Monthly Archives: September 2011

Geek #2: Productivity

This is my second Speak Out With Your Geek Out post.

I am also a productivity geek. This has shown up in a few of my gaming posts like “Getting Things Dungeon” but it’s something that runs pretty deep for me.

Like a lot of people I know, I was a bright slacker growing up. I was smart and flexible enough to get by most of the time, and as I got out of college into the job market, this produced a generally relaxed attitude. There are plenty of situations where this was helpful, but there were others (most of which I was semi-willfully unaware of) where it hurt me. Sure, things might occasionally get chaotic enough to merit a big cleanup, but I was never going to “get organized”, since that was something which uptight, type-A people did, and that was definitely not me. My desk (or room, or office) might be a mess, but I knew where everything was! I could do my work, and my natural method of handling things was much more organic and efficient than any system some anal retentive old dude might come up with!

(While I did not actually add the slightly plaintive “Maaaaan” at the end of it, if you add it with your imagination, you will have captured the essence of the thing).

Still, I was kept busy, and in one of my occasional efforts to get my stuff together, I stumbled across an article about Getting Things Done and I got pretty well sucked in. It spoke directly to my situation, and it flipped a simple, but really important switch. It asserted that the purpose of getting organized was not being organized, but rather to free up your mind, time and space so that you can actually focus on enjoying the things you love. I’d never considered it in that light before, but it nailed me pretty hard.

Now, the problem is that getting organized can be very distracting. Getting Things Done is a methodology that teaches a few simple ideas, but then allows for any number of implementations. The kinds of people that GTD works for are often the kind of people likely to spend a lot of time fiddling around with their system of tasks and planners, which kind of misses the point.

I’ve been guilty of that more than once myself, and I’ve tried almost every methodology I’ve come across at one point or another. I listened to Merlin Mann podcasts, got myself a hipster PDA, pursued inbox zero, tried autofocus and Franklin-Covey, sorted colored post-its. There was a lot of fun to be had in trying new systems. Even if they were ultimately a distraction, I often picked up a trick or two.

Nowadays I have my personal organization pretty well under control. I very grudgingly made the transition from a pocket notebook to an iphone, but it’s been worth it, as measured by the fact that my tasks are getting done.

Anyway, I would not be a real geek unless I shared my workflow, so here it is.

Email is gmail, which is kept at inbox zero. Mails that I need to come back to are flagged as @followup (The @ is a trick to put those flags at the top of the list). Emails that I can see a clear task in are entered in my task system, then archived. EMail used to be a weak link for me – the web interface was never more than ok for me – but the new Mail client in OSX Lion was good enough to become my central dashboard. I’ll do a little email management from my devices (iphone & ipad) but real cleanup and processing happens at the desktop.

For task handling, I use Omnifocus, which I have on all three machines, and which syncs automatically. The syncing is a big deal, since it lets me put things in my inbox quickly, then process them properly when I have more time. I love this solution, but it was really freaking expensive (and it has no web component) but it works very well with my process.

I make much greater use of contexts than I do projects. It may just be how I think, but projects are something I only really need to do if the tasks are not self-explanatory. This is a bit of a GTD violation, and I suspect that I’ll go more project-heavy over time, but for now, they’re not a big part of the system.

Notes, lists and data go into text files kept on Dropbox. I use Notational Velocity to access them on the desktop, and Elements from my iDevices. I chose Elements because it let’s you customize your base directory in dropbox, and because while it’s a good note app, I don’t actually use it for writing, so it’s a good dedicated notes tool.

I’m still looking for a good solution to handling larger ideas (like email thread with Fred containing game ideas). I dump them into Notational velocity for the time being, but that feels like a poor fix.

I do most of my straight writing on the iPad (usually in writeroom) synced to dropbox, then i just open it in the appropriate app for post-processing. Simple enough arrangement.

And that’s about the size of it. Any other productivity geeks out there?

Geek #1: Comics

At first, I was uncertain how to contribute to Speak Out With Your Geek Out – after all, this is already a pretty geeky blog – but after a but of thinking I realized I have a few other areas of geekery that might merit some discussion, so I’m taking my week back from break to run through them.

So, I’m a bit of a comic geek. Not as much of ones as I used to be (for which my wallet thanks me) but enough that I stay on top of what’s going on in the mainstream comics, follow some small ones, and read far too many webcomics on a regular basis. This lead to the interesting experience of my going to the Small Press Expo for the first time this past weekend.

For the unfamiliar, SPX is an expo for independent comic artists and companies. Originally, it was fairly underground, populated by comics you’ve never heard of and people’s hand-bound photocopies, but over the years it has also become a large venue for web comics. SPX is a DC are con, and I have wanted to attend it for years, but I always end up missing it. Thankfully, a friend who is an even bigger comic nerd than I was going, so I hitched a ride.

First off, it was weird as heck going to a convention where I’m _not_ a super nerd. When I hit a gaming convention, it’s very familiar territory for me. There are people I know in many places, and even when that’s not the case, I have enough familiarity with what’s going on to be able to comfortably engage with people about whatever they’re doing. Not so much here – it was like flashing back to my first conventions experiences in college, which is not a great sensation. The introvert instincts kicked in, and there was a lot of listening and avoiding eye contact while wiggling through the crowd, though I did manage to engage the one or two artists I really wanted to talk to.

Second, it was really interesting from a business perspective. As Oltheros has noted more than once, small press comics and game publishing have crazy amounts of overlap, and laid out in the expo hall, some issues are even more clear. Bear in mind that since this is an expo, every table is selling something, and that’s the primary things it’s doing. It’s one of the reasons engagement is rough because you don’t want to ask a question and get bombarded with upsell (or to feel guilty for not buying what is clearly a labor of love).

So within that context, you have the full gamut of products, from the $100 gorgeous hardcovers to the $1 staple bound, probably hand-cut photocopies. And you have a LOT of them. This definitely creates a divide when you have very small products contrasted with the Topatoco table which runs the length of the wall with nothing but high production value material, but the divide is not so clear as you might think. Topatoco does great because people came to convention already knowing what they wanted, so there’s no real discovery there. That’s the real divide between the haves and a the have-nots: for most every other booth there, the job was to help people passing by to understand what they were selling and why it might be interesting.

The degrees of success at this were crazy to behold. Certainly, there was a correlation between production values and presentation, but it was far from a true distinction. There were booths of incomprehensible (but highly polished) product, just as there were tables with rough product that was very clearly presented. As in gaming, there is no small contingent in comics who strive for what they consider authenticity over commercial success, and those are the ones most likely to equate polish with presentation, but at SPX they also seemed the ones most likely to fail in thier own presentation for entirely non-commercial reasons.

It does not take a lot of money to keep a tidy table, to present your products well and to choose what you present wisely. This is as true of comics as it is with games, though more pronounced in comics – a game producer is a little less likely to have a dozen ashcans.

To come back to the point, I think part of being a multi-pronged geek is that you start seeing where your areas of enthusiasm overlap. It’s a glass bead game where the parallels between Blues Rock and Japanese Animation become self evident once you love the both of them enough. I dig that, and its one of the reasons I love finding new things to get enthusiastic about.

Time Off

I’m taking a long weekend for Labor day, and should be back Tuesday. I’ve had some good changes in my life recently, but I don’t yet know how they’re going to impact my schedule, including my writing for this blog.   I’m unlikely to _stop_, but I may need to step back to a less-than-daily schedule for a while.  Or I may not need to change at all, I just don’t know yet.

Whatever happens, I want to thank you all for reading. It’s been a lot of fun for me to write, and even more fun when I see someone get something out of it.

Tunnels and Trenches

Played more Deus Ex, though curiously that has not really been what’s been eating my time. I’ve really grown to appreciate it’s design of creating multiple paths to success, and what’s most interesting to me is that those paths remains mostly obscured unless you’re the kind of player who cheerfully spends time poking into every nook and cranny (which I am).

But the thing that’s impressed me is something that resonates very well with adventure design. There’s an old saying which I think I heard from S. John Ross, that a mystery should be like a maze – confusing if you’re in it, even if it’s obvious from up above. I’ve always liked that comparison because it speaks to one of the biggest challenges to the GM in designing coherent adventures – the GM is always looking at the maze from overhead, so it’s hard to really wrap your head around what it looks like from within.

A lot of bad habits come from this, and two of them in particular are a poor sense of difficulty (that is – “my players are such idiots, why can’t the see the obvious!”) and railroading (“There’s a path out of the maze, I just need to get them on it!”).

Now, there are a lot of solutions to these problems, and I’ve talked a lot about flexible ones such as might be used in Leverage, but if you like your structured adventures, there’s still something interesting to do about it. Thats where Deus Ex comes in.

At first my GM’s instincts twitched in the face of Deus Ex mission design. Sure, it was great to have it be objective (rather than process) driven, but when you started looking around, you realize there are SO MANY ways to approach a problem that it seems unfair – it’s _too easy_. But at the same time, I was impressed at how tidily the various approaches knitted together to feel organic.

The piece I was missing was that the organic feel was a natural offshoot of their being too many options. Even if there are multiple paths of approach, the player will only experience one, and by virtue of doing so, it will feel right. There’s some interesting thinking there – if we figure out to do some clever jumping to get somewhere, we credit the designers for foreseeing that. And, heck, maybe they did, but more likely, they didn’t stop it.

See, that’s the real trick – though there are multiple paths to the goal, what really makes them work is that the player can change paths at will. You are not compelled to keep sneaking even if you have been sneaking up to this point.

This is the point that intersects with adventure design interestingly. There’s a tendency in structured designs to dig tunnels – single paths to the destination. A “flexible” design might have multiple discrete tunnels, but discrete is the operative word. Writers and GMs will regretfully accept the necessity of this approach because, without a tunnel, there’s no telling which way the characters will go.

A game like Deus Ex forgoes tunnels in favor of trenches. The trenches all flow towards the end point on various routes[1] which the player can easily follow, but they are also easy to step out of and into a different trench. The net effect is a sort of mesh design which has some fascinating emergent properties. Specifically, by making the process through them non-procedural, it feels more player driven and organic, and provides opportunities for meaningful out-of-combat choice and strategy. Yes, all trenches may get you where you’re going eventually, but you can still be smart about picking which ones to follow.

Anyway, I have more to play, and I expect it to continue to be fun, but I just want to plant that idea in your ear: Mesh Design. It’s worth a try.

1 – How do they do this? By being built _out_ from the goal. Building a maze from the outside in is a novice mistake.