Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Talos Principle: design ruminations

As it happens I replayed Portal 2 right before The Talos Principle launched. That's gotta be the last thing a game designer wants to hear, right? "We don't use the term 'Portal-like', but, sure, Talos is... wait, you just replayed Portal? You couldn't have waited a couple of weeks in between?"

(I haven't gone to check whether the designers used the term "Portal-like". Nobody's going to disagree with it, nohow.)

Talos is a pleasant puzzle game with a nice script and good art and bullet-holes in several of its own feet. I recommend it but I wish it had fewer self-inflicted wounds.

(Note: in a "ruminations" post I don't offer an overall review. Instead, I focus on particular areas of design that I find interesting -- or problematic. So don't freak out just because I complain a lot.)

Monday, December 15, 2014

Holiday iOS app sales

It is Christmastime, the time of bundles... okay, every month is the time of bundles these days. Bundles have become continuous. We get it. We're joining in!

I have posted Zarf's IF Bundle on the iOS App Store. Basically, you buy Hadean Lands through this link, you get my Shade and Heliopause apps thrown in free. Why not? If you've already purchased HL for iOS, the "complete my bundle" link should let you download the other apps.

And while I'm at it: Meanwhile for iOS is now on sale for two bucks, through the end of the year. That's 60% off! Or like 87% off as compared to the hardback book!

(Let us not speak about the relative values placed on creators by the book and software industries these days. I'm trying to gin up some product excitement here.)

So go buy Meanwhile now, if you haven't. If you have, why not gift a copy to a friend? Or an enemy? Two weeks only! Imagine lying on the living-room floor, next to the tree or bull's-head or aluminum pole or whatever your December celebratory decoration is, scrolling around Jason's mad-science fairy tale and trying to remember where you left the branch that doesn't involve zapping the Earth clean of human life.

And then buy Hadean Lands too. The nickel beads demand it.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Gone Home: design ruminations

I don't imagine that Gone Home suffers from lack of reviews. I heard about it from several directions when it came out, and that was over a year ago. But I just played it.

(Yes, I am slowly starting to dig into the past four years of indie IF that I was too busy writing my own game to play. Yes, I will also get to Bioshock Infinity one of these months.)

I don't have anything to add to the discussion of Gone Home as a story game, or as a game about gay folks, or as a flashpoint of hatred from jerk-gamers. That's all been covered. Nor am I going to tell you why you should like or dislike the game. I liked it, a lot of people liked it, that's not news.

Instead, I'm going to give my impressions as a game designer. This is what I would have said if I were on the team building the thing. Or, more likely, having muffins with the designer during the wild-idea stage. Maybe that'll hit some new ground. If not, well, too late -- I've already written this post.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Kicking it forwards

Since my Kickstarter project is done -- not done done, I still have postcards and so on, but done enough for soup -- I should write the "support this other Kickstarter!" post.

I've already talked about Elegy for Dead World, which came to a triumphant conclusion a couple weeks back, and Extrasolar, which sadly did not. But there are lots of crowdfunders still open this season. Kickstarters, Patreons, Indiegogos... Indiegogoes? Indiegogols? Anyway, here are a bunch which at least brush up against the interactive fiction world.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

All codes have now been distributed

Whew. The game is up, and all of the gifts and promo codes have been sent out. If you didn't receive something you should have received, contact me.

(This was an epic tale involving late-night gnashing of teeth, a lot of confusing problems, and three distinct phone calls to my bank. Rockland Trust, cheers to them, they were very nice and made everything work. Once it was, you know, banker's hours.)

The web site ( now has the purchase links for the iOS App Store, Itch.IO, and Humble.

(Note that the game doesn't appear on the Humble Store site itself. I'm using the Humble Widget to sell the download off my own site.)

Also note this excellent write-up of the game by Emily Short. She was a beta-tester, so it is not an unbiased review, but she gets why the game is built the way it is.

The next phase is the physical rewards. (CDs, postcards, posters, etc.) But before I start focussing on those, I am going to take a bit of a victory tour. I will be speaking about Hadean Lands at the WordPlay festival in Toronto (November 8th). I will also be attending (though not speaking at) the Practice conference at NYU.

Now, I just have to get the leaderboard page updated, and go to bed. Going to bed: important.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Zarfplan: Less than 24 hours now

App Store approval came through on the 25th. Everything is now queued up to launch the game on the 30th. Again, that web site:

Let me reiterate the launch process, now that I know (nearly) all the details.

At one minute after midnight (Eastern time), I will update the web site to show Hadean Lands on sale.

Next, I will send out a batch of email containing Humble and Itch.IO keys. The email will be marked "From:", so keep an eye on your spam filters. Emails should all go out by 2 AM Eastern time.

The iOS app, again, is tricky. I have to employ several different mechanisms and the help of some generous volunteers. (Generous with their time, I mean. I'm covering all the costs.) So the iOS apps will go out in several batches at various times. I hope that they'll all be credited to your accounts by the evening of the 30th.

I wanted to make this perfectly simultaneous, but perfection was not available. I apologize.

The details: if your iTunes account is based in Great Britain, Canada, Germany, or Finland, you will receive the iOS app gifted from one of my volunteers. (Thanks to Juhana Leinonen, Christoph Ender, Brian Lavelle, and Tucker McKinnon for helping!) If you are in another non-US country, you will receive a code in email from; redeem it in iTunes. If you are in the US, you will receive the app gifted from me; the exact time depends on arrangements with my bank.

If you have trouble getting the app, or if you fail to get email that you think you should receive, contact and I'll fix it.

Finally: I will be running... not a contest, exactly. But I'd like to track who solves Hadean Lands first, or at least who makes the most progress in the first week.

I've set up a "Leaderboard" page on the web site. ("Leaderboard" is a silly word for a puzzle adventure game, but it's what everybody recognizes.) If you want to show up on it, tweet to the hashtag #HadeanLands when you complete a ritual for the first time or visit an interesting room for the first time. I'll keep an eye on the hashtag and update the page with your progress.

(I'm updating the page by hand, so don't expect instant results. As I said, I'll only be doing it for the first week or so. There is no prize for this other than the glory of your Twitter-handle in lights.)

(And, obviously, the leaderboard page will have some spoilers! It won't give away puzzle solutions, but it will reveal the names of rituals and actions that you might not have discovered yet.)

That's all I've got. Final preparations tomorrow, and then at midnight -- the magic begins.

Good luck to everybody. Including me.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Zarfplan: Awaiting approval

On November 1, 2010, I opened a Kickstarter project for an iOS text adventure.

Last night I submitted the Hadean Lands iOS app for App Store approval. (And also uploaded it to the Itch.IO and Humble distribution platforms.)

As I said, this will be a simultaneous release on all platforms. So we're now at Apple's mercy -- not an unfamiliar feeling for modern game developers. According to the charts, the iOS approval process is currently running about eleven days. (I'm used to five or six days, but I figure they're swamped with app updates for iOS8 and the newest phones.)

I am targetting October 30 as the launch day. That means you'll be playing the game on the fourth anniversary of the Kickstarter launch. Tidy! If it looks like approval is going to run longer, I'll let you all know.

In the meantime, you can take a gander at the Hadean Lands web site, which is now up and running. The map is the game's big "feelie". Old Infocom fans will get a kick out of the IF sample transcript -- no spoilers for the game itself, just an example of how alchemical IF plays out.

So what will happen on (I hope) Oct 30?
  • You will see the game appear in the iOS App Store. (Don't buy it yet!)
  • You will see Itch/Humble widgets on the HL web page.
  • If you asked for an Itch/Humble download key, you will get email (from me) containing that key.
  • If you asked for an iOS app, you will get email (from Apple) notifying you that the app has been credited to your iTunes account.

The last bit is the tricky one. I will be gifting the app directly to all US-based backers. But Apple doesn't allow gifting between countries. So if you're outside the US (or your iTunes account is), I'll have to do some dancing.

Here's what I figure: for the major countries (UK, Canada, Australia, a few others) I will pick somebody I know and PayPal them a bunch of money. That person can then do the gifting. If you're the only person from your country, I'm afraid I'm going to have to contact you directly and PayPal you US $5 -- then you can just buy the app.

(I will be contacting you directly to talk about PayPal matters.)

I realize this is a hassle, and it may take extra time for non-US backers to get their iOS app. I'm sorry; I don't know a better way to do this. (Other than opening bank accounts in a dozen different countries, which I can't manage.) I was hoping that a solution would turn up before the game was finished... Fortunately, none of this hassle applies to the Itch/Humble downloads, so those will all go out on time.

I still have not started to plan the physical rewards. One thing at a time.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Myst TV series suddenly appears on the horizon

Wow. I didn't see this coming, although in retrospect there were a couple of clues we might have picked up on.

Historically-minded fans will recall an abortive attempt at a Myst miniseries on the Sci-Fi Channel, back in 2002. The project wiped out due to creative differences between the producers and Cyan. (Fannish shorthand for the event is "The studio wanted to show Atrus and Catherine having sex on the beach." I don't know how accurate that is, but the Sci-Fi Channel did not have a great reputation for its mini-series and TV-movie events, even before the advent of the Sharknado/Mansquito era.)

And then there was the Myst movie drama.

So now there's this new thing. What do we know about it? Not a release date, sadly; it's too early in the process for that.

Legendary Pictures has a long slate of fan-favorite movies, including Pacific Rim, The Dark Knight Rises, and Inception. But this deal is apparently with "Legendary Television & Digital Media", a division of which I know less. It seems to mostly be a wrapper around recently-acquired Asylum Entertainment, which is known for... a bunch of things I don't know. (The Kennedys, etc.)

The Variety article also says:

The Millers see the Legendary deal as a way to not only create a compelling TV drama but to develop a true transmedia franchise that includes a companion video game and other platforms, particularly tablets, to expand plot points.

Could be good, could be bad, depending on how much attention it gets from Cyan. Hopefully the deal comes with enough money for Cyan to develop first-class new Myst content while still keeping Obduction on track.

Oh, and when I said "clues"? Robyn Miller had referred a few weeks ago to a possible TV show:

A friend and I wrote a very cool treatment for a #myst TV show. Alas, it's not to be. (tweet Sept 24)

We don't know whether any of that relates to the current announcement. It might have been a version that didn't get carried through, or it might have been completely unrelated. Or somebody just changed their mind.

Miller also recently tweeted about a couple of treasures coming up from storage:

Just found ALL the original hand drawn Riven maps! Thank you storage unit. I'll post them soon. (tweet Oct 5)

Wow! Just unrolled them and they're in perfect condition. Haven't seen these maps in at least a decade! (tweet Oct 5; photo)

Could be research materials being dug up! Or he just likes rooting around in old storage units full of treasure. Like the rest of us.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

This month in planetary exploration

Last year a game called Extrasolar showed up. It's a casual browser game about exploring an alien planet.

I haven't written a full review, but let me assure you that Extrasolar is delightful. You drive a rover around the fictional world, photographing wacky alien life-forms. At the same time, you're drawn through a storyline -- investigating the corporation that discovered this alien world and the technology which made it possible. The story is maybe a little thin, but it's nicely produced and offered in a juicy ARG-like framework. The point of the game, anyhow, is the planet. It's gorgeous, it's detailed, it's got layers of thoughtful biological world-building, and you get to wander around it with a camera. What could be cooler?

Extrasolar belongs to that pleasant species of game with which you can be obsessed without ruining your work day. You set a photography spot for your rover; four hours later you get the results back. Checking your rover is a coffee-break activity, not a way to lose a whole afternoon. If you buy a paid account (a one-time fee), the turnaround drops to one hour, but you can then program up to four photographs at a time.

The game launched with one explorable island and one "season" of story content. It took me about six weeks to play through (on the free, four-hour-turnaround schedule) (I paid up afterwards).

The company now wants to expand this to a second island and a second season. They've set up a Kickstarter project for this purpose. The project deadline is Wednesday, and if you take a look, you'll notice that it's basically tanking. Less than 25% funded. That is not what a KS project wants to see in its final week.

This is sad. Extrasolar is an ambitious idea; it's a game that isn't like a thousand other games you've played. It shouldn't be languishing in the Kickstarter races. For that matter, it shouldn't need Kickstarter; it should have a steady stream of players who are satisfied and happy to pay for season one. I don't have anything clever to say about that, nor any brilliant plan for making it successful. The game industry is rough and outside-the-box games have it rougher. (What this means for my own game-design future -- well, it's not encouraging.)

I will say that you should try it. Even with a free account, you can start to see bits of the story by Wednesday evening, and decide whether to donate to the Kickstarter. Then you should donate to the Kickstarter anyway. I'm not optimistic about it, but I could be wrong.

Extrasolar: Season 2 (Kickstarter)

Yes, that's me blurbing the game on the KS page. Also, I recommend reading through the updates on the KS blog. They've offered up a lot of the reasoning behind their play model, their technology, their science-fictional worldbuilding. This is a level of detail that game companies usually don't get into in public, and it's worth a read even if you don't plan to donate.

Here's a more energetic project: Elegy for a Dead World, a game about exploring an alien planet. But in a completely different vein!

I know less about this one. I've walked past a demo at PAX, and I've talked a little with the designers, but I haven't tried it myself.

The idea is that the game offers you images and fragments of a setting; then you write. That's the whole thing. It's not a puzzle game and it doesn't have a secret story built in that you're supposed to uncover. It's a system for players to create and share their own texts. A nice set of writing prompts and a framework to write in. If you're unsure about the literary inspirations here -- the three alien worlds are Shelley's World, Keats' World, and Byron's World.

This is way out there. It has more in common with a fanfic challenge than anything else. I have no idea if it will work; I don't even know if it's the kind of thing I want to play.

But this is exactly what I've backed it. I want to see more strange, experimental, off-the-wall games get launched. And this one, as I said, is doing a lot better. It's over 50% in the first week, which is on track for success.

(I have to admit, my first question was "Can people build environments for their stories and then explore each others' worlds?" Because I am obsessed with building and exploring worlds. No, that's not what Elegy is about. You can read each other's texts, and there will be some kind of rating system so that popular ones float to the top.) (I have no idea what they're doing about the kind of gamer who draws a dick on everything.)

You should back this one because it's a crazy idea that no reasonable dev studio would pursue.

Elegy for a Dead World: A Game About Writing Fiction (Kickstarter)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Zarfplan: State of the cranking

I have been turning the crank hard and I am tired. Admittedly, there've been a lot of FTL breaks. They get some of the blame for me being tired.

As you recall, a beta version went out to testers on September 8th. Since then, I have gotten loads of transcripts... five megabytes of transcripts! With 16000 commands! All of which I've read through!

Yes, I'm posting these statistics just to impress you with my diligence. A lot of that transcript-reading was "skim through parser errors and player notes." Nonethless, a lot of useful feedback.

The backer surveys have gone out. I have heard back from 610 backers, about 85% of you. Thanks!

If you are among the disappointing 15%, please check your Kickstarter account for the survey, or send me email. I don't need your email address right away, but I do need the stuff about your iTunes account (Apple ID), Humble Store account, or Itch.IO account.

Also the question about "how do you want to be listed in the credits". It will be difficult for me to make corrections to the credits list after the game ships. For various technical reasons, when you update an IF game file, you break all the old saved games. So I will be doing that cautiously in the iOS version at least.

So, here's where I am with the game.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Zarfplan: We have beta stage

Last night at 8 pm I tagged a branch, compiled a release build, ran the end-to-end test script, and pinged the testers about where to download it. Hadean Lands is now in beta.

(If you chose the "access to the closed beta-testing phase" backer reward, and you haven't gotten email from me, please contact me for testing info. Assuming you still want to test, I mean.)

This momentous day is a good time for some announcements!

Hadean Lands will be available both as an iOS app and as a portable (Glulx) game file. The Glulx version will be playable on Mac, Windows, Linux, and anything else that the (open-source) interpreter can be ported to. I expect to sell the Glulx version through the Humble Widget and through the Itch.IO game download service. The sticker price will be $5 no matter where you buy it from.

All backers will get the Glulx version as a free download. Yes, every person who backed me. Even if you contributed just a dollar; even if you asked for your money back; everybody. This wasn't part of the original Kickstarter plan, but you deserve something extra for waiting this long.

I am going to ship the game first, and physical rewards later. People signed up for postcards and posters and CDs and calligraphy and all that good stuff. It will all happen! But I am not going to worry about any of it until you have playable copies of the game.

(Footnote to the above: I do not plan to be on the Humble Store or in any bundle. I'm just going to use the Humble tool for selling downloadable content. I might wind up on the Humble Store at some point in the future.)

What's the timeline? Later this week I will send out the dreaded Kickstarter backer questionnaires -- one for everybody, one for people who get physical rewards. These will cover shipping addresses, App Store account names, whether you want your Glulx download from Humble or Itch.IO, and so on.

Beyond that, I have several tasks still in front of me, including cover art, a map, a web site, and integrating the game into my iOS framework. Plus the time it will take Apple to approve the app. I'm allocating a month. That's not a hard deadline, but as a rough target, think "early October" as our ship date.

This means that HL is likely to ship in the middle of IFComp voting. This is a right nuisance but we'll have to manage. I can't promise to get HL out before IFComp starts, and it would be stupid to delay it until after IFComp is over.

One of the tasks of my list is "the expectations-setting blog post". I was half-joking when I wrote it, but I think this is a good time to talk about how Hadean Lands has come out.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

I talk about the gaming mess

As you probably know, online discussion in the gaming world has recently gotten noisy and nasty. Plenty of people have written about this. I haven't written about it.

I have solid reasons for not writing about it. I am in the final stages of writing a game. I am prone to being distracted by the Internet, and particularly by big ugly Internet arguments that make me feel terrible but I can't fix them. When these arguments fall my way, I reach for the mute button. I need to finish my damn game.

Plus, my Internet security is imperfect (because security is always imperfect). I'm a straight white guy, so maybe not the most likely target of ire, but if someone takes against me I'm hosed. My web sites could be compromised. People could demand their Kickstarter money back. The worst time for this to happen would be right as I'm shipping four years of my game-writing life.

So I've been keeping my mouth shut -- which makes me a coward. Screw that.

On Monday an open letter to the gaming community went up. It is a simple statement:

We believe that everyone, no matter what gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion or disability has the right to play games, criticize games and make games without getting harassed or threatened. It is the diversity of our community that allows games to flourish.

If you see threats of violence or harm in comments on Steam, YouTube, Twitch, Twitter, Facebook or reddit, please take a minute to report them on the respective sites.

If you see hateful, harassing speech, take a public stand against it and make the gaming community a more enjoyable space to be in.

This was organized by Andreas Zecher. A lot of names appear below it; you will see mine there.

That's a start. As we all admit, signing a letter is easy. I want to say more. I'm not sure where to go, though. So I'll say some pro-forma stuff, and then I'll tell a little story, and then I'm done.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Zarfplan: August: the endgame

The month is not over, but I am heading to DragonCon for a week. So you get your report early. Conveniently this allows me to report "not quite done yet" without too much slippage past my mid-August deadline. And without smacking into the more realistic end-of-August deadline.

It's not quite done yet! But at least the update posts are getting closer together, right?

At this point the entire puzzle-line of the game is playable. That is, you can start at the beginning and solve every puzzle. (Without using cheat or debug commands.) This doesn't end the game; it leaves you in a state marked "endgame", although "denoument" would be a better term. It's the wrapping-up sequence which leads to the ending text. There are no puzzles here, but it's an interactive sequence. At least, probably interactive.

I've intentionally left the denoument flexible -- or, if you like, "undesigned" -- because I didn't think I could construct it without the whole of the game in my subconscious. It's the last whiff of my "implement the first scene first, then the next scene, and so on until the end" plan. I stick to that rule for short games. It would have been impossible for HL, but I am writing the last scene last.

So that's the last task, mostly. Plus I have a few bits of background color to fill in, and the extremely annoying travel bug that I mentioned last time. And there are still 59 "TODO" marks in the source code; I should look through them and (mostly) delete them silently.

I will do some of this work at DragonCon. (What? Travel is good thinking time. I can't convent for a week straight. There'll be a lot of time alone in a hotel room, or wandering around a strange city.)

At the farthest limit, I will have it all wrapped up in the first week of September. I will then pass the complete playable draft around to the beta testers, and start looking at the iOS work.

I will also write another update post at that point. So -- you'll hear from me in less than two weeks. At that point I'll be able to talk more about the process of Shipping The Damn Thing. Strange and scary as that prospect may sound.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

IF meetup at WordPlay, Toronto, Nov 8th

We would like to invite the IF world to show up and hang out at WordPlay in Toronto on November 8th. (Free admission.) That whole weekend, really -- we'll have some kind of dinner and stuff.

For the past few years, the Boston IF gang has hosted community get-togethers in association with various local game-related shindigs. (First PAX East, then NoShowConf.)

What with one thing and another, that's not happening in Boston this summer. (Although we will be in attendance at BostonFIG in September.)

However! Jim Munroe is running his second annual WordPlay festival in Toronto on November 8th. This seems like an excellent opportunity to declare a get-together. So let's do that.

(Discussion on forum thread:

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Mysterium news roundup

I didn't go to Mysterium this year. I wanted to; it was held in Spokane, so the attendees got to visit Cyan's offices and chat with Rand and Robyn Miller and basically geek out all over the place. It didn't fit in with my summer plans, though. Fortunately the fans took copious notes. Here's the current Myst news:

Obduction development continues. Unreal 4 engine.

Cyan has posted a gigantic folder of Myst Online concept art (dropbox link). This is early material -- I'm guessing 2000 to 2002. A little bit of this wound up in Myst Online, and a bit more has leaked out online, but most of it is new to me.

A group of fans have gotten permission to work on Myst Online content -- updating areas from Myst 5, building areas from the concept art above, and importing original fan Ages. These may wind up in the official Myst Online server, although the final decision is up to Cyan, obviously. They say they're aiming to have something playable by the end of this year. I hope that works out. (More discussion in character.)

The Starry Expanse project (a fan remake of Riven) has made excellent progress building Riven's Jungle Island. Here's a video tour (youtube) of what they've done. You'll see that some textures are missing, and the water effects need work, but what they've got is fantastic.

Unwritten, the Myst-setting RPG, has been somewhat delayed but is making progress. They've shipped their Kickstarter tchotchkes; I have a nice D'ni-style notebook and some wooden tokens. (This is a Fate-based RPG, so there are Fate tokens.) The game manuscript itself has gone through a couple of rewrites, with input from Leonard Balsera. Last I heard they were aiming at shipping this month, but I get the impression it'll be another couple more.

There was a pancake printer. I don't know either.

Further notes from the convention:

Mysterium is back in Boston next year, and I hope to be there.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Zarfplan: July: almost done

A month ago I wrote: "I am still fairly confident that I will have a complete, testable game at the end of July." I halfway made it. I have a testable game! ...but it's not complete.

On July 17th I sent mail to the backers who chose the "access to the closed beta-testing phase" reward. (And also to select friends, because what's the point of being in a local IF meetup group if you can't hit them up for some beta-testing.)

At that point I had a version of HL which was playable roughly halfway through. That is, the game was maybe 90% written, but I stuck a barrier at a particular point and said "Play-test up to here. Everything up to this point is 100% complete. Past that, eh, there are a lot of holes."

So for the past two weeks, a few intrepid players have been trying out "chapter one". And sending me transcripts. Useful transcripts! At the same time, I have been pushing forward on the latter part of the game. Filling in holes. Dotting i's, crossing t's.

It's not 100% yet. This game has more i's and t's than an interstitial Italianate witticism about intermittent tintinnabulation at the Interutilitiarian Hittite Institute at Ytterby. However:

All the rooms are done. I couldn't let you folks wait on rooms for another month. As of July 23, the room-counter widget says "93 of 92 rooms are described." ...Yes, off-by-one error there, sorry. The game has a couple of dummy and debugging rooms and I screwed up the accounting. There are 92 actual rooms, and they are all properly described and furnished.

I have almost completed "chapter two". This is where the game scenery starts to change, so it involved some messy things-moving-around code. The code works; I'm missing a few descriptions.

I have done another optimizing pass and sped up a bunch of display code. I've followed up on a bunch of suggestions that came from my testers. I've added a very clever "GO BACK" command which takes you back to the last room you were in. (So you can type "GO TO KITCHEN", grab something, and then "GO BACK".)

What's left?

Three major rituals in "chapter three". One extremely annoying travel bug. A bunch of descriptions pertaining to things that change in that part of the game. Solidification of the ending scene, which I have hitherto only lightly sketched out because you can't write a decent ending without a game to build it on.

There are 109 "TODO" marks in the source code as of this evening. Don't take this as very meaningful; I've never shipped an IF game that didn't have a handful of "TODO" marks left in it.

When I sent out the test emails I promised that a complete test version would be ready in "mid-August". I still hold to that, although "mid" is intentionally vague. I would really like to get a final test going by the last week of August, because that's when I take off for DragonCon.

There we are. If I don't get completely blindsided by something, the next update post will report the completion of Inform programming for HL. There will still be iOS work to do, plus whatever bugs the testers turn up.

(Other words I considered for the "crossing t's" gag above: tripartite, zwitterion, tritium, irritability, invitation, totalitarian, instinctive, titular.)

Friday, July 18, 2014

Trying out is a quick-and-easy platform for distributing indie games. I figured I'd take a look at it; it's a possible way to distribute Hadean Lands in the non-iOS world.

After a few hours of CSS massaging, I now have three of my old IF games posted:

Shade and S&W have donation buttons on them. I've never tried that before; we'll see how it does.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Zarfplan: June is getting there

Happy Canada Day (and pretend I said that in French). 82 out of 90 rooms complete.

I'm not really measuring progress in rooms any more. There were only a few days this month that I'd mark as "wrote some rooms". June was mostly spent on underlying mechanisms which are not located in specific rooms; they're spread through the game. I don't want to get spoilery at this late date, but I have implemented large swaths of code for:
  • dragons
  • human figures
  • shadows
  • doors that change state
  • progressive starting conditions
  • ritual environments
  • looking through magical lenses at all sorts of things
  • the alternative to sheets of paper
  • the problem of trying to create two doses of some potion when I've only implemented one
  • a cigarette lighter

The cigarette lighter was a late addition. Some rituals require you to set stuff on fire. There's a couple of fire sources in the game, and you can light a bit of wood and carry that around, so it's all workable. But carrying around flaming bits of wood turned out to be annoying. They burn out. You have to get more. It felt like an imposition. So yesterday morning I said "Why doesn't this chem lab have handy butane lighters, anyhow? Real labs do."

(I don't call it a "butane lighter", or a "cigarette lighter" either, but a pocket flame source is a pocket flame source. Perhaps you have fond memories of So Far.)

So I can't put the nail in the room-list this month, but I have checked off lots of the game's remaining tasks. I am still fairly confident that I will have a complete, testable game at the end of July. That could slip partway into August, because every task list has a "last 90%" that trails off into infinity. But the game is filling out fast, and it feels like I finished half of the remaining job last month.

I am excited. And nervous.

Again, there's a chunk of work to do after the "complete game" milestone. I'll need to polish the iOS interface and build its eccentricities. (I'm thinking a tappable encyclopedia of rituals, which updates as you discover them. That will save a lot of "RECALL TARNISH RITUAL" commands. And then there's the tappable map, of course.) So August at least is scheduled for that stuff. But I will have beta-test reports coming in as I do the iOS work, so I can parallelize.

Other June news:

For the first anniversary of Seltani, I posted a little puzzle Age called Salvanas. (That link will take you straight into the game world, although you'll have to sign in to solve everything.) No story, just a collection of Myst-style puzzles -- only in text, of course. Statistics indicate that only seven people have completed it to date! Surely this can be improved.

I also got my butt in gear and posted the source code for nearly all of my Inform games. I've always had the source for Hunter, Shade, and Heliopause on my web site; I've now added Dreamhold, Spider and Web, So Far, and several others. (All are under a "for educational/academic interest" license rather than an open-source license.) If you're curious about Inform 7 source code -- or Inform 6, or actually Inform 5 for the oldest ones -- dive on in.

I've been taking a look at new distribution platforms. If you saw Shade on for pay-what-you-want, would you pay a dollar? I could set that up. There's also the Humble Store, although that's got an application process and their developer FAQ is a bit thin.

And finally, the 2014 Interactive Fiction Competition is open! Gaze in awe at the brand-new web site, built and run by our blog-host Jmac. Sign-ups and prize donations are now being accepted.

See you at the end of July. With a little luck, I will be into the final stage of development by then.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Old Zarf code

In a recent blog post, I wrote: "Maybe we'll even make more of a swing towards releasing game source code."

That thought stuck with me. I asked myself why I haven't posted the source code for all my classic IF games.

Some, I have. I posted source for Hunter in Darkness, Shade, and Heliopause because I thought other game authors might be interested in the techniques. But the larger games (Dreamhold, So Far, Spider and Web) have never had public source releases.

Why not? I didn't put it in words, but roughly: players should experience the game, not the software. If there are secrets, they should be ferreted out by people playing the game, not people browsing the source.

Of course there are Z-code decompiling tools, so I can't truly enforce this. Nor would I want to go down the DRM/obfuscation road to stop people from prying. That would just be a huge waste of my time. But if people wanted to pry into the technology, I wanted them to have to expend some effort. That friction matched my feelings about the right way to play the game.

Only I don't feel that way any more. I can't remember why I ever gave a snort.

Oh, I suppose I do a little. When a game is freshly released and players attack it en masse, the idea still applies -- I want the group experience to be about the game. But a year later? It's meaningless. And some of these games are fifteen years old, or older.

So yeah. It's time to knock that habit over. Here are some source links:

The I5/I6 games are tar.gz files, because for each I had to pack several source files together with the hacked library code that I used. The I7 games are directly readable as (syntax-colored) HTML.

All of these can be compiled with Inform 5, Inform 6, or Inform 7. The exception is Delightful Wallpaper, which was built with a 2006 version of I7 that's no longer available from the web site. I'd have to update the source to recompile it.

I have not used an open-source license. The games all say what Shade has always said: "This source code is provided for personal, educational use only." You can read it, and copy the programming techniques, but you can't make derivative games. (That is: my game text is copyrighted and I intend to keep hold of it.)

(Academic writing about my games is of course fine. That's fair use in the old-fashioned sense.)

(Fanfic -- riffing on the story or characters while using original text -- is another barrel of cephalopods. I figure I'm in the same position there as any other writer. You've always been able to read my story text, as part of the game, and my source release doesn't change that.)

Hadean Lands is an interesting question. I'm going to charge money for that one; it changes the equation. I guess I'll wait a year after release, and decide whether I feel like doing a source release then? Feels right.

(One of the HL Kickstarter rewards was the source code as a printed volume. I won't wait a year on that, obviously. But that was a limited reward, and will only be distributed on paper, not online; so I'm leaving it out of this discussion.)

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Zarfplan: May report, counting down

Last month: 45 out of 86 rooms complete. This month: 65 out of 89 rooms complete. I did twenty rooms in the past month. The total grew because I decided to split one room in half, and then added two tiny closets.

This covers most of "chapter 1" of the game. In exploring this far, the player can reach 66 rooms and nearly all of the rituals of the game. (It's the tool-collection stage of the story.) Figuring out how the tools fit together is "chapter 2", and that's how you reach the last 23 rooms -- the tricky ones.

It's not all about reaching rooms. There's a lot of... unlocking cabinets? Okay, cabinets aren't much different from rooms. No, the fun of the game (I hope) is in trying to reach certain locations with certain items. It's fairly easy to enter room X if you use up resource R, but to bring resource R into room X is harder. That sort of thing is "chapter 3".

So the game will involve a lot of backtracking. (Yes, I've implemented a "go to room X" command.) This is why I can't just say "I will implement 24 more rooms and be finished." I will probably implement 20-ish rooms in June, but there are several crucial rituals which occur in existing rooms, and I've been saving those for the end. July is for those.

I still expect to move into testing at the end of July.

Then I have to draw a map, polish the iOS interpreter, and work on other presentation issues. But hopefully I can do that in parallel with testing.

Other news...

The new Inform 7 release arrived on May 7th. People leapt on it with gusto. It's very nice. I've decided I'm not going to shift HL development to it, though. It has no features that I need, and while it's faster in some ways, it's slower in others. Plus -- the time factor. I could easily blow a couple of months updating all my code and validating that it all works the way I expect in the new system. That would be a bad use of my time at this point. So I'll stick to the compiler I've been using.

I have been playing around with an in-game debugger for Inform 6 games. (Built into the Glulxe interpreter, actually.) This is not very useful for I7 games, because it only tells you about the fiddly I6 internals. But it's already helped diagnose a few fiddly bugs. See this source branch and this file if you're interested.

The one-year anniversary of Seltani is coming up soon. I can't let that slip by unobserved, so I'm cooking up a small set of puzzle Ages. Should be fun.

I went to Balticon! It was a fine (working) vacation. (I didn't implement any rooms while away, but I did implement two cabinets.) There was no Lost Pig, but I took part in a handful of panels about IF, narrative game design, and so on. All went well. (Okay, three of them went well. The one on mobile app development fell kind of flat. Next time, I'm sticking to narrative/game topics.)

Speaking of conventions, BostonFIG is coming up again in September. The Boston IF group plans to host IF events there, like we did last year, but we haven't gotten down to specifics yet.

I briefly considered demoing Hadean Lands at FIG. However, friendly voices (thank you jscott) pointed out that it would be tacky to demo the game in public before my backers have seen it. True! So I'm thinking about other game ideas I might whip together by September. The entry deadline is June 20th, so I'd have to whip rapidly, but it might happen...

See you in a month, with -- I hope -- the last room-count progress report.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Purposes of archiving

This was a big week for IF events -- Spring Thing ended and ShuffleComp voting started. There were unexpected wrinkles in both of them, but I want to discuss the less dramatic one.

ShuffleComp is a music-themed game-jam-like event. I won't do the whole spiel; basically you get a song list and you're supposed to write a short game inspired by one of the songs. I didn't enter, but Jmac did, and he got all electrified about the idea of using Seltani. (Which is... do you read this blog? It's my multiplayer text Myst MUD project from last year.)

So Jmac implemented his idea, and that was great until he re-read the rules and saw:

The only restriction on platforms is that the game you submit must be playable as-is, not reliant on being hosted on a specific server or website. (This doesn't forbid hosting elsewhere - but if your game breaks if hosted on the IF Archive or played offline, that's a problem.)

Our topic for today is: why is the IF Archive, and how does that role change as IF changes?

(Spoiler: I do not have tidy answers. Best I can do is pare the questions into neat slices.)

(Footnote: The ShuffleComp organizer wound up disqualifying Jmac's game, with apologies all round and no ill will. Jmac has posted his game link on his own web site. You should jump into Seltani and try it.)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Inform 7 update

Graham Nelson has released a new version of Inform 7, the first in over three years.

This release is a major reform of a now-mature language which is widely used, and it has been over three years in the making. Text handling is better, Inform can now generate adaptive grammar, there's real number support, and a new Public Library of extensions is being introduced. There are significant improvements in the user interface for Mac OS X.

-- the very short form of the very long release notes

Also, the app's ancient-mosaic visual theme has been replaced with a stylish modern subway-map motif. Next thing you know, IF will be considered a 21st-century gig, eh?

My big contribution was the General Index of the documentation. This is a rewrite of the unofficial index I did a few years ago. Finding stuff in the documentation has been a perennial complaint about I7, and I hope this goes some way to fill the gap.

To repeat a word of warning: "This will be a disruptive release." Every major release of I7 has changed enough under the surface to warrant caution, and this one is a bigger shift than most. If you load an existing game project into the new I7, it is not guaranteed to compile -- and if it does build, it is not guaranteed to behave exactly the same. Test carefully, and if you prefer stability, keep your 2010 version of Inform (release 6G60) around. (It should be safe to keep both installed on the same machine.)

To be clear, we expect most old I7 code to still build with the new compiler. The major exceptions are if you used deprecated phrases (such as procedural rules), or if you used an extension that has serious I6 hackery under the covers. Such extensions will have to be updated for the new release. Many have been already; check the new Extensions Library.

(In case you're curious, Hadean Lands will remain a 6G60 project. I've got 25000 lines of working code, and I am not going to risk subtle breakages at this stage.) (Yes, I wrote a lot of regression tests. They're geared towards finding mistakes in my code, not changes in the underlying system.)

Congratulations to Graham and the rest of the I7 team for getting this wrapped up. To everyone else -- enjoy the new toys.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Zarfplan: April only it still feels like March out there

Seriously, it was 45 out today. Now it's rainy, but that's good news because it's a warm humid front coming in and we should get a May that feels like April, at least.

It's weird looking back at earlier updates. Last month I was pleased because the tutorial was finally done. In February I was pleased because I had finally started writing some rooms. Now the tutorial feels like it's ages past, and I have 45 rooms nailed down. That's 45 out of 86 total. We are past the halfway point, area-wise.

(Yes, I originally estimated 82 rooms, but a few more tiny ones have slipped in.)

So I did... (quick subtraction)... 23 rooms in April. Plus all the associated furniture and recipes and puzzle elements found in those rooms. Also I hammered in some optimizations that speed up large I7 games considerably (see here if you're interested), and added one of the two special viewing tools. And fixed a typo that's been staring me in the face for about a year and a half.

I have been informed that my last couple of update posts sounded disconsolate and defensive. (Not that you folks aren't supportive.) I really didn't mean them that way! This is the home stretch and I have been accelerating down it. I am aiming to do twenty rooms per month for May and June, and that will carry me to the end of HL's physical area. I'm excited.

The game will not be absolutely done at the end of the 86th room, because there is a final puzzle and some final scenes. (Associated with an existing room, but I will write them last because that's how I work.) Throw in some time for writing tests, and I can reasonably say that this thing will move into testing at the end of July. In fact this is so reasonable that I have now said it to you folks, out loud.

Wacky, huh?

The other news of the day was supposed to be the new Inform 7 release. This has slid a bit but should be out in a few days (see this post). I did a bit of final index-polishing last week, so you have that to look forward to.


Sunday, April 27, 2014

Raetikon, Fract

This week I tried two different puzzle/exploration games. They were both pretty cool, but I only finished one of them. Does this mean I am going to delve into details of game design? Yes!

Oh, sure, it'll boil down to personal preference -- but details can be fun.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Zarfplan: March update

I will keep this short, because I just noticed that I have to run to the Boston IF meetup soon, and I want to get this post out before then. (A late-night blog post would wind up dated "April 1", and do any of us need that additional cognitive stress? I think not.)

In the past month I have completed thirteen rooms, with all the objects, descriptions, recipes, and messages that appear therein. As usual, some of these rooms are fairly bare (corridors) and others are crowded with stuff.

I have also completed the tutorial -- which took nearly two weeks on its own. The tutorial is intended to hold your hand through the first room. That's basically the content of the teaser game. It requires more code than you might expect. It's done, though.

I have mapped out the "environmental spell component" that I mentioned last month, and started coding it up. That's not a huge task; it was just a corner of planning that I kept sweeping around, and now I've gotten to it.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Zarfplan: February was kind of nuts

I suppose you want the room count, don't you. I will give it to you. When? Now, I should think. You look forward to it, do you? I think you do. ...Nine rooms, I got done this month. All clues, all descriptions, all scenery, all actions handled. I can play through those nine rooms and it is a solid, playable IF game.

This is most of what I call "chapter 0" in my notes. After another couple of puzzles, the player transitions to "chapter 1". That's where most of the game opens up, at least a little bit.

But how many rooms are there in this game? I hear you cry. Okay, that's a fair question. There are 82. So you might conclude that I am 11% done with this thing and have eight months of work remaining. And that's... not a completely terrible estimate.

I don't mean that it's my estimate. Or that it's accurate. Rather, I guess, that the possible errors fall in both directions. So I can't say it's definitely too long or too short.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

RealMyst Masterpiece Edition

The updated RealMyst is now up on Steam (for Mac/Win). It also appeared on the Mac App Store briefly yesterday, but Cyan pulled it back out citing "a small issue". (It's not clear what the issue is, or if the Steam release has the fix already.)

(Screenshots from an iMac, 2.7GHz, lots-o-RAM, AMD Radeon HD 6770M 512 MB. I don't know a damn thing about video cards but maybe that means something to you.)

Friday, January 31, 2014

Zarfplan: Welcome to the new age

(I have that song stuck in my head, sorry about that.)

It is the end of January; it's been six weeks since my last update. Merry 2014! The holidays are over and I ate a lot of cookies. You've probably forgotten what my voice sounds like. Welcome back. Or welcome me back, I'm not sure which way it runs.

January was a weird month for Hadean Lands development. I said it would be "story bits". What does that mean?

Way back when I was sketching out this storyline, I outlined a set of characters who would appear throughout the game. I sketched out their roles, and how they would relate to each other and to you. One appears at the very end of the teaser, if you recall back that far:

You can see a figure caught behind the fracture. You peer closer in the gloom... That's Lieutenant Anderes, apparently frozen mid-step. What's she doing down here? And why is she carrying a crumpled alchemical recipe?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Arisia: IF and gaming panels

I spent this past weekend at Arisia, an SF convention. Like many conventions, it's diversified its topics to SF (and fantasy) in comics, TV, movies, and gaming. So I wound up at a whole series of nifty panel discussions that mentioned interactive fiction.

Okay, it was the deadly trifecta of gaming discussions: Are games literature? Are games art? And what the hell are games anyhow? But the moderators all ditched the cliche questions and got on to interesting stuff.

(I was not on the panels -- just sitting in the audience. I got to throw in some comments, though.)

I do not have transcripts of these. I tried to take notes, but at some point in each panel I got caught up in the discussion and spent my time thinking of comments rather than writing down what people were saying. So you get a rather disjointed view of all of this. Sorry! I think it's worth copying my jottings anyhow.

Quotes are guaranteed not accurate. I attempted to get down what I thought people meant; errors are mine. I've also thrown in some of my responses that I wasn't able to get out loud in the panel. Editor's privilege.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Random historical "treasure"

Here's a thing I found in a box: the records of my solving Infocom games.

(click for bigger and larger)

Back when I was first playing these things, I would generate these transcripts. Not while I was solving them -- oh, what a waste of paper that would have been -- but when I finished. I'd start from the beginning and play through to the end, reeling out all my hard-won game expertise in one swoop.

Well, maybe not one swoop. You can see that one of the transcripts starts in the middle of Planetfall. Probably I came to the end of a ream of paper and had to feed in a new one.

This is fan-fold dot-matrix printout from an Apple 2. It was an Okidata printer. Microline model 92, I think?

I have no idea what to do with this stuff, other than put it back in a box. It doesn't encode anything interesting about my play experience, since I was aiming at a clean "speed run". I guess you could analyze my typos.

If I get sufficiently famous, I guess one day I can donate my papers to a literary foundation. Something to look forward to.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Jason McIntosh is the new IFComp organizer!

I'd be coy about it, but the above title is what Stephen Granade posted, so I'll stick with it.

Stephen has been running IFComp since 1999. In that time... you know what, a recap of the IF world in the 21st century would be messy. Put it this way: stuff keeps changing. We all try to keep up. Stephen's patience and good humor have kept the Comp steady through all these years.

Now Stephen is stepping down to concentrate on his career as a serious rocket scientist. Jason McIntosh has volunteered to take over and helm the ship. Jmac needs no introduction here -- because it's his blog -- but you can poke at the links if you want.

2014 will hold the 20th IFComp, and I sincerely look forward to steering this institution SG has helmed since 1999, even while aware that I find myself with shoes of a certain magnitude to fill. A lot's changed over the last few years -- to say nothing of the last fifteen -- and I see the Comp as more important to the continuing development of text-based games than ever before, both as a body of work and as an increasingly diverse art form.

-- Jmac's comment on the announcement

Is he hinting at changes to come? Only the Shadow knows!

(I am not the Shadow.)