Promotional Ravings

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Wow, I’m horrible at updating this thing.

So, lots going on to fill you in on. Though I’m sure all five of you readers already know all that’s ongoing, I figured I should post this for the rest of the intrawebs so that in a 100 years people will know what happened to me along with what other people ate for food, went all emo about and bitched about politically.

The big news is that I’ve been tapped as the new Assistant Line Developer for the Classic Battletech (CBT) game line for Catalyst Game Labs. So what does that mean, exactly?

Actually, not a whole lot. My work load hasn’t increased all that much, since I’ve really been operating in that capacity for about a year now anyway. Though I do receive a modest bump in my per-word rate and can actually use the title now on my resume portfolio (and my FaceBook information). That’s a good thing, since it does give me some firmer legitimacy in the gaming industry, as small as it is. Considering this is the direction I really want my career to head, it’s another step up the ladder, and one I’m happy and very grateful to take.

Duty-wise, I’m still in ‘charge’ of the Clan portions of the timeline; pretty much everything happening to all of the Clans has been mapped out by me over the last couple of years. (I won’t claim all credit, since Oystein has given me a lot of help with the direction of the Dominion.) I’ve also picked up the load as far as the new ‘e-book’ series are concerned. The first release, Turning Points: Luthien, has done well and can be considered a success, one that we can hope will continue with subsequent editions.

I’m also still the ‘go-to’ person with regards to the new campaign and track system; I am beginning to train other authors in how to do them, as keeping that solely to myself may be a bad decision down the road. Specializing in certain factions, rules or other ‘niches’ in a shared universe may sound great, but it’s not something CGL really encourages. While there’s a special coolness about creating and handling characters and plots within a shared universe as big as the CBT one, the bottom line is that it still is a *SHARED* universe. Being a diversified writer in the game industry is a highly-prized skill, and one that I continue to hone with abandon.

Case in point: consider how many factions I actually plot out, what types of rules I develop and flesh out, and the sheer variety of units I create. I’ve graciously handed off characters of my own creation to other authors to play with, as well as incorporating other ideas and suggestions into my own structuring. You have to do this; if you don’t, you’re just writing yourself into a corner. We have a lot of authors who dabble in the CBT universe and sadly, too many specialize. I’ve seen the pitches that come back for various products and notice the same people pitching along the same comfortable lines; very few step ‘out of the box’ and go for something else. While some of it is a deference to a fellow writer’s “zone,” and that’s appreciated, it’s not necessary.

I’ll say it again: a shared universe is exactly that: SHARED.

So yeah, my duties have expanded a little. I find myself now behind the eight-ball (so to speak) on at least one major project; I’ve been finding it difficult to really dig in because of some underlying concerns. Not about the book, really, but the level of detail that’s being increasingly asked for.

When we release a new book that I helped write / create, I like to scan the forums to see what players are saying. It’s informative – and infuriating. Oh, you get used to people liking or hating what you create – there’s no way around that at all. What drives me up the wall and across the ceiling, however, is the inevitable statements of “oh, I wish they had more detail on this,” or “This is okay, but there should’ve been more told on that, and take that out so there’s more room here.” I’ve seen forum threads from players practically demanding source material covering trivial universe fluff, like uniforms or detailed tables defining miniscule day-to-day support services. (My favorite example is one fan who demanded exacting tables that you could use to determine what you served your fictional troops for meals, in order to determine how much tonnage you needed to set aside for transportation.)

Why? Why do players these days need every single rivet, every single laser blast described out in detail? What happened to players and gamemasters making their own stories, even within the framework of the canon universe?

I’ll give a good example here. Dawn of the Jihad. When it first released, it was a new approach for the game line to convey information. Before then, the major events of the universe were followed and broad-brushed in novels. When ROC canceled the line, that vehicle disappeared. So the ‘as it happens’ sourcebook concept was developed by Randall and Herb (my bosses) in order to preserve the feel of the universe as well as convey information and move the timeline forward.

Well, the ‘old guard’ hated it. Utterly. “There’s no solid information,” was the outcry. No “God’s-eye viewpoint” as the older sourcebook material (always done ‘after the fact’) provided. Change was here, and as many gamers are want, the change was decried as unholy and a “step in the wrong direction” for the game.

I still hear complaints four years later. The campaign I developed for the book and its subsequent follow-ups provides a wealth of information for gamemasters and players to utilize in fleshing out their own games. But the cry is always the same – it’s “not factual info” or “not enough detail” or whatnot.

To which I say, WHY? Why is such excruciating detail necessary to PLAY YOUR OWN GAME? Isn’t that what gaming is all about? Creating your own stories?

I know that from here to eternity, there will be a segment of the player base – regardless of game system or universe – who will be unhappy about products because they lack this or that. Usually its something that they themselves would have rather inserted, regardless of whether it’s in the marketable and profitable interest of the game itself.

Which means that I can safely say that those requesting / demanding a ‘uniform book’ detailing all the uniforms of various military units of the CBT universe will remain disappointed. You’ll never see it happen. Now, if they want to make their own, awesome. Enjoy it. Love the creative process. Share it. But don’t expect it from CBT.

So back to my original point: a lack of motivational impetus to move forward on my current project. Details that need to be presented, but refraining from hard numbers and solid data simply because it eliminates ‘wiggle room’ that is so necessary for this universe to survive. Somehow over the last 25 years the CBT universe turned from a pulp fiction easy-read enjoyable universe to a quasi-hard sci-fi futuristic-but-based-on-21st-century technology universe. Why? Because, in essence, this erroneous demand for detail. The more detail demanded, the more the authors have slowly acquiesced in giving data that has to ‘make sense’ to our 21st century minds, in order to maintain some semblance of ‘real life, just in the future.’

To which I gnash my teeth. What happened to the suspension of disbelief, the essence of every great fictional story? Look at Star Wars: lasers are colored, there’s noise in space, and gravity just ‘works’ in the ships. Why is it popular then, since the laws of the universe as we know it to be are ignored and in many cases, blatantly flaunted?

Because of the story. The story is what engages us. It’s what enamors us. It’s what keeps us coming back.

Sure, there are fans that are uber-geeked and try to explain everything away – even though they can’t. But the authors don’t do it. The creator doesn’t do it. There’s no need to.

Sadly, CBT has swung the opposite way, and that I think is what annoys me and saps my creative spark. Knowing that what I write is going to be scrutinized to the nth degree by factcheckers who apply real-universe laws and whatnot to my writing, robbing it of what makes it a story for the sake of ‘realism.’ Killing the creativity outright, or at the least stripping it of its color and flamboyancy.

Are we telling a story, or are we trying to be realistic? I desperately want the former – and I know I have allies within the CBT circle on this – but I think the harshness of forum denizens (of which represent a very loud vocal minority of the fanbase, but their din is suffocating) who shred and pick apart a body of work before it’s even cooled off the presses has made us less risk-taking, less apt to create a story and forces us to make it more detail-oriented simply to stave off the pitchforks.

Is this the future of gaming? Have we sunk to the point of cravenness to ‘know all’ that we cannot think and imagine for ourselves?

I desperately hope not. For once creativity dies, where then comes our humanity?

You know, that’s probably how Skynet takes over the whole planet. Figures.

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19 thoughts on “Promotional Ravings

  1. I wish there were some points, something…anything, in this post that I could actually disagree with you on. ; )

    Oh well, happy holidays!

  2. Hey Ben

    I’ll say it here again, Grats on the promotion. Can’t think of a better canditate!

    Seeing the game design process (and the critism of something that you spent hours discussing, refining, writing, testing and then publishing) from the other side of the fence I now have a much better appreciation for how a throw away comment from a “Fan” can grate (or feel like a knife through the soul)

    On the flip side the odd positive comment can buoy you back up again!

    So keep going, those of us who understand the way the world is going appreciate your effort.

    And may even choose to throw our lot into the mix when we’re a tad less busier than we are right this minute!

  3. Pingback: Battle-What? « Neko Bijin’s Serious Blog

  4. Congrats on the promotion. I love the detail you do provide, and while it is neat sometimes to get the nitty gritty details, I also love that some things are left open enough for our own stories to be told, without actually contradicting what is going on in the universe. BTW, I love the Jihad books (not only for the campaign system) simply due to how the information is presented.

  5. Congratulations again.

    I sure hope we’ll be working together sometime in the future. Even if you’re in charge of the Clans 😉

    –Andreas

  6. Oh please stop whining already. You could get away with the whole “AS IT HAPPENS” bullshit if for even a brief second, the fans thought there was a solid plan to any of this. As it is, it’s pretty damned obvious shit is made up as need be, with lax editing the word, and retcon the action. Wait, its not a retcon if its just “bad reporting”, right?

    There’s some serious disconnect towards what you think people want, and what they really want. You get pissed off about how players and game masters don’t make up their own scenarios and information, and then drop battles of luthien, because NO ONE HAS EVER FAUGHT ON LUTHIEN BEFORE. Great work there, Lou.

    So a good gamemaster, having already done that, would probably want a book detailing things he has no interest in detailing out himself, like uniforms, standard issue gear, the like. Except the writer’s all share the same attitude, and can’t be bothered to make a product worth paying for.

    What was the general outcry when TacOps was split in two? That material was being taken from other sources to pad wordcount. That it was an excuse to double charge for one book. “No no no, thats not the case” they said. Strat Ops is out. Care to talk about the near complete inclusion of combat ops, the bastard vampirized book of the line into Strat Ops? No? Didn’t think so.

    You talk about sales being #2 for the Jihad books. TRO’s still #1 yeah? As always? Which means core books… where? Oh, and how’s the torrent rate coming alone? Getting higher, yeah? It certainly couldn’t be due to the disconnect between what the consumers will be told to put up with, and what they actually will… right?

    You’re a good guy Ben, and a damn good writer. I just dont think you have a clue what to write about.

  7. What, that all but the diehard hangers-on have no confidence in the direction battletech is heading?

    I coulda told you that on the front lawn.

  8. I could, of course, explain that there has always been a plan for the story arc, and that we are following it, but details-wise, we left ourselves plenty of room to work with (giving the writers a lot more creative breathing room than many suspected they had when the Dark Age timeline was revealed), but I suspect that some may disagree….

    But that is the fact. Can a detail change here and there, or be deliberately misconstrued as “bad reporting” with the as-it-happens approach we chose to follow? Absolutely! In some cases, you could be right, and it could be an honest error on our part (there were some; it happens with a universe this big). In others, it’s a deliberate detail (take the “erroneous reporting” of Tharkad’s nuking; from day one we set that up as an accident that would be misconstrued. Another good example is the Word’s build-up, which we were hinting at since at least 1992; what it was for, and how it was done was left deliberately vague, and we added details to it later, but that it was going on, and leading to this story arc was never in doubt). One thing about the Jihad arc we found tough to explain in a straight approach was “how the heck would the Word survive the initial attacks, once everyone realized what was happening?” We could have simply said “Yeah, they were all confused.” but it made for better story to *show* that than simply tell it.

    There was also the fact that–for better or for worse–there were limits to how much of the Jihad we could reveal at once, and how fast we could move through it, and how much we had to check in both forward and backward continuity. Remember when we seemed stuck in 3067 for a while?

    There was, after all, stuff that the Dark Age folks wanted to build, while we had our own arc to follow. I was there through all of that, but there was never a “we honestly don’t know what we’re doing here” about it. It was more of a “how can we reveal this in a fashion that helps explain without the fiction support we currently lack?” We chose the as-it-happens sourcebook approach in part to tell the story in a more dramatic way, a way CBT never did before outside of novels (which were out of our mandate under FanPro), but also to give both ourselves and the folks at WizKids the breathing room to tell both of our stories effectively.

    It was also a good platform for what I’d hoped would be a great GM aid–something not often seen in the older products: The “what’s the word on the street angle? What can my players know versus what we knew as the readers often sitting on an interstellar sovereign’s shoulder? The Jihad series was intended to cover all of those bases at once. It was a stylistic choice made for a broad range of reasons.

    That said, I think there really is a way to find a balance between satisfying that craving for details and giving the local players room to work their own stories into the mix. Remembering that the CBT universe is partially a role-playing universe, where players may want to play their own forces and characters, rather than a strictly interpreted force list (those Scenario Packs that gave such details never really sold well, BTW), I think the Track system Ben pioneered for us is one great game aid. BattleTech also has tons and tons of background information, going back 25 years now, which a GM can easily mine for information. What good is an interactive story with so many resources if we spoon-feed everything to the reader? What does a player group generally need to know that a GM can’t provide? Does it really make a scenario unplayable if we tell you a major battle happened for Great X between Lyran-employed mercs and Jade Falcon forces, and don’t give you the exact make up of the forces involved? Your GM couldn’t, perhaps, opt to throw your unit into the mix as the Lyran-employed mercs, with a challenging Jade Falcon force chosen by the tables in Total Warfare?

    The bottom line is, really, I didn’t get into the gaming business to tell people exactly how to play; I got into it to write stories and help make the gaming experience deeper, more entertaining. To me, endless stats, and historical accounts that blandly report a force’s composition, movement, counter-movement, and so forth are just mind-numbing. Heck, there are plenty of rules in this game I don’t even have a solid grasp on to this day, and I’m the Line Developer!

    But to get back to my point: I realize that not all of our fans like the style we chose for the current story are and sourcebooks, and it’s not my place to tell you that you HAVE to like it. CBT is a big gaming universe, and the fact thatyou’re still playing tells me we haven’t turned you off entirely. But please don’t assume that we don’t know what we’re doing; we are merely striving to balance the plan against the dsire for a more creative approach, so that this game remains vibrant and exciting, and not just the same old thing with prettier packaging.

    That’s my take, anyway.

    – Herbert Beas
    Classic BattleTech Line Developer
    Catalyst Game Labs

  9. Oy, a five-year-old CBT thread on Ben’s blog? Pass.

    Ben, I hope you have a brilliant idea for jazzing up the Homeworld Clans scene. I’ve been waiting for fifteen years for a reason to play with those poor step-children.

  10. When all people can complain about is uniforms don’t worry about it most do not say any thing enjoy write what you feel like {remember go magistry go}

  11. When, oh, when will we get a “Which Pant Leg Your Character Puts On First Table”? I’m pretty sure a lack of one is why Apollyon is still pantsless.

    Seriously though, I’m with ya Ben. I still frequent the forums, but that odd sound in the background is usually my teeth grinding. I did have previous experience though, working at a newspaper. You haven’t experience criticism until you get accused of being both right- and left-biased in the same day.

  12. Yeah, suspension of disbelief vs. hard science; so sick of everything I read about having to be based on someone else’s idea of the science of the future. Give me giant robots and faulty humans tied together with well-told tales. I’ll be there!

  13. I could care less about what uniforms a faction wears or what color different brands of lasers are. What I don’t care for is cybernetic zombies and an air-tight conspiracy being shoe-horned into the CBT universe just to make it “kewl”. I’ve collected CBT for nearly 20 years for stories about HUMAN protagonists and antagonists and characters who are flawed, but still often strive to be something better…and giant robots. Sorry, but I get almost none of that from the Jihad or the Manei Domini or any of the other “kewl” new things to roll out of CGL these days. Between that and the shabby treatment that I think the Clans and their fanbase have gotten in the past few years, I don’t care for the direction that the game is taking. I’ve had several friend try to get back in the game and give up because CBT doesn’t “feel” like CBT to them any more. Until you address that problem, I think the Jihad and DA/AoD are always going to be something that a portion of the fanbase will at best tolerate.

  14. Well Eric, you’re just proof that no company can ever please everyone all the time (or even some of the time). Your opinion is just as valid as everyone else’s but unfortunately, you’re in the minority.

    At least CGL is continuing to put out other era material for you to enjoy. Not everything is forward-progression, because CGL knows that not every fan is a fan of every single aspect of the game.

    I won’t argue the ‘cybernetic zombies’ or ‘air-tight conspiracy’ with you here. We each know the other won’t budge from perspectives, regardless of argument. I’m fine with agreeing to disagree, and I hope you continue to enjoy the other material being put out for fans such as yourself.

  15. And I’ll continue to buy the stuff that is put out for fans like me and very likely continue to enjoy it. With a few exceptions, that stuff is head and shoulders above almost anything that FASA produced in its heyday. Unfortunately, there will very likely come a day when the universe has become so unrecognizable to me as the CBT universe that I love that I throw my hands up and say “I’m done!”

    I’m also not immune to argument. I’ll acknowledge that the scale of the Jihad is feasible given the huge number of factories on Terra, mostly thanks to Cray’s arguments. Acknowledging that he’s right doesn’t mean I think it is a good direction for the game though.

    Of course, I don’t have access to your sales numbers, so I fully realize that for every “one of me” you lose, you may gain a half-dozen “one of them” who thinks the Jihad is peachy-keen. The rational part of me realizes that to pay the bills you have to go with what sells, but the CBT fan in me still feels betrayed.

  16. The devil is in the detail, don’t you know 🙂

    I can see the need for detail though, it makes things easier. No need to think it out, because the answer is already supplied. So, a fine line to tread between providing enough, but not too much.

    The trouble with walking the line is that you get it from both sides. I know it sucks, but it could be worse, because it can always be worse.

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