James Borda Writer, Game and Interaction Designer

I am a 2013 graduate of NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP). I specialize in writing (screen, fiction and non-fiction), transmedia storytelling, game and interaction design. I am available for consultation, short- and long- term projects which connect the personal with the technical.

james.borda@nyu.edu
+1-248-974-2548

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A Letter to Greg Leeds, President and CEO of Wizards of the Coast

This is a short paper I wrote for my Business Lab class at the NYU Game Center. The brief was to pretend you’d met a game company executive recently and explain to him what you think he ought to change about his current business model. I wrote to Wizards of the Coast, the publishers of Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon, Avalon Hill board games and a number of other properties.

In short: “Your fans create better content than you do. Change your business into a platform for capturing and redistributing that content.”


MEMO

To: Greg Leeds, President and CEO, Wizards of the Coast

From:  James Borda

RE:  Wizards of the Coast future business prospects

 

Dear Mr. Leeds,

It was a pleasure speaking with you last Sunday at Pax East. I really appreciated your open manner and willingness to hear the thoughts of a fan from outside the industry. I was especially pleased that you asked for a summary of our conversation; if there is anything here that you find of use, please consider it my donation to the continued strength of a company that I have always held in high esteem.

My comments centered around my familiarity with Internet business models and some somewhat philosophical tangents about how media businesses have been forced to rearranged themselves since the Internet has made their product infinitely and freely reproducible. I believe the games industry would be wise to take note of these changes and rearrange itself in similar ways.

From Publisher to Platform

The most successful new businesses of the 21st century don’t sell products. They provide platforms for the collaboration of their customers, and profit from those collaborations. Companies such as Ebay, Etsy, and Kickstarter operate as mediators for collaboration and exchange, posting reliable profits via a commission model. Wizards of the Coast could do the same.

Few products attract such powerfully committed consumers as games. Gamers are notorious for their participatory zeal, whether modding their favorite games and sharing the results with one another, participating in conventions and other social events, or even arguing over the ‘best’ rules editions or settings. But Wizards (and other game companies) largely fail to catch this lightning in a bottle.

For several years I have been watching the growth of the “Old School Renaissance”, a community of players who share their love of the early, out-of-print editions of D&D on personal blogs. Several interesting developments have arisen from the community, most notably the proven viability of very small publishers who transmit their success as bloggers into product sales. Some have been funded on Kickstarter; others have simply published a product via Lulu, POD or .pdf. The downside (for Wizards) has also been apparent: if there is a high volume of quality material being exchanged informally, then what do gamers need Wizards for?

You will certainly be familiar with online games retailers and small presses. You will also be aware that much of the material that is available on these sites is of poor quality. In a sense, the RPG industry is in a similar place as the video game industry was in the early console market, or the android games market of today: low barriers to entry mean that there is a glut of product, consumers find it hard to discover quality material, and the price of all material is being forced downward.

By restructuring as a platform, Wizards could combine the functions of Kickstarter and Nintendo circa 1995. It could act as a curator of material from the vast volume of fan creations, and boomerang these materials back to the community with quality design and the imprint of the D&D brand.

I suggest a three-tiered revenue model. The first tier would consist of an online community hosted by Wizards, with a very low subscription price. The privilege of a subscription would be access to all the rough game materials the community (including Wizards employees) generates. These would inevitably be playtested, discussed and modified by the community. The best of these (as measured by a rating system, volume of interest, or simply the professional judgment of Wizards’ staff) could then be professionally designed and typeset as official D&D products and sold online and through Wizards’ ordinary retail channels (the second tier of revenue). The third tier would be an expanded subscription, significantly more expensive, which would guarantee delivery of all D&D branded products for a discounted retail price.

Effectively, Wizards would be outsourcing much of its R&D work to a community that does this voluntarily anyway. If Wizards offered fair payment to the originators of this content, it would strengthen brand loyalty and incentivize the community to keep sending in their creations.

There have been some interesting experiments along these lines already. The inclusion of developer tools in BioWare’s Neverwinter Nights allowed the community to create their own ‘modules’ and would have worked perfectly with this model. Paizo has an annual contest to find their next great designers, with the reward being a guaranteed published title. Paizo also has a subscription model for some of their publications. The Internet has revealed how strongly the ‘audience’ wants to be involved in content creation, a fact which the RPG industry may have been aware of before anyone.

Preparing For New Technologies

This model need not apply only to pen-and-paper RPGs.

Home 3D fabrication is already available, though low in quality. Before the technology matures, Wizards should prepare for a shift in the market for simple manufactured goods which mimics the changes in the media market. Small plastic items, such as game pieces and miniatures, will be some of the first designs that 3D hobbyists start to trade around the Internet. Once a consumer can download and print the full set of pieces for an Avalon Hill board game, there will be little need to buy the box.

Wizards can get out in front of this using the same model mentioned above. Rather than fight the inevitable, Wizards should start now to create a dynamic community of miniature- and board gamers who share designs with one another. The best designs can be folded into Wizards’ product line.

Looking Further

Google Glass is about to launch, and with it will come an explosion in Augmented Reality apps. For games, this means a more transparent boundary between the computer, the tabletop, and the ‘real world.’

AR glasses could juxtapose a board game onto a blank table. It could open a realm of new CCG designs in which the glasses recognize the cards and change the designs on them according to their positioning on the table, or according to who is looking at them. It could project a virtual environment behind the players. Virtual miniatures could actually march across a table and fight. Dungeon Masters could place virtual props on the table for their players’ inspection. And mobile gaming will take on a new dimension, released from the constraints of a 4” touch screen.

All of these developments will inevitably be explored by hobbyists and other companies, whether established or start-up. Even if they are outside of Wizards’ technical or strategic scope, it would be prudent to start exploring partnerships and licensing agreements to keep these developments close to the D&D brand.

Cross-pollination

The vaunted quest for a D&D movie crashed and burned in 2000. But as professional-quality media tools become cheaper and easier to use, once again fans are rushing to the fore, creating fantasy-inspired podcasts, animations and video series, and some are quite high quality. The only thing they are missing is the D&D brand. Just as Lucasfilm created a channel on its website to showcase fan-created videos, D&D could do the same. Dungeons and Dragons’ greatest strength is its brand – since its creation it has been synonymous with fantasy adventure. Keeping that association strong through branded media is paramount to Wizards’ continued success.

 

Best Wishes and it was a pleasure meeting you,

James Borda

 

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Gangnam Style is older than human civilization

I’m a little late to the party. Liza and I just watched the Korean pop star Psy’s Gagnam Style video in full. We were viewer #1,723,506,130. I feel a little guilty, because we both watched at the same time so we robbed him of one view.

Then Liza wondered how long the human race has been collectively watching that video.

1,723,506,130 viewers x 4:13 (the length of the video) = 436,047,050,890 seconds

= 7,267,450,848 minutes

= 121,124,181 hours

= 5,046,841 days

= 13,817 years

Humanity has been watching Gangnam Style for longer than human civilization has existed.

 

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Subway Story #1

For a while I was writing stories on my phone during my subway rides into Manhattan. This is my favorite one. It was inspired by an assignment in Doug Rushkoff’s Narrative Lab class which I misunderstood… We were supposed to recount an incident in our lives which culminated in either “I laughed and laughed and laughed,” or “I cried and cried and cried.” I missed the personal incident part and thought I was just supposed to make it up.


Alison said, pray with me. We sat on her bed in yellow perfect light. She said, Now what we have done can never be erased. It’s in the mind of God. I said would God have watched us if he hated what we were doing, maybe he’d have turned his face away from it and so now there’s nothing of it in the mind of God. Alison said Don’t be stupid, God doesn’t turn his face away, God can’t turn his face away, he sees and knows all. I said That must be a hard thing for God and Alison said What are you talking about. Pray with me. So she got on her knees and she was still naked, and she closed her eyes and put her hands together and I can tell you I have never seen a sight more breathtaking than that, holy I thought so maybe she was on to something. And then she said Dear Heavenly Father I know I have displeased you. I know Charlie and I have just betrayed your trust and sullied our godly natures and you must be very disappointed in us. You must hate us though I know you can’t hate so maybe you just feel very very disappointed. And we are are truly sorry. Meanwhile I’m watching her out of the corner of my eye and I’m getting another boner. Charlie and I, says Alison, are forever your servants and we will in all ways strive to please You and live our lives according to Your divine guidance. Please forgive us oh Heavenly Father, she began, and then something like a long sigh escaped her lips because I’d reached over and tweaked her nipple. Charlie she said swatting my hand away and I said sorry and she said don’t apologize to me so I said Sorry God. Do you mean it she said and I saw where her eyes had gone. I mean it I said, with all of my heart. She closed her eyes and put her hands back together and I put my hand right back where it had been before. Be serious she said, but she didn’t slap my hand away. I am serious, I said. This isn’t funny said Alison. Am I laughing, I said, and her eyes popped open she met my eyes with her insatiably blue sky drinking eyes, and she said God sees everything you know. Yes I said. Then why aren’t you afraid she said and I said because God sees everything. Close your eyes I said I’ve got a secret it’s just between me and God, and she narrowed her eyes and said what are you going to do and I said it’s a secret so she closed her eyes. And I went over to her nightstand and I picked up her lipstick, bright red lipstick, and I went around behind her and started writing on her ass. What are you doing she said, but I said shhh, it’s a secret, and I wrote God loves on her left cheek and Alison on the right. She jumped up and turned around in front of the mirror which was a better prayer than any words that have been spoken by a pope. She squinted backwards at the bright red letters, trying to make them out because they were backward in the mirror. Then she got it. Charlie, she said, turning pink. And I laughed and laughed and laughed.

 

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Thesis – Character Sheets

I’m stepping out of the ITP Thesis blog, to post these, because at the moment the blog doesn’t have the capacity to attach .pdf documents. These are the character sheets I wrote as a guide for the actors to improvise with during recording tomorrow.

CharacterSheet-Barry

CharacterSheet-Cici

CharacterSheet-Stefan

CharacterSheet-Sunita

 

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Audio Story – The Bird Keeper

A project with Owen Roberts. We made had planned to interview the guys who work at the snack stands down in the 8th Street subway, who gaze at each other across the tracks all day. We wondered if they knew each other, and what life was like spending most of your day down there. Unfortunately, they really didn’t want to be interviewed.

So we randomly started asking ITP students to tell us stories. We were so charmed by Manuela‘s that her birds became the entire piece.

It’s here, on Soundcloud.

 

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Short story critiques

Hannah Davis:

Best birthday ever, except for snakes.

I love it. It starts with one of the most benign premises possible, and punches through at the end with horror and comedy all in one word. It then forces me to double-back and reevaluate the opening clause – is the joyful innocence I first saw there intact, and the speaker just a bit put out by the snakes, or was it a frenzy of panic and death which still managed to improve upon all the speaker’s dismal birthdays up to now? Or somewhere in between?

Ioni Gkliati:

After All

 After All

I opened my eyes and you were there.

Light like the light around us.I hold your hand.

“welcome” you whispered

This path has no end.

Heavy drops on my head.

Surrounded by this soaking wood in a room floating in tears.

Like the ones I cried when you died.

There is an explanation included on Ioni’s blog, so I have to admit I feel like I’ve cheated a bit. I can’t say for sure whether I’d have recognized the real story if I hadn’t been prompted. But, having been told the secret, the resonance is there – a lovely tension between sadness and peace. Is this an afterlife I’d like to be part of? Would the presence of my lost love overcome the oppressive atmosphere of ‘heavy drops on my head,’ ‘soaking wood in a room floating in tears?’ The path has no end, after all.

 

 

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6-word Stories

This was a challenge I really enjoyed, because the format forced me to think hard about what constitutes a story. I felt that my attempts fell into three categories: 1. descriptions which are not actually stories; 2. descriptions which strongly indicate a back story, but do not contain any action in themselves (Hemingway’s classic “For Sale: Baby shoes, never used” falls in this category); and 3. full stories in which there is an actual event and reversal. Here are some of each:

Category 1:

The taxi disgorged its clown posse.

On Fifth Avenue rich guys vomit.

Ben Franklin grinned between my fingers.

Category 2:

The war made me like this.

We’re running out of handcuffs, Captain!

Welcome to McDonalds! Fuck off! Die!

Category 3:

“Push harder,” he said. She didn’t.

Wrong address. I went in anyway.

Death came for everyone but Sarah.

I’m equating story with event, following Aristotle and Robert McKee. I found category 3 the hardest to write. You can get a pretty juicy description in 6 words, but for there to be a true event requires a set up and reversal, giving you about 3 words for each. Very difficult!

 

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Algorithms – Week 8 – Paper Abstracts

I’ve forked again, and now have two possible directions I am considering. I wrote an abstract for each:

Tragedy of the Commons Abstract

We combine two classic simulation models — agent-based modeling and genetic algorithms — to observe whether a group of autonomous agents, acting with limited knowledge in their own self-interest, can nevertheless frame societal rules of resource extraction such that a limited resource base is conserved indefinitely. In doing so, we introduce an abstract legal framework to the agent society, which the agents alter through democratic deliberation. We observe whether globalized political interactions (in which all agents can confer regardless of locality) increases or decreases the chances of finding a sustainable solution.

Medical Diagnosis Abstract

Inspired by genetic algorithms, we propose a model for a distributed, software-based social decision-making algorithm that allows agents with limited knowledge to pool information to solve complex problems. A simulation of the algorithm is presented, with suggestions as to how it could be applied to the real-world problem of diagnosing and treating complex medical problems.

 

 

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Algorithms Week 7 Update

Finally some progress on the programming front.

I’ve put all the basic pieces in place for a spacial agent-based model. The sketch consists of a square grid that spaces itself dynamically depending on the size entered in the parameters of the sketch. Likewise, a user-variable number of agents appear as circles on the grid and interact with it turn-by-turn. (In all versions, there is a blue rectangular space on the right side of the window which will be a user control panel.)

Here is an early version. This was a test to make sure the agents were communicating to the proper grid squares. The agents are colored randomly, and as they move down the grid they change the color of the grid squares.

The next version was a test to ensure that the grid squares were talking back to the agents. Now the agents and squares exchange colors with one another. The agents are also moving (randomly)  in all four directions, and the grid is unbounded; agents can step off one side and appear on the other.

Finally, the latest version introduces speed control (using the millis() function I can adjust a variable that determines how often the system iterates; in this case I set it to 500 milliseconds) and links between agents. Whenever two agents are directly adjacent on the grid, a link is forged between them.

Now that all these building blocks are in place, I can add in the detailed interactions between the agents and the grid environment.

 

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Week Six Update

Continuing with my study of general algorithms:

  • Uninformed Search (These are “dumb” methods – using brute force calculation.)
    • Depth-First Search: Begin at the starting node of a decision tree and follow one branch as deep as it goes. Then back up and follow the next branch, continuing until a solution node is found. Not optimal (does not necessarily find the shortest path to the goal node) and only complete if there are no loops in the decision tree; otherwise it can get cycle in a loop and never find a solution. Potentially very slow if the graph is very deep.
    • Depth-Limited Search: As above, but the algorithm determines an arbitrary maximum depth to search. Not complete – the goal node may be deeper than the maximum depth, and not optimal – returns the first successful path it finds even if there is a shorter path.
    • Iterative Deepening Search: Performs a depth-limited search of depth 1, then depth 2, etc. until it reaches a solution. Complete and optimal in unweighted graphs. It is the preferred algorithm when the depth of the solution is not known. Same time complexity as DFS and DLS – it can potentially search every node in the graph before finding the solution.
    • Breadth-First Search: Search the graph from root node in order of distance from the root. Different from IDS in that each node that is searched must be stored – so it has a higher spacial complexity (higher memory requirements). They also differ in how they handle the queue of discovered but unsearched nodes – IDS uses a LIFO (Last-In-First-Out) implementation and BFS uses a FIFO (First-In-First-Out) implementation. I’m not sure what the significance is in terms of efficiency. BFS is complete and optimal. Preferred if the solution is known to be close to the starting node.
    • Bidirectional Search: Performs two breadth-first searches simultaneously, one from the starting node and one from the goal node. When both searches find a common node, the path from start to goal can be reconstructed. Complete and optimal, but only possible if the goal node is known in advance. Advantage is that the time and space complexity are half an ordinary BFS, since it only needs to search half the depth of the graph.
    • Uniform-Cost Search: A method for finding the path with the lowest cost on a weighted graph. From the starting node, evaluate the path costs of each connected edge. Put them in a priority queue from least cost to highest. Follow the path at the front of the queue and again evaluate the costs from that node, adding to the accumulated cost of the current path. Then reorder the priority queue (least to highest cost), pick the lowest cost path, and repeat. The solution is found when the path at the top of the priority queue contains a solution. Optimal and complete if the path costs are non-negative. Time and space complexity are the same as BFS.
  • Informed Search (These methods are more efficient that uninformed search, because they employ heuristics to evaluate the quality of any state in the search space).
    • Best-First Search: Keeps a list of ‘closed’ and ‘open’ nodes. Unvisited nodes are arranged in a queue according to the evaluation function f(n) = g(n) + h(n), where h(n) is a heuristic function (an educated guess) and g(n) is the estimated cost. This algorithm is “greedy” because it will always choose the least expensive node in the queue; however this makes it possible to overlook global minima in favor of local minima. Complexity in both time and space is O(b^m).
    • A* Search:
    • Hill-Climbing Search
    • Simulated Annealing
    • Tabu Search

Also consulted with Patrick Hebron about a particular problem with my previous iteration: when a citizen proposes a change in the “Law String,” the voters are chosen purely at random. This means it’s possible for a single ‘voter’ to be consulted multiple times. So we discussed several strategies for making sure that the ‘voters’ are unique.

  1. The first algorithm he suggested was somewhat akin to a Depth-First Search. The idea is to start from the first position of the ‘voters’ array and pick one citizen at random. Then move to the second position, again choose a random citizen, and then check from the beginning of the array to ensure that this voter is not a repeat of a previous random choice. Iterate until all the voters have been chosen. The big problem with this is that its time complexity is geometric (O(b^d) in O-notation). This will be a big problem if I am using a large number of voters, which I would like in principle to be able to do (for statistical comparisons). For example, if I have 10,000 voters, this algorithm could take (10,000 * 10,000) = 100,000,000 iterations to complete.
  2. Patrick then suggested I try using a java class called ‘set’ which works like an indexed ArrayList. It includes a method called “add” which “Adds the specified element to this set if it is not already present (optional operation).” So hopefully that will be a more efficient way to go.

Setting up a spacial version of the ABM

I reviewed Repast, but ultimately decided to program the whole thing myself in Processing – this is because I am new to programming and feel that a crucial aspect of this exercise is the programming experience.

This may have been a mistake… last night I tried to add a ‘GridSquare’ class to delineate the field the agents move on, and broke the program. I still can’t figure out how to fix it…

More consideration of the fitness function problem

Thinking about changing this to essentially a Tragedy of the Commons simulator – create a resource that agents can harvest and trade, and let the agents vote on how much each agent can extract. And later include tendency to cheat, penalties, etc.

 

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With an undergraduate Creative Writing degree from Oberlin, I have written consistently for over 20 years. Here are some representative samples of my work:

Screenplays

Essays, Politics, and non-fiction

Fiction and Poetry

About James

There was an old Far Side cartoon where a bunch of vultures are sitting in a circle, obscuring whatever it is they're feasting on. One of the vultures is wearing a cowboy hat. "Look at me," says the vulture, "I'm a cowboy. Howdy howdy howdy!"

I read that as a kid and didn't get it. The conceptual gap I was being asked to jump (it's the cowboy who's being eaten) was somehow too wide and too narrow at the same time. Too wide in that, like many of his cartoons, Larson was depending on a certain morbid shock which was not really shocking to me: of course vultures are going to eat a dead cowboy if they find him, so what? And too narrow in that I had no trouble leaping past it into a broad fictional world in which this vulture might just be weird enough to go around in a cowboy hat all the time. Maybe he thinks he's being cool. Maybe all the other vultures are thinking, "There's Cousin Lester, still with the hat on. Sure, Lester, we get it. You're a cowboy."

This was the best I could come up with: the vulture was a nerd. And yet, deep down I felt sure I was missing something. Maybe the key resided in those mysterious three words: Howdy, howdy, howdy. The repetition infused them with a kind of resonance, like a Tibetan mantra.

Years later I got the joke. I was disappointed. It still wasn't that funny, and now the mystery had been cleared up too. And the vulture, while still just as much of a nerd, had lost that faintly noble glow that surrounds a true eccentric. I prefer my version - Lester the vulture, who found his life a tad repetitive and unfulfilling, spots a cowboy hat blowing along the dry desert floor, and to the embarrassment of all his family and neighbors, swoops down to claim it as his own.

Welcome to my web site. Howdy, howdy, howdy.

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