Thursday, 30 August 2012

If You Build It... So What?


"If you build it, he will come", from the 1989 movie Field of Dreams is a very familiar quotation. (Ranking 39 on the American Film Institute's 100 Top Movie Quotes.) It is also something of a catch phrase to be ripped apart these days, as in our digital age it no longer seems relevant. I'm not going to imagine I'm doing anything new here by commenting on that fact (indeed, here's someone speaking in a similar vein from a month ago), but I do have some personal touches here that might keep you reading.

What is comes down to is that 'Building' it is not enough anymore. And I'm not just talking about building a product - building a monument, building a blog/readership, building a resume, I think it all applies. I think the problem is twofold:
1) Supersaturation - Everyone is building things now. While that's nothing new... thanks to the internet, awareness of them is. (No more are wars being fought for an extra week before word reaches the battlefield.) So you have to really stand out/have good quality or have good PR/StreetCred to get noticed in the crowd. Hence networking and word of mouth.
2) Timing - We only have so many hours in the day. So we take shortcuts. What was built physically can be looked at online, what was built online needs to turn up in the first few hits, and whatever you're looking at directly in front of you may well be forgotten in five minutes. So after being noticed, you have to be unique to hold attention.

Just to speak about online for a moment, Eli Pariser gave a good TED talk about online filter bubbles - in brief, you only get more of what you start clicking on, and thus miss differing viewpoints. (Which could explain the recent political polarizing going on.) I suppose this might change one's interpretation of unique. Though naturally, Eli's view has it's own rebuttal, so here's a link to a marketing blog which appeared in my top hits when searching for said talk.

Anyway. Here's three particular situations, then I'll call it a day.

1) Twitter/Blogging


I joined twitter at the start of the summer. There were a few people I already knew who were tweeting, and I added them. Then I added a few 'celebrity' twitters (which for me include Lewis Lovhaug and David Hewlett, so there), and then a few news sources, and then a number of active math teachers via mtt2k, and... already it was becoming more than I could keep up with. (Which doesn't bode well when my days get busier.) Now, I know there are tips out there for handling the volume - in fact here's a site with a bunch of ideas.

I did try adding people to a list, but pretty much found that the only thing that happened was that I wasn't looking at the list anymore, only the main feed - plus lists are an organizational tool, they don't change the sheer volume. Crippled by timing (aka I wasn't willing to invest a lot in managing Twitter), I'm now at the point where if I see a retweet that catches my interest, I'll glance at the profile, but if the person updates frequently, I won't add them unless at least half of those remarks catch my interest. Strangely(?), I'm more inclined to add if someone updates less frequently.

This may be why I still have less than ten followers, despite the occasional retweet by those much more popular than I. Of course, I also grant I'm not that interesting.

I also started blogging (obviously), and again, with Blogger there's the option to track other blogs out there. I added teacher ones to mathtans, and friend ones to this account, but again, there's a limit on what I can process in a day. I know I've only touched the tip of the iceberg too - you can find over 50 Teacher Blogs at that link, and a recent initiative by Sam Shah attempted to get even more teachers blogging. (Which I leaned about via Kate Nowak's blog.) Heck, here are 100 Blogs every new teacher should read! It's too much.

Okay. So, let's say you've built twitter and blog accounts of your own. So what?

In my case - ultimately, it seems they're for me. They allow me to learn more about some of what's going on in the world, and for friends to learn more about me. No one's coming. Or perhaps they're coming, glancing, and moving on, I've no idea - I know I've done that with other blogs. But I suppose that's enough. Life goes on.

2) Taylor's Polynomials


I had the idea fifteen months ago - personification of mathematical equations. I've had ideas before, stories that got stuck, anime music videos that never got past the planning stage... this felt different. I jumped into it July 2011 because I wanted to make sure I kept it going. I have done so, twice a week, every week, for over sixty weeks. I've added colour, and since mid-series 2 I've had at least a link-an-ep to other web content.

With regard to pushing it further, I credit Rob Barba's column "Launch or be Lunch", from FanToPro.

It came out in August 2011, a month after I'd started, and spoke about a lot of behind the scenes details for the "Claude and Monet" webcomic that Rob and Ayne were launching. (Do I now read said comic? Uh, no, it didn't really look like my sort of thing... but I've never forgotten it, and now I'm indirectly plugging it.) One of the things that stuck with me at the time was the marketing details.

There was a whole column about the evolution of their logo, for instance. I realized, hey, I don't even have one. I forget if business cards were referenced in the same series or they were something else posted up by Steve Savage, but I thought, hey, that might be fun. (And thus the tagline 'because equations are people too was born', incidentally.) I made cards, I started to pitch these out to friends, and colleagues. Including at conferences. Their effect?

Damned if I know. None? I know my wife and one of my friends follow, but they were doing that anyway. Aside from them, I've had one unsolicited remark, a couple comments surrounding the mtt2k theme of ep 100, and a mention on another blog when I chanced to bring the topic up. In person, a few colleagues have remarked on it, and some students have said the characters were neat. Had I expected to be the next Hetalia? God, no. But I suppose I thought there'd be a bit more after all this time.

I have actually put some thought into this. I migrated to the blog to make commenting easier. I've also mused a lot on whether my audience is teachers or students (leaning to the former, but admit the jury's still out). When a friend remarked on the cards I printed being one sided, I designed a second side. I want to adapt from the feedback I get, but... there's nothing from my supposed core audience.

Now, I'm sure I'm not unique in getting little to no response. Of note, when I was researching Khan Academy, I stumbled on Sir Terry Matthews, serial entrepreneur and billionaire (Welsh-Canadian with ties to Ottawa) and the quote I ultimately used for ep100 was from a video I watched of him speaking at uOttawa. He makes many good points. Notably don't make a product and then see who's out there. See what people WANT/NEED and make THAT -- BEFORE anyone else.

Cynically speaking, if you're looking for an audience, you've already lost. Everyone's busy with something else. You have to snare them before you start. (That blog I referenced at the start of this post makes a good point too about pre-launch -- and POST-launch for retaining interest.) I'll even blatantly admit there's only about ten webcomics I'M following with any regularity. (A couple are Spiked Math and (x, why?) who started in on the math humour well before me.)

So I built a mathematical web series. So what?

So - ultimately, I suppose it's for me too. I even commissioned a picture of Para when I was at ConBravo last month. And, through it all, I'm still finding it fun... while desperately hoping it's informative or helpful to someone out there, along with being amusing. Otherwise, life goes on.

Watercolour by MICHELLE SIMPSON

Then again, my buffer ran out yesterday. I have ideas, but really, nothing about the characters is written... for the first time since July 2011. I'll probably figure something out, but I'm starting to wonder if it matters.

3) Teaching


So, you need to work out a lesson plan - and there's tons of websites and blogs out there, along with material provided by colleagues, and textbooks, each suggesting different ways of doing it. Supersaturation. But you only have a limited amount of time to come up with something. So you have to make due. That's how I started thinking about this, but more interesting is approaching it the other way.

Consider that the students are coming regardless, so in that sense it's less a case of 'If You Build It' and more 'They Will Come, Whether Or Not You Build It'. So, how do you teach a lesson and make it worthwhile for the student? In other words, avoid them ignoring you in class (timing), then running to Khan Academy for all the answers (supersaturation)...?

It's as I was writing this that I realized education is essentially an exercise in the kind of marketing I referenced above.

The students have a need/want... to understand your subject. It may be for personal reasons (an interested public), or simply because they need the credit (not always as interested). It may come easy for them, or it may be difficult. (Oh good, differentiated instruction!) Regardless, you're sort of selling them on your subject as a potential hobby or even career choice. Essentially, how do I get them to like math as much as they do their electives?

Now, the big shift in (math) teaching these days is towards big ideas, and arcing questions, prompting student discussion and self-discovery. After all, that's the enduring stuff, and the details, those can be handled with emerging technology. The more I see this, the more I agree with it... and the more I realize I'm not terribly good at it. (While we're on the subject, I'm lousy at finance too, which is being inserted more into the Ontario math curriculum - as it should be.)

I'm a details person, and weak at applied math. But pointing out how someone usually drops a minus sign at this point in the equation is hardly a selling point for student discovery. So where does this leave me? With a lesson no one's paying attention to? Worse, one that people are listening to, but will forget after the exam? Surely I can't merely be doing my CAREER for myself as well...

No. Here, at last, I think I have some of the necessary feedback, both from students and colleagues. (I suspect Professional Development days could do with even more networking, and that teachers observing teachers might be a good thing - but then, that might lead to Supersaturation.) Thanks to in person remarks, I know I do have something of a knack for explaining finer details, my organized binders and flowcharts have helped others, and I think some of my videos and sporadic songs in class have helped with enduring understanding.

I also know there are people who enjoy the details too, and a guest post by Diana Senechal about TED talks made me think a bit more about how not everything has to be like them. (Also, wow, some polarizing comments there - one guy really lays into Dan Meyer, which I don't agree with...) More to the point, I do make some efforts to balance my strengths with those big ideas of others.


So where does all this leave us?

Well, I've just spent about three hours (no, really, probably more) building and editing this blog post. (I told you, I do details.) So what?

So, yeah, ultimately, it has to be for me. But since I hate feeling egocentric, and it's now out there, there's the hope that maybe someone will stumble upon it and take something useful away. Maybe there will even be a comment. However, given my lil' web series is over six times as old as this blog, and it continues to toil in obscurity, I'm not holding my breath.

Life goes on.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Torchwood 4 and Speakgeek

Early last September (2011), there was a movement called "Speak Out With Your Geek Out", which involved taking a week for blogging or otherwise sharing your passions in a happy and positive way. (It started from this particular blog post.) Of note, the event seems like it will be running again this year from Mon Sept 10 to Fri Sep 14, 2012 - check that first link above to see how it's been evolving.

Well, I was preoccupied at the time (I suspect with the startup of teaching), and I didn't have a blog or anywhere to really post. That said, I did write up some of my thoughts about Torchwood: Miracle Day, which had finished airing at about that time. I had a vague idea of posting it to my Facebook notes... but that never happened, so it's been idling on my computer hard drive ever since. Now that I have this site, I decided to polish the review up a bit and finally post it.  Both to get it out there, as well as to potentially remind people about the upcoming #speakgeek.

It should go without saying, but... SPOILERS!


===

Torchwood 4, "Miracle Day"... it wandered. It didn't seem to know what it was doing half the time, it built up events that never went anywhere, and as some others on the net have pointed out, it didn't need ten episodes. But there was a lot of good mixed in with it too. I'm writing this to see if I can identify where things might have been improved, and to see if there's any agreement out there with my thoughts. After all, I do write a webseries; I should be able to identify this stuff so that I can potentially see it in my own work.

Thus, without further ado, some problems, and my personal improvements.

1) Superfluous and unnecessary characters

  Jilly Kitzinger - Fairly easily removed... only served to show the audience shady people existed. All she did plotwise was bring Vera in deeper (Vera could have done this herself), ramped up Oswald (which had no payoff - he didn't even use her speech), was brought into the Families (supposedly to write history, but that's no reason to be in Shanghai), and indirectly sent Oswald to Torchwood (anything could do that). Plus she was ANNOYING AS HELL. I know that was the point, but even Oswald was annoying with some depth, she was shallower than a wading pool.
  HOW SHE COULD HAVE BEEN SAVED: Make her a long lost descendant of a Families member? That gives one of them a legit reason to bring her in. Possibly have her question her own morality when she looks into the abyss, then try to hide it from the others. Anything to make her more than a talking/whining head.

  Oswald Danes - Some of his scenes worked, but ultimately, he could be removed too. A bad sign when he's one of your leads (though he didn't even appear in one of the episodes). The problem is, he's built up as some grand figure in the public eye, then... well, dropped. Like the writers didn't know how to fix that thread. So, because of some senators talking about killing him (isn't that what he wanted? was it their method?) I guess like a martyr (was that his objection?) he runs out on Jilly (is there no one else who would take his case when he thought he didn't need her to start?) and goes underground (why not inform those in the public who adore him about things?) and in the end, the whole thing with him and the bomb could easily have been Gwen, couldn't it? After losing her father? (Admittedly with a workaround for the death.) Plus the whole "we want to kill you... but not yet" thing got tired REALLY fast. And it's a shame, because as I say, his scenes were pretty good, yet ultimately pointless.
 HOW HE COULD HAVE BEEN SAVED: His character really couldn't be redeemed, so it's mostly the framing. There should have been SOME wrapup as far as the public eye is concerned. Also, he should have had something to actually get the group into Shanghai to warrant his inclusion, be it something stolen from Jilly or otherwise, and something more to DO at the climax - he didn't even get upset at the Families for letting Jilly yank him around.

2) Characters who got less screen time than warranted

  Angelo Colasanto - Wow did they drop the ball here. First of all, the thought that he was behind things lasted all of half an episode, when it could have been a great red herring to stretch out since episode 2. They also dumped all the history into one episode, when it could have been hinted at before. Like when Jack is dying on an airplane heading into the US. Or when he's making out with that guy in episode 3 (a REVERSAL of his situation with Angelo, incidentally, as Jack was mortal and the other guy wasn't). And the bit with Angelo's sister NOT liking Jack could have gone places, but no, apparently we had to blow her up for... some reason. Angelo could have been removed too, really, which is a shame.

  Vera Juarez - It's like she was forgotten. She was a main character in the start, without her they wouldn't have saved Jack on the plane for that matter, then... first of all, her death was pretty stupid. Why tell a guy that he's going to be reported and written up and whatever when i) you need him to draw out those behind the miracle itself and ii) he's mentally unstable. (Still doing it AFTER HE SHOT YOU seemed the height of stupidity.) Second of all, while I can buy that her death didn't have enough meaning to alter the entire public perception, why was there no mention of her later on? Not even at the climax or something? Rex at least could have made mention, particularly given Esther. Disappointing.

3) Wonky plot points

  Gwen's Motivations - So, she's brought to the US against her will, and they do stuff there against PhiCorp. When she hears of her father, she goes back to Wales, and she blows things up there. Fine. Then she decides to return to the US? Wouldn't it help to NOT have everyone in the same place? It seems an odd time to leave the family too. (And for being so careful with time zones, her trip is pretty darn quick.) It's not even important to the plot! All she does is get forced to abduct Jack, then get deported again by the CIA!! Uh, what was the point?? Moreover, apparently after that she decided to do NOTHING in the two month timeskip after she got sent there; concern over her family? Also, why were there no consequences for her harbouring her father?! That made no sense given how they built it up. It's like after episode 5 they didn't quite know what to do with her.

  The Blessing - I'm actually okay that it's meaning and origins were unclear. And the idea of the worldline through two very populated cities was quite interesting. What DIDN'T make sense was that, "when you look at it, you see your soul", or something. Because we never saw it happen!! The whole 'you can't stare at it' was built up, then Jilly's like, "No, I'm cool". And later Gwen can deal, and Jack's fine, and when it looks like Oswald might react... PSYCHE, he's cool with it too. Rex and Esther didn't seem affected. What was the POINT?  It's like that one suicide at the start of an earlier episode had to be "explained" somehow, and they did a very, very poor job of it. Less a case of "show, don't tell" more a case of "the Emperor has no clothes".

4) The Evil Plan

  Was... what, exactly? In the end, The Blessing was only Phase One, of... of... uhm... killing undesirables and rewriting history? Why? Because you think you're cool and there's no chance anyone will stab YOU in the back? Why did they wait *two months* before burying The Blessing anyway? And were they actually in control of PhiCorp, or was PhiCorp and their logo just a distraction? For that matter, why didn't they grab Jack when he broke into PhiCorp? (They seemed to want him if they sent out the Torchwood message! And how did they know about him being with them anyway?) Plus what was with the silly rotating triangle to symbolize the families? Why did they kill that Senator and support Oswald, only to not do anything with him later? So much made no sense!
  When the villains don't seem to have a plan so much as an allegory for the current state of society, that's a problem. Plus if you're going to beat me over the head with a message, at least make it nuanced.  Others have also pointed out that there isn't really a clear villain in the story. (Oswald doesn't count, seeing as he ends up "joining" the group.)  That might have helped too.


I don't know, maybe the problem was all the different writers? Might be interesting to know how the whole writing process went. (I've discovered that Jane Espenson, writer of episodes 3, 5, 7 and cowriter of 8 and 10, did blog about that here. Interestingly, the plan had been for only an initial group meeting, but they did end up working together more than that.) Anyway, as I said, number of good scenes, but in the overall, it wandered too much. Also, could have interesting repercussions for Rex. Were they aiming to set up an American spinoff?


A year later, I suppose we're still wondering.  As of last January, the ball seems to be in the hands of Russell T Davies.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Analyzing Zynga Games - Part 4


Where To Now?


To reiterate what I said back in part 1, I think the main issue with Zynga games is that you're expected to play the games THEIR way. No restarts, finishing their quests within a certain amount of time owing to the 50 friends you also have playing (though regardless of how many you have, the games are designed to encourage more), and logging in (at least) once a day just because.

I can even extend that one more. Often their quests will dictate the actions that you take, or the buildings that you build. Did you just chop a bunch of wood and erect a new house yesterday? Well, that's too bad, because today's quest is for you to do that. And the stuff you did yesterday (often) doesn't count because we weren't monitoring it back then. So it's almost like you can't do something for fear that you'll have to do it all again tomorrow.

Do other social media games NOT do this? Well, I admit most of the non-Zynga games I've played I either stopped playing, or they were removed. Lil' Green Patch? Gone. Country Story, the only game I actually spent money on? Gone. (In fairness, the only reason I spent money there was because I had 'Free Facebook Credits' expiring, and decided to pick one game for them; came up a bit short, had to supplement.) Green Farm's gone too. Farm Town and Gourmet Ranch I've already spoken about. Bejewelled I stopped playing at some point. Bubble Island just got too tricky. But I cannot recall a time with any of them that I felt like I had to finish something NOW NOW NOW (and not yesterday!) or lose it forever.
Country Story was awesome. Hard to say why.

Sim: Angel or Devil?
Then there's The Sims Social. Which I went to after CStory folded. That's about the only one (aside from CastleVille) that I'm still investing any time in. And while some of their quests expire, the items that you can create related to them do not. Their quests also don't overlap (they're weekly), so there isn't a concern that by spending inventory for one, you're sabotaging your chances on another. You also get daily rewards for logging in, and after five consecutive days, a random amount of in-game cash. (Farmville has started daily rewards, but it's more in-game useless items; similarly Cafe World has useless items 90% of the time.) I've used said cash to get through a quest if I had to (my Sim now has a halo!). I only have two friends (still) playing this game along with me, but for now, that's good enough.

Of course, I know there's even more games out there; some of them even donate to charities and the like for playing. (Yeah, Zynga has occasional features, where you if spend money on them, money will also go elsewhere, but why not donate directly?) Feel free to comment on them for me! Also, is it just me, or are ALL social media games "beta" these days? Never going to have a final version of them, huh?

Here's one suggestion for anyone starting a new one up though. For anyone who's played "Settlers of Catan", one of the nice features is that if you get too much of one particular item, you can "compress" them down to get an actual useful item (the number of items needed being 4 unless you have a port). Extending, if some people are working on Quest 15 and others Quest 3, how about allowing the Q15 people to compress down items from Q3 to get the stuff they need? Or at least generating SOME way for people to get the necessary items aside from cash, or randomly posting something up and hoping for the best?

To conclude.

Zynga seems to have been really good at hooking people at startup (using their 'good' tricks)... a lot less so actually retaining them (because of the 'bad'). Sometimes it's aesthetics - Empires & Allies turned me off pretty quick, perhaps as I'm more of a pacifist - but sometimes it's the divide between who Zynga THINK is playing and who is ACTUALLY playing. Or, even worse, perhaps Zynga don't CARE who's playing as long as there are MANY. It's been pointed out that their business model is "success over ethics", and having started through scam advertisers, it's hard to argue. The main trouble with these social games is, as soon as a few people leave, it becomes much more difficult for those still playing (what with no one responding to requests), leading to a lot MORE leaving, creating a domino effect.

This "continuous rollout and see what sticks" marketing plan has led to Zynga having something like two dozen new games (or new layouts in old games), spreading themselves thin, rather than *trying to improve the gameplay of what they ALREADY have*. I don't think we have to look any further than their newest venture in the past week - ChefVille. They already HAVE a Cafe style game! Also, isn't this Chef one rolling out pretty fast? People not buying into the Ville to the degree they wanted? Or an attempt to make a bit more money, fast? I've even heard talk of a "Farmville 2". They're now cloning their own games?

I think Zynga's been on autopilot for too long. When the going gets tough, you don't give up and seek out a similar shiny thing. You push through, LISTEN to the consumer, maybe change things up a little, and emerge all the better for it.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Analyzing Zynga Games - Part 3


Bad Zynga, No Biscuit


Nothing's perfect. Here's the flip side of the coin.

1) LACK OF RE-PLAYABILITY

This is HUGE. After completing a goal... you cannot go back and attempt it again. (The catering jobs in Cafe World are an exception, but they're damn impossible without twenty active friends or a lot of cash anyway.) No bettering your time, no showing game character reactions to someone else, no walkthroughs, no reposting of certain items from it to help friends, it's all in the past. (Unless you count text explanations and screencaps.)

This means it's harder for people to join in late. They're either posting up requests for items that no one else needs, or posting up stuff for current quests that make no sense to them. (In Cafe World, I was greeted by the wedding of Joe and Lisa... then they were also meeting for the first time in my cafe? My wife says I missed their 'first date' event some months earlier. Currently they're at the point of having had a kid. Clever name, at least.)

This also means you can't change the layout of your farm/cafe/castle, short of moving items around in a time consuming way - which in some cases is near impossible without being able to store things, with the size of storage again being tied to requests, etc.

Zynga DOES say that if you uninstall, and don't attempt to enter the game for three months, you MAY be greeted with a fresh screen and the ability to start designing from scratch. I have a friend who tried this in CityVille... it didn't work for her. Moreover, that's three months to realize you don't need to be playing the game anyway.

I'm not saying a reset should be EASY, like a button you'd accidentally trip over, but it should be POSSIBLE, shouldn't it? Particularly for a game like "Bubble Safari", where (at a couple points), in order to get to the next level, you need three friends to respond in-game. What do you do in the meantime? Okay, trick question, in this case you CAN replay the levels you've mastered, to beat scores. Or, you know, STOP playing since nothing's unlocking. Bringing me to...

2) RESTRICTING NEIGHBOURS

This is huge for ME, since as I said last part, I only have a little over a hundred Facebook friends, and don't tend to add merely for the sake of gameplay. Wouldn't it be great if you could add neighbours in game without actually adding them on Facebook? Here's the kicker.

ZYNGA TRIED THAT. THEY FAIL.

In "Cafe World", Zynga had a 'Chef Circle', which randomly paired you off with another 7 players, and had you all working towards finishing one of the old goals. If someone wasn't around for a couple weeks, they got swapped out. There was the option to also add these people as FB friends later (I did accept a couple requests of me), but it was all strictly within game. Then... Zynga ditched it. I have no idea why.

In "Castleville", I got a notice asking if I wanted to be part of a system where others could make in-game only friend requests of me. I said sure. I gained some friends, and actually the playability of the game picked up because I could finally fulfill some quests that required unique individuals to respond. Then Zynga redesigned their "Friend Request" popup window, so that I can get "double items" from people I would never bother in the first place... meaning now none of the new in-game people show up there anymore. Excuse me?

In "Farmville", Zynga also let you start adding friends who just play the game with you. Except at first, you couldn't actually request items of them, merely visit their farms, which was kind of pointless (though you could collect stuff there I suppose). Then this changed, and the "FV Friends" were mixed in with the rest of my friends. Except a lot of the rest of my friends didn't PLAY the game anymore, so it became a tedious matter of surfing through names to find the ones I didn't recognize as actual friends. I also have no idea if any of them stopped playing.

Here's the real kicker though. My wife, who also plays those games, didn't get these extra friend options. I have no idea whether I was singled out because I have fewer overall FB friends, or fewer friends who play those games, but why wasn't this made an option for more people??

I suppose that, to keep playing, you need a balance of people to respond BOTH in game AND clicking on posts - maybe since the latter was impossible, they junked the whole system? If so, that was extremely stupid. It meant what was once a fighting chance at keeping up with Zynga's "benchmark player" became near impossible again. This friending issue SHOULD have been fixed PRONTO, not dropped. I think it's also one of the things irrevocably linking them to Facebook itself.

3) QUEST PACING

I touched on how the games started to become more Quest-oriented back in Part 1, and Zynga now has it in all their games, even Farmville. Here's how it works. You log in, and sometimes a new quest pops up; normally, there is no time stamp. Unless you're in Farmville (or for some in Cafe World), when you've got a week. (There are also some exceptions around specific holidays, when you have 'x' days to try to get through a sequence of events.) But usually, you just work through at whatever pace you can. Great!

Then suddenly you log in one day and the Zynga game tells you: "Oh, you've got four days left to complete that set. Good luck." Um, what? Yeah, that one sequence of quests that you'd set aside to deal with something else (in my case usually something a little easier, needing fewer friend requests), it's going to expire. Well, that sucks. Why do they do this?

You might think it's because they need to assume you've "completed" that quest, but no. Stuff like the "wedding" which must come before the "honeymoon" has the built-in timer at the start. This is simply a bunch of rewards you'll never get the chance for again. (Except maybe in a "return special engagement" or something.) I mean, did they need to free up that code? I ask again, WHY the expiration??

It's not because you can only have a certain number of active quests. (Or that's dubious, as goodness knows I've got something like 50 ongoing in Cafe World.) Is it because they want to instill a sense of urgency for completing goals and randomly chose that one? (I suppose it shifts my focus, but it's being shifted away from the quest they're expecting me to be working on right now.) Is it because they don't want to support comments or complaints about certain quests anymore? (I confess to not monitoring any of their help boards.)

Well, this can sink them. The nail in the coffin for "Pioneer Trail" was when Zynga suddenly decided to expire a map (their first of several) that I'd been slowly but surely working through over the course of a few months. I suppose to give them some credit, they slashed all the requirements in half at the same time they slapped the time stamp onto it, but I knew it wasn't going to be enough. All those months of work, and I wasn't going to complete this set? Screw it. Between that and a limited number of in-game friends, I didn't return.

Still on pacing, Zynga also comes out with NEW requirements *WAY* too fast for me. It's like they think of an idea, and immediately implement it, instead of staggering their releases. Sometimes you get three new quests rolled out in a week, then nothing for the next two. (Also, if you wanted to spend cash to bypass one portion of a quest, like "three clicks" it didn't used to matter whether you had already received some or not, but that seems to have been adjusted.)

Ultimately, this rapid fire questing is going to create a divide, between the "haves" of the game and the "have not"s. Those able to complete more quests have more coins/stoves/items -- which makes it easier for them to complete the next one and get more coins/stoves/items! Those NOT able to complete these goals fall behind, or perhaps are at least standing still in comparison to those getting more and more. As the divide grows, how can you possibly hope to please both sides of it?

There's probably an allegory for the economy somewhere in there.

4) PLATFORM RELIANCE

I'm starting to get into some of the lesser problems, but for a while, Zynga would feature pop ups along the lines of "We'd like to store some files on your computer so that the game loads faster!" Um, no. It's YOUR job to make the game run on the platform YOU chose. Invading my computer is not a good workaround. Plus my computer is already cluttered enough. Declined.

Their latest is trying to get you to upgrade to Flash 11, or whatever the latest version is. They're at the point of offering you "in game rewards" if you upgrade! Um, no. Not falling for bribery. Moreover, some of their popups gave you NO option but to accept... the decline being on the NEXT popup screen, or possibly in the form of the tiny X in the corner. So now we add deception onto bribery.

Their coding also doesn't seem to be quite functional in places. In some cases, this is simply an amusement:
This one seen EVERY TIME a certain game loads. FIX it?

In others, it is somewhat confusing:
Sorry about molesting you. Lost my head.
Size is relative?




In yet others, it is a real problem. If you ever suddenly get a popup saying "SAVING GAME"... you're screwed. I've waited for half an hour on that window (doing other RL things, of course). The only recourse is to exit, then re-enter the game, and repeat the dozen or so actions that were lost leading up to the interruption.

They also need to update their loading screens more often. Cafe World has been offering a "Winter Sale" since I don't know when. It's AUGUST. Change the screen! It makes me wonder how portable their games are outside of Flash, for that matter. Not to mention they do seem to be slowing my system down more and more. (More so than the usual slowness for having a three year old laptop.)

5) PROOFREADING SKILLS

This graphic either refers to a label or a table. It appears EVERY single time a certain menu list pops up.

Can you spot both the problems with this this Holdiay?

There's also the fact that a number of their real time events are tied to American holidays. (Hi, Thanksgiving and Mothers Day are different depending on where you are in the world!) And of course, the general critique is that people not playing tend to get endless requests from those who do. (Again, I have tried never to do this.)

So does the GOOD outweigh the BAD? My best answer is "sometimes". I am still curious as to what Alastair finds in his mystic book, even though this particular quest line has him trapped in a magic circle at the same time as he is apparently fine and well and consulting with Yvette about unicorns. Of course, I suppose I could simply check some online sites to discover how things wrap up with said book.

Which may be one more disadvantage, not only for Zynga, but playing storyline games in general. You can find the answers out there. Concluding thoughts next time.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Analyzing Zynga Games - Part 2


Good Zynga, Have a (web) Cookie


Continuing from part 1, here are some of the things I think went right, which other social media games might want to (or do) emulate.


1) SIMPLE

You click where you're supposed to, when you're supposed to, you win stuff. Winning stuff is good, it releases dopamine and all that. You also level up really fast near the beginning, and it's only as time goes on that the games become gradually more intricate and complex, generally with the unlocking of other aspects. But this isn't really unique to Zynga these days.

2) CONVENIENT

You're on Facebook anyway, scrolling through your feed. Why not load up a game in another window? Click a bit, watch the little characters doing what they do. It's also not difficult to click on the feeds of others (in fact I think there's apps and bots out there to do it) and again you get that nice feeling of helping someone else out. But again, not really unique to Zynga.

3) CLEVER SENSE OF HUMOUR

I think this is where Zynga starts to pull away. Note that I enjoy puns, so this might be a disadvantage for some of you. The actual names of their quests, for instance, might involve wordplay. (Some examples from Castleville include "The One Tower" and "A Brambling Man".) Also, if you take the time to read some of the feeds, the one about free trees might refer to "branching out" or being "out on a limb" or whatnot. (I made those up, I don't have examples on hand.)

The commentary might also contain double entendre, which (hopefully) the younger kids don't pick up on, but which may amuse the adults. Widening your demographics certainly isn't a bad thing. On top of all that, their little picture icons (not necessarily game characters, just the ones next to the feeds) were kind of funny to look at as well.

Though sometimes they might go a bit too far.
Seriously, Zynga?

4) MORE PENETRATION

I mean market penetration. For example, a year or so ago, a friend of mine started playing 'Gourmet Ranch'. So I joined too. Then she left. And no one else was playing. So after a couple weeks, I gave it up too.

That doesn't happen with Zynga.

Now, part of my situation is the fact that I only have a little over a hundred people I've friended on Facebook. (And part of that is because early on I decided I wouldn't friend colleagues, preferring to keep that part of my life separate from my history and my hobbies.) I've added a FEW people I've never met in person (less than a dozen) through games, stretching back to (Lil) Green Patch (anyone remember that one?). But in general, if I don't know you, I'm not adding you.

Still, out of 100 people, at least a couple of them would be playing/trying the latest Zynga game. Generally, that's enough to keep logging in. More than that, you start to feel like if you leave, you might be letting down the other people still playing. Plus it becomes a topic of conversation - my wife joined Farmville because of me, while I joined Cafe World to help her out. And it was convenient and fun.

Popularity breeds more popularity. Well played.

5) CASH REWARDS

You can win "real cash" in Zynga games. Often you get it for leveling up, though in Cafe World you can win it on a free spin. Again, other games do this to a degree, but I've been able to use the banked "cash" more effectively with the Zynga games. My strategy is to save it up until I hit something that I can't accomplish otherwise, because I have a limited number of friends playing. Then "spend".

I played "Farm Town" for a while along with "Farmville", and I rather enjoyed it too. But one of the issues there was every "coin" building they rolled out often had a "cash" building too - and some "coin" buildings couldn't make certain items unless you had a corresponding "cash" building. That was a downer. Then it became impossible to expand to a third location unless you had ten(?) friends playing. No way around it. (Or if there was a cash option, I'd already had to spend the cash on their buildings.) So, never went back to that one. (Well, actually I did after a bunch of months, but it hadn't changed, so I didn't resume.)

With Zynga, I always feel like I've got that little reserve that's been building up, which I can use to vault past any blocks that I really want to succeed at. Plus, there's those gift cards that people bought for me. And I know they put on picture competitions and the like (at least in Farmville) which is another opportunity to get game cash. And if you're subscribed by email and don't log in for a while, you also seem to get cash incentives to start playing again (at least in CityVille).

It does sort of make me wonder what their business model looks like, but anyway, people like something for (practically) nothing.

6) CHARACTER ARCS

Yeah, Zynga games have these. Not necessarily life altering storylines, but events offering insights into the way the characters think. With some of their more recent games, Zynga's even put out videos promoting their characters... here's one for Castleville's Sonja and George.

I like when the NPCs have personalities. Hank, the store owner in FrontierVille. Ruth, the pigeon lady in CityVille. They've tried to reverse engineer some characters (like "Truffles the pig" in Farmville), but that hasn't really caught on. So it's more in their later endeavours.

Still, it makes me feel like someone at the company either put a little extra thought into the designs, or at least had the foresight to toss in a stereotype that a character could be built around. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that there was fanfic out there about Zynga characters.

And the visual look of the characters is good too, again, in my opinion. Be they the in-game ones, or for some of the games, the ones you design yourself. They're nicely cartoony with just a pinch of realism. Your mileage may vary.
Which is the NPC?

Of course, this is also where the bad starts to run into the good, as a cute character arrives in the storyline... then arrives for a second time, as you haven't actually completed the quest where they leave yet... buh?

More on the BAD in the next part.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Analyzing Zynga Games - Part 1


Re:Questing and More


So, if you're keeping up with the tech news (I tend to do it through FanToPro - highly recommend it), you'll have noticed Zynga is in some trouble. Their Chief Operating Officer (COO), John Schappert, left the company. They're also being sued by EA on account of their latest, "The Ville" being too visually similar to "The Sims Social" - and hey, it probably doesn't help that one of their FaceBook tag lines for the game is literally: "Sims dragging you down? Fun lives here. Play THE VILLE".

Steve Savage remarked on the FanToPro site about keeping Zynga relevant, in terms of extracting lessons from what went wrong. I answered with a comment about what I felt were some problems, and have been turning it around in the back of my mind since then. I think in the end, the main issue (at least on the playability side, I don't know business) boils down to one thing.

You're expected to play the games THEIR way.

Here's the thing about real-time/social gaming - its greatest strength (with no ultimate goal, you simply have to keep playing FOREVER) is, to a degree, its greatest weakness (with no goal, you can arbitrarily decide I'M DONE NOW). Thus, the games have to keep you interested in the gameplay. Zynga was good at that. But their more recent "quest oriented" offerings are becoming tied down even more to real-time players, not game-time characters. I see this as a problem.

In some cases, it means you only have one week to get through a quest. If you miss out (because didn't want to annoy friends, or spend real cash, or were simply busy that week), you don't reap the rewards... then possibly get frustrated, and leave. Alternatively, in other cases, you end up doing parallel tasks that don't make sense. For instance, you're on a quest to free a princess, and then suddenly the princess is standing next to you offering you an additional quest.

"But I haven't freed you yet," you respond in confusion. "I'm waiting on five more requests."

"Boy you're slow," the princess responds. "Well, keep at it for another week, you'll find me... in the meantime, multitask on this shiny new thing!"

There's a benchmark somewhere that Zynga seems to be following, some "typical game player" who can do these quests with the frequency they're demanding. It's obviously not me. As a consequence, I feel like I'm "playing wrong" or "failing", which is giving me more incentive to quit.

Consider that every game has certain pathways you're expected to follow. When you reach a block, you need to figure out a way around it. For some people that might take a few minutes. For others, that might take a few days. But the nature of social (real-time) gaming is that we somehow need to please both these people at once. The current solutions of "quest expirations", or "assuming you completed the quest anyway" are... problematic.

It used to be that Zynga games didn't have this sort of narrative (plow-plant-harvest-repeat). But then people started reaching the higher levels, so how to keep them coming back? More levels, adding "mastery", adding "Super Crops". But that only works for so long. What next? New grids. England in Farmville, reinventing FrontierVille as Pioneer Trail, etc. But even new grids get old after a while. (Would you believe Farmville now has SIX? Home-England-Cove-Winter-Hawaii-Oriental) Thus, quests, which they figure they can roll out on an arbitrary basis.

And therein lies a problem.

This analysis will be in four parts. My next part will consider in general what Zynga seems to have done RIGHT. In Part 3 I'll address more clearly what I feel is WRONG. Finally, I'll have some closing remarks, and perhaps draw comparisons to non-Zynga games. Note that I will be attempting to approach this from the viewpoint of someone who has never played the games, but is curious about why others play them... or who perhaps merely finds them really irritating.

For the record, I haven't spent any of my own money on Zynga games (though have received gift cards), I never sent requests to anyone not already playing (to my knowledge), and I did attempt to limit who saw the postings on my Facebook wall (once I figured out how to do that). It probably says something that I feel the need to say that.

Also, here's the Zynga games which I have played on Facebook at one point or another, and will be drawing my experiences from:
-Farmville
-Cafe World
-FrontierVille aka Pioneer Trail
-CityVille
-Empires & Allies (very briefly)
-Bubble Safari
-Castleville... still playing this one actually. *^^*

If Mafia Wars, Poker, Hidden Chronicles, or their Indiana Jones ripoff is in any way similar, feel free to comment as I go through.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

About Khan and Bicycle Math


So, tomorrow my "Taylor's Polynomials" web series will be looking at Khan Academy. (No great surprise if you spotted the one particular link, or the hashtag on twitter.) I figure I should get a few things down prior to that video going live, so that:
 - I have a baseline, in case I get feedback from the episode that causes a shift in my opinion.
 - I have a somewhat more in depth explanation I can point at.

For those who have no idea what Khan Academy is, I'll point you at Salman Khan's TED Talk from 2011. You should follow that link and check it out. You may want to do so even if you are aware of what I mean, because one of the things I'm going to pick apart in this posting is Khan's bicycle analogy, occurring at about minute 8. Go ahead, I'll wait. Clicked yet? Come on, interactive videos are all the rage!

Okay then. First, a couple things that trouble me. One aspect Khan mentions regarding his interactive videos is that by watching them, students "don't feel they are wasting the teacher's time" or "don't have to feel embarrassed asking something" again. But isn't it EQUALLY important that students learn how to ask questions? Not just of the teacher, but of each other?

Second, it seems that arming a teacher with all this DATA about where a student is, will ultimately serve to teach the student that, "I'm not sure what I'm having trouble with, but the teacher has all this data, so they'll fix it". It completely shifts the burden of responsibility. It seems like we're headed for "Come on, you have the statistics for my homework, tell me what I'm doing wrong!"

Finally, as I indicated above, I have an issue with Khan's bicycle analogy.  In case you missed it, here's the full text:
"In a traditional classroom, you have a couple of homework-lecture-homework-lecture and then you have a snapshot exam. And that exam, whether you get a 70% an 80% a 90% or a 95%, the class moves on to the next topic. And even that 95% student, what was the 5% they didn't know? Maybe they didn't know what happens when you raise something to the zero power. And then you go build on that in the next concept.

That's analogous to, imagine learning to ride a bicycle. And I give you a bicycle, maybe I give you a lecture ahead of time, and I give you that bicycle for two weeks, and then I come back after two weeks. And I say well, let's see, you've having trouble taking left turns, you can't quite stop. You're an 80% bicyclist. So I put a big C stamp on your forehead. And then I say here's a unicycle.

As ridiculous as that sounds, that's exactly what's happening in our classrooms right now. And the idea is you fast forward and students, good students start failing algebra and calculus all of a sudden, despite being smart, despite having good teachers. And it's usually because they have these swiss cheese gaps that kept building throughout their foundation. So our model is: learn math the way you learn anything, like the way you would learn a bicycle. Stay on that bicycle, fall off that bicycle, do it as long as necessary, until you have mastery."

I have a number of issues with this comparison.


1) Assumes the Motivation

Khan's fix to the problem seems to be that we force the cyclist to graduate to A++ level from a C, before giving them the unicycle. If the student sees the value in this, okay, it can work... in fact, it seems to be the foundation for his whole system. (After all, if a student isn't motivated, they're not going to be inclined to watch math videos.) But what about the following scenario?

"I don't need to learn more about the bicycle," the student says. "Most people drive everywhere, so I'm going to do that." *

"You can't learn the unicycle until you have completely mastered the bicycle."

"Most people drive everywhere, so I'm going to do that," the student repeats slowly, wondering if the instructor has a hearing deficiency.

"But you must learn the unicycle eventually, in order to graduate."

"You're kidding. Fine, fine, give me the unicycle," the student sighs.

"You can't learn the unicycle until you have completely mastered the bicycle."

"Oh, for... do you know how hard it was just to become a 'C' bicyclist?!"

"Mastering bicycling is really important."

The student glares. "Fine, fine, show me more videos, give me more questions..."

"Good work! You're now a 'B' bicyclist. Another three weeks and you might be able to move on."

"AGH, I AM GOING TO TURN EVERY BICYCLE I SEE INTO SCRAP METAL!!"

I don't think offering little prizes for completion are going to change this guy's increasingly negative views about bicycling. For that matter, why are we forcing the unicycle on this guy? He's said he's planning on driving a car. Why don't we put him in a car driving course? (Possible Answer: His parents decided he should be in the unicycle course.)

Thing is, this student has no obvious motivation to learn unicycling (or even bicycling) beyond "you must know this". Whether the format of delivery is an online education system or a physical classroom, I don't see his personal motivations changing. Not without actual interactive feedback.

On the flip side, there is a way to adapt the current education system to Khan's methods, forcing our wayward student to become an 'A++' bicyclist. Fail him.

Don't let the student graduate from Grade 8 (or 7, or 5) until they've achieved whatever level of "mastery" that we require of them, because goodness knows, right now they're passing no matter what. But of course, we can't FAIL someone, because then they would get discouraged, and they'd end up separated from their peer group, and we'd be trampling on their personal interests that may have nothing to do with bicycles, and insert more arguments here.

So don't get me wrong, I'm not necessarily defending the current system either. But it seems like the message society gives these days is: "You can do whatever you want with your life! It's all about success! Oh, but you have to know Math and English." If we're looking for an analogy, perhaps what we're telling students is that they can make whatever cake they like out of life - but they have to incorporate THESE ingredients! (Allez Cuisine!)

So, do students absolutely HAVE to know math, or don't they? If they HAVE to, why can't we do it by sparking that personal motivation, rather than by forcing them to stay in school until they're 18, or forcing them to watch videos until they're blue in the face?

Back to the analogy.


2) Mental isn't Physical

Really clever, picking the bicycle. If we're talking times tables, maybe it works... I suppose you never really forget those. (Do you?) But consider that despite having a Bachelor of Mathematics, I am poor at finance. I've even wondered why I was never really taught much financial math when I was in high school.

Of course, I was. I even have the proof in the form of some of my old high school mathematics notes (complete with Star Trek characters doodled in the margins). But I forgot, because I wasn't really using it from day to day. So why did I forget that, but I still know how to ride my bike?

Scientists say that bicycling connects our brain to certain "motor skills". It's PHYSICAL, not mental. Mathematics isn't the same, at least not as we currently understand it. So just because I've "mastered" the Pythagorean Theorem in Grade 8 doesn't mean I'll realize how it applies when I'm finding the length of a line segment - assuming I haven't forgotten about that theorem completely over the intervening months.

"Mastering" a topic doesn't necessarily fill swiss cheese gaps. Those will develop over time anyway, which I'll remark on during my video. And if I wasn't interested in a zero exponent in the first place, being reminded of it an extra time is unlikely to help. Which brings me to one last thing about the analogy:


3) Assumes the Goal

A unicycle? Really? How many people are there that you know of who ride unicycles? They've learned about the bicycle, which is all that's really needed, right? Why are we forcing unicycles on them?

The answer, of course, is college and university. You don't get into a good university without knowing about the unicycle, never mind that only a select few actually apply that unicycle material after post-secondary. So gosh darn it, we're going to force this knowledge on you, so that you don't end up toiling away in a bicycle repair shop for the rest of your days! (Never mind that maybe you enjoy bicycle repair.)

And while you can tweak Khan's analogy to "tricycle" and "bicycle", the issue is the same... if a guy wants to drive cars*, and moreover he's really GOOD at that, and LOUSY at bicycling, why did he get signed up for the bicycle course?  Simply because if he doesn't know bicycling, he'll never succeed in life?


To sum up, I suppose my issues with the Khan Academy system are as follows. Again, bear in mind that I haven't seen it in action, this is only from what I've read:
 - The "one size fits all lecture" is still there, merely being presented "at the student's own pace", which removes important questioning.
 - The idea of "achieving mastery" can create unnecessary frustration, and ultimately seems to ignore the passage of time.
 - The huge repository of data being generated appears to shift the responsibility of learning from the student to the teacher.

Now, do I think Khan Academy has no use at all? Of course not! It's free content, and a central repository for knowledge - one of the main problems in today's society is that we're faced with too much choice. (Another TED Talk by Barry Schwartz (2005) goes into this quite well.) I've already indicated that strongly motivated students will probably profit. Moreover, as Khan himself said, he is getting feedback from teachers, and the system has been "teacher driven", with refinements being made as necessary.

I simply don't think it's the revolutionary educational model that we should adopt. At least not without a lot more investigation, which the public seems disinclined to do.

----
*Adapt the student's car analogy to be 'use a calculator' or 'hire an accountant', whatever suits you.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

JulNoWriMo Musings - Part 5


Part 5 - The Finish


For me, the ending to a story is simultaneously really easy, and incredibly problematic. It's easy because the entire sequence of incidents has been building up to this moment. Even though I'm not sure exactly what it looks like until I get there, it usually flows naturally. Yet it's problematic because I could just as easily throw another ten incidents in the way before arriving, or spin what I thought was the ending into the middle of an even larger problem, or... basically, I don't know when to stop. (I know HOW, not WHEN.)

Here, the word count for NoWriMos helps. My story is about 51,300 words because I'd been shooting for a little over 50,000. (From the JulNoWriMo forums, this ranks me 49; 85 reached the gaol.) My first unofficial attempt in August 2010 was 52,100 for the same reason (though there I'd decided early on that it would have to be part 1 of 2 - and it's stuck). Every episode of "Time Trippers" was about 10 pages. Every episode of "Taylor's Polynomials" is a few paragraphs. Give me a finite stopping point, I'm good.

Otherwise, I keep writing until I decide that I've said everything that needs saying - but there's almost always something else. Another person they could have talked to, another henchman they could have defeated, another artifact they could have uncovered. There's a very good reason why I threw a two month timeskip into "Virga" - I already sensed I had enough story to last me through the word count, and so decided I wouldn't have any key incidents during those skipped months. I could just as easily have written a whole bit about a worshipper they had to get rid of to delve more into Melissa's psyche, but no, I accomplished that in a paragraph.

So is my style a strength, or a weakness? I'm not sure. It might depend on the context. I do know that if I hadn't had a few complete days at home to just write, nothing else, there's no way I would have finished in a month. There's also the fact that, after finishing, I felt like it was absolutely required that I reread my whole story from the beginning. I located at least one loose end that I'd missed reincorporating (not the ring, the job), and thus I rewrote the climax because of it. I think the second version is stronger. (Again, if I'm crying at the ending, my hope is the reader is doing so as well. Even if sleep may be a factor on my end.)

Point being, this seems to be how I write. And while the word count for a WriMo is helpful, it's been said that the goal of these month long projects is "to get into the habit of writing", not to have a finished product. "It doesn't have to be good, it just has to be words."

For me, it has to be good. That, coupled with the fact that my web series already has me writing, plus a few other considerations, is why I'm unlikely to participate again. That said, I do feel bad for some of my stories that remain perpetually "stuck". :P If you have any generic suggestions, or are curious about anything else I've written, feel free to comment.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

JulNoWriMo Musings - Part 4


Part 4 - Character Revenge


So I started with a number of "plot points" that I broke down into "incidents", and my process involves writing from incident to incident, stringing together the plot points. Seems straightforward enough. So why CAN'T I leap ahead whenever I like?

Characters.

Or perhaps their revenge, after being at the whim of all these incidents, having had their conversations fast forwarded, or getting their backstory plugged in ("you need a lawyer so my dad's a lawyer now, huh?"). Now, the characters do talk to me, not so much literally, but they WILL wrench the story progression in new directions - fortunately, from part 1, it's only a plot "in a sense". My characters create the plot evolution.

As a first example, PART 1 of my story was NOT meant to take up half the word count, or even BE a "Part 1". But here's what happened. I started the story with James also holding the knife, meant to be dramatic deception. But then Trixie and/or James advised that this would have larger magical consequences, pushing for a scene in Amy's dream. I allowed that, which spawned an entirely new sequence using a genie. At which point Melissa said there should be a darn good reason why she didn't go in to help, which spawned an entire sequence with the lycan, and before I know it I had experienced at least a half dozen fight scene stuck points, and was passing 24,000 words on July 19th.

As a second example, the big reveal at the climax was supposed to be the existence of a being regulating supernatural balance. Melissa's parents decided that, not only did it made sense for them to know about that in advance, they would tell their daughter not even 2/3rds of the way in. So I needed a new climax. That idea came fairly swiftly, mainly because Melissa and James themselves decided on it -- which meant I couldn't use THAT plan either, because the climax needed to involve the unexpected. Thus while my framework was unchanged, in that the "Balancing Event" would still take place, the nature of it was CONSTANTLY changing because of what the characters were doing, or learning about. Had I written it early, it would have become obsolete and incorrect by the time I got to it.

A plot is necessary to be sure, but (as Linkara said at ConBravo - @16:30 in video), you can't really choose it over the characters - or vice versa. The few times that I've broken my rule of not jumping ahead (I think only during a WriMo - for instance Melissa and James' reunion scene was written during one stuck period on the lycan), by the time I'd caught up to said scene, I always had to tweak it. (For instance, I hadn't envisioned Trixie being there.)

It's funny, I consider myself a character driven writer. Yet I preemptively crop out a lot of their stuff that doesn't relate to my plot, and point them down certain paths, keeping them on track. (It might be worth saying that the attempts I make at Plot What Plot? stories fail. Miserably.)  However, the trade-off is that my characters define what those paths I'm pointing at actually look like. They bring me down them, to the next fork in the road, at which point I can reassess and point them in the proper direction once more.

I guess in the end, I'm hoping that what you don't see my characters explicitly doing, you can visualize offscreen for yourself, without me spelling it out. I do like to think that others can fill in my gaps, or toy with my loose ends. I know I like exploiting loose ends in the anime and television shows I see.

Eventually though, it all needs to end.

Next: The Finish

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

JulNoWriMo Musings - Part 3


Part 3 - Being Stuck


I'm not talking about stuck where I need to look up a street location, translate a word to latin, or think up a character name (though that can derail me for a few minutes - I hate leaving an <insert name here>). I'm talking about a full out block where I cannot see the next paragraph.

When I get stuck, it's because I've written myself to an incident, and I abruptly cannot see how to get from there to the next one. Here is what I've found usually does NOT work for me:
-"Just write". No. I'm not going to write something potentially pointless, in violation of character, or deus ex machina, merely to have something on paper.
-"Jump ahead". No. I have an extremely linear mindset, and my characters are constantly evolving. I cannot predict their mood at the next major plot point, and attempting to do so ultimately feels just as pointless.

Here's what I feel DOES work, which in retrospect seems (to me) to be completely contrary to the spirit of a NoWriMo:

1) Rereading/Editing prior scenes.
  I often give myself loose threads to work with. As an example from "Virga", at one point I was stuck for a scene with James. Looking back, I saw a gazebo I had placed in the park. I realized I could work with that. It changed the nature of the current scene, but let me move to the next incident. As an example from my web series, when I thought of "sin(x)/(x)" I found it could be tied back into an earlier conversation, and what was once a one-off comment abruptly became foreshadowing. (As I referenced in part 2, sometimes I foreshadow deliberately, but it can also be a late addition.)
  Yet a WriMo is supposed to be about writing, not rereading and tweaking what you wrote a few days ago.

2) Awaiting Inspiration
  Now, I'm not saying I sit back, awaiting divine intervention. I turn things around in my head, even force it out to a certain extent, but the process is calculated, and gradual. I've actually got a really good example from the "Virga" novel again.

 Incident - Melissa's attacked:
<<Unfortunately, with her attention being on the mirror, she was unable to defend against the long, hairy arm that reached in through the shattered glass and grabbed for her throat from behind.>>

 And I had no idea how to get to the next incident, namely Melissa and Trixie outside the car. So the process begins, and in this case I actually did write it out as part of the narrative:
<<Her mind immediately went to work sizing up the situation. She didn’t have enough force to break the grip. Her better spells required a focusing phrase, which was currently impossible. I was obviously not in a position to help, her phone was on the floor, and she wasn’t in the best position to strike back at her aggressor. Moreover, while slamming her hand down on the horn might attract the attention of someone who could help, it might also wake up Amy.>>

  I've now listed out what WON'T work, both for me and so the audience doesn't say "well why doesn't she just..." (Of course, more often I keep the thoughts in my head.) So what does Melissa do? Damned if I know. I'm stuck, and the re-reading has only given me the WON'T.


Honestly, I really LIKE being in this sort of situation, because odds are good that if the solution isn't obvious to me, it won't be obvious to most readers either. I also enjoy the challenge that I've provided to myself. In an old fanfic of mine, "What Evil Lurks", I reached the climax with NO idea how the situation could POSSIBLY be resolved. A couple weeks(?) later, I eventually worked it out (aka inspiration struck), and I was really patting myself on the back.

Obviously I worked out an action for Melissa in the above case (if you're curious, read the story :), and it only took maybe twenty minutes to half an hour to come up with it. Time which, according to a WriMo, should perhaps have been spent actually writing. Except I needed the time to think.

Now, I grant that these stuck points can also happen for the silliest of reasons. As Melissa was fighting a vampire earlier, I reasoned I needed about five minutes of fight material. I couldn't get past the first one or two. Trying to choreograph the fight held me up for more than a day. Yet I couldn't move to the next incident until this one had been completed in my mind, because I needed to know their positions when James arrived.

I also know a WriMo is not all about the writing, there are times to simply "walk away for a little while", or work on something else. (Or read the forums; it's from them that I decided to toss in zombies.) Outside of the month itself though, doing that means there's a chance I don't get back to the story at all. Even during the month of July, on Day 15 I was only past 15,000 words, wondering if my writing style was completely incompatible.

What I'm saying is, in the worst cases, my being stuck can stop a story forever. I have a number of unfinished ideas where I've written ABC, and I know E, but until I've worked out D, nothing's going anywhere. Sometimes I'm not even sure what D is, I just know SOMETHING has to be there. To those who can write E anyway, more power to you, and I hope your characters don't change their motivations during the bit you skipped over; mine always seem to.

Perhaps it's their revenge for being at the mercy of the plot.

Next: Character Revenge

Monday, 6 August 2012

JulNoWriMo Musings - Part 2


Part 2 - Starting Out


Beginnings are perhaps the trickiest for me. Aside from finding the time to actually write, I feel the starting itself needs to grab the reader's attention, as well as set up the scene and characters, without doing a bunch of boring exposition. If you don't have someone's attention pretty fast, particularly in this day and age, they will move on.

My trouble with starting out may be why I spent a while with fanfiction (and why I suspect it's a good lead in for beginners) - the framework for an episode of "Sliders" or "Iron Chef" is already there, so no need to think as hard about what you'll be doing at the beginning.

If you're going original though, there is the trick of In Medias Res to grab attention, basically a 'here's a bunch of action, now let's rewind time to set it up' motif. I used it in my award winning Read or Die fanfiction, "Time and Tide". A bunch of television episodes also use it.

I actually dislike that cliche.

Despite that, since the "Virga" series was all about James writing (in first person) after the fact, I felt like I could get away with a variation on it for the WriMo. By referencing a few bits of where we were headed, I hoped it would tease, but that some of the key bits would only register subconsciously. The reader would then be reminded later, perhaps becoming impressed by my foreshadowing. (I don't foreshadow as much as you think though. More on that next time.)

However, starting with James thinking about Melissa might be why the whole thing veered more towards romance than fantasy. Which isn't bad, but was a bit unexpected. (My attempt at deception there is also why Part 1 spiraled a bit out of control, but more on that later too.) I wonder if I should pay more attention to how I start in the future. In my prior WriMo attempt, I started with Simon in his profession, since he was a magician, and magic was meant to be the main theme.

Anyone else have a better way to begin?

Once I'm through the first couple pages, I usually have an incident I'm working towards. Things build up to that incident, then I look past it to the next one, and so on. This is within the larger plot point that I laid out earlier. What I mean by that is, for Virga, the plot point was "Popular Actress in Trouble" (an idea I'd once had for a case that never materialized) while the incidents were "introduce actress", "encounter with Melissa", "introduce magic", "introduce trouble", "confirm trouble", and so on.

I write this way most of the time, particularly evident during "Time Trippers", where I had a fixed length for each episode. I find it helps me cut out a lot of the 'fluff', where people are talking, but what they've said really had no impact on their characters, the plot, or the setting. In other words, I'm preemptively removing pointless scenes. Which is my first difficulty in a WriMo - since aren't you supposed to be writing everything (or "just writing!"), even if it does turn out be fluff? The fluff is what you edit out later!

No. If I write it, it needs to have a purpose in the grand design.

Now, I know that others find those sorts of rambling "write anything" moments helpful for giving insight into their characters, or sparking ideas, creating new complicating incidents, et cetera, but honestly? That's what my framework was for. Once I'm actually writing, I have a good sense of everyone's personalities and the plot points that are going to occur. I don't want to probe any deeper without due cause. At best it seems wasteful, at worst, it throws my story off and I'm lost.

But more than that, I don't NEED to "just write anything". At this point the writing is flowing from incident to incident, and I'm interweaving characters and/or backstory as it becomes necessary. I'm on a roll.

Until inevitably, I get stuck. Which I fancy isn't the same way a lot of other people get stuck.

Next: Being Stuck

Saturday, 4 August 2012

JulNoWriMo Musings - Part 1

Thus begins my musings on JulNoWriMo of 2012.


I'm writing this for three main reasons:
1) Memories are fallible, and if I don't write this down, I'll probably forget a bunch of it. Plus there is liable to be evolution over time, so later I can look back and see what my previous opinions were.
2) I'm hoping that some people will look at this and think "yes, I have those same issues", and thus maybe I can help, or at least make sure people aren't suffering alone.
3) I'm hoping that other people will look at this and think "Wow, that's the way you write? I never thought about it that way" or "I guess it's not as straightforward as I thought".  In particular, I don't think I'm cut out for NoWriMos (even though I got past 50,000), but I'll get to that.


Part 1 - Before Writing


Before I get into writing something, I need to have a sense of the characters, and the arc, before I begin. The key words there are *a sense of*. I don't have the climax laid out in my head, that would screw me over, as my characters always evolve by the time I reach the ending. I don't have the character genealogy worked out either, because that way if someone needs a particular moment included in their history, I can insert it later without much difficulty.

But I do need the framework.

For anyone who follows my "Taylor's Polynomials" series, it may be of interest to know that I spent most of June 2011 sketching the characters out, literally and figuratively, before launching in July. (Even then, I had to make a last minute adjustment the day before Slope's first appearance, as I realized part of her hair curved the wrong way.) I had a fair sense of a year's worth of material at the time too, across 3 Series', even though it wasn't all written at the time.

So coming into JulNoWriMo 2012, I narrowed my options down to three - the Virga story I went with (which had three previously completed shorter stories), Cherry's Story (involving some memorable characters but an aborted storyline), or completing the Magical Girl story I wrote 52,000 words for in August of 2010. These all had well established main characters, and a basic idea for a plot arc. (I suspect I'm more of a character-based writer.)

There's another story I didn't pitch, which relates to my "Time Trippers" two volume set (over 220 pages). It would have involved looking at those characters a couple years after the fact, using a time loop plot. (I love "what happened to them later" stories, I think that's partly why I'm so fond of the anime "Magical Lyrical Nanoha".) But I didn't have a clear sense of the setting, plus I'd have to pick up on where about a dozen characters had ended up after high school, so I judged that to be too much.

Having picked Virga (a few of my friends voted, thanks!), I then combed back through the three prior shorts on June 30. I would have liked to do it sooner, but I'm a high school teacher, so June is bad even if you don't add my webseries on top of it. Anyway, I created a file with key information about the main characters (mostly appearance and historical facts), all the minor characters (I planned on cameos), and information related to their universe and the plot arc.

Without that, I wouldn't have been able to start. If you're someone out there who can simply "start writing", more power to you, particularly if you can do it without wandering all over the place. I need my framework.

Next: Starting Out

Friday, 3 August 2012

Intro

Welcome to Mathie x Pensive (mathi expensive? math ie- cross pensive? math i+e times pensive?).  I am Mathie X.  Or possibly Gregory Taylor.  I felt like a needed a place to put thoughts which wasn't merely notes on a Facebook page.  It also needed to be a place that was kept separate from my "Taylor's Polynomials" series.  Ergo, new blog.

So what will I be writing about?  Most likely the following things:

  • Writing.  Completing JulNoWriMo was the deciding factor on starting this up, as I have a number of things I want to record related to it.  I've done lots of writing previously, starting with fanfiction way back in University.  (Or perhaps my time travel story from Grade 7?)
  • Math.  Anything that comes up which doesn't directly factor into my "Taylor's Polynomials" series, or involves thoughts on that series itself, I'll likely put here.
  • Reviews.  I used to write reviews, back when "Star Trek: Voyager" first came out, albeit only posted on the local Shad BBS.  I'm in awe of some people at Channel Awesome, where they have those who now do video reviews for a living.  So I may offer my opinions on things, likely connected to scifi/fantasy/anime/gaming related topics.
  • Current Events.  It's more rare, but sometimes I have thoughts about what's going on in the world, or in my personal life.

Since I am a high school math teacher, do not expect very regular updates during the school year.  Teaching (and extracurriculars) is busy enough even before my web series, let alone maintaining a blog.

That said, I'll be pretty active over the next week or two.  If you're looking for more information about me, I do have a webpage (that I really need to get around to updating).

Enjoy the ride!