Sunday, December 11, 2011

That patents comment

(This is an experimental foray into Zarf Not Talking About Games At All. It may be a confusing new direction here on the Gameshelf, or it may just be a mistake. Be assured that we will continue talking about games too, particularly since Jmac has finished his semester of assistant-teaching and will soon have enough live brain cells for blogging again.)

Several months ago I posted about software patents as they relate to my life. I continue to keep an eye on the subject -- not that there's anything I can do about it -- and so I see the same depressing patent news articles that you do.

A couple of days ago I condensed the following tweet out of the usual whirling filamentous thought matter:

The patent system is based on the premise that ideas are rare and precious, but implementation is easy. No wonder it's failing for software! (-- me, 9-Dec-2011)

This has unexpectedly turned into a minor twitterstorm, with a large handful of retweets, several approving comments, several disagreeing or disdainful comments, quite a bit of threaded discussion in my @mentions, more going on in G+, and at least one person who's already sick of the quote. (Sorry! Nobody plans these things!)

I'm happy with that tweet as a tweet -- but 140 characters is not a legal argument. It's an oversimplification! Of course it is. So, here's a blog post, which will hopefully provide some firmer ground for discussion.

(Note: I am not a lawyer of any sort, nor have I any real-life experience with the patent system. This post will not break new ground in the intellectual-property wars. I just want to connect my little slogan with the real world, and say where I'm coming from -- Twitter can't handle that.)

Monday, December 5, 2011

One year of this project, and the ways of puzzle explorability

Tomorrow will be the oneth anniversary of the Hadean Lands Kickstarter project. One year of this new lifestyle.

(Technically it's eleven months of this lifestyle, because I quit for Christmas. Also eleven months since I took possession of the donated money, due to processing delays and business schedules and thinking about taxes and all the other absurd things attendant on self-employment. I could also mark it as thirteen months and five days since I decided for sure to quit my industry job; thirteen months and four days since I reached my Kickstarter funding goal. But enough with the dreamy reminesce.)

Friday, November 25, 2011

What do we call these things?

Somewhere back in my Ascension post, I mentioned that nobody uses the official terminology "runes" or "power" or "honor" in my group. Similarly, when we play Catan, do we talk about "clay" and "ore"? No. You build a city out of rocks and wheat. Sheep are a structural element. That's how the game works.

This is an obvious consequence of purely nonverbal game design. Board games often do this out of a desire to save money on translation -- they don't have to rework the card art in every country to say "moutons" or "πρόβατα" or "Schaf" or whatever. (Or rather, "laine" or "μαλλί" or "Wolle".) (Or rather, "wool", because the game was originally in -- no, never mind.)

Anyhow, videogames tend to do the nonverbal thing too -- sometimes for the same reason, but sometimes for artistic effect. Look at the Lego movie game series, which has endless fun with wordlessly grunted, growled, and groaned cut scenes. (Did you know that Lego Star Wars: The Clone Wars uses many of the same voice actors as the TV show? Even though they never say a word? That's awesome.)

Sorry, what was I talking about here? Right. Ico. The original US release had half its lines in unknowable-language, and the rest in Japanese. Wordless as far as I was concerned, although the current PS3 version has English subtitles. (I'm not sure it's an improvement.) Then came Shadow of the Colossus, which was always subtitled, but only uses text when introducing the story and each chapter. The sixteen Colossi are never named.

They have names, although you have to look through supplemental material to find them. I never did, and I bet you didn't either. And that leaves open the question: what did everybody call them, when playing through SOTC that first time?

Monday, November 21, 2011

A weekend chatting about electronic literature

I spent the weekend hanging out at Dangerous Readings, a small-scale (un-)conference about hypertext, interactive literature, and all that sort of thing.

The event was hosted by MIT, and organized by Eastgate, a publisher of hypertext and hypertext tools. They originally envisioned a BarCamp-style event, with sessions proposed and scheduled on the fly. But we didn't wind up being even that formal; it was just eight-to-twelve of us hanging out at MIT, talking about hypertext-like things for a weekend. Afterward there was pie.

I do not have a detailed report for you, I'm afraid. I had a really good time; the group was small enough to drill through my usual reticence. (At least by the second day...) So I was, for once, in the conversation rather than sitting back taking notes.

I'll note a few things, though:

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cold Iron: my (very short) IF entry in the Comp

IFComp is over, and it turns out I entered this year! Cold Iron placed fifteenth of 38 entries. It's a tiny little game -- so if you're hungry for Zarf IF, you can either be disappointed that it's so small or happy that it only took a few days of my time to write. But I think it's pretty good, and reviewers seem happy with the quality of work (if not the quantity).

But there's more to the story than that. I collaborated with three other Boston IF authors to create a secret, cross-game bonus puzzle.

The idea was originally suggested by Kevin Jackson-Mead at a PR-IF meetup. He thought it would be cool if several of us entered IFComp with games that shared a metapuzzle. We talked over ideas, and then I wrote a small puzzle structure and passed it around. I set it up to fit into four games. Doug Orleans and Mike Hilborn volunteered to handle the other two parts, and we charged off on our quest.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Meanwhile for iOS is available

Last week, I wrote:

In other news -- or rather, the news I started with: Meanwhile has been sent off to App Store review. If nothing goes wrong, it will be available Tuesday, November 8th...

Nothing went wrong, and so Meanwhile is available, right now, in your local iOS App Store.

Full press release is below the cut.

And Hadean Lands? It's on my "make progress every day" list now. I should have the puzzle structure completely outlined by the end of this week. That's a small step, but comforting to me.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Halloween and progress report

A week ago I tweeted: "With Meanwhile stable, my Next Damn Project Slot is open as of Monday. And that means Hadean Lands (aka the Previous Damn Project)."

Perhaps you read that with a detached, urbanely ironic skepticism. Or not. Maybe Twitter can't tolerate that much irony. Who knows. Anyhow, last Monday, I opened up my HL design notes file. I brushed the dust and dinosaur vertebrae off it and read through. Here's what I quickly realized:

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The part where I tell you about Meanwhile

Two months ago (gad!) I said:

After I ship Hideout, I will be concentrating on [Secret Project] M37, because it too is just about finished. (And the paperwork is just about settled...) Even though M37 isn't IF either, I promise you will be excited and you will understand why I made time for it this past spring.

My Secret Hideout shipped last month, and the secret project remained secret. Because sometimes it really does take a month for the last contract details and then another month to get all the paper signed. So it flows. But now it is October, and I can finally say...

Meanwhile for iOS will be released this fall. It is a collaboration between Jason Shiga (the author of Meanwhile) and myself. And it will be awesome.

(Footnote: these are production screenshots. There will be some changes before release, particularly in the buttons.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My Secret Hideout: available now

I am delighted to say that My Secret Hideout -- first mentioned here a couple of weeks ago -- is available right now on the App Store. Runs on iPad and iPad 2 (iOS 4.2 or later).

Really, it's been available for most of a day -- in some time zones. You may not know this, but Apple treats its App Store as a separate store for each country (or a bunch of countries, anyhow). Apps appear in a given store at midnight in that store's time zone. So from my point of view, My Secret Hideout was released to the New Zealand App Store at 8 AM on Monday. It's been cruising across the hemispheres all day, and it just hit the US a few minutes ago. (Maybe up to an hour. Don't worry, you can get it even if you live in California.)

The down side is, I don't have any sales reports yet, so I don't know how it's doing. But the up side is that I don't have to figure out tax compliance in 90 countries.

I'm glad I don't have to organize everything, is what I'm saying.

No; strike that. What I'm saying is:

My Secret Hideout is a wacky, creative thing set in a treehouse. It’s not like any app you’ve seen before. Buy it! Play around with it!

My Secret Hideout has no goal, no score, no trophies. Explore it, or play with it, until you find a result you like. Will your treehouse be simple or complex? Can you guide it? What will you discover inside?

That's the blurb. There's the link. Go for it.

And as always, please rate the app if you try it out. Ratings are what keep the sales going, and income is what keeps me going. (I mean, yes, the hacking and the laughs are what keep me going -- but also the income.)

Thank you for your continued generosity. More project news soon.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Night Circus

I never got around to playing Echo Bazaar, despite a weltering wave of friends who washed through, happily tweeting little fragments of louche Victorian storyline. I had a day job at that point, and I didn't want any addictions that could embarrassingly sneak up on me at the office. (The brownie bars from the cafe down the block were bad enough.)

Now the company has released The Night Circus, a smaller -- I assume smaller -- game in the same model, as a licensed promotional thing for an upcoming book. The boss is no longer looking over my shoulder (his head is now firmly positioned on top of my neck) so I figured it was time to give the thing a try.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The callow pleasure of inventing new Ascension cards

Ascension is a popular game, I personally am hooked on it, and it has an expansion. Therefore: I indulge myself by imagining cards for another expansion.

I am not the only one, certainly. But I have not flipped through BGG or game forums looking for other people's lists. So this may repeat ideas you've seen before.

Readings in narrative game history

If you follow Planet IF, you're already all over these links. But if not, you gotta start following two blog-post series that have been rendering early IF and choice-game history into a fine itchy mist of detail and insight.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A preview of My Secret Hideout (plus catching up)

Introducing My Secret Hideout -- my first iPad app release. Coming soon!

I already mentioned this on Twitter and then (welcome to the new world) my Google+ stream. But you folks signed up for news, and news I owe you. So here's a little more detail.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

That crazy software patent situation

Many people have asked me -- that is, I have been asked -- that is, Jmac asked me last weekend -- anyway, this iOS software patent situation. What do I think?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Myst for the classroom?

With little fanfare, this press release appeared yesterday:

idoodlesoftware inc., an education software company offering innovative solutions to bridge the gap between traditional and digital learning, announced that it has signed an exclusive, global licensing agreement with Cyan Worlds, Inc. to bring the award winning MYST franchise, and other titles, to the classroom.


"Since the founding of Cyan Worlds over 24 years ago, we have always believed that the use of digital games in the classroom was a way to connect to students who are digital natives", said Rand Miller, Chief Executive Officer of Cyan Worlds Inc. "We are excited to see our portfolio being utilized in an innovative and rewarding way and believe that the products that are under development by idoodlesoftware will revolutionize the way students learn."

idoodlesoftware is currently developing several new products based on the Cyan portfolio, which will be released in the near future.

(-- idoodlesoftware press release, July 12, 2011)

There's no detail on the company's web site -- just a splash image saying "My MYST for the classroom".

Hard to say what this will look like, but it's probably good news for Cyan.

(Thanks to Eleri for the pointer.)

Friday, July 8, 2011

Ascension polish

Jmac referred to UI issues in this morning's post about Ascension for iPad. I have indeed been swearing and muttering about the UI (as I play incessantly). But don't get your hopes up for another tirade of designerly bile. This isn't the sort of bad UI caused by being an idiot, and then patching the patches on the patches until the result sinks into its own mire. Ascension just isn't right. It can be made right.

I rather assume that Incinerator Studios knows they have lobby issues, and decided to ship something rather than delay the project for a complete lobby rewrite. Nonetheless, for the sake of my own serenity, I will run through the diagnosis.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A shorter later June update

Jeremie Lariviere steps forward to ask for an update. Okay, fair enough.

I let this update slip late, because I hoped I would have a Secret Project to announce. But legal paperwork takes however long some other lawyers think... Hang on. Wait. That's what I wrote six weeks ago. It's still true. Dammit.

There has been progress, however, in that the party of the third part has sent a contract draft back to the party of the second part, whose lawyers are now looking it over, and will send a draft back to the party of the first part, who is me, and then my lawyers will look it over, and -- you get the idea. That's just how it has to work. When we all converge and the contracts are signed, I will have big announcement.

But that is not Hadean Lands news. I'm afraid that work on this secret thing -- and, subsequently, stress in waiting for legal work on this secret thing -- has contributed to June being "not IF month" for me. I have gotten some work done on a different secret project, purely out of compulsive fiddling. (If you've been following my Twitter messages, you have a hint of where that started. But not where it's going.)

So the plan is that July will put IF back at the top of my priority list. Of course the secret project will (I hope) uncork during July, so then I'll be juggling two things at the top of my list. But that's normal for me. I've been doing that every month since January, it's just that which items are on top keep shifting. I have milestones for July, but I hate announcing milestones, so you'll have to wait until the next update to see how I'm doing on them (or not). Sorry.

I did finally get the new computer I promised myself in December. So that's progress, although only indirectly.

In other catch-up news: Balticon was great but I only wound up doing one IF event. So it was. I am not going to be at Readercon this year (I gave an IF talk there last year, which was nice, but doesn't need to be annual). I expect to drop in on Mysterium, which is a tiny Myst fan convention in town, but that's just for fun. And not until August anyhow.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Speaking of console games

Blogging has been slow, because I've been writing code and Jmac is off at Origins. Surely he will have tales to tell when he returns, but in the meantime, I will talk about games.

Not in any incisively analytical way, mind you. It's just that I snarfed four PS3 games this gaming season, and in the past month I booted them all up.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Legends of Zork going squish

We learn today that the casual-MMO Legends of Zork is shutting down, two years after launch:

It is with a heavy heart we announce that Legends of Zork will be closing its doors to adventurers from noon BST (GMT +1) Tuesday 31st May 2011.

We all know that development work has been scarce of late: We have tried to find leeway within a work intensive schedule to devote some time to fixing the issues in the game; We have tried to find time to create new content for the community; But on the whole we have been unable to undertake any major work on the game.

(-- from a post on the Jolt Online forums, May 24th 2011)

(Thanks jizaboz and brasslantern for the tipoff.)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Local puzzle hunts, part 2: Daffle and Bash

And now, the part where I review DASH and BAPHL (spring 2011 editions). Okay, not really review. The part where I call out some interesting aspects of each, and compare them. Because I like it when game design improves over time.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Speaking of tablet editions...

...I want to know who came up with this flaming disaster of a main menu. Confess. Right here. I'm talking to you. I want you to comment on this blog post and say "That was my idea."

This is the main menu from Days of Wonder's new Ticket to Ride iPad release. You can actually see the design bleeding to death in front of you. You start with some nice artwork. But you don't want to clutter it up with labels or buttons. Result: impossible to decide where to tap! Wound one.

So you had to add some "gear" icons (which aren't quite contrasty enough, but then if they were contrasty enough they'd detract from the artwork, right?) Now at least the player knows where the buttons are.

But she still doesn't know what any of the buttons do, so you had to add a voiceover to explain them. Wound two. The player has to sit through the entire list to learn the menu, and then probably has to sit through the list again every time she wants to use the menu in the future, because how are you going to remember all that? Oh, and the explanations can't be clear -- they have to be cutesey in-character clues.

But the UI still doesn't work, because the player might be hearing-impaired (or just have the sound switched off). So you had to add subtitles too. Wound three: bleed out. In order to avoid putting words on your menu, you've put entire sentences on your menu! But sentences that appear one at a time! It's perfect! And I'll have to listen to those stupid voiceovers forever.

Jesus Headpounding Migraine in a weasel-bucket. You've taken the worst idea of late-90s UI design -- the mystery-meat menu with cursor hover labels -- and port it to a platform that doesn't have cursor hovering, and you managed to make it worse. Kill me now.

(Ticket To Ride is fine once you get a game going. Nice solid implementation. I'd like a face-to-face play mode, even if it has to run with open hands. But it's worth buying as-is. Except the menu KILL ME NOW.)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Local puzzle hunts, part 1: Puzzle whats?

I've played through two puzzle hunts in the past two weeks: DASH and BAPHL. I want to talk about these events, and in fact I've been asked to compare them (hi Julia!). But I also want to talk about puzzle hunts in general, for the benefit of people who have never tried them. This leaves me writing a post which is more than usually disorganized.

(Some people would ask "More than usual?")

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A short late May update

I let this update slip late, because I hoped I would have a Secret Project to announce. But legal paperwork takes however long some other lawyers think it will take, and so it is still Secret. Sorry! Hopefully soon.

What can I report? Well, I have made substantial progress on the iPhone interpreter. It is now capable of playing a Glulx game. It's not pretty or polished, but it runs. I've also started adapting a Z-code virtual machine to the same interface, so that I can release my old games (and the Hadean Lands teaser!) with the same iOS packaging. (To be technical, I'm working on a Glk interface port of the Fizmo interpreter. Did you want me to be technical? No? Well, there you are.)

Now, this interpreter work isn't ground-breaking. In fact iPhone Frotz can do all this already. But this will be my code base for future improvements, so it's important to have it all down solid. Which it isn't yet, mind you. Solid. Yet.

But games run. That's always an exciting milestone.

Speaking of running games, I released a game last week! A very small game: The Matter of the Monster. It's not classic IF. It's a sort of choose-your-own-adventure experiment; I used the Undum Javascript toolkit. I tweaked it a bit, though. Try the game -- it'll take you about ten minutes -- and you'll see what I mean.

(Thanks to Jacq's Indigo New Language Challenge for spurring me into this.)

Finally, I'll remind you that I'll be at Balticon in two weeks. (That's in Baltimore, May 27-30.) I'll be on a couple of IF panels and talks... sometime that weekend. They don't seem to have a schedule up yet. Stay tuned, as they say, space fans.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Upcoming Boston IF events

We have two IF events coming up on Saturday, May 7. They overlap, so you've got an opportunity to exercise meaningful player choice...

(Links narfed from the PR-IF meeting notes.)

Story and Play: Interactive Fiction for Children

(2:30pm to 4pm -- Cambridge Public Library, Whale Room)

An IF collaborative play event, for kids, hosted by Brendan Desilets. This is part of the Cambridge Science Festival. We'll be playing Mrs. Pepper’s Nasty Secret, a romp for children of all ages.

Adventuresome Creations: Interactive Fiction Graphical Adventures & Electronic Literature

(3pm -- MIT room 6-120)

A colloquium, hosted by Nick Montfort. This is part of the Purple Blurb lecture series and the Boston Cyberarts Festival. Speaking:

And as long as I've got the microphone, I'll recommend flipping through the Boston Cyberarts Festival event list. All sorts of cool stuff is happening or being demonstrated in the next two weeks.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Interactive fairy tales

This is a wide-open question, and historically around here the wide-open questions fall flat and deflate with a faint sad whistling sound. But I'll try it anyway.

What are the archetypes of interactive folk tales and fairy tales? I mean, what are the natural shapes of the things?

We have fairy-tale notions -- and maybe they date back no farther than Grimm and Lang, I'm no researcher, but we have them anyhow -- that if there are three brothers, then the first one gets the title and the second one gets the wealth and the third one gets to be poor and honest and goes off to be a protagonist. Three sisters (or nine, or twelve) are rarely even that lucky. You give a coin to a beggar so that he will turn out to be a wizard or the king of this-or-that; misery follows innocence and leads to triumph; and you always fail after succeeding twice, or succeed after failing twice.

(That last point should probably be tied to the observation that second marriages always work out miserably. I don't know where that one leads.)

But all of this pre-supposes a certain... certainty. Inevitability. These stories come to us in books, and there is a way the story goes. (Even if the movie then re-stitches the whole thing into a hat or a pterodactyl.)

What does a story look like when interactive tools appear, and the constraint of print and performance is removed?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Inevitably I am drawn into the games-and-art thing

The question "Are games art?" is thoroughly boring, because the answer is obvious. It's obvious to me; it's obvious to you. I don't know if our obvious answers are the same, but whatever -- either way there's nothing to discuss.

This doesn't mean I'm tired of discussing why videogames are or aren't art. A couple of days ago Tablesaw posted a quick manifesto-ation, which I thought was terrific:

The player of a game is not the audience of a game, just as an actor is not the audience of a playscript, and a musician is not the audience of a score.

Games lack an audience not in the traditionally understood manner (nobody is desires to or is able to observe the art), but in a profound and fundamental way, in that they cannot be understood except through entering collaboration.

(--from Shorter Games and Art, April 5)

Of course it's easy to pick at rough edges here (this is the Internet!) -- a game of Rock Band can have an audience. Adventure games (text and graphical) play very well in groups, with one player "driving" and the rest involved at a lower level, if at all. But these cases only make the question more interesting.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Myst Online source release

More than two years ago, Cyan announced that they would be releasing the server and client source code for Myst Online: Uru Live.

It hasn't happened quickly. Any release takes time and effort, I know very well, and Cyan has been focussing on the projects it needed to survive.

But today the announcement came through:

Today we are announcing that the sources for the MOULA client engine and development tools ( Engine) will be made available as open source. At the same time, MOSS which is a MOULA server replacement (written by a'moaca' and cjkelly) will also be released. Both open source projects will be hosted on

The goal of the open source Engine and the MOSS server is to provide a "playground" where new writers can learn their craft, and new maintainers can inspect it, and new cartographers can map it. The Cyan Worlds MOULA servers will continue to provide a (relatively) safe environment for the D'ni faithful to mingle and share.

(-- from a letter from Rand Miller, posted April 6 on the Myst web forums)

As you see, this is a joint effort: Cyan's client code, Cyan's modelling tools (3DSMax plugins), and a compatible server implemented (from scratch) by members of the fan community. All are available now, although you currently have to register for the download. I expect mirror repositories will pop up by tomorrow. (The server is GPL3; I haven't seen a citation on Cyan's license yet.)

If you can't tell by my hasty typing, I'm utterly jazzed about this. I wish I could spend a month or six learning the modelling I'd need to start firing up my own pieces of the Myst multiverse. But I have my own projects spread out before me, as you know.

Nonetheless, I am about to jump into the game -- which I now have to specify as Cyan's game, which will remain as the core of the Ages of Myst. I'll be in the pub, toasting with the gang.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Calligraphic poetry

Today I went to a presentation by Amaranth Borsuk, a poet who plays with "textual materiality" -- meaning, if I can give a biased summary, the study of the user interface of text.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Remembering Diana Wynne Jones

Back in my season of IF interviews, a few months ago, I was asked about my influences from outside the game-design world. I said:

...Diana Wynne Jones describes the fantastical by grounding it in the reader’s unconscious knowledge of the real world. I try to do all these things. (-- interview in Black Clock, Jan 13, 2011)

I learned on Saturday that Diana Wynne Jones has died. She has been ill for a couple of years now, a fact that I kept remembering and then thrusting from my consciousness. Such things make no sense. She has been in my library and in my head for three-quarters of my life; I might have been ten when I stumbled into Dogsbody. I might have been younger.

More and better writers than I are writing remembrances this week. I can only say that on my shelf of most-important books, The Homeward Bounders and Fire and Hemlock and Archer's Goon are untidily lined up.

Diana Wynne Jones insisted on the rough, solid, believable, ordinariness of life -- and that includes life lived in Elfland, life in a walking castle, life at a science fiction convention, life in the future or past or outside of time. All of these are as solid as the house you grew up in, or the time your brother pushed you into the snow, or the butter pies you dreamed of eating. Fantasy has moved on to boy wizards at school (really?) and heroes who turn into wolves (really?), but Diana Wynne Jones just kept telling us how to do it, over and over.

Swarthmore: a brief report

Enjoyed the train ride down to Philadelphia. Met up with Will Hopkins, who arranged this whole shebang on behalf of the Swarthmore Psi Phi Club and the Forum for Free Speech. (Free Speech? I don't know, I just get on the train.)

On Saturday afternoon I gave a somewhat-extended (or maybe just rambling) version of my Writer's Guide to IF talk. A bunch of us then chatted about IF over lunch, broke for a few hours -- Swarthmore has a darn lovely campus to wander around on -- and then I went to dinner with Psi Phi. I can only say that campus geek societies are all the same, but each is the same in its own unique way. Psi Phi conducts annual pterodactyl hunts. You might want to look into it.

In the evening we set up to play Slouching Towards Bedlam by Star Foster and Daniel Ravipinto. Two hours of group play got us through nearly all of the plot exploration. It so happened that the players managed to get killed right then, triggering one of the game's endings, so I called time. I figure it's better to leave people interested in exploring the other game options. Plus, two hours is a while.

If you missed this event (and, really, most of you did) you can catch me and similar IF discussions at Balticon in May. I'll probably keep doing this sort of IF presentation in various places. Not frequently, because travel eats life, but occasionally. After Balticon, maybe somewhere in the fall.

I had a fun time. I think everybody who showed up had a fun time. I'm sorry that Will's office caught fire, though.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Life Flashes By

I played Life Flashes By last year, when the first public release appeared. The author had previously demoed the game at the IF gathering at PAX Prime in Seattle, so I'd already seen a "middle" chapter of the work.

I didn't write anything at the time, because I am lazy and then because Emily Short wrote a column that was more perceptive than what I was thinking. However, now it's been another few months; Life Flashes By has circulated around the various gaming communities and been discussed some; it's been featured in the recent IF Demo Fair; and Deirdra Kiai is declaring a full, final, let's get this thing on the road release. (Available as free download or collector's edition.)

"So now what do you think, smart guy?" Hm.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

PAX East 2011: Zarf's anecdotes

I wrote a whole lot about last year's PAX IF events, because that was my first PAX and everything was exciting and new. Now it's my third (two in Boston, one in Seattle) and... everything is ho-hum and tired? No. It was an exciting weekend. But I may gush less about it this year.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Zarf appearances this spring

I am not at GDC right now (although Emily Short is, and many other game designers I know or know of). Drat.

But if you're the sort of person who wants to meet me in person, you can visit the IF events at PAX East, March 11-13. I've already posted about that, so there you go.

Moving on beyond PAX (hard as it is for me to think about that): I am speaking at Swarthmore College on Saturday, March 26th. (In the afternoon sometime -- not yet determined.) I will be talking about IF for writers, and also doing a very fast introduction to Inform 7. Then in the evening we'll have a group IF play event. Thanks to Swarthmore Psi Phi for inviting me.

And finally -- well, finally for this update -- I will be attending Balticon, May 27-30. I haven't seen the final schedule, but I believe I'm doing the IF-for-writers talk again, moderating an IF panel, and hosting a group play of Heliopause.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The IF Theory Reader

A project born in the shadowy depths of IF history has suddenly breached and flipped its tail gaily in the sunlight.

The IF Theory Reader was conceived back in 2001, by Emily Short and Dennis Jerz. They collected a stack of essays from various people active in IF at the time. But the project fell victim to life-scheduling issues, and it sat on the shelf for (if you can imagine such a span of time) ten whole years.

This past fall, Kevin Jackson-Mead volunteered to take over the project, and Things Began Happening. He dusted off the old essays and began contacting the authors. And now -- to cut a great deal of editing work short -- the IF Theory Reader is available as a free PDF download. (Or, if you are attached to the smell of paper, you can buy a POD volume from lulu.)

So is it worth reading dusty IF history? Well, I haven't read it yet. But I can say that the book really represents a tour through the past ten years of the IF community's thinking. Some of the essays are from 2001; some have been revised for this edition; some are brand-new. Many have been published in other forms, so if you've been devouring our blog posts and essays for the past few years, you will see few surprises. But if your awareness of IF dates from the last century -- or if you've been following us only casually -- I think this book has something to offer.

For the table of contents, read on.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

IF at PAX East 2011 -- compleat schedule

Everything IF-related going on at PAX East 2011!

Some of these are official PAX events, on the PAX schedule. Some will be hosted in our capacious Interactive Fiction Event Room, which will be the Alcott room in the Westin Waterfront hotel. (Right next to the PAX convention center.) And yet more will be in the People's Republic of Interactive Fiction Hospitality Suite (the Westin, upstairs, room number 846).

The IF Event Room and the IF Hospitality Suite are open to the public; you will not need a PAX badge to attend our events. So if you're in Boston at all, feel free to drop by.

  • The Hospitality Suite will be open noon-midnight Friday, noon-midnight Saturday, and noon-3pm Sunday. We'll have books, conversation, IF to play, and snacks to snack through the whole PAX weekend.

  • The IF Event Room (Alcott room in the Westin) will be open noon-midnight Saturday only. We'll be running IF events all day; see the "Saturday" events listed below. You'll also be able to marvel at the Automatypewriter.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Secrets Game (idea)

A while ago, Emily Short posted an online chat that I was involved in:

zarf says, "(this reminds me that I should write a blog entry about that MMO prototype that I never did anything with)"

zarf says, "the secret plan that I never did anything with was to combine the window dressing with a power law of frequency, so that the room descriptions are random but one particular random room is your home base and you see it more often"

I was referring to a gameplay prototype that I came up with back in September. The idea was for a casual MMO-RPG -- something on the level of Kingdom of Loathing or Echo Bazaar. I didn't create an online demo, though. I just wrote an interactive Python script to try out the gameplay and the text environments.

You have dreamed of this for years -- who has not? But now it's in sight. You're not bogged down in the World any more; you've reached the gates of the City.

"Welcome to Mezzohaus -- the City of Secrets."

...Or that's what's carved over the archway as you approach. You frown; wasn't this place called "Middlehorst" in the old stories? Probably vandalism. Never mind.

Why here? Because you need the City. Why you? Because you belong here: you hold your own secrets. The blood of the Martians flows in you, and that will give you an edge. You know only scraps of Martian lore; but even the smallest secret is coin here.

You pass beneath the arch, and the stink of Mezzohusse's docks rolls over you. Pheugh -- but it's a place to start. You turn, at a thought, for one last look out at the World.

There is no archway behind you. You see only a battered iron door, tight-locked, in the side of a shambled building. Fluttering on the lintel is a note, which you pull free. It reads: "The first secret is to wait and watch."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Desktop Dungeons and tiny UI hangnails

I was bored Saturday night (yes, I'm allowed to be bored) and asked around for game suggestions. Someone mentioned that Desktop Dungeons was out for Mac. I had only the vaguest memory of having heard of Desktop Dungeons, but I gave it a shot.

Desktop Dungeons -- screenshot

The dungeon is a little larger in real life, but I've clipped the shot rather than shrinking it.

Turns out it's a microroguelike. Meaning, it's Nethack, only short. That's nifty. The designers say it's aimed at ten-minute game sessions. It takes me twenty or thirty, because of their other nifty idea: the combat is (almost) completely deterministic. You strike for a fixed amount of damage, the enemy strikes for a fixed amount of damage. You can see all the stats in advance, so you know whether you're going to win. Also, the monsters are static -- they sit still and wait for you to pick fights.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

So what does a month look like?

A month has gone by, and it's time for a progress update.

(Clever people will note that there's no causal connection between the halves of that sentence.)

The obvious question is, how is Hadean Lands doing? You might be following my "Progress" tweets, in which I have been bragging about IF API spec updates and interpreter releases and iPhone framework code and business purchases and blog posts, but not a word about Hadean Lands.

Fear not. HL work is getting done. But if I were tweeting about it, you'd see a lot of "Had idea." "Had idea." "Thought about how ideas fit together." "Had idea." "Picked some ideas off the list. Put them on another list."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Jane McGonigal talk: "Reality is Broken"

Jane McGonigal is on a book tour for her new book, Reality is Broken. She spoke at the Harvard Bookstore on Feb 1. I took very scanty and context-free notes, but fortunately, the talk was basically "teaser bits from my book"! (As most book tour talks are.) So here are the notes, context-free, and if you think the subject sounds cool, buy the book.

First, the egoboo: Jane started by offering a real-world-achievement-quest award to anybody who could point out "the inventor of my favorite game", sitting anonymously in the audience. Which was me! (She says this, even though I don't consider myself the inventor of Werewolf, but hey. It made me happy. And it caused some people to talk to me afterward about Mafia/Werewolf, which was cool too.)

So, the thesis in this book is that gaming is a powerful activity; it makes us better; and it can be applied to make real life better. This is not just about MMO-ARG games curing poverty in Africa (a stereotype of "serious games"). It covers everything from, okay, that, down to feeling more motivated about your job or your exercise program.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Puzzle structure in 2015

I recently read Tony Bourdain's Medium Raw, which was a fascinating look into the world of people who are really, really interested in food. I like food. These people think about food more than I do. So much so that I can barely understand their explanations.

At my first meal at Momofuku Ssäm, one particular dish slapped me upside the head [...] It was a riff on a classic French salad of frisée aux lardons: a respectful version of the bistro staple -- smallish, garnished with puffy fried chicharrones of pork skin instead of the usual bacon, and topped with a wonderfully runny, perfectly poached quail egg. Good enough [...] But the salad sat on top of a wildly incongruous stew of spicy, Korean-style tripe -- and it was, well, it was... genius. Here, on the one hand, was everything I usually hate about modern cooking -- and in one bowl, no less. It was "fusion" -- in the sense that it combined a perfectly good European classic with Asian ingredients and preparation. It was post-modern and contained my least favorite ingredient these days: irony. [...] But this was truly audacious. It was fucking delicious. And it had tripe in it.

(--from Medium Raw, Anthony Bourdain, chapter 17)

Mind you, the whole book isn't like that. Bourdain talks about everything from hamburgers, to fatherhood, to foie gras, to the Food Network, to the stupid things he wrote in his first book. But that paragraph in particular grabbed me because I have no idea what he's talking about. I can look up the recipe (frisée lettuce with hot pork, vinaigrette); maybe I've even eaten it somewhere. I've eaten spicy Korean stews. But why is this ironic? Or audacious? What is it reacting against? What are the things it is reacting against reacting against? If I'd been sitting next to Bourdain, eating off his plate, I still wouldn't have a clue.

I recalled this paragraph on Sunday afternoon, sitting in an MIT auditorium, listening to the designers of the 2011 Mystery Hunt talk about their puzzle structures. I knew exactly what they were talking about. I'd just lived through it (or half of it, anyway, since I got two good nights' sleep during the Hunt.) Everybody in the room was smiling and nodding along to the speaker's presentation, and laughing at the jokes on the slides. This was our field. This was our side of the wall. Tony Bourdain would have been completely befuddled, see?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

PAX East 2011!

Last March, we at the People's Republic of Interactive Fiction busted our brogmoids to run a series of IF events at PAX East. We ran an IF Hospitality Suite throughout the weekend; it turned into a sort of IF mini-convention within PAX. (See this post from last year.)

Following that success (and a similar event at PAX Prime in September), we are once again making plans for PAX East 2011.

We're still setting things up. But it looks like we're going to have two rooms this year, in the Westin Waterfront hotel. (That's adjacent to PAX's new convention center.) We'll have the now-standard IF Hospitality Suite, open noon-midnight Friday, noon-midnight Saturday, and noon-3pm Sunday.

We'll also have a function room in the Westin -- not as large as the PAX function rooms, but big enough for a decent crowd. (Thanks to Dave Cornelson for arranging this.)

So what's planned?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How to write a touchscreen adventure game

First-person graphical adventures -- Myst -- have become hugely successful in the past several years. Yes, even as Cyan Worlds and Presto Studios and such dinosaurs have withered in the frost. What are popular today are the tiny, casual, unbeautiful and narratively-barren games we call "room escapes". They're written in Flash, and they pour by the dozens out of our web browsers.

Viridian Room screenshot

(Of course, some are huge, some are hardcore, some are lovely, and some are rich story-worlds -- I don't have to link examples, do I? That's not the point. The escape genre has conventions, and they're not trying to live up to what we thought all graphical adventures would be like from 1994 onward.)

When I got my iPhone, I thought "Room escape games! Perfect! Little puzzle environments to explore while riding the subway to work." (This was when I rode the subway to work.) I looked through the nascent App Store, and found... a couple. There was no easy porting path for existing games, due to the whole Flash situation, and only a couple of developers were writing for iPhone directly.

More room escapes have appeared in the past two years, but it's still not a big corner of the App Store. More important: none of the games, as far as I've researched, have really thought about the iPhone (touchscreen) interface, and what it means for first-person graphical adventures.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

It's 2011 now

I'm not going to be posting week-by-week status updates here. (For that, read my "progress" tweets on @zarfeblong.) But you get one special one tonight. The new year has reached its Mondayness, so you're probably wondering if I am officially In Gear.

Answer: yes. I spent the end of December more on slacking than designing. That phase is over. Here's what the beginning of January has looked like:

  • I made some improvements to the profiling code of my Glulxe interpreter. (Graham Nelson wants to work on optimizing his Inform 7 compiler, and he asked me for some features to aid measurement.)

  • I fired up XCode and started a new iOS project. This is an audio toy, not an IF interpreter. I need to remind myself how ObjC works before I start anything serious. (After two evenings of work, it displays a button and beeps continuously. No, this is not Boodler... yet.)

  • I filed to create Zarfhome Software Consulting, LLC. This is exciting! The last time I tried to start a business was 1997, and I never got beyond a name and logo. Now I have a Federal Employee Identification Number!

  • I tried to set up a business bank account, but failed because I didn't have the LLC form printed out. I'll go back there tomorrow. In the meantime, I bought a printer to print the form, so that's some progress.

  • I spent a couple of hours futzing around with a programmable LED badge (available in the hardware-shovelware aisle of your local MicroCenter!) (Where I went to get the printer.) I got this Linux driver compiled on my Mac -- jury-rigged to a trial, but it worked. Once. Now the USB library won't recognize the device. Oh well. No, this has nothing to do with Hadean Lands, but I am revelling in my freedom or some such.

  • I withdrew $28699 from Amazon Payments. (To my personal bank account, yeah, whatever, this is what accountants are for.) $28699 is what $31337 looks like after Kickstarter and Amazon take their cuts.

  • I wrote down more design notes for Hadean Lands. This is the phase I am in, and will be for a while -- alternately write down ideas and stare at them. I will do this every day. Eventually the ideas will start fitting together. It's not fast but it's the way it has to work. (I'll know it's done when I start wailing "Oh, woe, all the coolness has leaked out of this project and my design is completely lame." Then I can start coding!) (Yes, this really is the way it always goes.)

  • A little bit of slacking anyway. Of course.

Expect more of the same in the weeks to come.