Sporadic thoughts from an occasionally-creative geek

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A night in Hill Valley

What Secret Cinema promised for their latest event sounded far too good to be true: rebuild the town of Hill Valley, circa 1955, in a ‘secret’ London location and populate it with thousands of Back to the Future fans in 1950s cosplay for ‘immersive’ screenings of the film. But after attending Secret Hill Valley last week I can confirm that the organisers have not only listened to the words of George McFly but also proved them correct: if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.

Click here to reveal a spoiler-laden account and photos of my night in Hill Valley.

Confession of a Founder

Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned. I haven’t been in the Foundry in months.

In fact, aside from fixing up a few things in my missions that were broken by the launch of STO Season 7, I haven’t really been in the Foundry since I published The Mayns of Balnar Moon in May 2012.

There are two major reasons for this: one entirely boring, and the other rather more exciting. Well, exciting for me :)

The entirely boring reason is work – my job has kept me horrifically busy since last May, eating up my life and leaving me stressed, run-down and generally too tired to do anything creative in my evenings and rare days off. It is finally relenting, and so – at last – I’ve started to regain the energy and the enthusiasm required to write and think creatively.

And that’s where the rather more exciting reason comes in.

I’m attempting to turn the story of my STO Foundry mission City of the Polmar Ree into a novel, and all of my creative efforts for the foreseeable future are focussed there.

Pause. I’m waiting for you to go “Ooooh!”. No? Oh well then.

I’m calling this novel fan fic, because that’s what it is: it’s hijacking the Star Trek and Star Trek Online lore to tell a story not to sell, but just for the sheer love of telling stories set in that universe. And, if I’m honest, it’s also an experiment: I want to find out whether I actually can write a novel.

In common with a large proportion of the human race, I’ve always wanted to write a novel. I’ve always thought I could write one, providing a good enough idea came along. And so it did with my notion of the Polmar Ree, an ancient race who fled the galaxy eons ago and now live outside it, inviting every sentient species in the galaxy to visit them, all together, once every 216 years.

I’m lucky that the mission I created in STO about the encounter with the Polmar Ree in 2409 (the year of the Star Trek Online universe) has been incredibly popular; yet it has never been a particularly good mission. It was a product of the circumstances under which it was created – most of it was written during the months-long Foundry downtime following the launch of STO Season 4 in summer 2011. Without access to the Foundry, without being able to create objectives, and interacts, and maps, and encounters, I sat in a word processor for three months and created a behemoth of a story, dialog-driven and text-heavy. The resulting mission is not particularly interactive; the gameplay consists of talking to a lot of people and being told A LOT of well-written-and-highly-developed-stuff, then jumping down a turbolift shaft (guess when the map editor was switched back on?). All of this makes it a good story, and a bad mission. And maybe I should have been writing it as a book all along.

So: now’s the time to find out whether a reasonably good idea, a stock of self belief and a metric shit tonne of hard work are enough to turn an aspiration into an actual novel.

As old Jake Sisko said to a young girl who wanted to be a writer some day in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode The Visitor, “Sounds like you’re waiting for something to turn you into one.” Well, I’m done waiting.

I’ve written first drafts of a prologue and three-and-a-half chapters so far, and it’s taken months. Recently my pace has quickened as the demands of my job have slowed, and I’m planning to show my first drafts of the first few chapters to the world for some feedback in the next few weeks. I’ll publish them on the G&T Show forums, and see what the community makes of them. *zoinks*

Until then, it’s back to the word processor. And maybe a few penitent Hail Marys.

Deep Space Nine at 20

As impossible as it seems to those of us who watched the show from first broadcast, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine turns 20 years old today. And without doubt, it is still the show that means the most to me in the Star Trek franchise. In my unqualified opinion, Deep Space Nine is the best of the various series in terms of engrossing storytelling, compelling character development, risk-taking, and world-class acting.

Looking back to 1993 and the show’s pilot episode, Emissary, I remember watching the opening credits and intently trying to memorise the actors’ names, as I had done with Star Trek: The Next Generation; it felt like something a true Trekker should do. By the time we got to episode 15 and Kira set fire to an old man’s home to evict him from a moon for the greater good, I knew this show was going to be a very different type of Trek. TNG would have resolved that episode with talky scenes in the beige-carpeted conference lounge; DS9 resolved it by having one of our heroes burn the f*cker’s house down. From that moment on, I knew this show was going to give us very different types of stories, grittier characters, and bolder writing than its predecessors.

Deep Space Nine was the show that had the depth and substance to keep me watching and re-watching; the show that made me think and question; the show that made consequences matter; the show that challenged me with imperfect characters and their assorted strengths and flaws; the show that dealt with politics and war on an intergalactic scale; the show that dared to bring religion to the forefront of the Star Trek franchise; the show that took years, rather than episodes, to explore its themes; the show that allowed its captain to use biogenic weapons in a merciless vendetta against one of his former officers, and then dragged him believably through war, lying, cheating, covering the crimes of other men, and a nevous breakdown after the death of his best friend, to a messianic awakening and ultimately an altruistic suicide. Most personally significant of all, this is the show that made me want to write stories in the Star Trek universe.

It makes me feel old to realise that the show started 20 years ago, but looking back I think it’s the high watermark that any future Star Trek TV series should aspire to surpass. I was lucky enough to meet two of the show’s best writers, Ira Steven Behr and Ron D. Moore, this year, and it wasn’t with the usual star struck fan worship that I shook their hands; it was with the utmost respect and thanks for what they produced. They are writing heroes of mine, to be sure.

So here’s to DS9. I hope you’ll join me in raising a glass of kanar to the show, its creative staff and its fine actors, in awe of what they created and in heartfelt appreciation of it.

Here, in gratitude and celebration, are some reminders of what made Deep Space Nine great: powerhouse dialogue, heart-warming interpersonal relationships, moments of outright hilarious comedy, powerful character development and revelations, and epic political manoeuvrings.

Duet
Necessary Evil
Heart Of Stone
The Die Is Cast
The Visitor
Crossfire
The Ascent
Rapture
Behind The Lines
Far Beyond The Stars
In The Pale Moonlight
Shadows And Symbols
The Dogs Of War
What You Leave Behind

Star Trek Las Vegas 2012

STLV banner
The 2012 Star Trek Las Vegas convention has been and gone (or should that be Breen and Gorn?), and as my plane soars high over the Atlantic on the return journey to the UK I’m reminded of the words of Christopher Plummer’s Shakespeare-spouting Klingon from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Parting, as General Chang reminded us, is such sweet sorrow.

I emerged from STLV in a state of such happy and dazed serenity that I probably could have floated home without any mechanical assistance at all. But as I gaze out at the clouds through the icicle-covered window of the Boeing 747 I find that the 10-hour flight offers plenty of time for reflection. The sweetness and sorrow of this departure both stem from exactly the same source – the people and the friendships that made STLV 2012 one of the happiest experiences of my life. Spending time with the friends I made at this convention was a pleasure and an honour, and leaving them to go home is bringing tears to my eyes. While the convention itself was a maelstrom of celebrities and events, it was the people I shared those four days with that made me feel like I’d died and gone to the Divine Treasury.

Ben, me, Gingie and Cushmanzada

Ben, me, Gingie and Cushmanzada

As a life-long Trekker, the convention offered an unparalleled opportunity to become immersed in the world of Star Trek. The vendors room provided the chance to buy almost every Star Trek-related item you can think of, and it took every ounce of strength I had to resist purchasing the swoon-inducingly beautiful $1000 tricorder replica from the Roddenberry.com booth. The stars of the shows and movies – there were over 70 in attendance – not only appeared on stage but also walked around the convention halls and the hotel at large, and often chatted and shared drinks with the convention attendees. They’re real people, they’re nice people, and they embrace (rather than hide from) the fans. I won’t forget standing in the Starbucks line behind Walter Koenig or strolling through the casino with Klingon legends Robert O’Reilly & J.G. Hertzler.

But as a Star Trek Online player and Foundry author, meeting up with friends, Founders and fleet mates from the game was the real highlight of STLV for me. I may never forget the plentiful brushes with Star Trek celebrities, but I will also never forget the moment I opened my hotel room door to see SoriedemSTO, RogueEnterprise and PFDennis waiting in the hallway with big grins and a pizza box the size of a European country. Riding in a limousine to a drag queen-staffed bowling alley in downtown Las Vegas with Caspian Fleet’s finest, seeing WilV79 being doused with a bucket of ice cubes and freezing water, watching a Borg bukkake, and cruising up the Strip in the back of StarfleetMom’s car with a serviceman, a raccoon, four pitchers of Romulan Ale and Ben in a compromising position are also highlights that will make me smile for a long time to come.

The Founders are wiiiiise: Soriedem, RogueEnterprise, alimac30, Havraha, and DukeOfRock

The Founders are wiiiiise: Soriedem, RogueEnterprise, alimac30, Havraha, and DukeOfRock

You just can’t plan this kind of stuff. The evening the Founders took over the Rio’s iBar and re-named it ‘The Great Link’, and the moment DukeOfRock presented me with posters of my STO Foundry missions at the Trek Radio booth. Checking out hot guys in the Masquerade Bar with my Stonewall fleeties, borrowing a blow dryer from TerilynnS for the sake of Ben’s quiff, catching up with Bradley1701, talking TNG story pitches with AstroRobLA, and not recognising DoogieGood as a pink-skin after he spent three days dressed as an Andorian.

Ben, Doogie, Mark, and me

Ben, Doogie, Mark, and me

It was the impromptu, serendipitous and glorious moments, and the good friends they were shared with, that made the convention experience so enjoyable.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. Some dodgy food meant I spent a night in my room suffering the double with dribbles, and I managed to lose my treasured copy of the Deep Space Nine Companion with its many autographs – a crushing blow that almost ended the convention for me. But it was good friends who came to my rescue both times; in the first instance buying me some much-needed peptobismol, and in the second taking me for hot chocolate and an encounter with Ira Steven Behr, who signed a Spirits of Ramok Nor poster to make up for the lost DS9 Companion.

Me and Ira Steven Behr

Two great Star Trek writers united: alimac30 and Ira Steven Behr ;)

Above all else, and as amazing as the celebrity guests and official convention events were, it was the kindness and generosity of fellow fans and new-found friends that made the 10,000-mile round trip the experience of a lifetime. The people I met were so welcoming and accepting of one another, so immediately generous and unquestioningly helpful, so happy and grateful to share time, drinks and their love of Star Trek with everyone around them.

Star Trek brought us together, and its philosophy of embracing and rejoicing in diversity lived large in Las Vegas for four glorious days and beyond. I made friends that I now love dearly, and hope to see at conventions and other events again and again.

At the Trek Radio booth with posters for 'City of the Polmar Ree' and 'The Mayns of Balnar Moon'

At the Trek Radio booth with posters for City of the Polmar Ree and The Mayns of Balnar Moon

We may be going our separate ways for now, but Star Trek London and STLV 2013 are not far away. And in the meantime, we will take the Star Trek philosophy and the STLV magic out into the world and do our bit to make it a better place.

Live long and prosper, friends. To steal a little from Pericles, via the Deep Space Nine finale: what we leave behind is not what is carved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.

Ben, me, Terry, Wil and Bran

Ben, me, Terry, Wil and Bran

Deleted scene

Anyone who read my post entitled Rock bottom earlier this week will know that I had to re-write the final scene of The Mayns of Balnar Moon due to a bug that caused an NPC to spawn incorrectly on the final map.

Originally, the player would have visited Captain Paige in her office on ESD for a debriefing, and would have overheard her engaged in a call on her console as they approached. I was going to throw in a little reference to set the tongues wagging, but sadly I had to remove Paige from the map due to the spawning problem. In the re-written scene, the player has temporarily been assigned the office and it is Paige who calls on the console. Hence, the “overheard” dialog had to be scrapped.

For anybody who is curious, here’s what it would have been…

A dialog that had to be deleted from 'The Mayns of Balnar Moon' due to an NPC spawning bug

Make of that what you will ;)

The first few hours

The interesting, exhilarating, and – frankly – terrifying thing about publishing a new Foundry-made mission for Star Trek Online is that feedback can be received almost immediately.

Unlike publishing (or self-publishing) a new book, play or piece of art where reviews can take weeks or even months to appear, peer reviews of a Foundry mission in STO start to appear within hours of it being published.

And the news is not always good.

But, as the author of a mission, you hope that any feedback – be it positive or negative – will be constructive, respectful and, most of all, honest.

In the first few hours after publishing The Mayns of Balnar Moon, the mission was blasted with a series of 1-star ratings, left anonymously with no written feedback to accompany them.

The 1-star reviews arrived in such quick succession that it’s impossible for me to believe that the people responsible actually had time to play the mission and conclude that it genuinely deserved a 1-star rating.

So what was the motive? Was it a deliberate attack? Did somebody, or a group of people, want to sabotage the mission before it had the chance to get off the ground?

Is there really such ill feeling against player-created missions, or against particular Foundry authors? Does somebody out there have a grudge against me?

I tweeted about the reviews at the time, and it sparked an illuminating (but disturbing) conversation with some of the folks from the STO Foundry community.

The conversation speaks for itself, so I’m going to allow it to tell the story of the first few hours of my new mission’s life.

Twitter conversation

After a week, the average rating for The Mayns of Balnar Moon was still trying to recover from that initial spurt of 1-stars. Interestingly, however, it had not received a single additional 1-star rating since that initial burst – lending credence, perhaps, to the theory that it was an undeserved drive-by attack.

The default way that the journal in STO displays Foundry missions is to rank them in descending order by mean rating; this means that young missions with few ratings are highly susceptible to 1-star ratings, because each 1-star pulls the mean a long way down; this in turn pulls the mission a long way down the mission list. This can be the death toll for a mission that isn’t heavily publicised elsewhere, as any mission beyond the first few pages on the list is rarely seen and even less rarely played.

I’m lucky, because my name is well known in the STO Foundry community, my missions have been featured on many of the community podcasts, and this gives them a lot of buoyancy in the ‘Top rated’ list in-game.

But I’m worried for up-and-coming authors who are trying to get their missions recognised in the already-crowded UGC-mission market in STO. A 1-star attack like the one that plagued me (and apparently several other Foundry authors) could stop them in their tracks, and dissuade them from ever creating a Foundry mission again. That would be an absolute disaster.

I’m not sure what could be done about any of this, but it is something worth taking seriously.

The Foundry community is a powerfully creative and inventive force that continues to add incredible content to the game, and community groups such as Starbase UGC and the various STO podcasts continue to do great work in promoting Foundry-made content. Cryptic itself, through the hard work of Branflakes and others, is now pouring fantastic promotional support into the Foundry, and I can’t wait for the return of the Foundry spotlight later this week. But all of this will be in vain if new missions are targeted and sabotaged by a minority of players before they have had the chance to become established.

If there are one or more drive-by Foundry mission assassins lurking out there, they need to be handed the equivalent of a 1-star death sentence themselves and politely escorted to the nearest airlock…

I think I’ll leave the final word on this subject to the wonderful Capt.PFDennis and his timely guidance on the etiquette of reviewing Foundry missions:

Rock bottom

I’m a little late in posting this, but I wanted to document the last-minute difficulties I encountered when trying to publish The Mayns of Balnar Moon.

So: all of this took place a week ago…

Cryptic very swiftly released a patch for the bug that had stopped me publishing The Mayns of Balnar Moon as planned on 14th April, and for that I’m incredibly grateful. After some last-minute fiddling with several lines of character dialog, I clicked the publish button in the Foundry editor, and then – unable to tear myself away – I stared at the progress bar for the 23 minutes that it took for the process to complete.

Publishing...

Watching the publish progress bar is like watching a daredevil walk a high wire over Niagara Falls. You can’t bear to watch, and yet you’re transfixed, precisely because it could all go terribly wrong at any moment. This is the time when weeks (or in this case, months) of work could amount to nothing. This is the time when a mission that functions perfectly in the Foundry preview could suffer a terminal breakdown on the live server. And this is the time when the mission is jostled out of its private dressing room into the full glare of the reviewing spotlight.

Interestingly, the background audio of the first map in the project can be heard as the mission is publishing, something I’ve noticed before, so I was treated to the soothing sound of waves and tweeting seabirds as the publish bar crawled, stalled and jumped between 0 and 100%. I’ve often wondered whether the background audio thing is a bug, or was done intentionally to provide a calming soundtrack for jittery Foundry publishers ;)

Publish succeeded!

As the “Publish succeeded!” message appeared, I couldn’t quit the Foundry editor quickly enough. I needed to log into the live server and test the mission, quickly, before anybody else found it and 1-starred it to death for bugs I didn’t see coming.

Unfortunately for me… there was a bug I didn’t see coming. And I most certainly should have done.

The bug in question affects non-player characters (NPCs) set to spawn on top of a platform on a ground map; when the map is played, the NPC appears underneath the platform rather than on top of it. I’m not quite sure why this happens (perhaps because the NPC spawns milliseconds before the object appears during map loading, or simply spawns at Y=0 relative to terrain regardless of what has been set in the Foundry editor), but if the NPC is the target of a “Talk to Contact” objective, the player can be left with no way to reach it and an uncompletable mission.

This is exactly what happened to The Mayns of Balnar Moon.

Captain Paige is meant to be sitting in that chair!

Every single map in the mission is 100% custom built, and the final map is a bespoke interior for Earth Spacedock built over a ground map (“Beach Hills 01”). The player was supposed to talk to an NPC in her office, and in the Foundry preview this worked perfectly. Sadly, once the mission was published the NPC spawned on the terrain, hidden away 6m below the office floor.

With the floor taken away, Paige's fate became clear

The mission was broken, and rendered uncompletable on the final map.

I was heartbroken, and also furious. The bug has been known for almost a year, and I should have remembered that this would be an issue – but I didn’t. In the enthusiasm and fervour of building a complex map, I had completely forgotten that the NPCs were probably going to have problems.

I spent all my free hours last weekend (around chairing a three-day meeting for my day job) repeatedly withdrawing the mission, attempting fixes, and republishing. I tried every trick in the book and then some… I stacked objects underneath the platform, I spawned the NPC well after the map had loaded using a reach marker trigger, I replaced the NPC with a re-costumed spider, I replaced the contact with an actor from a Federation combat group and triggered her dialog on a reach marker, and I tore down the map and rebuilt it. Every single one of these approaches spawned the NPC correctly in the Foundry preview, but not after publishing to the live server.

I was desperate, I had a cathartic rant on Twitter, I gratefully received some suggestions from some prominent Foundry authors, and eventually… when all had failed… I gave up. I re-wrote the final scene and edited the map so that the NPC would not need to be present.

It’s awful when limitation stifles creativity, but nothing was going to stop me from publishing this mission after working on it for the best part of 5 months.

So, re-written final scene and all, The Mayns of Balnar Moon is finally available on the live server for all to play.

I should be celebrating, but to be honest I just feel utter relief.

Oh, and also terror. Because next come the reviews…

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