Dateline May 7th (or May 2, or Apr 12, or Mar 28, or...)

Microsoft shocked industry observers today by announcing the cancellation of its upcoming unexpected hit game. The title was still in production, and would have been launched with little fanfare, but would have blasted its way to the top of the charts as next season's surprise bestseller.

"Of course we don't know which game the hit would be," commented the team's (ex-) lead designer. "The next Arkane Austin game? The next Tango Gameworks? Alpha Dog? I guess now we'll never find out."

Microsoft executives insisted that the upcoming hit might not have been a Microsoft title at all. "For all we know, the surprise success might have been coming from Take Two or Electronic Arts. Or Sega. Or one of those Embracer acquisitions. Any of them! I mean," one executive added with a nervous cough, "Not any more. Obviously."

With the week's layoffs out of the way and the risk of a breakout success safely neutralized, Microsoft's remaining developers have settled back to work on their roster of sure-fire sellers. With its new focus on reliable, brand-tested IP and safe genres, the company can be certain that the only surprises in the next few years will be surprise failures.

My quick photo tagging app

Tuesday, May 14, 2024   (updated 3 days later)

Tagged: photos, phogg, tagging, python, javascript, programming

I spent a couple of weeks in Italy and took a lot of photos. I mean, some photos. A lot for me. I'm not much of a photographer. (My dad took a lot of photos.)

Upon coming home, I realized that searching my photo folder had gotten to be a nuisance. It was just a directory of 1800-ish images. The only metadata was the creation date. Can't we at least have some kind of text tag system?

But how do you apply tags? Suddenly this was a design problem.

Interrupting my own narrative with a TLDR: I wrote a photo tagging app, but it's not documented or supported or anything. So you probably shouldn't try it. If you want to, great! Here's the repo. But this is a for-me project.

And this blog entry is a "what have I been up to?" post, not a project announcement.

Okay, where were we? Right, photo tagging systems.

Spring puzzle games

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Comments: 4   (latest 13 hours later)

Tagged: reviews, skaramazuzu, boxes: lost fragments, boxes, botany manor, between horizons

More time to play games, right?

It so happens that this month's games are all easy ones. Three of them are short, as well -- one-sitting treats. I'm fine with bite-sized games, of course. I might not have chosen to play three of them in a row, but that's what fell out of Steam.

  • Skaramazuzu
  • Boxes: Lost Fragments
  • Botany Manor
  • Between Horizons

Un-job status update, 2024

Friday, April 12, 2024

Comments: 16   (latest 24 hours later)

Tagged: job, life, possibility space, prytania

Well, that was a pretty good four months.

Prytania Media's first subsidiary has been closed 'without warning'

Prytania co-founder Jeff Strain attributed the closure of Possibility Space to an incoming report from Kotaku's Ethan Gach.

--, April 12

That "incoming report" is the same one mentioned by Annie Strain -- Jeff's spouse and the other co-founder -- in her post last week. (Wayback link because they yanked it after a couple of days.)

Note that, by their own words, both Jeff and Annie are upset about an unreleased article. In fact, about what might be in an unreleased article. An unreleased article about the closure of Crop Circle games, a studio I did not work for. (Crop Circle, Possibility Space, and a couple of others were sibling studios under an umbrella called Prytania Media.)

Yeah, I have no idea either. Keep an eye out for future journalism on this mess. I'm sure it will be fun reading, in some sense.

In the meantime, I guess I'm available for work again!

Oh, that's what happened to Kickstarter

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Comments: 11   (latest 1 day later)

Tagged: kickstarter, blockchain, bite me

A couple of years ago I wrote about "That Kickstarter news". The "news" was blockchain crap.

I pointed out that an open-source protocol for crowdfunding project tracking was a pretty neat idea, but blockchain doesn't make it happen. To make it happen, you need a bunch of people of good will to sit down together and work out details. Then you need a trusted organization to run it. Kickstarter was well-situated to get that process started.

They didn't, though. Everybody yelled that blockchain was crap -- it wasn't just me. The company flailed for a while and then seemed to back off on their plan. Although they never disclaimed it completely.

So what was that all about? We now know, or have a good notion anyway, thanks to an article that appeared yesterday.

The stealth round totaled $100 million, according to people familiar with the deal. It was led by a16z crypto and included a handful of other smaller investors [...]

In return for the a16z largesse, Kickstarter would take its own crack at becoming a Web3 company. The grand but improbable plan called for shifting its entire platform onto a blockchain called Celo, another a16z portfolio company, where it would operate as an open-source protocol – akin to http or Bitcoin – rather than rely on the proprietary code model used by most tech firms.

-- "The untold story of Kickstarter’s crypto Hail Mary – and the secret $100 million a16z-led investment to save its fading brand", Leo Schwartz and Jessica Matthew, Fortune

So that's a simple story. Some finance bro from the blockchain department of Andreessen Horowitz turned up with a suitcase full of cash and said "Here, we'll pay you to become a Web3 company. It'll be great. PS: Use our blockchain."

Now it's not really that simple. The article notes that the funding round was in the form of a "tender offer", meaning the money went to shareholders -- including employees -- rather than to Kickstarter as a company. As a public benefit corporation, Kickstarter had pledged to never IPO or seek acquisition, leaving employee stock options as ghost paper. This was an offer to cash some of them out on the spot.

Also, the plan wasn't a commitment to go blockchain. Nonetheless, it was pretty clear that management had bought in. It was also clear that nobody else had.

Most of the community outrage fell upon employees, who expressed their disbelief in group chats and swapped sardonic jokes about Kickstarter NFTs. Meanwhile, the company’s decision to use an outside consultant to announce the blockchain news meant that many staffers were ill-prepared for the sudden torrent of vitriol from users. And given Kickstarter’s checkered history of launching new initiatives, doubt spread about its capacity to pull off a major technology pivot. “It was inconceivable,” said one employee.

The blockchain plan seemed impossible – and that would soon prove to be the case. Within months, executives stopped bringing it up at all, and no section of the platform was ever converted to run on a blockchain. “It felt like Drip,” said one former employee, referring to the ill-fated Patreon competitor. “Announcing this thing, and then just abandoning it.”

-- ibid.

You can say "Well, great -- the employees got cash and the company never went Web3 at all. Win/win!" Or win/status-quo, I suppose.

But then there's the reputational hit. Big projects started shying away from Kickstarter and going to BackerKit or other competitors. I, personally, never backed another Kickstarter after the blockchain announcement. We all have the sense that Kickstarter is in the doldrums. None of this is really news.

The interesting angle is that, from the company's point of view, they were already in the doldrums. Thus the title of the Fortune article: "Kickstarter’s crypto Hail Mary".

But a dozen years after its launch, Kickstarter had lost its cachet of cool and churned through CEOs. The Kickstarter of 2021 had little to offer would-be investors but headaches. Growth had flatlined at the startup, which made its money by taking a small cut when a project on its platform met a funding threshold, and its onetime feel-good culture had become toxic in the wake of a bitter unionization drive. New shareholders would be inheriting ownership of a brand that many felt had turned stale.


Even though Kickstarter figured out early on how to make a profit, the company could never seem to take off. The number of projects plateaued in 2016 at around 19,000 per year – with no signs of growth. Dollars raised on the platform, where Kickstarter got its cut, would fluctuate year-to-year and peaked during the pandemic at nearly $814 million.

An early investor told Fortune that Kickstarter was never able to find an equilibrium between growth and staying true to its new charter, which committed it to socially worthy but expensive or difficult obligations. Despite the noble mission, employees struggled to find paths for career growth or advance their own initiatives as the company’s competing priorities bred dysfunction.

Growth! The assumption is as invisible as air -- at least, if you're reading a magazine called Fortune. Does Kickstarter have to grow? Or can it just keep supporting 19,000 projects a year, making enough profit to pay its employees and its social pledges? That's a social benefit, right? Nothing in the charter says Kickstarter has to be the biggest crowdfunding platform, or the hottest.

I don't know the whole story. The article talks about "dysfunction". There was the whole unionization mess. I can easily believe that morale was lousy, that people felt the company was in a rut.

I just wish they could have asked: what does success look like when it's not the divine windstorm of venture capital? Can we just do a good job? I miss when companies did a good job.

I am not deep enough in the business to know what Kickstarter "really needs". The open-source information-sharing protocol still sounds nifty! A nonprofit organization connecting information Kickstarter, BackerKit, IndieGogo and other platforms. Would it be useful? I don't know, geez, but people like data.

(If that open-source data stream existed, Microsoft would be using it to train LLMs. I can't keep up with the enshittification cycle, either.)

Then there's the Patreon-style model: supporting lots of creators with small consistent payments, rather than per-project bursts of cash. You can tell that's a tough nut. Patreon has been thrashing for years to try to keep it working. Kickstarter tried to enter that race in 2017 with Drip; it failed. Twice. I doubt they're eager to take another run at it, but the problem still needs solving.

Well, I went over this stuff in my original post. Civic infrastructure. Emergency aid. Effective altruism charity management. There's room for new models. What we know, for sure, is that venture capital is unable to solve these problems. "Investment" means you are not acting for the public benefit; you are not solving anything except maybe unprofitability. That's the unspoken message behind the entire Kickstarter article, although the authors may not be able to see it.

(Do I even need to point out OpenAI, that attempted compromise between the non-profit and tech-capital world? Spoiler: the non-profit got junked as soon as it interfered with profit.)

But there should still be a way to employ people to act for the common good. To build valuable tools. To leave value "on the table", that is -- where the table is society.

The end of my term on the IFTF board of directors

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Comments: 7   (latest 5 days later)

Tagged: if, interactive fiction, iftf, narrascope

I am delighted, yes I said delighted, to announce that today is my last day on the IFTF board of directors. I have been on the board since the beginning -- that being 2016 -- but now I depart. With me ends the era of the oh-gee IFTF founders. (Fellow founding member Jason termed out a year ago.)

(You may wonder how it is that two founding members reached their term limits a year apart. Well, we didn't set up the organization with term limits. We added that idea a few years ago. When we did, we rigged the "start times" so that our terms would be staggered rather than ending all at once. It's easier on the new board members if the old ones drop off one at a time.)

Anyway! I am assuredly not done with IFTF. I'm still Treasurer, for a start. Which means I still have board meetings on my calendar. (We're not a big enough organization to have separate board meetings and officer meetings.) I'm also still head of the IF Archive team, and I'm co-chair (or maybe chair, it's fuzzy) of NarraScope. And I'm involved with a couple of other programs to varying degrees.

But I am definitely tapering down my involvement with IFTF. Eight years is plenty long enough; and it's no good for any single person to be load-bearing. So:

The board: We have four new board members as of January. Awesome! Perhaps after I'm gone, or after Liza Daly terms out in July, the board will seek a few more fresh members. I don't know! That won't be my decision! How sweet it is to say that.

Treasurer: There is no official time limit to the Treasurer role, but I'm ready to start shuffling it off. This will necessarily be a slow process, as the Treasurer has accumulated a lot of random responsibilities over the past eight years. (Due to me saying "Never mind, I'll do it" way too many times.) The Treasurer is IFTF's de-facto password manager, 2FA key holder, back-end sysadmin, and a few more odd tasks. I would like to have an understudy for these jobs by the end of this year. (Maybe more than one person? We could split them up.) Then we can start figuring out a schedule to hand them over.

NarraScope: This is a high-intensity job for half of each year (November through June). I've been either chair or co-chair since 2022. NarraScope 2024 is cruising along nicely towards its instantiation in Rochester; but burnout is real, my friends. Someone else will have to step up for NarraScope 2025.

IF Archive: Nah, I'll hold onto this one. It's chill. :)

You may ask: How do I get involved with IFTF? Obviously, both Treasurer and NarraScope lead are high-responsibility positions, so we'll be looking for people who have been around the organization -- or at least known in the community -- for a while now. But that means we're also looking for people to, you know, start hanging around the organization.

How does that works? The current answer is to check out the IFTF News section of the forum. But we haven't done a great job of keeping that up to date. Sounds like something that needs a volunteer, honestly.

And what's next for Crazy Uncle Zarf? (Aside from continuing to run the Archive, and being a general advice-giver for all IF activities.) Heck if I know. Maybe I'll mess around with secret IF tool projects. Maybe I'll finish that poetry idle game idea. Or the LED project. Go to more local dance practices. Anything could happen.

Is it spring? It's less winter, anyhow. If I play another batch of games in April I'll need to invent "second spring" for the blog post title.

  • Universe For Sale
  • Harmony: The Fall of Reverie
  • The Roottrees are Dead

Off-beat poetics

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Comments: 7   (latest 11 hours later)

Tagged: limericks, burma shave, poetry, road trips

"The English language only has one native poetic form, and that's the limerick," someone once told me. I don't remember who.

Well, no. What I remember hearing is "the limerick is America's only home-grown verse form," but that's just silly. I don't know how that even stuck in my head. It doesn't even rhyme!

Limericks are from England, if they're not from Ireland. (The city of Limerick may or may not have anything to do with the case.) Edward Lear was British. W. S. Gilbert was British. Ogden Nash was American but he came along later. I don't know anything about the Maigue Poets of Croom, but I am fantastically happy that "the Maigue Poets of Croom" is a thing people talk about.

No, the only truly American verse form is the Burma-Shave sign.

Ben met Anna Made a hit Neglected beard Ben-Anna split Burma-Shave

That's the one I remember, from some history of nonsense I read as a kid. Long after Burma-Shave, honest. The last original sign went up in 1963, so I would have read about them... all of fifteen years later? Maybe twenty?

But what is the poetic form of the Burma-Shave sign? A few years ago I was inspired to write it thusly:

Four short lines Iambic pace It's like haiku But for your face Burma-Shave

Credit me on that one if you quote it, please. I am proud.

Download the whole IF Archive

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Comments: 24   (latest April 10)

Tagged: if, interactive fiction, ifarchive, archiving

I help run the IF Archive. I have for, oh, about 25 years now.

It's not a demanding job. Mostly the server just runs itself. We have a cadre of volunteers who file the games and write up the descriptions. (Thank them!)

Occasionally we change out some of the underlying server configuration, like when we started using a CDN for load balancing. But that's, like, once every few years.

Low maintenance is great. However, it means that we don't respond to feature requests very quickly. Or at all, sometimes.

The grandmasters

Monday, February 19, 2024

Comments: 8   (latest March 12)

Tagged: susan cooper, the dark is rising, sfwa, grand masters, science fiction, books, awards

The Hugo Award mess continues to be worse than expected. I'm not going there. Instead, let's talk about an award that everybody is happy about.

A couple of weeks ago, SFWA announced they were naming Susan Cooper as a Grand Master of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Properly a "Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master", but I was a Cooper fan before I ever heard of Knight so allow me the unadorned title.

(Footnote: I am a SFWA member but I did not contribute to this honor. It's a juried award.)

I was absolutely delighted to hear the news. I've loved the Dark is Rising series since I was a kid. Since the series was nearly brand-new, come to think of it. I couldn't have read them any later than 1980, and Silver on the Tree was 1977. Of course they felt like a foundational part of the literary landscape, like Narnia and Middle-Earth and Star Trek and everything else older than Me Right Then. Well, they were and they are.

I've come back to the series now and again. See my comments on how The Dark is Rising might work as a game. (Weirdly, because it's a weird book by modern fantasy conventions.) There was also a BBC radioplay a couple years back which I thought was quite good. (Except for the title music, which sorry no.) And I'm not the only one who will always have, somewhere safe in memory, the image of great wooden doors on a snowy hill.

But, as I read the news and smiled, I grimaced as well. You may remember that Patricia McKillip died just a couple of years ago. McKillip has received many honors, including the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement. But she was never declared a Grand Master, even though she was a grandmaster, and she will not be: that award is not given posthumously.