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.

Monday, August 5, 2019

News from Mysterium 2019

I imagine you think of this as just an annual news post. "Hey, here's some Myst news that isn't a kickstarter!" But we really do get together once a year and have a weekend of community love. I don't go to every Mysterium, but this year is the 20th gathering and it's (approximately) the 25th anniversary of Myst's release. We're celebrating Zed being released and Firmament being in production. So I felt I really had to take part.
Plus, a chance to tour the Cyan office! Come on.

But I'll spare you my vacation photos and anecdotes. Here's the news post. This information is straight from Rand Miller's presentation on Saturday, plus other people who presented over the weekend.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Early Myst Online prototypes recovered

A couple of days ago, Cyan's Eric Anderson posted some delightful links via Twitter:

Here's a fun treat for all the Myst/D'ni/Uru fans out there... The original pre-Uru, pre-Mudpie "DIRT/Descent" demo, in all its fully-playable glory! Don't ask us for support, just cross your fingers and hope it works. PS: This thing is 19 YEARS OLD! tinyurl.com/DIRT-Descent pic.twitter.com/hxzYqKLD2F

And for all you HARD CORE fans: Here is the 20-year-old Pre-DIRT "Nexus" Demo built before Cyan even acquired Headspin! It's so old you need to install a (included) Glide GPU wrapper! Also, I have no idea how to solve the "puzzle". Enjoy! tinyurl.com/NexusDemo99 pic.twitter.com/DtoR0PEpBt

Extra Double Bonus!!!!!! Here is the playable "Hector Cove" demo as well (also from around 2000)... Because why not - right? Go harass some janky birbs! tinyurl.com/HectorCove pic.twitter.com/o2yYaMEF5I
(Headspin was an independent studio which developed the first version of the Plasma 3D engine. Cyan acquired Headspin in 1998 and used their engine for RealMyst, Myst 5, and all the versions of Uru / Myst Online. A GPL version is now available.)
I never played these demos; I didn't start tunnelling into Myst Online fandom until 2003-ish. And I'm sorry to admit that I still haven't played them. My Windows gaming machine is currently packed in a box, and it'll be a couple of weeks before I have access to it again.
But you're not me, so have at it.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Apps, tools, and what I use to get through life

Apple did their annual developer announcements last month. The general response is that there's good stuff in store for the Mac/iOS/tvOS ecosystem. Common dev toolkit across all platforms, a new declarative interface builder, multi-window UI and thumb-drive support for iPads, a consistent undo gesture. Decent controller support for iOS games.
I could link to articles with titles like "Audacity" and "Changes Everything". Let's just go with this summary from Dave Mark.
I have spoken to a lot of longtime developers, and many new developers this week to gauge the reaction of what’s going on behind-the-scenes at WWDC. The response has been overwhelmingly positive for what Apple has introduced publicly and what they are saying and doing in the talks and labs during the conference. [...] If developers are happy, consumers are going to be pleased because we are going to get some great apps in the coming months.
(--Dave Mark, Thoughts on WWDC 2019)
That all sounds nice, and I bumped along for a few weeks in a cloud of mild Apple euphoria. But at some point I started trying to figure out what this means for me, specifically. How does my life improve?
Turns out -- it doesn't. I know that sounds weird; I'm a lifetime Mac user and I have no intention of jumping ship. But somehow, I'm not in the app market. I just don't buy productivity tools.

Let me try to quantify this. I've just spent a year helping to organize and run an IF conference. As co-chair, I was involved in every aspect of this thing -- the web site, the program book, the budget, everything. What was my toolset for this daunting job?
  • BBEdit. My Mac text editor since forever. I spent a surprisingly long time on the free BBEdit Lite and TextWrangler tools, but when TextWrangler retired a couple of years ago, I paid for the full version. Therefore, I am now out of the market for text editors.
  • Emacs. Yes, I use both Emacs and BBEdit. I go back and forth without thinking. Don't ^@ me.
  • Numbers. This is the spreadsheet that comes free on Mac/iPhone/iPad. We kept piles of data in spreadsheets. However, there was nothing specifically Apple about the way I did it. I could have used Excel or Google Sheets. In fact, when sharing data with the rest of the team, I always exported it to .xlsx files, .csv files, or Google.
  • Pages. This is Apple's free word processor, sibling to Numbers. Again, it was nice to use a native app, but any number of equivalent tools would have worked. The end goal was always to export a PDF. (If I didn't want a PDF, I'd be in Emacs or BBEdit.)
  • Inkscape. Open-source vector illustration editor. This is actually in a precarious state -- the Mac port is two years out of date and about to capsize in the MacOS 32-bit purge. But it's still my go-to tool for any kind of illustration.
  • Google Forms and Google Docs. We ran several attendee surveys and questionnaires.
  • Dropbox. Our shared document repository.
  • Slack. For what you use Slack for.
  • Python. For ad-hoc everything. Also for the web site, which was based on the Pelican static generator.
Really, you ask, Python? Yup. For example, when I laid out the program book, I did it in two columns for the two-page spreads. Oops -- the printing service wanted one column per page. Rather than reformatting, I wrote up a quick script to (1) convert the PDF to image data; (2) slice that into left and right halves; (3) write them out as PNG files.
Similarly, when I sent out email to attendees, I used a little script which chewed through the attendance spreadsheet (in .csv form) and sent email to each address. Stuff like that. There's plenty of ways to do these tasks, but I reach for a script.
This is why I bounce off all those articles saying "I've switched to the iPad as my regular work machine!" We got another round of them this month -- not without justification. But the fact is that all of my workflows eventually expand to include a Python script. It sounds like a joke, but it's the honest truth.
(I'm writing this blog post in BBEdit. When I'm done, I'll pipe it through a script to convert the Markdown syntax to HTML, and shove that into Google's Blogger interface. That's how I roll.)

This is probably more detail than you need about my tech obsessions. It boils down to: I like open-source tools and tools which can interoperate with them. And I'm quite resistant to changing gears. If something works, I'd rather figure out how to keep it working.
As a result, I have no idea what the last dozen hot new drawing apps are. Sorry! (Nor am I asking for recommendations.) I suppose this entire post is an indulgence of cane-waving. Sure, new tools can be fun, but haven't you already figured out how to do your work twenty years ago? Rarggh, kids, lawn, etc.
When I look at my iOS devices, the last serious app I installed was Slack. And Slack's been going for a while now, right? Oh, and I installed a bank app because I opened an account at a new bank.
(Note that games are a different scene entirely. I grab new iOS games at a whim; I regularly browse the app store lists looking for new ones. Sometimes I'll try a new game because it's a lazy morning and I'd rather pay three bucks than get out of bed right then. You know how it is.)
Let me turn the question around (before this gets any more embarrassing). What are the tools that have changed the way I work? And when did I adopt them?
(I'm not going to count software development languages, because that's work in its own right. I'm talking about tools that help me with not-inherently-software tasks. Like running a convention.)
  • Text editors (Emacs, BBEdit). Before that I think I wrote stuff down in my terrible handwriting until my hand cramped. I used word processors in high school, but mostly for assignments, not saving data. Then I got my first computer account where I could save files -- and not in the uncertain hell of floppy disks. Life-changing. (Arguably, this includes the crucial flip-side skill of "organizing files in a directory tree".)
  • Email. Any serious communication, I want it in email. Email is my memory. Plain text please; HTML just gets stripped. Attachments are fine but I'll save them off separately.
  • Vector graphics (PostScript, Inkscape/SVG). I did not do art until I could program it. Then I found out about PostScript and started trying stuff like this. Not that this is terrific art, but it was a space I could mess around with. I worked up to projects like the Hadean Lands map, which I did in Inkscape.
  • Scripting languages (csh, Python). See above. Perl happened to a lot of people of my generation, but I skipped it.
  • Online chat (Zephyr, MUDs, IRC, XMPP, Slack). Many different work, social, and mixed-work-social circles. Chat has gone through a lot of different platforms; I've used all of them in roughly the same way. I can coordinate with people entirely via email, but chat complements email by letting you have a discussion right now. Yes, Slack has nice amenities -- file attachments! -- but when Slack is ruined by corporateness we'll move on to something else. (Note: Discord is a bad replacement and will not survive.)
  • Distributed version control (Git). Yes, I used SVN before Git. And RCS before that. RCS was bad, SVN was fine. But Git was when I said, oh right, I should use this on anything that might need revisions. No server setup, just git init and start work. Revelatory.
  • Spreadsheets. I came very late to spreadsheets. I didn't start one until I wanted to track sales of iOS apps, which was 2011. They certainly solve a bunch of problems, though.
  • Bug/issue trackers? I'm not sure this looms as large as the other items, but it's a runner-up.
And... that's it. That's the toolbox. Oh, I use innumerable other tools ad hoc, but these are the ones that rearranged how I do everything.
You see immediately that these are all old technologies. I picked most of them up in college. Git and spreadsheets are the only recent additions, and of course spreadsheets were around much earlier. So if there's a moral (and I've been rambling long enough that there better be a moral), it's that I've been a conservative old fart my entire life.
That said, you never know. I did figure out spreadsheets at age 40, and I'm not dead yet.
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