Call for Playtesters

Well, as of this evening, it is now theoretically possible to play Act I of Cryptic Stitching from beginning to end, following any of the three paths.

More content needs to be added to flesh out some things, and StoryNexus hasn’t implemented an art upload function (although it’s supposed to be in the works) so I’m not sure when I’ll be releasing Act I. However, at the moment, I could use some playtesters!

I’m looking for about a dozen people who are willing to spend a few hours poking the thing and give me some feedback. (I’ve got a few who are completely invaluable, but they have lives and stuff and the more eyeballs, the better.) I’m looking for typos, baffling bugs, wander-around-not-sure-what-to-do-now-itis, etc.

What I’d like to do is just set up an LJ page where people post bugs, rather than possibly get a dozen identical e-mails. (This isn’t a closed page, I just can’t imagine it’s terribly interesting.) Plus, useful clearinghouse and whatnot.

So! If you’re willing to sign up with StoryNexus (or have an existing account) willing to post to LJ with bugs or comments, don’t mind that the game has no art yet, possess a certain degree of patience and can play on a computer or a tablet with mouseover support (mouseovers are very important to this engine) and ideally also have a twitter account for when things break RIGHT THIS MINUTE…well, say something in the comments, I’ll grab some volunteers! (Uh…leave an e-mail address, with the (at) thing so there’s no spam? Alternately, if you’re not comfortable with that posted in public, DM me on Twitter, I’m at @ursulav.)

Familiarity with Fallen London and other StoryNexus games is helpful, but I’d also like some people who don’t know it at all so that I cover the spread.

And now I’m gonna go make mac & cheese.

 

UPDATE: Okay, that’s a bunch of people! Thank you all–closing it up, and will e-mail those of you who’ve been kind enough to offer! (If you are in absolute black despair that you missed the call and cannot wait, shoot me an e-mail and I will see what I can do. I promise, though, all you’re missing is seeing how much crap lies behind the curtain.)

Just to say…

I’m always scared to post things like this for fear I’ll horribly mangle it and make things worse. Nevertheless, I’ll try, and if I screw it up, I’ll apologize and take my lumps, because this is the sort of thing that doesn’t go without saying any more.

I have some readers and fans who identify as Muslim. Maybe not a huge majority, but I know there’s at least a couple–and there may be a lot more than I know about, because it’s simply never come up. (Why would it? We talk about crawfish and wombats and eating lousy food.)

You sure don’t need me to tell you that there’s horrible crap that gets said on the internet at times like this. The very best of humanity is what made people run toward explosions a week ago—the internet and a lot of our senators aim a lot lower. It goes on all the damn time, but it’s going to be really bad for the next little while.

I’ve avoided talking about all the crap going on in this space because A) I know nothing more than anybody else, have no insights, and don’t presume to be an expert, and B) have nothing to say that’s not trite or repetitive, and if you’re here, odds are good you’re looking to talk about something else.

But I just want to say, since we’re gonna hear some vile, vile shit coming out of people’s mouths in the near future–guys, you can be in my life-raft, any time. We’ll figure out the short wave radio together and take turns fishing with hooks made out of toenail clippings, or whatever the hell it is people do when they’re lost at sea.

You’re not a them. You’re part of my us. I’m glad you’re here.

 

(Note: We’re all kinda raw, so be very nice to each other in the comments. If Mister Rogers would not say it, you should probably think twice before posting. And if anybody start offensive pontificating, I will not hesitate to ban them so hard that their Facebook account will feel it.)

Self-Publishing and Webcomics, or “Haven’t We Been Here Before?”

Sometimes you sit with your fingers over the keyboard, and you KNOW somebody’s gonna get mad at you.

Ideas are like potatoes. No matter how many ways you turn your idea around, looking for the best possible angle, it’s got lumps and somebody out there wanted cauliflower.

I’m gonna talk about self-publishing for a bit. And webcomics. Because, as my dear buddy Otter wrote yesterday, the parallels are so damn obvious that I feel like an idiot for not having seen it a mile off.

There are a lot of rational people on the internet. There are also a lot of zealots. And if you say anything about self-publishing that is not “Oh my god you guys, this is totally the way to fame and success!” there is a tendency for those rational voices to be drowned out in the howling for blood.

(Chuck Wendig did a post a week or so back about this, where he said, in essence, “There is no one true way. Research and make the choice that’s best for you.” Only on the internet would this be a controversial statement that people would argue with. If he’d managed to tie in breastfeeding somehow, the servers would have actually caught fire.)

Nevertheless, here I go.

Y’all remember webcomics?

Sure you do. They were comics! On the web! Usually free! People invented all kinds of ways to try to make money off them, some of which worked (merchandising) some of which didn’t work so well (pay walls) some of which worked in certain specific circumstances (ads.)

I’m sure you remember it. Every major news outlet in the world ran an article at some point saying “Oh my god, they have comics on the web now!” usually in tandem with “Oh my god, did you people know that they have comics that AREN’T FOR KIDS!?” and then people’s heads exploded. (My comic was actually mentioned in one of those articles, which happened to be in the New York Times. My mother wanted me to get their quote tattooed on my forehead.)

If you happened to be involved in the webcomic world around six or seven years ago (as I was) you saw great optimism. We cherished our great success stories—PA, Kurtz, all the people who quit their jobs. “Hey, the S*P guy said “If you want the comic on time, pay me enough to quit my job, and his fans DID!” We sneered at Marvel as a dinosaur that would die under its own crushing lack of innovation (and then cheered whenever a webcomic got a big publishing deal, because…um…people are complicated.) We told ourselves that traditional comics were scared of us. We relished the fact that newspaper comic pages were going under (even as we felt very very bad for the very nice people who had their comics in newspapers) because WE weren’t with them, and WE were the wave of the future and soon everyone would realize that it was a BOLD NEW WORLD and any webcomic could succeed and it didn’t have to be about superheroes, and we found our niches and our fans.

We told people who wanted to do comics for a living, professionally, that the best thing they could do would be to do a webcomic. That it would be advertising for their talents. That it would get their stuff out there.

About once a nanosecond, somebody showed up on a webcomics board and said “My comic’s been up for six weeks, I’m not making any money, what gives?”

And then someone would have The Talk about fan bases and advertising and taking time and quality products and getting yourself out there. And that person would either quit in disgust or they would knuckle down and do the work. We would discuss guest comics on other comics as method of advertising. We would talk about whether it was worth it to buy ads. (We would talk about whether it was worth it to sell ads, for that matter.)

We had review bloggers. They were, briefly, rock-stars, and then people rebelled about who-died-and-gave-you-the-right-to-gatekeep and fans engaged in character assassination because of What They Said About Our Charlene’s Comic What Is On The Internet and it all eventually found its own equilibrium.

We had flame wars. Oh, the memory of those flame wars is glorious. I could toast marshmallows over the embers of replies to anything Scott Kurtz ever said.

And every forum was full of signatures with big, hopeful .gifs and people ended every sentence with “CHECK OUT MY WEBCOMIC!”  And we had to have The Talk about how we do not make forum posts just to plug ourselves because that is cheap.

Is this starting to sound familiar to anybody? Maybe just a tad?

It was a smaller scale. There have never been as many comics as books—probably because throughout history, fewer people have believed they could draw. But it was the same world.

This is not me slamming self-publishing. Are you kidding? I was one of those webcomics people! I have a rocket ship on my mantlepiece and an Eisner nomination and a nonexistent tattoo of the New York Times quote because of my webcomic, which quite frankly makes me one of the teeny tiny upper percentage in terms of critical recognition in a webcomic. (Seriously, I think I’m behind Girl Genius and…uh…apologizing to Howard Taylor a lot…) I am a huge raving success story about the power of putting a comic on the web with no gatekeeper and no editor and a complete inability to spell the word “separate” correctly on the first try. The day may come, if I can hack the work (and it won’t be for a long time, so don’t get excited) when I may do another webcomic, because webcomics are glorious.

It was a brave new world. It was the Wild West. It was awesome.

I should also mention that I have made, in total, probably around $20K from Digger. Spread over nine years. And for a webcomic, that’s considered pretty damn fine commercial success (and it’s worth noting that probably 90% of that is because a rockin’ little small press named Sofawolf did print versions. They did all the work, and I love them for it forever. I am frankly sort of amused that people are making a big deal out of the fact that there’s a self-published thing on this year’s Hugo ballot, because they were nominating Digger as a self-published work. I had to ask specifically that Sofawolf’s name go on the ballot with mine, because they do a damn fine job and they deserved to be there too.)

Once we settled the Wild West and put in railroads and people stopped dying of dysentery, it turned out that webcomics looked pretty much like everything else.

A couple of people made a LOT of money.

A lot of people made a little money.

Most people made almost no money.

I repeat, is this starting to sound familiar to anybody?

This is not me slamming on self-publishing. I would have self-published Digger if Sofawolf hadn’t stepped up. I have many friends who self-publish comic collections, books, all kinds of things. Many of them do very good work.

None of them are rich from it.

If the day comes when I have a book I love (and it will come) and my agent cannot sell it (too weird, wrong brand, whatever) then I will self-publish it. And I will try very hard to do good work.

And I will not get rich from it.

And that’s okay.

There are fewer webcomics now. The hyperbole has died down. People still try, and fail, and get grumpy and quit. The big names are mostly still big. It is still possible to get a decently good following and, if you work your ass off, either make a living from it or make enough to supplement your day job pretty nicely.

Is this starting to sound…oh, never mind. You get the point by now or you don’t, and you agree with me or you don’t.

But it wasn’t the road to glory and free money for everyone who could put a word bubble over a stick-figure And the secret to success WAS putting stuff out there, as it turns out—but it was also putting GOOD stuff out there, not firing a shotgun of crap at the wall and hoping something stuck. And you had to be consistent and reliable and do something special and not just try to be the next Penny Arcade/Kurtz/whatever.

And your art had to not suck and your writing REALLY had to not suck, or people ignored you. You couldn’t say “Real fans will read it and not care about your super-Nazi grammar and format issues!” because as it turned out, they wouldn’t. (I stopped reading multiple things because the comic artist would cram words right up to the edge of the word balloon and it made my eyes hurt.)

Anyone who tells you that they know the future is lying. But I’ll give you my best guess, if you want it, and it’s worth exactly what you’re paying for it. If you don’t like it, ignore it. It doesn’t actually make a difference to me, or frankly, to the future.

In a couple of years, the self-publishing hyperbole will die down. People who got excited and then disappointed by their lack of instant success will go on to the next thing. Some people will knuckle down and do the work. Some people will figure out how to make a living or to supplement their day job pretty nicely.

And a couple of people will make a LOT of money.

And a lot of people will make a little money.

And most people will make almost no money.

And the song will remain the same.

 

Best. Goddess. Ever.

There is an Aztec goddess called Mayahuel who is the goddess of agave. (The usual mythological thing where somebody dies and is buried and comes up as a plant. You get that a lot. It’s one of the acceptable ways to die if you’re a god.)

Mayahuel has four hundred breasts, lactates pulque (the fermented drink made from agave nectar) and has four hundred drunken rabbit children, the Centzon Totochin, each of whom is responsible for a different kind of drunkenness. (Ometochtli–“Two-Rabbit”–is the chief of the Centzon Totochin.)

Dude. Why was I not aware of this? I have met some of those rabbit gods.  (And if I ever get my hands on the little bastard responsible for a sambuca hangover…)

There’s a variant myth that tequila was the gift given by the spirits to Quetzalcoatl to assuage his grief over the death of Mayahuel, but as tequila was a substantially later invention, I can’t speak to the accuracy. Nice thought, though. And probably one of the Centzon Totochin shows up the next day.

(Googling “Aztec agave goddess” will get you various dueling websites on the topic, though most of them agree on these basic facts–I can’t tell you if any are more accurate than any others, since this was never even remotely my field of study. Though I did very much enjoy a book about Aztec mythology with the elegant title ‘This Tree Grows Out Of Hell.”)

I have agaves in the garden, although it must be said that none of them are very happy (nor are any of them the specific species that produces pulque.) There’s a couple of native agaves that will grow here, but I haven’t sited them right or something. I wonder if fervent invocations to Mayahuel would help, or if I’ll just get a plague of bunnies bearing cocktail shakers.

Whew.

It is now possible to start at the beginning, play through, and finish Act I of my StoryNexus game. (I mean, if you’re a playtester. It’s not live yet.)

You’d get bored doing it, because some of it would involve grinding ONE card over and over again, since I haven’t gotten all that content in yet, and there’d be some abrupt loose ends where I haven’t finished a storyline, and furthermore, you can ONLY follow the Way of the Hunter, not one of the other two paths, and it still isn’t possible to die.

And none of the art is mine because they haven’t introduced that function yet, and I’m pretty well bound and determined not to release the game until they do (which theoretically will be late this month, but I expect it may run long, development times being what they are.)

Nevertheless, the game is, in a horrible hacked together fashion, now playable.

I’m kinda proud of that.

My next goal is to get the other two Ways up and running, so that you can choose to be either a Shaman, a Hunter, or a Beast-Speaker. (Beast-Speaker is straightforward, just gonna take awhile to write. Shaman is…still a bit up in the air yet.)

I’m somewhat amused, looking over the quest-lines, how much this game basically reinforces my own moral code. You’re rewarded for helping people, pitching in, being polite, and Not Doing Incredibly Stupid Shit. You are generally not given the opportunity to be an asshole, but there’s a few places where you are given the option to pull a serious dick move, and if you do…well, there are consequences. (Mostly you get a do-over, but there’s at least two points where if you do the stupid or unkind thing, you really did do the stupid/unkind thing, and either you spend a quest chain atoning for it or you don’t get to follow that Way.)

This is not a game that rewards (or even really allows for) Chaotic Evil behavior. I expect some people will find that terribly disappointing, but y’know…free game. Not my problem.*

 

*And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I am not kickstartering to pay for my time doing it.

I Return From Oklahoma With A Medal And A Taxidermied Pronghorn Head

“I can’t do my taxes tomorrow,” I told my accountant. “I’m coming in on a really late flight from Oklahoma.”

“Oklahoma? Why the hell are you in Oklahoma?!” he said.

Actually, that’s what everybody said. And I admit, when I flew to Oklahoma to receive the Sequoyah Children’s Book Award, and then drove an hour and a half from the airport to Ardmore, Oklahoma, I had no idea what to expect.

And you know what?

It was actually really cool.

The Oklahoma Library Association conference was full of very nice people. They bussed in close to two hundred kids for my little song-and-dance, I had a really long signing line, and met some very nice people. And the Sequoyah award is a big heavy medal and looks as if I took bronze in the 100-meter children’s booking.

And Ardmore was just unexpectedly awesome. Small town, lots of farming stuff…but also fabulous bookstores, antique shops, a master gardeners sale (Kevin refused to be a party to this, on the grounds that I would be stuffing plants into the suitcase and they wouldn’t grow in our clay) some really amazing restaurants…dude! If you had told me that I would find this in the middle of Oklahoma…well, I wouldn’t have doubted you, I just hadn’t ever thought about it.

And then Kevin and I went out on a pub crawl with librarians.

Dude.

They drink like the Foreign Legion. We were all schnockered. The convention had rented a trolley to drive us around from bar to bar. I had a great conversation about native prairie restoration with a librarian groupie who happened to be a water rights lawyer. Kevin bonded with one of the locals over shared Lutheran roots. Admore has some awesome quirky little bars.

The next morning, nursing our hangovers, we headed out into Ardmore proper and went antiquing.

And this happened.

Does this not look like the beginning of a buddy cop movie? “He’s a loose cannon with a badge. It’s a stuffed antelope head. CRIME HAD BETTER WATCH OUT.”

Exhibit Q for Why Kevin Is Awesome–when I say “I think I need to buy that antique stuffed pronghorn head!” he says “Okay.” (Whether this is wholehearted enthusiasm or merely an acknowledgment of the futility of debate, I leave as an exercise to the reader.) And carries it back to the car! Even when it sheds all over him! (In fairness, I think the thing is older than I am, so I’d probably shed too.)

The really fun part was finding a UPS store to ship the head home, as I was told this would not be acceptable as carry-on luggage. (“What if I put it in a clear Zip-loc baggie?” “NO.”)

I got very good, if complicated directions from a nice woman at the next antique store over, who drew a map on three connected post-it-notes. (I could have googled it, but honestly, by that time she was so invested in the process it seemed rude.) Astonishingly, we found the UPS store, walked in with the head…and they didn’t even blink.

“Right!” says the guy behind the counter. “Let me bubble wrap that, and see if I can cut this box down…”

You got the impression that the man dealt with taxidermy all the damn time. (I asked. He said yes, although mostly deer, not vintage pronghorn heads.)

Anyway, it’ll be here Tuesday. Needs a few bits of cosmetic repair, but nothing I can’t fix a bit of paint and/or glue.

So! Ardmore, Oklahoma! Unexpectedly awesome! And also I won a Sequoyah Award, and am grateful to the 3rd-to-5th graders of Oklahoma who voted for it! ‘Cos that’s even cooler than a pronghorn head.

Balancing Acts…

I sat down and playtested Cryptic Stitching (that being the name of my game) from start to farthest-point-along yesterday and was rather depressed to find that over a hundred cards = surprisingly little content. I got through it in about two hundred clicks or so, including some time spent grinding. (At forty clicks a day, that’s…err…five days of play, or thereabouts.) Mind you, I knew exactly what I was doing and where to go to do everything, so I can get through it a bit quicker, but…still.

On the other hand, having over a hundred cards would make me one of the larger games in the StoryNexus catalog, assuming it was playable. (I write fast.)

I started a new character in Fallen London, on the other hand, which apparently has over 3000 cards, and was immediately a bit overwhelmed. There were some clear options, but there were also a solid dozen “You can’t unlock this yet!” options with way too much information. I spent a good bit of time boggling….and I’ve played it before. And am a gamer of long and illustrious standing. And have a passing acquaintance with the system from the back end. And I can imagine new players staring at all of the options and then closing the browser and never coming back.

So I need more stuff to do in my game, while not having it all appear in the first ten minutes and knock the player flat. And I’ve got the problem while there’s some fairly lengthy plot-related quests, there’s not nearly enough small incidental stuff, so you wind up getting the same two merchants and minor cards over and over once you’ve cleared out the plot-stuff, which will of course bore our hypothetical player to tears.

The first-ten-minutes problem I can probably fix by setting a “newcomer” marker that turns off some of the content until the player has gotten through a couple of establishing quests. (Now I just have write those establishing quests…!) But the extra-content stuff can only be fixed by…well…writing extra content.

(Stuff I really DID like and had forgotten about Fallen London–the sidebar with flavor text! There isn’t an option like that in the standard Story Nexus engine that I’ve found, alas. And it’s made me think about moving a couple of cards around for ease of player access…)

Part of the problem, I think, is that the developers suggested at least twelve cards in the “draw pile” for any given region, to ensure a good mix in the draw. And even then, I started getting the same cards over and over and over and thought “Oh god, I need at least a half dozen more…”

Oy. I didn’t think I was anywhere close to done with Act I, but I was hoping that I was farther along than I thought…