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Tuesday
Sep062011

Developer Diary 01: Everything's Still a Secret

Welcome to the Still-Secret-Name Developer Diary. I’m going to host this here on RickDakan.com first because our real site doesn’t go live for some weeks to come. Hell, we haven’t even announced our name yet (although we do know what it is). So right now I’ll just keep that tiny fraction of the world that’s interested up to date through my own site. I've put up a picture of Mt. Ranier in Washington because I like it and since I'm not actually free to tell secrets or show images from the project, I figured I'd share this pretty picture I took.

Yes, we started our first official week of work on Labor Day. This is what happens when three people used to working from home and setting their own schedules agree on a date: we forget about larger calendrical happenings and focus on what works for us.

So, we’re off and running. Actually, all three of us have been jogging towards the start line for weeks or even months now. Jonathan’s been doing the basic research to see what needs to be done and set his schedule. Austin’s been working on logos and character sketches. I’ve been maintaining documents, writing new documents, pondering old documents, and scheduling new documents to come. But now things begin in earnest.

Jonathan’s first two weeks are going to be spent porting GLOP to Go. Wrap your head around that. It ain’t sexy, but it’s necessary. The product of his labors will be CC-licensed and otherwise open-sourced, so others can benefit from his efforts. We’re probably not the first video game made with Google’s Go programming language, but as far as we know right now, we’re the first serious, for profit company trying to make one using it.

Austin this week is finishing up our logo and diving into character design. It’s an odd thing, having to design characters for three totally different games at once even though we’re only going to make one of them over the next year. Since we eventually want to make all three of them, I don’t feel any of it is wasted effort, but only about a third of it will be directly useful to whatever game we spend most of the next year working on. Why are we designing for three games at once, you ask? That part is still kind of a secret.

Having written up the very basic design/pitch documents for the three games months ago, my first priority now is getting all the web site content written and ready for our official launch. Yesterday that meant finalizing the cool premiums we’re giving out to our supporters and writing up descriptions of them for our Web site and future fundraising pages. Sponsors? Fund raising? Also still kind of a secret.

Yesterday (Labor Day) we had our first on-the-clock meeting via Google+ Hangouts. We’ve used this group video chat throughout the organization process, both for Mob Rules and for Open Game Labs. I like it a lot so far, although it has some minor issues from time to time. Pro-tip: don’t try to drag and drop a pic into the chat. It crashes the whole thing, as Jonathan found out. I did it myself a couple weeks ago. It seems so natural, and yet is not at all what Google expects you to do.

The meeting was mostly be procedural stuff about getting paid and setting schedules and that sort of thing. Austin needs to make some stick figure sprites for testing. Jonathan needs to send a Austin a flow chart for animation, that sort of thing. During this eight week R&D period we have a chance to experiment with different work-flow and management processes and find out what suits us best. In general the plan is to talk at least once every day.

This weekend Jonathan is moving from New York to Seattle. Did I forget to mention that? My dreams of an all EST team, smashed. So who knows what time we’ll be having our daily meetings. Jonathan said he’s been having late night recently because he stays up to play League of Legends online with friends. Since they’re all on the West coast already, his gaming time should shift forward three hours. And hey, the other Open Game Labs founders are all out on the West Coast already, so I already feel like I’m operating on PST half the time anyway. Except I still get up before 7:00 AM most mornings.

I’ll be doing at least one of these Dev Diaries a week here, and even more stuff (including content from the other two guys) once the official site is up and running. So check back for that!

Monday
Aug222011

Getting down to business

I just got back from Seattle/Tacoma (I was in both cities) last night. As I was in the airport, I realized that this was the first time in years that I was returning home from a trip and didn't already have another trip planned. There's a friends' wedding next year some time, but no for sure date yet. Other than that, I don't have any travel plans. It's actually kind of nice.

Normally I travel with some ulterior motive: a convention to promote my writing or a research trip or, as in this last case, a teaching gig. But I'm full of new plans, and right now they mean sitting at home and working a lot.

I (along with others) am starting a new video game company. I tiny one. Tiny by design. I hope never to get above ten people, although right now there are only three of us. We're going to make small but awesome games, and the whole plan is crazy in at least three other ways I'm not going to talk about just yet.

So that's what I've been doing. Lots of conference calls and budgets and spread sheets and design documents and dreaming and worrying and plotting and planning. Hopefully we'll be making the formal announcement by the end of September. 

Exciting, right?

Wednesday
Jul272011

Not so much dead, as dreaming...

I'm still here. Well, not here on this blog, where I totally haven't been in a long time. But here as in corporeal and on Earth and all that.

Mostly it's all because I had a big idea. This idea was followed by a number of other ideas, all of which pleased me immensely. We're talking plots and plans and schemes here, not abstract philosophical concepts. There have since been some of those too.

The short version is, I've been trying to put together a new video game venture. I'd fled the video game biz back when I sold out my interest in Cryptic and devoted myself to the novel-writing dream. And I then wrote a bunch of novels. Six of them in fact. And I'm writing a seventh (although I'll admit I've stalled out on that one in the last month, but I'm diving back in). I do love writing novels, because it's just about the only artistic endeavor I can undertake that lets me put my pure vision out there, unmediated and unrestrained. Also, largely unpaid. But it's still rewarding. 

But recently I dipped my toe back into the game design/writing field a little, and I really enjoyed myself. Then those ideas started coming. And then some other people had some even crazier ideas and now we're trying to put all those ideas together. Soon, we'll start talking to the world (the tiny part paying attention to us anyway) about it. 

So that's what I've been up to. 

Monday
Jun062011

Dark Thoughts About Noire

Well, not that dark, but how could I resist that as a headline, really? I clearly couldn't.

But I have been imbibing a ton of Noire entertainment this last month or so, a combination of research, timing, and interest. It all started with the new novel of course, which is my modern-day noire tale centered around sex tapes. I knew from the first that I wanted to model the story on a classic detective story, a la the Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. Except that, instead of a private eye, my hero would be someone who can help hide your leaked sex videos and pics for you - for a price. 

So I started reading books and watching movies for inspiration. I re-watched The Maltese Falcon. I read Red Harvest. Red Harvest if freaking crazy - over the top bloody and just an awesome descent into chaos. I watched The Killing for the first time (not the AMC show, the movie), along with Gilda, which is also a nutty movie. I was trying to get the vibe and rhythms of it all into my mind so I could use them as I wrote. 

One thing I figured out as I started writing though is that I didn't want a traditional Noire protagonist. First of all, my guy's not a cop or private eye or even really a criminal. He's basically a computer nerd who's good at photoshop. The whole sex-video thing puts him in the fringe, and I definitely have him living a sort of gray-market lifestyle, but he's not automatically a tough guy. Also, most Noire stories tend not to give much or any background on their main character. I want to give some more back story to my man, although as I write I definitely feel the Noire-inspired urge to hold the background and get on with the action. I think I'll end up going back and inserting more when I do my re-writes. 

The book was well under way by the time the great L.A. Noire video game came out a few weeks ago. It's a cop story, set in 1940s post-war L.A., full of murder, corruption, and double-dealing. I really, really like the game and it does a lot of interesting things. We just recorded a Moving Pixels Podcast about it over the weekend, which should go up in a couple of weeks. One thing we talked about was the arc of the main character, Phelps, and how he grows less and less likable as the game moves on. Spoiler here, but towards the end, you actually end up playing a different character, which is a brilliant move that lets the player still feel heroic even as Phelps' arc continues its dark course. 

I clearly don't want to go that way with my protagonist. In typical Noire fashion, my guy is far, far from perfect. But while Noire detectives are often self-deprecating, I don't think they're ever quite as full of uncertainty and worry as my guy is turning out to be. I'm having fun making him full of angst on the inside but cool and aggressive on the outside. The things he says to people are usually either pretty tough or pretty snappy. I wonder if undercutting that with the interior thoughts is a good thing or a bad thing, but right now I think it's a good thing. It's certainly an interesting thing.

My writing pace slowed down over the last three weeks, partly because I was sick and partly because I've taken on a video game writing project which is both exciting and pays money, so it jumped to the front of the line. I'd originally hoped to have the first draft done by the end of this month, but I don't see that as too likely. Still, I think the end of July is a real possibility, maybe even mid-July if things pick up like they seem to be.

Monday
May162011

I Debunk a Qigong Master

So this past Friday I watched a charlatan convince a good portion of his small audience that he has magic healing powers. There were about 25 of us present, but I’m told he did the exact same trick the weekend before to a room of around 2000. And if you watch the video below, you’ll see that he’s been doing the very same trick since at least 1999, when he appeared on Ripley’s Believe It Or Not (hint - don’t believe it).

He’s a 78-year old Chinese qigong teacher and martial artist. I had a chance to speak with him at the reception before the demonstration and he struck me as very genuine and kind. He looks amazingly fit for 78, or even for 68, and the non-charlatan portions of his demonstration where he was doing martial arts were above reproach. I’d have liked him a lot if he hadn’t spent the previous thirty minutes lying to us all.

Through his interpreter, he offered to show us his power to raise temperature through moving qi (or chi). Five us sat on a bench, and he brought out a roll of paper towels, a normal box of aluminum foil, an empty plastic bowl, and a white, plastic dinner plate with a lip on it that contained about a quarter inch of clear liquid in it. Like any stage magician, he invited us to examine the paper towel and the aluminum foil and had someone not affiliated with him fill up the plastic bowl with water from the tap. He never mentioned the white plate.

The charlatan laid out two pieces of paper towel on the floor. He then took a sheet of aluminum foil about seven by seven inches and crumpled it while sticking it into the bowl of water. He then removed it and shook the water clinging to the foil out onto the paper towel, soaking it through. His interpreter then explained that it was very important that he flatten the sheet of aluminum foil back out again.

He placed the crumpled foil on the white plate. I was on the end of the bench nearest to the plate and had an unobstructed view of what he was doing. I could clearly see the foil was being submerged below the shallow liquid as he flattened it out into a square. He then took it out, folded it neatly and wrapped it in the wet paper towel. I believe he then folded it a few more times.

The charlatan placed the foil-wrapped-in-paper towel on my leg, right above the knee and waved his hand over it until it started to warm up. It took several tens of seconds, but once I said that it was getting warm, he picked it up and moved it to my shoulder, where it was still warm. He then proceeded down the line, placing the packet on each of us. We all agreed it was hot and getting hotter.

I took the opportunity to reach down and stick my finger in the liquid he’d flattened the foil in. I then tasted it. There was a definite chemical taste and afterwards I felt some numbness/discomfort on my tongue. Later on in the evening I repeated this taste test and had the same results.

The audience was so impressed with the trick, they wanted to see it again. Seven new subjects took their places on the bench. I had a chance to watch him do the trick again. This second time he flattened the foil out and then flipped it over and flattened it some more, immersing it in the mystery liquid for a longer period. During the ensuing demonstration, the packet seemed to get much hotter and people reported steaming and sizzling noises from the paper towels.

After that, he led the group in some qigong breathing exercises that were fine and gave a lovely demonstration of his martial arts skills, including a very enchanting routine with a fan. He then broke some chopsticks by pressing them against the hollow of his neck, which I’m sure you’ve seen before.

I told my friends and the person who’d invited me to the demo, and only one of them seem surprised, so I’m not sure how many people he really fooled. But he definitely fooled some of them into thinking he could heat aluminum foil using qi, and it really made me angry. I was a guest in the house and didn’t confront him. I’m honestly not sure I would’ve had the guts to do so even if I didn’t think it would’ve been rude. I had a hard time meeting his eye, to be honest, and just wanted to get out of there. Once he started taking people into a private room for qi treatments, I left.

The trick, by the way, is an old one. Aluminum foil reacts with a lot of things, and when mixed with sodium chloride and other chemicals you might find in drain cleaner or lye, it produces heat. Apparently they used to sell the trick in magic stores until it was deemed too dangerous (the foil gets hot enough to burn people). My favorite source I’ve found on it is this one from the 1940 issue of Popular Science, which explains how hair salons used it:

http://books.google.com/books?id=wCYDAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA245&ots=-SrducIilL&dq=chemical%20to%20make%20aluminum%20foil%20heat%20up&pg=PA245#v=onepage&q=chemical%20to%20make%20aluminum%20foil%20heat%20up&f=false

That’s my first foray into on the spot skepticism. I’m pleased with myself of course, but mostly I find the whole thing kind of depressing. The man has plenty of talents as a martial artist, I don’t think he needs to be doing this kind of crass chicanery. I’m even more depressed at how many people - smart people - bought into it hook line and sinker. I’m sure I’ve made equally dumb conclusions about many things, but that doesn’t make me feel much better.

Here’s the video of the same guy performing the same trick on Ripley’s over ten years ago. The show is annoyingly credulous, but hey, I’ll consider that giving the charlatan equal time to respond to my allegations.

Thursday
Mar242011

My New Novel, Rage Quit, Begins!

My video game tester/modern day pinocchio fable RAGE QUIT begins serialization today over at Popmatters.com.

You should totally go read it! It's both on the site and there's a free pdf you can download of each chapter as they go up.

Free! Read! It!

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/138297-rage-quit-chapter-one-a-serialized-novel-by-rick-dakan/

Tuesday
Mar082011

The Great Note Card Novel Outlining Experiment

As I mentioned last week, I'm working on the outline for my sex-tape noire novel, and I got to a the beginning of the second act (assuming three acts here) and realized I had put a whole lot of characters and events into play. I've long heard tell of writers using note cards to figure this kind of thing out and to plot in general, so I thought I'd give it a try. I even had an old, unopened pack of 3x5's in the closet from the last time I thought about doing this. I've got six characters in play here: the protagonist and five others of antagonistic or at least mysterious intent, and together they've got a very busy day planned. 

I made lists of each character's possible actions on the day in question and then wrote them out on separate note cards. I also gave each character a different color. The result was this:

So far it's been really helpful! It let me organize their actions in a timeline for each character and line them up next to each other, giving me a nice overhead view at their various intersecting arcs.

The different colors will come in handy in the next step, when I'll make notes on each card where different actions interact with one another. A lot of these cards are about characters fucking with each other, after all. Then I'll go through and assign a time of day to each event and the result will be a big old timeline for the middle act of the book, culminating in something really terrible happening to at least one of these people. 

I'm officially positive on this note card experiment, especially for something like this. I'll let you know how it goes. 

Monday
Feb282011

Building the Ride: Outlining My New Novel

I love outlining. I love it, love it, love it. It just might be my favorite part of the book-writing process. Outlining is a time where you're free to explore and try out new ideas and let the story wander in any direction you please. It's playful, with lots of false starts and dead ends, none of which cost me much time. It also ends up generating some of those best eureka moments, when the whole story falls into place. I remember being in a muggy hotel room in Belize City late at night when I finally cracked the finale of Geek Mafia: Black Hat Blues. More than once I've gotten up from a half asleep state and stumbled into my office to get down some chapter ideas before they vanished. I've got a box full of notebooks in my hall closet filled with these hand-written brainstorming sessions and notes.

This morning I took another run at the outline for my new novel, the one about sex tapes that will be set in Austin. My usual method is to start writing down one sentence story beats, numbering as I go, until I hit a brick wall and don't know what happens next. Then I put it down for a few days and do other stuff and come back to a new, blank page or screen and start over from the beginning. The set-up is usually the easy part, but it can take some real momentum to get over that initial hump and into the real story. This morning I crested that hump, cruised on through the first act, and hit another wall. This is not unusual. But the nice thing about outlining is that it forces me to face these walls and break them down. So I sat there, sipped lukewarm coffee, and worked away at the new wall.

Helpfully, I'd already spent some quality time figuring out who my characters are, what they're trying to accomplish, and where all the points of conflict are. Those notes gave me all I needed to formulate a plan for the second act, and given the noire nature of my plot, I had a lot of rich and intricate ideas. I stopped there, knowing I've got a way to move forward.

Since this is my seventh time at the plate outlining a novel, I've got a pretty good feel for what works for me and what doesn't. I'm comfortable with my classic tricks and routines. So of course I'm going to try something new this time around, right? This time I'm going to play with note cards. People talk about this technique all the time, especially when writing scripts. I'm going to try it now for this second act. I want it to be fast-paced (as all my stuff tends to be) and full of twists and turns (again, de rigeur for me), but with six characters interacting at cross purposes, I thought this would be a great time to try the old note card trick and see how it goes. 

My plan is to make a set of cards for each character and his or her possible actions and reactions on this particular day in the story. The story is from our hero's POV, but I need to keep track of what everyone is doing, even if he's not aware. I might color code them by both character and whether or not they happen on the page or in the background. We'll see. As I wrote above, outlining is all about building structure through experimentation, and I'm flying a little blind here. I'll let you know how it goes next week.

Tuesday
Feb222011

Lovecraftian Acceptance Feeds My Hungry Ego!

A while back, famed Lovecraft scholar and weird fiction editor S.T. Joshi flattered me by asking me to write a story for Black Wings II, a sequel to the excellent collection of Cthulhu Mythos inspired tales, Black Wings. I was, needless to say, excited and didn't hesitate to say yes.

I've written very little short fiction. In fact, I've only written one other short story, and that was last year. I just tend to think in big plots that don't squeeze well into short form. Most of the ideas that I have that I love I want to be novels. It's actually a habit I'm trying to break myself of, and I think this experience has helped me a lot. I hope so, since one of my many schemes (this one still way to early to be anything but secret) involves writing a fair amount of short stuff.

My idea for Black Wings II is way off the wall. It's not really a mythos tale. It's not even a supernatural tale. It does have a LOT of H.P. Lovecraft in it though. I loved the idea, but executing it turned out to be much more of a challenge than I thought. Even my original outline for a short story with this idea would have been novella length if I'd tried to adhere to it. As I started writing, I found that I had to condense it down to its essential elements and just a few key scenes. A lot of strange but potentially fun ideas got cut away, leaving a story that still does everything I wanted it to. It was a great experience.

But because it was so different, I was worried that S.T. wouldn't go for it. Hell, I was worried no one at all would go for it! So I turned it in a month early (which is to say, yesterday), giving myself time to pen my backup idea if this one didn't pass muster.

I'm very pleased to report that it did indeed pass muster! S.T. wrote back last night and is delighted with it. I have some edits to make, but they are all of the time and date, punctuation marks and italics here variety and not the story itself. Damn, what a relief! I still plan to write that "back-up" story too. I love that idea as well, although it's slightly (only slightly!) more traditional in its form. 

In the meantime, I've started in earnest on the new novel this week, building up my traditional massive outline. I think I'm going to try and use this space to catalog my progress and try and give some insight into my writing process. That would be fun, wouldn't it?

Monday
Feb142011

So, What Do I Do Now?


Haven't been blogging, obviously. 

A while back, I wrote about how I get weirdly withdrawn and sort of unproductive while I'm waiting for something big and important to resolve itself. That's the kind of thing that's been happening - a non-profit I was working for was going through a crisis period and it was drawn out over a couple months. I'm no longer involved with it, which is kind of a bummer, albeit the right thing in the long run. So that all imploded last week.

Now though, now I've gotta choose a new path. 

As is now traditional at such moments, I'm going to write a novel. Well, two novels.

First I've been kicking this idea around for a few months and now I'm diving in. It's a sort of noire tale about sex tapes. It's going to rock. Then I'm going to try my hand at some Young Adult fiction - a fantasy book in fact, so that's two big firsts for me. That's this year taken care of, writing wise.

You won't be able to read either of those this year of course, but there is new stuff from me coming soon!

Starting in a few weeks, my novel Rage Quit will be serialized over 18 weeks at Popmatters.com. That's going to be tremendous fun.

By the end of the year, hopefully by Summer, the Berlin novel/app/thingy will launch as well - so you should definitely be looking forward to that.

Otherwise, I'm sort of stil sorting out what I want to use this space here for. Just sort of randomly, eratically posting about whatever doesn't seem to be the best use, but I don't know for sure what is. Maybe a diary of my writing process on the new novel would be fun. We'll see.

So, change/crisis/opportunity/plenty of fish in the see/easy come easy go/follow your hiss/no matter where you go, there you are/etc.