[REVIEW AND INTERVIEW] The Devs of Here Be Dragons and a Review of Stellaris Federations - BEHIND THE SCENES
A little bit of a twofer today because things have been hopping. Thanks to COVID-19, all the publishers I'm aware of are pushing freelance work out the door with the expectation they won't be picking up anymore for the foreseeable future. We'll talk about that later.
This is going to be a long-ish article. For those who've wanted more longform creator content on Steem, here y'go!
This article was never supposed to happen.
As I mentioned in the discussion around the review of the game proper almost 2 weeks ago,, my editor fished out getting in contact with the company and setting up a review article to me for reasons which remain unfathomable. Little did he know that I really miss doing interviews with developers and creators and had been itching to take advantage of my position as a freelancer to do some more.
Is this the best set of questions that I have ever crafted for a developer house? Oh, Hades no. Looking at it now from a few weeks' distance, I can think of a few more things that I may have preferred to target. A bit more about some of the difficulties of bringing the game to publication might have been appropriate, but overall for a five question mini-interview that took way longer to get back than expected, the results are pretty nice. And it is somewhat encouraging that I have this recent work to lean back on if I want to start branching out into more direct contact with developers for longer form interviews.
Out of curiosity, as consumers of games journalism, what kinds of questions would you like to see put to game developers right after the release of a new game or an expansion that you don't see other journalists asking? What are the kinds of things that you really feel that developers should be talking about and that you would be eager to hear?
Let me know down below and maybe we can do something of that order going forward.
I never expected going in that this would be the article that was an absolute bear. There have been ridiculous ups and downs as I've written this thing, more than any other article that I've committed to any server, anywhere.
Part of it is that the COVID-19 panic has finally, truly set in within my community with all of the ridiculous overreaction in the media and in the grocery stores that implies. I already work from home as I have for decades, and I'm a gamer, so being instructed to "self isolate" is sort of like telling a snake not to get up and run off too fast. But I'm a rebel by nature; I resist authority. I may have spent my whole life sheltering in place but the moment that you tell me that I have to, I have the immediate urge to get up, put on some clothes, and go out to spend hours in the local bar – and I don't even drink.
Things have been rough, is what I'm telling you.
And then I received the assignment to do this article on March 13, 2020. I'll point out that the street release date and thus the absolute deadline for this article being submitted was today, March 17, 2020. A lot of writers would blanch at the idea that they needed to get out a review for what is a massive expansion and update both mechanically and structurally to a grand strategy videogame in three days.
But that's what I've built my reputation on so it's not like I could really object.
I needed tools. Good tools. There was a huge amount of information to be integrated and doing that kind and level of research in short order is not just a little challenge.
Enter Roam. I've talked about it before and how I have moved over to using it for a lot of my notetaking, logging, and even some CRM, but this was the first awkwardly big short-term project that I had the opportunity to leverage the system in. Absolutely this is the moment to talk about it and share my methods, because that's why I post these behind-the-scenes over here!
Let's take a look at what my notes for this article actually looked like when I was done pulling them together.
(Yes, I know it's huge. Please ignore the white bars because getting a proper screen capture of a really long page in a website with an automatically repositioning top bar is an absolute pain. Go with me, here.)
Everybody takes notes differently and honestly different projects need different kinds of notes. When writing about videogames, this is the kind of structure that works for me. In fact, it's been the kind of structure that works for me even before I used Roam as my information capture architecture.
You'll notice at the top is a section for what I think of as metadata. A list of tags which I believe represent related concepts and things which I might want to use to get back to this chunk of content, followed by a list of things which are important to track about the article. When it was assigned, when the deadline is, when I submitted it to my editor, when it it actually got published, what the URL of the publication is, a snapshot of the page that it was published to (which comes in handy when you're doing your own promotion of your work). All of those links, including the dates, refer to other pages and because in this system all links simultaneously generate back links to where they originated, if I click on any of those days I can see all the notes I wrote to myself in my daily logging as well as anything else important that refers to those days and back links – like these notes.
You'll also see a link to the Gingko Tree – which is the text editor that I actually use to write my articles in. Why don't I write them in Roam, I hear both you and the developer ask? Because writing text and exporting it in a useful form from the platform is a real pain in the ass. It is wonderful for building relationship references that you can find later and pull together from multiple sources but it is in no way useful as an actual writing environment for a number of reasons. Exports are absolutely ugly and don't actually create well-formed documents suitable for taking to the web or print. Trying to get it to will just frustrate you and annoy the pig.
But that's okay, because we have other tools which are more suitable to writing in and because everything works by referring to URLs, everything can relatively easily interoperate.
Why are there are two root nodes, I hear you asking?
We'll get to that in a minute.
One of the reasons that I really like Roam is that it lets me structure my notes in a way that is easy to transfer into my preferred writing tools. Gingko is a structured writing environment where most of the time you are creating paragraph-level content chunks which are attached to some other chunk to its left. If something needs to be moved around you can just grab it and move it elsewhere in the hierarchy and all of its children come along with. It's very easy to work with in that sense. For a writer looking to target online content and recognizing that a lot of online writers fail to use headings, subheadings, and sub-subheadings well, giving signpost guidance to the reader, it's an absolute godsend.
But back over to the notes…
I like to start by grabbing some very obvious references for a given article. Sure, I can keep any pages that those references originate on in the sidebar (as you see in the example for Stellaris itself and a page for Stellaris: Federations), but solidifying them at the top of my notes puts me in a conscious space. In Roam, I can reference those particular blocks as blocks, and those references show up as underlined sections. If the original underlined sections change in the page where they originated, that change shows appear automatically – and anywhere else that you referenced that block. Extremely helpful for keeping things in sync.
Then I move into my notes proper, which I like to break down by source. In this case, a lot of the sources were the developer diaries that have been released over the last couple of months.
I pull a lot of actual quotes out of the original sources which may not make it unchanged into my actual article, but it's always good to be able to rephrase something and link directly back to the place you got that information in order to allow the reader to go "why did he say that?" and then go find out for themselves. I find that too many journalists forget that we are working in a connected, online world and they can trust the reader to go and make their own decisions as long as they have the resources to go and make up their own minds.
(Unfortunately, the link to the hilarious "what they really mean" patch notes on Reddit didn't make it into either portion of this article, which is a terrible shame and if you have any kind of interest in Federations, go and read them right now. You will laugh.)
Really quickly, it was obvious that there were very clear divisions of "things that are important" about the content update in this expansion, so I started making headers right in my notes for those divisions and putting sources and the notes that derived there from into those structures. Roam also lets you drag blocks around attached to everything beneath them and restructure your ideas as you go. You don't have to start with an absolutely static idea of what things need to be, instead you can start to develop those ideas as you pull your notes together.
Once all the harvested notes are in a pile, I started my play. One of the challenging aspects of being a games-focussed journalist is that you actually have to play the game to a certain level of intensity in order to be able to write about it in a way that doesn't shortchange the game itself. The other side of that is you will never have enough time. You will never play the game enough to satisfy the hardest of the hard-core. After all, they can spend their every waking hour focused on a game they love or hate and you both have to hit a deadline and probably have other things going on in your life.
That's not to excuse crappy games journalism that we have all read where people who not only don't play the game but don't actually like gaming jumped into games journalism because it was available and somebody was willing to give them a few dollars. I think we can all name someone on every single gaming devoted site who is clearly not a gamer and has no history of playing games, and yet the editors feel they have some sort of insight to share with an audience about games.
I hate those guys. I know you hate those guys. I never wanted to be that guy, so I slam hard into gameplay whenever I get an assignment that requires understanding and game. I love games. I love playing games. I play games when I'm not paid to write about them. I write about games when I'm not paid to write about them.
Playing a game in order to write about that game works better when you can put down your ideas as they go. It takes practice (a surprising amount of practice) to really get good at capturing what's important in your gameplay and in your experience. Not everything that comes to mind is going to be part of your article. That said, being able to capture all of that stuff easily, quickly, and then sort through it easily and quickly when you go to write your article – that makes a difference. I actually break down my play time by day (because it's easier that way) and unlike some people taking their notes, I have a tendency to do so in complete sentences. Even then, I know these are not complete sentences that are necessarily going to make it into the final text of the article. But they create the scope. If you are ideas tend to be more staccato, if they tend to be more fragmentary, write them down in that staccato, fragmentary way, because notes are for you.
At some point I may go back through these notes later and mark them up with ideas that I know are interlinked. In Roam that's extremely easy to do. Highlight a word or phrase, hit [[, and you have magically created a page which automatically back links to everything that refers to it. Maybe I want to turn "Civics" into an idea I want to be able to reference later. I highlight it, [[, and suddenly…
And just like that, if I write about Civics in another article about Stellaris, I can know about this thought I had sometime in the future and make reference to it, whether that be to use it in a new context or correct my understanding or just inform myself about where I was in those considerations. This doesn't sound like a big deal, because why would you ever need to worry about ideas that never made it into an article that you wrote for pay? In practice, ideas chain to one another. An idea that wasn't useful today may be very useful tomorrow. Even if the idea itself isn't useful, knowing where you picked it up or when you had it can lead you to finding things that you didn't know you know. Those are the kind of insights that lead to better writing.
And now it's time to talk about that whole Split thing.
Anyone that has read much of my work at any point, anywhere that it's been published, over the last 30 years (insert terror here) knows that I tend to be almost Lovecraftean in my love of words. I like words. I use a lot of them. Big heaping piles of text which go on and disturbing detail down to the finest minutia; that is the kind of density I like in both things that I create and things that I consume.
Publishers want a specific word count. For most of the things that I've written for Strategy Gamer, that target word count is 1500.
I can't write 1500 words on my breakfast – and I haven't even had breakfast yet today. I get up in the morning, I sit down at the keyboard, and 3000 words will fall out before I finish my morning chai tea. That's just the way I work. It is extremely difficult for me to create small content, to make anything that's not really longform. (I truly suffer on Twitter.)
If you've made it this far into this article, you already know that.
When I told my editor that the article would probably be 2500 to 2700 words and I might could pare it down to 2200 at a real push, he gave me the stink eye and reminded me that my word count is 1500. He didn't say "we won't publish it if you go too long," because he never says that. That is one of the things that I really appreciate about having written for SG over the last year. But he definitely looked askance, as far as you can look askance in text on Discord.
So I sat down with the Gingko Tree and stared at it. I wasn't sure I could do what I was thinking about, but I had all the notes, I had all the references, I had what was roughly 3000 words already put together in a neat hierarchical way – what could I surgically transplant into a new tree and get something viable? That was the challenge I had in front of me.
What I was commissioned for was a Review, so a complete and specific rundown of individual changes in the game wasn't really in the scope of what I needed to do, so they didn't make the cut.
My thoughts and feelings during actual gameplay were absolutely and completely within scope for the article as commissioned, so they became the core of what you can see as the second tree in that image.
That still left me a problem. The review portion of the tree was only 800 words. I could have probably gotten away with that but I didn't feel that that would be giving proper due to the content. I didn't feel that it would be giving proper due to the audience.
That meant I needed to write another 500 words, but no more than 700 words. This was much harder than writing the whole article.
I eventually settled on going back through the minutia while looking at the dev notes that I had already extracted important quotes from and then rephrasing larger blocks from them into just a couple of sentences. That is exactly how a lot of people advocate that you write notes in the first place and there is a lot of support for that being important to being able to recall what you've taken notes on, but doing so to create content for an article is often overlooked, because most of the people involved in writing about taking notes and recalling information are grad students who don't actually have to write in the same way for an audience. As journalists, that's exactly what we do, so creating the distillate of notes about notes was what I had to do.
As a result when I submitted the article on time (because I always hit my deadlines; if there's nothing else I've learned in my life as a writer it's that you don't stay a writer for long if you don't hit your deadlines), my editor got back in touch with me to say that he was absolutely boggled that my review came in at 1300 words and that he loved it. It didn't even read like something I'd written.
Okay, I could take that in a number of different ways, but I'm going to be flattered.
I wouldn't have been able to pull that off without the conflux of two really good tools: Roam and Gingko. One is a really good at helping me pull my ideas together, find my ideas, reference my ideas, and organize my ideas. The other is really good at structuring my ideas for publication, letting me create references to other people's ideas which already exist (through links), and then exporting that work in ways that other people can see and use.
If you're looking for tools, if you're looking for processes, I've got your hookup.
And now for the old slightly less inspiring portion of the article. As a result of the economic impacts of the things going on in Europe right now, SG is tightening the belt and won't be commissioning new articles from freelancers for the foreseeable future. Now, it would be reasonable to argue that with all of the self isolation being driven internationally, this is a terrible time to reduce the amount of content about what is often solitary enjoyment. This would be a good time to double down when your workforce is already work from home and plays to people who are going to be spending a lot more time in front of their videogame consoles and PCs.
That's not for me to say.
I'm not here to beg for your extra cash. Much.
I'm here to remind you that this is a good time to support your independent creators along with local businesses in any way that you can. If you want to give them tips, give them tips. If you want to give them merch purchases, definitely purchase their merch. If you want to order from the restaurant for pickup, I guarantee you they will appreciate the money and opportunity to keep not only your life but their lives going.
Take the time to figure out what you can do to support getting more of the stuff that you want, because when you do it's better for both your creators and for you. This is a story I have told many times, but it bears repeating:
"You get what you pay for. You get more of what you pay more for."
Support your creator community. Support your local community. Consider whether creators which make your life better don't actually define part of the community of people that make you happy. Share that happiness with others.
If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read here today and want to support my continued efforts to bring engineering, art, and the occasional philosophical divergence to the masses, please feel free to send me a tip. Or thousands of dollars, I’m really not that picky. It’s through the efforts of you and others of like mind that content like this gets created.
Thank you for your time.