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Notes from GDC

I could have titled this post "Survived GDC!" Maybe even "Surviving GDC," since I've worked up some tips about the experience. But before I get there...

GDC was great. Had a blast! Involving no literal explosions! So a big win all around.

I got to see a whole lot of people. If I start listing names it'll get boring and I'll forget some anyway. So I'll just note that I met Alexis Kennedy (of FailBetter Games) and Jeff Vogel (of Spiderweb Software). Among lots of others. And of course even more people that I know from the IF world or the game conference circuit and was happy to see again.

Excellent talks:

  • Narrative Innovation Showcase (lightning showcase by many designers, assembled by Clara Fernández-Vara and Matthew Weise).
  • Meg Jayanth on NPCs in 80 Days. (Here's a related talk she gave at Practice last year -- Vimeo.)
  • Alexis Kennedy on narrative in Sunless Sea, and also boozing it up on stage.
  • Sam Barlow on Her Story.
  • Adam and Rebekah Saltsman talking about how they decide what games to develop at their indie studio.
  • Jane Ng on the art design and implementation of Firewatch.
  • The development of the Hitman and Tomb Raider franchises into Hitman Go and Tomb Raider Go.
  • Tetsuya Mizuguchi looking back on 15 years of Rez.
  • I didn't even attend any of the Friday talks, such as the extremely interesting open-source release of Inkle's game engine.

I am not going to do per-talk writeups, but you can read Emily's posts (Mon, Tue/Wed, Thu/Fri). Also Aaron Reed's post.

Then there was the show floor. Enough corporate wealth on display to make the most hardened Wall Street analyst weep. After my first walkthrough, I tweeted:

Getting all my GDC sizzletakes out of the way up front: There are some great games. But I'm still not buying an Xbox or PS4. And VR is bunk. (@zarfeblong)

Yes, that's snarky (even for twitter-compressed punditry) but I meant it. Not that VR is vapor -- there were plenty of functional devices on demo. But the amount of... stuff... invested in that VR tech is really absurd. Feature-adds like air movement and AR; middleware and tools; colleges offering VR training; every single game bragging about VR support. You know most of it will fail. The whole point of industry expos is to show off products most of which will fail. The only question is whether it will all fail.

I suspect it will all fail. I say that because it provides the maximum humor value if I'm right. Go on, tell me you have a better metric.

Anyhow, on the fringes of the Unreal/Oculus/Sony/Unity/Microsoft/Amazon hellscape, one could find the good stuff:

And, of course, the most exciting demo -- don't judge me -- the live preview of Cyan's Obduction. It got a trailer a couple of weeks ago, but only GDC attendees have gotten a chance to wander around the opening area. It looks great! It's very definitely a Cyan game: strange empty landscape, machines, staticky holograms. But up to modern graphical standards, of course. (Cyan got space in Unreal's expo booth because they make the engine look good.) I wore my Myst Online shirt, shook hands with a couple of Cyan folks, and felt generally elevated about the coming game.

I want to talk about the GDC experience, because the conference is big, scary, expensive, and not for everybody. My first GDC was four years ago. I had a pretty good time... but it wasn't worth my time and effort. This year was my second GDC and it was absolutely worth my time and effort. The difference is important.

Four years ago, the talks were okay. I had the "summits and tutorials" pass -- intermediate between the indie pass (cheapish) and the full-week pass (no way unless your company picks up the tab). I went to a bunch of talks, and they were pretty cool, but they weren't about the most interesting games or the most interesting authors out there. The show floor had the IGF showcase, but nothing else relevant to my life.

This year, the narrative track was on fire. Positively. Just one awesome presentation after another. The indie track had some great stuff too, but really, you wanted to be at the narrative talks. You wanted to go chat with the narrative speakers in the post-talk wrap-up area. Or just sit around listening to the conversations! That's cool too. So big props to the organizers.

Another thing: four years ago, I didn't know anybody. I mean, I knew people in the IF world, and some of them were there. Emily gave a talk on Versu. We had a big IF dinner meetup. A couple of people said "Hey, you're Andrew Plotkin! I love your work!" But it was not a very social event for me. And, great talks or not, it's the social that makes GDC memorable.

What was different this year? I know a lot of people. I've been to lots of smaller game events -- Indiecade, Boston FIG, Wordplay, Practice, gaming tracks at sci-fi conventions. Our own Boston IF meetup. PAX -- well, PAX isn't a small event, but it's cheaper than GDC and you can find cool folks there.

Perhaps you are terrible at meeting people. I am terrible at meeting people! I didn't meet very many people at GDC 2012. But if somebody says hi to me at an event, maybe I'll say hi back the next year, and at another event we'll chat a little, and the following year we'll go out for lunch somewhere. And after four years of that, GDC actually worked out great for me, socially. I was surprised too.

So if you're new to the dev scene and meeting people is a scary prospect, maybe don't start with GDC! Go to smaller events. Say hi to interesting people. Heck, try coming to the Lost Levels meetup -- it's in Yerba Buena park during GDC but you don't need a badge, you can just show up and chat. The cool people will be there.

I realize, of course, that I have an unfair advantage. I have a history of famous games -- people say hi to me. I can't apologize for this or say I don't rely on it. But I don't think that you need to be pre-famous to meet people at conferences.

(I used to freak out when people came up and squeed at me. Now I try to freak out very briefly and quietly, because the conversations wind up being pretty awesome.)

So that's my thesis about GDC. Work up to it if it's intimidating. Try to swing the "summits" pass if you possibly can, because the narrative track is the best. If money is so tight that you can't even afford the "indie" pass, there's all those other events -- some of them are free. Suggest talks, too; not everybody with a speaker's badge is a Big Name in gaming.

A few quick non-GDC notes:

I am featured on two recent episodes of the Clash of the Type-Ins podcast. In the first, I recite Bigger Than You Think while Ryan Veeder and Jenni Polodna shout commands at me. In the second, we do the same for (part of) The Dreamhold. Also we have a lot of fun and joke around and talk about very tangential things.

Sam Barlow curated an indie game feature on Apple's App Store earlier this month. He included Meanwhile and Hadean Lands. Which was great! Thanks, Sam. (Sam has now won every possible award in the past twelve months for Her Story, possibly including the Fields Medal and the America's Cup. If it were me I honestly might switch to competitive origami just to take off the followup pressure.)

And finally, I got my head scanned. Jason Scott threw a party celebrating five years at the Internet Archive, and one of his friends brought a handheld 3D scanner. So now you can download my head. Sorry about the nose blivet; it's not a perfect scan.

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Jmac is reading Aisle at WordPlay, Nov. 8

Toronto’s Hand Eye Society has posted the schedule for WordPlay, an afternoon festival of digital writing and interactive storytelling held at the Toronto Reference Library on Saturday, November 8. (Yes, this coming weekend!)

As Zarf has already written, WordPlay centerpieces this year’s (somewhat geographically displaced) weekend for the IF gathering that the Boston crew has hosted more or less annually since 2010. He and I will both be in attendance, as well as many friends in interactive fiction from around the world. Do say hello, should you find yourself there too.

As the schedule notes, at 12:15 on Saturday I shall be narrating a group play-through of Sam Barlow’s classic work of minimalist parser IF, Aisle, taking next-move suggestions from the audience. I don’t know if this’ll be recorded, but if so we’ll certainly share the results here later.

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IF Gathering 2013, quick notes

This weekend was awesome and contained practically no disasters at all. At least, none that happened directly to me or anything I was responsible for. I am very happy about that. (Some people did have travel-related disasters, but everyone showed up eventually.)

Friday: Met up with a small crowd of IF folks for dinner. The fish special at Mulan (in Cambridge) is not subtle about its szechuan peppercorns. I bit into a whole one. I have decided that szechuan peppercorn tastes like an ice-cream headache.

Then I went home and packed boxes of stuff for BostonFIG.

Saturday: Woke up way too early (for a works-at-home hacker). Loaded boxes of stuff into car. Drove to MIT. Figured out where the IF table was (ask me about last-minute organizational hassles!) Piled books, iPads, laptops onto table.

FIG was a nearly-solid eight hours of talking about IF in a very loud gymnasium. Some of the people who walked by were all "IF! I used to play that! It was awesome!" Others were all "I have no idea what this is." Several parents dropped their kids into the chair and made them play a few moves, which went over surprisingly well for many of the kids.

Adri and I were the primary table-wranglers. Nick Montfort and Noah Swartz hung around and helped out for some of the day.

The games we had on display were Counterfeit Monkey and The Legend of the Missing Hat. I also kept an iPad on hand and flipped between Meanwhile, Heliopause, Shade, and whatever else was good to demonstrate. As is traditional, one person sat down and played through an entire game. (Hat, not Monkey.)

The shelf of books was mostly decoration, but we waved Creating IF with Inform 7 and the Inform 6 Designer's Manual around when people asked us about tools. Nick also lent us some artifacts -- original editions of early CYOA books, and a couple of Infocom grey-box editions. (Brian Moriarty came by and signed Nick's copy of Wishbringer.)

I passed out a buttload of IF postcards.

Note for next year: displaying IF on a monitor is almost a good idea. It was Counterfeit Monkey on the monitor, but the laptop was facing me, not the crowd. So nobody could actually play the game. I demonstrated "wave X-remover at codex" every time someone looked at the screen, so it wasn't a waste of space, but maybe people would have played some of the game? Or maybe not.

(Clever idea: have a Bluetooth keyboard, so that the crowd and I can both type.)

At 3:00 I ran over to the student center, to introduce the public performance of Lost Pig. I say "performance" because we were graced with the presence of Tom Russell as the voice of Grunk, and Brad Smith as the voice of the Gnome. Julia Tenney volunteered to be the keyboard-wrangler (or, well, I volunteered her and she was okay with it). I passed out even more IF postcards.

The crowd was at least 50 people, most of whom were new to IF -- as far as I know. Everyone seemed to catch on in about thirty seconds, though and the session was blazing along when I headed back to the table. I am told the pig was found and the game won in about 90 minutes.

The expo hall closed at 6:00, which is good, as my throat was about wiped out from shouting over the crowd. We packed out the table. A bunch of folks headed over to see a panel discussion "Boston: The Cradle of Narrative Games", featuring Matthew Weise, Brian Moriarty, Dave Lebling, Terri Brosius, and Austin Grossman (although I'm told he was absent due to illness).

I did not get to the panel; I headed over to the Asgard to make sure it was set up for our IF meetup dinner. Turned out a crowd from NoShowConf was already there, so I needn't have rushed, but hey -- I was hungry. Everyone else showed up after the panel, anyhow. I wound up even hoarser from hanging out in a bar full of interactive-narrative-type people and talking for hours.

Then I went home, and that was Saturday.

On Sunday I slept late (no kidding) and got over to NoShowConf just in time for lunch. I only wound up catching two presentations: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fighting Games (Maddy Myers, Todd Harper) and Chris Klimas's talk about the history of Twine. But there was extra bonus time for sitting around and talking (quietly). So that was fine.

Overall: the weekend was not the enormous IF gathering we had in 2010 (when Get Lamp premiered at PAX East). But it was pretty great. We will do this next year.

Thanks to everybody I mentioned above, helping out. Also to Val Grimm for setting up the Asgard event. And everybody who hung out at the table, and the Lost Pig event, and who showed up for dinner... and, you know, everybody.

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Boston summer IF meetup!

As in years past, the People's Republic of Interactive Fiction is organizing a summer gathering of the IF folks of the world. If you are interested in hanging out and talking about IF, you are invited!

The weekend: September 14-15. The locale: Boston (the MIT area).

Once again, we will be gathering at NoShowConf, a tiny little indie game-dev conference. We will also have a presence at the Boston Festival of Indie Games, which runs the same weekend.

These are both great events, and I'd happily recommend coming into town to visit either one. Both on the same weekend... is logistically complicated, I confess. But it will only make the weekend more awesome!

What's going on?

NoShowConf will run all day Saturday and all day Sunday.

NoShow is at the MS-NERD center, adjacent to MIT.

This will be the primary IF hangout zone. We will not have a separate IF track -- it's a cozy conference, not a cluttered one. However, I will be proposing one IF-related talk and I hope you folks will propose more.

Note that NoShow is considerably cheaper than it was last year. (Thanks to Microsoft for providing event space to the Boston tech community.) If you are on a tight budget, you can grab the Game Jam pass, which is even cheaper and includes all the hanging-out and the free lunch. Last year there were IF folks lounging around talking the entire weekend -- don't feel like the presentations are the only reason to attend.

BostonFIG runs all day Saturday.

This is an open-to-the-public indie game expo. It's running at the MIT student center (a fifteen-minute walk from NoShow). Registration is free; they are currently running a Kickstarter to raise funds.

We are organizing an IF table at BostonFIG! (Thanks Clara.) This is still in flux, but we are aiming for a demo space where we can show off IF to the public, demonstrate IF tools, possibly run a workshop. This is what I expect to be doing all Saturday afternoon. Anyone who wants to help with IF outreach is welcome to come by.

The People's Republic IF Demo, Beerfest, and Chowdown.

On Saturday evening (7 pm), we will meet up to eat, drink, and catch up on IF. (Location is still being planned.) We're going to grab function space in a bar or restaurant, and have a screen and projector available.

The idea is that everybody gathers, orders beer and food, and starts talking raucously about everything that's going on. Then, maybe at 8 pm, I wave a giant wooden spoon in the air, shut everybody up, and point at the projector. This is your cue to jump up, plug in, and tell everybody what you've done in IF in the past 12 (or 24) months. For five minutes! Lightning talk, or just a few screenshots, then next person.

Hopefully that will go for 30-ish minutes. Then we go back to drinking and eating and talking raucously until the bar throws us out.

And then back to NoShow for Sunday.

Perhaps this is a bewildering array of event options. (I like to think of it as "feature-rich", or perhaps "Turing-complete".) The capsule summary is:

  • NoShow: Cozy; conversation with IF folks and indie game devs; presentations for small interested groups.
  • BostonFIG: Big, noisy; present IF to the public (gamers, but not necessarily aware of IF).
  • Dinner: Our annual time to catch up on what's going on in the IF world. Also, beer.

And as I said, wandering back and forth between NoShow and FIG is easy.

What does this mean for you, dear blog-post reader?

  • Consult your calendar. (September 14-15, 2013.)
  • Register for NoShow if you want to take part.
  • Register for FIG if you will be in town at all. (Free, no reason not to.)
  • Donate to FIG's Kickstarter if you want to support that event financially.
  • Submit a NoShow talk proposal if you have an idea for one.
  • Email me if you want to show off anything at the IF dinner. Or at the BostonFIG table.
  • If you're planning to attend any part of this, please comment here, email me, or otherwise let me know. (Planning dinner space means coming up with a head-count, eventually.)

I hope to see lots and lots of you, this summer.

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BostonFIG followup

I was at the Boston Festival of Independent Games and it was pretty darn awesome.

(Photo credit to BostonIndies.)

I had Shade and Meanwhile sitting out on iPads, and people played both of them! It wasn't literally eight straight hours of IF demoing -- there were gaps -- but it's not like people ignored the IF in favor of the interactive comic, either. Several people played a significant fraction of Shade. One dedicated player ran through the whole thing. (With some nudges from me. The ending requires a certain degree of relaxed experimentation and persistence, which isn't easy to maintain in a crowded demo room.)

(Yes, I wrote down a bunch of synonyms and action phrasings that I forgot to implement back in 2000. I will add them to the game when the iOS version comes out. User testing!)

Naturally I had a stack of IF cards to hand out to Shade players. I also got to show off the XYZZY Award I won for it, way back. And the puzzle-key I designed for the MakerBot promo game. (In the photo, the puzzle-key is sitting on top of the XYZZY. Sorry, I would have arranged that better if I'd known. Also I'd have been looking at the camera.)

Meanwhile was also popular, of course. It demos very well -- hand it to someone, and they'll get the idea instantly.

(I also had Pocket Storm running on an iPod. You can see the headphones in the photo, but nobody picked them up. Oh well. The good news is, I now know that an iPod can run PS for eight hours without recharging, even with the screen set to stay lit.)

I did not get much chance to look around the rest of the show, because I was standing and demoing for eight hours. That laptop in front of me? Didn't open it once. I thought I would be able to work on some HL code during slack time in the show. Ha ha.

But I could see some very nifty first-person 3D exploration games running across the room, and hear the shrieks of Conway's Inferno. (All my puzzle friends noted Conway's Inferno as a clear puzzle hit; I agree. When the iOS version ships, buy it.) And I got a few minutes to chat with Jason Scott before he showed his movie. I hear Peter Molyneux dropped by, but if I saw him, I didn't know it.

I did not win one of the show awards, which were voted by the crowds. (Didn't expect to.) You can see Shade got a string of yellow dots -- votes for "best narrative" -- although, to be fair, I think a couple of people were voting for Meanwhile. I don't see the winner list posted, but I know that the Best Narrative trophy went to Resonance, so congrats to Wadjet Eye.

Conclusion: this festival was a big success. It was an excellent way for crazy small-time developers like me to show off games, talk to people, and generally demonstrate our existence. Many people tried my games; more people watched the documentaries. I pushed the PR-IF link on anybody who expressed an interest in IF, so I expect we'll have a packed meeting in October. (Not yet scheduled, sorry.)

The show will happen again; it will be bigger next year. If you're a game maker in the New England area, and you're not big enough to set up a gigantic booth at PAX or GDC, you want to be at BostonFIG in 2013. I will be.

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Zarf at BostonFIG

I am happy to announce that I will be showing off Shade for iOS at the Boston Festival of Independent Games, at MIT next weekend. I will also have Meanwhile, Pocket Storm, Fealty, and the rest of my iOS portfolio ready to demo.

(BostonFIG: Saturday, September 22, 10 am to 10 pm, MIT buildings 34 and 26. Free and open to the public.)

More IF stuff at FIG: Jason Scott will be a keynote speaker, and he will be showing Get Lamp at some point. Plus there's this whole showcase of other indie games. It'll be cool.

What, you ask? Shade for iOS? It's still in development -- don't go running off to the App Store to find it. As with Dreamhold, I'm planning to leave the game file unchanged from its circa-2000 release, but I will add in-game feelies of some sort. Only not a map. A map of Shade wouldn't be very interesting.

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BostonFIG deadline extended

A tiny update to an earlier post: the BostonFIG submission deadline’s been extended by another 10 days, to Monday, August 20. That gives another week and a half to New England-based game creators, working in any medium, to submit their work for inclusion in this year’s festival.

A prize-list for the videogame showcase, comprising various hardware and software goodies, is starting to appear as well. Full details at the BostonFIG website.

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No Show videos online

Speaking of the 2012 No Show Conference, all twelve of its talks and presentations are now online for public enjoyment and enrichment. Visit its presentation page with any Flash-capable browser, and click a talk’s Continue reading button to make its video player pop up.

I attended every talk that weekend in person, and found them all rewarding. Going by the metric of new things I learned, my favorite talks include Mitchell Smallman on how economic classes affect gameplay access and Andrea Shubert on practical card game design. But I recommend the whole lot of them; this was a really well curated lineup.

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BostonFIG game submission deadline: August 10

Update: The submission deadline’s been extended to August 20.

WebBannerThis is a good year for inaugural game conferences in Boston. On the heels of No Show comes The Boston Festival of Independent Games, held around Cambridge’s Kendall Square on September 22.

BostonFIG will be a public series of events centering around locally produced games, be they digital, tabletop, or otherwise. Admission is free, though the event’s website does request that you register before showing up.

New England-based game makers have through August 10 — that’s this coming Friday — to submit their own works for inclusion in the festival. Each game submitted will be examined by at least one of the festival’s curators (the list of whom includes Y.T.), who will provide studied feedback to its developer. Submissions that meet BostonFIG’s display criteria become eligible for inclusion into the festival’s showcase.

The game submission fee for the videogame showcase is $15 ($10 for students), and is waived entirely for tabletop and street-game submissions. We’re especially interested in receiving student work, in fact, as well as card games and board games produced around these parts.

BostonFIG’s own copy about the festival submissions process, including relevant URLs and more specific instructions, follows. Hope to see your games!

Co-presented by MIT Game Lab and Boston Indies, the Boston Festival of Indie Games is a debut celebration of independent game development with emphasis on the New England region. Boston Festival of Indie Games seeks to support and showcase the efforts of independent game developers by providing a free public event that encourages attendees to share and interact with games in various forms, both digital and non-digital. The Boston Festival of Indie Games is focused on creating an intersection between community, academic and independent interests in game play. The showcase will include videogames and non-digital games (board games, street games, LARPs), produced in the area of New England.

The Indie Video Games Showcase is an opportunity for independent developers to show off their games, get feedback from the public, and win prizes. Voting will be open to the public in different categories. The submission free of 15$ per digital game; 10$ for submissions from students.

Game creators can also showcase their card games, board games, street games and LAPS to the non-digital games section of the festival. This section is non-competitive, and therefore there is no submission fee for submitting non-digital games. We hope to have prizes for non-digital games in the future.

Submissions will be first screened by Boston FIG volunteers who will make sure that the game meets our criteria. The games will then be reviewed by at least one of our curators, who will provide feedback to the developer. The curators will make the final decision about which games make it into the showcase.

Deadline for submissions is August 10, 2012.


What constitutes “indie” is always difficult to determine, so game makers should be ready to make the case for why their games are suitable for the showcase. These are some of the criteria to identify games that are suitable for the festival:

  • Games may be either recently released (within the last 6 months) or in production.
  • Games should be independently produced, though publisher funding/distribution is acceptable.
  • Games are not produced by a major publisher-owned studio, which is included in this list
  • Games should be produced by studios in the New England area.
  • Games should include at least one finished, playable level.
  • Game content and other materials are owned solely by the developer/designers or legal permission obtained to use any other copyrighted material.

Game makers should be ready to demo on their own hardware, or be able to send someone who can do it for them, on September 22nd, 2012. If we have hardware available, we will let entrants know asap.

If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact us

If you have a game, please submit it via our online system

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No Show Conf and IF stuff (with bonus movie)

Ns logo smallThe very first No Show Conference is happening this coming weekend on the MIT campus. Organzied by local videogame producer Courtney Stanton, it’s angled at game-making professionals working in any medium. As I write this, there’s only a couple of dozen tickets left, so if you’ve access to Boston and this is your sort of thing, you may wish to get on that.

While it’s not on its official schedule, No Show shall play host to this year’s Interactive Fiction Summit, late of PAX East. The People’s Republic decided to give PAX a pass this year, in favor of a smaller and more developer-focused conference, and lo, one has appeared. As suggested by the fact that I write this post just a few days before the event, the Summit doesn’t quite have the definition it enjoyed during the PAX years; really, it’s just a call for IF authors and fans to come on by and find one another.

That said, No Show does itself take a IF-philic stance — the structure of the conference’s demo hall is inspired by the IF Demo Fair that Emily Short organized during last year’s PAX East. Furthermore, No Show speakers include IF authors Clara Fernández-Vara, Dierdra Kiai, and Jim Munroe, presenting on a variety of topics around games and culture. (I suspect that Dierdra’s alt-universe satirical examination of “Men in Games” will end up an especially popular talk.)

As a special treat, Jim Munroe will screen his new film Ghosts with Shit Jobs on Saturday evening, bracketing it with a panel discussion featuring our own Andrew Plotkin and local webcomic superstar Randal Munroe. That screening is part of MIT’s summer film series, not No Show, so it’s free and open to the public.

So, yes, that’s where I’ll be all weekend.

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Jmac will be at Origins 2011

Let this serve as my public announcement that I plan to attend the 2011 Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio from June 22nd through the 26th. I’ll be acting a little bit as a blogger, a little as an indie game producer, and a little as a courier (helping to lug a publisher friend’s sellable goods cross-country). But mostly I plan to arrive as player and lover of games. This will be my fourth Origins, but the first where that’s my primary role.

I last attended in 2006 along with the rest of the Volity team, and we were so full of agenda, weighed down with hurriedly-printed flyers and a will to introduce ourselves to every single company on the show floor — never mind that we only vaguely knew what we were selling.

Unsurprisingly, we didn’t sell anything, but we did surprise ourselves with how easy it is to network, saying hello to strangers in a self-selecting setting, and quickly exploring common business interests in friendly conversation. It felt immediately fun and rewarding, even if we didn’t earn a dime right then. Learning to push back against our shy-nerd instincts like this proved an important step for both Zarf and myself and our subsequent, individual indie-game pursuits.

Didn’t leave a whole lot of room for actually playing any games, though, so we went home educated but also exhausted and impoverished, with the company wobbling to an effective stop a few months later. Thus it may have taken me a few years to reconnect Origins with, you know, having any fun.

In 2002 and 2004, I attended Origins less as a game-player than as a fan. At the turn of the millenium, Looney Labs declared Origins to be the home of its annual Big Experiment, its very own con-within-a-con. Every year the Looneys reserve a large room across from the main expo hall, turning it into a weekend-long event in its own right, with its own schedule full of panels, tutorials, and tournaments.

(The Big Experiment provided a model for the annual World IF Summit that has operated within PAX East since last year. So if you were wondering why the IF Suite gives away Origins-style ribbons, even though they don’t quite fit the portrait-orientation PAX badges, there you have it.)

A decade ago I was very much a rabid Mad Lab Rabbit, as Looney Labs called its club of trufans at the time, and came to Origins with a gaggle of fellow fans from Boston expressly because of the Big Experiment. And thus did I spend the greater part of Origins hard at work in the “lab,” dedicated to spreading the Looney gospel to visitors, mainly in the form of game demonstrations. Visiting the rest of the show and playing “off-brand” games was dessert, something to do after-hours.

I look forward to seeing the Looneys and my old friends from that fandom again, and there’s a nonzero chance I’ll don a coat for old times’ sake and play a round or two of Fluxx with a curious visitor, but I don’t plan to spend six hours intensely touring passers-by through the Looney canon. My trufan days are behind me; I’m far more interested today in exploring as much as I can of what other people are doing in the world of tabletop games.

If you plan on joining me in this exploration, do track me down at the show and say hi! This is going to be fun.

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More Inform yapping at BarCamp, perhaps

Andy and I plan on attending the sixth annual BarCamp Boston this weekend, April 9 and 10. BarCamp is a geek-centric “unconference” whose schedule of talks is constructed on the fly by attendees. In my experience, each hour-long slot tends to end up with someone talking about jQuery, someone talking about Ruby on Rails, and then someone talking about volcanoes, or food science, or something else they’re passionate about and which doesn’t resemble my day job in any way. So I go to these third talks, one after the other, and have a grand time.

This year, at friends’ encouragement, I plan on myself pitching a talk that I hope falls into that third category. Unsurprisingly, this’ll be my introduction-to-Inform talk, yet again. In the likely event I manage to make it happen, that’ll be three times in the last eight months I’ll have presented it, just weeks after I busted it out for the PAX crowd (with Zarf’s assistance, which he may reprise once again here). It’s starting to develop into what Merlin Mann calls a Shake-and-Bake talk, one that a practiced speaker can perform with increasingly minimal preparation. I can’t say I really expected to ever develop such a thing, and I wouldn’t have predicted Inform 7 to be my topic if I did. But, so it goes.

If you’re in my town this weekend and this sounds like your idea of a good time, feel free to register online — Boston BarCamp is free to attend (though they’d appreciate a $20 donation, which’ll also net you a natty T-shirt).

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Setting as Character in Narrative Games (PAX East 2011)

Part of Saturday’s proceedings at the 2011 IF Summit that conveniently adjoined this year’s PAX East.

In adventures and other explorational games, the setting is often the most eloquent and memorable character: an island, a castle, a starship. How do these locales tell stories, and how does the player character fit into those stories?

This panel discussion features independent IF creators Andrew Plotkin, Stephen Granade, and Rob Wheeler, and Dean Tate of Harmonix (formerly of Irrational Games).

Click here to watch this on Vimeo.

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Non-Gamers Gaming (PAX East 2011)

Here’s the first of three 2011 IF Summit event videos that The Gameshelf shot at PAX East. Unlike last year’s videos, I actually prepared a little for these, so there’s no sudden cut-offs due to battery death. I’ll also try to improve these videos’ visibility over last year’s by putting each into a separate blog post.

This one is the Non-gamers Gaming panel, featuring Heather Albano (Choice Of Games), Tim Crosby (Disruptor Beam), Caleb Garner (Part 12 Studios), Sarah Morayati (independent creator), and Andrew Plotkin (Zarf). Rob Wheeler manned the camera.

How do you design challenges for gamers who haven’t played the last thirty famous entries in the genre? What about readers and writers who do not identify as gamers?

Click here to watch this on Vimeo.

I must still apologize for the murky video quality, but it’s the best we could squeeze from my little Flip Video in the cramped and crowded hotel room that Friday’s IF events took place in. (Saturday found us instead enjoying a large and well-lit conference room, and the next video will reflect that.)

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Boston GameLoop: August 28, 2010

The third annual Boston GameLoop is set to happen on Saturday, August 28 at the Microsoft NERD center in Cambridge. GameLoop is a self-organizing “unconference” based on the BarCamp model, led by local videogame mavens Darius Kazemi and Scott MacMillan.

I’d loosely define the audience as professionals with a vested interest in digital games. Most attendees have been folks directly involved in the videogame industry, but the event has also included journalists, educators, and others interested in (and participating in!) games’ rapidly growing role in modern culture.

No matter their background, all attendees are free to pitch 30-minute session ideas onto a centrally-positioned whiteboard, as well as support others’ pitches by drawing tick-marks beside them. Topics with enough ticks get moved onto the day’s schedule.

Last year, I led a roundtable discussion on the state of game journalism. This year, time permitting, I’d like to arrive prepared with a short presentation or two on wholly different topics, and then find out if anyone actually wants to hear them. Either way, I certainly look forward to seeing both new and familiar faces again, and soaking up an entire day of intelligent game conversation with a lot of really smart people.

Both Zarf and I have ponied up the $40 registration fee for this year. Gameshelf readers who’ll be joining us should feel free to leave a shout-out in comments!

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PAX East 2010: The IF videos (mostly)

Here is the video my Flip camcorder shot of three of the IF-related PAX East-ish events. I apologize for the wobbly quality; I didn't arrive at PAX with plans to record anything, but found myself deputized into a videographer role after I was noticed fooling around with my brand-new camera-toy. As such, I (and other individuals I roped in to help me) struggled to figure out how to best use the device even while shooting these videos.

Two of these videos cut out prematurely, because it turns out that the Flip doesn't offer much in the way of a battery-life indicator. On the plus side, the audio is as good as you can hope to get from a little box located yards away from the subject. So: not very good at all, actually, but at least it's audible. Next time I do something like this, I'll plan ahead and bring both a real camera and mic setup, and more of a clue as to their use. (Taking, perhaps, a page from Ben Collins-Sussman, who took some great photos of PAX's IF activity.)

Nonetheless, these videos are filled with smart people saying interesting things about interactive text games, so please do enjoy them! If you're well-behaved I'll end this post with related videos shot on better equipment by someone more skilled.

Dispelling the Invisibility: IF Outreach

IF Outreach panel - PAX East 2010 from Jason McIntosh on Vimeo.

This took place in the IF Hospitality Suite (a.k.a. Zarf's room in the Hilton) on Saturday evening.

Panelists, from left to right, include Andrew Plotkin (author), Chris Dahlen (journalist), John Bardinelli (critic), and Jason McIntosh (me). The moderator, seated in the middle, is Harry Kaplan. Fellow PR-IF member Jake Eakle operated the camera. The video ends abruptly when the camcorder runs out of storage (it's a long discussion), but the panel wound down soon after.

My bite-sized followup: It's only natural that the topic slid from "How do we increase IF's audience" to "how can we make money from IF", but in retrospect I regret not pushing back against this reframing more than I did. Making IF lucrative is an interesting subject, but it's an entirely separate one from the one in the panel's title.

My standing answer to the money question since PAX weekend is: Who cares? Those two words unpack into many more, but that's not what you're here to see. Maybe I'll get into it more in a future post.

No Hints, Please: Adaptive Difficultly Strategies

IF Hints panel - PAX East 2010 from Jason McIntosh on Vimeo.

Another IF Suite panel, this one on Sunday afternoon. From left to right: IF authors Jim Munroe, Dave Gilbert, and Aaron Reed.

Sadly, this video cuts out after 20 minutes because it suffered the most from my hard-way learning about the Flip's battery limitations. But, you can still see what Zarf was describing in his writeup about how the topic inexorably morphed into an extension of the previous day's panel's conversation on the balance between evangelizing IF as an art form, and profiting from it by way of game sales.

Purple Blurb: Interactive Fiction

Purple Blurb - Interactive Fiction readings from Jason McIntosh on Vimeo.

Hosted by MIT's Nick Montfort, part of his regular series of guest presentations on digital writing. On Monday evening, IF authors Jeremy Freese and Emily Short read from their works (Violet and Alabaster[1], respectively). The "interactors" providing the text input are Jenni Polodna and Kevin Jackson-Mead, and all four sit down for some Q&A after the readings. (Not long after, alas, it once again cuts out suddenly due to the camcorder batteries giving way.)

The on-screen text is a little hard to follow at first, as I try to get both it and Jeremy in-frame, with the result of making Jenni's input invisible. I give up and focus on the screen after a few minutes, and it becomes easier to follow thereafter.

GET LAMP post-premiere panel

Finally, a little bonus content: Jason Scott has posted the following footage from the panel he held after screening GET LAMP, his IF documentary, on Friday evening (one of the two IF-related events on the official PAX schedule that weekend). Panelists, left to right: Dave Lebling, Don Woods, Brian Moriarty, Andrew Plotkin, Nick Montfort, and Steve Meretzky, all of whom appeared in the film. (Lebling, Moriarty, and Meretzky are all IF authors from the medium's golden era, and Woods is co-author of Colossal Cave Adventure, the game from the 1970s that started it all.)

GET LAMP Pax Panel: Part 1 (Rough Cut) from Jason Scott on Vimeo.

GET LAMP Pax Panel: Part 2 (Rough Cut) from Jason Scott on Vimeo.

I am not aware of any online footage from Friday evening's "Storytelling in the world of interactive fiction" panel (the other official-PAX one). If it's out there somewhere, let me know, and I'll gladly add it to this post.

[1] While Emily led and managed Alabaster's development, the final work was additionally co-authored by John Cater, Rob Dubbin, Eric Eve, Elizabeth Heller, Jayzee, Kazuki Mishima, Sarah Morayati, Mark Musante, Adam Thornton, and Ziv Wities.

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My (vicarious) GDC takeaways

bsg and redder.jpgThanks to Twitter, I found myself vicariously attending GDC this year. Allow me to recount some of the more interesting things I heard people talking about.

Anna Anthropy released REDDER, a puzzley explore-and-collect game, free to play on the Newgrounds portal. Unlike When Pigs Fly, her previous effort, the difficultly comes not from its demanding feats of digital dexterity, but rather from the large size of the world, and the things about the world you must learn and remember while you strive to collect the shiny treasures. Give it a try, and block out a couple of hours to play it through if you like it.

One reason why I like Anna's games in particular is the same reason I liked watching the latter-day Battlestar Galactica so much. Ron Moore, BSG's executive producer, took advantage of internet publishing to create and release commentary tracks, in podcast format, almost at the same time the shows aired. They felt less like a producer reminiscing about a past project, and more like lectures about the challenges and strategies of putting an episodic TV show together, spoken by someone who was still in the thick of it.

Similarly, Anna is at least as active in presenting lectures and articles on level design (which we've linked to before) as she is with releasing actual games. Soon after I started When Pigs Fly and saw the grassy turf three screens over from the start, I may have said "heh heh" out loud. I felt that I knew exactly why she put it there, even though it had no explicit in-game effect, and I probably wouldn't have if I hadn't been reading along with her exegetic work.

Ian Bogost gave a presentation at GDC, titled "Play With Us", about how good games connect authors with their audiences in ways also seen in good poetry. He's posted its text and images on his website.

Pound's poem leaves enough room to see the Metro riders as the doleful subjects of labor, or as glistening Venuses amidst the iron.

The reader does not "receive" the message of the poem, but excavates its images and uses those to craft relevance.


The relationship of player to game is like that of the archaeologist to the ruin. A game is a remnant of something fashioned and disposed by its creator.

When we play, we excavate.

Read the whole thing, please.

Jason Roher, best known today for Passage, recently announced his next independently published game, Sleep is Death. This essentially looks like a tool for setting up and game-mastering two-player online storytelling RPGs, with each player sitting at a separate internet-connected computer.

I myself lack the creative muscles to get much out of storytelling games -- that is, light-ruleset role-playing games where the main goal of players and GM (when there is a GM at all) involves telling a story together: more improv theater than dungeon crawl. However, I must treat the timing as quite auspicious, given my recent appeal to the heavens for more experimentation with online multiplayer games. As such, I anticipate the game's release with eager curiosity.

I will be interested to see whether this project appeals to crowds larger than the niche who is already enjoying tabletop storytelling games, including expressly two-player works such as Emily Care Boss's Breaking the Ice. I predict that Sleep is Death won't launch any sort of narrativist-game revolution, but that it will introduce people to that niche who should have been there all along, and just didn't know it yet. To the rest, it will be food for thought. And this will be a net win.

Please do click through the charming and clever demonstration slideshow, which mimics a gameplay session while showing you everything you need to know to get excited about this project (if you're me).

Image credit: Battlestar Galactica publicity still by SyFy; chubby little astronaut art by Anna Anthropy.

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Notes from my GameLoop talk, and links to other stuff I mentioned

I was pleased to attend the second Boston GameLoop, and extend thanks and congratulations to Darius Kazemi and Scott MacMillan for organzing another fantastic event. Also thanks to Microsoft for the use of their lovely new NERD center (yes, that is what it's called) in Cambridge. The conference was doubly well attended over last year's, and I look forward to seeing how it continues to grow in future iterations.

This was the third self-organizing "unconference" I've attended, and the first one at which I got bold enough to host a talk. My topic was "Improving Game Journalism and Critique", and my starting point was this essay about game criticism from Greg Costikyan, from which I read some excerpts to get things rolling.

Among the dozen or so who showed up for the talk, a particularly challenging attendee was a hardened freelance journalist who hoped we'd talk about "outside-in" reporting about games for mainstream news consumers. He was very open with his skepticism about the value of the critique I described. While initially his boisterous disagreement resulted in a couple of walk-outs, those who remained helped pare it down to a valuable core question: Who is the real audience for critique?

Attempting to answer this led further into discussion about the transformative effect that more and better game criticism should have on the field of game-centric journalism: taking some space back from the fanboyish, review-and-anticipation-based press that is so prevalent now, and giving more voice to articles examining games the context of artistic work. This would let a game be held up for comparison with of other games, all that has come before - and, if examining a work from the past, all that came after. Fill the space of media-about-games more with material like this, counterweighting all the next-six-months-focused game reviews (a necessary but very well covered thank you genre), then the game-making community's perception of itself should further broaden and mature. Which would be a Good Thing.

The group also ended up talking about professional video-gaming-as-a-sport and its media coverage, both within and without the current game-enthusiast press. This was a subject I knew very little about, so I didn't discourage it, and we ended up being able to tie it back into the title topic by the time our 45 minutes were up.

I made a newbie mistake in not noting my contact information before the talk, so that people follow up electronically afterwards if they wished. I had some nice face-to-face conversations immediately after the talk, and I see that a few people have started following me on Twitter despite my unintentional stealth. If you've managed to find this post after attending my talk, welcome! Feel free to use the comments for followup discussion, if you wish.

Three more links I'd like to throw down here, because they're things I mentioned during other peoples' talks:
  • Chess for Girls, a blistering SNL parody of how games (or anything else) is typically marketed at girls
  • Mo's Movie Measure (aka The Bechdel Test), an acid test to determine whether a given movie manages to overcome a base level of sexism. (Most movies, even good ones, fail it miserably.)

    Thinking about MMM in context of games is an interesting exercise!

  • Intelligent Mistakes, a brilliant essay from the game designer Mick West on programming computerized opponents so that they purposefully but subtly screw up, so that fun for the human player is maximized.
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