Archive for August 2013

Guest Article: Building Over the Frame (Pt. 1)   Leave a comment

Welcome back to Gratuitous JRPG. I am Nonfiltered, and I will be filling in for Epic Alphonse while he works on storyboards for the next part of the curriculum, so to speak. Since the idea of an update schedule going off the rails bothered me something fierce, I’ve offered to step in and write a bit on the end of the game-making process that Alphonse is less familiar with, the aspect of writing. While I’m not discrediting anything he wrote in earlier essays, and I will, in fact, assume you have read all of the relevant entries about plot and character building, I will be approaching things from some other angles that he hasn’t discussed. This is strictly more on the theorycrafting end of things, and the technical, more practical aspects will be addressed later by your regular writer.

The important words for today are theme and narrative. For the purposes of our discussion, the plot outlines discussed in previous entries are your who, where, and when. Narrative is the what of the tale, as it is where we tie the events of the plot to the character’s motivations and personalities. Likewise, theme is the why, as it takes the narrative, and gives it a larger meaning both to the characters and the player. Both of these are important, and with proper understanding of them, make even the most cookie cutter story stand out. Think about it like this: without the themes of the triumph of good in humanity and our ability to correct the mistakes of the past, and without the shared narrative of a variety of would-be heroes adventuring through the aeons and overcoming their weaknesses, Chrono Trigger is a game about a bunch of teenagers doing various historical figures’ chores, murdering an alien life form, and generally freaking out their ancestors and descendants.

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I’m not saying you should ever go that far, but it is pretty damn important.

Theme is the more immediate of the two, and nailing down the theme of the game, if any at all, is going to be direly important to later development. Now, it is worth noting that not having a theme at first isn’t the biggest concern. You’re almost always going to start a project like this with the idea of a character, or mechanics, or some world-building. I guarantee Yasumi Matsuno didn’t sit down to write Final Fantasy Tactics and start by proclaiming to the rest of the office, “I want to tell a story about the inaccuracy of history and class warfare!” Well, okay, maybe he did. The guy is eccentric. But my point is that at no point should you feel like you have to have a theme first, and trying to write to a theme immediately may constrain creativity.

Instead, what you might want to do is write out your basic framework of a plot, as was gone over in the earlier entries, and then examine these for an emerging theme. Does the cast have any particular major divides? The theme may be about the difference between them and the ability to come together in the face of a greater threat. Is the story about a hero who sets out to do heroic things? You might want to make it a meditation what makes someone truly a heroic or good person, or how heroism comes in all forms and shapes. Do you feel like the threat could be a metaphor for something? Work with that angle.

Example: My immediate idea for a game is to do a short game, perhaps maybe a dozen or so hours long, that is essentially a fantasy heist movie in an SRPG style. As I consider a few character concepts, a few thematic elements jump out at me: a have versus have-not society is a given and I make note to have the cast come from a variety of walks of life, and the matter of trust and honor among criminals also sounds interesting. Lastly because it’s a heist story, I keep in mind that things can and do go wrong, and adaptability is sometimes more important than experience. I note these down and continue.

If this doesn’t seem to be working, then consider turning inward and thinking about your own experiences and tastes. Have you ever felt you would approach something differently (not necessarily better) than how another game handled it? This could be your chance. Do you have personal experiences that you feel could have gaming analogues without cheapening them? A game as a platform for expanding social awareness can be done well, though it is difficult. Even matters of the abstract, such as a preference for good triumphing over evil, or a need to tell a story about questionable or outright bad people who ultimately did the right thing for the wrong reasons (ala Drakengard or NieR) can be enough of a theme to fuel a game.

Example, continued: Going from what I’ve extrapolated from my concepts, I decide to refine some of the themes. I toy with the idea of making this a social statement, and making a lot of the narrative question who is precisely to blame for people turning to lives of crime. Ultimately, though, I feel largely uncomfortable writing about this in what should be a short, contained story, but I may try to touch on it. I do consider the relative longevity out of mechanical necessity that most RPG characters have, and how that won’t work at all in this case: the idea that life is cheap speaks to me. I decide to go with it.

Once your themes are isolated, you need to go back and examine how things work. Please note that this does not mean eliminate contradiction, but, rather, address it. And when you do address it, address it sincerely, and to a truly satisfactory degree. The only thing more frustrating than ignoring a problem is paying token lip-service to it. This may lead to something of a cascade of problems, where one question leads to another and another. Good. It’s far better to address this now as opposed to a few dozen hours into the work, when you realize that suddenly someone’s actions make no sense with the themes presented.

On the other hand, if you can’t solve a problem of theme not meshing with characters or story, you need to consider if the theme in question is actually the most accurate to your work, or if it’s entirely pertinent after all.  Ultimately, one of these has to win out, though, and it’s best to make changes now before things get any further along.  This is the biggest benefit of working in a team: you have people to bounce things off of.

And if you take away nothing else from this entry, remember this: just because you have a role on the team, does not mean you are infallible, or that your teammates opinions are not valuable. You are not a novelist, this is not your single, soul-scouring grand masterpiece. Games are inherently social, and multiple perspectives are direly important to the creative process behind them. Remember, Silent Hill 2, considered one of the high water marks of storytelling in games even thirteen years after its release, had it’s story pitched by a texture artist from the first game. Everyone has good ideas and bad, listen to them, and decide what works best for your project.

Example, continued: I’m happy with my themes: socioeconomic disparity, the importance of trust and honor in high-tension situations, the idea that life is cheap, and that plans never survive contact with the enemy. These inform a lot about potential characters and how the story is going to go. However, I’m a touch concerned with this: how do the characters have the money and contacts to go after some huge target in a world this messed up? I think for a bit, and note that at least one of the cast members will be a former soldier or cop, someone with some insider contacts and information, and that this may be the biggest heist the group has pulled, the one last, big job that will set them for life.

But if it’s the biggest heist the group has pulled, how can I have a perspective character, and how can they be expected to survive if everyone else is potentially on the chopping block? The first is simple enough: this may be the main character’s first big job, and he’s being brought on site because of his specialized skillset. I’m thinking they may be a safecracker, and this safe is too big to take with the group and too complicated to let the normal field agent handle. As to how he survives, I’ve got nothing immediately, other than making them a bit of a coward. This actually works with the theme of trust and honor, so for the time being, it’s noted down. If something better jumps out, or Alphonse has a better idea when I show this to him, we’ll see about replacing it. For now, though, I feel like my themes are well-suited to this.

And that brings us to the end of examining and selecting thematic elements for our game. There’s more to them, but until we have more than a concept to go on, we’re done. Join me next time when we’ll consider characters, and then combine them to come up with our narrative.

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Posted August 26, 2013 by EpicAlphonse in Uncategorized

Dealing with Real Life and Recommended Reading   Leave a comment

Welcome back to another post of Gratuitous JRPG.  As you may have noted, it’s been a while since my last post.  The reasoning for this is simple: progress on the storyboard has been delayed heavily due to a number of factors.  Sadly, it is still not done, and won’t be in the foreseeable next week.  For this reason, I feel the appropriate topic to bring up would be that of how to balance dealing with real life while you are attempting to make your game.

If it’s not your actual job, chances are real life will interfere with game design in one way or another.  Even if it is, it just might.  It’s a rather insidious entity in that way, and the forms of interference it may take are far too variable to accurately list all the possibilities.  Employment, school, family obligations, a relationship, schedule conflicts, and health are the typical culprits in this scenario, but other scenarios may present themselves outside of this.

I can’t give advice on how to live life in such a way to optimize your game design.  If you suddenly have a greatly reduced amount of time due to life getting in the way, you will have to simply go with it, and account for that when you are making your game.  After all, it’s just a game.  It’s not worth failing, getting fired, getting a break-up (though if your significant other breaks up with you simply based on the fact that you are engaging in the pursuit of designing a game, you should re-evaluate your preferences), or getting sick over designing your dream game.  One has more of a lasting effect than the other, after all.

In most circumstances, you can at least keep the process of creation in mind, and think about what needs to be done even while you have to deal with the problems in real life.  And this is an encouraged way to continue.  There is, however, one major exception to this that I would note: If you’re sick, don’t bother.  If an idea comes to you, great, write it down, but you should not be concerned at all with it.  When in poor health, the first and only priority on your mind should be getting back to good health.  Further exertion will only make your problems worse.

One last mention on real life’s interference with game development–while it is a thing, do not use it as an excuse to stop.  It becomes amazingly easy to use any real life problem as an excuse to duck out of development when matters get tough.  While you may need to slow production or take a short break, keep in mind that under most circumstances, quitting is not a result of real-life pressures.  It’s a result of you giving up as a game developer.  Don’t hide it behind your other problems, accept it for what it is, and then push through if you really want to see it completed.

And on that note, I will not be updating this blog for a bit–not until I finish the storyboard and can get that checked, anyway.  Consider it a short hiatus, but most definitely not the end of this blog or the game.  I’ve put too much into it now to stop, but when you have to deal with your father working nights and all of the complications that brings about, it compounds when it turns out storyboarding takes at least three times as long as anticipated.  To tide you over in the meantime, however, I will give my personal recommendations for games to look at for the sake of study.  This isn’t a comprehensive list, nor would I consider it an official one by any means of the word, but for the sake of studying JRPGs in particular, I have a few to recommend nevertheless.

Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior (NES): Yes, it’s grindy by modern standards.  Yes, it’s long and more of busywork for the most part than a game.  Yes, its plot is absent beyond “find the princess and stop the bad guy”.  And yes, it has only one character.  So why am I recommending it?  Simple.  This is the game that started the traditional JRPG.  Ultima and Wizardry may have come first, but this was the start of JRPGs.  And it wasn’t afraid to make you look for your way through.  The GBC remake rebalances things to be more user-friendly, but it deserves a playthrough nevertheless.  Take a look at things like obsolescence and its use of gating–it uses two different types.

Final Fantasy (NES): Another game that came before characterization, this was essentially D&D in console form with the serial numbers filed off.  This is the first JRPG to a generation of people, and establishes (in the west–technically Dragon Quest 2 and 3 came first in Japan, but Final Fantasy was the big name) a large number of gameplay conventions.  It’s grindy and obtuse, and possesses a large number of quirks that there was a manual to explain back in the day, but still widely-loved.  Look at it for how it handles party construction, pathing, and gating.

Phantasy Star 4 (Sega Genesis): This game’s a bit of an odd-case.  A noteworthy game in a series that has largely been received as “okay” to “bad” (depending on the person and installment–Phantasy Star 3 is widely reviled for good reason.  PS2 and PS1 have not aged well by comparison), Phantasy Star 4 has a lot that can be learned from it.  Look at it for how it handles cutscenes compared to other games, its abundance of character interaction, handling of buffs, general integration of flavor into gameplay (try using healing magic on androids), and its use of patterned esoteric naming conventions.

Final Fantasy 6 (Super Nintendo): I’ve given this game a notable amount of grief previously in this blog.  With that in mind, why do I suggest it still?  The first is to demonstrate what I’ve mentioned–while it is the first notable attempt at a partial template system, the template skills do outshine the non-template.  FF6 is also an experiment in using an ensemble cast, and demonstrates what happens to the gameflow when you switch from a linear format to an open-world format with too little direction.

Chrono Trigger (Super Nintendo): Another big game for the Super Nintendo, this game is about a plot subject that few games tackle for good reason: time travel is a giant pain to write well.  Chrono Trigger runs a full innate skillset, and demonstrates the first notable example of onscreen encounters (as opposed to the genre staple of random encounters–though it is notable that not all encounters are avoidable).  Look at it for that, the fact that its writing doesn’t take itself too seriously, and most notably, the gameflow.  There is very little pause in the flow of the game, despite most definitely not having a sequential or fragmented pathing methodology, and it pulls off, in my opinion, what Final Fantasy 6 attempted to do in its endgame but failed.  The major complaint?  Too easy.  Worth a check to see your difficulty preferences anyway.

Final Fantasy Tactics (Sony Playstation): The last FF entry I place in this list, this game is infamous for its abhorrent translation, and well-known for its story and legion of options available to any player who ventures into its depths.  When looking at tempate systems, this is one of the games that absolutely must be given a look at.  Just mind the learning cliff.

Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1&2 (Sony Playstation 2): Say what you will about this game, it oozes style and is particularly unique in its storytelling.  It possesses two takes on a Full Template system, and deserves a look for how it handles its writing–and as a check on difficulty preferences on the high end.  This series is notable for being harder than the genre average, -especially- on DDS2’s Hard Mode.

Wild ARMs 4 (Sony Playstation 2): Many people will out and out deride the game for its writing, and to be fair it’s not one of the best in the world on that front.  That is because the majority of the game’s merit, presentation aside (It presents Filgaia as a post-war world fairly well, with blasted-out cities at multiple points among other things) is in its gameplay.  Play it for, among others, the study in character synergy, and the fact that this game is possibly in possession of some of the best JRPG bossfights in existence–an exemplar among a series that became known for them.

Wild ARMs 5 (Sony Playstation 2): This game, on the other hand, is an example on how so many things can go wrong.  This entry in the series is regarded with lukewarm opinions at best, and vitriol at worst.  It half-asses its own template system, ripped from a previous entry and made worse.  The characters can generally not be cared about aside from perhaps four or five–and a majority of those are on the villain side.  And it is fairly well-known that while the producers hired a novelist to write this plot, they then took what she wrote and made it into…what it is now.  Add to that that this is both the big follow-up to Wild ARMs 4 -and- the series’ anniversary title, and they focused more on series fanservice than making a good game, and you’ll see why I consider this one a study in What Not To Do.

Persona 3 and 4 (multiplatform): The Persona series has existed since the Playstation era.  It started to change with Persona 3, however, which attempted to make itself a genre-blender of a game, mixing parts dating sim and JRPG.  Persona 4 continues this tradition,adding more notable bosses on top of that.  Look at either for a study in how to mix other genres of game into JRPGs, among other things–and the dangers of having overpowered mains to game balance.

Epic Battle Fantasy 3 and 4 (online Flash games): The Epic Battle Fantasy series is notable for being one of the best independently-created Flash RPGs out there.  Skip 1 and 2, and go straight to 3.  While not quite up to the production values of a company-produced game, both games show the amount of love and care the creator put into it.  Play it, if nothing else, to know that you don’t need a company to actually make a good game.

Cave Story (multiplatform): Let’s be fair.  Chances are if you’re reading this, you’ve at least heard of Cave Story.  If not, it’s the creation of one Daisuke Amaya, AKA Pixel, another person who proved that you don’t need a company to produce a quality game.  Just play it–it’s available for free online.

Posted August 19, 2013 by EpicAlphonse in Uncategorized

Knowing Your Audience and Game Development Approaches   1 comment

Welcome to another post of Gratuitous JRPG.  Last time, we focused on the subject of working in teams, alongside the benefits and difficulties they may bring.  This week, however, will focus on another aspect of game creation: demographics.  More precisely, demographics, and a few philosophies to game design.  Both of these are factors that can influence a game’s development decisions, and even long-term strategy for those who intend to develop multiple games over a period of time.

Demographics are a highly important matter if one is developing games for anyone other than oneself.  A demographic, for the purposes of this post, is “a target general group of people who a game may be aimed towards”.  Demographics as a whole are generally not mutually exclusive, though some may be mutually exclusive to others.  While these may not be explicitly defined to some, there are indeed some broad categories that you may recognize otherwise, and thinking through it might result in some of your own categorizations of game-specific demographics.  My personal mental list of such is below.

Non-gamers: Perhaps one of the largest demographics still, these are the people who do not regularly play video games at all.  They may play one or two as a time-waster, such as Angry Birds, but they do not typically otherwise consume games.  Needless to say, this is the sort of demographic that is the hardest to reach for developers in most cases, though the typical lack of research and knowledge they have about games is sometimes exploited.

Trend gamers: Not to be confused with non-gamers and light gamers, this specific demographic plays games less out of a particular preference for them, but more out of the fact that it’s a thing that is popular and they want to keep in what’s “new” and “cool”.  Naturally, this is the realm of “social” games, such as Farmville and the recent mobile game trend that has been sweeping the Japanese market as of late.  Not that such trends are frequently approved of by some of the other demographics.

Light gamers: Probably the broadest category of game consumers, these sorts will generally purchase the super-big-name popular games, and look at reviews for the rest.  More niche or technical categories of games, such as Strategy RPGs or fighting games, will probably not be given a second glance by a large portion of this group.  General FAQs and strategy guides are aimed at these sorts, who can be counted on to buy the bigger name games but not necessarily game to engage themselves as much as be entertained.  As such, they will typically have a lower tolerance for frustration in their games.  They will typically cross over with series loyalists.

Heavy gamers: Games are a big portion of this demographic’s life.  Needless to say, they will invest fairly heavily into games, and typically specialize–this group crosses over greatly with competitive gamers, genre fans, and niche specialists, though there are some general heavy gamers out there.

Series loyalists: These gamers will typically follow one or more series of games, self-explanatory.  For example, the people who specifically follow the Final Fantasy series, Shin Megami Tensei metaseries, or the Call of Duty franchise would all be considered series loyalists.  These show up alongside Light and Heavy gamers, though some fall into niche specialists and genre fans pending.  A subset of this is “Company loyalists”, where they do not follow game series so much as game companies.

Difficulty seekers: These are the gamers looking for a challenge.  Typically absent from the non-heavy-gamer demographics, this group or games aimed toward this group are sometimes referred to as “masocore”–a portmanteau of “masochistic” and “hardcore.”  Many difficulty mods aim toward this, as do a variety of games such as I Wanna Be The Guy, Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and the mainline Shin Megami Tensei games.

Competitive gamers: This is a special group of gamers who play in competitions.  This is a small, but focused group who tends to be particularly critical.  Games aimed towards them will invariably be of the First-Person Shooter, Real-Time Strategy, or Fighting genres, and balance is a particularly needed focus for such games.  Naturally, this group crosses over with Heavy gamers and genre fans–and sometimes series loyalists.

Genre fans: Similar to series loyalists, genre fans will primarily gravitate to one or more specific genres of game that they prefer, such as action, RPG, or strategy.  There isn’t much else to say about this, really.  Niche specialists are a subgroup of this, who have a preference for less than common types of games, such as danmaku shooters or dating sims.  It may, however, also cover games that feature a specific type of character.  This tends to be one of the smaller categories, after all is said and done.

Connoisseurs: This is a category of people who primarily looks to games for an element of it not directly related to the gameplay.  This would include somebody who looks for quality of writing over quality of gameplay in RPGs, nonstandard artistic decisions, or possibly the fact that a game did something different more than necessarily doing something well.  This group can be notably hard to satisfy while appealing to other demographics, notably.  They sometimes cross over with niche specialists.

This is a notably large set of demographics–though your personal list may be larger or smaller depending.  The number of focused approaches to game development, however, is comparably much smaller.  Sometimes these approaches may be mixed, but a person typically follows one of the three.  These approaches are Games as Games, Games as Art, and Games as Business.  The way these interact with one another are the cause of many, many frustrations among development groups.

Games as Games is the approach to development that one would normally consider to gaming.  It focuses first and foremost with whether or not the game is enjoyable as a game.  As such, the quality of game and the end user’s enjoyment of said game on the basis of the actual game elements overall is more important than anything else in the end.  This sort of approach tempered with perfectionism, however, can lead to some problems with development–largely the game itself being slowed itself while one element or another is tweaked.  This approach will typically aim games toward light or heavy gamers, fans of their game’s genre, competitive gamers if they aim for the multiplayer scene, and if they prefer to make particularly difficult games, challenge seekers.  This is what I would personally consider the most “pure” approach to game development, though it is notable that sacrificing too much of other aspects in favor of gameplay can be just as harmful to a game in some cases.

Games as Art is a tricky mindset to place.  It is not simply wanting quality aesthetics, artwork, or story in a game, as that is simply a matter of quality.  The primary focus on a games-as-art mindset will be on the game as a form of artistic expression, focusing more on some form of innovation or uniqueness within a game’s gameplay, music, story, “message,” or visual style, possibly at a detriment to other aspects of the game.  Connoisseurs will often be interested in these games, while the quirks of games with this design mindset may or may not drive off the standard target demographics of this kind of game.  It is notable that there is a very real risk of a game developed from this mindset coming off as “pretentious” to the playerbase, and there may be very little appreciation for the art of the game if the gameplay itself suffers enough to make it essentially unplayable.

Games as Business makes sense at a glance: games can be sold to make money, so why not try to make as much money as possible with games?  This mindset with modern developers will result in one of two major approaches, as they attempt to widen demographics.  The first approach is the more famous “AAA game,” which arguably started with Squaresoft when it created Final Fantasy VII.  These games are the big showstoppers, often having budgets on par with or greater than that of many large-scale films, and may spend years in development.  In fact, they can frequently be compared to movies, having presentation similar to them at times.  There is a hope with this sort of presentation to grab enough outside the demographic to buy this and possibly coverted to the primary demographics.

The second approach that Games as Business will take is generally considered the opposite–rather than spend years and money on an AAA game, instead produce games to go along with the current trend, cashing in on as many trend gamers as possible while trying to appeal to one or more other demographics.  Needless to say, this is the cause of some rather insidious and alienating practices, as the mobile social market in particular has been home to several amazingly blatant cash-in games.  Final Fantasy:All The Braves and Rockman XOver are two such games that are, needless to say, bad.  Both only carry the names and aesthetics of their franchises, but most definitely not the gameplay and have served only to significantly annoy the franchise fans.  Capcom is also creating a mobile social game out of the next entry in the Breath of Fire series–the fact that such games have proven to be blatant cash grabs alongside the newest entry in the Breath of Fire series being announced to this format together have already driven series fans into an outrage.

As many executives possess the Games as Business mindset as opposed to one of the other two, this leads to major conflict within development companies when developers do not agree.  Examples of such have occurred within Capcom, as the developers who follow a more Games as Games approach are blocked by the executives.  This includes the fact that nobody was allowed to make a new Street Fighter game until the sales on the Street Fighter 2 Super Turbo re-release indicated that there was indeed a market for such.  And as long as game companies are headed by executives as opposed to developers, there will always be a clash between those with a Games as Business mindset and those who follow either Games as Games or Games as Art.

Away from the approaches to development, the last point I would like to bring up today is that a developer will never be able to please all demographics.  It is a literal impossibility, and any attempt to please everyone will only result in a pile of mediocrity that will please nobody.  That being said, there are a few tips from here to aid game development.  First, know which demographics you are targeting.  The sort of people you are making a game for in general and specific.  Treat this as your core demographic, and do not try to alienate them.  The second major tip is to know that there are some viable ways than others to widen the demographic appeal of a game.  While this may be counterintuitive at times, (“making the game more accessible” is often Games as Business code for “dumbing a game down so more people can play it,” and will often alienate series fans) there are ways about it.

Case in point: Fire Emblem:Awakening.  While it retains many of the features Fire Emblem in general holds, it is notable for its handling of its defining mechanic, permadeath, in relation to other entries in the series.  What is notable is not that they removed it–an action that would alienate many long-time series fans–but that they instead included the option to turn it off, for outsiders to the series.  This managed to, in fact, make the game more accessible, but in a method that would not ruin the series fans’ experience.  The point of this is that the ideal changes to widen demographic are option switches, as opposed to sweeping inherent changes throughout the system.  If you can’t make an in-depth change to attract more people without angering your current demographic, you should question how important that change is.

Another example to study for changes and demographic alienation is the ever-raging internet drama about the edition changes of Dungeons and Dragons.  It is notable that fourth edition itself brought sweeping changes to the internal system.  Many of the simulationist aspects were removed, and the setup changed to that resembling a grid-based strategy-RPG.  A number of the 3.x fans did not go along with Fourth Edition, though it did grab a number of new followers in the process with the changes made to balancing in particular.

However, with Fifth Edition (or as WotC calls it, “NEXT,” they have abandoned the 4e changes, instead attempting to revert to an edition closer to 2e while adding a greater deal of streamlining.  This is, however, not only alienating the 4e fans and leaving them to what they have of 4e, but also not getting the desired attention from fans of older editions seemingly as of yet.  While the situation with NEXT might change, the truth of the matter is that it’s better sense to not try and backtrack.  If you’ve decided to make a sweeping change that does attract new demographic members while losing some, it is not necessarily a wise idea to then chase off the new ones with your next release in an attempt to get the old followers back.  They won’t all come running, and if you try to attract the new ones back later, you will only be faced with diminishing returns on that end too.

With that all covered, it can be said that there are many tricky elements to game design even outside of the game itself.  Demographics have to be considered, your specific approach and reasoning to development may affect this too, and even then the audience can be an amazingly fickle and unforgiving entity.  If you make your decisions tactfully, however, you should be able to do fine.  Until next time, this is Epic Alphonse, signing off.

Posted August 7, 2013 by EpicAlphonse in Uncategorized