You can buy HL on Steam. That is the whole blog post.
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A few weeks ago Emily Short declared the Bring Out Your Dead game jam, an event dedicated to sharing our abandoned projects and failed experiments.
The jam opened this evening; submissions remain open until the 24th. I see 31 entries already, including works from Alan DeNiro, Bruno Dias, Adri, Cat Manning, Sam Ashwell, and this honorable blogger.
I posted... the first prototype of The Flashpaper War! And the second prototype too. (Playable on web pages. I've also done iPad prototypes of the game, but posting those isn't really possible. You're missing some cute animations, is all.)
I said a year ago that Flashpaper would be my next IF project. And I still intend that to be true! I built these prototypes last year and demoed them in private; I showed a version at Boston FIG as well. But they just didn't work out, so I scrapped them and started from scratch.
(And then I had to spend some time on paying work, and some more time working on the Steam release of Hadean Lands... which is this Monday, by the way. Just thought I'd say.)
The start-from-scratch plan is still marinating. I have plans. They may even see daylight this year... but for the moment, enjoy these Flashpaper prototypes.
Meanwhile: An Interactive Comic Book by Jason Shiga is now available for the 4th-gen Apple TV.
That's pretty much the whole announcement. You can buy it. If you've already bought the iOS version of Meanwhile, you can download it for Apple TV for free. (Go to the App Store app in the TV interface; select "Purchased"; scroll down and select "Not on this Apple TV".)
Oh, and the iOS version has been updated to fully support the iPad Pro. Somebody with an iPad Pro, try it and tell me how awesome it is.
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?
MEANWHILE is not an ordinary comic. YOU make the choices that determine how the story unfolds. MEANWHILE splits off into thousands of different adventures. Most will end in DOOM and DISASTER. Only one path will lead you to happiness and success.
(Yes, it's been available on my web site all along. But sub-Q is cool! Also they pay for reprinting short IF! I like that sort of thing. So go replay it there, if you haven't tried it in a decade or so.)
SUtW is an interesting side note of its era. 1997 was still solidly the era of "IF means puzzle-based parser games", although IFComp was rapidly loosening up the definitions. My idea wasn't exactly choice-based IF -- I was still committed to freely-typed input -- but I wanted to get away from standard verb-noun commands. And, of course, I wanted to try escaping the notion of puzzles.
I wound up with a sort of freely branching, non-goal-oriented narrative; what we might call a "time cave" today. I wasn't able to sustain much of it. But I liked what I got.
(I'd have a hard time telling you exactly how big the structure is! Some of the source code got eaten by a hard drive crash -- remember when MacOS didn't have memory protection? It wouldn't be hard to disassemble the Z-code and reconstruct the source, but I've never had the urge.)
Thanks to Tory for this opportunity, and also for pulling together the cover art. SUtW predates the era of IF cover art, so I didn't have any ready to go.
I am happy to report that Meanwhile: An Interactive Comic Book has passed its review for the Apple TV store. It will be available on February 29th. Because Leap Days are nifty.
Jason and I are excited about this launch. If you're not familiar with Meanwhile -- and, really, you should be -- it's Jason Shiga's mad-science fairy tale about a kid in a laboratory of crazy inventions. You've got a time machine, a mind-reading helmet, and a doomsday device. What more could you want?
Meanwhile started out as a book, and I adapted it for iOS a few years back. Now I've ported the app for the Apple TV -- or rather, I've re-engineered it. Going from a touchscreen to the Siri remote forced me to completely rethink how the app focuses and displays the panels of the comic. It's come out beautifully, if I may say so.
(And, as always, Meanwhile is completely playable using VoiceOver for people with visual disabilities.)
Meanwhile will be a joint purchase. If you've bought the iOS version, you'll be able to download the Apple TV app for free as soon as it's released. And vice versa.
As far as I can tell, there aren't any interactive graphic novels on the Apple TV store yet. (Do people still say "hypercomics"?) So this is our window. Maybe we can start a trend. Pass the word around.
I survived my month of a thousand conferences. Three conferences, which feels like a thousand when you put them in a four-week span. IndieCade was great! WordPlay was great! I also went to Practice, which was great! Then I was tired.
Between all of that and some assorted client work, I have had zero time to put into The Flashpaper War. Oops. So the "coming later this year" notice that I posted in May turns out to be a lie. Sorry! (This is why I didn't Kickstart it, right?)
I've updated the Flashpaper teaser page to say "Coming in 2016". I really intend to hold to that. Not least because Flashpaper was my "make some money on IF in 2015" idea. Money is awesome. I'm very keen on having some new IF for sale in 2016.
I'm still excited about Flashpaper as a game concept, too. Now that I've taken a three-month vacation from working on it, I can see that the underlying concept needs to be hit with the iteration stick a few more times. It got good responses at FIG, but it's not as catchy as I'd like. Flashpaper is unlike most IF that's out there, so it has to build its own market in order to be a hit.
In the spirit of setting expectations, I will say: Flashpaper is not parser IF. It will be an iOS game, or at least an iOS-first game. It was conceived as a touchscreen game from the beginning and that's how it will work best.
(Android may follow eventually if it seems worth the effort of porting. Yes, I say that about all my iOS projects. Nothing yet has been enough of a success to be worth learning Android programming. I live in hope.)
As for other projects: I still want to do Meanwhile for AppleTV. I took a quick stab at porting the iOS version over, but the scrolling didn't work right and then I had to put it aside for client work. I'll get back to it over the winter break.
I am also -- and don't take this as a promise but come on this is awesome -- looking at entering the Imaginary Games Jam. Registration deadline is a week from today.
And I need to sew elbow patches on my hideous plaid jacket. That jacket has been in circulation since 1987-ish. Getting a bit worn around the seams.
So those are my winter plans. Plus the usual round of keeping an eye on Inform bugs, thinking about IF libraries, hanging out, and generally messing around. The next Boston IF meetup is Thursday, by the way.
Looking farther out, I'm gonna be at GDC in March. I'm not giving any talks or anything, just visiting. It's been four years since my last (first) GDC trip, and I've met way more cool game people since then, so it's probably time to go back.
I hope to have more exciting Zarf-does-stuff news soon...
I'm happy to announce that Pocket Storm for the Apple TV is now available in the new Apple TV App Store. Apple's new set-top box ships today, and you can get your favorite thunderstorm on it.
To find it, open the App Store app on the TV's main screen, select Search, and enter STORM. (Or POCKET, or ZARF -- the text search is actually pretty good.)
Better yet -- if you've purchased Pocket Storm for iOS, you can download the Apple TV app for free! And vice versa. It's a joint purchase, which means you can buy it once and then install it on any iOS or tvOS device you own.
As always, 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!
We showed off Seltani at Indiecade! To lots of people. Lots and lots. Not everybody was interested -- it was, after all, a text game in a hall crowded with flashing lights and VR headsets -- but plenty of people thought it was worth a look. Some were Myst fans (or even Myst Online fans); some were old MUD users; some were familiar with Twine but had never seen a multiplayer Twine-like.
I gave out stacks of postcards with this map I did of the Seltani District (the game's initial hub area). It had the URL on the back, obviously. (Note to self: next time I reprint the postcard, boldface the URL.)
In a wiser and more organized world I would have a story to tell about Indiecade, but it's not, I don't, and I'm moderately exhausted in a hotel as I write this. So you get lists.
People I met or re-met (in no order): Tory Hoke (of Sub-Q Magazine), Squinky, Zak S, Rich Lemarchand, Tablesaw, Sam Barlow (Her Story won the big festival jury prize), Cat Manning, one of the Chaosmos designers (I have lost which one), Zoe Quinn, Naomi Clark, Mark Marino, Matt Weise, Patrick Smith (Vectorpark), Jim Munroe, Kyle Seeley, Michael Mateas, Michael Carriere, and a lot of others who I am failing to bring to mind because it was a packed weekend.
Games I recognized, played, or intend to check out: Emily Is Away, Desolus, Kairo, Nevermind, Museum of Simulation Technology, Darknet, Metamorphabet, Pygmalion's Challenge, Pavilion, Walden, The Meadow, Line Wobbler, Memories of a Broken Dimension, Thumper, Consentacle, Red and Pleasant Land. This too is an incomplete list. Very, very incomplete. I am not knocking your game if it's not mentioned here.
Bonus points to Sam Barlow for trying to get me to play Consentacle. I declined. It's not you, Sam, it's me.
I am grateful to everybody who came up and introduced yourselves to me. Or re-introduced yourselves to me -- I'm bad at faces. (Have I told the story of how I've met Chris Klimas three times and each time thought it was the first?) I had interesting conversations with writers, teachers, musicians, artists, and (obviously) gamers and game designers. I collected a centimeter-thick stack of business cards (which helped me write this post, at minimum). I had a gelato.
Special thanks again to Carl Muckenhoupt (of Baf's Guide, fondly remembered) who volunteered to help me out with the Seltani demo for hours and hours.
Oh, and I visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology! That was... a trip. Describing the Museum is probably the least useful thing one can do about it, so I won't.
After I wrote the above, as I waited in the airport for my flight home, I saw this post from one of the Indiecade organizers:
Implicit in my work with IndieCade was a belief that conferences—the talks, the panels and the interstitial moments of community—are vehicles for change. Looking back at the last six years, I no longer believe this is a meaningful way to sustainably support marginalized communities. And so I’ve made the decision to step down from my conference co-chair role [...]
[...] For me, a big motivation for volunteering my time to co-chair the IndieCade conference has been giving marginalized voices a platform to share their work. Events like IndieCade and GDC’s diversity track give these developers and critics a platform to share their work, but I fear these events are not providing sustainable, long-term benefit to those outside academia and game development companies.
[...] But within marginalized communities of gamemakers, outside the academic and game development ecosystems, it is unfair to assume everyone can afford to take on the opportunity costs and financial burden of attending a conference. Even with the free conference pass given to most speakers, travel, lodging and food can easily eat up $1,000 or more for a weekend event. Over the last couple of years, IndieCade has made efforts to provide some financial assistance to conference speakers who need it, but it has been a token gesture at best [...]
(--John Sharp, Conferences and sustainable diversity)
(I've selected just a few lines from his post. Read the whole thing.)
That had a wee bit of resonance for me, let me tell you.
Obviously I am not "marginalized" in most senses. I'm a straight white guy with a CS degree and a software industry background. I have savings to fund my attempt at an indie career. But still, this is exactly the stuff I think about. I'm not in academia; I do not work for a game company; I have not achieved sustainability. Zarfhome Software has never made rent for me for more than a couple of months in any given year.
I submitted Seltani to Indiecade on a whim. (A whim with a $100 submission fee!) When it was accepted, I did the calculation: will this trip be worth it? It's a business decision. Crudely, I was gambling that the contacts and handshakes and business cards I collected would add up to more than the cost of travel, hotel, prep work, and the time I took from other tasks. (Which is, yeah, over $1000.)
You can't measure that outcome on the spot. The payoff is in future projects and potential jobs. I'd like to be optimistic about this, but here's a conference organizer saying he's not. He thinks I wasted that grand. (And, again, I'm one of the folks who can afford to lose it. Plenty of people can't.)
As I said on Twitter -- the most valuable "networking" I did this weekend may have been going up to a Boston compatriot and saying "Hey, your company does iOS work, right? I might need some of that next year." Not game work, just pay-rent work. And I didn't have to go to Indiecade to talk to him; I see him around Boston all the time.
So this is all depressing in various ways. I can still be optimistic, but it's a nervous optimism. Going out to dinner with IF people was fantastic, but what did we talk about? Sustainability. Money. Jobs. Trying to figure out what we're doing with our lives.
(Also community tensions within IF and IF-adjacent groups, which is not the same issue but touches on it. There's been some arguments recently about the role of IFComp in the modern indie-dev world. When IFComp started in 1995, nobody was asking "Should I enter my game in this competition or sell it on my web site for money?" That just wasn't a question on anybody's radar. Things have changed.)
John Sharp's article goes on to talk about positive possible directions. It's not a surrender post. He likes IndieXchange, the pre-Indiecade biz-dev event, which I also liked and found valuable. (It didn't turn me into an instant business success, but there were good talks on marketing and on the dirty details of outsourcing audio for your game.) (I might have to outsource audio for a game someday, right? I can't get away with banging the cheese grater forever.)
There may be more possible paths in the future. I hope so.
And look! I've signed up for GDC in March! The last GDC I went to was in 2012, and that gamble did not pay off. I hung out with friends, it was fun, but was the benefit worth that $700 Summits-and-Tutorials pass? Plus plane and hotel? I think it's safe to say "heck no."
But here I am taking another spin of the wheel. I think the odds are tilted my way now. I've got the more modest Indie-Summit pass -- not that this saves much compared to travel costs. Mostly, it's that I've met more people and done more work, so I'll have a wider base of contact. (I'm bad at meeting people, but I can tell that four years of putting myself out there have slowly accumulated some results. See lists above!) I'll have finished Flashpaper by March -- I'd better have finished it by March -- so I'll have a game to promote.
Maybe I'm stupid, but this is the point in my life when I have to be.
Yes, I've been running quiet for the past couple of months. I've been working away on various projects. But soon I will enter a season of furious public activity! While also still working away, because the projects aren't done yet.
First, as I recently posted, I will be at IndieCade to show off Seltani. That's Oct 23-25 in Los Angeles. Extra thanks to Carl Muckenhoupt (Baf of the fondly-remembered Baf's Guide) who will be helping me demo Seltani that weekend.
There's also an IF meetup on Saturday night at the IndieCade Night Games festival. I'll be attending that too.
The WordPlay festival of narrative games and IF is back in Toronto on Nov 7th. I'll be there, along with other stalwarts of the IF scene including Emily Short, Sam Barlow, Christine Love, and (our blog-host) Jason McIntosh.
(Is "stalwarts" an okay thing to call people? I don't always know.)
Let me also mention the Boston IF meetups (at MIT) on Oct 12 and Nov 11. Emily Short will be visiting for the November meeting.
Now the more exciting report: projects in progress.
I showed off a prototype of The Flashpaper War at Boston FIG a couple weeks back. That went great! My table didn't draw enormous crowds -- the perils of demoing a couple of meek ipads amid the hall's obstreperous beeping and flashing. But people kept sitting down and trying it... and when they tried it, they generally sat and read/played through several pages of interactive text. Amid all the beeping and flashing! So that's a good sign.
I must admit that Flashpaper is still only a prototype. (Although it's a much more polished prototype than it was before FIG!) The web page says "Coming later this year," and I intend to stick to that, but there's a lot of writing and adjusting to do before it's ready to go.
You may have seen that the new Apple TV is about to ship, and it will support third-party apps. I'm very excited about this; I've been working through the dev tools to see how it works. (Summary: very similar to iOS. No surprise there.)
I've just finished up a draft of Pocket Storm for Apple TV. Is this not the perfect fit? Push button -- soothing rainstorm audio in your living room. Or cricketsong and distant thunder, if you prefer. If all goes well, Pocket Storm will be among the first wave of apps available when the new TV box goes on sale.
(If you already own Pocket Storm for iOS, fear not -- you'll be able to download the Apple TV version for free! One purchase covers both platforms.)
(I know, "Pocket Storm" isn't the best name for a set-top box app. I couldn't think of anything better, I'm afraid. "Living Room Storm" is all wrong.)
So what else would make a good Apple TV app? I'm thinking that Hadean Lands is probably not ideal. The UI is not built for text input, and while you could attach a Bluetooth keyboard, most users won't. So parser-based IF is probably not going to fly. (Flashpaper, on the other hand... we'll see.)
I'm also taking a look at Meanwhile. I'll have to see how the UI works with a remote control, and of course I'll have to consult with Jason Shiga about it. But it could be sweet.
That's all for now. Keep an eye on this blog for things shipping. I'm eager to get to the shipping part.
A few days ago my idle twitter-browsing was upended:
Huh. I just checked the Greenlight page for @zarfeblong's Hadean Lands... I somehow missed the news that Valve had started the GL process (@andetkaihetera)
Really? I, um, missed the news too. But a quick glance at the HL Greenlight page showed:
This game has been Greenlit by the Community!
The community has shown their interest in this game. Valve has reached out to this developer to start moving things toward release on Steam.
I was off at Balticon, so I couldn't dig into the matter right then. (Which is why everybody else announced the news before me.) But now I'm back and more or less caught up on life. So here's what I know.
If Valve reached out to me, I missed it. The Greenlight page says "Updated: May 12 @ 7:24pm", and the voting stats stop on May 11. So I guess the game was officially greenlit two weeks ago and nobody noticed until this weekend? O the embarrassment.
The site now offers me a link to "become a Steamworks partner". So I have begun that process. I have filled out a great many forms' worth of tax and banking info, the usual excitement. (And the usual confusion about whether I should use Zarfhome LLC's EIN or my personal SSN, a question which I will never, ever get right on the first try.)
Bureaucracy aside, what does this mean for Hadean Lands? I wish I could just push a button and launch the thing onto Steam. But no -- not that simple.
The Mac/PC/Linux download packages that I built last year are playable. But they're not nice. Gargoyle doesn't even have a font preference menu. (You can bejigger a text config file, of all the archaic monstrosities.)
Worse problem: Gargoyle doesn't handle high-res displays. It renders text at the old-school resolution, which means it looks fuzzy and awful. "Retina" displays are standard on high-end Macs and are moving steadily down the product line, and now we're seeing them on Windows machines too. So this is serious.
I would like to switch to other interpreters, at least on Mac and Windows. However, the options are currently Mac Zoom (crashy) and WinGlulx (backscroll is hidden behind an obscure keystroke). Um. I'm very much afraid that I'll have to spend a couple of months fixing up other people's interpreters before I can build Steam-acceptable games.
Now, in some ways this is great. I like contributing fixes to open-source projects! Particularly for IF interpreters! But it's a lot of work, and no cash up front. What's up front is learning curve -- I haven't built either Windows or MacOS apps, not since the 1990s.
I'd probably want some game-specific interpreter features, too. There's the dynamic map -- or, if I can't swing that, I should at least display the static map in a separate window when asked. Same for the IF postcard.
On top of that, I need to browse through Steam's SDK and figure out how it works. I have to think about achievements (probably not) and trading cards (I don't even know). I have to look into whether Steam's libraries can legally be wedged in with IF interpreters, which tend to be GPL.
Plus: this would be a terrific opportunity for that HL bug fix release, right? An impressive bug list has piled up since October. I've barely touched it. Surely it's worth putting my best foot forward for the Steam release.
Whew. All of this will happen, but it will happen in parallel with other work. For example, look at this exciting teaser page that I put up last week...
What is this? I'm not saying! Except to note that it is neither parser-based nor traditionally choice-based (hyperlink or menu style). Fun, eh?
And now, the traditional "green it forward" section:
Porpentine, Twine author and winner of multiple IF awards, is Greenlighting Eczema Angel Orifice, a collection of over 20 of her works. You can't talk about the past few years of choice-based IF without talking about Porpentine.
And some IF works which have been on Greenlight for a while, and are still working their way towards the goal line:
Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter (Mike Gentry and David Cornelson)
The Shadow in the Cathedral (Ian Finley and Jon Ingold)
This is the same version that's been available all along. (No, I have not done a bug-fix release. I know, it's getting to be time...)
The Humble Store is fixed-price, not pay-what-you-want. The win is that 10% of proceeds go to charity.
(Have you voted for Hadean Lands on Steam Greenlight?)
The XYZZY Awards for best interactive fiction of 2014 have just been announced. I'm happy to say that Hadean Lands won in four categories: Best Puzzles, Best Setting, Best Implementation, and Best Use of Innovation.
The overall Best IF Game of 2014 went to 80 Days, which absolutely deserved it. It was a tightly-contested award -- Hadean Lands was in the running, along with Kevin Gold's Choice of Robots, Porpentine's standout Twine work With Those We Love Alive, and IFComp winner Hunger Daemon by Sean M. Shore.
Winners in other categories included Lynnea Glasser's Creatures Such As We, Ade McT's Fifteen Minutes, michael lutz's the uncle who works for nintendo, and a symbolically satisfying tie between Twine and Inform 7 for Best Technological Development.
Here's the full list of winners and finalists. Congrats to everybody!
Since this is my brag post, I'll also note that I'm working on a new IF game! This will not be parser-based. I've got ideas about cool things to do with a touchscreen other than typing a lot.
No other hints right now. Stay tuned for more information.
A question about Hadean Lands from the tweet gallery: "Have you written anything about how you approached designing the alchemical system?"
Excellent question! The answer is "No, but I should, shouldn't I," yes okay. (Thanks @logodaedalus.)
My twitter-sized reply was "Sound cool while supporting the puzzles," but I can say more than that.
(Note: I will start this post by talking about HL in generalities. Later on I'll get into more spoilery detail about the game structure. It won't come down to specific puzzle solutions, but I'll put in a spoiler warning anyway.)
The keynote for HL's system was the alchemy puzzle in The Dreamhold. The Dreamhold lab had just two ingredients and three actions to take, but it felt like a dense explorable territory.
Dreamhold's principle was that any action you try on a given substance will produce a new and interesting result. And then you can try new actions on that! Obviously this exponential expansion has to be tied off pretty soon. Many of the combinations converge to common outcomes. The tree is only a few steps deep, really. (I think there are twelve possible substances to find.) But it's enough to give a sense of experimentation and discovery.
For HL, I wanted that sense, but bigger. Did I succeed? Heck no! It was an impossible goal. HL has forty-odd starting ingredients and thirty-odd magic words (not to mention other ritual actions, and the environmental influences, and...). Just providing the first step of a dense exploration tree would be... well, somebody might do it, but I wasn't going to.
So I developed HL with a less ambitious principle: you get recipes. When following a recipe, you should always be able to tell a right action from a wrong one. That is, a particular magic word will produce a unique response if you use it at the right time -- different from the response you get if you use it at the wrong time. The differences may be slight, but they're perceptible.
I didn't want to entirely crush the spirit of experimentation. So the second principle was: recipes aren't everything. The opening puzzle demonstrates this, and various later puzzles require you to substitute or invert ritual elements. I set up parallel structures and oppositional structures to make that make sense.
I think everyone agrees that I didn't hit the perfect balance. The game starts you with an off-recipe puzzle, but there's too long an interval before the next one. In between are lots of recipes that you have to follow perfectly; you lose track of the initial lesson. But most players were able to get onto the right track (or jump off the wrong one, if you like).
A followup question was "Did you have alchemical dynamics in mind when making the puzzles?" The answer is... mixed.
(Spoiler warning for the overall game structure, starting here!)
The core arc of HL is the limited supply of four key elements. You need all four for the endgame, and there are intermediate goals which require two or three. So initially you can only accomplish one intermediate goal at a time; then you have to reset.
That was my initial puzzle framework. I wrote that down, and then started complicating it. What ritual needs elements X and Y? Is it the ritual itself which needs those elements, or do I invent a sub-ritual which consumes X and provides a related X2? And so on.
At this point, I was inventing puzzles and alchemical mechanics in parallel. Or rather, I was going back and forth -- every decision on one side firmed up the possibilities on the other side. I needed puzzles whose solutions would seem reasonable; I needed mechanics which would feel like parts of a plausible magical science.
You'll note that I didn't start by creating a complete magical system and then deriving puzzles from it. Nor did I invent a bunch of puzzles and then invent alchemy that could solve them. Neither approach has ever worked for me. So if you're hoping for a complete, consistent model of HL alchemy -- I'm sorry. No such thing exists.
I knew that it couldn't exist, of course. That's one reason that the alchemy is described as being eclectic and syncretic. It fits nicely with the social background, too. The real-life British Empire did steal artifacts from all over the world. I evolved the idea that a magical British Empire would lift occult knowledge from every place they conquered, and jam it all together without regard for consistency or context!
(We assume this made them better at conquering. The game doesn't touch on much history, but references to the "East Empire" imply that they've got a firm grasp on Central Europe, and no doubt the New World as well. If I were a better writer, I'd have built a story about the Navy running into aliens and trying to treat them colonially... oh, well, room for a sequel.)
(There will be no sequel. That was a joke.)
The point is, I could make up whatever alchemical rules I wanted. I tried for a balance -- consistency in some places, chaos in others. I could draw on mythical, mathematical, or religious sources without having to be accurate about any of it. Convenient!
Back to the puzzle construction. As I said, there were a few key resources whose scarcity determined the game arc. Then I invented more resources -- both ingredients and formulae -- which either resulted from or combined with the key ones.
This could itself have created an ever-expanding tree of dependencies. But I constrained it, or at least bent it back on itself, with a third principle: everything in the game should be used at least twice. Ideally, in slightly different ways.
A naive adventure game uses each item exactly once. Indeed, many graphical adventures remove things from your inventory once you've used them successfully. This cuts against your sense of immersion -- not because of the anti-realism, but because you wind up watching the game mechanics rather than the game. An object disappearing (or being checked off) is a better signal of progress than the response of the game world. Text adventures don't have this disappearance convention; nonethless, the player learns to keep track of what's been used and ignore it thereafter.
I would rather teach the player that there's always more to learn. You may think you understand an item, but you still have to keep it in mind for future use. You have to keep everything in the game in mind at all times. This is the underlying challenge.
So I went over and over the list of rituals, looking for singletons. Magic word used only once? Work it into a new ritual. Alchemical potion only solves one puzzle? Invent a new place to use it. This added a richness to the mechanics. Two uses of a reagent imply there must be more; you have the sense that there must be underlying laws to explain it all. This is, as I said, an illusion; but it's a well-supported illusion.
Of course, it added up to a gob-smacking number of puzzles. Fortunately (or perhaps not), I was blessed with a very large list of formulae, resources, and recipes to scatter around the Retort. I could "use up" these extra puzzles as obstacles to various resources. (Thus all the locked cabinets.)
Also, since these puzzles weren't involved in the key resource plotline, it was okay if they had multiple solutions. (Some of the cabinets can be opened two or three ways.)
The final principle of Hadean Lands: involve all the senses. Let me go back to a line that I quoted in 2010, explaining the HL Kickstarter:
"If a witch could teleport (a thing that seems impossible, but I could be wrong), it would involve hours of preparation, rituals, chanting, and filling all the senses with the desired result until the spell would work in a blinding explosion of emotional fulfillment." (Steven Brust, Taltos)
Magic should be a transcendent experience. I tried to describe the effects of your rituals in colors, textures, sounds, scents... even the words that you speak are given synesthetic weight. Not to mention the ineffable air of things going wrong or right (so useful for cueing mistakes).
Of course, an adventure game involves lots of repetition, and nothing wears out faster than a repeated sense of transcendence. (Except maybe humor.) I dodged this problem with HL's PERFORM mechanic. When you PERFORM a known ritual, it doesn't repeat all of the descriptive text; I kept the output bare and mechanical. You're not reading it anyway! You just want to know whether the ritual succeeded. This preserves your sense of involvement with new rituals.
(Admittedly this falls apart when you're failing at a new ritual. That's a somewhat repetitive experience -- inevitably, I think.)
So there are my principles of magic design. I don't suppose I sound like a Hermetic occultist. I hope I do sound like a writer or designer describing his craft, because that's what this is. A lot of fussy details and a clear plan, is all.
Like the man said: writing is the art of causing change in a consenting reader, in accordance with the writer's will. You gotta be pragmatic about that stuff or you'll get nowhere.
In case you're wondering, nobody hassled me about how long the rewards took. Apparently you folks really were in it for the game -- or to support me, which is even nicer.
However, I bet there are people out there who are working on Kickstarters. And they should be warned: it always takes longer than you think. To substantiate this, here's a timeline of Hadean Lands work that came after the game shipped.
Note that I did lot of reward design in December, but didn't order the stuff until early January. That's because I knew I would be out of town for the last week of December. I didn't want expensive parcels arriving when I was gone.
- Oct 30: Hadean Lands goes live for sale. (I won't describe the whole monkey dance of sending out iOS gift codes. Too painful to recall.)
- Oct 31 to Nov 3: Catching up on backers who had problems getting the game, or who sent in late Kickstarter surveys. Also general PR work -- answering emails, posting on every social network I know.
- Nov 5: Submit iOS app version 1.1. (Better iPhone 6 support.)
- Nov 7 to 10: Toronto trip for WordPlay. (File under "marketing".)
- Nov 10: Release iOS app version 1.1.
- Nov 13 to 17: New York trip for Practice. (File under "networking".)
- Nov 30: Finalize book design; order proofs.
- Dec 2: Finalize postcard design; order postcards.
- Dec 6: Get first proofs of the book.
- Dec 8: Finalize map poster design; order proofs.
- Dec 12: Decide the books are too large. Reformat smaller, order more proofs.
- Dec 19: Submit iOS app version 1.2. (Save-file import and export.)
- Dec 25 to 31: Out of town. Not thinking about HL.
- Jan 1: Release iOS app version 1.2. (I didn't want to release this while I was gone, either.)
- Jan 2: Order books.
- Jan 3: Order posters.
- Jan 6: Look into CD pricing.
- Jan 11: Finalize CD design; order CDs.
- Jan 21: Positive Slate review! (And PocketTactics too.) Suddenly I am back in PR mode.
- Jan 22: Argh, half of the posters are misprinted and not usable. Contact customer support and ask for replacements.
- Jan 24: Post Steam Greenlight page for HL.
- Feb 1: The Month of Postage begins. (Assume days and days of sticking labels on things.)
- Feb 17: Haul books and posters to the post office.
- Feb 27: Haul half the CDs to the post office.
- Mar 3: Haul the rest of the CDs to the post office.
Occasionally someone asks me about porting System's Twilight to a modern platform, because setting up a Mac emulator is a pain. I figure that someday the Internet Archive's Software Library will have it, and I'll just point there.
(In fact JSMESS already supports early Macs, but I don't know how to set it up for a single game on my web site.) (No, this is not a task I intend to tackle right now.)
Anyhow, I started checking the status of the Software Library last night, and got distracted looking through the Apple 2 section. I played a little of this and that -- games I remembered from my childhood -- and then my attention was snagged:
Yes, that's me.
I don't remember when I released this disk image. Somewhere in the 1982-1985 range, certainly. The mazes were designed earlier, on paper. I got the notion to implement them in interactive form. Then, no doubt, I dumped them on some modem pirate site in exchange for download credits.
What can I say about these things? They exist in the series of "Praser mazes", a label which I've used for puzzle and maze concepts since way back. Praser Maze #1 is justifiably lost, as are many of the later entries, but Praser 5 (word puzzle, reimplemented for Z-machine) and Praser 12 (non-interactive hunt-style puzzle) are on my web site.
The term "Praser" comes from a dream I had when I was a kid. The dream Praser-maze was my archetypical ideal of maze-puzzles: an inhabitable world of hidden doors, garden paths, elevators, subways, and so on. Really, there's a reason that Riven became my favorite adventure game when it appeared years later.
(I don't remember why I used "Penqueriel" in these programs instead of "Praser". Sounded better, I guess. Later, I named my TinyMUD home base the Penqueriel.)
Select "keyboard" mode in each game. Movement is with the IJKM keys. Nobody told me that WASD is easier on the fingers.
Both mazes are hard, but solvable with a lot of experimentation. Thirty years ago, I had the solutions memorized. Today, I haven't re-solved them.
As you can see, my teenage sense of puzzle-design was on the bastardly side. Maze #2 is unfair by any reasonable standard; it's a maze with invisible teleporters, and the only approach is to map it. Maze #3 is more interesting. You can carry up to two colored keys and store a third in the storage box. There are colored gates and one-way gates (and elevators, boat-docks, bridges, etc). Since Apple hi-res graphics offered only six colors, I had to resort to stripes for the seventh key type!
I was clearly fascinated with pushing the form as far as it could go. I was aware of the limited viewport -- I put amusing scenery within viewing range and hid important color-sources outside of it. I was careful to construct consistent scenery (in the apparently-isometric, actually-2D map). I built a scenic overlook, a bridge mini-maze, and some waterfalls. At one point you get a glimpse of the Promised Island where every key-color lives, but you can't get there.
(It's not actually isometric projection, right? What do you call that -- "cabinet projection"?)
I implemented these games in 6502 assembly, although the title screen is BASIC. (Someone came along later and added a pre-title "crack" screen, because somebody always does that. Of course I released the games without any kind of copy-protection. You can hit ctrl-C at the title screen and mess around however you want.) (You might have to blindly type
TEXT after interrupting the HELLO program.)
I was proud of many of the tricks I came up with. Look at the way I correctly handle being over-or-under a bridge in Maze #3. (There's no visual distinction, but you can only leave on the same path that you entered on.) But the big trick, clearly, was faking an alpha-blend by flickering between two images. That's how the title menu places an impossible seven lines of text below the graphics. (Apple hardware only supports four lines of text there!) (Bitmap fonts were way beyond my capabilities.) Similarly, the "fade-in" of graphics elements when the title screen appears.
I used the same trick to "composite" the stick-figure protagonist with the background in Maze #3. (I could have made the screenshot above an animated GIF to depict this, but I didn't. You're welcome.)
I have not yet located a copy of Maze #4, which was much prettier. (I think I used double hi-res graphics, and designed some garden sculpture.)
And now, on an entirely unrelated topic:
(from The Sapphire Siren, Nictzin Dyalhis, 1934)
I thought this was the boring part of the release process. Hadean Lands has been out for a couple of months, I've done a couple of iOS updates, time to settle down and work through the Kickstarter rewards. Plan for more distribution platforms, like Steam and the Humble Store. Boring stuff.
Wrong! It's crazy excitement time.
First thing this week, two fantastic reviews appeared:
"The best video game I played last year is a science-fiction thriller about alchemy, and it has no graphics or sound effects." -- David Auerbach, Slate
"Hadean Lands is an endlessly clever experience." -- Sean Clancy, Pocket Tactics
Suddenly the sales rate is going nuts, Twitter activity is buzzing, and my head is spinning.
When a wave of publicity hits, that's when you want a Steam Greenlight page, right? (Greenlight is the voting system that Steam uses to gauge public interest in new indie games.) So I have spent the past day constructing one. Here it is:
This isn't a purchase; it just indicates to Steam that this is the kind of game you want them to offer. When enough "yes" votes accumulate, I get a slot on the Steam storefront. (No, I don't know how many votes is enough.)
(Speaking of Greenlight, I note that two other parser IF games went up this month: Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter (Mike Gentry and David Cornelson) and The Shadow in the Cathedral (Ian Finley and Jon Ingold). There's also Her Story, which is not a text game, but is by IF author Sam Barlow. And that must only scratch the surface; I haven't even tried to survey the Greenlight world.)
The process for getting a Humble Store slot is already under way. They say there's a queue for games to show up there, and I'm in it.
The current sales widgets (Humble Widget and Itch.IO) now offer separate downloads for Mac, Windows, and "generic" (everything else). The generic download is the same package that's been available all along; it contains the game file and instructions for finding an interpreter. The Mac package contains the interpreter, ready to install. The Windows package has a standard Windows installer which sets everything up for you.
David Welbourn has written a detailed walkthrough of HL. Massive spoilers, obviously! When it comes to HL hints, I like to send people to the IF forum rather than a walkthrough. I think it's more engaging to talk to other fans about the game, rather than finding a file of answers on the Internet. But David's work is terrific and deserves recognition. (Also, maybe, a tip? He's got a Patreon for creating IF walkthroughs.)
The Kickstarter reward CDs are in production. They should reach me by Feb 6th, says the duplicator.
I have the reward books now; they just have to be packaged up and hauled to the post office.
The reward posters have arrived, but the printer screwed up somehow. Half of the posters are smeared. The other half are fine, but I want to ship them all in one batch, so there will be a delay. I have contacted customer service and hopefully it will all get straightened out; I don't know when. Sorry about this.
For added fun, I have jury duty next week. That will fill up an unknown number of work days.
I want to address one other issue: the font preferences in the Mac and Windows interpreters. "But there are no font preferences in the Mac and Windows interpreters!" Yes, Watson, that is the curious thing.
In fact you can adjust the fonts in Gargoyle. You have to edit a file called
garglk.ini, which is bundled with the interpreter (on Windows) or in your home directory (on Mac). On Linux I believe it's named
.garglkrc. Go in there with a text editor and bump up the
propsize line, and also
leading while you're at it.
(If you used the Windows installer, you'll have to make the file editable first. Select Properties on the
garglk.ini file, select Security, edit the permissions).
Yes, this is a rigmarole. Why did I stick you with it? The short answer is, well, the Kickstarter was for a game and an iOS interpreter. I didn't have time to write desktop interpreters too. Gargoyle is the best interpreter available right now, but it started as a Linux project, it's got this Unix-style config file, and that's just the way it goes.
(For the Steam release, I'd like to modify this. But no bets right now.)
I am proud to announce that I am the first Writer In Residence at the Trope Tank for the coming semester.
What is the Trope Tank, you ask? That's Nick Montfort's office at MIT, home of his enormous collection of classic videogame hardware, software, and literature. (You can see just one corner of it behind me in the photo.) (Although I think the Asteroids cabinet is out of order again.)
What does it mean that I am a Writer In Residence? Well, basically it means that I have a key, and I will be hanging out in the office once a week. Wednesdays, I expect. I will certainly be working on some kind of IF project there; possibly Glulx upgrade work or interpreter hacking. And, generally, I'll help keep the lights on -- Nick is on leave for the spring semester.
The People's Republic of Interactive Fiction will continue to hold monthly meetings in the Trope Tank. Possibly we will schedule other events there, such as IF writing circles. Details remain to be determined. Join the PRIF mailing list if you're interested.
Thank you, Nick. I look forward to the coming semester.
It is Christmastime, the time of bundles... okay, every month is the time of bundles these days. Bundles have become continuous. We get it. We're joining in!
I have posted Zarf's IF Bundle on the iOS App Store. Basically, you buy Hadean Lands through this link, you get my Shade and Heliopause apps thrown in free. Why not? If you've already purchased HL for iOS, the "complete my bundle" link should let you download the other apps.
And while I'm at it: Meanwhile for iOS is now on sale for two bucks, through the end of the year. That's 60% off! Or like 87% off as compared to the hardback book!
(Let us not speak about the relative values placed on creators by the book and software industries these days. I'm trying to gin up some product excitement here.)
So go buy Meanwhile now, if you haven't. If you have, why not gift a copy to a friend? Or an enemy? Two weeks only! Imagine lying on the living-room floor, next to the tree or bull's-head or aluminum pole or whatever your December celebratory decoration is, scrolling around Jason's mad-science fairy tale and trying to remember where you left the branch that doesn't involve zapping the Earth clean of human life.
And then buy Hadean Lands too. The nickel beads demand it.
Whew. The game is up, and all of the gifts and promo codes have been sent out. If you didn't receive something you should have received, contact me.
(This was an epic tale involving late-night gnashing of teeth, a lot of confusing problems, and three distinct phone calls to my bank. Rockland Trust, cheers to them, they were very nice and made everything work. Once it was, you know, banker's hours.)
The web site (http://hadeanlands.com/) now has the purchase links for the iOS App Store, Itch.IO, and Humble.
(Note that the game doesn't appear on the Humble Store site itself. I'm using the Humble Widget to sell the download off my own site.)
Also note this excellent write-up of the game by Emily Short. She was a beta-tester, so it is not an unbiased review, but she gets why the game is built the way it is.
The next phase is the physical rewards. (CDs, postcards, posters, etc.) But before I start focussing on those, I am going to take a bit of a victory tour. I will be speaking about Hadean Lands at the WordPlay festival in Toronto (November 8th). I will also be attending (though not speaking at) the Practice conference at NYU.
Now, I just have to get the leaderboard page updated, and go to bed. Going to bed: important.
App Store approval came through on the 25th. Everything is now queued up to launch the game on the 30th. Again, that web site: http://hadeanlands.com/
Let me reiterate the launch process, now that I know (nearly) all the details.
At one minute after midnight (Eastern time), I will update the web site to show Hadean Lands on sale.
Next, I will send out a batch of email containing Humble and Itch.IO keys. The email will be marked "From: firstname.lastname@example.org", so keep an eye on your spam filters. Emails should all go out by 2 AM Eastern time.
The iOS app, again, is tricky. I have to employ several different mechanisms and the help of some generous volunteers. (Generous with their time, I mean. I'm covering all the costs.) So the iOS apps will go out in several batches at various times. I hope that they'll all be credited to your accounts by the evening of the 30th.
I wanted to make this perfectly simultaneous, but perfection was not available. I apologize.
The details: if your iTunes account is based in Great Britain, Canada, Germany, or Finland, you will receive the iOS app gifted from one of my volunteers. (Thanks to Juhana Leinonen, Christoph Ender, Brian Lavelle, and Tucker McKinnon for helping!) If you are in another non-US country, you will receive a code in email from email@example.com; redeem it in iTunes. If you are in the US, you will receive the app gifted from me; the exact time depends on arrangements with my bank.
If you have trouble getting the app, or if you fail to get email that you think you should receive, contact firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll fix it.
Finally: I will be running... not a contest, exactly. But I'd like to track who solves Hadean Lands first, or at least who makes the most progress in the first week.
I've set up a "Leaderboard" page on the web site. ("Leaderboard" is a silly word for a puzzle adventure game, but it's what everybody recognizes.) If you want to show up on it, tweet to the hashtag #HadeanLands when you complete a ritual for the first time or visit an interesting room for the first time. I'll keep an eye on the hashtag and update the page with your progress.
(I'm updating the page by hand, so don't expect instant results. As I said, I'll only be doing it for the first week or so. There is no prize for this other than the glory of your Twitter-handle in lights.)
(And, obviously, the leaderboard page will have some spoilers! It won't give away puzzle solutions, but it will reveal the names of rituals and actions that you might not have discovered yet.)
That's all I've got. Final preparations tomorrow, and then at midnight -- the magic begins.
Good luck to everybody. Including me.