Archive for July 2012

The rewrite is coming along well; I’ve removed the parts that need to go (much of which will eventually return in the sequel), added 5,000 words to fill in the gaps that left, and made a pass through the whole story. I need to add some more words early on and do another copy-edit pass, but hopefully the new version will be out by next weekend. I’m trying to make it the same length as the original so I don’t need to revise the paperback cover, but I don’t think I have ten pages to add to bring it back to that size.

I’ve also been reading another horror/thriller movie script that I wrote back in 2007. It has its flaws — it’s a feature-length script I wrote in about two weeks — but I think the story is one of the best I’ve ever written. I’ll have to think about converting it to a novel soon.

Edit: rewrite is done, just need to proofread and copy-edit.

Back in the 80s, when I was a kid, the BBC made a mini-series about ancient Egypt and the intrigues of its kings and queens. It then vanished, and the BBC seem to have been quite embarrassed about it ever since. It was mostly infamous for the number of topless slave girls, I suspect that more bare breasts have rarely been seen on the BBC in such a short time.

Fortunately someone has now uploaded all the episodes to Youtube:

The Cleopatras

I’m only half-way through the second episode, but so far it’s rather entertaining. They’re busy conspiring, fighting, marrying their brothers, sisters, fathers and uncles, and murdering everyone when they can get away with it.

My favourite part so far was when they were driven out of Egypt, which went something like:

“We must leave. The mob are storming the palace to kill us because of what I did yesterday.”
“What? Because you burned down the school?”
“No, because I didn’t let the people out first.”

I must admit, though, that I still have some trouble seeing the gay uncle from Withnail and I as an Egyptian king.

After receiving the same feedback on the story from several different people, I’ve decided to give in and produce a revised edition. The main thing people have said is ‘I like the historical parts but the modern ones aren’t so interesting’, so they’ll have to go. I was trying to be too clever when I wrote the story and it seems that didn’t really work.

Normally I would just say it is what it is and leave it alone, but I’m intending to write at least a couple of prequels with Uncle Howard and at least one sequel, so revising this one to fit better with those books makes sense. It probably won’t take more than a couple of weeks as most of the work is to remove the present-day sections and turn the journal sections into a narrative form. I’ll also be expanding some sections and adding a few odds and ends.

I’m not unpublishing the current version, so if you buy it today it might be a valuable and rare first edition some time in the future :).

The main thing I’ve learned from this is to trust your beta readers. I should have removed the present-day sections when they said to do so, and should have known it was the right thing to do because I could never quite get the opening to work.

Apparently the Gnome team is in deep decline, losing market share and mind share:

Staring Into The Abyss

Hmm, perhaps that’s because Gnome 3 sucks and whenever someone points that out we’re told we’re ‘scared of change’ and ‘if we don’t like Gnome, use something else’.

Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Linus still hates Gnome 3 too.

Linus also comments there on why ‘extensions’ are a piss-poor ‘solution’ to a fundamentally broken design.

At least if Gnome 3 does collapse, we might see some sanity in Linux desktop GUIs again.

Space Nazis

Almost done on the second Area 52 short story; hopefully it will be out at the weekend. After I write a couple more, I suspect I’ll turn them into a novel and expand them a little.

I already bought Guild Wars 2 so the question of whether I’ll be playing when it’s officially released next month is moot. I’ve played a number of MMOs in the past, but quit them when I reached the point where I was paying every month but only had time to log in once or twice. With the Guild Wars games I can buy them once and play when I have time, and the lack of a monthly fee means the developers don’t have to create long grind-fests to keep people playing and paying; I’m sure they’ll release expansions that I have to pay for, but the games with monthly fees do as well.

Made It, Ma. Top Of The World.

Here are some thoughts on the PvE elements of the last Beta; I didn’t try PvP other than the final Beta event. Screenshots are in stereoscopic 3D. Display them at full size and cross your eyes to see the 3D effect.

There are a number of major differences between GW2 and the other MMOGs I’ve played. One of the most obvious is in the ‘quest’ mechanics. In an older MMOG like Everquest, a typical quest would involve talking to one NPC who says ‘collect a hundred rabbit ears and I’ll give you a rusty sword’. No-one explains why anyone would want a hundred rabbit ears (is he having some kind of ‘Nam flashback?), why they think a rusty sword is a good trade for them or why the game designers think that it’s fun for the player. Nor does the quest affect the world or anyone in it; the next person who speaks to the same NPC will find he’s still looking for a hundred rabbit ears even though a dozen people already collected them that day.

Wolf Spirit.

Guild Wars 2 largely replaces quests with ‘events’. These are short, scripted sequences which can be triggered randomly, as a result of a previous event or by talking to a particular NPC, and can follow each other in different ways depending on whether players succeed or fail. If you are travelling nearby at the time, the event will pop up on the game HUD and you can join in or pass by. At the end of the event you receive a rating of bronze, silver or gold depending on how much you influenced the outcome, and receive rewards based on the impact you had. Unlike the old-style quests, part of the reward is given in points you can spend at reward vendors, so if you don’t want a rusty sword you can buy apple pie instead.

Here’s an example; not an actual sequence from the game but based on some events that I played through at the weekend. A supply caravan is waiting at the gates of a town, and the event is to escort it to the abbey down the road. So you walk with it, kill any mobs which attack, destroy road blocks, and eventually you reach the city. That spawns the next event, which is to help the monks as they brew beer from the supplies, by tasting it or killing the creatures that are eating the ingredients. When that is over, the beer is stockpiled outside the city waiting for the caravan to take it to the thirsty soldiers at a nearby fort, and bandits try to steal it. Finally, you escort the caravan to the fort and the whole sequence is done.

But that assumes that all the events succeed. If the bandits do steal the beer then that event fails and you receive a lesser reward. But instead of ending the sequence, the next event might be to follow the monk to the bandit camp and recover the barrels, after which either the sequence ends or you continue to escort it to the fort as before. Whatever happens, the events occur in the main game world, you can join or leave at any time, and nothing prevents you from replaying an event you’ve completed when it spawns again.

Some events involved capturing areas from mobs, or defending those captured areas when the mobs tried to recapture them. One of my favourite moments over the weekend was an attack on a fort where I was standing on the battlements with a rifle shooting attacking mobs five levels higher than me while higher-level players outside the gates fought them hand-to-hand. We won that time, so I don’t know whether they would actually have taken it over if we failed, or just killed a bunch of people and left. Other events are largely non-violent, such as having snowball fights with the kids in a village to entertain them, or tidying up a fort.

Overall I thought the events worked pretty well, and while I did have to collect lost rabbit food and carry it back to an NPC while evading the rabbits that were trying to steal it from me, I never had to cut their ears off. In addition, Everquest, despite the name, had a policy where quests could not give enough experience to make them more efficient for levelling than killing monsters. In Guild Wars 2, events are one of the fastest ways to level up, and if you do all the events and exploration opportunities in a zone you’ll be around the right level for the next one.

This Just Looked Cute.

Death is an area where the game has more of a single-player RPG feel than traditional MMOGs. When you’re ‘killed’, you’re left in a semi-playable state where you can try to finish off the mob that attacked you using a limited selection of skills and, if you kill it, you return to life; I’ve seen this in at least one other game but can’t remember what it was. If you die, you either have to wait for someone to revive you, which any player can do, or pay to be teleported to a way point and then pay to repair your gear. The best part is that players gain experience from reviving others, so once the fight is over there’ll probably be a queue trying to get some free experience that way.

The one element I really disliked was the repair system, where dying without being revived damages armour. Compulsory repair mechanics always suck, and one of the most popular mods in games which enforce them is usually the one that disables repair. Having to travel half-way across the map and pay money to get your gear working again actively discourages exploration and experimentation and I really hope they remove it from the final release. How many times did Conan the Barbarian turn to his leather bikini-clad sidekick in the middle of a dungeon and say ‘sorry, I have to go back to town to fix my sword’?

Guild Wars gave players hundreds of skills and allowed them to pick eight at a time. Guild Wars 2 has a simplified version of that system where there are a substantial number of skills and a player has ten available. Of those, five are based on the weapon you are using — and, in the case of the Elementalist, on the element you have currently chosen — while the player can select the other five from skills they’ve learned. That initially confused me, because my Elementalist had fire skills and I switched to water, then switched back to fire and my skills were gone; in the meantime I had changed weapon, so a new set of fire skills replaced the old ones. The per-weapon skills must be unlocked, but that seems a little pointless when killing a few dozen mobs is enough to do so. The other five skill slots are unlocked as you level up or gain skill points via the skill point challenges, some of which are as simple as reaching an out of the way spot while others require defeating a boss mob.

The Swamp.

Another neat but sometimes painful feature is down-levelling, allowing you to play in any of the lower level areas of the game so you can go back and complete areas that you missed. If, say, you’re level twenty but in a level five area, the game will treat you as though you were level five but you still retain the level twenty skills. Consequently you’re better than a level five newbie, but not totally overpowered. I did find this painful at times in the ‘personal story’ event sequence which you play solo, as my level twelve character was fighting level four mobs but down-levelled to four and nearly dying on several occasions.

Area of effect skills are still important in combat as, like Guild Wars, you’ll often be swarmed by groups of mobs and have to take them down fast. One major change is that the goal of combat now appears to be not getting hit rather than surviving the hits. In Guild Wars, your character automatically followed the mob you were attacking and you had little need or ability to move in combat other than backing away from mobs that attacked you if you were a class with poor defence. In Guild Wars 2, movement is often essential to avoid being wiped out in a few hits, and unlike, say, Everquest, you can cast spells while moving. As with many other games, hitting the move keys twice will dodge an attack, and some skills provide other means of avoiding them; for example, the Elementalist has a skill which rolls away and leaves a trail of fire behind to burn anything that tries to follow.

Since I play on a laptop with a touchpad, this did make combat difficult at times, as did the removal of target auto-facing. I often found myself attacking something I didn’t want to attack, or having to spin the view with the touchpad so I was facing a mob which had run past me. Many times I was instant-killed by a boss mob for no apparent reason because, presumably, I didn’t dodge its AoE attacks. This was worse with my Warrior character as he had to follow the mobs to poke them with a sword while the Elementalist could sit back and nuke; I eventually found that using a rifle worked better for the Warrior than a sword or axe.

With ranged weapons, on a number of occasions a mob was flagged as invulnerable because the game thought that I was exploiting the geometry to attack it when it couldn’t fight back, or it was behind an obstacle when I could clearly see it and see my attacks hitting it. They are also tethered and run back to their spawn point if you move too far way, and the tethers are often short enough that if you outrun them while evading attacks they’ll have walked away and regenerated to nearly 100% before you can catch up, so you have to kill them a second time. Underwater combat seemed difficult because I couldn’t figure out the movement keys; I’m sure they’re in the controls menu, but I didn’t need them often enough to look them up there.

Fortunately combat gives relatively little experience so you don’t need to fight all the time. Guild Wars has rarely been about repetitive grinding to progress, and that remains true in Guild Wars 2. You might have to fight a lot of mobs to reach the next level, but you’ll get there much faster if you don’t just sit in one spot and kill them repeatedly. Most things in the game provide experience rewards to level you up, and grinding provides the least. I don’t understand the rules for how much experience a mob gives, but they seem to vary based on how many types you’ve fought in one day and how many other players are in the same area killing them. Travel gives many times as much experience as killing a mob, events give even more, even crafting gives experience, though I don’t know whether you could level all the way to eighty without killing anything. Completing daily achievements (e.g. ‘kill ten different mob types’) gives a bonus.

Everquest had the ‘holy trinity’, of Tank, Healer and Crowd Control. It varied in importance through the game as expansions and spell changes made some elements of the Trinity more or less important, but through most of its life you needed all three to survive in dungeons. Guild Wars had a similar arrangement where you couldn’t enter a lot of content without a Monk to heal or deflect damage, and many classes could do some kind of crowd control. In Guild Wars 2, every class has its own line of self-healing spells, and every class I played had some kind of ‘heal other’ and crowd control abilities. For example, the Elementalist’s water magic line can heal other players as well as causing damage and their air magic can knock down the bad guys. The Warrior can knock them down with a hammer, or revive dead players by killing bad guys. So there’s no perfect group combination, all characters can work if they’re played right.

Crafting seems to work fairly well but is the only time I had to grind over the weekend, in order to collect the component drops; to be fair, in part that was because I sold a lot of drops I didn’t think I’d need, later discovered that I did, and couldn’t remember where I’d sold them in order to use the buy back feature at the merchant. Crafting armour requires multiple stages with multiple drops, and you get experience for each one. One nice feature, similar to Guild Wars, is that you have separate bank slots for crafting drops so you don’t need to carry a dozen backpacks full of the bits and pieces you require.

A Vista.

Vistas were a new feature for this weekend, locations which give particularly good views of the scenery; when you reach one and select it the game switches to a camera flying around the local area to show it off. Again, they give experience, seemingly more the more out of the way they are. Some are just spots you can walk to inside towns, others are on top of mountains or buildings which can require some ingenuity to climb and jump to the top. Oh yes, you can jump; I presume because so many Guild Wars players complained about being forced to fight around obstacles that they could jump over in real life, they’ve made jumping almost essential in Guild Wars 2.

Overall its a nice progression from MMOGs of the past and maintains much of the Guild Wars feel, with only a few annoying features. I would say the biggest flaw is the ‘tutorial’ area which is different for each race but typically consists of running to talk to one NPC who sends you to a place where you’ll go through two or three events in a sequence and then you’re into the newbie area proper. It left me at least as confused about the game changes as I was when I first logged in, so I would like to have seen it explain the more important features rather than throw you straight into using them.

Got my letter saying that I passed the test, so I have to go and swear allegiance to the Queen and get my certificate in the near future. I’ll be glad when it’s all over!

So the Guild Wars 2 open Betas are done and good fun was had by most.

Hungry and ready for action

I thought it was going to finish at 2am Saskatchewan time so I would miss the end event, but I forgot the DST changes and it ended at 1am instead. The final hour was a server-wide event called Hunger Royale, which I presume is a homage to the ‘Hunger Games’ books that I’ve never read. Players in each zone were split into two teams, given a rifle with a small amount of ammunition (10 rounds?), a hunger that caused perpetual loss of health and a limited amount of food to regenerate that health, then left to try to survive for about half an hour. Ammunition stations and respawning food caches around the map provided some supplies, otherwise you had to kill other players and steal their stuff; for the first few minutes death resulted in respawning as a player, after that you respawned as a ‘helper bot’ which could drop ammunition and provide a brief shield against bullets.

We started with about sixty players per team and we were down to nine when I died with about ten minutes to go. The team won by adopting the rather sensible policy of hiding near a food cache in the last few minutes of the game, and letting the remaining players of the other teams die. A few minutes later the server disconnected and that was that. I’ve played in a few game Betas before, including the original Guild Wars, but this was the first time I felt sad about a game going away when it hasn’t even been released yet.

A few pictures are attached; I hope the outfit is available in-game, even if the rifle won’t be. This is my Elementalist character, who has some history behind her.

Time to go

I presume Glint is an Arenanet developer, based on the name and the icon.

Ready for action in 3D

Helper Bot in 3D

Back in 2001 a computer magazine gave away a free copy of Everquest as a cover CD. After I’d subscribed for a while I started a Mage, and picked a Dark Elf because they were the best-looking and faction for an agnostic Dark Elf enabled them to travel to most parts of the game world without being immediately killed. I already had a male Dark Elf Necromancer, and the life of an Everquest Mage mostly consists of looking after your pet, summoning beer, nuking the heck out of naughty monsters when they hit 50% health or running around screaming like a little girl with a big monster chasing you if you nuke it before 50% health*, so I decided a female Dark Elf would suit the class better.

The random name generator came up with a name was already taken, but add one more letter and it worked OK. I haven’t played Everquest in years, but I played that character for a long time and she was the only one who I played through their whole Epic quest sequence, so I’ve continued to use the same name for Mage/Elementalist characters in other games ever since.

More on the actual game tomorrow.

* – the life of an Everquest Necromancer, of course, mostly consists of running around cackling with glee as a big monster chases you while your pet stabs it in the back. Except when snare breaks and then you do scream like a little girl.

I see a new feature added to Guild Wars 2 for this Beta is stereoscopic screenshots. They work surprisingly well, but I only took a couple today to test them out. Here’s one of them; click for the full-size version.

Human Warrior and Elementalist in 3D

I’ll try to take some more tonight which show something more scenic than a warrior’s butt :).

Another Beta weekend, so not much writing happening until Monday :).

Got some good ones from here:

5 Great Fonts For Book Covers

A comment I originally posted elsewhere about Microsoft’s Downfall:

Windows is a golden goose chained to Microsoft’s ankle. On the one hand, they’re rolling in money because almost everyone has some crusty old Windows software that they have to run so they need Windows to run it. On the other, they’re tied to millions of lines of old code that they have to maintain in order to keep those people coming back to buy the next version.

On a similar note to the e-reader mentioned here, in 2001 I was sitting a short distance from Bill Gates as he held out a tablet and told us that it was the future of computing. Everyone would be using these things so we’d better make sure our software ran on them.

What it was, of course, was a tablet running Windows. None of us could understand what he’d been smoking to think that people would run out to buy these things that required using Windows with a touch-screen, and they sank to a tiny niche where people did find good uses for them.

Steve Jobs was happy to throw out all the old code in order to build a tablet that was designed to be used with a touch screen, and the iPad was born. Microsoft are now rushing to catch up in the tablet market, but they’re still following the old methods; this time, instead of pushing a desktop UI onto a tablet, they’re pushing a tablet UI onto the desktop.

Worse than that, they can’t even use the ‘we’re cheaper than the competition’ ruse to get into the market this time, because Android has already taken that niche.

The Carbon Cover

A tale of lesbians, monkeys and global warmingcooling…

The Carbon is done, it just needs a bit of tweaking and a cover before it’s released. It’s the first story in my 2070 universe, which is odd because it’s actually set in the 25th century, long after the main events of the novels I’m writing.

I was aiming to join the 52 Shades of Short Stories challenge and write a story a week, but I think I’ll end up with at most one every two weeks. Still, it’s a good motivation to get more finished.

I’m also trying a new look with the cover, more of a traditional book style. We’ll see how that does.

It’s now up on Smashwords. It’s free in the Smashwords sale for the next week, then it will revert to the normal price and I’ll upload it to Amazon.

An old article, but a good one. Elmore Leonard, Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.

Unfortunately it’s a New York Times link, but seems to work despite their paywall.

To summarise:

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said”
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
  6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Like all writing ‘rules’, some of them are made to be broken, but I agree with most and understand why he suggests them as rules because I’ve seen all these problems in short stories I’ve critiqued.

Neat video containing high-speed footage showing what happens when you drop a slinky. It makes sense when you think about the physics involved, but it still looks freaky.

The new version of Tartarus with an improved cover and a slightly different opening is now up for sale. I know, I shouldn’t have changed the text, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to tweak a couple of lines.

Without even realising, I’ve passed 100,000 new words for the year. I’m well behind schedule due to life intervening and they’re spread across too many stories, but it’s still a good milestone to hit.

The British citizenship test is being rewritten to be more like the Canadian test. Less questions on how to claim welfare and more on British history and traditions.

This is probably why, when I tried the online practice versions of both tests, I scored higher on the Canadian test than British. Having worked most of my life since graduating, I had no idea how to answer the questions about welfare benefits in the British test, whereas I had a reasonable knowledge of Canadian history at the time and could answer most of the questions about the political system because much of it is similar to Britain’s.