In which you can read a new story of mine

On December 21st, there's a new anthology out which includes "Curiosity," my Cthulhu space story you may have heard me mention, alongside stories from several other fine authors -- including Monte Cook Games's Bruce Cordell.

If you have any love in your heart at all, you will pre-order your copy right now!

Super science. Madness. Transhumanism.

This is the dawn of posthumanity. Some things can’t be unlearned.

Gleaming labs whir with the hum of servers as scientists unravel the secrets of the universe. But as we peel away mysteries, the universe glances back at us. Even now, terrors rise from the Mariana Trench and drift down from the stars. Scientists are disappearing—or worse. Experiments take on minds of their own. Some fight back against the unknown, some give in, some are destroyed, and still others are becoming… more.

The human and inhuman are harder and harder to distinguish. Mankind is changing, whether it wants to or not, with brand new ways of thinking. What havoc is wreaked by those humans trying to harness and control their discoveries? As big science progresses and the very fundamentals of this universe are understood, what stories are being hushed up?

Of course, the Old Ones laugh at our laws, scientific and otherwise.

These are transhumanist near-future science fiction tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. These are tales of more than merely cosmic dread. They exist in our world of the next couple years. This is the era of big science and—what is that? We’ll be right back. 


Authors: Desirina Boscovitch, Lynda Rucker, Samantha Henderson, Daria Patrie, Kaaron Warren, Richard Byers, Damien Angelica Walters, Spencer Leary, Joshua L. Hood, Jeff C. Carter, Simon Bestwick, Matt Maxwell, Shannon Fay, Adam Heine, Mike Allen, Darrell Schweitzer, Cody Goodfellow, Bruce R. Cordell, Pete Rawlik, A.C. Wise, Robert Brockway, Nate Southard, Molly Tanzer, Joshua Alan Doetsch, Thomas M. Reid, Clinton J. Boomer, L.A. Knight, Lizz-Ayn Shaarawi, J.M. Rozanski

Editors: Scott Gable & C. Dombrowski



Writing Status

Those of you who saw my post about my super ridiculous September may want to know how I made out. Here are where things stand on all things writing and a few other things.

I'm on schedule for Torment. At least I should be. I'm pretty happy with what I've gotten done, anyway!

I wrote a novella. Specifically, I drafted and revised the novella known as "Post-Edo Bladerunner" on the Works in Progress page. It is out of my hands for now. With luck, this will be a thing you can read in the near future. We'll see.

There may be another story for you to read soon. Specifically, this one, but that is also out of my hands. I'll let you know.

Air Pirates is no longer on submission. For those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time, I know this is really sad news. Though honestly it's been nearly four years since I got my agent; Air Pirates has not been on submission for that entire time, but it has been for a lot of it. I'm sure most of you already figured out it wasn't happening.

We got a lot of great feedback on Air Pirates, and at least one editor wants to see more of my stuff (an editor I really, really, really, really, really want to work with). But a lot of people expressed that -- while they loved the world and the characters and the story -- the category and genre of the thing was kind of hard to pin down, which means it would be kind of hard for them to sell.

Air Pirates is not dead. I love that world way too much. There is a major revision in its future (maybe even a rewrite?), but we'll see. What happens to Air Pirates depends on various career things that are out of my control over the next several months. Speaking of which...

Post-Apoc Ninjas is on submission. This novel has had its own bumpy ride, but I have learned a lot of things from the Air Pirates feedback and other soul-crushing critiques, and so I've revised the crap out of it. The result is something my agent loves (and if preliminary feedback on the Post-Edo novella is an indication, the critiques may also have leveled me up as a writer). Now that thing my agent loves is Out There.

Don't get excited yet, though. Publishing is slow, Tricia and I are cautious, and, well... you know what happened with Air Pirates. The point is I'm still writing and things are still moving.

The Thai government is happy with us. Or at least they're leaving our home alone, which in bureaucracy terms is the same thing.

No children died while my wife was gone. Though there was a fractured bone incident, but that wasn't my fault, and I handled the crap out of it.

Though it was a close thing.

Was there anything else you wanted to know?


Super Late PAX Post

PAX Prime was over a month ago, but I know several of you guys want to know what it was like. I have more time than I did in September, but I'm still short on it, so I'll do what I can.

As I've said before, I had never been on a panel, or even seen a panel, or even been to a convention before. I knew about PAX, of course -- even when I was separated from all things games, I still read my beloved Penny Arcade and witnessed the birth of their Gamer's Mecca -- but I had no idea what to expect.

But a Gamer's Mecca is pretty much what it is. Hundreds of thousands of geeks pile into Seattle for the weekend. Cosplayers are everywhere. Nearly every Uber to and from the convention is a Mad Max vehicle. Some weird tentacley thing is bursting out of the convention hall annex. Even miles away from the convention center, you might be going to dinner at a nice sit-down place and see Harley Quinn or Fire Emblem's Mia walk out.

It's pretty amazing.

And because everyone's there for a shared love of games (and many of them are introverts too), everyone's super nice. I played games and even had conversations (gasp!) with total strangers while waiting in line for other things. I spent the weekend with my brother and his friends -- also game developers -- and we talked RPGs, industry chat, card game design, and a thousand other topics that I never get to talk about at home.
Other highlights and comments:
  • The difference between AAA exhibitions and indie games is staggering. Watching Bethesda's animatronic Fallout robot or the Dark Souls fountain made me realize just how much more money these guys have than we on Torment do.
  • I discovered I'm much more attracted to the styles and innovations of indie games than the flash of AAA (not that I dislike the flash, mind you, I just found myself hanging in the Indie Exhibition Hall a lot more). Here was one of my favorites: Ultimate Chicken Horse.
  • I got to hang out with (and in many cases meet for the first time) a bunch of awesome game devs, including but not limited to Chris Avellone, Brian Mitsoda, Adam Brennecke, Monte Cook, Shanna Germain, and all the folks on my panel.

  • I had lunch with Pat Rothfuss. Our e-mails crossed paths, so we had only good intentions, but no actual plans to meet. But when my brother and I were in line for PA's live D&D show, I saw a notable bearded man walk past and -- in a truly non-introverted moment -- ran up to him, introduced myself, and made plans for lunch. I know. I'm super proud of myself, too.
The panel itself was both terrifying and really, really fun. Honestly, I would have loved to just sit and talk RPGs with Annie, Mitch, Swen, and Josh without all those people watching. Sounds like an awesome afternoon to me. We talked for an hour about RPGs and the difference between old-school and modern RPGs (and why we tend to like the former), as well as answering some very good questions from the audience.

In case you missed it, the audio for that panel is here.

I would love to go to PAX again, though honestly I don't know what I would have done if I didn't have my brother to hang out with. He and his friends were a huge part of what made PAX awesome for me (heck, half the stuff I said on the panel was stuff that I had said to them in our own conversations).

But who knows? Maybe one day I will.


Fix All The Things!

I know some of you want to hear what my time at PAX was like. I intend to write that post, but you'll have to wait a little longer. I have a crapload of work to do, including but not limited to:
  • Write Torment conversations
  • Design Torment conversations for others to write
  • Review Torment conversations others have written
  • Fix a number of problems created by the most recent round of Torment cuts
  • Finish a novella by October
  • Write a newsletter by October
  • Give the Thai government a bunch of documents they asked for while I was in the US (timing, man, seriously)
  • Fix everything that broke around the house while I was gone
  • Parent several children...
  • ...while my wife takes her own trip to the US
So my already ridiculously over-tasked life got turned to 11 for a few weeks. I will tell you about PAX, but not yet (fair warning: I fail at pictures).

However, you can hear me at my panel, wherein I and several awesome designers talk about what makes a classic RPG. There is no video recording, but the audio is here:

What I've been doing since 1999

On Friday, the Torment team released the first Alpha Systems Test, a look at the opening scene of the game and its most essential systems (conversation, mostly).

Shortly after I tweeted that out, some folks wondered what I've been doing, game design-wise, since 1999 (other folks wondered what happened in 1999 which, you know, that's fair).

Here's a very brief look at what happened since:
  • 1999 -- Planescape: Torment was released to high critical acclaim (and low sales).
  • 2000 -- I got married and left my awesome-but-crunch-timey game dev job for what I commonly refer to as my Office Space job.
  • While I was at work (sometimes literally), I designed D&D campaigns and board games, drew crappy comic strips, wrote stories, and programmed games based on those stories.
  • 2003 -- I decided I wanted to actually finish something I started, so I put my other projects aside (fourth question down) and focused on writing a novel.
  • 2005 -- My wife and I moved to Thailand. I kept writing, but I could no longer pay attention to the game industry (among other things) as much as I used to.
  • 2006 -- We took in our first child, and over the next several years would increase our family to include ten children, both foster and natural. Meanwhile, I kept designing RPGs and board games (that never got played outside my house).
  • 2008 -- I sent my first novel to agents (and also started this blog).
  • 2010 -- I wrote a story that somebody actually paid me for.
  • 2011 -- I got an agent and began the search for a publisher (that search is still ongoing, though we've updated the novel it is going on for).
  • 2012 -- I started working for inXile and "researched" what the game industry had been up to since I left (read: I played games again and wrote them off for tax purposes).
  • 2013-2015 -- I wrote hundreds of thousands of words for game dialogue and systems design. I also wrote a novella, a Pathfinder story, and a number of other things I hope you'll get to read some day.

So there you go. That's what I've been doing instead of (or in addition to) designing games for the last 15 years. Hopefully that also explains why my tastes in games tend to skew oldschool.


Wells' Lair on The Flash is Braille?

I don't actually watch The Flash (lack of time rather than inclination), but my sister pointed out to me that the secret lair of Harrison Wells is covered in bumps that look a lot like Braille.



But is it really Braille? And if so, is there some secret message hidden in the walls? Since this aligns with my interests (i.e. ciphers, linguistics, Braille), I decided to investigate. There are some answers on the internet, but not enough to satisfy me or my sister. I'm fixing that now.

First, a little Braille primer. The Braille alphabet encodes the 26 English letters into 2x3 grids of dots, like so:


Braille also encodes numbers, punctuation, and other formatting marks (like capital and italics) in that same 2x3 grid. However, the only markings on Wells' wall that fit any of those Braille markings are the letters n and z.

But Braille also has a cool and ridiculous number of shorthands and contractions. The dots on Wells' wall match these. Specifically, every 2x3 grid of dots on Wells' wall is one of these orientations, rotated either vertically or horizontally:



So the answer to our first question is yes, this is definitely Braille. I didn't see a single screenshot that showed any markings that broke the 2x3 grid pattern, nor that represented any word but those above.

But does it say anything? I'm gonna say no.



That conclusion does come with a few caveats though:
  1. I only know the basics of Braille. It may be that a fluent Braille reader would be able to see a pattern that I'm missing.
  2. Because the characters are rotated, it's hard to tell what orientation they are meant to be read in. I assumed a specific orientation and stuck with that for the image above.
  3. My translations assume English Braille. A lot of other languages use these grids for their own characters too (e.g. here are the Thai consonants).
With those caveats in mind, I would call this "decorative Braille." It's possible that there's a secret message hidden in some other language or character orientations, but I doubt it.

Even if there was, I'd never find it. You start doing this long enough and Wells' face starts to look like this:


Classic RPGs Panel at PAX

Hey, all! If you're going to PAX Prime next month, I'll be on a panel there.

The panel is "CLASSIC RPGs FOREVER!" (yes, in all caps, apparently), and it'll be on Sunday, August 30th at 11 AM in the Sasquatch Theater.

We'll be talking about resurrecting subgenres of classic RPGs that were once thought dead. I'll be joining veteran game developers Annie Mitsoda, Josh Sawyer, Mitch Gitelman, and Swen Vincke, with Penny Arcade's Jeff Kalles moderating.

I'm super excited and super terrified. This will be the first time I've ever been on a panel (or even seen a panel, or gone to PAX, or gone to any convention of any kind). It'll be awesome to talk games with a bunch of developers I admire, but yeah, combine a thousand unknowns with enormous crowds with nigh-clinical introversion and you get something that's even scarier than what I already do all day.

But hey, I'll manage. I always do.

So if you're going to be at PAX, let me know! It's possible I might be able to do something about that information without crawling under my bed in terror.*

* That's a joke. My bed is a mattress on the floor. I can't crawl under there without straining something.**

** Unless I crawl under the bed at my hotel. Hm, there's an idea....

Q: Big Pot Cooking Recipes?

Erik says:
You're a foster father of 10. Got any good big pot cooking recipes to share?

Actually, I do! Here are two of my favorites (my kids like them too, as it turns out).

Note that, as far as I'm concerned, cooking is essentially magic. So these numbers aren't exact (as evidenced by the ranges below). I usually try different amounts of things each time until I figure out what feels right. Tasting as you go also helps.


CASHEW CHICKEN (ไก่ผัดเม็ดมะม่วง)
Roast 1 1/4 cup of cashew nuts and 1 1/4 cup of chopped green onions (actually, I tend to fry these in oil nowadays, but you can do what you want). When they're nice and brown, take them out and set them aside.

In 2-3 Tbsp. of oil, fry 1 cup of dried chilis. When they get dark, take them out and set them aside. (IMPORTANT: Take them out before they start smoking, lest you fill your house with face-melting, eye-scalding chili smoke. My children hate me for the times I've done this. They still won't let me forget it.)

In the chili-infused oil, fry a bunch of garlic until it's brown, then add all of this stuff:
1 kg of chicken
1 green bell pepper
2 onions
1-2 big carrots
5 Tbsp. soy sauce
5 Tbsp. oyster sauce
5 tsp. sugar

Cook that for a few minutes, then add 1 cup of chicken broth. Cook it some more until it's done (see? magic).

Turn off the heat, and add the cashew nuts, green onions, and the fried chilis (the latter is optional -- most of my kids complain when I leave these in, so now I just put them in a separate dish for the spice-immune teenager).

Serve it on rice (we make 7-8 cups for our family). Feeds at least 12 people.


YELLOW CURRY (แกงกะหรี่)
I loved this stuff as a kid. It's even better now that I live in a country where the spices are native.

If you can get yellow (or Indian) curry paste, then use some of that with an appropriate amount of coconut milk (it'll probably say on the package what proportions to use).

If not, here's how I made my own curry sauce:
3-5 Tbsp yellow (or Indian) curry powder (sadly, if you can't get this, I don't think I can help you)
Lots of garlic (I put in like 10 cloves)
1-2 Tbsp red chili pepper
2-3 Tbsp ginger
2-3 tsp salt
1500 mL coconut milk


Pretty much just mix that in a pot, then throw this stuff in:
1.5 kg of chicken (or whatever meat you want, really)
4 big potatoes
2 big carrots
2 onions

Bring it to a boil, and then leave it on low heat for like 30-60 minutes. Serve it on rice (we make 7-8 cups for our family). Serves at least 12 people.


Anyone else have any good big pot cooking recipes to share? I only cook like four things. It wouldn't hurt to discover other options.

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Got a question? Ask me anything.


Q: Which is harder, game writing with a team or solo-writing novels?

I actually got this question on Twitter, but I thought it deserved more than 140 characters. Although if you're into the tl/dr version then here you go.

So which is harder? Writing a game or a novel? Writing solo or on a team?

Game vs. Novel
First, you should know that I've never written for a non-Torment game, and Torment has lots (and lots and lots) of words. It's entirely possible there are games for which writing is a piece of cake. I wouldn't know what that's like.

What's difficult about game writing is the lack of control. In a novel, the characters do exactly what I tell them to (my characters do, anyway). But in a game, the player can do anything he wants (within the rules of the game). So a character I intended to be major might die before he gets a single line, and the writing has to handle both options equally well. So a dialogue that would be 150 words in a novel becomes an enormous branching, interlocking tree.

Novel writing has its own challenges, of course. For one thing, it's more than just dialogue. A lot more. A Torment game has more descriptive prose than most, but it still doesn't come close to what you need in a novel. The novelist has to let the reader into the protagonist's head, to feel what she's feeling. In a game, that's done for you -- the player's already in their own head -- but in a novel, that connection is a lot of work.

(As an example of how much work... By far, the biggest critique note on my Ninjas novel was, "Not enough description and emotion." It took me two months to revise that critique away, increasing the size of the novel by more than ten percent -- 10,000 new words almost exclusively adding description and emotion!)

Solo vs. Team
The best part of working on a team is that I don't have to write all the words. Torment has several writers working part- and full-time, so most mornings I wake up to finished conversations that I never wrote. It's like having an infestation of word fairies!

The hard part of working on a team is trying to agree on everything. We have strict conventions and pipelines to get everything to an equivalent level of quality with minimum fuss. When I'm in a writing role, I need to follow those conventions and get the approval of (usually) at least two other leads.

Even in my role as a lead, there are sometimes disagreements on how we should handle certain things -- anything from what the jargon of a town should be to the voice of a player companion to whether we should use one dash or two in place of an em-dash. Fortunately, we have a pretty great team, with a high level of professionalism and a low ego average, so even difficult decisions are rarely Difficult.

And really, the decision-making as a team is a lot of the fun. When I'm writing a novel, I have to make my own decisions, second guess myself, and be my harshest critic. My novel has no awesome story meetings with people I enjoy and respect (it's just me). And it is really, really hard to be objective about anything you make yourself.

Which do I like better? I like them both. A LOT. Honestly, if I had to choose only one of them, I'd probably rebel and just keep trying to do everything.

Oh wait, that's what I'm doing.

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Got a question? Ask me anything.



How you can be part of a cybermob and not know it

Cybermobbing is getting ridiculous. I mean the entire spectrum here: public shaming, online bullying, harassment, and the general dickery that goes on all over the internet everyday.

The existence of this crap is not news (well, actually it is, like every single day). But it's often assumed that the people engaging in these activities are sociopaths, sadists, and trolls -- people who get high off wrecking other people, or who just have no conception of empathy at all. To be fair, parts of these mobs are exactly that.

But this post is about you, and how even the most innocent, well-meaning person can get caught up in mobbing someone and wrecking their day, if not their life.

An author recently posted the gif below, saying simply, "I don't claim to know s--t about soccer, but I know this women vs. dudes gif amuses me."

video


His point -- the point of the gif -- is that women athletes can be just as badass and worthy of celebration as men, if not more. Not really a point worth arguing against (unless you got a thing against badass women, I guess?).

The responses he got, though. Last time I checked, almost 50% of them pointed out that the woman in the gif is a rugby player, not a footballer.

They're not wrong. And that's not harassment nor bullying, and so far as I know the author in question was over it before I even had these thoughts. Most of the people correcting him even went out of their way to support his point (though there were a few who thought the mistake meant his argument was invalid which is... a different point, I guess). Taken individually, none of the comments would be a big deal, but when you get 20 replies like that, it can wear on you, literally.

It seems innocent. Each individual is thinking, "I have an opinion that he should know." But the recipient is thinking, "Dear God, MAKE IT STOP."

My point? Think before you post. You are not the only person to have the thought that you had, and you are likely not the only person to express it. Think, and then think again, and then maybe check to see if anyone has said the same thing before you do.

Too much work? Then don't post. Nothing bad will happen if you don't correct that person. But bad things become more likely each time you do.

"But I'm not correcting them. I'm really upset about what they did!" That's fine. There are things you can do, but being a dick shouldn't be one of them.

Social media is real life, guys. The people on the other end of those data packets are real people, and the words you type hit exactly the same as if you said them to their face.

The internet is a powerful thing. We are the ones who determine whether that's good or bad.

Q: A couple of TTON details vs. Pillars of Eternity

Alessandro Gambino has two questions today:
a couple of questions that arose directly from my playthrough of Pillars of Eternity.

First question:  As far I remember, in Torment we will have separate inventory screens for each character, won't we? And if so, any hope you guys are reconsidering this part of the GUI?

I'm not sure where I might have mentioned separate inventory screens. If I did, it was either very early in design or else a mistake. Our inventory design is based on Pillars of Eternity's -- partially because we had just gotten their codebase at that time (so we could see how they were doing things) and partially because a single inventory screen for the entire party is just a good idea.

Additionally, as you mentioned in the full text of your question, Alessandro, TTON's weapon sets will be representative, so a single weapon can be used in multiple weapon sets. See this update for more info on that.

My second question: in a another KS update you wrote (quote): "For us, a “puzzle” isn’t an attempt to divine the will of the designer, but rather an obstacle with multiple solutions involving various Difficult Tasks and their applicable Effort and skills".

Does this mean that Torment won't have any puzzle/problem with not-so-obvious solution? Which is to say: Will the puzzle-solving elements of the original game be dropped in favor of the effort management of the new one (please don't do that. If you are not 100% convinced, I can send you my boxed copies of all Quest for Glory games, as a reminder of how you can have puzzles that feel like real puzzles even if they can be solved in multiple ways according to your character skills :D)?

I can see how your concern might arise from my quote. Rest assured that PST is our primary example in terms of how conversations are designed. "Puzzles" in TTON will take many forms. Simple ones might require one of a couple of Difficult Tasks, but many more will require you to talk to people and pay attention to your surroundings (or at the very least, they will be made much easier by doing so).

What we won't do is, for example, require the player to decipher an elaborate and unique sequence of actions to collect an item they don't even know they need. We also don't want the player to get stuck because they missed some foozle or failed the wrong Task. We are trying to emulate a tabletop RPG session more than a graphic adventure, and that means doing the best we can to anticipate what things players will want to try, and implementing what might happen for each one.

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Got a question? Ask me anything.


Q: What's your favorite part of the writing process?

Trevor asks:
What's your favorite part of the writing process?

My favorite part is the part where I make money, followed closely by the part where people tell me how awesome my writing is.

Is that... is that not what you meant?

So, in terms of actually creating the story, I prefer planning, by far. I'm a notorious, obsessive, ridiculously detailed planner (which is perhaps why I make a decent game design lead). I like to outline my stories down to each chapter's beats and cliffhangers, if I can.

I'm also a big fan of revision, but only after I get critiques and after I've recovered from the bone chilling soul-death that comes with them.

Not a fan of the soul-death.

Or drafting. I hate drafting. In fact, given a choice between drafting and soul-death, I'd take soul-death every time. At least it means I'm staring at a finished story instead of that unholy blinking cursor of oblivion, mocking me while it sits there and does nothing...

You know, it's a wonder I like writing at all.

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Got a question? Ask me anything!


Q: How do you have time for everything?

Trevor asks a very pertinent question:
How do you have time for everything? 
Seriously, I see that you have 10 kids, work remotely on an anticipated game, and write, among other daily challenges I'm sure. Was there ever a point when you wanted to let go of any of these passions? Do you ever worry that you can't devote enough time to each of them?
Do I ever worry I can't devote enough time to everything? Constantly. How do I make sure that doesn't happen?

I have no idea.

Well, that's not strictly true. I have some idea of how I pull this off, but I'm so notoriously bad at everything below that it's a miracle I get anything done. For what it's worth, here are the things that help me run my life:
  • Priorities. My family comes first, then paying work (98% of which is Torment), then my own writing projects (i.e. those that are currently unpaid but will hopefully be paid later), then boring things like fixing stuff around the house and watching Fast and Furious 7. When one priority threatens the happiness of another, they get cut off in reverse priority order... which is why nothing ever gets fixed around here.
  • Knowing my limits. I'm pretty terrible at this one usually, but occasionally I will have bursts of genius, like when I signed on to Torment with a 25-30 hour/week commitment instead of fulltime (although that usually turns into 30-35, and even more during crunches, but commitments! Yay!).
  • Schedules. This is easier when the kids are in school (which they're not now, oi). I try to do Torment work from 7-12 in the morning, then lunch, then write for 1-2 hours, then pick up kids from school, then spend time with kids, then usually more Torment work, then spend time with my wife, then pass out. And somewhere in there I get on Twitter and play chess. No, I don't know how that works either.
  • Very little TV. We don't have Netflix or Hulu out here, and we try very hard not to pirate anything. That leaves Crunchyroll, Legend of Korra DVDs, and our collection of Friends episodes. (We actually have more than that, but we rarely get to watch anything as it airs, making Twitter a constant spoilerfest).

Have I ever wanted to let go of something? Yes and no. I certainly enjoy the financial freedom InXile has given me (especially when we needed it most), but part of me thinks I'd be okay with having time to focus on just my writing and family again. (Then the other part of me starts shouting, "Hey, remember how hardly anybody paid us for our own writing?!").

Giving up writing is also an option, but I don't know if I could give it up completely. I've been writing my own stories in some form since I was seven. For now, I'm content to just take it slow.

Obviously my family is not on the table. They're what I do everything else for.

I've already given up a lot of things to make this work: blogging regularly, keeping up with Naruto, any kind of serious board game design, most movies and computer games that I can't enjoy with my kids... These are costs I'm willing to pay in exchange for creating cool things and raising awesome children.

And if my other commitments become too much, I'll cut those too. Until then, I'll just keep trying to live three dreams at once (four, if you count sleep... which I do).

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Got a question? Ask me anything!


Q: Will Torment use Unity 5?

Mark asks:
Is Torment going to be / has Torment been developed with Unity 5 in mind?

It turns out this was a more complicated question than one would think. We're planning to move to Unity 5, but we weren't sure about that for a long time (and even now, there's still a fair amount of work to do before the move is official).

Further details from our illustrious wizard/programmer, Steve Dobos:

We started work on Torment before Unity 5’s full feature set was announced.  By the time Unity 5 became a known quantity, we had already done much work on the engine for Unity 4.  So the benefit of a move to Unity 5 will be limited for Torment.  The primary justification for a move to Unity 5 is the new Mecanim system.  We’ve put much effort in to the animation of our characters, and the Mecanim upgrades will help organize our complex animation trees. 

Unfortunately, all of the cool Deferred Shading tech they released in Unity 5 doesn’t function with an orthographic camera, which Torment uses. So while we're doing some interesting things graphically, largely thanks to the Pillars of Eternity technology, Torment won't really benefit from Unity's graphical enhancements. Sadness.

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Got a question? Ask me anything.


Q: How do we know who wrote what?

Haran asks:
About writing credits in games - in most big games, you can't know which part of dialogue\text was written by whom, just that there is a "lead writer" and other writers. Is there a secret way industry people like you guys use to know this? And for Torment, will you list somewhere who wrote what?

The "secret way" is we ask people what they were responsible for. The answer we get back is rarely simple.

The thing is that most big games are a team effort. Although one person might initially be in charge of an area or a character, by the end of the project so many people have had their fingers in everything that it's often difficult to say who wrote what.

The best we can do (which is what you often see in interviews and the like) are things like: "Well Joe did the high level design on Sagus Cliffs," "Luke was primarily in charge of the Oasis," or "Kate wrote most of the characters in the third act of the game." That's about as specific as we can get.

We could maybe list those vagueries in the credits, but even that might be disingenuous. For example, right now George Ziets is in charge of the Bloom and has written a couple of the conversations. But Colin has written most of them. I've written a few, as has Thomas Beekers and a couple of our other writers. Some of the conversations have been gone over many times by multiple people. I've thoroughly reviewed (and sometimes revised) all of them, and George plans to do the same.

So who wrote what? I could maybe tell you right now, but I'd have to break it down node by node in many cases.

By the end of the project? All I'll be able to tell you is, "Well, George did the high level design on the Bloom...."

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Got a question? Ask me anything.


Q: What kind of writing samples do you want for game work?

Gunther Winters is looking for a writing position in the gaming industry. He says:
...all those ads [that interest me] require the submission of "samples" of one's own work, and I suspect that those that don't clearly require it just take it for understood. ...what is adequate for "submitting"? How many "pieces"? How long? Of what  kind? Most ads mention no details whatsoever...

Any other advice for an aspirant "writer" who is trying to approach the gaming industry?

I can't tell you specifically what other people are looking for, but I'll tell you what we look for. Since Torment is looking for a number of words on the order of 2-3 George R. R. Martin novels, I hope my advice will be applicable (if not over-applicable) to other positions as well.

Mostly we want to get the sense that you can do the work we need you for. Length of the samples is not very important, so long as it's a couple of pages' worth. Quantity of samples can be useful to get a sense of a writer's breadth, but again is not critical.

The type of sample matters more. For us, we like to see game and fiction writing (and because Torment is a bit more literary* than most games, we slightly prefer fiction writing to get a sense of a writer's skill). If an applicant sent us links to his Twitter feed or blog posts, it wouldn't tell us much about whether they could write character dialogue.

* Read: more wordy.

In general, it's a good idea to send exactly what is asked for. If they don't ask for samples, or you think you might have too many, then include a link to more samples in case they're interested. If they think you look promising, they can always ask for more.

Lastly, although the requirements of every game writing position is different, being technical enough to structure branching dialogue is usually a good skill to have. Fortunately, there are many game design and modding tools that can help you learn this sort of thing.

As to other advice, I've written on that before. Short version: learn to do something related, and do it very well.

Gunther adds:
Last, if the choice is between getting Torment released and replying to me, by all means please just work on the game and release it already. I'm dying here [insert pun about my "torment" here].
Heh. Fortunately for you, my brain needed a break and your question provided it. But I appreciate your anticipation!


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Got a question? Ask me anything.


Q&A: Can you rest anywhere in Torment?

Alessandro from Torment's Italian fan blog says:
You've talked extensively about Effort in many occasions by now, but there's still a piece of the puzzle missing, at least to me. How do you intend to limit rest in the Torment?

I mean, managing Effort is an interesting gameplay mechanic. but only because Effort is a limited resource. If players are able to rest whenever they want, the whole thing explodes.

Now, I know that during Cryses time is a factor, so resting will be either limited or impossible, but what about the "normal gameplay"? Will Players be able to rest freely in exploration mode?

Not usually.

Background: I explained the Numenera concept of Effort, and how we're adapting it for Torment, in our latest update here. Short version: Effort is a limited resource used to make difficult tasks easier. This resource can be replenished with healing or rest.

Alessandro, you are absolutely right (as are others I've seen around the internets who have expressed a similar concern): if healing is freely and easily attainable -- as it would be with a "rest anywhere" mechanic -- then Effort becomes meaningless. You could just use it all up on a task, rest to replenish, then use it all again on the next task.

So obviously the player will not be able to rest anywhere they want for free. You'll have quick rests you can use anywhere, but those are limited and they won't restore all your Stat Pools. Eventually your party will need to sleep. To do that, you'll have to find a place that will let you sleep for a price you can afford. Every Zone will have such a place, of course, but you won't be able to rest wherever and whenever.

Can you just head back to the rest spot in between tasks? Sometimes, sure. Other times you won't be able to get back so easily. Sometimes you'll need to do a few tasks in a row to accomplish something. And sometimes sleeping (which makes time pass) will have other consequences as well.

So sleeping will usually come with a cost. That cost might be trivial or it might be quite high. It will depend on what you want to do, where you are in the game, and what's more important to you at the time.

Torment Novella Fan Art

In case you missed it, I got my first for-real fan art the other day for the Torment novella. From Michael Malkin, this is "Ama, seeker of the Golden Tide."


I like the golden light shining in from the left. That's a nice touch. Thanks, Michael!

Read the entirety of "The Patch Man"

My Pathfinder story, "The Patch Man," has now been published in its entirety. If you're like me, and you don't like reading something that you can't finish, well you can finish it now: chapter one, chapter two, chapter three, and chapter four.

(And if you're better than me, and read things the moment you can read any part of it, know that today you can be complete.)

And oh my gosh, I just realized I never told you how this came to be!

It probably never occurred to you. I mean, I'm the Design Lead of a computer RPG, a thematic successor to a Dungeons and Dragons game, of which Pathfinder itself is a successor. The creator of Numenera (from which we get Torment: Tides of Numenera) wrote a Pathfinder story of his own. Obviously, then this work for hire came about because of my RPG connections.

Except it didn't. It actually came through my dear friend Authoress, who was chatting with me one day and asked if I had any interest writing a story for a game world (which, um, YEAH). Cuz she was chatting with this editor of an anthology that she was published in alongside Paizo's managing editor. And he had said . . .

Yeah, I can't track it all either. The point is I am apparently only capable of finding the most circuitous routes to publishing available. (Like, you know, quitting Black Isle, moving to Thailand, and then getting a game design job through Facebook).

But what do you care? You get to reap the streamlined benefits in fiction form. For free! Go, reap your benefits, find out what happens to Blit!



Favorite Games of 2014

It's still January. I'm not late.

Well, except for the part where these are games I played in 2014, as opposed to games that may have come out in 2014. Whatever.

BANNER SAGA
I've talked about this one. It looks pretty. It sounds lovely. It asks me to make hard choices and then question them, and for some reason I love it all the more because of this. I'm thinking of playing through it again on Hard.

I will probably fail. I don't actually care.

THE LONGEST JOURNEY
Adventure games are kind of my thing. I was birthed on Colossal Cave and Adventureland, raised on Space Quest IV and Fate of Atlantis, and sent into the world alongside Curse of Monkey Island and Grim Fandango. Adventure games aren't my jam. They are the eternal soundtrack of my existence.

So yeah, I kinda liked the Longest Journey. It's not as funny as Sierra or LucasArts fare, but it's good enough, and it has a story deeper and more moving than all of the above. When I finished, I immediately launched into Dreamfall and Dreamfall Chapters, which are equally beautiful and moving, though the first in the series remains my favorite in terms of gameplay (so far -- there's more in Dreamfall to come, and I can't wait to play it).

BROKEN AGE, ACT 1
If adventure games are my soundtrack, then Tim Schafer is my composer. All my favorite adventure games? Yeah, they're his. I missed the Kickstarter, but honestly I'm happy to give Tim full price for what is essentially my childhood in precious-gem form.

Broken Age doesn't quite trump Curse of Monkey Island as my favorite adventure game of all time, but it stands alongside my favorites. It also currently holds the award for blowing my mind and the minds of my children with its story secrets. I love it when a story does that.

PHOENOTOPIA
It is very strange to me that a free flash game has earned a place among my favorite games of the year. But it has.

Phoenotopia is essentially a platformer RPG, like innumerable classics I played on NES and SNES. It has clever puzzles, superb exploration, and challenging boss battles. It even has a couple of mechanics I don't think I ever saw back in the day, but that I really enjoyed. It surprised me. The fact that it's free makes it that much better.


A quick Google search will find you these games. If your tastes at all align with mine, you should try them.

What have you played lately? What's your favorite?


Q: Game quality on a variety of systems?

Taking advantage of asking me anything, Steve says:
If one writes a book, the reader gets exactly what the writer put across. Doesn't matter what format they read it in - it's basically the same experience.

But with video games, everyone’s machines are different, from ancient to cutting edge. With all the variables of OS, RAM, video cards, and everything else thrown in as well. Which have changed since you began the project and will have changed again by the time it comes out.

So my question is, how do you design a product that will have the best quality when played on such a wide spectrum of equipment? Is there some kind of statistical system requirement formula for reaching the greatest number of gamers? Or do you just go for the best game you can design, and hope people’s computers will catch up to it in time?

Note that this is uniquely a PC problem. Console games also benefit in that if a game works on one XBox, it works on all of them the same (basically).

So it's certainly a trick. Although we do try to keep things optimized as we go, we're generally more focused on getting the game working first, and then getting it working fast.

Most of our developer boxes are semi-high end for this reason. If the developer's build of the game starts slowing down on a computer, it's usually easier to upgrade the computer than to slow down development while we figure out how to optimize whatever's slowing things down.

Though some optimizations do occur as development goes along. If we toss ten NPCs into a scene, and everybody's machines slow down, that's something we need to figure out (especially if we know we're going to need more than ten NPCs in our scenes!).

That only talks around your question though. To answer it more directly:

Step #1: Get the game playable. Period.

Step #2: Figure out what configuration of machine, level, and graphics quality things start to slow down.

Step #3: Figure out what's causing the slowdown and fix those spots. For example, if 10 NPCs is slowing down a scene, is it slowing the scene down because there are too many polygons? Too many light sources and lighting calculations? Too many shadows? Transparency? These things can be fixed globally to improve the game on all systems (for example by creating NPC models with fewer polygons).

Step #4: Identify features that can be scaled based on the user's system specs. For example, maybe there are three levels of NPC models: high, medium, and low. And each level has a different polygon count. These features then go into Game Options for the user to adjust the graphics to the quality/speed balance they are willing to put up with.

Then we run the game on various systems to determine our recommend system specs (which can run the game with all options turned up and no slow down) and our minimum system specs. Large developers have QA departments to do this for them. A small-to-midsize developer like inXile can do some QA, but also benefits hugely from public alpha and beta testing. The more folks we have banging at the game, the better the final product will be.

Of course we aim for the lowest system specs we can, so that as many people as possible can play the game. But there's always a certain threshold at which the work required to optimize the game cannot be justified by the number of customers we gain with those optimizations.

On Torment, we benefit from using Obsidian's technology for Pillars of Eternity, which lets us create high quality backgrounds without requiring more power from the system. That doesn't mean everything can be at a higher quality (NPCs and light sources still require a fair amount of processing power), but it gives us a lot more leeway than if we were making the game entirely in 3D.

Sorry for the hugely long answer, but I'm glad you asked the question. Among other things, this is why we can never give a straight answer when people ask us what our target system specs are going to be. The answer is invariably, "As low as we can make them."

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Got a question? Ask me anything.


The Patch Man is up at Paizo.com

My latest short story, "The Patch Man," is up at paizo.com (at least the first chapter is -- the rest will come soon). It takes place in the world of the Pathfinder RPG which, if you're not familiar with it, is very similar to D&D, but with a lot of its own twists. "The Patch Man" is about a half-fiend named Blit who makes a living cleaning up evidence for the less-reputable guilds in Pathfinder's largest city, until he starts getting in over his head.

This marks the second short story I've sold in *mumbles* years of writing. At this rate, you can expect a published novel from me by 2040. Oh well. In the meantime, I'll just get back to work on the most anticipated RPG of 2015.

Rough, right?

Anyway, enjoy the story. Did I mention it's free?