Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Deception Design Diary #1: Where I try to expose a phony psychic

Those of you who follow my Facebook or Twitter feed probably already know that the next game in the Blackwell series - entitled Blackwell Deception - is underway.  Things are moving a bit slowly while I get the last few design issues sorted out, but I envision things to start taking off very soon.  I am aiming to get it done before Christmas, but I'm not going to officially announce a release date until I am sure.  This has been the first time in a long while that I've been able to design and produce something completely in-house without any distractions from a publisher, so it's very exciting.  I feel like I've got my indie cred back.  Anyway, I thought I'd start a design diary to talk about the ups and downs of making it. 

The Inspiration

A few years ago, I got a call from a friend.  She needed a favor, but was embarrassed to ask it.  To respect her privacy, I'm going to use a fake name and call her Cindy.  For around six months or so, Cindy had been seeing a psychic.  One of those storefront psychics that you see on every other block in this city.  At the time, she had been drifting a bit aimlessly, unsure about her career choices and her place in life, and the psychic totally took advantage of that.  The psychic told Cindy that her aura needed energy work, which cost about $200.  After Cindy paid this amount, the psychic said that she would immediately buy a special candle and meditate on it.  From there, Cindy just went deeper.  By the time Cindy wised up, she was about $5,000 in hock to the psychic.  Angry at herself, she decided that she was going to expose the scam and prevent the same thing from happening to others.

So, she called a news network.

The news network was interested, and they wanted someone to go in with a hidden camera and get footage of her defrauding someone.  Did Cindy know anyone who'd be willing to do that?  Yes, it turns out, Cindy did.  I had just finished the first Blackwell game and she knew I was interested in that kind of thing.  "I figured you'd think it was cool," I remember her saying.  She was right.

I met up with Cindy and the news crew and they affixed a button camera to my shirt.  It was pretty slick, even though it was a slightly different color than the other buttons.  "Don't worry," the news lady said. "You just look like a guy who doesn't care about his appearance."  Fair enough. 

So I went into the psychic's office to get defrauded.  She asked me a bunch of questions about my personal life and did something with tarot cards.  Sure enough, the psychic eventually told me that I needed energy work and it would cost $200.  I told her I'd think about it, and I left feeling proud of myself for getting it all on camera.  Unfortunately, my life as a spy was a short-lived one.  I had aimed the button camera one inch too far to the left, and ended up with 20 minutes footage of her wall.  James Bond I am not.

In the end the network decided not to pursue the story, but the experience opened my eyes to a subculture in New York that not many know about.  Cindy's story is not an isolated one.  Fortunately for her, she got out before any major damage was done.  She's now kicking butt and taking names in the self-esteem department. Others... are not so lucky.

The inspiration becomes a Blackwell story

In the years since this happened, it's stuck with me.  I would walk around the city and I would see one of those psychic storefronts and I'd flash back to what happened to Cindy and what the psychic attempted to do to me.  I have read reports of victims who got totally brainwashed by these psychics; giving over their life savings and breaking off from their families, simply because their psychics told them to.  They attract the kind of people who are confused or lost, and then milk them for all they are worth untill they are dry.

I knew there was a Blackwell story in this somewhere, and as I've seen more and more of these storefronts my imagination began to wander.  It's weird, I'd say to myself, there sure are a lot of them.  I know of four psychic storefronts in my neighborhood alone.  Move up towards midtown and you'll see them even more frequently.  They've all been in place for as long as I have lived here.  Even in this economy, they are still around.  How come major bars, restaurants, and shops - which have been in existence for 50 years or more! - are all going out of business left and right while all these parasitic phony psychics remain open?

Surely, I felt, they must be organized.  There must be some kind of unifying power behind them.   Something beyond the mere storefront.  Something even more sinister behind the scenes.  But what could it be?

I think Rosa and Joey are about to find out.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Cafe Pick Me Up

Several months ago, someone suggested I do reports of the cafes I go to and rate them based on their "laptop friendliness".  I'm not sure if this is a good idea or not, but I can't think of a better place to start than this place.

As I wrote in my last entry, I tend to wander around more now that I just have to carry my notebook and pen.  And since I wander around quite a bit, I discover lots of new places around my neighborhood.  Usually I walk west towards Greenwich Village, but lately my feet have been pushing me east toward Alphabet City.

Most people are familiar with the number grid system of NYC.  If you hear the phrase "8th street between 5th Avenue and Broadway", something about it sounds very New York.  But there's a section of the city where the Avenues are given letters instead of numbers.  It's a small stretch of city in the far East Village, north of Houston and south of 14th street. It starts at Avenue A and goes to Avenue D.  Hence, Alphabet City.  I love wandering through there, as it's grungy and dirty and still has an old New York vibe despite the gentrification.

Anyway, last week I found myself checking out a cafe in Alphabet City.  It was a little indie place, which is unusual.  It had huge wall-length windows that were wide open, and several ceiling fans, so it was nice and ventilated despite the scorching heat.  I got a coffee and sat down and whipped out my notebook, where I whiled away an hour or two.

Normally I wouldn't mention this place at all, but I decided to go back the next day and I stupidly didn't have any cash on me.  They didn't take credit cards, so I asked where the nearest ATM was.  The woman at the register said "Eh, don't worry about it.  You were here yesterday.  I trust you."

So, yeah.  That's never happened before, and certainly not on my second visit.  Since they gave me a free cup of coffee, the least I can do is give the place a mention on this blog.  I've gone back several times since then and the place is definitely worth visiting.  It's called "Cafe Pick Me Up" and it's on the corner of Avenue A and 9th street.  It's laid-back and unpretentious, the staff is super friendly, and it's got a great view of the street.  As a bonus, the iced coffee is really tasty and comes in an actual glass, plus they've got an Italian menu that's even better (and wicked cheap!).  The gnocci is especially good. 

Anyway, to bring this blog post back on topic, they are very "laptop developer friendly", as they've got plenty of electrical outlets and will happily let you stay there for several hours as long as you order something. Their internet isn't free, but if you're looking to sit and work and not get distracted by web surfing, it's a great place to be.

So... who thinks this cafe review thing is a good idea?


Monday, July 19, 2010

Design mobility

So I'm in the midst of what I call the "design phase" of development.  For me, this is the most fun and also the most challenging part of the process.

On the one hand, I've got a lot of creative freedom.  I let my mind go nuts and my pen follows suit.  If what I come up with sucks or doesn't work, I just cross it out and start again.  It's quick, it's dirty, and it's very satisfying.  I think I have about a dozen notebooks of cross-outs and scribbles on my shelf.

On the other hand, I rarely feel like I'm accomplishing anything substantial.  During proper production, you have a list of tasks you need to accomplish and you get the satisfaction of ticking them off one by one.  You have a large goal that is broken up into smaller goals, and it's much easier to digest.

The design (or pre-production) stage isn't like that for me. I can't break up the game into smaller chunks, because I have no idea what the game is going to be.  It's some nebulous, insubstatial, raw thing that's floating out there in the ether.  So there are days where I feel great that I get to be all artsy and creative (this is fun), but there are days when I pound my head in frustration when I see that a whole day has gone by and I've only designed half-a-puzzle that I may or may not keep (this is not fun). Time is money, and all that.

But the biggest perk to the design phase?  I don't need my laptop.  No longer do I have to lug that thing around.  I just grab a working pen (usually two, just in case) and a notebook and off I go.  A laptop gives you great mobility, but a pen and notebook is even more so. 

In the last week, I've done design in the following places:

- on the subway
- Washington Square Park, while a live jazz band played
- on a bench overlooking the east river
- a park overlooking the Hudson river
- the back seat of a taxi
- the bathtub

So yeah, the design phase can get frustrating but it certainly has its moments.