Saturday, December 26, 2009

Myst news: progress on Myst movie, iPhone Riven

I haven't posted much about the Myst movie project since I first blogged about it. Patrick McIntire and Adrian Vanderbosch have been posting occasionally on their blog, but while they've been colorful about the life of indie filmmakers, they haven't had much in the way of solid news.

They still don't have solid news. But they do have encouraging news:

Our trip to LA was to meet with potential producing partners.  What this means is that we were looking for producers to join forces with to further develop the script and project in preparation for pitching to the studios. [...]

We have joined forces with two production companies.  Announcement of those names will come at a later date after some business elements have been taken care of.  For now I will tell you this: One of our partners has a first-look deal at Warner Brothers.  [...]  Don't assume this is a guarantee of WB being the studio.  I will also tell you that the other producer we partnered with is an Oscar winner and has extensive experience with world-creation and bringing epic films like ours to the theaters.  We are very excited about our partners and we're enjoying the collaboration.

-- Adrian Vanderbosch, posting on Christmas

So, no deal yet. But they have friends in high places, or rather in glitzy places, who will be working with them to help make a deal possible. (Adrian estimates that they're "two and half or three years" away from having a finished film, and that's if they don't bog down anywhere.)

I find this awesome, and I look forward to more.

In other news, Chogon (Mark DeForest, CTO of Cyan) posted this on the Myst forums a few days ago:

I am working on Riven for the iPhone/iTouch (along with RAWA and Rand) as I type. And yes. There are some challenges still ahead that I am confident we can solve. And we are determine to make this the best Riven evvvv-er.

(That's with Richard Watson and Rand Miller, two of the other Cyan honchos.)

Myst has been ported to quite a few platforms (DS, iPhone, Saturn, Jaguar... seriously, I didn't even know about most of these). Riven, due to its size -- five CD-ROMs originally -- has been much less widely ported. And in fact, while I've replayed versions of Myst several times over the years, I've never gone back to Riven. My old Mac version certainly won't run on OSX, and I've never gone through the contortions needed to set up a Windows version.

So I'm super-excited about an iPhone Riven. There are challenges, as Chogon says; see his full post for his comments about making the video-playing toolkit do what they need it to do. But it's in progress.

(Yes, someone asked about Droid/Android. Unfortunately the current Android devices still have limited space for app storage, so no luck there for the moment.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Get Lamp at PAX East

I insinuated this before, but now I can pass the word:

I have pretty much committed to premiering GET LAMP at PAX East in the end of March. That means I am going to want to have BOXES of GET LAMP at PAX East at the end of March. That means, well... that means I just bought myself a metric assload of personal pain. But it's pain that will result in an amazing product. So let's enjoy the pain, shall we.

--jscott, in email, updating his Sabbatical status

I look forward to seeing myself blather about IF. With lots of other IF aficionados(*) sitting next to me, mocking my blathering. It'll be great! Show up.

(* "Each with his bottle of aficiolemonade." Oh, Google, you take all the fun out of being obscure.)

EDIT-ADD: You can now pre-order the DVD set.

EDIT-ADD, 12/23: The Penny Arcaders just posted that PAX-East is filling up fast:

Imagine our surprise when looking at pre-registration numbers, it became clear that PAX East would be as big if not bigger than our Seattle show. I can't believe I'm saying this about the first year of PAX East, but if pre-registration keeps going like this we will probably have to cap attendance just like we did this year in Seattle.

Decide soon whether you're interested, folks.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

IF activity at PAX East -- now with info!

I said a few weeks ago that interactive fiction stuff "will happen" at the Penny Arcade Expo East (Boston, March 26-28).

This past weekend PAX sent out a call for speakers and panel discussions. Some of us IF folks started emailing back and forth. We currently have three suggestions submitted to the PAX events site. I've listed them below.

Before I get there, let me say that this is not an exclusive list. The names attached to these panels are simply the people who were in that email discussion. If you're an IF author, current or erstwhile, submit more events! Or register as a panelist for IF-related sessions. And comment here, so we know what's going on. I intend to sit in on every IF-related event at the conference.

(A suggestion: include the phrase "interactive fiction" -- not just "IF" -- in the event title. We'd like all of these events to jump out as clearly related on the schedule.)

We'd like to make this PAX a focal point for IF activity, education, promotion, and all-round chin-wagging. For a start, Jason Scott is saying that he's keen to premiere Get Lamp there...

Friday, November 20, 2009

Yet another reason Apple's feet are full of bullet holes

This is whale week for the iPhone App Store review process. Rogue Amoeba posted a tale of woe, Paul Graham posted about developer ill-will, and now it looks like Apple is checking for private API usage with less than perfect discrimination.

(All links thanks to Gruber, by the way, because where the hell else would I learn this stuff.)

As our faithful readers know, I've been working on an iPhone game for several months now. (And I have several months of work to go. Definitely a high-end project. Hope you all like it!) I can cope with some of Apple's restrictions: I have never touched undocumented APIs, for example. I have no pictures of iPhones in my game, nor cruel caricatures of Steve Jobs.

But good intentions are no cure for App Store Hypochondria. I lie awake nights worrying that I will do everything right and Apple will still bounce me. Worse: that I will do everything right, my app will be accepted, and then I'll try to push a simple bug fix and Apple will bounce me for something I haven't changed.

That's the nightmare for me, as a developer. Negative progress. The destruction of my reputation because Apple won't let me fix my released game. That's why inconsistent rules are worse than stringent rules.

You think I'm worrying over nothing? Go back to the preview screenshot I posted for my game. On the left side of the screen is a green icon labelled "Mail". That's because the story starts with you receiving some mail. Will Apple punt me for "imitating" their Mail app icon? Or faking mail functionality? I don't think so, but my opinion doesn't count, now does it? The Application Submission Feedback blog mentions a case where Apple rejected a cracked-screen effect; I have a scene in my game where an object cracks apart. Could be rejected. I don't know. I have the App Store Hypochondria bad, man, real bad.

And these aren't user interface issues I can tweak. I'm creating an interactive narrative. I can't change that cracked object to a melting object -- I'd have to redesign some later puzzles, never mind redoing the graphics. Should I change that first scene to a phone call just because Apple dislikes fictional email? (Should an ebook author do that, or a musician, in order to be accepted by iTunes?)

All of this scares developers, which hurts Apple -- indirectly. But that's not the foot-shootingness of it all. Apple is in the same boat. We know the review process is arbitrary and inconsistent; the same UI may pass one month and fail the next. But these are Apple's guidelines! Whatever Apple wants, they're not getting it either. If Apple really, sincerely wants to reject all watch icons, they lose -- their review process is failing to do it consistently. If they want to reject all ebooks with "iPhone" in the title, they lose -- it's not happening.

If they don't want these things, of course, then they're just peeing on randomly-selected developers, and they really lose.

The App Store review process: broken for everybody.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Prisoner: discussion post

Occasionally I co-opt this space to just talk about stuff. Then I figleaf it by raising some spurious connection to the world of games -- which I can always do, because games are connected to everything. I mean, dude.

Today's topic -- and tomorrow's and Wednesday's -- is the new TV remake of The Prisoner. (The figleaf, of course, is the best videogame ever made, which I played along with the IF premieres of Infocom and Scott Adams, back in 1980.)

I have now watched the first part (or first two parts of six, depending on how you count -- just like Tolkien). I want to get some thoughts down on blogpaper before I either read other people's thoughts, or see more of the show. So this will be my comment post. I will update it on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Spoiler-free judgement: good job so far. Ian McKellen is magnificent.

The rest of this post will contain SPOILERS. Comments will also be spoilery, I expect. Continue on if your mind is already contaminated.

EDIT-ADD Tuesday evening: Added comments about part two ("Anvil/Darling"). Spoiler-free judgement: overcompressed but promising.

EDIT-ADD Thursday evening: Added comments about the conclusion ("Schizoid/Checkmate"). Spoiler-free judgement: not awful, but disappointing to Prisoner fans.

(I mean it about the SPOILERS, after the cut.)

IF breaking news

Logged on this morning and found three, three, three vonderful things about IF that I didn't know last night!

Rover's Day Out, by Jack Welch and Ben Collins-Sussman, has won the 2009 IF Competition. Congrats!

Broken Legs (Sarah Morayati) and Snowquest (Eric Eve) took second and third; full results are online. The Gameshelf's own Kevin Jackson-Mead got 21st place with his entry Gleaming the Verb. He is reported to be happy not to be last. :)

Congratulations to everybody.

Jason Scott has achieved his fundraising goal of $25000.

I chose $25000 because that would remove, summarily, any living costs and basic needs I would have while I was working on my projects. The money will go to keeping me floating while I do these projects; If more than this amount comes in, I will not consider this profit, but a mandate to keep going on projects further. My rough estimate is that $25k will keep me going for at least 3-4 months, and probably longer. That's full-time, constant work on saving computer history, speaking, and presenting. --from Jason Scott's Sabbatical page

One of these projects, of course, is his Get Lamp documentary on the history and culture of IF. The "speaking and presenting" parts are likely to including IF-related activity at PAX East, and I'm looking the heck forward to that.

JayIsGames has announced an IF competition for short room-escape games.

Secretly, in between all the real stuff I do in my life. I blow a lot of time playing little Flash web games. Flash room-escape games are my favorite sub-genre of these; they encompass the conventions of graphical adventures without costing twenty bucks or taking three years to construct.

The JayIsGames casual-game site has always tracked these little niblets of immersive fun. They've also occasionally stretched themselves to cover text IF. Looks like they've decided to bring the subjects together: they're sponsoring a design competition for one-room IF games, with the theme of "escape". Entries must be Z-code (for portability reasons -- it's a web-game audience), and the deadline is Jan 31.

JayIsGames is a popular site, and I expect this will bring a lot of energy to the IF world, both in game creation and attention. And yes, I might be entering...

Friday, November 13, 2009

Games in, on, and around our culture

Two quick links today.
  • A Common Nomenclature for Lego Families: That, families (and other households) that play with Lego. What do you call a two-by-two brick? Everybody calls it something. This article charts the nomenclature of four children.

...a "light saber" is a "light saber" no matter where you live or how much Lego you have.

(Thanks nancylebov for the link.)
  • One Book, Many Readings: A patient, detailed, gorgeous discussion of Choose Your Own Adventure books. Analyzes twelve of them in detail, including Edward Packard's original The Cave of Time. And when I say "analyzes", I mean several different data visualizations: the endings, the choice points, the flow graphs. Some are animated (Flash).

Another surprising change over time is the decline in the number of choices in the books. [...] I'd be very curious to know the reason for this progression toward linearity. Presumably the invisible hand was guiding this development, but whether the hunger was for less difficulty in the books or simply for something with more in the way of traditional storytelling is harder to unravel.

My only quibble with this essay is that white-on-black body text is a ravening monster that should have been exterminated at the end of the Dark Ages (1980-1984). But oh well.

(On the other hand -- who knew that Ellen Kushner wrote a CYOA book? Neat!)

(Thanks daringfireball for the link.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

IF activity at PAX Boston!

...will happen. Details when we have them.

What? No, I really don't know yet.

What? I'm talking about Penny Arcade Expo East, scheduled for March 26-28 next year, in downtown Boston. I'll be there. Quite a few IF folks are interested in showing up. We all said "Yeah, we should get together at PAX and do some stuff!"

What? We could do some IF panels. Demo some games. Talk about Inform 7, or about interactive storytelling. I hear Jason Scott has been working on a movie, he might have something to show. I like the idea of an MIT tour, featuring "Lurking Horror" locations. Nothing's set up yet; this is all still ideas. But if you're interested in IF, and Boston isn't out of your way, stick a note on your calendar.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Another Secret Project KLD image

Back in July I posted a teaser image from Secret Project KLD. I said I'd say more in "three months, or six, or a year, or however long it takes".

Well, it's taking a while. I still don't know when it'll be done. But it's been three months, so the least I can do is tease you some more.

Project KLD Teaser

This image is actually a month old. I've done a heck of a lot of work since then. But it wouldn't be much of a secret project if I showed off everything I had.

(Note: Some of you reading this post have already seen this image, because... I like to talk about my secret projects. And show off. But I'm trying to keep it within strict bounds now.)

Anyway, see you in another three months! Unless I change my mind some more.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

System's Twilight turns fifteen

Fifteen years ago today, I released my first full-scale original game: System's Twilight.

And when I say "released", I mean "I uploaded it to the Info-Mac FTP archive at SUMEX-AIM." I set up a web page for the game, but I didn't publicize the URL much, because what was a URL? Everyone used FTP.

(I think Info-Mac had a web server too, by that point. But HTTP was merely an alternate way to access the files. It wasn't a web site.)

For fun, here's the announcement I posted to Usenet. (Thanks to Google Groups for preserving it; no thanks for making it really hard to find.)

  From: "Andrew C. Plotkin" 
  Subject: NEW: System's Twilight 1.00
  Date: Sun,  9 Oct 1994 13:36:56 -0400

  I just sent this out to the archives yesterday; it's on the faster
  mirrors already. It's in ./game/systems-twilight-100.hqx on Info-Mac. It
  should appeal to the Cliff Johnson / Heaven&Earth fans that have been
  talking recently...


  System's Twilight: An Abstract Fairy Tale

  This game is a story and a puzzle. The story is made up of several
  parts, not all of which may be obvious. The puzzle is made up of
  many puzzles, some of which aren't obvious at all.

  That's all I'll tell you. The rest you get to figure out yourself. Have

I haven't pasted in the whole thing, but check it out for historic amusement. Bang paths! Compatible with System 6.0.7 and System 7!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Not IFComp adventure reviews

Since it's IFComp season, I thought I'd get my ducks in a row by clearing my brain of commentary of the last few non-text adventures I played.

(Note: any linearity of ducks is strictly accidental. Use of "ducks in a row" as a metaphor does not constitute any guarantee of IFComp commentary, express or implied, now or later, leaded or decaf. Void where used in void context.)

Monday, October 5, 2009

IFComp begins

If you know what the IFComp is, then you didn't need to read it here. Nonetheless! I'd feel dumb if I didn't mention it.

The 2009 Interactive Fiction Competition has begun. Twenty-four short text adventures. Including one by the Gameshelf's own Kevin Jackson-Mead. Play 'em, vote on 'em by November 15th. Or play and vote on as many as you get around to. Or just play some. Up to you.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The longest day of the year

Today is the longest day of the year! And so is tomorrow!

Yes, I know the equinox was two days ago. Nonetheless:

[ed: not "twenty-second" -- thanks, Elizabeth!]

A tie, as you see, with 29 letters each. Or 31 symbols if you count the punctuation. Which I do; surely TWENTY-THIRD beats SEVENTEENTH by a hyphen?

The ideal candidate would be a WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER TWENTY-SEVENTH. But we won't have one of those until 2017.

For runners-up this year, we have several candidates:

Those are 30 symbols each. Much too common, really.

Let's stick with discussing today (and tomorrow). I would propose a new title for these two interesting days -- the ONLY 2009 DAYS WHICH NEED 31 SYMBOLS. Unfortunately my paradoctor is running towards me, waving some sort of paper and screaming, so I'll have to break this post off and find out what she wants.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Kory Heath's Blockhouse

Earlier this year I boosted Werewolf, Kory Heath's iPhone implementation of the cult social-game favorite. Now he's back, with an original iPhone puzzle game. Check it out: a sliding block!


Is this madness? Is this 1992? How can I possibly use the word "original" for sliding blocks -- a hoary and overused puzzle format that I've been complaining about since, I think, Heaven and Earth?

I'm sure you've already recognized this screenshot as the "block slides until it hits something, then you slide it again" variety of puzzle. And that's what Blockhouse is. But seriously. In buckets. In spades. Buckets and buckets of spades.

See, you play through a few of these levels, and the little block goes zipping around, and you figure you're done with Blockhouse. Except then you hit the level with two blocks. Then you hit the level with two L-shaped blocks. And they're getting harder. The blocks are turning into zig-zag polyominoes and getting stuck on each other. Occasionally blocks contain other blocks.

And then you realize that there are one hundred of these levels, and none of them suck. No filler. One simple game mechanic, in a frankly astonishing spread of variations: wide-open levels, divided levels, levels where you have to get the blocks wedged together, levels where you have to get the blocks knocked apart. (Go ahead, ask Kory how he invented them all.)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Capture the Flag with Stuff in Golden Gate Park

"Capture the Flag with Stuff" has a long (and ongoing) history at CMU, where I invented it. Now its alumni are setting up a transplant (graft? clone, in the original sense?) in San Francisco: Capture the Flag with Stuff in Golden Gate Park.

I encourage any Bay-ers who want to spend an afternoon chasing each other around with foam wands to show up. Saturday afternoon, August 8th.

(I am on the East Coast, and I'll be in Montreal for Worldcon anyhow, so no chance of me getting there. Sigh.)

Also, I see that the domain name is not locale-specific. It'd be cool if the site became a hub for regional Capture the Flag with Stuff in Your Local Park gatherings, wouldn't it?

EDIT-ADD (Aug 16): Photos!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Tron sequel trailer

I justify this as a Gameshelf topic by being twelve. Once upon a time.

Behold the movie trailer for the sequel to Tron:

Tron: Legacy splash image
(Trailer page)

(Some of this trailer escaped the marketing firewall last year, in handheld shakycam. This is an updated version, official, available in hi-res. You want to watch it in hi-res.)

It is weird and lame and probably incorrect to say that Tron defined the visual aesthetic of computer games for a generation. It just defined coolness for the computer game world for me, forever, because I was twelve. Everything about it was awesome.

I even remember the ad that played before the movie, for Atari video games. It used a cheesy pixelization graphical effect (probably cost millions of dollars, and was a trivial Photoshop filter within a decade). I remember thinking "Is this awesome? No, it kind of ain't," and then I realized it wasn't the movie yet.

I don't know if this Tron: Legacy will be any good. The original certainly wasn't any good. I am going to squinch up my hands and hope for "awesome" instead. The artists who worked on this trailer have the right magic in their sights.

As a side justification for this post, the marketing machinery is using an alternate-reality fiction model:, Who knows, maybe they'll get a game into it. That would be desirably recursive.

(In other "oh lord my childhood is taking over the world" news, Henson Studios has confirmed that The Power of the Dark Crystal and the Fraggle Rock movie will be in theaters in 2011. Holy mazumba.)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Secret Project KLD

I've been quiet recently, and this is because -- well, it's because I'm a reticent person. But specifically because I've been working on a very secret game project.

Now, I know as well as any developer the perils of premature announcement. (Do I even need to joke-link to an example? No, I don't.) And this one is nowhere near maturity. I don't even have a complete design document, much less any idea of how long the work will take me.

Project KLD Teaser But I have mostly finished the introductory scene. And that's worth posting a teaser screenshot. I'll take a line from Andy Looney and call it: "Secret Project KLD".

What does this image mean? Only the Secret Underground knows! ...Meaning, only the people I've talked to in person about it. I'm (a little) less secretive in real life than I am online. Sorry, folks.

I will be little bloggier about KLD when I have a better idea about timelines. See you in three months, or six, or a year, or however long it takes.

On pixels

Warning: this post contains no deep insight. (It does provide my recommended weekly allowance of grump. If you like, you can read half a letter per minute, to stretch it out for a week. I wouldn't want anybody overdosing.)

There's a movement on the move in the game world, and it is pixels. I'm talking about Today I Die, I'm talking Don't Look Back, I'm talking The Majesty of Colors and I Wish I Were the Moon. The theme of these games is, if you can see pixels the size of postage stamps, it's art.

I have no problem with the games. I liked Today I Die a lot. (Don't Look Back turned into too much of a pain in the ass.) I just don't get the pixels. They're ugly, and they've been done. Yes, I had an Apple 2. Screens are better now.

I've heard it suggested that the pixels are a counterreaction to Flash -- especially in Flash games. Flash makes vectors easy. You know what? That's good. I like vectors. They're pretty, and they'll still be pretty in ten years when monitor resolution comes out of faucets. Go play Windosill for a while, for polygons' sake. Go play Gray; it's stylized art, it's got pixels; but it uses them as elements of a language, not a pretense that it's 1990.

There's a whole conversation to be had about the artistic value of retro. Go have it somewhere else. I'm changing the subject, and contradicting myself, because I've found something I hate worse than pixels: fake smoothing of pixels.

I just played through Loom -- speaking of 1990. It's just been re-released on Steam. Here, go play it now. It's four bucks, and it's a short game.

Loom at 320x240 Now, Loom was released on several platforms, with slightly different artwork to match their graphics hardware. Some were better than others -- fine. I played the Mac version, and I remember it as pretty. The re-release uses the nicest graphics available, unsurprisingly. But they can all be described, roughly, as a base set of 320x240 artwork -- maybe squashed down to a fixed color palette -- and then pixel-doubled. Here you see an example. Notice that it's gorgeous.

Here's that scene as it appeared in 1992:

Loom at 640x480

And here's how it appears, by default, today:

Loom at 640x480, smoothed

(These images are cut off on the right side to fit the Gameshelf's layout. Click for a complete image at the same resolution.)

Same thing? Except that something horrible has happened to the font -- look at those letters. And the lines around them. And the branch above them -- it's gone all... runny.

It's a pixel-smoothing algorithm, of course -- not a very bright one. Take a look at the bush in the lower left. Or the trees in the background. A delicate dithering has turned into a blotchy, gummy mass. It looks like it's been chewed.

(In the Steam version, you can hit Alt-S to switch the smoothing algorithm on and off. That's how I got these screenshots.)

In point of fact, this "smoothing" job has made the art look less smooth. The original artwork plays off the meaningful, low-frequency attributes of the scenery against the high-frequency noise of the pixel grid. Your eye actually sees through the pixels to the shading underneath -- a shading job that the hardware of the time could not convey. You see more resolution than exists.

I'm serious here: that's what dithering is. Look at the figure's grey robe (in the full-size version -- he's over on the right). It's made of pixels, in no more than eight discrete colors. But it looks smoothly blended. Whereas on the "smoothed" side, the same eight colors are flat puddles of pigment. The illusion is gone.

That's all I've got. Pixels: bad. Pixels: good. If you want a moral, go with beauty.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Getting games wrong

I'm in the middle of Brandon Sanderson's new novel (so far: entertaining in a geeky way, which is what I looked forward too). And I hit a bit about a game, or rather a sport, which isn't very good. Not the writing, I mean; the game isn't very good.

Tarachin was a complex game, played only by the wealthy. Lightsong had never bothered to learn the rules.

He found it more amusing to play when he had no idea what he was doing.

It was his throw next. He stood up, selecting one of the wooden spheres from the rack because it matched the color of his drink. He tossed the orange sphere up and down; then -- not paying attention to where he was throwing -- he tossed it out onto the field. [...]

"Five hundred and seven points," the priest announced.

"Now you're just showing off," Truthcall said.

Lightsong said nothing. In his opinion, it revealed an inherent flaw in the game that the one who knew least about it tended to do the best.

-- from Warbreaker, Brandon Sanderson, chapter 22

Now, it is one of my long-standing grumps that authors aren't very good at inventing fictional games -- they tend to come up with games which are silly, broken, or chess.

So what, you say, game design is hard; authors have enough on their plates. Entirely true. (I said it was a grump, not a peeve. It's not justified enough to be a peeve.)

In Warbreaker we have a game which seems to be a cross between lawn bowling and Fizzbin. That's a plausible invention, given the story setting. And the narrator is, of course, correct -- if not knowing the rules gives you an advantage, the game is broken. But is it plausibly broken?

You can name plenty of games in which not knowing the rules is not a disadvantage... start with Candyland. We say these games are "random", or "have no strategy". But Tarachin isn't like that; Lightsong really does seem to win a lot. And this doesn't make sense. If it were advantageous to not know the rules, players would avoid learning them -- or just play without thinking about the rules too much.

(Compare Dragon Poker, from Bob Asprin's Little Myth Marker. In that story, Skeeve is faced with a game so complicated that his least bad strategy is to play randomly -- and end the game fast, so that the players who do know the rules have no chance to roll him up. But this is a far cry from Skeeve having an advantage over them!)

(By the way, I love that the Wikipedia entry for Dragon Poker says "See also: Double Fanucci, Mornington Crescent.")

Anyhow, as I say, Tarachin seems like a weird case. But then, weird cases do exist in real life. So I throw the question open to the teeming Gameshelf readership.

What games are out there in which trying to win is worse than playing randomly? How does that work? Maybe there are strategies which are tempting, but have a low chance of paying off? Maybe the game is popular among people who aren't analytic gamers? Maybe "winning" isn't the reason people play? Show off your corner cases, folks.

(Last parenthetical: I haven't finished Warbreaker, and it is a fantasy novel. So maybe there's some as-yet-unrevealed reason that Lightsong wins so often. If so, the author has set me up with a sneaky plot point -- which, to be sure, is one of Sanderson's trademarks as a writer. In which case, go him! But the question stands. No book spoilers in the comments, please.)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Validating my existence

Well, not really. More like "acknowledging my existence," which is flattering.

Kingdom of Loathing, the massively successful indie casual MMO, has an achievement system. To be precise, an ever-increasing set of trophies. (See this trophy list on the KOL wiki. Spoilers there, obviously.)

Hunter in Darkness A couple of weeks ago, a new one was discovered. This trophy commemorates killing five Wumpuses in a row, without dying, in the hunt-the-wumpus miniquest. (If you're not familiar with KoL, it has a blinding overload of miniquests, all of which are pop-culture references of one sort or another. Gaming culture is well-represented: The Penultimate Fantasy Airship, The Enormous Greater-Than Sign, a whole text adventure segment, and so on.)

So why is this flattering? Because the trophy title is "Hunter In Darkness" -- a reference to my game Hunter, in Darkness. Which was my riff on the Wumpus theme, as text IF.

Fame! Something-like-fortune! Thanks, KoL dudes!

(Also thanks to the ifmud homies for pointing this out to me.)

Daily trivia: The Latin name of the Giant Suckered Cave Wumpus is Wumpus yobgregorii. According to me, that's who.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Digital nonlinear CYOA comic

...or, digital nonlinear CYOA comic with dinosaurs?

I know which one I'd choose.

(Fortunately, they're the same choice. I mean there's only one link there. Narrative forced choice for the win!)

Seriously, this is brilliant on about six different levels. It's digging into CYOA structure, the way players react to CYOA structure, the way videogames react to the way players react to CYOA structure (by putting friction into the lawnmowering process). I could relate it to my current favorite topic, the way online multi-authored multi-threaded text has grown beyond the traditional notion of text as a medium, into some kind of performance -- something that can only be followed in real time, see?

It also riffs on "camping", a familiar notion from multiplayer shooter games. And, on top of that, it's got dinosaurs. So that's six levels right there.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Video game movie fake trailers

A brief moment of link-spamming. Which we don't do very much here at the Gameshelf, because we're all into critical analysis and deep esoteric ludic discourse 'n'all. But occasionally, I have to say, these videos from make me die laughing.

Die! With metaphorical-nonmetaphorical irony!

But they're all videogame fake movies, so it's okay.

Note: it's the soundtrack, always.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Myst: the movie: the fan audition movie

I posted last year about a couple of indie filmmakers who are tackling the idea of a Myst movie. Sadly, Patrick McIntire and Adrian Vanderbosch still haven't made a film -- last we heard, they had a script of roughly three zillion pages and were trying to slash it down to feature-length.

I still think that's pretty awesome, but even more awesome -- at a slightly different angle -- is this: their project has inspired a different couple of guys to become amateur filmmakers, from a standing start. Isaac Testerman and Nate Salciccioli have produced what they call an "Audition Project", offering to help out with the Mysteriacs film.

Watch the Audition Project on their web site, or on the Mysteriacs blog.

Regardless of where it goes, it is great: a ten-minute clip, covering several scenes of the basic Book of Ti'ana story. Shot on the classic shoestring budget, on locations (seriously: real caves), and it looks terrific. Plus director commentary at the end! The story stands on its own; my only note is that the character Aitrus you're watching is the grandfather of the Atrus in the Myst games.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Rule-based programming in interactive fiction

This past weekend I gave a talk on Inform 7 at Penguicon, an SF-and-open-source convention in Michigan.

The slides and the text (modulo the umms) are now up on my web site:

Rule-Based Programming in Interactive Fiction

This is not an Inform 7 tutorial. (You can find those on the Inform 7 web site.) Nor do I discuss I7's natural-language syntax. Rather, I try to explain the underlying programming model, and why it exists. I then go on to talk about my crazy ideas for a completely rule-based language, which is not Inform 7, but might be a future mutation of it.

The talk went nicely, in case you were wondering. About eight or ten people showed up, which is pretty good for a programming lecture at 10 AM on a Sunday.

And while I'm at it, let me recommend Penguicon as a darn good time. I've never been to a convention at which Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear argued about fantasy, John Scalzi lectured on people skills, while -- in a room party upstairs -- some guys tried to get Debian running on a DEC AlphaStation 200. I've also never been to a convention where I got to be in a panel discussion with Jane McGonigal, the ARG guru.

All these things were awesome! Except the Debian install -- they seemed to be having trouble with that. Mostly because the hotel's wifi network was utterly, utterly crushed.

Myst hits iPhone App Store

iPhone Myst was released this weekend. Six dollars. Search "myst" in the App Store to buy.

It's kind of enormous -- over 700 megabytes. (The install process needs another 700 megs of temporary space, so if your phone is super-full, you'll need to clear out 1.5 gig of free space.) Downloading it from Apple took about half an hour on my cable-modem net connection; transferring it to the phone took another fifteen minutes. (That was with the dock connector. I didn't have the nerve to try installing it over wifi.)

I've only played with it briefly. The port seems solid; tap to touch or move, edge-tap or swipe to turn. The only problem I've seen is that background music and repeating animations sometimes fail to continue through taps or scene changes.

I'm not sure that all the puzzles will play exactly the same. The original Myst introduced several subtle variations of the "click to do it" interface, as you played through the game. The cruder touch-screen system may not lead players to think outside the box in that way. Indeed, the info screen says outright:

Some objects (certain large valves or levers or switches) only respond to dragging - moving the object with your finger. Try touching an object first - if it doesn't seem to respond, maybe you can pull it or rotate it by dragging.

I am still waiting for an adventure game which is truly native to the iPhone interface... somebody surprise me?

So what next for Cyan? They haven't mentioned any product being in active development except for this one. My butt-estimate is that the iPhone app will pull in enough money to justify itself, but not enough to let Cyan expand beyond its current (very small) staff level. Even the best iPhone app success stories have been on the level of "Yay I am a successful indie developer", not "Yay now I can hire ten people and start a development studio."

The last word on open-sourcing Uru was mid-April:

The plans for opening the sources for UruLive is still intact. Unfortunately the schedule for it has been effected. Besides myself being busy with Myst, the ex-Cyan programmers that were going to help also had greater demands from their 'real' jobs.

So, I am trying to get the initial team together again and find out what has yet to be done and how much time and effort it will take to achieve that. I'll let you know as soon as I do. -- Mark DeForest, April 16

So, once again, who knows.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Dave Arneson, 1947-2009

A year ago I wrote about the death of Gary Gygax, and what his life meant for the birth of computer games.

All the same applies, and perhaps even more so, to Dave Arneson, who passed away this week. As I understand the story, it was Arneson who took a fantasy miniatures wargame and reinvented it as a structure for collaborative role-playing. That's where we all picked up the thread; long may it continue to unroll.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Wallace and Sam and Gromit and Max: an eternal golden triangle

Telltale Games has released the first episode of their Wallace & Gromit series, for PC. (Available as a direct download or on Steam.)

I'm not doing a full review, because you can get those anywhere, but I wanted to pick up a few contrasts between W&G and Telltale's previous episodic adventure hit, Sam & Max.

...The first contrast being, Wallace & Gromit isn't an episodic game series. Not in the sense we usually mean. The "episodic" model is: you buy a small game, which doesn't cost very much, and then next month a followup comes out and you buy that, and you keep doing this until you decide you're hooked (either because each episode is awesome, or because they build into a story arc and you want to see the end). Maybe you know you're a fan straight off the bat -- I certainly was when Sam & Max season 2 began -- so you buy a package deal for the whole series. Up to you.

Not this time. Telltale isn't offering Wallace & Gromit a la carte. You have to plunk down $35 up front, and then you get four small games delivered monthly. It's not so much "episodes" as "buy a game that's only a quarter done yet." (Or, I suppose, wait until July, when you'll be able to buy the whole thing at once for the low-low-price of... still $35.)

I'm not sure what spurred the change. The point of episodes is that you can draw in new players with a low-price game. ($9 for each S&M episode.) Not all those new players will follow through the rest of the series, but then how many players do you push away by asking for $35 up front? Maybe the name recognition (and existing fanbase) of S&M is enough to make this work for Telltale. I guess we'll find out what they do with their next offering.

Anyhow, I am the existing fanbase, so I paid up and jumped straight into the pit.

The most interesting interface tweak is keyboard navigation. Unlike in the S&M series, you move Wallace and/or Gromit around using the arrow keys. Now, keyboard movement has been the spurting carotid rupture of third-person adventuring ever since -- I don't know, Gabriel Knight? Steering an avatar around a 3D space with arrow keys is generally as much fun as parallel parking. However, W&G manages to minimize the hassle. You can still click on objects to walk up and interact with them. This is 75% of your navigation to begin with. The arrow keys only come into play when you have to walk across a wide space -- down a hallway, along a street -- so you're really just holding down one key. Obstacles are rare, large, and blunt, so you don't get stuck behind anything. The only place I had any real trouble was the town square, which is large enough that perspective does odd things to the directions.

Why this interface change? I'll hazard a guess: to make the game cozier. In the S&M series, the locations are fairly open, because there has to be floor everywhere. You have to be able to click on floor next to every object.

W&G is centered around a cluttered house. By cutting out the floor, the designers are able to pack more interesting objects into each room. The kitchen, for example, gives you an over-the-counter view with appliances in the foreground and background both. And by the same thought, the characters themselves can be larger; they can take up more of the screen, because you're not trying to click around them.

Another difference: W&G has no dialogue menus. (What, really? A third-person adventure with no dialogue menus? Outrageous!) If you're sharing the display with another character -- Gromit and/or Wallace count, when you're playing Wallace and/or Gromit -- some of the scenery acts as conversation topics. That is, when you're standing near the flower lady, you can click on various flowers to comment on them. It's the same one-click as any other action; some objects can be taken, some examined, some manipulated, and some commented on.

This works so smoothly that players may not even notice the lack of those beloved (or perhaps despised) menus. Mind you, it makes for a less conversational game pace. You're not going to spend as much of each game interrogating people, because the conversation choices don't change or nest. But then, that fits the theme. Sam and Max are cops; they interrogate. Wallace and Gromit are inventors; they play with toys.

So, does the contraptionating part of the game work? Answer: yes. (I told you this wasn't a full review.) Some of the puzzles felt a little awkward, but then I said the same about the first S&M episode. As with that series, I expect W&G to smooth out as the designers get comfortable with the model and build up some running gags.

My only other negative comments are, first, this episode felt a little short. (Perhaps the lost dialogue time needs to be replaced by some other sort of pacing interaction?) Second, I miss Peter Sallis (the original voice of Wallace). This game's Wallace does a great Peter Sallis impression, but it's still an impression.

And, third, I love Gromit -- Gromit is the best -- but he's no Max. The doggy eyebrows can express the perfect shade of exasperation, resignation, or confusion, but they just don't carry the narrative like the rabbitty-thing's awful, cheerful, unsay-that-now-please bon mots.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The grind house

Following on my series of game levels in real life... (Possibly also known as "Zarf blogs random coolness...")

Maria Zacharopoulou's Ramp House (created by Athanasia Psaraki) -- article in Architectural Review

You know those skateboard games in which, by genre convention, every wall has a ramp and every edge is grindable? This is what happens if you really build one.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Natural-language UI in the wild

Not directly IF-related, but interesting: the developer of a Mac task-mananger app tries out a natural language prompt for setting up repeating events.

Not being satisfied, and after throwing away all of my mockups and even code, I went back to the drawing board. I'm glad I did because here is the end result:

There is no myriad of buttons and fields to choose from. All the user has to do is directly type in what he wants.

(--from Better Software Through Less UI, Andy Kim)

The comments discussion that follows is good. People hit all the topics familiar to I7 debates: discoverability of underlying syntax, feedback (Kim's UI repeats its understanding back to you as a form as soon as you hit Enter), initial learning curve versus long-term friction, non-English versions.

We also have an announcement of Bot Colony, an upcoming game from North Side Inc.:

In Bot Colony, the player speaks to the characters and they answer intelligently, providing clues that help the player advance through the game. The English used is completely unrestricted: the player simply speaks and the characters answer naturally using speech, asking questions, seeking clarifications or offering comments in return.

(--from North Side's initial press release

It's not clear at all what this means or how well it works; we're supposed to get more details at GDC this week. But they do contrast it with an earlier natural-language game that didn't work:

Douglas Adams' Starship Titanic is perhaps the first game where the player chats with the game's characters (also robots).

However, the level of "understanding" of the Spookitalk engine powering the game is very different from what we target in this proposal. To quote Wikipedia, "Spookitalk had the ability to converse with the player in an almost lifelike manner, partially because it incorporated over 10,000 different phrases, pre-recorded by a group of talented voice actors. The recorded phrases would take over 14 hours to play back-to-back."

In our game, the response will not be pre-recorded, but rather a result of a parsing, reasoning on a fact base, and generation (which means turning a logic formula back into English).

(--Eugene Joseph of North Side, in an interview at gamesetwatch.)

This is somewhat unfair to Starship Titanic. That game did parse the player's input, matched it against topics, and tried to choose an appropriate response. I'm not sure how much "reasoning" it did, but you can't characterize it solely by its output mechanism. As we know from IF, output is the easy part, or at least the technically tractable part.

Friday, February 20, 2009

This month in wacky little art games

Beautiful. Engaging. Short. It provides an experience, inflects into an emotional arc, and then it's done.

I ate twenty sumo wrestlers. Then I ate my own ass.
  • ...the comparison...

One is gorgeous. The other offers me the opportunity to eat my own ass.

I should outsource this entire post to Yahtzee for the pure joy of hearing him say "eat my own arse" over and over.

What do I actually think?

I am pleased with Flower. I am not very pleased with Noby Noby Boy. (I also can't type "Noby Noby Boy", which is a separate problem. It always comes out "body" or "nobody".)

Keep in mind that Flower is ten bucks and Noby Noby Boy is five, so I'm not complaining of a horrible purchasing decision. I spent five dollars on soup today and I enjoyed Noby more than that soup. But:

You have to read Noby's manual.

Flower drops you in with one screen of "tilt the controller" diagram, and then a few heads-up reminders for tilting and button-pushing, and you're set for the entire game. It's all built around that single interface.

Noby starts with a quick interface lesson in the form of a quiz -- which is brilliant, actually. Getting you to guess the basic controls (in a highly prompted, controlled context which guarantees success). If that covered the entire game, I would be kneeling at the designer's feet.

But it isn't; you still have to figure out the house controls and the rest of the camera controls and the stats-scanning controls. The early gameplay is larded with modal "Do you want to read the manual?" queries -- and I did have to read the manual, a couple of times, before I had everything down.

All of these interactions are good. They're tactile, you can feel them in your hands -- even the menus and the camera controls. But there are a lot of them.

I can see how the designer got there. Noby is a software toy. You have no goals -- nearly, hold off a sec -- no goals which are not self-generated. That means you need a rich enough set of interactions to be able to reach surprising outcomes for quite a while. In contrast, Flower has just one interaction; it surprises you with new environments and new plot developments.

My problem is, I feel like I've played out Noby's surprises already. Two hours, four or five maps, I'm done. I don't know if it's true, but it feels true, because there's no goal structure to lead me into exploring further.

Now, Noby's one overt goal (which I glossed over just now) is to stretch yourself a lot. When enough players have stretched enough, we are given to understand, more game areas -- "planets" -- will open up. (I was around 6100th in precedence on the stretch leaderboard, last night. Yay me!)

So with my droit eye, I see all sorts of crazy new game mechanisms appearing, one by one, over the next few months. With my sinister eye, I see another bunch of levels that are exactly like the current ones, only with alien sumo wrestlers to eat and poop out.

(Did I not mention the sumo-wrestler pooping? Sorry.)

I like the idea of globally-expanding cooperative game experiences. But the Myst Online lesson is, keep the players entertained in between new content. And ideally, match the cooperative goals to the entertainment. So far, Noby is not doing that. (Note that the most efficient way to stretch yourself the the boring way. Straight out, unencumbered. If you tangle yourself around things, you don't stretch much.)

And that's why being done with Flower is satisfying, but being done with Noby is not. So far. I'll give it a few more chances.

Then there's the whole "Boy" thing. I don't think I'm the right person to write that post, because, okay, the last console game I played was Prince of Persia and that was just as emphatically male-protagonist, female-bait-and-reward. But PoP was in the classic hardcore gamer market and it had a script, I mean, it had the self-justification of being about this man and this woman, Thief and Elika.

Noby has as generic and asexual a protagonist as an anthropomorphic protagonist can possibly be. And it's in the casual, for-everyone-including-kids market. It would be dead easy to present this experience as being gender-inclusive -- except for the commentary text and the manual repeating over and over, you are Boy, you are Boy, you are Boy. And Girl is your reward way up in the sky.

Sometimes I find this annoying. And then I remember, right, Keita Takahashi's first game was about your emotionally abusive, passive-aggressively-insulting, quite possibly substance-abusing father destroying the universe and then forcing you to clean up the mess. And he's got enormous genitals. So, the designer is batshit insane. Check.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Interactive Fiction Writing Month

Lea has announced Interactive Fiction Writing Month:

IF Month is a loosely-organized set of tasks assigned one per week for four weeks, from February 15 to March 15, 2009, hopefully coupled with a few informal live discussion sessions (location-dependent, of course). The goal is to get a group of participants familiar enough with the Inform language to produce some simple games, and to promote discourse on game design in general through the medium of IF.

The organizer is at CMU in Pittsburgh, so that's where the initial "location dependence" is, but interested people may be arranging other meet-ups.

Further details at the IFMonth Blog.

The personal note: CMU is my college stomping ground, and I've met Lea and some of the other CMU folks involved on various visits back there. They are cool. Check it out.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Fool and his Money playable demo

Go get it.

Ooh, shiny.

(Requires Shockwave Player 11 from Adobe. When I ran the teaser app on my Mac laptop, it told me this and then sent my web browser to get Shockwave Player 10, which was confusing and unhelpful. Go to Adobe's site and get it directly.)

EDIT-ADD: The web site says the full game will be out in "early summer" -- he hopes.

A friend comments that one of the early puzzles is unduly hard if you're using a trackpad (as opposed to a mouse). I believe him. This is primarily a game of word and image puzzles, but -- as with Johnson's earlier games -- there are some click-fast elements.

How to destroy hope

Around New Year's Eve, Cliff Johnson posted a note on his web site saying that he had tried to get out a playable demo of his upcoming game, but hadn't quite made it. Soon, he said, the teaser/demo would be out soon.

The "upcoming game", of course, is The Fool and his Money -- Johnson's long, long, long-delayed sequel to The Fool's Errand. As in, I pre-ordered the thing in December 2002. If you go to Johnson's pre-order thank-you page, you'll see my name scroll by in the first minute. The original ship date was April Fool's Day, 2003.

That didn't quite happen.

Skip past six years of countdown clocks and disappointment. It was a month ago that Johnson first mentioned the teaser release. A week ago I saw this:

January 26, 2009: This week, I will release a teaser of the game containing the Prologue and eleven puzzles.

And then on Monday:

February 2, 2009: Last week, I almost released a teaser of the game containing the Prologue and eleven puzzles. Today, I’ll be ironing out one last pesky bug and then I’ll be releasing it. Stay tuned.

And, you know, I was with him that far. Month, week, day -- that's a convergent series. If he'd posted at midnight saying "It'll be up in one hour!" I would have stood up and cheered.


February 3, 2009: I have my fingers crossed that the current WIN and MAC versions of the teaser are indeed the final versions. I eagerly await news from my beta-testers. Stay tuned.

(Jmac's comment was on the order of "Oh, so now it's the beta-testers' fault." Frankly that didn't even occur to me. The beta-testers never promised me anything.)

The sad, or perhaps the pitiable or risible part: on Monday, I wrote a blog post saying "The demo is out! Download it now!" Yes, before the fact. Counting my chickens before I'd even seen the egg. I wanted to have the post ready to slap up here at a moment's notice.

Tuesday, I updated the post a little. Today... I wrote this one instead. I can't go that far out on the limb, and then pretend it never happened.

Sorry, Cliff Johnson. I don't hate you. I'm still checking your web site. I want to play your game teaser. Maybe you'll put it up ten minutes after I post this.

But for a week I had hope, and I invested in that hope, just a little -- just enough to write a blog post, just enough to be optimistic and not cynical. Just enough that now I feel like a sucker. My mistake, I know.

(For what it's worth, I can promise that the day a demo -- or the full game -- lands in my hands, I will forget all past disappointments. It's not that I'm a particularly forgiving person. I just have a minuscule attenOO SHINY!)

Monday, February 2, 2009

How to watch the football

(What? It's a game. This is a gaming blog.)

Since I am American, I watched the football last night.

This is a lie. I did watch the football last night, but it was only the second time I have watched the football on the Football Sunday. I was an American all the previous times, but I didn't care about the football. I still don't care about it, but I had a good time anyway. I write this article to explain how you too can have a good time watching the football that you care about not.

Since I am an American, I am explaining about American football. European football doesn't need any explaining. The ball is round, it runs up and down the field, and the people all follow it. If the ball makes it all the way to one end, everybody yells. It's very obvious once you see it.

(The trick to American football is, it works exactly the same way. The ball is pointy but it's really the same otherwise. Now you know. The rest of this article is about how to enjoy watching the football.)

  • Locate a bunch of friends who plan to watch the football. Ask if you can join them. They might ask first.

  • There will be lots of food. Bring more food. Everybody likes it.

  • And beer. Explaining how to enjoy beer is beyond the scope of this article. (I don't.) Beer is such a complicated subject that, at several points during the evening, even the television will express an opinion on it. Ignore this.

  • Okay, ads. Some groups of people gather to watch the football, but secretly they're there to watch the football ads. With other groups, it's the other way around. You don't have to worry which group is which.

  • Find out which team your friends are going to cheer for. Cheering for that team is not mandatory. Cheering for the other team should be negotiated in advance.

  • Do not ask how the game works. This is a common mistake. Your friends will start by saying, "The offensive team has four tries to move the ball ten yards." You will nod, because that's straightforward, and then your friends will continue with ten minutes of uninterrupted High Martian gabblespeak.

  • This is perfectly normal. It's like Vancian spellcasting: you are a first-level football watcher, and so your brain can only retain one sentence of football. Once you work your way up to third level, you will be able to understand the second sentence, which is this: "Galanzaghire zel felvnic nil combustavlio der panta zel infeild flie rule."

  • Whenever anything happens, you can ask "What just happened?" All of your friends will immediately start explaining it. It's no bother. Really, you'll have more trouble making them stop.

  • Don't try to cross-reference the explanations with the rules you just heard. The critical point will always turn out to be what some guy did halfway across the field from where the ball was, or where some guy's knee touched the ground, or which way some other guy's elbow was moving.

  • Really. His elbow.

  • If you're really, really lucky, you will find a group of friends who can explain why stuff is cool. For example: that guy who ran the entire length of the football field? His job is to be a concrete wall. Sprinting a hundred yards is not his job. That was like watching a Formula One race accidentally won by the Hoover Dam. If you find a group of friends who can tell you that, stick with them. Get them to watch an actual Formula One race with you. Those are cool too.

  • That clock in the corner counting down? It's to the game being one-quarter over, not completely over. Also, it runs in football seconds, which are different. Pace yourself on the snacks; there's plenty of time.

  • Yes, those fans are waving yellow towels. I don't want to talk about it.

  • (I am an adoptive Pittsburgher now living in Boston, for all the sense that makes. This forced me to learn some things even before I started watching the football. I'll spare you.)

  • I don't want to talk about Springsteen's crotch either.

  • Speaking of crotches: yes, everybody knows how homoerotic this whole football performance is. You are among your own friends; only you can decide whether comments on this phenomenon will be greeted by enthusiastic agreement or sullen opacity. The men in shiny tight pants will be up on screen either way.

  • Jokes about "tight ends" are taken for granted, not spoken aloud. This is a token of solemn respect to the memory of George Carlin.

  • You may talk during the game, although people may interrupt you to scream at the television. You may not talk during the ads.

  • You are allowed to applaud a clever Coke ad even if you're drinking Pepsi. (The converse case would also be allowed, if it were possible.) You are allowed to applaud an ad for a product you despise. You are allowed to cheer a trailer for a movie that you know will suck.

  • That Land of the Lost trailer? Will Ferrell hates everything I ever loved.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Werewolf for iPhone

iPhone Werewolf

Quick plug: Kory Heath, the creator of Zendo, has just implemented Werewolf for the iPhone. (You may know the game as "Mafia".)

It's a very smooth implementation. The phone acts as the referee. During the day phase of the game, it doesn't matter who holds it; anybody can enter the village concensus on who to lynch.

In the night phase, the phone gets passed around. When it's your turn, you unlock the screen with a brief password so that nobody else can see your role. Then you select your target (as a wolf or seer). If you're a villager, the phone asks you to guess who might be a werewolf. This doesn't affect who lives or dies, but it ensures that every player taps the screen on his turn. (Plus, bragging rights at the end of the game if it turns out you guessed right.)

Everything else, the app keeps track of for you. When the game is over, it displays a turn-by-turn narrative, which you can email to yourself or the other players.

iPhone Werewolf costs a dollar. Yes, this is a game you can play for free with a handful of straws or cards. But with the app, you don't need to designate someone as the moderator. And it eliminates the error-prone nighttime ritual, with the directives and the closed eyes and the humming and tapping or however you do it. And it's pretty, and it makes little howling noises. Comes with support for the werewolf, seer, protector, vigilante, and lover roles.

Plus, my face is in the app sample screenshot. So that's worth something. Check it out at Kory's web site, or search for "werewolf" in the iTunes App Store.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Designing a casual MMO based on Zork

This week's topic of "hey, look at that" among IF fans is Legends of Zork -- a browser-based "casual MMO" being developed by Jolt. (Licensed from Activision, of course. For those of you who missed the 90s, Activision owns all the old Infocom titles; it was Activision who published the three Zork graphical adventures after Infocom dissolved.)

The Great Underground Empire has recently fallen and the land is in disarray. The Royal Treasury has been sacked. The stock market has collapsed, leading even mighty FrobozzCo International to fire employees from throughout its subsidiaries. A craze of treasure-hunting has swept through the remnants of the Great Underground Empire. The New Zork Times reports that trolls, kobolds and other dangerous creatures are venturing far from their lairs. Adventurers and monsters are increasingly coming into conflict over areas rich with loot. It's a dangerous time to be a newly-unemployed traveling salesman, but it's also a great time to try a bit of adventuring.

(-- from Jolt's press release.)

A lot of people -- both active IF fans and long-ago IF fans who remember Zork fondly -- immediately started talking about this LoZ thing as "multiplayer IF", as a game that would be "like Zork" in some sense.

Yeah, no. Let's look at the first post on the official LoZ blog:

Gain experience and wealth as you battle creatures, dodge traps and solve puzzles. The game is designed to be played at your own pace, so you can log in and do some exploring whenever you feel like it. Achieve fame by challenging other players in the arena or form a group to take on some of the more difficult quests.

The card game Double Fanucci also makes an appearance, in the form of a full deck of 174 Fanucci cards that you can collect and use to improve your skills. [...]

(-- from the Legends of Zork blog.)

Experience points, money, combat, skills, buffs. This is an online CRPG. That's what they're announcing, that's what it is. I immediately said "Oh, Kingdom of Loathing with Zork monsters," and I wasn't the first one to say it, either.

So that's fine; I played a lot of KoL for a year or two. The question which I wish to tromp on today is, what kind of CRPG should a Zork CRPG be?

I am, of course, being arrogant and probably irrelevant here. LoZ is in beta-testing now; Jolt has done their design work. It's too late for me to be making suggestions, even if they had a mind to pay attention to suggestions from random IF amateurs out on the Web.

But it's such a cool question.

The default CRPG used to be rat-clubbing for gold pieces; you could be a fighter, a cleric, a mage, or a thief. That's what "CRPG" meant. D&D did it, so Ultima did it and Wizardry did it. Then there were variations (you need bards for the Bard's Tale) but that was the setup.

(Kids these days will tell you that the classes are tank, damage-dealer, buffer, healer, and controller... or something like that... I'm not a kid these days, so I'll leave it to them to explain.)

It's hard to argue that the Zork tradition is unrelated to the fighter-cleric-mage-thief quadrangle. I wrote a whole post about Gary Gygax and his fundamental interconnectedness to all things, including Colossal Cave and Zork.

But D&D style combat has never meshed well with IF. Zork 1 starts off with a swordfight, straight-up dice rolling and hit points -- and then that mechanic essentially vanishes from the Infocom tradition for seven years. The other combat in Zork 1 is so heavily plot-biased that it's essentially a deterministic puzzle: nearly impossible if you plunge straight into it, but easily winnable at the right place and time.

And that's how Infocom set up their subsequent games -- up until Beyond Zork, which had several interludes of typical RPG combat. I, like nearly everybody, "solved" those scenes by saving and restoring the game. It wasn't fun, it wasn't immersive, and it didn't fit in with the rest of the game. I don't think I'm far off the concensus if I say that those elements of BZ were a failed experiment.

So am I saying that a Zork CRPG should eschew combat entirely? Heck no. There are plenty of battles in Infocom games. You defeat enemies. But they're not D&D, CRPG, wear-down-stat-X-using-stat-Y battles. (I have another whole design screed about a combatless RPG, but I feel like I should implement it rather than blogging about it... maybe next year.)

But yet, we're talking about a CRPG here! I'd love to go off and say "Jolt should have implemented true multiplayer narrative IF," but they didn't -- as far as they've announced.

Let's stipulate that the design problem is "a CRPG with the flavor of Zork". We will have stats, treasure, and skills. The game will be about burning time on repetitive actions that crank up some numbers until you can succeed at tougher actions.

But -- it doesn't have to be arranged the same way as Ultima 1 and Wizardry. I want to see how far I can break down the traditional concepts.

Treasure. When you win fights, you get treasure. Treasure buys stuff. Okay, that's good. But what is treasure? Nearly all games have currency -- a simple scalar of how rich you are. D&D had gold pieces (and a table of other coins, roundly ignored). CRPGs followed suit, although some call them "credits" or "meat".

Zork doesn't have money. Treasure, yes. Coins, sure. Barter, sometimes. Money, no. You collect and use items, distinct and distinctive. (Even the stack of zorkmid bills is a unique item -- you never cash it in for face value.)

What if we built our hypothetical Zork game (let me stress that I'm not talking about Legends of Zork here, I'm making stuff up) on a "monetary" basis of unique treasures? We could randomly generate their names and descriptions -- that's not hard. Succeed in a quest, find an antique Dwarvish black opal. Do it again, discover a handful of silver-inlaid knucklebones. Or a rare blue faience brooch. These don't auto-convert into gold; they retain their identity.

The point is to trade these in for useful tools and items -- I'm not throwing that idea away. So there will still be an underlying monetary value. Maybe it'll say "...rank-3 treasure" on the back of the brooch. But you would still have the experience of finding something, something new and interesting. (Even if it's really generated from a template algorithm.) The game designers could throw new adjectives and templates into the database occasionally. Find a treasure that takes your fancy? Don't sell it -- put it in your trophy case to display!

And you can open a market for players to swap for treasures they want.

There are design consequences, of course. You can't pile up treasures as a reward, the way you can with gold pieces. Eighty treasures are not eighty times as cool as one; they blur together and spoil the point. So rewards become much more granular -- you might get one or two per hour. That affects the rhythm of buying (or bartering) tools for further play. That affects the way you design those tools, and the challenges that the tools resolve.

Doesn't this start to sound more interesting than yet another Wizardry knockoff?

Algorithmically generating instances of things is a good trick. Let's run with it. How about locations? Kingdom of Loathing has lots of locations, but you visit each one over and over again, and the descriptions never change. (Well, rarely.) Let's set up our game so that you enter the forest, and find a unique, freshly-generated forest clearing.

(Again, the template and random-table work for this is pretty easy. You aren't trying to fool the player into thinking that there's a human being writing this stuff. It just has to read well. As long as the game doesn't lead you past a hundred of them in quick succession, players will buy into the descriptions. My own experiments with this tool are in Hunter in Darkness, and the cave section of my web site.)

If you explore out from the clearing, you find more forest locations. New room names, new descriptions. These are just "instances", in the usual MMO sense -- but you're going to visit them frequently, first to "solve" a location, and then passing through to more distant ones. You'll remember the descriptions; they'll feel like a real environment. And if you can invite other players into your instances, they'll find your part of the forest to be different from theirs.

(Maybe draw all this out on the traditional IF box-and-line grid... Oh, I'm not against graphics here. But if you have a generic forest illustration that appears above varying textual descriptions, I guarantee that the players will read and be interested in the text.) (If you can procedurally generate interesting forest illustrations too, you're really in clover...)

I did promise to get back around to combat. The burning-stats-against-enemy-stats model is a rich and well-explored mechanic, and I'm not going to try to discard it. (Today...) But who says that a "combat" must be a blow-by-blow struggle against a monster?

The fundamental act of Zork is exploration. What if the basic quest of our Zork CRPG was exploring a dungeon? (Or forest copse, or temple...) An "attack" would be the entire act of entering a room and facing its challenge -- by stealth, or trickery, or courage, or willpower. You'd still find monsters in the dungeon -- but the rhythm of the game would not be fighting blow-by-blow-by-blow, but rather exploring trap-by-monster-by-maze.

Of course you'd have to have a rich set of "combat" (exploration) mechanics. You'd have options on each move; you'd have tools and resources to use up. Ink and map parchment? Bread crumbs? Arrows? (I smell a Wumpus...) Maybe willpower and courage and steath and cunning are your solvent stats, expended against the dungeon -- just as the traditional CRPG hero expends his hit points frugally, trying to reach the orc's last hit point before the orc reaches his. Reach the end of the dungeon, and you find a treasure.

Ooh, treasures! They come in lots of varieties, right? (Since we're randomly generating them.) So they can have properties. There's the depth we want for the exploration "combat". Treasures can bribe monsters, treasures can jam traps, treasures can be left behind to mark your path through a maze. (Very Zork, that idea.) I know, I said treasures would be rare -- but you're bartering some of them for tools, and tools can be randomly generated too. Ropes, spikes, torches. Oil and batteries, food and water, all usable as "hit points" against the dungeon.

Clues! Use up clues to solve puzzles. I'm not talking about actual IF-style puzzles. Tell the player "There is a mysterious altar here, covered with Gnomic runes." To pass, he has to expend some of the Gnomic lore or rune lore in his inventory. Instead of healing potions, you find more lore. Instead of strength potions, you find a book of Gnomish history, which enables you to understand all Gnomish puzzles better...

You see where I'm going? Starting to go? Sketching a path in the direction of going? It isn't Zork-the-text-adventure -- as stipulated. But it tells the same kind of story.


I see I completely forgot to talk about character classes, you know, the fighter and the mage...

Well, I don't know if I want them, in the traditional sense. The adventure-game experience rather assumes that you, the adventurer, go everywhere and do everything. You cast the spells and defeat the monsters and solve the puzzles. Then you go back and find all the alternate solutions too.

But there are different approaches, and maybe specialization is okay. (Sneaking, courage, etc, etc.) Or maybe those specialties should be per adventure? That might be fun. Gear up as a thief and go after that dungeon -- but if you're defeated by a surfeit of mazes, you'd try again from the riddle-master's point of view. Or the warrior hero, for monsters. "Healer" is not a concept that makes sense, given the model, but there just might be room for the dungeon master to make a few key changes for his own benefit...

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

IF Archive site redesign competition

I help maintain the IF Archive, the community repository of free text adventures and associated tools and materials.

Before I was a maintainer, I helped design the web site itself. The Archive was originally an FTP site, so I was creating an HTML index for it, really. I was not a web designer. (I still am not a web designer, although I've designed a couple of web sites.) I just threw in some <ul>s and some <hr>s and left all the visual styles at their defaults. To fancy it up, I added a little block quote. Formatted with a <table>.

It still looks that way. It's not pretty. Functional as heck, but not pretty.

We, the Archive management folks, would like to change that. (The "not pretty" part, not the "functional" part.)

Therefore, we announce the IF Archive CSS Competition. Submit a CSS file to make the Archive less ugly! Deadline is Feb 8th. We'll use the best submission.

Here's the rules page. Basically, you download our five sample HTML pages and bare-bones CSS starting point. Update the CSS file and submit it back to us.

You can modify the HTML files too, and add images to support your CSS -- but be moderate about both. The less of those things you do, the better.

Once February 8th has passed, we'll let the public vote on the entries. Then we'll make our decision. We'll take the public vote seriously; we just need to reserve the right to take other factors into account. (Accessibility, portability across web browsers, maintainability, etc.) Again, see the complete rules.

The Archive is a volunteer-supported effort, so this contest has no prize beyond "We'll use your submission and credit you!" We will continue to display a gallery of all the entries, as well, to showcase the public-vote winners.

Thank you -- in advance -- for helping to make the IF world cooler.