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Holiday iOS app sales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All codes have now been distributed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Zarfplan: Less than 24 hours now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck to everybody. Including me.

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Zarfplan: Awaiting approval

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Zarfplan: State of the cranking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still to finish:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Submit to iOS App Store. Await approval.

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

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

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

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Zarfplan: We have beta stage

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

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

This momentous day is a good time for some announcements!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Zarfplan: August: the endgame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Zarfplan: July: almost done

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's left?

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

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

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

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

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

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Trying out itch.io

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

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

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

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Zarfplan: June is getting there

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am excited. And nervous.

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

Other June news:

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

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

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

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

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

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Old Zarf code

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Zarfplan: May report, counting down

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other news...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Zarfplan: April only it still feels like March out there

Seriously, it was 45 out today. Now it's rainy, but that's good news because it's a warm humid front coming in and we should get a May that feels like April, at least.

It's weird looking back at earlier updates. Last month I was pleased because the tutorial was finally done. In February I was pleased because I had finally started writing some rooms. Now the tutorial feels like it's ages past, and I have 45 rooms nailed down. That's 45 out of 86 total. We are past the halfway point, area-wise.

(Yes, I originally estimated 82 rooms, but a few more tiny ones have slipped in.)

So I did... (quick subtraction)... 23 rooms in April. Plus all the associated furniture and recipes and puzzle elements found in those rooms. Also I hammered in some optimizations that speed up large I7 games considerably (see here if you're interested), and added one of the two special viewing tools. And fixed a typo that's been staring me in the face for about a year and a half.

I have been informed that my last couple of update posts sounded disconsolate and defensive. (Not that you folks aren't supportive.) I really didn't mean them that way! This is the home stretch and I have been accelerating down it. I am aiming to do twenty rooms per month for May and June, and that will carry me to the end of HL's physical area. I'm excited.

The game will not be absolutely done at the end of the 86th room, because there is a final puzzle and some final scenes. (Associated with an existing room, but I will write them last because that's how I work.) Throw in some time for writing tests, and I can reasonably say that this thing will move into testing at the end of July. In fact this is so reasonable that I have now said it to you folks, out loud.

Wacky, huh?

The other news of the day was supposed to be the new Inform 7 release. This has slid a bit but should be out in a few days (see this post). I did a bit of final index-polishing last week, so you have that to look forward to.

Onward.

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Zarfplan: March update

I will keep this short, because I just noticed that I have to run to the Boston IF meetup soon, and I want to get this post out before then. (A late-night blog post would wind up dated "April 1", and do any of us need that additional cognitive stress? I think not.)

In the past month I have completed thirteen rooms, with all the objects, descriptions, recipes, and messages that appear therein. As usual, some of these rooms are fairly bare (corridors) and others are crowded with stuff.

I have also completed the tutorial -- which took nearly two weeks on its own. The tutorial is intended to hold your hand through the first room. That's basically the content of the teaser game. It requires more code than you might expect. It's done, though.

I have mapped out the "environmental spell component" that I mentioned last month, and started coding it up. That's not a huge task; it was just a corner of planning that I kept sweeping around, and now I've gotten to it.

I did not put in any time on the Edifice Gumshoe project idea. I still have hopes for it, but it wasn't gonna happen this month.

I have finished up some infrastructure work (bug fixes and feature requests for the Inform 6 compiler). These will someday enable bigger and better IF games. They may enable Hadean Lands to be more memory-efficient, but that wasn't the primary goal -- I just wanted to keep the track clear ahead, as it were.

Speaking of bigger and better IF: Graham Nelson has publicly admitted to a planned release date of April 30 for the next release of Inform 7. This is very exciting; the current release of I7 is three years old and the bug list has been building up.

One of the lines in that post mentions "a full index for the documentation." I cheerfully claim responsibility for that one. It's a complete rewrite and update of my old I7 index page. I worked very hard on this in January and February of 2013. Soon it will be out in the world, fully integrated with the I7 IDE.

Am I going to update HL to use the new version of I7? I haven't decided yet. I'll give it a shot. But I've got a lot of code written for the current version. Even if it all compiles with the new version (which it might not; I use a lot of low-level hacks) it might not work exactly the same. And I'd rather not spend a lot of time re-testing existing code, when I could be writing new code. So we'll see.

Upcoming Zarf events:

I will be at the MassTLC Made In MA party on April 10, demoing Seltani. (Also Meanwhile, Dreamhold, and the rest of the iOS demo pack.)

I will be at Balticon in May. I will be on some kind of IF-related panel but I don't know the details yet. (There just might be another Lost Pig run.)

I have made plans to attend Dragoncon for the first time. As usual, watch for the hideous plaid jacket.

And that's it for the month, I guess. See you at the end of April for... more rooms. Probably a lot more rooms, now that the tutorial is all hammered in.

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Zarfplan: February was kind of nuts

I suppose you want the room count, don't you. I will give it to you. When? Now, I should think. You look forward to it, do you? I think you do. ...Nine rooms, I got done this month. All clues, all descriptions, all scenery, all actions handled. I can play through those nine rooms and it is a solid, playable IF game.

This is most of what I call "chapter 0" in my notes. After another couple of puzzles, the player transitions to "chapter 1". That's where most of the game opens up, at least a little bit.

But how many rooms are there in this game? I hear you cry. Okay, that's a fair question. There are 82. So you might conclude that I am 11% done with this thing and have eight months of work remaining. And that's... not a completely terrible estimate.

I don't mean that it's my estimate. Or that it's accurate. Rather, I guess, that the possible errors fall in both directions. So I can't say it's definitely too long or too short.

Not all rooms are created equal. Laboratories and storage rooms are packed with exciting objects. Hallways are fairly boring. (They have just a couple of exciting objects that I moved from the storage rooms to even things out.) Maybe 25% of the rooms are hallway. They go by quickly.

Some of this month was spent constructing scenery classes which I will reuse throughout the game. That will save time later. On the other hand, I didn't have a chance to start the tutorial, which will run throughout the actions in the first room and then mostly drop out. A tutorial is hard work and may chew up a couple of weeks of March on its own.

I still haven't tackled the "monocle" plan (changing how some bits of paper are presented), nor one of the environmental spell components. (Neither appears until "chapter 1".) There's some planning to do there.

Some of this month was spent profiling the HL code, just to see if there were any horrible inefficiencies. Of course, there were. So I dug into a little low-level hackwork to speed up certain I7 activities. I will have to do more of this in the future.

So I add all those factors up and shrug. I got a lot of implementation done in February. It was a good month.

What else happened in February? I worked some on Project Edifice Gumshoe. I got as far as an iPad prototype, I showed it to people... total flop. The puzzle mechanic is simply opaque to players. Yay prototyping! I have some ideas for starting over. Boo starting over! Depressing even when it's necessary. But the code from the prototype will be recycled into something. I got clever with iOS animation transitions, and the result is very tactile.

I helped out with an effort to update the Z-machine specification documents. This is not strictly in my wheelhouse -- Hadean Lands runs on Glulx, my successor to the Z-machine. But David Fillmore decided to clean up a bunch of unfinished editing and error-correction from the old days... by which I mean 1997... and that turned into a bunch of online discussion. Plus I have the keys to the web site. So I put in some time on that.

There was also a proposal about adding text captions to IF cover art, and in general to images in IF data files. (For accessibility, like alt tags on web images.) This is in my wheelhouse; I proposed the IF data file spec so I get to organize updates to it. Then we looked at the IF Babel site (covering bibliographic information, including cover art) and realized that nobody was in charge of it; it's just been sitting untouched on the Archive since 2006. So I cranked up a mailing list and got that side moving. (The Blorb side is awaiting comment; I'll add it to the site next week.)

And today I dug into a completely tedious idea about adding more boolean flags to the Inform 6 object structure... which I thought I implemented in '98... but it turned out I forgot. Result: a completely tedious patch to the I6 compiler, which works great. (Unit test!) Only my clever optimization idea of '06 didn't take this into account, so it breaks when you run it. I'll have to update the Glulx spec too.

Will Hadean Lands benefit from more boolean flags? Probably not! Because even if I get the interpreter fixed, I7 doesn't know to take advantage of it! Yes, IF is still software engineering: messy. But I move my parts forward one step at a time.

And I played the new RealMyst update, and some of the Dishonored DLC from last year. Gotta finish that this weekend.

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Zarfplan: Welcome to the new age

(I have that song stuck in my head, sorry about that.)

It is the end of January; it's been six weeks since my last update. Merry 2014! The holidays are over and I ate a lot of cookies. You've probably forgotten what my voice sounds like. Welcome back. Or welcome me back, I'm not sure which way it runs.

January was a weird month for Hadean Lands development. I said it would be "story bits". What does that mean?

Way back when I was sketching out this storyline, I outlined a set of characters who would appear throughout the game. I sketched out their roles, and how they would relate to each other and to you. One appears at the very end of the teaser, if you recall back that far:

You can see a figure caught behind the fracture. You peer closer in the gloom... That's Lieutenant Anderes, apparently frozen mid-step. What's she doing down here? And why is she carrying a crumpled alchemical recipe?

My reputation is for not writing games with a lot of interacting characters. It's just not my thing. I suspect it will never be my thing, but I keep trying to put them in, and they keep winding up... heavily constrained. The interrogator in Spider and Web only permits you to respond "yes" or "no". The NPC in Dreamhold is only seen in flashbacks.

I've gone through the same cycle with Hadean Lands. As you see, the character above is "frozen" in a splinter of cracked space-time. Not exactly Floyd the chatty robot. Don't get me wrong: these characters will be woven into the story progression. Their positions and situations will not be fixed throughout the game. I have some ideas on non-traditional interactivity, which I think will be nifty.

On the other hand, they're not as deeply integrated with the puzzle-based storyline as I'd like. (Some critics would say Dreamhold had the same problem.) I've had this outline sitting in my notes for... way too long... and this month I just sat down and crunched out the text. If I had written it in parallel with the past three years of puzzles and map code, it might have come out smoother. (If I hadn't seen it as scary Character Writing to be procrastinated... oh well. Like I said, it's not my thing.)

Anyway, it's done. I now have a text file with N characters, described differently in M stages of the game, with X variations for branching possibilities. It's not a big text file, but it covers all of the game. And that's a task checked off. Victory!

As you can tell, I have reservations about this stuff. I had reservations about the flashbacks in Dreamhold too. Should I let that slow me down? No; I should get on with writing the game.

The good news is that this text was the last scary part. Now I have the map structure, and the puzzle mechanics, and the story bits, so I can dive into my usual IF-building plan: start at the beginning, implement until the end.

Thus: tomorrow, I will sit down and re-implement the beginning of the teaser. (It's changed somewhat, so I can't just copy the code over.) I'll start setting up the first room, just as the player will see it. I'll build all the scenery. Then I'll hook in that first ritual. Then I'll move on to the second room...

I still can't say how long this process will take. I won't finish it in a month. But it's the last stage of implementation. When I reach the last room and the last puzzle, I will have a playable draft of Hadean Lands. Scary, eh?

Quick note about related IF work:

  • I've updated my IF test tool to handle "include" sequences. (This will become critical for me, as HL proceeds.) It can also now test the contents of the status line. (Totally unnecessary for me, but I've been meaning to add that feature. Somebody must want it.)
  • I have planned out a wacky little iPad text game, which currently bears the code name "Edifice Gumshoe". (Inelegant, I know.) I've started implementing it, in spare hours. I'd like to ship it in the next couple of months. Just so that the world doesn't forget my name.
  • I'm making tentative plans to attend Balticon again; I might even appear on some panels about interactive narrative.
  • I've hung up a Heavenly Shining Beacon of Hope in my computer room. This has nothing to do with IF. I just like it.

I'll see you at the end of February. I'll tell you how many rooms I implemented in a month -- and with that, I might even have an estimate for finishing the thing.

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Zarfplan: Mid-December

Yes, it's early. No, it's not the Ides of December yet. That's tomorrow. Good thought, though.

I said that I wanted to place the final rooms and cabinets. That's now complete. With all the locks, navigation, and goal-traversal that they required.

I also decided to implement a lot of bits of paper. You'll recall that over the past two months, I chose locations for all the "magic words and recipes" to be found in the game. (Physical objects were basically all nailed down by November.) This information would appear on sheets of paper that you'd collect as the game went on. The first such sheet appears in the HL teaser.

So I decided, what the hey, I'll implement all of those objects. Not their text -- I mostly haven't gotten to scenery descriptions yet. But I wanted to create the objects, place them in the game, and assign their effects: what rituals and formulae do you learn from reading each one? This is all scutwork; I have all this information in my notes, I just have to crank through them. It'll maybe take me one day. And then that'll be done.

Well, it's done. You want to know how many pieces of paper I wound up with? Forty-three, that's how many. I've spent the past five days on this. (Admittedly, mixed in with some of the more recalcitrant cabinets.)

I intended a play experience rather like Infocom's Enchanter: you explore an area, and every once in a while you find a piece of paper! New recipes! Yay!

Forty-three pieces of paper is not that joyful experience. It's more of a burden. It's "Argh, more paper, what have I done to deserve this?" It's a tornado in a sticky-note factory.

Something is going to have to give. I will need a new game mechanic or two -- some way of discovering information in a location that isn't "See paper, pick it up, read it." The game doesn't need to be any more complicated, but it definitely needs some more variety.

I am not short of options here. There's books; books are always fun. (But I'd have to chain them down, because otherwise players would be juggling twenty books in the inventory, which is zero fun.) (Bits of paper, I can discreetly vaporize after reading.) (Yes, there's a REMEMBER command which gives you access to everything you've read.)

There's the old memory-flashback gag. Walk into a room, remember a lesson... or maybe it happens when you touch an object. Too cliche? I'm not thrilled with it. Maybe I'll have a special monocle you can peer through. I know, Counterfeit Monkey did it, but...

Well, something will turn up.

It will not turn up in 2013. On vacation now. Cookies are planned. Videogames are purchased. (Videogames are already started, to be honest.)

This is not to say that I'm off hacking for the rest of the month. I've done a draft of my other iOS text game idea, but it doesn't exactly work as-is, so that will get some more pounding. I will probably mess around with some Seltani features.

My next update will be at the end of January. Plan for that month: story bits.

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Zarfplan: November

I am happy to report that all the items are placed. Every line in my recipe chart has a "found in" notation! ...I'm telling this out of order.

The first half of the month, I caught up on the implementation that I planned last month. That is, I created the ten new rooms (plus some cabinets) that all of October's placements required. And the navigation between them. And the locks on their doors, where appropriate. And the goal-tracking to open the locks.

In the second half of November, I decided all the placements for the latter half of the game. (Two "chapters", but as I said, the chapter numbers do not reflect either game pacing or numbers of objects.) The map grew another couple of rooms, and several more locked cabinets, but I have not yet implemented these.

You might think that the first half of the month was difficult coding work, and the second half was lazily scribbling in locations on a chart. Ha. No. Code is easy. Decisions are difficult.

Every decision is wading into a hazy cloud of "this will probably be okay" and throwing away 99% of it. Most of the possibilities that I discard are fine. Some look fine, but will trip me up later. I have to make sure that the one I keep doesn't trip me up. And then I have to make sure that I like the pacing -- where it shows up in the player's run-through. Or rather, the range in which it might show up. Too soon? Too much confusion early on? Might the player run into the hard-but-correct solution to a puzzle before the easy-red-herring solution? That would be embarrassing.

And then I do it again, and again. I've been doing it all day. My brain hurts.

(Yeah, I'm writing this on the evening of Dec 1st. Procrastination struck after Thanksgiving. I caught up.)

So, okay. I have (nearly) hit a serious milestone, and I am declaring a (sort of) vacation month. My brain needs to stop hurting for a while.

In December I will implement those last rooms and cabinets, so that I can say I've actually placed everything in the game. But I'm not going to work on HL otherwise. I will do holiday things. I will bake a lot of cookies. I may play the latest Bioshock.

I have a sneaky idea for another iOS text game, which I might try to crank out by the end of the year...

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The first Seltani Age jam!

Seltani has more or less graduated to beta status. (Fanfare, applause...) Note that I've dropped the "dev"; you can now reach the server at its permanent home, http://seltani.net/.

To celebrate this, I am declaring an Age Jam! Stop by, build an Age, show it off. It doesn't have to be a prize-winner. In fact there will be no prizes. This is an opportunity to try the tools and get some feedback.

I'm not going to get formal about the rules, but I do want to have some fun with it. Therefore, a schedule!

  • Sunday, Nov 10, 1 pm Eastern time: Opening ceremony in the Seltani district plaza. I announce the theme: "Remaining Light".

(The plaza is in the Seltani district. Sign in, link into the Cavern, follow the path along the shoreline and then head right at the fork. Can't miss it.)

(The theme is just for inspiration. Interpret it however you want.)

  • Nov 10-23: Work on your Age! (Or Ages; multiple entries is cool.) When it's ready, add it to the bookshelf in the Seltani plaza. Or if you want to go for the dramatic reveal, wait and add it on...

  • Sunday, Nov 24, 1 pm Eastern time: Wrap-up. Meet back in the plaza, start visiting Ages. We can have group tours over the course of the afternoon, and then hang out and discuss what we've seen.

(I know that the meeting time is not ideal for everybody in every time zone. I have schedule restrictions too, so I just picked a time. If you can't be at either ceremony or both, I apologize -- follow along on the blog or the forums.)

I will be around these on-line areas (including Seltani itself) to answer questions during the two-week period. Hope to see you there.


Update: the entries! We have three. More may be offered; at least one Writer said he was working on something but not finished.

  • Vashmursë (by Pavitra) -- a nifty timed-exploration idea.
  • Télos (by Sandor) -- exploration.
  • Xical (by me) -- a small puzzle.

These links will add a page directly to your linking booklet, if you are signed into Seltani. If not, you'll have to sign in first.

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Zarfplan: October -- goodbye sunlight

Not goodbye forever, or even for the rest of the year. But it's Halloween; it's been damp and grey all day; and I just returned from the annual Somerville Anti-Morris Dance. Feels like putting the sun to bed.

I spent the first half of October dealing with the remaining major puzzles -- the ones outside the starship. Naturally, this was more work than I expected (it's always more work than you expected) but I got it hammered out.

Then, on to the map! This was more than just adding rooms -- it's about positioning objects and clues.

I've long had a list of important puzzle elements, and a sense of where they appear in the storyline: these in chapter one, those in chapter two, that one behind locked door X, and so on. But most of them weren't actually present on the map. So for the past week, I've been going through the storyline, chapter by chapter, and marking down locations for absolutely everything.

This task is still in progress. I've gotten the first two chapters nailed down. "Out of how many chapters?" you ask! Well, that depends how you count. There are four major plot stages, which I've been calling "chapters", but I suspect that they won't appear as such in the final game. The player will see significant breaks, but perhaps not the same division points. Maybe six of them?

That's not a useful statistic. Here's a better one: 60% of the magic words, 40% of the recipes, and 95% of the physical objects are now located on the map. (Yes, all that stuff appears in the first two chapters. These include many common items which will be reused throughout the game. The later chapters introduce rarer and more powerful items -- thus, by definition, fewer of them. Hadean Lands is front-loaded with toys; that's just how it came out.)

The map grew ten new rooms in the process. This was expected; I've always had a vague scribble off to the north marked "crew quarters, more stuff". That's now filled in. Bonus: I've sketched out the first two chapters in my PlotEx constraint tool, so I know the game is solvable that far. I haven't put a key behind the door it unlocks, or anything dumb like that.

The down side: I haven't implemented these new rooms, or the bits of paper with all those magic words and alchemical recipes. They're still just notes in my files. And of course I have two chapters (40% of the words, 60% of the recipes) still to go. So November's work is laid out for me.

As you know, tomorrow is the third anniversary of this Kickstarter's launch -- and the third anniversary of its funding goal, since your generosity cleared that on day one. I never anticipated this long a road, and it's not done yet. But we're moving along. I appreciate your patience.

If I may indulge in hindsight: a year ago, my update post was all about the goal-shortcut system... which was partially done, but included no puzzle goals yet. And I was getting ready to start implementing the map.

Two years ago I was staring at a huge stack of disparate puzzle and story ideas with a panicked expression on my face.

So, while I'm not thrilled with my progress rate, I don't think I need to be ashamed either.

Enough of my self-regard. More IF news:

I will be attending the Practice conference at NYU in mid-November. I'm not speaking, but Emily Short is. Should be a fun weekend.

The People's Republic of Interactive Fiction now has a twitter account. If you're in the Boston area (or are generally interested) follow away.

Finally, a bare-faced plea! As you may be aware, Cyan Worlds has launched a Kickstarter: Obduction. This will be their first major new game since Myst 5 in 2005. They have set a high goal -- over a megabuck -- and they are currently about 60% of the way there.

As you know, I'm a big Myst fan. I want to see Obduction get made. It's not Myst-related, and that's good: this is Cyan's chance to break away from the long decline of Myst Online, and start something fresh.

The Kickstarter is cranking pretty well, for the mid-project trough period. I'd still like to see it closer to the goal before the frenetic final weekend hits. So: please consider a donation. If you glanced at the Kickstarter when it launched, it's worth reading the updates; Cyan has added a measured dose of detail about the game's background and storyline. Also: Oculus Rift stretch goal.

And now I must digest Halloween candy and get over the sugar rush. Next month.

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