Sunday, November 10, 2019

Current crowdfunds

Speaking of crowdfunding, Aaron Reed's Subcutanean is at about 70% of its (modest) goal. This is not an interactive work, but it is a dynamically-generated text: every printed copy will be different within an authored space. Aaron has written a series of blog posts describing his writing (and implementation) process. He's also progressively posting one edition online -- see the project page for links.
I have not read any version of this; I'm waiting for my own unique edition before I jump in. However, it hits any number of my story kinks. Surreal spaces, unbounded architures, labyrinths... I'm excited about this and I encourage you to help the project succeed.

The other crowdfunding project of the month is, of course IFComp's Colossal Fund. This is our third year raising money for IFComp prizes. This year we've raised the goal to $10000, which is ambitious -- but we're almost 85% of the way there.
The prize fund is set up to reward a wide spectrum of games, not just a couple of top vote-getters. This year, if we hit our goal, we expect to give out over 50 cash prizes ranging from $10 up to $415. So please help us support diverse forms of interactive fiction!
(And if you can't contribute money, you can still donate other prizes. And vote on games! That's important too!)
IFComp voting ends on the 15th, so that's the deadline for the fundraiser as well. (We'll take your money after the 15th, but it will go into the IFComp 2020 prize pool.)
Fair note: the Colossal Fund is also an IFTF fundraiser. 80% of the money goes to IFComp prizes. The rest goes to IFTF operational costs, including web hosting, legal support, and the snazzy illustration above.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Kickstarter and organizing

As I'm sure you know, the past few weeks have seen a wave of acrimony around Kickstarter and its nascent union, Kickstarter United. The company fired two employees who were involved in union organizing efforts. Kickstarter claimed it was for unrelated performance reasons; the workers filed an NLRB complaint. KS's CEO said that "The union framework is inherently adversarial"; the union asked the company for voluntary recognition; the company refused and is insisting on an NLRB-run election first.
I've been pretty unsure how to react to these events. I support the idea of tech-worker unionization, inside and outside the game industry. I don't like Kickstarter's apparently obstructionist and wishy-washy position. (Geez, calling your opponents "adversarial" and then refusing voluntary cooperation? I guess it's adversarial now.) But I am not at all familiar with the particulars of union organizing or how NLRB procedure works out for the various sides.
The union has pointedly not called for a boycott of KS or KS projects, but -- like many people -- I have been much less inclined to interact with the company since this situation flared up. Some prominent projects have jumped ship to other platforms such as Indiegogo.
Last week the union posted a call to action. This is straightforward: no boycott yet; express your support.
So that makes me feel better about starting to browse and back KS projects, as I used to do regularly. I do support Kickstarter United and the right of KS employees to unionize. Kickstarter is ready to organize. There. I have said so.
To be clear, I'm not a heavy KS backer. I keep an eye on the narrative game projects and occasionally back one if it looks cool and I think it needs the boost. (Plus whatever Cyan puts on the stove, but those are much higher-profile affairs.) The last time I put money down was August. Now I've caught up and kicked some money at a game or two.
This is not to say that I consider Kickstarter to be union-washed and clean. I am, to half-coin a phrase, keeping an eye out for the union label on new projects. I hope more projects declare their explicit support. And I'm definitely watching Kickstarter's policies and (more importantly) their actions. They've built up a lot of good will helping to launch niche and indie projects -- including mine. That goodwill is now theirs to lose.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Apple Arcade and the future(s)

Apple Arcade's launch is splattered all over the pundosphere, with every possible hot take from "This is pretty good" to "This could be a problem."
I haven't tried Arcade yet. I'm waiting for iOS 13.1 to drop on Tuesday. Also, I'm wallowing in new unplayed PC games already (Little Misfortune, Asshole Goose Game, etc). A free trial month of 75 more games feels like more of a threat than a promise. But hey, I can still blog about it.
Everybody(*) loves Apple Arcade for obvious reasons. "This is a really good deal for players"; "Apple pushes back against manipulative free-to-play crap." These are both true statements. They both amount to the same thing: Apple is investing a lot of money in iOS games and releasing them for way below cost.
This is great for the devs involved. I recognize a lot of names on that launch list and I am happy for them. But it also leaves us wondering how long the party will last, and who will be invited. Community nerves are already sensitized, or just rubbed raw, by the arguments around the Epic Game Store. Epic is also in its money-hose platform-building stage -- but for how long?
Thus the asterisk on the statement above. Investment dollars and free games buy a lot of love and a lingering whiff of fear. It's hard not to see Arcade as yet another stride in the race to the bottom. Is the "premium" pay-up-front game about to suffocate?

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The Zarfian Cruelty Scale, revisited

The Zarfian Cruelty Scale is 23 years old as of last month. That's not a numerically interesting anniversary, but it's respectable age for a offhand scrap of critical theory that still gets mentioned regularly.
I am pleased and amused by the Cruelty Scale's continuing currency. But I also worry that people might apply it more broadly or rigidly than it deserves. The Cruelty Scale has had caveats almost from the beginning; it embodies many 1996-ish assumptions about IF and game design. I think it's time to, at minimum, dig into those assumptions. We should make sure we know what we're thinking when we use it.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Abusers, another shoe in the wall

When I said "I know stories that are still not public," I didn't expect them to get blown open within 24 hours.
Yesterday, Meg Jayanth posted this thread:
An anon account has been naming abusers in the games industry. Alexis Kennedy is one of them. I can't speak to the motives of the anon, but Alexis is a well-known predator in the games industry. I have been warning people about him for years.
Olivia Wood followed up with a description of her experience, in which Alexis Kennedy took advantage of his position of authority over her. Emily Short added her observations. Many other women have spoken up about his manipulative and boundary-pushing behavior.
Kennedy is not the only name to hit the spotlight since my first post, but he's the case that strikes closest to home. I played Echo Bazaar and Sunless Sea. They were great games. His company, Failbetter Games, was and is a highlight of innovative design in the narrative game world. After Kennedy left Failbetter, I was excited to see what he would do next. (Until I started hearing rumors about his behavior, it did not occur to me to wonder why he had left Failbetter Games.)
Failbetter also was and is publicly devoted to foregrounding the voices of underrepresented groups, including women. Many of my friends wrote for Echo Bazaar and Sunless Sea. As Emily said, it was a shock to learn that Kennedy was taking public credit for this good citizenship while privately treating it as his personal grabbing ground.
(Kennedy's new company has a "mentorship program" for indies. Unsurprisingly, the indie devs in that program are now cutting ties.)
So. This sucks. It has sucked for a lot of women, privately, for years. I wasn't happy to find out about it, and if you're just finding out now, you're not happy either. Nevertheless it is incumbent on us to know, acknowledge, and make sure these stories are heard.
Those who are speaking up now have my gratitude and admiration. I know it didn't just happen. It was a long process of people taking care of each other -- making sure that they could come forward, if not safely, at least from a position of support. These posts are my attempt to aid and support that effort.
I'll leave off with this thread:
We believe and stand with everyone who has come forward to speak out about Alexis Kennedy tonight.
Alexis left Failbetter three years ago. We no longer have any ties with him personally, creatively or financially.
We know that for some of you, Fallen London and Sunless Sea are irredeemably linked with him. It can be heartbreaking to love something as much as people love these games and feel they're tainted by association.
We fully understand and respect that. This sort of behaviour has no place in our industry, or in any other. We can only say that we strive to be a studio we can be proud of, and that you can be proud to support.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Abusers in the game-dev world

Two personal accounts appeared yesterday -- no, screw passive voice. Nathalie Lawhead and Zoe Quinn spoke out yesterday, naming two prominent game designers/musicians as abusers and rapists: Jeremy Soule and Alec Holowka. Nathalie's account; Zoe's account.
I hang around indie dev circles but I'm pretty peripheral. I don't think I've ever run into either of these men. I learn these stories when they go public, or when women tell them to me in confidence.
Sometimes, I hear a story along with a warning that the victim is still vulnerable to retaliation, that she does not want the story to go public yet. I know stories that are still not public and names that people warn each other about in private.
I cannot say anything else about those names. What I can say is: I believe Zoe and Nathalie. They are speaking up with courage to share what they know and help prevent future abuses.
I'll also note that this trail of terrible revelations is another aspect of crunch in the gaming industry. Nathalie's story, in particular, is about being rendered vulnerable by the desperation and insecurity of her "opportunities" in the game-dev world. Unscrupulous higher-ups in the industry are able to take advantage of workers -- particularly newcomers. Crunch is the public, "acceptable" face of this abuse: exhaustion, erosion of personal time and personal relationships. Inevitably, that is not the end of it. Sometimes it is assaulting people and then pressuring them to be silent about it.
So that's today's bitter thought. Take hands.

UPDATE, Aug 29th: see also next post.

UPDATE, Sep 3rd: Scott Benson has posted his experiences with Alex Holowka, who died last week as this discussion and its consequences spun on.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

A quick trip to Riven, and further VR thoughts

Yesterday I said that I was a VR skeptic. I've mentioned this before. But I admit that I don't have an awful lot of VR experience to base my opinion on. I've spent a few minutes playing with a Vive, and I tried out the VR Firmament demo at GDC a couple of years ago.
(I've also spent a couple of minutes playing with a Magic Leap devkit unit. But that's AR, a different category.)
Don't get me wrong: I've enjoyed each of these demos. VR is a good trick. My problem is that it's not that much better than the usual sort of videogame experience. For example, I played Zed a couple of weeks ago. When I think back on that play-through, I don't remember being looking at a flat screen -- I remember being there. That's how I react to first-person videogames. It's how I reacted to Myst and Riven in the 90s, on those terrible 800x600-pixel CRTs. VR certainly gives that sense of being there, but why should I pay hundreds of dollars extra when I can get the same experience from a TV? Plus the ability to drink from my water glass.
However! At Mysterium I had the opportunity to try the latest Starry Expanse demo in VR. I also could have tried Zed and Obduction in VR, but the lines were longer for those, so I just did the one.
This was a very small and unpolished demo. It started in the tram-car station of Survey Island, and then you could walk in to the elevator chamber and summon the elevator. That's it. You couldn't board the tram or ride the elevator.
The game locomotion is still set up for regular controllers: two-stick walk-and-turn navigation. This is widely agreed to be the worst setup for VR motion sickness. Nearly all VR games offer teleportation, tunnel zip, or some other alternative. Starry Expanse is still very much in progress; it hasn't gotten those modes working yet.
As it happens, I didn't feel ill at all -- at least not in my ten-minute session. Moving around was quite comfortable. The most disconcerting effect came after I took the helmet off. Walking away, I felt like I was drifting underwater. The world wasn't wobbling but it was distinctly... shock-absorbed. The sensation passed off after a minute or two.
Apparently my body's reaction to vestibular inconsistency isn't to get sick, but rather to shut my inner ears right down. That's good to know.
So have I changed my opinion about VR? No, but I've refined it some.
The demo pulled me into the world of Riven instantly. That's what felt different from a regular flatscreen game. I'm used to a period of adaptation. I launch the game, I wrangle the preferences, I find the "New Game" button. Then I slide into the first-person experience and the screen fades away. It doesn't take long -- a few minutes at most -- but it does take time. VR is helmet, bang, you're there.
It strikes me that this aspect of VR is more advantageous to quick demos than to long-form games. I mean, if you're in a flashy-noisy PAX expo hall, the instant transition to a fantasy world -- cutting out all the distraction -- is really striking. It gives you something that a flatscreen in the demo booth can't. But at home? In a quiet room where you've already decided to spend your time? That advantage flattens out.
So I wonder if the whole VR craze isn't based on a misapprehension. Maybe the tech companies who demo VR at game shows are drawing false conclusions -- seeing reactions that just don't carry over to home gamers in the living room.
Or maybe I'm just not a typical gamer. Wouldn't be the first time.
Anyway, my original position stands. It's been two days since I walked down that tunnel on Survey Island. I remember being there... just like I was in 1997, when I first played Riven. Of course it was full 3D rather than the old slideshow, but you know what? I don't remember 1997 Riven in slideshow either. The flaws in the experience have annealed in memory. It's a seamless world now, like all the magical worlds I've visited before and since.
I look forward to visiting again. And I'm grateful that the Starry Expanse team is building it for me. (Perhaps under Cyan's imprimatur, if the roadmap holds up.) But I still don't think I need the helmet for it.