Podcast Roundup 5

Sorry to have skipped a week on this; it’s been distracting. It’s also been hard to find good podcasts of the sort I wanted to cover, and I’ll have something to say about that at the end of the post. What I’ve got for you this time is two really good company-sponsored, official podcasts.

Now, there are some obvious pitfalls for official podcasting. Many of us are fairly skeptical of PR in its manipulative mode and keen to sniff out efforts at deceiving or misdirecting us. There is a genuine art to talking honestly, usefully, and entertainingly, while also advancing the goal of making your employer’s products seem interesting and worth purchasing. Some of us (some of me) have an impulse to regard all PR as innately untrustworthy, but it’s not so—interesting truths can be a great way to rouse current and potential customers’ interest, too. Both of these deliver on that, I think.

Dungeons & Dragons Podcast
by Dave Noonan and Mike Mearls, and guests

The Dungeons & Dragons Podcast is something I didn’t start checking out until I got hooked on D&D 4th edition (about which I hope to write more soon (please don’t take this as an invitation to start arguments about how D&D sucks in the comments, at least not just yet (thank you))). Each episode is a half hour or so long, and they come out anywhere from one to three times a month.

Each episode has a single topic, and as I’ve commented before, I like the extended attention to a subject, with room for digressions and wanderings that lead to interesting insights. Mike and Dave have good speaking voices and come out very clearly. Their guests sometimes don’t come out so well, particularly when there’s more than one—they get tinny and echoey from (I assume) being too far from the mike. Above all, this is a happy series—these people are having a good time doing what they do, and that comes through in a lot of ways. I’m sure their work involves a measure of tedium and nuisance just like everyone else’s, but there’s also some very distinctive satisfaction, and they sensibly focus on that.

There’s a really strong emphasis on what folks at Wizards of the Coast have learned from their play of D&D through various editions, and how they apply that to current publications. And it’s stuff to warm the hearts of a lot of gamers, like the desirability of one player’s choices for their character influencing others but the undesirability of having one player’s choices make one or a limited number of choices overwhelmingly desirable for the others. The example there comes in episode 26, in the midst of discussing an epic-level campaign Dave runs. One character had a power that gives targets a vulnerability to lightning. It was so strong an incentive that all the other characters were loading up on lightning-dealing weapons and spells, at the cost of alternatives that would otherwise have made just as much sense. They dialed back the bonus as a result. In episode 25, Dungeon and Dragons editor Chris Youngs delivers as good an explanation as I’ve heard about what separates possibly interesting but ultimately flat submissions from ones that have the spark of gaming relevance. And so forth and so on.

This is one of those shows that’s good listening for people who actually are playing D&D, and also for people who want to hear what successful game design in progress sounds like.

Footnote to the review: Dave made me laugh out loud and get a sustained fit of the giggles. “I want to start with the most positive, life affirming question anyone can ever ask anybody else about D&D. Rich Baker, tell me about your character.”

Blizzcast
by various community moderators and guests

Blizzcast is the house podcast by a little-known game studio responsible for niche releases like World of Warcraft. It’s hosted by a mix of the folks who provide the official presence on the forums for various games (and if you read those, you may find it interesting just to hear what they sound like). Each episode is about an hour long, and they come out—very roughly—monthly or so. Each episode has one or two primary topics that get most of the time, with incidentals wrapped around it.

As with the D&D podcast, it’s fascinating to hear how people think as they make games that make audiences happy. Both of these sets of folks are quite willing to talk about what they hoped would work but didn’t, and about how many iterations it takes to work out the ramifications for the rest of a game’s design of innovations in one part, and like that. From time to time they take on popular misconceptions, too, as in episode 5, when Diablo III lead designer Jay Wilson talks about color palette choices. He addresses a common criticism of Diablo I and II fans about the previews of Diablo III, that it’s just too damn bright, pointing out the extent to which the earlier games were also that bright and very varied in color; it’s just that people select memories of particular pieces of the game to represent the whole. I nodded very vigorously at that part, having been there and done that with games I’ve worked on.

It will likely come to you as no surprise at all that these are by far the best-produced podcasts I’ve listened to so far. They have dramatic music, the sound quality is excellent, the flow of questions and answers is smart, the whole thing just works. It’s great to hear the results of good resources thrown around by people who have a clue. The nature of the answers is good, too—the people interviewed do well at explaining their subjects without a lot of assumptions of expertise on the part of listeners, but with the assumption that listeners actually do want to get details rather than generalizations. So they provide useful examples to illustrate their points. I come away from each one feeling that I learned something, often something that bears on my own work as well as my appreciation of others’ creations and insights into what unsatisfactory gaming might have been missing.

In Which I Rant, A Little

I really wanted to review more computer game-related podcasts, since I’ve been heavy on tabletop rpg-related ones so far. So in the last couple weeks I’ve listened to a lot of them.

And a lot of them really, really stink.

More specifically, a lot of them are of the “ya hadda been there” sort. One or more hosts get together with buddies and ramble about this and that. Many of them sound drunk or otherwise impaired. Even when apparently sober, their sound quality is often awful. And they don’t have anything to say that will be of interest to someone who isn’t already one of their buddies. They have “oh that was so cool” stories about what they’ve been doing and playing lately, very often without any context for those of us who haven’t been listening since episode one. They repeat what they’ve read in the gaming magazines and news sites, and have nothing of their own to add, nor any sense of whether they want to trust any particular bit of alleged news.

They are, basically, pointless on any scale beyond the purely personal.

I’m sympathetic to the urge to try to make a mark, to do one’s own thing regardless of whether there’s a market, or an audience, or whatever. I’ve certainly done my share of writing just because I really wanted to, with hopes rather than expectations. But I also think there should be a time for judgment and reflection, and some willingness to ask questions like “Okay, that was fun, but does this really need to go out to the world?”

There are a few I want to recommend, but I have to sort through my thoughts some more. My goal in this kind of post is to point readers at good stuff, partly because once I start targeting podcasts I don’t recommend there’s no real bottom to it, and I don’t want to go there. But sheesh.

Okay, end of rant. Next time, back to the good stuff.

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