No Time To Play

Posts by Felix

(A programmer and Web developer by trade, Felix has grown up with the Sinclair Spectrum and has played (and coded!) games on several generations of PCs starting with the XT, and lately on J2ME-enabled cellphones. He's fond of turn-based strategies, interactive fiction and MUDs, but has been playing and making mostly casual games as of late.)

Weekly Links #151: new beginnings edition

by on Jan.01, 2017, under Gamedev, News

Happy New Year 2017! Things picked up noticeably the week after Christmas, so we can begin anew with aplomb. For one, a very good friend bought me a Pico-8 license, and of course I couldn’t resist playing with it. It’s an incredibly polished experience for such a restricted platform, one that immediately inspired me to start remaking one of my early games. I’m not sure quite what makes it feel so good, but it’s one of those systems that feel designed, not just thrown together, and that’s rare today.

Given that, it’s especially appropriate that Rock, Paper, Shotgun just published a series of articles about working with the Pico-8. I do have one quibble: ideas, my friend, are a dime a dozen. If you have to go around hunting for ideas, maybe you don’t have anything to say right now. Go out and live some more.

On a similar note, Kotaku is running the story of a game journalist turned developer. And it sounds not so much like someone who learned just how hard it is to actually make those games they used to criticize, as someone who grew up and learned to assume good faith. A win, either way. Can’t even blame them: I used to have my troll-ish moments as a delayed teenager. Haven’t we all? So it’s all good.

To end with a couple of actual releases, here’s Roguelike One, a quick, simple game that could be played with a NES controller (in the sense that it only uses arrow keys and two action buttons). No prize for guessing what it’s a fan game of. 😛 And in the retro department, Prime Mover is a Construct 2 title carefully made to resemble a ZX Spectrum game, down to the way controls are responding. Which, of course, is a lot more work than making it for the Speccy like my own two attempts. Nice!

On that note, I wish you the best until next time. Thanks for reading.

 

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Rescuing the interactive fiction parser from oblivion

by on Dec.25, 2016, under Case study

It’s 2016, and for the first time (in over two decades) a game with no parser won the Interactive Fiction Competition. Not only that, but in spring a game made in Twine swept the XYZZY Awards for 2015. And two-thirds of the Spring Thing entrants, including one of two winners, were choice-based.

Why does it matter? Because no earlier than 2014 there was a huge dispute over parser-less games raising to prominence in the IFComp. And doubts about the future of the parser stretch all the way back to 2010 — not coincidentally, the year Twine started getting notice.

How ironic that just a few months before that it was hard to find an interactive fiction piece made with anything except Inform 7.

No wonder that fans of the parser can get defensive. Not that parser-based games are going anywhere, but, you know. Down from the top of their game, and all that. (Pun not intended.) Worse, there’s a simmering dread that the parser failed to keep up with the times and appeal to new players even as interactive fiction slowly became mainstream again. And not for lack of trying.

(continue reading…)

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User interfaces in text-based games

by on Dec.18, 2016, under Case study

Maybe I write too much about text-based games, but in my defense the written word is awesome. It’s the closest you get to a digital medium without actual computers (what, with letters and words being discrete symbols by definition), and one of the most flexible as well. Communication doesn’t get more pure than a stream of symbols flowing back and forth; you can write them down on paper, ticker tape, or walls, going left or right, up or down, and even lay them out in three dimensions, as the Ancient Egyptians amply demonstrated. You do have to pick one path when reading, but hey, that’s what we call hypertext nowadays.

Early computer games, from Hamurabi (Doug Dyment, 1968) to Adventure (Will Crowther, 1976) were limited to a linear stream of text, simply because they had to run on teletypes. For the same reason, input was also limited to typing words on a keyboard. But that limitation also meant you exchanged words with the computer from equal footing — what people in the real world call a chat.

And so, a command line remained the defining way to interact with text adventures, helpers like a clickable compass rose notwithstanding. Oh, there were always a few games that tried to emulate the pick-a-choice interface popularized by gamebooks in the 1980s. But those were hardly on anyone’s radar until 2009, when Twine swooped in. At which point it became impossible to ignore all the people shouting that the emperor is naked.

(continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #150

by on Dec.11, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone, and welcome to my last newsletter for 2016; after this one, I’m taking a holiday break. It occurs to me that I’ve been posting this thing for three years now — half the time that No Time To Play has been around — and I’m yet to miss an update, though many have been late or else not very interesting.

Speaking of which, after failing to sell for a year, even after a fire sale, this autumn I made Tales of Space and Magic free. And it still failed to attract any views, let alone money. So for the past few days I’ve been trying something new, namely to turn the original PDF into a Twine. Which works quite well, if far from perfect, courtesy of all the implicit cross-references (now made explicit). Let’s see if this new edition will fare any better.

In the way of community updates, Vintage Is the New Old has a new face, that makes it look a lot more readable and modern, if a bit same-y. Not as good is the news that textadventures.co.uk will close down unless a new owner can be found before March 1st. We’re talking an order of magnitude more people than there are on IFDB, many of them students using interactive fiction as a learning tool. To ask what famous games have been made with Quest misses the point. This will be a loss no matter how you look at it, and I know from experience that once broken apart, a community can’t simply reform elsewhere: it’s gone for good.

Moving on to game design, Mark Johnson of Ultima Ratio Regum fame posted an article on the private lives of NPCs, while Jimmy Maher concludes his series on Wings (the classic flight simulator) with an excellent lesson for game designers:

Those other flight simulators define realism as getting all the knobs and switches right, making sure all the engines and airfoils and weaponry are in place and accounted for. (…) Wings was a reaction against that aesthetic. Instead of building a game out of exhaustive technical detail, with no thought whatsoever given to the fragile human being ensconced there in the cockpit in the midst of it all, John Cutter asked what it was like to really be there as a pilot on the Western Front during World War I — asked what, speaking more generally, it really means to be a soldier at war. Michael Bate, a game designer for Accolade during the 1980s, called this approach “aesthetic simulation” — i.e., historical realism achieved not through technical minutiae but through texture and verisimilitude.

In other words: dear developers, games are for people. Get a life first.

Happy new year and see you in 2017.

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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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