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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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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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