Monday, January 29, 2018

Campaigner

This is my final wrap-up post on CalFree in Chains. The campaign has been live for a little over a month now, and I thought it might be interesting to look at the metrics around its performance so far. I'm sure there's a little ego involved, but my main motivation is to provide data that might help other content creators who are evaluating whether to spend time making their own campaigns on this platform.

In this post I'll frequently refer back to my post-launch analysis of The Caldecott Caper. That game was launched just a few months after Shadowrun Hong Kong came out, back when there was more marketing for the official game but before it started going on sale. There are now more players who own Hong Kong (potential subscribers), but probably fewer folks actively playing it at any given time.

First of all, the top-line numbers:


38 days is a weird figure, that just happened to be the delay before my Caldecott post, and I wanted to use the same value here for an apples-to-apples comparison. I am shocked that the number of subscribers is so close to Caldecott's; that must be very encouraging to anyone considering releasing additional content. Regardless of how many people are playing Hong Kong, it looks like there's still an appetite for playing new UGC campaigns more than two years after the official game was released. If that's the case, there's a slight chance that the potential audience could even be larger in the future, as more budget gamers pick up Hong Kong and look for more content.

I had anticipated that CFiC would receive far fewer subscribers due to the lower profile of Hong Kong, and I was mostly curious whether it would be "slightly fewer" or "far fewer". It may have helped that Caldecott was well-received; I have more people watching me on Steam now than I did when I released Caldecott, and I've heard from a few people who specifically re-installed Hong Kong because they enjoyed Caldecott and wanted to try the new campaign (quite a compliment!).

The subscriber graph for CFiC looks similar to the original one for Caldecott:


Caldecott's graph was close to flat throughout, actually accelerating a little after the first three weeks and then dipping down a little. CFiC had slightly stronger uptakes in the first 2 weeks before beginning to level off. I suspect that this may indicate that my more-assertive "marketing" actually had some impact: I'd announced the game on Reddit and Steam several weeks before launch, as opposed to Caldecott which just dematerialized overnight, so some early adopters may have been primed to check it out early. That said, it doesn't seem to have made a huge difference in overall numbers, just slightly shifted around when various people discovered it.

Oh: it may also be worth noting that the numbers are fairly consistent across the two releases despite the change in "competition". Caldecott was released around the same time as the first wave of mods were arriving for Hong Kong, mostly balance and unofficial bugfix mods, and it only spent about a week in the featured mod slot (visible within the Steam client) before being shuffled off. The workshop is a bit quieter now, although with a couple of original campaigns releasing around the same time as mine. I think CFiC may have been in that featured slot for a bit longer, which I had assumed was the primary driver of traffic, but I don't have any metrics to support that.

And, finally, the deltas:


No huge surprises here. The biggest interest came early on, and has bounced around since then at a slightly lower level; from a quick eyeball, I'm gaining roughly 35 new subscribers a day, down from the roughly 80 daily over the first 2 weeks. As a reminder, the numbers at the end of these graphs always under-count the actual values.

And, just for fun, let's check in on how the earlier campaigns are doing!


It looks like The Caldecott Caper has picked up about 15,000 new subscribers in the approximately two years since we checked in last - not too bad! That's roughly eightfold growth since I stopped thinking about it. I'm really curious how this compares to commercial games; I tend to think that those titles, especially AAA entries, sell the most in the first few months, but Caldecott has chugged along slowly and steadily.

Speaking of which, give me those deltas:


As I'd predicted before, there was a big spike when the Hong Kong mini-campaign was released, which turned out to be by far my biggest one-day gain, as well as driving more subscriptions in the following weeks (presumably as returning players wrapped up that campaign and went looking for more content). There are a couple of other spikes in there that are mysteries to me: Jan 17 2017 and May 7 2017 also saw big surges in views and subscribers, but I can't think off hand what could have caused those; I wonder if I may have overlooked some Let's Plays or media snippets or something. Oh! Actually, now that I think about it, it's more likely that these were times when Hong Kong went on sale. I think I've seen upticks in comments on my campaigns in the weeks after a major discount, and it makes sense that those would correspond with those subscriber counts.

It doesn't look like my interminable blogging drove any traffic to Caldecott, which is fine and understandable: that wasn't a motivation in doing this. It does seem like the release of CFiC incentivized more people to download Caldecott, which is cool and interesting: far more people played Caldecott and then followed that with CFiC (which makes sense for all sorts of reasons), but it looks like at least a few people are going in the other direction, or hearing about CFiC and deciding to try Caldecott for the first time.

Caldecott has a long tail, but it's definitely tapering down. It looks like it's currently gaining around 25-30 subscribers per day; in the quiet time before CFiC was released, it was averaging around 15-20. If that continues around the lower end of the range, I might acquire around 7,000 additional subscribers per year going forward.

Finally, let's look back one last time at Antumbra Saga, where this all began.


Those are big numbers, and I don't think the later games will ever overtake it. Even though you could argue that The Caldecott Caper is objectively better (I'll note its 99% favorable rating, as opposed to Antumbra Saga's dismal 96%), I think that the larger Dragonfall install base and the earlier enthusiasm for mods will ensure it continues to rule the numbers. And it isn't just due to early spiking, either. Here's the lifetime graph:


As a reminder, Antumbra Saga is actually just a collection of existing mods for Shadowrun Returns, with some updates to run properly in the Dragonfall engine. Because I only had to update existing stuff, I released it pretty soon after Dragonfall Director's Cut came out, and caught a wave of people playing the official game. Even since then, though, the week-over-week growth on Antumbra is almost always bigger than on Caldecott. Here's a zoomed-in view of the past month:


Here, my average is around 30 new subs per day, which matches the highs of Caldecott.

So, what's the take-away? If your primary goal is to reach as many players as possible, you're probably better off modding Dragonfall instead of Hong Kong. It has more players, it has a lot of Workshop interest, and even older mods are doing better on there. (That said, it doesn't seem to be a huge difference, so you won't penalize yourself too badly if you'd prefer to take advantage of the superior Hong Kong engine and assets.)

And now, let's take a quick visit to the parallel universe of Nexus Mods:


The numbers for CFiC seem a bit better than the launch of Caldecott, but it doesn't really matter: I'm maybe averaging about 5 downloads a day for CFiC, versus around 4 a day at the launch of Caldecott. The values are so low that I hesitate to draw any conclusions from them, it's all just statistical noise.

The numbers get a bit more meaningful over longer periods of time; I can't yet analyze CFiC, but Caldecott now has enough data to be potentially useful. Here's a graph showing monthly downloads of Caldecott since it was released.


It's surprisingly consistent over time. As with Steam, the first peak came after the release of the official expansion Shadows of Hong Kong. I think the second peak may have come after I removed the "Not Safe for Work" tag; I'd initially set it based on a strict interpretation of the Nexus TOS, but after further reflection realized that it didn't really apply to the mod. Removing the tag allows it to appear in more places in the Nexus. Since then, I've been averaging roughly 3 downloads a day. Nothing huge, but Nexus users tend to be polite and supportive, so I haven't minded the effort of maintaining parallel versions.

And here are top-level stats for Caldecott:


Ever since my very first mods back in 2013, I've been seeing about 10x as much engagement in Steam as on Nexus, and that continues to be true in 2018. However, Nexus players are about twice as likely to endorse my campaign as Steam players are to rate it.

So! This will probably be my last-ever blog post on my Shadowrun stuff. It's been a really fun run! I've deeply enjoyed experiencing every stage of these mammoth projects, from pie-in-the-sky brainstorming to nitpicky bugfixing and data analysis. Seeing numbers like this is very encouraging: it's hard to evaluate "real" users that partially overlap across three (or six!) titles on two different portals, but my best guess is that somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 people have at least downloaded at least one of my campaigns. That isn't bad! If and when I move on to doing something else, it will be very encouraging to know that there's a group of folks out there who have enjoyed my work in the past, and at least a portion of them might follow me to future projects.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Coyote Point

My brain is weird. Reading Ammonite reminded me of The Company, which reminded me of Kage Baker, which reminded me that I never finished her Company novels, so I recently dove back in with the second entry in the series, "Coyote Sky". It's been several years since I finished The Garden of Iden, and my memories had faded somewhat, but I remembered enjoying the writing and the world, and quickly got back up to speed.


Again, my memory is a bit fuzzy, but I think that Sky Coyote is a funnier work, while The Garden of Iden was more focused on romance. This is mostly due to the narrators: Iden was narrated by Mendoza, while Sky Coyote is narrated by Joseph, who was a compelling character in the earlier book. Their roles are now switched, with Mendoza occasionally popping up and making an impression, but Joseph both drives the plot and provides the overall tone of the story.

MINI SPOILERS

Joseph is a lot older than Mendoza, by tens of thousands of years. He's much more cynical: near the end of the novel he has a line like "As I always say, in a hundred years who's going to care?" It's not that he doesn't care about anything: he's surprisingly loyal to the Company, takes pleasure in art (Warner Brothers cartoons, certain foods and beverages, works by Dashiell Hammett), and is fond of specific employees. But he's seen that everything fades and is destroyed, and learned the folly of attaching his happiness to transient things, so he tends to be unsentimental, even while appreciating things in the moment.

The plot for this book felt a bit looser than Iden. The action sort of drifts from New World One up to California and the Chumash village, but everything tends to go fairly smoothly and according to plan, with short-lived obstacles. It's still engaging, though, thanks to Joseph's fantastic voice and commentary. It might feel light as a stand-alone novel, but it does a great job at extending the overall arc and building out the world more.

Joseph is a master at interacting with every group of people, from Company immortals to Company mortals to the native peoples he encounters. The most interesting relations are those with the Chumash, a native Californian tribe: his main mission for the book is to save them from extinction and capture their culture for posterity. Like a lot of people, I have a fairly simplistic mental image of what pre-Columbian native American culture looked like: either a peaceful and idyllic life sustained in harmony with nature, or a powerful and violent society. The Chumash, though, are surprisingly modern: they have guilds, and trade agreements (along with an understanding of monopolistic practices and collusion), along with labor unions and vocational schools. They may live in huts and craft canoes, but their social structure is virtually identical to ours; even at the familial level, they often divorce and remarry, and a lot of them don't much care for raising kids.

The dialogue here was especially funny, mostly in Joseph's statements but also how the Chumash spoke amongst themselves. I found myself thinking of Christopher Moore, who also deploys a breezy, humorous, anachronistic style of patter in unexpected places.

END SPOILERS

This was a much faster read than I expected, but I enjoyed it! I'm increasingly hooked on the Company, and looking forward to where the series goes from here. The mysteries have grown deeper in this book, and I'm curious to see answers to some of the questions that have been raised.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Looking for Trouble

As much as I enjoy cyberpunk, I'm actually not incredibly familiar with the literature. I came to the genre late; apart from Shadowrun, I only started reading these books in the early 2000s, and haven't strayed far from the titans like Gibson. Recently, I resolved to seek out some of the lesser-known authors and round out my exposure.



The first entry on that new list is Trouble and Her Friends by Melissa Scott. This is vintage cyberpunk, from the early 1990s, and is a nostalgic romp through an era I had largely forgotten. Many of the specific references feel dated - BBSs are important hubs of activity, hackers swap out disks while copying large files. But this era also had wonderfully lyrical writing: back before most readers had ever gone online, or even had a good idea of what that meant, authors used breathless metaphors, filled with sensations of speed and touch and lighting, to try and communicate how the digital virtual space felt. The sense of awe and limitless possibility shines brightly in these early books, something that has largely vanished now that those experiences are universal and mundane.

Considering how few cyberpunk books I've written, it's kind of funny that there are such strong ties between them. In particular, I'm very curious about how the word "Ice" came to be such a universal shibboleth. Various authors will refer to it as "Ice", "ICE", "IC", or, in Scott's argot, "IC(E)". In all cases it means an automated defense program, a digital adversary that blocks or attacks hackers and which must be overcome by programs of their own. None of these books are set in the same continuity, and I don't think there is any real-world basis for ICE, so it's interesting to see it pop up so frequently. I imagine it's a sort of tribute to prior authors, and perhaps also a nod to readers that they are on familiar, if not identical, ground.

The tech in "Trouble and Her Friends" is pretty cool and interesting. The element that stuck out the most for me was the brainworm, which I imagine as sort of like a wetware neural coprocessor. In this world, most hackers have "dolly-slots", the equivalent of a datajack: a port in their heads that they can run a cable into in order to interface with computers without needing a keyboard. The brainworm seems to essentially increase the available bus width for the computer/brain interface, allowing hackers to process more data. This makes them more effective, but also invokes prejudices in other people. That's one of the many things I enjoyed in this novel: tech doesn't exist in a vacuum, but is a part of culture and sub-culture, and, much like real-world arguments over Mac vs. PC or VI vs. Emacs or IDE vs. plaintext, the use of tools is interpreted as an indication of abilities, with different factions using those choices as an excuse to denigrate others.

Trouble (and her friends) are part of a younger generation that have implanted brainworms: it makes them better at what they do, so why wouldn't they? But the old guard hackers look down on them, saying that they aren't actually talented and succeed only through brute force. In reality, the old guard are mostly scared: there's some risk in the surgery, and they are afraid of change. They would rather keep the old mores in place, where they know that they'd be at the top, rather than live in the new world where they need to adapt to keep up. Because of their embrace of the worm and their sexual identities, Trouble's clique are often seen as outsiders; but, at the same time, they are hackers and are a part of the larger culture as well. I really enjoyed how the dynamics between these various social groups and alliances played out, as the same people will shift between being friends and adversaries depending on the circumstances. Have a beef with another hacker? I'll take their side. Now the cops are after you? It's time to circle the wagons, I've got your back.

MINI SPOILERS

Identity is a huge part of this novel. The main plot is set in motion years after Trouble drops out of the net and a new up-and-coming hacker steals her name. Calling him- or her-self Trouble, this hacker uses many of her old programs, but behaves atrociously, boasting about exploits and generally ticking people off. This causes all sorts of trouble for Trouble, who still has a criminal record from the old days, and sets out to reclaim her identity and clear her name.

Reading this book, I found myself surprised that this plot element isn't more widely used in cyberpunk, or in modern fiction in general. One of the defining features of online interactions is how tenuous our identity is: you're a name, and maybe an icon, and that's it. If someone takes that same name, how is someone else to know that it really isn't you? I've had low-key variations of that experience myself: for decades I've used the handle "Cirion" when registering on new sites, and I often get it, but occasionally someone else will have taken it before, and it feels deeply odd to see posts and activity from the doppelganger-Cirion. One particularly odd experience came after the AV Club redid their commenting system: I'd been Cirion on the old system, but a new Cirion took over on the new one. I'd never been particularly active before, but it still felt odd to read comments under "my" name that I disagreed with.

Anyways: it's a particularly rich and resonant theme in any Internet-related story, and more so when it starts to overlap with genres like detective fiction that are already interested in false identities and multiple suspects. The increasing importance of a distinctive name, coupled with the increasing difficulty in protecting it, seems especially important now.

Speaking of identities: the book is mostly focused on Trouble and Cerise, estranged lovers trying to make a living in a new world with harsh laws against hacking. It was a little hard at first to distinguish them: as you might imagine from her name, Trouble has a reputation as the more aggressive of the two, but the book opens with her acting out of extreme caution to avoid danger while Cerise presses forward with a risky venture. It took a while for me to really get their personalities, although it gets a lot easier once they meet up.

The secondary characters don't get as much attention, but are interesting and distinctive. I liked how so many of them already had a history with the leads; if not, they generally know each other by reputation. Having a vast cast makes things much more interesting for a whodunit like this: I'd assumed early on that newTrouble was someone they knew, and it was fun to speculate who it might be and review evidence.

MEGA SPOILERS

The plot moves very quickly near the end, with some of the best-written cyberspace scenes I've read. They're very kinetic and engaging, and I loved the easy camaraderie of Trouble and Cerise.

I'm still a little unclear on the precise relationship between the Mayor and Silk. It doesn't seem like they were lovers. I'd wondered if Silk might be a relative, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence to support that. Perhaps the Mayor was grooming him to be a successor, or some sort of enforcer of Seahaven.

I also never really understood what their motivation was. At first I thought that they were intentionally trying to draw out Trouble, but that doesn't seem to have been the case: everything gets worse for the Mayor once that drama gets stirred up, and it would have been much better for him to live in a world without her than in a world where he can put her down; plus, they don't seem to have had any particular beef before. Was it just Silk being young and stupid? Possible, but odd... it seems like most hackers would prefer to make a name for themself, and he would have been young enough during Trouble's glory days that I doubt they had any meaningful interactions.

Regardless, the denouement was neat and believable. I'd anticipated one or both of them taking over Seahaven ever since Cerise realized how the Mayor controlled the space, and this sort of legal gray space is the perfect spot for them to land.

END SPOILERS

While identity issues are the core of the novel, the political and legal framework is a persistent and intriguing side-plot. Characters in the novel often talk about "the shadows" and "the bright lights" as diametrically opposed factions, but of course there's a broader continuum of legality. On one extreme, you have the mob, straight-up real-world criminal gangs. Then you have the black-hat hackers who commit crimes in cyberspace but would never think of causing harm in meatspace. There are hackers who used to do legal work, but new laws have redefined those same activities to now be illegal. There are private syscops who are primarily interested in the integrity of their own systems and don't care as much about national issues. There are those who might cut corners to uphold the law. And there are the straight-arrow government employees who insist on doing everything by the book. Much as with the subcultures, these relationships are dynamic, and individuals may find ways to create useful alliances on other points of the digital-crime spectrum.

Even the hackers in this book agree that there probably needs to be some sort of law, so the question becomes what is the good law, the appropriate law, that will protect against the really bad stuff happening without stifling the net. This book was published back in 1994, so it would have been shortly after the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, after cases like the Secret Service raid on Steve Jackson Games, after it was clear that existing laws were insufficient, but before the passage of early attempts like the CDA and later efforts like the DMCA. In our own time, this has continued with more aggressive bills like SOPA and COPA. Anyways, it's a topic that was very much part of the zeitgeist, but of course is still an issue today, with issues like net neutrality continuing to drive the conversation of how the government should or should not be involved with the Internet.

So! Really good book - I realize I haven't talked much about the plot here, but it was fun, with great atmosphere and some lovably flawed characters. I'm not sure if Scott wrote other cyberpunk, but I'm definitely interested in checking out more of her work.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Don't Eat Tide

Well! I'm writing that follow-up post a lot sooner than I had thought I would. That's partly due to a three-day weekend, partly due to me suffering from a cold during much of that weekend and thus confined to indoor activities, and partly due to the game being shorter than I had expected. Torment: Tides of Numenara clocked in at around 30-ish hours for me by the end, on a fairly in-depth but not exhaustive playthrough. I was diligent about reading all available text and exhausting all dialogues I ran across, but deliberately turned down a couple of quests that I didn't feel up to pursuing.

"Shorter than I expected" is a good thing in my book! I'm increasingly wary of super-long RPGs; to this day I still haven't finished Divinity: Original Sin or Wasteland 2 despite putting in well over 50 hours on each of them. It's no coincidence that some of my favorite recent RPGs, the Shadowrun Returns series, clock in at a svelte dozen or so hours. I hunger for games that can efficiently establish a world and tell a compelling story without overstaying their welcome.


Torment: Tides does decently well on that front. I don't love this game, but I did enjoy it, and feel that I more than got my money's worth from my Kickstarter pledge way back in the dark ages of 2013. It delivers on what I was most excited about: untraditional gameplay, a game much more focused around talking than combat, and unusual mechanics and story elements that you can't find in most other games. The stuff that I was disappointed in is, for the most part, stuff that the game wasn't really trying to do or wasn't a focus.

MINI SPOILERS

I played as a Slick Nano who Brandishes a Silver Tongue. I almost always opted for non-combat skills and abilities, and usually avoided fighting. I've heard that it's possible to complete the game without killing anyone, or maybe just a couple of fights; I was pleased to see that this wasn't just a straightforward "peace good fighting bad" scenario. There were a handful of cases where I deliberately initiated combat because it seemed like the best course of action. It made me realize how much more compelling it is to give choices, even when fighting truly awful people: I think there's a temptation for game designers to make enemies that are so bad that they can safely assume people will want to fight them, but even in those cases, it's much more meaningful for players to actively choose confrontation rather than passively proceed through it.

Here's my build immediately before the end of the game:


The most annoying skill was Perception, which doesn't seem to have options to raise after character creation; I ended up using my Flex Skill amulet each day to bump it up to 2. I didn't mean to overcap the Lore skills, which I don't think are required for the automatic in-dialogue checks, but ended up surprisingly useful for a bunch of late-game effort checks.

My party composition was stable throughout: I stuck with Calistege after the opening (surrendering at the first fight), recruited Rhin a little later, and picked up Matkina near the end of my stay in Sagus Cliffs. There was a lot of overlap between my Castoff and Calistege, so I tried to give them distinct combat skills (though, again, my Castoff was light on combat in general). I built Rhin as a sort of stealth grenadier and healbot. She can't attack, but she can use cyphers, and later in the game she gets a useful (and fully unique) ability to reuse cyphers multiple times. Interestingly, she actually isn't very good at stealth to begin with; I improved that a bit, but honestly stealth doesn't seem all that useful to me except for characters who can directly use it. Speaking of which, Matkina was by far my heaviest hitter, with devastating single-target damage and very useful fettle infliction.


I was heavily Blue/Gold tides throughout the game (curiously enough, my high school's colors). I'm slightly skeptical of the Blue tide... you get that just by asking questions, which I suspect most players will do a lot of. Gold tends to be for stereotypically "good" actions. The tides represents qualities like empathy and compassion, and you pick it up when you act nicely to people, refuse rewards, or otherwise are "good". That said, I do really appreciate the complexity of the tide system, which provides a great deal of structure without being simplistic like Good/Evil or even Paragon/Renegade. You can be more focused on the bigger picture without being a "bad" person.



The main content things that I intentionally skipped included:
  • All companion quests apart from Calistege, Rhin and Matkina.
  • Giving research to the wannabe Aeon Priest.
  • Resolving the situation with the imprisoned biomechanical monster in Circus Minor.
  • Whatever was going on with that shepherd's crook in that grave place.
  • Recruiting attractive people in the Bloom. (The one I felt comfortable tapping was the Murdens' translator, but after avoiding combat with them I didn't want to fight just for that.)
  • Hooking up the memory addict in the Cirrugen's Swamp.
  • Opening up the human maw in the Bloom.
There may be more that I accidentally missed, though I was pretty thorough (outside of the catacombs).

Okay, let's break down my reaction.

THE GOOD

Flavor text. I'm impressed at just how much thought and care went into the bespoke "vendor trash" items you pick up during the game, and always enjoyed reading through them. 

Cyphers. The "cypher sickness" fettle and limited slots provide one of the best solutions I've seen yet to encouraging players to actually use items instead of letting them collect in your inventory. I was also impressed at just how varied and useful they were: a couple are just grenades, but a lot of them have very unique and interesting abilities. I do wish there had been more non-combat cyphers, things along the lines of Charmpaste were compelling and had their own tradeoffs.

Visual design. Some spots in Sagus Cliffs looked a little generic, but even those areas were really pretty. In contrast, the Bloom was nicely disgusting, making up for all the gross macabre stuff I'd remembered from PS:T and hadn't seen in T:ToN. The best, though, were the planar-type maps, with stunning starfields or other fantastically surreal backgrounds.


Enemy design. Well, this is really just for the Sorrow, but it is so well-done and awesome, with a much more impressive reveal than most AAA villains.


Leveling system. It took me a while to get used to it, but I ended up appreciating the level-versus-tier distinction, which provides a finer-grained upgrade path while still giving a nice sense of accomplishment at rarer intervals. It feels slightly annoying to need to pick through less-useful upgrades before you can get back to the good ones again - Edge is so much more powerful than almost anything else - but it ends up working out fine, and after following it through the game I think it works well.

Economy. Shins balloon a bit near the end, but for most of the game the economy feels nicely tuned, and I was able to buy all the stuff I most wanted without having much leftover cash. I think it was a good idea to limit many (but not all) equipment items to be for the Castoff only, which simplifies ordering and loadout.

Sleep system. I touched in this in my earlier post, but I really like the rhythm that this lends to the game. It would be hard to adapt to other games, since it requires so much specific writing for individual quests to implement the penalties for time passing, but I'm glad that they pulled it off for this game. I probably erred too far in avoiding sleep, especially near the end of the game, avoiding it out of habit even when it seems clear that the game wants you to take advantage of the refilled pools.

Plot. The story is set in a vast and far-ranging universe, but the core plot is nicely comprehensible. It unfolds well, with a good pace of revelations and some interesting wrinkles along the way.


Endings. It's a vintage Obsidian approach, with slideshows and text explaining the variety of outcomes your decisions throughout the game have made, which is one of my favorite ways to end a game. I ran through several of the "big choice" endings, and saw that most of the slides ended up the same, but there were some cool and nicely reactive changes based on the state of the world which impacted some of those smaller stories.


THE MEDIOCRE

Meres. I really liked the idea behind these, and the storybook-esque presentation was really nice.  The interface was a bit annoying: this is the one place where you can't hit the number keys to make a choice. It felt weird to be using your real-world stat pools while in someone else's memories, and it was annoying to not have access to your items and cyphers while doing it. I liked the flavor, but was ultimately confused by what, exactly, they did: early on it seems to imply that you can actually change the past (or maybe switch into another universe?) by the choices you make, but that seems to be totally dropped in the later meres, which makes me think I misunderstood the point.



Companions. They ended up feeling a lot like the ones from Pillars of Eternity: generally interesting and distinct, but shallow, with very limited personal interactions and basic banter. I did appreciate how involved they were in dialogue with third parties; Matkina, in particular, has a lot to say to other people in the Bloom and with other Castoffs. No romances, either, but I was expecting that. They were simultaneously one of my favorite parts of the game and an underwhelming part.


Combat. The system seems cool, with tons of strategic options and tactical positioning and special abilities and fettles and stuff. Honestly, though, it seemed over-designed considering how little I actually used it. The fights were all pretty easy, except for one that was intentionally impossible. The conflation of combat and non-combat skills and abilities was a little annoying, since I always felt compelled to take the non-combat ones; I found myself nostalgic for Inquisition's elegant separation of skills and perks.


Failure. One fascinating aspect of the Effort system is that even failing at a challenge can often yield an interesting result. In some cases, though, that failure is much better than a success: in one early example in Sagus Cliffs, succeeding in a Smashing test will yield a small amount of shins, while a failure will provide a permanent boost to your Might pool - which is vastly more useful! I kind of liked the idea behind this, but it ended up being frustrating to not know if I'd be better off succeeding or failing.

Music. It wasn't bad, but was pretty forgettable.

Voice acting. I liked what little of it there was, but there was very little.

Philosophy. The philosophical talk was pretty light: there are a few factions and cults with interesting beliefs, but they're very closely tied to specific Ninth World issues and not particularly resonant. You get a couple of "What do you believe?" questions along the way, but not much of a background for compelling choices. That isn't necessarily a problem, games don't need to be philosophical, but there was less than I remembered in Planescape: Torment and less than I was expecting.

Message. Along the same lines, the central question of "What does one life matter?" didn't resonate with me as much as "What can change the nature of a man?" did in PS:T. That's very likely due to differences in me and not in the games, but I also feel like PS:T did more work to set up and explore its question.

Stakes. The Castoff's situation is unique and interesting, but partly because of that it felt bloodless and not particularly relatable. You're dealing with vast, metaphysical consequences unlike anything you will encounter in real life. On the one hand, that's cool: it's fiction, so we get to experience something we'll never experience otherwise. On the other hand, though, I didn't really feel especially invested in the outcome, apart from the impact on one or two characters. On the whole, the big decision here didn't feel nearly as compelling as the lower-stakes final choices of the games I've been playing lately. I think that it's hard to write for characters operating at near-god-like power levels, but it might have helped to have stronger analogues to "real life" scenarios instead of being so fantastic.

MEGA SPOILERS

Callistege's ascension was interesting. I'd supported her research throughout, and initially thought I'd messed up when she left my party after I aided her in merging with the datasphere. I thought it was really cool how she popped back up again in the various endings, and behaved differently in them depending on what was happening in the world.



As for the big ending choice: I'd initially mis-read "sever the tidal connections" option. I thought that it would remove the Castoffs' immortality and their tidal abilities, but hadn't realized that it would actually kill them, so I audibly "Whoops!"'d once the Sorrow asked me to justify my choice. After seeing that play out, I went with restoring Miika, which seems like the most "good" ending to the game. (Sidebar: I really liked the delayed revelation that the Changing God was the Ghostly Woman's father; that's especially good game design, as it had been presented as an optional side-quest that I'd closed the book on, so having it resurface so late in the game was really cool.) After that I tried collecting our consciousness in Matkina, which was one of the lower-key endings but still interesting.


My last action was to refuse the Sorrow and destroy it. I'd assumed that this would lead to an optional final battle, and had hoped that it would unlock some better endings. Miika had suggested earlier on that there might be another option for restoring her to life besides eliminating the castoffs, and I only had the Sorrow's word for the consequences its destruction would incur. Instead of a triumphant battle, though, everything plays out the way the Sorrow said, with what seems like a clear worst ending. I'm glad that they included this option, and in general I'm pleased that there's no one "best" / "perfect" outcome (at least as far as I know; I'll spoiler myself as soon as I post this). Trading off between flawed alternatives is a lot more interesting. That said, as noted above, I didn't feel especially invested in these endings, beyond a general desire for Matkina, Rhin and Calistege to be all right.

END SPOILERS

Well, it's been a long time coming! It doesn't sound like T:ToN has been a big success, so it seems unlikely that we'll see a sequel to it or other games set in this universe. Still, the original PS:T was also widely recognized as a failure, and it managed to inspire legions of devoted fans, so who knows what the future might hold for this legacy. I enjoyed this game: it won't be joining my ranks of favorite games, but it's a great palette cleanser that shows other possibilities in how we can make and play RPGs. Even if I'm not particularly eager to play this game again, I suspect I'll be citing aspects of it as examples of good game design for quite a while.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Silencio Por Favor

Silence by Shusaku Endo is a challenging book. It isn't a hard read; the prose (at least in the translation I read) is engaging, and it isn't excessively long. But it focuses on tortures of the body, mind, and spirit in a deliberately discomforting way. Not for the sake of shock, but it inhabits those trials fully and asks you to imagine yourself undergoing them as well. It's a novel of suffering, the reasons for it and the process of enduring it.


MINI SPOILERS

Endo gets at this in a variety of ways through the book. It opens with a series of letters written from the Portuguese priest Rodriguez to his superiors back in Europe as he embarks on a secret missionary trip to Japan. After several generations of open tolerance, Japan's leaders have imposed a brutal crackdown against Christianity, forbidding any practice of the religion and expelling all Europeans from the country. We see events through Rodriguez's reports as he recounts their journey and the reception they find there.

Later, after the priest stops writing, we shift into a long portion with third-person attached narration. We see even more of Rodriguez's struggle and sympathy as he is forced to make difficult choices. The novel ends with a more detached historical section, in the form of log entries from Dutch traders living on Dejima.

That last bit was a really cool tie-in to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet; I'd thought of that book at the start of this one, realized that this one was set earlier, and was pleased to see a strong link at the end. Religion was also an important theme in that novel, although it plays a very different role. Jacob's faith is intensely personal: he's much more devout than his fellow countrymen, but keeps his faith secret and hidden as he balances his responsibilities as a company employee, as a Dutchman, and as a Christian. Rodriguez doesn't have that luxury: he is defined by his responsibility for his flock, and all of his self-worth is bound up with how well he is fulfilling his mission.

Both Jacob and Rodriguez face risks associated with their faith, although the ones Rodriguez faces are far more dire. One major theme that Silence brings up over and over is that it's easy to keep faith when you don't face persecution. Those of us who live comfortable lives in a state that doesn't challenge us may find it easy to look down on those who would betray their principles and surrender their beliefs, but it's very likely that we would have performed even worse if truly put to the test. The flip side of this that Endo presents is that we should feel sympathy for those who have fallen, and not hostility or judgment.

And the tests shown in this book are very harsh indeed. I tend to think of torture or martyrdom as a very personal thing, where a person is challenged to surrender lest they lose their life or incur more suffering. There's a dark appeal in the idea of standing up tall and proudly proclaiming "I will gladly give up my life for X!" But the characters in Silence don't get the luxury of that righteous stand. The question becomes "Will you give up others' lives for X? Will you allow the people you love to suffer for X? Will you punish those who follow you for X?" For virtuous people with a strong conscience, this is an especially insidious and effective tool. I'm a little surprised we don't see it depicted more in fiction, and I imagine it gets used a lot more often in real life.

And what exactly is at stake here? There's some interesting comparison of exterior actions versus interior faith. The Japanese officials keep insisting that trampling the fumie doesn't mean anything, that it's just a formality: people can still keep their faith in their hearts as long as they deny it with their bodies. But, of course, the ultimate goal is to destroy the interior faith of the remaining Japanese Christians. By bringing down the respected leaders of the religion, they hope to eliminate the rebellious, foreign spirit that is associated with these beliefs.

MEGA SPOILERS

Or do they? Near the end, Inoue says that it doesn't really matter if Christians still exist or still practice their faith, because it isn't the real Christianity, that they don't believe in the same God as the Catholics. Which makes me wonder why he puts so much effort into making the European priests recant. Is he worried that they would "correct" the beliefs of their flock? I don't think so; he seems to think it's impossible for the faith to ever really take root in this county. Or maybe he's just forcing the recantations because that's what the Shogun wants, but is philosophical enough about the situation that he sees a bigger picture. Or this could all just be a sort of game for him, a personal challenge that he enjoys, to overcome an adversary through intellect.

The question of whether a certain population really "understands" God is a big question that hangs over missions in general. There's definitely an elitism which says that western Europeans have the one / best / true understanding of the faith, and anything that deviates from that deviates from the truth. By those standards, adaptations of God or Christ are indicative of some mistake, a failure on the part of another tradition to grok the gospel. But I'm inclined to put more faith in the genuine expression of other cultures. In the New Testament, the best-educated people with the deepest scriptural knowledge were the villains, while the simple people without specialized theological training were embraced. Some cultures might focus more on Christ's divinity, while others focus more on his humanity, but both are true expressions of a transcendent reality, and I think it's a mistake to treat these sorts of variations as intrinsically false.

END SPOILERS

This book was a bummer, but a meaningful bummer, which reminds us of how fortunate we are and compellingly places us in the shoes of people who have a far more difficult burden to bear. Its exploration of faith, culture, and persecution are hyper-localized to the Ieyasu period of Japan, but that specificity makes it more compelling and understandable, perhaps easier to comprehend than a more generic fictional setting would have been. It isn't a call to action, but something well worth reflection and pondering.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Roll Tide

Heh, it's hard to believe that it's been over four years since the last time I wrote about Torment: Tides of Numenera. I backed the Kickstarter and enthusiastically followed the development updates, but never participated in the alpha or Early Access. The game was finally released while I was on vacation; by the time I returned, the initial reception seemed lukewarm, and inXile had announced that they were working on a significant patch and content update, so I decided to wait for that. Then I got started on CalFree in Chains and... well, anyways, now that it's been out a year, I finally have the free time to dive into this game and see what's up!


I'm still pretty early in, maybe 10+ hours into what will be a huge game. I just reached Tier 2 / Level 5 and finally recruited the fourth member of my party. I have a long ways to go, and wanted to share some early impressions.

The game is definitely nailing the "spiritual successor" designation. Much like Planescape: Torment, it is very text-heavy, with lots of dialogue and exposition and memories. You are once again rewarded for building a character who is observant and curious, rather than one who is strong and swift. With just a single play-through I'm not sure exactly how reactive it is, but it definitely feels like there are many solutions to almost every problem you face, and not simplistic "fight or talk your way out of it" ones.


The biggest contrast so far from PS:T is probably the overall mood and vibe. PS:T was relentlessly grim and dark, while T:ToN is quite bright. It isn't a happy game, and you definitely get into some serious issues, but the Ninth World seems like the sort of place I might actually enjoy living. They haven't eliminated the macabre elements of the previous game, but now they're a relatively minor oddity and not a defining feature.

Mechanically, it's taken a while for me to get used to the new Effort system, but I'm mostly enjoying it now. It's a nicely interlocking system that draws value from multiple sources and has multiple options for spending. Something like this is particularly important for a game that's so focused on non-lethal activities: you have a sense of stakes and some failure penalties, even when nobody is stabbing you. My favorite aspect might be how it contributes to the rhythm of the game, and in particular how it influences your decisions to rest. Resting completely refills your Effort pools, but can also advance the status of quests, potentially closing off some solutions. So after a point you start to keep an eye on your pools, trying to drive them down as far as you can while still keeping enough around for essential tasks.

I think I need to do a better job of managing my Castoff's Intellect pool. I seem to burn it down to 0 pretty quickly; in part this is because there are some challenges (like Anamnesis) that you must do yourself. I'm also a Nano with strong skills in areas like Lore, Persuade and Perception, so I'm often better than my companions, but I think I need to let them take on more of those challenges so I can retain more of my personal pool.

During character creation, I was tempted to play as a Jack (pseudo-Rogue), but my initial interview landed me as a Nano (pseudo-Mage) and I stuck with it. I'm really glad that I did: it feels like I'm unlocking a ton of content with abilities like Scan Thoughts and all of my Lore-boosting skills. I'd be very curious to play through at least the first part of the game as a Glaive (psuedo-Fighter) and see how that goes; I think I've seen like three opportunities for combat so far, and not a whole lot of physical-based challenges.


My overall party loadout is very heavy on Intellect, with some decent Speed, and laughably little Might. My Castoff's Might is the highest by a decent margin, and hers sucks. It hasn't really been an issue so far since I haven't run across many Might-based challenges, but I do wonder if I'll regret not having a balanced party later on.

As far as I can see, it looks like people only gain XP while in your party, which kind of stinks. The last person to join came in as Tier 2, so it doesn't look like you're punished too severely for recruiting people late; but she also had auto-leveled her skills, which is a bummer, since it takes away the opportunity to shape her to fit into my party. After the recent trend of Level 0 NPCs in games like Dragon Age Inquisition, it's a bummer of a throwback to the old school of "Race to recruit your desired party ASAP and then never let anyone leave." Especially with (what looks like) a hard limit of 4 party members at a time.

It's a small interface thing, but I'm slightly bummed by the lack of NPC portraits in dialogue. I totally get the reason why: this is a huge game with a ton of speaking characters, and it would be hard to draw all of them. And, if they only gave portraits to "important" characters, it would tip players off in advance about which new characters will and won't stick around. There are some really cool character pictures buried deep within your Journal, but it would have been nice to see something while actually talking with people.

Your companions are semi-voiced, which does tip you off that they're recruitable. The amount of voice acting seems weirdly variable, though. One of my companions has a ton of voiced dialogue, both ambient declarations while walking around and for much of her personal quest. The others are mostly silent. Overall voice acting quality is good, and as I've noted before, I actually follow the "less is more" philosophy when it comes to voicing in retro-style text-heavy isometric RPGs.

Companion banter seems... decent, not great. It reminds me a lot of the banter in Pillars of Eternity: short, quippy, non-interactive, not especially interesting. I think I like the content of these banters a bit more, though it does make me miss the more in-depth crew interactions you would get in games like Baldur's Gate.

The actual characters are pretty interesting, though. They're unique, and also feel very human and real. Callistege's situation is bizarre and unlike anything we've experienced or know, and yet her ambition and drive related to it is completely relatable. There seems to be a good mix of mystery ("Who is this person? What is their deal?") and evolution ("Are they doing the right thing? Should they change?") so far, and I'm looking forward to how those stories continue to develop.


The writing as a whole is very strong. Few things are more tedious than long paragraphs of turgid prose, and I was a bit hesitant about diving into such a verbose game (T:ToN apparently clocks in at around 1.2 million words), but it's been really enjoyable so far. Dialogue is good: not quite as interactive as, say, Dragon Age, and mostly focused on exhausting questions, but there are some opportunities to express your personality and values. There are also long blocks of prose, but it's always about something interesting: sometimes it's interesting because it's about you and your past, other times it doesn't seem to be related to your personal story but is fascinating because of how deeply strange it is.

This is a nonlinear game set in a sprawling world, and there's an enormous variety of stuff and stories to encounter. It's been interesting to think of how they managed to write it all: there are six primary authors of the game, and so far it's been a cohesive result. I was imagining something closer to Failbetter Games, which often conveys the particular style and eccentricity of individual authors. I may get more of a sense of distinct tones as I get further into the game, but at least so far it feels like a unified voice describing this insanely chaotic world.


Speaking of which: I've been surprised at just how amenable I've been to the Ninth World of Numenera. As I noted in a previous post on Pillars, I'm decreasingly enthusiastic about encountering entirely new worlds with their own lore. On the surface, the Ninth World would seem worse than most: it's so indescribably vast and ancient and complex, on top of tying into parallel universes and alternate realities and metaphysical realms, that it's impossible to get hold of. But, paradoxically, I find that that's actually freeing. I don't feel any pressure to understand a particular lineage or language or culture. I read about it, go "Oh, that's cool," then forget about it with no guilt. The fact that it is so vast keeps me from feeling the obligation to absorb it all.

MINI SPOILERS

I think I'm more or less tracking the plot so far, though it's early and I'm sure it will grow in the future. It seems clear that the Changing God will be a major focus of the game, probably the antagonist but maybe not. There have been quite a few references to the Endless Battle between the Changing God and the First Castoff, which seems a likely candidate for the main point of the game, although it might be planting seeds for a hypothetical franchise future.

My current party consists of Callistege, Rhin, and Matkina. My Castoff and Callistege are both heavy on Intellect, with some non-optimal overlap in Lore ability. (It's a little annoying that you can usually, but not always, use companion lore skills.) I started tilting Rhin towards Speed for more variety, but Matkina seems to have that nailed; I'll probably keep up that division, though. Rhin starts with a strong Intellect pool and edge, so she can definitely pitch in on that front when needed.

One thing that's been kind of interesting, and maybe not intentionally so, are quests that I don't want to take. I'm getting ready to leave Sagus Cliffs and wrapping up unfinished business, and there are a few that I just can't make myself do. Elevating the wannabe Aeon Priest seems noble, but requires lying. The bit with the imprisoned biomechanical creature in Circus Minor seems like it should have a diplomatic solution available, but you can only access that solution after lying to one or both parties. And I'm not sure if I want to recruit for the Changing God's side for the Endless Battle inside the Fifth Eye. I guess it's good that I feel invested enough in the story, world, and characters to willingly sacrifice some XP and rewards by passing over these quests, but at a meta level I'm curious if the developers actually intended refusal as a deliberate choice. (Props to them if they did - that's yet another thing I dig about Failbetter Games, where refusal to start something is just as powerful and valid of a statement as doing it.)

END SPOILERS

Not much about the plot yet, I'll do at least one big post-game wrap-up that will cover my impressions of the overall story and themes. Depending on how long the game is, there might be a couple more check-ins along the way. So far, though, I'm really digging the atmosphere and the unique gameplay on display.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

She Sees Seed Shells by the Spaceport

I haven't written enough about Nicola Griffith on this blog. I've read and loved her Aud Torvingen  noir thrillers, but have never been able to articulate my thoughts about them. That might just be because I don't read that much detective fiction to begin with. That said, I do read a lot of speculative fiction, so books like Hild and Ammonite are on much more familiar ground for me.



MINI SPOILERS

Ammonite is set far in the future; I pictured it as taking place at least several centuries and maybe a millennium from now. Earth has gone through multiple waves of colonizing other planets: settlers will arrive somewhere, put down roots, become self-sufficient, and acclimate to any local flora and fauna. Earth is now in a later phase, where the profit-minded Company (no, not that Company) seeks to exploit the resources of those planets. (Not necessarily in a strip-mine-the-surface way, but transforming a world into a luxury resort can be disconcerting in its own way.) Company is theoretically overseen by the SEC (no, not that SEC), but as in our present times, this relationship is subject to regulatory capture, and also complicated by the strong-willed individuals who make up each faction.

We catch some glimpses of all the above in the opening of the novel, but Ammonite takes place on Jeep. Jeep is an excellent near-Earth-like planet, with multiple moons, a distinct solar cycle, lush indigenous flora, thrilling electrical storms, and deadly thermal eruptions. It also harbors an exotic virus, dubbed Jeep as well, which slaughters 100% of the men and roughly 20% of the women it infects. Soon after landing, the original colony faced the brink of extinction. And yet, they somehow survived, and over many generations have developed a thriving exclusively-female society.

As in all of Griffith's novels, Ammonite features a fantastic and thoroughly unique protagonist. Marghe Taishan is an anthropologist (!) who arrives at Jeep with a dual mission: to act as the guinea pig for an experimental vaccination against the Jeep virus, and to study the culture of these people. Marghe is willful and bright, but not the stereotypical "Strong Female Protagonist" that just collects masculine attributes into a woman's body. Nor is she especially "sensitive" or "empathic" or "nurturing". She's a person, working hard, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, pursuing her passions, finding new passions to chase.

There's an overarching plot concerned with the integration of new Earth arrivals into Jeep culture: the military Company agents have been infected by the virus, and Marghe's research will help determine whether they will be allowed to return home to Earth or will remain quarantined on Jeep and forced to adapt to native customs. Most of the book, though, is focused on Marghe's personal adventure: her journey into native lands, conversations with its people, witnessing its natural phenomena, enduring its hardships. This starts out as "research," with Marghe acting the part of the clinically distant outside observer, but as the novel progresses she becomes more and more deeply entwined with the culture, losing her objectivity but gaining infinitely more.

"Ammonite" challenges us to rethink what is "normal". We think that the way things are done on Earth are the only way they can be done, but, like a lot of great science fiction, Ammonite hits a reset button and asks us to imagine something different. One aspect that particularly struck me was "trata", which is sort-of-but-not-really the trade system of Jeep. On modern Earth we're accustomed to a market-based economy that uses currency to facilitate the flow of goods and services. But that isn't the only option: in our own past, there have been successful alternatives like the gift-based economy of the Pacific Northwest and Polynesia.

On Jeep, most settlements are more or less self-sufficient, but everyone can benefit from trade: accessing the crafts of another group, or recovering seeds after a botched harvest, or gaining a promise of protection against threats. Trata shares some characteristics with a gift economy, but it's a bit more dynamic. The bonds and obligations created by an exchange are seen as valuable in themselves, and to some extent can be securitized: if clan A has trata with clan B, and B with C, then A can ask B to intercede with C on their behalf.

There is no currency associated with trata, and it isn't intended to immediately cancel out like numismatic transactions do. Instead, the outstanding debt of the lesser party in a trade is itself seen as an asset, a sort of karmic balance that will encourage further trata in the future. Trata is facilitated by viajera, travelers who function as a combination of judge, bard, and scholar.

When I started reading Ammonite, I would sometimes think "Oh, so this is what the world would look like if women ran things!" As I got further along, though, I realized that that wasn't the point. The society on Jeep works just fine without any men, but I don't think it would be impossible with them, either. There's no mystical feminine energies moving things along: perhaps slightly more of a drive for nurturing and a bit less aggression, but there are still plenty of examples of the latter. For the most part, the gender makeup of Jeep just sort of fades into the background, and I completely forgot about it for long stretches of the book. I would suddenly remember it at random points: "Huh, all of the sailors on this ship are women. Oh. That's right! All of the people on this planet are women, so of course all the sailors are."

MEGA SPOILERS

The central mystery of Ammonite is probably how the virus works and how the women can reproduce. I liked how this was presented: nobody is trying to hide the answer, and the natives have been explaining it to Company all along, but Marghe can only understand it after she becomes vulnerable and lets down her barriers. She needs to experience it, to become the observed as well as the observer.

This explanation, like several others in the book, is a nifty blend of science with a little quasi-mysticism. There's an acknowledgment of the underlying problem, a bit of a leap for a solution, and then a thorough description that helps it all feel grounded and plausible. It ultimately falls under the umbrella of "sufficiently advanced technology", except in this case it isn't machines or computers, but a deeper understanding of natural processes.

END SPOILERS

I'm rapidly approaching the end of available Griffith novels, but have thoroughly enjoyed each one so far. Ammonite in particular scratches a very particular itch. I hesitate to compare it to other books, but in some ways it reminds me of the fantastic Steerwoman series and Hellspark: it's another fantastic novel that's adventurous, focused on discovery and growth and negotiations, a refreshing alternative to the combat-focused plots that dominate so much speculative fiction.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

After Death

The CalFree in Chains launch went really well, honestly better than I was expecting. I've been pleased both by the number of people who have played it and their reactions. It's now been over two years since Shadowrun Hong Kong came out, and I was mentally prepared for a graveyard reception; instead, after less than two weeks out, over one thousand players have already subscribed to my campaign. As with all of my projects, I'd come to kind of hate it in the immediate run-up to release, and it's been a relief to see people appreciating its virtues instead of the flaws I've been obsessed about.


I liked the format of my post-mortem on The Caldecott Caper, so let's follow the same breakdown for CFiC. These all probably qualify as minor spoilers.

What Went Well: Technical


With each of these games, I've become more aware of the advantages and shortcomings of the engine, and have invested time and effort up front that's paid off significant dividends in my overall productivity and capabilities.

Music Replacement


My biggest disappointment with Hong Kong by far was losing the classic cyberpunk soundtrack from Dead Man's Switch and Dragonfall. I'd vaguely remembered reading a while ago about some earlier modders who experimented with music replacement, so I dug up some old threads and spent a fair amount of time creating a similar feature for Hong Kong. This was absolutely necessary for all the rest of my work, there's no way I would have made this game without access to a broader range of tunes.

This isn't perfect; in particular, since I don't belong to any of the paid development programs my players have needed to put up with intimidating Windows Defender warnings and false positive trojan notifications. But it sounds like a fair amount of players are willing to go through it, which is wonderful to see. I'm sure that's largely because of pre-existing trust based on my previous mod work, I doubt as many people would have installed this program if it was just from some rando.

Alpha Testing


This was one of the things I explicitly called out in my previous post-mortem. This time around, I had a plan in place from the start for how I wanted to approach testing, including a dedicated alpha-test phase. I was much more aggressive about recruiting testers, and ended up with a good number. I think about two-dozen people expressed interest, of those about a dozen subscribed, of those about a half-dozen gave (incredibly useful) feedback, and a grand total of one actually completed the game.

I really should have expanded the alpha-test window by at least a week. In retrospect, I was asking players to put in one or two hours a day over the course of eleven days, which is a pretty big commitment. Of course, some people will power through a campaign like this in a single sitting, but none of those joined this test. It all worked out all right in the end, though. I only had a handful of major issues crop up, and they were all identified and fixed prior to the public release, which was my main goal with this phase. This has been by far my smoothest launch with the fewest patches.

Estimation


It's amazing that I managed to hit my date. I started working on this in earnest early in the summer. At first I thought I might go more quickly than with Caldecott, thanks to my increased familiarity with the editor and less need for experimentation. I think it ended up taking longer, though, mostly due to the increased reactivity in CFiC and the addition of alternate peaceful routes to multiple scenes. Still, I had enough of a buffer in there that I managed to nail my desired release date without cutting any planned features. How often does that happen?!

What Went Well: Artistic


My devlog posts were weird to write, because they're like 90% focused on the technical aspect of making the game, and not the creative/artistic/emotional elements that were my entire motivation for creating it. Anyways, here are some new things I tried for CalFree in Chains that I think turned out pretty well.

Side-quests


I covered this in more detail in a previous devlog post, but I'm pleased with how the optional side-quests turned out. I like how varied they are: narratively and mechanically, each feels distinct. They are more forgiving than the side-quests for Caldecott or Antumbra, offering alternate routes to completion or gracefully diminishing returns. And, although it was a late addition, I like the multiple ways that they can tie back into the game's main plot and directly impact (while not defining) the climax of the game.

Dog


The dog is 100% inessential, but I really liked the idea and was happy to make her work. It turned out to be a lot harder than I thought, and I learned a lot about how the engine handles prefabs and genders and stuff. There are still occasional bugs caused by the dog, and it would be a lot simpler to remove her entirely or just make her a him and have him follow you like Dante did. But I think it's all worthwhile: I love how she moves and behaves a bit differently, and despite me totally stealing the model and portrait, she still feels very different from Dante.

I think that completely optional content like the dog is paradoxically some of the most important stuff in an RPG. Adopting and interacting with a dog isn't a demand I make of the player, it's a choice that they make, and it can become a significant part of their story.

Surprises


I felt nervous about matching the impact of Caldecott, which had at least one major plot twist that caught a lot of players off guard. Here, I ended up basically doing opposite twists from Caldecott, which feels really cheap and formulaic, but actually seems to have turned out well. I think CFiC is less reliant on the twists than Caldecott, which also helps.

Calbacks


I intentionally selected a variety of cameos, plot points, and other elements from Antumbra Saga and The Caldecott Caper to reappear here. I don't think they're overdone, and players seem to appreciate them: I view them as little "thank you" notes for the people who've been with me since the beginning, and they double as extra flavor for those who are just joining us now.

I am curious how future players will approach these campaigns. Antumbra Saga and Caldecott were fairly separate, while Caldecott and CFiC are rather closely linked, and I've been gently advising players to play Caldecott first. I think that CFiC should still work on its own, so it will be interesting to see whether that's true, and how players feel if they go backwards through those stories.

Characters


I think most characters turned out OK. I've kind of got crew members down to a formula at this point, and that formula seems to be working, as crew-related compliments are some of the most common I'm receiving. Recurring characters like Moonflower seem to have an appropriate amount of story to uncover, and I think it was good to get players involved in her life as well as just listening to her story.

There were a few weak points. In particular, I think Rick was bland. I grabbed him because he felt vibrant in Antumbra Saga, wasn't explored much in that game, and his position as a Ranger gave direct access to an important relevant faction. But since Rick never goes anywhere in CFiC, his live-free-or-die-hard voice was kind of wasted. I should have explored his personal story like I did with other recurring NPCs, or given him an arc of some sort. (Not that every character needs one, necessarily. Maybe it's OK for some characters to be more interesting than others, instead of trying too hard to make each person Unique and Important and Interesting.)


The one-off characters in this campaign, like Sira Ikeda and Weetabrix and Yamazaki, are narrowly drawn, but I think they're distinct and work well enough. I deliberately pick just one or maybe two aspects of such characters to focus on, and I think that works out fine.

Varied Gameplay


I was bummed that Caldecott ended up mostly being "Talk-and-Shoot: The Game", and one of my explicit goals at the start of CFiC was to include more puzzles and other non-standard gameplay. The puzzles are honestly not all that great, but I think that even mediocre puzzles really help to break up the monotony and give players a different sense of achievement. And I think I learned from my experience on Antumbra Saga, too: at least judging from the early waves of comments, a lot fewer players are getting stuck on how to proceed. I forget if I mentioned this on an earlier devlog, but I added in-game hints that are spoken by your companions after you've gotten stuck on a puzzle, which hopefully gives a graceful nudge to players.

Combat


Some players have complained that combat can be a slog, which I'll readily admit (especially if playing on easier difficulty levels), but on the whole I think CFiC has the best combat of any of my games. The general consensus seems to be that it's challenging but not ridiculous, which is exactly what I was going for. I made a lot more unique fights here than in Caldecott, with boss-fight mechanics or alternate objectives or environmental obstacles or other twists to shake things up, which I think helps keep it fresh. And, as noted above, I think that the inclusion of more non-combat gameplay helps make the combat more interesting when you return to it.


One of the few significant updates I'm still thinking of adding to CFiC is an "easy mode": poking through the editor, I see that HBS specifically down-tuned the difficulty for easy-mode players, above and beyond the standard engine changes: in particular, they will often remove a couple of enemies from the map. I think that should help make CFiC more accessible for people who are interested in the story and don't want to focus on character builds or tactics.

What Was Mixed


There were a few things that... didn't go exactly as I imagined, but still had some positive impact or unexpected side-effects.

Political Themes


CalFree in Chains is not a subtle game, at all. The Caldecott Caper was also inspired by social and political issues, but it mostly worked through metaphors at one degree removed. Out of the 500+ comments on that campaign, maybe one or two have indicated that they get what it's about. Which is totally fine! I deliberately wanted to encourage a certain kind of thinking, rather than thinking about a specific topic, in the (very possibly misguided) belief that self-directed discovery will be more effective at impacting hearts and minds than on-the-nose diatribes.


CFiC, though, waves its flag from the opening crawl through the final credits. It isn't just political: it tells you how to read itself, describes what it's doing. (One of my favorite bits to create was a sidequest where you create a propaganda trideo in order to sway the opinions and behavior of your fellow Californians.) I expected a backlash, and have been a little surprised that this aspect hasn't received much notice. A few people have specifically commented on it, and seem to appreciate my treatment of those themes, but not many.

Which I guess is good - I didn't want a backlash - but also a little odd, since it was my entire reason for creating the game in the first place. I'm not sure yet how to interpret the low-key response. It may be that my audience is going "Yep yep, of course, we're all on the same page and it isn't really worth talking about." Or maybe people are digesting it. My greatest fear is that it's just become background noise... one major risk of epic save-the-world plots is that they tend to blend together after a while, and themes might be seen as just flavoring rather than essence.

Villains


Villians are always my weakest characters. They're usually the last thing I figure out during the planning stages, long after I've finalized the crew and the overall shape of the plot.  I had trouble with Gavan for a very long time, as I wanted to make him distinct from previous villains like Claude Bullion and Kroin. I was delighted once I finally figured out Gavan's voice, which ended up being really distinct and uniquely hateable. I'm still not sure whether or not it was a good idea to include a look into Gavan's personal life... it seems kind of petty in contrast to the scale of the plot, but I think it's also another way to humanize and particularize the harms he causes, so maybe it works, I dunno.

There are fewer villains in CFiC than in Caldecott, which I think is okay... I was concerned that Caldecott had too many. One thing I did miss in CFiC was infighting amongst your enemies, but I think that's inevitable given the story of the Protectorate.



In the future, I'd like to start shifting more towards antagonists instead of villains. I have a lot more fun with antagonists, people like Dorbi and Slagarm who you can butt heads with but who aren't necessarily evil.

Release Date


I selected December 22nd for the completely arbitrary reason that it was the day Bright came out on Netflix, and I thought that it might prompt some people already familiar with Shadowrun to look for related content. In hindsight, there doesn't seem to have been any such link, though a savvier marketer than me might have turned this into a good promotion opportunity.

It did end up dropping before the Christmas and New Year holidays, and I have no idea whether that helped or hurt it. On the one hand, more people are off work and have free time for fun. On the other hand, a lot of people are busy traveling and/or spending time with families, while others have gotten new games as gifts and are less likely to reinstall a two-year-old game.

At the very least, the holiday release doesn't seem to have killed my download numbers, and there's a chance it may have boosted them. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

What Went Poorly


These aren't necessarily failures, but elements that didn't turn out as well as I hoped or weren't worth the effort I put into them.

Romance


I realized way too late that the romance arc(s) were crowding out the main plot and weakening the core of the campaign. I totally should have seen that coming... I can't find the article right now, but people have observed that while you can write a story about a thousand different things, as soon as you add a love interest to that story, it always becomes a love story. I'd been thinking about romance as a stakes-raiser, an optional component that can strengthen a player's emotional attachment to the story. Instead, for the (many!) players who pursue a romance, your personal relationship became the central element of the game, which was the exact opposite of my intention.

I frantically made some last-minute changes to the ending to make this less distressing to players, but in the process further muddled the message of the game. I dunno. I do think that the romance works really well on its own terms - it does some things that I haven't seen before in a video game, and people seem to enjoy it (or at least have a strong response to the arc). In retrospect, I wish that I had saved this for a future, non-Shadowrun project, and just omitted the love interests from this one. It would have been cool and more thematically appropriate to have similarly deep platonic relationship arcs (possibly with casual hookups for funtimes, which in all honesty feels more Shadowrun).

Solution: Think more critically at the start about whether romance works with the story I want to tell. Just because I enjoy writing romance and players enjoy reading them doesn't mean that I should always include them. Or, conversely, just make a game about romance in the first place and build around that instead.

Crew Influence


I had a nagging feeling before that I was making this too complicated, and after playing through the game twice I think I was right. I fell into the classic trap of making something fun for the designer instead of for the player. I loved the idea of a value-neutral companion influence system rather than the positive/negative favor system of The Caldecott Caper, which was encouraging metagaming over roleplaying. But the system I created was opaque and not predictable. I think players have a general sense of "oh, cool, I'm making a difference in my crew's lives", but no specific sense of achievement or deliberate guidance.

I do still think that value-neutral design is the way to go, but melding it with a standard approval-style counter was a bust. I now think that Dragon Age-style "hardening" dilemmas are the way to go: instead of a smoothly graduated progression, just have a handful of big, impactful decisions that players can carefully consider and which will have big, discrete outcomes. Which, now that I think about it, is exactly what the crew loyalty missions are in the official Shadowrun campaigns! I feel a little silly to have spent so much thought and effort on something, only to find out that a superior solution was right in front of me the whole time, but hey, at least I eventually figured it out & won't soon forget!

Solution: Think reeeeeally hard before implementing complex systems. Unless the game is actually about that complex system, I'll probably end up confusing players and putting in too much work for too little (or even negative) benefit.

Content Allocation


This isn't a huge problem, but I think that the earlier missions are generally bigger and more interesting than the later ones. FORGED IN BATTLE, for example, comes very early on and crosses a lot of territory, has you fight a ton of different factions and enemy types, includes puzzles and a boss battle, allows you to recruit a new companion, ties in to the previous campaigns, and advances the central plot. In contrast, later missions like WASTE and PROTECT take place on relatively small maps, have just a couple of enemy types, and will probably be quicker to beat. Similarly, your first few visits to the hub will introduce a bunch of new characters, kick off new side-quests, and have lots of new conversations. On the last couple of runs, though, some characters won't have anything new to say, and apart from the romances there aren't many surprises.


I don't think it's necessarily bad to front-load the best content, as it's most likely to hook players and get them to keep playing. And it may make sense to speed things up as we approach the finish, especially if people are getting bored. But it does feel kind of like I ran out of steam and had fewer ideas near the end.

Solution: This will be hard to quantify, but I'd like to get a better picture of how much content will be in each scene during the design phase. That will let me anticipate if some sections are doing relatively too much or too little, and reallocate content if there's a big discrepancy.

Accessibility


This just came in recently: one of my players has color-blindness, and wasn't able to solve a puzzle that relies on colors. I felt bad about that... he or she was able to get unstuck, but it's something I should have anticipated.

Solution: In the short term, I'll be pushing out an update with some form of work-around for players who aren't able to complete the puzzle, just as soon as I figure out what that work-around is. For future projects, I'll look for an accessibility checklist or some other resource that can help me identify similar issues in advance so I can design for them properly in the first place.

Next Steps


Around the end of this month I'll write one final post where I go over the subscriber numbers and other metrics associated with the campaign. That will probably be interesting to other creators thinking of making stuff for Hong Kong, as well as giving me some ballpark numbers for players who might be interested in following me to fresh platforms. And that will probably be it! I'll keep maintaining these campaigns for the forseeable future, but it's time to stop nattering about them on this blog.