3D Printing and Games

I came across an interesting website today, Heroforge, which lets you design a miniature using a simple 3d interface, including equipping it, posing it, and creating facial expression. Try it out.

3D printing is going to revolutionize tabletop gaming.

  • The ability to create, pose, and then order a miniature in the material that you want is already impressive. Once 3D printers become more common as household items, printing your own miniatures at home for your games instead of ordering them becomes a game changer. 3D printing at current speeds is slow, but 90 minutes is even faster than same day shipping (and cheaper).
  • Customization is easier. In traditional miniatures design putting a new set of armour, a new pose, or a new weapon on the same miniature can require a new sculpt of the miniature or modifications that are beyond casual players. Using software people can get creative much more easily. Experts will be able to create even more complex modifications is less time with starting points that are closer to their final vision.
  • As the price on 3D printed figures and printers drops, it will be easier to field larger armies in miniatures games.
  • Rare component that exists as digital files do not necessarily have to go out of print. This means that less popular factions will not always get the shaft over the long term in wargames.
  • In tabletop RPGs that use miniatures it can be very hard to find a mini that looks like your character. Now you can design a model that looks how you want the character to look, print it, and update it as the character grows in power and changes equipment, style, and even attitude. As the tech improves so will the level of detail possible.
  • Even little quality of life improvements will make tabletop gaming better; how often have you lost a custom component or wanted another? Soon you might be able to buy a file and print it on your 3d printer with a relatively short delay.
  • On the production side it will reduce risk for certain types of gaming operations. Small, custom games become more viable if they are sold via digital license and the components are printed by the consumer.
  • The ability to print small, complex items will greatly enhance creative cosplay as well.

I am really excited by the possibilities that 3d printing will bring to gaming. For the first time I could see creating a Bloodlust boardgame that allow the players to creature their own custom gladiators after they get used to the basics of the game. With this new opportunity the outflow of creativity could be massive and the potential savings and accessibility could bring many new people to the table for game nights.

I look forward to meeting at the local gaming cafe and playing the newest games with those cool custom minis we just printed out, one day soon.

A Question of Difficulty

I have been watching the new HBO series, Westworld, with great interest. I am not a huge fan of the original book, but I like where the series seems to be headed so far. One of the ideas that they have flirted with in the show is the difficulty that people want with their gaming experiences. So far the show has not delved too deeply into it, but it is an interesting discussion, and worthy of our time.

How challenging should a piece of entertainment be?

This question applies to both gaming and writing. It is not a matter of quality in my mind; often a more accessible book or game is better polished and better made than one that is incredibly difficult or dense. Something too simple can lack any real depth.

The best answer that I can give is that it depends on the target audience of the work. An introductory or broad audience work is less difficult than one that is meant for experts.

What I see out there, however, especially in games and large publishing companies is very different from this view. The tendency not toward challenging the reader/player, but rather to create a work that appeals to as broad a base as possible. The idea behind this view is that a game or book that appeals to more people will sell more, just like any other product. This is largely born out over the short term, but questionable in building a long term audience for a property.

To illustrate my point I am going to talk about two games, Path of Exile and Diablo III. I have reviewed and discussed both at length on this blog, and I like using them because they both have similar pedigree in that they were made with the success of Diablo II in mind.

Diablo III is a commercial juggernaut. It might not be the top of Blizzard’s list, but it certainly rakes in a decent amount of money. It is far more accessible than Diablo II in many ways and is designed to appeal to newcomers and old players alike, but many veteran players found it too simplistic and repetitive and far, far too easy. Despite some glaring design flaws, I do like D3. It is not a difficult game at all, although Blizzard does offer some modes and endgame content that offer more challenge in an attempt to carve out as large a swath of players as possible.

Path of Exile is a more difficult game because it is aimed at a seasoned audience that is looking for a greater challenge. Death in POE is punishing at higher levels, even outside of hardcore modes. More interestingly, players are expected to make informed choices about how they advance their character: in POE it is possible to make characters that are sub-optimal and hard to fix them without substantial effort. The flip side to this is that a veteran can create very powerful characters and even search out unique/unusual builds.

In examining these two games it is obvious that Blizzard has come up with a winning sales strategy, but might have hurt the brand. I feel the same way about some elder scrolls games which lose nuance (I’m looking at you fallout 4 conversation system) as they are simplified for wider audiences. Path of Exile on the other hand has a smaller audience, but they are fanatically supportive of the game and the company that makes it.

Recently, difficulty has made something of a comeback, I think. As people have become more and more familiar with genre fiction and games their appetites have deepened. There will always be a need for introductory works with broad appeal, but those are likely to be dominated by companies with deep pockets. On the other hand a challenging work, if of sufficient quality, can help build loyal fans.

Big News in Gaming: Fantasy Flight and Games Workshop Part Ways.

Rumours have been circulating in gaming circles for some time now. Games Workshop, the dominant company in miniatures gaming for decades. Lately GW has been a favourite subject of my ruminations, especially in regard to their treatment of The Old World, the most popular grimdark fantasy setting in gaming.

Fantasy Flight is a relative newcomer to the field. It was started in 1995 by Christian T. Peterson and rose steadily in prominence over the last decade or so, often through clever use of licensed IPs, including Warhammer and other GW properties. After a merger with Asmodée in 2014, Fantasy Flight has arrived at the pinnacle of the tabletop gaming industry.

Fantasy flight knocked Warhammer 40k, GWs most reliable miniatures line out of the top spot in the coveted US market in 2015.  This is kind of a big deal, especially after GW has dropped Warhammer Fantasy Battles in an effort to retool their fantasy lines to greater profit.Leveraging the Star Wars license is just the latest and most successful foray for FF Ginto the miniatures space. For years their boxed sets have been fantastic collections of figures while GW charges 40+$ for a single space marine captain.

It seemed inevitable that as FFG rose, its relationship with GW would change. GW has met with success in its re-opened specialist games division, boardgame-like products that it has abandoned for years, that compete with FFG. Then at Gencon 2016 Fantasy Flight announced Rune Wars, a tabletop miniatures that moves directly into the space vacated by GW’s defunct Warhammer Fantasy Battles. This signals that the parting of ways is less than amicable (Though not necessarily sour) and that the two former allies will now be competing directly for market share.

It is hard to speculate exactly what precipitated the parting of the ways, but it is very interesting news.

Here are some of my thoughts on this.

  • Fantasy Flight will ‘win’ this confrontation, at least in the short term. FFG has a good market strategy and holds the upper hand with the star wars license. The real winners will be gamers I think, because both companies will step up under increased competition. GW, in particular, is going to have to take a serious look at the price point of their miniatures — FFG offers much better cost per figure than they do (although Cool Mini or Not
  • The real downside to these two companies parting ways is that some very good games will just disappear. These include Chaos in the Old World by the amazing Eric Lang, one of my personal favourites as well as an extensive list of Board Games and RPGs.
  • Rune Wars is not an especially strong entry into the field (The IP is underdeveloped and pretty generic), but it comes at a time when few companies, none of them with clout comparable to FFG are in the space of making big class of armies miniatures games. Their timing is good here, people are excited, and if they capitalize on early successes and release new content intelligently they will still dominate for a while.
    • FFG is hit and miss on innovative mechanics. They love custom dice, cards, dials, and movement templates and Rune Wars has them all. Sometimes these work such as the Star Wars games or the Star Wars RPG, and sometimes they fall flat. I’m leaning toward functional.
  • Talisman is returning to GW. I preferred the old characters to the new, generic take on the game so I am looking forward to a new release.

That’s all I have to say on the matter now, but it is very interesting.

Musings on user reviews

Reviews are the lifeblood of e-commerce. Without the ability to actually examine the product for themselves consumers are forced to make a judgement based partly on the description of the product, the reputation of the vendor, and the reviews of the item. Yet often these reviews are rife with ideological crusaders, reviews for sale, and odd design choices in the review systems themselves.

As an indy author this is painfully obvious for me at the moment. I have to solicit reviews on amazon because most people who read my work prefer to review it on Goodreads. I have even been tarred and feathered by fake reviewers looking to lower their average score in order to seem legitimate when they give 5 star ratings to their clients. The review system is annoying, and yet I need it to move books and reach potential readers.

The first and largest problem in the review system is that it often reads like any other comment section anywhere else in the internet. I am not popular enough to have this problem yet, but it does annoy the heck out of me when I am reading reviews of games or books and people are using the review system for popular products to push their personal views rather than actually review the product. This can be a fine line, to be sure: should Lovecraft be docked stars because he is racist? for example. Mind you in most cases it is not. I’m sure you have all seen reviews like this, if not go look at the reviews on your favorite (non classic) popular computer game or book. Some are legit, some are lazy, and some people are there to make a point that has little to do with the product itself. I’m not sure how to fix this, yet.

Fake reviews are more sensational. There is a thriving cottage industry in selling fake reviews of all sorts of products, as well as companies putting up their own fake reviews of their products. Since reviews still help drive sales, there is a real economic incentive to cheat if you can get away with it. As I noted these ‘reviewers’ often give crap ratings to low profile indy authors in order to even out all of the five star reviews they give to their clients so that they look like a tough reviewer.

The review systems themselves are sometimes even more of a problem. Amazon, the most important reviewer for my career, has some quirks that annoy the crap out of me. They do not amalgamate reviews from all of their secondary sites on my book, even though the product is exactly the same on amazon.com as it is on amazon.ca or amazon.uk. People who have written reviews for me sometimes do not get them approved from various reasons (some are legitimate I suppose, sorry mom!). Even worse is that Amazon owns Goodreads and could easily show the goodreads reviews on a particular title, like Steam shows the metacritic score, but they do not and thus compete with themselves for reviews. I don’t know too many people who are willing to review a product on multiple sites without prodding. This is not to mention the problems with the scoring systems themselves and even how ratings drive searches.

One solution is professional reviewers, people whose job it is to review a product for a trusted third party. Unfortunately in many arenas Professional reviews are missing in action, or lost in the noise. Even if they are easy to find, a professional reviewer often wants different things than the average reader. This can lead to authors skewing their work to solicit favourable opinions from elite reviewers. This is nothing new, but it is still annoying; authors should be free to write for their intended audience, ideally, rather than jump through hoops for publishers and reviewers. Still, hunting down high profile reviewers who will like your work has been a piece of advice that many of my peers have given me.

For now, I rely on fans and organic growth while examining other possibilities.

Battle Tactics: The Battle of the Bastards (TV version)

(SPOILERS for Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire)

I am not a huge fan of the later books in GRRM’s A song of ice and fire, so I have not really delved into the TV show, with the exception of when there is a major battle to watch. This most recent season had the famous battle of the Bastards which was one of the most visually spectacular and exciting battles out there. I loved it.

Mostly.

I have a serious problem with the way that Bolton’s spear wall is portrayed. Take a look at the following pictures:

BoB 1

Big shields and a wall of spears… a strong shield wall ha turned back many a barbarian horde hasn’t it? Note that men can easily fit between the spears and despite the length of the weapon it is only braced by two men.

BoB 3

Some unlucky Wilding gets too close to the shield wall and gets an ugly surprise. Note the long length of exposed wood on these spears.

BoB 2

The size of the forces involved. What happens if all of the Wildlings, fearing death, push in one direction?

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BoB 4

Another view showing the relative size of the forces involved. The reaction of any force being squeezed like this is to push back at some point in a desperate attempt to survive.

So the Bolton Spearwall is an odd duck.

  • The shields are enormous individually, but do not gain the strength that a smaller shield overlapping with a neighbors shield would.
  • The spears are a long as some pikes but only have one set of extra hands bracing them and absolutely no support from spears further back in the formation. The main deterrent from pushing into a phalanx is that one is always exposed to more rows of spears, there is no safe channel for men to flow through to get to the shields.
  • Several of the Wildlings are shown making it to the shields. One opens up and delivers a swords thrust to keep the man back. This is great TV, but terrible tactics for a spearwall where it would be far better to ward the front rank with more spears. The sword thrust appears to come from the man in the second rank, which is a pretty long lunge, and that oversize shield looks awful clumsyand hard to get back into place.

I would argue that the Wildlinsg would push back against the shields of the Bolton men. The spear density is just too sparse to stop them and the enemy ranks are too thin to prevent a breakout. Once the mass of bodies is pushing against the shields (which is inevitable, one way or another) it is very hard for the front man to move his shield aside for the man behind him to thrust with a blade. The Romans used shorter, wider shields that they could thrust over.

Some would argue that the Bolton spearwall bears some similarities to medieval spear units, the Roman Legion, or even that the Bolton men are so good or the Wildlings are so unused to formation fighting that they could not get up to the shields to push back.

Fine. What then stops the Wildlings from doing exactly the first thing that leaps to mind when I look at that spearwall: What stops the Wildings from grabbing the spears or hacing the points off? In a true Phalanx the secondary spears could thrust out to prevent this. Nothing at all prevents it in the battle of the bastards. No matter how stupid and fearful the Wildlings are eventually someone is going to hack the head off of one of those spears, or, worse yet, grab them and pull. It would only take three men pulling to overpower the two men holding the spear in the Bolton formation.

The Macedonian Phalanx

The Macedonean Phalanx. One of the pinnacles of formation warfare. The pikes are braced by numerous men and defended by row after row of spear tips that could thrust forward to ward off anyone pushing into the formation. 

Even then a true fanboy could argue that I am wrong and it does not have to turn out that way. A particularly cynical chap might say that they were overawed or low on morale, ready to be slaughtered like animals.

Ok. So what then happens when those spears start pushing into the mass of men and getting weighed down by bodies. Each of those spears would rapidly become useless as it pushes into the packed Wildlings. After it impales a few it becomes a liability as the rest can easily surge over the encumbered weapon and get into the Bolton line before it reforms. In a true spearwall the additional spears could be used to push bodies off, but more importantly they provide immediate replacements when the front spear gets broken, pulled away, or becomes unwieldy due to impaled bodies, there are immediate replacements already in place.

I admit I am being picky. Fans loved the Battle of the Bastards. The problem is many of those fans, like my own stepson, will go on to write their own fantasy tales/shows/games and I do not want to see them compound on this error.

The Reckoning and the Nature of Power in the Domains of the Chosen

Why the Chosen would participate in a system that oppresses the majority of the Gifted?

In my Domains of the Chosen series, the Chosen are the potent, ageless rulers of a sprawling Empire that clawed its way to power after surviving a massive magical cataclysm. The Gifted are those who develop the ability to wield magic, and in the Domains they are considered too dangerous to be allowed to develop their talents freely. The Gifted can choose to become Vassals who are sundered from the most destructive aspects of their magic, or to fight for their right to join the ranks of the Chosen as Gladiators.

The answer, in short, is to view the Gifted as weapons of mass destruction. States with nuclear weapons frown on other states trying to develop weapons of mass destruction, but tend be accepting of those that already have them. This even holds up with enemies: Kim Jong Un is dangerously unhinged and could be a much greater and more lasting threat than Isis, but because seems to have nuclear weapons we must practice detente with him instead of regime change.

The long answer is that the Chosen see other magic-wielders as a threat. The Reckoning began because the powerful Gifted of old began a massive war for dominance. The war was of such impressive scope that new races were created (Armodons and Minotaurs are among these and the created races suffer greater racial stigma in the Domains, because they are the product of magic) and the nations of old were mostly destroyed or became puppet states of powerful Gifted. That war went on and on, ending only when the forces that were wielded spun out of control, resulting in massive storms of Chaotic magic that scoured life from the entire planet and tainted the landscape.

The Chosen represent the Gifted who survived because they set aside their differences (temporarily, for survival) and made a pact with the people with the only safe haven around, Krass. Krass needed the Chosen for extra protection, and to help feed and shelter the massive influx of refugees that made their way to the city. The covenant they made was to the benefit of both groups; people hated the Gifted because of The Reckoning, but they needed them to survive. The Chosen needed shelter and could not survive without people (someone needs to grow food, make clothes, etc).

But The Chosen are not a monumental group. They are old enemies who often trust each other less than than anyone else. Any new Gifted who reaches the status of Chosen, migt be an ally for an enemy faction. Thus they use the Great Games as a way to control who has a shot.

It is also worth noting that by the time any Gladiator has a chance to join the the Chosen they have a large amount of popular support from years of public performance in the Arena, which counteracts the lingering fear of the Gifted for most citizens.

Finally a key point is that the Gift is not hereditary. The Chosen do not have a greater chance of having children with the Gift than anyone else. Thus any Chosen with children has a large chance of having ungifted kids; if they love those kids then they have an automatic desire to protect them from other Gifted. If the Gift were hereditary I expect things would play out very differently, with magical-aristocractic families ruling over ungifted peasant slaves.

In the end it is all about power. We can see the lengths that people go to keep and amass power throughout history, frequently killing their own family members and engaging in horrifying  atrocities. In the Domains of the Chosen, magic is power.

Teaser Tuesday!

This week’s teaser is from Bloodlust: Will to Power (Domains of the Chosen #2)

bloodlust_wtp_cover2

Flamina is a dancer for the Blue Faction. A Gifted who had dedicated her life to a less bloody, but still spectacular, form of entertainment than her Gladiatrix brethren. I like the idea of factions hiring the best performers and entertainers of all sorts, which is an idea I first encountered in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium. Flamina’s personality is as outrageous and ostentatious as her dance…

There were blade-jugglers, painters, storytellers, image-magickers and more.

The most anticipated act of all, however, was Flamina, the famed Blue Faction dancer. The slender performer entered the room wearing a mask of living fire that cast her eyes in flickering shadows. Her sinuous body was studded with red gems which caught the firelight and made it seem as if her naked skin was radiating flames. The dancer’s movements were full of liquid grace and bold swagger, like a Gladiatrix taking to the fighting grounds before a roaring crowd.

Any simple arousal over flesh and form quickly turned to awe as a pipe began to play and Flamina danced. Her hips undulated to the music, slowly at first, her long legs seeming to glide effortlessly despite the wild gyrations of her body. Her head remained mostly still, her lips curving into a smile that was half invitation and all challenge. As drums joined the pipe her dance became more inflamed. She swayed and shook, her entire figure vibrating with the intensity of her efforts. Her hair became a wild halo, highlighted by flame. The music kept increasing in tempo, and the dancer seemed to blur, a constant wave of motion.

She kept dancing longer than any of those watching thought possible, faster and faster without losing any of her grace or her sensuous smile. Heat seemed to radiate from her now. The Gladiators and The Chosen watched, entranced by the performance. The musicians reached the limit of their tempo and held it. Flamina became a blur, as if they watched a tongue of fire dancing for them. The tempo held. Flamina danced, graceful and passionate.

When the music stopped, Gavin realized he had been holding his breath. Flamina wound down gracefully, swaying and gyrating, smiling all the while, proving that it was the musicians who had reached their limit and not the dancer.

When she swayed to a halt, her eyes fixed on Gavin and Sadira, for just a moment, and then she turned and gestured to a hulking figure, beckoning Valaran to her. The crowd closed around them, eager to bask in her glory.