Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Point-of-view in The Witness: design ruminations

I played The Witness to an ending, and then I went back and played until I had finished it to my satisfaction. (504 +82. I looked at just two hints, and no thanks, I am not going to beat the Hall of the Mountain King. Two of my friends did; I am happy to bask in their reflected glory.)

The Witness must be the most painfully-analyzed game release of the past few years. Painstakingly-analyzed? Both. I haven't even gone looking for the discussion threads. They're out there, because we all love to talk.

So I doubt I can say much. But (I love to talk) I will take a shot at the aspect I find most interesting, which is the game's presentation of its point of view. Your point of view? Both.

(This post will contain very general spoilers about the kinds of puzzles in The Witness.)

You can't talk about The Witness without mentioning Myst, but The Witness has curiously little to say about Myst. "Curiously" because Braid, the designer's previous game, was an extended and careful riff on Super Mario Brothers. Oh, it was plenty of things beyond that. But the design of Braid reflected SMB in its art, its enemy design, its jumping mechanics, and its frame story of a lost princess. And this was not unreasonable, because SMB has (perhaps retroactively) assumed the mantle of a videogame archetype.

So when I heard that Jon Blow's next game would be puzzles on a mysterious island, I said "Oh, he's doing Myst now." Myst is as much a videogame archetype as Adventure and Tetris. Taking apart Myst's conventions and assumptions won't necessarily make a great game (it might get you no farther than Pyst did) but it could be an excellent launching point.

Well, as everyone informed me the minute The Witness launched, it's not Jon Blow doing Myst. He went off in other directions -- fine. (One could make the argument that it's more of a riff on Portal.) But we can still pick up the thread, because it is a first-person graphical environment, and the conventions of Myst's design loom over all such games.

You are you; the game is your view of the world; you act by manipulating the world directly. These ideas were never perfectly implemented -- the original mouse cursor and 544-pixel-wide window strained to hold the illusion of being your hand and your eye. But the ideal seemed so obvious as to require no argument.

The Witness, with due consideration and no explanation(*) at all, rejects each of these conventions. Not blatantly; you won't even notice at first. But they all fall apart upon inspection. A disagreement so understated and distinct must be deliberate, I think.

(* Until near the end. We'll get there.)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

SFWA eligibility for game writers

SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, has announced that game writers will soon be eligible to join. (The rule change goes into effect on August 1.) This applies to writers who work on videogames, RPGs, and tabletop games.

SFWA is a professional society for SF writers (and fantasy, yes, and no you don't have to be American. The acronym is way out of date). Their membership page gives an overview of what they do: support and professional/legal advice for authors, particularly authors just starting out. Also a newsletter and so on. Also SFWA runs the Nebula Awards (the SF awards that aren't the Hugos).

The notion of admitting game writers has been floating around SFWA for a while now. Last September they added Choice of Games to their qualifying markets list, and they've also reported that a broader rule change proposal has been in the works. Apparently it was voted in, so here we are.

The formal criteria are described here. Cat Rambo, SFWA president, has added more detail on her blog. The summary is:
  • Sell a game containing at least 40000 words to a qualified (paying) market.
  • Or sell three games of 10000 words to a qualified market.
  • Or sell (to players) a game of at least 40000 words that makes at least $3000 in a year.
  • Word count includes the narrative content, not instructions or game mechanics.
  • To count, games must have a narrative element, be in English, and be SF, fantasy, or horror.
  • Work done for hire is not eligible.

Rambo notes that the rules are subject to further discussion and change (particularly on that last point). They're feeling their way forward on this.

To compare, the SFWA criteria for prose authors are "one novel of at least 40000 words, or three short stories of 10000 words." Or screenplays or stuff of equivalent lengths. Or a self-published work that makes $3000. So these rules are a direct translation, with the caveats about game mechanics and work-for-hire.

(I get the impression that when they say "not game mechanics", they're thinking of an RPG sourcebook which contains both narrative scene-setting and instructions for playing the game. For a videogame, it would make sense to separate user-displayed text from source code.)

Turns out there's some history to this, which Brian Moriarty mentions on Twitter:

It happened before, briefly, in the late 80s. Only three people (Meretzky, Lebling and me) joined before it was disallowed. (-- @ProfBMoriarty)

I don't know the story behind that. Brian points a finger at Greg Costikyan but I couldn't find discussion from that era. Anyway, it was long ago and no doubt the fannish furor has been forgotten.

(Meaningful pause for someone to recount fannish furor in horrifying detail...)

We'll see. In the meantime, I did a quick word-count and verified that, yes, I qualify for membership! Hadean Lands has about 73000 words of displayable text (out of about 240000 words of Inform source code). For a more accurate number I'd want to discount credits, tutorial, and parser messages, but it will still be comfortably over 40000. And I have passed the $3000 minimum for a self-published work.

So... I'm still thinking about this. The $100/year SFWA dues aren't high, but they're not completely trivial either. But, on the other hand, there are benefits. Plus I'm doing this non-profit thing; I want to keep a toe dipped into all the relevant professional circles, and SFWA now counts as one. And... there's a following-in-the-footsteps aspect which is awfully attractive.

(I should note that many, many game writers are already SFWA members! It's perfectly common for people to have game-writing credits and write novels or short stories. I just happen to be someone who is well-known as a game designer without also having professional writing credentials.)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Soma: meanderings by a wuss

(This post will be generally spoilery for the setting and background of Soma. I will avoid specific plot details, however.)

I've had Soma on my stack for several months. Last month I pulled it off the (virtual) shelf to take a look.

Contemporary-world prologue: good setup. Transition to the creepy future undersea base: excellent. Creepy undersea base: admirably creepy. I pushed through the first bit of the base, moving very cautiously -- though, from a design standpoint, this was clearly the "shadows in the corner of your eye" phase. The monster was not yet on screen.

So then I get to the room where the Frictional monster comes on screen. "Oh," I said, "look, it's the Frictional monster."

I've played through Amnesia: Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs(🐷). They have the same monster. It shambles towards you and kicks your ass. And I remember specifically, in Pig Machine, that the monster is fundamentally harmless. If you just stand there and wait, it shambles up and whomps you and then disappears. I mean, you die -- or almost die, or the game gives you another shot, or something -- but the monster is gone and you can get on with the plot.

I can see how the designers got there. Getting stuck isn't particularly good for the game flow, and the threat of sort-of-death is a still a decent incentive to sneak around and play the game "right". For most people. I guess. Not me. "Face your fear!" I shouted, and let the monster walk up and pop like a soap bubble.

In that light, the Frictional monster is hapless and pitiable. Poor poor fleshy monstrosity.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Hadean Lands, two weeks in

So, Zarf, how did that launch go?

Pretty good! Hadean Lands has been on sale on Steam for sixteen days now. And three hours. (Am I counting the minutes? Not really, but it's fun to check.)

In that time it garnered several articles about the DLC certificate, notably from Kotaku and (Those two articles interviewed me a bit on the subject.) Emily Short posted a stellar writeup of the game on Rock Paper Shotgun, and I also got a very nice review on ExtremeTech. And of course many other people said positive things.

Thank you!

Extra props to RayganK, who is leading a crew through HL on his Twitch channel. This is very cool! And... Twitch works very badly for me, for some reason, so I've only seen bits of it. They're two sessions in. Good hunting, folks.

But really, how is it selling?

I won't get into hard numbers, but... HL sold a fair number of copies in the first three days. Then the Steam summer sale started, which took the wind out of the sales. Or maybe it was just a three-day launch spike; it's about what I expected either way.

Then the nice reviews appeared, which led to several more days of good sales. Yay! At this point we're settling back down to the long-term tail rate, but I don't yet have an idea what that is.

And yes, to answer the obvious question, I've sold some certificates. A few. Not nearly as many as I've sold copies of the game. That's fine; I worked a lot harder on the game.

Other news?

This past weekend I posted a small update. (Also available on Itch and Humble.) It doesn't affect the game content, but adds some UI features:
  • "Full Screen" menu option. (F11 on Win/Linux, cmd-ctrl-F on Mac.)
  • "Find..." and "Find Next" menu options (ctrl-F/G or cmd-F/G). These let you do a simple text search in the story window. Note that the scrollback is not infinite -- sorry.
  • In the "Preferences" dialog, there is now an option for "Other Font..." This lets you enter the name of any font installed on your system. (Although you have to type it in rather than looking through a list. Enter the name as you would see it in a CSS file -- the game's display engine is HTML, after all.)
  • In the Alchemy Journal window, the list of rituals now shows "(*)" to mark rituals that you've learned but not yet tried. (Same as the RECALL RITUALS command in the story window.)
  • Fixed a bug where a formula description in the Journal window might not be updated when it should be.

(Due to the nature of Inform 7, I will probably never update the game content of the Steam release of HL. Any change would inevitably wipe everybody's save-game positions, and that just isn't acceptable for a Steam game.)

And that's the current color of the ritual bound, as it were. At this point I've done everything to Hadean Lands that I ever planned to, and more; it is entirely and completely shipped.

(Except for that bit of the KS reward that I still owe a few backers... yes, I know.)

I'm finishing up a contract project this month, and then it's back to thinking about Designing A New Game. Since I'm a game designer and all.