Remembering Diana Wynne Jones

For those who haven’t heard, Diana Wynne Jones passed away early yesterday morning, in hospice after a resurgence of illness.

I joined the DWJ mailing list last year, after thinking of writing to her and hearing that she was ill. In August she had stopped chemotherapy and radiation, so it seemed only a matter of time — but through the fall she rallied, seeming to go into remission, and we could subsist in the fantasy that maybe something magical would happen and we wouldn’t lose her at all. But when the message headed just ‘DWJ’ came in yesterday morning, I knew what it was before opening it, and like the day Marion Zimmer Bradley left us years ago, it was as if the world became a little more quiet, a little less bright.

Diana was one of those authors whose work and life loomed so large that it’s difficult to know what could possibly be said about her, other than that if you haven’t read Howl’s Moving Castle or the Chronicles of Chrestomanci you should go out and read them right now. (Those of you who follow “books about gryphons” should absolutely go read all of the Derkholm books right away.) Her work was boundlessly imaginative but warm as a hearth at the same time, and you knew going into one of her stories that even if everything wasn’t quite going to be all right in the end, it would be true.

Howl’s is probably her most well known work, and not just because of Hayao Miyazaki’s transformation of it (which I like more as time goes by, though when it first came out was struck by how very different it was from the Howl I knew). In a way it was like a crystallization of her many stories, intricate and puzzling but wild and beautiful at the same time. And Howl himself is a character for the ages. In him, and in Diana’s other stories, you can see how she is perhaps the only author who could look at J. K. Rowling’s work and say “I think she may have picked up a few things from me”, and make you think — you know, she’s probably right.

Also well known is the Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a classic romp that no fantasy writer or reader should be without. In it you can see her thorough dedication to the cause and craft of fantasy itself. One of the things I have always admired about her was how involved she was in the culture of fantasy, how interactive, how thoughtful. And, as a writer, how she never stopped growing. The Pinhoe Egg came out just a couple of years ago, and it was as bright and heartfelt as anything she wrote two and three decades earlier.

She was one of the great masters, and her magic was a special one. I will miss her.

PS – The Guardian has a thoughtful and excellent obit here:
PPS – And this is beautiful, from Neil:

"City of Shadow and Glass" at Bull Spec

Happy Valentine’s Day to all! Hope you did something nice tofor someone you love.

“City of Shadow and Glass”, very short cyberpunk vignette, is available in the current issue of Bull Spec, which is excellent and you should order right away, not because of my story but because it regularly provides great speculative fiction in a high production-quality format, and is an honest-to-strawberries indie initiative with local (North Carolina) roots and good people. In a world with a truly appalling quantity of garbage conveyed by postal mail, Bull Spec is something I read cover to cover as soon as it arrives.

There is a sample of Issue 4 available for free in a pretty neat little web gadget, and because “City of Shadow and Glass” is so short, you can read the whole darn thing there if you like, as well as bits of other features, including a terrific interview with Lou Anders.

There will be more later. There is always more later. Hope you all are well and onto a great week.

Beautiful Things

I’ve been sitting on this awhile, though some of you know this already, or have kindly pointed it out to me. 😉

First point of order, though, is introducing Kiba, also known as Kiba The Wonder Pup, seen here and in my icon. She is a “goldendoodle” (Golden Retriever + Poodle) and comes to us from Dee Gerrish in North Carolina. Mac has always loved other dogs, and we’d been making do with him getting his buddy fix at EveryDog Day Care, but now he has a puppy of his very own. She is unbearably cute and has therefore been appointed my new Chief Marketing Officer.

Following that, Kiba instructs me to say: In case you didn’t know from copious posting on other forums (fb, twitter, the usual), my first fantasy novel (!), SWORD OF FIRE AND SEA, was picked up by Pyr Books in May and will be published in June 2011. As you can see from the tweet, Editorial Director Lou Anders (of much fame this year and others) describes it as “Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion meets Avatar: The Last Airbender”, and more recently has been throwing in a dash of Final Fantasy, which suits me swell.

And now its gorgeous cover is viewable by all, courtesy the heroic efforts of Lou and Prometheus design staff (would love to use specific names but don’t yet know if they like being publicly credited!). It’s been amazing watching this come together and I’m beyond thrilled to be able to share it. The artist is Dehong He, a digital artist from Singapore who works by day on MMORPGs. He was perfect for a bunch of reasons, first of course being his phenomenal talent (you can see more of his artwork here). Beyond that, I’ve always loved the vibrant style of Asian MMO art, as well as the unique way they show humans — faces, costumes, everything. Being multiethnic myself, to me their art is distinctly international in a way much western art is not. I’ve also always been an anime fan, and know that there are many anime fans who also read fantasy, so have wondered if a cover that “speaks” to anime fans with its art style would recognize that crossover more.

Needless to say I am entirely biased, but assume my current “omg” level to be in the gazillions, so if you scale that down for bias this is still really awesome. Here is the link to the Amazon page (where you can zoom in and see a larger version), and without further ado:

If I have anything to do with it I’m sure you’ll be seeing it everywhere soon… 😉

Story of a grapevine

When we moved into the new place, we didn’t know that a grape arbor came with it. At first glance back in March it appeared to be a tangled mess of mysterious dry vines, long abandoned. By the time we moved in it was decidedly not dead, but covered in several feet of thick green leaves and runners that were trying to eat the house. In August, there were grapes — small tart green ones, perfect little translucent spheres that steadily grew larger where the sunlight found them.

We share the grapes with the squirrels, the birds, and one large black-eyed opossum, all of whom are Mac’s mortal enemies, according to him fit only for the noose. They pluck individual grapes from the bunches and often take a single bite only to throw it onto the ground, so now the patio is covered with lumpy raisin-like discards. Now that the season is winding down, a small army of ants have moved in to feast on the grapes where they’ve been scored and punctured by tiny claws and beaks.

Grapes are mysterious. The animals know when to pluck them, responding to some signal so far invisible to us. Size isn’t it. Color isn’t it. Some of the small ones are astonishingly sweet; some of the largest ones lemon-sour. Or maybe the animals don’t know, and that’s why we have raisins all over the yard. But they all have a grassy spice to them and thin, delicate skins, easily pierced to shed their juice like little globes of liquid sun.

But they aren’t regular and they don’t come easily, even without the local gardeners. The grapevine doesn’t really think of itself as food, and so invariably the best bunches are buried deep between tenacious vines or pressed against the arbor. As the season deepens they show their age, speckled with brown spots, frequently spaced with individual grapes that have given up the ghost and are in the process of spreading a rather pretty blue mold to those around them.

Finding a perfectly ripe grape is an extremely rare event, and as soon as you’ve eaten it you’re tempted to eat another, but chances are it’s not as good. The best have certainly gone to the birds; the soundest bunches we took were not quite ripe, being slightly sour and so passed over by the squirrels. And in a way we are as wasteful as they are, for how we sift through them, discarding the raisins and the half-bitten fruit, being attracted primarily to the ones that are whole and beautiful. And somehow it is intrinsically human that no matter how delicious the final harvest, you can’t help but think of how good it might have been — if only it could have ripened longer, if only the sun would have hit it in just the right way, if only life were a little more clean.

"Why Your Game Idea Sucks", an interview, and other publishing updates

Hallo again all — I am still behind on comment replies to the Mac Attack!, but am on a plane again tomorrow so wanted to post this quickly.

“Why Your Game Idea Sucks”, a short-order article I wrote for the Escapist a couple of weeks ago, popped up in my google alerts yesterday. By the time I got to it, it already had about 25 comments, and now it’s up to 87 or so. Comments range from “brilliant” and “the most truthful thing ever written about game development” to “how dare you” and “a pointless article”, so I suppose YMMV.

Comparison inevitably arises between something like this and Josh Olsen’s highly contentious “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script”, and ensuing Harlan Ellison shenanigans, which I suppose is fair. Olsen’s piece went up coincidentally the same day I got the green light from the Escapist, which made me groan. But thankfully a lot of people are reading the intended humor in the title and finding that it’s less acerbic and hopefully a bit more helpful than Olsen’s was for many a “butthurt nerd”. In all seriousness, I had some anxiety with the piece, because I do think it’s a valid criticism that releasing something negative into the world doesn’t reap a good result — but the proof is in the pudding here that people really don’t listen when you tell them some things nicely.

But that’s enough about that. I have also gotten wind that “Darkest Amber” will be running in the next issue of Electric Velocipede, debuting at World Fantasy, which is conveniently near home this year. It is a cyberpunk smashfest and those of you strange enough to be familiar with the Black9 world may recognize some homages.

But that’s not all! Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play, containing my super-long “Sideways into Truth: Kierkegaard, Philistines, and Denying Death Through Video Games” as well as a coveted intro written by Henry Jenkins will be hitting shelves digital and otherwise this coming February.

You should also check out “Of Shifting Skin and Certainty” by [info]justinhowe in the most recent Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the very excellent “Between Two Treasons” by Michael DeLuca, aka [info]boonofdoom, a continuation of his terrific centaur stories.

Finally, [info]charlesatan was kind enough to request and then write up a very thoughtful interview with me on his Bibliophile Stalker blog. It is going into my profile as a general whowhat?! link. 🙂

Life, addictive game mechanics, and the truth hiding in Bejeweled

One of the occupational hazards of being a game designer is an obligation to play up-and-coming games, both to stay ahead of where the market is moving and to dig for signs of the One True Game Design, aka universal mechanics that move people. Lately there’s been a lot of buzz around Bejeweled Blitz, so I dug in for a sample today.

Blitz takes the familiar Bejeweled mechanic, itself going back along the Columns lineage in games, and makes you play it fast. They bolt on a bunch of social features — leaderboards and achievements — making it massively multiplayer in a lightweight but fun way. No surprise it’s sweeping through facebook, and a good time to be doing so.

Games like this, based on such simple and compelling mechanics, are on the one hand at the heart of game design and on the other inevitably raise the concept of “addicting” game mechanics. Because, man, that mechanic is addictive.

“Addictive” is a word we use in game development perhaps too lightly, though I would argue that there is no game designer who doesn’t treat that term with a huge dollop of trepidation. Executives love to hear the phrase “addictive gameplay”. Game designers, speaking for myself and those I know (whom I’m sure will correct me if they disagree), find the concept intriguing but simultaneously dangerous, even if we believe deep down that games don’t — even can’t — hurt people. And no one, from executives to game designers to behavioral psychologists, can give you an absolutely clear and quantifiable test for what “addictive” means when applied purely to a behavior or action. (As opposed to, say, a chemical. Chemical addiction is an equine of differing saturation.)

From a design analysis standpoint, Bejeweled‘s addicting elements are simple but profound:
1. The game is simple to understand; two clicks and you’re in.
2. The game presents a clear problem with a clear solution (make rows of 3+ jewels).
3. The results of action frequently create cascading consequences.
3a. These cascading consequences have an element of randomness / unpredictability / intermittent reward.

There are further sub-elements, such as the vivid feedback (attractive effects and sound), persistent environment (it hits on this “let me poke this thing and see what happens” basic human drive) — but those are the topline elements.

The simplicity of the game reduces the consequence of failure and the speed of re-entry. The clarity of the problem and solution fires our cognitive circuits without requiring the engagement of messier things like grey area judgment, ethics, social repercussion, or any of the myriad other complex elements we have to deal with in the reality of our daily lives. The reward system and its cascading consequences ensure that we achieve a variable but deeply satisfying result from our simple, clear action.

So I get why it’s addictive. I play it, I feel the cognitive engine revv up, the little five year old in the back of my brain goes “Ooooh.” I understand that I want to keep playing, and when this reaction fires in me my ethical brain also kicks in and goes, “hmm, what are other people experiencing when they play this, and what responsibility ensues?”

Then I had a little epiphany, one of those simple ones that feels very important. I realized that what pulls me away from playing Bejeweled continuously is that I actually want to perform the complex behavior I’m supposed to be performing instead (in this case, moving onto another task at work).

Addiction is not about what you DO, but what you DON’T DO because of the replacement of the addictive behavior.

The reason why what defines addiction for one person may not define addiction for another person, even given quantified equal stretches of time action or consumption, is because addiction is not about the action, but about the individual person.

This is why merely resisting addiction of any kind is not enough. This is why — although some activities are more broadly compelling than others — virtually any activity can become an addiction. What addictive behavior does is reveal underlying anxiety (and often depression, which itself is nebulous) and lack of desire to perform the things we’re “supposed to” be doing.

One of the questions that I’ve asked before has to do with that “supposed to”. It is a deeply existential and social question: to what extent are we obligated as individual human beings to fulfill the expectations of our peers, when they run counter to our individual desires? Is the 7-11 gamer more happy in his successful guildleader existence than in his blue-collar job, and if so, is it wrong, and who is allowed to make that judgment for him?

These are deep human questions that are difficult to answer. But the game, as always, is a mirror. It does not create in us behaviors that we would never have otherwise; it reflects back to us what is lurking beneath the grind of our everyday existence.

The solution is not to break the mirror, but to resist the urge to look away from what it shows us.

Truly compassionate addiction counselors understand this: that resolving an addictive behavior (which cannot be done, by the way, until the person who has the behavior acknowledges it and decides that THEY want to change their behavior) is more than causing the behavior itself to cease. It means addressing the lack of meaning in a person’s life that leads them to pursue a simpler activity that may make them temporarily happy but not happy in the grand scheme of their life. (And the critical definition there is that only the individual in question can seek and define their state of relative happiness. It cannot be determined for them, not by family or anyone else. I’ve known people who think of themselves as depressed when really their only major source of unhappiness is that their families don’t like or accept what makes them happy.)

Some of this has a personal note, I should acknowledge. I’ve had a couple of moments wherein I thought I was addicted to one game or another. In one case, I stayed home sick from school to play a game all day. Lame, I know. (I was otherwise a pretty good student; the notion of skipping class was a big deal.) It had nothing to do with the game itself, but the fact that I was sixteen and (as I perceived it) my life sucked, and the game presented me with power and simple solutions to simple problems that were a relief from the complex crappy things that existed in my reality. From here, thoroughly not addicted, I can look back on that time in my life and say, you know, things sucked, and I completely understand why I would have rather played that game than deal with reality. When I stopped playing it, it wasn’t because the game changed, but because my circumstances did, and I no longer felt the need to disengage from meat life. And to this day the game evokes feelings of comfort, not danger, when I play it.

The reason why we, as game consumers and game creators, need to understand this, is because for many the solution is to break the mirror rather than understanding it. The latter is certainly more difficult. But we need to understand ourselves and our drives in as deep and thoughtful a way as possible not merely for our own individual benefit, but to solve the greatest problems that existence presents: the questions of why we live, and how we live. We need to understand what makes us human, and part of that is recognizing the value in the tools and art that we create to reflect ourselves back to us in the quest for that understanding. And what is so fascinating about these pieces
of art is their universality — that you don’t need to consciously think about any of this to feel why Bejeweled pulls you. Our human nature is there whether we acknowledge it or not, and the rabbit hole runs deep and dark. There is a greater cause beyond mirror-breaking, more good that we can do through understanding and compassion, in fields where those who do play games more often than they should most often have to deal with professionals who have no understanding of what those games mean, or their genuine value, even to the addicted, after addiction.

Publications Update: Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Farrago's Wainscot

Hi all. Behind on updates again, but just wanted to get in a quick update. More posts coming soon, including a Smeagol update — he has a vet re-visit next Saturday. Overall, he’s doing much better — more details soon. 🙂 Much travel ahead… NYC this weekend, Seattle next month (for LOGIN Conference, where [info]erikbethke and I will be discussing BetterEULA’s second year), NYC again in June for State of Play, TNEO in July, and of course many trips to LA in between… I’ve given up updating my Dopplr account.

So, writing stuff!

Here are some links:

In Beneath Ceaseless Skies, also check out Marie Brennan’s “Driftwood”, and, if so inclined, her wonderful post about the magazine on her LJ. If podcasts are your thing, also check out the mag’s audio fiction.

In Farrago’s Wainscot, also check out other great stories by Bruce Boston & Lee Ballentine, Toiya Kristen Finley, Jason Fischer, Jason Heller, S. J. Hirons, and Matthew Kressel, poetry by Miranda Gaw, and a very interesting experimental word piece by Jeffrey Barnes.

Go forth and read!

What do you study?

I went out for lunch yesterday and came back with a large skull that tested the (thus far) good-natured tolerance of my new coworkers. It’s a sculpted replica from a Phorusrhacos, a five-foot-tall mid-Miocene flightless raptor ([info]skkyechan, are they technically raptors?) from Patagonia. When I saw it in the window I thought it might have been from an argentavis and initially had this falsely confirmed, but all that really mattered was that it’s a giant carnivorous bird skull and I had to have it.

It came from The Bone Room, which is dangerously close to my new office and therefore at high risk of taking all of my moneys. The shopkeeper said she could get me a confuciusornis by special order. And they have tons of bugs. And a bumper sticker reading “Australopithecus ends in ‘US’!”

Flighted ancestor or not, it’s probably the closest I’m going to get to a gryphon anatomical reference without commissioning something unnatural. There don’t seem to be commonly available casts of argentavis parts, but if there were, they’d probably look more vulture-like than I’d like anyway. (But they’d be damn cool.)

The store likely exists because of our proximity to Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology and associated research departments, so the fact that I was asked “what do you study?” was perfectly reasonable. But apparently I had the wrong answer, because I was asked twice by the same person in the course of my information gathering on how accurate this stuff was and, uh, whether I could get a confuciusornis. And this after I’d explained that I work up the street at a game design company. I even said “video game design”, which probably still didn’t compute. Yes, sorry, I am a non-scholar, a dirty impostor, in your shop and asking entirely nerdy questions about your bones. But she did sell me the skull anyway. And then asked what I studied again.

The appropriate response, which (in my exuberance over the phorusrhacos) I missed, was: I’m a game designer. I study everything.

Happy holidays, and publishing update things

I am slowly clawing my way out of internet desynch, having foolishly made an initial attempt right before the holidays commenced their usual brain-eating. 2147 mails in my inbox, but the good news is only 384 of them are unread!

[info]jsridler has fallen full throttle into the livejournal thing, as I thought he would long ago, and so also made his one request before flying back to Kingston today that I manage an update, so here I am — specifically with the news that Space and Time has purchased “Lightning Over the St. Lawrence”, a poem of mine they’d been holding. It is much happiness. I picked up the summer issue of S&T at BookPeople in Austin last September, and enjoyed its poetry (and stories) greatly. In other Austin news, [info]anguirel should, I think, be on the road toward there by now, and I have told him to hie himself to BookPeople upon arriving. I still don’t have my Cold War Unicorns.

In other poem and story news, I quietly added this to my profile awhile ago, but never announced here — I have my contract now, so I think it’s officially official — I also sold a poem, “Osteometry”, to Sheila Williams at Asimov’s Science Fiction, which of course I was ridiculously excited about but didn’t know when I could mention it. Getting Asimov’s wirelessly delivered is one of my favorite things about owning a Kindle, and it’ll be decidedly weird but cool to be in its TOC. If you aren’t a subscriber, you may want to pick up the current issue — among its usual pleasing offerings it has a stirring story by Stephen King and “Lion Walk” by Mary Rosenblum, which may be the best thing I’ve read published this year — I’m anxious to hunt down her Water Rites based on its excellence. After many back-and-forths, “Impress of the Hills”, short hillbilly fantasy, was also officially accepted by Spacesuits and Sixguns last month or thereabouts.

Check out the new Ideomancer Livejournal group if you get a chance, too. I never mentioned largely because I wondered if we were supposed to be a sort of mysterious shadow council, but I’ve been reading slush for the magazine since May or so, and hopefully will be pitching in more as time goes on. Mentioned there recently is [info]ecbatan‘s review of Ideomancer this year, which includes a nice note for George S. Walker’s wonderful “Zorroid”, the first thing I fished out for them (no credit to me; Walker wrote a great story, I was only fortunate to be a minor conduit — I link it here mainly because you should go read it). I’ve always liked the magazine, from mission to content to staff and so on, so this is fun, and the LJ group is newly pretty and organized. Expect great things, if so inclined.

I’m half starved, so I think that’s all for now. Hope that you all had a terrific holiday of your choice, and hopefully are still so having. I’m off until Friday, which is nice, and working on slowly un-congealing my brain. I have managed to keep fairly up on twitter, if any of you are there, and I updated dopplr with at least the next three months’ planned travel. Inch by inch and all that. 🙂

From Denver, Unexpected Quickness (and Settlers of the New Virtual Worlds)

Checking in briefly from my sister’s rather fantastic cabin south of Denver. Photos from the trip will be up on a Flickr at some point.

Very much ahead of schedule, Booksurge put Settlers of the New Virtual Worlds out on Amazon — we finalized the book a week ago, but had thought it would take at least two to three weeks to appear on Amazon. Instead the initial listings were there in just under a week! Which turns out to be very interesting timing with my moving cross-country and Erik being abroad in Germany for Liepzig.

I think that they’re still working out the kinks — the information seems to shift every couple of days, and the cover image is a little wonky — but I am officially announcing its availability because [info]erikbethke did so, which caused Raph to do so, which caused the news to start propagating all over the darn internet. 😉 But we are live, though the book’s official “meatspace” launch remains Austin GDC, which at this point is barrelling down upon us like a train on fire.

In other Settlers news, my related article “Fair Trade Goldfarming” is up at the rather newly-minted, piloted by the elusive Joe Blancato, whom I worked with extensively at The Escapist and is now helming his own shindig (and, if he reads this sentence, also correcting my grammar). The concept of desirable goldfarming elements in MMOs is not new, but I think I might have Coined a Term. Think of it as either a taster (though not this taster or even this taster of the juicy book) or an extension upon the larger Settlers project.

Thoughts appreciated, even while I am velocitized. Proper marketing endeavors and all of that initiate when [info]jsridler and I are actually traversing <2 states per day. But of course we are very excited about the book’s availability on Amazon, and seeing all of this work and idea exchange come to tangible fruition.