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Sunday, 30 October 2016

Fanstorm Armada v1 - Background

I've done a lot of work in Firestorm in the past, and that produced directly for SG was only a very small part of that. I'm also fortunate in having a network of people across the globe to critique my work and provide alternative ideas and suggestions to refine that work. Rather than let all of those hours go to waste, I'll be posting up my thoughts, background and developments here for the community to share.

Before I get to mechanics and rules, the big area I (and many of you out there) have felt is lacking in Firestorm Armada is background. Now approaching this requires more than just sending a whole bunch of freelance writers off to get some stories together, or even asking an active community for content. Why? Let's have a look...

Freelancers tend to do one of two things - they either write to a tight brief with good guidelines, or they're given freedom to write what they like with much looser reigns. One of the first things I started working on, therefore, was a set of writer guidelines to shape the universe. This is important because there are basics of technologies that will affect the whole shape of how the universe is written about. Let's use an example to illustrate this.

Have you ever watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer? It was a huge hit in the 90s and a lot of it still stands up as good, silly, fantasy fun. However, it was written at a time where mobile phones were not omnipresent, and many of the plot lines would simple be answered by having one. A modern equivalent would be written from a different perspective and would follow a different line just because of that one simple difference in communications technology.

It's the same with a game like FA and its background. SG have never been that interested in the technological background of their universe, which then makes it problematic to shape the universe coherently, which means any freelance or fan based content will vary on approach and not produce a cohesive, immersive universe. This doesn't matter for some, but it does matter for most gamers, who tend to be of a similar detail-oriented ilk within their hobby sphere.

Communications is one example - is it possible to contact a planet from another planet? Is it possible to contact a ship in FSD? Can a ship in fold-space be detected? What is fold-space? All of these basics affect any story written in or for the universe, so its important to nail this stuff down.

Another facet of this are the various races in FA - what is their background? Where did they evolve, and how? Evolution shapes the way creatures act hugely, and much more than we recognise. Our "fight or flight" mechanism comes from our evolution, the propensity for males to have better spatial awareness than females comes from the evolutionary branch of it being selected for as males went out to hunt...every aspect and nuance of our underlying behavioural mechanisms has come from our evolution from single-celled organisms, shaped by the changing environment and evolutionary pressures of millions of years.

Even where we have humans in the Firestorm universe, we have different interpretations of the seven or so human factions (Terran, Dindrenzi, Directorate, Hawker, Works Raptor, OSO and RSN). Are the Dindrenzi space nazis or not? Is that the role of the RSN? What is life like in the Directorate? The unanswered questions are almost infinite.

This is also highlighted in game instances, like the so called "Fleet Admiral". Now Admiral is a very high rank in a navy, and really this doesn't make much sense in a background and real-world sense, but this is just an in-game reference. Even so, when trying to put in the invasion "Commanders", it puts you as a designer in a corner, so one of the things I looked at before giving titles to these Commanders was to create a full military structure for all of the core six races, and place the Commanders logically within them. This provides consistency both now and in the future. Unfortunately the recent posts by SG have ignored this, introducing the rank of "Pioneer-Marshall" and "Monitor-Commander" - which sound cool but don't actually sit with any prior background.

As such I will be presenting the work I've done independently as a Fan-derived version of Spartan's universe, and nothing within it is meant to challenge any of SGs licences or IP, but merely to provide an alternate and fully fleshed-out background - let's call it an alternative interpretation - of their game. I hope you enjoy it, and I'm always open to feedback and discussion on any aspect. if people have better or cooler things to add, then I'll add them.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

I am Spartan Alex...and so's my wife....

Well, I used to be, up until yesterday when I finally decided to hand in my spear, helmet and shield and part ways with the Firestorm steering role I've had for the past few years.

"What? Are you crazy? I'd give my <<insert appendage here>> to be a Spartan!"

Well, be careful what you wish for - working with a games company can be incredibly rewarding, but it can also be enormously frustrating, hard work and gruelling. Sometimes it sucks so much out of you in the game you love, that you don't want to play. Then you wonder why you're putting in the kind of hours you are without pay (yes, this was voluntary!) - this was supposed to be fun!

So why did I quit?

A game system is more than just pretty models and good rules - it's exactly that, a SYSTEM. The leader in the industry got to where they were (and still are in large part) because they had a great combination of models and narrative, backed by good store support and excellent player involvement, all in a very different world to the one we inhabit now. They created a monolithic monopoly which stood for around 30 years before they slipped into getting super-greedy whilst losing grip on rules and getting sloppy with background - just at a time when other companies like SG were springing up in an internet-enabled world. The past 10 years have seen the industry completely change, and they have taken a lot of damage over that time by being inflexible in an increasingly flexible marketplace. Nevertheless, even they are responding - and maybe it is too little too late, but they're also big enough for momentum to carry them a long way.

I tried to help SG in this environment by creating the sort of technological tie-ins, community noise and background pieces (the odd "teasers" I posted from time to time) that I believed were needed for FA - I felt there absence as a player of the game. About 0.1% of what I've written ever saw the light of day over the past 3 years. My motivation for the creating Hub Systems was to talk about Firestorm, as I couldn't represent the company officially elsewhere. I attended Reading Warfare as a demo game under my own steam (with Oscar's help) four years ago because I love Firestorm - this year we'll have the third annual FA tournament there.

So in short, I believe in the community, and the lack of support over the last 18 months or so for those fledgling communities is damaging - and I don't mean in terms of prizes (which SG are pretty generous about), I mean in terms of Spartan's show attendance, regular blog pieces , coherent and un-retconned background, consistent universe technologies and meaningfully planned releases. As the leadership of SG clearly became more detached from that vision of a coherent universe that I had, it was clear separation was in the offing - and best now and cleanly rather than protracted and messy.

Spartan have been getting better in some areas (like show attendance), and I really hope that the game survives long-term. People have expressed happiness about the Amber system, which I completely understand, because there's been nothing for so long. In one sense I'm glad that stuff I was talking about to Neil over a year ago is happening...but (there had to be one) - it's happening in something of a vacuum (knew I could get a space-related pun in there somewhere!). The FFG were not involved in the Amber system development, so as to balance and ongoing unity, where does it leave it? The fluff pieces are nice, but do they tie in with the rest of the universe? Will the next pieces tie in with this?

Now I am anal about this stuff, and pick up on inconsistencies in anything quickly - they jar my suspension of disbelief. The champagne glass in the Sopranos which is filled and half-emptied and then filled again between dialogue is something I noticed first time. Having Dindrenzi officers refer to each other as "Pioneer" as an honorific might be cool, but its never been mentioned in FA before. This either needs something to tie it in or be dropped. Stuff like this might not seem important, but it's indicative of a larger problem - the universe behind everything.

Let's take a brief sojourn - why are there a lot of very successful US TV series at the moment? When you get down to it, it's because of the way they're made. I had absolutely zero interest in a medieval fantasy setting series when my wife asked if we should watch Game of Thrones because "people said it was good". I started watching and was hooked - not because of the setting, but because of the quality of the show - at all levels. It has a compelling, intricate and well-woven plot which is delivered with excellent acting - the actors aren't just making up their lines when they get on set. This leads to amazing moments like the resolution of why Hodor can't say anything other than "Hodor" - and it blows your mind (I won't spoil it if you've not seen it, but OMG!).

This is really what I worry about with the current Amber setting in FA - has it been beautifully crafted behind the scenes as part of a larger tapestry, or has it just been made up on the spot? I have a sneaking feeling that it's the latter, which means that although it might be sweet and glossy, it might stick in the throat later when the wider picture doesn't quite add up. Which would be a shame. Honestly, if I'm wrong, nothing's lost, right?

The joy for me now, however, is that I am unchained to express myself in terms of fan-created background, technology, stats etc - though of course these will no longer carry the weight of being "official", I'll keep working with the members of the community I've grown to develop great respect for and whose input and viewpoints I value - even when they differ greatly from my own - because we have the same destination in sight, and because they improve anything I do! I created military structures for all the core races of the FA universe....I created star systems with planetary bodies for EVERY SINGLE SYSTEM on the FA map - this is how anal I am!

Whilst I'm on it, those individuals of the former Firestorm Focus Group really deserve a huge amount of the community's love, they've worked tirelessly behind the scenes with little in the way of thanks and often massive criticism and quite thoughtless abuse ("Did the FFG even test this, this is so OP" etc etc). It'll be my privilege to work with them again in the International independent Games Design Group, (not a very catchy moniker, I admit!) continuing to produce fan-made support for the game we all love. They're a talented group of guys, and I think we can put some great stuff out for the community.

As such, and as an enhancement to both my blog and The Hub Systems, I've introduced a forum element to this site, selectable on the top right-hand side under Pages. Feel free to go over there and leave a comment and get involved in the discussion - I'll add other sub-forums on there as needed.

Well, I'll save you all from the wall of text now, have fun until the next time - Episode 27 of The Hub Systems is coming soon!