No Time To Play

Weekly Links #121

by on May.22, 2016, under Gamedev, News

codl-screenshotWhy does it always have to be a feast-or-famine sort of thing? After a year of working on anything but games, now I’m announcing two releases on the same week. First, my text adventure City of Dead Leaves, that I started last year, abandoned, then decided to finish anyway. It’s hardly epic — a slightly surreal mood piece with a bit of romance After The End — but I hope you’ll like it. Taught me a thing or two as well; stay tuned for a postmortem soon, if everything goes well.

Anyway, while the beta-testing process was taking place, I took the opportunity to bring one of my older games back to life. First released a year and a half ago for the first Procedural Generation Jam, RogueBot essentially lay forgotten while I dealt with various other projects. But many people don’t like playing games in the browser, and performance can be much better on the desktop as well. Besides, I’d been meaning to learn FreeBasic for a while now, and needed a reason. So in a ten-day coding marathon the original tech demo got a new life. See the official announcement on, and if you like the game please consider buying it.


Last but not least, this week Sam Kabo Ashwell posted an article about narrow parsers, that connects surprisingly well with my recent write-up on verb-oriented game design. Which, considering the long list of examples he gives, is an idea that has troubled many developers along the years.

And on that note, I bid you a good week. Cheers!

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Weekly Links #120

by on May.15, 2016, under Case study, Gamedev, News

Another week, another delay. If you were waiting for my latest text adventure, I’m afraid it’s still in beta-testing, for reasons outside of my control, and I’d rather not lose patience and release an untested game. Maybe if the delays continue. In related news, I started porting RogueBot to the desktop, something I should have done long ago. Got plans for another port as well, to be announced when it’s certain enough.

In other news, Vice magazine has an article about the importance of Doom, and Gamasutra is running a piece on action RPGs. The former makes familiar arguments, but the latter came up with a new one (for me at least): namely, that computer RPGs letting one player control an entire party misses the entire point of tabletop games, namely to let each player identify with their one character. And why bother with a party at all, since you lose the social interaction aspect in the first place? Suddenly, I’m seeing roguelikes and games like Morrowind in a different light…

(That said, I just have to point out that the original Diablo totally failed to keep the novelty level high, its generated dungeons lacking both variety and especially color.)

But this week’s big story is Eurogamer’s feature on Lionhead, occasioned by the legendary studio’s closure at the end of April. (Warning, long read.) And you know what? This may be Peter Molyneux and Fable we’re talking about, but the story of their ultimate failure is drinking game material. Take a sip every time:

  • unchecked ambition;
  • mistaking chaos for creativity;
  • months-long death marches;
  • brodude culture;
  • massive overextension;
  • poor quality control;
  • flights of fancy;
  • greed-driven financial decisions;
  • tone-deaf marketing;
  • executive meddling.

We’ve all heard this exact same story so many times by now, studios and publishers alike really have no excuse anymore. And still they refuse to learn. So be it then. But consider how many amazing games — games out of reach for a small indie team — simply never get made because of it.

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Weekly Links #119

by on May.08, 2016, under Gamedev, News

You know the saying, in science no experiment is a failed experiment. So I’ll chalk up my little adventure in CYOA writing to a learning experience. You see, I had this story idea rattling around in my head for a while now, but it was too weak to work in static fiction. But I had this notion that games can get away with much weaker stories than books, and meant to try Squiffy anyway. I also had this plan of writing the story in a linear fashion at first, use Squiffy’s “continue links” to split it up at key moments, and only then start worrying about choices, flags, alternate text and what not.

How naive of me. Even before I started writing in earnest, I was already thinking in terms of passages and branches. How do people manage to use Twine and still come up with a linear story? A theme was even emerging where the game would offer daring/caution options early on, and that would open and close some alternate paths later, based on which score was higher.

Trouble is, the story didn’t work. At all. After three days of barely making any progress, I had to decide it couldn’t pull its own weight in any way, shape or form, and interactivity didn’t help either. So much for that. Oh well, I’ll know better next time.

In related news, as of this writing none of my beta-testers have given any signs of life for a week, so City of Dead Leaves will be a little late. Better than releasing a completely untested version out of impatience, I hope you’ll agree.

And now, for the links:

But that’s really just a nitpick. Until next time, have fun.

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Verb-oriented game design

by on May.05, 2016, under Gamedev

Born of technical limitations, parser-based interactive fiction has proven to have enduring qualities. Fans of the medium invoke the natural feeling that you’re simply having a conversation with the computer, as well as the impression of freedom — that for a while you can suspend your disbelief and pretend you can type anything at all at the prompt. Myself, I like how you can easily see what you did a moment ago, so there’s less to remember, and just as easily repeat a recent command, with or without changes, no matter how complex it is.

The downside to that, of course, is that the illusion of complete freedom shatters all too easily, and that presumes you were able to enter “the zone” in the first place. Which just isn’t for everyone. Commands have to be learned, you can’t just stumble upon them like in a graphical game, and despite many attempts at tutorials, both interactive and less so, beginners still struggle. Perhaps because tutorials can teach you the form, but not so much the mindset — the method behind the madness, that you need in order to intuit new commands by yourself. The latter is something you must figure out alone. And sooner or later, you will have to.

Because, you see, not only does interactive fiction partly rely on discovery — on making some possible actions non-obvious — but there are way too many commands to teach them all outright. If I’m not mistaken, top-tier authoring systems each provide about one hundred default verbs, of which three quarters will be completely irrelevant to any particular story. But you still have them at your fingertips, and unless the author takes great pains to steer you away from all that fluff (an undue burden, considering how many other details they need to take care of), you’ll be left to navigate a maze of fake options in search of whatever nuggets of meaningful interaction are sprinkled throughout.

It’s one thing to gently weave a consensual illusion, and another to actively mislead the player, then shrug and smile when they call out your lie. (continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #118

by on May.01, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone! It’s Easter for me today, and a beautiful spring day to boot, so I’ve been taking it easy. Doesn’t hurt that City of Dead Leaves is almost ready for the first round of testing, and I have another article coming soon too (already posted on Tumblr, if you’re in a hurry). And while on the topic of interactive fiction, here’s Emily Short interviewing someone from the world of literary hypertext. A somewhat dry, academic discussion as you may imagine, but still good for expanding horizons.

In more relatable news, my friend Kris, whose game I plugged a couple of weeks ago, is back with a good write-up about game design issues in WildStar. He makes excellent points, too. Developers of MMOs in particular, but of other game genres as well, feel obliged to create sprawling worlds, then find it very difficult to fill them with meaningful content. While the toy villages in Runes of Magic feel colorful and bubbling with life. As for the ridiculous situation where every single player in a MMO is “the chosen one”, what can you expect? We’ve barely figured out how to tell good interactive stories to audiences of one, or at most a small party. And not everyone has gotten the memo on that, either.

(Meanwhile, EVE Online continues to generate headlines in the real world every couple of years or so. Go figure.)

And for the worldbuilders out there, if you ever had trouble giving characters from different parts of the setting distinctive names and speech patterns, here’s a highly useful checklist. That’s definitely a weak point of mine, though I’m trying, so it’s most welcome.

Last but not least, just Friday came the news that indie game host and review site Jay Is Games will no longer update. And while I wasn’t a regular reader (or even an infrequent reader), the name means something in the gaming world. So long, then, and thanks for all the fish.

For what it’s worth, No Time To Play keeps going. See you next week.

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On cross-pollination in text-based games

by on Apr.28, 2016, under Case study

Having recently played a very nice text-based RPG made in Twine of all things, and tested a new (to me) authoring system in addition to resuming work on a text adventure, I was once more prompted to think about the similarities between different genres of text-based games. For example, nowadays we associate parser-based interfaces with brainy puzzlefests, or else sophisticated story games, but Adventure and Zork had RPG elements and a strong exploration component. And while works like Hunter, in Darkness or Kerkerkruip are generally seen as experimental, Eamon has always explicitly been an RPG engine, and proudly so (yes, I know people who still swear by it), despite looking for all the world like an interactive fiction authoring system. After all, is there really that much of a difference, mechanically speaking? It’s still a world model based on a graph of discrete locations, with objects that can be manipulated in the same basic ways: examine / take / drop. And the parser itself, as a mode of interaction, has inherent appeal to at least some players, orthogonally to the content. We shouldn’t mix up genre and medium here, like we do with videogames at large, where Heretic and Doom are seen as largely interchangeable simply because they’re based on the same engine and core verbs.

(I’d give newer examples, but I’m not aware of any fantasy first-person shooters this side of Hexen; all the famous titles appear to be sci-fi. Did the Daikatana debacle scare off everyone, or have games like the Elder Scrolls and Might&Magic series been covering the demand for first-person fantasy fans? Oh wait, there was Hellgate: London, another commercial flop. Fair enough, there’s a pattern.) (continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #117

by on Apr.24, 2016, under News

Hello, everyone! Last weekend being Ludum Dare 35, my good friends Chip Caramel and Jimun couldn’t pass up the opportunity. And their new game looks especially fun, so you’ll forgive me for giving it a plug.

In unrelated news, a new mini-scandal swept up the industry in the past week. Yet another huge argument about working conditions, specifically crunch. Out of all the bloggers I follow, however, only one stood out. I give the stage to Emily Short.

I will add that you never actually need crunch. If you’re a decision maker and you have to drive your developers into crunch mode, you screwed up the release schedule. And the most likely reason is, you got overambitious. Probably against repeated warnings, too. And now they have to pay for your unchecked greed? With their well-being and personal lives?

No. Just no. Leave us alone.

To end on a more lighthearted note (ha ha… sob), it turns out that the average web page today is as large as the original Doom. And it’s not nearly as entertaining or revolutionary. Or, to turn the comparison on its head, that’s how much they could do 23 years ago with the amount of bytes a modern website requires just to show you a pretty picture, a few words and a “subscribe to our newsletter” popup. Seriously?

Luckily, public opinion is slowly but surely turning against this bloat. And if we can do better in web design, we can do better in games.


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Weekly Links #116

by on Apr.17, 2016, under Gamedev, News

There’s something about parser-based interactive fiction. For years, my interest has been slowly declining, but never entirely vanishing. I kept playing, and reviewing… and once every four-five years even authoring a new one. My “new” work in progress was actually started last year, but I became discouraged and abandoned for a while. Guess that wasn’t meant to last. Especially as for the past few months, finishing old abandoned works has been my modus operandi.

So stay tuned for City of Dead Leaves, a puzzle-light interactive fiction mood piece about someone looking for their lost love in a post-apocalyptic city. It won’t be especially deep, or smart, but hopefully you’ll like it either way. Doubly so as how the game came to be is a story in itself, that you’ll hear when it comes out.

And now, for the important news. After a long delay, SPAG Magazine issue #63 is finally out! A rather thin issue, from which stands out an article about voting blocks the likes of which have plagued the Hugo Awards as of late, and their impact on interactive fiction. Also, the magazine appears to be in new hands (again), which might just be good news.

Still in the way on interactive fiction, allow me to plug a friend’s recently launched Twine game, a text-based RPG reminiscent of traditional gamebooks. Dragon Fate may be ISO Standard Fantasy, but it’s no less interesting for that. It even makes fun of some genre cliches. And while it’s not exactly deep, there’s some metaphorical meat on those bones. Give it a try.

Last but not least, a couple of post-mortems: From Ars Technica, The Making of RuneScape, occasioned by the game’s 15th anniversary. Happy birthday! As for Gamasutra, this week they brought us the story behind NetHack’s latest update, which concludes with a promise that it won’t be the last one. Hopefully the next release won’t take another 12 years, either.

With that, I leave you to enjoy the Sunday. Have fun and make games!

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Weekly Links #115

by on Apr.10, 2016, under News

Well, things certainly didn’t go as planned this week. After a newsletter long enough that I had to set a link aside, then giving up on it and writing an entirely different article instead, today I have only two links for you. Over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun we have an article arguing in favor of letting players enjoy a game’s story, without having to run the gauntlet of RPG combat if they don’t want to. Parts of it even echo Cheetah’s old rant about configurable games. And I’ll add, probably not for the first time either, that it’s grand time for game developers to stop thinking they have to make the players earn the story, a bit a a time, by running a gauntlet repeatedly. That doesn’t make your story interactive any more than making players click to advance a fixed dialogue. Learn to let the story move forward constantly, even if you lose control to a degree. That’s the whole point — you’re ceding some control to the player. If you don’t want that, why are you even making games in the first place? Go write a novel instead. I like novels more than games these days, anyway.

In unrelated news, @ifictionfr alerts me of an old interview with Steve Meretzky of Infocom fame, recently republished. It contains some trivia I never heard before, as well as scans of the design documents for Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — a surprisingly informal mish-mash of handwritten notes. Not much to say there, except to recommend it. So have fun, and see you next week.

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Markers and highlighters: a gamedev metaphor

by on Apr.10, 2016, under Case study, Gamedev

It’s common nowadays to see people complaining online that there are too many games out there (or books, or music, you name it). It’s not nearly as common to hear them complain about too many game development tools, but that’s mostly because fewer people are game developers; if you hang around in the right circles, you’re bound to come across that one sooner or later. Interactive fiction, in particular, seems to suffer from this; a big part of nurturing new authors is helping them pick an authoring system. Already in the 8-bit era multiple companies sold competing products, in addition to the proprietary tools of major studios. Nowadays, the Cloak of Darkness website alone compares no less than 20 of them, and that’s just for parser-based works! As for me, I created as many (toy) authoring systems as I did text adventures — one of which actually saw real-world usage, to my eternal surprise and gratitude.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of that.

With so many authoring systems out there, some of them come so close in features and overall feel as to seem redundant. That’s inevitable. I will also argue this is a red herring. Funny, isn’t it? You never hear anyone complaining that markers and highlighters are redundant. Or crayons and colored pencils. Tempera and gouache. You get the idea. Arguably, software is different because it tends to proliferate in a way physical media do not, due to programmer hubris and the nature of computers, and I can’t fault people for feeling overwhelmed. But even subtle differences may matter more than you think.

In the rest of the article I’d like to compare three authoring systems for browser-based interactive fiction, with remarkably similar design, that nevertheless make for a far from trivial choice. (continue reading…)

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