Me — September ’19 Monthly Update

August set the beginning of the end for my schooling (for now, at least), and after this semester I will be done. It had a lot of ups and downs, and I would categorize September as a return to normalcy. I feel as though I’ve finally, truly, recovered my purpose, and though I still don’t have the drive of “Be productive 24/7 and get all the things done”, I’m trying to be okay with relaxing. Between working full time and going to school, pretty much every day is productive. I’m trying to let go of the idea that a day is a waste if I don’t spend at least some time working on personal projects.

Anyways, onto the updates. As always, the Monthly Update Topic Order™: blog, writing plans, work, school, D&D, video games, reading/listening, and other things.

No blog changes. Once a week still suits me just fine. I like the periodic updates without feeling like I’m chaining myself to the website.

As of now, I’m still working on three different writing projects. For the passion project, I’m currently drafting up story beats and a prologue to the first big main story arc. (The details of that story won’t come for at least two years, as the project would first have to find its feet with a following, and we would have to develop better means of telling such a big story. Suffice to say it’s at least a novel length and needs context before being presented to the world.)

The first draft to Lisa’s full length play is nearing completion, and while I do feel the plot is ho-hum at best, I am proud of myself for nearly completing a work of such length, as I haven’t finished a full draft of that caliber in years. Stay tuned for more details on that, I expect to finish this play by the end of the year.

My second short story anthology is still in the works. Unfortunately, it’s at the bottom of this list. Still, these stories only need edits, so I hope to publish it by the end of the year as my first “real” book. (The first anthology was meant to simply be a means for family and friends to access a hard copy of some of my earliest works.)

Work has been slow going. It hasn’t been stressful, which is good, but that also means its been a little slow, which means my boss hasn’t been super happy. These past few days have been okay, but I still find myself thinking and preparing for any bad news he might present to me at any given moment. I know it’s not a good relationship to have, but it’s just how it is, and it’s something I can bear for a few more months.

School has been a bit rough. The play I had been planning on being a part of didn’t cast me, which was a bit surprising and my ego took a hit, but I suppose that’s a blessing in some regards. Being turned down has made me think about how my supposedly great audition really wasn’t as stellar as I had thought it was, and now I know how I could do it better in the future (not that there will be one, but still). It’s a bummer, but it also allows me to have week nights, which I had planned on giving up for the next few months. So now I’m only taking the one class, which has been a lot of fun so far. I’m trying to be more sociable, which is sort of working.

At the end of July, I passed the reins of the Aleor campaign to one of my brothers, who is taking the party to a new destination. I’m super excited to play as a PC again, and to finally explore Acelia’s personality. It makes me feel a little bad as I’m worried about overpowering the campaign. (The other two players aren’t quite as interested in roleplay as I am, even if they go along with it.) This isn’t a concern I have directly addressed to them, and perhaps it’s unfounded, but I honestly feel like I’m playing the way I want to for the first time. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy DMing—the Octopath Traveler soundtrack has become nostalgic to me for this specific campaign, but prepping a session is a lot of work, and I could use the break.

With the release (re-release?) of WoW Classic, that’s basically been how I’ve spent all of my free time. Two weeks later, I’m level 35, so it’s probably going to be about another month at least before I hit 60, but as per my last post, it’s definitely been the time sink I needed to unwind. Even if the game hates the player.

While playing WoW, I’ve been watching lots of Day9’s Day Off playthroughs, as well as Critical Role. I plan on returning my attention to the Dresden Files soon, (I’m halfway through my reread of #3, Grave Peril), but it takes more mental effort than I’m willing to give at the moment.

I actually don’t really have anything else. After that mental blow I took in June, I feel as though I’ve gotten back to where I was. That is to say, able to enjoy life. Last time it took me six months to get back to this point, so the fact that it only took three this time is a really good sign. Plus, it’s going to start getting cooler soon, and fall is probably my favorite season. Things are looking up.

Life — WoW: Classic

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t have any interest in playing Vanilla WoW again when they first announced it. After so many years of updates and so many quality of life changes, I wasn’t convinced that nostalgia could save it. There was just so much that the original game was lacking that current players take for granted. Despite this, I knew I’d give it a try just for its own sake.

It’s odd to think about, but how many games are out there that were released specifically as an older version? Even old games that are re-released get remastered with better graphics and less glitches, but WoW Classic required an enormous amount of effort to unmaster. They didn’t even “digitally remaster” the graphics or anything like that, because obviously they wanted it to be as faithful to the original game as it could possibly be.

And, for good or for ill, I’ve been playing it a lot. Nearly all my free time has been spent playing it, (though I’ve still been taking time to keep up with writing projects, blog notwithstanding) and there’s something that I didn’t expect WoW: Classic to revitalize…

Back in the early days from 2004-2007, I would say that World of Warcraft became popular for two reasons. The first is that mechanics-wise, it was the best of its time. There’s little question about that, all you have to do is look at the numbers. But more than that, it was a great way to socialize. After you got home from work, you would log onto the game, see all of your friends online in the guild, and chat with them. Hang out with them. The game made it so easy to connect with people—as well as make new friends.

Fifteen years later, with the rise of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc., we are so globally interconnected that people have rekindled relationships with friends they otherwise never would have met again. (For example, I’m Facebook friends with my best friend from 2nd grade, whom I haven’t seen since.) So, at least in the retail version of World of Warcraft, you really don’t need to talk to people. Partly because the majority the content can be done on your own (or at least it connects you to strangers automatically), but partly because the online connections you have don’t need to be done through an MMO like WoW.

This was my main concern. “You can’t restore a game to its original glory when its glory was so contingent on a tight-knit community,” I said. And I still think some of that is true, but oh boy did I underestimate the players.

In a lot of ways, playing WoW: Classic is like stepping into the past. The chat channels are always full, strangers are constantly inviting you to their parties and guilds, making the same jokes, you name it. If you log in at 5pm realm time, you have to wait about an hour just to log into the server I’m playing on because it’s full. In ways I can’t quite put into words, and in ways I certainly didn’t expect, I feel like I’m once again exploring a world with other people. Something I haven’t really felt in probably any other MMO.

This isn’t a review. If it was, I would tell you how awful the quest design is (which is actually worse than I remember), and how much time you have to waste running back and forth from Point A to Point B to get pitiful amounts of money and experience. I’d tell you how everything is hard, and since there’s so many people around, you have to compete against those around you just to get to the next quest, or how you constantly have to fight your inventory just to be able to maximize profits when you get back to town.

I’ve also been struggling with finding a good game to play lately. I needed a time sink so that I can watch YouTube streams and listen to audiobooks, but everything I had been playing was either tired or too high maintenance to multitask. So this came around at the perfect time.

Me — The State of the Gaming Industry

An unconscious but nearly constant frustration I have these days is my growing disappointment with what the gaming industry has turned into over the past decade (or two, depending on how you look at it). Also, before I get into it, just going to say this could easily just be nostalgia talking, but I think at least a few of my points are valid.

The crux of my argument is that I feel that the days of waiting for a game to be as good as it can be before publishing it and releasing it out into the world are long past us. When I think of these games, the first two examples that specifically come to mind are the Halo franchise and most Blizzard Entertainment games (the Diablo 3 launch being an exception). You’ll see why I bring up these two in a minute, but if you know games you probably already know why.

No big calamitous event ruined video games, I’d say. It was a slow, gradual descent into madness as corporations realized there was money to be had there, and started taking over the gaming world. Huge names like EA, Activision, Ubisoft, etc., bought every smaller studio they could get their hands on, and as a result took hold of a lot of video game franchises that were stellar. Games became about money, not games, as mobile gaming became popularized, purchased DLC, and subscription fees all put game developers’ time and effort where it shouldn’t have gone—that is to say, out of the hands of the player. (I will say that mobile gaming in general was a great thing; it opened up a lot of realms of possibilities, but things like Candy CrushAngry BirdsClash of Clans, etc, were never about making a good game, which is the core of a lot of gamers’ hatred towards the genre as a whole).

So as companies realized they could make more money by locking more and more content behind larger and larger pay walls, a lot of focus started to be driven towards constructing those walls when it could have simply been spent making the experience the best it could be.

The worst of all this was that it is not and has never been an issue with the game developers. Everyone wants to make something awesome. Something everyone loves. But when the people in the big chairs say you have to release on a deadline that is immovable, regardless of setbacks and challenges, you will invariably get rushed and unsatisfying results.

Bungie is a good example of this. The Destiny franchise was strangled by Activision’s deadlines and rules, gutting a story without having time to rework it, simplifying content to fit a deadline, and locking all meaningful content behind seasonal DLC destroyed something that could have been amazing. A little digging will tell you that a lot of Bungie’s most iconic names have since left the company in the wake of a lot of disappointing corporate decisions.

This is the same story with Blizzard. Fortunately it took longer for the company to be eaten as they were larger to start with, but slowly Blizzard became less about its three flagship franchises and more about regularly releasing content for half a dozen games. Hearthstone hasn’t had anything innovative in years, it’s just a run of the mill card game now. Heroes of the Storm, which I still love dearly, has lost virtually all support from Blizzard, and it’s abandonment has left what semblance of a competitive multiplayer experience it had in shambles. World of Warcraft has been going downhill for about a decade now, and Overwatch hasn’t been getting the audience it used to now that it isn’t shiny and new anymore. Diablo 4 will inspire some new draw, for sure, but with how many veteran employees have left over the past two years, I can’t help but fear there isn’t much of a future left for what was once a titan of the community.

There are still good games being made. Nintendo is still the same old same old (God bless them). The newest God of War game is a masterpiece, and despite Fallout: 76‘s controversy, I’m optimistic Bethesda will Starfield and Elder Scrolls VI the best games they can be. But the only people I really feel I can trust in the industry these days are indie companies like Team Cherry and Chucklefish Studios. The only downside to this is that indie companies can’t make proper competitive multiplayer experiences without the support of huge servers and a large fan base (and I sort of always need a good PvP game to jump onto every now and then).

I’m not surprised that it’s come to this by any means. An optimistic Kollin would have hoped that Blizzard was above this ten years ago, even if capitalism consumed everyone else. Funny thing is, this nihilism does nothing to curb my interest in working for a game studio as a writer, because if anything I’d want to join an indie studio.

Me/D&D — A Love Letter to Critical Role

Dungeons and Dragons can be played a myriad of ways. I’ve read someone describe it as “being the main characters in a fantasy novel”, but it’s even more open-ended than that. It can literally be anything you and your friends want it to be, it just so happens that most people value simplicity over anything else, and so they more or less stick to the rulebook (which, as Barbossa would say, are more like guidelines—especially the Dungeon Master’s Guide). I came to a realization about Critical Role today, and I thought I would share that realization with all of you in the form of a love letter… Buckle up, this one is going to be a long one.

268x0wCritical Role, a weekly livestream of D&D I’ve already dedicated one full post to, does just that. They play with the rules that they’re given, and only on rare occasion does the dungeon master, Matthew Mercer, ever cook up a new monster or a new character class/subclass. I would go so far as to say that they play a very vanilla version of D&D, and the only thing crazy about it is how gifted the players are at pacing out story beats and telling the tale of a group of people rather than getting from Point A to Point B. Of all the D&D streams I’ve watched in the past, that’s the #2 reason to watch the show.

What’s #1 you ask? Well, before I get to that, I want to step back and talk about why I personally love it so much. Not as the critical observer as I often am whenever I’m consuming media, but as the fan. As Kollin.

I’ve been watching the show since it aired 3 years ago now, and this only dawned on me today. Critical Role encompasses every aspect of my personality, and encapsulates everything I want to have and be. (If you’re lazy, just skim the paragraphs ahead—the bullet points are in bold.)

For starters: storytelling. Obviously, I love stories. I’ve fancied myself a writer for nearly a decade now, and I specifically love epic fantasy. I grew up with World of WarcraftLord of the RingsDragon QuestOblivion, etc. The romanticism of picking up your sword and shield and going on an epic quest is something so inexplicably baked into my being that I literally cannot describe why I love it so much. It’s simple, easy to understand, yet its breadth is endless. In order to tell a complex story in such a world, you first have to start simple and show the audience this new world—explain its rules—and seeing a world where our impossible becomes their mundane is always fascinating to me.

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That ties into the concept of what Dungeons & Dragons is. It is a literal, mechanical fulfillment of the Hero’s Journey. You kill monsters, you level up, you achieve goals, and so on. I love watching or being somebody who has nothing inevitably challenge literal embodiments of evil. By then, you’ve really learned about and grown with the character, and in many ways you’ve watched their life go by. What I like about D&D is that victory is not guaranteed. If I had my way, I would even go so so far as to say that it is less likely than defeat, for how can victory feel empowering if you feel it was given away? (Now, a Hero’s Journey and storytelling clearly go hand in hand here, but I think the distinction is important. Not all D&D needs to be a journey, and not all storytelling is D&D.)

116curiousbeginningsAs for aspects specific to Critical Role, and to explain why it holds a special place in my heart over any other D&D show, the first component to this is the cast of the show itself. Every player in the game is a notable and respected voice actor, and I knew over half of them when I first tuned in (by the sound of their voice if not their name and appearance itself). These people have all had a hand in creating the games and shows I’ve dedicated so much of my life to (the aforementioned World of Warcraft is certainly pretty high on that list). So because I recognized their voices, I was already familiar with them. I already know these people, and this is an opportunity to know them better.

But even more than that, they’re all actors. I’ve been a part of the theatre world for six years now (which is crazy to me), and it literally changed my life. I tell people I was the kid that sat in the back of class reading and hoping nobody would talk to me. They’re always surprised to hear that because I’m so outspoken (they don’t realize that all that’s changed is that I now sit in the front of the class hoping somebody will talk to me). It didn’t necessarily make me more confident—I’m lucky enough to have pretty much always had that—but it did teach me to have fun by not caring about looking cool, stoic, and professional. I’ve found that people will hold a lot of respect for those than can throw caution to the wind. It’s a skill not many have. So watching the cast put on silly voices and make dumb jokes really speaks to me. Not because I’m an audience member admiring their skills, but because I’m a fellow performer that appreciates their techniques and the obscure theatre-related jokes they sometimes toss out at each other.

Lastly, and by far the most important reason that this show is the best—these people are all best friends. It’s really heartwarming to watch a group of people have a blast with each other. To share in the absurd humor as well as the very real tears that have happened over the years. You see people who so overtly love each other and the community they’ve created, and watch as they empower each other every week, and it maxresdefaultreally has an effect on you. It’s really difficult not to feel like part of the reason that they do this show is for you—and not in that “we do this for the fans” sort of way, but in a genuine way. They show fanart on stream and have hired fans to be part of the tech and have quite literally built a community founded on love and respect for one another as much as D&D. Sure, not everyone is as loving or respectable as the cast, but the vast majority of voices I’ve seen in the YouTube comments or on Reddit have been supportive and, in general, awesome.

I have a lot of dreams for the future. Some of them I know I will never achieve, simply because it’s not what life has in store for me. But if I have one goal, it’s to be happy. And every week when I get home from work or school to watch Critical Role while relaxing with a cup of tea, I can’t help but think.

One day I’ll have that sort of life. I don’t envy them for having it, because I’m grateful that they’re willing to share it with the world. And one day I’ll surround myself with people who bring me nothing but joy and we’ll share tears of both joy and pain. I may not be there yet, but if they can do it, I can do.

Me — The Wave™ Cometh.

My fall semester is starting to look very scary. I’m taking 5 classes and I’m still going to try my best to be working full time, and it’s starting to look like—without factoring in writing time or any homework—I’ll be either in class or at work at least 65 hours per week. If I’m also actively playing Dungeons & Dragons and weekly binge watching shows with a good friend of mine, that cuts down any “me” time I have to about 6-8 hours a week.

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I might die.

I’ll probably die.

I hadn’t thought about it until now, but that novelette/novella I’ve been outlining is now in a very dark spot. I haven’t started writing it yet, and at this point, when that 3-month long tsunami of business hits, I won’t be able to get anything done. I’ll still update this blog as often as I can, but I’ll be impressed if I can come up with any short stories during that period. Heck, I literally have to stop going to the writer’s group I’ve been leading for over a year now just to be available to take some of these classes. (It’s only for a few months, but still.)

It’s starting to dawn on me that right now, these next few weeks, will be the most open my schedule will be until next summer. If I want to get any substantial writing in, it needs to be now.

Transforming into a machine is going to be tough. All my brothers/friends will be playing new games soon, and I won’t be able to. World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth comes out two days before The Wave™ hits. (It will be henceforth referred to as The Wave™.) So while I wanted to play, that’s just not happening. Dragon Quest XI comes on in September, and I’m super excited for that, but I’ll have to wait for winter break to get a chance at it. At least it’s a single player experience and I’m the only one interested in it, so there’s no risk of spoilers. Speaking of spoilers, it’s going to be really hard to follow Critical Role during that time, although maybe I can somewhat keep up via podcasting at work.

It’ll be tough, but I have high hopes for the future! If all goes well, by this time next year, I’ll have two AA degrees, enough money saved up to afford my own car, and I’ll be finally stepping into the crushing weight of adulthood where you have no idea what you should be doing with your life and by all that is holy, you had better figure it out soon because you don’t want to be that guy that lives with his parents for too long, even though the economy of Southern California doesn’t allow for any alternative at your age, and if you don’t somehow win the lottery you will never enter you’re going to be stuck like this for the rest of your life because good things come to those who aren’t you, and with the acceptance of that fact comes the existential dread that life will only get worse from here on out.

So you know, fun stuff!

 

Review — War Crimes

Of the many novels written in the Warcraft universe, I’ve actually read a scarce few of them. To be honest, this is only my second. However, having played WoW off an on for the majority of my life, and having many brothers and friends that are well versed in Blizzard and Warcraft lore, I’m quite familiar with the characters and events, generally speaking. I won’t give spoilers here, though, for as familiar as you may be with the story before and after this book, the novel itself does contain some pretty neat, self-contained things.

War Crimes is a somewhat recent addition to what surprised me to be a collection of over twenty canon books, and chronologically it was the latest addition to the universe until Before the Storm published last month. It takes place between the Mists of Pandaria expansion and the Warlords of Draenor expansion, serving as a segway from one to the other. It explores the trial of Garrosh Hellscream, the former Warchief of the Horde after he basically killed thousands of people and was, to put it mildly, a jerk to everyone, even the people who should have been his friends.

I’ll be honest—I didn’t expect much of this book. The main plot is a trial, and I hated Garrosh’s character simply because he’s boring. In fact, if I were to buy a Warcraft book, it probably would have been one of my last choices for those reasons. When I’m reading a story like this, it’s generally because I want to dig deeper into a universe I’m already familiar with, and not only does this book basically not have that, but it doesn’t have very much action in it, either. It is, as you might expect, almost entirely placed in the Temple of Xu’en, where the trial takes place.

But the book is fair. To call it a bad read or a waste of my time would be out of line. It does the characters justice while also showing different sides of them. It explores the morality and virtues of many of the main characters in Warcraft lore, and you see different sides of them you might not otherwise notice. Flashbacks are used as evidence in the trial (via magic, of course), so we also get to see some interactions between characters outside this moment in time, and that can be really interesting when you didn’t realize those characters knew each other at X point.

I’d say one of the best things about this book is that it’s a balancing act of two parts, and it does a great job. Writing a book (or any piece of media) based on a game where the player has a direct impact on the environment or story of that game is hard. You have to either pretend the player doesn’t exist, which makes any player made choices seem inconsequential, or you make the player a main character, which only works if they don’t get to make their character. The second part is writing a part of the story that isn’t important enough to be essential to the gameplay, but is interesting enough to not waste the reader’s time.

War Crimes does a great job on both of these fronts. The players are the ones that managed to defeat Garrosh and put him in “prison”, but they aren’t necessary for the trial. Players want combat, and this part of the story has very little of it. You wouldn’t want a trial scene to be in your video game anyway, unless you’re playing Ace Attorney, in which case what is a bloodthirsty orc doing there? As far as being interesting but not essential, the story does a good job of that, too, exploring nuances of characters, as I’ve already explained. The ending of the story is a bit obvious if you’ve played the beginning of Warlords of Draenor, or have seen even the trailer of it, but nonetheless it’s a good read.

Overall, this book is a good read if and only if you are interested in understanding the personalities, flaws, or beliefs of the major characters in the Warcraft universe. You really get to know the characters as people in this book, not as the walking stereotypes they can sometimes fall under. If you want to read action scenes, understand the lore of Azeroth (or Draenor etc.), or read about the major events of the world, you’re better of picking up pretty much any other book in the universe.

As a side note, it dawned on me reading this book how little opinion Warcraft players probably have based on the characters in the lore. Basically any player will tell you that Cairne Bloodhoof, or Vol’jin, or Jaina Proudmoore are basically cool people. (Or at least they were, given various points of the story.) For as divisive as Warcraft tries to be—splitting the players into Alliance or Horde—I’ll bet 90% of the playerbase will be able to tell you which are the honorable, good characters from both factions, because while the lore tries to paint in broad strokes of “good and evil”, it does a great job at putting both of those extremes in either side.

Review — Heroes of the Storm (Jun. ’18 Edition)

Since Heroes of the Storm is basically the only game I play given how busy I am, I think it’s only fair that I take the time to dedicate a little bit of my blog to it every once in a while (beyond saying “I’m still playing HotS” in the monthly updates). Being an online, MOBA style game, it’s constantly getting new features and characters to play, so reviewing it at one stage of its development will be totally different from another, even in broad strokes like “state of the game” as I intend to talk about here.

So, for timeline context—the newest character and battleground were released a few weeks ago: Yrel and Alterac Pass. This is following the releases of Deckard Cain and Fenix.

Overall, Heroes seems to be in rough shape, even with the newest batch of content. Keeping myself updated on the subreddit for the game means reading a lot of complaints about how toxic people are (as with all MOBAs), how reporting other players does nothing and there’s no reason to do so, and how frustrating a lot of characters are to play against. There’s a power gap between newer characters and older ones simply because the system is advancing, albeit slowly.

Unfortunately, Heroes of the Storm was crippled from the beginning. The game’s foundation is an engine (at least) nine years old, as it started off as a mod to Starcraft II. This means that connectivity issues and overall capabilities are limited from the start, and it can’t compete with new stuff, given how fast the gaming industry evolves. This will always be the biggest issue with the game—it’s built on old foundation.

And you can see the aging in the game, too. Older heroes like Raynor have very simple abilities, such as “increase attack speed” or “push enemies back”, whereas heroes like Fenix have “fire a laser that spins around your hero twice, hurting and slowing enemies it hits as it passes”. This becomes a problem when most of the characters being picked in high level play are the ones that were released in the past few months.

Overall, Heroes of the Storm is pretty solid. The best thing about it is that the vast majority of games last 15-25 minutes, and only on rare occasions can you give or take 5 more minutes. It’s completely free, you can play with up to five friends, and there is absolutely no “buying power”. You simply can’t buy stuff that gives you the upper hand against your enemies. (The only thing is, as with most MOBA’s, you have to play a lot in order to be able to buy the characters with in-game currency. Not a lot, mind you, and there’s no hero that you can’t buy with in-game currency, but it’s worth mentioning.)

It does have loot boxes, which the entire gaming community hates right now, but honestly I think it’s fine in this case because it’s mostly cosmetic, and you get them at a reasonable rate.

The game is, as it always will be, at it’s best when you’re playing with friends that don’t take things too seriously. Being competitive is fine, but there’s something about MOBA’s that really churns up hatred for other people. So as long as you’re fine with losing, and you can have fun without blaming the people you’re playing with (even if it is their fault), you can have a good time.