Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy New Year!

Thanks for making 2016 a great year! 2017 will be even better! After all, double 6's make a 7, the best roll you can get!

Friday, December 30, 2016

VR Analytics=Privacy Invasion? (part 4/4)

Data collected from VR users can easily be used to manipulate by those who control VR platforms. In fact, commercial third-party software designed for VR developers already allows for data collection to help identify which parts of their worlds are most engaging and which parts need more work, based on the reactions of users in real time. These systems are also capable of influencing people using VR, manipulating them, for example, to make more environmentally conscious choices and or affecting their choices in tests for racial bias. AI-controlled avatars can be used to “nudge” users into accepting certain ideas or views through seemingly innocuous AI-avatar conversation responses such as smiling or frowning, and these avatars could be even more effective if they are able to access data about the user’s emotional responses through eye-tracking or emotion capture. Emotional data collection and influence upon VR users is currently without limit, as no laws exist to restrict the types of behavioral data VR companies can collect from users, nor are there laws restricting how that data will be used. There are also no laws to protect against who will have access to this data—data which could be used and shared among profit-seeking advertising companies, insurance companies, the police, and the government. Laws were finally enacted against subliminal advertising in the 1970's—will VR users have the same protection someday? Or will anyone care, in a technological landscape where giving up all privacy is increasingly accepted?

Thursday, December 29, 2016

VR Analytics=Privacy Invasion? (part 3/4)

VR products are considered to be excellent sources for a new field that is being called “emotion detection.” Sensors mounted on VR headsets can read micro expressions by tracking eye and muscle movements in the face. A benefit to users is that this information can give their VR avatars facial expressions that mirror their own, and VR avatars are—at least with Facebook—the next intended step for VR insertion into our online social lives. The company founder of Fusion said their primary goal is to “unlock human emotion,” a goal shared by Affectiva, an MIT company that offers “emotion detection as a service.” Clients of this service will be able to mine images and video feeds from webcams for data revealing how people react to certain cues. It is thought that eventually VR systems will be able to capture the entire range of body motion, forming a “kinematic fingerprint” for each user. This fingerprint could be used to uniquely identify and analyze a person, both inside and outside of VR. Gait recognition already exists within some security camera monitoring systems, so kinematic fingerprinting is the next step for the technology.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

VR Analytics=Privacy Invasion? (part 2/4)

In 2012, Facebook data scientists conducted a study titled, “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks.” The study involved the secret modification of users’ news feeds to include positive or negative content. The emotional states of the users were then analyzed by studying their posts. “The goal of everything we do is to change people’s actual behavior at scale…We can capture their behaviors, identify good and bad behaviors, and develop ways to reward the good and punish the bad,” said one chief data scientist in a conversation with Harvard business professor Shoshanna Zuboff. Cookies and other tracking code are already being used by online advertisers to track the behaviors and habits of internet users, with details including the sites they visit and how long they spend scrolling, highlighting, or hovering their mouse over certain parts of a page. Google scans emails and private chats for information useful in “personalizing” content and for ad targeting. Yet that information is considered primitive compared to the kind of data that can be harvested through VR.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

VR Analytics=Privacy Invasion?

What exactly is VR Analytics? VR, or Virtual Reality, is the next trend in technology, and though still in its infancy, many believe that it is going to change the way we live in the same way the internet has done—it’s nothing short of revolutionary. “VR Analytics offers a way to capture much more information about the interests and habits of users, information that may reveal a great deal more about what is going on in [their] minds,” says Michale Madary, a researcher at Johannes Guttenberg University. Physiological and behavioral data is valuable to companies like Facebook, which seems to be taking VR very seriously after acquiring the crowd funded Oculus Rift for $2 billion. Considering Facebook’s record, however, is it really a good thing that they are aggressively delving into VR and its uses? An infamous study conducted by Facebook data scientists in 2012 raises a lot of questions…

Monday, December 26, 2016

New Planets in Solar Echoes

Some RPG game systems detail entire cities, with a full book dedicated to everything you'd ever need to know about adventuring in that city. These books covered the various races that would be commonly found within the city, talked about the major geographic areas, the culture of the people, and the economy. A number of ideas were listed regarding possible adventure seeds—short summaries of plots that could be expanded and explored by GM's looking to flesh out a campaign, or fill the gaps between adventures. These books made a simple setting into a robust world that a GM could immerse his players in for an entire campaign if he desired! I have recently taken up the task of preparing a new product based on the original Explorer's Pack for Solar Echoes. In the original, we detailed 4 different planets, and included a new alien lifeform with each. Each planet had basic details and some missions seeds for ideas. Though I'm not going to make this new product into a huge book, I am spending a little more time on detailing a single planet. The product will focus on that planet alone, including planet details, a new alien lifeform, and a short adventure involving that new lifeform, plus possible maps and icons to use in the mission. I've already got a good start, but what types of things would you like to see included in the planet details?

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Problematic Characters (part 4)

That villainous character could become a lot more interesting if you present him with a possible angle towards redemption. Maybe he's coming from a background that puts him at odds with the rest of the characters, but one of those characters begins to realize he's just misunderstood and tries to help others see him in a new light. Perhaps he is as problematic as you present him, but he begins to undergo a transformation because of what he goes through with the other characters. Perhaps he is shown compassion or given something he's never had before, and this softens him or changes his perspective. Or maybe he suddenly becomes the unexpected hero through circumstances or his actions—perhaps it was even an accident that he became the hero! The key is in giving your problematic character motivation and background. You can even use the angle I've seen in a lot of Japanese anime: reveal the villain's motives to the audience in a way that helps them identify with him, understand him, and even sympathize with him to the point that they can't exactly blame him for being the flawed character that he is—in a way that almost makes one say, “If I were in those circumstances, I might do the same things!” Ultimately, if you want that character to have depth, you need to develop him. If the problematic character changes and develops throughout the plot, he often becomes the very hook that keeps the reader with the story!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Problematic Characters (part 3)

So now you've written a problematic character into your story. How do you prevent that character from ruining your story? Very few people want to read about a character they hate unless there is something compelling about that character they can identify with in some way. For example, I experienced a story where the main character began as a rough, self-serving, violent person. Throughout the story, he remained the same, and by the end of the story, even though he had grown to care about one other individual, he was still a rough, violent person, and I considered him a psychopath—I literally hated this character and, as a result, I hated the entire story told around him. I felt absolutely no connection with that character, and because he didn't change, I remained disconnected from him the entire story. If you set your readers against a character to convince them he's a really serious villain, you need to provide them with a hook to keep them with you. It's a balancing act, because if the problematic character stays an unlikeable bad-guy the entire story, he'll easily become a one-dimensional villain. Your villain/problematic character needs development, and a hint towards redemption...

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Problematic Characters (part 2)

Tension is necessary in a story, because without it, readers will quickly lose interest. The plot itself is often the main source of tension, and sometimes the plot can be so involved that adding too much tension among characters can unbalance the flow of a story. However, characters that are without some form of conflict, internal and/or external can quickly become mundane and uninteresting. It is definitely a difficult trick, though, to figure out just how much conflict is necessary. One way is the slow build, where the problems might not be especially overt at first, but over time, the problematic character might develop into something that the others have to finally contend with. Another angle for balancing out a problematic character is to give the reader insight into his motivations that the other characters don't yet have. This helps the reader find more patience with a character that they otherwise might have quickly decided to dislike. Slow discovery of a problematic character's motivations through other characters in the story also helps readers to be patient with a character that seems unlikeable from the start. Ultimately, though, the writer must tread a precarious line between making a problematic character intriguing or risk causing that character to be so disliked that he or she ruins the story entirely.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Problematic Characters (part 1)

One issue you've likely experienced, whether you're a novelist or a role-playing gamer, is when a character is difficult in the story he's involved in. My many years of playing role-playing games involves a number of situations where someone's character didn't exactly get along with the others in the group. In novel writing, it is important to have a level of conflict among the characters--if everyone gets along together without any tension at all, quite often the result feels rather idealistic and boring, though this can sometimes be mitigated by a plot that is so full of tension, the stable characters are the only relief. At the same time, though, characters can be so disruptive and problematic that the reader hates them enough to stop reading. There are several ways to handle difficult characters, however...

Friday, December 16, 2016

Weekend Discount: Explorer's Pack only $2

Weekend Discount! The Explorer's Pack is on sale for only $2, in anticipation of the upcoming Explorer's Pack 2 (releases when finished, hopefully in time for Christmas!) If you're interested in information about 4 new planets with 4 new alien lifeforms, the Explorer's Pack has the details! Use this discount link to get the sale today, before it starts tomorrow morning!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Writing Character-driven Stories (part 4/4)

Writing a science fiction novel became, for me, a chance to role-play each of my characters in my own game, in a sense. I knew the larger plot, but I got to act out, through every character, how they would handle each situation and respond. Often, their responses would create new paths for my story, and these paths would assist in further developing the characters and the world in which they existed. My plot timeline was always ticking, but along the way there were a lot of side-plots, interactions, and other developments that made the story much more about the characters than the plot. This is the essence of a character-driven story. In my opinion, any plot, no matter how common and cliche it might be, can be made interesting and refreshing if it is character-driven.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Writing Character-driven Stories (part 3/4)

When I set out to write a science fiction novel based on the Solar Echoes universe, I had a large, fairly complex and intriguing plot in mind. But from the very beginning, my plan was for the plot to be a framework upon which to hang the characters of the story. The characters would interact and react to each other and the developments of the plot--THEY would write the story. I liken this to the process involved in any table-top role-playing game: the game master (GM) sets the narrative, but the players end up dynamically telling the story through their characters. This is why, when I run demos of Solar Echoes for different players, each game is a totally different story, even though I'm using the exact same "mission" plot each and every time.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Writing Character-driven Stories (part 2/4)

When I set out to write about something happening in the Solar Echoes universe, I resign myself to admitting that no matter how unique I might feel my plot idea is, there is a very good chance I'm subconsciously drawing from other themes I've been exposed to in my life. It is also quite possible that an original idea I've had has been used before, without my knowledge--it's almost inevitable that someone will find a good comparison. For instance, I'd never seen or heard about the plot of the TV series, Babylon 5, but a friend of mine compared the "preserve the balance" theme in Solar Echoes to that show. Last year, I finally decided to watch the first season of Babylon 5, and he was right, there are definitely some similarities. Yet what makes Solar Echoes different is not only the variations in plot from Babylon 5, but the characters themselves. The personalities and cultures of the seven alien races in Solar Echoes shape and drive the story in a way that transcends a simple plot comparison.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Writing Character-driven Stories (part 1/4)

I recently gave a talk on how to design a role-playing game, and one of the topics I covered was writing the overall story. I have found that the approach I detailed works for me in novel-writing as well. When I think about science fiction stories, whether in novel form, in a game, or even on the big screen, many of them can be likened to other stories. There are so many stories out there, it is difficult to write a plot that is truly unique--in fact, writers usually draw upon their own experiences and other themes they have enjoyed before, which results in a final product that often involves fragments of these themes. Their plots are unlikely to be entirely derived from their own ideas, with conscious and unconscious decisions being influenced by the ideas of others they have been exposed to. Good writers can take an old theme and make it feel fresh, but there are so many iterations of these themes out there, it takes something special to really draw an audience. That, in my opinion, is the characters.

Friday, December 9, 2016

John Glenn

American hero and space pioneer, John Glenn, has passed away at 95. Glenn was the first American to orbit Earth (and the 5th in space) on February 20, 1962, only 7 months before President Kennedy's famous Moon speech. Glenn sped around the Earth three times in only a few hours, traveling over 65,000 miles. President Kennedy considered him too important of a symbol to risk losing in an accident, so Glenn had to step down from NASA, but he would later go to space again in October of 1998, while still serving as a Senator (he served in the Senate for four terms). He undertook this second spaceflight at age 77, making him the oldest person to ever fly in space—a record that still stands. Glenn was a humble man who inspired the American spirit. In a NY Times interview, he said, “What got a lot of attention, I think, was the tenuous times we thought we were living in back in the Cold War. I don’t think it was about me. All this would have happened to anyone who happened to be selected for that flight.” John Glenn has inspired us to dream, and to look forward to the future of America's endeavors in space!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Drone Control

Drones are filling the sky at an impressive rate, but this has become a safety and privacy concern for many. Already, an incident occurred where a drone collided with a jet airliner near London's Heathrow Airport. Drones have also entered secure areas, such as the drone that crashed near the White House last year. Drone-control has been an issue tackled from a variety of angles, including the use of net guns, anti-drone drones, and even trained eagles that will fly in and destroy drones in the air. A company name SkySafe has developed a system to take unwanted drones out of the sky, remotely shutting them down with options to either safely land them or to simply bring them crashing down to the earth. This technology is certain to find its way into a number of places, such as sporting events and high-security areas. However, what is to prevent similar technology from being used against self-driving cars in the future? New technologies will of course be developed to compete against that, and rival technologies will rise up in response. At least one good thing can come of all this—there will be more tech job openings in the future!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Solar Echoes Website Redesigned!

The new and improved Solar Echoes website at is now live! Please check it out and let me know what you think! Special thanks to my webdesigner, Dineda, for all her help and collaboration!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Shorehammer—A Weekend Among Warriors (part 2)

As you all probably know, Solar Echoes has recently entered the realm of miniatures. Paper stand-up icons were the cost-efficient way of playing the game initially, and though I'd always hoped to have miniatures, manufacturing, injection-molding, and everything that goes into making miniatures was extremely cost-prohibitive. Then came along 3D-printing, and I suddenly found a way to make my vision a reality—there is now a figure for each Solar Echoes character available at Shapeways, with low-detail prints for general play and high-detail prints for advanced artists and collectors: When I attended the Shorehammer convention, I knew I was in for a treat, because Warhammer hobbyists are what I'd call “hardcore” miniature painters. What I saw there literally blew me away—these guys are amazing artists!
On Sunday, there was a miniatures competition and people entered massive armies arranged in detailed dioramas. I got to talk to some of them about their approach, and most of them preferred hand-painting over airbrushing.
One of the competition winners told me it took him 2 years to finish, with about 6 hours a day invested. I was extremely impressed with the talent I saw on display! I would love to see what these guys might do with a Solar Echoes miniature, and I'm definitely inspired to generate more figures someday in the future!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Shorehammer—A Weekend Among Warriors (part 1)

This past weekend, from Friday through Sunday, I attended the Shorehammer Wargaming convention in Ocean City. I was invited by the convention organizer, Scott, whom I met several years ago at the Farpoint convention when he purchased the Solar Echoes Player's Guide. Scott asked me to run Solar Echoes demos and I also had the chance to host a panel discussion, where I talked about “Making Your Own RPG.” This weekend was a blast, and I am honestly shocked that it was the first time the convention had been run! Everything was incredibly well-organized and never felt rushed. It was my first time seeing gamers playing Warhammer, and I realized how involved and precise the game is. Gamers had brought their own highly-detailed miniatures, painted with incredible skill. Maps and battle areas featured impressive terrain, buildings, and other features that players would strategically move through with their armies. And on the last day of the convention, an award ceremony was given to reward tournament winners as well as the winners of the best-painted miniatures competition. Everyone I met at the convention was very friendly, and there was a gamer-comradery that rivaled that of other conventions I've attended. Shorehammer was an awesome experience, and I highly recommend you reserve the first weekend of December 2017 for next year's convention!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Shorehammer Convention!

Solar Echoes will be at the Shorehammer wargaming convention in Ocean City this weekend, from Dec. 2-4, for game demos and a panel discussion on how to develop a role-playing game. Free prizes and tons of fun!