Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Lost Mark Book 1: Marked for Death by Matt Forbeck (book review)

It’s not often than one gets to witness the birth of a new series. Wizards of the Coast, publisher of Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels, just released a new novel line set in their new RPG setting, Eberron. Marked for Death is the first taste we’ll have of the series, and it’s pivotal whether this will be a new Dragonlance Chronicles, or merely another piece of crap set in a generic setting.

Forbeck gives little exposition and enters into the fray. Despite Eberron being a new world, Forbeck gives little background on it. Which is just as well since the important parts are explained in the narrative, and there’s a small glossary at the back (which is actually helpful since it has a comprehensive list of the people, places, and terms used in the novel). Don’t fret about the glossary though: it’s short and quick. This isn’t an epic fantasy and more often than not, you won’t really need to check the glossary often.

There’s also an attempt at describing things but it’s standard at best: it’s not as flowery as some writers, but it’s not like the description is sparse either. The language is just plain and nothing striking.

The plot is mediocre. It’s your typical party going solving one dilemma only to enter another. In fact, the whole novel is basically just that: action and adventure from one place to another. There’s an over-aching story but for the most part, the book could have been several short stories featuring the same cast of characters. As an RPG novel though, it’s great since readers get to see the new creatures of the setting (i.e. the Warforged, sentient constructs, the Shifters, which are descended from lycanthropes, and Changelings, a feebler race of doppelgangers), and we get to see famous places and personalities.

Having said that, was does the typical reader end up with, aside from the links to the RPG? Perhaps Marked for Death is a breakthrough when it comes to D&D novels simply because of the angst and the three-dimensional characters. I mean good guys and bad guys both have redeeming as well as dislikable traits, and there always seems to be conflict, even among allies. I mean Dungeons & Dragons has been known for is alignment system, namely that of good and evil, law and chaos. That’s not so present in this book, or at least it’s not that apparent. Good and evil, law and chaos are still pervasive, but the lines aren’t as clear-cut. Each character has their own agenda in the book, and employ various logic to justify their actions.

While the book ain’t no Dragonlance Chronicles (and it can’t be since the Eberron novels shouldn’t have world-changing effects), it’s a decent enough novel. As a fantasy novel, it’s okay: nothing really outstanding, and nothing really horrifying. As an RPG novel, it fares better than most of its ilk simply because it gives life to the setting in which it was based on, and doesn’t interfere too much with the game (unlike Dragonlance wherein we endure one cataclysm after another). Again, this isn’t intellectual material. But if you like a fantasy atmosphere where morality is grey, and where your heroes aren’t overpowered, this is probably the book for you. If you’re a fan of the Eberron game, it might score some additional points for you. But aside from that, if you really want bang for your buck, there are probably other fantasy novels out there for you.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Understanding Gamers: Console Gamers

There are essentially two kinds of gamers. There are those who play games once in a while perhaps as leisure or a break from their daily routine, and those that eat, breathe, and sleep with gaming. What I’m going to talk about is the latter. They’re the subculture in society that non-gamers don’t understand. This series of articles will try to explain gaming from a gamer’s perspective.

Ironically, while the gaming console is perhaps the most mainstream of games, some people might not know what a console system is. I mean everyone knows what a PC is, but when you mention a game console, you might get a “huh?” Perhaps you might be more familiar with gaming consoles if I mention the specific brands, such as the Xbox and the Playstation 2. Essentially, gaming consoles are computers you play at home that are dedicated to gaming. They’re already pre-assembled as it is and no major tweaking is involved.

I mentioned that gaming consoles are the most mainstream of gaming systems. Why? Well, the masses are the main target of gaming consoles. You don’t need to be tech-savvy to play a Playstation 2 or an Xbox. Before Microsoft coined the term “plug and play”, that’s essentially what a gaming console did: you plugged the unit into your television, insert the cartridge or CD, and viola! No need to check for system requirements, install the program, or bother about hardware and software compatibility. A game for the Xbox will work on the Xbox, no questions asked. The same goes for the controller: I don’t need to configure my hotkeys, figure out if this button will work or not, etc. And in the case of peripheral accessories (such as mice, joysticks, guns, or dance pads), I just need to plug it in. I don’t really need to figure out which plug goes into which socket. A gaming console is built to work with itself with the least of hassles.

Of course while it’s easy to get into console gaming, talking about the topic isn’t as easy. Because honestly, console games have been around for the longest time and it’s surrounded by lots of genres, from sports to action/adventure to strategy. Each one has its own style of gamers and subculture. However, there are some notable trends when it comes to console gaming.

The first trend is that console games are played with two or less players. Sure, some games allow several players to participate (thanks to some peripherals like a modem or a multitap) but most console games involve the participation of one or two players. Right now, while there is movement towards online gaming, gaming consoles haven’t really reached that point yet. For two-player games, the interactivity between human beings is either you’re allied with the other player (as can be witnessed in some action/adventure games), or you’re playing against the other player (like some sports games). However, for the most part, I think that console games tend to revolve around solo play. I mean whereas a PC gamer would spend hours in his room by himself yet talking to several people around the world, a console gamer will probably spend hours alone in his room, playing against one opponent: the computer. And perhaps this is the biggest asset of gaming consoles. Gaming consoles were designed to be played at home and when you’re at home, and that usually means you don’t have a lot of company. There’s just you and the computer. Strategy games and RPG games fall under this category, where players pit themselves not against a live opponent but against the computer. When you’re bored and have no one to play with, a console game is perhaps a good alternative.

Another trend is that a gaming console isn’t peripheral-heavy. I mean sure, there are rifles, dance pads, and steering wheels, but for the most part, they aren’t part of the basic set-up of a gaming console. Those peripherals only come into play when a gaming console is trying to simulate the arcade experience (which itself is diverse since an arcade machine is designed to excel in one thing, while a gaming console has to support a lot of needs) and is keyed to specific games (i.e. a dance pad is only useful for games like Dance Dance Revolution, while a rifle is only supported by certain shoot-em-up games). The beauty of the basic controller is that one becomes familiar with it yet playable across multiple games. Of course since you don’t need to be upgrading your gaming console with new parts every six months, the good thing about console games is that the playing field is more or less equal. That’s perhaps why players spend lots of time playing video games, because the only thing that you can really nurture in console games are your skill.

The third trend is the ability to save games. I mean two decades ago, the only games that had a save feature were strategy games and RPGs. Now, nearly every game has a save feature, whether it’s a sports game, an action/adventure one, or first-person perspective games. You might be asking why this sudden development. Well, first, the earlier games were really quick and short. If you were good at it, a game could be finished in less than a day. Those games that took longer than that had a primitive save feature called passwords (and 80s gamers know how much of a hassle it was to jot down passwords and remember them). The second development is that games now are geared towards customization. I mean in sports games, your personal stats can now be recorded and ported over to someone else’s gaming console. The same can be said for your customized car for racing games, or your customized character for action/adventure games. The third important development is that of replayability. Unlike PC games where the same game can be played over and over again, thanks to competition from other human beings, the same can’t be said for console games. For the most part, it’s you against the computer. In time, that gets too repetitive. That’s why game designers nowadays try to insert additional features into their games, whether it’s finding secret items, multiple-endings, or recruiting special characters. Even RPGs, which are lengthy games in themselves, now have mini-games in them just to retain the attention of the console gamer. And to take advantage of that, you need some sort of way to track your progress. The save game feature rewards players who invest their time and effort playing those games.

The fourth trend is that console games are built with the latest hardware and possess state-of-the-art graphics. As much as gameplay is important, console gamers look for the whole package, such as good graphics, good sounds, good controls, and having a really fun game. I mean haven’t you noticed that most console games are now in 3D? As much as an important factor gameplay is, some video game companies are hesitant to promote certain games by that factor alone. It needs the other aspects as well, especially considering gaming consoles are nearly as powerful as your PC.

Having said all that, what does that leave us with? Well, console gamers spend lots of time playing video games, because it provides quick and easy entertainment (i.e. you can play alone with it), you improve your skills by playing often, and one gets to keep track of their progress thanks to the ability to save games. But as impressive as console games are, it has less replayability than other games. I mean whereas you could keep on playing the same PC game for the next six months (at least those with multiplayer capabilities), the same can’t be said for console games. A console game is only good until you unlock all its secrets (whether that takes you a week or a year, depending on how frequent you play it). Once you reach that point, unless you’re playing against another human opponent, it’s time to buy a new game and move on (although it’s refreshing to come back to an old game once in a while).

Console gamers favor variety. Instead of just playing the same game on and on for several months, a console gamer is more likely to breeze through a plethora of games. And console systems find it more convenient to adapt various genres of games, offering a more diverse selection.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Understanding Gamers: PC Gamers

There are essentially two kinds of gamers. There are those who play games once in a while perhaps as leisure or a break from their daily routine, and those that eat, breathe, and sleep with gaming. What I’m going to talk about is the latter. They’re the subculture in society that non-gamers don’t understand. This series of articles will try to explain gaming from a gamer’s perspective.

Before I start with PC games, I’d first like to point out two trends in the industry. One is the prominence of multiplayer games, or games that can be played over a network (whether that means your local computer café or online via the Internet). Let’s face it, PC games aren’t as anti-social as they used to be. You may be facing a computer screen but there’s probably someone on the other end. And of all the other gaming mediums, PC games are probably the most prevalent when it comes to using the Internet. Another trend is real-time playability. Most games now, whether they’re RPGs, strategy, or action/adventure are played in real-time. That means every second that passes in real life is also one second gone in gaming time. Take note of these two trends for they will play a significant role in the modern gamer’s psychology.

One thing about PC gamers is that they’re competitive. It’s not just me versus the computer anymore. Nowadays, it’s evolved to me versus everyone else. I have a living, breathing, thinking opponent on the other end. And both of us keeps score (whether that’s your current ranking in the community, the number of kills you’ve made, your winning streak, or simply your character level). Having said that, the focus of nearly every serious PC gamer is to win. And winners will try to gain every possible advantage as possible.

Perhaps the most important commodity in a gamer’s arsenal is speed. Since games are played in real time, reaction time becomes a crucial factor. Perhaps the biggest factor that can drastically change a person’s gaming speed is their equipment. Okay, if I have the latest video card, not only does it enable me to play the latest games, the graphics are also smoother. Having lots of memory can speed up games, and having a broadband connection is a necessity. I mean it’s one thing to lose a game due to negligence. It’s another to lose a game because your Internet connection was too slow, or your computer didn’t process your commands on time. That’s why most serious gamers shell out money to buy state-of-the-art technology (or at least make it their goal not only to buy the latest games but try to get the best equipment). It’s also why gamers would prefer to go into an Internet café with better equipment than a place with inferior equipment.

Since gamers are constantly looking for that extra edge, controls are another important factor. A gamer’s best friend is his keyboard and mouse. The former gives you access to hotkeys, or shortcut commands that enable the player to do something that would otherwise take several commands to perform. Normally, this wouldn’t be too much of a problem. I mean when using Microsoft Word, I can save my document by pressing Ctrl + S or Alt + F then press S. Ctrl + S saves me time but there’s nothing wrong with opting for the latter. In PC gaming, the lost time means everything. It could mean switching from your sniper rifle to your knife, or drinking that potion before your hit points hit zero. The mouse is just as important as the keyboard. While the keyboard gives you access to supplementary actions, the mouse is the most basic method of how your character navigates in the game. Without the mouse, you’re a sitting duck. A faulty mouse results in flawed movement. A gun shot to the head might miss and draw the attention of your opponent. Or it might mean heading straight into the jaws of danger when you were trying to flee from battle. Precision is key to winning a game and that’s how important a mouse is. A true gamer either owns an optical mouse, or spends lots of time cleaning his mouse ball (or uses a trackball). Some mice also have shortcuts built into them, such as the right mouse button, or the scroll button.

Of course you can have the best stuff that money can buy but in the end, it’ll come down to skill and knowledge. The former can be gained by experience and playing the game repetitively. Hey, parents also wanted their kids to study so that they can get high grades. The same goes for gamers. We play, play, and play some more in order to become good at what we do. We’re also racking up prestige along the way, whether it’s because we’re increasing our ranks or gaining levels. Of course sometimes, skill alone is not enough. You need knowledge to back it up. That’s why gamers often participate in message boards, mailing lists, and surf gaming-related websites. Tips, tactics, and strategies always helps the PC gamer, which is why we try to update ourselves on the latest news and patch releases. When you combine both factors, you end up with a pretty impressive player.

Not that the PC gamer is merely an aggressive, competitive person. PC gamers are social persons too. They fraternize within their gaming groups, and gaming rivals become good friends and vice versa. Some gamers group together, and can take the form of guilds, teams, or clans. Heck, gamers from a particular city or country can unite against a common foe (usually another city or country). Some of the most popular games even involve teamwork. I mean Counterstrike must be played in teams (you’re either the terrorist or the anti-terrorists), real-time strategy games can host as much as a dozen players at any one time (at the time of this writing), and RPGs encourage the building of parties. While gamers are competitive, they’re also cooperative. Along with bringing in sentient adversaries, multiplayer gaming also brings in intelligent allies.

Monday, March 14, 2005

The Importance of Jargon

As a writer, I try to keep things as simple as possible, at least when it comes to words and explanations. I mean a good rule of thumb has always been to treat your readers as if they knew nothing (that’s not the same as talking down though). Unfortunately, one can’t do this all the time. And sometimes, you have to use jargon, whether that means a foreign language, a technical term, or just a rarely used word.

Some people have a misconception that just because you use complex (or hard to pronounce words), you’re shrouding your intellect through incomprehensible vocabulary. That’s not necessary the case. I mean if people use jargon, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s because they want to complicate things. I think as writer (or as a speaker), it’s important to know who your audience is. The more educated they are (or rather, the more aware they are of your topic of discussion), the more tools you have available. Take, for example, this essay. If I knew my readers could only understand English, then I’d stick to English. But if I know a bulk of my readers are also aware of the other languages I’m familiar with, such as Filipino, Chinese, or Japanese, then that would be a helpful thing to know and gives me more flexibility in my essay since I could use words from those languages. Take anime for example. If I knew my readers were familiar with Japanese, instead of saying “anime fan”, I’d use “otaku” (with all the nuances that go along with it). Because while “anime fan” and “otaku” have similar meanings, the latter has some connotations that the former doesn’t have (such as the fact that “otaku” can be interpreted as being obsessive over something rather than just being a fan, or even avoid the whole topic of anime). And while I could certainly define “otaku” in English, it would take too long (as evidenced by my use of parenthesis).

Which brings me to the other advantage of jargon. It helps me be more precise and accurate without spending too much time explaining something. I mean if I were around people familiar with computer terms, instead of using the word “memory”, I’d use RAM or HD. I mean both RAM and HD refer to memory, but if the other reader was uninitiated, I’d have to explain what the differences between the two were. But if the other person is more or less familiar with computer terms, I’d just say RAM when I mean RAM, and HD when I mean HD, especially considering both can be considered “memory” yet performs two entirely different tasks. Not only does it saves me and the reader time, it also saves me space. Honestly, longer is not always better. If I can save time and space, I’d do it. I mean why bother describing that the person is jumping all over the place to get to his destination when I can use the word “hop” or “skip” to describe his or her movement?

Perhaps the third use of jargon is for the complete opposite of the second: we want to prolong our narrative. Unfortunately, it gets boring when we keep on using the same words over and over again. That’s why sometimes, we use complicated words or words not often utilized. I mean there are several ways to describe a person walking fast: briskly, quickly, suddenly, hurriedly, vigorously, rapidly. If I were to write an entire paragraph describing the same running motion, the reader would get tired if I just keep on using “fast”. And let’s face it, jargon can add color to the text. I mean the words “paradigm shift” certainly sounds more intellectual than saying “the person had a change in beliefs”. Or perhaps the movie Arachnophobia wouldn’t be as horrifying if its title was named “Fear of Spiders” instead.

Jargon, in the long run, is just another tool. I mean I certainly wouldn’t use jargon to the uninitiated. But if I know my audience (or at least most of them) will be able to understand the jargon I’m going to use, then it’s nice to have the option to do so, since it gives me more flexibility. That’s not to say I should use jargon every opportunity that I get, nor does it mean I totally avoid using jargon at all, but rather there’s a time and place for each.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Seduced by Moonlight by Laurell K. Hamilton (book review)

The third book in Hamilton’s Merry Gentry series, I was interested in seeing if Hamilton would be able to pull off what she did in the first novel. The sequel lacked a certain oomph and I was hoping this book would remedy that.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Merry and Hamilton’s other character, Anita Blake, is the fact that the former is more open about sex. Seduced by Moonlight perhaps goes the extra mile by adding more men (and complications) to the protagonist’s life. And again, Hamilton executes this by delivering conflicted characters, powerful people yet with their own sets of strengths and weaknesses.

Despite being barely four hundred pages long, a lot of things happen in this book (and even a lot more is hinted). There’s been some good build up, although the end is definitely far, far away. While perhaps not as erotic as the first book, Seduced by Moonlight has its own share of good scenes (at least there isn’t any goblin sex in this book).

The plot remains surprising with the twists and turns the story takes. But what’s admirable about Hamilton is that her characters still retain their personalities, although I find it too coincidental for everything to center around our lovely protagonist (but then again, this is probably the equivalent of a romance fantasy, so that’s forgivable). Description remains another of Hamilton’s stronger points and she does get to exercise it a lot in this book.

Much like her Anita Blake novels, read Seduced by Moonlight because it’s fun, not because it’s the greatest piece of literature ever written. And while the Merry Gentry series is not even half as long (so far) as Hamilton’s Anita Blake books, in several ways, it’s superior to the latter, in terms of writing, storytelling, and execution. Hamilton also shows you how to tell a good stand-alone story that also leaves you wanting for more.