Monthly Archives: May 2009


If you haven't read Order of the Stick, I highly recommend that you go read it (it will likely take you at least a few days to get through the 600+ pages that currently exist). It's a stick-figure comic about a group of Dungeons & Dragons characters. It's hilarious, and it's also a really good story.

A few years ago, the creator of Order of the Stick started hosting a new comic, Erfworld. It takes place in a world where a turn-based strategy wargame is the reality. People think in turns and how much move they have left. People can see other people's stats. The terrain is divided into hexes. And everything is cute and pulls in references from all sorts of things from our world (games, movies, Internet culture, etc.). In the beginning, one of the sides needs a new warlord, and they end up summoning someone from our world, someone who plays turn-based strategy games (apparently tabletop ones, as shown in the comic, rather than video game ones), who is obsessed with them, in fact. The comic is all about how he learns how the world works and tries to come up with a winning strategy.

I stopped reading it after the first several strips, because I found it really difficult to keep up with a comic with a continuing story (that doesn't have a gag every strip) that had a new page come out once per week. However, the 150-page (plus a dozen bonus pages) Book 1 has come to an end, so I went back and read the whole thing in the past couple of days. It's a very different experience from Order of the Stick, but it's also a really great story, and getting to know this game world is pretty neat, too. Apparently they encourage fan works, and there is a fan-made video game project in the works.

Erfworld now has its own website, and Book 2 is scheduled to begin in the fall.

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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.

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Tower Offense?

Since I've been playing and thinking about tower-defense games recently, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to have a reverse tower-defense game, where you plan out the hordes of monsters that get shot at by towers. Thinking that this was unlikely to have been a completely original thought, I searched around and found Anti-TD, a game that came out two years ago.

(It's part of the Anti Games Series by Sugar-Free Games. It also includes Anti-Match3 (I guess this could be fun if you were a fan of the genre, but it's not my thing. Although it does apparently have a two-player mode, where one person plays the dropper and one person plays the matcher, which is interesting) and Anti-Pacman (you play all four ghosts. When you're not controlling a ghost, it wanders about on its own. When you are controlling a ghost, you move it around with the arrow keys. When a ghost dies, it is gone for good, so you don't have it available for later levels. Jason, you should at least check it out for the art that it shows you between the levels. While researching this, I also ran into the game Pac-Man Vs. for GBA and GameCube, where one person plays Pac-Man and up to four others play the ghosts. They get around the inherent unfairness by letting Pac-Man see the whole board (on the GBA) but letting the ghosts only see the area around themselves (on the TV screen). When a ghost gets Pac-Man, the two players switch places).

Anti-TD is not a very good game beyond the concept. For one thing, it took me about 30 seconds to discover a winning strategy that made the game too simple to care about. Let me explain. You are presented with a board that has paths and towers on it. You can select a type of creature and an entrance, and then send it. Your goal is to get a certain number of creatures to the exit alive. There are about a dozen different creatures, and they come in five different levels each (each one slightly faster or more resistant than the last). The only stats the creatures have, however, are unit type (ground or air), speed, and resistance. In each of the 10 levels, you start with a certain amount of money. I very quickly noticed that when I sent some creatures out, even though they died, I ended up with more money than I started with. I guess you get some money just for having your creatures spend time out there or something. So I picked a fast unit and then just kept sending those out, and my money built and built. Eventually, either that unit would overwhelm the defenses or I could save up enough money to buy a bunch of the top unit and push those through. I won the game in about half an hour.

Besides being absurdly easy, there also isn't much opportunity for strategy in the game. There are different tower types, but you can't click on them to find out anything about them, and there's certainly no indication that different units are affected differently by the different types of towers. And as for picking a path, it's simply a matter of counting the number of towers on each path and picking the one with the least defense. There are also little power-ups that appear and disappear randomly, but they really don't add much to the gameplay.

So, what should a good reverse tower-defense game have? Here are some initial thoughts.

  • It should allow you to see what the towers are. Maybe it doesn't give you the full stats, or at least not until you've had a few units gunned down by that type of tower, but you should at least be able to tell what it does by clicking on it or hovering over it.
  • It should have different creature types have different strengths and weaknesses in relation to the different tower types. This can be done in any of the ways any of the various tower-defense games have done it: associate creatures with different elements, have them walking or flying, give them resistances or susceptibilities to different tower types, etc.
  • It should have some logical (or at least explained) way that you get resources. Maybe you get resources over time. Maybe you get resources for destroying towers or for getting creatures to the end of the board.
  • It should have some kind of upgrade mechanism. In Anti-TD, all of the creature types are available to you from the beginning as long as you can afford them, and you can afford most of them in the first level. Part of the fun of a tower-defense game is being able to upgrade your abilities or at least upgrade the towers. It should work similarly for upgrading monsters.
Anyone have any other ideas?

Asymmetric multiplayer tower defense might also be an interesting challenge to design. In regular tower-defense games, your goal is to slaughter wave after wave of your enemy. In a reverse tower-defense game, your goal would be to overwhelm the defenses. How would this work with one player playing the monsters and one player playing the defender? It would be a challenge to make the game fun for both people, since it's unlikely to be much fun to get all of your guys constantly slaughtered. Also, if there is any kind of planning between stages, the timing would have to be such that it doesn't take one person 10 seconds and another 3 minutes to decide what to do next (I guess a timer could easily solve that). It might be interesting to play a series of matches, where each player gets experience and is upgrading and such as the matches go on, but where the players have totally different roles. Are there games out there like this?

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I talked about Jotto and one of its variants last month. JottoZendo is another Jotto variant that I came up with. The idea for it came to me in a dream (there was a time when I was doing a lot of Jotto programming and playing), but I don't remember anything about the dream.

Zendo is an Icehouse game invented by Kory Heath. As Kory says:
Zendo is a game of inductive logic in which the Master creates a rule and the Students attempt to discover it by building and studying arrangements of plastic pyramid-shaped pieces (known as "Icehouse pieces"). The first student to state the rule correctly wins.
There are many ways that Jotto and Zendo could be combined, but I picked a pretty simple one, one that gives just a flavor of Zendo rather trying to implement Zendo with five-letter words. JottoZendo is played just like regular Jotto, except that along with picking a secret five-letter word, the scorer (I guess I'll use the words "scorer" and "guesser" for the two roles in a Jotto game) also picks one of the letters in that secret word. For the duration of the game, this letter is only scored if another letter (let's call it the "key", which I guess makes the letter in the secret word the "lock") is also present in the word. The key may or may not be a letter in the secret word. The game is won when the secret word is guessed. (I suppose for a little extra challenge you could also require that the rule be guessed, but this doesn't seem like it would add much.)

For my computer implementation, the computer randomly picks a lock and randomly picks a key from one of the 13 most common letters (etaonisrhdlcm), which I thought would help make the game not too difficult. Keeping the difficulty level down is also the reason I restricted the rule to be of the form "only score $lock if $key is present", rather than allowing for many different kinds of rules (e.g., "only score $lock if it is in its correct position", "only score $lock if it is in position X", "only score $lock if it comes before $key", "only score $lock if $key starts the guess", or even crazier ones like "only score $lock1 if $key1 is present; only score $lock2 if $key2 is present; if $lock1 and $lock2 are both present, score 3" or "$lock1, $lock2, and $lock3 score 1, and $lock4 and $lock5 score 2").

So, here is a sample game:

guess  score
-----  -----
overt    1
lazes    2
cable    3
flame    2
caked    4
dance    4
cadet    4
cared    4
decal    4
raced    4
cadre    4
cedar    4
paced    4
caped    4
decay    4
arced    4
cades    4
faced    4
maced    4
decaf    4
caved    X
Man, that game sucked. The rule was "score e if a is present". Notice how I pretty quickly got to a score of 4. At that point, however, I didn't have any way of knowing if the fifth letter might be the lock, in which case the missing letter might be one I had already guessed and dismissed, possibly even in a word that scored a 4 (note that any anagram of the secret word is going to score 4, unless the key is also in the secret word (which happened to be the case here)). I'm a bit worried that this type of situation might happen regularly in JottoZendo games, which could lead to some rather long games. I don't know if it helped or hurt that the key was also in the secret word.

Here's a game where I decided to go back to my old way of playing Jotto, where I just changed one letter at a time (in the beginning of the game, anyway):

guess  score
-----  -----
sport    1
spore    1
pours    1
store    1
parts    2
pants    3
banks    3
clans    3
hangs    3
damns    3
swans    4
sands    4
spans    X
The rule was "score p if d is present". It turned out I had the p from the beginning but didn't know it, since p never showed up with a d. I'm not sure if I just got lucky with this one or if changing one letter at a time in the beginning helped me narrow in on things faster.

Here are two more sample games. In both of these, the lock was present early on, but the key never showed up with the lock. Also notice that I started off following Twisted Jotto rules (which is, if you recall, simply the way I play normally now) and then abandoned them when I was having problems coming up with words to guess that fit the Twisted Jotto rules. The rule in the first game was "score d if m", and the rule in the second game was "score a if o".

guess  score
-----  -----
place    0
ovoid    2
broom    2
shoot    3
nooks    3
goofs    3
swoon    4
woofs    4
woosh    4
wools    4
swoop    4
woods    X

guess  score
-----  -----
laugh    1
level    0
fruit    2
fatty    0
round    2
rumps    3
rumor    2
rusks    3
gurus    3
surer    3
auras    X
I've only ever played JottoZendo against the computer, and to my knowledge, no one else has ever played it (there probably don't exist too many games that only one person has played). If I get motivated (and encouraged), I may end up making these games available. There are already plenty of implementations of regular Jotto around online, but I think X-Jotto and JottoZendo might be fun to make available. And of course, anyone reading this is free to implement them or to simply play them with friends on paper. If you do, I would be happy to hear about it.
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Balloon Invasion

I was so impressed with GemCraft Chapter Zero that I decided to check out the page of the creators, Game in a Bottle. I found Balloon Invasion there.

For everything outside of the levels, Balloon Invasion uses the same engine as GemCraft Chapter One. So, you still have a side-scrolling map, levels you have to unlock, skills to upgrade, etc., except that it's all themed for an artillery defense against an invasion of hot-air balloons and zeppelins dropping bombs.

The levels are what make this a completely different game. You are presented a side view, with your main flak gun at the lower right of the screen. Balloons of different shapes, sizes, and speeds come floating from the left to the right. You need to aim your flak gun at the balloons, leading them the appropriate amount. And exactly where you aim is important, as the flak shells need to explode at a certain point in space (so they're not like bullets or lasers, where anywhere along the trajectory is equally good). The key difference here is that you are constantly actively firing, making this game feel much more real-time than GemCraft, where you place towers and gems and then just sit back and let them shoot automatically.

To keep up the excitement and to help you out, you can also place other guns (which come in different types and which fire automatically) and call air strikes. Your other guns usually get destroyed throughout the battle, but you only lose if your main gun gets destroyed. This is the other main difference between Balloon Invasion and GemCraft (and most tower-defense games): it doesn't hurt you if the balloons make it to the other side of the screen. Yes, it hurts you if they drop a bomb on your main gun, but not all of them do (if you have other guns out, they will often drop bombs on the other guns first, and balloons have a limited number of bombs). The balloons somehow magically appear on the left again after going off the screen on the right, but I can forgive this minor unrealistic aspect.

So while Balloon Invasion probably won't keep me playing as long as GemCraft Chapter Zero did, its different gameplay mechanic makes it novel and will keep it interesting for a little while at least.

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Jmac's Arcade #6 - Pac-Man

This is the first Episode of my show Jmac's Arcade that I've made since 2007, which means it's also the first one I've made since the launch of this blog. I hope you enjoy it. If you do, you will probably like the previous five videos as well.

Making this also gave me a chance to stretch my video-editing muscles as I head into a fairly ambitious Gameshelf-related project. More news on that as it happens.

Anyway: The background music is "The Annual New England Xylophone Symposium" by Do Kashiteru, and I've written about Jamey Pittman's The Pac-Man Dossier on this blog already.

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GemCraft Chapter Zero: Gem of Eternity

As I mentioned in my last post, I finally won GemCraft Chapter Zero, so I feel like I can post about it now. I'll use headers for organization, since this is going to be long.

GemCraft Chapter Zero is a tower-defense game, a prequel to the original GemCraft Chapter One: The Forgotten. Zero is a vast leap over One in many ways. There are little touches that make life easier, like being able to call multiple waves early with a single click, and being able to combine gems in towers instead of needing to remove them from towers to combine. But there are also more substantive changes, like greatly expanding the number of skills, and introducing nine (well, ten) different ways to play each level.

And for a tower-defense game, there's actually a bit of a story building up over the series. (Slight spoilers ahead, but the story isn't what the game is about.) At the beginning of One, you find out that there is a wizard in the east who has unleashed monsters for some unknown reason. You battle your way across the land, clearing towers of monsters. When you get to the end, you find that something called "The Forgotten" has possessed this other wizard, but it decides that you're a better host, so it kills the other wizard and possesses you. You're then told that it is going to take you to the east, to unleash more havoc.

In Zero, you are a wizard in search of the Gem of Eternity. The wizard council tries to hide information about it and forbid you from finding it, but you ignore them and search out the gem anyway. In the end, you take the gem and realize that its power has been used to imprison an ancient, powerful evil, The Forgotten. It possesses you, and you become the mad wizard in One. You're told that The Forgotten plans to lure another wizard, and that with the power of both wizards combined, it will finally be powerful enough to fully come into the world, which you learn will be picked up in GemCraft Chapter Two.

The story is pretty dark. In both One and Zero, the protagonist ends up possessed by an unspeakable evil; not much of a reward for defeating wave after wave of monsters. But I'm definitely looking forward to Two, both to see what additional improvements are made to the game, and also to see if The Forgotten is finally defeated (and I expect a very difficult final battle).

Tower-Defense Games
Now to go into some more detail about the game. For those who don't know, the tower-defense genre, which has exploded in the past couple of years, involves placing towers in order to kill monsters that try to cross the screen. You get money for killing monsters, which you can use to buy more towers or upgrade existing towers. Key strategy points generally involve where to place the towers, which towers to purchase, and how and when to upgrade the towers.

The GemCraft Games
In the GemCraft games, you build empty towers on the board, and then you build gems, which you place in the towers. The gems fire blasts that damage monsters and that also have different special effects depending on the color of the gem (blue slows, green poisons, red does splash damage, etc.). You can build six different grades of gems, in eight different colors. Each level has from two to eight of the gem colors available, and when you choose a grade of gem to build, the color is randomly selected from those available for the level.

Combining Gems
You can combine gems to make more powerful gems. Two gems of the same grade can be combined to form a gem of the next higher grade (if you combine gems of different grades, the combined gem is the higher grade, but it's slightly better than the original higher-grade gem). Part of the strategy involves knowing when to combine gems and when to wait to buy higher-grade gems directly (it's cheaper to buy a gem than to buy the two component gems and combine them, but it also takes longer to save up for the higher-grade gem, during which time monsters might be trouncing you). Note that you can combine grade six gems to make grade seven gems, even though you cannot buy grade seven gems directly. The highest gem grade I've made is grade nine. I'm not sure if there is a maximum grade. OK, so I just spent an hour or so making a grade ten gem, so I'm guessing there's no maximum. (A grade ten gem takes 16 grade six gems. The last level requires you to throw seven grade seven gem bombs, which is 14 grade six gems, so I knew that I just had to go a bit beyond what it took to win the last level. Of course, that required gaining a few more experience levels so that I was powerful enough to do that.)

Traps in Zero replace trenches in One. A trench is built along the path, and it slows down the monsters that go over it for a little bit. It's useful to put these near your towers, so that your gems have more time to hit the monsters. Traps in Zero are basically a combination of a trench and a tower. You build them in the path, but by themselves they do nothing. Like a tower, they require a gem to activate. A gem in a trap does much less damage and has much less range than a gem in a tower, but its rate of fire increases and its specials (slow, poison, splash, etc.) are much more powerful. Throughout the game, I didn't find much use for traps, since I always felt that if I had a gem, I wanted to put it into a tower. Maybe I would have gotten through the game faster if I had used traps effectively, but I don't know. They're obviously most effective when you're faced with swarms of weak creatures, which is the case in the Swarm level type.

Gem Bombs
Besides sticking them in towers and traps, another thing you can do with gems is make bombs out of them. This concentrates their power (including their special) into a single large explosion, quite a bit more powerful than a normal blast from the gem. Now, generally, using gem bombs to destroy monsters isn't very cost-effective, since the average gem will do much more damage over its lifetime in a tower than as a gem bomb. Still, there are times when this is useful, such as during the Sudden Death level type (generally, if a monster reaches the end, it costs you some mana to banish it, and it reappears at the beginning (if you run out of mana, you die); in Sudden Death, you die if any monster reaches the end, no matter how much mana you have). However, gem bombs are useful for destroying other things on the field (auxiliary buildings where monsters can also come out, little buildings and rocks and whatnot so that you can place towers in that spot, and beacons, which negatively affect an area of the board by doing things like healing monsters, preventing you from placing towers or traps, and making monsters invulnerable (until they reach the end)). I did have occasion to experiment with an all-gem-bomb strategy a few times, and it is quite fun, but it only works on some of the lower levels.

Shrines are another feature that is present on some of the levels. Each shrine is of a particular type (damage, mana gain, armor reduction, etc.), and they are activated by sacrificing gems to them. A shrine has only a certain number of charges, so there is a limit to how many times it can be activated. They can sometimes be useful, particularly the damage ones near the end of a level (call the rest of the monsters, then kill them all with the damage shrines), and there are some fun degenerate uses of them in the Endurance level type (Endurance keeps sending monsters at you until you die, but the upshot is that you always win (you just sometimes don't get very many points); there is a shrine that gives you three times the points for up to 100 monsters on the field, so you can call all the monsters and sacrifice several gems to get points; this combines very nicely with one particular type of damage shrine; if these shrines are available on a level, it usually results in a higher score than playing the Endurance level like a normal person). However, the big use of these shrines is for the amulets.

For anyone who has spent much time at all playing casual games, amulets will be instantly recognized as equivalent to achievements. Achievements are little metagame tasks for which you get some points (or sometimes nothing at all beyond the satisfaction of getting the achievement). (And I can't pass up this opportunity to mention a fun parody game called Achievement Unlocked, which is nothing but achievements.) However, amulets in Zero are a major source of points (and points increase your level, which gives you skill points, and skill points are how you're able to beat higher levels). It's even possible to get more points from amulets than from killing monsters on some of the levels.

Amulets come in two varieties, those you can only get once and those you can get every level. The ones you can get only once are mostly for reaching certain milestones throughout the whole game (completing a certain number of a certain level type, building a certain number of towers, killing a certain number of monsters, throwing a certain number of gem bombs, etc.). The ones you can get every level include things like winning a battle without doing something (building a tower, throwing a gem bomb, building a trap); building a grade seven, eight, or nine gem; finishing the level with a certain amount of mana; and so on.

The other kind you can get every level are called shrine burst amulets. You get these by sacrificing a grade six or higher pure gem (a gem of only one color; you can combine gems of different colors, and the combined gem takes on attributes of both component gems) at a shrine, and you get one for every time you do this in a level. The points you get for these can be significant, especially in some of the later levels where there are sometimes a lot of shrines. An average base score on a level might be anywhere from 1200 to 2000 points. Each shrine burst amulet is worth 300 points, giving you the ability to sometimes get 1200 or more points just from the shrine burst amulets. As I said above, the points you get from amulets can easily be more than the points you get from simply killing monsters.

One of the most noticeable big changes from One to Zero is the greatly expanded set of skills to improve. In One, you have a set of 12 skills (things like gaining more mana, having gems cost less, getting gems at the start of a level, etc.), and at the beginning of the game, you can only spend points in one skill, having to wait until you are of a certain experience level before you can unlock the next skill.

In Zero, there are 28 different skills (one for each color of gem, three dealing with your mana pool, three dealing with gem bombs, three dealing with traps and towers, etc.), and you can advance in any of them regardless of your experience level (as long as you have the skill points). The first level of a skill costs five points (the number of points you get to spend for each experience level you gain), and they go down as you spend more, costing two points in the middle, and then going back up, costing six points for the tenth level in a skill, for a total of 36 points to get tenth level in a skill. In order to max out, you would need 36 * 28 = 1008 skill points, which you would get with 1008 / 5 = 202 experience levels, or level 203 (you start out at level 1 with no skill points to spend). To give a data point, my character who won the game (and then gained a few levels so I could verify that you can in fact create a grade ten gem) is level 93, with 460 skill points to spend. So let's just assume that no one is going to be able to max out even most of the skills, so choices have to be made.

There are some pretty obvious choices for skills to take all the time once you have the points. Maxing out the skills that allow you to build towers cheaper, to build gems cheaper, and to start a level with more mana will allow you to build a tower and a grade four gem before any monsters start showing up, which gives you a nice safety net for most levels. As you get more points, maxing out the skills that give your gems higher damage, range, and firing rate are pretty key. But there is plenty of room for variation based on the particular layout of the level, the particular level type you are playing, and your particular playing style.

Level Types
The other very noticeable change from One to Zero is the addition of level types. One encourages replay of levels by giving a score to try to beat for a level. If you do, the frame around the level on the map will "glow", and you will have a chance of unlocking a hidden level. In Zero, level types are used to encourage replay of the levels.

When you first play a level, you must play it in the Normal level type. Once you win in Normal, you may play the level in any one of eight other level types, provided you meet the experience level requirement. To play the Sudden Death level type, you must be experience level eight; to play Endurance, you must be level 16; to play Heroic, you must be level 24; and so on through Arcane at level 64. Some levels are too tough to beat on Normal at the experience level you are, so in order to gain some experience levels to be able to advance skills, you frequently need to return to lower levels and play them at different level types.

To give you an idea of the scope of the game, there are 78 different levels. In the game where I've won, only the first 18 levels have been completed in all of the level types, there are five levels where I've only completed Normal, and there are 18 levels where I haven't even completed the Normal level type. There's also a special level type that only becomes available once you've won the game, and it keeps getting tougher and tougher every time you play it for a level.

There are many possible paths through GemCraft Chapter Zero, and I could probably spend as many hours playing it to completion after having won it as I spent to win it. The sheer number of levels, level types, skills, and amulets might make the game seem daunting to some, but I found it a challenging and rewarding game. I'm very much looking forward to the next installment.

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A Few Links

I finally went through my 500+ starred-item backlog on Google Reader. I'm down to 25 or so, which is pretty good. Here are a couple of things that I thought might interest more people, one on board games and one on video games.

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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.

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GDC: The Game

For GDC this year, Jim Munroe (novelist, author of the IF work Everybody Dies, and all-around cool guy) was commissioned by GameSetWatch to write a piece of IF (or, as he calls it, interactive non-fiction) about the GDC experience. It's a short little thing, more of a social simulator than a traditional IF game. Talking with Jim, I know that he wants to do similar kinds of things with NPCs in his future IF work, and having played with this, I'm excited to see this kind of thing done in a more fictiony piece of IF.

You can play GDC: The Game via a Java applet or via Parchment, or you can download the Z-code file and play it in whatever interpreter you wish. You can also read all of his posts from GDC about his experience, including his early thoughts about the game.

And if you play the game, you can type "CREDITS" to see my name as an alpha tester. And if you look carefully at all of the names of the testers, you will see that they have been used for the names of the NPCs in the game, which is pretty cool.

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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.

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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.

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