Our Last Night Together, 2011

I’m not going to lie, 2011 was a turbulent year.  Seeming new opportunities at work turned into unemployment, and new jobs were not exactly lying thick on the ground.  At the same time a lot of positive stuff came along: this blog, freelance work, getting stuck a little deeper into Edmonton’s geek community, a Pathfinder Venture-Captaincy, the eventual job at Wizard’s…

Which is to say, you never know what’s coming down the road.  I’m really looking forward to what 2012 might have in store for me.  I’d prefer a little less turbulence, yes.  But my new job, new freelance work and an exciting con schedule make me believe the coming year will be one to remember.

Thanks to the friends and family that made 2011 a good year despite the lows.  I’m happy to share the coming year with you, and with any luck we’ll have even more fun during this solar orbit.

Have a great New Year’s Eve, all! Stay safe and we’ll see you down the road…

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I’m No Customer Service Expert, But…

I didn’t plan to write anything for the blog today, but as with the Alyssa Bereznack story from a while back, some things I can’t pass by without comment.  This is going to be quick and off the cuff (not edited), so my apologies…

You may have heard already about the ongoing Ocean Marketing customer service fiasco.  If not, Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade fame has posted an example brought to his attention.  Apparently this is an ongoing problem over at Ocean Marketing, because this isn’t a new issue for them.  Take a moment to read both threads (be patient, traffic volumes are high to both sites right now) and then come back…

Okay, I think we can all see where Paul Christoforo went wrong, can’t we?  That’s right, he should never have been allowed to interact with customers in any way ever.  He is the poster-child for why a company has a Customer Service department.  If I wrote a PSA urging companies to hire CS staff, it would end with his picture and a voice-over saying, “Don’t end up like Paul Christoforo and Ocean Marketing!”, and I’d probably underlay the screams of the damned for effect.

I’m sure if you type “Ocean Marketing PR” into the search engine of your choice you will find links to your favourite gaming sites, already sporting articles on this kerfuffle.  As I am not a hard-core console gamer, I can’t really speak from that point of view.  To be honest, I would hardly count myself a soft-core console gamer; I’m in the (slow) process of finishing Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, for instance.  Don’t judge me.

But I can speak as a consumer who has watched the internet change the game for customer service.  Before the rise of the internet, customer service used to be a 9-5 thing and relatively private.  You called during business hours, spoke to someone or possible several someones, and things were either sorted out or they weren’t.  But your avenues for complaint were pretty limited.  Unfortunately for Ocean Marketing and Paul Christoforo, those days are so far gone we’ll be studying the fossils soon.  Even more unfortunate, Paul Christoforo doesn’t seem to realize the change, and in the end that is going to harm his company.

Look, I can’t say it plain enough: customer service is no longer private!  I’m not what could be described as a web guru, or even particularly web savvy.  So the fact that I know a company’s customer service is a 24/7/365 affair living in a glass house, and Mr. Christoforo apparently does not, boggles my mind.  If you provide just inadequate customer service, word will spread across the internet. Never mind the “set us to DefCon 1 and tell the $#@&er on the Red Phone to go to hell!” kind of customer service demonstrated by Ocean Marketing.  Good lord, Christoforo’s ignorance of the status quo is so bad, he actually thinks that complaints to news sites are a marketing tool:

LOL Thanks for the Free PR I know the Editor N Chief of Kotaku , IGN , Engadget I’ll be meeting them at CES…[break mine, because he does go on] …Send that over to Engadget you look like a complete moron swearing and sending your customer service complaints to a magazine as if they will post it or even pay attention…

Um, really? Not a marketing expert either, but even I can tell you the days of “any publicity is good publicity” are over.  No, sorry Ocean Marketing, but bad publicity is bad.  It goes everywhere and lasts for the life of the internet.  Six months or a year from now I can type “Ocean Marketing PR” into my browser and relive this horrible customer service example.  Or as I like to call it, the beginning of your end.  Which would be a shame because apparently you make a damn fine controller, so good that even the guy you treat like $@%& defends it.  But a great product doesn’t give you a free pass to be a douche canoe.

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I also wanted to touch briefly on the “threats” and insults aimed at Mike Krahulik and Penny Arcade Expo by Paul Christoforo.  I’m pretty sure that Mr. Krahulik is taking them about as seriously as I am, which is to say, not seriously at all.  Put in perspective, I will give more credence to what a five-year-old tells me about quantum singularities than I will anything Christoforo says about PAX or PAX East.  That said, it again shows a definite lack of audience savvy.

I have followed PA since before there was a PAX.  I remember reading about it on the site when they announced the first one, and enjoyed hearing about its success.  And I remember hoping that it continued to be a successful event for them, because I believed in their reasons for starting it, lo those many years ago.  Fast forward to today and voila!  PAX did so well it had to split in two, and it shows no signs of stopping.  I haven’t made it to one yet, but it is on my list, believe it.  PAX is successful because of the attendees, and they are a rabidly faithful bunch by all accounts.  Heck, I have a nerd-crush on PAX and I’ve never even seen it!

This is all to say that, of everything Paul Christoforo did wrong in his “customer service” exchanges, taking shots at PAX and Penny Arcade was perhaps the wrongest.  At one point he actually claims to not know who PA or Mike Krahulik are.  Well, Paul, I can guarantee your sales and marketing departments likely know, and if they don’t you need to fire them and hire good ones.  You just personally insulted a founder of one of the biggest gaming events in North America.  An apology at this point, while definitely required, is not going to help.  I don’t even think falling on your sword is going to cut it, frankly.  But if you really believe in your product and want it to succeed despite you, I think you need to try both.

Okay, that’s my two cents.  Thoughts, rebuttals, amusing cat videos? Post them below…

Merry Merry!

I just wanted to thank everyone who comes by the blog for your support these past few months.  It has meant a lot to watch my readership grow like it has.  Frankly, I’m humbled that other people would seek out or even (gasp!) look forward to my online blatherings.  So thanks for letting me fill your head with my geeky thoughts.

I’m not sure if I’ll stick to my regular posting schedule over the “holiday week”.  I’ll try, but no promises; there are a few other priorities for me at the moment.  But I will be back Monday, January 2 at the very least, with the blog you’ve come to know and love.

In the meantime, I hope you are celebrating in the manner of your choosing.  Merry Christmas, all!

Humpday Links for December 21

If I were pandering to the season, I’d try to do a holiday-themed list today.  The Twelve Links of Christmas, or some such.  Well, I’m not that kind of guy and I figure you might need a little break from the incessant holiday crush, so this is just my usual amazing links from around the internet.  Enjoy!

– We’ll start with something near and dear to my heart, The Hobbit trailer. I can’t believe I have to wait another year!

– Courtesy of The Mary Sue, here are 12 Christmas Trees made from Books.  Hey, I didn’t say there would be no holiday stuff, and these are pretty cool…

– This may just be the best thing ever: a Community/MacGyver mashup.

– Here is a list of the Nine Greatest Nerd Fears Today.  I’m not certain which ones scares me the most…okay, definitely number one.

– This bit of speculation about Netflix making new Firefly possible is made more interesting by the fact that Nathan Fillion posted a link to it on Twitter…

– Here are the 30 steps necessary to master anything. It really is this simple…

It appears Comic Sans has a new defender.

– So Jeff Grubb had a few interesting things to say about the Wizards of the Coast layoffs.

– In case you are a Star Trek geek that wants it to sound like you are on a starship all the time, I give you the ambient ship noise from ST:TNG and ST:TOS.  You’re welcome.

– Speaking of Star Trek, warp speed to Christmas!

– There are some truths which are held to be self-evident.  This is one of them.

– China tried to build a faux-Disney theme park, and it just didn’t work out.  I don’t know about you, but I want to go to there!

– George Takei is starring in a new Broadway musical, and all I can say is I hope he tours with it.  Or I can see a trip to New York in my future.

– Later turning out to be a joke, this #BlameTwitter info-graphic is a bit chilling, since I could see the GOP adopting it as official policy…

– I know I posted this before, but with the holidays upon us it is worth a second look: How to Make Chocolate Dice.

An Autobot Transformer Ukulele.

– Back to The Mary Sue (man I love that site!) we discover that Google is working on a rival for Siri.  Maybe this one will marry you!

– And finally, I give you Doctor Who “Yo Mama” jokes. You’re welcome!

That’s all for today!  Tune in tomorrow when I’ll have more gift giving suggestions.  And yes, @erinefraser, there will be comic suggestions on the list…

Renaissance Dork’s Gift Suggestions

Yesterday I gave you my advice on the best way to shop for the geek in your life.  Following those should make your geek shopping experience a little easier, and result in happiness on Thanksmasween Day.  “But Renaissance Dork”, you ask, “What if I don’t have time to absorb 500+ words of shopping theory?  Can’t you just tell me what to buy?”

As it turns out, I can.  My vast experience and hours logged scouring the internet have turned up a number of gifts that are sure to please the geek in your life.  It is important when reading this list to keep in mind two things: 1) You must still follow the advice I laid out in my previous post; and 2) This is a wholly subjective list of what I think geeks will like, based entirely on whether I thought it is/was cool.  So If you use it to shop for me, success approaching 100%; if you use it to shop for your geek, I give a 70% chance of success, +/- based solely on how well you know your geek.

It occurs to me that last sentence may seem like pandering for Christmas gifts.  If so, you are very astute.  Onto the list!

The Geek Dad Books – These are, quite frankly, a no-brainer gift for any geek with kids old enough to be interesting.  Geek Dad, Geek Dad’s Guide to Weekend Fun and The Geek Dad’s Book for Aspiring Mad Scientists (pictured) should be in the library of any geek with kids.  Each one is filled with activities to entertain and “accidentally” educate your child (and quite possible you).  But what if you are not a geek with kids?  Still worth having!  For instance, I am both a geek with nephews, and a geek with geek friends with kids.  These books will easily cement me as the Coolest Uncle Ever, even as the parents shoot worried glances my way…

Star Wars Craft Book – What’s better than buying Star Wars collectibles?  How about making your own, one-of-a-kind, hand-crafted Star Wars memorabilia?  Author Bonnie Burton has compiled a bantha-load of fun Star Wars activities, perfect for the crafty fan.  Another great book to have if you want to entertain children, but it will entertain the adults as well.  I’ll be making some items from this to decorate for Christmas, my self.  And seriously, how could you not love a book that shows you how to make a Jabba the Hutt body pillow?  You can’t, you can’t not love it, that’s how!

Pathfinder Beginner Box – Well you knew there was going to be some Pathfinder on this list, right?  But I really do think this is the perfect gift for that geek that has been on the fence about role-playing games, or that has been waiting for his/her kids to get old enough to game.  The Beginner Box comes with a stripped down set of Pathfinder RPG rules that won’t overload the novice player, and had enough material to play characters up to fifth level.  It also provides an easy transfer into the main Pathfinder RPG later on.  Still not sure if this is for you?  Paizo has generously provided a walk-through of the contents, so you can see how cool this is for yourself.  I can’t recommend Pathfinder or the Beginner Box enough; if you get one and need a GM, let me know…

Star Wars: The Old Republic – Have a geek friend that hermits for weeks at a time after every new PC game release?  This is the gift they will want (assuming they didn’t pre-order it already).  BioWare’s latest foray into the Star Wars universe is by all early accounts a grand-slam, making this the go-to gift for your video-game fanatic.  This MMORPG might just draw you into a whole new world of gaming yourself (yes, come to the dark side…), because let’s face it: who hasn’t wanted to be a jedi, even if its just online?  So while you grab one for a friend, slide a copy for yourself into the cart; you and your friend can spend all sorts of quality online-time together, exploring the Force!

The Settlers of Catan – For a board game that has become a benchmark for board game design, it boggles my mind how many gamers (myself included) don’t own this game.  When it broke onto the scene, lo those many years ago, the idea of a semi-cooperative resource management game with no inter-player conflict wasn’t even on the radar with a lot of North American game designers.  Arguably, Settlers of Catan is the game that introduced us to euro-gaming, and the floodgates have been wide open ever since.  And it is loads of fun, even if you don’t play with the many expansions (though for my money, getting the 5-6 player expansion right away is a good choice).  If you haven’t seen this on your favourite board game geek’s shelf, it might be high time to grab them a copy.  Conditional on you getting to play, of course.

Genshiken – If you have an anime fan in your circle of friends, then this anime about anime fans will make a welcome addition to their collection.  Lovable characters, hilarious situations and a unique look at both otaku and Japanese culture, this is the anime series every anime nerd needs in their collection. Why? Because this is the one you bring out and watch with your friends when they want to know why you are into anime.  It is an honest and sincere look at fans just like us.  (And I can’t thank my friend Morgan enough for turning me onto it; thanks Morgan!)   It is also a manga series, so if your friend is a manga reader, everything above still applies!

I’d be thrilled to find any of these under the tree, and if you have a geek with a gaming/crafty slant like mine, I think you are golden.  Thursday I’ll expand the list somewhat, look at some neat little gizmos you can order online and maybe have in time for the New Year!  Until then, you can ask me for specific gift suggestions in the comments, or make suggestions of your own.

How to Shop for your Geek

We’ll get to shopping for your geek in a second, but first: I wrote a guest post for Beyond the Farthest Blog!  I was honoured to be asked to write something about the initial Star Trek pilot “The Cage” by the blog’s owner, Mike.  Thanks so much for the invite, Mike!  And all you what love Star Trek should definitely follow his blog. It is up an alley firmly in your wheelhouse.

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It can be really hard to buy gifts for geeks.  I know this because I am a geek, and I have received many well-meaning gifts from people that didn’t understand my hobbies.  I have received “Twilight” because I like to read fantasy books, numerous children’s games because I play board games, and some really bad party murder-mystery games because I play RPGs.  If you are a non-geek buying for a geek, or even a type of geek buying for another type of geek, the most important advice I can give you is, know what your geek is into.  If you are buying for a Star Trek geek, My Little Pony is not going to cut it unless you know they are also a fan of that show.  You don’t need to understand it like he or she does; if you did, you wouldn’t need help buying for them, right?  The point is, geekdom is not generic, so you need to know your geek’s interests.

Edit: A bit of advice from @soupytoasterson on how to know what your geek is into: “Bonus tip: Ask the person you’re buying for about books they would recommend you read. Good way to get their tastes and, somewhat more importantly, what they already have.”  Advice so good I wish I’d thought of it…

Another Edit: @thinkgeek has provided a handy chart to make your shopping easier.

The second piece of advice I can give to the non-geek is: go to your local comic, game or tech store for your gifts.  Outside of the potential benefits of shopping locally, the best thing about these places is that they are generally filled with geeks, specifically geeks that are like your geek.  They have knowledge you don’t, and you should be able to walk through the door, say “I’m buying for someone into Star Trek/Superman/first-person shooters, what can you recommend?” and get an informed response.  (Note: if you don’t get an informed response, the problem is not you. Ask to talk to someone else, or leave and find another store.)  That simple question will save you from the heart-ache of the forced smile on Christmas morning, and likely result in your basking in the warm glow of geek love.

A third piece of advice, and I might be on my own on this so your mileage may vary: a gift card is perfectly okay.  If you don’t really know what your geek is into, and don’t have the time to look around the geek shops for gifts, buy a gift card. Really. Please. I would rather get a handful of local geek shop gift cards from my friends and family than, say, a Strawberry Shortcake Board Game (yes, it happened. No, I don’t still have it, it went to the Stollery).  I realize that people aren’t always comfortable giving gift cards, feeling they are too impersonal.  And I’m sure there are people that feel that way receiving them.  But speaking for myself, as a geek, a gift card tells me that: a) you know me well enough to understand what I like, and b) you want to make sure I get an item I will definitely love, so you are putting that choice in my hands.  And I respect that.

Okay, those three pieces of advice should help you buy a gift your geek will love this Thanksmasween.  Tomorrow I will have some specific gift suggestions for the various types of geek in your life, just in case you are really desperate.  In the meantime if you have any shopping advice of your own to add, drop it in the comments below.

Play Does Not Discriminate

As I’m preparing for this holiday season, I am of course pondering gifts for my four nephews.  One sister has started a family board game night tradition, which evoked from me a window-rattling “squeee” of joy.  I would never try to force my hobbies on the boys, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t perched like a buzzard on a rock, waiting for the first sign of geekness.  Oh, children, the worlds your Uncle Brent will share with you now…

But we can talk about the corruption mentoring of my nephews another time.  Searching for games and toys for the nephews inevitably got me thinking, in an abstract way, about gender identity and play.  Because during my search I had a stray thought that went something along the lines of, “Well, they’re all boys so this will be easy.”  And it pinged as a vaguely bad thought in my head, but being a stray thought I caged it to be pondered later, perhaps in the wee hours of some cold morning over a cup of coffee.

Then yesterday I was reading through the Twitters when a message from my pal Alina Pete (of Weregeek fame #humblebrag) popped up:

In fact, Lego was one of my favorite toys, & I didn’t need nor want no stinkin’ Polly Pocket look alike *frothfoamrant*…

Included in the message was a link to this GeekDad article over at Wired, about the new Lego Friends line targeted at girls.  Take a second to read it, and then come back… Excellent, moving on!  Now normally I might have read the article and dismissed it with a casual, “Oh, Lego, why?”.  But the article, coupled with Alina’s reaction to it, set that stray thought to barking up a storm.  So much so I pulled it out last night and gave it a good pondering.  And the undeniable truth of it is my stray thought is the reason Lego thinks this is a good idea.

No, I don’t mean Lego is reading my mind.  But Lego is certainly trying to read the minds of consumers; that’s sort of what market research and testing are for.  And thousands upon thousands of stray thoughts just like mine have led Lego, and several other toy and game companies, to the same conclusion: that toys and games, and therefore play, should be divided along gender lines.

And I for one want to call bullshit.

Play does not discriminate.  Unless the idea is imposed externally, the activities from which a child derives joy are never gender divided by children.  I know this from my own experience.  When I was five-years-old I had a small collection of the 12″ GI Joes; a couple of the dolls, some clothing sets and a vehicle or two.  But I played the hell out of those toys, because there wasn’t a lot to do in a mining town in northern Manitoba.  One day I was playing with my Joes in the sandbox, when I was joined by a few girls of varying ages around my own, laden down with a tonne of Barbies and Barbie accessories.  I couldn’t tell you their names now, but as there were only about 30 kids in all of South Bay we knew each other from around the playground, Sunday school and the like.  So naturally we started playing together.

Now, I can’t speak for my playmates at the time, but if memory serves my five-year-old self and my friends had a blast.  Dressing each others dolls, putting the Joes in dresses and the Barbies in fatigues, making up stories; you know, as kids will do.  We laughed at GI Joe in a dress because we knew it would be funny to see our dads in a dress, same as we laughed at Barbie topless, because we all had a vague understanding that topless girls were “wrong”, and therefore hilarious!  It wasn’t until much later, after we traded northern Manitoba for northern Alberta, that I got indoctrinated into the “right” toys to play with.  I won’t go into that with much detail, but it did come about from me asking if I could buy some Barbie dresses for GI Joe…

I don’t pretend to be an expert in child development, or child psychology.  But I damn-well know about play, my friend, and I will tell you this: play does not care about a child’s gender.  Joy, imagination, problem solving, situational awareness…all the things that play can develop, none of those things require a particular set of genitalia.  I would love it, as a personal favour to me, if the toy and game companies would stop making products for boys and girls and worked on making toys for children.  I don’t expect it, because let’s face it, if you called Lego or Hasbro right now they’d be all, “Brent who?”.  But I can dream.

But I do recommend, as you gift buy this holiday season, giving some thought to the gifts you buy.  I’m not suggesting you not buy Barbies for your daughter or niece, or return the kick-ass action figures you got for your son/nephew.  But maybe slip your niece a basic Lego set, too.  Or start teaching that boy to cook with an Easybake oven (I don’t even know if they make these anymore, but you get my drift).  And if all that seems a bit much, I heartily recommend board- and card-games as an excellent alternative.  There are a slough of games on the market that are hours of fun, and no gender bias for miles.

Okay, that’s my two cents.  What do you think?  Do you think gender bias in games and toys is a big deal, or the latest windmill to be tilted?  Comments are just below, and I’d really love a discussion on this.

And putting my writing where my mouth is, on Monday I’ll suggest a variety of games, toys and books that I think will make awesome gifts.  See you then!