Random Thoughts

Irrational Thoughts

I love games, and I’m happy and proud to be a part of the industry that makes them. Except when it really pisses me off, like it did this week.

The big hitter was, no surprise, the announcement from Irrational Games founder Ken Levine that he would be “winding down” the studio after 17 years. To clarify: “winding down” is a brand new euphemism for “shitcanning all but 15 of the 150+ people who work there.” I’ve been “consolidated” before, even “right-sized,” but never “wound down.” I can’t help but picture an office of mechanical wind-up game developers slowly coming to a stop, then falling halfway over in cliché unwound robot fashion.

And you know what I hear in my head?

(In related news, if anyone wants to find me an awesome Bill Bixby Incredible Hulk walking away animated .gif, I’ll bet I could get a lot of use out of it.)

Now, I want to make something clear: I’ve got no problem with Ken Levine wanting to go do something different. Like he said in the open letter announcing the layoffs, “seventeen years is a long time to do any job.” It’s true. (Of course, the people who just got laid off are gonna find seventeen days/weeks/months is a fuck-ton longer to NOT do any job.)

I’ve seen Ken portrayed as the megalomaniacal villain in this tragedy, but I’ve seen nothing convincing me that’s the real story. Seems just as likely that this is Take Two cost-cutting like we’ve seen 100 times (that’s just last year). Irrational is a studio with a great track record for quality games, but with a history of taking a long time to make them and with a leader ready to move on. For a publisher, that’s easy pickins.

Ken will only keep as many employees as can fit on this couch.

Ken is sad, as he can only keep as many employees as will fit on this couch.

Here’s what’s killing me. We are inching ever closer to proving that the best practice for protecting the life of your studio is to NEVER SHIP A GAME. See, if you’re almost ready to ship a game, there’s money just around the corner. It’s like a poker player who figures that he’s already put half his money in the pot…he’d be stupid not to put the rest in, even if he knows he’s beaten.

On the other hand, if  you actually ship a game—even if it sells 4 million copies and has a 94 Metacritic—the next time you’ll make money for your publisher is a long way off. It doesn’t matter how much talent you’ve got, what kind of pedigree you have, or how cohesive the team is—it all pales in comparison to the burn numbers calculated out to the length of your next project. Remember: if you’re not generating a revenue stream, you’ve got a day-glo target painted on your collective backs.

At the end of the day, another studio making quality games just got flushed away. It’s been happening too much recently, and there’s no sign of it stopping soon.

And Another Thing…

It’s possible I’m crazy here, but in the last year did the entire world decide they would only back into parking spaces? Even if there’s no reason to? Even if they’re the only car in the entire parking lot???

I’m serious. Watch the next few times you’re parking—everyone has Backing In Fever. Of course, if you’re one of the afflicted, you won’t be watching. You’ll be looking over your shoulder, failing to park three or four times before finally bringing your Volvo SUV to rest, your passenger side scant millimeters from the driver’s side of the car next to you. No worries—you can still get out.

Slightly above average job of backing into a space.

Please only back into spaces if you are madly rushing to get to an incredibly important appointment…to go fuck yourself.

The reason for this madness? Back-up sensors and cameras. Look, I get that they’re useful—in fact, Congress mandated that all cars have them by 2011. (Shockingly, that didn’t happen.) Now, they’re on almost every new car that comes out, and people are really loving them.

Here’s the thing: just because you have a back-up sensor, or even a back-up camera, it doesn’t mean you suddenly know how to drive your 2014 Expedition any fucking better than you could drive your 2012 Expedition. I promise. Look—if you installed a periscope on it, you couldn’t suddenly sink a U-Boat. Get me?

So, to those of you gleefully taking three times as long to park twice as badly—let’s make a deal. If you stop parking like an idiot, I’ll stop accidentally putting those “I ♥ DONKEY PORN” bumper stickers on your car.

The guy across the street from my parents' house had this on his truck. It reminds me that it's the simple things in life that truly make us happy. Also, that my neighbor liked both truckin' and fuckin'.

The guy across the street from my parents’ house had this on his truck. It reminds me that it’s the simple things in life that truly make us happy. Also, that my neighbor really liked both truckin’ and fuckin’.

Mini Game Review

Bug Heroes 2, Foursaken Media

Bug Heroes 2, by Four

Bug Heroes 2, by Foursaken Media

Bug Heroes 2 is a action/strategy tower defense game where you control a team of two bug heroes as they protect their bug base, crush their bug enemies, and hear the lamentation of their bug women. Overall, it’s a well-crafted game. The environments are charming, and gameplay felt good after a bit of getting used to. The sound in particular had a whimsical, Worms-like feel. Missions are numerous and mostly fun, though the difficulty quickly ramps. Tons of upgrades and 25 available heroes allow for a variety of playstyles, and the ability to respec for free is a welcome feature.

It’s a mixed bag, though. I mentioned that there are “25 available heroes” to play, but only in the same way there are “25 available cars” for me to drive today. I really only have two to choose from, but I’d need to spend real money to drive any of the other 23.

Bug Heroes 2 telegraphs the oncoming paywall early on. You begin with two heroes, earn another after gaining 5 stars (from mission completion), then earn the next after…25 stars. That’s a bunch, considering you’re rewarded one for most missions. Based on every other game ever made, it’ll only get worse from there, and it pretty much signaled the end of the game for me.

Here’s the thing: if all I see in front of me is a long grind followed by an inevitable paywall, I’m out. It’s annoying in a free game, but it’s infuriating in a paid game like this one. Doesn’t matter how good the game is; going down that road only leads to frustration. How can I know this? Another Universal Truth of Game DesignThe only thing always found behind a paywall is a slightly larger paywall.

Random Observation Unrelated to Anything Else

I was checking out the Tonight Show and caught U2 performing on a rooftop just like they did back in the video for “Where the Streets Have No Name” (and The Beatles did in 1969… ). Watching it really made me think: the more things change, the more they START TO LOOK JUST LIKE ROBIN WILLIAMS.

Shazbat! I’m sure I’m not the first to observe the Na-Nu/Bono Effect, but it’s freaking me the hell out.

Shazbat! I’m sure I’m not the first to observe the Na-Nu/Bono Effect, but it’s freaking me the hell out.

So…there’s that. Thanks, everyone, for reading, commenting, reblogging, retweeting, and not sending me hate mail. As a special reward, I offer you levitating Mork and skateboarding Mindy. Don’t say I never gave you anything.

Not Pictured: The mogul-sized pile of cocaine necessary to achieve this photo.

Not Pictured: The mogul-sized pile of cocaine necessary to capture this photo.

The Pursuit of Flappy-ness

If you’ve got any interest in video games, or know someone who does, or own a phone, you’ve heard the saga of Flappy Bird. The developer, Dong Nguyen, has taken the gaming sensation down, saying that it was “an addictive product,” and he wasn’t as happy since the success of Flappy Bird. The internet is abuzz with people lamenting the sad case of the lone wolf developer, and how only such extreme pressure generated by hordes of internet asshats could force someone to walk away from the estimated $50,000.00 Flappy Bird generated each day. And that would be true.

Except it’s not.

See, Flappy Bird is STILL generating a boatload of ad money every day. The game didn’t get magically deleted from everyone’s iPhone or Android device—it’s still there, still being played, and still happily generating a boatload (I hope) of revenue for Dong Nguyen. And, let’s not forget his other games, Super Ball Juggling and Shuriken Block, both of which are sitting in the top 20 as of this writing.

Approaching My Personal High Score...stupid bird...always flapping....

Approaching My Personal High Score…stupid bird…always flapping….

So, is Dong Nguyen an overwhelmed developer, or might he be a crazy marketing ninja who has just garnered more free publicity by shutting the game down than might have been possible keeping it available? I’d love to think it’s the latter, but I imagine it’s the former. And, if it is, I hope that Dong Nguyen gets to fade into whatever level of anonymity he likes, kick up his feet, and watch the money keep rolling in.

Now that the game is gone, what could possibly fill the void? Clones. Clones of clones. Clash of Clones (which is probably already a game…and a clone). Check out the top free games right now—there are about 5 straight up Flappy Clones in the top 10. But, what are the Big Boys doing to cash in on this craze? Surely the heavyweights aren’t willing to sit this out? Of course not:

  • Deep in the bowels of Zynga HQ, there’s some poor team “pivoting” their farming game into Birds With Friends ™. It’s the exact same game as Flappy Bird, but every time you want to go between two pipes, you need five of your friends to unlock it.
  • Peter Molyneux has promised a revolutionary interpretation of Flappy Bird, in which the player’s bird will begin as an egg, then develop based on his actions, whether flapping, walking, tweeting, crafting, singing, telling jokes, burping, flirting, or crashing into pipes. All the while, the dynamic world will grow and change based on every player decision, down to the most minute detail. When released, most industry insiders expect the game to include…flapping.
  • Everyone was sure Valve was working on a Flappy Bird clone, but it turned out to be Half Life 3. Just fucking with you! They don’t make games anymore.
  • Nintendo actually released Super Flappio Bros. last week. It’s a Wii U exclusive, though, so no one has ever played it.
  • Even the most respected and erudite members of the industry aren’t immune to the call of the Bird. From legendary game designer Brenda Romero (Train) comes PIPE–a museum-quality piece created with over 40,000 hand-painted green pipes, each containing a single tear from Dong Nguyen. You’ll only play the game once, but at the end you’ll feel really, really guilty. And it will haunt you forever.
Et tu, Sesame?

Et tu, Sesame?

In the end, what have we learned from the meteoric rise of Flappy Bird? Nothing we didn’t already know. What we’ve done is to demonstrate perfectly this Universal Truth of Game Design: All things being equal, the success of your mobile game is directly proportional to the ease of playing it while pooping. Which might just be a good topic for a future blog….

Olympic Fever Update!

Olympic Update: As predicted, the Olympics has been a laugh riot, with missing rings, wardrobe malfunctions, and amazing (Summer) Olympic weather. Nothing, though, symbolizes the state of these Games more than the rapid deterioration of Bob Costas, who contracted some Dark Ages eye plague by merely watching the first curling practice.


Costas Evolving Into Famous Spinach-Eating Sailor

Haha! You’ve been duped by my clever photo manipulation! That last photo isn’t Bob Costas at all! It’s skating and fashion phenom Johnny Weir, who has given this Olympics a much-needed dose of “Hey, Vlad! This gay enough for you???” (Speaking of which…I’ll bet the folks competing in the biathlon were getting a little nervous with everyone referring to them as “bi-athletes.” Just sayin’.)

Anyway, well done, Johnny. You’re my new favorite Olympic hero.


Threes!, by Sirvo LLC


Threes!, by Sirvo LLC

Oddly addicting puzzler where the goal is to smoosh together matching multiples of 3. I know…doesn’t sound like much. Tons of tactile and audio polish really make it work, though, and it’s easy to lose an hour fast.

Warhammer Quest, by Rodeo Games

Warhammer Quest, by Rodeo Games

Warhammer Quest, by Rodeo Games

Yeah…it’s almost a year old. This week, though, it was on sale for $0.99, which made it suddenly attractive to me. Turns out, I would have paid the extra four bucks. Great strategy RPG, marred only by the same problem shared by 99% of RPGs: the first hour is the worst. Stick it out and get to a really solid title.

Not a Review, But a Shameless Plug

HonorBound, by JuiceBox Games

HonorBound, by JuiceBox Games

Give HonorBound a try on your favorite mobile device. It’s the first offering from JuiceBox Games, and I’m not just shamelessly plugging this free RPG/Card Battler because a friend works there. Turns out, it’s also a well-made game, and the art and writing are top-notch. I’m a few hours in, and having a pretty good time trying to collect as many oddball warriors as I can. Check it out!

That’s it from me. Oh, please, for the love of God, somebody leave a comment. Even just to prove the comments section works. I’m getting paranoid. Until next week, I’ll be signing off from my new favorite place: Moscow’s historic Hobofuck Training Center.

At least, I assume that’s the translation.

You know where I wanna train for the Olympics? The Hobofuck Training Center.

You know where I wanna train for the Olympics? The Hobofuck Training Center.

Olympic Fever!!!

Woohoo! It’s here! It’s here! After four long years of not thinking about it in any meaningful way whatsoever, the Winter Olympics has finally returned to dominate our very souls. And, could anyone be more ready for it than Sochi, the city that fought for, and won, the honor of being this year’s host? I mean, they’ve had years to get things done, and nothing cuts through red tape faster than a Russian government, right?

Photo Taken, Like, 10 Minutes Ago From Atop a Pile of Napping Workers

Photo Taken, Like, 10 Minutes Ago From Atop a Pile of Napping Workers

Er…okay. So, a road or two isn’t exactly “finished,” or “safe,” or “passable by anything other than the sturdiest of pack mules.” So what? Certainly, the Russians with their ruthless efficiency will have at least put together a clever facade for the international media, so as not to cast a bad light on Uncle Vladmir’s pet project?

Photo Courtesy of BBC's Harry Reekie, Who is Fucked Big Time

Photo Courtesy of BBC’s Harry Reekie, Who is Fucked Big Time

Oops. Well, maybe a couple of hotel rooms aren’t quite up to snuff yet. Is it that big a deal to find a couple of stray dogs or sleeping construction workers in your rooms? These things happen. Where’s your Olympic spirit? If nothing else, we can count on the Russians to put together an opening ceremony that blows the 2010 Vancouver ceremony out of the water. It’ll be tough to beat:

As in all things Canadian, the Vancouver ceremonies were charming, inoffensive, and smelled vaguely of poutine.

As in all things Canadian, the Vancouver ceremonies were charming, inoffensive, and smelled vaguely of poutine.

Not an easy act to follow, but the Russians have done it. Don’t believe me? You fool! My vast spy network has managed to sneak out some exclusive video of the upcoming Sochi opening ceremonies, and it doesn’t disappoint:

World Games, by Epyx. Best Sports Game Ever. It had Caber Toss. QED.

Yeah, a week ago I wasn’t looking forward to these Olympics and their accompanying hype at all. Now? Oh, I’m riveted. This is a supersonic bullet train on a collision course with hilarity about to come to a climax on an international stage. Unpreparedness, cyber-crime, homophobia, danger that makes perma-baked, world-class, extreme athletes say “uncle?” It’s got it all! What could we possibly add to make this month-long pseudo-extravaganza any more interesting?

There’s only one thing.

The Jamaican Bobsled Team is feeling very Olympic today.

The Jamaican Bobsled Team is feeling very Olympic today.

 No worries, mon. Got that covered, too.


Since this blog is ostensibly about video games, I want to offer up a couple of quick game reviews from iOS titles I picked up this past week:

Hoplite, by Magma Fortress

Hoplite, by Magma Fortress

Hoplite, by Magma Fortress

You know the problem with most roguelike games? All the roguelike elements. Restarting, permadeath, lost progression–those things that define the genre and at the same time make it infinitely infuriating. Some games punch through the pain, though. Hoplite is a turn-based strategy/roguelike with upgrades and procedurally generated levels. And it’s fun. Your goal is simple: get to the staircase at the end of each level without dying. In your way are four types of enemies, each with different behaviors, along with a temple in which you’ll upgrade your character. It’s quick, smart, and is only $1.99 on the App Store. Good stuff.

Bardbarian, by Tree Fortress

Bardbarian, by Tree Fortress

Bardbarian, by Tree Fortress

Continuing my accidental theme of “roguelike hybrids by developers with ‘Fortress’ in their names”… I offer up Bardbarian. This one’s a dual stick shooter, with multiple progression paths and some NimbleQuest elements thrown in. You play as the Bardbarian. See, he’s a barbarian who stops being a barbarian and starts being a bard. Hence, “Bardbarian.” See what they did there? And, he makes music with his “axe.” See what they did again??? Whatever. The game’s a blast. The main character is some sort of peace-loving hippy freak, so he won’t bash skulls. Instead, he hires friends to do it, and sings them songs to make them do it better. You get to upgrade the different classes he’ll bring along, as well as the Bardbarian himself and the town in which you play. It’s only $0.99 on the App Store, so just go get it.

That’s all for now. I’m off to crack a beer, settle in, and watch the Olympic magic unfold (while playing my own Olympic drinking game). Got your own Olympic plans? A good game worth taking a look at? Tell me! I crave feedback, so feel free to comment.

BREAKING: In the time it took me to write this, Russian officials have responded to the outlandish criticisms they’ve received from visiting journalists. And, while doing so, Russian officials have also admitted to spying on people in their showers. And not just Erin Andrews.

I love it when I’m right.

Uncle Vlad Teaches Proper Use of Klingon Bat'leth for Torch Lighting. Because He's Clearly Not Completely Fucking Crazy.

Uncle Vlad Teaches Proper Use of Klingon Bat’leth for Torch Lighting. Because He’s Clearly Not Completely Fucking Crazy.

Let’s Begin

I’ve been told my first blog should cover certain ground: who I am, what the blog’s about, when it’ll be updated, etc.


Mark Nelson

Game Designer (Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3, Reckoning, CityVille 2)

Blog Topic:
Game Design, Game Industry, but Mostly Whatever Is Interesting/Annoying at the Moment

Blog Updates:

Sounds dull for everyone involved, so I’ve decided to start this blog in media res, which is Latin for “starting at the beginning smacks of effort, so let’s just skip ahead to the easy parts and pretend there’s a clever reason for it.”

Don’t worry, though—at right, I’ve provided a Handy Cheat Sheet that should contain the info needed to establish a loving and lasting blogger/bloggee relationship. Past that, there’s not too much you need to know. Feel free to read, comment, mock, admire, create your own blog solely to mock my blog…whatever works for you.

Anyway, on to the content…in media res….

In keeping with ancient traditions, I wanted to start this year off with a Best & Worst of 2013 list. I’d planned to write pithy bits about what games, movies, music, TV shows, and other stuff I liked over the year, mostly to prove I’d played, watched, heard, and read a lot of different things. That, in theory, would establish I’m a well-rounded man-about-town, filled with interesting and informed opinions on a wide variety of topics.

Which is untrue on a number of different levels.

Anyway, it turned out that Fate was conspiring to prevent me from writing this blog until now—and writing Best and Worst lists after the 3rd of January is like wearing white at a wedding after the Labor Day groundhog sees his shadow. It just isn’t done. It’s actually illegal in Texas.

So, I’ve decided to get a jump on things and write my Best and Worst list for 2014. Sure, I haven’t played, watched, heard, or read any of these things—but I don’t imagine it’ll be that tough to figure out. Let’s begin.


Best Movie
Under the Skin

This is apparently a “psychosexual horror piece reminiscent of David Lynch starring Scarlett Johansson as a sexy alien pod person.” Sold. Any combination of three of those descriptors would be a candidate here, but Under the Skin just blows it out of the water.

(Honorable Mention: Muppets Most Wanted…for pretty much the same reasons as Under the Skin.)

Worst Movie
That Weird Prequel to 300 I Saw a Poster For

Mostly because there’s no way it could sensibly relate to the actual 300 portrayed in the original movie (and, you know…history and stuff). I suppose it could be called 300: Xerxes the God-King Bowls a Perfect Game. That’d at least make sense. Regardless, it’ll blow.

Best TV Show
True Detective

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey are detectives who team up to hunt a serial killer for 17 years. It’s on HBO, which guarantees it’ll be laced with profanity, nudity, and actual quality (and that it’ll take roughly 17 years to get to Season 3). It’s getting a ton of buzz, and it sounds pretty great. They should have stuck with the working title, which I believe was Woody and Wooderson Get Really, Really Baked and Pretend to Be Detectives. Smell an Emmy there? Me, too.

Worst TV Show
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I don’t even know if this got picked up for a second season, but it pissed me off enough this year that it’ll carry over. Gah! Joss Whedon + Marvel Universe + TV Show should have equaled “witty banter mixed with ass kickings woven into an engaging storyline.” Instead, we got “forgettable characters hinting about the mystery of why Coulson is so different from the guy we never really knew in the first place…and, oh yeah, isn’t he just an LMD, since in the comics everyone in S.H.I.E.L.D. apparently gets a handful of them in their HR Welcome-to-S.H.I.E.L.D. Packets? Bad Joss. No Emmy.

Best Game
Every New Next-Gen Game Released for the Next 6 Months

This happens every new console cycle. There are a limited number of titles available at launch, so every big name game that gets released becomes the shiniest thing in sight. Remember Kameo? Or King Kong: The Official Game? No one else does, either, but at 360 launch, they were the pinnacle of gaming. Besides, by the end of the year, some indie game that no one has played (but which has somehow transfixed and transformed the entirety of the gaming literati) will sweep the awards. Meanwhile, actual humans will still be playing League of Legends.


Without seeing this picture, you’d never have thought of this game again. Don’t lie to yourself.

Worst Game
Most Stuff on the App Store

Let’s face it—the App Store is a gaming wasteland. Anyone willing to shell out $10,000.00 can price their game at $999.99, buy 10 copies, and shoot to the top 20 of Paid titles. For every Clash of Clans, there are 20 Klash of Klanz released, and the signal-to-noise gets increasingly worse. I do the majority of my gaming on the iPad these days, and the quality is there for those willing to do some digging: The Room/Room 2, X-Com, Dungelot, Bardbarian. Let’s just hope 2014 isn’t the year it’s impossible to discover the good stuff amongst the crap.

Best Album
Pink Floyd, ‘Wish You Were Here’

Yeah, yeah. I realize it was released in 1975. You know what? It still friggin’ rocks. And it’s not like One Direction is on track to release something to redefine music this year. (Note: if they do, I apologize in advance to Harry, Liam, Louis, Sam, and Frodo.)

Best Book
Anything by Joe Hill

I had no clue who Joe Hill was until I read his Locke & Key series of comics last year. If you haven’t read them yet, Stop Right Now and go read them. Seriously. We’ll wait.

SEE? Brilliant. Then there’s his recent vampire book, NOS4A2, which also filled with excellence. Oh, did I mention he’s Stephen King’s kid??? Or that I would have realized this long ago had I ever bothered to look at his picture and seen that he looks EXACTLY LIKE HIS FATHER???


Stephen King and His Freakishly Talented Clone/Son, Joe Hill

Maybe I wasn’t paying attention. Whatever. Go read whatever Joe Hill writes, because it’s bound to be bucketloads of good fun.

Now, on to the more esoteric awards for the upcoming year:

Best New Gadget

Whatever iPad Mini Gets Released

I’m an admitted iPad fanboy, but I’m also mostly serious about this. The Retina Mini was the single best piece of gaming hardware to hit the market in 2013. Keep your Xbox One and PS4 (or send them to me…that works, too). The new Mini has all the horsepower of the iPad Air, and can run high-quality games like Deus Ex and X-Com. Plus, it fits into a coat pocket. And, just watch a kid pick one up—this thing is built for play. If Apple beefs this product up more in 2014, I’ll get right back in line.

Most Overused Expression
“The culmination of a lifetime of training…” or “It all comes down to this…” or “Years of hard work all lead up to this moment…” or any of the seemingly infinite overblown expressions used to describe the Bronze Medal round of curling or whatever other equally silly Olympic sport is being passed off as more interesting than a circa 1992 Windows screen saver.

Look, I love sports. I’ve broken more than one universal remote due to terribly blown calls by obviously blind refs at crucially important moments. I get it. I’ll admit it now, though: I find it hard to maintain the façade of interest in most Winter Olympic sports. There, I said it. I’ll try to be enthusiastic for the ice skaters, but they’re almost as creepy as the gymnasts. I’ll root for USA Hockey, but we’ve already had an honest-to-God Miracle on Ice—are we likely to top that? If you get bored, just do what I do: take a drink every time Bob Costas says an athlete is “courageous.” You’ll barely remember the fourteenth night of ice dancing.

Biggest Disappointment
The Continued Lack of Jetsons-Style Flying Cars

I know what I was promised, and I want what’s mine. Someone get on this.

Okay, that’s it. Next time, I promise to talk about something more game-related. Probably. Until then, enjoy your 2014…and sorry for the spoilers.