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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Thursday, March 23, 2006

What Was This Post About, Exactly?

Another crazy week for me. I sang for a performance of the American Choral Directors, had an audition for an a capella vocal group (not the right group for me) with all of the prep work that goes into such a thing, getting ready to go to Victoria to celebrate my 20th wedding anniversary, and trying to do all of the other things that somehow I get roped into. And so, here it is, a pleasant Thursday in March in Portland, and I realize I've not done my blog entry.

Time for Stream Of Consciousness Theater! Yay!


I got bupkis. So, just ride with it.

A few years ago I got a speeding ticket. These things come in waves for me, usually I'll see two or three in a row, then nothing for years. Must. Find. Wood. To. Knock. On. There, all better. Anyway, in Oregon you get to send in an "explanation" with your fee, and they send half of it back. I can't imagine they actually read these things, but I'm sure that somewhere in the county courthouse there is a file full of the really good ones. So, I decided for this particular ticket to go through the various motions to see if being entertaining might get me a bit more of a refund. While I sadly no longer have the letter (it was written on my work computer at a job I no longer have, take that Capitalist Pigs!), it went something like this...

"Dear County Clerk,

I began writing my explanation, then thought that perhaps you might enjoy going through my thought process with me. While I am the first to admit that more than 20 seconds inside my head is likely to cause permanent damage to any outsider, I'll try to keep the noise down to a minimum..."

I then went through every "explanation" approach I could think of: Angry, Concilliatory, Dumb As A Post, etc. All in the flavor of "I could complain that I was not going the stated speed, that this was a saturation patrol for people driving uphill intended more to collect revenue than to prevent accidents, but that might come across as bitter." I ended by saying that I'd simply been going over the limit, although not at the speed I was clocked at (really, this was going uphill and I was in an old RAV4), and that I hoped they'd been entertained enough to give me a little more back than usual.

They did. No note from a clerk, as I'd dearly hoped for (I might have considered framing it had they done so), but I did get more like 75% back. More importantly, I believe I achieved my original goal and made it to The File. If anyone out there works for Multnomah County and has friends in the traffic renumeration department, if you could check on this I'd be grateful.

There was a point to this when I began...

Back in the late 80's and early 90's, Keyboard Magazine had a back-page columnist named Freff. Actually, Connor Cochrane Freff (IIRC). His head shot (that means a picture of his face, pervs) was actually of the torso of a marching band participant juggling two rubber balls. What was great about his columns was that they seemingly had nothing to do with music. Of course, that meant that they had everything to do with *making* music, albeit in about as oblique a way as possible.

One of the columns I will never forget concerned a story about young Connor, who was a starving something (student, bum, whatever), being invited to go to dinner with a friend who was a sci-fi writer. No one I'd ever heard of, but he seemed to know pretty much everyone who wrote sci-fi. And they were all there at dinner. Now Conner was a huge fan of these people, and to him this was a bit like an ancient Greek dining on Olympus with the gods. The only problem was that he had literally no money, and while he didn't mind just drinking water while his friend ate, he was definitely not cool with sitting there with a roomful of his favorite deities, and so he clumsily tried to avoid being seated with them by sitting out in the reception area. One of the writers who didn't know him, Philip K. Dick IIRC (and I'm sure I don't), came out and told him to come inside, and that he would buy young Connor dinner. Connor, trying to look like he knew what he was doing, made various excuses, but was pulled up short when the writer stopped him and said, "Son, never turn down a free lunch."

Words to live by. In fact, I myself never turn down a free lunch. Perhaps even more importantly, I never turn down the chance to offer someone a free lunch.

And it doesn't always mean "lunch" literally. The point of the article was that art is always based on the work that has gone before. Sometimes that means it's a pretty close copy, sometimes it means that someone has tried very hard to produce a work unlike anything they've ever seen before (and sometimes it works, most often it looks like what they were trying to avoid). It means that creating out of that heritage is a valuable thing, that it is not in fact stealing. In the Renaissance, composers regularly wrote "parody" works intended to sound like another composer (and Ravel did exactly the same thing in the early 20th century).

Point, Doug. You need a point.

OK, here goes.

That's what is going on in game design. We have a set of concepts, mechanisms, even themes that are used over and over again, often in a way that fails to engage us. New games are compared to what has come before, analyzed down to what works and what doesn't, reduced to it's component parts. We played Reef Encounter on Saturday, and while it seemed OK, I got the feeling that I was yet again disappointed that a game with good buzz was just another do this, get that, use it for this other thing game that I've already got 30 of.

In other words, sometimes a free lunch is not such a great idea, especially if it's at one of those $4 Chinese lunch buffets I went to too many of when I worked in tech. Too much incremental progress, not enough breaking of the mold. Too much repackaging of theme and mechanism, all to hope the game, however flawed, sticks in the public's imagination and makes money for *someone*.

The thing is, with literally hundreds of games coming out in the past five years, it's getting very hard to a) separate the wheat from the chaff, and b) have the time to even start the machine, much less try out a game like it should be. Single playings might tell you that something is a complete loser, but most of the time it requires time to differentiate quality. Wargames are less of a problem, as innovation seems to pop up every so often - look at card-driven wargames. A couple of games ten years ago, and suddenly they're everywhere, on every topic. And some do a good job.

But in Euros, aside from the fact that these games were essentially unknown in the US until eight years ago (and internet access wasn't as prevalent), there isn't that much innovation. I'm more influenced in my initial opinion of a game by undeserved screwage and by doing well as opposed to the actual quality of the game itself, so I'm leery of trusting initial impressions. And then it's off to the next shiny game and the once-played game ends up gathering dust or going to auction.

So why do I do this? Aside from the madness of possessing everything I see, that is?

Last night, Mike came by to pick up some games that were going to be used in a local convention for a two-player tournament. While he was here, he spoke glowingly of a recent session, two weeks old, where he'd gone so far as to title his report "A Sucky Day Of Gaming". Yet, he'd had a ball, perhaps as much fun as he'd ever had gaming.

You see, the games are only the excuse, the common ground that we use to bring our community together. It is the sense of togetherness, the trust, the genuine affection even for the guy wearing headphones and talking too loud, those are the real reasons we come together. We know that while many in the "real" world won't understand us, don't get why we'd ever spend time, much less money on these childish "toys" we are so enamored of, that in the end we are accepted by those we game with. That is, if you're lucky.

It is community that is the free lunch, the funny explanation file, the raison d'etre for all of these flawed games. Treasure it, nurture it, and above all, share it, and don't hesitate to trust it when you need to.

Somehow, I have managed to pull it all together, just like in Theology 101 term papers. Now that is a game that we should try to fit into a box. Next week, I will pull a rabbit out of my a**. I'll have to, as I'll have just gotten back from Canada the day before...


  • At 11:26 PM, Blogger KC said…

    Doug, your brain is a scary place, man! I'll check on the police thing for you. I figure you're correct assuming your entertaining a poor court clerk is what got you your 75% back. - KC


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