Monthly Archives: November 2009

iPhone Zendomizer

Gameshelf buddy Karl von Laudermann, who has shown up on the show a few times, has just released an iPhone/iPod Touch version of Zendomizer. This is a little web-based program that whips up declarations of "Buddha Nature" suitable for the game Zendo. He's had a version of this running on his website for several years, but an iPhone-optimized format seems perfect for Apple-toting Zendo masters.

Tech note: This was my first exposure to iWebKit, a framework that allows web-based applications to masquerade as iPhone-native programs, right down to hiding their Safari controls when launched from the home screen. That's pretty darn nifty.

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Sevendeck now on sale

A plug for a little bit of local craftiness:

The Sevendeck is a deck of playing cards containing seven suits of seven numbers each. The suits are ranked both by color (ROYGBIV) and by the number of angled corners ("points") on their pips. As with a regular deck of playing cards, there are several games that can be played with a Sevendeck, with more on the way.

Sevendeck's designers are fellow Bostonian game fans Andrew Greene and Denis Moskowitz. You'll recognize Denis as an occasional poster here, and also as a frequent face on the show (he was Germany in the Diplomacy episode).

I have had the pleasure of helping them playtest some of the games posted on the website, and playing with a prototype deck. The new decks cost eight US dollars each, and they're accepting orders for this first print run only through Nov. 30, so hop to it if you'd like one for the holidays!

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SEO spammers: the door's over there

While Captchas make our comments sections reasonably proofed against automated spam, lately we've had a spate of SEO wankers visiting us. These folks make carefully handcrafted spam, manually posted, that serve only to provide backlinks to their clients' webpages. The idea is that, by sprinkling this URL across many different blogs, they can trick Google et al into thinking that people all over the internet are casually linking to their website. They probably charge at least as much for this per hour as I do in my own consulting job.

I've just modified the text that appears over posts' comment forms to state that folks posting only for SEO reasons are wasting their time, since Zarf or I will delete the URLs from obvious SEO comments as soon as we see them. (We will also delete the comments entirely, if the commenter didn't even try to be on-topic with the related post.)

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Planet M.U.L.E.

Update: I've gotten the chance to play this game myself, now. Read the review here.

According to a press release I received this morning, a long-rumored game based on the classic extraplanetary economic game M.U.L.E. will be released within the next couple of weeks, from publisher Blue Systems and developer Turborilla:
This has been made possible by an agreement between Meldannic (former Ozark Softscape) and Blue Systems.

Planet Mule is completely free and preferably played by four
players simultaneously. It is a peaceful game focusing on
economic strategies, in a world of crisp retro graphics.

The game will be released on December 6th.
There is a countdown in progress on the Planet Mule web site.
Countdown and teaser concept art at

The game will be available for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux.

I'd been in email communication earlier this year with Melanie Bunten Stark, daughter of M.U.L.E. designer Dan Bunten and one of the founders of Meldannic, so I know this is something she and her two co-founding siblings have been working on for a while. It's exciting to see it moving forward.

While we here at the Gameshelf have a rocky relationship with countdown clocks, we wish the best of luck to the Buntens and the Planet M.U.L.E. team for a successful and prosperous launch. Definitely looking forward to playing this, myself.

See also the Gameshelf episode that featured a review of the original M.U.L.E., and a YouTube excerpt of just that review.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The App Store review process: broken for everybody.

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Comments should work again

Looks like we were having a problem with our Captcha system, and would-be commenters were being rejected for not entering their invisible Captcha words correctly. Whoopsie.

I've discarded Movable Type's built-in Captcha system in favor of reCaptcha, and everything seems to work fine now. Big thanks to all those who helped me sort this out!

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Xbox Indie Game: The Headsman

You, the titular axe-swinging noggin-collector, must efficiently behead an endless line of trembling wretches, timing your blows so that their tumbling melons plop into baskets whizzing past. Stash as many heads as you can in this deft manner before the game's timer ends. This timer serves at the game's real standout feature, taking the form of the eponymous song "The Headsman" by Deathlike Silence, a four-and-a-half-minute rock ballad about - yes indeed! - choppin' off heads.

Headsman_screenshot_3.jpgAn accompanying music video plays while you hack away at your gory work, the lyrics scrolling along in time. I had not heard of this band before I discovered this game, and this is at least partly because I'm not 15 years old. The Finnish band's act is a sort of cartoon death punk, with the video depicting the gothed-up contralto frontswoman leading her cloaked and cowled band through graveyards and dungeons while the camera frequently jump-cuts away to weeping angels or grinning skulls. It's the sort of thing a movie containing a parody of a goth band might put together, but as far as I can tell the band is playing it straight (look, they have a website), and that is bloody beautiful.

The game's own activity is lightly tied into the timing of the song itself; when the refrain comes around, even the condemned can't help but start nodding to the beat. More effort appears in the audiovisual treats you receive for arcing a flying head into one of the more distant baskets, which scores you the most points. These range from basso profundo cackling to the sight of your otherwise unseen audience rising to its feet to cheer your skill at rocking the axe.

These thematic rewards serve to create a sort of custom remix of the song's prerecorded video. Combine this with the one-button control scheme, as well as the jawdropping sight of Deathlike Silence doing their thing, and despite the game's core dopeyness I find myself not just inviting all my visiting friends to play through it, but occasionally returning to myself. If you're anything like me, you too will have fire it up now and again to see if you can improve your scoreboard rank from "Rarely-miss Randy" to "Bruce the Butcher" while taking guilty pleasure in letting the music make you feel like an oily teenager again. (Yes, I have gone ahead and purchased the song from iTunes, as well.)

Interestingly, "The Headsman" was created by David Flook, previously known for the highly praised 2008 Xbox Indie game "Blow", a mellow puzzler where you guide bubbles through a vernal obstacle course. It's quite polished and beautiful, where this latter game instead revels in its rough-hewn (sorry) graphics and overt silliness, lending it the air of something knocked out quickly to blow off steam between larger projects. Despite this, this deliriously short and fun game falls solidly in my own blood-soaked "totally worth a dollar" bucket.

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Reviewing Xbox Indie Games

I've been playing a lot of Xbox Indie Games (née Xbox Live Community Games) lately. This is the ever-burbling channel of new, downloadable, inexpensive games created by folks with Microsoft's low-cost XNA Game Studio toolkit, located in a back alley of the Xbox 360's interface. (To get there from the console's main menu, move up to "Game Marketplace", select the "Explore Game Content" pane, then scroll up to "Indie Games".)

Unlike the console's more exclusive Arcade channel, Xbox Indie Games is open to anyone with the will and the means to create a game in XNA and throw it up online. As such, the good stuff tends to be modestly sized, tightly focused works that put a lot of creativity into a narrow space, and are likely too short-form for acceptance into traditional game-distribution channels. The bad stuff, meanwhile, can get pretty bad indeed, lacking even the polished-turdiness of the worst retail-sold games.

Because of the prominent presence of this latter category, I have heard friends dismissing the entirety of Xbox Indie Games as crap. But, I know that that's just not true; Sturgeon's Law applies as much to this channel as any other medium. Yep, a full 90 percent of it most certainly is crap, but that doesn't mean that you should turn your back on the remaining good stuff. However, given the lack of guidance, I can't really blame people for turning their back on the whole deal after wasting their time on a few stinkers.

With that in mind, I intend to occasionally supplement this blog with reviews of more noteworthy things I happen across in Xbox Indie Games, starting with my next post. (It's one of several reviews I started writing in September, right before my Xbox RRoDed and required a month-long holiday in Texas. But, it's back now, so I finished it.) Enjoy!

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Tell me about comment problems

Howdy, Gameshelf readers,

I've heard tell of some problems folks have had leaving comments on this blog. If you encounter any yourself, please tell me about it in email. Add a description of what went wrong, including any error-message-ish text that might have appeared.

I've added this request to the canned text that appears above each post's comments form; hopefully we can eliminate whatever gremlin's gumming the works this time. Thanks for your help!

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Boston IF Meetup, Tuesday, November 24

Time again for the Boston IF Meetup. All are welcome. It's going to be Tuesday, November 24 (2 days before Thanksgiving). As always, it's at 6:30 at MIT in 14N-233.

This month we have at least two items on the agenda for sure:

  • looking at the beginning (roughly the first two minutes of play) of each of the IF Comp games
  • discussing a potential Boston IF label/comp

Other potential agenda items include:

After sitting around for 2 hours or so, we'll head over to CBC for some food and/or drink.

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Two Braid-related things

Last week, the New York Times Magazine ran an article about indie videogames, featuring Jason Rohrer (Passage), Jenova Chen (Flower), and Jon Blow (Braid). Here are some of my favorite quotes:

  • "Ebert said video games can't be art," Rohrer said. "He issued all of us a direct challenge. And we need to find an answer."
  • "Other media are capable of masterpiece-level works of art," Rohrer said. Behind him, a slide showed Picasso's "Guernica," a poster for the movie "Blue Velvet" and the cover of "Lolita." "The question we have to ask is: How can we follow in their footsteps?"
  • "I like technology," Chen says, "but the blockbuster games use it for the same thing over and over again. What we tried to innovate was the emotional content." Flower has an environmental message, about the fragility of life, but more important is the primal experience of playing. You can experience it like a film, passing through a whole range of emotions from beginning to end. "Flower," Chen says, "is about the sublime." It is a game to be played in one sitting, he said, and preferably "alongside your lover."
  • "People are starting to realize that games can't survive on narrative and character," Rohrer says. "It's not what video games are meant to do. It doesn't explore what makes them unique. If they are going to transcend and have real meaning, it has to emerge from game mechanics. Play is what games offer."
  • "Braid is something you could show to Roger Ebert and say, 'Here is a work of authorial intention,' " Rohrer says. "It captures something about the modern zeitgeist."

Speaking of Braid, Blow pointed out on his blog a video walkthrough of a game suspiciously like Braid, Time Travel Understander. The Game Helpin' Squad also made video tutorials for two other games, the MMORPG World Quester 2 and the sports game Severe Running. All three are very helpful, with excellent attention to detail. You might need to watch them multiple times to get it all!

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The Prisoner: discussion post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading The Prisoner: discussion post.
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IF breaking news

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

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

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

Congratulations to everybody.

Jason Scott has achieved his fundraising goal of $25000.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Games in, on, and around our culture

Two quick links today.

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

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

(Thanks nancylebov for the link.)

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

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

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

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

(Thanks daringfireball for the link.)

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Diplomacy woos FPS fans :: More PAX plans

Ego-surf du jour: fans of (a mod of) the multiplayer shooter Battlefield 1942 discovered the Diplomacy show, and it inspired them to give the game a whirl themselves. They started a game over on, and recent posts on the original forum thread are now devoted to international saber-rattling circa 1901.

The sight of hardcore FPS fans getting excited about discovering a board game (even one played electronically) due to a Gameshelf episode quite honestly delights me.

In other news, I've bought my registration to PAX East. I look forward to seeing what IF-related plans coalesce over the next few months, and to meeting lots of y'all. Eager to see the show beyond that, too; not counting SF cons, the only game-related event I've attended is the rather modestly sized Origins Game Fair, so I'm prepared to be completely unprepared for PAX.

Personal goal: by mid-March, I want to be able to say, with a straight face, that I produce a TV show about games. I can say that now only with a lot of hemming and hawing about how infrequently it's published. So, I'd like to get at least a couple more episodes in the can by then.

I've begun production of episode 9, insofar as there is now a stack of index cards on my desk that more or less seems to outline the next 30 minutes of the pure gamish elucidation that only The Gameshelf can provide. With fairest winds, it'll be done before January. Stay, as they say, tuned.

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