Pogo Sketch Impressions

I recently picked up a Pogo Sketch and the Inklet application for my MacBook Pro, and I’m prepared to offer some early thoughts on it. I haven’t used it extensively, but what I have experienced is worth mentioning in my mind, so here its:

The basic premise, if you’re unfamiliar with the website that I just linked you to that you should have clicked on (there will be a quiz as well), is that the little cylinder carries some elctro thermo magickumal signal from my hand down onto my touchpad and makes it think my finger is on there. It also enables pressure sensitivity I’m guessing by measuring the amount of charge being conferred down the device. I don’t know, it happens. Basically, it makes your MacBook’s touchpad, iPad or iPhone touchscreens, or your Magic TrackPad into a pressure sensitive drawing or writing surface. Sort of.

What it does is map an area from the device that’s taking the input (either external touch pad or the integrated touch pad/screen) onto the screen. With an iPad iPhone or iPod Touch this is super easy, because the tracked surface is identical to the screen, so it just maps one to one. With a touchpad on a MacBook, it maps a zone, which is actually a really cool feature. Some simple multitouch gestures allow the resizing, reshaping, and repositioning of the zone, giving you the ability to create a drawing surface as wide or precise as you need.

The idea for me was that it would be a rough equivalent to a Wacom tablet for $30. And it’s not. Not even close. It is touch sensitive, and the sensitivity is configurable, but there’s a lot wrong. First off, go look at the Pogo Sketch pen required to keep it touch sensitive. I’ll wait. Ok, did you see the end of it? that spongy dongle? That is not a drawing surface for any kind of precision drawing. It reminds me of using a grease pencil in figure drawing, and I’ve got that covered with a real pen and paper. I don’t believe in the all-digital surfacing idea either, yet. I really enjoy the feel of paper: there’s so much configuration for so many different tasks! You can choose the tooth, the grain, a million different options on paper purchases. And don’t even get me started on the ease of use with a pencil versus a Photoshop brush. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with all digital. I know it’s the future. I’m just not ready for it yet. I really, really love drawing with my hands and real instruments, feeling the graphite sliding off the pencil and onto the page is very satisfying. I don’t have to have anything  plugged in for any of that, and the freedom to put paper in any position gives me a lot of flexibility to be creative and gestural and just go a little wild.

In short, I dig traditional composition. But when it comes time to present someone,  anyone with completed works, it does result in quite a long process. Because my roughs are…erm… super rough, covered in experimental lines and mistakes and test sketches, often overlapping on the same page just because they all shared the same basic idea, whenever I actually want to “finish” a drawing, I lay a bit of tracing paper over and redraw (note: redraw. Not trace) over top of the composition, trusting my (not always great) artist’s eye to find the right lines on the paper underneath. I think of it much the same as writing good, well-rounded characters: the lines (dialogue or actual lines on a page) are already there in the mess I’ve presented myself. If I’m patient and diligent I’ll be able to find them and show other people. If I try to trace or rush, I’ll force lines onto the page and wind up with something half-formed and poorly wrought.

That cleaned-up, refined tracing paper sketch is then scanned, cropped, and saved so that I can ink it in Photoshop. It takes me about a week of solid work to successful ink a drawing, because I’ve only ever had a mouse at my disposal. Well, I have a Wacom tablet that’s a little busted and not super accurate and doesn’t work with dual monitors anyway, but that’s neither here nor there. The mouse has been my friend and standby forever, and because I’m a huge nerd, I know that a curvilinear line with proper segmentation appears, for all intents and purposes, to be a curved line. When you get right down to it, all pixel-based art is made up of blocks created lines, so no matter how beautiful and perfect your curve is, it’s still made up of a bunch of segmented lines. I just cheat and do it again. When I need to make a curve, I’ll mentally plan out between 16 and 20 breakpoints (sometimes as few as twelve) along a given section of the curve and then shift click my way around it. I’ll do this a couple times to get nice, fat lines. Then I grab my handy dandy eraser tool and rinse and repeat, thinning out the lines in areas where I feel like think sells better, leaving it thick in places were appropriate, and adding even more curvature by not identical matching the established curvilinear segments – basically, I cut off the hard edges, so where I started with maybe 16 segments, I’ll actually wind up with between 32 and 64, depending on how many passes with the eraser I do.

This, as you could imagine, is time consuming, but I always feel super proud of the work. I get nice, clean inking done. The only times it gets really frustrating are when I butt heads with a powerfully detailed, curvy object, like a shoe. I know you don’t think of shoes as powerfully detailed, but they definitely can be. This is where a lot of my time gets sunk, because I spend that much time just trying to get all the curves to play right together.

Once the entire drawing is inked in this way, I normally go back in and tighten things up – thicken lines here, thin them there, make sure it looks more “pen drawn”, which is funny, because if I just drew it with a pen, I could get the same effect. But I like the digital version for its impermanence in that regard – when I make one mistake I haven’t fucked a whole drawing full of good lines. I’m just an Alt/Ctrl Z or Option-Command Z or whatever the hell it is (I changed my keys to match the order of Windows keys: Command on the outside, alt in the middle, extra button on the inside. I’m no convert)

So, all that said, we understand a bit about my process with the mouse, how does PogoSketch come into play? Well, with all that mouse clicking, I’m used to nice, clean lines and a lot of precision when it comes it that. The Pogo Sketch is only as precise as the drawing surface it’s used on, besides being a fat sack of crap at the tip. It’s not pen shaped, so when you hold it too angled, you don’t get the proper contact and don’t get a line. It’s not long enough to be a pen because it was thought of as a portable first, so it’s more the size of an old PocketPC stylus, except a bit thicker.

Worse yet, I’m left handed. Inklet says it can tell the difference between my palm and my sketch, but I’m endlessly getting flickered down to whatever side of touch surface my palm is closely resting to. So, basically, for big, broad strokes, I think it sucks, and I’d rather use a (gasp) mouse.

For fine work, though, it’s a god send. Because you can customize the drawing surface, you can zoom in crazy close on large-resolution images and make your sketch space relatively small – now you’re working with real precision in a pre-defined space. FInish it up, grab two finger scroll and scoot your workspace over.

It’s really just the idea of using it all the time I find a little deplorable. Maybe with more practice, it’ll be second nature, but it seems awfully finicky to be used as a Wacom replacement. And, really, on a touchpad, it’s not.

I am, however, super curious about an iPad and the Pogo as a Cintiq stand in. Now it’s as simple as “put your pen down on the spot you’re looking at.” Particularly, I’d be interested in snagging an iPad as a desktop extension and just using it for its capability as a touchscreen monitor for my MacBook (or, in a world of dreams, for my dedicated working PC. But that world of dreams is distant). With the right time and effort, that could be a real winner, but I suspect I’d have many of the same problems regarding the left-handed palm-pressing. Damn you, sinistral laterality!

Thoughts on E3 and writing – Skipping Brimstone

So I missed my post on Friday June 3 because I was entertaining guests over the weekend. Danielle’s brothers Brandon and Cody came into town to hang out and have good times, and thus good times were had. We watched the Pirates smoke the Phillies for the second night in a row (that didn’t last. Sunday was like a tiny murder), a result no one expected, and got a cool skyblast show out of it. We also hit up some Hofbrauhaus and some stuff on Southside, as well as showing the boys their way around Primant Bros. and catching The Hangover 2, which was passable. Not brilliantly funny as the first one was, and the gimmick of feeling a bit like a mystery movie with comedic elements had run stale. Also, the story arc wasn’t super believable (not that the first one was) and Zach Galifinakiss’ character descneded into dickitude rather violently. In the first he was just odd and misguided, but not outright evil. In this one, well… he kind of is.

Anyway, all that conspired so that I missed my scheduled Friday post, which I’m sort of ok with because I don’t actually feel the need to discuss that stuff. Brimstone is sort of my baby and rather than risk running dry on the idea, I’m just kind of going to try to write it. Short assignments – something I learned from Bird by Bird, which has been a brilliant addition to my thought pool. Syd Field’s Screenwriting is interesting, but requires me to think in a slightly different mindset. Basically, Syd teaches that the way I write is wrong. That statement is quasi-joke, quasi-truth. Syd doesn’t necessarily like big, huge descriptions or florid text and complicated backstories. He insists that simplicity is best, but then again, his job was to read scripts for investors and determine if they were profitable. So I’m not sure that Syd has a lot of the “art” thing in mind. He sort of insists that he does, and the name drops would suggest that he’s studied and disciplined himself under artists, but the examples he uses for demonstration are particularly not full of artistry. Well, let me redact that. In reality, he does bring up American Beauty, which I know a lot of people say is beautiful and artistic and stuff, but I just mostly don’t get it. I sometimes wonder if I’m stuck in a nebulous zone between pulpy and artsy. I like indie movies, quite a bit and quite often, but I also want them to be…well, entertaining. I think I’m kind of a Fox Searchlight type of guy. For example, Juno is a fantastic movie, one I’m currently reading the script of, but when you get a whole lot indier than that, it tends to veer out toward this kind of stoic realism where the whole point of the movie is that nothing really happens. I feel that way when I watch trailers of Meek’s Cutoff, I get bored by the look of it.

So, that justifies June 3rd and the following week worth of posts was consumed by E3. Very frustrating experience. I don’t know why, but I always expect such amazing things to come out of that conference, and it just doesn’t happen anymore. I thought I had more thoughts on E3, but that’s sort of just it: I don’t. I saw some really cool looking games and got to try out the demo for El-Shaddai (which was super interesting but not necessarily good), but those things exist as a sort of counterpoint to a reality I’m a little terrified of: games are getting worse.

And by that I don’t mean I believe in some fatalistic thought that the game industry is dying. I do think we’ve got only one or two more console cycles before those are gone (I’d be willing to believe that by 2016 or so, there will be little to no point), and PC games have got to get on the free-to-play, pay-for-premium bandwagon sooner rather than later. Supplementing free-to-play games with online advertisement isn’t a bad plan either, and publishers and digital store fronts offering a premium service like Amazon Prime will probably work out too – for your simple subscription, you avoid the ads and get first shot at timed-exclusive content or some such thing. Sort of like what Activision is going to attempt with their Modern Warfare subscription service. Which, what? So it’s bungie.net that I have to pay for with fewer features? I am not understand. The point I’m really trying to make here is that I saw absolutely nothing new that really excited me and got me going. Yet another Halo game. A Halo 1 HD remake. A God of War HD collection. An Uncharted sequel. A bunch of lame, bad-looking kinect stuff. Resistance 3 (which will be as boring and dumb as Resistance 1 and 2. At least for me, at any rate). Another Xbox 360 Dashboard update with “Bing” integration for voice commands to search my media library. More efficient Kinect integration. All that stuff is fine, but it’s not… well, I don’t care. Thtat’s the part that seemed worse.

Now, to be fair, Uncharted still looks awesome and it’s making me sad that I don’t own a PS3. There isn’t a better example of adventure storytelling and narrative focus in AAA video games right now than Uncharted. Also, is the villain Dame Helen Mirren? No, it’s Rosalind Ayres, but holy shit that’s a good Helen Mirren lookalike.

The Wii U is dumb. End of story. Unless they can reliably pump up the jams with first-party stuff that really matters (I don’t count Zelda or Mario), all the games that come out for the Wii U are ones I’ll be able to play on the 360. Many other gamers will feel the same way, and that word of mouth will spread to mainline consumers. It might get some legs for family-men types like my cousin, who could allow his daughter or wife to watch the big TV he paid for and he can stream the game to his handheld controller/screen peripheral thing. But it’s got to be pricey. The controllers themselves seem likely to get a little, erm, expensive. That’s a full-color HD touchscreen, full color/IR camera, speakers,  and a whole controller bundled together. That’s got to be a $50 price point, if not higher.

The Playstation Vita. What? Oh, right handhelds. Can’t care.

The end. Writing up a second post because I feel the need to write less but more frequently.

Building a Better Deck

Daaah- Blew it! Missed my Wednesday Post time by 4 damn hours.

So, recently, as part of my focused efforts to become a better gamer and by extension a better designer of games, I’ve taken to trying more non-video game and non-PC games. My next step is to putz about with Facebook games some more and explore the social side of all that in addition to tackling the daunting world of mobile game apps, but that’s an ongoing process (save ends).

I got (back) into Dungeons & Dragons about two years ago when Penny-Arcade started doing these Dungeons & Dragons podcasts – basically, Wizards of the Coast paid them and Scott Kurtz some money to come around the office (and later to send their guy over to PA’s office) to play DnD so that they could record them and release it as a podcast. This was a fascinating and it turns out brilliant idea, because it instantly exposed the PA audience – many of whom are curious about non-video games but don’t feel comfortable or familiar with them – to the unique and odd joy of DnD. Particularly through Mike Krahulik’s eyes, as he was super new to the whole concept of “rolling dice.” Basically, this gimmick worked splendidly on me, but I found, as time wound on, it’s really fucking difficult to break in to the tabletop gaming world. All the stores tend toward independent ownership (which is good) and subsequently develop a really exclusive culture (which is bad) that makes getting yourself ingratiated enough to find a group god-damn next to impossible (which is the worst). If your friends exist in diaspora as mine do, it’s really difficult to get schedules to line up and find time to do some DnD via virtual tabletops, MapTools or otherwise. So here I was with a newfound vigor for what we might call ‘classic’ gaming and no way to pursue it.

Fast forward two years – I get laid off, Danielle gets sick, and we decide to take her over to the doctor’s office up the street. The doctor’s office is adjacent (ish?) to a games and hobby store, which it turns out is basically just a front door that leads to a spiraling ramp/staircase into a basement filled with nerdism. We decided to go in because we keep coming back to this conversation that the games I play aren’t games she likes, but she plays and enjoys card games. Well, I’ve played a couple of nerd-friendly card games before, very recently in fact, and I wasn’t sure we had the same idea about “card games.” I also wasn’t sure there were any that were, as every mom from the 80s insisted things be, “two-player.” Particularly, I wasn’t looking for another game that pitted me against her, because I wasn’t sure that was right for us. The guy talked eventually about the idea of “deck-building games,” and included Munchkin in that process, but I wasn’t sure about that statement. Ultimately, this was the path we took, but it put me to thinking about card games in general. I don’t have experience aplenty with this medium, but I have recently expanded my mindset quite a bit. Quick look back at that:

I played Munchkin at PAX East for the first time this year and also a game called Loot and learned a third called Puzzle Strike from some wonderful fellow PAX-goers at the hotel after the show ended. Each of these games was essentially played as a card game (Puzzle Strike forgoes cards in favor of chips that have a similar effect, but have a nice tactile quality that makes you more kinesthetically connected with it. Or, at least, that’s what I took away from it), but they ultimately emulated three different types of games. Munchkin was the card game version of a dungeon-crawling RPG with slight adversarial elements between the Players – i.e. like Gauntlet, the other players were totally content to let me get screwed. Ryan, in particular took joy in it. Loot, similarly, possessed some very real adversarial elements, but Loot’s flow felt more like a Strategy Game. I had a series of resources at the ready that I could deploy and make an effect on the world, which is to say, the other two players. Puzzle Strike was a fighting/tetris game. You had a character and a deck of chips that the character could pull from, each with their own unique extras. Some were combo focused, others were focused on screwing up your opponents deck, others still had various bonuses. Winning involved building up your personal allotment of gem chips so that you could kick them into the opponent to your left. This was called crashing, and is sort of like sending rows you eliminate in tetris to your opponent’s screen. It has the twin effect of potentially giving him the opportunity to score huge points and also sort of screwing him over, because, just like in tetris, in Puzzle Strike, if you go over 10 gems in your personal gem pile (your “stack” as it’s called), you’re out of the game.

So the strategy comes in when you look at the chips that are available. Your guy starts with a couple and you have a handful of money chips in your hand at the beginning of the game. Available for purchase are larger denominations of gems (2s, 3s, and 4s), which give you more money in a single chip pull, special chips that let you do more than one action in a turn, special tips that let you block the attacks of your opponent (you’re only ever playing one guy at at ime), and special chips that let you add dead cards to the other players’ hands, which sucks univserally because your hand only ever has 5 chips in it (I think).

Anyway, that’s what I learned at PAX, and it was an awesome good time. I really enjoyed it. What I wanted to look more into was games that were simpler than that, because I thought that amount of data would overwhelm Danielle. The only reason I learned it at all was because I had a patient and kindly teacher in a fellow Arcadian who was in the hotel lobby. Gamers can speak each others’ languages, so it makes it super simple to pick new stuff up. I wasn’t sure if that would be the case for her, so I went into the store with her on the theory that I’d have to get them to understand that I couldn’t walk out of there with a deck of magic cards – besides being a commercially dangerous, I find the whole idea of customizable, expandable card games a little unnerving. You buy booster packs with the hope and prayer that, hiding within that 5 dollar investment, is a new card that will make your deck just perfect for three or four scenarios, providing you draw the card at the right time. Financial investment wins that game, regardless of what anyone says, which is why you can go on eBay and other sites and purchase individual cards for slightly more than the booster packs but without the hassle of having to wade through the system. Either way, Wizards gets paid, so I don’t think they care.

 

Regardless, I didn’t want Magic. I’m not a big fan of the game. I find it obtuse and convoluted and its system of monetization too aggressive for me. I don’t think it’s an awful game, but I’ve played it before and I don’t need to again. That’s fair to say.

Anyway, I went in there and basically said that and gave my narrow world view of Magic and within seconds I could see that I had walked into a Magic-centric shop, which started red lights and klaxons in my brain, for a number of reasons. I have an unwarranted low opinion of Magic enthusiasts which I struggle to hide from them and from the rest of nerddom. I don’t know what caused it, but it’s there and it is definitive. I manage to steer the convesration in the direction I want it to go – I have a Girlfriend, there she is, and I want a game I can play with her. I was hoping something out there would be cooperative, and it turns out there was, but it was a Lord of the Rings game which they were out of stock of. So they gave me Dominion.

Dominion, is, frankly, fantastic. It may be the mac daddy of all deck-building card games. The formula is essentially the same – the game comes in a big heaping box with a bunch of big heaping decks of identical cards. Your goal in the game is to acquire cards of a specific type which, when the game ends, are converted based on the number displayed on their faces into point values. Highest score wins. Simple stuff, but what makes Dominion so cool is how you go about doing it. The game kicks off with some simple stuff – on the playing surface are treasure cards (worth and costing respectively 1, 2, and 3; and 0, 3, and 6), Victory Cards (aforementioned “points” cards) of values 1, 3, and 6, and Curse cards (negative points).  You start the game out with a deck of 10 cards per player, 7 coppers (1 coin value) and 3 1-point victory cards. Your hand is only 5 cards deep. Each turn has an action phase and a buy phase. In your action phase, you play cards from your hand. In your buy phase, you play treasure from your hand and bonuses granted from your buy phase to add new cards to your deck, but everything from this turn goes into a personal discard pile, and you draw another hand from your deck. Eventually you run out and you shuffle the whole thing and continue.

The brilliance of Dominion is in the other 10 cards on the table. These cards are all action cards, and in their own fascinating way tell a tiny story. The goal of Dominion is to build up a medieval…well…Dominion or Realm over which you, as a monarch, rule. You don’t do this by raiding and pillaging and conquering. You do this by purchasing land. You’re basically an historical real estate mogul. Each of the 10 Action Cards, called Kingdom Cards, in play on the table assist you in some way toward the goal of gaining more Victory cards. You get to customize what actions your capable of by using your treasure cards to purchase new actions. These fill in the story in neat little ways. For example, I have a card called “militia” which is an Attack that causes my opponents’ hands to go down to 3 cards and gives me a +2 bonus to my buy phase. This represents me hiring thugs to go harass the other monarchs, thinning out their available resources temporarily without causing long-term damage. They also loot and pillage along the way and bring back a bit of swag for me. Danielle has a card in her hand currently that’s called the “Moat” and acts as a blocker card – I still get my +2 bonus, but the Militiamen basically got to her part of the realm and went “well, that’s a fair bit of water” and then puttered off somewhere else, able to bring me the spoils of the puttering but not able to cause a significant harm to Danielle’s kingdom/dominion.

That’s the part of it I find so clever – we get to tell a tiny story of the struggle for dominance in this historical-fantasy kingdom while playing a neat game of Sid Meier’s Civ… well, not really, Civ is a tabletop game in and of itself, but something within that “economic strategy” genre. And then even deeper than that, the game comes with 25 different kingdom cards, but only 10 are in play at any time. It means that there’s no surefire win strategy, and there are a number of playstyles that can benefit depending on the mutually-agreed-upon set of Kingdom Cards. The game comes with a couple of presets that it suggests and even an extra representative of each deck, giving the ability to shuffle that bitch up and have fate decide what cards you’re going to play with. It keeps things fresh and interesting.

Yet despite that, I’m pining for the expansion decks. It’s not a matter of having gotten bored with the current set of cards, but more a matter of wondering what else they’ve done. Each expansion focuses in a new direction both thematically and mechanically – Dominion was originally envisioned for 2 – 4 players at a single table, but one of the expansions adds a system for two tables competing against each other – a sort of duel of alliances. Another introduces the 15th-century exploratory focus, where things become about corporations and shipping and trade, still another focuses on making the core game bigger and better while functioning with the original sets – new types of cards you can get in your hand, new ways to win the game, and even new denominations of money and even bigger point values on a new Victory card.

But all of that is just icing – the weird thing about a card game like this, about deck-building games in general, is that, while I’ve been able to distill the “30 seconds of fun” in a video game down really quickly over the past couple of years so that I can play one for probably about an hour and narrow in on their core loop, I still have a hard time accurately communicating all the nuance and subtlety of games like this. It could be the thrill of not knowing what’s coming, even within my own deck, and it could be the nature of planning out such a massive wealth of resources to manage – your deck can get upwards of fifty or sixty individual cards before a game ends, and some turns could see you going through 20 cards in a single hand, sometimes more. The various ways the game gives you of betting your luck, the systems it borrows from classic card games and even clear influences from stuff like the generations of Civilization games – all of these are parts that don’t show you the whole picture. I think deck-building games may be my new favorite thing. They’re definitely a great gateway drug for Danielle, but they have their drawback.

We were at Legions again today and I was trying to sell her on the Wrath of Ashardalon box set because it has a cooperative aspect to it – her response? “You know, now that I’ve gotten away from the board, I don’t know if I really want to go back.”

I’d like to think that’s Dominion’s greatest contribution to our gametime – its micro stories have opened her mind and imagination to a lot more now. And I’m one step closer to getting her to roll one of these:

Arbiter of FortuneAnd then her journey to the Dork Side will be cohm-pleehtuh.