FFXIII-2: New Eidolon?

Take a look at this screenshot from FFXIII-2.  What previous summon does it remind you of?

Did you say Anima?

Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww yeah! :D

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Memories of an MMO: These things can be free!?

In my ongoing series regarding my thoughts on the MMO scene, it’s time to examine the slew of games out there that are free to play.

After months of playing FFXIV Online, I began exploring the genre. After all, I’d spent the majority of my gaming life with RPGs and action/adventure titles (i.e. God of War, Silent Hill, LBP, Metal Gear, FF, KH, and so on) and I knew little of the MMO genre at all. What motivated me into exploring was actually the result of the game I was playing: why was the critical response to FFXIV so bad? Why didn’t the players like it? What was it missing? Apart from my own frustrations with the game (and my sticktoitiveness to overcome said frustrations), I wasn’t really sure how valid the criticism was. So it was time to make a foray and discover what the other MMOs were doing and why they were doing it well.

And since I don’t walk around with bags of money and coins overflowing my pockets, the MMOs had to be free. Did such a thing exist?

Hells yes. Seriously: have you people actually explored the VAST number of free games available these days? It’s actually quite impressive to see that these games are not only free, but that the studios continue to support them as long as they retain a decent player base. Here’s a quick few:

  • Runes of Magic
  • Shaiya
  • Lord of the Rings Online
  • Dungeons & Dragons Online
  • Age of Conan
  • Runescape
  • League of Legends
  • Fiesta Online

Much like a player is set to invest months (and sometimes years) into an MMO, so too is the commitment for a game studio to this type of game: bug support, patches, new content, exclusive content.  For game studios to be able to provide these games to players at no cost** is not only a significant commitment, but a strong sign of the way in which the MMO genre as a whole is changing. Monthly subscription fees now exist only for the minority of games, and they are often AAA titles that have budgets in excess of millions (i.e. Warhammer Online, World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XI). Free MMOs, by contrast, are not AAA titles. They are instead crafted by smaller studios who may never release another game. But they want to be strongly vested in one title that can offer great longevity to the company and the player. As a result, most of the free MMOs will not have the production values of their AAA siblings, but they can easily be just as much fun once you get into them. And when it comes down to it, the gameplay is what makes the difference no matter how pretty the graphics turn out to be (FFXIV is a perfect example of this).

But if you’re someone who is looking at breaking into the genre, there has never been a better time to play. It’s even worth it to download most of them just to see if you like them because there is no risk involved and thousands of others are already playing.

Next time: a free game, not in the list above, that deserves everyone’s attention.

**Most of these free MMOs include a voluntary payment system in the form of an exclusive in-game currency (i.e. gems, runes, crystals and the like). Such currencies are used to purchase exclusive items, upgrades and features for a character. Players who want to be unique or have the best gear can choose to pay money in exchange for exclusive currencies, which in turn also supports the game studio.

AAA in Toronto!

There’s some kick-ass stuff going on in the big city right now if you’re in the game development industry. We’ve known that Ubisoft has been gearing up its Toronto studio, and having now hired over 100 employees, they’re starting work on AAA tiles with two core teams! It’s hard to believe that this kind of work is happening right under our nose (given that Toronto is primarily known for its mass of indie developers), but also energizing to know that a lot of great talent from all over the world is here to work on these projects! Want to know more? Check out this recent interview with General Manager of Ubisoft Toronto, Jade Raymond. The industry has been keeping an eye on her since the announcement that she would head the studio, so expect more big things to come!

Also, I found what is quite possibly one of the most unique and cool jobs this week. If only I had made the time to play the Assassin’s Creed series of games, I could have been a Historian!  Well, not exactly a Historian, but check out this Ubisoft Montreal job posting. How cool is that? :D

Website Preview!

I promised this last week and spent more of my time regaling the awesomeness of Neil Gaiman rather than fulfilling my promise. But belated is better than never, right? :P

I’m so excited to be able to post some shots of the website. It’s taken me months to put together, mostly because I’m super picky. Here’s the first thing you’ll see when you visit the site itself:

I’ve long been a fan of splash pages as an instrument of setting the mood of a website in the most minimalistic way possible. So this splash page is my creative attempt to have some fun with my name while playing around with a theme that is prominent in all of my books. And what do you know? Books come from trees too!

The homepage itself features an introduction from me and a handsome navigation bar to the left, where visitors can take a gander through the long and short fiction that I’ve presented on the website. There’s information about yours truly too.

Here is example of just one of the pages within the full-length fiction section. You’ll notice that the style is consistent with the homepage but the colour scheme is immediately different; I wanted to encapsulate the mood and tone of each piece of fiction at the visual level.  In fact, coming up with the respective colour schemes was the most enjoyable aspect of this project and I’m really pleased with the results! There are other aspects that are unique to each page within the site as well, but I won’t give those away just yet.

While the website is a showcase for my writing, I made sure not to stop with just the books themselves. I spent a lot of time going through all of my notes to summarize key facts, characters and events so that I could share with you all of the things that make each world unique and exciting. You’ll find a lot on the site about the worlds and mythologies where the stories exist, with many plans to expand upon this information in the future.

And, naturally, I had to give you some handy mini-menus to help you navigate through all of that info!

So there you have it! I’m doing a few final tweaks to the website over the next week, but I anticipate the full launch by the end of the month! Yay!! :D

Inspiring Authors: Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman and I have been friends since long before he published his first major novel.

My expanding love for comic books allowed me to discover Spawn back in 1993. The first issue I picked up was Spawn #9, which featured the first appearance of a bad-ass, skimpy, spear-wielding, bloodlusty angel named Angela.  My love for the character deepened as the dove further into the comics, and she quickly became my favourite character design of all time, coinciding with my love for strong female characters a la Xena and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Then Angela disappeared from the comics over a legal dispute between Todd MacFarlane, creator of Spawn, and Neil Gaiman, creator of Angela.  But I didn’t care about all that–I just wanted my favourite character back.  “Damn that Neil Gaiman!” I would exclaim to anyone who would listen.

10 years later, when first exposed to the music of Tori Amos, I heard numerous references made to “Neil” and “the dream king”. “Who’s this Neil person she keeps talking about?” I would ask my university friends.  They would reply to me with obvious expressions of disgust over my lack of awareness.  “He’s a famous writer! He’s written for DC Comics. His Sandman series is hugely popular.” I would merely shrug. Sandman? I had no interest in graphic novels.

Then, sitting in the Toronto Air Canada Centre for the On Scarlet’s Walk tour, I read through the tour book and discovered the name of the writer. “Neil Gaiman? What the heck is he doing in here?”

A short time thereafter, a friend told me to pick up his book Neverwhere.  “You’d really like it!”  It wasn’t until that moment that I finally had the epiphany: “Neil Gaiman writes fantasy books? I love fantasy books!”

Gaiman’s “Fantasies”

I’ve had the opportunity to read the majority of Gaiman’s work: Neverwhere, Coraline, Stardust, Interworld, American Gods, Smoke & Mirrors. The Graveyard Book is at home near the top of my endless “to read” pile. What have a learned from reading them?

Gaiman does not write fantasy fiction.

Read that last sentence again. Little of Gaiman’s work incorporates the conventional tropes of fiction writing: there is no obvious form of “magic” or spell-casting, there are no elves or dwarves or other fantastical creatures, no buildings or cities that defy the laws of physics, and there is no epic need to save the world. Instead, Gaiman crafts of fantasy of his own: realistic settings, mythologies, and personal quests. What we end up with is not fantasy fiction, but fantasy realism. You could place his works into the fiction section and describe them with fantastical elements, or in the fantasy section with contemporary elements.

Of course, it’s this duality that has come to define most of Gaiman’s novels, leading to a common thread throughout his corpus of work: the door. In each of his novels, characters start out in a “normal” space–settings and characters that are instantly recognizable to the reader.  There’s no need to “teach” the reader what is going on.  It’s everyday life, and with the turning of each page, life evolves into something less and less “known”.  It allows for a learning curve that prevents the reader from being alienated too quickly like most fantasy fiction tends to do. (Maybe it’s also because Gaiman uses common names rather than stringing together a myriad of vowels or consonants in unpronounceable ways–a horrible flaw of fantasy writing. :P)

This duality is often portrayed literally; Gaiman uses doors, thresholds and holes to define the familiar from the unfamiliar (in one novel, there is literally a character called Door). The way in which he uses such a simple technique with such effectiveness is inspiring. In fact, the more that I read his work, the more I came to realize that my novels have a duality of their own, although I hadn’t consciously planned on it. (And for those wondering to what duality I’m referring, you’ll just have to wait to read the books and figure it out yourself. :P)

Gaiman’s style of writing was also the jumping point for my short story ‘Pandora’s Box’.  One part fiction, one part fantasy.

The Flow of Ideas

The other major element that never ceases to amaze me with Neil’s work is the style in which he writes.  His words are simple but clear, and there is a rhythm to the sentences that creates a satisfying flow. It’s really quite simple to read the words on the page, and most people that I know tend to whip through his books rather quickly.

Gaiman has also received a myriad of critical acclaim for his writing style, perhaps most obvious in American Gods.

If I could offer one criticism of Gaiman’s work, it is that his style is so simple that it’s sometimes lacking. That is: Gaiman has fantastic and unique ideas that I’ve never encountered before, and the stories and plots themselves are satisfying.  His concentration on mythologies are particularly fascinating.  But Gaiman’s work can sometimes have the appeal of really good fishing bait: all bites, no catch.

That’s because Gaiman’s ideas are often the cleverest part of his work.  The writing is there, and it’s good, but it is also overshadowed by the ideas behind the words.  Too often scenery or character descriptions will lack the specificity to really makes them jump off the page.  In American Gods, a couple of subplots take center stage and end up under-emphasizing the main story; in Coraline, the secondary characters don’t have enough dialogue to remain memorable.  But behind all of these works are mythologies that Gaiman has meticulously crafted, or altered, into something that characteristically screams his name.  And there is no doubt that his writing is sophisticated, but I find that details are sometimes overlooked that would allow for a more vivid story experience.

As a brief point of contrast: the film medium is perhaps the best outlet for his works, allowing for Neil to inject the same level of detail into the visual as he does into the concepts themselves. Mirrormask is a perfect example of this, featuring one of the most visually surreal and unique experiences I’ve encountered in a film. But my intuition tells me that the reason for this is because Mirrormask was crafted as a film first followed by a novelization.

Despite my minor criticism, I’ve recommended Neil Gaiman’s work to many friends. Stardust is easily his finest work: the writing is charming and witty, the characters are balanced with fun and stoicism, and the world and story are memorable (just stay away from the film). Those friends have also embraced the unique worlds within his words.

I can only hope that my own mythologies can come anywhere close to his own.

Check out Neil Gaiman’s website and blog at www.neilgaiman.com!

Comments Pour Vous!

I’ve received enough feedback on the ability for readers to post comments that I’ve finally caved: all of my blog entries (past and future) now have comments enabled! So go write something clever, will ya? :P