costik's blog

Auntie Pixelante on the IGF

Dustin mentioned Auntie Pixelante's discussion of her frustration with being an IGF judge in comments, and I thought I'd pull it out here, since it's definitely worth a read.

I've been an IGF judge before (not this year though), and she has some cogent points. My take is: Sure, the IGF is flawed, but it's still A Good Thing. And all award systems are flawed; don't get me going on the Nebulas (which perversely encourage log-rolling and politicking among SF writers) or for that matter the Origins Awards (which now have so many categories that you wonder why some games don't win an Origins Award).

Still, the process could doubtless be improved, and I agree that at present the IGF seems to have the flaws of a jury award (relative handful of people deciding on games produces idiosyncratic results) without its virtues (debate and reasoned reflection by knowledgeable people coming to consensus).

2010 Independent Games Festival Finalists

...are up here.

Games for Xmas

As always, everyone gets games at my household. Betsy (20) got Rocketville from me and Dragon Age: Origins from Karen. Vicky (17) got Dominion and Left for Dead 2. Simona (6) got Uno and a premium subscription to Shidonni. Karen got Steam and Little King's Story (because it's supposed to be Pikmin-like, and she loves Pikmin). Vicky got me Tigris & Euphrates, and I got myself The Napoleonic Wars.

After dinner, we played Dominion, Bazaar, and Agricola.

The Future History of Megacorps

No, I didn't write up an elaborate future history before designing Megacorps; rather, I added things as they occurred, mainly for gameplay reasons. But you can sort of reverse-engineer a future history from the game's elements.

From the country names, we can infer that, in the late 21st century, regional trade groupings are more important than the ostensibly sovereign nations that comprise them: NAFTA, the EU, ASEAN, and Mercosur are major powers.

Clearly the 21st century has not evolved in an entirely positive fashion for the United States, since most of the Islamic world is united in a Caliphate, and the existence of "Great Russia" implies that Russia has regained at least some of the territories lost at the implosion of the Soviet Union. Also, the euro has supplanted the dollar as the main global reserve currency.

Global warming appears to be under control, and one of the major industries is "solar". This does not seem to represent the manufacture of solar panels, however, since solar industries exist mainly in desert regions, rather than in industrial nations -- presumably, this reflects "active" solar generation of power, and we can imagine huge high-voltage lines under the Mediterranean, bringing power from the Sahara to Europe, and similar lines crossing North America from the Southwestern desert. The "drugs" industry is located not in places where large pharma exists today, but rather in places where cocaine and heroin are harvested -- a huge industry, evidently, although it's unclear whether it is now "legal," but if not, the Megacorps evidently don't pay much attention to what governments brand as illegal. Robotics, nanotech, and biotech are major industries in their own right, but oil remains important. The aerospace industry has made great strides since you can, in the course of the game, build an orbital colony at the L-5 point, and can also mine metals from the asteroid belt.

China is now the most militarily powerful nation on the planet, though NAFTA is nearly as strong; wars are fought more with Blackwater-style mercenaries than with national troops, however, and we can presume that these wars are short, sharp affairs between relatively small forces, rather than the wars of mass mobilization characteristic of the 20th century. If there are nuclear weapons about, evidently no one dares use them.

The most common systems of government are dictatorship, democracy, and kleptocracy ("rule by theft," a snarky but not unfair characterization of the government of, say, Russia today, and of Indonesia not long ago). Cards can change a country's system of government, but interestingly, there seems to be a one-way progression: Kleptocracies eventually become dictatorships, and dictatorships eventually become democracies. Of course, late 21st century democracy bears little resemblance to the liberal ideal; in an election, each media company has one vote. So much for the power of the people.

In a possibly hopeful sign, a new and somewhat mysterious political ideology is around, called "wikisyndicalism," and it appears that this is what democracies evolve into.

The world of Megacorps is clearly no utopia, and the increasing concentration of power in six gigantic conglomerates is worrisome; yet it has its positive aspects, too. Ecocatastrophe hasn't happened, nuclear war seems to be a thing of the past, technology continues to advance, and I imagine that most people live reasonably comfortable lives.

GunFu Updated

GunFu Deadlands has been updated to v1.0, and there's now a Linux version as well. Files at sourceforge, including source code should you want it.

Playground Worlds

Playground Worlds is a book edited by Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenro that deals with the Scandinavian LARP scene. Contributors discuss recent LARPs, issues in LARP design, jeepforms, and indie RPGs. It's now available as a free PDF from the site, and is well worth reading if you're interested in LARPs or roleplaying design in general.


I'm tired of having to write "social network RPG" every time I talk about one, so I think we need an better genre name. I also remember the first time I heard someone call MMO RPGs "more-pegs," so by analogy, I suggest the use of the term "snorepeg," a quasi-pronounciation of SNRPG (social network RPG). "Snorepeg" is also a pretty good encapsulation of how utterly gripping and intense these games are (yawn -- that is, not at all).

Currently playing Rockstars, btw.

Cranberry Sauce w/ Wine, Orange, and Walnuts

Your standard cranberry sauce is, IMO, kind of repulsive -- about all you can taste is the sugar. This is better.

12oz package of cranberries
1 orange
1 cup red wine
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

  1. Using a potato peeler, peel most of the rind of the orange. Try to pick up as little of the white pith as feasible, but don't get anal about it.
  2. Chop the rind finely.
  3. Put the orange rind, cranberries, red wine, and sugar in a pot.
  4. Get it boiling and turn down to a simmer. Cook until the cranberries are soft and some have popped, about 15 minutes, then remove from the heat.
  5. Peel the orange and cut it into 1/4 inch dice, removing the seeds and as much pith as feasible.
  6. When the cranberries have cooled, mix in the diced orange and walnuts.

I advise making this the day before Thanksgiving and refrigerating until you eat, less to do on the day itself. But it's good as a side-dish at other times too, of course.

Playdom Raises $43M, And Lessons for New Entrants

...from a combination of NEA, Lightspeed, and Norwest Partners.

Thus the three big social game providers all now have huge pockets -- Zynga has raised a similar amount, and of course Playfish is now owned by EA.

Playdom has been profitable virtually since its first game launched, and has never taken investment capital before, and has instead bootstrapped itself; my guess is that their calculation is that to remain competitive with Zynga and Playfish, they also need a big warchest. Exactly how that money gets used, except in terms of pissing it away on marketing to "compete" with Zynga, is unclear to me.

Here's the basic issue: social network games succeed because they spread virally and quickly through the social network, and therefore marketing costs for them have largely been minimal. Yes, you will see lots of Zynga adds on Facebook, but a) Facebook ads are remarkably cheap by comparison to most Internet ads, b) this helps keep Facebook okay with the social network games, which in some ways undermine the utility of their network, and helps stave off the day when Facebook will demand a piece of the action, and c) it's also a way of jump-starting a new game, acquiring a core of players who will then help spread it virally.

Because of the viral nature of social network games, it's unclear where the pressure point that allows capital to win is located. That is, at retail, it's obvious: ramp up the budgets and graphic quality to squeeze out less well-capitalized competitors, and produce lots of games to grab limited shelf-space and further squeeze out competitors. But in principle, a novel social network game can spread very rapidly, even if produced by a new entrant; how do social network game companies use capital to provide a sustainable competitive advantage, that is, the ability to ensure their own growth while fucking up any newcomers?

The ad spend on the networks is part of the answer -- newcomers can't afford to splash out that way. Cross-marketing among games you provide is another -- if you look at a Zynga game today, there's a banner cross-promoting lots of Zynga's other games, and the theory is that you'll jump to a Zynga vampire-themed game instead of a competitor's vampire-themed game because you "trust Zynga" (you fool you). And instant cloning is the third -- if anyone else starts to get traction with a new game, Zynga and/or Playdom will roll out their own version ASAP, and hopefully convert their own playerbase to it before the newbie gets traction.

By raising this much money, Playdom is basically saying "We're going to play Zynga's game," instead of looking for some other route to continued success on social networks.

The problem with this approach, though, is that both companies are, in essence, working against the thing that brought them quick success -- virality -- by trying to undermine others' ability to use that same aspect of social networks.

The lesson for people considering joining this market: Under no circumstances launch with a game that can be quickly and easily cloned by Zynga and Playdom, e.g., a social network RPG which they can copy by reskinning their existing RPG software. Go instead for something that will force them to use take their scarce engineering talent off other projects and build something from scratch if they want to clone you; and have a marketing plan to hit critical mass with your game before they can respond, so that you wind up in the #1 slot in your particular niche, instead of being relegated to #3 or lower by their clone.

EA Bends Over for Wall Street

So in possibly related news, a few days ago EA bought Playfish for $300m, and today announced it was laying off 1500 people and killing a dozen games in development to save $100m annually.

(Longish analysis after the break.)

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