Search Results for: interactive fiction

Holiday iOS app sales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gone Home: design ruminations

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

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

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

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

I'll start right in with some petty interface neepery. This is a game whose interface is entirely about picking things up and rotating them. But when things get interesting, it doesn't do a very good job of sticking to that interface!(*)

Objects in the game which can be manipulated, rather than just examined: housekeys. A combination dial lock. Cassette tapes. Notice something? All of these objects are rotated as part of their normal use.

But the game doesn't make use of its rotatey interface for this. You don't stick the key in a lock and turn it; you just click on the door and zap it's open. You can't turn the cassette over, stick it in the player, and hear the other side. The combination locker is particularly bad; you learn the combination in the familiar form ("turn left to X, right to Y...") but you enter the combination using a four-digit interface with arrows. (Which doesn't even match the format of the numbers you're given.)

I've already admitted this is petty. The interface they've got works and it's easy to use. To make it all rotation-based would require some additional cueing; the housekey wouldn't be automatic. But harmonious UI matters! When you pick up an object, turn it over, and discover something written on the back -- that's got that little IF zing. You used familiar actions in the world, in an intuitive way, and were rewarded. Or when you pick up an object and discover something hidden underneath. Or when you pull a secret panel aside. Gone Home has some of these moments, and they zing. Being thrown out of the UI convention to open a locker: zingless.

A more fundamental clash with my IF sensibility: the game isn't about you. No, strike that -- I'm fine with games where you discover another character's past. (I've written that one, more than once.) But this game's narration isn't positioned the way I expect.

Kaitlin, the viewpoint character, comes home from a year in Europe to discover her house is empty; she (you) then encounters texts narrated by her sister Samantha. But this confused me at first! For a few minutes, I thought I was playing Samantha, recalling her (my) experiences in the house.

When I encounter non-diegetic voice-over in a game -- texts not anchored in a found journal or tape recording -- I expect them to be my thoughts. The narrator is the protagonist is the player. Or the narrator is the protagonist addressing the player. Or maybe the narrator is a third party addressing the protagonist -- but usually there's a cue indicating that.

(This is the convention that Sands of Time twisted so wonderfully, by having the protagonist narrate the game apparently to the player, but in fact to another character in the story.)

The "twist" at the end of Gone Home -- not a spoiler -- is that you discover Samantha's letters, the ones which you've been hearing as narration. This is fine, but then how are we to understand Kaitlin's experience? Has she been wandering through the house, unaware of the story that I-the-player have been hearing, to instead learn it all at the last moment? What does this separation of the player's experience from the protagonist's accomplish? It's not revelatory (as it is in Sands of Time); it's just confusing and distancing.

How would I rewrite this? I have no pat answer. Scatter Samantha's letters through the game? Obvious and clumsy; it erases a story element, Sam's hesitance to trust you with her story. Or maybe Kaitlin should start with the letters, received over the course of the year, and recall them as the environment cues them? This still separates the player's experience (now Kaitlin knows more than you) but perhaps in a more natural way.

Or maybe Samantha should have been the protagonist, after all. Eliminate Kaitlin, who is essentially the classic faceless adventure protagonist. (She has a name, gender, and age, but no personality or relationships beyond the excuse of a year abroad. In retrospect her opening monologue, promising to arrive home, is what tripped me up as much as anything: it's a false promise, a voice that will never be heard again.)

Would Gone Home have worked better with Sam's point of view as well as her narrative voice? I don't know. I just feel like the game-as-it-is missed an opportunity.

(The idea of "I am the protagonist, and I am going to tell you a story even as you manipulate me like a puppet" is one of the great weird unacknowledged conventions in gaming. It's somehow become completely natural, even cliche, to players -- even though it makes no narrative sense. I don't blame Gone Home for not using it! But it's familiar because it fills a need: it credits both the author and player with 100% responsibility for the story, with an unspoken agreement to ignore the contradiction.)

Well. I've made two criticisms, but my goal here is not to complain. (As I said, I liked Gone Home!) Let me switch tracks and talk about what kind of game it is.

(Or, if you don't think Gone Home is a game(**), I'll talk about what kind of game it isn't. I'm an atheist, but I'm a Jewish atheist.)

What game mechanics are we given? A dense environment with a lot of environmental story elements. Locks and combination dials, with the keys and combos found elsewhere, mixed in with story cues. Notes about secret passages and hidden panels, which are then marked on a map. A plot which is gated using these keys and map markings. A structure in which you have to backtrack to use them, discovering new elements in familiar rooms. Creating shortcuts, once you've reached an area, by unlocking a door from the other side.

Any of these mechanics could appear in nearly any kind of character-centric game: action, adventure, platformer, RPG. But if you ask which archetype game had all of them, I immediately answer: Silent Hill.

My contention: Gone Home is survival horror minus the horror and the survival elements.(***) And this is not surprising, because the core trick of survival horror is getting you to move slowly and focus on your environment. That's what this game wants. It doesn't lean on the threat of stumbling into a zombie pit, or even (c.f. Fatal Frame) the penalty of missing a one-shot ghost manifestation. But it does put you in a dark room, fumbling for a light switch. And you don't want to miss anything.

I do wonder how much of this flirtation with the survival-horror form is deliberate. While playing, I knew (from minor spoilers) that Gone Home doesn't end in blood-soaked tragedy. But I half-expected a tragic ending anyway! My expectations were drawn by the familiar horror trappings, both the environment (the dimly-lit empty house) and the Silent Hill mechanics. I suspect that was deliberate. Certainly there are story elements which allow you to imagine both a ghost story and a contemporary tragedy, a Gay! Teen! Suicide! plotline. Again, I knew that the story wouldn't be resolved that way (and I would have been deeply off-put if it had been). But the form plays into that tension as much as the text does.

I also wonder about the decision to place the game so firmly in 1995. I imagine (without checking) that this comes from the experience of the authors, that they were in high school in the mid-90s. It's a personal game, certainly. And the setting helps place Sam as a particular character, rather than a projection of the contemporary player. (Though Kaitlin is such a projection.)

But the effect is that the game feels dated; it was dated the day it launched. (As distinct from feeling retro or nostalgic or a period piece.) The experiences of queer high school students today are not those of Sam and Lonnie. Lonnie is a ROTC student; Sam comments on the don't-ask-don't-tell policy -- brand-new in 1995, but two years gone by the time the game was released. High school students today still have problems, but they're also (nationally) (on average) ahead of the curve, openly dragging their elders ahead.

It's hard not to notice, playing in 2014, that Sam and Lonnie could well be married and raising kids today. Or split up (high school romances, right?) and married to other people. Or not married. Or not identify as lesbians, or not identify as women, or not be alive. Gone Home does not address this, and that suits; it's the narrative of 17-year-olds. I'm not that age; the authors aren't. Are they writing for today's teenagers? People their own age? (Maybe this is nostalgia after all: the nostalgia of having believed that 17 was forever.)

The game feels dated in another way. It's personal, as I noted, but not in the confessional sense that the Twine community has embraced. It's about the experience of otherness, but it doesn't present it as your experience. Again: not the player's story, but a story told to the player.

I've come to expect this genre to be in my face, daring me to empathize. Radical otherness. But of course Gone Home isn't in that genre, or any of the intersecting IF communities that I'm familiar with. So there's my extra, un-looked-for dose of alienation: Gone Home is outsider art to me. I have no conclusion to draw from that.

Coincidentally, the day after I played, the author tweeted:

(quote from email): "...why do you think the majority of people are in agreement with lesbian relationships..."

interestingly, of the criticism Gone Home has gotten, this has been the rarest type of complaint. -- Steve Gaynor, 3 Dec 2014

The obvious reply is that it's 2014 and the majority of Americans are "in agreement" with lesbian relationships. That's been true for many years. (Same-sex marriage flipped more recently.)

That wasn't my reaction, though. I would reply: Gone Home is the story of your sister coming out. Is that something you are "in disagreement" with? What would your sister say to that? Or: what if you project yourself as the parents in the game? They are, after all, depicted with far more specificity than the faceless Kaitlin. So you're horrified by homosexuality; can you reject a game about what it's like for your child to come out? Because that's a thing that can happen.

(Ironically, if you assert that it can't happen, you're aligning yourself with the parents as they're depicted. So Gone Home should speak more to your interests. This is awfully clever of it.)

I guess that's all. Lo. I have ruminated.

Coincidentally (again), this weekend after I played, Fullbright Games announced their next game: Tacoma. There's a video teaser. I have no comment, except to say that if they really plan to do an environmental exploration game in free-fall, they've got a hell of a lot of design work ahead. I look forward to it.

(* It may have been Nick Montfort who first pointed this out in my presence.)

(** No, I don't have any real patience for the argument that Gone Home "isn't a game". One can have an interesting discussion of what "game" means, but not on the Internet, not this year. The bullshit artists have drowned out the genre analysts. We move on.)

(*** I have just cheated and done a web search on "gone home" "survival horror". Okay, I'm not the first person to assert this. Fine.)

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Barbetween

I failed to mention, six months ago when it was new, that I made another very short IF piece called Barbetween. Here’s a little trailer I made for it last month:

I made that trailer because the Independent Games Festival requires that at every entry have at least one video attached to it — and, verily, I have submitted Barbetween an as entry to the 2015 IGF. Here it is in that context. (Zarf’s Hadean Lands is there too, by the way.)

Barbetween was originally written as an entry for Shufflecomp, a truly inspired interactive fiction game jam run by Sam Kabo Ashwell last spring. It challenged its participants to create games around songs that randomly assigned to them (based, in turn, on shuffled-up playlists submitted by other entrants). My playlist included “Between the Bars” by Elliott Smith, whose work I was not previously acquainted with. That’s what this game is based on.

I arrived at the transformed title because “The Barbetween Age” sounded like a legitimate name of a Myst level, to me. And that was relevant because I chose to build the game as a sort of art installation within Seltani, which Zarf’s described here before. The conceit is that the game is a “real” sculpture found on one of the byways of the Myst universe, meant to feel more like a visitable thing carved out of a real location, rather than simply a program running on a website. I tried to accomplish this by including in the work some subtle, perhaps surprising asynchronous communication with other visitors to the site, about which I shall say no more here.

If this sounds interesting to you, I invite you to spend 15 minutes or so in Barbetween, yourself.

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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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Two weeks left of IFComp judging

The 20th annual Interactive Fiction Competition remains open for public judging through Saturday, November 15. There are 42 games this year, many of which you can play right in your web browser, and all of which are free.

This is my own first year as competition organizer, and while I rather expect that many readers of this blog already count themselves as IFComp judges, I humbly invite the rest of you to take a look at this year’s crop of short new text games and consider participating as a judge. If you start within the next few days, you’ll still have time to meet the minimum judging quota of five games.

I don’t mind saying that we’re already on-course for a very healthy vote turnout, with over 2,000 individual game ratings already submitted — but more ratings are better, and with such a large crowd of contestants, every rating does count. I hope you’ll join us!

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Kicking it forwards

Since my Kickstarter project is done -- not done done, I still have postcards and so on, but done enough for soup -- I should write the "support this other Kickstarter!" post.

I've already talked about Elegy for Dead World, which came to a triumphant conclusion a couple weeks back, and Extrasolar, which sadly did not. But there are lots of crowdfunders still open this season. Kickstarters, Patreons, Indiegogos... Indiegogoes? Indiegogols? Anyway, here are a bunch which at least brush up against the interactive fiction world.

Ice Bound: A mixed-media game-and-book project by Aaron Reed. Aaron's earlier project 18 Cadence let you explore a house's history by rearranging and constructing texts. This one looks to be in the same vein, but more so. It was inspired, Aaron says, by House of Leaves as well as Borges, Nabokov, and Italo Calvino. The Kickstarter is already past its original goal and is now targetting an "open-source the engine" stretch goal. I am always in favor of game engines being open source. Four days left!

Haphead: A TV-on-the-web series: teenagers play videogames so immersive that they become actual badass ninjas. Produced by Jim Munroe, sometime IF author and indie filmmaker -- his last sci-fi effort was the movie Ghosts With Shit Jobs. They've got film in the can; they're collecting money for post-production and release. This has two weeks to go and hasn't yet hit 50% funding, so it needs some love.

Demon: You probably first met Jason Shiga through his CYOA-comic Meanwhile. (Possibly the iOS version that I helped create.) Now he is writing a (non-interactive) web-comic called Demon. Demon is a riff on the superhero genre which is both viciously bitter-dark and cheerfully nerdy-charming. I think it's great. You can read the comic for free, but Shiga is funding it through Patreon, so if you want to support him, that's how to do it.

Ready, Okay! and Photopia: Adam Cadre wrote a bunch of groundbreaking IF. You probably don't need me to tell you that. He is currently rewriting Ready, Okay! (his school-shooting comedy novel from 2000-ish). He is also writing a novel version of Photopia (one of the IF games that I don't need to tell you about because everybody in IF knows it). He's got an Indiegogo project to support these efforts. It's labelled "$500 flexible funding", but that's misleading. It's open-ended. The idea is that however much money he makes will go towards full-time writing, as opposed to between-the-cracks-of-the-day-job writing. Or you can support his regular blogging-and-reviews writing through Patreon.

I Hate Zombies: Kevin Wilson has designed a teeny little card game for BoardGameGeek, and they're trying to get it printed. Kevin has been part of the IF community forever -- he ran the very first IFComp in 1995. The game isn't IF-related, though, it's about zombies. "Rock-Paper-Scissors. To the Death!" Just launched, doing nicely.

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All codes have now been distributed

Whew. The game is up, and all of the gifts and promo codes have been sent out. If you didn't receive something you should have received, contact me.

(This was an epic tale involving late-night gnashing of teeth, a lot of confusing problems, and three distinct phone calls to my bank. Rockland Trust, cheers to them, they were very nice and made everything work. Once it was, you know, banker's hours.)

The web site (http://hadeanlands.com/) now has the purchase links for the iOS App Store, Itch.IO, and Humble.

(Note that the game doesn't appear on the Humble Store site itself. I'm using the Humble Widget to sell the download off my own site.)

Also note this excellent write-up of the game by Emily Short. She was a beta-tester, so it is not an unbiased review, but she gets why the game is built the way it is.

The next phase is the physical rewards. (CDs, postcards, posters, etc.) But before I start focussing on those, I am going to take a bit of a victory tour. I will be speaking about Hadean Lands at the WordPlay festival in Toronto (November 8th). I will also be attending (though not speaking at) the Practice conference at NYU.

Now, I just have to get the leaderboard page updated, and go to bed. Going to bed: important.

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Zarfplan: Less than 24 hours now

App Store approval came through on the 25th. Everything is now queued up to launch the game on the 30th. Again, that web site: http://hadeanlands.com/

Let me reiterate the launch process, now that I know (nearly) all the details.

At one minute after midnight (Eastern time), I will update the web site to show Hadean Lands on sale.

Next, I will send out a batch of email containing Humble and Itch.IO keys. The email will be marked "From: support@zarfhome.com", so keep an eye on your spam filters. Emails should all go out by 2 AM Eastern time.

The iOS app, again, is tricky. I have to employ several different mechanisms and the help of some generous volunteers. (Generous with their time, I mean. I'm covering all the costs.) So the iOS apps will go out in several batches at various times. I hope that they'll all be credited to your accounts by the evening of the 30th.

I wanted to make this perfectly simultaneous, but perfection was not available. I apologize.

The details: if your iTunes account is based in Great Britain, Canada, Germany, or Finland, you will receive the iOS app gifted from one of my volunteers. (Thanks to Juhana Leinonen, Christoph Ender, Brian Lavelle, and Tucker McKinnon for helping!) If you are in another non-US country, you will receive a code in email from support@zarfhome.com; redeem it in iTunes. If you are in the US, you will receive the app gifted from me; the exact time depends on arrangements with my bank.

If you have trouble getting the app, or if you fail to get email that you think you should receive, contact support@zarfhome.com and I'll fix it.

Finally: I will be running... not a contest, exactly. But I'd like to track who solves Hadean Lands first, or at least who makes the most progress in the first week.

I've set up a "Leaderboard" page on the web site. ("Leaderboard" is a silly word for a puzzle adventure game, but it's what everybody recognizes.) If you want to show up on it, tweet to the hashtag #HadeanLands when you complete a ritual for the first time or visit an interesting room for the first time. I'll keep an eye on the hashtag and update the page with your progress.

(I'm updating the page by hand, so don't expect instant results. As I said, I'll only be doing it for the first week or so. There is no prize for this other than the glory of your Twitter-handle in lights.)

(And, obviously, the leaderboard page will have some spoilers! It won't give away puzzle solutions, but it will reveal the names of rituals and actions that you might not have discovered yet.)

That's all I've got. Final preparations tomorrow, and then at midnight -- the magic begins.

Good luck to everybody. Including me.

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Zarfplan: Awaiting approval

On November 1, 2010, I opened a Kickstarter project for an iOS text adventure.

Last night I submitted the Hadean Lands iOS app for App Store approval. (And also uploaded it to the Itch.IO and Humble distribution platforms.)

As I said, this will be a simultaneous release on all platforms. So we're now at Apple's mercy -- not an unfamiliar feeling for modern game developers. According to the charts, the iOS approval process is currently running about eleven days. (I'm used to five or six days, but I figure they're swamped with app updates for iOS8 and the newest phones.)

I am targetting October 30 as the launch day. That means you'll be playing the game on the fourth anniversary of the Kickstarter launch. Tidy! If it looks like approval is going to run longer, I'll let you all know.

In the meantime, you can take a gander at the Hadean Lands web site, which is now up and running. The map is the game's big "feelie". Old Infocom fans will get a kick out of the IF sample transcript -- no spoilers for the game itself, just an example of how alchemical IF plays out.

So what will happen on (I hope) Oct 30?

  • You will see the game appear in the iOS App Store. (Don't buy it yet!)
  • You will see Itch/Humble widgets on the HL web page.
  • If you asked for an Itch/Humble download key, you will get email (from me) containing that key.
  • If you asked for an iOS app, you will get email (from Apple) notifying you that the app has been credited to your iTunes account.

The last bit is the tricky one. I will be gifting the app directly to all US-based backers. But Apple doesn't allow gifting between countries. So if you're outside the US (or your iTunes account is), I'll have to do some dancing.

Here's what I figure: for the major countries (UK, Canada, Australia, a few others) I will pick somebody I know and PayPal them a bunch of money. That person can then do the gifting. If you're the only person from your country, I'm afraid I'm going to have to contact you directly and PayPal you US $5 -- then you can just buy the app.

(I will be contacting you directly to talk about PayPal matters.)

I realize this is a hassle, and it may take extra time for non-US backers to get their iOS app. I'm sorry; I don't know a better way to do this. (Other than opening bank accounts in a dozen different countries, which I can't manage.) I was hoping that a solution would turn up before the game was finished... Fortunately, none of this hassle applies to the Itch/Humble downloads, so those will all go out on time.

I still have not started to plan the physical rewards. One thing at a time.

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Zarfplan: State of the cranking

I have been turning the crank hard and I am tired. Admittedly, there've been a lot of FTL breaks. They get some of the blame for me being tired.

As you recall, a beta version went out to testers on September 8th. Since then, I have gotten loads of transcripts... five megabytes of transcripts! With 16000 commands! All of which I've read through!

Yes, I'm posting these statistics just to impress you with my diligence. A lot of that transcript-reading was "skim through parser errors and player notes." Nonethless, a lot of useful feedback.

The backer surveys have gone out. I have heard back from 610 backers, about 85% of you. Thanks!

If you are among the disappointing 15%, please check your Kickstarter account for the survey, or send me email. I don't need your email address right away, but I do need the stuff about your iTunes account (Apple ID), Humble Store account, or Itch.IO account.

Also the question about "how do you want to be listed in the credits". It will be difficult for me to make corrections to the credits list after the game ships. For various technical reasons, when you update an IF game file, you break all the old saved games. So I will be doing that cautiously in the iOS version at least.

So, here's where I am with the game.

  • I've dealt with most of the typos, bugs, suggested features, and other issues from the test transcripts. There are a few places where the game needs additional clueing; I have to think about those.

  • I have redone the cover art. Have a look. This is the same design as I used in 2010 for the Kickstarter page, but it's snazzier and has more Dürer. So that's a win.

  • I have built the iOS app and tested it on iOS8.

  • I've done all the app icons and launch images. (If you're an iOS developer, you know what a pain that is.)

  • The in-app catalog of alchemical recipes works, and correctly syncs to your game progress. It's still ugly, though.

Still to finish:

  • I need to extract the backer names (and nicknames, and "anonymous") from the Kickstarter survey results and stuff them into the game.

  • I've just barely started drawing the map. I've laid out the rooms and started laying down the graphical style, but there's a lot of work to do there.

  • Then I will have to integrate the map into the iOS app. (Tap to go to a room, etc.) The map will also be downloadable as an image on the web site, so nobody will miss out on it.

  • De-uglifying the in-app catalog of recipes. (Alchemy looks terrible in the default Helvetica font, and the font sizes are wrong on both iPhone and iPad.)

  • The help text in the iOS app works, but it's generic IF help right now. (Actually it all refers to Dreamhold because that's what I copied over.) I will have to describe the HL-specific commands.

  • Optimization. The game is playable as far back as iPhone 4 and iPad 1, but commands aren't speedy. I suspect the slowdown comes from the auto-save mechanisms (which allow you to launch the app and find yourself where you left off, and also support "UNDO"). I need to check into that and, if possible, speed up that code. If not, try to speed up something else.

  • I will need to set up the http://hadeanlands.com/ web site. (Right now it's a redirect to the KS page.) It will just be a couple of pages -- links to the App Store, Humble Widget, and Itch.IO buying points, plus promo stuff. ("Why you want to buy this game...") And the map.

  • I should probably write a goofy sample IF transcript like Infocom always did. Those were fun.

  • Build a script to mail out Humble/Itch keys.

  • Submit to iOS App Store. Await approval.

  • Pull the giant launch lever. (The game will be simultaneously available via Humble, Itch, and iOS App Store. Or as close to simultaneous as I can get. Within hours, anyhow.)

So that's where we are. It's looking more like "mid-October" than "early October", and I apologize for the continued slippage. But we're converging. I'm counting in weeks, and the number is decreasing.

In the meantime, I hear that IFComp games will appear "mmsometime Wednesday", and that's today. So play some of those!

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Zarfplan: We have beta stage

Last night at 8 pm I tagged a branch, compiled a release build, ran the end-to-end test script, and pinged the testers about where to download it. Hadean Lands is now in beta.

(If you chose the "access to the closed beta-testing phase" backer reward, and you haven't gotten email from me, please contact me for testing info. Assuming you still want to test, I mean.)

This momentous day is a good time for some announcements!

Hadean Lands will be available both as an iOS app and as a portable (Glulx) game file. The Glulx version will be playable on Mac, Windows, Linux, and anything else that the (open-source) interpreter can be ported to. I expect to sell the Glulx version through the Humble Widget and through the Itch.IO game download service. The sticker price will be $5 no matter where you buy it from.

All backers will get the Glulx version as a free download. Yes, every person who backed me. Even if you contributed just a dollar; even if you asked for your money back; everybody. This wasn't part of the original Kickstarter plan, but you deserve something extra for waiting this long.

I am going to ship the game first, and physical rewards later. People signed up for postcards and posters and CDs and calligraphy and all that good stuff. It will all happen! But I am not going to worry about any of it until you have playable copies of the game.

(Footnote to the above: I do not plan to be on the Humble Store or in any bundle. I'm just going to use the Humble tool for selling downloadable content. I might wind up on the Humble Store at some point in the future.)

What's the timeline? Later this week I will send out the dreaded Kickstarter backer questionnaires -- one for everybody, one for people who get physical rewards. These will cover shipping addresses, App Store account names, whether you want your Glulx download from Humble or Itch.IO, and so on.

Beyond that, I have several tasks still in front of me, including cover art, a map, a web site, and integrating the game into my iOS framework. Plus the time it will take Apple to approve the app. I'm allocating a month. That's not a hard deadline, but as a rough target, think "early October" as our ship date.

This means that HL is likely to ship in the middle of IFComp voting. This is a right nuisance but we'll have to manage. I can't promise to get HL out before IFComp starts, and it would be stupid to delay it until after IFComp is over.

One of the tasks of my list is "the expectations-setting blog post". I was half-joking when I wrote it, but I think this is a good time to talk about how Hadean Lands has come out.

  • Hadean Lands is a hard game. Eight people have been working on the first (July) test release, and none of them have made it even halfway through (which is how much was implemented in July). Obviously nobody has been playing full-time for two months (or even for two weeks), and testers have not yet started to cooperate on puzzle-solving. But it is safe to say that this game will be a challenge for a solo solver.

  • HL does not come with hints. In an ideal world, every puzzle game would ship with hints, but this is not that world. Adding a comprehensive hint system would add months to the development cycle, and I'm not going to do that. Instead, I will point everybody to a forum thread and say "Exchange hints here!" (This approach worked fine for Counterfeit Monkey.)

  • HL is more about puzzles than story. As with The Dreamhold, I put in some background information which implies a story. I hope that is interesting. But your play experience will be about the puzzles.

  • HL involves a lot of typing. (My end-to-end test run is 1280 player commands. That's not absolutely minimal, but it gives you the order of magnitude of the thing.) You might say, what, I'm going to play a thousand-command text adventure on my iPhone? Well, that's one reason you get a desktop version for free. (I hope to have a way to exchange save files between iOS and Dropbox.)

Despite everything I've said... this is the game that I intended to make. It does what I wanted it to do. Oh, there's always a long list of failed dreams trailing behind any game -- everything you hoped it might do, which didn't work out because no game can do everything. But I stand behind this thing.

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Zarfplan: August: the endgame

The month is not over, but I am heading to DragonCon for a week. So you get your report early. Conveniently this allows me to report "not quite done yet" without too much slippage past my mid-August deadline. And without smacking into the more realistic end-of-August deadline.

It's not quite done yet! But at least the update posts are getting closer together, right?

At this point the entire puzzle-line of the game is playable. That is, you can start at the beginning and solve every puzzle. (Without using cheat or debug commands.) This doesn't end the game; it leaves you in a state marked "endgame", although "denoument" would be a better term. It's the wrapping-up sequence which leads to the ending text. There are no puzzles here, but it's an interactive sequence. At least, probably interactive.

I've intentionally left the denoument flexible -- or, if you like, "undesigned" -- because I didn't think I could construct it without the whole of the game in my subconscious. It's the last whiff of my "implement the first scene first, then the next scene, and so on until the end" plan. I stick to that rule for short games. It would have been impossible for HL, but I am writing the last scene last.

So that's the last task, mostly. Plus I have a few bits of background color to fill in, and the extremely annoying travel bug that I mentioned last time. And there are still 59 "TODO" marks in the source code; I should look through them and (mostly) delete them silently.

I will do some of this work at DragonCon. (What? Travel is good thinking time. I can't convent for a week straight. There'll be a lot of time alone in a hotel room, or wandering around a strange city.)

At the farthest limit, I will have it all wrapped up in the first week of September. I will then pass the complete playable draft around to the beta testers, and start looking at the iOS work.

I will also write another update post at that point. So -- you'll hear from me in less than two weeks. At that point I'll be able to talk more about the process of Shipping The Damn Thing. Strange and scary as that prospect may sound.

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IF meetup at WordPlay, Toronto, Nov 8th

We would like to invite the IF world to show up and hang out at WordPlay in Toronto on November 8th. (Free admission.) That whole weekend, really -- we'll have some kind of dinner and stuff.

For the past few years, the Boston IF gang has hosted community get-togethers in association with various local game-related shindigs. (First PAX East, then NoShowConf.)

What with one thing and another, that's not happening in Boston this summer. (Although we will be in attendance at BostonFIG in September.)

However! Jim Munroe is running his second annual WordPlay festival in Toronto on November 8th. This seems like an excellent opportunity to declare a get-together. So let's do that.

(Discussion on forum thread: http://www.intfiction.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=14961)

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Zarfplan: July: almost done

A month ago I wrote: "I am still fairly confident that I will have a complete, testable game at the end of July." I halfway made it. I have a testable game! ...but it's not complete.

On July 17th I sent mail to the backers who chose the "access to the closed beta-testing phase" reward. (And also to select friends, because what's the point of being in a local IF meetup group if you can't hit them up for some beta-testing.)

At that point I had a version of HL which was playable roughly halfway through. That is, the game was maybe 90% written, but I stuck a barrier at a particular point and said "Play-test up to here. Everything up to this point is 100% complete. Past that, eh, there are a lot of holes."

So for the past two weeks, a few intrepid players have been trying out "chapter one". And sending me transcripts. Useful transcripts! At the same time, I have been pushing forward on the latter part of the game. Filling in holes. Dotting i's, crossing t's.

It's not 100% yet. This game has more i's and t's than an interstitial Italianate witticism about intermittent tintinnabulation at the Interutilitiarian Hittite Institute at Ytterby. However:

All the rooms are done. I couldn't let you folks wait on rooms for another month. As of July 23, the room-counter widget says "93 of 92 rooms are described." ...Yes, off-by-one error there, sorry. The game has a couple of dummy and debugging rooms and I screwed up the accounting. There are 92 actual rooms, and they are all properly described and furnished.

I have almost completed "chapter two". This is where the game scenery starts to change, so it involved some messy things-moving-around code. The code works; I'm missing a few descriptions.

I have done another optimizing pass and sped up a bunch of display code. I've followed up on a bunch of suggestions that came from my testers. I've added a very clever "GO BACK" command which takes you back to the last room you were in. (So you can type "GO TO KITCHEN", grab something, and then "GO BACK".)

What's left?

Three major rituals in "chapter three". One extremely annoying travel bug. A bunch of descriptions pertaining to things that change in that part of the game. Solidification of the ending scene, which I have hitherto only lightly sketched out because you can't write a decent ending without a game to build it on.

There are 109 "TODO" marks in the source code as of this evening. Don't take this as very meaningful; I've never shipped an IF game that didn't have a handful of "TODO" marks left in it.

When I sent out the test emails I promised that a complete test version would be ready in "mid-August". I still hold to that, although "mid" is intentionally vague. I would really like to get a final test going by the last week of August, because that's when I take off for DragonCon.

There we are. If I don't get completely blindsided by something, the next update post will report the completion of Inform programming for HL. There will still be iOS work to do, plus whatever bugs the testers turn up.

(Other words I considered for the "crossing t's" gag above: tripartite, zwitterion, tritium, irritability, invitation, totalitarian, instinctive, titular.)

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Trying out itch.io

itch.io is a quick-and-easy platform for distributing indie games. I figured I'd take a look at it; it's a possible way to distribute Hadean Lands in the non-iOS world.

After a few hours of CSS massaging, I now have three of my old IF games posted:

Shade and S&W have donation buttons on them. I've never tried that before; we'll see how it does.

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Zarfplan: June is getting there

Happy Canada Day (and pretend I said that in French). 82 out of 90 rooms complete.

I'm not really measuring progress in rooms any more. There were only a few days this month that I'd mark as "wrote some rooms". June was mostly spent on underlying mechanisms which are not located in specific rooms; they're spread through the game. I don't want to get spoilery at this late date, but I have implemented large swaths of code for:

  • dragons
  • human figures
  • shadows
  • doors that change state
  • progressive starting conditions
  • ritual environments
  • looking through magical lenses at all sorts of things
  • the alternative to sheets of paper
  • the problem of trying to create two doses of some potion when I've only implemented one
  • a cigarette lighter

The cigarette lighter was a late addition. Some rituals require you to set stuff on fire. There's a couple of fire sources in the game, and you can light a bit of wood and carry that around, so it's all workable. But carrying around flaming bits of wood turned out to be annoying. They burn out. You have to get more. It felt like an imposition. So yesterday morning I said "Why doesn't this chem lab have handy butane lighters, anyhow? Real labs do."

(I don't call it a "butane lighter", or a "cigarette lighter" either, but a pocket flame source is a pocket flame source. Perhaps you have fond memories of So Far.)

So I can't put the nail in the room-list this month, but I have checked off lots of the game's remaining tasks. I am still fairly confident that I will have a complete, testable game at the end of July. That could slip partway into August, because every task list has a "last 90%" that trails off into infinity. But the game is filling out fast, and it feels like I finished half of the remaining job last month.

I am excited. And nervous.

Again, there's a chunk of work to do after the "complete game" milestone. I'll need to polish the iOS interface and build its eccentricities. (I'm thinking a tappable encyclopedia of rituals, which updates as you discover them. That will save a lot of "RECALL TARNISH RITUAL" commands. And then there's the tappable map, of course.) So August at least is scheduled for that stuff. But I will have beta-test reports coming in as I do the iOS work, so I can parallelize.

Other June news:

For the first anniversary of Seltani, I posted a little puzzle Age called Salvanas. (That link will take you straight into the game world, although you'll have to sign in to solve everything.) No story, just a collection of Myst-style puzzles -- only in text, of course. Statistics indicate that only seven people have completed it to date! Surely this can be improved.

I also got my butt in gear and posted the source code for nearly all of my Inform games. I've always had the source for Hunter, Shade, and Heliopause on my web site; I've now added Dreamhold, Spider and Web, So Far, and several others. (All are under a "for educational/academic interest" license rather than an open-source license.) If you're curious about Inform 7 source code -- or Inform 6, or actually Inform 5 for the oldest ones -- dive on in.

I've been taking a look at new distribution platforms. If you saw Shade on itch.io for pay-what-you-want, would you pay a dollar? I could set that up. There's also the Humble Store, although that's got an application process and their developer FAQ is a bit thin.

And finally, the 2014 Interactive Fiction Competition is open! Gaze in awe at the brand-new web site, built and run by our blog-host Jmac. Sign-ups and prize donations are now being accepted.

See you at the end of July. With a little luck, I will be into the final stage of development by then.

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Old Zarf code

In a recent blog post, I wrote: "Maybe we'll even make more of a swing towards releasing game source code."

That thought stuck with me. I asked myself why I haven't posted the source code for all my classic IF games.

Some, I have. I posted source for Hunter in Darkness, Shade, and Heliopause because I thought other game authors might be interested in the techniques. But the larger games (Dreamhold, So Far, Spider and Web) have never had public source releases.

Why not? I didn't put it in words, but roughly: players should experience the game, not the software. If there are secrets, they should be ferreted out by people playing the game, not people browsing the source.

Of course there are Z-code decompiling tools, so I can't truly enforce this. Nor would I want to go down the DRM/obfuscation road to stop people from prying. That would just be a huge waste of my time. But if people wanted to pry into the technology, I wanted them to have to expend some effort. That friction matched my feelings about the right way to play the game.

Only I don't feel that way any more. I can't remember why I ever gave a snort.

Oh, I suppose I do a little. When a game is freshly released and players attack it en masse, the idea still applies -- I want the group experience to be about the game. But a year later? It's meaningless. And some of these games are fifteen years old, or older.

So yeah. It's time to knock that habit over. Here are some source links:

The I5/I6 games are tar.gz files, because for each I had to pack several source files together with the hacked library code that I used. The I7 games are directly readable as (syntax-colored) HTML.

All of these can be compiled with Inform 5, Inform 6, or Inform 7. The exception is Delightful Wallpaper, which was built with a 2006 version of I7 that's no longer available from the web site. I'd have to update the source to recompile it.

I have not used an open-source license. The games all say what Shade has always said: "This source code is provided for personal, educational use only." You can read it, and copy the programming techniques, but you can't make derivative games. (That is: my game text is copyrighted and I intend to keep hold of it.)

(Academic writing about my games is of course fine. That's fair use in the old-fashioned sense.)

(Fanfic -- riffing on the story or characters while using original text -- is another barrel of cephalopods. I figure I'm in the same position there as any other writer. You've always been able to read my story text, as part of the game, and my source release doesn't change that.)

Hadean Lands is an interesting question. I'm going to charge money for that one; it changes the equation. I guess I'll wait a year after release, and decide whether I feel like doing a source release then? Feels right.

(One of the HL Kickstarter rewards was the source code as a printed volume. I won't wait a year on that, obviously. But that was a limited reward, and will only be distributed on paper, not online; so I'm leaving it out of this discussion.)

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Zarfplan: May report, counting down

Last month: 45 out of 86 rooms complete. This month: 65 out of 89 rooms complete. I did twenty rooms in the past month. The total grew because I decided to split one room in half, and then added two tiny closets.

This covers most of "chapter 1" of the game. In exploring this far, the player can reach 66 rooms and nearly all of the rituals of the game. (It's the tool-collection stage of the story.) Figuring out how the tools fit together is "chapter 2", and that's how you reach the last 23 rooms -- the tricky ones.

It's not all about reaching rooms. There's a lot of... unlocking cabinets? Okay, cabinets aren't much different from rooms. No, the fun of the game (I hope) is in trying to reach certain locations with certain items. It's fairly easy to enter room X if you use up resource R, but to bring resource R into room X is harder. That sort of thing is "chapter 3".

So the game will involve a lot of backtracking. (Yes, I've implemented a "go to room X" command.) This is why I can't just say "I will implement 24 more rooms and be finished." I will probably implement 20-ish rooms in June, but there are several crucial rituals which occur in existing rooms, and I've been saving those for the end. July is for those.

I still expect to move into testing at the end of July.

Then I have to draw a map, polish the iOS interpreter, and work on other presentation issues. But hopefully I can do that in parallel with testing.

Other news...

The new Inform 7 release arrived on May 7th. People leapt on it with gusto. It's very nice. I've decided I'm not going to shift HL development to it, though. It has no features that I need, and while it's faster in some ways, it's slower in others. Plus -- the time factor. I could easily blow a couple of months updating all my code and validating that it all works the way I expect in the new system. That would be a bad use of my time at this point. So I'll stick to the compiler I've been using.

I have been playing around with an in-game debugger for Inform 6 games. (Built into the Glulxe interpreter, actually.) This is not very useful for I7 games, because it only tells you about the fiddly I6 internals. But it's already helped diagnose a few fiddly bugs. See this source branch and this file if you're interested.

The one-year anniversary of Seltani is coming up soon. I can't let that slip by unobserved, so I'm cooking up a small set of puzzle Ages. Should be fun.

I went to Balticon! It was a fine (working) vacation. (I didn't implement any rooms while away, but I did implement two cabinets.) There was no Lost Pig, but I took part in a handful of panels about IF, narrative game design, and so on. All went well. (Okay, three of them went well. The one on mobile app development fell kind of flat. Next time, I'm sticking to narrative/game topics.)

Speaking of conventions, BostonFIG is coming up again in September. The Boston IF group plans to host IF events there, like we did last year, but we haven't gotten down to specifics yet.

I briefly considered demoing Hadean Lands at FIG. However, friendly voices (thank you jscott) pointed out that it would be tacky to demo the game in public before my backers have seen it. True! So I'm thinking about other game ideas I might whip together by September. The entry deadline is June 20th, so I'd have to whip rapidly, but it might happen...

See you in a month, with -- I hope -- the last room-count progress report.

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Purposes of archiving

This was a big week for IF events -- Spring Thing ended and ShuffleComp voting started. There were unexpected wrinkles in both of them, but I want to discuss the less dramatic one.

ShuffleComp is a music-themed game-jam-like event. I won't do the whole spiel; basically you get a song list and you're supposed to write a short game inspired by one of the songs. I didn't enter, but Jmac did, and he got all electrified about the idea of using Seltani. (Which is... do you read this blog? It's my multiplayer text Myst MUD project from last year.)

So Jmac implemented his idea, and that was great until he re-read the rules and saw:

The only restriction on platforms is that the game you submit must be playable as-is, not reliant on being hosted on a specific server or website. (This doesn't forbid hosting elsewhere - but if your game breaks if hosted on the IF Archive or played offline, that's a problem.)

Our topic for today is: why is the IF Archive, and how does that role change as IF changes?

(Spoiler: I do not have tidy answers. Best I can do is pare the questions into neat slices.)

(Footnote: The ShuffleComp organizer wound up disqualifying Jmac's game, with apologies all round and no ill will. Jmac has posted his game link on his own web site. You should jump into Seltani and try it.)


That ShuffleComp rule implies (and supports) a particular view of how games are to be managed. People write games; the organizer collects them; the organizer posts them as a big zip file; players download them and play them; the Archive saves them forever. There may be additional affordances for online play, but the big zip file is fundamental.

This set of assumptions is neither universal nor arbitrary. Various events and competitions in the IF world have different rules and models. But they generally represent the general consensus agreements of the IF community, which include "long-term archiving is good" and "players should be able to save playable copies of games".

...Except of course "the IF community" covers a lot more ground than it used to. The IF Archive accepts Twine games, but the Twine community has no general consensus that all their games should be uploaded to the Archive. (Some authors do, the majority don't.) There are hosting sites for Twine games (e.g. philome.la) but I don't know if they are operated with the same assumptions of long-term archiving.

These are technical issues as well as cultural issues. Or, I should say, cultural issues define technical issues. IF games in my world can nearly always be distributed as simple files -- one game, one file. Why? Because I wanted a way for people to upload IF games with graphics to the IF Archive! A single-file format fit the way we did things in the 90s, so I wrote up the Blorb spec. That let us keep doing things that way. But Twine came out of a different community.

(Okay, Twine came from Chris Klimas who was also in our community in the 90s. Nonetheless -- different goals, different needs.)

Obviously, Seltani also breaks the one-downloadable-file assumption. Let's not get into the question of whether Jmac's game needed to be built in Seltani. Assume that in the future, more IF will come along that undermines our archiving assumptions. We can imagine many possible reasons:

  • Inherently multiplayer games
  • Games that draw on real-time Internet data (Twitter, current news headlines, etc)
  • ARG-style games that are hosted on social media services for reasons of authenticity
  • "Living" games, where only one "live" copy exists and is passed from player to player
  • Games built in proprietary web services
  • Commercial games, where the author does not want free copies distributed
  • Games that run afoul of parochial laws
  • ...?

These are not hypotheticals in the IF world. Consider Blueful, Winterstrike, Naked Shades, the whole Versu story, etc.

The question is, how do we support our desire to save stuff without stifling or rejecting IF in these categories?


Archiving covers many needs, so let's split that up as well.

  • Long-term preservation: you want to play a game years after the original web site has vanished.
  • Short-term offline use: you want to download a game and play it without direct Internet access.
  • Medium-term reference: you are writing a web page about IF games (i.e. your games, or a specific competition) and you want to link to the games without hosting your own copies.
  • Discoverability: having all games on the same web site makes it easier to find things.
  • Academic study: you want to learn how a game was constructed.

We should note that the IF community (and IF Archive) are not equally interested in all of these things. The Archive is famously terrible for search -- or it was, until IFDB came along. (And IFDB can index games anywhere, so it does not directly boost the "all games on the same server" goal.)

Also, while we're fans of archiving games, there's no broad agreement to archive source code. Future academics may be more interested in source files than in game files, but most game authors don't upload it. (I have posted source for some of my games, but on my web site rather than the Archive.)

(Ironically, Twine is more accessible in this way, because Twine games are constructed in Javascript. They always contain their own source.)

Here, too, culture influences goals. And vice versa. It's not a stretch to say that the IF community-as-we-know-it is the Archive; we're the people who have this shared history. But also: by clinging to this shared history, we are conservative. (In all senses.) We are biased against completely new solutions, because they don't fit our models.

So we come back to the topic: how do we proceed?

The immediate answer is, as usual, save something. Save some files. Seltani has an export facility, so you can get the "source code" of your Age. It's not playable (since I never got around to an import facility) but it may make an academic happy someday.

Besides, I will write that import facility someday. Then it will be easier to try out Seltani worlds offline. Not easy, because the software is a hassle to set up -- but if my server dies someday, somebody else could reinstate some part of it.

This demonstrates the next answer, which is that if you're designing an IF system... think about this stuff. There are no requirements, but there are questions. Does it make sense to export source? Does it make sense to build a single-file package of a game? Can you document your format? (You've already thought about whether you can be open-source; that question hovers around every software design project.)

I will say, from the perspective of having done this for twenty years -- the history is important. I can talk about the games I wrote in 1995 and people can play them. Twine was invented five years ago and didn't start to boom for a couple of years after that. In 2030, the early history of Twine will be important! People will want to know what was going down! That history is part of what you are building today; don't neglect it.

Okay end of lecture.

I expect that IF events will continue to say either "must be archivable" (like ShuffleComp) or "is your game archivable?" (like IFComp). All the reasons above apply. Maybe we'll even make more of a swing towards releasing game source code.

I encourage people to chime in on this. Which of the above goals of archiving are important to you? Or did I miss some? What games have come out that slid past the IF community because they didn't fit our way of thinking?


(See also previous post: Everything I know about digital preservation.)

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Inform 7 update

Graham Nelson has released a new version of Inform 7, the first in over three years.

This release is a major reform of a now-mature language which is widely used, and it has been over three years in the making. Text handling is better, Inform can now generate adaptive grammar, there's real number support, and a new Public Library of extensions is being introduced. There are significant improvements in the user interface for Mac OS X.

-- the very short form of the very long release notes

Also, the app's ancient-mosaic visual theme has been replaced with a stylish modern subway-map motif. Next thing you know, IF will be considered a 21st-century gig, eh?

My big contribution was the General Index of the documentation. This is a rewrite of the unofficial index I did a few years ago. Finding stuff in the documentation has been a perennial complaint about I7, and I hope this goes some way to fill the gap.

To repeat a word of warning: "This will be a disruptive release." Every major release of I7 has changed enough under the surface to warrant caution, and this one is a bigger shift than most. If you load an existing game project into the new I7, it is not guaranteed to compile -- and if it does build, it is not guaranteed to behave exactly the same. Test carefully, and if you prefer stability, keep your 2010 version of Inform (release 6G60) around. (It should be safe to keep both installed on the same machine.)

To be clear, we expect most old I7 code to still build with the new compiler. The major exceptions are if you used deprecated phrases (such as procedural rules), or if you used an extension that has serious I6 hackery under the covers. Such extensions will have to be updated for the new release. Many have been already; check the new Extensions Library.

(In case you're curious, Hadean Lands will remain a 6G60 project. I've got 25000 lines of working code, and I am not going to risk subtle breakages at this stage.) (Yes, I wrote a lot of regression tests. They're geared towards finding mistakes in my code, not changes in the underlying system.)

Congratulations to Graham and the rest of the I7 team for getting this wrapped up. To everyone else -- enjoy the new toys.

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