2018 Plans

And thus ends 2017: all things considered, a rather disappointing year.

Looking back, it was probably the third worst year of my life (the worst being 2013 when I developed my chronic illness, the second worst being 2014 when I was coming to terms with it). I spent half of 2017 in a deeply toxic working environment which had a significant effect on my mental and physical health. I managed to get out, but became completely burned out from writing my book, and after that a complication from the life-threatening illness/injury/trauma of 2013 developed, and triggered a profound change in my emotional and mental well-being, which – six months on, and a very tough six months it has been – I’m finally now starting to get something of a handle on. As long as nothing else happens (I’m too young for this shit, frankly), I think I’m on the road to recovery now. I’m now settled in Canada, working in a great environment and enjoying being in a great new relationship, and these are damned good foundations for getting everything else back on track.

So, what did get done in 2017, and what will get done in 2018? Well:

 

2017

Finished My First Book. Much of the first half of this year was spent finishing my upcoming first book, The Unpredictability of Gameplay, which is now officially “in press”. Situated somewhere between game studies, game design, and a number of wider engagements with the history of play, various kinds of gambling, and a range of other elements, the volume seeks to develop a framework for thinking through the different “kinds” of unpredictability that exist in games, and in turn to explore a number of interesting cultures or implementations of unpredictability (procedural content generation being one of the case studies!). It was a challenging task this year to write it, which definitely contributed significantly to my burnout, but I’m very happy with the final product. More will appear here about the book once we have a fixed publication date, but with my first ever monograph completed, it’s definitely one of my big successes of 2017.

Almost Finished 0.8. So it didn’t get finished, but a lot of extra work did get done, and it is closer to release than it was a year ago. The NPCs are basically finished, the conversation system is basically finished; this release has been a huge task, and far bigger than I ever imagined, but I’m pleased with what I got done in 2017, even if it wasn’t as much as I hoped. In the extremely difficult circumstances throughout the year, I’m happy with the coding I managed.

Moved To Canada. In 2017 I finally moved out of my home country of the UK and have now settled in Edmonton up in northern Canada, where I now work at the University of Alberta. Moving oneself 4,200 miles away is not just a major practical effort in terms of the transporting of objects, booking of flights, and all that, but also a tremendous administrative one – whereas administrative things build up piecemeal when living in one’s native country, moving to a new country means that one has to do everything, from health to housing from insurance to payment from bank accounts to mobile phones, all at the same time. This is then further complicated by the fact that some of these are contingent on some of the others, making the entire task quite dreadfully confusing. Nevertheless, this is now all done, and I’m comfortably settled in here; this was a big task which was simultaneously exciting and daunting, and I’m glad it’s done.

Wrote Many Many Papers and Chapters. Ordinarily I wouldn’t class this as an “achievement”, being just the standard activity of a (young) academic, but in such a hard year I feel that it is actually worth mentioning. I got out around four journal papers and at least that many book chapters – here’s a quick list of them, and some links for where you can read them if you’re interested.

“It’s like the gold rush”: the lives and careers of professional video game streamers on Twitch.tv. This paper is the first paper to emerge from my ongoing research project into Twitch, and focuses on the experiences of professionals at becoming professionals, being professionals, and how this status changes and reshapes their lives.

Gamification: What it is, and how to fight it. This paper was co-authored with my colleague Jamie Woodcock, who I will also be co-authoring my second book with, and in it we explored two different kinds of gamification, how to fight against the mainstream of gamification, and what a “true” gamification really looks like.

Gaming-value and culture-value: understanding how players account for video game purchases. This paper was co-authored with Yinyi Luo, a late-stage doctoral student and good friend, in which we examined why people pay for pre-order and why people buy games on Steam sales (and the like) with no intention of ever actually playing them.

Making science fiction real: neoliberalism, real-life and esports in Eve Online. This paper was published just a day or two before the end of the year, and examines some of the ideological content of Eve Online, how playing Eve affects the “real-world” lives of its players, and Eve’s esports competitions!

If you don’t have University access, some of them are already available on my academia.edu page, and the others will be in the next few days. Finally, alongside these papers, I also worked on a lot of book chapters; here are some of the books I either wrote something for in 2017 (to be published in 2018), or had published in 2017:

As above; although it’s standard practice for my job, in such a hard year, I’m glad I still managed to get out such a large volume of work. Quite a few papers I wanted to write didn’t get finished, but more than enough were.

 

2018

In previous years I’ve almost always met the lofty goals I’ve set myself, but for 2018, I’m going to tone it down a little, and focus on a small number of essential things. There are only really a few core “output” goals I have (I’m not including goals here like spending time with my new partner, keeping fit and healthy, that kind of stuff, and nor am I including publishing papers, as that’s just a normal part of the academic life). But, nevertheless, I have four major objectives for 2018:

Release 0.8. This has to be done. It has been 90% finished for a year now, and it’s just getting ridiculous. My intention is to dedicate a significant block of March and April to getting 0.8 done, polished, bug-fixed, and finally released, and then I’ll be taking stock of my longer-term game design goals after that.

New Website. I think the time has come to move to a new website which more accurately reflects everything I do instead of just URR (especially as it is a smaller part of my time now than a year ago), and one with a new custom wordpress layout. I’m looking at a few possible domain names right now, but I’m pretty sure I know which one I’m going to settle on. This is an objective for some time around May or June or so this year, when I want to begin shifting everything over there. With URR becoming less of my focus, and my academic work becoming more of my focus, it seems strange to keep this as my domain name, honestly. Equally, it is a difficult one for people to read and make sense of, it’s difficult for people to say, and so forth, and I’ve run into this issue now more times than I can count. For the same reason, my Twitter account is now @mrj_games instead of my old account name, for this is both a more general handle, and a more easily-conveyed one as well. More on this in the next few months, but by the end of 2018 – hopefully more like the middle of 2018, but let’s see! – everything will be moved over there.

New Blog. Closely related to the above – as well as a new website that reflects more accurately my broader games interests, it is also time to reshape “the blog” in a similar way. There are two ways the blog will be reshaped, and two reasons for it. Firstly, the blog will continue to shift from a “dev blog” into a “dev and general games commentary blog”, and secondly, the blog will shift from a “weekly” blog into a “monthly” blog, and one without fixed monthly deadlines; a post will appear some time in each month, without precise timings enforced up-front.

The reasons for these changes are twofold. In the first case, although URR remains an active-project-on-hiatus and not an abandoned project, my academic games work is my central focus now, and will be indefinitely. This means my blog should reflect this, and should reflect what I’m spending most of my “games time” doing. In the second case, once the blog update schedule drifted away from weekly in 2017, I came to realise how much of a stressful pressure weekly updates had become. When I started the blog they were an exciting, enjoyable thing to look forward to every week, and something to help guide and centre my thoughts, but this is no longer the case. I’m not quite sure when this change took place – as with all gradual things, one only notices it when one is startled out of complacency and compares the present to the distant past – but it definitely did. This means I need a blog update schedule devoid of pressure, but one still with a degree of regularity, and monthly updates are definitely the way to go on that front.

So, as part of the transition to the new website, the shift to the new blog will take place in stages. Stage 1 will be continuing to post here as the new website is acquired and developed; Stage 2 will be co-posting everything on here and the new blog, but with a link over here that points to the new site; and then Stage 3 will be posting everything on the new blog, and putting up a front-page and top-of-blog notice on this site redirecting  readers to the new site. From that point on my intention will be to retain this website indefinitely (at least for quite some time) in order to direct interested readers to the new one, but posts will no longer appear here.

So yes: the new blog will be on a new website, will have a monthly update schedule, will cover general games commentary as well as game development, and will hopefully end up looking rather nicer than the present site does right now (not that there’s anything wrong with the WordPress standard, but it’s time for something a little more personalised, don’t you think?). I’m really excited about this relaunch, and there will be more information on it in the coming months.

Finish Book #2. My second book is already well under-way, on a more relaxed schedule than my first, and using a lot of important new knowledge I learned from the first book to help me write the second in a healthier manner. A proper announcement will be coming at some point a little down the line, perhaps once we have a cover to show, but basically the book is about Twitch, live streaming, and the labour politics of the games industry more generally, including that surrounding sponsorship, promotion, games reviewing, and the like. We’re (my co-author and I) currently hoping to have it released some time around the middle of 2019, as there’s a particular deadline we want to meet. Again, more on this soon!

Final Thoughts

So there you go: 2017 wasn’t the best, 2018 will hopefully better, but I’m scaling back on my ambitions in order to build things back up in a more sustainable way for the future. I’m excited for the future after a terrible year, and I hope you all are too. More from me soon!

Interlude II: The Interluding

Hello everyone! It has been a little while since the first Interlude, so I thought it would be appropriate to post a sequel.

Firstly, thank you all so much for the amazingly kind words on the other entry (and which I’ve had through email, Facebook, etc) – they really mean so much to me, and they are deeply deeply appreciated.

Secondly, I’ve now successfully moved to Canada, found a flat (or rather, an apartment), signed the contract, and done the majority of all the admin and bureaucracy stuff that comes from moving to an entirely different country; I still need to get a mobile phone that functions in this country, and there’s one or two University-admin things I need to complete, but otherwise I’m settled, moved, I’m “in the system” in the Canadian bureaucracy, and I’m getting ready to officially begin this job just a couple of days from now. This has been a pretty huge task in the last fortnight, but it’s now coming to an end.

Thirdly, on the health front, the physical symptoms are improving, and the psychological symptoms are (more slowly) also improving. Things are still tough, but I’m making some good choices to improve the newfound psychological difficulties this complication from my older illness has dumped on me. In the short-to-mid term, I think things might be on the up (slowly), but it’s always so hard to know.

Fourthly, here’s the cover for my upcoming book with Bloomsbury. I’m so happy with the design! I should have more information soon about an exact publication date, but there’s lots of roguelike-y goodness in there to be had.

Fifthly, any of you folks who are interested in Twitch and live streaming might want to read this paper I recently published about it – you can find a paywall-free version here. In it we explore the backgrounds of live streamers, the everyday work and labour of being a professional live streamer, and their hopes and fears about the future of their practice. This is part of a larger project on Twitch I’ve been developing alongside my colleague Jamie Woodcock in the last year, and we should have some more exciting stuff on this front to announce soon. Stay tuned.

So yes, that’s everything for now. I’ll hopefully be able to post more again once I have some kind of stability. I’ve also been thinking over some pretty fundamental questions about the website, how I blog, how often I blog, my general online visibility, these sorts of things, so there might be some big changes coming in the future (once I feel a little stronger). In the mean time, take care, everyone.

Interlude

Just a short one this week, to say: my apologies for the silence over the last month. A combination of an unexpectedly high workload (five different paper revisions to complete in a short time-span), along with caring for an extremely ill relative, and preparing to move 4200 miles across the globe in around three weeks, has been quite challenging. I also managed to send myself on a trip to the Accident and Emergency part of my local hospital, which was all totally excellent, but has put me in bed recovering for quite a few days. And, to top it all off, a side-effect of the far more serious illness I got several years ago has just manifested; it’s not life-threatening, but it’s intensely dispiriting and depressing. I’m still alive (barely) but just absolutely swamped under everything right now; the injury and the new medical issue are both just extra things I could really, really, do without. I thought the past couple of months would be the proper restart on URR’s development, but apparently that isn’t going to happen just yet.

Nevertheless, I’ll be back to 0.8 as soon as possible. Things have to stabilise sooner or later… right?

Finishing 0.8 Part VIII

I’ve now started work on speech variables, which is to say the parts of speech – such as “[god]” or “[rulername]” – which cannot be stored and simply reproduced, but needed to be generated each time they are called in a conversation, and will vary significantly based on context (reply, question, talking about oneself, talking about somebody else, and so forth). These are a pretty crucial part of the conversation system, since it is often through these that the player will get information about the specifics of the game world they’re exploring, and these will enable the player to ask questions about specific artworks, specific nations, and so forth, whilst ensuring that NPCs give logical replies to these kinds of enquiries. Most words are stable within one civilization: which is to say, everyone from one civilization might say “make” instead of “create”, or might be “homeland” rather than “nation”, and so forth. These give every culture a distinctive way of speaking, and in testing thus far they do come across in very unique ways. However, there are always going to be words in their sentences which have to be selected anew every time they are used, and it is these we are now tackling:

For example, “[holybookauthor]” would refer to who wrote the holy book of a particular religion (if known); “[monasteryfield]” would refer to what particular kinds of books a monastery produces (when we have books implemented!); “[mercyears]” refers to how long a mercenary has been a mercenary (that is “merc years”, not “mercy ears”!); “[armyrole]” refers to what a particular soldier the player is talking with does in the army; and so on. Whenever anyone tries to say one of these, the game needs to be able to look up what exact phrase it should use, which means a unique set of look-ups in the game’s databases for every single one of these. It might mean checking something to do with that particular NPC – such as their age or simply what religion they worship – but it might also require the dredging-up of information from a religion, a culture, a geographical location, a series of historical events, and so forth. Given the central role of the speech system to the game and to the player’s abilities to actually gain access to the information they need, it was clearly going to be vital that these systems are detailed, comprehensive, and sufficiently varied to maintain interest over what can be a long playthrough. Equally, as above, almost all of these are going to need unique bodies of code designed to pull out the correct bit of information – and it is this I’ve worked on this week.

The most challenging task this week was, frankly, reminding myself of how the code for sentence generation works, and finding the right “place” in the code to switch out “[god]” for “the Grey Goddess of the Mountains”, or whatever. Whereas for all the last few weeks I have been primarily or entirely adding more content to (or on top of) existing systems, here I was developing some new systems. I had a bunch of comments, and most things have quite logical labels, but there was still a certain bemusement looking at the sentence generation code again and working out how everything actually slots in. Once I’d figured all this out, however, it became clear how I needed to implement these elements, and what elements should be stored and retrieved from which places in the code and the game’s data structure. Last week, I shifted the code that I vaguely call the sentence-converter, which is to say the code which takes a default sentence and then makes it sound different for each nation. This week I’ve also shifted the code which handles these new variables away from where it originally was, which didn’t make a huge amount of sense, and put it alongside the other. Now, when the game cycles through each word in a sentence to choose the correct cultural version, it will also find the sentence variables in the same process, and decide what each one should become at the appropriate time. This is a good foundation for building on next week, and I’ve already begun to sketch out some of the functions that will select the appropriate words and terms for relevant parts of sentence generation.

I have also decided that the system whereby an NPC looks at you and draws judgements about you – see this entry for more – is something that will appear in 0.9, not 0.8. This is because although one can add and remove clothing at this point, one cannot actually gain access to the clothing of other NPCs yet, because a) we have no shops or currency and b) there’s no way to ask people for clothes, have people give you other clothes, even attack people for clothes, etc. So, for now, everyone will just (correctly) believe you are from your home nation. I’ve therefore implemented a placeholder function with space for a full assessment of who they think you are, which can be easily expanded in 0.9.

Lastly, as part of this, some different NPC classes will also give you different greetings; this is part of the placeholder above, and will be expanded in 0.9, but there are now some variations in greetings according to what kind of NPC you’re talking to. A priest, therefore, is likely to comment on religion when they say hello; a servant or slave will be especially shy when they greet you; and so forth. Again, this will be expanded in 0.9 to integrate with the NPC’s judgements about who you are when you talk to them.

Next Week

Next week: with the system in place, I’ll start working on handling the variables themselves, and drawing on the appropriate information, in appropriate contexts, to complete these square-bracketed parts of NPC speech. See you all then!

Finishing the Book, Part I of I

Well, it’s done. My first book – The Unpredictability of Gameplay, due to be published in 2018 by Bloomsbury Academic – is finished. I’m now just putting the final touches to the formatting on the footnotes and the bibliography, and then in the next few days finally submitting it to the publisher. At my suggestion they have kindly created an absolutely beautiful front cover for the work, which I can’t wait to see printed. I’m not sure whether I can post it here yet, but the moment I can, I will.

As long-time followers of the blog will know, this has been quite an undertaking, both contributing to and being made more challenging by the pretty severe burnout I’ve experienced in the last six or so months. This week I’ve had to crunch absolutely on finishing the book, and although this is only a small blip in my overall return to coding related over the past several weeks now, it has meant that things haven’t moved on from last week: which is to say, I haven’t yet fixed a few small remaining issues with speech generation, and then begun to move onto generating the variables in sentences, such as “[god]” or “[painting]” or “[place]” and so forth. As such, this week I instead wanting to reflect a little bit on the writing process – as I naturally haven’t written a full-length academic monograph before – and talk a little about what I wanted to explore in the work, what I’ve learned which will stand me in good stead for future work, and some thoughts on the future monographs that are presently flying around my brain.

The Book

As long-time readers will remember, the book is entitled The Unpredictability of GameplayI first came up with this idea at least three years ago, when I was approached by a fellow academic who edits a book series, who had heard of me and both my game design + game scholarship work, and was interested in getting a book from me. Originally I pitched a book specifically and solely about roguelikes. This was a series about game genres, and nobody had written in the series about roguelikes – nor, for that matter, other related areas like strategy games, the always-nebulous “simulation games”, and the like. I described what this project might look like, and although the editor was interested, it soon became clear that my thought process was inching toward something a little grander, and more conceptual, theoretical and “foundational”, rather than a study specifically of roguelikes. I think this was made clearer when I had a paper published on roguelikes, which I think is the first academic paper I ever had published, which showed me that there was a “market” for roguelike scholarship outside of books. So instead I drifted away from publishing in that series, and instead to publishing a standalone volume, which metamorphosed into a way of addressing a longstanding linguistic vexation. This problem, in essence, was over how we use terms like “chance” or “luck” to describe any kind of mechanical unpredictability in games, and the incredibly breadth of categories like “games of chance” or “games of luck” that encompass everything from slot machines to Dwarf Fortress. These categories – to put it mildly – seemed somewhat too broad. Consequently, the opportunity seemed to be there for unpicking these categories in more detail, and developing a useful framework for understanding perhaps the different kinds of chance, luck, or whatever we might want to call them.

After more discussion with Bloomsbury Academic, the book thereby shifted into an attempt to unpick these categories and find ways to distinguish between different implementations of unpredictability (what in the book I came to call “locations” of unpredictability within a game’s design). As soon as I confirm with Bloomsbury what I can post here, I’ll hopefully be able to post a contents list and that type of thing, but succinctly, the first two-thirds of the book primarily develops a four-part typology for thinking about unpredictability in games, depending on “where” in the game that unpredictability is found (roguelikes have all four, some other genres do not), and then the final third looks at three “case studies” where I think the typology is particularly useful: procedural generation, replay and grinding, and things that players do in order to remove or negate the unpredictability in a game (such as gameplay seeds or save scumming). The idea is therefore to first develop a more detailed way to think about game unpredictability, and then to hopefully demonstrate the analytic value of the typology I suggest in the earlier part of the book. This structure also works because although the book’s primary target audience is game scholars, and the theoretical foundations of the work are pretty dense, I’m also hoping that the work will have some impact for game designers, and indeed, game players. As I look over the final product now, I’m confident that the book does what I set out to do, and with the quality of writing I wanted – although it was certainly not an easy road.

Time and Workload

This book, even once it was my primary working focus, took me around six months of concentrated work. This came after over a year of more general work around it, reading relevant literature, sketching it out in greater detail, learning about some of the case studies I wanted to know but I wasn’t especially knowledgeable about, and so forth. Although I had scheduled ample time and energy, it was still more demanding than expected, and this was an important lesson to learn. So much of writing a book comes not from the actual content itself, and the marshalling of ideas and the analysis of examples and so forth, but rather from all the stuff in-between. Do all of the chapters follow logically from one another? Are there any glaring gaps in what I’ve written? Have I accidentally missed crucial citations? Am I repeating myself enough that people can keep track of where they are in the work, but not so much that the reader gets bored of reading the same signposting statements over and over? My doctorate, although the same length, by its nature a) was written over a longer period and b) was something that had to adhere to a slightly different set of rules. Dissertations are like books, but they remain different, and undeniably a simpler task; one simply has to produce a good piece of work which at most half a dozen people might read, rather than producing the best piece of work one possibly can, and a piece of work that a large number of people will read. These differences make the writing process into an intense and often challenging process, but also a tremendously rewarding one now that I look back at the final product, and one which also taught me a lot about writing monographs in the future; how to structure my time, and what elements to prioritise which might be less natural and inevitably more laboured than the purely intellectual component.

As a result, I’ve decided to make a few changes for when, probably next year, I commit to a new book project. My next monograph – assuming the proposal is accepted, of course! – will be a) co-authored with a colleague, and b) shorter in length anyway (we’re looking at around 80,000 – 85,000 words). This means, in essence, that I will be writing half a book next time around, and a half-a-book done in tandem with a friend and colleague one can bounce ideas off and who can take over when none isn’t in the mood (and vice versa), all things which I anticipate lessening the mental load significantly. And, of course, again, I’m only writing half as much. Even though (if we get the contract) we won’t be writing this until well into 2018, I’m confident that these shifts will prevent the project from coming to so completely dominate my life as it has in the last six or so months. Equally, the work we’re currently developing the proposal for is primarily empirical rather than theoretical in nature, which – from my experience writing journal papers – is a significant help in the writing process. Marshalling existing theoretical insights and concepts to give sense and meaning to one’s data and the analysis one wishes to perform is, inevitably, a project that is not simpler, as such, but certainly one which requires the author to step less determinedly outside of the existing boundaries of ideas. As such, looking back now, I feel writing this first book has allowed me to establish a kind of “base line”, if you will, for future work, and one which I think will be extremely useful going forward.

The Scope of the Question

Lastly, I was struck by simply the sheer number of previous engagements with somewhat-related topics out there: far, far more people have considered unpredictability in games (understood broadly) than I had imagined, even in the fairly-comprehensive review of existing literature I did in the production of the initial book proposal. Naturally, any monograph is going to draw on a tremendous amount of previous work, but in the process of developing a truly comprehensive look at the field I found myself citing a larger number of other scholars or game designers than, I think, almost any other book-length work I drew on. In part, I think this is a consequence of wanting to produce an explicitly foundational work for thinking about game unpredictability, which therefore necessitates making sure I’m being exhaustively detailed about other relevant literature; but also, in part, I was amazed by how much previous work there has been examining game unpredictability – yet without unpicking sweeping categories like “games of chance” or “games of luck” in greater detail! This ranged from anthropological work looking at ancient board games, examinations of the rise of casinos, or the growth of statistical thinking and games of chance in the Renaissance, or the relationship between unpredictable games and religious divination, the role of unpredictability in game theory, and far more besides.

This led to an experience quite unlike that of simply writing a paper, because although one is forced into brevity for a literature review, that sits in keeping with the nature of an academic paper more generally. One’s focus is expected to be more narrow, and thus a shorter literature review is not just appropriate for the length of the work, but also for the far more precise focus of any paper compared to any monograph-length work. By contrast, here – both due to the scope of my project, and the tremendous range of previous work in the area – a truly sweeping review of existing work was needed. This only continued to grow as time went by, eventually far exceeding any possible epistemological boundaries I might have imagined at the project’s start. This, equally, struck me as a crucial lesson about the delineation of one’s project in a book, and something I think I would have benefited more at the start of this particular project. Although the final product is as good as it could have been, the process could definitely have been improved by applying what I’ve learned here about how profoundly vast the body of work one draws upon in a book-length project can become, and in the importance of circumscribing more clearly the boundaries in which you are going to work. Again, as above, because my ambition was to write a foundational work this was inevitably going to need to offer the more reader an even more thorough review of the existing space than most, but looking back over the process, a tighter focus in the future will definitely aid in writing.

Final Thoughts

Overall, and despite a slightly bumpy road, I’m extremely happy with the final product. Numerous proof-readers (academics, game designers, and others) have been extremely positive in their comments whilst also giving valuable critical feedback I’ve since incorporated into the final version. At the same time, the process of writing monographs is now infinitely clearer to me than it was two years ago, and I am confident that moving forward it will be a process that will more streamlined, and less damaging to my work-life balance, than it was in this first iteration. As above, a second work is currently in development (to write in late 2018), and I also pretty much know what my third book will be (2019/2020?) – I’m excited about both of these projects, but even now I’m already applying the lessons learned here to their very earliest stages of development, aiming to build on my strengths I discovered in the process of writing this first book, and mitigate, streamline or evade some of the challenges or problems. As for TUOG, I’ll be posting more about the work as soon as I can and I’ve checked what I’m allowed to put up here, including, hopefully, an introductory chapter. In the mean time, this coming weekend I’ll be back to working on URR’s sentence variables: see you all then!