Wednesday, June 27, 2012

FTL: A Game of Many Things

FTL is a game about space exploration.  Well, that's what I initially thought.  Then I played it and learned that FTL is a game about survival.  But then I learned that the game is about managing the crew of a spaceship.  But the crew doesn't control the ship on their own, because the game is actually about balancing power and distributing it between different ship systems.  But... system power needs depend on what gear is currently equipped to the ship.  So I guess FTL is also about upgrading spaceships.

The truth is... FTL is a game about a lot of different things.  The important part is that they all work together and create something magical.  I've been told by others that FTL is a "Roguelike" but since I've never played a rougelike I don't know if that's an apt description.  I do know that in any one playthrough of the game you'll be doing all those things I mentioned above and, if you're like me, you'll be having a fantastic time doing them.

I could write for paragraphs about the different game systems and how they all interact, but to get a true feel for the game it's easier to give an example turn.  So let's do just that.

My FTL is fully charged so I jump to a nearby node in my current sector.  The node I jump to is in an uncharted nebula.  My scanners notice a ship trying to hide in the nebula and I decide to investigate further.  As I approach I notice that it's a slaver ship. It immediately powers up it's weapons and begins to unload on my ship.  I power up my lasers and - realizing they won't be enough to get through the enemy shields - I divert power from my engine to power up my missile launcher.  Now my ship has less of a chance to evade, but I have access to more firepower.  I use the missiles to target their shield generator room while using the lasers to disable their engines.  Unfortunately for me they decide to teleport 2 crew members to my ship to sabotage my shield generator.  I have to pull my weapons officer, engine officer, and shield officer off of their stations to fight the enemy in my shield generator room.  Our ships continue to trade volleys while our crews fight it out.  Mid-fight I have to send my weapons officer to the med bay because he's so injured that he might die.  My 2 remaining officers manage to eliminate the enemy but not before the enemy caused some damage to the shield generator room.  My officers immediately begin to repair the damage but not fast enough to prevent a laser volley from getting through to my O2 room and causing a fire.  Since so many officers are busy I have to pull my pilot out of the helm to extinguish the fire in the O2 room before our oxygen supply starts to dwindle.  While the fire dies down a final volley of lasers and a missile from me destroys the enemy ship.  I heal my officers, repair my ship, recover all the scrap I can from the enemy, charge up the FTL drive and get ready to jump again.

And that's only one node.  Not all of them contain battles.  Others have friendly encounters, interesting offers, stores, merchants, distress signals, and the occasional optional quest.  Each sector has around 25 nodes but on average you'll only get to visit 5-10 of them because you're carrying vital information for the federation and the rebel fleet is closing in on you.

The game becomes a precarious balance between maximizing how much exploration and upgrading you can do in each sector while still staying ahead of the rebel fleet.  When they catch up to you it's still possible to escape, but it becomes much more difficult.

I haven't even mentioned the difficulty.  I've sunk over 10 hours into this game already.  I've done a "full" playthrough 10 times.  I've played about half on normal and half on easy.  Every game has resulted in my death.  I still haven't beaten the game on easy.  This game is tough.  It really is about survival and one wrong move or bad jump can get you killed.  Honestly, I haven't been this challenged or excited by a game in quite some time.  I have a feeling that people who like devilishly difficult games are going to love this one.

FTL is currently in beta but since I helped fund the Kickstarter I'm in the early access beta group on steam.  The team has been amazingly responsive to the fans and new builds have been distributed frequently, every one having new features.  With more features in every build  I can't wait for the game to release so that the rest of you can experience it.  I'll be sure to keep you updated.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Teaching an Old Story New Tricks: Media Influences on Birthright

Today's guest post is by a friend and fellow blogger, Professor Beej.  When he's not writing awesome geekery over at his blog he's busy writing fiction.  Not only does he have a serial novel in the works but he has an ongoing Kickstarter for his cross-genre novel, Birthright.  That's what I asked him to talk about today.

I love pop culture and geek media. Love it. I love the stories, the settings, the themes, the characters, all of it--and because of that, my novel Birthright is the exactly the kind of book I’d want to read.

Now hear me out. I’m not saying that in a self-aggrandizing or egotistical kind of way; I’m just saying that so that you get an idea of what kind of book it is. Because if you’re a pop culture fanatic like me, I think there’s something in Birthright for you, too.

In fact, I think there’s a lot of somethings in Birthright for you. You see, when Void asked me for a guest post about media influences, I thought it would be easy. After all, I describe the book as Ender’s Game meets The Lord of the Rings.

But as I really started writing about and digging into these pop culture and geek media influences, the more I realized how indebted I am to these works. Because without them my work wouldn’t exist. Couldn’t exist.

And so, in no particular order, I’ve narrowed down 5 major (non-MMO) media influences on Birthright.


Let me just get this one out there. You can’t really talk about cross-genre fiction without starting with Firefly. Joss Whedon’s cult-masterpiece is far too ingrained in the popular geek consciousness to avoid. So what role exactly did Firefly play in Birthright’s creation?

Well, primarily, I was able to look at Firefly to see the perfect example of worldbuilding. The Western conventions were never explicitly explained any more than the science-fiction ones were. They don’t explain why there are cattle-rustlers in space; there just are.

So in Birthright, I didn’t think it was necessary to explain why there are SF trappings like holograms and laser guns in a fantasy world. There just are. That’s just the world of Erlon.

Star Wars

I almost didn’t include Star Wars on this list of influences because it’s almost a cliche to say that Star Wars influenced me as a science-fiction writer. Because Star Wars has influenced every single science-fiction writer since 1977 in one way or another.

But I couldn’t leave it off. Not with as big a Star Wars fan as I am, and especially not with one of my lifelong dreams being to write a Star Wars novel. Cliche or not, Star Wars is a part of Birthright.

But what kind of part? Well, that’s kind of hard to pin down because Star Wars kind of permeates our popular consciousness.  It’s SF with a hero growing up, mysticism and pseudomagic, and an underlying theme of inherent ambiguity in good and evil.

And, like one of my readers pointed out, the villain even has the initials DV. Which I swear to you was unintentional.

Lord of the Rings

What’s a fantasy novel without an epic quest, right?

Tolkien did a lot for literature. Maybe even more than you realize. Not only was he the great-grandaddy of the high-fantasy quest and more genre conventions than we can shake a trope at, but he’s also the reason that us English teachers make students read Beowulf.

That’s right. Tolkien’s essay on the now-classic poem claimed that the important aspects of the poem weren’t the histories, but the monsters.

I love that idea, so I wanted to expand on it by bringing “the monsters” in Birthright to the forefront. In Birthright, the villain actually gets PoV chapters instead of being hidden away in a dark tower somewhere or presented through the goody-goody bias of the hero.

Ender’s Game

When I read Ender’s Game for the first time, I was struck by the idea of Battle School. I just loved the concept beind an isolated, high-tech academy for training the soldiers of tomorrow.

So in Birthright, I have the Inkwell Sigil, a ship traveling through the space between Instances, a ship separated quite literally from anything and everything else, where newly recruited technomages are trained for their service in the Archive.

Plus, as a different kind of homage to OSC and what he did with Battle School, the story starts out at Ennd’s Academy and circles back there from time to time.

Harry Potter

The Harry Potter series, like Ender’s Game, influenced Birthright with its unique take on a school setting. Nothing in my series is a direct parallel to Hogwarts, so put that out of your mind. Instead, I wanted Ennd’s Academy and the Inkwell Sigil and all other locations in the novel to feel like Hogwarts.

Remember how it felt to read the scene where Harry first enters the Great Hall and sees the enchanted ceiling? Remember that sense of wonder?

That’s what I am going for in Birthright. I wanted a sense of awe and wonder about the setting from the very beginning. And not just from the readers. I wanted the characters to experience that awe and wonder, too. Be sure to check out the sample chapters of Birthright and judge for yourself how well I did.


Obviously. After a life of geekdom, I know there are tons of others out there. From Stargate SG-1 to Michael Crichton’s Prey to Herbert’s Dune to pretty much anything that’s ever appeared in a SyFy original movie. It’s all in Birthright. Somehow.

Because there are no new stories. Just old stories told in new ways. And I think my new way is pretty freaking awesome.

B.J. Keeton is currently running a  Kickstarter campaign for Birthright, the firstbook in The Technomage Archive series.  He is is a writer, blogger, and teacher. When he isn’t trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he writes science fiction, watches an obscene amount of genre television, and is always on the lookout for new ways to integrate pop culture into the classroom. B.J. lives in a small town in Tennessee with his wife and a neighborhood of stray cats, and he blogs about pop culture, geek media, and awesomeness at

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Sporadic: Offspring

I write this with a 4-day-old laying nearby on the couch.  He's my son, he's new, and he's awesome.  I won't go into a ton of personal detail, but me, my wife, 2-year-old daughter, and newborn son are all settling in at home.  My posts might be a little more sporadic until we find a routine that works and get used to having twice the amount of kids.

Don't worry, I'm still here.  I'll get back to a regular post schedule eventually.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A New Kind of Steampunk

I've never been a fan of steampunk.  Don't get me wrong, I like the idea of a world where technology advanced along a different path.  My problem with steampunk is that the setting is usually similar to early 1900's England.  It's too based in the real world to be interesting to me.  But what if a world powered by steam was placed in a different setting?  I could get behind that.

Enter Nimbus.  Nimbus is a serial novel written by a fellow blogger and friend, Professor Beej.  The world of Nimbus is run on steam, but that's where most of the similarities with traditional steampunk end.  The world is covered in a fog that kills or disfigures all who come in contact with it.  The only remaining bastions of humanity are places so high in the air that the fog doesn't reach them.  Since ground travel would kill everyone the only viable option for transportation is via airships that run on steam.

But water isn't just the power source for technology, it's also the base form of currency.  Most people don't have access to clean water.  Pure water is so rare that entire airships are dedicated to collecting water from clouds.  Since water is so valuable it adds an interesting twist to generating steam and powering technology.  People have to balance the benefit of technology against the cost of water it takes to generate the steam.

Take some time and investigate the world of Nimbus if this sounds even remotely interesting to you.  Beej is releasing weekly chapters for free over on his site but I would suggest supporting this kind of writing by actually buying Nimbus: Part One on Amazon.

I can't recommend him as an author enough and it would be remiss of me not to mention his other project, Birthright.  It's a completely different world but it seems just as interesting.  His Kickstarter for the novel is going on now and has some free sample chapters included.  If you're a fan of quality world-building you should donate!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

GW2 Beta Further Thoughts

I had fun with the Guild Wars 2 beta last weekend, but the game isn't perfect by any means.  I don't like to get anyone hyped up without telling them about the negatives.  After thinking about it for a few days there are certain things that I think could use improvement.

Let's talk about quest flow.  The renown heart system is a step in the right direction for questing.  It let me wander into an area and immediately start doing a variety of tasks that fill up the renown heart.  Killing monsters, collecting items, and completing tasks all contribute to the overall heart.  All of this can be done without ever talking to the quest giver.  In a lot of ways this is perfect for an explorer like me.  I can just wander around and organically complete renown heart quests while exploring.

It would be great on it's own but besides the renown heart quests there are also personal story quests.  Renown hearts are great for exploring, but when I want story I would much rather do the personal quest line.  The trouble with the personal quest line is it doesn't give enough experience to sustain itself.  After a few quests the recommended level is higher than my character.  This effectively disrupts the fun I'm having with the personal quest and forces me to go grind out some more levels before I can continue.  I think this is a huge oversight.  Azuriel gives a great example of this over on his blog.

My other main complaint is that some of the weapon abilities don't really mesh well.  The two handed weapons are fine but when one type of weapon is equipped in a character's main hand an a different type is in their off hand there can be issues.  The first 3 skill slots come from the main hand weapon and the next 2 come from the off hand.  Some combos work. Some just feel off.

Arenanet seems to be all about changes and improvements between beta events so I'll keep watching as the game develops.  These aren't game breakers for me, but it would be nice to see the issues addressed.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Numbers, Releases, and the United States

I'm staying chronological with my Final Fantasy Project which means that next up is Final Fantasy III.  Before I begin, it's important to note that not all Final Fantasy III's are created equal.  What do I mean by that?  Well, it's time for a mini history lesson.

When Final Fantasy III was brought to the United States it wasn't actually Final Fantasy III.  The original FFIII was released in Japan in 1990.  The game that was released with the title "Final Fantasy III" in the US in 1994 was actually Final Fantasy VI from Japan.  The next U.S. release after that was Final Fantasy VII in 1997.  From a U.S. perspective it looked like the series had jumped from III to VII but from that point forward all of the numbers matched on U.S. and Japanese releases.

Final Fantasy IV through VI were later released under their correct numbers in the United States on new platforms like Playstation and Game Boy Advance.  This covered all the releases in the series except for FFIII.

We need to jump ahead to 2006 to find the release of the real FFIII in the United States.  It was remade for the Nintendo DS with 3D graphics, but after 16 years Americans could finally play FFIII.  In 2011 a port of the DS version was released for iOS and that, my friends, is the version I will be playing.  Since I've played the first 2 games on my ipod touch I'll continue my iOS streak.  Between finishing the last game and starting this game I've made the jump to iphone, so that's where I'll be playing FFIII.

I know that was a roundabout way of letting you know the version I'll be playing, but I think the history behind the game is interesting.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Guild Wars 2 Beta Impressions

This weekend is another Beta Event Weekend for Guild Wars 2 and I finally played enough to feel like I can comment on it.  I also played in the first beta weekend but it took until now to firm up my thoughts on the game.

I like Guild Wars 2 in it's current state.  I've been away from MMOs for awhile so GW2 is scratching an itch that's been building for me.  But, fair warning, GW2 isn't completely groundbreaking or genre re-defining.  It's just a hotbar MMO that's being executed superbly.

That's not to say that ArenaNet hasn't made improvements to the MMO model.  Public quests - called events - are interlinked and very fun.  They flow into one another and form interesting stories across a zone.  It's really cool to see players organically work together to finish these events.  Every player gets full experience and loot for each kill, so there's no reason not to work together.  The interesting thing is that I'm constantly working together with players around me, but I never have to formally "group up."  I haven't actually joined a group in the entire time I've played, but I've teamed up with more players than I ever did in other MMOs.

GW2 introduced a new game mode besides standard PVE and PVP.  World vs World (vs World) is an interesting approach to PvP that most MMOs can't recreate.  It's a persistent 3-way war between 3 different servers.  I think it's a bold design choice that WvW gives regular experience.  This means that a player can play GW2 from level 1 to 80 entirely through WvW.  There's also more traditional PVP gameplay, but I have a feeling WvW is going to be hugely popular.

GW2 includes adaptive leveling.  When you zone into WvW you retain all your skills and weapons but your effective combat level instantly becomes 80.  The same idea applies in PVE where your level automatically adapts to the surrounding content.  If you're level 15 but enter a level 5 area your effective level drops to 5 but you still gain the amount of experience you normal would at level 15.  It keeps the exploration and backtracking fun because you can never steamroll over low level content and you're always gaining experience.  It also encourages grouping with low level friends and guild mates.

A lot of other MMOs end up giving so many skills by the end of the game that you need 6 hotbars and a set of macros to control your character effectively.  At least that's how I always felt in World of Warcraft.  Guild Wars 2 gets around this by limiting skills to 1 hotbar of 10 different skill slots.  The first 5 skills depend on the weapon - or weapons - you have equipped.  The other 5 skills are bought with skill points gained from leveling and are determined by the player.  There are many skills that can be swapped in and out of each slot, but only 10 will ever be in the hotbar at one time.  This keeps combat from being overwhelming, but also encourages tactical thinking and experimentation with skill swapping outside of combat.

I haven't even mentioned how much I love ArenaNet's business model.  There is no subscription fee!  I've sworn off games with subscription fees, but GW2 only costs the $60 price tag.  I can't stand paying sub fees, but I'll gladly pay full price to be able to play a game for the lifetime of it's servers.  There are also some optional in-game store items, but they don't look to be critical to gameplay.  For the moment I'm not worried about buying extras in game.

Guild Wars 2 is shaping up to be a fun game.  It's cool to watch the leaps and bounds the developers are making between beta weekends.  With the new features and gameplay modes I'm getting excited for it's eventual release!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

I Am Runner 5

At night I run from zombies.  When my daughter is sleeping safely in her bed and my wife is relaxing in our home, I flee from the undead.  Someone has to do it in this post-apocalyptic world.  We need supplies.  Food, weapons, medicine, communications equipment, entertainment.  Everything to keep a small township functioning.  At night I run from zombies... and it's a thrill.  The best part is that you can run from them too.

Zombies, Run! is a project I backed on Kickstarter in October.  I've been actively playing the game for the last month and I'm in love with it.  It's a game designed for runners (or walkers) who want to play something while exercising.

When I play the game I'm Runner 5 from Abel Township.  Our township is fairly secure, but I'm one of the designated "Runners" who run outside the gates to collect supplies, track zombie movements, find out what else is going on in the world, and do general recon.  I have a radio operator that tracks my mission and updates me along the way.  Once I successfully complete a mission I bring the supplies back to the township and use them to upgrade different buildings.

Not only is the game fun and well produced but it's encouraged me to run regularly, something I've never been able to do before.  I'm basically going for a run every other night.  Before I started playing this game I would run maybe once per week, but now I can't wait to get out there and finish another mission.

The story of Abel Township unfolds through the radio operator in contact with me via headset and through other runners and bystanders who are out in the field.  Each mission is also mixed with my music from my iphone.  Essentially there are story segments intermixed with my own songs while I run.  There are around 4-6 story segments per mission and each mission takes around 30 minutes to run.  The sound design for the game is fantastic and I've grown fond of the voice actors that I've been with for 30+ missions.

All of the regular running app features are present.  GPS tracking, pace information, total distance, steps taken, run logs, and more.  A whole community is spawning around this game and encouraging the creators to add new features all the time.  I'm pretty impressed with the community so far but I suppose there's a lot of appeal.  Seriously, who doesn't like the thought of surviving a zombie apocalypse?

Currently there is one season worth of content.  That's 23 story missions and 7 supply missions.  All of the missions are repeatable and the supply missions in particular are designed to be never ending.  There's an interval pack of missions added on the way soon followed by season 2 sometime in the near future.

Zombies, Run! is currently available for iphone and ipod touch with the android version due out on June 14th.  It usually costs $7.99 and it's worth every penny, but if you catch it on sale then you shouldn't hesitate to pick it up.

Friday, June 1, 2012

NBI Successful

Hey again fledgling bloggers out there.  May is over, which means that the Newbie Blogger Initiative has also drawn to a close.  But fear not!  Syp has a roundup of all the participants and a reflection on the month over on his site.

I'm glad that the NBI drew so many newcomers.  I think it was a huge success!  Not all the blogs will stay active, but any time we can get some fresh ideas into the community we should.  Good luck to all you new bloggers out there, I hope you stick around for a long time!