Talkin' bout heart beats.
The most recent addition to the network, Monster in My Podcast, has been a success. People seem to really dig it, even though it's a strange beast. On a network noteworthy for 3+ hour long episodes, it's almost vanishingly slight. It claims to be about D&D monsters, but it's mostly an improv comedy show about horrifying biology and adventure hooks. We've camped out in an antiquated book and system, even when tabletop gaming is more popular and vibrant, arguably, than it's ever been.
Now that the show has had time to settle and get its footing, I want to give a mid-mortem on its development and production. Monster in My Podcast (or as we call it, MIMP), is the first new show starring Gary and myself that has hit the network since early 2013, and the process of launching it has been informed by a lot of experience and mature systems. One huge caveat: This is only from my perspective. I haven't consulted with Gary, and he may have different feelings on this stuff. So take this with the usual grains of salt.
Dungeons and Dragons, and the Monster Manual, underpin a lot of what we do on the network. D&D is the cited influence of any kind of systems-based fantasy game, from Final Fantasy to Dark Souls, all of which crib aesthetically from Gygax's work. We both have a history of playing D&D, but anyone who has a history with tabletop role playing knows that the majority of a person's engagement with D&D is spent alone, propped up on a bed reading the source books, poring over tables, and reading the flavor text.
The topic of monster manuals has come up on our shows before, infrequently and in passing. It happens whenever we gush about an enemy design in Dark Souls on Bonfireside Chat. But the real origin of Monster in My Podcast happened late in the summer of 2015, when we were recording our episode on Doom 2. We hit the topic of Cacodemons, and both started gushing over their design and their resemblance to Beholders. This tangent evolved into a pitch for a possible show, a chronological entry-by-entry examination of the Monster Manuals. I have a strong recollection of hitting the end of that conversation, when we both said that it was a good idea, and dropping a marker. We had to edit that portion of the show out.
We'll normally let pitches for possible shows hit the air, because they're often fun jokes, and they're so implausible that it's hard to believe we'd ever get the chance to act on them. But this pitch felt different, because we could actually do it.
The topic laid dormant for a few months. At the Portland Retro Games Expo that year, we talked about doing it as a video show. I threw out the name "Today's Monster", which Gary didn't care for. We were originally going to do a short episode every day. Over time, as we became overwhelmed with other tasks, it slowly percolated in the background.
When my recent shift in employment occurred, we decided to round up all of our most promising show ideas and make them Patreon milestone goals. We settled on 3 days a week, MWF, as a more reasonable pace, because we could record a whole month's worth of episodes in about an hour. We decided on the 2nd Edition because the collected Monstrous Compendiums span the widest number of campaign settings. The possible names winnowed down to "Monster in My Podcast" and "Some Kind of Monster Manual". We know which one won. We published the goal, and we met it immediately.
We were so excited about the idea, that we recorded the first month of shows before we even knew the goal was in sight, just so we'd be ready to publish them right away.
Our initial plan was to record the episodes in huge batches, once a month. We'll still hold to that in some instances, but part of the beauty of doing a short show like this is that we can tack it on anywhere. We've done 6-episode bursts as warmup for other shows during the recent craziness of vacations and getting ready for our Austin live show. We know exactly the size and shape of this commitment, along with our others, and have designed the show to be as modular and "achievable" as possible.
To prepare for an episode, I read from the same text in two different sources. In the few days leading up to a recording session, I'll idly read my hard copy of the Monster Manual before bed, or when I need to rest my eyes from looking at a screen. But when it's time to refresh my memory and pick out the choicest bits, I'll read a PDF version of the MM that I got off the back of a truck. The nice thing about this is that Preview on Mac OS X gives you the ability to highlight text within image scans. If I hit a juicy nugget of monstrous biology, I'll make a note so I can remember to bring it up. This is what I have in front of me when we record, for quick reference so I can (hopefully) effortlessly keep the goof train going.
The process of recording MIMP is second only to Abject Suffering in terms of lightness and enjoyment. There's something great about the 5 minute time limit for motivating you to stay quick on your feet and always try to up the laugh density... or failing that, information density. Something I've been very pleased to see is that Gary and I have similar sensibilities. He will have honed in on the exact passage that I thought was the crux of the entry. We'll both pursue adventure hooks, or express similar bafflement at how anyone would fit certain creatures into their campaigns. It shouldn't surprise me that we're in sync after 5 years of being creative partners, but it feels great. The best MIMP episodes are a constant 5 minute acceleration toward a laugh line. And what's amazing is, we both know when it's happened. One of us will slam out something we're proud of, and the other will go "Okay, that's good." And we know it's done.
Editing the shows is pretty simple, too. As always, I'm liberal with markers, but the process usually entails finding the break after our standardized introduction, finding the ending, and cleaning up any awkward bits in between. The most difficult portion of the show is file and information management... Naming each file, bouncing it separately, putting together the "collected digest" of a week's shows for Early Release, and creating each individual post on the various websites we host the show on... All of that is the toughest part. Actually laying the tape down is almost effortless. And that's how I know the show is worth doing.
MIMP fills an important role on the network, just like Abject Suffering did. Most of our shows fit into a few different length categories. WOFF is 2+ hours. BSC and LVL are 1.5+ hours. AS, COM, and TDB are in the 30+ minute category. But I wanted to see what we could do with a super-frequent micro show. I'd say the experiment is a success. People like it, it's growing despite its relative lack of promotion, and it's a great first shot in this next wave of network expansion and growth.
A quick word on the art. The banner that you see above is the rough sketch of the Beholder that I drew a few weeks before the show debuted. My goal with this cover art was to use the simplest shapes I could to create a scene, and the Beholder I sketched on the white board was about the 6th or 7th simplification of the idea that I could find. The whole cover art is meant to evoke a "cut-out" style, right down to the various paper textures I used, to signal the fast and light tone of the show. I'm really proud of the art, and I'd love to get it on some merchandise soon.
Thanks for reading this, and I'm sorry I disappeared for a while. I have a dearth of inspiration for article topics. I had the idea for this article a while back, but I wanted to let the show mature to make sure it would stick around and, y'know, actually be good. The best thing you can do, if you liked this behind-the-scenes peek and you like Monster in My Podcast, is to tell your friends about it. We say that all the time, but this show is engineered to be as sharable as possible. So please go forth. Thank you so much for your support.
Kole here. This one might get a little emotional and over-share-y, so just a heads up. I've been open about a lot of stuff here, and this should be no different.
Five years ago, I had been unemployed for a year. It was the summer of 2011, and I was banging my useless Electronic Media degree against the double-bolted doors of the Cincinnati television and radio market. I was living in a tiny room in a firebox house off of the University of Cincinnati's campus, a house that I shared with four other people.
I was splitting my time between a crappy job at GameStop, and a very irregular "weekends and very early mornings" position at the Radio Reading Services of Cincinnati. I filled my days by completing job applications and running two podcasts. This coming May will mark the 5 year anniversary of Duckfeed as an entity. Around this time of the year 5 years ago, I was living on cheap beer and Ibuprofen, drunkenly playing Fallout: New Vegas and listening to the backlog of a podcast I found on SA called "Dead Idea Valhalla".
At that time, all I wanted was security. I felt worthless because nobody would even give me a chance at employment. The idea of a 40 hour a week job with benefits felt like a cruel joke by that point, and it would be another 6 months before I even caught wind of a good position.
But things turned around. I started a podcast with Gary called Watch Out for Fireballs!, and we caught some good, early success. That was September. By November, the day after my second unemployed birthday, I had accepted a position as a Producer at a small video marketing firm called Epipheo.
Around this time, my family criticized me for dedicating too much time to the podcast network, because it would never be a career. But now I had a career, something to help me move to a new (old) city and afford my own place. No longer living under my parents' roof, I could settle into a rhythm where I won my own bread during the day, and excitedly went home to grow my own business by night.
That arrangement continued for quite some time. For all of the time that you've known me, I've lived like this. I've changed position and weathered numerous restructurings and reorganizations, but I've always had some level of security that let me financially back the network... until it grew enough to support itself (it took us two years to turn any kind of profit, and I only started drawing my own money out of the network a year ago).
Just this past Monday, I received some bad news. My company needed to cut some costs. My current role as a Creative Consultant, moving from team to team, writing scripts, coming up with concepts, and solving problems was no longer necessary. But, they wanted to keep me around somewhat, because my skill in creating a large amount of content on a regular schedule was valuable for some new initiatives within the company. So I was spared the axe, and given the knife instead... Dropped down to 25 hours per week, with a commensurate drop in overall pay. Through some negotiation, I was able to talk my way into benefits like vacation time... but this is still a big change in my life.
But here's the thing. I should be anxious about this. I am not. I'm sad and bummed, and my self esteem has taken a hit, but that's nothing new. Fact is: This is exactly the kind of arrangement I would have asked for if the network had grown a little bit more. Things are just happening out of order... and it's providing a lot of motivation to double down on the network.
Astute listeners will have noticed a huge swath of new Patreon goals that dropped this week. Putting two and two together will probably make you think I'm panicking and trying to shake loose change out of you all like a bully looking for lunch money. The fact of the matter is, all of those new shows have been in the works for ages. Some of them even have pilot episodes ready to launch. They're concepts we've goofed about, and been genuinely interested in creating for years.
But I dragged my feet because I didn't know, personally, when any of it would fit in my life. I was content and complacent. I didn't know how to value my time above and beyond my already more than adequate salary. But my company just kicked me ass-backward into a place where I will have two extra days per week to dedicate to network business, and into a place where I need to be hungry and motivated to grow. They've kicked me to water with a small lifeline, and now I know that I have to expand the network so that myself, Gary, and the others can pay as much attention to our content and our listeners as they deserve.
The water has been upset. Some water has been taken out, and more water is slowly trickling in, and the surface is choppy. But I know that water will find its level. I can only thank everyone reading this for their generosity. It'll never be completely comfortable asking for money, but I'm far less comfortable selling ads against our content. I don't want to lie to you about how much I like peanut butter Nom Noms, I want to be honest with you about the arrangement I've proposed: You work very hard at real jobs that create value for real people. I'm asking for a slice of that hard-earned income to cobble together my own independence.
Enough of you have done that so far that I'm not freaking out. Even a year ago, this would be a catastrophic blow. It would have disrupted the release schedule of our shows. I'm a homebody. I seek security and comfort. Your staggering support has lent me the resolve to not be staggered, but to be galvanized. I need to do more. I need to work with the team here at Duckfeed to make our shelved concepts a reality.
My attitude might change in a week, a month, or even a year. I may see the reality of this freelance, cobbled-together life and run screaming for cover. But right now, even though it's raining, I'm going for a walk.
Hello, this is Kole.
Book reports paralyzed me when I was in school. I hated reading for assignment. I would have much rather have spent my time thumbing through shitty fantasy and sci-fi novels. The act of reading didn't bother me, but the act of reading mindfully did.
The worst part was sitting down at the end of the experience and trying to organize my thoughts. How much detail should I go into? What happened when? How did that quote go? The index cards came out, and I did what amounted to reading the book over again, trying to piece something coherent together. Something that, ultimately, would be more detailed and thorough than it had to be. Middle and high school teachers aren't looking for much more than broad strokes.
This is probably why I fixate on my note taking process so much in these blogs. The most consistent compliments we get from our fans regard the thoroughness of our approach and critique. I can't take credit for all of that, but I take pride in creating the outlines we work from. I've streamlined the note creation process a great deal, even since I started writing these entries. For example, I don't use notebooks for show notes that much anymore. No, I write them directly into my laptop if I can. Transcription just takes way too much time.
But this approach was thwarted by the recent season of Bonfireside Chat when we started branching out into looking at books and short stories (particularly, those of H.P. Lovecraft). The idea of reading a book at my desk and stopping to take copious notes as I read is revolting. I like to read in bed, or on the couch. It's an act that requires a lot of physical and mental comfort for me to be in a receptive state.
So the question is, how should I go about leaving a breadcrumb trail of thoughts and ideas to retrace so I can create a show outline that's as useful as the ones I make for games and movies? That's the purpose of this article, but it turns out that it's very simple. Almost idiotic. The kind of "hack" that augments common sense with technology. So I've added a bonus at the end.
Turns out that Kindles are your friend when you're trying to take notes on long passages. Other e-readers might offer similar tool sets, but the Kindle has a leg up which I will explain.
I picked up a Kindle Paperwhite on sale last fall, and it's been a great friend (much better than the already great Kindle 3 I used to have). This is the model that usually runs about $120, and features only a touch screen and an on/off button. Also, it's back lit... and that's cool. You could also use the Kindle app on another tablet, but I enjoy the e-ink display... especially before bed.
As I read, I try and pay attention for passages that match one of two criteria:
- Does this snippet provide valuable information about the action, characters, dialogue, or plot... especially the order in which things happen?
- Does this snippet contain a turn of phrase, a detail, or other nugget that I know I'll want to bring up in conversation... even if it doesn't move the conversation forward?
If something sticks out as matching one of these two criteria, I highlight it. You accomplish this on a touch screen Kindle by dragging a highlight box along the text... an act that's altogether way too finicky for my taste, but it gets the job done.
That's right: I highlight what I would otherwise highlight if I was reading something on paper. But there's a little bit more to it.
When it comes time to review my notes, I want to do so at my computer... with a full keyboard... so I can compose my outline as I go. This is why I like the Kindle, because it has the Kindle Cloud reader. I pull open the book in my web browser, and this is the screen I see.
The Cloud Reader will present you with a complete list of your annotations (note: I don't use the note-taking feature on the Kindle because typing on that screen is a nightmare). You can click on these list items to navigate directly to particular snippets.
Combining this list view with good ol' fashioned skimming back over sections or chapters, I compose my outline on the fly. Then I go back through and eliminate unnecessary details, make sure the formatting is good, and then I publish the outline so we can record the show.
I got self-conscious about this entry about halfway through writing it, because I feel like it's pretty basic stuff. But I can't imagine trying to do this in a more analog way. This particular setup lets me unconsciously compose my outlines on the fly without breaking my stride. It doesn't pull me out of the act of reading, and I can enjoy the story on a higher level... leaving it to Future Kole to fixate on the details.
Branching out into other forms of media has been very rewarding. We've gotten a lot of mileage out of video game coverage. It's a medium I'm passionate about, and it's drawn in some passionate fans. We're never going to stop talking about games. But the idea of applying our approach to different narrative forms is very, very tempting. And being the kind of person I am, it's comforting to develop systems to make that kind of adventure easier, and more possible.
I promised an extra gift, so here's the complete show outline from our H.P. Lovecraft special of Bonfireside Chat from last fall. Thanks for reading!
- Information about who HP Lovecraft is.
- What kind of stories did he write?
What's his mark on modern literature and storytelling?
Before each story: What's the history of this story?
- After each story: How does this relate to Bloodborne and Souls?
- Has this influenced anything else we're interested in?
From Beyond (Written 1920, Published 1934)
- Begins with the narrator talking about his friend, Crawfort Tillinghast, and his misguided pursuit of science. If you fail, you get depressed. If you succeed, you go mad. The narrator doesn't support his friend.
- The narrator recalls a ranting of Tillhinghast's, talking about how we as humans are limited by five feeble senses. His research aims to activate vestigial sense organs and improve our insight into the world around us. "What do cats and dogs start at?"
- A letter summons the narrator to Tillinghast's house... Where he finds his friend emaciated and yellowed. He won't turn the lights on.
- He explains his discovery: By awakening the pineal gland you can see the reality that overlaps with our own. (Pineal gland actually regulates sleep... Descartes referred to it as the principal seat of the soul, and the third eye).
- Narrator sees horrible, jellyfish-like beings... he alternates between a grand, giant tomb and a yawning black void. Tillinghast tells him to stay still, because the beasts can see us when we can see them.
- Narrator pulls out his Chekhov's Gun in fright.
- Tillinghast tells a story about some house servants who accidentally turned on a light, and were warped out of their clothes into the other world by the resonance.
- The overlap becomes too great, and Tillinghast delights at torturing his unsupportive friend, and raves about finally being able to see beyond the veil. He says a beast is ready to attack... The narrator fires his gun.
- The police investigate. The narrator doesn't reveal much, but the bullet only deactivated the machine. Tillinghast died of a stroke (apoplexy).
- The narrator can no longer take any peace, because he knows his clean air and clear skies are polluted by these unseen and unfelt forces.
CALL OF CTHULHU (Written 1926, Published 1928)
- Famous opening. The kindness that we cannot correlate all the world's contents, and how he doesn't intend to contribute to doing so.
- Narrator is called to Providence to attend to a dead relative's affairs, grand-uncle George Gammel Angell... and finds a box with a bas relief and a manuscript about the occult.
- The bas relief was brought to the professor by an odd, "psychically hypersensitive" boy. Wilcox. "Dreams are older than brooding Tyre, or the contemplative sphynx, or the garden-girdled Babylon."
- Notes tell of Wilcox falling into a delusional state for several weeks, which was a "proper fever".
- Angell polled his correspondence: Differing levels of sensitivity depending on profession. Clippings indicate tons of strange events around the world in this time.
- The story then moves to Inspector Legrasse, who brought a Cthulhu idol to an Archaeologist conference. He tells a story of raiding a voodoo cult that was sacrificing people to the idol... He offers a chant, which lines up with an archaeologist's account of an Eskimo tribe that was doing something very similar in Greenland.
- People of mixed race are more likely to be cultists I guess?
- Legrasse interviewed a local named Old Castro who knows about the cult... Tells of the Old Ones who came to earth, and their bodies still lie hidden. Cthulhu is both dead and asleep at the same time, in the city of R'lyeh.
- The city has sunk beneath the waves, but when the stars are right the city will rise, and the buffer stopping Cthulhu's psychic attack will go away.
- There's a cult of people worshipping the old ones, and working hard to suppress anyone outside their ranks who has knowledge of their ways.
- Narrator accidentally sees a newspaper clipping from Australia, detailing an excursion onto a "new" island, and the fates of the men who were on the ship. Ventures to New Zealand, where the captain of that ship, Johansen, has died of mysterious circumstances.
- His diary details the encounter with Ryl'yeh and Cthulhu. His ship was caught in the earthquake, and overtaken by a ship filled with cultists.
- Landing on the rock, describing its otherworldly properties. (Massive staircases, geometry that changed at each glance). Our assumptions no longer hold true.
- They found a massive door into the ground, with an image of Cthulhu carved into it. Cthulhu himself emerged after a cloud of darkness. 2 of the 6 men who died, died of fright. In the flight, one sailor was swallowed up by an angle that was acute, but behaved as if it was obtuse.
- "The stars were right again, and what an age-old cult had failed to do by design, a band of innocent sailors had done by accident. After vigintillions of years great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight."
- Johansen makes his way onto the ship, and attempts to flee, but Cthulhu follows. Then rams his ship into Cthulhu, and breaks him apart temporarily before he reforms.
- Johansen is plagued by horrible dreams and the chattering of the Old Ones for the rest of his short life. He dies in a similar manner to Angell.
- The island has sunk, and it can only be assumed that Cthulhu is alive and dreaming again.
- The author fears for his life, and wishes that the executors of his estate destroy the manuscript before it reaches a broader audience. Whoops!
The Colour Out of Space (Written and Published 1927)
- The main character is called out to survey for a reservoir west of Arkham, but discovers that the region contains the "blasted heath." Nobody wants to talk about the heath, or the "strange days", except for a hermit named Ammi. Hearing the story makes the main character quit his job and swear never to drink the water in Arkham.
- Flashback to 40 years ago, in a tale told by Ammi. A meteor fell, and wouldn't cool. The citizens did a number of tests on it, ultimately finding it riddled with hollow shells.
- The pieces of the rock slowly disappeared, especially when in contact with silica (i.e. glass)
- The incident brought some fame to Arkham, and the harvest appeared to be great... but all of the fruit around the meteor was big and bitter, making people sick. The animals started acting strange during the winter.
- Snow melts faster around the meteor, and all kinds of grass and plants grew abnormally large around the thawed woods. The entire farm started blooming in strange, alien colors. The trees moved even without wind. Everything started to glow.
- Mrs. Gardner started going mad, talking about unseen things draining something for her. They locked her in the attic until she took to all fours, and started glowing.
- All vegetation lost its color, and turned grey and brittle.
- The water went bad, but the whole family was used to it by now. "drinking it listlessly and mechanically".
- A son, Thaddeus, went mad, talking about the colours in the well... So he was locked in the attic too. Thaddeus died like the chickens did.
- The chickens turned grey and dry, the hogs fattened up so much the meat was useless.
- The youngest son, Merwin, could only stare and obey... until he disappeared going for water.
- Ammi goes to visit Nahum, who is bedridden in the kitchen... calling orders to Zenas, who wasn't there. "He lives in the well".
- Ammi goes up to see Mrs. Gardner, and in the attic room he sees only a shriveled monstrosity in the corner, emanating the same colored mist as the meteorite. It's implied that Ammi killed Mrs. Gardner to put her out of her misery.
- Heading back down, the entire house had changed, overwhelmed by the presence. He hears suction noises. Nahum is transformed. Brittle, gray, dry... A parody of a face. He describes what it was, and explains how the corrupting force of the meteor took his family. Dialect.
- The authorities come out and examine the well. It contains bones of the family, and a muck of indeterminate depth.
- The well started to glow as the trees threw fits. "the watchers saw wriggling at that tree top height a thousand tiny points of faint and unhallowed radiance." "It was a monstrous constellation of unnatural light, like a glutted swarm of corpse-fed fireflies dancing hellish sarabands over an accursed marsh, and its color was that same nameless intrusion which Ammi had come to recognize and dread."
- Only foreigners would live in the region after that. "They could not stay, though; and one wonders what insight beyond ours their wild, weird stories of whispered magic have given them."
- The country folk say the blight creeps an inch a year, and the narrator worries that Ammi has been touched by the colour.
- "It came from beyond, whar things ain't like they be here -- now it's goin' home."
- The glow inside the house became stronger. The group decided to flee. The house was consumed by the light as whatever was in the well shot upwards through the clouds.
- Ammi got the worst of the psychological effects.
There's a universal rule in this world: If the right thing to do isn't easy to do, you won't do it. That's part of why I fixate on workflow and setup so much... I put a lot of thought into the way things are arranged so I can expend as little effort as possible while doing the work that fulfills me.
Case in point, I did a little streaming experiment this weekend. I wanted to prepare for the Silent Hill 3 episode of Watch Out for Fireballs! by playing SH1, and I also wanted to create a self-contained document for anyone who wanted to know the story of SH1 without playing the game for themselves. Streaming makes a lot of sense for that.
Putting aside my misgivings about performance anxiety... I suck at games, and I have no idea what I should say on mic while I'm playing them... one of the biggest hurdles I face while streaming is the setup process. Arranging things for Duckstream each year is a huge hassle... Moving my computer, setting up a tripod, setting up a mic stand... It's not something I want to do each time I record, and it's definitely not something I want dominating my living room.
Why don't I move my console into my office and plug everything in at my desk? Fuck you. I want to sit in my comfy recliner.
So I spent the last few months arranging things, slowly, to make streaming as easy as possible. And I'm here to share photos and details.
Something you should know about my apartment: The primary spaces in play for gaming are my office (a converted dining room where I keep my recording setup) and my living room (a large room at the front of the house). They conjoin, but there's a lot of distance you'd need to cover if you were laying out cable to connect them. So that's what I did.
Here's what I see when I stream...
And here's the setup from another perspective.
I have my Macbook Pro sitting on a cheapo laptop stand next to my comfy recliner, my preferred perch for playing games. From the Macbook, I can remote view to my Windows PC (which handles all of the streaming) to start or stop the broadcast, and also keep an eye on chat/Slack. This laptop doesn't have anything else to do with the signal chain for getting audio/video out to viewers.
The microphone that I use for commentary is my old Heil PR-40, which I refuse to sell because it's a damn fine microphone. It's attached to a cheapo Onstage mic stand I've owned for about 10 years... it works great becaue its boom can reach over the laptop. Where does the microphone go?
Let's move up to the entertainment center, where I keep all of the cords. I need to nestle all of this stuff into a hiding place, because I hate looking at wires, but this shows you what's up. The mic is plugged into my old M-Audio Fast Track Pro via a very long XLR cable, and this audio interface is plugged into a USB hub. Also plugged into this USB hub: My Elgato Game Capture HD, the box I use to capture console video.
This hub needs to connect to the streaming PC somehow... and so does the network cable that leads to the network switch that powers all of my consoles. So I got my hands on a 50ft USB extender, and a 50ft network cable. Overkill, yeah, but it's better to have too much cable instead of too little.
I assure you, my carpet is a tasteful muted Yoohoo brown, and not orange like this photo makes it look.
Running this cable is a challenge, because I can't really drill any holes. I rent. So I went to Home Depot and bought some flat cable concealer conduit so I could run these two cables (and probably an HDMI cable soon) across the 5 foot wide archway that connects my office and living room. I should probably double-sided tape this down, but it's only a tripping hazard near the edges.
All of these cables run along the wall, and around some furniture so they remain concealed, until they reach my main office desk... under which my Windows PC is housed.
And that's the infrastructure I put into place for streaming. The real acquisitions:
- 50ft Network Cable ($20)
- 50ft USB Cable ($20)
- Flat Floor Conduit ($10).
I had the microphone, USB hub, audio interface, and capture card around from previous ventures. But the upshot is great: Whenever I want to stream now, all I need to do is move the microphone stand into place, put my laptop on the recliner-side laptop stand, and fire things up. It's plug and play, in the best way possible, and it requires next to no fiddling around.
I don't have a great solution for streaming stuff from the desktop, but that's a far less challenging problem to solve than adapting your living space into an easy streaming setup, without having cables and dinguses dominate your everyday waking world.
Let me know if this was helpful. I'll continue to do do streams as time allows... and I appreciate everyone who tuned in to http://twitch.tv/duckfeedtv to help me troubleshoot things. You're the best!
This entry is going to start out weird, get sappy, and then turn practical. It concerns something that has been a big part of my life, and this network, for some time now. The community. I'm not writing this to wave my hands at the paradegoers as my convertible passes by, but rather to try and fix some of my thoughts and celebrate the fact that I've moved away from the center of this thing I helped build.
I back a few other Patreons. Mostly it's a way to show support for shows I like, but it's also shown me what life is like on the other side of the creator/consumer divide. One of the campaigns I back is run by the 5by5.tv podcast network. A lot of the shows I used to like on the network have since left, but it continues to give me shows like Back to Work, Road Work, and The Podcast Method. It's worth a couple of bucks just for that.
But I was more intrigued when I found out, by some twist of parallel evolution, that they had also started opening up access to a community Slack channel around the time that we started doing the very same thing. I was curious... What's happening on the inside at a podcast network that's much more popular and successful than my own?
They have a channel for the aforementioned Podcast Method show that ostensibly is a place for podcasters to talk, share stories, and help each other out. But here's the thing: Nobody on this Slack talks to each other. They come in, ask questions directly to the hosts, and then bow back out. In attempting to participate and share more, I felt sorely out of place... like the overeager student who sits at the front of the class and answers the teacher's every question (make no mistake, I was totally that kid in high school).
This is crazy, I thought. Here we have a network so successful that it sustains a handful of full time podcasters. They have an order of magnitude more Twitter followers than we do. There are lines of communication and listener participation, but they run solely between the hosts and the listeners, not between the listeners as well.
But the community isn't part of their product.
Understand that I say it that way only because it's the most efficient way to express the thought. It feels gross and business-y. But somewhere along the line, I'm not sure when, we started making choices that made you guys a central part of the Duckfeed experience.
I spend enough of my days talking about things like "communities" and "marketplaces" and things like that are normally buzz words used by marketing hucksters trying to engineer an artificial way to boost numbers. Open up some forums, allow user reviews, discuss it in the comments... All of these are tied to Key Performance Indicators in some way. It's a sham.
When I talk about community, I'm referring to a culture of helpfulness and inclusiveness where people who have one thing in common (knowing our names) talk with each other and help each other out, without anyone from Duckfeed being involved.
The biggest and most helpful example of this is our Slack channel. You could perceive it as a Cool Kids Club, or a walled garden we hide in to hear nice things about us. But that's a vanishingly small portion of what happens there. And your club can't be very cool if the cover charge is $2.
No, what happens there is that people greet each other enthusiastically when they join channels. They greet each other enthusiastically when they pop in first thing in the morning. They help each other out, organize co-op sessions, and share game keys with each other. This happens regardless of whether or not Gary or I are watching. Put crassly, it's a turnkey delight operation.
Even before we had the Slack, we had (and still have) our Facebook groups where community members like Jeremy, Allison, Jala, and others stepped up to share cool stuff and generally raise the tone of the conversation.
Or, if you want a non-online version, any time we've held meetups, everyone gets along with each other. Myself, Gary, Brayton, Nick, we can filter throughout the room, but everyone seems to enjoy each others' company.
At a certain point over the past year, I realized that the community is one of the best parts about what we make. We can continue to churn out shows, improve our craft, and develop new ideas into finished works... but pound for pound, the community that surrounds us has created far more actual human value than we ever have. You outnumber us in the best possible way.
Pause a moment and consider that. Minus a few awkward interactions and unpleasant conversations, we fell ass-backwards into what feels like one of the more positive and constructive place on the internet.
I can't speak to how we pulled this off. In general, we value smaller numbers of more "dedicated" (or -- "involved") listeners over larger numbers of less engaged listeners. In doing so, we've strived since the beginning to make the kinds of shows we like to listen to, or reflect ourselves the most accurately, and it follows that doing so will attract like-minded people. We've been good about providing a venue for listeners to talk with each other, and providing a bare minimum of ground rules so everyone knows what to expect from each other.
That's all I can say.
The practical upshot is that when someone decides to listen to our shows or contribute, they'll find a place that's welcoming. And this will draw them in closer. And that will probably make them more likely to tell more friends, or donate, or whatever.
The emotional upshot is that I can sign in to Slack, or check our Facebook pages, or read comments on the Patreon posts that feel like a warm breeze at my back. It helps drive me forward and makes me feel good that people can be so generous, kind, and funny.
I don't have any more Tips 'n' Takeaways for anyone who is making their own thing and wants to share in similar successes. Like everything we do, it's just been a gradual accumulation of good things and minor successes over time. And that's cool.
It's good to be polite. Can't argue with that. It wouldn't be polite.
But there are times when it interferes with recording. And we can't have that.
When I interrupt someone, I feel terrible about it, because I hate being interrupted before I can finish a thought. So I'll be deferential, raise my hand to my mouth, and say "no, you go." Then they'll say the magic, destructive words that restart their thought...
"I was just gonna say."
Listen for it. You'll notice how much it happens. And if you've ever had to edit a podcast, it will drive you mad.
We record all of our shows over Skype. This introduces lag and delay, yes, but it also removes the visual element of conversation. You can't read people's motions while they're talking to see how close they are to a pause, and they can't see you taking a breath to start your point. Without that visual element, train wrecks are bound to happen.
There are two main ways to get around this when you're podcasting remotely:
Get more gun-shy about cutting in with your points. Things just don't move fast enough for you to fire off your point right when it occurs to you. Focus on listening to another speaker while you formulate your thought, so it's ready to go.
Podcast with the same people for a really, really long time, so you can learn their rhythms.
Even still, train wrecks are bound to happen. But that's okay. You can edit it out.
Unless you begin your thought with "I was just gonna say..."
My tip for anyone going into conversational broadcast is to nix this from your vocabulary, because even if the producer can edit out the interruption, they can't edit out the traces of the interruption if you start your thought with this infernal apology. Nobody naturally begins a thought with "I was just gonna say." "I was just gonna say, pizza is cool" isn't a real sentence. But that's what will come out of your mouth in the final edit.
If a trainwreck happens, pause, recognize it, and pause again. Then decide who will continue speaking... Then pick up with your thoughts as if nothing at all happened. If the podcast you're on is one where they edit with markers, the producer will have already made a note of it, and it will edit out smooth.
So, the moral is, you weren't "just gonna say." You just say.
At the risk of sounding like a cloud computing commercial (which lord knows I don't want to do), everything we do at the network generates a lot of data. I've spoken before about the ways that we gather listener and download data, but I'd like to follow up on my previous article by talking about Abject Suffering... and the massive number of suggestions we have.
This will be a quick article, but here's how the numbers break down for our Suggestion Database as of 1/1/2016.
There are 789 games in the database right now. That means when we roll up a new episode, your suggestion has a about a 0.1% chance of coming up (but that's still a chance!).
However, that's not the total number of suggestions we've gotten. No, that clocks in at 921 total suggestions.
Why the disparity? Some games are suggested more than once. In fact, here's how that breaks down.
- 95 games have been suggested twice.
- 30 games have been suggested three times.
- 6 games have been suggested four times.
- 1 game has been suggested five times (That game? "The You Testament").
Note: If those numbers don't add up, it's because each category is exclusive... for example, The You Testament isn't included in the previous three totals.
Those games come from 284 suggestors, which means about 1/6 of the people who currently listen to Abject Suffering have suggested a game for it, and the average suggestions-per-suggestor is 3.24.
Who are the top 5 most prolific suggestors? Keen listeners (and crabby iTunes reviewers) won't be surprised.
- Sam Bair - 110
- ARCHIVE LOVER - 49
- Super Boy Alan - 38
- Tim H - 35
Note: This doesn't include episodes that have already aired... Just ones that are sitting in the hopper.*
Interested to know which systems are most commonly requested? This might also fail to shock you.
- NES - 143
- PC - 138
- SNES - 96
- DOS - 82
- PSX - 74
This is out of 41 systems. What are the least popular systems for suggestions? The Lynx, PSN, Intellivision, and Odyssey 2 are all platforms that only have one game suggested for them.
Note: Suggested games can count for multiple systems. All of the systems that a multiplatform game was released on have been accounted for.
I think that's all of the interesting data from the Abject Suffering suggestion mine. Of course, this is likely to change daily... but don't expect me to update this entry. Consider it a snapshot.
Also, this isn't a paid spot or anything, but Airtable.com is a crazy nice database service, and I'm in the process of porting most of my spreadsheets over from Google Docs to it. If I find any other interesting numbers or patterns, would you be curious to see them?
Who's this shithead who thinks he can fix JRPGS? Who asked him? Doesn't he love Dark Souls? That's Japanese and an RPG. Nyah nyah!
Ok, with that out of the way, let's talk. I've been thinking about JRPGs again! There's a Final Fantasy 7 remake that has eschewed typical JRPG combat! I played and disliked Undertale! We have this wonderful Slack channel where I have smart people to talk about games with. Probably because of The Undertale Incident, JRPGs have been the topic of discussion.
And before I get into what would make a JRPG work for me now, I want to dispose with the pedant strawman from the beginning of blog entry. When discussing JRPGs, here are the hallmarks I'm referring to. Also, there are clearly exceptions that I plan to talk about, so hold your questions for the end.
- Turn based combat where the combatants look at each other and punch each other. You generally just choose an action and your character performs it with no further input from the player.
- A significant volume of encounters with weaker enemies. This gives you EXP that are used to empower your characters. You know, a bunch of slimes you have to kill. Note, for my purposes, it doesn't matter if these encounters are visible on the field or not. Earthbound and Chrono Trigger, I'm looking at you.
- A story that is "epic" in scope. Plucky youngers saving the world from some super powerful single being.
Ok. I talked about why the first and second part sucked in my first entry. To recap though:
1) The choices you make in most JRPG encounters lack meaningful engagement or consequence. You're not engaged (there is very little complexity to what you're doing and the play doesn't express anything thematically or any interesting ideas ludically, in many cases) and you're not rewarded with meaingful consequence. If you defend rather than attack, what happens? Nothing. You won't remember that encounter at the end of the game. It's literally filler.
2) The volume of this. The above wouldn't be a big deal if you didn't spend most of the game doing it. The sheer volume of non consequential, non engaging decisions you make is wasteful and disrespectful to the player's time. Though games like Chrono Trigger and Earthbound try to skirt this by making encounters appear on the screen, the end result doesn't matter. Yes, you can see the enemies coming but you're still going to spend most of the game doing bullshit.
3) This is harder to quantify and I didn't mention it in the last entry but the writing in most JRPGs is malarky, specifically in classic entries. Sometimes it's charming, sometimes it's surprisingly thematically sound, but the sheer amount of words spilled to no end, the clunky dialogue, the last minute 2 dimensional antagonists, this is bad writing.
Ok, now that I've defined, in a limited sense, my problem with this genre, let's talk about the fix and exceptions. I recommend if you're interested in my hot takes on this stuff, to read the last entry too.
I don't think these design decisions were made for no reason. I know that I found the very idea of decision and text based combat really enchanting when I was young. And there are arguments for these elements. The arguments don't stand up for me, but here they are, as far as I can tell. I've included my response below.
1) Non demanding combat is necessary for contrast. Having low impact, relaxing encounters creates contrast with more tactical boss fights. In Mario, you wouldn't want all your encounters to be with hammer brothers, would you? No, you need some easy Goombas every once in a while. Besides, having this much quiet time is calm and medatative.
If you find tapping attack over and over to be calming, that's great and I wouldn't take that away from you if I could. I personally want to play a game when I sit down to play a game. I don't want something to do with my hands while I listen to podcasts and if I do, I'll play Dark Souls or Isaac.
The Mario example (which no one made, btw) presents a fundamental misunderstanding of Mario design. Think about how Goombas are used. Yes, they're an easy enemy but after the first few encounters, they're constantly recontextualized through arrangement and terrain. Mario gets harder after you master it. The JRPGs I'm talking about don't. Numbers go up, but they do on both sides of the equation, so instead of 2>1 in the early game, we're looking at 10>9 in the late.
2) The amount of encounters create a certain world feel and present a hardship that your characters have overcome. There's danger everywhere! And look at all the monsters you had to slay to get to Zorbungus, The Nebula Drinker!
*It's not dangerous! If the idea is to make the world seem hostile and dangerous, the ease of the encounters subvert that. There are some exceptions where this actually works but for the most part, it just makes the game worlds seem tedius. *
And what is proven by the hundreds of animals you killed on your way to Zorbungus? It feels longer, yes, but not cooler. You spent more time killing things and racked up a body count, sure, but it wasn't adversity. The adversity comes from the bosses, which, generally, I have no problem with.
3) These stories are meant to appeal to the monomyth! They're classic stories featuring archetypes. They're easy to understand and appeal to the kid in us!
*The kid in me is dead. I've been thinking lately about how I no longer seek out media that makes me feel like a kid. I was thinking about it in relation to Undertale at first but it extends to Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy too.
Typical JRPG plots (I'm not including Undertale in this) tend towards storytelling that is both simplistic and needlessly complex. I don't have much patience for that. And when the macro plots are actually sort of interesting (Chrono Trigger, for example), there's a lot of lifeless dialogue and flat characters you have to get through on your way there.
I'm going to combine the "What I'd like to see" and "Exceptions" section, because what I'd like to see are more exceptions. Before I get to that, though, I want to talk about how half measures.
There's a movement towards literally spackling over this feature of the genre and games are often praised for this. The big example I can think of is Bravely Default but it comes up in other games too (specifically the Zeboyd JRPGs, which I like). Bravely Default's solution to this issue was to allow it to go by much faster but didn't do anything to increase engagement. Random Battles in Bravely Default happen too often and they're really boring. They're quick though!
Yes, you can turn them off, but that's damning too. What does it say about a core mechanic that there's an option to literally turn it off? Where is the confidence in that? How am I supposed to think this is a good gameplay feature if the developers don't?
Zeboyd limits the number of encounters an area but, despite their efforts towards engagement, the time until you run out of enemies is still boring. It feels like the developer apologizing for a genre staple rather than omitting it or designing away from it.
Undertale, which I've talked about more than I ever thought I would, gives the option of just doing something else instead of engaging with enemies in turn/menu based combat. I had a lot of problems with the execution here (it felt impenetrable if you weren't apt at bullet hell shooters), but again, what does it say about a mechanic when you can just replace it?
So, what's to be done? What are some options for fixing this shit up? You have to engage me, JRPGs. I dont' want to spend 70% of a game just tapping one button. Non interactive, consequence free parts of your game should be kept to a minimum. They should certainly be the exception, not the rule. How to increase engagement:
Difficulty I haven't played all of them but I really like what the Persona games do with random battles and the reason is that they're tough. If a random battle can kill you, it has consequence. Persona enemies are tough but the player is armed with a huge toolbox of status effects and debuffs to get around this.
It's not perfect, though, as you still spend entirely too much fucking time doing it. Persona with about half the encounter rate might work.
A better example, in my mind, is Darkest Dungeon, a game that I want to do a full write up on at some point, because I think the way its mechanics interact are really elegant. Darkest Dungeon is super tough but more importantly, it contains...
Consistant Tactical Considerations In Darkest Dungeon, character placement means so much. You have to really think about where you put each character to compliment their ability and equipment loadout and the enemies you're likely to face. Further, in any given delve, you're likely to have ten for fewer encounters. Darkest Dungeon is one of my favorite JRPGs.
Another example, though it's a cheat, is Final Fantasy Tactics, where positioning, areas of effect and character loadout are paramount. It's not a JRPG (it's a SRPG) but I think I get most of what I would want from JRPGs from SRPGs anyway. SRPGs are sort of like JRPGs with good combat. (Oh, and something like Star Ocean or Lunar doesn't count as having robust player position tactics. It barely matters in those games).
Write a story like a fucking adult who can write a story It's hard for me to think of a traditional JRPG that knocks this out of the park. I love Final Fantasy 6 and I think it holds up pretty well. Parts of Final Fantasy 9 do as well. Chrono Trigger does a good job at this, mostly. But why is the dialogue so simple? Why is there no subtext, no hidden motivations? It's always melodrama. Even when it's good, it's melodrama. There's so rarely hidden heart to these characters. The heroes are brave but honorable, the villains might have a tragic flaw or good origin, but they're evil now and driven to evil.
Further, the end of the story so often brings in some shithead cosmic force that I have no personal stake in. Golbez is a flat character, but he has ties to my characters. Zemus is bullshit.
One good subversion of this is actually Earthbound, which is charming and weird throughout and has an emotionally resonant final encounter. So yeah, Earthbound is good on this front (though there are too many encounters and the combat is rarely fun!).
As mentioned in the previous entry, there are lots of things I do like JRPGs for. I like boss battles, for example, and I like the aesthetic trappings often enough. I also like robust character build systems which some JRPGs do really, really well. But ultimately, no matter how much I might like those things, I need these things:
I need to be engaged throughout most of a well written adventure that respects my time.
Why is that rare?
First, an apology. I'm very sorry that I got off my rhythm with these articles. We entered a very busy fall right around the time I started running out of ideas for articles to write. As time went on, it became easier to continue not writing them than it was to get back on track. However, I've got enough in the hopper to catch up and slam-jam all of the articles I owe you. So, thank you for your patience.
This popped up in our Slack group a while back: People are curious how we pick games for Abject Suffering. We allude to the process being random, and we thank those who suggest the games we play. But that's not the whole story. Let's all put on our hard hats and respirators, and tour the Suffering Factory.
Abject Suffering topics begin here, on our Suggest-a-Game form.
All three fields are required so people don't stuff the ballot several times... Requiring a name or a handle makes it easier to filter out junk. Of course, we have a comments field so people can share their personal stories, or tell us about something weird we should pay attention to.
This form is plugged into a big spreadsheet that collects all of the responses in order.
But there's a flaw here. This is just raw data. What if someone recommends a game that has already been recommended? Well, that's where the data grooming happens.
I copy/paste all of the suggestions into another sheet for processing, where I sort the games alphabetically. About once a month, I comb through the game list and see if there are any duplicates. I collapse these down to a single row (this is important) and I add columns to maintain info for everyone who suggested a game.
Why is it so important that each game gets its own row? Because it helps in the randomization. If I didn't massage this data, games that are recommended more often would have a higher chance of being featured. Here's why.
At the beginning of each month, I count how many random episodes we need, and I go to Random.org to get a truly random row number. Then I go to the corresponding row and see what's there.
If the game is easy to emulate (NES, SNES, Genesis, PSX) then it immediately goes onto the list. If it's tougher to run on modern systems, then it gets some more scrutiny. Can I find a good way to install it? Is there an obscure emulator I wasn't aware of before? Can we acquire inexpensive copies from Amazon? If it ends up that we can't run a game, it stays on the list. The next time it comes up at random, we may have a way to run it.
The games that "won" are added to our master planning spreadsheet, which is a schedule of all upcoming sessions for all of our shows. Then it enters our usual recording workflow.
The exception to all of this is the Exquisite Suffering/Abject Suffering workflow. The added wrinkle here is that we need to pull up a crop of four random games for all of you to vote on. These games are chosen from within the master suggestion list by pulling out ALL of the games that have been recommended more than once. These are added to their own list, and I pull games from it randomly every time we need to assemble a poll. Being added to this list (or being featured on an Abject Suffrage poll) doesn't exclude a game from coming up randomly for a mainline episode.
And that's the story. Hopefully it wasn't too terribly boring (I mean, isn't anyone else excited by pictures of spreadsheets? Am I right?). I'm positive there's a more a efficient or effective way to handle this with databases, but that kind of coding work isn't my forté. As it stands, I just felt like it was important for you to understand how much information infrastructure is required for us to pick a game, talk about it for five minues, and then spend the rest of the episode talking about how weird cum is.