Search Results for: iphone

Pocket Storm on sale today

(If I was sensible I would have posted this last night...)

I just kicked Pocket Storm 1.1 out to the App Store, and to help spread the news, I'm lowering the price to one dollar -- today only. Call it Thunderstorm Friday! (In real life it's just drizzling out there in Boston, but with technology, we can do better.)

I got the download size down below Apple's 50-meg limit, so you can install the app over 3G now. There are a handful of other small improvements. (The fade-out timer behaves more sensibly now; you can use headphone controls on PS; and I plugged in the necessary vacuum tubes for the new iPhone 5 display size.) But app size is the important change. Apparently people make impulse purchases -- who knew?

And, as before, I am donating 10% of Pocket Storm revenues to Freesound.org, because of the awesome service they provide to indie game designers and other artists. In particular, they provide CC-licensed thunderstorm noises to me! Thus far Pocket Storm has not been a huge moneymaker, but I am hoping that over time, people support it.

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Pocket Storm

I am delighted to announce Pocket Storm -- a generative audio environment for your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. Pocket Storm is my first Boodler project for iOS.

It starts with a calm summer night. Soon you'll hear thunder in the distance, then wind and a spatter of rain. After half an hour you'll be in the thick of the storm. By the end of the hour it will have faded into the night again. Then the cycle begins again.

The Pocket Storm is not like other environmental audio apps. Every thunderstorm is different! Wind, rain, thunder -- even chirping crickets -- every sound is chosen from a library, with subtle variations of pitch and timing. The Pocket Storm weaves these elements into a tapestry of sound which will never repeat.

Here's my Pocket Storm web page; or snarf it straight from the App Store.

Boodler is an open-source soundscape project which I invented years ago. Boodler is designed for any kind of complex audio environment -- weather, traffic, alien worlds -- but I've never developed it as it really deserves. The Pocket Storm is my first attempt to bring Boodler to a consumer audience.

Rather than trying to sell a complete "Boodler for iPhone" app, I'm taking the approach of do one thing, very well. So Pocket Storm is a one-hour thunderstorm, which plays as background audio. Or you can stream it to AirPlay. You can set the timing as desired, or adjust the weather manually. There's also a timer option, if you want to go to sleep to it.

Audio samples from Pocket Storm, at different stages, are posted on the web site.

Owen Williams created the first Boodler thunderstorm soundscape, more than a decade ago. My app doesn't use his code, though, nor the old Boodler sound samples. I've built an all-new thunderstorm -- or rather, a set of thunderstorm variations -- using sounds from the Freesound.org project.

The sound libraries that I've compiled for Pocket Storm are now posted on the Boodler web site. (They're all Creative Commons Attribution, Sampling Plus, and Zero licenses.) The agents (source code) that assemble the sounds are not currently available; as usual, I'm trying to find a balance between open-source work and secret sauce. But you are, of course, welcome to compose your own Boodler thunderstorms from these sounds, or use Owen's original.

(Speaking of which: a percentage of the App Store revenue from Pocket Storm will be donated to the Freesound project.)

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That crazy software patent situation

Many people have asked me -- that is, I have been asked -- that is, Jmac asked me last weekend -- anyway, this iOS software patent situation. What do I think?

Catching up: back in May, a handful of iOS software developers (and at least one Android developer) received legal documents from a company called Lodsys. Lodsys declared that the use of an "upgrade to full version" button (the normal sort of thing you'd see in trial, demo, or lite-version apps) infringed patent 7222078, and the developers needed to either pay off Lodsys or get sued. (Macworld news story, May 13th) Two weeks later, Lodsys filed a lawsuit against seven developers. (Florian Mueller blog post, May 31st)

You can peruse the patent document. It starts "Methods and systems for gathering information from units of a commodity across a network", which tells you nothing, and it gets less useful from there. The upshot, according to Lodsys:

In the case of an Application doing an in-application upgrade (and only this scenario), Lodsys is seeking 0.575% of US revenue over for the period of the notice letter to the expiration of the patent, plus applicable past usage. (Lodsys web site, May 15th)

For added confusion, Apple licensed this patent (and thus paid Lodsys) long ago. It's a finesse: Apple claims that when an iOS app implements in-app purchase, it's using Apple software and services (the App Store) which are covered by Apple's license. Lodsys claims that each app developer needs to license the patent separately. (Open letter from Apple, as reprinted by Macworld, May 23rd)

Obviously, I have no way to judge the validity of the patent. It dates from the 1990s. Common sense says that software has been using this sort of in-app upgrade since at least those days; no license fees have ever been exchanged for it, except for the kind of big-block patent maneuvering that giant companies (Apple, Google, etc) engage in. Common sense has nothing to do with the patent system, and so we leave it to rot. I refer you to Florian Mueller's FAQ on Lodsys for informed (though not lawyerly) commentary.

What does this mean for my life as a nascent-we-hope iOS software developer?

In the short term, I just proceed with caution. I will avoid using in-app purchase and upgrade for my apps. (These were not a big part of my plan anyway, but I was considering them. Now I'm not.)

You might say -- and Lodsys is certainly hoping that I'll say -- "0.575%, what the hell, that's tiny. Just pay it."

So look. First of all, screw them. Second of all, you don't spill blood in the water. There are at least two other patent-exploitation attempts affecting small developers right now: MacroSolve and Kootol. (The latter is targetting the big boys as well as independents.) More must be waiting to pounce. There is no known upper bound to the number of bullshit patents that might be out there, hanging over every software practice I might have learned in the past twenty years. If this is a viable means of predation on developers, it won't stop at half a percent.

Therefore: screw them. But also: this is not a stable situation. It developed just this summer, and it will develop further by the time I ship my first game. So there's no point in me freaking out or changing my life plans.

(Besides, I'm basically an optimistic person. Or maybe I like living in a state of self-delusion. My current situation could be taken as evidence of either. So what the hell, why quit now?)

In the medium term, several things could happen:

  • Lodsys could stop suing more developers until their current set of lawsuits are resolved. Yeah, I'm not exactly counting on that one.

  • Apple could say "We are squelching this stupidity." That probably doesn't mean changing the entire patent system. But they could sue Lodsys. Or they could provide legal resources to help the developers now being sued. The whole point of suing small developers is to batten onto defenseless targets; if the targets are getting pro bono legal aid from a company with $75 billion, the point gets blunted.

  • Apple could say "Eh, developers can take it in the nuts." I don't take Steve Jobs for a saint. If Apple thinks they can survive with fewer developers in the world, they could let the world change. (The letter they've already sent is encouraging, but it really just says "Cut that out, please, wouldja?")

The problem with these options is that they're indistinguishable on current evidence. Apple doesn't telegraph its legal moves. They might be helping developers already, and I wouldn't know it until they make an announcement.

And in the long term? This is not just Apple and in-app purchase, after all. Kootol is going after Twitter developers; MacroSolve has something about electronic form entry.

I suppose independent software development could become a wasteland. We've seen some predictions in that direction, such as this post from Craig Hockenberry. (His company, the Iconfactory -- of Twitterrific fame -- got walloped by Lodsys and Kootol.)

At the opposite extreme, some of these patent-trolling companies could get their asses handed to them in court, and the whole mess could blow over.

I can also imagine software developers banding together into patent-defense collectives. You don't have to have more money than Apple, after all; you just have to have more money than the patent trolls. I would pay a percentage of my income to a legal defense fund, a "not one red cent" plan. Of course there ways that could go horribly wrong, but we're speculating here.

Or, I suppose, the patent system could be reformed to not support this kind of crap. I'm not counting on that either.

In case you care, my basic position on software patents hasn't changed since the GIF debacle of the late 1990s. I think software patents are not an inherently broken idea; they just need to be scaled to the speed of Internet innovation and software release cycles. Say, eighteen months. If you can't get ahead of your imitators in that span of time, you're screwed anyway.


Update, August 20:

Looks like Google has jumped in on this too. They've filed a legal request to re-examine Lodsys's patents. According to Groklaw, Google has a strong position:

These five items of prior art go to the fact that the critical elements of the '078 patent claims are not even novel! (-- Groklaw post, August 18th)

That is, Google has found five earlier patents that already have the important elements of Lodsys's patents. So it's not even "somebody else invented this first"; it's "somebody else invented this first and the patent office knew it".

However, Florian Mueller is not so encouraging:

I don't consider those reexamination requests -- unless they will be accompanied by more forceful and useful measures very soon -- a serious commitment to supporting Android app developers against trolls. If this is all that Google does, it's too little, too late, and calling it "half-hearted" would be an overstatement. (-- Florian Mueller blog post, August 13th)

He thinks the ongoing lawsuits are unlikely to be stayed on this basis, so Google's filing doesn't change anything for developers today.

It's worth noting that Google's position is at odds with Apple's, which is that the patent is valid but only Apple is using it -- app developers are just using Apple's service -- and Apple is licensed to do that. (Apple has filed to intervene on this basis.) Developers can use both defenses, of course.

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A short late May update

I let this update slip late, because I hoped I would have a Secret Project to announce. But legal paperwork takes however long some other lawyers think it will take, and so it is still Secret. Sorry! Hopefully soon.

What can I report? Well, I have made substantial progress on the iPhone interpreter. It is now capable of playing a Glulx game. It's not pretty or polished, but it runs. I've also started adapting a Z-code virtual machine to the same interface, so that I can release my old games (and the Hadean Lands teaser!) with the same iOS packaging. (To be technical, I'm working on a Glk interface port of the Fizmo interpreter. Did you want me to be technical? No? Well, there you are.)

Now, this interpreter work isn't ground-breaking. In fact iPhone Frotz can do all this already. But this will be my code base for future improvements, so it's important to have it all down solid. Which it isn't yet, mind you. Solid. Yet.

But games run. That's always an exciting milestone.

Speaking of running games, I released a game last week! A very small game: The Matter of the Monster. It's not classic IF. It's a sort of choose-your-own-adventure experiment; I used the Undum Javascript toolkit. I tweaked it a bit, though. Try the game -- it'll take you about ten minutes -- and you'll see what I mean.

(Thanks to Jacq's Indigo New Language Challenge for spurring me into this.)

Finally, I'll remind you that I'll be at Balticon in two weeks. (That's in Baltimore, May 27-30.) I'll be on a couple of IF panels and talks... sometime that weekend. They don't seem to have a schedule up yet. Stay tuned, as they say, space fans.

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How to write a touchscreen adventure game

First-person graphical adventures -- Myst -- have become hugely successful in the past several years. Yes, even as Cyan Worlds and Presto Studios and such dinosaurs have withered in the frost. What are popular today are the tiny, casual, unbeautiful and narratively-barren games we call "room escapes". They're written in Flash, and they pour by the dozens out of our web browsers.

Viridian Room screenshot

(Of course, some are huge, some are hardcore, some are lovely, and some are rich story-worlds -- I don't have to link examples, do I? That's not the point. The escape genre has conventions, and they're not trying to live up to what we thought all graphical adventures would be like from 1994 onward.)

When I got my iPhone, I thought "Room escape games! Perfect! Little puzzle environments to explore while riding the subway to work." (This was when I rode the subway to work.) I looked through the nascent App Store, and found... a couple. There was no easy porting path for existing games, due to the whole Flash situation, and only a couple of developers were writing for iPhone directly.

More room escapes have appeared in the past two years, but it's still not a big corner of the App Store. More important: none of the games, as far as I've researched, have really thought about the iPhone (touchscreen) interface, and what it means for first-person graphical adventures.


The model did not originate with Myst, of course. It's almost inevitable in a modern computer UI: you see on the screen what you would see in the world. Your mouse is your hand, and you click an object to push, pull, move, or take it.

...Except that "the modern computer UI" is the mouse and cursor UI. Myst (and its predecessors and descendants) took full advantage of the cursor to provide a graduated, explorable experience. You look; you see an object; you consider whether it might be manipulable; you move the mouse over it; you see the cursor change to a hand; you consider what clicking might do; you click and find out. It's almost a subliminal process, but it's real.

Hello, the touchscreen -- no mouse, no cursor. You're touching the scene directly. That has to improve immersion... right?

Maybe. It changes the game. Simplifying a UI can improve it, but short-circuiting a puzzle can ruin it. Do you explore the room by tapping every object in sight? That's not exploration, that's a rampage. You've just pushed every button, opened every unlocked door, and picked up every object! -- just to get yourself oriented. You might not have even realized that something is a button (or jewel, or door); it fired "all by itself" when you touched it at random. No moment of realization, no intention of agency. The pacing is all wrong.

Designers have tried to cope with this in several ways. Some games simply don't put much weight on discovery; clicking blindly is the expected path. (Not a popular path, however. Game review sites tend to frown on Flash escapers that omit the changing mouse cursor.)

iPhone Riven screenshot

In the iOS port of Riven, Cyan implemented a "shake to reveal" hint mechanism. Shake the phone, and green circles pop up (briefly) around important hotspots. It's effective, but not very immersive. The green circles come across as graffiti on Riven's classical artwork, and -- worse -- they're not much like exploration. You can't wonder about them or discover them. They're a menu, and you folks know how I dislike menus as an adventure UI.

(Down a side path we find the "hidden object" games. These have been ported to iOS in fair proliferation. Partially because they're a popular genre, of course; but also because the discovery model is simpler. The game has no notion of thinking about what to do; you see a correct object and click it. That fits perfectly on a touchscreen. The hidden-object games that include real adventuring elements -- yes, many do -- get away with a suboptimal tapping interface because that's not the main point of the game.)


Let us back up.

Look around; see; consider; investigate; think about results; try it. What can fill these roles? "Look" and "see" haven't changed: we display a scene. You consider an object. You investigate... surely by tapping it. Tapping is the most basic touchscreen interaction.

Now you know the object is manipulable, but you haven't done anything with it. You've gotten a hint about what might happen, and you're thinking about whether to try it or move on. Finally you try... what?

How about dragging the object? Most real-life interactions (outside of elevators and iPhones!) involve moving things, not just touching them. Myst is full of buttons, but it also includes levers and dials -- things to pull, rotate, slide, and lift.

With this, our interface comes together. Tap is investigate; drag is act. Tap a lever, and it jiggles; it is eager to be pulled. Tap a door, and it will shift slightly on its hinges -- unless you hear the sad "clunk clunk" of a locked door. Tap a key lying on a desk, and it will rock a little. Then you pull the lever, or slide the door open, or pull the key to your inventory bar.

And buttons? Frankly, we'll do without them. This is rough news for the porters of an existing graphical game, but rethinking an interface means rethinking your game design. Change them to toggles or knife switches. The good news is that dials and combination locks work wonderfully; rather than clicking "up" and "down" buttons to set digits, you drag the wheels around or spin them with a flick.

Secret Project KLD lock puzzle

I've built a prototype of this interface. You may recall it as Secret Project KLD. I didn't build a complete game, but I built enough to prove that the UI works. The trick is to make these dragging motions continuous -- or continuous enough, anyway. When you drag a slider back and forth, it should actually follow your finger on the track. When you drag a door open and closed, it should move wiht your touch. Full 3D modelling makes this easy, but might be too heavyweight for a mobile device. I found that six or eight "keyframe" images is enough to make the illusion work. The direct responsivity of touch more than makes up for the jerkiness of the animation.

Navigation is trickier (but then, it always is). To see a close-up view of an object (if it has a close-up) you should simply tap it. Tap is investigate, after all. By extension, tapping on an open doorway should move through it, and tapping on the edge of the screen should turn around. Now tap is somewhat double-purposed (but then, it always is). I think this is acceptable; walking around a room to look at things is okay for an automatic action. It's always reversible (perhaps with some jockeying to turn around and find your way back). You won't accidentally solve a puzzle or mess up your known position, as long as the game has no step-and-die traps (which, of course, it shouldn't).

I have most of the KLD game designed, and I modelled quite a bit of it in Google SketchUp. Why did I put it aside? It turns out that SketchUp is good for modelling, but not great for placing comeras or rendering frames of moving parts. My graphics workflow was slow and painful. Also, the artwork that I did produce was sized for older iPhones; I'd have to rethink the whole plan for iPads and the new double-resolution iPhones. I may get back to the game someday, but my immediate future is pinned to text IF.

So here you go. The correct model for a touchscreen-native adventure game. Somebody run with it.

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It's 2011 now

I'm not going to be posting week-by-week status updates here. (For that, read my "progress" tweets on @zarfeblong.) But you get one special one tonight. The new year has reached its Mondayness, so you're probably wondering if I am officially In Gear.

Answer: yes. I spent the end of December more on slacking than designing. That phase is over. Here's what the beginning of January has looked like:

  • I made some improvements to the profiling code of my Glulxe interpreter. (Graham Nelson wants to work on optimizing his Inform 7 compiler, and he asked me for some features to aid measurement.)

  • I fired up XCode and started a new iOS project. This is an audio toy, not an IF interpreter. I need to remind myself how ObjC works before I start anything serious. (After two evenings of work, it displays a button and beeps continuously. No, this is not Boodler... yet.)

  • I filed to create Zarfhome Software Consulting, LLC. This is exciting! The last time I tried to start a business was 1997, and I never got beyond a name and logo. Now I have a Federal Employee Identification Number!

  • I tried to set up a business bank account, but failed because I didn't have the LLC form printed out. I'll go back there tomorrow. In the meantime, I bought a printer to print the form, so that's some progress.

  • I spent a couple of hours futzing around with a programmable LED badge (available in the hardware-shovelware aisle of your local MicroCenter!) (Where I went to get the printer.) I got this Linux driver compiled on my Mac -- jury-rigged to a trial, but it worked. Once. Now the USB library won't recognize the device. Oh well. No, this has nothing to do with Hadean Lands, but I am revelling in my freedom or some such.

  • I withdrew $28699 from Amazon Payments. (To my personal bank account, yeah, whatever, this is what accountants are for.) $28699 is what $31337 looks like after Kickstarter and Amazon take their cuts.

  • I wrote down more design notes for Hadean Lands. This is the phase I am in, and will be for a while -- alternately write down ideas and stare at them. I will do this every day. Eventually the ideas will start fitting together. It's not fast but it's the way it has to work. (I'll know it's done when I start wailing "Oh, woe, all the coolness has leaked out of this project and my design is completely lame." Then I can start coding!) (Yes, this really is the way it always goes.)

  • A little bit of slacking anyway. Of course.

Expect more of the same in the weeks to come.

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Halfway, and extended teaser

It's November 16th, roughly halfway through my little experiment.

(What do you mean, we blew past the edges of the Petri dish on day 1? How does that make any sense?)

Rather than stew in self-congratulation -- I can do that perfectly well in the confines of my own skull -- let me offer you a Halfway Present:

An extended game teaser for Hadean Lands. Now with a second ritual to complete! And many more objects to play with in the process!

I hope this gives a better idea of how the game's magic will play out. (Warning: some of the things you will find are not useful in this teaser. They're for rituals later on in the game.)

Now, just a little bit of self-congratulation: CNNMoney asked to reprint my Update #8, the post on running Kickstarter successfully. Very kind of them.

Overall, you can probably guess that I'm utterly thrilled with the way things are going. Contributions are still coming in steadily, if slowly. I'm hoping that the upcoming weeks see my plans percolate out from the gaming press into business reporting, writing circles, and -- heck, I don't know -- web comics journalism. I mean, why aim low?

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Hadean Lands posts and interviews

In this spot, I'm going to collect links to news articles, interviews, and random discussion threads about Hadean Lands and my Kickstarter effort. Apologies to those of you who have been voraciously reading all the links as they roll by. (Which is all of you, right? Right?)

Comment if you see one I missed.

Things I've Posted

I originally posted on The Gameshelf, on intfiction.org, and of course on my own web site.

I've been making regular posts to the Kickstarter updates page. I will continue posting there, discussing the promotion and development process. Those posts will also appear here on The Gameshelf, from now on.

Articles and interviews

Andrew Plotkin And Mobile Interactive Fiction -- TK-Nation, Cassandra Khaw (2010-11-01) (First post!)

Interactive Fiction Dev Raising Money For Hadean Lands, Mad Plan -- GameSetWatch, Eric Caoili (2010-11-01)

Andrew Plotkin Wants to Write IF Fulltime and You Can Help -- TIGSource, Derek Yu (2010-11-01)

IF Author Raises $10,000 In One Day -- Rock Paper Shotgun, Quintin Smith (2010-11-02)

Hadean Lands: Interactive Fiction per iPhone -- L'avventura è l'avventura, Giovanni Riccardi (2010-11-02)

Text To Speech: Andrew Plotkin Interview -- Rock Paper Shotgun, interview via Quintin Smith (2010-11-05)

Interactive Fiction: Abenteuer, nur im Kopf -- Die Presse, Georg Renner (2010-11-13)

How I raised $24,000 on Kickstarter -- CNNMoney, guest article (2010-11-15)

Andrew Plotkin interview -- Adventure Classic Gaming, interview via Philip Jong (2011-01-07)

Interacting with Andrew Plotkin -- Black Clock, interview (2011-01-13)

Kickstart-ed Andrew Plotkin on Interactive Fiction for iPhone -- Indie Superstar, interview (2011-01-19)

The Setup -- interview on what tools I use (2011-01-22)

Entrevista a Andrew Plotkin -- El Blog de Manu, interview via Manuel Sagra (2011-02-08)

Blog posts

(not a complete list, because the blogging world is legion and a half)

Monday, Monday! -- The Kickstarter Blog, weekly post, included by Cindy Au (2010-11-01) (My project has also appeared on Kickstarter's "popular" list and the front page, to my inestimable benefit)

Hadean Lands -- Emily Short (2010-11-01)

Lebling Lurks, Zarf is Kickstarted -- Nick Montfort (2010-11-01)

Hadean Lands: Interactive Fiction for the iPhone by Andrew Plotkin -- Kickstarter -- Wiley Wiggins (2010-11-02)

The new frontier -- neophyte (2010-11-02)

Help Andrew Plotkin Write Text Adventures Full Time -- Stephen Granade (2010-11-02)

Andrew Plotkin's New Game on Kickstarter -- M. Zack Urlocker (2010-11-08)

Plotkin Makes a Go At It -- Jason Scott (2010-11-10)

The return of interactive fiction -- Ken Gagne (2010-11-18)

Forum discussions

Hadean Lands -- Metafilter (2010-11-01)

IF creator knows how to raise money -- GOG.com (2010-11-02)

Zarf's Hadean Lands project -- Quarter To Three (via peterb) (2010-11-05)

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Zarf Goes Independent: Hadean Lands

Hadean Lands cover art

Two weeks ago I put up a teaser image, which drew a lot of nice comments and anticipation within the IF community. (Thank you!) But one image in one blog post does not a lifestyle make, and today the real fun begins.

Here's the scoop: at the end of this year, I plan to quit my job and start working on interactive fiction full time. Yes, really. The space madness has struck and it's time to do this thing. I can't do this in my spare time any more; I have too much work to finish in the IF world, and it eats at me every time I leave for my day job.

Go to the Kickstarter page to watch the awesome introductory video! (A Gameshelf production, of course.) You can also play the teaser scene of Hadean Lands on my web site.

IF is bigger this year -- probably the biggest it's been since Infocom fell apart. (You all caught that scene on Big Bang Theory, right?) I don't mean that it's challenging Portal for the hearts and thumbs of the gaming world; but people are interested and people are playing. So I think that IF on the iPhone (iPad, iPod Touch) will sell. And I'm willing to touch the mirror and try it.

You'll note I just linked to Kickstarter. Here's the cone under the scoop: I am asking for donations to get this IF project off the ground. Hadean Lands will be a full-length game -- think Dreamhold size -- so it will take some time to write.

But this is not solely a song of "give Zarf money to write an iPhone text adventure". I have other plans. You know how I keep saying things like "Yes, I certainly do have to add CSS to Glk" and "Yes, I certainly do have to add a clock API to Glulx" and "Yes, for the love of Zog, I certainly do have to add graphics to Quixe"? And then I look sad and complain about my lack of free time? That has to stop.

So, starting in January, I will be splitting my time between Hadean Lands and open-source IF infrastructure projects. (And other iPhone projects to be named later.) One major open-source project, of course, will be a Glulx interpreter for iPhone. That way, anybody (who's signed up as an iPhone developer) can put a Glulx game in the App Store -- complete with artwork, help screens, embedded feelies, Gamecenter integration for achievements... All the trimmings. (If at all possible I'll make this usable with Z-code as well. Yes, iPhone Frotz already exists, but that's not a path for single-game publication.)

Want to support this plan? Give me buckets of money.

Don't have an Apple mobile device? Naturally, you'll want to support my Glulx work regardless. And I would like to do Android (Kindle, anything, etc) versions of this game somday -- those ports just aren't part of the initial schedule.

But I have a special offer: only as a Kickstarter reward, you can pre-order the Special Limited Edition of Hadean Lands, which comes on CD. That will be playable on any Glulx interpreter (Mac, Windows, Linux, or any web browser). This will only be available by donating on Kickstarter during the month of November! So eat up.

And, as they say, thank you for your support.

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Teaser

Project HL teaser 5

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The day I skunked MacCribbage

If you’ll permit me a bit of silly personal nostalgia:

skunk.png

I came across this screencap, dating from the summer of 1994, while pawing through some old files. Apparently I managed to skunk my Mac at Cribbage — that is, I crossed the 121-point finish line before it hit 91 points, which my dad taught me counts as a double-win, especially if you’re playing for stakes — and was so thrilled with my achievement (and perhaps chagrined that the final scoreboard didn’t acknowledge the mustelid nature of my victory) that I took a screenshot and filed it away.

Please note that the size of this image was the size of my entire monitor at the time, at least in terms of resolution — when projected upon my screen via jet-age electron-gun technology, it measured 12 inches along the diagonal.

Incredibly, MacCribbage’s homepage still exists. Despite the page’s year-one webdesign (and, indeed, an on-page timestamp reading 3/14/95), you can still download the game there, though it’s been many years since any Macintosh computer has shipped with the means to run it.

Meanwhile, the game’s author, Mike Houser, has carried his work into the future with an iPhone version. My heart aches to see the stylistic differences in those two pages’ screenshots, comparing the pixel-perfect artwork of his 1990s work with the flat, anti-aliased color fills of the 21st century adaptation. Fortunately, he still sells a handful of Mac OS X-friendly solitaire games that make use of his charming original deck art, including those smileymac-visaged court cards.

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A few iotas of Myst news

I haven't posted one of these since the Gameshelf got its stylish new (that is, Greek antiquarian) logo. But the fanboy I remain, so here's what Cyan has been whispering:

The Manhole for iPhone/iPad/etc is out. (App Store link) It's a whimsical children's story-or-environment -- worth exploring if you only know the Myst series.

Riven for iPhone/iPad/etc is marked as "coming soon". Riven is my favorite of the series, but I haven't played it since its original release -- it's notably hard to get running on modern machines. (Even harder than Myst, which has been updated and re-implemented all over the place.) I am seriously looking forward to this one.

Cyan also pushed a stack of games up on Steam. But if you use Steam, you probably saw that.

And finally, this teaser page was linked from Cyan's home page today (although I don't see it there now). The banner tag was "Never Let Your Timbers Be Shivered." What is it? Looks like some kind of resource-based explore-and-fight. With pirates. That's all we know -- except that a Cyan folk also dropped into a forum thread and linked to this MP3 file.

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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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Stress and relaxation

Which of these games is not like the other? Answer: both of them!

...That's a Zen joke. Here, let me fill your bathtub with brightly colored sleep furiously.

Here's the blurb for Zen Bound:

Zen Bound is a calm and meditative puzzle game about wrapping wooden sculptures with rope. A game in which a high score is not the goal - instead it is something to focus on and enjoy at your own relaxed pace.

...And here's the lead-in for Canabalt:

Tap to start your daring escape.

Bit of a difference in focus there, right?

These blurbs do not lie. In Zen Bound, you rotate your iPhone to wrap a rope around wooden blocks. There's no time limit. The soundtrack (by Ghost Monkey) is a slow, cool-and-smooth jazzy relaxation. You cannot die. You cannot lose.

In Canabalt, you sprint across the rooftops of a city that is being pulverized by giant robots. Let me say that again: pulverized by giant robots. Bombs fall around you, buildings crumble underfoot. You will eventually slip and fall. The soundtrack (by Danny Baranowsky) is a buzzing, thumping techno mix which puts the wind at your back. You cannot slow down. You cannot survive.

So, which of these games is relaxing to play?

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Multitasking, with circles and arrows and etc

(Not a game post today, sorry... It's time for Zarf Wibbles About Apple Gadgets.)

What with the blizzard of iPad hype, everyone is talking about "multitasking" and how it is either a crucial tool of the Matrix infoconomy or a hideous, battery-destroying distraction from Getting Crap Done.

Irony shields to maximum, either way.

I just read through an essay, Understanding Multi-tasking on the iPad by Milind Alvares. It is a good overview but I think it oversimplifies to hit its target ("the hell with traditional multitasking", if I may summarize Alvares in five words).

"Multitasking" is a bunch of things, none of which is absolutely crucial, but none of which can be dismissed either. And some of them are stuck together. Let us then list:

  • Software multitasking -- can several programs be running at a time?
  • App multitasking -- can the user do something that involves several apps?
  • User multitasking -- can the user do several things at once?

(The very word "multitasking" begs its question -- what "task" are we talking about, a human's or a computer's? -- but I'm using it for familiarity's (and Google's) sake.)

What do each of these things mean?


Software Multitasking

As everyone has noted, the iPhone supports software multitasking; it always has. Apple's apps can do it, and yours can't. (Gruber wants to say "App Store apps can't," but I don't know what the hell his point is. Apple makes the rules for you and me, and they don't apply to Apple, and that's the game.)

App Multitasking

This is where life gets interesting. Alvares writes:

On a desktop computer, I would have a Safari web page open in one window, and floating beneath or beside it, is a TextEdit window. I can research multiple articles using different tabs, all the time copying stuff over to TextEdit for my research. Some variation of this is the most common form of a multi-tasking workflow on a computer.

Clearly correct, and I say so because I'm doing exactly that right now. Browse, check reference, browse, add to blog post, repeat. Or Ihnatko's list of things you can't do on an iPhone:

Download the file attachment from my editor's email, cut 3000 words that were utterly essential to the story, then email it back. Or download the column from cloud storage and open it in my word processor. Or write a whole new piece and attach it.

The first crux for this kind of workflow is copy and paste. When copy-paste hit the iPhone, it enabled a level of multitasking that people were desperate for, even though they didn't call it that. Browser to email, email to calendar item, calendar note to Google Maps lookup. Doing crap that involves several apps.

The second crux is fast swapping between apps that save their state. I don't care if my editor is exiting and restarting, or just hiding its window, as long as I can jump in and start editing my file.

The other second crux is some kind of document exchange between apps. We've already heard rumors of this for the iPad. (And between the iPad and its host desktop machine.) It's copy-and-paste grown up... and a blow to the "users should never ever see the filesystem" camp, because as soon as you need to find files from a general pool, you need... a Finder. Of some sort. (It doesn't need to display /etc or /usr/lib, but OSX got that right ten years ago, okay?)

(Chewing out the exact affordances needed by an iPad Finder is a problem for another day and another howling Finder argument. As if we were short of those. Drop it for now.)

User Multitasking

I'll tell you a story: Monday night, I started installing OSX 10.6 on my laptop. I stuck in the disk and pushed the shiny button. "Okay," I said to myself, "now I will start writing that blog post on multitasking."

Total failure. What? I was using my desktop Mac. But the laptop was whirring away on the desk behind me... a miserable distraction. I kept turning around to peek at the progress bar. I wound up reading Livejournal until my eyes bled -- on the desktop Mac -- and didn't get a damn thing done except supervising that install. "Supervising." Later, I installed XCode.

I suck at multitasking.

But some kinds of multitasking, I'm used to. I can run a chat client in the background, and keep an eye on a couple of chat rooms. I've started doing the Twitter thing, and I'm learning to keep an eye on that too. In the background.

Then there's sensory multitasking. The two obvious multitasking apps on the iPhone today are iPod (music playback) and the telephone (voice chat). The two favorite third-party background requests are Pandora and Skype. All audio apps, and that's not a coincidence: a human being can look at one thing while listening to another. We're good at that kind of multitasking.

Outside the audio realm, "multitasking" is sometimes -- not always -- a euphemism for "fast user task-swapping". That's why this talk of iPad widgets is interesting; you could wind up popping up small "at a glance" apps without leaving the app you're in. (Shades of Desk Accessories in System 6!)

Note how here, too, "background" almost begs the question -- in terms of our familiar desktop metaphor (on our desktop computers!) My chat room sits in a window behind all my work windows, partially obscured. In the background. On a non-windowed interface, the metaphors will change; Palm's WebOS uses cards, Google's ChromeOS uses panels. The implementation -- whether these are persistent processes, run-fast programs, or snippets of Javascript in a browser context -- are almost irrelevant.

The Collisions

...Almost irrelevant.

Sometimes software multitasking does matter.

I want to run SSH on the iPad, to connect to remote servers. (Like my web server.) It will be possible. There are several SSH iPhone apps. I don't use them -- the pop-up keyboard does not mix well with Emacs, but the iPad's size will solve that tidily.

SSH, and other remote login apps, only make sense with a persistent network connection in the background. If you switch out to read a twitter message, and the SSH app shuts down, you've lost what you were doing. (Oh, sure, you can run "screen" on the server, but there's still reconnection time, and basically it sucks. It's not what you want.)

Only crazy Unix people want SSH -- but there are other examples. IM clients generally want a persistent network connection. I use Jabber (same protocol as Google Chat); it's designed to be really fast in normal usage, at the cost of being a little bit slow to start up. If the client had to start up and connect every time you glanced at it, the performance would be terrible.

These are not invisible "implementation detail" issues. They're real. Look at Twitter. It's effectively an IM system with no persistent connection. Every Twitter client has a "refresh" command -- because there's no persistent connection, so the client has to authenticate and poll, over and over again. It's slow. Sometimes you have to kick it. That's the way it is. In contrast, a Jabber client displays messages instantly, it doesn't need a refresh button, and it takes less battery power because it doesn't have to log in and poll a server repeatedly.

(Yes, that's right. Battery power is a red herring. Any well-written app -- and Cocoa makes it easy to write apps well -- will use no CPU, and thus no battery, while waiting for network input. Background file downloading (or uploading) takes no extra battery power, because you were going to do that download anyway. Background music playing takes the same amount of power as foreground music playing.)

(The real bottleneck for software multitasking is RAM. It's tight on the iPhone, better on the 3GS. I have not yet seen a source for how much RAM the iPad will have.)

The Workarounds

Every discussion of "iPhone multitasking" flies off the road into the weedy scrub of appropriate workarounds. Push notifications? Copy and paste! (See, I did it too.) A commenter in the Alvares post writes:

The ESPN Radio app handles this seamlessly, by having a "Play in Background" function that basically launches Safari and plays the stream from there.

Will Safari become the Swiss army engine of getting crap done in the background? It's not like other mobile devices haven't played the "all in the browser" card... Come to think of it, so did the iPhone, once. Briefly. But needs must when the Apple drives, and hackers will use any crack they can wedge their tools into.

...That sounded dirtier than I was expecting.

The point is, there are a lot of possible "workarounds" for the "multitasking" problem, and they each work around different corners of the different problems camped under that banner. Sharing data between apps? Loadable code modules plugged into other apps? (That was how the old Sys6 Desk Accessories worked, and OSX had them too although they're going away.) What about simply keeping an Internet connection alive in the background and letting an app start up with the connection already going? Suggestions abound.

But you can't evaluate a suggestion until you have a good account of the problems.

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Myst news: progress on Myst movie, iPhone Riven

I haven't posted much about the Myst movie project since I first blogged about it. Patrick McIntire and Adrian Vanderbosch have been posting occasionally on their blog, but while they've been colorful about the life of indie filmmakers, they haven't had much in the way of solid news.

They still don't have solid news. But they do have encouraging news:

Our trip to LA was to meet with potential producing partners.  What this means is that we were looking for producers to join forces with to further develop the script and project in preparation for pitching to the studios. [...]

We have joined forces with two production companies.  Announcement of those names will come at a later date after some business elements have been taken care of.  For now I will tell you this: One of our partners has a first-look deal at Warner Brothers.  [...]  Don't assume this is a guarantee of WB being the studio.  I will also tell you that the other producer we partnered with is an Oscar winner and has extensive experience with world-creation and bringing epic films like ours to the theaters.  We are very excited about our partners and we're enjoying the collaboration.

-- Adrian Vanderbosch, posting on Christmas

So, no deal yet. But they have friends in high places, or rather in glitzy places, who will be working with them to help make a deal possible. (Adrian estimates that they're "two and half or three years" away from having a finished film, and that's if they don't bog down anywhere.)

I find this awesome, and I look forward to more.


In other news, Chogon (Mark DeForest, CTO of Cyan) posted this on the Myst forums a few days ago:

I am working on Riven for the iPhone/iTouch (along with RAWA and Rand) as I type. And yes. There are some challenges still ahead that I am confident we can solve. And we are determine to make this the best Riven evvvv-er.

(That's with Richard Watson and Rand Miller, two of the other Cyan honchos.)

Myst has been ported to quite a few platforms (DS, iPhone, Saturn, Jaguar... seriously, I didn't even know about most of these). Riven, due to its size -- five CD-ROMs originally -- has been much less widely ported. And in fact, while I've replayed versions of Myst several times over the years, I've never gone back to Riven. My old Mac version certainly won't run on OSX, and I've never gone through the contortions needed to set up a Windows version.

So I'm super-excited about an iPhone Riven. There are challenges, as Chogon says; see his full post for his comments about making the video-playing toolkit do what they need it to do. But it's in progress.

(Yes, someone asked about Droid/Android. Unfortunately the current Android devices still have limited space for app storage, so no luck there for the moment.)

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iPhone Zendomizer

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

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

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Yet another reason Apple's feet are full of bullet holes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The App Store review process: broken for everybody.

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Another Secret Project KLD image

Back in July I posted a teaser image from Secret Project KLD. I said I'd say more in "three months, or six, or a year, or however long it takes".

Well, it's taking a while. I still don't know when it'll be done. But it's been three months, so the least I can do is tease you some more.

Project KLD Teaser

This image is actually a month old. I've done a heck of a lot of work since then. But it wouldn't be much of a secret project if I showed off everything I had.

(Note: Some of you reading this post have already seen this image, because... I like to talk about my secret projects. And show off. But I'm trying to keep it within strict bounds now.)

Anyway, see you in another three months! Unless I change my mind some more.

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Kory Heath's Blockhouse

Earlier this year I boosted Werewolf, Kory Heath's iPhone implementation of the cult social-game favorite. Now he's back, with an original iPhone puzzle game. Check it out: a sliding block!

Blockhouse

Is this madness? Is this 1992? How can I possibly use the word "original" for sliding blocks -- a hoary and overused puzzle format that I've been complaining about since, I think, Heaven and Earth?

I'm sure you've already recognized this screenshot as the "block slides until it hits something, then you slide it again" variety of puzzle. And that's what Blockhouse is. But seriously. In buckets. In spades. Buckets and buckets of spades.

See, you play through a few of these levels, and the little block goes zipping around, and you figure you're done with Blockhouse. Except then you hit the level with two blocks. Then you hit the level with two L-shaped blocks. And they're getting harder. The blocks are turning into zig-zag polyominoes and getting stuck on each other. Occasionally blocks contain other blocks.

And then you realize that there are one hundred of these levels, and none of them suck. No filler. One simple game mechanic, in a frankly astonishing spread of variations: wide-open levels, divided levels, levels where you have to get the blocks wedged together, levels where you have to get the blocks knocked apart. (Go ahead, ask Kory how he invented them all.)

That's why you're going to go out and buy Blockhouse. One level is a quick brain workout, and it leads directly to playing more and more of them until you're obsessively pounding on that one you're stuck on...

Blockhouse

The interface is minimal and glass-smooth. You don't need a main menu. You don't need a tutorial. The game is in front of you. You play by tilting (or you can turn off tilt-mode, and play by swiping). You don't have to go through the levels sequentially; the game begins with the first 25 levels unlocked, and you can skip around as whim and frustration take you. You do have to complete all of them to unlock the next 25, and so on. I found this to be a reasonable balance between challenge and freedom.

Many blocks slide to bring you this information. Use it.

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