Saturday, August 24, 2013

Oh boy! My PAX Prime 2013 Schedule!

Hi there!  Jeff Green here. You might remember me from such magazines as Computer Gaming World and game companies like PopCap.  You might also recognize me by my trademarked catchphrase "You're not the Lord of the Rings!" Or maybe you don't know me at all and don't really give a shit. No matter.  The point of this post today is to share my schedule for next weekend's PAX Prime in Seattle, either so you can find me or actively avoid me. 

I'm going to be on three (3) panels at PAX this time, and will also be findable at PopCap's booth on the show floor, where you can come up to me and yell at me about PvZ 2's free-to-play, or the fact that it's not on Android yet.  Really, it's all I've been hearing for the past week, so I'm totally used to it.  Alternatively, you can come up to me and we can talk about something else entirely, like Breaking Bad, or the weather, or Ben Affleck as Batman.  Doesn't really matter to me.  I'm just there for the good vibes, man.  And the convention food.

So below are the panels I am on. I will provide links to the PAX site so you can read more, if you are so inclined.  I'm pretty psyched about all three.  One because it is a fun gathering of old pals, the other two because they are very different from any other panels I have participated in previously.

Listed chronologically:

 Three Old Guys Playing Zork -
What started as a Twitter  joke between me and my friends Dan Amrich and Eric "e"
 Eric Neustadter is now a PAX panel. Yay!  It's basically exactly what the description is. We hope to make this be a fun (yet educational!) look back at one of the seminal works of interactive fiction. Audience participation encouraged!

It's Dangerous To Go Alone: The Take This Panel
What could be more fun at a gaming convention than to attend a panel on depression?  And that's the only joke I'll make on the subject,  as frequenters of this blog know that this is a condition I have suffered from.  Thus making it okay for me to joke about it.  In all seriousness, I'm very honored to be part of this panel, which will discuss issues surrounding depression and how to cope with it, as it relates to our Internet and gaming lives.  If you are at all someone who has suffered in any way, or even just wondering if you do,  I encourage you to attend.  We all have stories to tell. And the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.

CGW/GFW Radio "The Brodeo" Reunion #2: Even Eli Knows What that Means
Yes, just before they close the doors on the show for another year,  just as their putting all the chairs up and the janitors are starting to disinfect the place,  your pals the Brodeo crew will make a second pathetic attempt at relevancy with another reunion!  Yes, watch in awkward, trainwreck silence as these forgotten podcasters relive the old days for an audience of five.  Next year, we'll be on tour of suburban malls with the surviving members of Gilligan's Island,  so catch us now while you can!

Okay? So that's the deal. If you see me, please don't hit me. If you'd like to say hi, or buy me a beer,  I'm up for both, always! And I hope all y'all have a great PAX!

Monday, August 5, 2013

My Multiplayer Problem

I have always sucked at team sports. As far back as I can remember, this has been my curse.  Or one of my curses.  I'm sure I actually have plenty of curses.  But if I stop to think about that I won't write this post at all, and not writing blog posts is another one of my curses.

In any event, I was the worst team sports player I knew growing up.  Here's how bad I was.  I would not be the last person picked for teams when kids were divided up--I was the leftover after the last pick. That is, I'd always make it to the final two.  Me, and, say, Irving Needlebaum-- the blind kid with the wooden leg. The team captain would be looking us over with a pained look on his face, as if having to decide which piece of shit smelled less bad.  Eventually, inevitably, he'd say, "I guess I'll take Irving," at which point everyone would immediately disperse to the playing field without another look back.

"I guess I'm on the other team then?" I'd say to all the players' backs.  And then I'd take my gangly, redheaded, uncoordinated self out onto deep right field and then pray for an earthquake or plague of frogs or even spontaneous combustion  so that I would not have to field a ball or go up to bat.

Later, in the videogame world, I fared somewhat better, thank goodness.  Obviously physical prowess was not a factor, and the sheer amount of time I put into them (since I wasn't busy playing sports)  meant that I actually acquired some skill. Key word being "some."  Except for one game ever, Interstate '76, for which I had some kind of freak, natural ability, the best I could ever hope to be in a multiplayer match was Not Horrible.  Occasionally, if I was particularly inspired, or perhaps unplugged everyone else's mice, I might actually win a LAN match. But it would never last. I'd never get to experience the feeling of being great or dominant in a game.  And frankly, my childhood had prepared me for such inevitability, so I actually didn't (and still don't) have my ego tied into such things.  The difference between videogames and sports, however, was that in videogames I could at least compete.  I could at least score the occasional point.  And, of course, the anonymity of online meant that no one ever know that it was me who sucked. It was Tinkletrousers, or Mike Oxbig, who would endure the brunt of any humiliation.

Where it all began to fall apart for me online, however, was with the rise of team matches.  In solo deathmatches, I only had to worry about myself. I was liberated from having to prove myself to anyone. And my overall feeling would be one of triumph if I didn't suck. The fact that I knew that sometimes I could win, however rare, was enough to keep me going.

But once games like Counter-Strike started getting popular, where skill actually mattered, where players really needed other players to do their best, I was doomed. First, I was nowhere near good enough, from the start. By this time I was already older than the average player, and my reflexes were starting their slow deterioration to their current state of near total calcification. Second, there was the pressure. As in real-world sports, there was the expectation that you knew the rules, you knew how to play, and you were good enough to be on the field in the first place. Anything less, any sign of incompetency - like blowing yourself and your teammates up within the first second of the match by accidentally pressing the Grenade button -  was to be instantly shunned and scolded, and possibly booted from the team.

The problem of course, was and still is the barrier to entry. If all the players in a particular game are skilled and experienced, then it just makes it that much harder for a new player to find his or her footing, to gain any experience or confidence. And there is little to no tolerance by a lot (but not all) experienced players to put up with noobs on the team. Especially in games where everyone takes it totally seriously and winning is everything.

Sometime around 1996, when I knew my deathmatch days were numbered, I started getting all my online kicks in MMOs. In those games, I could hold my own much better. I could also either play by myself or with friends, where the pressure was minor at best.  Even if I played on PvP servers (like my main character in EverQuest), in the end it boiled down to one-on-one situations, where, again, I didn't feel beholden to other players, and thus did far better. Late in my Wow career, however, I had one experience with random players that has stuck with me ever since. I was playing my level 80 dwarf warlock, Eggbertt, a character I was quite proficient at. I was level 80. I'd invested hundreds of hours into the guy. I'd sacrificed a good deal of my life, ambition, and self-respect to build this guy up. Blizzard had rolled out the dungeon finder, which grouped random folks together looking to complete the same dungeon. Most of the time, this was awesome, and eliminated the need for begging.

One night, however, I found myself randomly grouped with Serious Players. Equipment checks were being carried out before we began. Roles were assigned. A plan was made. There was no time for idle chatter and thus no one appreciated my joke about Jim Belushi being the end boss. So in we went. And within 2 minutes,  the "leader" was yelling at me. "WTF EGGBERTT MORE DPS!" "DO U FUCKIN NO HOW TO PLAY?" And so on. I assured him that I did in fact know how to play and that he could calm down because honestly it was just a videogame and not worth the aneurism and, plus, we were just starting. I'd get my game on in due time. Except my time was already up. By the time we'd hit the next group of trash mobs, I suddenly, without warning, found myself warped back outside of the dungeon. I'd been kicked.  He'd taken a quick vote with the rest of the team, and they agreed that I was out.  And I honestly was infuriated. It was an outrage. I felt wrongly accused. I knew how to play this game!  But, that was that, and due to the anonymity of the thing and the millions of players, I knew I'd never find them again to plead my case. But what stuck with me was how serious these players were. How there was no tolerance for error. How the slightest perception of weakness was enough to get booted. And while I blew it off and jumped right back in, because, really, who gives a shit, this is the stuff I try to avoid online. Playing with players who are more intent on winning than anything else - like being civil or tolerant of others - is of no appeal to me. None. Because once you're yelling at people online and getting a busted vein in your forehead because someone isn't tanking correctly, you are beginning to miss the whole point of this entire pastime. (Unless you are a pro, which is another story entirely.)

All of which is a humongous, rambling preamble to what I really wanted to talk about, which is my reluctance to dive into either of the super-popular MOBAs these days - DOTA 2 or League of Legends. I've played through the tutorial levels in both games, and they are super fun. I get it.  I totally see the appeal. As someone who also used to have a blast with real-time strategy, I can see that, in time, I might not completely suck.  The problem is the "in time" part. Because, from everything I've seen and read, from the little I've dabbled in it, I can see that these are hardcore, serious games. Obviously.  And stepping into one of these games unprepared is like stepping onto the track of a horse race right as the gates are being opened.  You are going to be trampled, spun around, and dumped in a ditch within two minutes if you don't know what you're doing, with your teammates yelling at you the whole time. These are deep, deep games requiring a tremendous amount of knowledge and skill -which is their appeal - but which make them near impossible for the curious to dabble in.  Dabbling isn't even really possible. You either commit for the long haul, or don't play.  Yesterday on Twitter I quoted from a Giant Bomb tutorial on DOTA 2: "The first initial 100 hours will be tough."  Is that an investment I'm willing to make? Do I want to slog through 100 hours of abuse and humiliation, just to get to the point where I can start competing?  Don't I have a novel to finish? Oh, right--and a family?

So, I don't know. Maybe the sad fact is that these games are for the young and unencumbered. Back in college, I easily could've devoted 100s of hours to a game, because that's what I did, one quarter at a time, in the arcades.

Or maybe I just have to care about winning more.

To me, the gameplay is the thing. Doing well, and getting better, and having fun doing it.  I've learned, slowly, over time, that once I hit a point of any frustration or anger, to stop a game immediately. Because I know, right then, that  I have lost the plot.  If I want to get frustrated or angry, there are a million other ways to do it rather than ruining an experience I otherwise enjoy.

Which is not to say that I've given up on the idea of DOTA or League of Legends. I have not.  I actively look forward to possibly being convinced to try. That's about as strong as a commitment you're gonna get from me. But I'm telling you now, once you start yelling at me, I'm out. And once you start yelling at me, you should maybe think twice about what you're doing in the first place.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

On Second (and Third) Acts

I became an editor at Computer Gaming World in my 30s. At this point, I had already had many years under my belt as an editor for technical books and magazines--jobs that offered only mild satisfaction at best.  I was also already a father.

My CGW job--which of course bled in and continued through 1UP, GFW, etc--was the job that made me feel like I'd "made it."  It was the first job I was truly happy in, and not coincidentally, was the most successful at. There was not one day, ever, when I wasn't happy to be going to work,  when I didn't know how lucky I was.  Yes, it was not all good times every day, there were lots of politics and headaches, I frequently got angry and frustrated as in every job---but I knew, always, that it just felt right to be there.  It did not ever feel like "work" to me.  It felt like I had just gotten extremely lucky to be doing what made me happy and actually getting paid for it besides. The paycheck almost felt beside the point.  That job allowed me to fulfill a lifelong dream - having a humor column - but also helped me discover skills I had no idea that I had,  and, most important of all, gave me a sense of self-confidence I had lost, for a variety of reasons, around age 13 and until then had never regained.

I left only reluctantly. Only because I could see the writing on the wall (I escaped the notorious "1upacolapyse" by just a few months) and knew I would be laid off.  In addition, my magazine, the laughable and unfortunately renamed Games For Windows: The Official Magazine, had closed down for good,  and while I was adapting well to life online - and was having the time of my life with the GFW Radio podcast - my day-to-day responsibilities were changing to a point where I just felt like maybe my time had come.  So I left.  And that, so far at least, has turned out to be the end of that Act of my life - the act in which I had found my proper place in the world and was happy and thriving and fulfilling my dreams.

This Act, the act I am currently in, is...well, I don't know exactly what it is yet. I sort of half-jokingly called it the "epilogue" the other day to my daughter, and she was swift to scold me. At 51, I still have many things I hope to accomplish,  many goals still unfulfilled,  and much, I hope, to offer. But I freely admit that these last four years,  from the time I left 1UP until now, have not been the easiest,  however else it may appear to anyone who for whatever reason has any interest in me and my career.  Not being able to find a job in the press,  unadvisedly trying my hand at being a game producer, and now muddling along in whatever the hell "social media" is, has not done wonders for my sense of accomplishment or self-worth.  I don't actually know what "success" in these positions means, or whether it matters, or whether what I'm doing is of any remote consequence.   I'm not complaining or feeling sorry for myself or issuing a cry for help.  I'm just saying that it's hard not to feel at times like I'm "the guy who used to be Jeff Green,"  that the past four years have been some kind of glorified early retirement home for me,  even though I sure as hell am not ready for that yet.

In the end, it's all on me. Whether it's at PopCap or somewhere else, whether it's in videogames or something else, it is my personal responsibility to actually take my life in the direction I want it to go, rather than let life happen to me - which is something I've been all too guilty of in the past.

Do I want to write more? Do I want to podcast again?  Do I want to walk away from all of it and go sell bongs on the beach in Kauai?  Yes, yes, and of course not because that would be wrong and not legal and please don't worry mom it was just a joke. The point is that I am in a heavy duty period of self-reflection right now, trying to figure out how best to spend this part of my life, how best to turn this Act into one as vital as the previous one,  one that does not in fact feel like an "epilogue" even when I'm pretending I'm joking about it.

 "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans," according to a quote often attributed to John Lennon.   Sometimes, however, those "other plans" need to take center stage. They need to get shoved out from the corner of the closet they're hiding in and assert themselves. So that's kinda what I'm doing right now.  I'm trying to take those plans out of the closet,  see if they actually still fit, and then put 'em on and see if there's any swagger (as you kids say) left in this middle-aged doofus.

Answers TBD.