Friday, February 17, 2017

Fallout 4 (2016)

Fallout 4 (2016) brings us back the same Fallout that we've known since Fallout 3 and Fallout NV. The wasteland is the wasteland and war, war never ends.

I'll get to the bad stuff first. The bad stuff for me is more apparent, while the good stuff takes a little thinking about.

This game went on too long for me. If a game goes over 100 hours of gameplay, I get bored. Once I finished exploring the wasteland, I rushed through the ending, happy to be done. Which brings me to a second part of the game, unengagement. I often walked through these quests, no caring who lived or died. Part of this was their use of random quests to fill out the game. At first I didn't notice this as the quests were new, but once I got to know that these were just randomized quests, they lost any real story meaning for me.

The story didn't feel like a 200 years later sort of story. That never felt right. This story should have been a thirty years later sort of story, or maybe seventy, but not two hundred. For two hundred, I needed a wasteland stranger and even more decrepit than Fallout 3.

I felt pretty mixed about the settlement system. Early on, I just ignored it. Later, as the end game came on, I appreciated its use in game play. Its through the settlement system that you build rapport with the Minutemen. By literally walking in their shoes and taking on their jobs, you build an appreciation of their goal, which is to rebuild the Commonwealth. When the end choices come, this gives them a powerful implicit argument to support their side, which is what I went with. I could support a military dictatorship (the Brotherhood of Steel), a meritocracy (the Institute), or a Democracy (the Minutemen). I'm not surprised that I went on to support the democratic solution.

I enjoyed the robot content. Here is where the humor and the twisted ideas of the original Fallout remained in full force. Here is the biting social commentary and outlandish personalities. Everywhere the robots showed up, they worked.

With the customizable guns and armor, I wound up enjoying the equipment crafting system a little less than I had expected. Once I settled on my kit, very little came around that could replace it. I went the rifle route, with a close rifle and shotgun, and a sniper rifle for longer ranged engagements, with my combat rifle and sniper rifle acting as my main weapons. I didn't have the points to put anything into hiding, so I wasn't a super-sniper.

I spent my entire game with Dogmeat. His strange wandering about patterns made sense for a dog. When I went about with a companion, they always felt a bit weird acting as strange as Dogmeat did. For most of the game, I was heavily committed to the lone wanderer lifestyle.

As for VATS, I didn't use it at all. That saved me a massive number of points, but it made dealing with insects absolutely infuriating. Otherwise, I found that I didn't need it for most fight. By pointing with my mouse, I found that I was well coordinated enough to hit most opponents.

While Power Armor was interesting, I found that the armor provided just as many negatives as positives, so I went about in Combat Armor instead, doing just fine in most situations. I only fell back on power armor when the radiation levels got too high or the opponents got too tough for my level.

Unlike previous Fallouts, this Fallout scaled well above 30th level. Only when I reached 60 did I start encountering enemies that proved ridiculously resilient. In previous Fallouts, that happened around Level 30. (If I ever play Fallout NV again, I am so taking the level 30 limit perk.)

I haven't done any of the DLCs, mostly because I don't want to pay for them as they cost more than what I paid for F4 on sale. The main game gave me enough content. (Admittedly, Nuka World does look tempting. There has to be something twisted to it.) Eventually I may purchase some content, but not until it's cheaper.

Marketing Do-Over

Background

I originally published my Jura City trilogy between 2010 and 2013 to extremely limited sales (they sunk like lead weights). Over the years, I tried copious cover replacements, blurb rewrites, and marketing, all to minimal effect. I sold a few copies per year. The turnover for my first in series permafree was sub 1%, however, the turnover for KU was over 90%.

My piggies needed a rebrand. As the books had sold few copies, I felt as I had a good opportunity if I could apply a little lipstick.

Rebranding

Replacing the covers proved very difficult. I shopped premade covers for years, but nobody sold any premades which were appropriate to the series.  (Dwarves aren’t particularly popular in photography.) I considered custom art, but I found no artist producing anything which fit what I needed. Nothing was comparable. Not being able to find the right style or artist stymied my efforts.

My branding breakthrough came when I was shopping for art for an unrelated book. While digging through stock photos, I thought to search for paintings. I’m sure that I had done this before, but this time I when I searched for “woman watercolor”, I discovered a Polish artist named Bruniewska (http://www.shutterstock.com/portfolio/search.mhtml?submitter=722569). Her images of women dropped my jaw to the ground. They looked beautiful, lush, mystical, and abstract, all without looking tartish in the least. Among them, I found enough similar paintings that I could cover an entire series, uniting the covers into a single brand.

THIS IS THE IMPORTANT PART. With these new images came a change in thinking. If I had just gone and recovered my books like people advised, I would have wasted my money because I would have commissioned the wrong images. I would have been selling the wrong product to the wrong audience. The reason that I responded to these Bruniewska covers was because they caught something about this series that I hadn’t previously identified. This series was ultimately an  interior of personal journey. My marketing of this series hadn’t addressed this at all. If I could market them as such a journey, then my reader’s expectations would more closely match the book that I wrote.

How to set their expectations more accurately? I needed a better series name. Jura City focused on the place while I needed to focus on the person, so I changed the series title to Dwarf Shamaness. This would give any reader a far better idea of what the novels were about.

With a focus on the shaman’s journey, I next needed to rewrite the blurb focusing on that journey. Hopefully the burbs work. I’ve been getting better at them.

With all this rethinking, I looked at genre again. Under fantasy, there’s the Visionary and Metaphysical category, so I looked that up, and this series seemed like a natural for this category. Even better, the category didn’t seem popular, so with a little permafree, my first in series should rise above #100.

After that, I put the first in series into permafree.

Theory

There’s no such thing as a problem book, there is only problem marketing. If a book disappoints the reader, then the marketing has failed to communicate an important trait of the book. The purpose of marketing is create an expectation for the reader that matches the experience of book. This expectation will drive away some readers and attract others. You want to drive away readers who dislike the experience while attracting those who want the experience.

It seems counterintuitive to drive away readers, but branding and genre does that all the time. A dedicated romance reader may skip over horror because it’s just not her thing. That’s why genre exists, so that readers can find certain books and books can be presented to eager readers.

If you move away from the tent poles of a genre, you need to communicate that up front. That’s how sub-genres get made. Shakespeare does this for all his tragedies. You know from the get go that the hero dies. So it may seem unpopular to kill the protagonist, but Shakespeare’s biggest plays all do exactly that.

Results

Fairly modest free book downloads moved Weeds Among Stone to the bottom fifth of the top 100 for Metaphysical and Visionary. Yay. My book started advertising itself. I moved 1 free book per day, sometimes two. This part worked as designed. One freebie per day kept me on this list, but I dropped off the list in 5 days, hoving between 110 and 130, and hovering between #20,000 and #30,000 in the whole store. I let that run for four weeks to get a solid set of numbers under it in order to get some stickiness to my future advertising and establish a baseline for assessing ads.

Next came a Fiverr gig with BKKnight. I paid $15 for a bit of extended service, then advertised as permafree. On the first day, I hit 125 downloads, taking me very close to the 10 cents a download number. The book went to #14 in Metaphysical & Visionary Fantasy, #22 in Epic Fantasy, and #1406 Whole Store free. The book stayed in the top 100 for three weeks.

The bad news is that I received no additional reads or sales following this promotion. Even with the low bar that I set, I failed to record a single turnover sale. My piggie, alas, has remained a piggie, even with new lipstick.

Even with being a piggie, I earned out what I spent on covers and advertising, producing my first profit. Not bad.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Forever War (1974)

The Forever War (1974) by Joe Haldeman is a kick in the gut, followed by being drawn and quartered. This books grabs you by the throat and demands your full attention, sir, yes sir. A relatively short read by modern standards, it makes use of every word, no padding necessary.

Relativity is the name of the game, and as soldiers go off to fight a future war, the world they left behind becomes increasing strange, increasingly alien, until there is literally no difference between the aliens that they are fighting and the aliens that they defend. Everyone becomes a man out of time, living hundreds of years beyond any time known.

While this may be a war story, in no way does this story glorify war. As time and technology creep forward, so do the horrors of war, men in mechanical suits treated as disposable as any other piece of war equipment, their lives enslaved to an endless war. A forever war.

Is this book really that good? Yes, it really is that good.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Ship Who Sang (1969)

The Ship Who Sang (1969) by Anne McCaffrey is a fixup SF novel of a ship containing a malformed human, otherwise called a "brain." The novel read quite archaically, resembling an SF novel from the 50's far more than the late 60's, containing stiff sentences paired with stiff dialog.

If you're looking for the far smoother McCaffrey from the 1970's, this isn't it.

As I read, I often found myself getting bored with each story, the weak plots overwhelming the otherwise dull and underdeveloped characters. Helen, the ship, aside from singing, frequently has no other personality traits worth speaking about.

The book itself is a veiled feminist work, where the ship is paired with a brawn, but the ship works through various brawns as she goes, much like a woman, freed through the sexual revolution, was now able to trade partners. Likewise, the brawns frequently have the character and flaws of bad husbands, especially those bad attitudes more frequent before women's liberation.

While I praise Anne's aims, the results fail more often than they work.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Broken Katanas

What did the Japanese do with broken katanas?

You'd think that something as laborious to make as a katana would have some recycling culture surrounding it. The users surely didn't part with such blades lightly.

If you look at a wakisashi, they sure do look like short katanas. Were they repurposed that way? Did Japanese swordsmen sell off their broken katanas, which artisans then repurposed into cheap weapons for non-elite troops? Given the sheer expense of katanas, that would make sense. I can also see samurai giving their broken katanas to their servants, which would also tint such weapons with a distinctively lower-class association. Or not. I don't know.

None of these suppositions is fact, and I may easily be fooled by fictional popular culture.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Space Opera Starships

I'm toying about with space opera, and I'm thinking about to type ships. Any organization of ships must make reasonable sense to a reader without having to memorize a slew of specialized vocabulary.

For interstellar ships, capable of crossing significant distances, I want a categorization similar to modern naval size usage. They combine fabulous speed with fabulous expense, at the expense of firepower and defense. For non-superluminal ships, I want slightly different, yet still accessible vocabulary, so that readers get a good gut feel for those ships relative to modern naval usage.

Attack Ships

Cruiser/Carrier (same size, different specialization)
Destroyer
Frigate
Intruder (analogous to attack subs and strategic bombers)

Able to cross interstellar distances, attack ships are the backbone of the strategic fleet. Their ability to strike anywhere lends these ships considerable punch, but those advantages require considerable compromise. Superluminal drives are large and prohibitively expensive, and together with the requisite reactors to power them, limit both weaponry and defenses. Attack ships are expensive to build, expensive to maintain, and expensive to repair, but as they are able to protect numerous system, these ships still wind up cheaper than building and manning extensive local fleets.

Over the years, numerous attempts have been made to create a battleship class, but their cost relative to their effectiveness keeps dooming category to obsolescence. Fundamental physics indicates that superluminal drives will never be miniaturized enough to make a battleship class cost effective.

Local Ships

Dreadnaught?
Monitor
Gunboat
Corvette
Cutter
Interceptor (fighter)

Relatively cheap and able to cross a solar-system a near light speed, ton for ton, local ships deliver more firepower while withstanding considerably more punishment than comparable attack ships. Even obsolete local ships can easily maul an attack fleet. With a support network of satellites, beacons, and buoys, defenders easily have an unparalleled view of the battlefield. Despite these advantages, local ships are only useful when they are deployed to the correct locations. Meanwhile, redeploying these fleets with Heavy Ferries takes considerable time, meaning that attack fleets tend to pick battlefields to their own advantage.

The primary goal of local defenses is to discourage attacks while increasing the forces committed to any attack.

The most common local ship is the cutter. Cheap, reliable, and flexible, these ships take on patrol and policing duties in almost every settled system. Busier and more important systems usually have several corvettes.

Monitors and gunboats are predominantly used in sieges, as temporary command centers, and as bulwarks when local fleets need reinforcement. They are transported by heavy ferries.

Ferries

A ferry is a specialized carrier that transports capital ships from one location to another. While smaller ferries are fairly common, heavy ferries are rare due to their staggering cost, needing engines able to move gunboats and monitors between systems. While all ferries are prized targets, heavy ferries are to be destroyed at all cost.

Ferries sometimes work with attack fleets, transporting local ships to bolster the attack force's resilience, especially in assaults against bases and planets. The attack fleet secures an area while ferries bring in the heavier firepower.

Bases

Bases and space stations, completely freed of any drive requirements, pose yet another challenge. These constructs can withstand considerable firepower while inflicting overwhelming damage. Even a small, relatively cheap base poses a legitimate challenge to the largest superluminal ship.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Best Fictional Couples

I was asked, who was my favorite fictional couple? I've never asked myself this question, making my answer a challenge. I just don't think about books this way, which means that I haven't read those sorts of books very much.

As couples go, I drift away from the perfect pair. Perfect and fated just don't hold my reading interest. The 'finally met his/her match' sort of couples don't interest me because those feel couples feel artificial to me. I like a great tangentialness to couples where you find yourself comparing apples to coffee machines. It's the exploration of the sheer differentnesses, and the unexpected synchronicities, that make a couple interesting to me.

I'll weasle the question by talking some of my favorites. I can't say that I have any absolute favorites.

'Norther Exposure' had a great couple in Joel and Maggie, with each character being irrepressibly themselves, and in that was all the conflict and confluence that you could ever need. Each could easily stand at the center of their own story, and if you put them together, they pretty much created their own plots around any issue.

For sheer twistedness, my favorite couple is Louis and Lestat from "Interview with the Vampire," although this comes in just ahead of almost anything written by Tanith Lee, who always stretched twistedness into some new, inconceivable direction. I'll give a shout out to the Lord and Lady MacBeth as well.

For sheer comedy value, I turn my head towards 'Guys and Dolls,' with Nathan Detroit's rocky relationship to Miss Adelaide standing front and center. They are the epitome of what makes a successful comedic couple. Not only do you want to like them, you see the trainwreck in living color. Lucy and Ricki do a mighty fine comedic job as well in 'I Love Lucy.'

For sweetness, I think of Charlie Chaplain, as he plays his lovestruck fool to his sweet leading lady, Edna Purviance.