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Interactive and text-based game news, whoa, lots

Quite by coincidence, all the IF news of the month has piled up into a 48-hour narrative train wreck. No, that's a morbid metaphor. A 48-hour Volkswagen full of news clowns? I don't think it's getting any better. Skip the metaphor.

Coming in this post: My impressions of Emily Short's Versu! My impressions of Zoe Quinn's Depression Quest! My impression of Stephen Fry! (Not really that last.) First, some news about me.

Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home, my space-opera fairy tale, now joins Shade in the iOS App Store. As with Shade, I've added some illustrations for this iOS port. The art doesn't change the game, but it might make the important aspects of the ship's status easier to grasp.

If you're not familiar with Heliopause, it's a tiny little game that I wrote for @party a couple of years ago. It was inspired by my desire to stretch the traditional time-and-space scale of interactive fiction -- to deal with solar systems and centuries, rather than hand-held objects and minutes. It was also inspired by old pulp and New Wave sci-fi. (Count the literary references!)

Myrmidal is the queen of the bright worlds, and you've walked her million cities beneath her sky and beyond it. Myrmidal laughs and Myrmidal dances; they say no one weeps on Myrmidal, except for moments on the stage.

But even on Myrmidal the sun rises and sets, and the music grows tinny and harsh when you weary of dancing. Your best stories and your best lies draw the same fond laughter. This morning you decide to rise to the docks, and rouse your Horizon of Night from her sleep, and raise her sails. Somewhere are worlds you have never seen. And if your friends miss you at the dance, they can tell you so when you return.

(-- Heliopause, opening)

Related to this note, a new interview with me at Gamasutra, posted (and hosted) by Leigh Alexander. We talk about Shade, Heliopause, and how I think IF works on the small-and-touchy screen.

Over on the purely graphical end of the adventure-game spectrum, I'll note the release of Dagon, a framework for building first-person anamorphic-panning games. (This is the UI style of Myst 3, and of course many other games.)

Dagon is the framework build by Agustín Cordes for his upcoming game Asylum. You may remember the Asylum teaser demo from last summer; if not, it's worth a look. The Dagon scripts for the teaser are included with the download, so you can see how the system works.

Asylum is currently in the middle of a Kickstarter push -- they're 75% of the way to their (ambitious) goal. Kudos to Agustín for pushing out the open-source framework before the game's funding is assured. I hope it helps him hit the mark.

Next on the news list: Emily Short's secret project, which she and Richard Evans have been working on since before they got themselves acquired by Linden Labs.

Versu is an engine for choice-based, conversation-focussed narrative fiction. It is currently available as an iPad app; support for more platforms is planned. What you get right now is a free download with a tutorial, a short adaptation of a scene from Pride and Prejudice, and a longer ("30-45 minute") Gothic-ish story. For $5, you can buy an additional story about a polite family dinner party that turns to... well, I shouldn't spoil it, should I?

I started to write about this thing, but it grew into a full-on review. So I am cutting that loose to be its own post. Up next on the Gameshelf!

But first, the last of today's releases: Depression Quest, a choice-based indie release by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, and Isaac Schankler.

You are a normal person, with a normal job, and a normal girlfriend, and a -- perhaps normal -- lousy feedback loop between your thoughts, your habits, and your biochemistry. Which is to say: depression. You play through a few months of your life, with simple illustrations and a placid, sombre soundtrack. Your decisions all suck.

This is the sort of bleed-on-the-page writing (and game design) which would be mawkishly simplistic if it weren't real, but it is real. You can smell that, even if you don't have depressive tendencies yourself. (I do, as anyone could tell you who knows my preference for writing code in a room with the shades drawn. All week.) If you don't believe that some people are like this, you need to play the game, and pay attention.

Depression Quest is built on Twine. It's exactly the sort of simple graph-based plot that Versu isn't. (Whoops! You haven't read the Versu post yet. Context ordering failure! Well, we'll get back to it.) Look: DQ isn't about its gameplay. The mechanics are simplistic and limiting, and that's the point, right? To underscore the point, half the options are blocked off in any given scene. This has been done before (Rameses is famous in the IF community), but it still works.

Several months ago I played Papo & Yo, which is a similarly honest game. Anna Anthropy's Dys4ia is also coming up in many people's comparisons. Notice how different all of those games are?

I hope nobody thinks that this is "dreary games about life sucking". (We've got the regular game industry for that, right? From Space Invaders to Missile Command, and then an infinity of games about war?) No: this is people communicating their lives, and choosing the interactive medias to do it. We must have this if anything called "game design" is to have a lasting impact. That is all.

I'm not sure how much more I want to say about Depression Quest. It is a free browser-based game. The author is accepting pay-what-you-want donations, of which a portion go to iFred, a education and research organization. (I had trouble with the donation button, so I dropped money directly on iFred. Zoe, if we ever meet up in real life, I owe you a beverage.)

Rather than waft more of my own sentiments around, I will just quote from the game's introduction:

Depression Quest is a game that deals with living with depression in a very literal way. This game is not meant to be a fun or lighthearted experience. If you are currently suffering from the illness and are easily triggered, please be aware that this game uses stark depictions of people in very dark places. If you are suicidal, please stop playing this game and visit this link to talk to someone. [...]

It goes without saying that because of the very nature of depression, it is experienced differently by every person who suffers from it. We aren't trying to say that this is the "best" or "most accurate" representation, merely that this is an amalgamation of the experiences of the developers and several people close to them. Many of the following encounters deal with issues such as therapy, medication, handling a love life, and reaching out to support networks. In reality, less than half of depression sufferers actually seek treatment, for reasons such as lack of money, perceived personal failing, or public stigma. [...]

We've written it this way so that we can focus specifically on the illness, which becomes more and more difficult to deal with as the person who has it is less and less well-off.

(-- Depression Quest, opening)

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Riven news post

The Mystery Hunt is over, after a record-breaking 73 hours. I was pretty much out of solving juice by Saturday afternoon. Sunday night, I tried to help out with an invisible-ink puzzle, and wound up setting the puzzle on fire.

Okay, not on fire as such. It was lightly browned, but the invisible ink wasn't any browner. So much for that. Anyhow, that was my Hunt weekend. Congratulations to the winners, Team [text not available due to copyright restrictions]! Let's talk about something else. Myst news!

First: release of a new Riven for iPad app. You could already play the iPhone Riven port, but this has higher-quality graphics. (Also, as you might guess, a larger download size and another couple of dollars on the price tag.) I took screenshots, in case you feel like comparing:

(Original Riven for iOS on the left, displayed 2x to fill the iPad screen. New Riven for iPad on the right.)

If you want a more modern Riven experience, check out the new tech demo of Starry Expanse. (Mac/Win builds available.) Starry Expanse is a fan-built reimplementation of Riven using Unity. It's still very much in process -- this demo covers just a small segment of one island -- but it gives you the sense of what a true 3D RealRiven could be like. It's got a day-night cycle (highly accelerated for effect), cloud and water effects, and a circling bird. You can ride the elevator up, and even open the spinning dome (vs lbh trg gur gvzvat evtug; pyvpx gur ivrjre ohggba jura gur tbyq flzoby fcvaf cnfg).

Finally, Cyan has posted their Making of Riven video (Facebook video link, GameTrailers video link). This was included on the fancy-extra DVD release of Riven -- I don't think I ever saw it. (Still haven't, actually, as I write this.)

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Announcing Sixis for iPad

Four players with popoverI’m very happy to announce the release of Sixis for iPad. This is an adaptation of the dice game of the same name published by fellow Bostonian Chris Cieslik of Asmadi Games. I became convinced to take it up as a project after overhearing more than one smart friend independently describe the original game as “Yahtzee, except good.” That’s as good an elevator pitch as any, so I’ll just pair that with a note that Sixis works on any iPad running iOS 6, and costs US$1.99 (or your local equivalent).

I still need to cut together a trailer video; a swell of day-job client work carried the chance to do that out of my hands this past week, but I can offer a sort of artist’s statement, which constitutes the remainder of this post. While the core game design is not mine, I did find myself faced with many interesting decisions while crafting this digital adaptation, and I’d like to write a bit about why I chose the paths I took.

I approached this project as a chance to explore my own obsessions about tablet-based tabletop games, and experiment with the form by mixing in both lessons and counterexamples that I’ve seen in the many iPad games I’ve played over the last couple of years.

My choice to limit the form factor to tablets, rather than phones, stems from my specific desire to create something that would lay flat among the players, who would gather around the device, facing one another. In my experience, a pocket-sized screen just doesn’t work for that style of play. More generally, I do not care for “pass and play” board-game digitizations on any screen size. to give only one player at a time complete sensory access to the game strikes me as anathema to tabletop games, which need some common, always-available element (e.g. a game board) to keep players feeling anchored.

Furthermore, I wanted to avoid the need for any sort of card-zoom feature — that is, a button or gesture that would blow up an individual card so that you could read its text more clearly. The original Sixis printed design, to its credit, centers around bold and meaningful die-silhouette graphics that look nice even scaled down, which helped my cause. But players still need to read the little bit of label-text on each card, and limiting my canvas to only larger screens that would keep those labels always legible simplified things significantly.

Four player setupI knew going in that a core goal was absolute simplicity of user experience. I got bolder about this as the project continued, with my deciding to abolish any notion of a tutorial play mode, or even a simple illustrated-text instruction screen. Instead, when you tap PLAY! (the only interactive element on the main “menu”, aside from the show-credits button) the screen displays two things: a simple, one-question-at-a-time game-setup wizard, and three short paragraphs assuring the player that they’ll learn the game by just diving in and following along. The former is my reaction to great iPad tabletop games with nerdy and confusing setup screens, and the latter comes from my increasing lack of patience with well-intentioned game tutorials that feel like they’re forcing you to trudge through through a dull, scripted, and overly chatty pantomime of the game you wish to play before you can actually start having the fun you signed up for.

Therefore, one somewhat risky experiment Sixis runs involves its reliance on embedded help-cues. On each player’s turn, the game dedicates a small bit of the screen to telling them what they can do right now, with that text changing as their turn develops. The idea is that players should never feel confused as to their options at any given moment, but the game still leaves it up to them to piece together how these discrete actions work together into a path towards a goal. The lead-in text briefly defines this goal, telling players that they should collect cards to amass points and flip cards to “raise the stakes”, without getting any more specific. My hope is that, after a couple of go-rounds, players will catch on and see for themselves how the game’s rules mesh, and move on from there to developing strategy. But in the short term, preventing the player from feeling adrift seemed like the very first thing to get right.

This cue-text is not hideable. I tried to design it to fill a role akin to quick-reference text one sometimes find printed in the corners of physical game boards: visible enough to be obvious and helpful to newcomers, but unobtrusive enough to fade beneath notice once one is more experienced. I could have added a user preference to hide this text, but that would have meant adding a user-preference screen at all, the avoidance of which was another of my design goals. iPad Sixis offers you only the game: the less meta-stuff there is to get entangled within, the better.

Glitch tankI didn’t realize it until the project was well underway, but I took a lot of inspiration from Michael Brough’s Glitch Tank, a real-time two-player game for nearly all iOS devices, but which works best on an iPad placed flat between two players. During game setup, one edge of the screen is labeled PLAYER 1 SITS HERE and the other — in text relatively upside-down from the first — PLAYER 2 SITS HERE. I adapted this text, orientation, and placement directly into Sixis; it appears after telling the game how many people are playing, with (if present) Players 3 and 4 instructed to sit along the remaining two edges. From that point on, each player’s perspective into the game board remains fixed.

As in both Glitch Tank or an analog board game, the view does not spin itself around to face each player in turn, nor does it expect you to spin the iPad itself around. Taking a cue from both Glitch Tank as well as “cocktail” form-factor coin-operated games of yore, every player receives their very own set of controls, affixed to their own side of the board and rotated appropriately. During their turn, the cue-text hustles itself to an area of the screen out of the current players’ way, and rotates itself so that it’s rightside-up only for them. While all that’s going on, the inactive players can continue to survey the board, take stock of their own situation, and plan ahead, all without having to deal with any dizzying between-turn changes in screen orientation.

Like Glitch Tank, cocktail games, or real board games — but rather unlike the majority of iPad board game adaptations — you cannot set players’ on-screen names at all. In early builds I took the more typical route of offering customizable names, but then I observed that after a few plays testers would just accept the default “Player N” handles in order to start playing faster. Despite its ubiquity, I concluded that this activity represents a completely unnecessary obstacle. If there’s no need to prepare name-placards for every player when playing with real dice, why introduce it digitally? So, out it went. I replaced it with a fun, discoverable (I hope!) die-color-chooser, featuring all six die-colors that ship with Asmadi’s Sixis edition. As testers pointed out to me, piece-color is a much stronger source of identity when playing tabletop games than name-labels.

As to why the game requires iOS 6 (thus excluding itself from first-generation iPads), doesn’t offer network play, or runs only on Apple-branded hardware: All these are choices I made to favor getting a nights-and-weekends project released relatively quickly and with a fair bit of testing and polish. All these suggest improvements that I could introduce in future updates, in the order listed at the start of this paragraph, as that’s also an order of increasing difficulty and time commitment. It will depend entirely on the success of the current version, and any other sources of motivation I might receive. But for now, I am very pleased with what I have accomplished, and I would very much welcome your own thoughts on it.

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Why I love Hero Academy

Robot Entertainment’s Hero Academy is my favorite new videogame of 2012, and far and away the best original-to-platform tabletop game I have enjoyed on iOS. I have felt more intense highs and lows playing this strictly player-versus-player game than any other videogame of the last year, to the point where it rekindles my interest in tablet games and their potential for great multiplayer experiences. Beyond that, I admire the publisher’s sales approach, and hope that it becomes a model for other game studios to follow.

On reflection, the fiero that fills me when a Hero Academy sally goes well (and the hunger for same I feel when things go badly) is identical to the thrill of a face-to-face boardgame that’s really engaged my attention. I credit this to Hero Academy’s various smart design nudges that make starting (and, subsequently, managing) games with real-live opponents a pleasure, doing it better than any cardboard-to-digital adaptation I’ve seen so far. It helps remind me why I tend to treasure my experiences with great multiplayer games far more than any solitaire game.

Hero Academy presents a simple two-player wargame with fantasy-RPG trappings. Players alternate turns of five actions apiece, maneuvering pieces on on a shared nine-by-five grid. Each player has a Scrabble-style rack of seven available pieces they can play, hidden from their opponent: some combination of heroes (this game’s equivalent of chessmen), powerups that affect individual heroes, and one-off magic spells. Playing a piece to the board counts as an action, as does moving a hero already on the board. To win, a player must accomplish one of two goals: either eliminate all their opponent’s heroes, or destroy all their opponent’s “victory crystals”, tough but vulnerable targets located on the opposite half of the board. Generally, one accomplishes this with one’s heroes, all of whom have move-and-attack patterns that vary with type, and many of which have extra powers such as healing allies or weakening distant opponent pieces.

While heroes have “hit points” and animatedly bonk each other with swords and lightning bolts and such, the game contains none of an actual RPG’s dice-rolling: the outcome of every move is transparently deterministic, and the game takes pains to make every action’s modifiers (such as a powered-up weapon or an on-board defense-boosting square) clearly labeled, effectively preventing any unwelcome “why did that just happen?” moments. A Knight unit, for example, will always deal base damage of exactly 200 to an enemy hero or crystal. If he’s on an attack-boost square, that will add 100 points, but if the target’s player has equipped it with armor, it’ll reduce that blow’s damage by 60 points.

These sorts of stacked modifiers can get a bit hairy, so the game softens the risk of analysis paralysis by giving the current player a safe transactional space to experiment with their five allotted actions. They can spend, take back, and re-spend them as many times as they like, exploring the full possibility-space of their current position until they settle on a satisfactory outcome, at which point they tap the “Submit Turn” button. I find this an ingenious way to let players feel like they are always in control of their game — not once have I ever felt that I ended a turn too early by accident, the way that I quite often do with other turn-based iPad games.

Taking a cue from tabletop games like Brawl, each player starts play by selecting a “team” that is essentially a bag of pieces (or a deck of cards, if you like) of predefined composition. There are (at present) four available teams, each themed around various western fantasy tropes; everyone starts with the Council, comprising a familiar fighter/wizard/cleric/ranger quartet, along with a selection of healing potions and fireball spells. Other teams, like the steampunky Dwarves or the goblinoid Tribe, feature different loadouts of heroes and equipment, and are acquirable as in-app purchases. Robot clearly cares about keeping all these teams mutually balanced, and very occasionally releases mandatory updates that boost or nerf various units’ capabilities a bit to keep things even.

Players don’t have control over what they draw onto their rack, either at the start of a game or after their turn, when they replace played pieces. These are essentially blind draws from a bag containing their remaining pieces, and this represents the sole purview of luck in Hero Academy. The fixed teams keep this from being an exercise in total randomness, however; wise players will know the composition of both teams, track both contestants’ expenditures, and plan accordingly. To me, this feels just right: play remains satisfyingly strategic, with just enough unpredictability to keep things tense and give weaker players a fighting chance, but not so much that good play ever goes unrewarded. (I think often of Greg Costikyan’s excellent lecture on the role of luck in strategic games, when I think of Hero Academy.)

Hero Academy takes the correct approach among turn-based digital games in welcoming asynchronous (a.k.a. “play-by-mail”) play; players are free to quit the app and attend to other matters at any time, and the game will continue as long as they take their turn within a week or two of their opponent’s last move. (Terminal slowpokes are punished with an automatic loss, though the game is nice enough to pop up an iOS-notification warning about imminent forfeiture.) To mitigate the waiting-time brought about by opponents selfishly having a life, Hero Academy allows one to play many games in parallel, giving you an easy and obvious UI to hop between them. I find my play-style to be rather bursty, taking a bunch of turns across a bunch of games, and then letting the whole thing stew for a few days. I’ve been playing this way for months, and it’s lovely.

The game has no AI players, which I find a bold and interesting move on the part of the designers. There’s no reason inherent to the rules of a turn-based game like this to omit them, and in fact their absence initially seemed quite counterintuitive to me, particularly given the amount of care and polish that went into this work; the conventional wisdom for digital strategy games states that they must always offer a single-player mode. Hero Academy, however, wants you to always play against other people, and if you don’t have a friend to play with, it directs you to start a new game against a random opponent. (Or, indeed, ten new games against random opponents.) Enough people play this game that such requests get filled quickly, and with each instance you’re playing against a wholly unfamiliar mind who might possess any skill level and play style possible. I find the turn latency that human opponents require a price worth paying for the unscripted uncertainty they also bring.

A downside of this, combined with Hero Academy’s pricing structure, means that any random game you start is likely as not to be against a brand-new player, taking the title for a trial spin. In many cases, these players will take between zero and three turns before deciding the game’s not their thing and walking away, handing you a thoroughly unexciting victory when the turn-timer expires several days later. But even though this might happen with as many as half of the random-opponent games I’ve start, I forget them quickly because the other half of the games I start take up all my attention, by virtue of their actually playing out. (And, I have to admit, I can’t complain too loudly about a few low-effort notches on my tally-stick…)

Hero Academy also represents the best, least exploitative implementation of the quote “free-to-play” unquote model I’ve experienced. Downloading the app costs nothing, includes the Council team, and lets you play as many online games with it as you like. This includes games involving one of the three other team flavors — you just can’t use those teams on your own side until you pony up. (Each one costs US$2.) The result feels less like an incomplete demo and more like a fully functional base set with available expansion packs, a strategy from the tabletop world — except, here, much less expensive for the customer, with no initial monetary investment at all. While the app is not shy about its in-app wares, I never felt hassled to buy any. I became a paying customer only after playing several games against a variety of teams with the base set, winning a few and losing a few, and knowing with certainty that I really liked it.

Naturally, I’m curious how well this strategy is working out for Robot Entertainment. I imagine that players who love the game as much as I do join me in buying all the available teams, as well as a couple of additional one-dollar tchotchkes like alternate team colors or player avatars. I don’t know how many players are like me, but I do note that the game’s reviews in the App Store are overwhelmingly positive. I don’t see a single upvoted one-star review inveighing against the outrage of in-app purchases, which seem to haunt so many other games and apps that take this route. I have to guess that’s from a combination of waiving the entrance fee and delivering a polished product that really sweats the details of presenting a great multiplayer experience. I do hope it succeeds and encourages many more works using a similar model: selling in-app purchases not through cynical psychological ploys, but by publishing genuinely fun and rewarding work.

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RealMyst for iPad

As promised, Cyan's port of RealMyst for iPad has just hit the iOS App Store.

It requires an iPad 2 or the new (third-gen) iPad. Cyan's original promos also promised support for the newest iPhone, but apparently they couldn't make that work, because it ain't there. The planned price is ten bucks, but they're doing a launch sale at seven. So snag it now, if you're into buying Myst a lot. (We recall that the original flat-image Myst appeared for iPhone/iPad in 2009.)

It's very pretty -- of course; albeit with the slightly simplified RealMyst world. (The original Myst allowed arbitrarily detailed images, but a 3D engine has to count polygons.) This is probably at the limit of what the newest iPad can handle. Load times between Ages are pretty awful, and even moving between rooms induces a second or two of delay to load new textures. However, that aside, walking and looking around are quite smooth. The skies and ripple-animated water look fantastic. The only missing graphical element (so I am told) is the day-night lighting cycle in some of the Ages.

(And, may I say, the new iPad has a fantastic display. Go ahead, click through to the full-sized screenshot. 2048x1536, baby, and you can just spin around like an acrobat.)

The interface is good; I wouldn't say it's perfect. The basic model is "touch to walk, drag to turn, tap to interact." The gestures are blurry, however. If you try to walk (touch-and-hold) but your finger slips a little, it gets recognized as a drag, and you just turn very slightly while standing still. This is extra-confusing because you're used to being able to turn and walk at the same time. (That option is labelled "advanced" but it's the default.) So you feel like you should be in that mode, but your feet are stuck, because of a tiny difference at the beginning of the gesture.

(Reasonable fix? Maybe if you're dragging-to-turn, and you leave your finger in the center of the screen for a few moments, it should switch to walk-and-turn mode. Or just make the initial drag detection less sensitive.)

The game also supports running (double-tap and hold) and walking backwards (two-finger hold). Wisely, it introduces these one at a time, rather than throwing you a big control list at startup. That's all good. I also noticed some nice guidance for walking down twisty hallways; the engine tries to keep you from getting stuck in corners.

Things get blurry again when it comes to interactive elements. Myst has always been ad-hoc about interaction -- you tap buttons and doors, but drag switches. This extends up to being a puzzle element, with discoverable variations like tap-and-hold or tap-and-wait being clued by the environment's behavior.

The distinction between tap and drag was always cued by the mouse-cursor, however. That worked in the desktop world. It didn't work so well in iOS, as I said of the original Myst iOS port, and it's even worse now. In a 3D animated world, you really want to drag doors open and closed, drag wheels around. (Amnesia: Dark Descent got this very right.) RealMyst mostly doesn't allow that, and the few draggable levers just set up a false expectation.

Really, this port should have gone farther. Myst has several combination locks that offer a row of digits, and a button below each digit to cycle it. This is a familiar model (and popular in room escape land) -- but it's a legacy of mouse-game design. In a touch world, you should drop the buttons entirely, and just let the player drag the digit-wheels up and down. As I said in a post a while back, you cue interactivity by having the wheel jiggle when tapped.

If it were up to me, I'd revamp the whole interface to distinguish moving (two-finger tap) from looking and doing (single-finger tap or drag). That still leaves a possible confusion between drag-to-turn and drag-to-move-things, but I think that would be supportable. (As long as single-tap always jiggles an interactable object.)

But I'd better drag this post out of the sucking mire of interface design natteration. Should you buy RealMyst? Again?

You've probably already decided. It's not like we haven't all faced the question before. I think of these occasional app purchases as an irregular donation to Cyan, which is fine -- I've gotten my few dollars of value just wandering the island this afternoon and reminiscing.

But I will add this note, from an online chat with Rand Miller. The topic is Kickstarter:

[...] We've gotten so much feedback from fans and friends encouraging us to do it... We've really go only two issues... First - what product to propose (it's between two - one Myst related and one completely new)... Second - we need to get enough money from realMyst to fund a good Kickstarter proposal... with some great artwork and a convincing video.

(-- Rand Miller, chat in Uru Live, May 19th)

You may ask, what, they need to raise money in order to raise money? Depends what they're going for. Jmac and I did my Kickstarter video on a shoestring -- but there was equipment involved, which Jmac conveniently had. And at the other extreme, you figure that Neal Stephenson probably spent a fair pile making that Clang video. Cyan will be aiming at the high end, if they're sensible -- so yeah, it takes money to raise money.

And no, I don't really care what kind of game they're fundraising for, as long as it's a new work. The Myst universe is comfortable. They can go back to it if they want. That risks seeming anticlimactic if they try for yet another dramatic climax for Atrus's family -- Uru and Myst 5 pretty well drained that reservoir. But there are plenty of historical corners left to explore. Contrariwise, if they try a brand-new setting, that would be cool too.

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A couple of Myst links

Heather Larkin has started adapting The Book of Atrus as a web comic. (This is the first of the three Myst novels, written by David Wingrove from Robin and Rand Miller's storylines.)

The comic starts with Atrus as a child, living in the desert with his grandmother. It's kind of adorable. I wasn't a huge fan of The Book of Atrus as a novel, but this presentation is simpler, more direct, and touching. (Only three chapters are posted, covering roughly the first two chapters of the book; we'll see if it stays on track.)

(Also: Russian translation!)


Cyan has already released Myst and Riven as iOS apps, but now they're working on porting RealMyst to iPad. (Currently labelled as iPad 2 and 3 only.)

Yes, it's yet another release of the same damn game, but it will include the Rime Age. Rime was added for the original RealMyst release and is not available in the current iOS Myst (nor other ports of the 2D Myst engine).

Also, the technology is more up-to-date. As I understand it, this uses the Unity engine. The 3D navigation looks pretty smooth -- it avoids the trauma of the virtual d-pad, at least. (Don't ask.) Unity is well-supported these days, so it would be an easy port to other platforms, or as a starting point for a new original game.

Well, we can hope.

A couple of preview videos: Myst Island and Channelwood. The release date is given as "Spring 2012", which at this point means "when it's done", I suppose.

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Meanwhile update -- and a one-day sale

I've just released an update to Meanwhile. Is this exciting? I hope it is, because this release contains new high-definition artwork. Digitally remastered from Jason Shiga's original files!

(I've always wanted to say "digitally remastered". One has fewer and fewer opportunities these days.)

On iPhone 4 (or other retina-scale displays, such as the newer iPod touch) you will see a sharper, clearer Meanwhile. You can also zoom in farther than before, a full 2x, to see this art in all its detail.

Older devices (such as iPad 1 and 2) cannot display the sharper artwork at normal zoom. But you can still zoom in to 2x to see the high-resolution art.

To celebrate this, I am offering Meanwhile for a impulse-buy-delighting $0.99 -- for today only. Jason and I think that the app is its own best advertisement -- everyone who plays with it is immediately in love with the design. So, we want more people to play with it. Pass the word around to your friends.

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Meanwhile for iOS is available

Last week, I wrote:

In other news -- or rather, the news I started with: Meanwhile has been sent off to App Store review. If nothing goes wrong, it will be available Tuesday, November 8th...

Nothing went wrong, and so Meanwhile is available, right now, in your local iOS App Store.

Full press release is below the cut.

And Hadean Lands? It's on my "make progress every day" list now. I should have the puzzle structure completely outlined by the end of this week. That's a small step, but comforting to me.


Zarfhome Software is pleased to announce the release of "Meanwhile for iOS". Jason Shiga's acclaimed interactive comic is now a truly interactive app for iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch.

On the way home from the ice cream store, little Jimmy discovers a mad scientist's wonderland: an experimental mind-reading helmet, a time machine, and a doomsday device that can annihilate the human race. Which one would you like to test out first?

Jason Shiga's graphic novel redefined the "choose your own adventure" format by combining artwork, story, and pathways into a looping, branching narrative structure -- a story in which your choices are surrounded by the cloud of possibilities you didn't choose. Now he has redesigned "Meanwhile" for the infinite canvas that iOS provides. The entire story is woven together on a single, enormous page. You can follow the pathways, or zoom out to view the entire structure at will.

"Meanwhile" is set in a mad scientist's laboratory, but it is grounded in probability and the Many-Worlds theory of quantum mechanics. To decipher the full story, a reader will need a grasp of logic and an eye to the playful possibilities of changing history. (Or, indeed, an ear! "Meanwhile" is fully playable through VoiceOver, making it one of the few graphic novels accessible to the visually impaired.)

Zarfhome Software is Andrew Plotkin's new studio for interactive fiction, narrative experiment, and things you haven't seen before. Zarfhome was launched last year with an astonishingly successful Kickstarter effort, and is now pursuing several projects, including "Hadean Lands".

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The part where I tell you about Meanwhile

Two months ago (gad!) I said:

After I ship Hideout, I will be concentrating on [Secret Project] M37, because it too is just about finished. (And the paperwork is just about settled...) Even though M37 isn't IF either, I promise you will be excited and you will understand why I made time for it this past spring.

My Secret Hideout shipped last month, and the secret project remained secret. Because sometimes it really does take a month for the last contract details and then another month to get all the paper signed. So it flows. But now it is October, and I can finally say...

Meanwhile for iOS will be released this fall. It is a collaboration between Jason Shiga (the author of Meanwhile) and myself. And it will be awesome.

(Footnote: these are production screenshots. There will be some changes before release, particularly in the buttons.)

Okay, I can't promise you will be excited. I'm sure some of you are saying, "What the heck, this is a comic book. You are not a comic book guy. You are an IF guy."

I can only reply: I picked up Meanwhile at PAX East in 2010. (My blogging cohort Jmac posted about it at the time.) I immediately fell in love with it -- a thoughtful, beautifully-designed take on the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure genre. When I got my iPad, I immediately said "That. I have to do that. In people's hands. Interactively. It will happen."

But these are generalities. What is Meanwhile?

On the way home from the ice cream store, little Jimmy discovers a mad scientist’s wonderland: an experimental mind-reading helmet, a time machine, and a doomsday device that can annihilate the human race. Which one would you like to test out first?

This is of course a great story hook. But look deeper.

The basic idea of a branching narrative is context-free -- if two branches come back together, the book can't remember how you got there. Some CYOAs ask you to keep track of items or stats, but it's a hack and a nuisance. Basically, the CYOA model is poor at stories where you focus on a problem, explore it, and try many approaches. CYOA stories really want to, well, branch out and take you to new situations. (See Sam Ashwell's ongoing posts about classic CYOA books.)

(IF, of course, is for precisely this -- you explore a problem and try many solutions, most of which will fail.)

Now look in particular at Meanwhile, at what Shiga has done with the CYOA concept. Each story element is about context. The helmet lets you loop back through a character's memories and see what's happened from a different point of view. The time machine lets you loop back through events and change them. And the doomsday machine -- well, something has to kick off the plot.

So you have this problem -- the destruction of all humanity -- and multiple ways to approach it. It wedges experimentation into a CYOA model. Since it's ultimately an intellectual problem, story branches can merge together; your history is what you've learned, not what you've done.

This is already cooler than 90% of the CYOA books I've seen. But because it's a branching comic, Shiga has a whole range of artistic tools that the old books never considered. Two story branches can be laid out in parallel on the page. You can't jump tracks, but you are aware of one path as you follow the other. Panels can be juxtaposed and contrasted. You can see storylines as you flip pages. Again: context. Even on your first run through the story -- which will almost certainly end badly -- you get a notion of your goals, your options, and the chances that you missed.

All of that works on the printed page. What does it gain from the dynamic, interactive form? Fluidity, I'd say. You aren't bogged down with the mechanics of page-flipping and line-tracing. You can zip forwards at a natural reading speed, and then back up easily, without the accumulation of finger-bookmarks that CYOA books invite.

Also, you can zoom all the way out.

So that's why I had to do Meanwhile for iOS.


Beyond the enthusiastic handwaving, I should probably answer some obvious questions about this.

The book is organized in pages, but this app uses a giant square layout. Did I rearrange it?

No, Jason Shiga did. I originally prototyped this as a page-turning app, following the book layout. When I pitched it to Jason, he said he loved the idea, but did I think maybe it might work better as a single giant scrolling page? Like in this photo?

I said, heck yes.

Is the artwork and story identical to the book?

Almost identical. A couple of panels have been updated.

All the secret stuff is there. But the secret codes are different. If that's what you're asking. Heh.

Why "Secret Project M37"?

The book has 37 full-page spreads of artwork. I originally prototyped this as a page-turning app, see... no, I've already told that story.

Does it work on the smaller iPhone screen?

Sure does. You can see less of the surroundings, so there's less context -- it's not as cool. But the experience comes through.

(Again, screenshot does not final button design.)

The web site says "Voiceover enabled". Is this really a comic book readable by the visually impaired?

Sure is. If you turn on the iOS text-to-voice mode, it will read out each panel as you reach it, and then read the choices for the next panel. You can navigate the whole thing with standard Voiceover gestures.

(Fortunately, this is a very talky comic, so I didn't have to describe a lot of action!)

Could this interface work for other comics?

Maybe. Are there any other comics out there like Meanwhile?

This interface took a lot of tuning to get right. I didn't just slap yellow squares onto Meanwhile. (There's a blog post in that design story, eventually.) So the code is very specific to this book. But I am interested in other interactive storytelling projects, and maybe this code will be adapted to something else someday.

How long will it be before Meanwhile ships?

As I've said, the delays in this project have an up side: the thing is practically finished now. There will be final design decisions, and beta-testing, and of course Apple takes a week to approve apps. But I anticipate getting this thing into the go-pipeline in early November.

And Hadean Lands?

I realize it's frustrating that my last word on the subject was in August, and was "no change until the current project is done". And then I've been silent about the current project.

But the silence is over, the project is almost over, and it will be IF time again soon.

What does that mean? Well, several things. The past year has made clear to me that I need to have several project-trains moving at the same time; and (to jump metaphorical tracks out of the frying pan) I need fingers in several pies at once.

I started out 2011 thinking that Hadean Lands had to be my big money-making breakout. That was, in truth, kind of a paralyzing notion. But it was also kind of illusory. Here I am; I've finished one project, nearly finished another, and I also have some iPad contract work lined up. (Not story-related; it's a board game port.) None of these projects now has to be The One That Succeeds And Pays My Rent Forever. But they all could be. (Okay, not My Secret Hideout, probably.)

Thus, I retreat from a promise: I will not be working on IF full-time for the rest of this year, or next year. I apologize for that. But I will be working on IF again, and that includes Hadean Lands.

The iOS interpreter engine is in better shape than the HL game design. So it is likely that I will ship some of my old IF as iOS apps before HL goes out the door. I'll start with The Dreamhold, probably -- as a free app. (I'm not going to charge money for a game that's been free since 2004. Plus, it's already included in iPhone Frotz. Plus, one goal is to stress-test the iOS interpreter code. Gonna get a lot more coverage with free apps than with cashy ones.)

So, you'll see me release other work -- and other IF work -- before Hadean Lands is done. I regret that but I don't apologize; that's the way my life is going to work, if it works at all.

What I can tell you is this: by the time Meanwhile ships, Hadean Lands will be my "work on this every day" project. That doesn't mean it will be my first priority on any given day, but there will be steady progress. Sometimes I get wrapped up on a project and crunch on it for weeks; Meanwhile was like that. But the steady progress works whether I'm obsessed or not.

(What's my current "work on this every day" project? I do have one. Shall I say, River-and-Swamp design work? But it's not a high-priority project; it will probably be shelved next week, until either the board game or at least one IF project reaches fruition.)

In the long term, I hope to offer you an ever-growing tally of interesting projects across the game and narrative domain. And I hope that, in aggregate, they pay my rent.

All for now.

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My Secret Hideout: available now

I am delighted to say that My Secret Hideout -- first mentioned here a couple of weeks ago -- is available right now on the App Store. Runs on iPad and iPad 2 (iOS 4.2 or later).

Really, it's been available for most of a day -- in some time zones. You may not know this, but Apple treats its App Store as a separate store for each country (or a bunch of countries, anyhow). Apps appear in a given store at midnight in that store's time zone. So from my point of view, My Secret Hideout was released to the New Zealand App Store at 8 AM on Monday. It's been cruising across the hemispheres all day, and it just hit the US a few minutes ago. (Maybe up to an hour. Don't worry, you can get it even if you live in California.)

The down side is, I don't have any sales reports yet, so I don't know how it's doing. But the up side is that I don't have to figure out tax compliance in 90 countries.

I'm glad I don't have to organize everything, is what I'm saying.

No; strike that. What I'm saying is:

My Secret Hideout is a wacky, creative thing set in a treehouse. It’s not like any app you’ve seen before. Buy it! Play around with it!

My Secret Hideout has no goal, no score, no trophies. Explore it, or play with it, until you find a result you like. Will your treehouse be simple or complex? Can you guide it? What will you discover inside?

That's the blurb. There's the link. Go for it.

And as always, please rate the app if you try it out. Ratings are what keep the sales going, and income is what keeps me going. (I mean, yes, the hacking and the laughs are what keep me going -- but also the income.)

Thank you for your continued generosity. More project news soon.

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A preview of My Secret Hideout (plus catching up)

Introducing My Secret Hideout -- my first iPad app release. Coming soon!

I already mentioned this on Twitter and then (welcome to the new world) my Google+ stream. But you folks signed up for news, and news I owe you. So here's a little more detail.

My Secret Hideout is an interactive text toy for the iPad. You build a little tree on the right half of the screen. As you do, the left half displays a description of your secret treehouse fort. Every change you make to the tree causes the text to evolve. The larger your tree, the larger your treehouse gets.

(If this screenshot doesn't work for you, scroll down -- I've copied the sample text at the bottom of this post.)

This is not a game. It's not really a construction kit either. You don't decide what rooms and elements go into your treehouse; you can only make changes and watch the variations. But I think that has its own charm. It's a toy, and a toy should be discovered through play. Just like IF, really -- there is no menu of treehouse elements, so you will keep finding new ones as you explore.

I also think that the tree is a pretty good toy on its own. Dragging around the leaves is fun! The tree reacts as you play with it; it's subtle animation, but it adds a lot of bounce and snap and physicality to the interface. I spent a lot of time making sure that was satisfying.

My Secret Hideout is just about finished. I need to add another couple of room options, and polish the usual list of UI edges which nobody but me will ever care about. I've said that I intend to ship it -- at least into Apple's hands, for approval -- by Labor Day (Sept 5). I'm still good with that deadline.


This thing has a wacky history. The concept started out as "The Folding Book of Fairy Tales". Imagine a picture book, but rather than turning pages, you fold them, bringing together different elements and forming new shapes. Wacky, eh? I have no idea where that goes. I would like to get back to that someday.

Well, I didn't have a picture book ready to go, but I started writing some paper-folding code. You Twitter followers saw me starting to rant and mutter about origami a couple of months ago. I got that working pretty well, too. Then I pulled out this idea of a fantasy world of procedurally-generated text. I put them together, and presto:

That worked nicely. But I wasn't satisfied with it. Playing with paper-folding is fun, but it feels destructive -- or rather, it feels bounded. You fold the paper, and it gets smaller and smaller, until you have this little angular spitball that won't fold any more. (Memory limits, you know, even with infinitely thin paper.) I don't have a full origami simulator, so it's not like you can make a crane. And it just didn't seem to fit the treehouse theme.

So I tossed all that paper-folding code off to the side. (I will definitely do something with it someday, even if it's not the Folding Book of Fairy Tales.) I started over with this tree-building toy... and that worked much better.

Will I develop this further? Maybe. If My Secret Hideout turns into a hit, I'll be happy to expand it to My Secret Underwater Hideout and My Secret Cave Hideout and My Secret Hideout in Space. (In-app purchase would be great for that, if it weren't for the patent situation. We'll see how that goes.)


Now the elephant-in-the-treehouse question. My Secret Hideout is obviously not a text adventure. (Although I've brought some of my text-adventure skills to bear on the descriptions.) Where is Hadean Lands in all of this?

For that answer, let's go back to February, when I started prototyping what I am still referring to as Secret Project M37. I was pounding away on HL design documents and iOS interpreter code. But I knew that would be a long process of pounding, and I wanted a relatively fast project that I could crank out and start making some money. (And iOS dev credibility.)

I created a prototype for M37. It looked good. I got excited and worked on it for a couple of months (while still working on IF code).

Then M37 got bogged down in one of those annoying delays. As a software developer I want to imagine that any problem can be solved by sitting down and hacking all night -- but that's false. This wasn't a technical issue, it wasn't anybody being incompetent, it was just paperwork that was slow. (I won't go into the whole story, because it doesn't matter.)

So that was frustrating. If I were a perfect person, I would have used the delay to push Hadean Lands forward. But I got stuck on the idea of "fast project, crank out, make some money". So I pulled out the origami idea and the procedural text idea and threw together My Secret Hideout.

I started that at the beginning of June. So it's looking like a "fast project" for me is three months -- except that, remember, I wrote a whole origami library and then took it out. So really two months. (And now I have an origami library in reserve.) That's pretty good; that gives me confidence that I can keep an iOS dev cycle going.

After I ship Hideout, I will be concentrating on M37, because it too is just about finished. (And the paperwork is just about settled...) Even though M37 isn't IF either, I promise you will be excited and you will understand why I made time for it this past spring.

Once both of those are out the door, it will be IF time again. I realize that you all have extended your faith to me, and I've been less stringently focused on Hadean Lands than I could have been. I beg your further indulgence. It will all come together.


Here's the text from the sample screenshot, in non-screenshot form:

My secret hideout is a cluster of sturdy rooms hung around a majestic oak. The walls are roughly cut but fit tightly. The well-lit living chamber is restful and quiet.

Behind that is a room with leftover paint cans scattered everywhere.

To the left, past a secret arch, is my library. Maps are piled everywhere. A plate of cheese sits on a side table, and the smell of old paper permeates the place.

The entire construction is powered by raincatchers that funnel water down through the branches past tiny turbines.

And just for kicks, here's a second one:

My secret hideout is a meshwork of tree branches, low in an elm. The walls flutter gently in the wind; vines weave through them. The uneven sleeping chamber is restful and quiet.

The treehouse is easily defensible. A ladder of heavy boards runs down the tree. I can also parachute out if necessary.

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Ascension polish

Jmac referred to UI issues in this morning's post about Ascension for iPad. I have indeed been swearing and muttering about the UI (as I play incessantly). But don't get your hopes up for another tirade of designerly bile. This isn't the sort of bad UI caused by being an idiot, and then patching the patches on the patches until the result sinks into its own mire. Ascension just isn't right. It can be made right.

I rather assume that Incinerator Studios knows they have lobby issues, and decided to ship something rather than delay the project for a complete lobby rewrite. Nonetheless, for the sake of my own serenity, I will run through the diagnosis.

In short: game creation is clunky and misleading. The initial choice is "play offline" vs "play online", which sounds like the right lead-in. If you choose "online", you're offered the choices "create game", "find game", and "game list" -- the first sign of trouble: "find game" and "game list" mean the same thing, surely? If they don't, what's the difference?

If you try to "find game", you're presented with a list of tables -- fine. You select one. Bang, back to the previous screen with no indication that anything's happened. Huh? After some flailing you discover that you have to enter the "game list" and select the game you just selected. Except that this sometimes puts you in yet another unnecessary screen, where you discover that you're "waiting" -- gosh -- and you will eventually have to hit "back" and then select the game again.

Creating a game, again, dumps you back to this menu with no indication that the game got created. And throughout this process, the UI occasionally interrupts itself to tell you that it's been "disconnected from the server" -- meaning you have to push a button to get back to where you were.

The offline branch is nearly as bad. You can get into a game with a minimum of fuss -- "play offline", "create game", "start" -- three taps. But when you finish, the process to start a new game (and you will want to start a new game) involves hitting "done" and "quit", backtracking through those levels, just so that you can forward-track through them again. Five taps for "play again"? Bad.

But this is not a cavalcade of bitter failure. It's basically one mistake: the "game list" shouldn't be a screen. It should be a list, visible from all the other screens. When you create or join a game, a new entry pops down into the game list. Tap it and go. If one of the games becomes ready, that status change is immediately visible. This pretty much makes all the problems go away.

Oh, and if you get disconnected from the server, it should reconnect and refresh the list. I mean, that's just common sense. Keep the list up to date. There's no reason the player should have to think about TCP streams.

(You still want to streamline some things. For example, there really doesn't need to be a list of offline games, most of the time. You're only in one at a time. Just go straight to the game-setup screen. If you step out of an offline game, and then come back, then sure -- you'll want that list-of-suspended games, together with a "create new game" option. But don't present this list of six empty slots by default.)

(Also, remember my favored avatar for the offline game setup. I hate being that apprentice guy.)

A friend pointed out some in-game annoyances as well. It's weird that you double-tap a card to zoom to a closeup, but then single-tap to zoom out. Why not say that a single tap zooms in and out, whereas a double-tap means "fire!" Double-tap is a better shortcut for advanced players than the flick gesture, which is weirdly persnickety about where you flick the card to. (If I try to flick three Cultists off the heap, I inevitably wind up killing two and leaving the third to hobble home unharmed. C'mere, sonny, you're not getting away that easily...)

Yes, you should leave the flicking and dragging in place -- it's correct. I just want the double-tap too.

And the game screen really doesn't need to be so noisy. I know, the art is nice, but dim down the background another 50%. Nobody's looking at it.

I want to end on a positive note, though. The "end turn" button -- the way it turns green when you have nothing else left to do on your turn? Genius. Obvious, like all genius ideas after the fact, but genius nevertheless.

Okay, I think that's it. Go rewrite some code. Be the archetype of correct iPad lobby behavior. Show everybody how it's done. ...That way I won't have to rewrite this post every time another damn game ships.

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Descending beneath Ascension's surface

Tribute day3While I have a half-written post about my Origins 2011 adventures, I must defer it to address instead recent iOS adaptation of Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer. I’ve been playing an awful lot of Ascension (originally designed and published for the tabletop by Gary Games, iOS version by Incinerator Studios), and planned to write about it anyway. But it won priority in the wee hours earlier this week when I discovered myself hallucinating my way through a game. Only several moves in did I realize that I was lying on my side in bed, staring at a wall in the dark.

I did in fact enjoy a very real game just hours before that, sitting on Cambridge’s riverside esplanade with several excellent friends, passing my iPad around while we waited for Boston’s Independence Day fireworks to start. And while memories of a good game session have often rolled around in my head for hours after playing, I don’t recall the last time my subconscious mind blustered in and demanded to watch the tapes in full as soon as my head hit the pillow. So, something’s going on here.

Ascension isn’t a perfect game; while a very faithful and eminently playable adaptation of the physical card game, it’s not without flaws, mostly involving UI and polish (the details of which we shall leave for another post). It nevertheless strikes several chords with me, in particular my obsession with online multiplayer games, and my more recent interest in tablet versions of tabletop games. Its properly transparent use of Apple’s GameCenter has resulted in my playing at least as many online games as I have solitaire games against the bots (an especial boon since the bots don’t seem terribly skillful). Those online games have been a half-and-half split between my GameCenter friends and total strangers. And, now that I think of it, they’ve featured a half-and-half split along another axis, between real-time games and asynchronous ones.

None of these features are, taken individually, new to iOS games — I believe that the platform’s Carcassonne version features them all now, for one, and presents them in a far more polished package. So perhaps it’s just me; maybe Ascension just happens to be the first iPad game I’ve played that’s presented all this stuff to me all at once, driving it from a decent deck-building game into a startlingly direct expression of my current digital game obsessions.

But for me, the real closer is the game’s theme. Mechanically, it’s a deck-builder similar to Dominion, and follows a current trend among among new card games of presenting some variant of Dominion-plus-monster-slaying. (More on which when I get to my Origins post.) The theme, though, I adore. On the surface it’s somewhat corny dark fantasy; the flavor text on the cards tends towards the cartoonish, and the artwork is evocative but a bit loose. However, various card interactions that occur in play — and which the iOS version brings attention to — suggest an engagingly deeper story.

It sketches out a fantasy world that’s suffered, I believe, a sort of Lovecraftian Greenhouse effect. Alien-worshipping secret societies have been allowed to flourish unchecked, and now all manner of squamous reality-bending horrors stomp freely down the street in the middle of the damned day, snacking on the citizens and converting the survivors into their enthralled cultists. The players are mage-lords, invincible in their towers and normally unmoved by the affairs of mere mortals. But many-angled Mistakes of Creation devouring the city is a bit much. And besides, if their rival mage-lords slay all the monsters first and win the peoples’ terrified love and tributes for generations, well, that won’t do either. And so they each get to work at their scrying pools, which manifests itself to the game’s players through the familiar motions of deck building, drafting armies of mystic warriors to put the hurt on some trans-dimensional outrages. The winning player is the one who collects the most points, through a combination of a high-value deck and a trophy case full of freshly lopped demon heads.

One key bit of flavor to which the iOS version particularly contributes involves the Cultist, an ever-present monster card depicting a raving, scripture-waving street lunatic. If you have the bad luck to draw a strong hand when no juicier monsters are on the board, you can always choose to kill a Cultist or two for a better-than-nothing reward. In the tabletop version, he’s just a single card that stays on the table no matter how many times players zap him for his one lousy point. The iOS version punches this up delightfully, having the Cultists emit Wilhem screams while they careen off the playfield as fast as you can flick them away with your finger — several at a time, if you can afford it, but always leaving another Cultist behind. I delight in the notion of your mage-lord, dealt a crap hand, taking out their frustration by planting their Wizard Rifle on the tower windowsill and burping a few rounds at the nearest batch of streetcorner pamphleteers, whose gory deaths barely attract notice. Even though we’re still looking at graphics of playing cards on a table, the extra, lightly-cartoony effects the digital version brings helps gel the game’s darkly humorous narrative to a surprising degree.

There’s an option specifically to silence the Cultists’ screams, but I don’t know why’d you’d ever want to do that. In fact, I’m disappointed that the screams aren’t extended to the Apprentices, your hapless underlings who play a role analogous to Dominion’s Copper cards. While they’re important to your first few buys, they quickly become dead weight in your hand, obsoleted by the very cards they allowed you to gain. Various Ascension cards let you “banish” unwanted cards from your deck, to use the game’s term for permanent removal. So the midgame often features players banishing their poor Apprentices as fast as they can, divesting themselves of two or three on a single turn if lucky. I find this strongly thematic, since I can’t help but read “banish” as a polite euphemism for rather more pyrotechnic exits — working as an all-powerful mage-lord’s lackey is dangerous work, you know? Inevitably, my mental enactment of a turn in Ascension has me envisioning a typical workday for the evil Mistress from the highly NSFW webcomic Oglaf (who graces the top of this post) or this gentleman:

(And that’s David Warner as Evil in Time Bandits, of course.)

I guess what I’m saying is that if you have an iPad, and you enjoy deck building games, you’ll probably like Ascension. And if you enjoy reading far too much into the storylines of your deck building games, you might even love iOS Ascension as much as I do. (It’s also available for iPhone / iPod Touch, but I haven’t tried that version.)

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Funding the Thunderbeam

Wiley Wiggins, semi-obscure movie star and aficionado of semi-obscure adventure games, has co-founded a team to create Thunderbeam!, an iPad adventure. They aim to capture the spirit of the compelling — and, in retrospect, often disturbing — young-adult adventure-dramas they watched on TV as kids, particularly anime such as Gatchaman (or, as I knew it, Battle of the Planets) and live-action shows like The Third Eye.

Add in an original soundtrack by theremin-enhanced indie rockers The Octopus Project, and you’ve got me desperately mashing a ten-dollar bill into my laptop screen before remembering how Kickstarter works. Happily, they met their funding goal while I was in the middle of writing this post, but the drive remains open for another 11 days, and every dollar helps; I just zapped them a sawbuck in the correct manner.

The team’s website features a lengthy video about the game, interspersed with clips from the various games and TV shows that inspire them. (What crazy show is that completely earnest “Hitler isn’t dead” line from? Were I chewing gum I would have choked on it right then. That is some transcendently bizarre television, which I apparently missed for growing up on the wrong side of the pond).

I must admit some concern about their telling the whole world in lurid detail about the game’s emotional plot twists this early in the project. In my experience, talking too loudly about your work’s actual content — versus revealing teasing glimpses of the shadows said content casts — can sap one’s drive to ship the final product to an audience that has no idea what’s about to hit it. You can trade some of that away for the short-term boost of people telling you how cool your idea sounds, and arguably this isn’t a terrible idea when it comes to collecting Kickstarter pledges. But you need a lot of creative fuel in your tank for the long, long drive towards shipping, so I still advise caution.

Still, just given the talent involved and their clear love for the source material, I feel optimistic that this project will land in the right place. Best of luck from the Gameshelf to Karakasa Games!

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iPad Ra: Very nice, but could use a spot of dusting

Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments film trailerAllow me to expand on my parenthetical aside about the shifting sands of Ra from Tuesday’s essay:

First of all, I must emphasize that the iPad edition of Reiner Knizia’s Ra, implemented by Sage Board Games, passes the most important test I could give it. After writing that post, I brought my iPad to a friend’s regular board game night, and a shifting group of us played or watched the game several times. We had a perfectly splendid time! I quite genuinely look forward to my next opportunity to go a few rounds in the Middle Kingdom with my friends.

At the same time, this incarnation of Ra also features a handful of UI design problems, made more obvious through that heavy play session. Most of the issues come down to per-player controls popping up in inconsistent locations, which caused us to sometimes take each others’ turns inadvertently, as well as the use of simple recoloring for choice-highlighting — almost never a good UI decision. (If you see two choices, and one of them is red and one is yellow, which one is selected?)

But what moves me to write today is the sand.

In contrast to its choice to use vibrant original art for the game tiles, this edition’s visuals and audio effects use the theme of Ancient Egypt as a long-dead civilization, as familiarly portrayed in popular culture. Lots of brown: The playing surface resembles discolored, pitted stone, and the in-game text appears on frayed papyrus that looks like it would crumble at a touch. Every so often, sand drifts across the board, and the audio says whoooosh; during bidding phrases, sand dunes blow in to obscure the playfield entirely. Besides the background music, the only sounds are the wind and the stony grating noises the tiles make as they’re drawn.[1]

Leaving aside the appropriateness of filling the screen with animated effects in the middle of someone’s turn, I question what all this sand and the other mummified trappings are doing here in the first place. It would be perfectly at home in a game themed around excavating the sorts of ancient ruins, weathered by centuries of shifting sand, that we easily associate with thoughts of Ancient Egypt. But Ra is not that game!

Instead, Ra means to invoke Egypt as it stood before all that: a living civilization, filled with a people whose strength comes from their ingenious use of the precious, verdant land the Nile gives them — the desert has little to do with it. The game’s beautiful tiles do succeed here: through them, we watch as the river floods and flowers bloom, with the farmers moving in after it recedes. The priests burn thick blue incense to curry divine favor, while artists and writers strive to set their patron pharaoh’s deeds in stone and clay. Sometimes there is drought, disaster, and unrest, but only in service to the game’s narrative of a people thriving despite adversity, scarcity, and competition.

That said, the game concerns itself with civilization’s mortality, as well. As the sun never falters in its marking the passage of time — and as each involuntary draw of a sun-inscribed Ra tile makes the game draw closer to its end — the players’ kingdoms will all fall. In the end, all that will be left is whatever great stone monuments they’ve managed to build (and which they now can finally score points for); all else is dust, without even anyone left to remember who used to live there.

And that is where the sand effects should appear. How subtle it would be to portray the desert not as a ubiquitous landscape, but a looming force just out of sight, waiting as long as it needs to inevitably reclaim all the proud humans’ achievements for itself. The game already does possess a more appropriate animation of the players’ non-permanent tiles sinking into the sand between the three rounds (which represent the rise and fall Ancient Egypt’s major dynastic epochs); the game would benefit from limiting the desert’s appearance to this — perhaps also having the dunes drift in to cover the board with finality at the very end, when only the monuments remain.

Knizia’s Ra is such a lovely game both from its elegant and rewarding ruleset and its very clever application of theme, and it speaks a lot to the latter that a background design detail in the iPad edition causes me to write this much. I still quite enjoy this edition of the game, as I say, and I’ll be playing it plenty more. I just needed to pause and shake some of this sand out my shenti.

[1] Surprised to find myself unable to illustrate this effect with a YouTube video. Note to the publisher: you’re missing an important cue about how to market an independent videogame in 2011. Consider getting on that.

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Speaking of tablet editions...

...I want to know who came up with this flaming disaster of a main menu. Confess. Right here. I'm talking to you. I want you to comment on this blog post and say "That was my idea."

This is the main menu from Days of Wonder's new Ticket to Ride iPad release. You can actually see the design bleeding to death in front of you. You start with some nice artwork. But you don't want to clutter it up with labels or buttons. Result: impossible to decide where to tap! Wound one.

So you had to add some "gear" icons (which aren't quite contrasty enough, but then if they were contrasty enough they'd detract from the artwork, right?) Now at least the player knows where the buttons are.

But she still doesn't know what any of the buttons do, so you had to add a voiceover to explain them. Wound two. The player has to sit through the entire list to learn the menu, and then probably has to sit through the list again every time she wants to use the menu in the future, because how are you going to remember all that? Oh, and the explanations can't be clear -- they have to be cutesey in-character clues.

But the UI still doesn't work, because the player might be hearing-impaired (or just have the sound switched off). So you had to add subtitles too. Wound three: bleed out. In order to avoid putting words on your menu, you've put entire sentences on your menu! But sentences that appear one at a time! It's perfect! And I'll have to listen to those stupid voiceovers forever.

Jesus Headpounding Migraine in a weasel-bucket. You've taken the worst idea of late-90s UI design -- the mystery-meat menu with cursor hover labels -- and port it to a platform that doesn't have cursor hovering, and you managed to make it worse. Kill me now.

(Ticket To Ride is fine once you get a game going. Nice solid implementation. I'd like a face-to-face play mode, even if it has to run with open hands. But it's worth buying as-is. Except the menu KILL ME NOW.)

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Tablets turn adaptations into editions

Finger pointing OWI’ve been living with an iPad 2, my first tablet computer, for a couple of weeks. Last year, playing a few games on Zarf’s iPad got me thinking about how gameplay on tablets harkens back to the “cocktail games” of yore. Now that I have a tablet of my own, able to play games on it whenever I wish, I find myself possessing a nigh-religious conviction that this is where digitized board games have wanted to be all along.

It suddenly strikes me as laughable that once upon a time (that is, two whole weeks ago) I was okay with the idea of playing a board game by moving a mouse to control a pointer which in turn manipulated the images of playing pieces located a vertical screen somewhere else on my desk. So many layers of abstraction between me and the game! Compare to today, when I can play a digital game by touching the piece directly with my finger, whereupon it leaps in response to my subsequent dragging and poking as I carry out my move.

The finger of which I speak is my real, non-metaphorical, made-of-meat finger, the very same one I use push around bits of wood and cardboard when playing an analog board game. It doesn’t matter that, on a tablet, the game pieces my finger touches are tricks of the light, and under a pane of glass on top of that. Somehow, the simple matter of direct touch makes all the difference between perceiving the thing as simply another published edition of the game, rather than a forced adaptation onto a digital platform.

Clumsier even than PC adaptations are those found on game consoles, which don’t even have the mouse’s trembling metaphor of waldoing flat objects around in a simulated planar space. Back when I was into the idea of publishing board game adaptations on the Xbox, I found the mediocre-to-poor sales of adaptations like Carcassonne, Settlers and Lost Cities quite unfair, and surely the fault of mishandled marketing. But now I see the truth: no matter how complete the implementation or pretty the pictures, the user’s interaction with the console-imprisoned game rules is so far removed from the the world where those rules evolved — a flat tabletop, with tactile components — that it may as well have been ported to the player’s microwave oven.

I choose the word edition to describe how a successful tablet adaptation belongs to a class apart from any other digital port. This comes by way of Nick Montfort’s reaction to a presentation at last weekend’s Media in Transition conference, about how some ancient computer operating systems — such as Nick’s beloved Commodore 64 — live on through emulation:

When the creators of VICE (the emulator I use) produce a program that operates like a Commodore 64, I understand this as being an edition of the Commodore 64. Yes, it’s a software edition. It isn’t an official or authorized edition – only being a product of Commodore would allow for that. (There are official, authorized emulators, but this is not one.) It’s not, of course, the original and canonical edition. But it’s nevertheless an attempt to produce a system that functions like a Commodore 64, one which took a great deal of effort and is effective in many ways. Thinking of this an edition of the system seems to be a useful way to frame emulation, as it allows me to compare editions and usefully understand differences and similarities.

Years ago, I purchased cardboard copies of Gang of Four and Ticket to Ride expressly because those games’ publisher, Days of Wonder, created attractive web-based adaptations of them, convincing me that the real thing would be fun to own. I don’t feel this way about Ra, whose adaptation by Sage Games I purchased a few days ago. While this edition isn’t flawless (remind me to write sometime about those doubly inappropriate shifting-sand visuals), I’ve enjoyed several games with friends around the table. It succeeds enough at delivering a proper sense of presence that, to my mind, I already own the game. Theres no concept of a “real thing” to obtain outside of what I have already, not like there was with the web games.

I don’t know if all tabletop game publishers are approaching the licensing of their titles, and their subsequent sales (often at a third to a tenth of the analog retail price), as new editions of their games, rather than adaptations that serve to drive sales of the “real” games. But my finger says that’s what’s happening anyway.

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The Ultimate Alphabet: hidden objects kick your ass

Since the dawn of Ravenhearst, the hidden-object genre has been with us. A screen full of junk, and a list of named items to pick out... Was it Ravenhearst, actually? The web is telling me that I should be blaming Mystery Case Files: Huntsville in 2005. That's still pretty recent, mind you.

2005 was also the year Myst 5 appeared, to not very widespread interest. Now, hidden object games didn't exactly displace the graphical adventure game. Those had been receding into their niche for years already. The Mystery Case Files were aimed at the newly-buzzlabelled casual-gaming market, meaning people who hadn't spent their teen years sweating over maps and joysticks. But the two genres have commonalities. Detailed environmental visuals led to a degree of convergent evolution: hidden-object games developed narratives, characters, dialogue -- even physical, mechanical, and symbolic puzzles. Sliding blocks and jumping pegs made their occasional appearance.

But the hidden object world stayed casual -- meaning aimed at a broad market; meaning easy. Picking a microscope or watermelon out of the onscreen welter might be time-consuming, but it didn't require puzzle-thinking per se. Hints were freely available to point out that last annoying dog collar. And when adventure-style or logical puzzles turned up, they stayed at the shallow end of the brain pool.

I don't mean to say I despise these games. Occasionally, when I want to kill an evening or two, I'll put down a few dollars and find me some objects. Recently, I've been trawling Apple's App Store -- because really, if you're going to spend an evening tapping on objects on a screen, the iPad is just the thing for it.

So I found myself looking at Mike Wilks's The Ultimate Alphabet, saying "Well of course." (App Store link.)

Mike Wilks's The Ultimate Alphabet

You may not remember The Ultimate Alphabet. It appeared in 1986, a book and a challenge -- not a riddle-book of Masquerade's ilk, but a straight-up scavenger hunt. Name all 7777 objects in the twenty-six absurdly detailed paintings. To make it easy, they were divided up by letter.

There was a way to check your score, if you were mad enough. The book (in some editions) came with a workbook, containing a checklist. Fill it out and send it in for a prize! But no guessing; the checklist contained some 4000 red herrings, and if you marked objects not visible in any painting, that's points off your score.

I tackled this for about half an hour, back in high school, and then realized that no human being could possibly finish the thing. I added it to my collection of Awesome Books; I forgot about it. Until it turned up on my iPad, as I said "Well of course" over and over. Followed by "Hmm."

"Of course," because The Ultimate Alphabet has always been a hidden-object game, waiting for the genre to be invented. But "hmm," because it is the backwards of a hidden-object game.

In Ravenhearst et al, you have a list of perhaps a dozen phrases, and a screen full of images. You stare at the screen until you see somethat that matches your list. You click. The computer tingles in ecstasy. The setup is ripe for "click wildly" abuse, so the games usually limit your tap rate, but fundamentally it is click-and-win.

Call Ultimate Alphabet an unidentified-object game. The objects aren't hidden; their identities are hidden. You double-tap on an object, and the game asks you what it is. No points until you've typed the correct word... starting with the correct letter.

You might think this is easy. You might have forgotten that there are many hundred words per page, and several may apply to any given depiction. Double-tap the large feline on the "C" page, and type CAT. Fine, says the game, now give me seven more words. As it happens, it's a CHEETAH, which is both a CREATURE and a CARNIVORE, and it's got a COLLAR and CHAIN, which means it's a CAPTIVE... one more? Why, cheetahs have tails, which means it's a CAUDATE.

Yes, seriously. No, I didn't figure CAUDATE out from scratch. For each word, the game tells you the number of letters, and offers a cryptic-style (British crossword) clue. If those stump you, you can ask for an additional hint, which gives you a straight (non-cryptic) definition. Beg once more and the game gives you all the letters, scrambled. If you get those in the wrong order, the game will add jigsaw-style coloring to the letters, at which point you have no more excuses; match them up with the background.

I bulled my way through the "A" page this way -- using as many hints as I needed. (362 "A" words.) Then I noticed that the game tracks your hint usage. If you solve a word using only the depiction and the cryptic, it's a gold coin. If you ask for the simple definition, silver; if you need the letters, copper.

That got me to apply some discipline, and I worked through "C", "D", and "B" using as few hints as possible. (Yes, I did them out of order. I haven't finished "B" yet.)

And that brings me to my point, which is that this is one tough hidden-object game. Or hidden-name, or whatever. If you've been avoiding the genre because you think it's for wimps -- well, mostly you're right, but pick up The Ultimate Alphabet. It will not let you off lightly.

Allow me to recount. Of the 547 "B" words, I got through perhaps 200 just by looking at the pictures and the cryptics. Then I buckled down (ho ho) to full-bore solving mode. Anagram server in one window, for the trickier cryptics; Wikipedia in the other. Wikipedia rules. There are sixteen "B" fish in this picture, plus about fifteen flags of "B" countries, twenty-odd "B" birds, and a dozen "B" butterflies. Without reference materials, you're sunk.

That gets me through maybe another hundred words. Then I pull out the heavy artillery: the workbook that came with my original edition of the book. It lists all the words! Plus 300 red herrings in the "B" chapter. But correlating that word list with cryptics, the pictures, and the Internet... I'm up to 375 words solved so far, no hints. I'd like to get well past 400 before I start begging for help.

(The cryptic clues aren't great cryptics. To be fair, they were ordered in bulk. Credit to Philip Marlow and Brian Dungate for turning out so many. But they rely on a lot of weird acronyms and letter dropping. For example, CAUDATE is "Tailed posh accountant returning with partner" -- the wordplay is "U+CA backwards plus DATE". I don't even know why "U" is "posh"; maybe it's a British thing.)

(The flip side of that is, you always have the picture and you know the first letter, which makes many of the cryptics easier. It balances out overall.)

Oh, yes, fair warning: the art is from 1986. Some of those flags are for countries that no longer exist. Adds to the fun, right? Contrariwise, the cryptic clues are current.

The game interface has many clever things and some stupid things. I could get into them but let's not. The art is lovely, and takes wonderfully to the zoom-in interface. (I can see more detail than I could in the printed edition, so that lays that ebook canard to rest.)

Yes, you need an iPad; the developer site refers to testing an iPhone edition but I don't see it yet. Yes, you have to pay incrementally; the first four letters are a $7 package. (But the game offers a one-hour free demo -- glad that sales model has finally penetrated the App Store.) They promise the other 24 letters are on their way.

I realize that many of you devoted Gameshelfers are not in the market for this game. Either you don't get cryptics, or you aren't into puzzle-hunting, or (quite likely) you don't have an iPad. But this is a rare fusion -- a "casual" game for grown-up puzzle fiends, based on artwork that's really unequalled in the puzzle-gaming world.

(Unless... is somebody doing Graeme Base's Eleventh Hour as a puzzle game? Kit Manson's Maze? Nick Bantock's Egyptian Jukebox? Please? Please?)

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The New Cocktails

110157805_18f3ad9067_o.jpgThough I myself have yet to buy into tablet technology, I have had the pleasure playing Days of Wonder’s Small World on Zarf’s iPad a couple of times. I can objectively tell you that I like it a lot, based on the fact that he’s clobbered me at it both times and I still want to play it again. Since then, I’ve watched my Twitter circle get really excited about The Coding Monkeys’ excellent iPhone adaptation of Carcassone — due for an iPad update this summer — and I’ve also been turned onto Luigi Castiglione’s loving iPhone/iPad implementation of the Italian folk game Scopa, worth seeing just for the beautiful Neapolitan card deck it uses. I see more than mere coincidence in my discovering all these at once.

The iPhone is no stranger to board and card game adaptations, but something new seems to be afoot, driven by the little phone’s newer, corpulent cousin. Even with relatively few datapoints, I feel confident that tablet computing (and do note my careful non-namebrand specificity here) is destined to significantly boost public exposure to good, modern board games. Tablet-based games aren’t simply a digital adaptation of tabletop games; they are tabletop games, though of an entirely new sort.

Playing Small World on the iPad, I sit across the table from my opponent, facing them, and we take turns sliding our armies around the colorful little map with our hands. Between turns, we analyze the situation together, talking face to face and gesturing naturally at the table before us. And so, it’s like any strategy board game I’ve ever played. But it’s also digital: tapping certain labels on the “board” changes the view entirely, unfolding a display of your requested game-relevant information, and that seems entirely natural too, if along a different angle. And there are the more subtle effects stemming from the presence of a software-based referee: it resolves all in-game conflicts for us, and quietly prevents either of us from doing anything illegal, without anyone feeling the need to double-check the rules.

Thinking about what defines a particular game medium, one doesn’t always consider elements like the player’s physical posture, and where they sit relative to their fellow players. But the experience of playing a digital game with a friend on the iPad proves quite different than that of sitting side-by-side on a couch with Xbox controllers in hand, or sitting alone with a mic strapped to your head. Your sense of posture and presence is part of the game’s medium, as much as the material of the game’s manufacture. Playing Small World gave me a frisson of novel confusion, marrying the player-interactivity of a board game with the board-interactivity of a computer game. I felt the seam that joined them, but it felt right. This was something new, comfortable, and fun.

On reflection, I realize this isn’t the very first time I’ve encountered this peculiar recombination, though I must cast my memory back decades to make the connection. During the height of video games’ golden age in the early 1980s, so-called “cocktail” game cabinets were a common sight. These machines eschewed game machines’ familiar stand-up shape, instead taking the form of small, square tables, around the size and shape you might encounter at a bar or coffee house; just large enough to seat two people — and their drinks — comfortably. Two identical sets of game controls sat tucked under either end of the screen, which itself was embedded under the thick plexiglass of the table’s surface.

Cocktail games were an attempt to take the familiar, cozy setting of two friends or family sitting at a table to both play a game and enjoy a lovely beverage together, and applied it to the then-new entertainment of video games. And, for a brief time, they succeeded. Back when coin-operated games were marketed as social amusements as much as they were attractions for children or game-hobbyists, cocktail games could be found in many spaces outside of arcades or game rooms. As a child traveling with my parents on their many business trips, I would frequently encounter cocktail versions of my favorite video games in hotel lounges. While I delighted in discovering them, I was far too young to really appreciate them as they were intended — in fact, I remember the frustration I felt at seeing two grown-ups sitting at the Pac-Man table and just talking and not even playing it.

Alas, cocktail games did not survive coin-ops’ decline in the latter 1980s, long before my own adulthood. But sliding my little orcish army-tokens around on Zarf’s iPad, I think that I start to see what I missed. Whether or not the new games’ deveolopers consciously realize it, the very form of tablet gaming tips its hat to the cocktail games of yore, and then strides confidently where the old games wanted to be, 30 years ago.

This is going to be great.

Image credit: Photo of a “Dig Dug” cocktail unit by Chris Kirkman; CC BY-NC-ND.

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Villanelle d'Pomme

The golden halo of Steve the Saint
Makes the iPad the only toy worth your time
And developers take it with righteous complaint

An increasingly ironic iron-fisted taint
To those of us who won't give Gates a dime
Dims the golden halo of Steve the Saint

He wagers we'll put up with any restraint
For a shot at the app that's a hit pastime
And developers take it with righteous complaint

By developers' lights, the logic is faint
But a Flash in the pan can never outshine
The golden halo of Steve the Saint

The most Apple-happy pundit cannot paint
This as treating developers any better than slime
And we bend and take it with righteous complaint

The alternatives bog down in Steve's churned ruts
As we all drool at the sound of his chime
And the golden halo of Steve the Putz
And developers take it right in the nuts.


Thanks to Patrick Nielsen-Hayden for the footnote that inspired this little effort.


Just to be clear about this: I have ordered my iPad 3G. I agree with both Siracusa and Datskovskiy: Apple has declared that it doesn't have to care what developers think, and it is right. Because Apple has the device that I want to use. Ultimately, it's about the users, and the users are at Apple's stores, online and off.

For ten years now, the best computer environment available (for me) has boasted the best development and hacking environment available. It's been awesome, but it's been Apple's decision to do it that way; it's not a civil right. Their new computer environment won't work the same way. Too bad. Bad for Apple, in the long term, I believe -- but I can't change their mind.

Will I use my iPhone and iPad? Yes. Will I create iPhone/iPad apps? I haven't decided yet. If I do, it will be in full awareness that Apple can jerk my chain at any time, for any reason, or for no reason. It's not personal, it's not political; it's just a risk of the market.

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