Interviewed on Arbitration Podcast

microphone

(C) Ben H. Rome

James Bixby interviewed me back in November and the podcast was released just before Christmas. We cover more than just BattleTech; James asked about GMW, my other hobbies, and of course, some of my BattleTech projects.

A Very Arbitration Christmas

Enjoy. I’ll be back to regular posting shortly.

Three Things I Like About: Adventure

Adventure Cartridge

One of the first Atari games I played on my Sears knockoff system was Adventure. Created as a graphic game based loosely on a computer text game, it was Atari’s seventh best-selling 2600 cartridge.

[begin shameless plug] (I do mention Adventure and other Atari 2600 cartridge games in my book, Games’ Most Wanted. Go buy it.) [end shameless plug]

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Visual RPG

Adventure is the first real graphical roleplaying game I remember playing. It allowed you to have a stash of items, which you had to select one to use at any given moment. You could drop and pick up items without using a text command. And it even managed a ‘fog of war’ effect where much of the catacombs you explored were obscured except what was immediately around you.

So what if the maps were mirror images (thanks to the limited processing power of the 2600). To my eight-year-old mind, it was like playing D&D on the computer screen.

Story

This was also my first true experience with story in a video game. Granted, many arcade games of that time had stories, but Adventure was a game I could play over and over again without burning quarters and on my own time. Plus, the game’s rudimentary use of the game reset switch after you ‘died’ put you back in the gold castle; any objects you had on your person remained where you met your demise.

The story was a quest: find the enchanted chalice and return it to the gold castle. You had to search a myriad of castles, mazes, and other rooms within Adventure‘s world to find the sword, keys, bridge, and magnet you needed in order to succeed in the quest. Oh, and you had to kill three dragons (in the easy version, only two).

Adventure (Atari)

Endless Play

As I mentioned prior, the game allowed you to resurrect your player after death – as long as you didn’t turn off the console or flip the game select switch. Adventure also gave you three play methods: Simple, Standard, and Random. The random version (Game 3 on the select screen) randomized all of the objects in the game, making it a different adventure every time. (This also, on occasion, made it impossible to solve at times.)

Some of my absolute favorite video games – and a feature that weighs heavily in my purchasing and play decisions – are ones with good replayability. I’d like to think Adventure was the genesis of this trait.

So: visual, story, replayability. Three basic and important pillars of how I personally judge video games, and I can trace all three back to Atari’s Adventure console game. It’s not the first video game I ever played, but it certainly is one of the most influential.

Three Things I Like About: Car Wars

Car Wars - Deluxe Edition contents

Back to the Three Things series, done in conjunction with my recently released book, Games’ Most Wanted.

Car Wars, developed and produced by Steve Jackson Games, was a favorite of my high school gaming group. (Yes, all four of us.) We picked up the Deluxe Edition one day during a comic book run; epic city demolition derbys became a common weekend pick-up gaming alternative.

In Car Wars, you took control of a car or other powered vehicle, from motorcycles to semis to tanks and even aircraft. Custom designs allowed you to tweak armor, chassis, weapons, and other equipment so you could survive your opponents’ attacks and dish it right back to them.

Counters, Maps, and Movement

Back in those halcyon days of gaming, cardstock counters were a common sight, rather than precisely detailed metal miniatures. City maps and roads used a grid system; when combined with the Third Edition’s “turning key,” precise maneuvers could be accomplished. Successfully executing a Smuggler’s Turn at 30 mph and then gutting your pursuer with your hidden heavy caliber cannon was hard to pull off but very satisfying.

Later editions adjusted the scale from the 1″=15′ (1:180) to 1″=5′ (1:60), so you could use Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars along with S-gauge scenery.

What my group really liked were ‘chase’ scenarios using the game’s generic highway tiles. Endless ribbons of asphalt allowed a Mad Max style ‘run to the death’ game that was a common staple for us on Saturday afternoons.

Gameplay was relatively simple and ended up being one of my gateways into more hardcore wargaming. Car Wars used a combination of measurements for movement and range, line of sight for weapons fire, and simple dice rolls for resolution. I think getting a grasp on these three basics of tabletop wargaming helped prep me for my college and post-college gaming days. A balance had to be struck using the right number of maneuvers; the harder they were and the more you did, the more difficult the movement and possible success in the result. Failure led to epic crashes…which in all honesty, was half of the fun.

Car Wars: Rouge Arena

Cars, Cars, Cars

The addition of customized rules allowed you to build whatever vehicle suited your style. (My favorites were reverse-trike escorts for a heavily armored semi-truck and trailer combination.) The basic rules built from the standard car chassis and eventual expansions spread the game out to cover virtually every type of vehicle built by man.

You could buy a cardstock version of the counters that were in black and white, giving you the ability to create custom paint jobs for your vehicles.

A typical game was the simple arena-style demolition derby, using a defined area that included buildings, debris, or even an oval track. Tournaments — though I never actually participated in one — were more ladder-style games. These allowed players to upgrade their cars between each round using accumulated in-game cash winnings. The games I saw played at Origins used a detailed scale model set and custom-built car models.

Mad Max

The setting is what initially appealed to my group. Influenced by the Road Warrior movie in the Mad Max series, Car Wars described a post-apocalyptic America suffering from resource shortages and a second Civil War. A new sport called autodueling – armed demolition derbies – arose. Human cloning made driver death irrelevant.

The role-playing aspect of the game had potential but my group never got involved beyond having a few favored drivers and their rides. Our RPG tastes were sated elsewhere, though on occasion I do remember writing short blurbs that summarized some of our arena games, just for fun and amusement.

So there it is. Car Wars, a game predominately from my adolescent years, still holds the nostalgic factor in my game closet. I have a battered copy of the Deluxe Edition I bought two decades ago and it remains in a place of honor on my gaming shelf.

Three Things I Like About: Borderlands 2

Borderlands 2

New series time! With the release of Games’ Most Wanted, I’ve got to do whatever I can to keep it somewhat relevant. (Tell all your friends! Buy copies!) So I think for the next who-knows-how-long [insert time frame here], I’m going to do some quick blogs about games that I’ve enjoyed over the last…well, more than three decades.

We’ll kick things off with Gearbox’s Borderlands 2.

Borderlands 2

1. Insane Weapon Randomizations

Each weapon you run across within the game has several stats assigned to it, such as Fire Rate, Magazine Size, Damage, Elemental Chance, and so on. Coupled with the various color “rarity” levels, these stats are pretty much randomized within weapon classes (such as Sniper, Pistol, SMG, Rocket Launcher, Grenade, and more). This results in a unique weapon for every discovery, for good or ill. Even the set piece weapons that are dropped after defeating a boss have a little randomization as well, varying them from game to game.

What happens is a feeling that is akin to opening presents on Christmas morning. Because of these uniqueness factors – Gearbox boasts that the total combinations are in the “gazillions” – each weapon is like a new gift in your character’s hands. I cannot count how many hours my co-op partners and I spend test-firing those guns that intrigue us, as the effects can also be somewhat interesting.

Coping with this seemingly overwhelming feature is a matter of picking a couple of weapon classes you enjoy most and focusing on those. For example, my Siren character (Maya) – who is just about ready to hit Level 48 – tends to use pistols, SMGs, and rocket launchers. And my favorite weapon of the moment is a newly-acquired rocket launcher that fires a single rocket…that then unwinds into three separate warheads in a spiral pattern, causing untold damage and mayhem. I say “moment” because each weapon is assigned a level – adding to yet more randomization factors – and the farther the discrepancy from your character’s level to the weapon, the less damage it does. So you’re always on the lookout for more guns.

Lots and lots of guns.

Borderlands 2

2. Storyline

The Borderlands storyline is pretty intense in its simplicity. Bad guy, who’s the head of a weapons corporation, wants to rule Pandora and use it as his own weapons testing range. Your job – after he attempts to kill you in the opening story sequence – is to hunt him down and eliminate him.

There’s a lot more to it than that, once you factor in side plots and tie-ins from the previous Borderlands game and its characters. And it all ties in rather nicely, if a bit convoluted. Toss in some sarcasm, humor, and craziness, and its a story that keeps you driving to the end. Handsome Jack’s characterization is so in-your-face you definitely look forward to eliminating him by the time the end comes.

While there is some outright crass humor, it doesn’t dominate and can be ignored simply by turning down the volume during the exchange.

I have to mention the downloadable content (DLC) here as well. With the four DLC add-on missions, as well as the two new character classes and additional skins (character looks), BL2 increases the enjoyment of replay. The DLCs add some depth to the Pandora universe, providing side quests and stories that involve some of the world’s more colorful characters. Actual playtime is pretty decent as well, and you feel pretty accomplished when you come to the end of each one. While the additional classes and skins aren’t necessary to finish the game, they add more to its versatility.

Before anyone asks, I’ll say that Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep is my favorite DLC by far. And I’ll extend that to any other game’s DLC as well. Gearbox outdid itself with this “game within a game” concept. Using familiar tropes and gamer stereotyping that true RPGers are well aware of – if not experienced first-hand – ADK is an experience like no other that I’ve had to date within video gaming. From accidentally overpowered bosses to a changing environment on a whim, to the awkwardness of naming an NPC on the fly, it hits on chords that ring true for hardcore RPGers like myself.

Borderlands 2

3. Co-operative play

I admit, I did try to play Borderlands 2 in solo campaign mode. And it was horrible. I’m not the best first person shooter (FPS) player out there, as my reaction time isn’t pro level and I’m lucky to get a head shot with a sniper rifle on Easy mode in any game.

But I’d bought BL2 with the co-op in mind. With three other players – all three being good friends of mine from my local gaming group – we attacked the game together. The experience has been a bonding one of sorts; nearly every week, we tackle a portion of the game for a few hours of group escapism. It’s been akin to playing in a well-run RPG at the table, something I remember from days of yore. We’ve had our disagreements and some arguments (who wouldn’t?) but overall, we’ve enjoyed coming across the Pandora landscape and its invariable surprises, a camaraderie that has deepened our appreciation for each other and our gaming time together.

So there it is. Guns, story, and co-op play are my top takeaways from BL2. Arguably there are other great things, such as a raft of zinging one-liners, a few memorable characters, and some of the arena-style combat chaos…but comparatively, it’s the shared journey through an enjoyable story with lots of guns that clinches this game for me.

Games Most Wanted (In More Ways Than One)

Game shelfThis past Monday, a dream finally saw fruition: I saw my first non-fiction book on a shelf at Barnes & Noble. Games’ Most Wanted has finally made it into the public eye.

Granted, it’s not the first time I’ve seen one of my books on a store shelf; I’ve seen, on several occasions, many of my BattleTech books on game store (and some mainstream bookseller) shelves. But this particular book marked something of a milestone for me.

My first “true” publication.

Okay, so how is it my first? I’ve contributed, written, and produced more than thirty books in the BattleTech line, so clearly it’s not a matter of my first. At least, not in the literal sense.

What GMW represents is more of a step out of my comfort zone. I’m very capable and comfortable of producing giant stompy robot universe material; I’ve been writing for the universe for eight years now.

No, GMW is what I consider my next step. As Obi-Wan would say, my “next step into a larger world.”

So what makes GMW a must-need book? Who are we targeting? What’s the point?

In GMW, we take a look at board, tabletop, war, and video games. We also look at the culture that has grown up around it – from the arcade junkies to online addicts, casual social gamers to hard-core professional leaguers. It’s a book aimed at anyone who is, was, will be, or knows a gamer.

I’ll let a little bit of my introduction in the book explain:

We wrote this book with a variety of readers in mind. If you’re a casual game player, we hope to broaden your experience to the enormous variety of games out there. If you’re a parent of gamers, we hope to explain some of the cultural idiosyncrasies that have arisen as gaming continues to grow. If you’re a hardcore gamer, we hope that as you read, you’ll relive some great gaming memories as we mention your favorite games. For those who are partnered with a gamer, we want you to better understand your significant other’s gaming personality—and give you some common points to discuss with them when you both have some “together” time.

Most important, though, is that we truly desire for our reader—no matter where they are on the gaming spectrum—to walk away an improved gamer. If you learn just one thing from these pages and apply it to your gaming experience, you’ll be a better gamer.

Table of Contents

Press kit/sheet

GMW came about from an out-of-the-blue phone call by Kathryn Owens, who would end up being my main point of contact and editor of the project. She’d called me in 2009, wanting to know if I’d be interested in putting together some sort of book on games or gaming for Potomac Books, Inc. Considering I’d just been laid off from a prior employer and in the middle of job hunting, I jumped at the chance. Of course, I had my main cheerleader pushing me forward as well; my wife is really good at inspiring me beyond my own criticism.

I ended up pulling in a co-author on the project in 2010, after faltering with various chapter ideas. I’d come to the realization I was woefully unprepared to handle the swath of games that faced me for this book. Chris had many years in the industry and also was (at the time) a prominent host of the Fear the Boot podcast. He had some clout and experience in some gaming areas I lacked. After convincing him to jump aboard (it wasn’t that hard), we set about redefining the chapters, the content, and the workload.

About 2011, the book stalled again for a few reasons. It was mostly complete, just lacking a few final chapters as we ran out of steam. Potomac had designated the book as the last of their “Most Wanted” line and interest seemed to wane. So it was shelved.

In mid-2012, Kathryn again called me. The book had received renewed interest in completion and she wondered if we could finish up within a month. We certainly did, though we fell short by four chapters of the original 42 we’d planned. The word count was more than enough, however, even after the shedding of another chapter on conventioneering that didn’t fit the book’s tone and content. We were set at 37 chapters of game goodness.

And the rest, they say, is publication history. Or at least, standard publication workflow. Copy editing, corrections, red line check, final proof, layout, print, and viola! There it is, on the bookshelf, waiting to be bought.

So. That’s Games’ Most Wanted. In the coming weeks/months, I’ll revisit the book and some of the topics therein. In the meantime, please follow the book’s Facebook page. Of course, we’d love it if you bought a copy and read it. Hey, buy two and give one to a friend! And reviews are always welcome, especially on Goodreads, Amazon, B&N, and other prominent bookseller websites.

Go forth and read. And then get gaming!