community, and has just started to become a rising power.

In the first Mass Effect, Shepard gets accepted into a group called the Spectres, an elite group that reports directly to the Citadel Council, the UN-like ruling body of the galactic community. The first game involves Shepard investigating a rogue Spectre and uncovering a larger threat against the entire galaxy. As far as my personal narrative, I played my Shepard in the first game as a goody two-shoes, making all the "Lawful Good" (which ME calls Paragon) choices wherever I could. I focused on building my Charm skill (kind of like Charisma), so that I could talk my way out of many situations. My emphasis on diplomacy definitely affected a few key situations throughout the game, as I was able to open up dialogue options that would not be available to characters with lesser Charm skills. In addition to playing the good hero, I also developed a love interest with a alien female scientist Liara T'soni who was studying the ancient race that ties into the larger galactic threat. Of the rest of the NPCs that become potential party members, I most frequently adventured Tali'Zorah, with a female member of a nomadic race who was on her pilgrimage as a rite of passage to find information that she could bring back to people. When given the option, I partied up with my love interest and who became my closest friend, so I became close to these characters over the course of the first game.

In Mass Effect 2, the larger story takes a sharp left turn, as pretty much everything you knew from the first game changes in the first hour. For much of the game, the characters you spent time with in the first Mass Effect take a back seat to new characters and crew members you meet through the second game's story. The gist of the plot is that Shepard has to become allies with a shady humanist organization in order to combat the coming threat to the galaxy, because they are the only ones taking the threat seriously enough. My love interest became a secondary player in this installment, but I did meet up with Tali and was able to adventure with her for a good part of the second game. While I didn't care for the larger story and how it was handled, I was able to continue my character's narrative, which became about losing some innocence and making hard choices that changed my character. By the end of the game, I was less lawful-good and more chaotic good, caring less about the rules and more about results.

Mass Effect 3 sees the races of the galaxy on the brink of extinction. Shepard has rallied everyone she can for an "all or nothing" final battle that will determine the fate of the galaxy, and its a battle against seemingly insurmountable odds. The decisions made over the first two games and part of the third all factor into the final battle, and the possible outcomes of that battle. The core characters that were back-burnered in Mass Effect 2 are brought back to the forefront, which I really liked, as I was able to get the band back together for one last go around. For me, the storyline with my love interest and my best friend had very satisfying conclusions, and ones that were close to what I had wanted to see.

That's what made the finale of Mass Effect 3 so satisfying for me--I was able to complete my character's narrative in the way I had written it in my head. The developers had given me the framework of the larger story, but early into the second game, I knew how I wanted my story to end. I wanted to fight the final battle with the people closest to me, and I wanted my character to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to save the galaxy. And that's the ending I got. I didn't want to walk away cleanly, or be carried out on the shoulders of my comrades, or be given a parade--my Shepard's story was always going to end in her death. It was the narrative I had built up over the course of the three games, and I played the entire third game with that in mind. There were conversation options about not making it through the final battle, and I always chose them. When I had to make decisions about being the nice guy or getting the job done, I chose the latter. my Shepard didn't have time to mess around anymore. I was Lawful Neutral at this point--I had my own personal code, and I was sticking to it. The only laws I cared about now were my own, and people could either get on board or get out of the way. And in the end, the story concluded the way I would have wanted it to. My Shepard had a hard choice to make, and she chose the harder of the two options, which meant she would sacrifice herself (and some others) in order save the galaxy. It wasn't a happy ending, but it was the ending that my Shepard's story deserved.

About a week ago, Bioware released an "extended cut" of the Mass Effect 3 endings, because a lot of fans complained that they were unhappy with how the game ended the first time around. The extra content did change a few details of how the final act played out, but for the most part just added some context in the form of epilogues, showing you what happened to different characters, what the state of the galaxy is post-conflict, etc. I was pretty happy with the added content, as it shone a little more light on the fate of my teammates, but I didn't care for one of the changes, which actually reversed the deaths of a couple of characters that I felt fit well with the story the first time around.

In any case, I really enjoyed my Mass Effect 3 ending the first time around, and that's how my Shepard's story ended. I applaud Bioware for creating a series in which I truly feel that I have told the story of my character. Even in all of the D&D campaigns I've been in, I've rarely gotten to see the story through to the end. Playing through the Mass Effect campaign is easily one of the best roleplaying experiences I've ever had, and for that, I thank you, Bioware.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Happy 40th, Atari!

This past week marked the 40th anniversary of Atari, the company responsible for making a lifelong gamer out of me. It was until about 1978-1979, when my parents brought home the Atari Video Computer System, and I became instantly obsessed. I was roughly five years old at the time, and I spent countless hours playing early 2600 games likes Breakout, Surround and Combat with my mom and dad. We played Atari Bowling all the time as a family, and it's still one of my favorite sports games of all time. My cousin and I bonded over Adventure and Flag Capture, and Outlaw was one of my earliest multiplayer experiences.

Another reason I have such fond memories of the Atari 2600 is that my parents bought the console as much for them and their friends as they did for me. This was their game console, and they put a lot of time into it as well. I remember my parents getting together with the neighbors to play the 2600 version of Space Invaders when it came out. There were times where the kids would have to remind the adults they they needed a turn with the console as well. Those are some great memories.

In the early 1980's, I was old enough to be getting good at playing games, and there was a great wave of Atari 2600 games that I immersed myself in. Activision made some of the best 2600 games ever, from the legendary Pitfall, to super fun games like Kaboom! and Keystone Capers. Megamania is one of my all time faves from them as well. Some of the arcade ports that started making their way to the 2600 were pale imitations of the originals, but I loved them nonetheless. The Atari version of Pac-Man is considered one of the worst games ever, for me its' one of my most cherished. The sounds of Atari Pac-Man are forever embedded into the music player in my brain. My favorite arcade game of all time, Jungle Hunt (originally Jungle King), was ported over to the 2600 in 1983, and it might be the last 2600 game I was completely obsessed with.

So as I look back at my lifelong love of games, Atari essentially built the foundation for the hobby I still spend so much time with today. For that, I will be forever thankful.

Happy Anniversary, Atari!