Sunday, March 31, 2013

Beyond The Mojang GDC Party Controversy. Meet My Sister, Trinity - A Model Who Gets "Paid To Party"

Last week at GDC, the epic-sounding “.party()” thrown by Mojang, the studio behind Minecraft, came under scrutiny for hiring girls - presumably models - to attend and mingle with guests. Kotaku’s account of the event cited a number of tweets from male developers who were uncomfortable or just plain disgusted to find models hanging out in the VIP room, as if Notch had hired them escorts without asking ahead of time if that would be cool. The introductory paragraph of the Kotaku report uses the phrase “paid companions”, which sounds 20 kinds of sketchy.

When I first stumbled upon the article, my outrage needle didn’t quiver, nevermind go spinning violently into the red zone. One of my younger sisters is a model based in New York City and I immediately recognised this type of gig as one that she’s occasionally been hired to do. I could remember her talking about various parties she’d been hired to attend, and I understood there was nothing shady about the practice. It's no more subversive than a film production hiring attractive men and women to be extras milling around in the background of a shot. None of these actors and models are expected to bed the key grip after shooting wraps.

I’m wary of sounding overly glib. It’s understandable why people are still on high alert about ways in which the game industry is creating an environment that’s hostile to current or potential female members. The discussions about sexism in our industry prompted by the #1ReasonWhy Twitter hashtag have been both pointed and productive. But is this Mojang party a justifiable cause for offense?

I thought it might be illuminating for people following the Mojang story to hear directly from my sister Trinity (@TrinityLaurel), who, in the loaded parlance whirling around this discussion, gets “paid to party”. The way I see it, a little demystification goes a long way. Also, selfishly, this is the first time I’ve ever had an excuse to formally interview a sibling of mine on a work-related matter. Trinity's professional world and mine rarely overlap. She’s an educated, beautiful, professional, self-assured woman and I’m really proud of the career she’s carved out for herself. If she lived and worked in San Francisco, some of my favourite indie developers might have even had the pleasure of getting to know her at last week's Mojang party.

After the jump, I speak to her in detail about what's involved in getting hired to attend parties such as Mojang's GDC shindig, why staffing models at events isn't like running an escort service, what kind of hourly rate such gigs pay (spoiler: it ain't $300/hour!), and whether or not she finds it plausible that Mojang could be ignorant of the fact that models had been hired to balance the gender ratio at their party.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Drop7, Or Why Is It So Difficult to Put to Bed the Suspicion of Cosmic Agency?

I have a 12-minute walk to work, which is just about enough time to squeeze in a single game. I’m that annoying guy who almost plows into you on the sidewalk because he’s staring a hole in his smartphone. But I’m not scanning text messages. I’m playing Drop7, and it’s serious business. If there’s any reaction elicited, it’s barely audible muttering at a grey disc I’ve worked tirelessly to crack open, only to reveal the most unhelpful numbered piece relative to my given predicament.

Playing Drop7 during my walk to and from work each day shifts the game from amusement into a more intimate category: ritual. This means the game always occupies at least some narrow portion of my day. And this steady exposure means it’s always hovering on the periphery of thought. If I’m mentally teasing apart an an issue, Drop7 will occasionally insinuate itself into the conversation - “Sooo...what are you guys talking about?”

Lately I’ve been thinking about the hardwired impulses that prompt humans to suspect divine agency in matters that function on blind chance. If one of my devoutly religious parents bumps into an old friend, they’ll refer to it as a “divine appointment”. God was mysteriously guiding their steps so they’d encounter that person. If something bad happens, it's God coughing loudly to get their attention for some reason that it’s up to them to suss out. Or it's a test. Or it's a loving, corrective measure. If something good happens, it was a blessing. If they find a parking spot right in front of the grocery store on a rainy afternoon, it was God effectively saying, “Don’t worry, I got this.”

In the believer's mind, nothing is outside of God’s divine governance. The world’s orbit feels tighter as a result, more prescribed, less erratic. It’s reassuring to believe that even lamentable circumstances have some cosmic purpose, however inscrutable. In his book Breaking the Spell, which examines religion as a natural phenomenon, philosopher Daniel Dennett teases apart the evolutionary benefits of assuming agency with knee-jerk swiftness. He gives the example of a dog curled up by the window, dozing on a winter day. Outside a lump of snow becomes dislodged from the roof and falls with a loud thud to the ground. The dog springs to its feet instinctively and growls, believing it to be some stalking predator’s footfall. The dog interpreted agency where there was none, and his survival chances increased ever so slightly as a result. If it had been a bear, he would’ve been alert and ready to respond to the threat.

I notice the vestiges of this evolutionary hardwiring when I suffer the unraveling of a Drop7 round. The puzzle pieces hatching from the grey discs are randomised by some algorithm I don’t understand, yet it’s impossible to shake the feeling that the game is toying with me in some conscious, deliberate way. The best-laid plans of even the most talented Drop7 player get utterly scuppered when a crust of tightly bunched 1s form an impenetrable shell over the field of play, making it impossible to excavate deeper into the bedrock of discs concealed beneath. It’s what my little brother and I affectionately christened 'the death knell’ when we played Tetris together while roommates in college - the point in a game where you know there’s absolutely no way to climb out of your current predicament. And playing Drop7 is like opening a Matryoshka doll constructed out of an endless series of nested predicaments.

Much like in life, things can be going extremely well - perfectly, in fact - and will just suddenly implode without warning. The swings of fortune in Drop7 are enough to make you tear your hair out in clumps like fistfuls of garden weeds. You can be doing everything right, executing a plan with discipline and precision and then the random lottery of pieces will abruptly hatch a doomsday sequence of pieces (1-1-1 is Drop7's equivalent of 6-6-6). It puts you in the mind of Job who’s muddling along, enjoying a prosperous life until one day God lets Lucifer start using him like a lab rabbit from a PETA advert, seeing if Job will deny God after having a sufficient volume of shampoo squirted into his eye. I confess to frequently imagining Drop7's designer Frank Lantz serving as precisely this sort of lab technician.

I once read an interview with an Apple engineer who worked on the iPod's shuffle feature. He mentioned being repeatedly confronted with iPod owners who were convinced that their MP3 player had a particular taste in music. They refused to believe that the shuffle function was truly random, and that there wasn’t some sentient little elf living inside it who decided it would be funny to cue up Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” at the most consummately inopportune moment. One customer swore up and down that his iPod actually preferred funk music. It was pure silliness. But there it was, cropping up again, that impulse to ascribe agency to a random universe.

There’s a freedom in striving to shuffle off that primal suspicion, both in life and in games. It’s the reason I can continue to play Drop7 each morning on my walk to work, and again on my way home without spiking my old iPhone 3GS onto the pavement when the death knell gongs. The path between home and work is so predictable, so circumscribed and orderly. How beautiful that we can find room in our lives to welcome something so potentially fizzy and shambolic. Sometimes things go well, sometimes things go poorly, and eventually the game ends. Finding a way to let those three realities hang gracefully in balance with one another is the goal. After each new random complication arises, Drop7 waits patiently, as mute as a mountain.

It’s up to me, and only me, to decide what on earth I'm going to do next.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Jetpack Joyride High-Score Tips

A friend recently asked me what strategy I used in Jetpack Joyride to crack the global top 10 (I've since slipped to 60-somethingth place or so). Figured I'd cc: the tips here on my blog in case they can help any other players boost their distances.

You can only use a single revive and a single bomb from your stock on each run. So you have to rely on also catching a revive on the final spin and a few score-nudging blasts. Obviously when you get out to 6K or 7K metres, you stockpile quite a few spin tokens. I think in my 10.8K high score run, I bagged 14 spin tokens total. If you're going for high scores and don't have both a revive and a big blast in your arsenal, you're doing it wrong.

The rest is all about maximising the distance you get each time you pick up a vehicle and then surviving long enough to get to that next precious vehicle pick-up. I've gotten adept enough with the vehicles to average close to 800m or so before colliding with a zapper or missile.

As far as screen position, you have to use short taps to keep a middle cruising altitude. It's the only way you can react quickly enough to the zappers. Also, when you ride the floor or ceiling, you have a tendency to do really wide swoops, which are hard to stabilise in time to deal with upcoming obstacles.

I'm playing on iPhone, which puts me at a slight disadvantage in terms of obscuring approaching obstacles with my finger. The solution I settled on is cradling the phone in my left hand and tapping the screen on the bottom middle with my right index finger. I find that my index finger allows me more tapping precision than settling for thumb mashes, which are inevitably slower and clumsier.

I use the rainbow jetpack but not for any mechanical advantage. (As far as I can tell, the mechanical differences between the jetpacks are imagined. As the progression speed ramps up, the game scales Barry's reaction speed accordingly so the physics morph in tandem.) I use the rainbow jetpack precisely because it doesn't kill any scientists on the ground below. It's too tempting to watch their funny bumbling death animation, which can pull your eyes away from the onrushing zappers.

Hope this helps. Good luck!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Master Cheese

Was the Halo: Reach menu screen painted by Thomas Kinkade?


Could be a single canvas. (Click to enlarge)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Throwing Shapes: An Informal Tetris Lexicon

When we lived together briefly during college, my younger brother Josh and I played a lot of Tetris. Like a whole lot of Tetris.

We played so much Tetris, in fact, that we quickly found ourselves needing a more nuanced language to discuss the types of scenarios we encountered in the game. I touched on our shared Tetris vocabulary in "Player One, Player Two," the essay I wrote for Kill Screen Issue 0 (which is now sold out, unfortunately). In the interest of posting frivolous b-side material on the Internet, I figured I'd post a more fleshed-out lexicon of the words and phrases that emerged during our play.

One last note of context: we only played 8-bit NES Tetris and only 'Type B,' which involves trying to complete a quota of 25 lines on a level that has been seeded with a jumble of randomly generated block clutter. We played 'Height 5' on each level, which also happens to be the maximum amount of initial wreckage allowed, because anything else would've been a sign of weakness and Heights 1 - 4 exist solely for tongue-chewing hobbyists.

Monday, February 21, 2011

If She Dies, You Die

My wife Summer is away for several weeks. She headed off to Florida with the baby for an extended family visit. Ain’t much sunshine in the UK to begin with, but to paraphrase singer Bill Withers, the pall certainly feels more pronounced when she’s away.

Good luck avoiding the reminders. On a stroll across town to the library, I might pass a shop selling a mustard-coloured couch she adores. Or a fudge place that sets her sweet tooth tingling. Silence offers its own reminder, that hollow space our conversation would occupy if we were walking together. When it’s time to crash at the end of the day, I instinctively apply the method I gleaned from an Amy Hempel short story: I sleep on Summer's side of the bed so the empty space I'm left facing is my own.

Sometimes during these longer separations, I’m stricken by the thought of what it would be like to outlive your spouse. The withering sorrow Johnny Cash felt after June’s passing, hastening his own death not long after. Though Summer and I haven’t been married nearly as long as those two, I can appreciate that sense of feeling utterly conjoined, like your partner is a siamese twin whose heart you share, and pumps the blood keeping you alive.

If she dies, you die.

Strangely enough, I’ve played two games recently that have used this very concept as a gameplay mechanic—Ico and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.