No Time To Play

Weekly Links #149

by on Dec.04, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Aah, that’s better. I actually have a few links for you this week. But first, let me announce that Adventure Prompt now comes with a proper demo you can play. It’s not much, but it highlights all the important features of the engine. Not so much the feel of the authoring system, but that would be hard with an inherently interactive app. Special thanks to Kevin C. Redden for all the research on backpacking that I didn’t have room to mention in the game, and to everyone else for the interest.

In other news, my friend Sera is at it again with an article titled The Woman On The Cover: Becoming A Woman In A Man’s World. It may not sound like it’s about videogames at first, but believe me, it is — though it’s an issue that impacts all of society. As the owner of StoryDevs was writing just recently:

It’s fundamentally immoral to pretend our communities are apolitical. Silence is always a vote for the status quo, one that continues to be cruel and divorced from humanity’s best interests. If we’re to fix the issues at hand we need to be talking about them in all communities, not denying they exist or redirecting people to other places because “we don’t do politics here”.

Politics is always on topic in art spaces because the arts have always been affected by politics. And the times in history that the arts have been most endangered has often coincided with injustices against marginalised groups and political upheaval.

Amen to that. But for now, let’s move on.

Earlier this autumn, I mentioned a PICO-8 clone in development. In the mean time the project went through a name change, and now people are actually using it to make games. Which makes me feel a lot less guilty for not getting around to it myself.

Last but not least, I was just wondering how NaNoGenMo went this year, when this overview of one particular participant group crossed my Twitter timeline. And there’s quite a bit to see in there.

Until next time, keep an eye on new game-making tools.

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Weekly Links #148

by on Nov.27, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone. Today, for only the second or third time in three years, this newsletter contains no actual links. Apologies. In my defense, I did keep working on Adventure Prompt, after coming up with a game idea that can properly showcase the engine’s specific features. A big selling point of the system is the ability for authors to employ many text adventure tropes just by setting some properties on objects. And it’s surprising how much can be done that way. Scenery/portal objects (they can double as doors that lead elsewhere) were trivial — just another application of exits. Vehicles took only 100 lines of extra code in the interpreter (though that was a 20-25% increase), and the only recent addition to the editor, apart from more documentation. I could have crammed a minimal scripting language in that much space… but that would have shifted the burden on authors. Which is the opposite of what an authoring system is for.

Easy stuff will be easy no matter what. The trick is making the hard stuff easier as well.

Next: to do some more refactoring before adding what little is left (reading material and hidden object reveal, mainly), and then to see about fleshing out that demo game, because while the map and puzzle structure came easily, I had a hard time thinking of descriptions. And that’s supposed to be my specialty.

See you next time, hopefully with more exciting news. Be well!

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Weekly Links #147

by on Nov.20, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone! The 22nd Interactive Fiction Competition ended earlier this week with a result that surprised no-one, despite being a major first: as the official announcement points out, Detectiveland is the very first parser-less game to actually win the event! As the IFComp is the oldest and largest of its kind, that’s especially meaningful. But don’t worry, parser games aren’t going anywhere — although many of them are likely to be of the restricted parser variety, going forward.

In related news, here’s a postmortem of two competition entrants. Note how hard it is even for an experienced author to customize a game engine. If you’re new to game development, not to mention programming, don’t try this at home. Don’t be that guy who fights his tools every step of the way, then blames the tools. Choose an engine that matches your vision on most points, then compromise on the rest. Tip: compromise means you have to yield some too, not just the other side.

To tune into the mainstream news channels for a moment, over on Eurogamer Alexis Kennedy writes about the importance of games in difficult times, while Kotaku extensively covers EVE Online going free to play. Last but not least, someone out there is making a 3D RPG that emulates a tabletop game, complete with rolling virtual dice among the miniatures. An intriguing take on things, to be sure.

Last but not least, my recent launch of Adventure Prompt garnered enthusiastic reactions, giving me a good reason to continue the project. To begin with, I added some missing features to the interpreter. An update to the editor, including more documentation, will follow soon.

Until next time, have fun, and thanks for reading.

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Announcing Adventure Prompt

by on Nov.17, 2016, under Gamedev

Seven years ago, I discovered MUSHes and MUCKs, also known as text-based virtual worlds. I stayed for the community, but what drew me to them in the first place was online building: the ability to build text adventure settings interactively, in the same environment and in the same way one navigates the same settings: by typing commands at a prompt.

Since then, I dreamed of bringing that unique quality to interactive fiction somehow, but could never think of a way to make the concept compelling enough, especially compared to the sophistication of modern authoring systems. So the idea stayed in a corner of my mind.

Fast forward to this spring, when I had an idea for a kind of text-based RPG with interactive fiction elements. As explained nearly a month ago, part of that failed concept found new life in a Twine game prototype. But then I got around to playing Robin Johnson’s Detectiveland, and something clicked. This! This is what I was looking for: interactive fiction with a proper world model, except with a button-based interface instead of a parser (which just isn’t friendly to touchscreens… or attention spans). And because this UI is equivalent to a two-word parser, the simplified world model of MU*s would be a good match instead of a letdown. Moreover, Detectiveland has been incredibly popular, revealing a demand for retro, stylized text adventures closer to classic Scott Adams titles than baroque Inform 7 epics.

(continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #146

by on Nov.13, 2016, under News

Hello, everyone. This week I have few links, and most of them on just one theme. With a few days to go in the Interactive Fiction Competition, Emily Short posted a roundup of the games, and that brings me to the main topic for today.

It occurs to me that this year were launched no less than three highly original IF engines. First there was Texture this summer. Then a game based on Versifier took the IFComp by storm. And Elm Narrative Engine was recently announced. All of them are very welcome, as they open up new directions for interactive fiction, outside of the parser/choice duality. But it worries me to no end that all these new engines, just like Twine, Quest, Squiffy, Undum… basically everything this side of Glulx is all strictly web-based. And while that’s oh so convenient in the short term (I do a lot of my own work in HTML5 for exactly that reason), it means a lot of newer interactive fiction depends on a piece of infrastructure — browser engines — so large and complex that most programming teams don’t have a hope of maintaining or rebuilding it should the need arise.

Perhaps the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation should consider a partnership with Mozilla or something. In the mean time, my upcoming engine is deliberately designed to NOT require any specific technology for implementation. Even the JSON-based serialization I’m going with for now can be easily replaced.

And still in the way of gaming events, another big one ends soon (today, actually). Following its namesake unconference, the Procedural Generation Jam managed to collect 80+ entries, and over ten times as many participants. I didn’t have time to check it out this year, but there’s bound to be a handful of gems among them — for everyone. So have fun with them until next time.

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Weekly Links #145

by on Nov.06, 2016, under News

Hello, everyone. Somehow, in-between working feverishly on the new mystery project mentioned last time (to be announced Really Soon Now), I managed to gather a good handful of links anyway, half of which are even about game design! Let’s start with Emily Short writing about small scale structures in CYOA — something that can seem obvious, but it’s worth thinking about explicitly. Then we have Jay Barnson linking to a couple of older articles about the perils of adapting tabletop RPGs to computers. A long read, but very much worth it. Then, on a more political note there’s Rock, Paper, Shotgun analyzing how we encode gender stereotypes in videogames — literally. Don’t be that game developer, mmm-kay?

(On a similar note, Carolyn VanEseltine has some notes from a conference speech on Arab representation in games post 9/11. It seems to be a recurring theme this year, and things aren’t likely to get better any time soon.)

Last but not least, in the way of digital nostalgia, The Atlantic revisits dial-up BBSes, while Rock, Paper, Shotgun (them again) takes a last, long look at Wurm Online. And while the passing of an online virtual world is natural and unavoidable, if sad, it’s good to hear that alternate means of digital communication are still alive, even in the small. Because humankind needs alternatives more than ever.

Until next time, don’t be a sheep. Thanks for reading.

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Weekly Links #144: looking backwards edition

by on Oct.30, 2016, under News

Welcome, readers, to another full week. For one thing, I had lengthy commentary to make on a couple of articles, that were banished to the other blog as a consequence (here and here), so as not to take up excessive space. In other news, there are still two weeks to go in the IFComp, and I’m working on yet another harebrained scheme, that seems to be working out for a change. Stay tuned!

Anyway, after a brief absence, Jimmy Maher is back with an article about how Jordan Mechner did cinematic games in the 1980s better than any modern studio with all their 21st century tech. On a similar note, Ars Technica offers a retrospective of the PLATO network, that birthed many of the concepts we take for granted in modern gaming. And over on Play the Past, there’s a write-up comparing modern RPGs to… the Iliad and Odyssey. A fresh and surprising angle, to say the least. Once again, hooray for the increasing academic involvement in videogames.

Conversely, Hardcore Gaming 101 grouchily discusses the much more recent game Her Story. (I smell burnout. Not to criticize them; happens to everyone.) And to finish on a happy note, take a look at these photos of vintage computer stores. Those were the days!

Thank you for putting up with yet another post focused on the past, and keep your spirits up in the coming week. Pun not intended.

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Weekly Links #143

by on Oct.23, 2016, under News

Hello, and welcome to an eventful week, if you’ll pardon the pun. The PROCJAM unconference took place just before the weekend. Released on the same occasion, the first issue of their newsletter pack a hundred full-color pages of little treasures for anyone interested in procedural generation. Stay tuned for the upcoming game jam of the same name. In the mean time, as Slashdot reminds, the 22nd edition of the IFComp still has three weeks to go. Take a look!

In the way of game design advice, Rock, Paper, Shotgun has a write-up about choice in RPGs, and the gist of it is: let the player feel like they’re making an impact on the game world, even if it’s often an illusion. Give them at least a bit of agency. And elsewhere there’s a long, thoughtful essay about what made Ultima VI great. And while the bit about mapping games by hand is iffy, I actually considered using a flood fill algorithm for visibility in my roguelikes. It just never occurred to me that it simulates environmental awareness better than line-of-sight, simply because we also use memory.

Which reminds me that monitors have their color generation adjusted to match the sensitivity curve of the human eye, the Vorbis audio codec compresses sound based on how people hear, and some features of POV-Ray drop any pretense of physical simulation in favor of sort-of reproducing things we can see in the real world…

I’ll end with Hardcore Gaming 101’s retrospective of Phantasmagoria, and — fresh off the press — my own article in TeleRead about interactive fiction as a media tie-in. Enjoy, and see you next time.

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Three faces of Twine

by on Oct.20, 2016, under Case study

This spring, a friend of mine came up with an excellent gamebook made in Twine (now also on itch.io). At the time I appreciated not just the story itself, but also the way it worked around engine limitations to offer the player a character sheet at appropriate moments. And Kris isn’t the only one making RPGs in Twine, as I started to notice more recently. Which is a bit of a problem when using an authoring tool designed to display one passage at a time from a choose-your-own-adventure story, and not much else.

But what if I told you Twine has another face, one that allows you, with minimal effort, to make games with all the usual bells and whistles:

unwanted-hero

  • a proper save dialog with multiple slots;
  • more generally, a modal dialog system;
  • graphical user interface elements;
  • a fully customizable sidebar;
  • toolbars and status lines.

It’s called SugarCube, and it’s as well-documented as it is powerful. Also heavyweight, which is why Twine 2 ships with the older, less capable branch in the package. For some reason, however, its capabilities aren’t well-known, even though plenty of Twine-using authors prefer it to the default Harlowe.

(continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #142

by on Oct.16, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone. There was no Laser Sky update this week because, frankly, there’s not much to say. I did manage to add the high score table, then the promised menu system, including an option screen. Forgot to add one to limit continues, but those should remain infinite until the game is done, anyway. The bad news is, now I have no excuse: it’s time to add the remaining levels. And that will require potentially tricky code changes, in addition to yet more of that exhausting balancing work. At least now I have some experience…

Otherwise, lots of retrogaming news this week. From Gamasutra, we have the birth of Japanese RPGs — a story that’s usually both whitewashed and oversimplified, it turns out. And via Vintage Is the New Old we learn of a website called Games That Weren’t, dedicated to saving canceled or lost games from the dustbin of history. Last but not least, here’s a review of a quasi-roguelike born on the (in)famous Tandy TRS-80 in 1980 and carried into the Windows era by a fan. A terrible game, but a fascinating delve into history — not to mention a challenge. How can you make that format actually work?

Also in the way of game design, the people who made Dungeons of Dredmor are at it again, with a write-up on challenge in videogames, which touches on configurable difficulty among other things. Thought-provoking indeed. In unrelated news, Emily Short points at a blog post about teaching history with interactive fiction. Not much that’s new to me, but the links therein promptly sent me down a deep, branching rabbit hole. (How appropriate!) It’s remarkable what academics can come up with when they set out to study videogames. Too bad their work isn’t more widely known, even when it’s accessible to laypeople.

Until next time, consider what the past can teach us.

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