Friday, November 29, 2013

Weeping Angel Costume


Last year I found a guide to making a Weeping Angel costume, and decided to use it (with some changes) as a basis for creating my Halloween costume this year.

These are my notes on the changes I made and what did and didn't work.

The mask was one of the easiest things.  A basic store-bought plastic mask, with the details built up using PlasticWeld epoxy putty (plumber's putty, from Home Depot).


Because the angel's mouth is open, it actually extends down over the mask's chin and I had to add extra chin with the putty. 

 
I cut the plastic out of the mouth area and added in the fangs.



A couple of layers of paint turned it to "stone" (matte for the top layer, angels aren't shiny).


For comfort, I lined and padded the mask with toweling material.  I also enlarged the nostril holes (hidden by the mask's nose) and glued a strip of black stocking material behind the teeth to hide my chin from showing through the mouth.


The mask was reasonably comfortable but the epoxy putty made it heavy.  I might try to recreate it with a lighter modelling clay like Crayola Model Magic.

Next, the wig.  This was very last-minute as I was running out of time. 


I agree with the author of the blog I was referencing: it might be better to model out of clay instead; the yarn is difficult to work with.


Next, the wings.  I wanted to do these differently from the blog I was referencing, because I wanted to be able to detach the wings for portability, and I wanted to try and design the wings and dress so I wouldn't need a second person to help me change into it.

First step was to take apart a backpack with comfortable padded straps to make a harness.  I found some PVC pipes at the hardware store that were a perfect fit to be a socket and support for the wings.  I attached these to the backpack padding, and added an extra strap with velcro closing to ensure they were supported firmly upright.



The wings are made of hard foam sheets from the craft store, glued firmly together in layers.  Initially I tried using duct tape to secure the foam to the PVC pipes, but duct tape doesn't stick well to styrofoam, so I ended up using glue.

Here are the wings, partially made, slotted into the harness:



Wing showing the pipe that slots into the harness:

 Detail on a wing showing the layers, and the carving of the feathers.  I was hoping the paint would cover up the joins between sections of foam better, but it's really only visible at this one place:


Next, the dress.  I wanted a comfortable top, so I picked up a cheap sweatshirt at a second hand shop and chopped off all but the shoulders.


Apart from the shoulders, the dress was made from a dark grey cotton fabric, essentially a tube sewn so it hung in folds. 


The front was sewn to the sweatshirt top, but I didn't sew the back so it could be closed with velcro.   This is how the back looked after painting, when the velcro is closed up:


And with the velcro opened, two vertical slits (hidden in the folds) allow the wings to be slotted through to the harness underneath:


For the arms, I tried the instructions in the original blog.  I used grey stockings, cut and sewed into gloves, and painted them.  




Not only was sewing the gloves a lengthy pain, it was also uncomfortable and the arms were still more transparent than the rest of the costume.  It didn't look awful, but it didn't look perfect either.  I used a stocking hat as well to cover my ears and neck, however, I also had trouble with the neck creeping up and it had to be pinned to stay in place.

I've already bought a lycra bodysuit to paint and see if it makes a better substitute.

Here's how the costume (minus arms and wig) looked on a mannequin,, not yet fully painted:


After taking this photo, I went to work leaving it here just inside the front door, and forgot all about it when I came home in the evening. Almost gave myself a heart attack bumping into it in the dark!

Here's me at the SOE Halloween party. You can see the difference in the transparency of the arms:


The other problem was that I didn't realize how much the wings would swing around when I was moving.  On a stationary dress mannequin it wasn't a problem, but when walking I had to constantly adjust them or hold them.  I need to revise the wings to prevent them from swinging sideways.

Before wearing this again, I will try using a bodysuit instead of the stocking arms, and redesign the wings to stop the swinging.  Possibly also redo the mask with a lighter clay.

Overall, it was fun and challenging to make, but not at all comfortable to wear.  OK for a short costume contest, but I couldn't have worn it comfortably for any length of time. Still, it looked good enough that I tied for first prize and freaked out a few people by following them around!
Here are some of the final greenscreen photos from the SOE party.




Monday, September 16, 2013

Cassy's Peanut Butter Cookies



Cassy's Peanut Butter Cookies

1/2 cup butter
1 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup peanut butter (I prefer crunchy)
1 egg
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups flour
3/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
Optional: 1 1/2 cups semi-sweet mini chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Cream together the butter, brown sugar and peanut butter.  Add the egg and vanilla extract, mix well.  Add in the flour, baking soda and salt.  

Optional: Add chocolate chips for a peanut butter chocolate chip version!

Roll dough into 1-inch balls (or drop by tablespoon scoop) and place onto ungreased cookie sheet.  Made a criss-cross design with a fork, slightly pushing cookie down.

Bake for 10-12 minutes at 350 degrees.
Let cool for 1-2 minutes on cookie sheet before moving to cooling rack.

This recipe was from Cassy Arretche - thanks! :)

Monday, August 05, 2013

What does a producer do at SOE Live?

SOE Live (the SOE gamer gathering formerly known as Fan Faire) has come and gone for 2013 and I'm at home recovering today.  Wonderful time as always and the big "reveal" of EverQuest Next seems to have gone over hugely well with both players and media.  I still haven't caught up with all the articles but I'll post links another time.

I've been well known by players since I joined SOE in 2007 (even before, in some circles) so there were lots of hugs and welcome backs throughout the weekend. The number one question that I got asked, right after "what are you doing on EverQuest Next?" (answer: producer), was "what does a producer do?"

Despite the fact this is the second game I've been a producer on, I still don't have an easy answer. It seems to depend on the game, the team, and the circumstances.  The best answers I've heard so far include:

  • anything that needs doing
  • keep the team running smoothly and deal with external demands; if I'm doing my job well, everybody on the team should wonder what the heck I do all day anyway because it's going so smoothly.
  • deliver a product on time and see not only what is there, but what is NOT there and needs to be.  If a game company were a car manufacturer, the producer not only needs to check all the wheels and doors are being made and on time, but also notice that nobody's remembered to make the brakes.
That doesn't even begin to cover the details though.  So for anyone who is interested, this blog is about what this particular producer did at SOE Live (and keep in mind, Terry is our Senior Producer so he was taking care of a whole other set of things including all the press interviews, as were as many other competent people too).

This is probably way more detail than most people want, but if you WERE one of those people asking for specifics, here is essentially a high level diary of what I did at SOE Live this year (and why you saw me running back and forth for a lot of it)!

 Wednesday:
  • Arrived, checked in, rehearsed the Friday reveal presentation. The team discussed various changes of plan and how to overcome them.
  • Spent a lot of time doing last-minute playtests of the augmented reality mobile app we'd created for SOE Live; a few bugs were found and a lot of emails went back and forth discussing whether there was time to update before Friday.
  • Dinner with the Community Summit folks, a group of influential players invited for their input. Introduced as many of the EQN team as I could to as many of the players as I could; podcasters and similar will want to meet the team in particular.
  • Early (relatively speaking) night as Terry said he wanted to practice again in the morning.
Community Council dinner - my table

Thursday:
  • Headed down to the presentation area early, but turned out I was not immediately needed for practice. Found breakfast with some of our players, spent time chatting (though not about EQN, which was still all secret stuff!)
  • Up to the check-in area to see if any help was needed with setting up, then arranged for some relevant folks to sit in on the Friday morning run-through of the reveal.
  • Mid morning practice run of the reveal, and a few more changes based on feedback.
  • Gave some snack packs to the AV guys who were working nonstop setting up for the presentations. I always bring emergency snacks to SOE Live; there are always people who end up working through meals and getting too busy to find anything to eat. Especially the AV team, community, and folks supervising the game room areas. They later told me my snacks were all they had to eat for the entire day.
  • Spent a little time walking around getting oriented in the casino; new hotel from previous years and it's always good to know where things are.
  • Players started lining up to register in the early afternoon, and the lines were very long. I always take this time to walk along the lines saying welcome and hello. It sucks to be stuck in a line, and often people are happy to talk to a dev while they wait; even if not, a welcome is friendly! Community team were doing the same. Lots of familiar faces who said hello also, and many new ones looking nervous who said it was their first time. They're always unsure if coming was a big mistake, and I always reassure them they'll have a wonderful time (and they always do).  This kept me busy for many hours. I noticed our #myEQstory winner in the line, Maergoth the paladin, and think I made his day by recognizing him in front of his guild. 
  • Helped random lost press/media folks find the press room.
  • Periodically checked in with our EQNext authors, who had a stall in the hallway selling their other books and were looking forward to the big reveal as well as their own panel on Sunday. Made sure they had their schedules and everything they needed. Turned out they needed a couple of day passes for their spouses/kids, so I followed up on those.
  • The official welcome from Smed was Thursday night. Sat with the authors and made a few rounds of other tables welcoming people I recognized as well as newcomers.  Also helped a player who was collecting dev signatures to get a few more.
  • After the welcome, another rehearsal for Friday's big EQNext reveal. This was cut a bit short by technical issues so we ended around 11:30 with admonitions to be back by 7:30 for more. So, another early night!
Jeff dancing to appropriate music after someone accidentally deleted the database... panic moment


Friday:
  • Super early breakfast and practice for the noon reveal. Some issues with the sand painting and projection equipment actually meant we sat around for a while before we could start practicing but things eventually got started. We had a very short break before the actual reveal at noon, then gathered again. I sat with the team at a side corner table way out of the way, so that when Dave's presentation was drawing to an end we could slip unnoticeably behind the curtain and get to the live demo machines. 
The team who were backstage during the reveal
  • Once Dave's presentation ended , they drew back a section of the curtains so that Terry, Darrin, and Jeff could be seen, and a group of 7 of us ran through some live play to show off the massive destruction and more of the wizard and warrior abilities. 
  • Once again provided snacks to the AV team, at least once of whom once again had nothing else to eat for lunch on Friday. Those guys work like crazy at these events.
  • After the presentation ended, EQN had a 3 hour break until the first EQNext panel. Most were free to wander around, but I'd been assigned to meet a small group of VIP players from a particular gaming site and ensure they felt welcome, knew where they were going, and generally make them at home. I met up with them around 2 and made sure they had my number in case of emergencies, gave them a brief introduction and welcome, and then made sure they met up with the first EQN team members they had a scheduled interview with. I also followed up with the relevant team members to ensure they knew where to go and when!
  • Checked back on the guest passes for the authors' families and ensured they'd been delivered. 
  • Discovered we'd omitted some details that needed arranging with the Round Table section of the website, and found the appropriate marketing person to confirm fixing this, then followed up with the social media guys to get it done.  Updated the relevant EQN team on the changes.
  • Checked in a couple times on the VIPs to ensure their interviews were going well. Chatted with players in between. Everyone very excited about EQNext!
  • First EQN panel was at 5pm and we were all supposed to sit in the audience (only 5 people actually up front). When I turned up, Terry asked if I could film it with a handycam. Unfortunately, there was no tripod so I flipped a chair around and tried to steady my arms on the back of it. Added complication: marketing manager was texting me during filming with questions about the VIP players dinner plans which needed answering, so apologies to anyone who subsequently watches the video; if there's a time or two when the camera drifts completely off course, I blame marketing!  My arms/hands were killing me by the end. Fortunately they found a tripod for all the subsequent panels.
  • After the panel I met up with Eric our Associate Producer and we took the 5 VIP players out to dinner at Hofbrauhaus. There is a tradition for a number of staff to go there for dinner each year before the pool party, though I have never been before as I'm usually too busy. Food was good and we had time to catch up with the players and learn more about them.
  • Back in time for the pool party; changed clothes appropriately and headed down, but almost as soon as I arrived I was introduced to Daniel, a player who runs a brewery and who had printed up many many cases of beer with special EQ themed labels (Blackburrow Stout, Ogre Swill, and Dwarven Ale) hoping to share them with us at the pool party. However, casino security had refused to allow him to bring the beer into the casino and he'd had to leave most of it behind, and even the 3 or so cases he did bring in a cooler he wasn't allowed to bring to the pool because they were in glass bottles. He was understandably very frustrated and had clearly gone to a lot of trouble and expense to do a nice thing for us which was being stymied. This kind of randomness is the kind of thing that becomes a producer's problem. So I found our Director of Community (Linda), explained the situation, confirmed we could bring them to the banquet tomorrow instead, and then escorted Daniel and his beer to my hotel room for overnight storage (of the beer, not the man!) as he was not staying at the same hotel.
  • Returned downstairs to the pool party and made sure that Daniel was thanked and enjoying himself, then bumped into one of our authors who was frustrated at the length of the bar lines and looking around for people he knew. As it turned out I had cases of beer in my room, we retreated to my room and shared a bottle of the Dwarven Ale (into plastic cups) which we were able to safely bring back to the pool party. This was actually the only drink I managed to get during the whole party, so fortunately it was very nice beer indeed.
  • I introduced the author to various other people and checked on the group of VIPs I'd had dinner with; they seemed to be doing well, so I tried to track down our legal team as the author had wanted to meet them.  Unfortunately by the time I found a legal team member I couldn't locate our author. I did bump into Ten Ton Hammer staff, and recalled Daniel (the brewer) had wanted to deliver some of his EQ themed beer to them also, so I told them I had some and arranged to stop by their hosted breakfast in the morning with a few bottles.  
  • The rest of the pool party I spent chatting with a number of our podcasters, making sure they were having a good time and had managed to meet up with all the various devs they were trying to find, and generally talking with players. I never actually did get within visible distance of a pool!
  • Towards the end I was handed a nice wooden "EQNext Fans" cigar box, still mostly full, which had apparently been left behind on a table. The person giving it to me thought it had been given to someone in the marketing team, so it was now clearly a producer's job to take care of it and get it back to its rightful owner.  Which I did.
  • We were kicked out of the pool area at midnight and I went to a smaller room party in the suite of one of our EQ2 designers. Drinks and Cards Against Humanity were the main themes. Brought a couple of bottles of the EQ themed beer to the party and made sure Holly, the EQ2 producer, got a bottle.  
  • Went down to the Heart Bar in the main casino to chat with players until about 2am. Linda introduced me to a player she knew from previous years who had offered to help film our EQN panels, and I arranged to introduce him to Terry in the morning.
Awesome beers in my bathroom!

Saturday:
  • I was able to get a slightly late start this morning as panels didn't start till 11. First stop was the Ten Ton Hammer breakfast with a few of Daniel's beers to make sure they got some, but it seemed Daniel did manage to find them himself and was already there chatting with them.  So I caught up a bit on twitter and facebook and got some photos and news posted before heading to the panels.
  • First EQNext panel was packed and crowd was very excited. The player who'd offered to help film was not to be found but Greg had located a tripod and someone other than me filmed the panel. This left me free to sit in back and watch, as well as do some last minute preparation for the player panel I would be MC'ing at 3.
  • Lunch break to allow players to get lunch between panels was at 12; I got to the room it would be in during the break and copied onto the PC their presentation (they'd shared it on Google Drive) and a preview EQN building video we'd got permission to show also. Texted them to let them know it was there and ready.
  • While there I noticed the list of panels on the sign for that room was wrong (our panel wasn't listed) so followed up with the registration desk to get that fixed up.
  • Checked in with our authors, our VIP players, various other players in the area, and fed AV team more snacks.
  • Provided Ibuprofen to some EQ2 devs who were in serious need. (Another thing I always pack.)
  • Brought the beer down out of my room (alas) and delivered it in the cooler to the info desk where Linda was going to pick it up for the banquet.
  • Checked in with wikia who were doing a great job encouraging players to sign up and update information. Nice to meet the wikia team, and I was sorry I didn't have more time to chat with them.
  • Panels from 1-3 (I sat in the back) and the player who offered to help film did show up, I put him in touch with Terry and he was very helpful with the remainder of the filming.
  • One of the players I know from previous years stopped by to show off the cloak she'd hand-sewn last year based on a quest I made long ago. She brought it specially so I could see it. I took a photo to show to the artist who created it, in case nobody had done so last year (apparently they hadn't; he just replied "I never saw this before such an excellent rendition" which I've passed back to her). I love showing the artists what costumes players create from their work, I think it's inspiring on both sides!
Obann's "Cloak of the Gatherer"
  • At 3 there was another EQN panel but I went off to do the player panel: "EQ2 Hardcore Decorating". Since it was a player panel I didn't want to take the attention away from them, but I did the introduction, a brief overview of some of the history of changes in EQ2 decorating, and then let them do their stuff. I also helped with handing out (and gathering) reference cards and sign ups to win decorating stuff.  At the very end I'd got permission to show the timelapse video of building in EQN Landmark, which is very relevant to decorator interests, and that went over very well as a little preview of what's to come.  There was some good Q&A which the panelists handled, and then it was off to the last EQN panel of the day.
  • Final Saturday panel was general Q&A and all of us who weren't sitting up front lined up on the side wall in case there were questions for us also. There were also a couple of Nagafen hat giveaways which Terry had me deliver to the winners.
  • During the session lady in a scooter beside our line knocked over her large soft drink, so I ran out to get paper towels and clean it up and let hotel cleaning know.
  • One of the players also brought up some bugs with Station Access that we hadn't been aware of so I also followed up to get his name so we could get more details later.  Also followed up and thanked our filming assistant afterwards!
  • After that, there were 2 hours till the banquet. I checked the smaller panel rooms as I'd noticed during the player panel that there were some Nagafen hats that were intended for giveaways but had been forgotten. Gathered those up and got them to appropriate people before they went walking.
  • In between all the above I was tweeting as much as I could to share with the fans who were not able to come on-site, as well as checking in with marketing and Terry whenever I saw them to see if any help was needed with anything else.  
  • Had been planning to get dinner, but nobody seemed to have plans (or at least, not plans that included me) and one of our new EQNext podcasters and his wife asked me if I had time for coffee.  Miraculously, I did; apart from helping to follow up on who'd ended up with our cameras (which I could do by text message), I managed to spend a half hour with them at a table at the Coffee Bean talking about the industry in general. She was curious about how people got into it and whether there might be any jobs she could look at, and he was just generally curious. They were both very positive about their experience at SOE Live, and very impressed by how accessible all the staff from Dave's level on downwards made themselves. Other conventions they'd gone to had felt very impersonal and they said this made a huge difference.  Of course, I explained how important we find our players and their opinions at SOE, especially as many of us started out as players ourselves, me included!  It was nice to sit down for half an hour and get to know these guys. I hope that, like many of our EQ2 podcasters, they'll be back again in future years.
  • Followed up with Linda on the beer to ensure it had been collected for the banquet; it had.  Followed up with Daniel the brewer to let him know, and also to meet up with him before the banquest so he was able to get into the hall as his vendor pass had been incorrectly set up.  Met him outside and introduced him to one of our marketing managers also, in case they were interested to arrange some more formal agreement for EQ themed beers.
  • Escorted Daniel safely into the banquet, and sat him down with some friendly players I knew would keep him company. Walked around talking to players until it was clear there was room for staff to sit down (players come first, and it was sold out). Checked on our authors, guide program volunteers, various podcasters, our VIP player group, and generally walked around chatting to random tables making sure everyone was happy. Signed various things people wanted signed, and directed them to other devs for more signatures.
  • After the banquet, talked with the stragglers and bumped into the person from Massively who wrote the extraordinarily flattering and somewhat embarrassing article singing my praises when I rejoined the EQN team. She was having a great weekend and looking forward to seeing lots more of EQNext.
  • Many people decamped to the Heart Bar afterwards and I joined also. Spent more time talking to our friendly brewer, plus various players and podcasters, till well past 2am (probably closer to 3).
Good turn out for the decorating panel: ~70 people?

Sunday:
  • Our brewer friend had been supposed to collect his cooler before leaving the hotel last night but he must have been drinking too late to remember, and it was uncollected. Fortunately I had his number so I followed up with him; he'd already left town to get back to work and told us to keep it. I let the community team know to just pack it up with the rest of our stuff. Perhaps we can get it back to him next year.
  • Dev Brunch at 10, so I had to be up, dressed, packed, and checked out of the hotel before that. Left my bags at the desk and headed to the brunch, where we were asked to spread out and ensure all tables had at least one dev. I ended up sitting with Rod Haza, who works on Dragon's Prophet, with a mix of players from EQ1, Planetside 2, and Dragon's Prophet. They were all very excited about EQNext. 
  • One of the PS2 guys was collecting PS2 dev signatures so I pointed out a few devs to him, and one of the EQ1 players had his original EQ1 collector's edition box with him and was collecting EQ1 dev signatures. He got a few on his own and I helped him locate some others he particularly wanted. When he found out I was Domino from EQ2, he also insisted on getting mine although I reminded him I'd never actually worked on EQ1. It felt like a very serious moment to put a pen to an original EQ1 box and sign my name on it, something I would never have expected when I first picked up the game back in 2000. But then, I would never have expected any of this!
  • After the dev brunch it was time for the last EQNext panel, readings from our authors and a Q&A. I was called outside during the readings by our brand manager who needed help contacting the VIP players I'd been checking on; apparently one of them had missed his plane and they were attempting to help him make new arrangements. I gave him all the information I had, and later heard the player did successfully get home after some delays. Fortunately I'd read the authors' stories already, so I didn't miss out despite missing part of the readings, and the Q&A afterwards was interesting and surprisingly lively. I hadn't been quite sure how many people would be interested in the readings, given the hung-over state of many of them by Sunday, but it was a good turn-out.
  • Finally, the last panel was over. I gave a few last lost people directions to the EQ2 Q&A panel which was still ongoing, and said goodbyes to various of the stragglers left behind. Then it was time to collect my bags and head off to the airport; another SOE Live behind me. 
  • I was still wearing my SOE staff shirt at the airport and was stopped by a couple of people in the airport to tell me what a wonderful time they'd had, and thank the team for a great weekend. :)
Aliscious and Dellmon (EQ2 podcasters) with me and Dave at the pool party

Overall this year was a very positive experience, except for someone stealing one of the Silent Auction displays whose proceeds would have gone to the Child's Play charity - despicable - and a series of slightly irate tweets from a player who seemed to think I could get him for free into a sold-out event on one day's notice when even SOE staff were being told they might not be let in due to the numbers. I wish we really did have the time and powers to pull off miracles like that for everyone who wanted, but alas. I hope he'll plan in advance next year and pre-book tickets.

Players who attend SOE Live always have a great time and sometimes seem to assume that it is a holiday for SOE staff also. We almost always do have a great time as well, but it is definitely not a holiday and definitely exhausting. It's always nonstop from the time I wake up till the time I pass out; even if I do have a brief time to walk around on my own, it's always with the understanding that I could be called to drop everything at any time, or stopped by players and need to be immediately charming and sociable.  I am always happy to do both, of course, but I'm very glad to have Monday off to relax and do absolutely nothing but catch up on sleep and laundry!

I'm not sure if that helps in the slightest to explain what a producer does at SOE Live - every year is different and could have a completely different set of problems.  And I've certainly already forgotten some things from this list. But at least it probably illustrates the complete randomness of my job, and maybe that's what a producer does best: deal with whatever comes up and ensure as many people as possible get whatever they need to do their jobs, stay happy, and have a good time.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Oatmeal crunch cookies

This was modified from a recipe of my mother's which she called "Abbey Crunchies".  I changed it slightly and here's my version.  The recipe doesn't contain any eggs - that's not a mistake - so it's great for people with allergies!  Use butter/milk substitutes too and it could easily be vegan.

Oatmeal Crunch Cookies

Ingredients 

10 oz butter
6 oz white sugar
6 oz brown sugar
2 tbs milk
1 tbs maple syrup
10 oz flour
1 tbs baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
8 oz "instant" rolled oats (Quaker oats)
2 oz chopped macadamia nuts (optional)

Instructions

Cream butter and sugars, then mix in milk and syrup.  Stir in dry ingredients, mixing well.  Roll into small balls and place on a baking tray lined with parchment paper, and press lightly to flatten slightly.  Bake at 300 F* for about half an hour, until light golden brown.  Cool on a wire rack until crisp and dry.

* NOTE: this is lower temperature than most cookie recipes, if you cook at 350F they may brown too fast.


Before baking:
After baking:



Sunday, June 16, 2013

Plants vs Zombies Facebook

I'm a huge fan of Plants vs Zombies, an adorably cute linear tower defense game that was released in 2009 and rapidly became one of the games of the year. I first bought and played it on my iPhone in almost one solid sitting, then realized extra levels and features were available in the PC version so bought that and played it too, then replayed it on my iPad, and then got the HD version for the iPad too. I've got almost every achievement on almost every platform and I don't even know how many times I've played through the main levels.

I like that it's cute and friendly feeling. I like that I can pick it up at any time when I have time to kill and play a few levels or some of the extra challenges. I like trying different plant combinations to see what's most effective for different levels, or trying to pick up achievements I haven't got so far.  So, when I saw the Plants vs Zombies facebook game released last month I immediately tried it out.



The overview

The biggest change is that the levels are no longer left-to-right linear like the original. The zombies now follow paths which may turn in multiple directions, even criss-crossing, like a more traditional tower defense game. This adds another dimension to laying out your plants, which now have 2-dimensional areas of effect, instead of just shooting straight ahead. There are some new plants also, an Aspearagus which shoots asparagus spears; and a Beet, which clubs zombies down. Judging from the title screen art there is probably also a Bamboo Shoot in my future, which looks unfortunately like a bad Asian caricature.  The names of the plants have always been clever puns and Aspearagus and Beet follow this tradition, but some of the other plants just seem to give up on wit completely.  "Magnet plant" isn't funny (why not "Mag-nut"?) and neither is "flaming pea".  There are new types of zombies also: a barrel zombie, who's essentially the same as the newspaper original, and a rocket jet pack zombie who charges fast until a snow pea disables his rockets. Conga-line zombies are similar to the original disco zombie but linear, and a zombie with lots of hats is essentially a graphically more interesting way of showing a heavily armored zombie (each hat gets knocked off separately).



Stockpile restrictions

The individual levels now lead you along a road trip path through different areas where you defend your camper van instead of a stationary house. You manage and build up a village which is your home base. Houses in your village earn you coins and buffs; coins purchase plants which you grow in village planter boxes. When you play a zombie level on the road trip, you only have available to you plants that you've previously grown at home and stockpiled. So, you have to keep collecting coin from your village and planting new plants for your stockpile. Adding a restriction on top of that, you can only choose a limited number of plant types from your stockpile, and can only use up to 5 of each even if you have more than that in your stockpile.  Adding a further restriction, you can only stockpile up to 15 plants at a time (and only 2 buffs).  All these artificial limits are way too restrictive and very annoying.  If I spend the time to stockpile 50 plants, let me stockpile 50 plants. And if I have 10 snow peas in my stockpile, let me use them in a level if I want to. Sure, it would make some levels much easier, but it's still balanced out by the fact I then need to take the extra time to regrow those 10 snow peas instead of 5. And it would remove the problem of people getting stuck on levels and just giving up.

The requirement to stockpile plants also changes the gameplay significantly.  Unlike the original where all you need is sun, now you also need to conserve your plant stockpile, so the incentive shifts to winning each level with the MINIMUM number of plants (and thus the least downtime in re-growing them) instead of trying to find the most efficient solution (which I enjoy). Now I find myself thinking "should I plant that extra beet, or just let the lawnmower catch the last wave of zombies?" And the answer is usually to not plant, and let the lawnmower do the work instead of your plants, which seems to me to clash with the essence of the game. The name of the game is not Lawnmowers vs Zombies, but the game mechanics have created a situation where you're heavily motivated to try to NOT plant plants and rely on lawnmowers instead.  To have a Plants vs Zombies game which discourages you from planting plants seems absurd to me.

Three currencies

In addition to coin there are "zombucks" which are earned from adventure levels and dropped by zombies and used to buy village houses and decorations; and gems which are the real money currency used to buy other currencies and shortcut gameplay (e.g. you can buy a plant with gems if you don't have one stockpiled). The three currencies are a little confusing and they're not clearly explained early on, though you eventually figure it out.  Two currencies seem like they would be plenty from a user perspective (gems and coin). I understand it would be much easier for the developers to manage the economy by dividing purchases into coin and zombucks but it feels a bit like a lazy move at the sacrifice of player clarity. My main complaint about the currencies though is that it's WAY too easy to spend gems without meaning to: if you run out of plants during a level and try to plant another, it'll just deduct gems without a confirmation prompt. And early on since you have no idea what gems even are, you can easily use up your initial starting stash of gems without even noticing. (Oddly, it gives me prices for gems in UK pounds, despite the fact I live in the US.)

The village, and visiting friends

As you travel in your mobile home and complete map areas, you slowly unlock new areas of your home village. The village seems to exist only to harvest coin/buffs and grow new plants. Buildings in the village occasionally get attacked by zombies, so you need to plant some defenses and plan your layout carefully.  There's a limited ability to decorate your village, but any decoration that you add is actually an annoyance that gets in the way when zombies attack, so the incentive is actually to NOT decorate.

Like most facebook games, you're able to visit your friends' villages. However, unlike most facebook games, when you get there you're expected to attack your friends' buildings with your own army of zombies.  If you succeed (which is unlikely since the zombies offered to you are very limited and can barely be controlled), then you destroy a friend's building and they have to repair it. What exactly is the point of this, I have no idea. It doesn't seem to benefit your friend at all, in fact it harms their village, so I have avoided doing it entirely. It's a disincentive to visit.  It would be far more encouraging if you could do something positive in their village, like leave a free plant, or speed up their planter growth.  What if visiting friends' villages allowed you to give them a gem?  

Slow progression

The requirement to stockpile plants you grow in your village is a deliberate slow-down mechanism, presumably to make the game last longer before you finish the content, but it's irritating.  You can't just keep playing through the spare time you have free, you have to play a few levels then wait hours for your houses to generate coin and your plants to grow. It ensures you do NOT get immersed in the game and are constantly counting coin and plants, which isn't a particularly fun pastime. Worse, the further along in the game you get, the more this becomes a problem.  Every new plant takes longer and longer to grow, and of course the higher levels require the new plants, so the time you have to wait between levels just gets longer and longer meaning you can play less and less.  It's essentially punishing you for progressing.  

Here are the plants I have so far, and the time it takes to grow them:

In the current levels I'm on, I will likely plant sunflowers (of course), snow peas, beets, wall-nuts, and a few magnets, and flaming peas.  Assuming I had space to grow replacements all at the same time, I'm slowed down by the slowest-growing plant, the flaming pea.  With a 6 hour replacement time for the flaming pea and a maximum of 15 possible to stockpile, I can play maybe five to six levels at the most before I have to sit for a MINIMUM of 6 hours. And in fact it's actually longer, because I don't have planter space to replant everything at once.  Given that I work during most days and only play before and after work, this means I can now play 6-8 levels absolute maximum per day.  It actually turns out to be less, since I'm not logging in at work (or waking up at night) to micromanage my plants so a lot of my free play time is spent growing also.

On top of the ever-slower plant growth, each subsequent map seems to have more and more levels to get through before you can progress further.  The ramp-up in numbers is very rapid. While the first map has only 5 levels to get through, it's up to 21 by the fourth map, and stays up in the 20s consistently as far as I can see to the end of the game.  


Looking at my friends' progress, a full 45% of my friends have stalled in level four "Park n Perish" where it makes the huge jump from 10 levels/map to 21. This seems to be where most people are quitting. Another 45% didn't make it even to map four, and the remainder are stuck in map five, aptly named Killjoy Park. Since each map has a "goal" at the end unlocking another region of your village there's a fairly big incentive to reach the end, so the fact the maps have so many levels in them is discouraging. Even though the gameplay would essentially be the same, it would be a lot more fun if each map contained only 5-10 levels and had some other reward at the end - such as replenishing your plant stockpile, for example!

On top of all these other artificial slow-downs, you cannot progress beyond the end of each map without getting friends to help you (and it requires more friends per map). To bypass this requirement you actually have to spend real $ on gems. So, each time I reach the end of a map I have to spam my friends with requests to help me on my road trip, and then wait until they answer and fill up the required slots before I can move to the next map.  Since most of my friends work full time also, this can take up to a day during which I basically can't do anything except redecorate my village.  I could in theory replay old levels, but that would just mean I have to regrow more plants, which discourages me. I can't even replay old levels while waiting in order to complete quests, since apparently that's not allowed - for example I currently have a quest to use the gardening glove in combat three times. The gardening glove is a buff I've found almost entirely useless and I don't think it would have been possible to finish most of the levels in the U of Z zone I just finished if I took that buff instead of a more useful one. But, I can't go back to an easier level to complete the quest since the glove doesn't even show up as an available option on those levels now. So there really is absolutely nothing I can do while sitting around waiting for friends to help me (friends who are increasingly quitting the game, so slower and slower to respond).  Sure, I understand this is a mechanism to get me to invite my other friends to play. But it actually prevents me from playing, and that's not good.  And since it requires more friends each time, it prevents me from playing for longer and longer. I don't like this gate at all, and would much prefer another way to encourage inviting friends, but at least if this is used it should remain a low number of friends (and preferably be bypassable with zombucks, not gems).



Monetization

There are lots of opportunity to spend gems to speed things up faster, but it feels as if this was an alternate option just added to everything. It doesn't feel as if the game has a very clearly thought out understanding of why people will spend money.  The pricing is odd.  Some prices:
  • to get a new buff (lawnmower, zombie zapper, etc) without waiting: about $1
  • to instantly buy a single plant: about $0.50 - $1
  • village decorations that increase speed of coin gain: about $0.50-$3
  • to bypass the need for friends to progress to the next map: about $0.50-$1
  • to bypass a quest (although it's unclear what, if any, benefit there is from doing this): about $0.50
These prices seem to have little correlation to their actual value to the player. For example, I spend so much time waiting for my plants to regrow that I almost never run out of buffs, so I'd never spend money to get one faster. I also haven't run out of coin since I got past the first few levels of the game, so I see absolutely no value in buying coin boost buffs. On the other hand buying plants is clearly a huge time saver, but considering that you may use 10-15 plants in a single level, even $0.50 per plant is way too pricy. To replenish my stockpile of 15 flaming peas (6hrs each to grow) would be a total of 750 gems which will cost over UK£12, or almost US$20 which is completely ridiculous to spend for plants which will last you only 3-4 levels.

I'm not a big spender on microtransactions, but if I'm enjoying a game and there's a clear value to me, I'll usually drop a few dollars to support the developers. In this game though there's really nothing I will buy. It's either valueless to me (buffs), or so overpriced (plants) that I don't feel it's worth it. The game needs more clear value items to spend gems on.

What if, instead of requiring you to beg friends to help you on your road trips, you could just give a gem a day to a certain number of friends? (Dragonvale does this very well.)  Then the more friends you have, the more gems you get, and there's a strong incentive to invite your friends and keep them playing, without annoying long waits.  This also keeps players interested in spending gems, while currently they run out and have little incentive to look at them again.  Now add some clear value items: how about a Plant Nursery building for your village which takes zombucks to build at level 1, but gems to upgrade to higher levels. The Nursery would refill your plant stockpile completely when you click it, but has a long reuse timer. Upgraded versions shorten the reuse time.  Paying with gems could also reset the reuse time. This would be a strong encouragement to gain gems, both through recruiting friends and purchasing.  Or how about a Jewelry Store which allows you to give daily gems to a higher number of friends? Perhaps giving you a gem bonus also? PvZ monetization feels as if it's really missing the boat in providing tempting ways to leave money behind.

In conclusion...

I'm currently level 18 and miles ahead of everybody else on my friends list (5197 zombie kills, while my next closest friend is 2 maps behind at 2867 kills). I watched all my friends jump in (everybody loves Plants vs Zombies) but they're dropping like flies, and to be honest the only reason I'm still playing is that I've been using it as a distraction while exercising.  The sad fact is, it's just NOT FUN.  The reason people play the original Plants vs Zombies is not that it's challenging, and it's not that it's ever-new content, it's that there's a joy in the gameplay that's just irresistable. PvZ facebook doesn't have this.  All the fun parts have been removed or severely handicapped (being able to try out different combinations of plants; raining down superior firepower in overwhelming numbers; being able to play without interruption).  Although there's lots of new content still ahead of me, I know it's going to be exactly like the old content only more annoying and requiring slower growing plants to get to, so where's the incentive to continue? More content is only a good thing if it's FUN content that you look forward to.  Painfully tedious content in large quantities is no reward at all, it's a disincentive.  Looking to my future I see only longer and longer wait times, and levels with the same old layouts but more and more blocked squares.  There's really little to no choice of plants in each level, there's generally one best combination that you pretty much can't vary.  And the choice of plants is very limited compared to the original.

The original PvZ didn't have any artificial blocks to try and extend gameplay, but people still played it again and again for the fun of it. Having good replayable content definitely beats artificially forcing people to play your limited and un-fun content slower. Because most won't; they'll just stop playing.

If I were working on this game, off the top of my head I'd start with the following changes:
  • break up the levels so that no map has more than 10 levels. As end-map rewards where there isn't a village area to unlock, add a treasure chest that refills your plant stockpile. Maybe some gems now and then.
  • remove the restrictions on only 5 plants of a type per level. If players grew them, let them plant them.
  • introduce more new plants earlier. New plants are fun, new plants add new gameplay, and trying to find the best combos is part of the fun. There should be many different combinations of plant possible to succeed.
  • remove the restriction that you can only stockpile 15 of each plant at a time. This should be unlimited. (It's particularly annoying when you open a treasure chest or a friend sends you a plant, but your stockpile is full so you lose out.)
  • no plant should take more than 1 hour to grow.  Or unlock some kind of bonus so that the higher level you get, the faster you can grow plants.  It should never be a punishment to continue playing; you should be feeling better and more powerful as you level up, not the reverse.
  • give a positive reward for visiting friends, instead of allowing them to attack with zombies - such as any friend who visits can make your plants grow faster, or give you free plants. 
  • give a clear warning prompt when about to spend gems so players don't do it accidentally
  • realize that levels that are challenging are not fun on their own. Levels are fun when they make players feel clever finding a good solution. So just making an annoyingly difficult level with only one solution is not a good level. On this basis, quite a few levels definitely need redoing.
  • Make the gardening glove more useful. 
  • Make the mega-perk more useful (and a much quicker re-use timer - it's far too long now).
  • Allow a choice of two or even all perks in a level, not just one.
  • Give players a way to replant their plants on mobile devices. Since it's a Facebook flash game, it doesn't work on iOS. If I could quickly check my plants and replant them while waiting for a meeting or sitting at lunch, that would be a huge help.
  • Remove the "attack your friends" visiting option and instead allow players to give daily gems/plants.
  • Monetization changes as suggested above, and sell plant packs or stockpile packs instead of individual plant purchases which are overpriced.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Banana Bread

Banana Bread 

4 oz. butter
8 oz. sugar
2 eggs (or: substitute ½ cup organic apple sauce)
8 oz. flour
1 tbs baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tbs lime juice
2 peeled, mashed ripe bananas
1 cup walnuts (or other nuts)


Mix room temperature butter with sugar until smooth.  Mix in eggs (or apple sauce).  Sift dry ingredients and mix in.  Stir in lime juice, banana pulp and nuts, mixing as little as needed to blend smoothly.  Transfer to a prepared (greased or lined with parchment paper) loaf or square cake pan and bake at 350 F (180 C) for about an hour, until a toothpick stuck into the middle comes out clean.  Can also be made as cupcakes; bake slightly less long.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Defiance!

I meant to write more about Defiance long ago, but actually working on Defiance kept me so busy that I just didn't have time!  So what's this game I've been working on?

Defiance launched on schedule on 2nd April.  That date was non-movable due to the tie-in with the TV show launch, so yes, there were definitely some late nights coming up to launch. At least 6 months of them. Yep, it would have been nice to push the date back, but we hit the deadline and the game is live.  It was an amazing experience to watch how much and how well the game improved and grew to completion over that time! As the first game on which I've worked as a producer (they hired me as an associate, but soon promoted me to producer of the design team) it was one heck of a learning experience, without doubt.  One I value highly.

I'm going to assume anyone reading this blog is somewhat familiar with the Defiance story, but in a nutshell: set a few decades in the future. Group of alien races in ark ships flee a dying star system and arrive at earth intending to colonize it, only to discover -- oops -- it's already occupied.  Years of negotiations ensue, earth not being at all happy to welcome intergalactic immigrants onto an already-crowded planet.  Some settlement starts but also some fighting, and at some point a disaster occurs: the ark ships parked in orbit (still containing most of the aliens and their colonization equipment) explode.  Accident or sabotage? Human or alien doing? Nobody knows, but the damage from the destruction of the fleet, the ensuing war, and the not-as-occasional-as-one-would-hope alien terraforming equipment falling to earth and running amok result in a very changed planet.  After years of war, remnants of both human and alien armies band together and defy orders that would result in massive civilian deaths, and the "defiance" movement begins to spread peace (albeit a highly-armed and rather jumpy type of peace).  

Set in the area once known as San Francisco, the game allows players to take the character of "ark hunters", highly skilled types who make their living from recovering ark tech and similar valuables.  Meanwhile in what was formerly called Saint Louis, the TV show follow the town of Defiance and its new mayor as they try to rebuild their city and protect themselves from outside dangers, of which there are no shortage.

The main characters from the show actually started off in the game, offering a series of missions that allowed game players to interact with the characters Nolan and Irisa.  At the end of the mission line, the two depart, taking with them a crystalline bit of ark technology that later plays an important role in the pilot episode of the show.  

Screenshot of Irisa, Nolan, and my character retrieving the ark tech in the game:


...And two weeks later, in the TV show pilot episode, Nolan and Irisa using the same tech to help the town of Defiance.



Here's the Defiance launch trailer and one with a little more back story:




And also, the live-action trailer and digital comic Ark Hunter chronicles that led up to the game's release:



Defiance is a strange beast, one from which nobody quite seems to know what to expect. It launched on three platforms: PC, Xbox, and PS3, which I believe is the first time any MMO has ever done that (and, having seen what was involved in getting that to happen, I fully understand why).  It is an MMO, but not what you'd call an MMORPG. And in the gaming world of today where pretty much everyone hears "RPG" at the end of "MMO", that's definitely unexpected.  It's a shooter, but third person, and massively multiplayer. It ties in with a TV show but is not dependent on it nor dictated to by it.  As executive producer Nathan Richardsson described it, Defiance is an "MOTSCTPOWS": Massively-Online-TV-Show-Connected-Third-Person-Open-World-Shooter.  I think Defiance's refusal to fit neatly into any existing game category is illustrated very well by the extremely polarized reviews on sites like Metacritic:


User reviews have totally polarized into "love it" or "hate it" with almost nobody in between, while critic reviews do the exact reverse. My interpretation of this madness (also based on reading comments) is that players who had a particular expectation ("it'll be an MMO like WoW!" "it'll be just like Call of Duty!") are strongly disappointed when it is not, but those who didn't have a strong expectation just play it with no expectations and have a ton of fun.  Meanwhile the critics really have no idea what pigeonhole to fit it into, so they judge it on every possible category that a MMO or shooter might be judged on, which of course ends up right on the fence, since Defiance does some MMO things well and doesn't do others; and some shooter things well and doesn't do others.

I quite liked the review from TotalBiscuit which I think does a fair job summing up the things Defiance does well and still needs to improve on, and why a shooter MMO has to do some things in slightly different ways.  Defiance is definitely an odd beast, but I'm very proud of all the design team did in the year up to launch.  There are some amazing talents on the team and it's been impressive watching them at work.  If you picked up, or will pick up, Defiance then I hope you enjoy it!  It's not my normal type of game but I find myself enjoying playing, and it's great to have an MMO game where you can hop in and have fun for an hour without feeling you need to set aside your whole evening. Having played through the entire game post-launch I definitely had a lot of fun, while also seeing places there's room for future improvement.  But of course, that's always the case with MMOs, the development is never really over.  Looking forward to seeing what future DLCs and expansions will bring, and hopefully many other players are also!  Since apparently over a million players have registered for Defiance so far, seems there are a lot of other people looking forward to it also. 


Above: Nolan talking to my character, while Irisa waits.  
Below: a little accident I had in San Quentin. Did I do that?  Er, well, yes I did. Fun times...