Monthly Archives: January 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.

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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...

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Matt is speedcubing again

My friend (and several-time Gameshelf TV star) Matthew Morse is getting back into speedcubing, the ancient art of solving a thoroughly scrambled Rubik's Cube wicked fast. He started out by buying a new cube, since his old one, while a source of nostalgic affection, is too worn for competitive play.

After I got a new Cube, I promptly set out to demonstrate that I still remembered the solution I had memorized. What I found was that for two related sequences, I had forgotten which sequence did what. Which sequence to use in response to which pattern is memorized by your head, and initially I had it backwards. Once I figured it out, executing them was no problem. Performing the sequences is memorized in the hands, and they hadn't forgotten at all.

Now I'm working on developing my understanding of how the solution works. I've filled several pages of notes based on the simpler case of a 2x2x2 Cube and I expect to be able to move up to the standard 3x3x3 once I have some more details worked out.

I also bought a 4x4x4 Cube at the same time I got the new 3x3x3 Cube. It's still in the package. Truthfully, I'm a little scared of it.

Full post contains reminiscing about his original childhood time with the cube, as well as mention of Jessica Fridrich, a teenage cube prodigy who grew up to become an engineering professor at Binghamton University, and who keeps her canonical speedcubing notes prominently linked from her academic homepage.

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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.

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The Year Without a Gameshelf

Fans of the TV show - yes, this website is still nominally based on one - will have noticed that 2008 came and went without my releasing a single minute of new Gameshelf video. The status I wrote about last June still stands, but I thought that it's worth writing a little more about while we're all firing up a new year.

I've now gotten myself enmeshed in two very time-hungry commercial projects, which I'm pursuing in addition to my software consulting job. I can comfortably put the necessary time into the show when I have only one-or-fewer day jobs, but with these new projects taking up all the space in my schedule that they can, this just isn't the case, sadly. I don't foresee any new episodes appearing without at least one of these projects getting resolved first.

Regarding these projects, neither is ready for me to announce in detail, but I can say that one is a game, and the other is a web-based service about games. I already help run a web service related to games, but this new one is going to be very different (even though it belongs to the same company). Its official release status is "coming soon", though I do not say from where on the mayfly-to-glacier subjective-timescale continuum this statement originates. Readers of this blog will be among the first to know about it, when it's ready. It ties in to a lot of personal feelings I have about the state of digital gaming, so really, I won't be able to shut up about it. Please consider this my apology-in-advance.

The other project is a digital adaptation of a popular tabletop game, which I hope to straight-up sell through a publisher of such things. This is going to be a long march. I got the informal blessing of the original game's publisher last spring, and began working on the prototype immediately afterwards. However, further software work's been backburnered while I've been trying to hash out a digital distribution agreement with the game's IP holders. We're in active conversation, and I'm enough of a game-geek to find this kind of negotiation rather engaging (and I have enough business experience not to let that get me into trouble), but none of this makes the process move any faster. Once we do strike a deal, you can look forward to me babbling more about it.

Really, I'm bubbling over with stuff I wanna write about on this blog, which is the one Gameshelfy thing I did manage to pull off in 2008. I'm thrilled that it has all the readers and commenters that it does, and of course I must extend my thanks to my fellow Gameshelf bloggers for making my own silence not tremendously relevant! With luck and gumption, I'll manage to share some interesting stuff anyway, soon. Here's to 2009 - may it be filled with the right kinds of games for all of us.

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Humor in Boardgames

After playing a game of Galaxy Trucker last night, I was pondering "funny" games. The post-game discussion consensus was that GT is "funny like RoboRally" as opposed to "funny like Munchkin.

In Munchkin-funny games, the components are funny. The cards have funny names or flavortext, and it's amusing to be attacked by thousands of orcs while you have a duck stuck to your head. I'd put Illuminati and Chez Geek in this category as well (not that Steve Jackson Games has a monopoly on these). These games are very funny to begin with, but (to me at least) become less amusing as you become more familiar with the cards. It's probably no coincidence that Munchkin and Chez Geek have a lot of expansion sets.

In RoboRally-funny games, the gameplay is funny. You make plans, you have an expectation of what will happen - and then something completely different actually occurs. Instead of sprinting along the conveyor belt and jumping off just as you reach the flag area, someone accidentally pushes you onto a turning block and you sprint in the entire wrong direction, jumping onto the conveyor belt that throws you into a pit. I'd also put Wiz-War and maybe Fluxx in this category. These games don't sound as funny on first glance or on a read-through but in actual play both the players and bystanders were laughing raucously as our Galaxy Trucker ships got blown to pieces by asteroids and pirates. These games stay funny as you play them.

A funny subject or cards, like in Munchkin, can be applied to a very strategic game (I'm sure there's some way to make Go funny) but RoboRally-funny games are by definition not strategic at all. I'm sure some people would be too frustrated by this to enjoy the game but I really like them.

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