Magnolia – Texas

October 16, 2010

“Oh,” Debbie exclaimed, “the boys want to eat Big Blackie this week.”

But let me back up …

I spent only 20 hours in New Orleans because I wanted to get to Houston by Friday night, so I could make a soccer game on Saturday morning. And a baseball game.

Alex, 6 years old, had the soccer game. Christopher, 4 years old, had the T-Ball game.

Alex and Christopher are the children to Michael and Debbie.

Michael and I have been the closest of friends since 4th grade, and I’ve known Debbie since just after college. They now live in the rural, wooded town of Magnolia, about an hour northwest of Houston.

Alex and Christopher are wonderful boys:

Alex gives orders. Christopher takes liberties.

Alex is focused. Christopher is everywhere.

Alex is sensitive. Christopher is resilient.

Alex makes you think. Christopher makes you smile.

They are both very, very sweet.

And they have it good. Their huge backyard is filled with homemade attractions:

  • a climbing wall
  • a treehouse with a zip line
  • a sand pile
  • an old boat on a platform
  • an archery target
  • a tight rope
  • a trampoline (not homemade)
  • a great dog, Birch (also not homemade)

I told Michael that he’s created a Club Med for boys.

But, during the week that I was there, all that Club Med stuff took a back seat to the new lacrosse set that Michael brought home. That, and the additional iPad which was now in the house.

Oh, and the boys also played my game – currently known as Dungeon Dash.

I’m sure Debbie had mixed feeling about letting them play. Debbie was college friends with my brother John, and Mike (and Sara), and Eric and Jeff. And so she witnessed John, Mike, Eric, and Jeff playing Dungeons & Dragons far more than they probably should have. Certainly more than they studied. (At least that’s the impression I have from all the stories.) My brother’s dwarf was named Slash, and in every game since then, including Dungeon Dash, that’s been his preferred name.

Debbie had never told her boys about any of this. I’m sure she did not want to encourage such behavior. But for my sake, she let them play Dungeon Dash.

When Debbie asked Alex what he wanted his account name to be, he said, with no hesitation …

“Slash.”

After recovering from the shock, I asked him why. He said that he was going to slash stuff with his sword. He had no idea about the inglorious history of the name.

And so, even though only a couple dozen Dungeon Dash accounts had been created, we were forced to tell Alex that Slash was already taken and that he needed to pick a different name.

So he instead chose the name “Mish.”

I didn’t ask why.

It was now Christopher’s turn. Inspired by his older brother’s choice of Slash, but not having quite the vocabulary, he said that he wanted his name to be “Hit.”

Debbie decided they could both share an account, so we created one account named:

“Hit or Mish.”

Such is life.

During my stay in Magnolia, I worked on Dungeon Dash, helped Debbie a bit in the kitchen (where she always has something brewing … or baking, soaking, fermenting, etc.), played Lacrosse with the boys, ate Debbie’s tasty and healthy meals (including eggs from the chickens in the backyard), and talked at night with Michael about any number of things.

I also went to a soccer practice, a T-Ball practice, and a yoga practice. I was as spectator for the first two, and a participant for the third.

Debbie has been a Following Alex follower since the beginning, and, before I had even arrived, she had already picked out the yoga studio for me. It was a Bikram class in a very nice studio. Debbie dropped me off, ran errands with the boys, then we all had lunch together. Definitely the most enjoyable yoga excursion of my trip.

Which just leaves one thing …

One night, while I was on the couch talking with Michael and Debbie, Debbie interjected, “Oh, the boys want to eat Big Blackie this week, while Uncle Alex is here.”

“Huh?” I said.

They explained that when they got their chicks (they were sent in the mail, by the way), many of them were roosters – more than they needed. So after they were full grown, Michael slaughtered some of the roosters, to be eaten later. The biggest was a black broiler that the boys had named Big Blackie.

“That’s totally going in my blog,” I said.

And so it has.

My nighttime arrival
Alex at goal
Christopher covering first
Michael, Debbie, and Kettle looking for scraps
The gang at the sand pile
Christopher landing a big one
iPad heads
Happy Family

Northern Texas

October 18, 2010

Michael joined us for the next three days of our trip. (I donated my cooler to make room.)

A road trip with MB would have been good regardless, but this trip was extra special because it focused on my game.

Those of you who have known me for some length of time know that I’ve been working on my game for some length of time.

“My game” is an RPG (a role-playing game). Although there are lots of ways to define an RPG, they are basically games which evolved from Dungeons & Dragons (D&D).

One of the phenomenons of the Internet has been the advent of online RPG’s, where hundreds or thousands of players can fight monsters in the same, persistent virtual world. In the early days of pogo, before our switch to web-based games, one of my jobs was to manage AD&D Dark Sun Online, one of the first such games.

When pogo did switch to web-based games, I had a front-row seat for the advent of the other Internet gaming phenomenon: Casual Games. Casual Games are games you can easily play in your web browser. Pogo was the key player in getting Casual Games off the ground, mostly because we understood the importance of making the games as easily accessible as possible.

Thus, although my direct role in the emergence of RPG’s and Casual Games on the Internet was extremely small, I was in a good position to observe them both at an early stage.

Perhaps that is why, after leaving pogo in the early 2000′s, I decided to create a game which merged the two genres.

An idea which, in most people’s opinion, made no sense. It made no sense because 30 years of RPG development had made them so complex that RPG’s were widely considered to be the farthest thing possible from Casual Games.

So what did I do?

I went back 30 years.

Before there were RPG’s, there were Miniature Wargames, where miniature figurines and dice were used to conduct historically-based, tactical battles. Players would move the figures (soldiers, tanks, etc.) over a grid of squares or hexagons, on a big table.

One such game, which used a medieval setting, was called Chain Mail. It was by Gary Gygax.

Gary Gygax would go on to create Dungeons & Dragons, eventually becoming known as the “father of role-playing games.” The first step in that process was when he created a fantasy version of his Chain Mail miniatures game. Instead of the combatants all being “real” people, like knights and archers, he also included monsters and spell casters.

From that starting point, he went on to create Dungeons & Dragons, where he built a framework for creating ongoing stories about the the heroes in those tactical battles. Volumes of rules emerged, as well as the concept of a Dungeon Master to guide the story for the players.

But even the very first version of D&D was too complicated for a “pogo-like” game. So the starting point of my game was not D&D, but it’s precursor: the fantasy miniatures game.

Those types of games still exist. I bought some and took them up to South Lake Tahoe.

Why South Lake Tahoe?

Because that’s where Michael was living at the time. He was often the Dungeon Master for when we played D&D as kids, and he has good gaming instincts. And it was a great excuse to hang out with him.

So for a few marvelous weeks, we played these games, while coming up with a simple set of rules which provided for fun tactical combat in a fantasy setting -in a manner that could be made easily accessible to people on the Web.

I then created a “pen & paper” prototype (using miniatures and dice), so we could play the game without having to program it. I spent the next many years testing and modifying that prototype until I was happy with it.

Although gameplay was my focus, I also wanted the game to look good. But art is expensive. Modern computer RPG’s will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on art.

Fortunately, an inexpensive solution was staring me right in the face …

The miniatures.

There is an entire industry for creating pewter figures which players purchase, paint,and use for their table-top rpg’s or wargames. There are thousands of miniatures to choose from. So I decided to simply take digital images of these painted figures and use those images as the monster and character art for my game. The company that makes the best fantasy miniatures is called Reaper Miniatures, and I was fortunate enough to obtain a license from them.

About a year ago, with the game design mostly done and the source for art in place, we began coding a web version of the game. By “we”, I mean Bill, a close friend and fellow pogo co-founder.

Last week, while in Houston,  I decided that the game was sufficiently presentable to show to the guys at Reaper Miniatures.

And where are they located?

Denton, Texas. Just north of Dallas.

On my way home.

So the first stop for Michael and me was the Reaper Miniatures Headquarters.

We met with ReaperEd (the boss), ReaperBryan (operations lead), and ReaperKevin (art lead).

Did we like them?

Yes!

Did they like the game?

Yes!

Do they want to help?

Yes!

It was all very exciting. And for the next two days, Michael and I discussed the game with renewed enthusiasm.

The main topic was what to call the game instead of “the game.”

The working title all these years had been “Dungeon Dash.”  But that sounds like a kid’s game. So we took the name ideas I had been collecting, then brainstormed many more while driving, then picked the top 30. I then created Google ads using each name and tested to see which names people were most likely to click on.

We considered the resulting “click-through rates”, as well as the other factors which would make for a good name.

Meanwhile, we drove from Denton to Wichita Falls to Amarillo. In Wichita Falls we had a really good steak, and in Amarillo we went to a cool game store, an even cooler cafe/lounge, and a place called Cowboy Gelato, where I had my first, and wonderful, experience with corn fritters.

By the time Michael flew home from Amarillo on Sunday morning, we had not only eaten well, but we had chosen our preferred name.

We were quite happy with it.

There were no conflicting trademarks, and the .com domain name for it would be expiring in just three days.

If I could get the domain, we would have a name … for the game.

Finally.

MB, driver 

Typical Texas Town 

Game store. Friend. Dog. Wheels.  Adolescent heaven.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

October 21, 2010

The road to Santa Fe went gradually up.

So gradually that it was not quite noticeable.

I arrived at night, and the next morning took a Bikram hot yoga class.

Midway through class I felt kinda funny and almost passed out.

Turns out that Santa Fe is over 7,000 feet above sea level.

Now we know.

Santa Fe is nice. Low, adobe, “Santa Fe style” buildings. A river running through town. Hilly terrain, with mountains in the background. Lots of shops and restaurants.

It’s a place where not-quite-young people go to vacation or retire.

For me, it was where I made the final decision on the name for my game.

Which I’ll get to in just one second.

In Santa Fe, Kettle and I took some picturesque walks and drives.

There were two places where we spent quite a bit of time:

A restaurant called Saveur, with wonderful food, an outdoor space for Kettle to hang out with me while I ate, and an owner who loved Kettle.

And a tea house, called The Tea House, with hundreds of teas and a picturesque patio with wi-fi.

It was at The Tea House that I choose the name for the game.

Here are some names that I did not choose:

Dungeon Dash – Although it performed quite well on the click-through rates, Dungeon Dash suggests a certain frivolity which isn’t appropriate for the game. Also, there are a series of popular casual games that end in Dash, and they have a trademark which could have caused problems.Dungeon Dash did serve me well all these years as a working-title, though, and I will miss it.

Caverns – This name tied for the highest click-through rate, and I liked it because it’s short and one word. But it’s a bit dull, and it would be hard to brand such a generic name.

Warrior One – This name tied Caverns for best click-through rate, and I liked it because it’s fairly original without being too weird. But it has the problem of sounding as much like a martial arts game as it does a role-playing game. And I would have been self-conscious about my game’s name being a yoga pose.

Half-Elf – For a long time, when I thought that the game would just have one hero character to choose from, I was leaning towards this name. But after the meeting with Reaper Miniatures, it became clear that there should be lots of hero characters, even if only one is played at a time. And Half-Elf would restrict us to half-elf characters. Also, it had a terrible click-through rate.

Dragon Raid or Dragon Lair. These did pretty well on click-through rates, and I think they are solid names, although a bit generic. The problem is that, even though it’s the case for the current game, the game may not always be about killing dragons. And in addition, the word dragon is used so often that it would be hard for either of these names to stand out.

We tested lots of other names as well, but they didn’t do well on the click-throughs, and I didn’t really like them that much anyway.

Which leaves the name that was our first choice. It was the first choice because it met most of my hopes for the name:

  • It’s original, but not hard to remember
  • It’s short
  • It had a pretty good click-through rate
  • It refers to the hero characters
  • It’s neither too serious nor too cutsy
  • It makes it clear what type of game it is

But, as I mentioned in the last post, the .com domain for the name would not become available for a few days. So I didn’t know if I could get it.

The few days ended while I was on the patio in The Tea House.

And I got it!

I also got the iPhone app name and the Facebook page name, and I applied for a trademark.

I guess I should tell you what it is now.

But how about I just give you a hint first.

(Sorry about this, but I get so few chances for cliffhangers.)

What would you call a group of adventurers, whether elves or dwarves, warriors or rogues, male or female, etc., who had one thing in common – they were good at going through dungeons full of monsters?

Think of a profession, like doctors or engineers.

It’s not a real word, but it sounds like one.

Got it?

Okay, the name of my game will be …

Dungeoneers

Now we know.

New Mexico next 

Okay. 

Santa Fe ahead 

Santa Fe from a hill 

Santa Fe style 

My office (with receptionist) 

My desk (with assistant) 

A scenic stop 

A roadside romp

Flagstaff, Arizona

October 23, 2010

Our next destination was Flagstaff.

To get there, we would have to get past a natural barrier: the Rio Grande river.

Anticlimactically, we passed right over it before I even knew it was there. So we went back to give it the proper deference.

And more nature lay along the road ahead.

First, there was the Painted Desert. Very nice.

Then, there was the Petrified Forest. Quite cool.

Plus there were some Petroglyphs. That’s not really nature, but it’s certainly different than Starbucks or a gift shop.

We then reached Flagstaff.

Flagstaff not only has a great name, but it’s a great place. It has both an urban and mountain feel. The buildings are old, but the people are young. The downtown is interesting and authentic.

One of the old buildings downtown has a yoga studio on the third floor with an uneven and creaky wood floor. Class is free for first-time visitors.

During my free yoga class, the instructor mentioned that there wasn’t much time left to go up the mountain and see the Aspens while they were yellow. I had left the East Coast a bit too early for leaf peeping, but now I had a second chance. So the next morning, after a leisurely morning of blogging in a cafe, Kettle and I drove up the mountain and found the Aspens.

We turned up a dirt road and went into the woods, then parked and took a 15 minute walk into the woods, taking pictures along the way.

I had taken Kettle’s leash off so he could run around. But when we returned to the car, I was no longer holding his leash. At some point I must have put the leash down, probably when I was taking a picture.

The leash was brown and would be hard to spot. And there had been no trail, so we had wandered around in a haphazard loop. Thus there was no clear route to retrace.

But I had the pictures in my phone, so we backtracked photo by photo. I would position myself so I was looking at the same view as in the picture, then I would look down for the leash.

In this manner, Kettle and I re-did our walk backwards. I eventually found the leash, at the site of the last (well, first) picture …

10 yards from my car.

Fortunately the only witness to this inefficiency was Kettle – and he was just happy to have gotten to take the walk again.

There are advantages to having a dog as your companion.

From there we went to the Grand Canyon, which Kettle had never seen.

Unfortunately the weather changed and by the time we got there it was raining and foggy. So our view of the Canyon was obscured by mist.

But Kettle wasn’t disappointed.

There are advantages to having a dog as your companion.

But we knew that.

Head on the sand at the Rio Grande 

Maybe it’s grander somewhere else. 

The Painted Desert 

Petrified wood below 

Petrified wood right here. 

Is this supposed to be a bone? 

I refuse to look. 

Cloudy Grand Canyon 

Next stop, Vegas. Yabbadabbadoo! 

Las Vegas, Mammoth, & Home

October 26, 2010

I almost went this whole trip without mentioning “Travels with Charlie.” (John Steinbeck drove around the country with his dog and wrote a book about it. I have no business comparing myself to Steinbeck, but I was hoping to at least get Kettle into the same sentence as Charlie.)

There are, obviously, many differences between John Steinbeck and me. The one thing, though, that I will choose to point out is this: after about two thirds of HIS trip around the country, Steinbeck said to heck with this, and he beelined it home.

I managed to not do that.

I attribute my staying-away power to 3 things: Kettle, this blog, and the fact that I’ve been able to visit so many friends along the way.

To this point I’ve visited 9 sets of friends, with one more to go …

Bill and Gia drove to Las Vegas from the Bay Area, bringing their two boys, Giles (8) and Evan (6), as well as their nanny, Rubina. I’ve already mentioned Bill a few times  – he’s a close friend since high school and the programmer for Dungeoneers. And if you’ve read my older journal entries, you’ll remember his wife Gia from my trip with her to the Philippines. That trip was a great bonding experience, and we’ve grown closer ever since.

So meeting Bill and Gia in Vegas was like a homecoming … not me coming home, but home coming to me.

And when home comes to you, it sometimes brings sick children. Evan got the stomach flu on the drive over and became seriously dehydrated, so on their one full day in Vegas, Bill and Gia had to take turns at the medical clinic with Evan.

Which meant that I passed the day hanging out with whoever was not at the clinic. I spent the morning accompanying Bina and Giles for a walk along the Strip, then had a nice lunch with Gia, then walked Kettle, then had dinner with Bill.

Gia later said that I was avuncular. Not knowing what that meant, I thought she was accusing me of having some disease.

The next day Evan was better, and we left Las Vegas.

Bill and Gia’s method for getting to and from Vegas was to stop along the way at Mammoth Lakes, a mountain resort town on the eastern side of the Sierras. Going to Mammoth sounded good to me, so we caravanned: a Mini following a Minivan.

In between Vegas and Mammoth lies Death Valley. But that was not enough of a challenge, so, rather than driving directly through, we detoured into a “place” called Badwater.

Badwater was the low point of my trip.

At 282 feet below sea level, it is the lowest point in North America.

After lunch at Furnace Creek, an aptly named town in Death Vally, we finished our drive to Mammoth. The Sierra’s were stunning. It was late enough for there to be snow on the mountains, but early enough for there to still be fall colors.

We arrived in Mammoth with everyone healthy and in good spirits.

Bill’s 5-person family stayed in a suite at the Westin. For them, this was a vacation.

My 6-legged family stayed in a room at the Motel 6. For us, this was a lifestyle.

The next day there was a storm, so we all remained in Mammoth another day rather than drive over the mountains in the bad weather.

As I have done so many times before, I spent the morning blogging in a cafe. But instead of hitting the road afterwards, I went to Bill and Gia’s hotel for stormy hot tubbing, dinner, and two games of Settlers of Catan (perhaps the best board game ever created). Fortunately the hotel was pet-friendly, so Kettle was able to stay with us in the Westin suite – which he liked quite a bit.

We left the next morning. My plan had been to drive to my family’s cabin in the Sierra’s and stay there a couple of days so I could absorb the trip and finish up my blog before going home.

Bill and Gia’s plan, though, was to go all the way home that day. And once I got onto the road with them, I was overcome by the desire to just go home too.

So with my friends leading the way, I beelined it to back to San Francisco.

Apparently Steinbeck and I, and Charlie and Kettle, are not that different after all.

Didn’t see many dogs in Vegas. 

I don’t know what to say here. 

Bina, Giles, and Kettle 

Leaving Las Vegas 

The Badwater Gang 

Low point 

Giles and Avuncular Me 

A boy and his dog in the valley of death. 

The last river stop of our trip. 

Storm coming in 

Bill filling up 

A windswept dog 

A Following Alex 

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One Response to “Part 4d”

  1. Brian Regan Says:

    Where are you Alex?


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