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Author Topic: Wherein I Accept my Burden and Begin to Ask Advice  (Read 2064 times)
foucalt
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Posts: 66


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« on: September 19, 2006, 11:16:32 AM »

Hi all,

I've been kind of hanging 'round the edges here, and on blogs, and now I'm ready. I'm ready to at least try to design a game. I've given some thought to some games I'd like to work on, and even have a couple of ideas about mechanics I'd like to try out. I don't have any notion that I have what it takes to make an awesome game, but I'm ready to get my feet wet.

I can just hear the faint chanting: "One of us, One of us, One of us"

So I have a couple of different ideas which I'd like to get off my chest here:

1) The Sandbox - a game about modern day Iraq that asks the questions "Why am I in this war? Why are they in this war? Why are we in this war?"

2) Play it Out - versatile like PTA, only instead of a TV show, you're working on a 3 act play about a particular premise. One or two protagonists, the rest of the players are in GM-ful supporting cast roles.

3) The Great Game - Espionage like I've never seen it done before. Where your greatest enemy is never the opposite side - at least you know what they're after. Inspired by The Sandbaggers.

4) Unnamed Carribean Revolution Game - About breaking free of oppression, regaining that which your fathers lost, and making your own destiny. Blending elements of Ethiopianism (predecessor of Rastafarianism) with other Afro-Carribean religions to address the spiritual side of the movement. That's all I know so far about this idea.

What I'm hoping for is advice on the following questions:
 A) What in the name of all that is holy have I gotten myself into?
 B) Which of these do you think would be the easiest to design? the hardest?
 C) Which has the most 'appeal'?
 D) What's the next step, beyond choosing one to start on?
 
 And any other advice you want to give. Thanks,
 
 Dave
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David Younce

dave dot younce at gmail dot com
Ricky Donato
Member

Posts: 156

Just chillin'


« Reply #1 on: September 19, 2006, 11:51:09 AM »

Hi, Dave. Welcome to the Forge!

Let's get to work.

Quote
A) What in the name of all that is holy have I gotten myself into?

Let me tell you what I've learned about game design from my limited experience.
1) It's an intensely creative activity. This alone can make it worthwhile for many people.
2) It's immensely rewarding. Imagine that you publish your game and it is being played by people across the world. How awesome would that be?
3) It's very difficult. It takes a lot of time, energy, and ability to suffer through frustration.
4) Related to #3, it requires you to understand and challenge your assumptions. This is very hard, because most of the time we are not aware of our own assumptions - we just believe certain things must be true, when that might not be the case.
5) Related to #4, it requires you to do research. Here, research means playing existing games: games that you've played before and games you've never even heard of. You are encouraged to understand what other games are trying to do, whether they succeed or fail, why they succeed or fail, and what subtle differences exist between certain games that make one "awesome!" and the other "eh..."

You're in for a wild ride.

Quote
B) Which of these do you think would be the easiest to design? the hardest?

The ease or difficulty of a design is not going to be clear from the game's starting concept. So I cannot answer this question right now, and I don't think anyone else can either (including you).

Quote
C) Which has the most 'appeal'?

My recommendation is for you to answer this question for yourself. Which has the most appeal to you specifically? If these 4 games had already been written, and you read the short descriptions you just provided, which one would you most want to play?

Don't worry about the audience yet. That part will come later.

Quote
D) What's the next step, beyond choosing one to start on?

At the top of this forum (First Thoughts), there is a sticky called Rules for the First Thoughts forum. Read through that thread and follow the links. First, you should read them all. Second, you should start to work on the Big 3. The links explain that in more detail.

Above all else, if you need some advice, don't hesitate to ask. Post your question, or send me a private message. Make sure you ask specific questions - don't just put up a pile of material and ask "What do you think?" because most people will ignore that.
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Ricky Donato

My first game in development, now writing first draft: Machiavelli
Adam Dray
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Posts: 676


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« Reply #2 on: September 19, 2006, 01:16:26 PM »

I'm with Ricky on this. I'm glad to see you here! Also, I think he's right that you should pick the game that jazzes you the most. At some point, when you're really asking yourself why you got started on this endeavor, you can at least tell yourself that you're designing a game that you really want to play.

What have you gotten yourself into? The scary: Hours of hard work. Frustrating playtests. Days of indecision and second-guessing. Maybe even financial risk. The fun: Your ideas coming to fruition. Other people getting excited about your game. People actually playing your game. Getting to play your own game.

Which is easiest? No one knows. You probably could make any one of them very difficult or very easy, depending on your goals for that game. They're all going to be really fucking hard, since your feet aren't wet yet, let alone your neck. ;) Don't worry, though: you'll do fine.

Which has the most appeal? The one you are the most excited about. Why? Because if you're not excited about it, why should I be? You're gonna have to pimp this thing a bit to get traction on the boards if you want discussion -- and on the shelves or wherever you sell it, assuming you go that route. Pick a game that you really want to play. If Vincent had put a list of games up that included pathetic losers killing animals in malls or pseudo-Mormons in dusters shooting demon-possessed sinners, would people have told him to write those games? Who knows. The thing is, he had a vision for them and made them and they're awesome. Have a vision and make your game awesome.

Next steps? Well, after you pick a game, let us know where you're headed and what you think this game is like. Maybe design a tentative character sheet for it (that worked wonders for a bunch of us in the Reversed Engineer contest over on Story Games!). Maybe answer the Big Three and let us ask you questions. At some point, we'll gently nudge you to go write so that we have something more tangible to talk about. Have you a place to host your game-in-progress so people can read it and comment? Do you want to design in the open and let us comment as you go, or behind closed doors and let us see the finished progress only when it's done?

Really, though, the next step is to write. Write as much as you can, then talk with us if you need help, then write some more, then playtest it. The sooner you can playtest it, the better. Playtest even a bit of it, like character generation, or the resolution system, or some other small part. You can test pieces independently of one another sometimes and that helps a lot. Post about your play on the Playtest forum here! That's where you get help with sticky design problems.

I also recommend finding people with whom you can chat about game designs in real-time (online or face to face). IRC and FoundryMUSH are two communities that can help. Or AIM me some time to riff. You can also use online chat resources to playtest, too.

Last, play games as much as possible. All kinds of games. Board games, strategy games, card games, traditional RPGs, newfangled indie RPGs, and so on. Play them to understand how they work. Talk about them on the Actual Play forum here! The more games you understand at a design level, the larger the repertoire you'll have to draw upon for your own games.
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Adam Dray / adam@legendary.org
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
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Eero Tuovinen
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #3 on: September 19, 2006, 01:29:07 PM »

Hi Dave! I don't think we've discoursed much, but I've noticed you posting, and maybe you've noticed my posts. I'd like to chat about your expectations here, because I know well what it feels like to ponder making a game for the sake of designing a game - which is clearly where you're at, being that you know you want to write one but can't decide which one!

Hmm... it seems I exceeded the maximum length allowed. Have to split, I guess...

A) What in the name of all that is holy have I gotten myself into?

A good question. I don't know how old you are, what your gaming experiences are like and so forth, so I'll tell a bit about my own experiences:
- I've been roleplaying since early teens, for around 15 years. The last five years have been more or less following the Forge course, which for the first three years meant careful reading and application of the theoretical principles to my reinvigorated play of various traditional games.
- I'd been designing games for a while before starting to read the Forge, and I never had much trouble including various new techniques and their applications to my doodlings. These were all games for my own play purposes, mostly, and generally they were of the universal-comprehensive Fudge-style you see often brought here, as well. Soon enough I realized the futility of that approach and started making the other kind of games - first of those were definitely inspired by MLwM, even before I actually read the game myself; this was somewhere around the end of 2003.
- My serious commitment to the Forge project came when we started translating and importing indie games to Finland in 2004. Around then I also started to feel comfortable with my "Forge identity" and the fact that I could work as an independent roleplayer and designer within the community framework. The 2004 IGC: Fantasy helped enormously in this regard.
- If I had to put numbers to my different game design projects, it would be roughly like this: half a dozen pre-Forge designs put to paper, around 3-4 designs written before the 2004 IGC and maybe another 8-10 a dozen designs since then. These are all games with more than a page of notes and a day of work, say, to give an idea of what I consider a "design project" and what's just a random idea.
- Of the above projects the ones I considered serious at the time (to the extent of working on them methodically and considering or achieving publication) were a minority of... say 5-6 different games. One of them was a superhero game from around 2001 I abandoned after reading Heroquest and seeing most of the best innovations of my game parallelized there. Another was a D&D rewrite akin to True20 I worked in around 2002-2003 and abandoned after seeing TSOY, which again parallelized what I was doing to a great extent. (Should note that while seeing others publish very similar stuff demotivated me quite a bit, it certainly wasn't the main reason to abandon those projects; if they had had the lift, I'd certainly have finished them regardless.) A third one is a small boargamish Christmas chocolate game thing that's still in development, although backburnered.
- In spring of 2005 I got this idea about a colorful dream adventure game called Eleanor's Dream directed at children, immersionists and what in my view consists the general Finnish mainstream. After working on the game alongside other various projects for the last year and a half I'm starting to be pretty confident that this game will actually be published next spring, after two years of work. I'm right today putting the finishing touches to the beta playtest documents, and am pretty certain that the game is conseptually 80% finished, even if there's still some writing to be done.

My point here is to illustrate the highly nuanced (some might say difficult) path I've taken to finally realize my dream of designing a game of my own. Sometimes it seems that to design a game you just sit down and write one, but my experience has been very much the opposite. I wouldn't even say that my real-life situation is especially difficult game design -wise: while I have delayed and aborted design projects in favor of publishing translations and doing other kinds of rpg projects, I imagine that people with careers and families (which is most indie designers, it seems) are still much more constrained in their commitment. An important point is to realize that all those aborted, delayed and back-burnered projects are a necessary part of my growth to design Eleanor's Dream, which will hopefully be one funny and fulfilling game. They aren't so much of a list of what might have been, but more of a guaranteed phenomenon of being a game designer: your first ten projects will crash in some manner before becoming a finished publication, that's how you learn the techniques and work methods of design.

So that's my answer to your first question: you've got yourself onto a long ladder of self-improvement and self-examination that will test your commitment and skill to it's utmost pretty much by definition (as a writing artist the game designer is largely motivated by his confidence in his own skill; you will be your own harshest critic). If this is your first game design, you should prepare to abandon it when you outgrow it. If you've already done many projects, it's somewhat more likely that this one will be finished; but even the most experienced indie designers constantly design duds that will be scrapped and scavenged, so regardless of your experience you should just take that as a part of the process.

I could have answered your question in many different ways, and I'm sure you'll get many good answers. I chose this particular perspective because of the skittish tone of your post and the declarational nature of it: "Now I'm designing a game, tell me which one of these projects will be the best one to do." I hope the above gives you some idea of how that perhaps isn't exactly how it works. I'm pretty sure that if you persist on the game design thing, you'll soon work through all of those four ideas and more besides. Just remember when and if that happens that it's nothing to be ashamed of; I myself tend to foolishly avoid discussing my design work in it's early stages with anybody, I'm about to send Eleanor out to all my designer friends to check out now instead of doing it a year ago. I think it's great that you came here as the first thing, even if it might mean having to waste everybody's time by abandoning a project after others have helped you to start with it.

Quote
B) Which of these do you think would be the easiest to design? the hardest?

Can't be answered. If you don't get a strong vision of what you're doing any of those is impossible. If you get a good idea, you might surprise everybody, and do it easily. It happens to absolutely everybody of us: we constantly get absolute newbies coming to the Forge with the most astounding ideas despite having very little game design experience or knowledge. What can we learn from this: the important thing is not the quality of your "idea", it's the quality of your inspiration that counts.

If I had to tell you which ones would be easiest for me, I'd pick numbers 1) and 4). The first one because I have half of it already designed (not the Gulf War thing, the one about questions of war), the second one because I like designing on a substantial real-world base. Even then it's entirely possible that I'd get stumped on making either one and ended up realizing number 3), or number XX) for that matter.

Now, what can be considered analytically is product analysis. That's where you consider your target audience and their needs, and work out some rough parameters for the project at hand based on needs of marketing and probable design parameters grounded on previous products. For example, you might know that you want to make your game a book even before you start designing it, that's product analysis of the simple kind. More ambitiously, you might know that one of those games will need a large book and another one will need a small book. That kind of thing might well hint at which project will be "easiest".

Going at it from that perspective, I imagine that numbers 1), 2) and 3) can all be realized as formalistic-narrativistic, sleek booklet type games like many Forge games are. Any of them might clock in under 50 pages if you rely on the audience already having the setting down and have a mid-complexity rules system like PTA, Dust Devils or Trollbabe in mind, say. 4) might still manage a size similar to Dogs in the Vineyard or Robots and Rapiers, assuming you don't feel like going all historical-accuracy on your players.

On the other hand, if your designer-genius sitting on your shoulder (it's there, believe me) tells you that the theater game absolutely can't be done without sock puppets and storyboards pinned on the walls via the process of play, then that might affect the design effort considerably. Or if you feel that you have to be original (we all have our standards of originality; I myself spent a week bashing my head at Trollbabe last week, specifically trying to avoid duplicating it's conflict resolution in my own game; the result luckily improved the game), that might make number 1) there the hardest of all as you try to consiciously work around carry and MLwM and all the other easy models. Lots of things that can go wrong.

So, yeah, pretty much can't be answered. I knew what play would look like in my game the minute I decided to design it, so I could easily tell you that it would be less work to design than, say, the mecha-epic rpg I have on the back-burner. The latter has several subsystems, some setting shit and complex resource management, while Eleanor only has to reinvent the social interaction parameters of roleplaying. Your mileage may vary, but in my mind at the time Eleanor seemed like the easier project. The thing is, that comparison had nothing to do with why I decided to design Eleanor instead of that mecha game; the sole reason I wanted to do Eleanor was that I felt it necessary and I felt that it's time had come, god damn the difficulties. So in that regard not only is the difficulty question unanswerable, it's also irrelevant.

Quote
C) Which has the most 'appeal'?

The one you design with all your heart and keenest skill. I should think that after the mormon gunslingers became all the rage we'd have learned to discount one-line descriptions as a basis of appeal.

However, I'm not saying that this is somehow "unanswerable". To the contrary, I suggest that you take a couple of hours to think about each one and write us a page or two of notes on the themes, style, setting, system, whatever. Post that stuff and I think we can pretty easily pinpoint which ones garner the most interest, even if you yourself can't choose between them (which I find extremely unlikely, by the way). A lesson we've learned time and again is that passion breeds passion, and the best creative interaction here at the Forge is born when you yourself share your passion in your writing. If nothing else, you can decide that the one that garners you the best helpful interaction on the design forums is the one project that has most "appeal".

An important note in case you've missed it: considering the current rpg market, appeal is a negligible factor in popularity and sales when interpreted to mean "wide market potential". I'm willing to bet that you can't design a game of such narrow appeal that narrowing the potential customer pool would seriously hamper your project. To the contrary, the great majority of indie designers has found that narrowing their appeal focus improves the audience interest, because the game services it's core audience better. If your game is such that it only entices 2000 people in the world, but it's also the only game for those 2000 people, well, that's 2000 near-guaranteed sales. On the other hand, if your game could potentially interest 20.000 people, but only 10% of them even hear of it and 1% decides to try it, that's only 200 sales. (Numbers out of my ass, obviously.) That's why it's feasible to focus on specialty sales.

Another important point: even when we forget the frankly unrealistic model of delineated target audiences, the fact remains that a good game will have wide appeal over seeming audience lines. Take Dogs, again: you don't think that all the people who bought it are Mormon history buffs, do you? The game speaks of universal human concerns, so even if it might on a surface glance have a narrow "appeal", the honesty of the writing and functionality of the game itself allow it to transcend the seemingly narrow box it draws around itself setting-wise. Your game should do the same, because you won't sell inside nor outside of your box if you fail in the passion/honesty department. And if you don't fail, the box doesn't matter, because you speak outside it, too.

And that's why you should forget about appeal and write the best game you can.

(To finish on this topic, I'll give my own tasteful opinion on your game ideas, because we humans love to be opinionated: I like numbers 4) and 2) best, options 1) and 3) least. 1) is overall dullest because I've already had plenty of war games this year, including my own; 4) is the most interesting because those themes are strong, and the particular time and place is largely unknown to me.)
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Eero Tuovinen
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #4 on: September 19, 2006, 01:29:29 PM »

(And here we continue from the last post...)

Quote
1) The Sandbox - a game about modern day Iraq that asks the questions "Why am I in this war? Why are they in this war? Why are we in this war?"

This is certainly a current idea. While I'm not personally so hot on the war thing right now, I recognize that writing a relevant, edgy game about Iraq would be a great stride in the dialogue about games as art. What I'd love to see is a game taking a rock-solid factual stand on the Middle East situation, with full understanding of the possibilities of roleplaying as a communication tool. Whether this is approached as a tool of propaganda or discussion device is immaterial, it's all good. I'd expect the one who tries this to set his goals on a Time magazine article, personally; you Americans are so easy to rile up that writing a political roleplaying game should easily get over the news threshold ;)

So yeah, I could get excited about this one. Would require some serious commitment and maturity though, to interest me. Making just a generic war drama game about such a current topic seems a bit cheap to me.

Quote
2) Play it Out - versatile like PTA, only instead of a TV show, you're working on a 3 act play about a particular premise. One or two protagonists, the rest of the players are in GM-ful supporting cast roles.

As a designer I see this one being largely redundant, except if you'd manage to capture the ambience of theater in it. I'm talking about the thing you get by actually making a theater production as a part of an amateur troupe or whatever, it's definitely something special. I think that this kind of project should draw heavily on that ethos in all regards to really make it stand out as an alternative to TV-based games. The actual drama mechanics, GM roles and all that jazz are side concerns and pretty trivial compared to the challenge of capturing the history of theater, the excitement of audience, the dress rehealsal, the premiere and all that in the game.

This game should smell musty like an old theater bench row, feel like a satin curtain and touch the bottom of your stomach like waiting for your cue off-stage does. Otherwise it's not so hot.

Quote
3) The Great Game - Espionage like I've never seen it done before. Where your greatest enemy is never the opposite side - at least you know what they're after. Inspired by The Sandbaggers.

This one is ruined for me personally because of the name: The Great Game as a name for the espionage game never did it for me, when the struggle for the control of central Asia always was so much more colorful and interesting. So you're reminding me of the game I'm not getting, the one where you're a Russian officer trying to bribe Indians to revolt against the British. Vague shadow play is pretty lame compared to that.

But yeah, otherwise that's certainly a topic that can be worked into a game, but I just don't happen to have a personal perspective on it right now. Part of it is that I've been working heavily with learning Spione, and it's ruined me for other espionage games for the time being.

Quote
4) Unnamed Carribean Revolution Game - About breaking free of oppression, regaining that which your fathers lost, and making your own destiny. Blending elements of Ethiopianism (predecessor of Rastafarianism) with other Afro-Carribean religions to address the spiritual side of the movement. That's all I know so far about this idea.

My favourite of these! No idea how you'd capture that time, place and issues into one lean packet, but that's the designer's job, not mine.

Quote
D) What's the next step, beyond choosing one to start on?

As I intimated above, take a couple of hours to write down more extensive notes: a paragraph or two of prose is traditional to get the juices flowing, but then should come mechanics, or perhaps a description of the play parameters - how long sessions, what social context, what kind of players, how the mechanics operate amidst the fiction, that stuff. Grab onto different ideas for a couple of hours and then post what you have when you're too tired to do more, and see if others have any ideas.

Ideally you'd already have some cornerstone ideas for the game at this point (some of those ideas already have, some don't) so you'd have something to compare with any new ideas you come up concerning the game. When you've settled on some basic ideas, you just start building around them until you think you have everything. Then you cut stuff away (ideally in playtest) until you've cut the excess. Then you add more, cut more and then hopefully have something that's logical, lean and fun.

To illustrate what I mean by "cornerstone ideas", here's the latest game I've been thinking about: I've been thinking of making a game or two about the old Finnish agrarian society (an important cultural topic in Finland) for a long while. This is just a general genre, if you will, but then I got the thematic idea of juxtapositioning lumberjack work ethic with the idealized macho adventure culture associated with the lumberjack culture in fiction. (I think I read a book written by a Finnish lumberjack about his experiences or something at some point, and the contrast between the pride in a job well done and the constant wooing of girls has been simmering on the back of my mind for a while.) OK, so that's premise. Instantly when I recognized that premise I thought of using the mechanics of the dice game Dudo for a game about the topic; I could have, like, bluffing lumberjacks and really-hurting lumberjacks, and all kinds of die-currencies. You'd start the summer with a given die pool, say, and you'd sacrifice parts of it for work, parts for play, to prevent yourself from dropping to zero dice. Mid-complex resource management combined with a heavy bluffing element seemed like a fun opportunity for a narrativistic game, as the bluff would allow players to take all kinds of theme-heavy risks in the fiction.

In the above description, what is the cornerstone? It's the idea of using Dudo mechanics for a game about Finnish lumberjacks in the 19th century. I have thought about the game a bit since then, but all that thinking is pretty much about fitting the cornerstone idea into mental models of how games work and extrapolating from there into secondary ideas for different mechanics. These secondary ideas are then contrasted with the cornerstone and kept or discarded based on a multitude of standards: leanness of the mechanics, social appropriateness for the target audience, economical use of mental concepts ("lightness"), thematic content, necessities of creating a strong SIS and so on. Along the way I might well change, add or discard my cornerstones ("cornerstones" are really just the parts of the design I see central at the moment), but at all times I have an idea of what makes this game this particular game. If I lose that center, the game is discarded and I might use it's components for something else later on.

Looking at your game ideas and especially my personal interpretations of them: the political edginess is definitely a cornerstone idea for me in your 1), while the respect for the feel of my theater memories is the first cornerstone for 2) (neither of these are yet really strong cornerstones, but they're a start). I don't get any strong sense of design priority (again, for me) off numbers 3) and 4) so I can't off-hand say how I'd approach them (apart from making 3) be about the real Great Game, I guess), but you see what I mean, right?

Of course there's many mental models and methods of game design, so this one might not speak to you. Just go with what seems to work for you. Some people swear by these question sets (Power 19?), for example, so you might try those as well. Whatever works.
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Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.
Ricky Donato
Member

Posts: 156

Just chillin'


« Reply #5 on: September 19, 2006, 02:28:30 PM »

At this point, we've given Dave a lot to chew on, so let's all take a rest and wait for Dave to catch up. Dave, don't feel rushed; take your time and try to really understand what we're saying. We and the game will still be here.
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Ricky Donato

My first game in development, now writing first draft: Machiavelli
foucalt
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Posts: 66


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« Reply #6 on: September 19, 2006, 06:19:31 PM »

 
Hi Dave! I don't think we've discoursed much, but I've noticed you posting, and maybe you've noticed my posts.
I have! Thanks for your advice here. I'm going to read it numerous times.

Really, though, the next step is to write. Write as much as you can, then talk with us if you need help, then write some more, then playtest it.

You're right. Thanks everyone. You'll be hearing from me soon. But first, I run silent, run deep and get at least something written on one of these.
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David Younce

dave dot younce at gmail dot com
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