Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 21, 2016
Having spent some time improving (well, reducing the suck level of) my fiction-writing chops, I think I’m ready to offer a more informed opinion:
You can have a great game, or a great story, but not both.
Right, no change. Actually, it’s been reinforced. Now, I feel you can have a great game with an acceptable story, and vice versa. And you can have a great game with a story that stands out among other game stories. I’ve played several of those, and I love them.
By way of further explanation: A game can have a great story if the player has little or no control over the story. But in my opinion, that detracts from the interactivity, and the point of games is interaction, so it in turn detracts from the quality of the game-playing experience.
It’s the difference between active participation and being a spectator. If you are an athlete, you are going to perform your absolute best in a serious competition. You are going to do your best to run up the score, to break personal records, and defeat the competition by a wide margin of safety. As a spectator, however, the sport is most exciting when it is a close game all the way at the end. The winning three-point shot right at the buzzer marks the end of a spectacular game for you, not the running-out-of-the-clock in the last two minutes for the team that has a commanding lead.
This is exactly the problem of story vs. gameplay. In a good story, the princess isn’t just in another castle. No, going into the final act, not only is the princess in another castle, but by raiding the castle looking for the decoy princess, you just unsealed a demonic army that is now ready to attack your kingdom. The main bad guy took you awesome sword and armor for himself, and in your absence your scumbag cousin Clayton got engaged to the real princess. You haven’t become more powerful with an awesome BFG or hitting level 70. No, you are in worse shape than when you started, bruised, bleeding, naked, humiliated, and everything else except broken.
This is story. And if I was playing an RPG where that crap happened to me in spite of my best efforts, I’d probably quit playing. Although “playing” might be the wrong term for that kind of railroading. I absolutely hate it when I’m playing a game and very carefully avoiding / preventing a potential ambush, only to have a cut-scene happen where I suddenly become STUPID and walk right into it, with bad guys materializing from nowhere.
A good story is about failure. Lots of failures, and successes that came at such a dear cost they might as well be failures, all the way to the end where the hero snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. But playing a game is about minimizing those failures.
So… yeah. As a game developer, you have to compromise one or both. Now, this isn’t a message of doom-and-gloom, and I’m right there with you if you want to throw around some favorite game stories as counter-examples. I love RPGs partly because they are so story-heavy. I’ve got a bag of tricks of my own I’m trying to use to get around this fundamental limitation. But the important part is recognizing that it’s a fundamental limitation.
Filed Under: Design, Writing - Comments: 2 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 20, 2016
I understand that one of the key tricks to being successful as a writer (or, really, anything else in life) is perseverance. The first Harry Potter book was rejected a dozen times before it was finally accepted for publication. Which means that only one in thirteen editors that reviewed the manuscript thought it was good enough to be even moderately successful. Can you imagine being one of the acquisitions editors who passed that one up? Hoo-boy.
But yeah. I’m glad Rowling stuck with it. I just submitted a story for about the … fourth time, I guess. Which is nothing. I was even given some good feedback on it and told that it had made the second cut in one anthology. So… positive stuff. This is an older story, and I’ve improved since then.
It’s very easy for me to now assume that the story’s no good and that I should quit trying to submit it anywhere. I should focus on new stuff, right?
Now, I don’t think I’m writing at pro level yet. And with the effort I’m putting into game development, it’s not a constant part-time venture. I don’t think I’m good enough or professional enough yet to be able to fully embrace Heinlein’s Rules, but I am trying to move in that direction. Heinlein’s Rules (for professional writers) are:
#1: You Must Write
#2: Finish What Your Start
#3: You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order
#4: You Must Put Your Story on the Market
#5: You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold
The first two should be pretty obvious. Regardless of quality, you can’t possibly get published if you have nothing actually completed. Even as a beginner, there’s a lot more to learn from a single finished manuscript than twenty opening chapters.
The third can get controversial, but I think if taken to mean “minimize edit and rewrite effort until told otherwise by your editor,” it’s still fairly appropriate. Technology has changed to reduce the necessary effort in the first place. I imagine that this has raised the competitive bar a tad from the days when Harlan Ellison started writing live in bookstores and tape the pages to the window as they came off his typewriter. But … bottom line… there’s a law of diminishing returns, so don’t keep tinkering with it forever.
The fourth and fifth go hand-in-hand. Submit, and then resubmit the rejections to another market. For the pros I know who write short stories do exactly that. My three rejections so far are nothing. Right? Right?
I guess when it all comes down to it, if you are following (more or less) Heinlein’s Rules, by the time you get to the third or fourth rejection for a single story, you don’t have enough invested in the story to care. You’re already several stories down the road, or maybe a full novel down the road. No big deal. Keep writing, keep writing better.
At least that’s the theory. I’ll let you know if I have to submit it a fifth time.
Filed Under: Writing - Comments: Read the First Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 18, 2016
Pokémon Go has become the gaming fad of the season. I haven’t played due to not having enough memory on my phone. But I have a lot of friends playing. As both a gamer and game designer, I respect the idea.
In my opinion, one of the biggest things it has done has been to prove the viability of Augmented Reality (AR) gaming. Although I assume most players aren’t familiar with the term. All they know is that you go through the real world to play Pokémon. It’s the first mega-hit in that field. There is new technology on the horizon that will make Augmented Reality even cooler… like (potentially) the Microsoft HoloLens.
Mapping fantasy onto reality – giving daydreams a physical form – is a very cool idea that’s been around for a long time, but the technology hasn’t been where we could do much with it, until now. The Void is coming at it from the VR direction… mapping the real-world to fit a fantasy. But the AR side… putting fantasy into the real world… has more consumer-level potential.
But there are some dangers when we start blurring the line between fantasy and reality. We’ve already seen some issues with Pokémon Go appearing in the news. But even barring the dangers of malware and spying, of an AR game leading you into a dangerous real-world situation, there’s one idea for a game which is just…. terrifyingly bad. And yet tempting at the same time.
Maybe it’s just because I have a vivid imagination, but turning your own home into a survival-horror AR game just sounds… bad. Really bad. Because what has been seen cannot be unseen, and I can’t imagine turning my safe place, my refuge from the world, into an AR horror.
So, naturally, it’s being done. Probably by several developers. I just know of this one, Night Terrors.
Okay, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little bit tempting. Just a little. Because I AM STUPID. In this particular game, you play by turning off all the lights and letting your smartphone illuminate the room with its LED light. You are supposed to play with headphones on. You see everything through the camera’s screen and get a glimpse of how haunted and horrifying your home is.
Yeah. Brilliant idea. Good luck sleeping without the lights on, like, EVER AGAIN. But… there’s no requirement that you play it in your own home. Any indoor location you might be… in the dark… will do.
The game isn’t out yet. It’s in beta right now. Somehow, Pokémon Go seems like a better choice.
Filed Under: Indie Horror Games - Comments: Read the First Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 15, 2016
So in addition to having amassed a pretty gigantic library of video games that I haven’t actually had time to play, I have amassed a pretty substantial library of video game music. One of the advantages of going through GOG.COM was that you used to get the soundtracks as free bonus files. That was before game developers learned that you could charge more for the independent soundtrack, I guess.
I’ve also picked up soundtracks in bundles and so forth. In fact, there have been a couple of times I’ve picked up a game because of the soundtrack. Anyway, the end result is that I have a music library of game soundtracks, ranging from the old MIDI-style music converted into MP3s, to fully orchestrated pieces worthy of a big-budget film. Enough that I could play everything in the library 24-7 for many days without a single repeat. Some of the music is familiar, giving me fond memories of hours spent playing some great games. Some is unfamiliar, and I just enjoy listening to it because it’s good.
I listen to it a lot, especially when I’m working on game development. Inspirational music. Both the familiar and the unfamiliar. So in spite of the size of the library, on random play I’ve heard everything multiple times.
What gets really funny is when a certain score becomes very familiar to me, and then I finally play the game its based on. Some subconscious part of my brain tells me that something is wrong because the music is so familiar, the game should be familiar … but it is not.
Yeah, game geek problems, I know. I’m not really complaining, just making an amused observation.
Filed Under: Geek Life - Comments: 2 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 13, 2016
So let’s say you were given a million dollars to build your dream game. Could you? At least in the U.S., the chances are… well, only if you don’t dream very big.
I don’t know what it would take to have indie games from a small, say, 6-person or 8-person studio bring in a consistent $1 million per year. If I did, I’d try and do that. 🙂 But that’s the flip side… budget has to be scaled to expected, consistent return. That’s what’s clobbering the videogame industry right now… not that there’s been a time where it hasn’t been a problem.
And if you are wondering why DLC and “freemium” and annual fees on software have become a thing, that’s the reason right there.
Filed Under: Game Development - Comments: 2 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 12, 2016
There’s a lot here that I’m still getting my head around:
I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say AR is an MMO. Not fundamentally. But in the context of Pokemon GO…. they really did create an MMO, and set it in the real world. Even non-players are at least peripherally involved… or more deeply involved, when it comes to kicking players out of their back yards.
But neither AR nor VR need be MMOs. Especially VR. But AR does have the challenge of being set in real-world spaces, which by definition are shared. Playing a game of virtual blocks on your real-world living-room floor might technically have the potential to include other players or just other people accidentally disrupting your game, but I’d have a tough time calling it “Massively Multiplayer.”
But there is more to it than this… something I should probably explore more in a future post (and once I have a bit more experience in things, too). I’m talking about the impact VR and AR have on real life. Fundamentally, we’ve taken our entertainment and experiences to the point where they are willfully induced hallucinations, screwing around with our perception of reality in obvious but also potentially subtle ways. The lines between reality and fantasy, real-life and just-a-game are blurrier than ever, yet still within our control. So maybe some new lines may need to be drawn.
Filed Under: Virtual Reality - Comments: Read the First Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 11, 2016
IGN writers Jared Petty and Chloi Rad dare a task that I don’t think I’d be willing to tackle.. naming the top ten dungeon-crawlers of *ALL TIME*. I say I wouldn’t dare because I don’t think I could narrow my list down to the top ten, let alone attempt to order them. I’d argue with myself over every decision, long before anyone else argues with me.
And you know there’s no doubt this is the kind of thing that invites arguments. Even the definition might draw some nitpicking. Not all RPGs are Dungeon Crawlers (most are not), and not all Dungeon Crawlers are RPGs (but most are, if you count Roguelikes as RPGs, which I do).
However, there are some titles here that I would probably see in my own personal top 10. Wizardry, Ultima Underworld, and Nethack would be shoo-ins. I haven’t played enough Angband to really judge (although I understand it was based on / inspired by Moria, which I loved, way back when). Diablo 2… maybe. Torchlight 2 probably wouldn’t make my top ten, but maybe by top 20 or 25. I haven’t played the Etrian Odyssey or Mystery Dungeon series, so I really can’t say.
I think something from Might & Magic would probably make its way into my top 10… probably World of Xeen, which even today is something of a staggering accomplishment. Granted, that has lots of outdoor adventuring too, but so does Torchlight 2 and Diablo 2. The emphasis is more on the “labyrinthine environment” than whether or not it takes place underground.
Eye of the Beholder II: The Legend of Darkmoon was my favorite of that series, which took the Dungeon Master gameplay and mixed it with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules for what was really an amazing time. The Gold Box series… even going back recently and playing some of those, they hold up well. Technologically, not so much, but dang they are still fun. I’m not sure which would be my choice. Pool of Radiance I remember loving the most, but they really refined things (and hadn’t gotten stale yet) with Curse of the Azure Bonds. I didn’t play all of them (yet), so there may be a better one on the list. (I had a heck of a lot of fun with Forgotten Realms Unlimited Adventures – AKA FRUA – too).
The Legend of Grimrock 2 and Might & Magic X: Legacy are pretty awesome recent entries. I doubt they’d be all-time top 10 candidates, but they’d rank highly. The Bards Tale 1 occupies a very fond dungeon-crawling spot in my memory, but I can’t really say it was all that worthy. It may rank higher in my mind from nostalgia more than anything else.
There are some other RPGs that I might rank more highly, but I don’t know if I’d label them “Dungeon Crawlers.” And you’ll notice that I don’t have any console games on the list. Yeah, I’ve played a couple that might count, but none that are great.
Being who I am, of course, the Frayed Knights series would be up there. But I’m terribly biased. And there are only a tiny handful of us for whom that is currently a “series” and not a single title. Dang, I can’t wait to get that second one out.
So what’s your take?
Filed Under: General - Comments: 4 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 8, 2016
It is weird to wax nostalgic over the video cards of the early days of PC hardware accelerated graphics… cards like the Voodoo and Voodoo 2, and the Nvidia Riva 128 and TNT. Really, compared to now, those cards were beyond pathetic. I think the nostalgia factor for me comes more from the era… the seismic change they represented for gaming. It’s hard to imagine that now, although mobile gaming and perhaps Virtual Reality might be analogous to how big of a shift that was.
The very first cards were barely even worthy of being considered “accelerators.” I remember one that I evaluated that was for 486 machines… and the ‘acceleration’ it offered was to make the 486 play games as well as on a Pentium. Not exactly stellar.
It was 3DFX’s Voodoo that really changed things up, making 3D rendering not only faster than software rendering, but adding additional “free” features that enhanced the visual quality. Here’s a good video showing the difference at the time. It starts with software rendering, and then switches over to using the acceleration. THAT was the difference:
Amusingly, I remember Nvidia at the time being a distant second place to 3dfx but catching up, in the Riva 128 days. I would not have expected to see them become the consumer graphics leader, and eventually purchase what was left of 3dfx.
Since I’m such a fan of indie games and retrogaming, I’m not exactly demanding of my video cards these days. I find it’s much easier on my budget that way. 🙂 Each card generation now offers an incremental improvement over the previous one, not the massive technological leap we had back in the 1990s. My hardware only becomes obsolete by degrees, now.
The latest NVidia cards – the Pascal series, which started releasing last month – are pretty exceptional, and offer a significant performance improvement over the last generation of cards, especially in certain areas (notably virtual reality). Definitely a massive improvement over my GTX 750 (not even the Ti… a plain ol’ vanilla 750). My old card actually runs DOOM (the new one) okay… uh, sometimes. If I get lucky. But that’s some kind of bug or incompatibility, not a hardware capability problem.
But the time has come for an upgrade. I’ve ordered a GTX 1070, which will hopefully last me for a while. It only came out last month. We’ll see how things go. I have more than a passing interest in VR (which I’ve had for decades now), so it’ll at least give me a better-than-baseline starting point for my desktop. I’ll still have to rely on borrowed VR hardware for a bit though. In the meantime, I don’t think I’m going to have to worry about performance problems with gaming for a good, long time.
That’ll probably last me for a while. I hope. Because as much as I look nostalgically back on the bad-ol’-days when 3D acceleration was a new thing, I don’t want to feel like I’m still living in it.
Filed Under: Geek Life - Comments: Be the First to Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 7, 2016
I work 11.25 hours, writing code. I come home (late), have dinner (saved in the fridge), spend time with the family, and watch a show with the wife. And then I spend another 4 hours… working, writing code.
I like my day job. It’s not usually this bad, and I’m doing some exciting and fun things to make a living. I love my “night job” writing stories and making games. That’s very fulfilling. I love spending time with my family. They are what makes life worthwhile.
I just prefer it when it’s not so difficult to juggle these things.
I don’t really have a point here. Maybe I’m just trying to justify why today’s blog post is so short.
Have an awesome day. As crazy as it might get, I plan to have one today as well.
Filed Under: Geek Life - Comments: 4 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 6, 2016
Now, whether or not you’ll have the aptitude for it or enjoy it (I feel those two are tightly related, possibly synonymous) is another question. For me… I was one of those guys who never understood it when people told me they HATED the “word problems” in math class. You know, the ones where it describes a situation in life, like trains leaving stations at different times heading towards each other at different speeds, and what time will it be when they pass each other? For me, I’ve loved them for as long as I remember. But I don’t remember if that predated my learning to program. Did learning program make them easy and enjoyable for me, or did my natural predisposition towards them make me gravitate towards computer programming? I think it was the latter, but I am not certain.
For me, programming is all about those word problems.
I was never super-hot at math. I did well, but I struggled a bit with Calculus, and never went beyond that. Programming has a lot to do with math, but in my mind it’s also a bit like “math for people who want to cheat.” Those word problems I mentioned? Programming is like developing software to solve those problems for you, so you never need to do them again.
So instead of solving one train problem, we actually automate the process that we’d go through to solve all similar classes of train problems. Two trains depart along the same line at different times, going different speeds in different directions. Create a process to calculate when or if they’ll ever converge.
That’s software development. That’s programming.
There’s more to it than that. But at it’s heart, programming is about problem-solving through an automated processes, and converting that into a form that can be executed by a machine. Well, that’s half of it. The other half is trouble-shooting when something goes wrong. Because something inevitably goes wrong, and the processes in any non-trivial software can get extremely complex and interconnected with a staggering number of ways things COULD go wrong.
And that’s the flip side of learning to program. Programming is easy, but in the same way that learning to play a musical instrument is easy if you think of it as learning how to plunk out an identifiable rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the piano. Mastery takes a lot of practice.
The difference between beginners and veterans is pretty profound, but not in an obvious way to the outsider. Both spend a lot of time staring at the screen, stepping through the debugger, looking stuff up, and cursing whoever wrote the code they are looking at (even if it was themselves, two months earlier). The difference is that the veterans have a much deeper toolbox, and a far better intuitive understanding of what’s going on under the hood… even with unfamiliar code. The good ones also generally have a better understanding of what makes good, maintainable code over the long term for a particular environment, and tend to code in a way that fosters ease-of-understanding (by humans) and easy change. At least insofar as possible given the fact that they are probably constantly under the gun with deadlines.
I could probably write a whole blog post on veterans vs. beginners. Suffice to say, everyone programming today had to be a beginner at some point. I remember spending hours trying to wrap my head around the concept of arrays, or how to write and read files to disk. Stuff that seems trivial to me today. I got there. And I am not really all that smart.
The important thing… in the context of making games as a casual pursuit at first… is that it can be fun while you are learning. I like programming. Solving problems is fun. I like making games. Even simple, stupid games that look like crap that I wouldn’t want to show to anyone. Now, if it doesn’t seem the least bit fun to you, then maybe that’s not really your thing, and that’s okay. But if you are so inclined, there’s no reason not to start. You’ll wake up tomorrow knowing a little bit about programming and a bit more about how computers work than you did yesterday.
Filed Under: Programming - Comments: 2 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 5, 2016
I finally saw Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The version I saw was the extended edition, which apparently resolves a lot of questions about character motivations, at the cost of a more plodding and confusing pace. So I won’t complain about the pacing here, because… well, I’m sure the theatrical release was better edited.
The movie follows two superheroes on a collision course with each other… well, more than that. One is trying to kill the other, and the other is suspicious of the first. And there’s a third superhero – a woman – who is peripherally involved until its time to fight a boss monster. These characters are named Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. They are loosely based on comic book characters by the same name, but… I dunno. I can’t say I’ve ever been a major DC Comics aficionado, but I spent a summer reading a bunch of Superman comics from the 70s and early 80s, and I kept up on a couple of Batman titles for a couple of years. So, at least from the time period that I followed, these characters… didn’t feel right. Batman in particular, but he’s as much based on the cinematic character as the comics character.
After some scathing reviews, I was a bit worried, but there were enough good review outliers to give me hope. In the end, I liked it more than I’d feared, but nowhere close to what I’d hoped. It was significantly better than “Man of Steel,” at least, but that’s not saying much. I could say the same of all of Zack Snyder’s films (that I’ve seen): It had some truly outstanding, cool-looking scenes, but the movie itself was disjointed and confusing.
Some Good Things: It didn’t shy away from the mess from Man of Steel. To the contrary, that was a focal point of the movie: Superman’s battle against General Zod killed a lot of people, wrecked a lot of lives, and caused untold destruction. Naturally, that has left the entire world freaking out about finding themselves powerless against a race (albeit almost entirely dead) of gods.
The relationship with Superman and Lois Lane was nicely done. Superman calling his mother just to talk to help deal with things was really nice. It was believable… human. Wonder Woman was also fun… the way she just relished the battle, even as she took her hits, was cool. Perry White, played by Laurence Fishburne, was excellent and pretty well dominated any scene that he was in.
I also liked that Superman had to slow someone’s descent to catch them when falling – not just grabbing them while they are approaching terminal velocity. Because landing in Arms of Steel at high speed really isn’t gonna be any better than landing on asphalt. Just ask Gwen Stacy.
The other thing which I think was a proper approach was the emphasis on the character’s secret identities. Even as a kid, the stories that resonated with me were the ones that focused primarily on the people behind the mask. Whether they were in costume or not, it had to be about characters first. A good Superman story has to be about Clark Kent. And to its credit, the heroes in this movie spend most of their time out of costume. But then, so did Man of Steel, and … well, necessary isn’t the same as sufficient.
So… there were a lot of very likable moments and scenes. But it jumbled together into something that was a bit of a mess (but again… this was the Extended Edition, so that may not have been a problem originally). The real problem here felt like the creators had a bullet-point list of “things that make Comic Book stories and movies really cool” and thought that was it. They confused a list of ingredients for a recipe. They poured ’em in and stirred, and then expected a a Lemon Meringue Pie didn’t drop out of the mixing bowl.
And maybe that’s the thing that bugged me the most about the film. There were some themes and ideas that were GREAT and could have been used and built on throughout the film to give it some great consistency. But… no. They were forgotten by the next scene. I think nowhere was this more apparent than the end, when they basically announce the sequel movies. Bruce Wayne is explaining about how these superheroes need to team up and fight together. Why? “I dunno, it’s just a feeling I have.”
What. The. Hell.? Okay, let’s try this on for size: You were just pwned by being manipulated and turned against each other by a nasty little sociopath. Your main problem with Superman – and his main problem with Batman – was fundamentally the same: Power unchecked, unilateral choices by someone answerable to nobody. Maybe getting together and at least talking to each other and helping right each other’s moral compass once in a while might be a frickin’ Good Idea in retrospect? If you don’t want to do the Captain America: Civil War thing and turn yourselves over to government supervision, that is. Forget this nebulous “I smell more movies in the air” thing… you’ve got your cause right there.
Tonally, I really don’t get this whole need to portray Superman in a gritty, nasty world with a whole theme of “No matter what he does, it hurts as many people as it helps.” Sure, it’s kinda fun to have some scenes where the newspapers and talking heads can’t help but chatter and argue over every single move the guy makes… but after a point, it’s not a Superman story. And Pa Kent? Seriously, after the two movies, I can’t imagine how Clark would have ever tried to be a hero at all. His entire life he must have been told, “Don’t do nuthin’, son, you are just gonna screw things up worse no matter what you do.” Kevin Costner, I know it’s not your fault, you did the best you could with the scripts you were given, but you are officially the Worst Jonathan Kent Ever.
I didn’t mind Ben Affleck as Batman. I mean, the character called Batman. But Jeremy Irons’ Alfred? HATE.
Then so much didn’t make logical sense. The boss battle… the REASON for the boss battle? Why the U.S. didn’t immediately go after an obvious suspect after a particular bombing? The villain’s motivations? The sudden change of heart about the whole central conflict of the movie? The characters all marched in lockstep with the dictates of the plot, occasionally providing retroactive motivations, but really just doing things because The Script Told Me To.
Anyway — bottom line: It felt like they had bits and pieces of a pretty decent movie. Probably nothing to compete with the best movies from Marvel right now (or even the Chris Nolan Batman movies), but definitely something that could have at least been a decent launch point for the DC cinematic universe. Instead, it’s kind of a mess with some moments of cool. Which might also adequately describe the Star Wars prequels. So… not so great.
Filed Under: Impressions, Movies - Comments: Read the First Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 4, 2016
Happy Independence Day, for those readers from or living in the U.S.A.
Everyone else… have a great day wherever you are.
It’s a day off work for me, which means… I’m doing what I’m usually doing. Hanging out inside virtual dungeons. I’m weird that way.
Be safe and have fun!
Filed Under: General - Comments: Be the First to Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 1, 2016
My previous post was all about classic “pulp” fiction from the late 19th century up through the middle of the 20th century. But then… it died out. Maybe not as dead as disco, but that particular form faded into the background. The rise of easier, more accessible entertainment probably accounted for much of it.
However, in spite of the decline, there are still a lot of folks out there who prefer reading as a primary or a secondary source of entertainment.
Even as the market for genre short fiction contracted, novels grew in popularity (and in the 1980s, seemed to grow significantly in page count and word count as well, compared to the slender pulpy novels that were popular up through the 1970s). The more constricted market made it more difficult for new writers, but the old pulp pros kept writing their stories and doing their thing. The distribution and preferences may have shifted, but the pulp story never really went away.
Stories Galore and on the Cheap
While Analog Magazine (AKA “Analog Science Fiction and Fact”) is now a “pro” magazine (paying higher-tier rates for genre fiction), it had its origins as a pulp magazine, going under the title “Astounding Stories,” and has been going on since 1930. That makes it pretty solidly the longest continuously-published science fiction magazine. Sadly, when adjusted for inflation, those “pro rates” seem to be about what the pulps paid back in the day. Or less. But that’s the short story market today.
It’s not alone. In the “pro market” for science fiction and fantasy – some of the top shorter-form fiction published today on a regular basis, you’ve got Asimov’s, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Clarkesworld, Galaxy’s Edge, Apex, Daily Science Fiction, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, and many others. These have some of the best genre stories out today (at least according to the tastes of the editors and the style preferences of the magazine), but even that represents a small fraction of the short form speculative fiction stories coming out today. At the “semi-pro” level, the list gets even bigger and more interesting (and specialized), with more genres represented. And there are entire sites (like Daily Science Fiction) that really specialize in flash or very-short stories. Moving out to anthologies of new fiction (which may be one-off, irregularly published, or only published annually or whatever), things get even more exciting. (I recommend Writers of the Future, an annual anthology of some of the best up-and-coming new authors and artists).
And that’s just short-form fiction. I’m not even going to go into novels, or the explosion of small and indie press publishers. Clearly, there’s plenty for a reader to choose from. Too much, probably. The biggest challenge is for readers to find ones that cater to their interests.
With the advent of digital publishing, print-on-demand, and similar technologies, the cost of distribution is cheaper than the pulp publishers could have dreamed. Because of the ease of self-publishing, this has sadly lowered the bar a bit in terms of overall quality. No gatekeepers means there are no filters. Just like the indie video game industry, I prefer a world with no gatekeepers than one where said gatekeepers have great control over what trickles out to the marketplace. Fortunately, just like they heyday of the pulps, there may be a lot of crap out there, but there are lots of good and great stories as well, of all sizes: From tome-sized novels down to “flash fiction” of less than 1,000 words (often 500 or less).
Really, the digital revolution makes the pulp era kinda pale by comparison.
“New Pulp” – Same Great Taste, Fewer Calories.
There are lots of anthologies that have sought to emulate the pulp style and flavor – even to the point of setting the stories in the era of pulp’s dominance. Hard-boiled detective novels set in the 1930s. Or – one of my favorite ideas – “Dieselpunk” stories set in an alternate history version of the early-to-mid 20th century. In some cases, its simply to revive a subgenre that has been left somewhat fallow over the decades.
Ultimately, I don’t see a need for any kind of pulp “revival” because I don’t believe it never went away. It evolved and changed a bit with the times and technology, but not as much as some folks might imagine. It learned how to better meet the tastes of its audience. It learned the tricks and tips to tell a better story. The pulp era was a survival-of-the-fittest test of stories and storytellers, but the lessons they learned were shared and spread.
Because pulp covered such a wide range of styles and genres, it’s pretty difficult to nail down exactly what made a “pulp” story then, or its successors today. It was more of an approach and an intended audience. These were the stories for the common man (and woman). While they might have had big ideas, thought-provoking situations, deeper meanings, themes, and messages, their primary focus was to entertain. These weren’t stories to win awards, these were stories to be worth a working person’s hard-earned change for several hours of escape. Considering pulp’s peak included wartime and the Great Depression, escape was often desperately needed.
Today isn’t that different. The reading audience of today may be more discerning, demands higher quality writing (modern tools make this easier), and demands more detailed characters. But those of us who read for entertainment still like the same things. Lester Dent’s “Master Plot Formula” and a dozen variants for different genres and types of stories that were learned the hard way during the golden age of pulp don’t need many changes to be perfectly valid today. A lot of the best-selling authors today go straight from the pulp playbook. Some even admit it.
While authors might not be able to make a living cranking out short fiction anymore, and the newsstands don’t blossom with dozens of lurid covers of cheap fiction magazines these days, pulp fiction is still with us. It’s fast-moving, fun, simple, layered, and punches its way through the story with visceral details. It entertains, first and foremost. It may also creep out, titillate, inspire, explain, conjecture, evangelize, provoke, or encourage. But it’s not really out to show off… it’s there to give the reader a good time.
Pulp didn’t pay much, but it did pay, and the market was large enough to support a prolific writer of reasonable skill. The point for pro writers in the pulp era was to write fast with as few revisions as possible. Make it good, make it fast, make it stand out. Sell lots. That’s still great advice.
I’ve heard arguments against this, that a good writer should agonize and labor over every word. While I’m definitely no expert, I personally don’t see how writing should be different from every other skill in the world, where lots of practice yields improved results. Lacking a depth of personal expertise, I’ll just quote the godfather of hard-boiled detective genre, Raymond Chandler: “The faster I write, the better my output. If I’m going slow, I’m in trouble. It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.”
James Patterson and Nora Roberts have story structures that fit very easily into Lester Dent’s formula. Michael Crichton may not have been the greatest wordsmith in the world, but his novels were full-on pulp adventures and frequently turned into movies, including a blockbuster franchise.
At one conference, the romance novelist L. L. Muir (her pen name) pulled out Michael Moorcock’s pulp novel writing formula and showed us how she adopted it to cranking out the first draft of a romance novel in three days. At another conference, J. Scott Savage (author of a number of middle-grade fantasies) shared a not-so-secret formula for successful pacing, using several popular movies and books to show how they fit perfectly within this structure. And … color me not surprised… it was key parts of the Lester Dent formula. Since I’ve learned more of how successful pulp stories were structured and the techniques they evolved to crank out popular fiction, I’ve seen it over and over again in novels by my favorite authors. While it makes them a little more predictable, I can’t say that knowing how the sausage is made has really detracted from the experience.
Dean Wesley Smith is unapologetic about his use of the Lester Dent pulp “formula.” He states, “All bestsellers in modern times follow this structure as well, which is why they sell so many copies.”
The cheap pulp paper has given way to eBooks and print-on-demand. Reading for entertainment is more of a preference now among many cheap, easy alternatives than existed nearly a century ago. The market has changed. Styles and genres have shifted around. But the fundamentals are the same. What makes a good story now hasn’t changed much, although we probably understand it better now than in 1930. And the need for great, entertaining fiction is as strong today as ever.
Filed Under: Books, Writing - Comments: Be the First to Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 30, 2016
A few weeks ago at local convention, I gave a short presentation on the “pulp fiction formula,” referencing the Lester Dent “Pulp Fiction Master Plot Formula.” When I talk about this, one of the first questions I receive is “What is pulp fiction?” Which comes with the implied question, “Why should I care?”
Now, I don’t consider myself an expert, just someone who might have done more research and read a bit more than average. But it’s enough that I get a little annoyed at some of the references to pulp fiction today, usually referring to it as a title of derision. A story is “just” pulp fiction, or something. I suspect that most of the time the person making the reference really isn’t familiar with it, and have only heard that the pulps were simply cheap, low-quality sources of lurid, hastily-crafted tales. And — okay, this far, they would probably correct. But there are implications there that, at least in my mind, are false. Well, partly false.
Sure, the pulps had a lot of crappy stories. So do libraries. They were also the source of a ton of classics and some of the most respected writers of their era. So… I guess we need to go back to the question, “What is pulp fiction?” I apologize if I get details wrong or oversimplify things, but hopefully it’ll be at least somewhat educational.
The Pulp Era
The simple, historical answer is that pulp fiction consists of stories that were published in pulp magazines, which were popular from the late 1800s until around the 1950s. They lost popularity at pretty much at the same time as other forms of entertainment gained dominance, like television. The pulp magazines were printed on cheap, low-quality paper made from wood pulp. Think comic-book paper, or maybe even newsprint. Before the digital era, that was about as cheap as you got.
Unlike the more expensive “slicks” and other sources of entertainment, the pulps catered to the common man. They were cheap and exciting, full of stories for folks who just wanted to be entertained. The pulps were the home of “genre fiction” – pop fiction, with an emphasis on plot-driven stories. They were where most stories in certain “genres” were published… science fiction war stories, mysteries, romance, etc. With them, the market for stories expanded. And for the average working-class author, the pulps were where you made your rent. They WERE the market. They weren’t high-paying, but they’d pay. There were a lot of them… with new ones appearing all the time as the old ones ceased publication. And they’d print everything from short stories to full-length novels (which averaged a bit shorter then than they do now).
Genre fiction in mass-market paperbacks (the successors to “dime novels”) were often reprints from magazines, printed on the same low-quality pulp paper. So referencing the “pulps” applies equally well to genre fiction novels of the era.
The Pulp Authors and Market
The editors of these magazines had to build a consistent audience based on the overall quality and the genre of their stories. Their audience would buy a particular magazine because it had stories like ones they’d previously enjoyed, or authors they’d previously enjoyed. Gee, sounds like some universal realities here, right? “Air Wonder Stories” differentiated itself from “Air Adventures” by printing stories with more of a science fiction and futuristic twist to the aviation adventures. But the bottom line was that they had to print something like 135,000 words every month, every other month, or every quarter. They needed stories that would appeal to the mass market (insofar as their genre specialization would allow), they needed a lot of them, and they needed them cheap.
So… you end up with the sort of situation we have today with “indie” digital publishing, only not quite as saturated.
The market reality rewarded the authors who could write fast, who could write sufficiently well, and could tell an entertaining yarn of an arbitrary size. A reputation for all of the above (plus some level of professionalism) would put the author in good standing with editors, which made everybody’s job easier. Several famous / influential / popular pulp fiction authors include Raymond Chandler, H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Max Brand, H.P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett, Ray Bradbury, Leigh Brackett, Robert E. Howard, Lester Dent (known more frequently by his pen name Kenneth Robeson), Michael Moorcock, James M. Cain, Richard Matheson, Jim Thompson, Fritz Lieber, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard (yeah, the Scientology guy), Phillip K. Dick, L. Sprague de Camp, Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, and James Blish. Many of these folks went on to become influential in the “literary fiction” arena as well. And while their careers may have evolved past the pulps (especially once the pulp era came to an end), many of their best-known works were first printed in pulp magazines or in pulp paperbacks.
The Pulp Style, Quality, and Influence
There’s a style associated with the pulps these days that might be more appropriately associated with fiction of the time period rather than where they appeared. The characters use the slang of the day. Writing styles have evolved a lot too. Things that are strongly discouraged in modern fiction (like excessive adverbs, dialog tags, and passive voice) are on full display.
Some of the genres – like aviation stories – derived from the public fascination in the exciting new technology and its impact on modern (for the time) life. Westerns were popular because they spoke to an idealized view of the American frontier in a time that wasn’t that far distant… sort of like us in the modern era talking about the 1950s or even the 1980s. The stories and characters represented the culture of their era, even when projected into the distant past or future. Modern stories do the same.
This also means they reflect the mores and social traditions of the author’s culture, which some modern readers might find impedes their enjoyment. While readers expecting rampant racism and sexism will certainly find it, readers might be equally surprised by how downright and sometimes subversively… well, progressive… many stories are. Especially when one considers they were printed in an era of civil rights strife and when the government encouraged women to return to their “place” in the home, so that returning soldiers could get back to their relatively high-paying jobs that the women had performed during the war.
Every genre has its own quirks, but in general, pulp stories were lurid, action-oriented, and imaginative. After all, they had to provide novelty to readers in every issue! Characters were simple but interesting. They didn’t stand out with too many weird quirks most of the time. Instead, they tended to be more of a reader surrogate, so that any reader could identify with them and easily project themselves into the character. Ultimately, the stories were written to be “crowd-pleasers.” They make up for their lack of subtlety with imagination… even in the somewhat more down-to-earth genres.
Another interesting feature is the number of short stories featuring the same characters. Doc Savage and his crime-fighting team, Conan, Mike Hammer, Tarzan, Eric John Stark, Perry Mason, The Shadow, Sherlock Holmes, John Carter, Elric of Melnibone, Solomon Kane, Philip Marlowe… The list goes on. This isn’t very different from how book series are handled today, except where these characters made repeat appearances in short stories rather than novels.
As to quality… it runs the gamut. Seriously. Even within the same issue. Things are a little easier if you read an anthology that may be more of a “best of” from a particular magazine or author. But going on the basis of an average issue… saying that “not every story is a gem” would be an understatement. But that’s not saying that the stories are terrible, either. Yeah, I made fun of Fish Men of Venus, and I wish I could say it is unusually bad. It’s not. There are worse. But there are also much better.
Some of what might seem quality issues would be what seems tired or obvious plot devices or twists, but that’s also a factor of the stories having inspired generations of imitators, in literature, cinema, video games, you name it. Some of this was also dictated by story size. If you have a detective story with only three main characters – the protagonist, the protagonist’s partner, and the obvious guilty party – it’s pretty obvious what the “surprise twist” at the end will be.
Almost by definition, these stories are, collectively, “Average” for the period in quality… simply because the sheer quantity of pulp fiction skews the curve. The pulp masters deduced a lot about how to tell a good, entertaining story over time, and developed successful patterns (Dent called it a “formula,” but I don’t think it’s quite that well-defined) that met the audience need. Much of what we now know about writing came from trial-and-error in these kinds of stories. Even if many of these stories wouldn’t pass editorial muster today, it’s because we’ve got easy-to-read signposts along the trail that they blazed.
Old Pulp, New Pulp, and Reading Pulp Today
Are these old stories worth reading today? In some cases, yes, absolutely. Many pulp-era stories have deservedly become classics. There are many more lesser-known gems to be found in the pages of these old magazines. Some of the authors were extremely skillful wordsmiths and are a delight to read. Some are simply imaginative and have incredibly fascinating worlds to explore. Some are both. Unfortunately, due to the age of the magazines, they can be hard to find, and finding any kind of reviews or filters can be harder that finding the stories themselves.
Your best bet is to find anthologies by some of the pulp masters mentioned above. These tend to be more of a “best of” collection in the first place, which is nice. Even the best authors don’t hit home runs every time. If your local library doesn’t have them, Amazon frequently does, especially in ebook format.
Because of the cheap paper used, pulp books don’t age well. It’s hard to find the originals, and the publishers aren’t around to issue reprints. You can find some on EBay and Amazon, but expect to fork over some cash for something that’s probably not in great condition.
Digital archives exist for some issues, but many may be lost to antiquity. Because of reprints and copyrights, some of the stories may not be legally reproduced yet, but the low-quality media means there may be no surviving copies to digitize before it’s legally free-and-clear to do so. That’s the bad news. The good news is… there’s a lot out there.
The most legally scrupulous source I know of is the Pulp Magazine Project, which not only has issues (or partial issues, where parts are not in the public domain) for download, but tons of articles, history, lists, photographs, and so forth. It has far more information than I have here, and they know their fiction magazine history *WAY* than I do. It’s great stuff, but I’m not sure how actively it’s being updated. They do post fairly regularly (if not super-frequently) on their facebook page.
Pulp Covers is exactly what it says on the tin. They are regularly adding new covers, which are just fun to look at. They also have links back to where that particular issue may be available… often EBay or Amazon for the physical copy, or a digital archive. As an author, just digging through some of that old cover art can be inspiring. But mostly, it’s fun. I take some small exception to their tagline, “The Best Of The Worst,” but… Okay. Let’s be honest. Before there were clickbait links, there were magazine covers…
A fantastic digital source if you don’t mind drinking from the fire hose is the Pulp Magazine Archive.
That’s the old, classic pulp.
But pulp ain’t dead.
The “pulp” legacy is very much alive today. But since this article is about 3x longer than I intended it to be at this point, I’m going to talk about that topic later.
Filed Under: Retro, Short Fiction - Comments: Read the First Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 29, 2016
I wonder how many people will be a Ghostbuster in New York as their first Virtual Reality experience? It’s probably not a bad way to start. Rumor has it this little experience will continue for a while, both at Madame Tussaud’s and at other The Void entertainment sites (when they open). So… even if the new movie sucks, there will be some good that comes out of it.
Here’s a report of an early visit:
Indie game developers get an added bonus out of this teaser, as it makes a big deal of their technology of choice, a favorite of indies everywhere.
And… something even more exciting from a developer perspective… BILLIONS (with a B!) may be available to fund VR-related development. If you’ve got some new and innovative application for VR, this might make sense:
Bottom line: It could be wishful thinking on my part, but there’s evidence that this VR thing may be more than a fad. Maybe. 🙂 At least there’s some serious money betting on it now… from Hollywood to the Venture Capital community. And of course, hardware manufacturers and Facebook.
Filed Under: Virtual Reality - Comments: Be the First to Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 28, 2016
I’ve mentioned the Kickstarter campaign for Cirsova Magazine, issue #2. Well, they’ve cleared the funding minimum (with a week to spare!), and are celebrating by making the first issue free for the rest of the week!
So grab the ebook off of Amazon if you want to check it out.
Except, you know, purely digital is cheaper than pulp.
(Reminder: I’ve got nothing to do with issues 1 or 2, but I do have a story scheduled for issue 4)
Filed Under: Books, Deals - Comments: 2 Comments to Read