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The Waxing & Waning of My Gaming Obsessions

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
Michigan
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From gallery of Mezmorki


Consider this blog post an acknowledgement that I’m eternally flitting between micro-obsessions when it comes to the gaming hobby. More specifically, my gaming habits follow a pattern where at any given moment I’m knee deep into one (or maybe two) distinct “niches” within the hobby. But a moment later, one leg (or both legs) hopscotch over to another niche undertaking.

And often, these efforts take the form of some type of “project” that I’ve undertaken. And even more so, these “projects” often connect me to other niche communities (on the web or otherwise) in which I immerse myself for a period of time until the “project” is done. Then I find myself in an aimless period before settling down into the next niche hobby project.

Sometimes, a project or undertaking might only last a few months, other times it’s a much longer undertaking. What surprises me is that when I circle back to these various communities, other people are still right there in the thick of the conversation, having seemingly not missed a beat. It makes me wonder, are other people juggling involvement in many different hobby niches like I do? Or are people just sticking with one (or very few) things for a longer period of time?

Thinking way back to my involvement with games, I’d lump things generally into a few different “eras.” The teenage gaming era (1990-1999 or so), which was generally when I was still in middle and high school, my “gaming dark age era” (up till about 2010 or so), and what I would call my “current gaming” era. Maybe it’s worth mentioning a bit about these each to understand my gaming patterns

EARLY YEARS ERA

The dates and timelines are all a bit of a jumble, but there are some distinct niche’s that I had dived into deeply during this time. What’s interesting thinking back on this is how time passed so differently when I was younger. Looking at the dates is shocking in some ways. In my mind, I spent a lifetime during some of these phases, but in reality it was little more than a year in many cases.

Tabletop Games

This early era was typified by “hobby-unto-themselves” tabletop games of the collectable and miniature game sort.

Magic the Gathering was one such game. I started playing around when The Dark expansion came out, alongside the “revised” edition of the game (1994). I played on and off, intensely, till about the Homelands expansion (1995). Seems crazy that it wasn’t much more than a couple of years at most. Time goes so slow when you’re younger. I remember playing fierce games on the bus ride home, using backpacks or instrument cases as makeshift table tops to play on. I was in deep, and yet it only lasted about two years.

Warhammer 40,000 was another game that I dabbled with as a collecting “project” in earlier years (1992-1995 or so), but it wasn’t until about 1996 that I met others that wanted to actually play (and who had their own miniatures to use). My dad helped me build some modular plywood boards, which we painted and flocked. A back room in the basement was converted to the warhammer lair. We built terrain, painted, and waged epic battles. We transitioned to 3rd edition (1998) and then started to slow down on warhammer’ing after 4th edition rolled out (2004). It was always a bit of a binge-like affair. We’d spend a few months intensely playing games, then break the routine, only to pick it back up half a year later.

From gallery of Mezmorki
Eldar Striking-a-pose-Scorpions

Digital Games

I always considered myself a PC game player, despite having various consoles around the house. Consoles were nice, but never really drew me in. What’s interesting about this era of PC gaming, and specifically my involvement with early First Person Shooter games, was that it coincided with the rise of the internet itself, and, perhaps in a strange way, also put me on my eventual career path.

Doom 2 was my entry point into the FPS universe. This was 1994 (also right around when I was playing Magic). What fascinated me the most about Doom was not the game itself, but that it could be modded. People could take the game and make their own levels, or new weapons, or both! It was incredible. I was 13 when Doom 2 was released, and a few months later I downloaded an early level editor and started making my own single player levels. I also recall figuring out how to get multiplayer working through our dial-up modems. I spent a ton of time scouring the web for suitable custom deathmatch levels to frag each other in. Pretty wild.

From gallery of Mezmorki
Stormland - an amazing free-for-all DM level

Quake was the big one for me, and it’s a game that still cycles back into my gaming patterns. It was released in 1996 and prompted a number of things. First it pushed 15-year old me to teach myself HTML, the result of which was a deathmatch review website I ran on and off for a number of years (up through 2000 or so). Remember that thing about “projects”? This was a pretty long term project, and in fact it’s another one that I came back to recently (more on that in a bit!). I learned how to make levels and use complex level editing software. I learned how to use photoshop to make textures. Remarkably, all of this would feed into skills (CAD drafting, digital illustration, etc.) that are part of my current profession (urban design and landscape architecture!).

Half-Life & Counter-Strike. One small claim to fame is that I had a number of internet exchanges with Minh “Gooseman” Le about his Quake mod “Navy Seals.” Minh went on to develop Action Quake (for Quake 2), and subsequently (and most famously) Counter-Strike for Half-Life. I was there, right at the start, playing Counter-Strike “Beta 1” back in June 1999 when only a handful of people knew about it. I played the ever loving god out of this game through 2001 or so. But Looking back over old counter-strike changelogs, each of those version releases seemed like a small eternity had passed before the next set of cataclysmic changes were unleashed. Yet it was barely a year in time. Many of my friends continued to play, and even went on to play semi-professionally, but alas the college years were upon me and I drifted away from the game.


DARK AGE OF GAMING ERA

Due to a range of competing life demands during this time frame, I didn’t really play a ton of games - either tabletop of digital. Part of it was finishing undergraduate school, part of it working full time after graduating, part of it was getting married, part of it was going back to school for an intense graduate program. This was all good stuff - but it also meant there was limited time for gaming. And when there was time, I was often too exhausted to pursue many gaming projects.

However - there were a few spots of light shining through the blinds…

Elder Scrolls - Morrowind & Oblivion. I stumbled onto Elder Scrolls games towards the end of Morrowind’s run (probably around 2004 or so). Like with Doom and Quake before it, I was most interested in the amazing range of modifications that were available for the game. A notable “project” was finding my perfect assemblage of mods to make the gameplay function in a deeper and more challenging manner. I also couldn’t resist my inner designer urges, and built a number of different houses for myself using the build-in construction set. When Oblivion was released in 2006, I did the same thing all over again - this time interfacing more with the “Nexus” mod community. You can still download the Archfall Sanctuary house mod I made. Pretty proud of that one.

From gallery of Mezmorki
Fallout Wanderer Wandering the Wonderful Wastes of Wonder

Fallout 3 was released in 2008,and the game was structured on the same underlying system as the Elder Scrolls Games. Naturally I took to tinkering and modding the game - but to an even greater degree than ever before. These efforts culminated in one of my biggest gaming projects ever, Fallout Wanderers Edition (FWE). This was a mod I developed that started off combining other realism and gameplay mods in order to resolve compatibility problems between them. I was most interested in making the Fallout world really feel like a harsh, menacing place where basic survival was a challenge. I integrated mods that added the need to rest, eat, and drink. It made combat more brutal. The further I went the more the mod was evolving into its own distinct overhaul. I was learning the basic of programming (well scripting) at the same time.

Ultimately, FWE ended up being one of THE major gameplay overhauls for the game, following in the footsteps of similar landmark mods created for earlier Elder Scroll games. I ended up leading a whole team (of much more skilled programmers than myself!) as we built something truly remarkable. To date, the mod has been downloaded by over 525,000 unique users with 3.4-million total downloads. It remains one of the top 10 most endorsed mods on the Nexus. I’m still proud of this work, and feel that FWE’s popularity helped demonstrate the desire for having more challenging survival-craft elements in games. Lo and behold, Fallout: New Vegas, which the developers had noted playing FWE and taking inspiration from, was released with a number of similar survival-craft elements.


CURRENT GAMING ERA

The current era started more or less with me simultaneously wrapping up work on FWE in late 2010 and re-discovering board games. The past 10 years have been the most diverse in terms of the type of hobby projects that I’ve cycled through. Mostly this has manifested as time spent late in the evening when the rest of the family has slunk off to bed. I’ve always been a bit of a night owl (it’s probably catching up with me), but it’s the time I have to spend by myself these days!

Digital Games

4X Games. Part of what prompted the design of Hegemonic was a resurgence in interest in 4X games. I spent a few months digging up all sorts of old 4X games out of the bowels of the internet. Plenty that people have heard of: Sword of Stars, Galactic Civilizations 2, Age of Wonders. But plenty that practically no one has heard of, like Lost Empire: Immortals. 4X games a nice dovetailing with board games (both being generally turn-based strategy games). Along the way I stumbled into a number of projects - including a number of closed beta-testing opportunities.

eXplorminate. My involvement with and outspokenness on 4X games eventually got me hooked up with eXplorminate, which was the dominant “project” for me for many years, starting in 2015 with a review of Age of Wonders III: Eternal Lords (still my favorite 4X game I might add). In addition to writing a number of key 4X game reviews during my tenure, I was also able to dig into a lot of other games in the strategy, tactics, and roguelike sphere (collectively “thinky” games). About a year ago the balance of effort with eXplorminate shifted from “fun passion project” to “work I’m not being paid for” and I, along with many others, scaled back our involvement with the site and its management. There was also burnout from just too many 4X games - too many of which are just poorly designed IMHO. That said, eXplorminate built a great community that I’m still connected with, as well as a number of personal relationships that continue on.

From gallery of Mezmorki
Bottoms up before a session of Deep Rock Galactic

Cooperative FPS Games. A sub-genre all of its own, these games include Left 4 Dead, Vermintide 1 & 2, and most recently Deep Rock Galactic. All of these have phased into a heavy play rotation for 2-3 month stretches of time. The primary reason I dig into these is that my wife and I both enjoy playing these games together, doubly so when we rope a few of our IRL friends into the mix. They can be tremendously fun. Deep Rock Galactic in particular was a life saver earlier this year during the initial phase of the COVID-19 shutdowns. Drinking virtual beers with our beardy virtual avatras in Deep Rock Galactic's virtual mess hall while we drink our very much real beers while playing a game with our real friends in the real world was pretty fun. Project wise, I wrote a fairly in-depth steam guide for Vermintide 2, if so inclined to get your feet wet (it IS a sweet game).

Payday 2. This cooperative FPS deserves special mention, because I’ve played it a lot. Like nearly 700 hours at this point! The game came out in 2013, but I didn’t hop aboard the payday train until late 2015. The game is an incredible blend of skill and game knowledge, and is equal parts a game of stealth as it as a game of FPS action. I can recall at least four distinct phases of binging on this game - and in fact I’m in the middle of one right now. I have two current projects, equally ridiculous. One is getting the achievement for having 1,000 achievements on steam. I’m currently at 993 achievements. So close I can taste it! (I’m not usually an achievement hunter, but Payday 2 actually ties a bunch of in-game rewards, cosmetic and otherwise, to doing certain achievements. Plus, after 400 hours of doing the same thing, the achievements add an interesting wrinkle to the experience!).

From gallery of Mezmorki
It's my most bestest and beautifulest spreadsheet ever

The other Payday 2 project has been building my most complex spreadsheet EVAR!, which is this radically awesome skill, perk, and equipment building tool I call (wait for it…) the Payday 2 Build Tool. Clever name huh? What fascinates me about Payday 2 in the realm of cooperative FPS games is the diversity of different types of “builds” you can have for your character. Using different gear or skills leads to very different playstyles with differing strengths and weaknesses relative to the 70+ heists in the game (yes really, there is a crazy amount of content in the game - and it’s still being developed!). It is an endlessly intoxicating clockwork-ian rabbit hole of fine tuning your build. It’s a project for sure.

Quake. Yes, Quake again. Remember how I mentioned I used to run a website reviewing Quake maps? Well, I resuscitated the map archive this summer in a 2-month long binge effort of trailblazing through old FTP sites and harddrives. And I built an amazing level catalog (yes another spreadsheet!) of all of the deathmatch levels I collected over the years, complete with embedded screen shots and custom filters views! Be amazed! The other new development is that I learned QuakeC (painfully), which is Quake’s custom programming language used for the game’s gameplay logic. The result is that I made my own Multiplayer Server Mod called - Acres Server Mod! And the cherry on top is that I got a server running and many of my buddies came out of the woodwork for some good old fashioned quake deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, and a predator mode fragfest (of my own invention)! It was all so awesome I even made a YouTube channel out of it! Check it out if you want a peek behind the curtain.

Tabletop Gaming

Game Design & BGG. I stumbled upon BGG in 2010, and immediately dug into the game design forums. I had always trifled about with various game designs, even going back to much earlier times, but now it became a more focused and intentional effort. I wanted to make a game. I wanted to understand the various facets of the modern tabletop ecosystem.

Big Game Theory! Design investigations, critical analysis thinking, and self-discovery as a designer prompted the creation of this very blog in September 2011. Yes it’s been NINE years now! Interestingly, writing this blog has been one of the few constants in my gaming life. It’s a platform for me to clarify my thinking and it is diverse enough in scope that I can speak to all of my gaming interests. While I’ve taken long breaks from writing on occasion, I’d can’t imagine ever dropping this space as a place to recollect and converse.

Hegemonic. For the couple of years leading up to its publication, most of my hobby time was focused on designing and refining Hegemonic and shepherding it through the publication process. I’m still blown away that it was picked up and it was an honor to have it produced to such a high degree. Sure, the game isn’t for everyone, but it makes me happy each time I hear someone discovering it and appreciating what it tried to do.

Board Game: Emissary: The Red Frontier
Emissary done up in the Mars theme

Other Design Projects. It seems that at any given moment I have at least one design front and center in my mind. This is usually the game that I’ve got to the serious playtesting and iteration/refinement phase - which is really where the work begins. Most recently, this has been Emissary. But State of Crisis, Amber, and an unnamed adventure game (working title Overland) have also absorbed my thinking time and filled numerous notebooks and prototype boxes. State of Crisis is interesting. It was designed many years ago but is oddly, and almost horrifically more poignant, today. It deals with players competing semi-cooperatively to fulfill personal goals within the context of a global economic, social, health, environmental, and military crisis. It was meant to be a tongue in cheek social game - but in 2020 it sadly just isn’t funny at all! Maybe it would be better a educational-exercise type game.

Game Genome Project. In my mind, the “game genome project” is my umbrella term for writing, theorizing, and discussing relative to understanding how games work. This ties into my efforts at board game and genre classification, my writings on topics like game structure or modes of thinking, he FIDA framework for game analysis, and more. Every so often the zeitgeist takes a hold and I dive back into this topic. I’d love to find a way to formalize all of this somehow - but I don’t relish the idea of creating a book that is stuck in time. Whatever I do, I would want it to be a dynamic and living thing.

Keyforge. I quite like Keyforge, and I’ve managed to get a number of family and friends hooked on it too - at least to the extent that people are often up for playing some games of it. In many ways, this is like a return back to the “Magic the Gathering” era - unsurprising given that both games were designed by Richard Garfield! The signature “project” was the IMPACT: Deck Analyzer I made in google sheets (I LOVE dynamic spreadsheets). It was a pretty awesome tool I felt. But alas, more keyforge sets have been released than I could keep up with, and database links that the tool relies are have changed and thus it no longer works. I could get it running again no doubt, but for now its on the back burner.

From gallery of Mezmorki
Warhammer 40,000. Not this again! I had a brief fling with 40k when the 8th edition rules came out a few years ago. My nephews were curious about the whole thing (and subsequently my own kids). Most recently, starting abou two months ago, was a far more serious re-emergence of interest. The “project” that I’ve been actively working on has been to build my own edition of the 40k ruleset - something I’ve always wanted to do. Without belabouring things, I’ll say that I’ve never been happy with the way Games Workshop manages their rules, and I have no interesting in feeding the rat race of edition releases (9th edition just came out). So my project has been to build the ultimate hybrid edition of the rules, based on 5th edition and pulling in the best stuff from other editions while weeding out the chaff. The result is ProHammer.

I’ve had a chance to play some games in-person with the younger generation, and even started playing with a close friend over tabletop simulator. Its been fun both playing again and testing and refining the ProHammer rules. I started painting miniatures again too. Maybe after 20-years I’ll finally finish my Space Wolves army!


THE ROAD AHEAD

So what’s next? What obsessions are creeping over the horizon?

I suspect Payday 2 will spin down again soon once I finish getting 1,000 achievements. Or maybe I’ll continue to press on and get the “Death Sentence” mask, for completing every heist on the highest difficulty level. I’ve done about 2/3rs of the heists on that difficulty - but the remaining ones are insanely difficult to say the least. I may have hit my skill ceiling and going further would be an exercise in futility. We shall see.

Warhammer 40,000 will hopefully stay on the front burner for a while. As the winter draws closer, being able to paint figures with my kids and nephews might be a fun division during the overcast Michigan winter. I just finished clearing up my box of terrain and building some new modular game boards (like my Dad did for me!) so we all have something to play on. Between that and Tabletop Simulator, I think this can get some traction for awhile.

In terms of board games to play, there isn’t that much pressing right now. In person playing, outside of my family and the extended family we’re podded with, isn’t happening anytime soon. And as I survey my collection, I'm quite happy with where it is. Mostly, I just want to play more of everything I have on my shelf already, which is a good place to be.

The one real big project looming way out over the horizon, the one what’s always wiggling about in the back of my mind, is making a 4X video game of my own invention. I have it all visualized perfectly, and have worked up design documents for a good portion of it. I’ve been advised to never try to make a 4X video game because it’s destined to end in failure - as so many 4X games have (and I should know). I do think that my concept, which I’ve written about before (here and here) would be pretty different from a traditional 4X game. I designed it explicitly to avoid the pitfalls I spent years criticizing over and over and again at eXplorminate. But well, I don’t “really” know how to program. For now, all I can do is bide my time and ride the wave of obsession as it ferries me from one project to the next.

Till next time! Cheers!

From gallery of Mezmorki
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