Forward planning for IF tools

I've been bemoaning the slightly run-down state of IF interpreter software. (The confusing font preference system in Gargoyle is just one example.) The fact is that the big surge of open-source IF activity was the late 90s and early 00s. Since then, coders have been drifting out of the community, and the ones still around have gotten lazy. (I include myself in that indictment, for damn sure.)

As a community, we do not have a tradition of mentoring and fostering new contributors to IF projects. All of our projects were made by people (most often solo developers) who got excited and wrote a whole application or library.

I like to think that we've got a good software stack, which smooths the path a little. You can write an Inform extension or a Glk library port or a Glulx engine core or a Parchment web service, and it will fit into the ecosystem. But it still starts with a person showing up with enough energy to start, build, and finish an idea. If someone shows up who is curious but not committed, we nod companionably and wait to see what happens. The results, over time, are predictable: activity slows down and stops.

With that introduction, you'd expect me to go on and talk about mentoring. But I don't know anything about mentoring. I'm one of the control freaks! I'd rather work on my own projects than collaborate.

Anybody want to think about community-building? (Hopeful look around...)

(Of course a lot of my projects are specifications and tools that interoperate with other people's code. So I kick myself in the ass and make it happen. But my natural talents do not lie in management.)

In this post, I'm going to talk about my plans as a solo IF tool developer. Warning: I will also talk about money.

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Hadean news of the week

I thought this was the boring part of the release process. Hadean Lands has been out for a couple of months, I've done a couple of iOS updates, time to settle down and work through the Kickstarter rewards. Plan for more distribution platforms, like Steam and the Humble Store. Boring stuff.

Wrong! It's crazy excitement time.

First thing this week, two fantastic reviews appeared:

"The best video game I played last year is a science-fiction thriller about alchemy, and it has no graphics or sound effects." -- David Auerbach, Slate

"Hadean Lands is an endlessly clever experience." -- Sean Clancy, Pocket Tactics

Suddenly the sales rate is going nuts, Twitter activity is buzzing, and my head is spinning.

When a wave of publicity hits, that's when you want a Steam Greenlight page, right? (Greenlight is the voting system that Steam uses to gauge public interest in new indie games.) So I have spent the past day constructing one. Here it is:

Vote for Hadean Lands on Steam Greenlight!

This isn't a purchase; it just indicates to Steam that this is the kind of game you want them to offer. When enough "yes" votes accumulate, I get a slot on the Steam storefront. (No, I don't know how many votes is enough.)

(Speaking of Greenlight, I note that two other parser IF games went up this month: Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter (Mike Gentry and David Cornelson) and The Shadow in the Cathedral (Ian Finley and Jon Ingold). There's also Her Story, which is not a text game, but is by IF author Sam Barlow. And that must only scratch the surface; I haven't even tried to survey the Greenlight world.)

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IF at Arisia

Arisia, one of Boston's many sci-fi conventions, is coming up this weekend. I won't be there (I'm at Mystery Hunt) but several Boston IF people will be, and there are a whole slew of IF-related panels and events.

First, there will be another Lost Pig performance (with audience participation) on Friday evening, 7:00 pm, Grand Ballroom B. Hosted by Brad Smith, with live performances and foley.

Panels of IF relevance... (Note: I'm pulling these from the Arisia schedule, which is subject to change. Also, these are just the panels I see which strike me as relevant and/or which include IF people I know. There's a whole Gaming program track which you could go to.)

Games and Minority Representation (Friday 10:00 pm, Alcott): Heather Albano, Bob Chipman, Caelyn Sandel (m), Pablo Miguel Alberto Vazquez III

Gender and Gaming (Saturday 10:00 am, Griffin): Chris Denmead, Brian Liberge, Meghan McGinley (m), Maddy Myers, Caelyn Sandel, Brianna Wu

DIY Digital: Homemade Video Games (Saturday 4:00 pm, Faneuil): Adri, Heather Albano, Caelyn Sandel (m), Carolyn VanEseltine

The Internet Hate Train: Moving Past Gamergate (Saturday 5:30 pm, Faneuil): Adri, Bob Chipman, Maddy Myers (m), Caelyn Sandel, Alan Wexelblat, Brianna Wu

Games as Interactive Literature (Sunday 4:00 pm, Adams): Adri, Meghan McGinley, Joshua A.C. Newman, Rebecca Slitt, Alan Wexelblat (m)

Video Games as Art (Sunday 5:30 pm, Adams): Bob Chipman, Israel Peskowitz (m), Caelyn Sandel, Carolyn VanEseltine

Go, enjoy, stay hydrated.

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I am proud to announce that I am the first Writer In Residence at the Trope Tank for the coming semester.

What is the Trope Tank, you ask? That's Nick Montfort's office at MIT, home of his enormous collection of classic videogame hardware, software, and literature. (You can see just one corner of it behind me in the photo.) (Although I think the Asteroids cabinet is out of order again.)

What does it mean that I am a Writer In Residence? Well, basically it means that I have a key, and I will be hanging out in the office once a week. Wednesdays, I expect. I will certainly be working on some kind of IF project there; possibly Glulx upgrade work or interpreter hacking. And, generally, I'll help keep the lights on -- Nick is on leave for the spring semester.

The People's Republic of Interactive Fiction will continue to hold monthly meetings in the Trope Tank. Possibly we will schedule other events there, such as IF writing circles. Details remain to be determined. Join the PRIF mailing list if you're interested.

Thank you, Nick. I look forward to the coming semester.

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The Talos Principle: design ruminations

As it happens I replayed Portal 2 right before The Talos Principle launched. That's gotta be the last thing a game designer wants to hear, right? "We don't use the term 'Portal-like', but, sure, Talos is... wait, you just replayed Portal? You couldn't have waited a couple of weeks in between?"

(I haven't gone to check whether the designers used the term "Portal-like". Nobody's going to disagree with it, nohow.)

Talos is a pleasant puzzle game with a nice script and good art and bullet-holes in several of its own feet. I recommend it but I wish it had fewer self-inflicted wounds.

(Note: in a "ruminations" post I don't offer an overall review. Instead, I focus on particular areas of design that I find interesting -- or problematic. So don't freak out just because I complain a lot.)

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Holiday iOS app sales

It is Christmastime, the time of bundles... okay, every month is the time of bundles these days. Bundles have become continuous. We get it. We're joining in!

I have posted Zarf's IF Bundle on the iOS App Store. Basically, you buy Hadean Lands through this link, you get my Shade and Heliopause apps thrown in free. Why not? If you've already purchased HL for iOS, the "complete my bundle" link should let you download the other apps.

And while I'm at it: Meanwhile for iOS is now on sale for two bucks, through the end of the year. That's 60% off! Or like 87% off as compared to the hardback book!

(Let us not speak about the relative values placed on creators by the book and software industries these days. I'm trying to gin up some product excitement here.)

So go buy Meanwhile now, if you haven't. If you have, why not gift a copy to a friend? Or an enemy? Two weeks only! Imagine lying on the living-room floor, next to the tree or bull's-head or aluminum pole or whatever your December celebratory decoration is, scrolling around Jason's mad-science fairy tale and trying to remember where you left the branch that doesn't involve zapping the Earth clean of human life.

And then buy Hadean Lands too. The nickel beads demand it.

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Gone Home: design ruminations

I don't imagine that Gone Home suffers from lack of reviews. I heard about it from several directions when it came out, and that was over a year ago. But I just played it.

(Yes, I am slowly starting to dig into the past four years of indie IF that I was too busy writing my own game to play. Yes, I will also get to Bioshock Infinity one of these months.)

I don't have anything to add to the discussion of Gone Home as a story game, or as a game about gay folks, or as a flashpoint of hatred from jerk-gamers. That's all been covered. Nor am I going to tell you why you should like or dislike the game. I liked it, a lot of people liked it, that's not news.

Instead, I'm going to give my impressions as a game designer. This is what I would have said if I were on the team building the thing. Or, more likely, having muffins with the designer during the wild-idea stage. Maybe that'll hit some new ground. If not, well, too late -- I've already written this post.

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Zombies

No video game I have played as an adult has affected me as profoundly and personally as Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead has. I’ve already written about my technical admiration for Telltale’s interactive television dramas (whose titles have doubled in number between the date of that essay and just this week), but now I wish to get personal. This may take more than one post.

The rest of this post contains spoilers for seasons 1 and 2 of the “Walking Dead” video game.

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Idea for a realistic GTA mod

I don’t have any skill for creating Grant Theft Auto mods, so I release this idea into the atmosphere:

  • Replace the main character’s model with that of a white cop in uniform. (Don’t worry too much about how this may clash with the game’s dialogue or voice acting.)

  • Modify the AI of all law-enforcement NPCs such that they always consider the player an ally.

    This remains true even as the player’s violent activity summons — per the game’s unmodified rules — growing numbers of patrol cars and, eventually, military-style armored vehicles. The increasingly desperate police within show only unfailing loyalty to the player, no matter how obvious their on-screen crimes become. Consequently, the player faces little consequence for their actions, the (quickly suppressed) retribution of civilians notwithstanding.

That’s pretty much it. Feel free to run with it. I have, as I say, no knowledge for how to make these things, and I’ll be working on something else today anyway.

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Gone Girl: Sympathy for the GamerGater

This post contains spoilers for the film “Gone Girl”.

I managed to catch Gone Girl during its last days in the first-run theaters. I feel glad that I did; it’s a stylish film, what I think of as a Fincher/Reznor collaboration (per The Social Network) where the latter’s synthesized instrumental score is nearly a character unto itself, stepping into the foreground during the tensest scenes, playing as important a role as the actors’ spoken dialogue. I liked that.

The film’s content, though, I feel less unqualified admiration for. Maybe this is informed to some degree by the coincidence of the title’s initials, but it struck me as a film quite in step with GamerGate’s anti-feminist, even gynophobic philosophies. Gone Girl’s story takes place in a world where women actually do the awful things that GamerGate accuses its own female harassment-targets of. I couldn’t help but see it as a window into the mind of men who are petrified with contemplation of the life-upending terrors they fear women as having the power to perpetrate.

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