Doctorow’s For The Win is full of fun ideas

I finished reading Cory Doctorow’s For The Win last night. I wanted to talk a little bit about it, because Doctorow has some ideas about the future of MMO gaming that I found pretty interesting.

If you haven’t heard of it, For The Win is a book about a group of gold farmers and other young people fighting to bring about better working conditions for themselves, and for other ‘invisible’ workers who’re treated terribly and work for tiny wages (notably Chinese factory workers). The book couldn’t be more timely with all the Foxconn suicides in the news these days.

The plot of the book itself was ok, but it wasn’t what had me turning pages. What I was really enjoying was glimpsing the future through Doctorow’s eyes. If a specific date for the happenings in the book was mentioned I missed it, but World of Warcraft is considered ancient history (as described by the ~20 year old characters) so I’m going to guess the year is 2025 or thereabouts. Also a lot of the book takes place in Mumbai & Shenzhen, two places which would be totally foreign to me today, being an untraveled Westerner.

So there are a lot of MMOs running in this future world. Four are mentioned often. One is Mushroom Kingdom, run by Nintendo. The other three are all run by Coca-Cola! Implied but not seen are other games run by companies that we don’t think of as gaming companies today. In the future, as now, gold farming isn’t legal, but there isn’t a lot the companies can do to stop it. There are “Pinkertons” running around in games to kill gold farmers (all worlds seem to be full PvP in the future) but they aren’t paid by the companies normally.

In this way For The Win feels a bit retro. Reminded me of Ultima Online with the PKK guilds trying to maintain order.

Most of the gold farmers work for mobsters stationed in India, China or Indonesia. Farming is big business and the games have gotten so big that there are people who really know nothing about the games but who make a living out of investing in virtual goods. The bosses drive their workers relentlessly at times when a particular item is selling for a lot.

Anyway, it’s a fun read, my biggest problem with it is that it makes gold farming sound fun (I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek). These gold farmers don’t stand around in a field alone killing trash mobs over and over. Instead they farm instances, both for the gold and for items. Generally they work in a PC bang together, shouting back and forth between terminals. They tend to be very good players rather than the rather mindless semi-bots that our real gold farmers seem to be today.

So let’s get to some of the ideas I thought were interesting. First, one of the games is called Zombie Mecha (Mecha Zombie??). In it, players pilot giant robots in a post-zombie apocalypse world. It’s a full-on PVP world with two rival factions, plus the zombies who’re AI controlled. Zombies can’t generally hurt someone in a mech unless it gets damaged or stuck, then they swarm all over it. Tales of battle in Zombie Mecha were really fun and I found myself wanting to play that game!

Second, the games are a lot more ‘complete’ than today’s games are. Most things in-world can be interacted with. Of course the programmers can’t think of everything, so when a player tries to perform an action that there’s no scripting for, the game pulls in a Mechanical Turk to take over. These turks are players who get paid a few cents per interaction. They generally run a bunch of sessions at a time so they’re able to juggle interacting with a bunch of players all at the same time.

I think this is a brilliant idea and one game companies need to incorporate asap. It needn’t be as elaborate as in the book, but imagine if every 50th orc you fought was actually being controlled by a person? How much more interesting could the game become? The person running the orc would have a goal of providing you with an immersive experience, not necessarily beating you. You get a better experience so you keep playing, and someone can make a few dollars while they’re hanging out at home playing games.

The next idea is a technology one. When Coke (in the game) is ready to roll out a new server cluster, they build it in a shipping container. They burn it in at their HQ, then ship it to somewhere very cold, and preferably somewhere near a renewable energy source, like a wind farm or a geo-thermal vent. By using the ambient environment to keep the servers cool, they save a lot of money (and energy). Every so often they rotate out one of these containers to bring it back to HQ for refurbing. This might seem trivial if you’ve never been in a big data center but trust me, those places spend a LOT of money and energy on air conditioning.

I had some more examples but this has run long enough for now. You can download a free electronic copy of For The Win if you don’t feel like paying for it. You might encounter some typos and such, but the (ePub) version I picked was very readable; it isn’t like it’s a first draft or anything.

If you’re an MMO player, you’ll probably get a kick out of the gaming aspects of the book. If you’re concerned about worker’s rights in Asia, then I think you’ll find the tale inspiring. Well worth a read.

Dragon Age: The Calling

Regular readers may remember my enthusiasm surrounding the first Dragon Age novel, The Stolen Throne, by David Gaider. I found it to be an entertaining stand-alone fantasy novel and its tie to a video game irrelevant. So it was with great anticipation that I picked up Gaider’s second DA novel, The Calling. I’m sad to say, this second book lived down to the general reputation of books based on games.

A lot of things went wrong here. My guess is that Gaider was under a lot of pressure to get the book out before the game, and it shows in sloppy editing leading to cringe-worthy sentences like “Holding up his hand, a surge of black energy surged out of him and lanced toward Fiona.” There are also lots of incongruous shifts in POV and characters reading each other’s thoughts via steely eyed glances and such.

Second, the plot is extremely one dimensional and honestly not very interesting. This is the most basic of “Quest” novels. A group consisting of Human/Dwarf/Elf Fighters/Thieves/Mages have to enter the Deep Roads (a series of tunnels first encountered in The Stolen Throne) to stop a Foozle. *yawn* The book was so clearly designed to showcase the races and classes of the game that it felt like one long chunk of marketing copy. The vast bulk of the book has our Group roaming through the underworld fighting Darkspawn.

Thirdly, even if you can get past the lack of editing and wafer-thin plot, the characters’ motives often make no sense. Without spoiling anything, one character in particular suddenly betrays the group and we never understand why (or at least I never did, perhaps I missed the one nuance in the entire book).

The epilogue is equally bizarre and I have to assume will make sense once I play the game.

Mike Stackpole says everyone has one novel in them and the real challenge is being able to go back and do it all over again once that first novel is out. Here’s hoping David Gaider has more than one in him and that he just faltered here due to time pressures (after all he is lead writer on the game and so must have had a very busy year; The Stolen Throne came out only last March). I’m not ready to give up on him yet!

Read The Calling only if you’re a huge fan of Dragon Age: Origins and want to dig deeper into the lore of the world, and in particular the Gray Wardens. But don’t read it for the story; it’s just not worth your time.

Duma Key

Duma Key
Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Duma Key by Stephen King

Once upon a time, I was a huge Stephen King fan. I read ’em as fast as he could write ’em. And then he wrote Pet Sematary, and I read it, and something snapped inside of me. King’s skill with descriptions had gotten too good, in a way. Some of the stuff I was reading…it just didn’t feel healthy to me. I didn’t need to be filling my head with that kind of potent and disturbing imagery.

So I quit reading King, or at least, reading his horror stuff.

Then last Thanksgiving my brother gave me a copy of Duma Key, which he’d enjoyed. I felt obligated to give it a try, and early on there’s a scene that almost caused me to set it aside, but I pushed on, and I’m glad I did.

Duma Key isn’t horrific. It’s creepy and sometimes unsettling, but never horrific (I mean that as praise). It never gets truly scary — or maybe that’s because I was so braced for something worse — but it gets nice and weird a lot.

And it’s a pretty good story as long as you just fly through it and don’t stop to think very hard about the characters and their reactions to events going on, because sometimes they make odd choices that don’t ring true.

Vague example, trying to avoid spoilers: You and some friends need to accomplish a certain task before a specific time. If you don’t finish in time, the group is going to wind up in very dire circumstances. These are people who trust you. Do you a) quickly accomplish your goals, informing your friends of what needs to be done and assuring them that you’ll explain the details later, or b) Ramble on and on explaining all the reasons why you have to do what you have to do, as the deadline draws nearer and nearer and your friends urge you to shut the hell up and get moving?

Most people, I think, would choose A but our protagonist chooses B. While you’re reading it, you’re flipping pages like mad because you want to find out what happens. But afterward you stop and think, “What the heck? Why’d he waste all that time talking??”

On the other hand, certain cliched behaviors that you expect to see never emerge. When weird things start happening to the protagonist, we expect him to keep what’s going on a secret. But in fact he doesn’t; he shares the burden with friends. That sounds simple but to me it was unexpected and welcome.

I don’t know if die-hard King fans will like Duma Key; I haven’t followed him recently and don’t know if this is a departure from his other recent books. But I liked it well enough. It was a good yarn, the characters were genuinely likable (at least, when we were supposed to like them) and had great (one could argue, a little too great) chemistry together. Duma Key itself was realized well enough to be a character in and of itself.

I can’t imagine that I’ll be thinking about this book a week from now, but it was a good ride while it lasted.

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No Longer on the Map Review

No Longer on the Map
Rating: 2 of 5 stars

No Longer on the Map by Raymond H. Ramsay

It almost seems pointless to review a book that was obscure in its heyday and is now out of print, so I’m going to approach things a little differently.

When I was a child, I was enthralled with anything unknown and fringe. Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, UFOs… you name it, I believed in them. I assumed that “No Longer on the Map” was going to be filled with tales of Atlantis and other lost continents. I ordered it (I got all my books mail order back then; one thing my mom really indulged me with was books) and when it arrived and I realized it wasn’t about such fantastical places, I put it on the shelf, and there it sat for over 35 years.

Not sure what prompted me to finally pick it up and read it, but you should have seen the cloud of dust I blew off it before I opened the front cover. It was like something out of a movie mystery. 🙂

What the book is *actually* about is cartography. The author discusses places that were on maps from hundreds of years ago but aren’t on modern maps. Some of them you may have heard of, such as a navigable Northwest Passage or the fabled city of gold, El Dorado. Others were new, at least, to me, like Breasil, an island in the North Atlantic, or Quivira, a gold-rich empire in the Pacific Northwest.

I enjoyed the authors descriptions of the various explorers who claimed to have found/sighted/discovered these non-existent places, but they weren’t really the focus of the book. The focus was more about what cartographer included which place and why. Where the names came from (and the author makes some pretty wild leaps in his name speculation). When the places vanished from maps. That sort of thing. It all made for some fairly dry reading for me.

But I don’t have any kind of deep interest in cartography. If you’re fascinated by maps then you might love this book, if you can find it. Definitely a niche book for a niche audience.

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Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne Review

Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne
Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne by David Gaider

Wow. What a surprise.

This is a prequel novel to the upcoming video game Dragon Age: Origins, by Bioware. I was reading it more to ‘get in the mood’ for the game than anything, and I had very low expectations, to be honest. And I was blown away.

I’m giving it 4 stars, and that is judging it against all fantasy, not against “pre-generated world” fantasy (novels based on games, movies, tv series, etc). Within that sub-genre it’s a 5 star book, easily.

As the story begins, a cruel usurper sits on the throne of Ferelden, and the Rebel Queen has been betrayed and murdered. The only member left of the royal family is young Maric, a charming but slightly inept princeling, now on the run for his life. He soon teams up with a young commoner named Loghain, and the two set off to reunite with the rebel army, and begin the daunting challenge of trying to push the usurper from his ill-gained throne.

There’s a bit of game-ness to the book here and there as character classes are mentioned, but it isn’t very intrusive and if you didn’t know it was a game-prequel novel, you might not even notice it.

The story has everything you could ask for in a fantasy. A noble, seemingly impossible quest, great battles, characters who feel very real, and who interact in ways that also feel very human. A smattering of magic and strange creatures. Joy and pain, victory and defeat. All written with genuine emotion.

A nice change of pace is the way elves are handled, who are definitely second class citizens in this world, scraping by working as servants and living in squalid quarters of most cities.

All in all, a very, very enjoyable read, and a very ‘self-contained’ novel. You aren’t left with a cliff-hanger ending that is going to require you to play the game or read another novel. You can download a sample chapter from

I hope the author, David Gaider, focuses on more novel writing, and less game writing. I’d love to read more from him!

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Eldest (Book Review)

Eldest (Inheritance, Book 2)
Rating: 2 of 5 stars

Eldest by Christopher Paolini

It’s been a while since I read Eragon, but I remember enjoying it quite a bit, so I was really looking forward to Eldest. And I think I would have enjoyed it if it’d been 400 pages instead of 650 or so. But as it stands, there’s just not enough plot to carry the length of this book.

It felt a *whole* lot like Paolini opened a word blender and dumped in equal amounts of LOTRO and Star Wars and added a pinch of Pern and hit the BLEND button. And that still would have been OK except he got a huge clump of Degoba in the Star Wars material. Hmm, perhaps I should stop torturing this metaphor. Put another way, imagine if two-thirds of the original Star Wars was Skywalker being trained by Yoda; watching someone going to class everyday gets boring fast.

Riders = Jedi, the bond between Eragon and Saphira comes from Pern, the language, races and tone come from LOTRO. Although the tone comes and goes…Paolini’s characters drift between fairly modern dialog and “come hither” and “I know not why” and other ‘pseudo-medieval’ phrasing. He even manages to riff on “Treasure of the Sierra Madre’s” ‘we don’t need no stinking badges’ quote, swapping in “barges” for “badges.” *sigh*

Anyway, intertwined with Eragon’s story (which can be summed up as “Eragon goes to train with the elves for 300 pages, then heads to a battle) this time out is Roran’s. Roran is the cousin Eragon left behind in Carvahall, and *he* has quite an interesting and fun plot in Eldest, which is what saved the book from being just plain bad. I would’ve been happier if most of the book was about Roran, with Eragon’s training being a minor subplot.

As this volume of Inheritance closes, Paolini redeems himself somewhat, as Eragon *finally* stops training and starts doing, and we get some good action and strong plot developments in the closing chapters of the book.

This isn’t a bad book; it’s just much longer than it needed to be. I’ve heard Book 3 of Inheritance is even worse in that respect, and I’m not sure I’m willing to stay on this ride any longer.

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EDIT: Here’s another look at Eldest that brings up some interesting observations about the message Paolini is sending to his young readers (Eldest is technically YA). Eldest review at PixiePalace

Got Game?

Got Game: How the Gamer Generation Is Reshaping Business Forever
Rating: 1 of 5 stars

Got Game: How the Gamer Generation Is Reshaping Business Forever by John C. Beck & Mitchell Wade

This book was a big disappointment. Part of the reason for that was basic timeliness; it was published in 2004 and we all know how quickly our world is changing. The entire volume is basically reporting the results of a survey the authors conducted, and that data must have been gathered at least a year before the publish date.

So a lot of the facts are out of date; for instance they talk a lot about what a solitary activity gaming is, and today that’s often not really true. But you can’t blame the authors for the passage of time.

What you can blame them for is creating a divide where no divide exists. The book is written for “Baby Boomer” managers who are wary of hiring “Gamers.” And the authors apparently tag all of us with one of those two labels. You are either a Boomer or a Gamer, and that distinction seems to be based on the year of your birth, with little regard for how you spend your time.

Now maybe my experience is atypical, but I can’t remember a manager ever saying to me “This kid’s resume looks pretty good but we shouldn’t hire him; he’s one of those damned Gamers!”

Essentially the two authors conjured a problem out of thin air, then surveyed a bunch of people and spun their findings to apply to their fake problem, and wrote a book about it all. And apparently then they repeated a process with a second book published in 2006.

Avoid this one. You’re not going to learn a thing from it.

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The Last Wish (Book Review)

The Last Wish
Rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

I first discovered Geralt the Witcher via the computer game The Witcher. Some of the mechanics of that game bothered me enough that I still haven’t played a lot of it, but I played enough to become intrigued by the main character.

I knew he was the creation of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski who was a bestselling author in his homeland, but it was only recently that I found this translation to English. As far as I can determine, this is his only work readily available in English, though a second volume (Blood of Elves) is on the way.

Anyway, to the book itself. Once again we have a selection of short stories woven into a novel; this seems to be a trend in my reading lately! In The Last Wish, this mechanism isn’t hidden though. Instead we have one ‘meta story’ that introduces and launches the various stories in a manner similar to The Canterbury Tales (I’m using that example to compare frameworks, not authors). This wasn’t immediately obvious to me; hopefully if you read this review before you read the book, I will have spared you a bit of confusion.

Geralt is a Witcher; an individual who has been mutated by magics and alchemy into something more than human, and who has been trained from a very young age to fight monsters. Geralt’s world is an interesting melange of magic and science, but not of technology. We never see machines at work, but scientific knowledge seems to be more advanced than what we normally see in a pseudo-medieval fantasy world. This gives Geralt’s world a unique feel.

It took me a while to realize that Geralt was traveling through familiar fairy tales with a dark, adult and slightly modernized twist. For example, we see Sleeping Beauty as a banished princess who becomes an outlaw during the struggle to reclaim her rightful place on the throne, while those who would oppose her spread rumors about the debauched lifestyle she shares with seven gnomes.

As a Witcher, Geralt lives a mercenary life. He kills monsters for money, not for glory or fame. He tries not to kill sentient monsters if he can avoid it (that description extends to people) but violence has a way of following him. Witchers tend to be reviled in this world (until such time as they are needed, when suddenly they are sought out with much enthusiasm), so his is a mostly solitary life, though later in the book we meet his unlikely friend, the troubadour Dandilion.

Reading the The Last Wish, I feel like I was peering at a fantasy world through a narrow slit. What I saw was wonderful, but there’s the sense that the world is much, much bigger than what we see through Geralt’s eyes in this one volume.

A final note; if you pick up the book and open it to page one, the first thing you’ll read is a sex scene. It isn’t exactly explicit, but it’s reasonably steamy, and it is not indicative of the book as a whole. Geralt does have his fair share of intimate encounters, but they’re not the focus of the book and I think in some ways that first two page chapter sets an inaccurate tone for what’s to come.

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SW:TOR Dev Diary

I’m going to admit to being a blasphemer in the geek world…I’m not really that huge of a Star Wars fan. And blaspheme number 2…I’m not a big Bioware fan, either. I didn’t think much of KOTOR, never finished a Baldur’s Gate (except that action-rpg variant), haven’t played Mass Effect yet.

So all the fuss about Star Wars: The Old Republic has kind of washed over me. Until tonight when I sat down and watched this “Developer Dispatch”:
(I can’t figure a way to turn off the autoplay on Bioware’s player, so I’m putting the rest of this post after a More link)
Continue reading “SW:TOR Dev Diary”

A Life at Work (Book Review)

A Life at Work: The Joy of Discovering What You Were Born to Do
Rating: 2 of 5 stars

A Life at Work: The Joy of Discovering What You Were Born to Do by Thomas Moore

This wasn’t the book I was looking for. That’s not the book’s fault, really, but it was a disappointment to me because it wasn’t what I was expecting.

Before I dive into the review, I have to do a bit of soul-baring. I have a decent job, and honestly in this economic climate, I’m grateful for that. I know plenty of people who don’t. But even though its a good job, I don’t love it, and I don’t make enough money to feel economically secure. I live paycheck to paycheck and that makes me really nervous. I have this fantasy where I’ll find a job that a) I look forward to going to or b) pays well enough that I have left over income to put towards making my life secure, or ideally, c) both.

So back to the review. This isn’t the book I was looking for. I was expecting a self-help book that would give me tools to try to decide what the “right” job for me would be. To find a job that I would genuinely enjoy doing, and that would support my lifestyle. Instead, this is more a spiritual book that uses Alchemy as an analogy for life and work. In the same way Alchemists gathered all kinds of materials and distilled them down (according to the author) during our lives we gather all kinds of experiences and distill them down until we find our purpose. And in fact, this is a book about “work” rather than “jobs” — the author suggests your life work might have nothing to do with that place you spend 8+ hours every day.

[Snarky aside: We know that most alchemists were charlatans. Not a metaphor I would use to inspire confidence in a reader.]

If the author ever gives us concrete tools to help us determine what we were “born” to do, I missed them. Which is possible because my mind kept wandering as I was reading. I did keep reading, though, because its such a seductive idea, isn’t it? Close your eyes and picture yourself springing out of bed every morning, eager to go to work and make a difference in the world, free of worrying about whether you’re going to be able to make the rent this month.

Had my head been in a different place I might have appreciated it more, and I’m going to keep it on my shelf in case I want to give it another read at another time, but at this point in my life, when I’m not thrilled with my job, not making enough money, and looking for concrete, pragmatic help, this just felt like a touchy-feely book for people who have more freedom to do as they please than I do.

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Note: I joined GoodReads the other day. This is an expanded version of the review I wrote over there, and I’m tweaking their “export to blog” format for use here. I’ve dropped the link (no one, as far as I can tell, has ever clicked on one of them, and Google penalizes the page ranking for Dragonchasers because of them) in favor of a GoodReads link that’ll give you quick access to reviews from other people.

I’m always looking for new friends on social networks, so if you’re on GoodReads, send me a friend request!