A few things Mark Wallace

On the Impossibility of Autobiography

Existential crises and why writing is a trip

Not so long ago I found myself in a Slack conversation with a friend who’s begun to do more writing lately. “Writing is hard,” we both agreed. I was a capital-W “Writer” for a long time. Though it’s been a few years since that was true, I too have been leaning more toward some form of that pursuit again, and I found myself sharing some thoughts in Slack that—in part because I’m excessively fond of quoting myself—I thought I’d share (and expand on) here as well.

Writing is a trip. Continue reading

Why I Won’t Be Reading You This Year

It ends today.

Back when I made my living as a writer, one corner of my kitchen counter was reserved for a stack of yellowing newspaper and magazine clippings that I absolutely had to get around to doing something with in the near future. Actually, it wasn’t a corner of the counter, it was a three-foot-long space, on a counter about two feet wide. That’s six square feet of clippings, piled anywhere from two to five inches high, depending on the week and the weather. (This was back in New York, where the weather could keep you inside for a week at a time—especially if you were a writer.)

Up to three cubic feet of newsprint. That’s a lot of articles. A few of them I had actually read already, most of them I’d skimmed, and all of them either related to a project I was working on (or, more often, one I was planning, since “working on” rarely got out of the low single digits), had something vaguely to do with a project I might one day actually cook up from a set of equally vaguely related notions and ideas, or were just so singular that I simply had to keep them. Since this practice ended nearly ten years ago, I find it impossible now to bring to mind any of the articles from this last category (other than an Anthony Lane cookbook review that I still have and which I regularly photocopy and hand out to foody friends), but trust me, they were gripping reads. And they were important.

Or so I, on some level, thought. Continue reading

Dancing the Suburban Ballet

A couple of weeks ago, I caught myself in the following compromising position:

Street SweeperLiterally three houses in a row of us, not quite suburban, I admit (Glen Park is very much part of San Francisco, if a pleasantly sleepy, family-oriented part — our Islington?), three of us sweeping leaves in near-suburban synchronicity, moving cars to avoid the “seet seepah,” as my nearly-three-year-olds call it, then bustling it off to work — though I think two of us merely repaired to our garage offices / mancaves, there to slot ourselves into the ecosystem of technology, as that word (“technology,” that is) has come to be defined.

Not that it bothered me. It was more amusing than anything else, more a reminder of something I’m more and more convinced of with each passing year, as I see more of the world more times over: that the snapshots of life captured in television and movies (broadly defined here to include streaming narrative media of whatever delivery vector) are really quite accurate. There’s a sense in which we really are suburban drones, doing our suburban dance on the ends of strings twitched by a barely glimpsed system that runs on its own clocks, its own internal and very faulty logic. And we just mindlessly go along, because it’s the second (or fourth) Friday of the month, and the streets must be cleaned.

That’s absolutely a lie, of course. TV is quite accurate, but only on the most surface level. You can be as mindless as you like about your life, or as mindful. And if you’re out there with us sweeping the leaves off your sidewalk minutes before the street sweeper comes by, it probably means that (a) you’re lucky enough to have a sidewalk to sweep, (b) you care enough about your homestead to want to groom it in some way (or your wife has convinced you to — in which case you’re lucky enough to have a wife), and (c) you have the luxury of sweeping leaves at 9:50 in the morning, rather than having bustled it off to work hours earlier, as much of the world has to do.

So if this is you and you’re worried about being sucked down into the maelstrom of suburbia, never to be heard from again, join me instead in a prayer of thanks. Which is really not the post I set out to write this morning, but that’s just the way it is.

Minimum Viable Hypothesis

I was reminded today of the idea of the Minimum Viable Hypothesis. I think I first saw this on the blog of James Shore, an early practitioner and proponent of Agile Development (he wrote the book back in 2007, after all).

On his blog, James talks about devising a test that you’ll trust if it comes back negative, as a way to see whether your product idea is viable for a certain market segment. Then figure out the cheapest and fastest way of performing this test. This is your MVH. There’s slightly more to it than that, but not much.

Essentially, he’s just asking you to find a way to validate your riskiest assumptions about a market before you start building product. It’s surprising how often people fail to undertake anything like this. Instead, they go for low-hanging fruit and figure we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it. I am of the opinion that low-hanging fruit is more or less poisonous. (More on that in another post.)

Devising a MVH helps derisk whatever you’re working on, by helping you to either locate a market that needs your product, or better understand what a particular market’s needs. It puts the hard questions first, and lets you start out with a couple of big strides, rather than baby steps (at least as far as market validation is concerned).

And it’s good to extend this idea to whatever development you’re doing. Even having specific hypotheses in mind as you’re planning each sprint or release can bring a lot more insight to your process. I think this is pretty basic stuff for a lot of agile practitioners, but it’s surprising how often teams (even those that consider themselves agile) neglect to do this.

Today’s Interesting Thing

Here’s an interesting challenge (at least, as framed in this recent mini-Tweetstorm from yours truly):

I’m pretty sure I’ll have a hard time doing this day in and day out, but I’m gonna give it a shot for a while and see how it goes. I’m not even sure it’s the best use of my time.

So what’s today’s interesting (to me) thing? Stay tuned.

Storytelling Together (Not Bowling Alone)

I’ve always been really interested in the kind of collaborative storytelling that emerges from tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons and the like, and I keep enough people in my Twitter feed to occasionally notice new stuff going on in the space. At the moment, things seem particularly rich, with a ton of interesting Kickstarters and other stuff popping up:

  • Microscope is what I think of as a “historytelling” game, which lets you “explore an epic history of your own creation, hundreds or thousands of years long, all in an afternoon.” Ben Robbins, the game’s creator, is now Kickstarting an expansion set. Worth the $10 for the pdf, I say.
  • Downfall (currently being Kickstarted) sounds like a very interesting historytelling game. You don’t so much create a society as briefly describe and define it — and then narrate its collapse. Awesome.
  • The publishers of Fiasco, a really cool take on tabletop roleplaying (catch Wil Wheaton playing it here), are now Kickstarting The Warren, which essentially turns Watership Down (one of my favorite novels) into an RPG. Such a great idea.
  • There’s a new edition of the Blue Rose role-playing game of “romantic fantasy,” a loosely defined genre that focuses more on character development and interaction than on swordplay and dungeon crawls. Its Kickstarter reaped more than $85,000.
  • A Patreon from Tracy Barnett, who created the School Daze role-playing game about being an awesome high schooler a la Buffy, or whatever other kind of awesomeness you can think up.
  • I noticed Cheat Your Own Adventure via this blog post and this Tweet (or maybe this one), complete with a fun after-action report. It’s a collaborative storytelling take on the Choose Your Own Adventure books of my childhood. Definitely want to play this with my stepkids, who are 13 and 16. Grab the two pages of rules here.
  • Plus, a game about life with migraines.

One of the things that’s interesting to me about this is that, like board games, these are experiences that all but require people to be in the same room at the same time. (You could, of course, play these games via Skype or the like.) That’s one of the things I love about analog gaming, and it’s also part of the reason I think it’s important: It’s an activity that brings people together at a point in history when technology makes it ever easier to remain in our own little orbits, talking to and seeing each other less and less and less. (Not that it requires that, it just makes it easier.)

I have a hard time envisioning tabletop roleplaying games becoming popular in a really significant, mainstream way, a way that cuts across generations, genders, and class divides. (I could be wrong.) But in a world where people are still afraid of bowling alone, it’s nice to see so much activity around a pastime that requires participants to build and engage with their community.

The Writing’s on the Blog

A while back I tweeted that I’d enjoy reading some “returning to blogging” blog posts:



Well, here’s another such post for my collection. I’ve felt for some time that I needed to get back on some kind of writing, somewhere. (There are a lot of great choices these days.) But I’ve been stopped by all the things that stop people: what will I focus on, do I have the time, can I commit, why can’t I get this damn WordPress theme to work right (not this one, actually), etc., etc.

None of that’s a good excuse. And even if it’s many months between this post and the next, at least I’m scratching some kind of itch. The writing’s been on the wall for some time — time to get it out there. See you soon (I hope).

Help Bring the Cardboard Renaissance to South by Southwest

I had the good fortune to attend GenCon a couple of weeks ago (which I’ve written about for Shut Up & Sit Down), and it’s only made me more excited to try to bring some hot cardboard action to South by Southwest. I’ve proposed a panel there for March about lessons that cardboard and electronic games may have for each other, composed of three of the most interesting publishers in board gaming:

  • Mark Kaufmann, co-founder of Days of Wonder, which publishes the best-selling Ticket to Ride
  • Kristin Looney, head of Looney Labs, which publishes the Fluxx games
  • Cory Jones of Cryptozoic Entertainment, which publishes a lot of licensed games, as well as a few interesting originals such as Gravwell, which I need to break out at game night.

You can help make it happen by voting for the panel over at the SXSW panelpicker. It would be great to get a panel like this going at SXSW, as we’d probably also do a n open play lounge with a bunch of board games and other fun stuff. I really want to see it happen mostly because it would be fun! So drop us a vote over there, will you? Thanks!

Boy Scouts to Offer Merit Badge in Game Design

It’s a measure of how deeply games in general have penetrated our society that the Boy Scouts will soon offer a merit badge in game design. Scouts can apparently design any kind of game they like, from dice games to board games to smartphone games or more. They don’t need to code up a mobile game, but they do need to produce and present a design, and, notably, iterate on it in response to feedback. The program was created with the help of a handful of game design professionals. In a slightly weird twist, the Scouts will roll it out at South by Southwest Interactive this coming week. I’m not sure that would have been my choice, but I’m also not sure I can think of a better one. In any case, I like the spirit of the new merit badge. Helping entertain others can easily be seen as part of the Scouts’ mission to train young people in “the responsibilities of participating citizenship,” among other things. After all, we’ve seen how making board games can be a “better philosophy of life” — if the program can manage to be about the games themselves, that is, and not about the marketing. SXSWi, I’m looking at you…

Your Favorite Board Games Were Evolved, Not Designed

Well, maybe not your favorite board games. But Yahoo! Games, of all places, has a blog post on the shady origins of five popular board games that looks at the genesis of Monopoly, Life, Clue, Scrabble, and Chutes & Ladders. All of them have origins that are cloudier than you might think, and none sprang from the brows of their creators fully formed — that is, no one sat down to design these games, they were all modifications and refinements of games that had previously existed — some borrowing elements of board games that had existed for hundreds or thousands of years. Interestingly, many of them originated in games with a darker tone than the ones that become popular — Monopoly was originally a cautionary tale, not a celebration of capitalism, until Charles Darrow got his hands on it; Clue was somewhat more gory; Life was a bit of a downer (it included a “Suicide” square); Scrabble languished through 16 years and several refinements before finding its sales niche — at Macy’s.

Having been dreamed up for the most part in the early 20th century, it’s no surprise that these games didn’t get the intentional design treatment that games get today. But in a way, the process was similar. Most board game publishers today employ what are known as “developers” to take a designer’s version of a game and refine it for the market. It’s impossible to say, of course, whether those refinements are always improvements. I’d love to see “designer’s editions” of board games — akin to the “director’s cut” of a movie. In Monopoly’s case, you can just about piece together early versions into playable games, thanks to sites like “THE HISTORY OF THE LANDLORD’S GAME & MONOPOLY” and others. And in other cases, board game publishers are bringing out updated versions of older games — and including the originals in the same box. Fantasy Flight Games’ Merchant of Venus (which I reviewed recently for Shut Up & Sit Down) is a great example of this, as it includes both the original 1988 design from Richard Hamblen, and the updated (somewhat more playable) version from Rob Kouba. I’d love to see more…

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