Friday, November 20, 2009

B&N = Fail

Today, I went shopped at Barnes & Noble. Nowadays, brick and mortar bookstores are pretty thin on the ground. Borders only has two locations in the city that I know about. There's the world-famous Strand, but they only do used books (and is a bitch to navigate). There are a few mom-and-pop booksellers. So when I want a book, my option is pretty much B&N. This isn't so bad, because they usually have a good selection of books. It's at the checkout that B&N fails. And fails big.

It's the book club. "Would you like to join the book club? You save 10 percent on every purchase," the clerk helpfully offers. Sounds good. "It's $25 a year," he adds. You can hear the tires squeal at that point. No dude, I don't want to spend $25 for your club. Let me count the ways.

First, if I'm going to spend $25 of my hard-earned cash, I would prefer to buy a pile of books. Spending $25 in order to save a buck fifty on my purchase just seems counter-intuitive. Even if I end up spending thousands of dollars, and saving hundreds, over the course of the year, I'm just annoyed that I have to pay for the priviledge.

Second, in this day and age, it just seems silly to pay for this service. I can go to Amazon and get books at a ridiculous discount. If you're competing with a web retailer, which B&N essentially is, it doesn't make much sense to charge for a discount I can get for free automatically. Admittedly, B&N has costs Amazon doesn't -- the aforementioned brick and mortar locations. Okay. I'll accept this...

...Until I realize that the drug store chain CVS gave my this nifty red card that offers me a discount on my purchases. Cost to me? Zero. Hmmm. That must be an anomaly.... No, wait; Best Buy also gave me a nifty blue card that gives me a discount, also at zero cost to me. Now, again admittedly, the way these cards work is that I get a discount (or coupons) based on how many times I use the card. Which is every time I go to these stores. Certainly, B&N could switch to this kind of model.

The best deal was Virgin Megastores. They gave me this silver card that saved me money every time I shopped. In fact, I would ONLY shop at the Virgin Megastore for DVDs, video games, and music. I loved that place. Some days, the little coupon printer would chatter out discount after discount after discount. I bought my Xbox 360 there, and with their VIP program I basically got a free game out of the deal. It's a wonder, and a shame, that they went out of business. Because that place was always packed.

So it's not like B&N has to go with the whole "charge for a discount" model. In fact, given the competition and existing alternate discount programs, the Barnes & Noble membership card sucks. It smacks of corporate stupid-headedness (oh, and greed). Just give me the stupid card, already.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Star Trek

I've been a fan of Star Trek since I was old enough to watch TV. I was basically only allowed to watch Sesame Street and Star Trek. I, in my childish mind, thought what I was watching was in some sense real, that there was a Starfleet. After all, the news was showing me Vietnam and Nixon, and those were real. I wanted to grow up and join Starfleet. Imagine my disappointment (which may have actually been worse than learning about Santa Claus, since I was Jewish).

I remember when Christian Moore, the President of Last Unicorn Games bemoaned the fact that he couldn't find a Star Trek expert to hire. I remember staring blankly at the phone for a second before saying "are you fucking kidding me?!" It was my dream job, because not only did I get all the toys sent to me for free, I also got to visit the sets from time to time. Then there was that time we were invited to a private Star Trek party, only to discover we were the only guests there not affiliated with the shows; only the "big three" (Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelly) were not in attendance. But I digress.

Thus, it was with great joy that I ran out to buy the newest movie on DVD. I come to praise Star Trek, not bury it. There is so much to love about this movie, I'm willing to forgive its shortcomings (of which there are more than a few, I'll admit). And I'm not going to talk about vague generalities (it captured the classic Trek feel) or the casting (we all know Quinto and Urban were awesome). I'm going to list the things to which I twigged, that made the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up:

1) The sound effects. Pike or Kirk push a button on the captain's chair, and it makes the same sound it did on the original TV show. The background noise on the bridge, all the pinging and booping, was also accurate. I felt like I was home again. The communicators also chirped when opened, again with the original sound effect.

2) The tribble. On Scotty's desk on Delta Vega, there's a round cage with a fur ball in it. It's a tribble. And it trills properly, too. Abrams just passes by it. He doesn't say "hey look, Trekkers, it's a tribble!" with his shot. Kudos also for giving it to Mr. Scott (who beams the little buggers away in the original episode). If only they'd put it in Uhura's dorm room, instead!

3) The beauty shots. Let's face it, the Enterprise is an iconic spaceship. It is a character in its own right. They make sure to show it in at least three beautiful scenes (Abrams admits to enjoying the beauty shot from the first movie). Whenever I saw the Enterprise, I whooped with joy.

4) The Klingons. Now we're getting into deleted scenes. Too bad they were, because they really show off the Abram's team's knowledge of Trek. The Klingons capture Nero and send him to Rura Penthe (point for getting the Klingon prison planet right). All the Klingons wear helmets, neatly side-stepping the whole "do Klingons have head bumps" question. If they ever do a Klingon movie, I'd suck Abram's cock if he went back to the non-bumpy, Mongolian-looking Klingons.

5) Kirk's brother. Also among the deleted scenes. Kirk has an older brother. He's the kid young Kirk passes by when he steals the car. This is canon. Kirk had a brother. He died in the episode with the giant, flying, killer amoebas.

6) The uniforms. The movie starts with everyone on the Kelvin wearing the blue jumpsuits of "Enterprise." But then we get back to the good old gold, blue, and red shirts. With the different department arrows, I'll note (stars for command, two interlocking circles for science, crook for the red shirts). That's what really got to me -- those arrowheads.

7) Green blood. Spock's got a split lip. He's bleeding green. Romulan guard gets stabbed. He's bleeding green. Not chartruse. Not red. Green. (I know it's not a big deal, but given Hollywood's proclivity to put its fingerprints all over everything, they might have at least messed up on the Romulans.)

8) Not a single fucking mention of the Prime Directive, that element that always seems to bring the plot to a screeching bore.

The devil is in the details, they say. Star Trek succeeds for me as a movie because this crew (Abrams, Orci, Kurtzman, et al) get the little things right. They could have said "screw it" or "this is our version Trek, so we'll do what we want." But they didn't. They gave me back the Enterprise I knew from my childhood.

Now, where's the nearest Starfleet recruiting station?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Facebook Dating

As many of you know, I'm on Facebook. A lot. At this time of year, with only one table all night long, there's nothing really to do but keep Facebook open while I putter around on the web. And you can already tell this is going to be a Facebook rant.

Facebook is free because they advertise to us. They make their money from advertisers (right now, you're saying "duh!"). What's great about this is that, unlike Google, which selects its ads based on your search terms (one wonders what ads you'd get if you searched for "hot lesbian dwarves"), Facebook pulls its ads from your profile. Do you live in New York City? Then you get ads from city-based businesses. I'm glad to learn I can get my teeth cleaned for only $10, Facebook, now what are you trying to tell me?

I'm single. So I get a lot of banner ads for dating services. At first, they were fairly innocuous. Typically mainstream sites like and But as time goes on, I've noticed them becoming progressively, well... skeezy. First came the site offering to hook me up with single women with children. MILFs. Moms I'd like to fuck. Okay, thanks Facebook. Not questionable at all. Then there were the sites for Asian dating. Again, thanks Facebook, for indulging me in my yellow fever and penchant for bukkake. Today, I got an ad for plus-sized women. I think you can write your own joke here, folks. (Mine is, I'm not into jumbo loving, Facebook.)

It's as though Facebook will continue progressively going down the list of kink until it finds a site that appeals to me. What's next? Necrophilia dating? Foot fetish dating? Scheize dating? Facebook seems relentlessly interested in my social life, and just will not be happy until I find a dating site to my liking.

It's not like I'm a science fiction fan (sorry, no sci-fi dating, though I know of at least one such site. Let's just say I was horrified, and move on). So don't send me ads for science fiction movies or comic book stores, Facebook. I'm also not a fan of Jameson and Heineken, so don't you dare send me ads for local bars. I don't want ads for books, either. Nope, Facebook, keep on bombarding me with ads for dating services.

Because I don't feel like a pathetic dateless loser already. But thanks for trying to hook me up. Now can I get that ad for lesbian dwarves?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Mojito Hell

I'm a bartender, and as we all know, it's my job to make drinks. It's my raison d'etre, as it were (and I know my mom is so proud that I'm putting my $100,000 higher education to such good use). One of the drinks I'm asked to make repeatedly is the mojito. I make hundreds of them. Because, you see, we have a $5 mojito drink special.

Do you know what a pain in the ass it is to make this drink? Pick mint. Add sugar. Pour rum, lime juice, and triple sec. Muddle. Add soda. Garnish with lime. And I get to do this all for a $5 drink.

Mojito Hell begins at three o'clock and ends at seven. It's as though someone flicks a switch, and I suddenly find myself muddling, muddling, muddling. My forearm is getting huge (and not just from the masterbation). Then, just as suddenly, it stops. Everyone wants their mojitos for five bucks, but God forbid they have to spend $6.50 (which is the regular price).

I've had customers change their drink order to soda at the magic hour. I've had some beg me to give them their mojitos after 7 pm at the reduced price. (I can't do this, because the computer automatically switches the price at the appointed time. So stop asking.) When you come into the bar and order your mojito, all you're doing is announcing that you're cheap. I imagine the folks behind the counter at MacDonalds feel the same way about people ordering off the dollar menu ("Oooh, you have a whole dollar... Don't forget the tax.").

Now I understand why people are doing this. It's the recession (depression?), and people don't have money. I get why people want (need?) to get drunk on the cheap. But really, if you're so desperate to drink, and don't have the money, let me offer some alternatives.

Go buy a 40 ounce bottle of Colt 45 and drink it in the park. Get a cheap bottle of vodka and drink it in your home. Be really edgy and drink a bottle of shoe polish (like the homeless do). You could get a bottle of Nyquil and enjoy some hallucinations with your drunk. (Wait, Nyquil is actually more expensive than our mojitos. Never mind.) Just stop coming in here and making me mix this annoying, complicated drink. Because my right forearm is doing just fine on its own, thank you very much.

Friday, November 6, 2009


I love douchebags. They're always so much fun. For example:

1) I'm standing in like behind this douchebag at the corner bodega. He's got all the hallmarks of douchey-ness. Spikey mohawk? Check. Barbed wire bicep tat? Check. Too-tight t-shirt to show off his pectoral superiority? Double-check. He's in line to buy gel for his spike-tastic do, but the hair products are kept behind the counter. Bless her, the woman behind the counter is being patient with him, as he keeps asking her to take stuff down off the shelf, then put it back. "I'm sorry," he says, "I forgot my glasses." (Bonus douche points: He pays is $2.72 bill with a $100).

2) These two douche-tards from Ireland walk into the restaurant to eat. I always thought douche-ness was limited to the good 'ole U.S. of A. Now the restaurant is completely empty, except for this table of two women, so, of course, they demand to sit down right next to them. Then, they buy the girls a bottle wine. The women are polite, and gladly down that bottle of wine. But when it's time to go, they say "thanks" and "see ya!" Which pisses off douche #2. I guess they figured New York girls are easy (and not the man-eaters that they really are), and douche #1 had talked douche #2 to spend some of their precious coin on the women. Now that the deal was definitely not sealed, douche #2 had buyer's remorse, and blamed his buddy. They almost came to blows right here at the bar.

I wasn't going to serve them because a) they were drunk and b) they were belligerent. But it was fun watching them push and shove each other. I was hoping they'd come to blows, because I wanted to show them Rikers as part of their glorious vacation package.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Time for a Change

The more I write on this blog, the more it becomes apparent that I need a second blog. Some of you come here to read my wry, witty comments about life. But increasingly, I am only blogging about my nacent game company, Studio Manta. In order to keep both separate, I'm creating a second blog only for Studio Manta material. From now on, this site will return to pithy commentary on life's irony.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

What's It About?

I was in the roleplaying design business for seven years, and I've seen a lot of games come and go. Some have gone because, despite their interesting premises and innovative mechanics, they simply did not capture the buying public's imagination. Others couldn't get traction at the retail level. Still more lacked proper capitalization, and disappeared along with their publishers in a cloud of debt. One of the worst ways for a game to go, however, is poor execution (and I'm not talking about the rules, or bad cover design). I've seen quite a few games violate a simple principle: In order to be successful, a game has to be about something.

I remember wandering the halls of GenCon, looking for something refreshing and new. Eager, enthusastic game designers, upon seeing my exhibitor badge, would want me to take a look at their new, innovative game. They'd tell me how cool their setting was, or how it had a great new mechanic. Then, things would turn ugly, fast. "So what's your game about?" I'd ask. Sometimes, I'd get blank stares. Other times, I'd get answers like "it has derrigibles," or "it's about demons," or some other setting element they thought I should instantly get as being super cool.

"No, what is it about?" What or who do I play? What do I do? I'm a galactic knight defending the universe from other-dimensional aliens. I'm a fighter, descending into dungeons, killing the monsters and taking their stuff. I'm an intrepid investigator investigating Things From Beyond. In other words, what is the central idea behind the game? I can't tell you how many times I haven't gotten a satisfying answer to this question. And the game later fails.

I say this is one of the worst ways for a game to go because if the designer had taken the time to try and answer these questions (Who are you and what do you do?) they may have never wasted the time, effort and money to produce a dud. Or maybe they would have sharpened their ideas in order to produce a winner. Instead, the game arrives stillborn. That's sad.

Why are these questions important? For the consumer, it gives him or her an idea of the setting. It tells them what they'll be doing, while they sit around the kitchen table with their friends. It gives them a hook upon which to hang their imaginations. For the writer/designer, it provides a lighthouse on the horizon, a destination; anything that doesn't support the central idea can be cut out, those elements that do can be sharpened.

I'm not certain why some designers fail to take this into consideration. Yes, I'm sure playing demons is fun. What do I do as one? Yes, Victorian-era airships are cool. What do I play? If you can't tell me, I'm not buying or playing. Think about it, would you play Monopoly if someone told you it was a critique of capitalism and the real estate market in New York? You play a shoe and you buy hotels as you screw over your friends. (I'm told in the Soviet version everyone played a wheelbarrow and contributed to the collective wealth of the state. Bo-ring!)

In some cases, even if the designers know, it's not always a case for success. Sometimes, the public doesn't want to play viruses intent on infecting as many people as possible. But at least, armed with this knowledge, they can make an intelligent choice.


Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about Studio Manta, and the question naturally came up "what's it about?" This question floored me, because while I've been doing a lot of thinking about the project, and been writing the rules, I hadn't actually stopped to consider this question. It's been floating around in my head, of course, but I haven't designed a setting.

This may sound odd to you. A game is about something, whether it's Monopoly or Mass Effect. So you'd think that I'd have an idea what the setting is. I generally believe this to be true: Most games start out as a setting/story (an intellectual property). Oftentimes, they're simply the designer's setting for his own private weekly game. You like Westerns, but you want your world to include the supernatural, so you grab Boot Hill and Call of Cthulhu and kludge them together. Viola! You have Deadlands. Other times, the designer has an idea in his head -- Vampires in space! Lost underwater kingdom! -- then starts to flesh out the world.

The rules come second. They have to conform to, and reflect, the setting for which they are being designed. Deadlands has that really cool playing card mechanic, because Poker features prominently in Westerns. Call of Cthulhu wouldn't be the great game it is without the Sanity rules. You get the point. And what makes my not having a setting in mind so odd is that I'm designing a game backwards.

I'm working on a ruleset first because I don't intend to market just one game. I want to have a space setting, a Western setting, a contemporary setting.... And I want them to all work off the same rules. I'm not designing a game; I'm working on number of them. This hampers a great deal of the work, because I have to leave holes in the core mechanics in which to insert the setting-specific mechanics. The rules for magic have to plug into the basic rules (or I must create those rules as I design), for example. Similarly, it's hampered my thinking about a setting (because I'm not thinking about one setting, but the possibilities of many).

It's not like I haven't thought about creating an IP, however. It's floated around in my head, but I haven't really committed it to paper (or, in this case, electrons). I know what I want to do in a vague way:

Naturally, I want it to be popular. I've seen dozens of roleplaying games come and go. They've even had interesting settings and mechanics. But I don't want to be Hong Kong Action Theater or Everway. I don't even want it to be Shadowrun. I'm looking to create something I can build upon, like Vampire: The Masquerade or even Legend of the Five Rings. Something with a large following, to whom I can eventually sell a metric ton of useless crap (hats! T-shirts! Soap!).

I also want to model it on Japanese Anime. This is for a practical reason: Games based on lone heroes don't make good games. James Bond is a terrible IP for roleplaying games. That's because everyone wants to play Bond (or someone Bond-like); no one wants to play Felix Leiter. The same goes for Dr. Who, Elric, Solomon Kane, Conan the Barbarian, or any other hero who appeals to the American sensibility. Roleplaying is a group activity, and everyone should have an opportunity to contribute, a chance to shine. The Japanese generally create stories involving groups (given its group-oriented society). The Seven Samurai, for example.

Even if the star of the show is the teenaged boy who is the only one who can pilot the alien giant robot, he has friends. And they have giant robots of their own. They often have to save the prodigy's ass, from time to time. Cowboy Bebop tells the story of four bounty hunters. Inu Yasha has his companions. There are five Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.... You get the idea. Also, since I intend the game to be highly visual, it helps to model the project on anime.

But I also want it to appeal to my sensibilities. For this, I find James Malisewski's observation on his blog quite helpful. "[m]any… pulp fantasy worlds have a strongly "autumnal" feeling to them. The best days of the world are over and "Winter" is coming. [I]t is coming and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it.” That about sums it up for me, too. I also tend towards the “post-apocalyptic” in my tastes in movies and books. Additionally, it meshes with tropes in Japanese anime, which often focus on life after a cataclysmic war (because of, you know, the whole atom bomb experience).

So it’s not as though I don’t have a set of criteria to use when designing a setting, I just don’t have a setting yet.