Saturday, February 26, 2011

Bleg: Levi's "Space Alien" Poster

Some of you may be old enough to remember this old Chris Blum ad for Levi's:

There was also a wall poster using the same characters, showing our human hero at the lead of a long line of crazy critters. Anyone know the poster I'm talking about? I think I saw it once in a JC Penny store or something like, back in the day. I'm hoping there's a scan of it online somewhere.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


But not an unexpected one.

I used to really be into computer games. I read the blogs, engaged in the debates, eagerly waited release dates. Back in those heady days of the mid-‘90s, Jeff Vogel was one of my heroes. His championing of both indie game design and turn-based top-down RPGs really appealed to me.

But even then, I never got very far in his games. I don’t mean I didn’t finish them; I mean I never finished the free trial versions. I don’t think I ever actually bought a copy of a Spiderweb Software game.

I was often curious why they never really seemed to light my fire, but I think I’m beginning to understand why. Via Carto Cacography I found this post, written by Mr. Vogel, on balancing combats in RPGs.

Now, it’d be easy for me to jerk the knee and point out that the word “fun” doesn’t appear once in this article, but it’s equally true that this isn’t really an article about fun. It’s about balancing combats. Still, if “there are fights that will almost never ever kill a player” and “the vast majority of the fights in a game will be this sort” I gotta wonder where the fun is. Clearly, it’s not in the challenge these fights present, since by definition, they’re not supposed to provide any. They’re simply the hoops you have to jump through to “collect experience to get strong and get new spells and swords and stuff.” You show up, smack the trash mob around, and collect your reward, so you can go smack around “bigger” trash mobs and collect larger rewards. So far, I’m wondering why we’re not just playing Progress Quest with a fancy story engine slapped on top.

I have to believe some people find collecting the goodies and growing their characters’ stats fun but that makes me wonder if I can build a fancy graphical shell atop a spreadsheet database with a thin veneer of story and call it a day. (Heck, there’s some indication that even that would be working too hard.) I’m even more perplexed when Mr. Vogel brings up challenging fights. It would seem to me that having a long string of fights that the player almost certainly wouldn’t lose, punctuated by brick walls that actually challenge the player rather than the PCs, would be a recipe for frustration. I’d assumed, up until now, that such games were designed to have a gently sloping increase in player challenge, and that apparent spikes were either me not thinking in the patterns the designers assumed most players would adopt, or fumbles in design. Now I see that such things are standard design practice.

Ok, I fully understand the value of combat as an infinitely variable puzzle, but you’re tossing most of the benefit away if you’re designing along these lines. If most of your fights are “trash mobs” that I should be able to power through easily, how is making me go through them any less a waste of my time than a maze? Sure, you may need a few scattered around I can fight in order to learn how the game works, or to practice new powers and new tactics on, but unless your interface is incredibly fun to use in and of itself, yeah, I’m going to get bored. And if you attempt to alleviate that boredom by suddenly tossing in a challenging fight, why would you be surprised if the result is players who are now bored AND frustrated?

(And if the fun of your game is in the story, please write a book. If you try to force me to replay an otherwise uninteresting fight a dozen times just to read the next chapter, it ain’t happening.)

If you’re going to make players wade through some trash mobs, at least respect the players enough to make the encounters interesting. Maybe give them a goal that isn’t about just killing things or put the fight in an interesting place. Or make the mob interesting in some way. Otherwise, it looks like you’re just dragging the game out with something less frustrating (but not much more interesting) than a maze.

If you assume your players are just going to reload from the last save point anyway, why do you bother including avatar death as a possibility in your games? Besides laziness? Seriously, fates more interesting than death are easy to think of. And most of them are a hell of a lot more fun than simply reloading the game from the last save point and grinding through content that’s already been trudged through before. This is the FPS version of not being able to find the key that lets you get to where the monsters are, and going round-and-round the same corridors, over and over again, pixel-bitching in what is supposed to be a game of frenzied action and excitement.

If your game is supposed to be about tactical combat, then make it really good, really interesting tactical combat. But if most of the fights are against trash mobs that I should be able to defeat just by showing up, you’re game isn’t about tactical combat. So please, don’t try to pretend it is by forcing me to occasionally jump through some tactical combat hoops.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Bloodthirsty Sword

I just handed one of these out in my Doom & Tea Parties campaign, so I figured it’s time to put it up here.

The bloodthirsty swords are rumored to be 27 bronze scimitars fashioned by a coven of rakshasa mothers for their eldest children, sons and daughters, to wield in battle as they carved their paths with pain and death in the world. They tend to sport bone or wire-wrapped grips and bear odd, stripe-like striations along the dull edge of the blade, or down at the forte, just above the hilt.

The blades are not sentient, but wielders report that possess a certain animal intelligence. They whine or vibrate unhappily when chopping into undead, or other bloodless enemies, but sing and strike true when used against living creatures. Against non-living foes, they are +1 blades that do the usual damage. Against the living, they are far more potent.
In addition to conveying a +2 bonus to the attacks of their wielder, a true strike can be utterly devastating to the foe as the blade drinks greedily of their blood. For damage, roll two dice: a d20 and a d4. Divide the result of the d20 by the number that come up on the d4 (rounding up to 1 when necessary).

If the blade goes longer than a week without being used against a living creature in combat, it will begin to hunger. Anytime an attack roll results in a 1 there is a 50% chance the blade will twist in the hand of its wielder and bite into a living ally (no additional roll is needed; just go straight to the damage roll). The blade can be sated for a time with domesticated animals (pigs, goats, geese, etc) but will eventually tire of such mawkish fare. After a month of such a diet, the sword will do its best to be stolen (attracting the attention of thieves and murderers) or lost so that it can find its way into the hands of a more adventuresome warrior.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sexualized Male: Addendum

Ikkin: In any case, I was under the impression that this whole conversation was based on the initial question of "how do you sexualize a male character for women?" with the implication being that the answer could be used to balance out the sexualization of women that's all-too-common in the context of gaming.

Thank you! And thanks for engaging in the conversation with such vigor. (Though, honestly, issues of balance are not terribly interesting to me; I'm quite happy if people want to target particular audiences by gender, if they want. I just don't want anymore bland-as-wallpaper products being conceived as "female friendly" as if "inoffensive" is somehow a synonym for "attractive.")

And back to the topic at hand, here are some interesting datapoints I've picked up from conversations, both recently and in the past:

* women don't always seem to know what they want. That is, I've had conversations that went something along the lines of, "I suddenly discovered in my twenties that I really liked..." This is almost inconceivable for hetero guys, because we all seem to work it out by the time we're 18. I suspect that's the case because we're heavily marketed along the most common interests. In short, we've been working on isolating the most common cues for what arrests a guy's attention since the carving of the Venus of Willendorf. Marketeers then use those cues like a bludgeon to attract male attention to their products.

* but we can't say the same thing about women. Sometime between the first performance of "Lysistrata" and the filming of "Eyes Wide Shut" we've decided that women aren't supposed to like sex. When discussing sex with only other women, I hear about a frequent refrain of "I'm not a slut, but..." So even when women know what they want, they are hesitant to advertise that fact, which makes capitalizing on it by folks like Zak nearly impossible. The most important thing the romance novel industry does is hide from men what exactly is between those covers. Few women will buy porn, and I'm not sure that many more will openly purchase erotica. Which leads to this bizarre situation where a collection of letters to Penthouse must be carefully treated like it's radioactive, but any twelve-year-old can buy Anne "A. N. Roquelaure" Rice's Beauty novels off the shelf at Barnes & Noble without anyone batting an eyelash.

* and when we do try to sell porn to women, gay men scramble the signals. I'm still not sure we, as a culture, really know what women find physically attractive because the market signals keep getting disrupted by gay men, who are far more likely to buy porn. I think it speaks volumes that most magazines aimed at women tend to sport a woman on the cover.

I've known women who were crazy about bald guys. I've known women who were crazy about chubby guys. I've known women who went absolutely insane over any guy who could physically pick them up and carry them in their arms. I've known women who were crazy about beards, and women who couldn't stand beards, and I've had women describe their ideal mate to me in terms of physical characteristics almost exclusively. And all of these women were native-born Americans.

Were these women outliers? We don't know, because everyone is too busy "knowing" that hetero women are all about the tight ass, broad shoulders and six-pack abs. Just like everyone "knows" that hetero men adore large breasts, even though nearly every female movie star and supermodel can barely fill out a c-cup.

The end result is that sexuality for women turns into a maze they have to navigate on their own, hiding every step they take from anyone who might notice, dealing in codes and signals like spies in enemy territory, and always trying to read between the lines. So long as this remains the case, it's going to be extremely difficult to tease out what, exactly, they're looking for, especially if they themselves don't appear to know at times.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Top Military Developments of 2010

A very interesting list, and clearly only highlights. Here are some highlights of the highlights:

  • "Over the last eight years, billions of dollars has been spent on creating several generations of increasingly accurate combat simulators for training troops to deal with roadside bombs, hostile civilians, flying UAVs and new enemy tactics. These sims are taken for granted inside the army and marines, but still seem out of place to ill informed outsiders."
  • "The big news is that the admirals are actively brainstorming how to live with a high cost/low income future, not try to magically make it go away."
  • "Troops have increasingly been using their cell phones, including a growing number of smart phones (iPhone and Android in particular). These phones are very useful in a combat zone, and officers up to the top of the food chain have noticed this. So the decision has been made to create a militarized version of the smart phone."
  • "The Russians are buying warships and infantry equipment from France, UAVs from Israel and armored vehicles from Italy. The Cold War is truly over."
  • "The bolt-action, smokeless powder rifle was king of the battlefield for about half a century, before its replacement (the assault rifle) began to appear, so military technology pundits are trying to figure out what's going on here. There should be a new, breakthrough weapon by now. Where is it?"  I suspect we haven't seen it because Europe's been at peace for most of the last half-century, and for the rest of the world, the AK-47 has been more than they need.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Detroit's the Place to Be

If you need fancy interior scenery for your post-apocalyptic noir-thriller. Some fascinating shots in this collection that lend themselves to inspired touches of faded elegance and abandoned grandiosity.

"Look upon my works, all ye might..." indeed.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Sexualized Male: Workin' It!

So a sexualized woman is one who is advertising her availability for sex. A sexualized man, on the other hand, is advertising his ability to deliver a certain kind of sex. What does this look like?

Ask a woman what turns her on, and generally you will get a list like Mandy's. It's largely all about being. Ask a man what turns him on and you'll generally get a list of things you could do tonight to put him in the mood. This is what sexualizing is. At its heart, sexualization is concrete actions. It's not the T-and-A so much as how it's presented: the twisted, broken spine posture, cleavage, the exposed skin, the facial expression, and the scissoring legs.

When sexualizing guys, it's often less about the body and more about props. Perhaps the most potent prop is the motorcycle. (And thanks to Oddysey for giving me this example, as well as helping me to clarify my ideas on a number of points in both of these articles.) Motorcycles grumble with adventure, speed, skill, and freedom. A guy on a Harley is not going to be overly much a gentleman. There's no guessing and there's no games, nor will there be an exorbitance of “please.” He'll make it clear what he wants, will appreciate the same candor from her, and she can count on him to be gone by morning.

Horses work just as well, but the symbolism is different. Skill and command are united with sensitivity. He will be aware of her moods, her emotions, and how she reacts to how he touches her. Sensitivity, however, is not a synonym for "nice." Some horsemen will be gentlemen. But not all.

Other props are easier to come by: the dog-eared copy of Byron's poetry promising slow and intellectually stimulating foreplay while hinting at kink, the well-worn dancing shoes that intimate grace and body awareness, the shirtless and sweaty chest with work jeans and dusty boots betokening an honest and forthright vigor.

That all said, we are brought back to Mandy's list of being-verb men. If you're going to invoke any of these props, you need to be able to follow up on their promise. Any woman can slip into high heels that lengthen her legs, or put on the innocent schoolgirl uniform. The hesitant clutz on a motorcycle is a poser and more laughable than a clutz without a bike.

Even worse, the vocabulary is not as well known or understood for titillating women. The above-mentioned schoolgirl uniform can be either innocent or slutty with the same props if they're just worn a little differently. The visual language is understood so well that great nuance is possible. It's easy and natural to talk about what any individual man wants: we know what it means, and women know how to capitalize on it, when we say that Quentin Tarantino is a “foot man” or that Sir Mix-a-lot is a “butt guy.”

But we don't have the same vocabulary when speaking about women. Or, at least, it's not widely known, especially among men. If you go to the romance novels section of your bookstore you will find that they do come in categories. Some are not overt about it; Regency romances tend to be very tame, while those taking place in the old West sometimes have S&M aspects. Others advertise what they are right on the cover: family, cowboys, suspense and danger, or bad boys. Some of these are known qualities. It's not unusual to say a woman is "into bad boys" or is looking for a husband. But we don't usually see these as roles a guy should try on. Nor is our culture the place where a woman can casually suggest her husband don a loincloth and feathered headdress and tie her up in the living room.

And yet, that is exactly the sort of thing we ought to be talking about when discussing sexualizing men. The wife in the schoolgirl outfit isn't really a schoolgirl, innocent or slutty. And she can just as easily invoke the slutty librarian look, a Wonder Woman costume, or any of a range of lingerie that highlight her husband's favorite parts or brings to mind his favorite fantasies. There are, in short, not just visual vocabularies set up for the sexualization of women, but entire industries devoted to helping her do just that.

These vocabularies and industries do not exist for the sexualization of actual, physical men. In spite of the ease with which it is assumed a woman can get a man in the mood, every woman has available to her an arsenal of tricks and toys to do just that. What do men have? Well, if you believe popular culture, apparently nothing gets a woman hotter than lobster and diamonds. Even those who claim to have the secret to dominating the hookup scene primarily rely on psychological tricks to prey upon insecurities rather than titillations.

Frankly, this state of affairs is bizarre and is hopefully changing. As women become more comfortable speaking about their sexuality and acquire more wealth, we’ll develop the vocabulary, and then the industries, to cater to their desires. We’re still probably a generation away from it, but perhaps someday soon, a woman will more easily be able to express whether she wants a tender, gentle lover, or one she can chain to the bed and have her way with, and her man will be able to easily understand and put together the evening she’s looking for.

Photos by theaudi0slave and aka_serge.

Sexualized Male: the Act of Sexualization

Zack over at "Playing D&D with Porn Stars" has posted a very interesting question:

What constitutes a sexualized male character?

Not 'sexualized' in some ridiculous way that you don't actually find attractive, (like if you don't actually think Han Solo wearing Leia's gold bikini would be hot, don't put that) but in a way that you do find attractive... Remember: not merely "desirable" but 'sexualized'--like how a chick can be hot no matter what she's wearing, but if she's in a chainmail bikini and bending at the waist for no apparent reason, that's sexualized.

The answers have also been very interesting. I'm putting this here largely because Zack has requested that heterosexual men not respond in the comments to that post. Also, I want to look at the assumptions based around question.

Mandy's answers deserve special attention, I think:

Oh and....notice how all the characters I've listed are highly competent and skilled. They're the best at what they do or are special somehow, and it means they've really got most of their shit together. A man who can handle his sword or a man who can command a starship and defend himself in battle or a man you know just not to fuck with because it's made obvious by some action in whatever depiction of the character...That's just hot.

It's a fascinating insight. I also think it misses the question. Notice that everything Mandie discusses is who these men are. These are very much issues of soft being verbs. But when we say someone has been sexualized, that's a very strong action verb. In fact, when we see it used on blogs like “Go Make Me a Sandwich,” it seems very much an act of violation; male artists have done something heinous to their female subjects. Being sexualized has nothing to do with who these women are. It's something that is done to them, or that they do to themselves.

So what is the horrible thing that has been done to these women? The sexualized woman advertises that she is available for sex. Her costume and contortions highlight her physical attributes most associated in the heterosexual male mind with sex. Postures of submission or fear or challenge underscore the invitation. In the moment of sexualization, these women exist primarily, if not entirely, to gratify the lusts of heterosexual men.

Can we simply do the same things to men? Yes, so long as we assume the viewer is a gay man. Hence Nate's Gay Pride carnival:

Pride parades, leather bars, young men in v-necks smoking on street corners. Leather, chainmail, briefs, ass-less chaps, straps, studs, whatever. Muscular men wearing mesh shirts. Smaller boys in white briefs. Fat guys in leather pants and dog collars.

All of these advertise a man's availability for gay sex. How does a man advertise his availability for heterosexual sex with women?

Answer: he's breathing.

The general assumption in our culture is that any man who can still walk across the room is available for sex with women. Even those who can't walk across the room are assumed to want sex with women. Generally speaking, a man in the West has to go out of his way to advertise his unavailability for sex with wedding rings and priestly vestments.

In fact, sex from men for women is so available, social psychologists speak of it as having no value:

[S]ocial psychologists claim that men's sex has no value per se. In the world of prostitution you never see women paying men for sex. Men pay women for sex, men will pay men for sex, but women don't pay men for sex. You get a sense that she has something of value that he wants... Women can get sex whenever they want. Post it on Craigslist and you can have it within the hour.

Our culture not only has no real way for a man to signal that he is available for sex, it has trouble conceiving of a need for one. Lacking these signals, and all the cultural baggage that would go with them, you simply can't sexualize a man in the same way that you can a woman.

Does this mean that we can't sexualize men for heterosexual women at all? No! For, while a woman might be able to have all the sex she wants, not all sex is valued equally. A man's availability for sex might be taken for granted, but his ability to deliver sex that she wants is not.

More on that next time…

Friday, February 04, 2011

WoW Killer

A friend asked me tonight if something will eventually knock World of Warcraft off its perch as top dog and what such a game would look like. I do think eventually something will replace WoW as the 500 pound gorilla in its niche. And here I'm talking about the particular genre this game dominates; in terms of numbers alone, Farmville appears to clean WoW’s clock. But the games are so different in style, content, and business model, that it really doesn't make sense to compare them directly. And I suspect, in terms of raw income, but World of Warcraft still does better than Farmville. I'd love to see some numbers on this.

So what will the WoW killer look like? First, I do think Guild Wars 2 is barking up the right tree with their new classes. Giving everyone the ability to shift between tank, healer, crowd control, etc. is brilliant. It makes it a lot easier to put together a team to tackle any adventure. Once you've abandoned niche protection, you can then focus a lot more on what matters to the players. Play style is almost certainly the way to go. Making one class be about fast, precise clicking, and another about preset macros, and a third about positioning, and other such considerations makes a lot more sense.

Easing the grind is also key. WoW got rid of standing in line for your chance to kill the orc king. That's not fun for anybody. Replacing the grind with more interesting quests is probably the way to go here, and I think BioWare’s Old Republic MMOG will be the model in this regard. I haven't played that game either, but buzz says it has managed to capture a lot of the appeal of their single player games.

That said, don't expect story to be king. It would be extremely simple to give every player their own, unique plot and adventures. Nobody's bothered to do it yet, and that's because the players simply are not interested. Most approach quest text in this manner: "blah blah blah silver hammer. Blah blah blah five wolf pelts. Blah blah Darken Wood blah blah blah." Story is to MMOGs what those scantily clad girls serving drinks in casinos are to Vegas. They are an essential part of the window dressing, but nobody is under any illusions they are why the crowd has come. The folks most interested in story are quite happy with their free-form gaming; those who want to charge them $10 a month have nothing to interest them.

The graphics will continue to avoid rigorous realism, though I doubt the game that replaces WoW will look quite as cartoony. It will probably include neat cross-class combos like Dragon Age did. It will almost certainly be fantasy, and will absolutely be combat focused. It probably won't have much, if any, crafting system. It will be even more amusement park in its geography than even World of Warcraft. I suspect that no character over 10th level or so will ever really die; they will simply enter some form of bloodied or half-dead status in which they can escape to try again later.

Whatever it looks like, I seriously doubt I will be interested in playing it. It's been many years since I've been tempted to play a Diku MUD, graphical or otherwise. Most of the blame can be laid on the topics discussed in the story paragraph above. A game that wants to tackle those topics may attract my attention. I'm not holding my breath.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

New Dogs and Old Tricks

That computer RPGs have been heavily modeled on D&D goes without saying. From the earliest iteration of Wizardry all the way to modern MMOGs, we still see much that we recognize as the basic core of D&D: hit points, armor class, spell lists, niche protection through classes, dungeon and wilderness exploration, etc.

Since then, the relationship between D&D and computer RPGs has been one in which D&D mostly went its own way and computer RPGs swiped bits that fit their medium. Attempts to program various iterations of D&D into CRPGs have done a lot to draw the two communities closer together. That said, from the beginning, D&D held at its core aspects that computer RPGs just couldn't touch. Advances in computing power and algorithm design have still not given us anything close to what a live and creative DM can deliver. But there have been some advances that have narrowed the gap somewhat. The sandboxy aspects of the Elder Scrolls games (and the Ultima games before them) were an early example. More recently, BioWare has been pushing a design ethos heavily based on consequences for player choices and a plot structure that looks very much like an adventure path.

ArenaNet is currently building buzz for the launch of Guild Wars 2. As usual, they're crowing about unique design, how their game is going to be different from the competition. Also as usual, you have to take everything they say with a grain of salt; there's usually something of a gap between what the game promises during development and what it delivers in actual play. They’re pushing a "not your father's MMOG" look and feel. Clearly, they want to stand out as not just another WoW clone. Still, and despite their protestations that their game will not include the traditional class triad, we're clearly looking at another fantasy-themed combat-focused game.

There is some interesting stuff in the design manifesto published last April:

Let’s say a village is being terrorized by bandits. You don’t want to find out about that because there’s a villager standing there motionless with an exclamation mark over his head who says when you click on him, “Help, we’re being terrorized by bandits.” You want to find out like you would in GW2: because the bandits are attacking, chasing villagers through the streets, slaying them and setting their houses on fire. You can stand up for the villagers, or you can watch their village burn to the ground and then deal with the consequences.

This is your classic "show, don't tell" writer's advice. And it is very, very good advice. The mysterious cloaked stranger in the tavern is still something of a classic in tabletop RPGs, but you don't see him much in actual published material. I suspect you don't see him much outside of tournament play and other one-shots. Since at least the early 90s, you're far more likely to start an adventure by visiting a local village during market day and then suddenly finding yourself up to your Helm of Brilliance in hill giant marauders intent on stealing the prize-winning largest pumpkin.

There is also new fun to be found some of the oldest tricks:

We think of GW2 as the first MMO that actually has a cooperative PvE experience. When I’m out hunting and suddenly there’s a huge explosion over the next hill – the ground is shaking and smoke is pouring into the sky – I’m going to want to investigate, and most other players in the area will too. Or if the sky darkens on a sunny day, and I look up and see a dragon circling overhead preparing to attack, I know I’d better fight or flee, and everyone around me knows that too.

Yep, it's the good old wondering monster with a bit of a twist. Granted, part of how they make this work is by giving everybody who takes part a full share of the loot, which pokes as many holes in my sense of verisimilitude as does 4e’s insistence that defeated drow cannot be plundered for their equipment.

Still, I'm heartened to see the industry still pushing gameplay envelopes and not relying on graphics alone to draw traffic. I'm still not likely to pick an evening of Guild Wars 2 (sorry, Jesse ;) ) over any of my Labyrinth Lord games, but the computer world is inching closer, bit by bit, to the sort of play I think I would enjoy.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Fire of 5,000 Suns!

Was this how Archimedes' infamous Heat Ray worked?