Gaming Holding Pattern, Winter 2011

Some of gaming fandom takes a bit of effort. You try to support developers you like, you get in debates about the merits of certain game features, you try your best to play a game you may not like a whole lot right this moment in the hope that it'll get better. When I game as part of a community, I'll try stuff I'd otherwise not, and when I'm taking someone else's recommendation it sometimes takes some work to accept something outside of my comfort zone.
What do you play when you can't be arsed?
I find that trying a round of Spelunky is a fun way to waste some time, even though the only goals we have left in that game are goals we make ourselves. I also spent a long time playing Tales of Maj'Eyal, although when I realized that I would lose my saved games when I updated to a new version (and my life suddenly changed rather dramatically) I sort of left it behind (though another roguelike, the space exploration game Prospector, I recently tried out again). The Wager is fun, but still needs bugs worked out; Solium Infernum is great but takes a while (the demos of Armageddon Empires or Sixgun Saga are a lot more pick-up-and-play for me).  For an uninvolved but fun diversion, I'll play that pinball game Space Cadet (still one of my favorite video pinball games ever) or ROM Check Fail.
I'm willing to bet as I discover new games, or finally upgrade my machine, that I'll find a new retinue. Given that GOG's doing its usual holiday promotional deals odds are I may buy something from them. But right now, these games seem to be in repeat-gaming my comfort zone. You?


B Games

We all use the term B Movie, but it has different meanings depending on how its used. Some people mean it derisively, to imply that because it's not the grandest that cinema can offer it's not worth paying attention to. The rest, I think, use it with affection. They know that even the weakest production values can hide a strong heart. The same I believe is true in games.

Independent productions have a lot stacked against them. They tend to be done by a handful of people (sometimes just one person), who get to spin as many plates as they can to please as many people as they can, with the more tasks they take on increasing the time it takes to make it way past the point where it could be a viable income source for all but the most dedicated and/or LUCKY. They don't get the advantage of being connected to a marketing juggernaut that convinces us that we must have it because of bullet pointed features, and live-action films that have nothing to do with the game. I'm sure you can think of other examples, depending upon how you define "independent," but one advantage independent creators have is flexibility. Their tasks are in direct proportion to their ambition, and if they have a strong central creator, they can accomplish a lot, and take risks that those with a lot more investment in them can't take. 
Still, even major studios upset this trend, having genre defining or genre enhancing experiences that are (hopefully) seen by many people and help push the games conversation forward (or sideways).
Despite heavily polished games looking so much richer than their skin-and-bones counterparts, I will never be able to join in deriding some pixel-art garage game; it's just not possible for me. Games used to be ONLY that, with a few exceptions, and that was when no one had any expectations because it was all new. Without a lot of market data or huge departments who'll have to adjust to changes, you're just a bit more willing to try something new, something a coder has been itching to try, without the risk of wrecking the huge game-creation machine when you try to turn a sudden corner.
I can't say, though, that I could ever disregard the bigger companies, either. When they do things right, they do them really right, and the level of polish can be almost blinding.  But I don't really see this as an either/or question:
Truth is, wherever they come from, I like good games. I like to get something for my money and time, almost like I'm talking with the developers and exploring the virtual space they've created. I don't care if it's on a phone, made of cardboard, or needs a thousand-dollar machine to run; quality, while somewhat subjective, does feel nearly palpable when you run across something great. And I would hate for any type of company out there to completely drown out the other types.
I still remember a conversation I had with a kid on the bus headed home from school. We were talking about game systems, and I said I had a Sega. He told me that Sega sucked, and I asked him why, had he played anything on there? No, he hadn't. It was about belonging to a brand; I'm assuming his flag's colors were red and white with a mushroom in the middle. I knew through friends who had the NES that the Sega wasn't good at everything, though I had trouble finding anything that quite compared to Phantasy Star. In this case it was a lateral comparison between software giants, but we do tend to settle into comfort zones when it comes to who is producing our games, too. We focus on realistic cheekbones or flopping bodies and forget that a game can be pretty much anything. Clearly, the Atari 2600 game Adventure's sprites are low res, but I can play Adventure for a few minutes and have a fun little story to tell when I'm done. That game is OLD, but in the grand scheme it still WORKS as a game.
A lot of games now struggling to be noticed are like Adventure; a single screenshot will say a lot about what you're in for, but it won't say enough. I'm willing to bet you'll find something cool if you let your guard down and try a few games outside your comfort zone. God knows that's happened to me a bunch of times over the course of my life, and while it's a struggle sometimes to break open an "ugly" package, I've seen enough hidden gems to know they're out there, and worth all the time spent searching for them.


GOGambling Discussion

I like Good Old Games. I like their DRM free philosophy, their dedication to hunting down old stuff and making it runnable on current systems, their usually reasonable prices, their refusal to use Geo-IP identification. I find though that the way they promote their games brings about a weird behavior in me that I probably wouldn't have if things were priced statically.
As frequent users know, GOG regularly promotes older releases through sales every weekend, often from a single publisher or part of a theme. The discounts vary, sometimes decreasing on a sliding scale based on how many you buy. Considering the games are already individually priced from 10 dollars on down, the extra discounts are often symbolic; they're gunning for a volume of sales.
When a game I like is featured, part of me goes "when I'm more willing to play the thing, I should definitely get on that, but right now I'd just be throwing the money away." So I wait, because I know that games will likely go on sale again, even though it may be months or even years before that might happen. It sets up part of a sort of gambling mentality, where I try to balance what I'd do with the little wad of cash I'd be spending while I wait for my interest to reach its peak.
Yet when my interest HAS reached its peak, like it has with Darklands or a few other games they have featured, if the current sale doesn't include the games I'm interested in, or if the discount drops if I try to exclude the ones I'm not interested in, I hesitate. If the game isn't included in the sale, no matter how much I might want it, part of me wonders if I could save a few bucks by waiting. It's almost more from pride than a monetary decision; I feel like I'm one of the dupes if I buy too early.
I don't have this twisted thinking when buying games straight from the market. I know that you pay a lot to start, and as time goes by you may get discounts (and whatever you may think of used games or renting games, those are priced even lower after other people had paid to play the same game at a premium). Because there's an understanding that the demand will only increase past the initial release if the price is dropped, you have a certainty in this relationship that lets you plan your next move and buy things when they reach a comfortable level.
The comparison isn't exact because GOG tends to release games that have been out for quite a while, but many of the widgets they sell are games I haven't seen in such a long time that they might as well be new to me. If big-time new releases were treated the way the majority of GOG games were treated, I wonder if people might buy less of them knowing that some day in the future there would likely be a sale. 
So, I find that for an individual game, like Darklands or Starflight (1 and 2), the choice is not so hard. I look at the price, 6 bucks each in this case, and convince myself it's not so bad. When you don't feel too strongly about the game, though, there's this doubt that creeps up. "What if I wait a bit? Will they put it on sale?" I wonder if all these promotions, then, wind up causing a bit of lag in sales. In the case of games I love, like Starflight and Darklands, I wonder if they will be part of a bigger sale at some point. So, because the games I want are associated with other games I might never want to buy or play that might be part of some future sale, the gambler in me chooses to bide its time.
Still, if they had a static pricing drop I don't think it work quite as well as it does for most high-budget releases, since a lot of these games bank on nostalgia, a value that's not likely to change a whole lot over time, rather than the urge to be on the cutting edge of the games conversation (like I have with Skyrim, or used to have with Grand Theft Auto). Maybe if I focus on getting the few games I absolutely want, the ones that keep coming up in my mind, I might actually be LESS susceptible to sales later on because I won't feel like I'm holding back just for them.
Not sure any of you out there go through this. I'm willing to bet some of you buy things you like and don't worry so much about potential price drops, although I imagine some of these folks wind up with a bunch of games they have yet to play. I do have some of that going on, but not to the extent I've seen some people go, according to some of the lists I've seen here. Does Steam foster a similar behavior, or are their sales more all-encompassing than GOG's?


Dungeons (Gaming's Alteration of Terms)

I'm sure there are still English speakers on this planet who, when you say "dungeon", immediately think something like the Man in the Iron Mask up in chains, and would never imagine big treasure chests, monsters, or a bunch of people going IN to one on purpose, instead of trying to escape. For a lot of us though, one of the earliest meanings, really crappy prison is all but buried underneath probably one of the most generic and multi-faceted terms in gaming.
Of course video games can't really take credit for this corruption of the term. To find the culprit you'd probably have to go back to the 1970's, when Dave Arneson, Gary Gygax and others were creating the first pen and paper role playing games. Perhaps the first dungeon was really a dungeon, but the term quickly became shorthand for any place, usually indoors and filled with monsters and treasure, that player characters would likely delve. The dungeons of Dungeons and Dragons could be just about anything, although there still tended to be a maze-like, oppressive quality to most of them. You'll rarely find someone describing Any Place at All in an RPG as a dungeon, but the old, very specific castle pointers are all but erased, such that a natural cave could easily take the place of a term meant to describe something artificial.
Video games, eager to shoulder some of the complexity of their analog bretheren, managed to make the more castle-ish mazes into "dungeons," but the adaptation of dungeon into its RPG equivalent took quite a while. You had MUDs back in the text chat days, Multi-User Dungeons, which preserved the maze-like quality but despite being called dungeons, they could pretty much be anything that text could describe. In a few years, then, video games ran past pen and paper RPGs and made "dungeon" mean pretty much any environment. It wasn't until visual presentations got more sophisticated that video games calmed down and started paying tribute to the pen and paper games that had inspired them.
If you're not a gamer of any stripe, you would probably still treat dungeon as a specialty word reserved for ren fair jokes or the playful variety of whips and chains, and you might even mispronounce the word a few times. But I'm willing to bet there are quite a few people who are only cursorily familiar with games who would still know what you were talking about if you used the term more generically, though I imagine many of them might first imagine torches in sconces, chains hanging from the wall, and slimy stonework. Hell, I do too.

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Stunt Blog 2: The Reviewening

In order to give myself some practice reviewing games, I was wondering if I should just make a list of games I have that I haven't played, and people can ask me to play one of them. If you're curious about how an old game plays compared to more recent stuff, or just want to see me suffer, you could recommend I play a game on that list in a PM and I'd do my best to play it and communicate my experience. That does mean that games I can't reasonably play yet due to hardware will have to be on the back burner until I get a better machine, but most stuff that I'd have to run through DOSBox is fine. Some of the stuff would even be potentially purchasable by you, like GOG games, so you'd still be learning what a game was about from someone who gave a damn about an accurate depiction and wasn't suffering from buyer's defensiveness.
Just throwing the idea out there. It will take me a while to catalog what I have available; ArbitraryWater already recommended I play Might and Magic 6 a while ago, so unless you want to change your vote AW, I already got you down. 
Here's a link to the currently incomplete list of available games. Comments below (if any) should be questions about format or whatever; PM me if you want to know about my actual collection or want to vote on a game you want to see me review. I'm doing it that way so no one will absolutely know about user interest (if any) except for me! :)
I'll not be posting this to the forums, so I realize I'll be cutting down potential participants, but I can deal with that.

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Gaming (Gaming's Alteration of Terms)

Time to go all meta on you.
When we first moved in to our new apartment, our landlord asked apropos of nothing if I was into "gaming." This was a 60+ year old fellow asking me this, so I was sort of amused and bemused at the same time. Could he mean, like, bejeweled or something? He didn't seem to be a hard-core RPG player, although looks as always can be deceiving, but I was guessing there might be something in common between him and me, which would make things a bit smoother should we subsequently set the place on fire when I'm conducting one of my cooking experiments.
"Yes, by gum," I said [I'm paraphrasing here], "I like games!  What kind of games do you mean?"
"Well, you know, slots. Poker. "
I've been a gambler of sorts ever since I was old enough to put a coin in a slot: you played arcade games with the chance for glory, putting your initials into the high score list, and maybe even seeing an ending, although those weren't invented for most arcade games until much later. They're often games of skill, and they take an investment in time to get right. Even single-purchase games (remember those?) were a gamble when you didn't know how good the game was from the tiny picture in your Sears catalog, and now we get tons of compatibility errors, patches, and DRM shenanigans. There's an element of gambling in all of them, but not the kind of gambling that you think of when you just say that word out of the blue.
Gambling. Gambling was what he meant by gaming. They even have gaming commissions in the States that regulate gambling. They couldn't call them "gambling commissions" because there's something seedy about the term for some people. Gambling suggests recklessness, but gaming is good clean fun, even if a particular game or its participants wind up being pretty reckless. And this sort of gaming exists in a gray zone of legality, sometimes falling on either side, often because people have shown their ability to wreck themselves and their families utterly through irresponsible behavior.
That's not to say that "gaming" couldn't be used by random folks to mean board games, card games, whatever. It's certainly used that way by many species of gamers, of which I'm several at once. But I don't tend to gamble, probably because I know the odds are against me. I know that whatever gamble I take on a video game, I've already lost my money and am trying to earn it back through learning about the game and enjoying what it has to offer. The pressure is just as much on the people making the game to give me a good product, as it is my job to appreciate what's going on. Those kind of odds sound a lot better to me.
I don't doubt there are people who gamble AND play video games and board games (or sports, for that matter), it just feels like the gambler and non-gambler core groups live on separate islands, both of them exiled from the non-gaming mainland. I'm not sure what the people do on the mainland...  It's been a very long time since I tried to live in a world without games.


If Skyrim and Rage Had a Baby

Once you get all the images out of your head that the title gives you, I'm wondering if all the complaints I've heard about specific problems people have with Skyrim, as relatively minor as they seem, could be alleviated by some of the strengths of Rage. Since they're both under the Zenimax umbrella I don't think it's too far-fetched to imagine a future Elder Scrolls game being fueled with IdTech, but you'll have to do like I do and take the criticisms of both games at their word (I can't really help but take people at their word, since I have yet to upgrade my PC and actually play either game, so there you go). Id has often tried to distance itself from its own games, saying the tech's the thing and hoping for people to license their engine even after the love for their launch game may have faded, and I want to see if that sort of long-term analysis is possible. Naturally, if you have different interpretations of either game this formula's not going to work, but if you have any other suggestions for improvements feel free to mention them in the comments, assuming you feel any improvements are necessary. 
With that out of the way: 

In Very Big Letters I Declare this to Be the Beginning of this Article


The Old Stare-Down


Skyrim's NPCs still do the lock-on, stare-into-your-soul thing, and don't emote a whole lot.


Build and animate NPCs the way Rage does.
If there's one thing I saw people comment on throughout the criticisms of Rage, it was that the characters, while somewhat exaggerated, all had a stylistic cohesion and emoted well. They were a step removed from the stiff automatons you'd expect, with gestures, weight shifting, head tilting, and a bunch of other little quirks that helped sell that these were supposed to be people, and not so obviously puppets. 


There would be fewer NPCs, because each NPC would take a lot more work to make human enough to stand the test. You could still have hapless peds that wander about, but their lack of interactivity would be noticible. 

Lincoln Logs Before Lincoln



Although Skyrim's dungeons are varied and hide their modules well, they're still modules, and the more you run into the more you notice repetition.


Alongside all the complaints about Rage's core gameplay were raves about the beauty of Rage's ugliness. It was like walking through a concept drawing, rather than a pieced-together recreation of a conceptual artist's idea using in-system Lego bricks. So you could have areas that looked unique because an artist made them unique. Level designers and tech folks may still make the general layout, but concept artists could perfect the mood. Even dungeons that are ostensibly the same could be both memorable and FEEL very different because an individual artist interpreted this dungeon's past in a way that makes it stand out.
Megatextures also could extend to the world at large, allowing for wide open spaces to feel like a landscape carved by natural forces. Or godlike ones.


In addition to the pop-in and high system requirements, you may wind up having less room for the kind of stuff that makes overworlds fun to explore in Elder Scrolls games: stuff. Rage solves some of its storage problems by having much of its action inside dungeon-like environments, breaking up the monotony with high-speed vehicle battles. This might wind up making the exploration of Akavir (or wherever) feel a bit cramped.

Damn those Zombie-- Bandits


Combat is much improved, but still feels a bit awkward and a bit robotic (with the exception of dragons, that is).


Make the combat feel a bit more dynamic by adding Rage's NPC hit detection behaviors.
One of the more charming revelations I had when reading and watching Rage reviews was how hitting an enemy in Rage would cause different behaviors based on where you hit them. Hit them in the leg and they limp, hit them so that they fall over, and they struggle for a moment before standing up. Add behaviors, add melee styles the way the gangs in Rage have different approaches, and you would have about the same amount of different types of enemies while expanding how each individual enemy feels when you do the usual killing of dudes and taking of stuff.


Rage's enemies are much more numerous than those in Skyrim, and spawn in waves. Assuming they stay away from that, will this dynamic combat wear thin, while not adding a whole lot to a given battle?
If you can think of other ideas that might fit, other solutions or problems aren't covered here, or why Skyrim's current formula is just fine, let me know below.

Combating Copying: A Board Game Comparison

I've been trying to combine a lot of ideas I've been seeing in different games into some sort of Frankenstein dream game that I've been wanting for a while. Since the design right now is a board game, I don't have to worry about my coding abilities to be able to pull it off, which is a relief. The reason I bring this up though, is not to advertise for yet another one of my projects that may never get anywhere, but to talk about how the board game industry and the video game industry handle piracy. 

The Board Game Angle

People will sometimes contrast movies, music or even books with video games when talking about piracy, trying to draw parallels or contrast the methods used to protect copyright, publisher property, and creator output. I think board games though, which are a completely analog format, are actually pretty closely related, at least in their approach to entertainment. Whereas vidya games need consoles or other machines to run, board games are dependent upon the players' own brains and the cardboard and plastic machine that lies between them. I think they're similar enough, at least conceptually, that the board game industry's methods of tackling piracy provide an interesting contrast.
Since you can't exactly be proprietary with human brains (thankfully) the cardboard-and-plastic machine of a board game is all that the publishers and creators can protect. You usually have a rulebook, game components, and often a board (though not always). Unless they're terribly complex, boards can be copied in one go, and technically just about anyone could construct a game out of the rules from a rulebook (which many companies offer up for free as pdfs as a sort of preview of the game), assuming all the details of the game were in there. 
Game components like plastic miniatures, individual cards, and dice are harder to duplicate without having similar things already, with cards being the hardest, since they usually need to be made of thin, tough cardstock, be laminated to prevent fraying, all be identical on one side so they can't be differentiated from the back, and be clear enough to read if they have a lot of complicated instructions or symbols on them. Cards are actually where many bigger game design firms have been helping to prevent copying; you will often see that rulebooks are missing specific examples of character powers or events because the rules are printed entirely on individual cards. This does discourage all but the most diligent of copiers. It also makes a lot of games feel like glorified Magic clones, with plenty of rules exceptions that wind up making things more confusing, and lead to a very specific flavor of game that doesn't translate well across genres and themes. While it may work fine for some games, it puts so much focus on individual cards and their interaction that it makes a lot of the more ambitious games a huge mess to play, reducing focus on unifying elements and making them more arcane and niche than they really ought to be.
Thing is, most people don't copy board games. The amount of work to hand-build a game is a bit too much for most people, and even when people do it they often modify the existing game to suit them, which results in technically a new game at the end. But it's also that board games often give you little trinkets to help you play, whether they're cards or miniatures or dice or little cardboard tokens or whatever other gimmick. They give you higher quality components than you're likely to be able to make yourself, full color print, glossy paintings by professional artists, and playtesting of the final product to (hopefully) make the game not broken (and online errata if they screwed up). In a way, board games fulfill the suggestions of folks like Gabe Newell make for video games; they say you should provide users with a better service to discourage piracy, rather than punish those who legitimately bought the rights to use the copyrighted work. While board game piracy has natural limits that discourage most people from copying, it also as natural benefits because it's a physical product.

Back to Video Games and the Bonuses They Provide

Video games are often a self-running package. You don't necessarily need people skilled in its execution to run it, you just need an electronic brain that's up to the task. You don't need extra bits to get it to run, unless you have DRM or other code wheels that prevent you from just using the thing, sort of like what some game manufacturers like to do with card text. Publishing a rulebook would be the equivalent of making it open-source, which doesn't often happen with major commercial works, but rulebooks allow for human logic to take over a bit, whereas open-source projects are limited by user interest and ability in a way most board games could never limit users. It's because video games are so self-sufficient that many publishers feel that copyright protection is the only way to prevent their software from being widely distributed. 
Yet, as I've said, others argue that improving what the legitimate package offers diminishes the need for DRM. Gabe Newell of Valve was using his company's service, Steam, as an example of that kind of  improved service. There are constant software updates, cloud saves that can be ported between systems, controlled but unlimited downloads, and prices that are, at least in this writer's opinion, a bit too low to make all but really high volume games successful, yet help encourage impulse buys and lower the theft threshold (although it could be argued that if people are willing to steal a game, the price doesn't matter a whole lot). I'm not sure how much of his opinion was self-aggrandizing, but I've heard enough positive words from users of Steam that it seems to be working. 
[EDIT: While in principle Newell may have a point, some have pointed out that individual sellers can add DRM to their products in addition to Steam's prtections, effectively negating the streamlined Steam interface.]
Good Old Games, a service I'm much more familiar with, has a similar tactic of providing users with documentation and little bonuses like stripped audio files, captured icons, that sort of thing. None of these things are far beyond a user with even a small amount of skill in fiddling with game files, but it makes the product look a lot more enticing if you see a bunch of extras underneath. Their major feature is their unlimited, no DRM downloads and forwards compatibility, which I imagine kept users happy long after the pain of their stupid monk stunt faded away.
Both of these companies are, like the board game companies I mention, providing more than just the "rulebook", which in a video game is the software itself. They're providing services which help you play the games; the digital equivalent of dice, cards, boards, and errata.
But these are major distributors and services, which are often connected to popular games. Small publishers, like Cryptic Comet, don't often get to play ball with such companies, as they produce games that may be a bit too specialized a market. Theft often affects smaller companies even more adversely just because their volume of sales is usually so much lower. If cut out of these distribution networks, such creators wind up having to resort to DRM, or depending upon the good will of players interested in their games. For smaller groups this seems like a tall order to fill. If Newell et al. are right that the way to a user's heart is through features, it may be down to individual smaller companies to find solutions on their own.
It should be noted though, that piracy seems to be cultural, varying between groups. This suggests to me that there is no absolute amount we can expect any given game to be illegally copied, and that attitudes toward digital rights are more flexible than they might seem. I don't think it's hopeless for people who believe in protecting copyright, but those that believe that strong DRM restrictions on their software is the only solution may actually be reducing the perceived quality of service that others are trying to improve. 
Any other game services or publsihers worth mentioning that provide you more than just the software without resorting to annoying levels of DRM? This would include DRM that's acceptably tolerable.

Quest Variation and Thematic Flavor

In order for games not to go too crazy with options, and thus break easily, you will often find that quests fall into easily definable categories. My hopes are high that the random questing system in Skyrim allows for enough variation that you won't get bored of it too quickly, but I know that as time passes people will eventually figure out the behavior of that system and it will become somewhat predictable.
This is pretty much inevitable, because it's a system made by human beings for human beings. There is a lot to be said, though, for even side quests to have strong thematic flavor, and for them to vary substantially enough that the theme is a major feature and not a distraction.
Since I'm still sitting outside of the Skyrimbox I've been playing a different game than most of you are probably playing, called Wizards. It's a java conversion of a board game from the 1970's. You can get it here, though it has some qualifiers for who the intended users are. It runs smoothly enough, has tons of options, and is as lo-fi as you might expect a java conversion of a board game to be. But it also has a quest system that I enjoy a lot, primarily because the flavor text of a given quest, and there are many quests, help elevate the go-there-and-collect-that tasks into minature stories, all centered around protecting a land that's slowly being corrupted by the forces of evil. Demons spring up everywhere you go, usually ruining you if you wind up in the same hex with them, at least to start, the portions of the lands that are the weakest fall permanently into darkness every few weeks, reducing the safe places you can go and wiping out entire quest lines. The game is mad frustrating at times, and you can be quite unfairly sidelined for long enough for it to be game over. I can already think of many ways to improve on the basic ideas, but there's something in this game, something I can't quite put my finger on yet, that is doing things in a way I'd like to see now. 
It's definitely tough, and sometimes impossible, but I feel really good when I manage to actually beat the game (I've only done so once out of the ten or so times I've played it since I started playing again. Got lucky, finished tons of quests, built my character up to a top-level sorcerer and managed to avoid the traitor through blind luck, collect all the gems and deposit them in the sacred circle before the end of the world. No, that's not a euphemism).
For those of you playing Skyrim (or other games with quest-giving systems), without going into too many specifics, what's your general feeling about the quest system so far?  Things feel varied enough?

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The Contest Blues

I've entered my share of contests in my years. For some reason it's not the same thing as a lottery because you're not spending money, but you are spending time being hopeful, and in the case of yesterday, expending effort.
As a conclusion to my mild Skyrim hysteria I attempted to enter a contest in which you could write a work of short fiction set in the Skyrim universe. The guy holding the contest said you could write "anything", be it tragedy, comedy, or mystery, but the main character had to have a rather silly name, and it had to be set in Skyrim. I sat down the day the story was due and cranked out a simple story full of fan service for a certain minor character. I stayed up late waiting for the results to be posted, and I wasn't even a finalist. 
I tried to tell myself that it was good practice for my writing, and in a way it was, but the time I spent waiting for the results (when he could have easily let us off the hook and told us he had selected the finalists or something) could have been spent sleeping so that I'd have a normal day the next day. It was also a little rough on my sense of pride, because I thought it was good enough a story to at least be considered. At least with most submissions you get a rejection slip, which I've learned to appreciate, especially if there was feedback.
But because this was a contest, the writing wasn't the point. The point was, as in most contests, promotion.
GOG kicked off a similar glut of promotions with a crossword puzzle where you fill in answers and send it off before a deadline for the chance to win a game. Having obliterated my normal (if usually eccentric) sleep schedule I awoke with maybe 20 minutes to spare before the context expired. Like a machine I rattled off answers, not even looking at the crossword puzzle itself unless I needed to check for word length, but I may not have made the deadline because of an ambiguously worded clue (not the first time they've done that) and an oversight of my own.
All of this isn't that big a deal, but it reminded me that the contests aren't really for anyone but the winner, and the people doing the promoting. You can't know you'll win, so you wind up hoping like the rest of us for a prize that only you will get. The rest of us don't get much of anything for the effort we put in, whatever amount of effort that is, except the lesson that we're not destined to receive everything. Even though it isn't a lottery per se, it's stranger to lose time and effort than it is to lose money. At least with money you can make up for your losses through further effort in a method you're already familiar with. It's trickier to make up for effort that was aimed squarely at a contest.
In a way it reminded me of my recent attempt to get a job in the games industry. A lot of hope and effort, a lot of waiting and stress, and in the end it went to someone else. This was much more than a simple contest since I could have used the job, and I believe I would have been good at it. But it's not the only job in the world; I have to keep telling myself that. At least they gave me a nice rejection slip.
Yesterday I joined many of you in watching Greg Kasavin ravage the countryside of Skyrim, and it didn't cost any of us any more than our investments in computers, connections, and time spent listening and watching. Unlike those contests I knew I wasn't going to win anything, but I could still learn about the game and see it in action. Throughout a good chunk of that program, as well as the Morrowind and Oblivion sessions that came before, I enjoyed myself quite a bit, geeking out with fellow Bombers. I even helped the Morrowind team out a couple times, if unintentionally anonymously. These types of games don't railroad you too much, so each person who plays them leaves their particular stamp, and you get to see a piece of their psyche up on screen in a way, sharing in their experience of a weird world. Skyrim seems particularly good at that, although I'll never really know how well the game suits me until I actually play it. And I will, eventually. Like my finding a decent job, I hope it'll only be a matter of time. 

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