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Mike Sugarbaker

Roll for emotional damage

4 min read

I should probably tell you lot, who out of all my self-selecting audiences most closely resemble The World, about story games.

What’s a story game? Here’s my rough working definition. Story games are what you get when you take tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, RIP OUT the cold, dead heart of wargaming that they were born with, and replace it (in whole or in part) with the tenets of improv theater. (Disclaimer: story gaming is still a geek culture, and like all geek cultures, it can get contentious. So let me say before going further that my definition is subjective and not authoritative. I am not the Lorax, I do not speak for the trees.*)

Now, I enjoy a good fighty romp through a wargamey role-playing game as much as any other geek. That sort of game has a long and healthy future ahead of it. But to go back to Chris Crawford, it’s awfully objecty, isn’t it? It’s about abstractions and numbers rather than being about human life and stories. Now, it’s possible to use those abstractions and numbers and get a story out of your play. The system just doesn’t help you much, if at all, and can even work against you.

Some folks try this for a while and then come to the conclusion that rules can’t help you get real roleplaying done, so they play freeform, and talk about how horrible it is to roll dice ever. I don’t want to disparage freeform too much – you can find lots of great freeform being done online in the fandom scene, for example – but in its way, it is just as bad about leaving story to chance. If you have great, fearless players, you can get great stories, but just as often, you’ll get stasis and frustration as people flounder without any creativity-fueling constraint. And some people, such as myself, just aren’t that great at making compelling story on the fly and could use some support, some structure.

This is where story games come in. Here’s an example: my current favorite game, Primetime Adventures, is designed to make your gaming group play the way Joss Whedon writes. The players create a fictional TV show together, and create characters who each have their Screen Presence (a number from 1 to 3) mapped out over the course of several episodes. You choose an episode to play, and then players take turns setting scenes in which the conflict, if any, is going to be centered on that player’s character’s personal issues. That’s right: you don’t have a sheet with your guy’s strength and charisma and armor and weapons. You have a sheet with his screen presence and his issues. And his relationships.

And yes, you roll dice. (Or in PTA’s case, you draw cards, but whatever.) You use rules, sometimes detailed ones, that were designed specifically to help you get story. And it works. When you play Primetime Adventures, you get a good story. Sometimes a great story. You don’t get it in the same form as you would on TV or in a book or on a stage; you get it with dialogue that might not be flawless, and a lot of chatter and some false starts. But you make a story together, about real human matters, and you make it yourselves, for yourselves.

There are dozens of these games now, but until very recently there have been few efforts by the story-games community to build an accessible starting place for people who don’t already play traditional RPGs to learn about story gaming. That’s why I’m pleased to announce that I’m curating the Story Games Codex over at, by kind permission of that site’s proprietor Andy Kitkowski. We’re not done yet by any means, but we’re building out a catalog of available story games and a whole lot of links to actual play reports and resources. Come on by and see some of the strange new forms folks have been building – and please start a conversation here or on the wiki if you’d like to know more.

* Really I only included this disclaimer so I could say that.

Mike Sugarbaker

Cup of expensiveness

4 min read

So I just paid $5.50 for a small cup of coffee. It wasn’t an espresso drink of any kind, no milk, no flavorings, no nothing. Just eight ounces of very rare coffee.

Specifically, it was Panama Esmerelda Reserva, which sells for $103.90 a pound at retail, post-roast, whole bean. I spied it at Stumptown when I stopped in for my regular half-pound. Stumptown has garnered some national fame for popularizing and supporting single-source, often organic coffee varieties, going beyond fair-trade coffee to things like coffee auctions and being part of the special incentive award Cup of Excellence. They’re the ones who’ve been providing beans to Ritual Roasters, that overnight hipster legend back down in the Mission in SF, while they get up to speed on roasting their own. They get talked about in the same breath as a handful of other roasters across the nation as part of a supposed “third revolution” in coffee, one that “treats coffee like wine.”

And so here was some coffee priced like wine. Hype, or real revolution? For the price of a roughly equal amount of decent wine at a restaurant, I could find out. What would you have done?

Okay, don’t answer that. But I did it.

The best part about getting coffee by the cup at Stumptown’s Annex is the Clover machine, which looks like a cross between a home espresso maker and an adorable robot. Spread a couple tablespoons of grounds on its disc-shaped platform, and watch it sink a few inches down to be showered with hot water from the nozzle above. After a few seconds, the water drains and the platform rises again, covered with used grounds ready to be scraped away. After a total of 90 seconds, your cup fills with supposedly perfect coffee. So hey, right there, I paid for a little quality performance art.

But how was the brew? Well... I did let it cool as I walked home with it (and with K’s hazelnut soy latte). That might have made a difference. Anything might have; as I entered, the baristas were just cleaning up from the daily 3:00 cupping, in which hot water is poured over grounds of each variety in the shop, in two separate cups for each. Why two cups of each? Because one bad bean can throw off a cup of high-end coffee, so when seriously evaluating, you always make two cups as insurance.

Maybe I got a bad bean. Or maybe the subtleties of Panama Esmerelda are just lost on me (a real possibility – I’m the kind of foodie that still loves Rice-a-Roni deep in his heart). Or... maybe we’re just looking at a little piece of tulipomania here. As the “third wave” coffee trend gains momentum, more and more coffee buyers are going to be competing for the work of these small growers. Which is awesome for the growers, and probably good for coffee lovers as a whole, but it does mean that now and again, a small crop will get bid up to unreasonable levels. At least, it will if it turns out there’s a market for premium coffee that costs seven times more than the other premium coffee.

I’m not saying it was a bad cup of joe. It was good, even great. Did it beat sweetie’s double hazelnut soy latte? Well, yes it did, because hazelnut syrup always tastes kinda fake. But if I’d gone down to Pix and gotten her a Hazy Latte with their housemade hazelnut butter, it’d have been a close race indeed.

Mike Sugarbaker

Test positive

2 min read

I got a new full-time gig recently, ending a six-month-long period of comfortable, underemployed lollygagging. Last time I had a period like that was in the bust times of 2001 and 2002. It was a little less comfortable that time, but really, the only remarkable thing about those two times of my life is how little I got done. Although actually, I had pretty decent-sized independent programming projects both times. Didn’t finish either one, though. And I had time to win NaNoWriMo and Narmo, respectively. But I shake my head at all the time I wasted. I slept in a lot. I surfed the web a lot. I wasn’t depressed exactly, but I wasn’t making positive effort for the good.

I’ve just gone to Origins and Gen Con, the nation’s two biggest game conventions. I’ve gone to Origins many times, but this year I resolved to do it differently: I signed up for a couple of the scheduled, limited-enrollment game events that these things have. Also, when not in a specific event but just wandering around, I resolved to start saying yes to people who ask me if I want to play stuff. I used to think to myself, “I could sit down to a random game right now and find out if it’s any good, but there might be something more fun around the next corner. I don’t want to be tied down.” This, of course, resulted in my never doing anything. And guess what? If you don’t do anything because you’re afraid of doing the wrong thing, you are doing the wrong thing. And how did I do? Okay. It turns out that it’s pretty natural to shy away from people who want something from you. But I did pretty well at Gen Con, where I played a lot of games influenced by improv theater and its tradition of “yes, and.”

Saying “yes” to things; making positive effort for the good. Different things, but also the same thing.

Mike Sugarbaker

Less game

5 min read

Hearing Chris Crawford talk at the Northwest Games Festival was pretty eye-opening. First, I wasn’t aware that he’d shipped code; second, I wasn’t really cognizant of the size and shape of his ambitions. Basically, he wants to take the most ambitious, mainstream IF you could imagine, and surpass it. He seems to think that technology designed for building puzzle boxes out of words isn’t really suitable for making games about “people, not things.” He might be right, but let’s talk about that mantra there – “people, not things” – for which he (nearly) named an interesting essay. Herewith:

It is instructive to divide people into two groups: “object-people” and “people-people”. The first group loves the problems of the physical world, while the second group prefers to live in the social universe. Object-people prefer to focus their attentions on problems of a physical nature; they see the world as a fascinating collection of puzzles to be solved. People-people are more interested in the human condition; they tune into the fine shades of meaning of human behavior. […]

The people who do play with computers are object-people, and they prefer “objecty” entertainment, such as puzzles, resource management, strategy, spatial reasoning, and so forth. That’s why computer games now are so “objecty”. Their idea of a good story is something with a good puzzle or a mystery or something that can be analytically solved. Plot? Character? Let’s not get mushy! […]

In the early days of personal computing, object-people made up the vast majority of computer users, but with each passing year we see more and more people-people entering the market, and they will have no interest in objecty entertainment. This implies a growing market potential for interactive entertainment that does not emphasize objecty elements (strategy, puzzles, resource management and the like), but instead emphasizes such things as character development and plot.

Which explains why computer games are now so choked with story, and why all that story is so bad. But if you follow contemporary debates about computer gaming, probably none of this is news to you. The new wrinkle is this: Crawford believes that the games industry, big as it is, will be dwarfed by whatever form of interactive entertainment arises to actually embrace the social world. I agree that there is a lot more blue sky, and a lot more upside, in the world of people-people. What Crawford described in his talk was too difficult for most of them to use, but he may yet fix that problem; my real concern, though, is his whole approach.

The Storytron project, formerly Erasmatron, has taken 14 years so far. And they’ve been productive years; as I said, they’ve shipped a working editor. Crawford himself is quite clear about it: his task is mammoth, gargantuan, crazily huge. He’s got to take computers, a technology natively suited for nothing more than dealing with objects, and try to make them embrace at least some of the complexity of human life. And he’s doing it by making more game. More technology, more sophistication (and, it must be said, more objects – after all, there’s been no fuzzy-emotional-logic or natural-language revolution since the days Crawford wrote little object systems for the Atari 2600). More and more. It may take him another 14 years, or he might never get there. If he achieves what he hopes to achieve, I am quite serious when I say there might be a Nobel Prize in it for him.

Nonetheless, I think that in our present situation, there is another approach that may pay dividends. (Even if it doesn’t pay a [$1.3 million honorarium].)

If the goal is interactive entertainment that enriches our understanding of the social world, not just an artificial or fantasy world… why not take games and whittle them down until they can fit into, around, and through all the ways in which we’re already doing our social lives? Instead of making immersive worlds that have to compete for your time with using Gmail or hanging out on MySpace, why not be inside Gmail and MySpace? The first version of Game Neverending (may it rest in peace) was halfway there with its “neighborhood browser” sidebar widget for players’ home pages – why not go the rest of the way? Why not strip out as much as possible, leaving only the thinnest layer of rules and functionality that can cast your experience in a new light? Why not follow the lead of web developers 37signals and their Less Software mantra, and not only take their advice when writing the game’s software but take it when designing the game itself? Why not less game?

[Yes, this echoes Jane McGonigal’s work with pervasive games and such. There’s no reason not to pervade the digital world too!]

Mike Sugarbaker

This is casual hardcore

1 min read

Some new developments of note on the excluded-middle-of-gaming front: Nexus War is very, very similar to Urban Dead but feels a little better engineered. Also, many who’ve gone deeper into it than I have say it’s a much better game. It’s at least interesting to see that it’s spawned a clone; after all, in gaming, “a genre is one hit and everything that copies it.”

The folks behind Puzzle Pirates have finally released their new joint, Bang! Howdy, in an open beta. It’s more board-gamey, and also more real-timey (and old-timey). So it definitely gets the pulse rate up, and your ping can matter. But I’m enjoying it a lot so far. You can already see all the ways they’re gonna sell it piece by piece, micropayment style.

We need some snappy name to refer to the kind of games I’m talking about. I actually have come to like the jumbo-shrimp nature of the name “casual hardcore,” but it does make it sound a bit like I’m talking about porn. Other suggestions?

Mike Sugarbaker

Worlds and words

1 min read

No, seriously: Inform 7.

Back when I was tooling around the streets of my childhood in a tricked-out HyperCard, one of the supposed big deals about it was that HyperTalk was like English – it was going to make programming approachable for the masses, because the masses could read it. The same gets said about Ruby these days.

But no: Inform 7. Look at it. If you care about language, if you like games or fictive worlds, or if you’re a literate person with even a tiny shred of interest in coding: look at Inform 7.

Yes, I feel strongly about this. INFORM 7. Thank you.

Mike Sugarbaker

Brainy Smurf in the Garden of Eden

4 min read

Atheists are the least trusted minority in America, according to a University of Minnesota study (funded by an org called the David Edelstein Family Foundation – no URL for them that I can find – as part of their American Mosaic Project).

Now, I have no opinion on the existence or non-existence of God – the claim that God doesn’t exist seems to me to be just as unprovable as the claim that he does – but this strikes me as problematic. I don’t want faith eradicated as badly as evolutionist Richard Dawkins does, although I’m more sympathetic to his cause these days after reading neurobiologist Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith (on which more in a sec). What I want eradicated is the strict-father moral model that grew out of faith, and the totalitarianism that operates on the same principles as faith. So, I’m not directly concerned with the direct concern of atheists. What I’m concerned about are what I think are the real roots of the distrust.

I’ve written in this space before about the visceral, unconscious reactions we have against people who do too much thinking. A lot of atheists are very serious about reason, and there’s probably some overlap between them and folks who’re, you know, very serious about minutiae, argumentativeness, and quoting Monty Python. But that isn’t even my point. My point is much more basic to any reasonable person.

And that’s this: we know that emotion precedes reason. Before we get to have any other processing, the ol’ amygdala kicks in. We know this; insofar as we trust neurobiology at all, we can trust this. Yet even End of Faith author Sam Harris, himself a neurobiologist, can’t seem to bring himself to remember that religious moderates (ostensibly the people whom he wants to persuade) might – sorry, that’s will – bring their emotions to bear. He can’t seem to stop himself from throwing in little bits that sound snide, that get a little caught up in pique, that drive home the ridiculousness of things just a little too hard. You don’t make friends, or influence people, that way. (So many people, in progressive causes of all kinds, need to read that book. By which I mean How to Win Friends and Influence People, not The End of Faith, although that’s good too – much better than the Dawkins documentary, from what I’ve seen.) You just come off as a joke yourself, replacing the preacher’s shouts of “God!” with the same exclamation, “God!”, as sneered to the side by Napoleon Dynamite.

I mean, this can’t possibly be a hard one, can it? You’ve just met someone who has always believed that when they die they’ll be reunited with all their lost loved ones in heaven, and you’ve told them, “uh, yeah, dude, ain’t gonna happen,” as dismissively as that. Of course they’re going to hate you. Not just for the obvious reasons of love and death and loss, but for all the same reasons that Smurf Village, one of the most perfect and peaceful places ever conceived in children’s fiction, regularly threw its professed intellectual out on his fucking head.

You know? You’d think that the modern-day cult of reason would have the presence of mind to get a little more pragmatic than that. You’d think we’d at least try to create some understanding. But most of us in the atheist camp have an emotional investment in being smarter than other people. We’ve been tossed out of the village on our heads more than once. Too many of us have got something to prove. And emotion precedes reason, even in the most allegedly reasonable.

Mike Sugarbaker

Anyone can play guitar

1 min read

Today is the first day of National Album Recording Month. Did I sign up for this abomination? You bet your sweet web-page-readin’ ass I did. Further bulletins as events warrant.

Complicating matters is the fact that I bought Psychonauts over the weekend and expect it to demand at least a couple of hours every day. Those evil phobia-creatures aren’t gonna psi-blast themselves, people.

Mike Sugarbaker

Massively single-player online collective semi-consciousness is go!

1 min read

Once upon a time, I had articles and posting privileges up at Justin Hall‘s proto-metafiltery thing at Some of my early geek culture writing got a lot of great exposure there. Well, all that stuff is gone now, but that’s okay, because now Justin is prepping the first online roleplaying game that you play just by existing; a concoction of self-surveillance, shadow identity and statistical analysis that stands poised to do your head right the fuck in. Check out the notes in the PowerPoint slides if you’re able. (If you’re not able, you know about OpenOffice, right?)

Mike Sugarbaker

In which my friend the Internet comes through

1 min read

Matt Blackbeltjones, that guy who links to me, says I’m looking for Pandora.FM, which certainly makes sense. Some frames and JavaScript (how refreshingly 1998!) turn Pandora into an input for the system. Very cool. I can’t help wishing vaguely that we could close the loop and do it the other way around too, or do some other nicely integrative thing, but that’s probably just the brain cloud talking again.