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October 9, 2009

The New Monk's Brew: Come Join Us

If you're reading this, then you're still watching the old Monk's Brew blog. Come join us on the new site!

I've moved things over to a new host, and now I'm using Wordpress instead of Blogger. The result is a great deal more flexibility, and I'm enjoying the move.

The new blog is at http://orangeriverstudio.com/monksbrew. If you prefer the blog feed, it's at http://orangeriverstudio.com/monksbrew/feed/.

Look forward to meeting up with you over there. Thanks for following!

September 22, 2009

Steve's Cell Phone Number

So one of the cooler things that happened at GDC Austin took place at the Speaker's Party, a nice rooftop patio party for all of the speakers at the conference with, happily enough, an open bar. I was there in Austin by myself, and I'm not the most extroverted person by nature, so mingling at a social event where most people seem to know each other and I know zero isn't exactly my comfort zone. But hey, open bar.

So I got my precious free drink, scanned the crowd, and tried to figure out what the hell I was going to do next.

I finally saw someone I recognized, but only barely; Tom Abernathy, one of the advisors of the Writers' Summit. I knew a little of him, but I only recognized him because he introduced me at my talk. I approached him and thanked him for his intro, and we talked briefly about how things went.

It was then that I noticed someone standing next to him. A very tall, bearded man. I didn't recognize him, but since we needed our speaker's badges to get into the party, he was wearing his, and I did a quick double-take. It was Steve Meretzky, hanging out right there next to me.

Meretsky is attributed with a number of Infocom classics like Planetfall, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, A Mind Forever Voyaging, and the implementation of Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. He has been described as "The Steven Spielberg of adventure games," which I imagine would be a pretty cool thing to hear someone say about you.

I made some silly comment to Tom like "Maybe he should have given my talk instead." Being a friend of Steve's, he asked if I wanted to be introduced. So we were introduced, and like that I had two acquaintances.

There was that brief awkward moment when Steve looked at me and asked why my name sounded familiar to him (I assured him there certainly was no reason for that), but when he heard about the topic of my talk he quickly recalled that he had planned on attending. He even showed me his conference schedule, with my talk highlighted right at the top of Day Two. That's the problem with being at the top of the day's talks, though. Too many reasons to stay up at night, too many reasons to not get up early, and those morning talks pay the price. Still, it was a really nice thing to say.

And it was great to speak with him for a while on the subject of newer IF. He seemed to appreciate the opportunity to discuss it. I got to mention some of the great games and innovative methods I discussed at the talk, and got him interested enough to request my slides. So we exchanged cards (did I mention my cards?), and now I have Steve Meretzky's cell phone number.

The card exchange also led neatly to a discussion of the Vespers project, and I was surprised at how interested he seemed in the whole 3D-with-a-text-interface idea. He even asked if he could test a demo of the game, which caught me by surprise, and was just plain cool.

It was a pretty nice start to a party, even if it only lasted about 15 minutes before some random guy joined in and derailed the conversation. I got to talk interactive fiction with Steve Meretsky. We've even e-mailed a couple of times since. Who knows, maybe we'll talk a few more times. I like that.

September 18, 2009

Wrapping Up At the GDC Austin

I'm finally getting some time to put some thoughts together on this year's GDC Austin, as I sit in the airport waiting for my flight back. Luckily, it's still possible to put some thoughts together, after dumping half a beer on (and in) my laptop last night. I thought for sure that was the end of the line for the MacBook Pro, but it seems to have survived the scare.

It was an impressive amount of beer dumped directly over the power button and right half of the keyboard, and I wasn't exactly the swiftest to respond. But after giving it some time to dry upside down, it did start up the first time I tried. After that, though, on subsequent power-ups it would only cough and gasp before shutting down. It looked bleak. I'm not sure what did the trick. I gave it one last shot by holding down the power button a little longer than usual; the little power light flickered and the laptop gave a loud, almost alarming BEEP (which I've never heard it do before, must have been really pissed at me), and then it started up just fine. Seems to have recovered from its hangover now, thankfully.

As to more entertaining matters, I have to say, my talk on design innovations in interactive fiction was clearly the hit of the Austin GDC.

I should probably clarify that: by "clearly", I mean "to me", and by "the hit" I mean "easily the third or fourth best-attended lecture out of the four at 9:30AM on Day Two."

The talk did go well, although I now understand that 9:30AM is actually considered pretty early at conferences like these. There was a time in my life when 9:30AM seemed very early, maybe too early for intentionally getting out of bed. Now, not so much. I'm certainly not one of those people whose eyes automatically pop open at 5:30 in the morning every day, but I have reached the point where sleeping until 8:30 is a rare luxury. I think, when they combined the relatively early presentation time of 9:30AM with the understandably niche topic of interactive fiction, the result was about what I expected, which was a modest crowd. I don't remember the number specifically, I'd say maybe 30, give or take a few.

Which is not a bad group at all, except that I was in the semi-cavernous "Ballroom G", which was designed to fit many more. At least their expectations were high.

I learned that morning lectures aren't the greatest for humor. Even the high-powered Blizzard crew found that out the following day. I also learned that even those intentionally attending a lecture on interactive fiction don't necessarily know much about interactive fiction. A number of people looked at me funny when I mentioned "Zork", and only two or three people in the audience knew the reference when I flashed up a picture of my XYZZY license plate. For real.

But overall, everything went off without a hitch, and there were some very interested attendees with nice comments and a few good questions. People seemed genuinely appreciative of the content. I had too many slides, so I had to cut out some of the most important ones (where to get and play IF games), but people were interested enough to stay after and get the information. I got to cover a number of great pieces of IF, and spent a bit of extra time on works like Alabaster and Blue Lacuna. People really seemed to be fascinated at what these pieces are able to do.

Gamasutra was at the conference to cover the various sessions, so I was looking forward to a summary article online. Alas, this would not come to pass. I'm assuming it was because of limited personnel, as well as a not-quite-headliner presentation, which is just how it goes. But it's too bad, because it could have extended the reach of the topic to a wider audience.

All in all, though, it was a good time and a fun experience. More thoughts to follow.

September 1, 2009

A Moment To Pause and Catch My Breath

Well, that was a bit longer hiatus than I was expecting, but there you have it. It was quite a July and August. Mixed in with an impossible workload, particularly in August, was a couple of vacations (including an awesome backpacking trip to Yosemite National Park, which required more preparation than I had expected) and a big deadline. Yeah, that deadline. It's amazing, particularly without having children, how easily free time can get sucked away before you realize it. So just about every spare minute I could find was spent working on my presentation, which has left very little time for any Vespers work recently.

I've given a lot of scientific talks and lectures before, and it's pretty rare to have to prepare my talk well in advance. On only a handful of occasions can I remember having to turn in my slides before I gave the talk, which (given my nature) means that I can and do work on the slides right up until the talk itself. Not so in this case, which I can understand for a conference like this. They wanted the slides just under a month before the talk, which is great in theory (they have the slides in hand, the talk is basically done well in advance) but painful in practice. Juggling a stressful time at work with vacation preparations (and vacation itself), along with finishing up my presentation before the deadline, was, in hindsight, a less than ideal experience for me.

But I will readily admit, despite it being completely against my nature, it's great to have my slides done at this point, with just some minor tweaking left to do. At the same time, though, I'm growing a little uneasy. With all of the talks and lectures I've given in the past, I'm very comfortable presenting material in front of a crowd – but nothing in the past really compares to this. To give a good talk, I think it's important not just to know your topic, but to also know how to present your topic. For me, science is straightforward. Interactive fiction, not so much. Although there are many people out there in the IF community that know this topic far better, I believe I have enough of a handle on it to be informative to those less familiar with the field. But I suspect lecturing about IF is probably similar in many ways to lecturing about literature, and the skillset for presenting material like that is largely different than for presenting scientific research.

For instance, particularly challenging for me is how to present and discuss specific examples of major points. It's one thing to discuss "games that incorporate meaningful choice" as a topic, but another to relate that to a specific game – at least without reviewing large portions of game transcripts and spoilering the hell out of it (while also boring the audience to tears). It's also tough to review specific examples with an audience this size. IF doesn't lend itself well to screenshots or brief demo movies. There's no bar graph to slap up on the screen and describe in detail.

In the end, I'll mostly discuss techniques and strategies from a fairly birds-eye view, and discuss specific game examples briefly without presenting too much detail. I think that should suffice, and if I do a good job of reviewing IF and showing some of its unique aspects, I'll hopefully arouse enough interest and curiosity to get people to try some of the games I'll be discussing to see for themselves how those techniques are implemented, and if they work for them.

The games I'll be discussing, to various degrees (some I only briefly mention, others I spend a little more time on), include Eric Eve's Blighted Isle, Adam Cadre's Varicella, Aaron Reed's Blue Lacuna, Emily Short's Galatea, the multi-author Alabaster, VIctor Gijsbers's The Baron, and Michael Gentry's Anchorhead. And by the way, the more time I spend with Blue Lacuna, the more I am struck by how massive and impressive that piece is.

I thought it would be tough to come up with 60 minutes worth of material, but (as is usually the case) I'm now wondering how I could possibly fit all of this material into "only" 60 minutes. I generally aim for one slide per minute, but the final number is actually 70 slides. That's too many, although there are at least a dozen slides in there that are quick intros, nothing more. I'll practice, and it should be okay.

By the way, in case you were wondering where a talk about IF might place on the Great Anticipation Scale at the GDC, a quick look at the schedule might offer some insight.



That's me, scheduled in the morning at the same time as the Wednesday Keynote Address.

Ah well. It's about MMO's anyway – and seriously, who cares about those these days?

July 10, 2009

Gulp

This, to be perfectly honest, isn't something I ever expected to see.

It certainly does make it real. I was hoping to put together something like a panel discussion to take some of the pressure off, but that turned out to be more complicated than I thought. So there it is, and here I am, all jittery and uneasy two months in advance and hoping that I can come up with enough interesting material to justify this trust I've been given.

The AGDC Game Writers Summit web page has been updated with most of the sessions, so I have been able to glance at some of the company I have been placed in. Looks like there are some big designers and writers from Valve, Eidos, Sony Online, Red Storm, and Ubisoft. Wonderful. And there are some really interesting talks planned, such as Mary de Marle's "Redefining Our Role in Crafting Player Driven Narratives", and Aaron Oldenburg's "Intuitive Design of Interactive Narrative: The Mischief of Created Things". Should be very cool, and that's only the Game Writers summit.

And then, get this, there's some freak from--wait, where is he from again?--who's actually going to talk about interactive fiction. No, seriously. It says so right there, at the bottom.

Right. Well, off to work, then.

July 9, 2009

LucasArts classics on the iPhone?

Not to just parrot another blog entry, but I thought this was interesting. I'm sure most of you are by now familiar with the news that LucasArts is in the process of reviving some of their classic point-and-clickers like Secret of Monkey Island and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis for XBLA and PCs, which is beautiful news indeed.

In addition to this, though, is the report from Joystiq (via TAUW) that we might be seeing some of these classics on the iPhone someday soon. As reported:

...we did get a vague answer in the affirmative (from LucasArts): "On iPhone, you know Apple's policy that we can't talk about a release until it's ready to release. But it would make sense that we would do something like that if we were to go in that direction ... wink wink, nod, nod."


It certainly makes sense, and this would be great to see, although I do have some reservations. Maybe I'm in the minority, but I'm not a big fan of remakes, and it looks like the upcoming Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition is just that, with updated graphics and sound. There's something I find particularly charming about the pixelated graphics and simplistic sound of the originals, and I have little interest in experiencing these games again in a more modern style. Even the blocky font used in those original games has a particular feel that communicates something, however small, and replacing that with a sleek, scalable OpenType serif font would change the look and feel enough to alter the experience.

We see originals remade in a different, and often more modern, style all the time these days in the entertainment industry. Music, movies, TV shows all do this, and now games have reached the age where remakes now seem to make economical sense. While I like the idea of introducing younger generations to the classics, I've never warmed up to the idea of remaking the originals.

I remember when I used to do editorial cartoons for the school paper back in college, I brought up with my father the idea of remaking some of my better early works later on when I was a senior, both so that the younger students could see them, and so I could update my earlier work with the more refined style that I had developed over the years. Bad idea, he told me. The originals were good because of what they were, and it would only ruin them to remake them in a new style. I never did it, and that opinion has stuck with me over the years with respect to creative pieces of any kind.

So I'd consider purchasing and replaying those LucasArts classics on the PC or iPhone if they are the true originals, but not if they are updates or remakes. Still, I like the renewed interest in adventure games, point-and-click or otherwise.

On a related note, as pointed out by TAUW (and somehow only recently realized by yours truly), you can pop over to Tim Schafer's DoubleFine web site and play Schafer himself in a free classic LucasArts-style spoof of his invitation to host the 2009 GDC Awards Ceremony back in March. Schafer (who was born just a couple months after me, a fact interesting only to me I suppose) is one of the original LucasArts greats, having worked on Monkey Island, Full Throttle (one of my favs), and the classic Grim Fandango.

Playing Schafer's online game reminded me how much I like that old pixelated style and the inventory-based gameplay. It also reminded me how bad I am at these games. I thought I had collected all but one of the jokes, but it turned out I had only collected half. Not even close. Pretty embarrassing.

July 2, 2009

The End of Prohibition (Sort Of)

On a completely unrelated topic...

Just wanted to take a moment to recognize that July 1st marks a new cultural era in the state of Utah. Those of you familiar with Utah know that this place has long been known (and ridiculed) for its arcane and often bizarre alcohol laws. I should emphasize the word "arcane," in the sense of, "understood by few." I have lived in this state for 12 years, and to this day I'm not sure I understand half of the laws regarding the purchase and serving of alcohol in public establishments. Trying to explain these laws to out-of-state visitors was always frustrating, and usually ended with something like, "I'm not sure anyone really knows."

The most well-known and understood of these was the "private club" law. Establishments whose receipts due to alcohol were greater than a certain percentage compared to food (not sure what it was...maybe 50%) were forced to become "private clubs" and charge membership fees at the door. Usually it was along the lines of $5, and the membership was good for three weeks or so. Technically, you couldn't just walk in and purchase a membership, you had to be "sponsored" by a current member who could vouch for you. In practice, however, that didn't seem to happen very often.

That was perhaps the most straightforward of them. There was also the one about the "Zion curtain," a barrier that had to be placed in eating establishments between the bar area and the dining tables to shield the sensitive diners from the sinful goings-on behind the bar, although it seemed like not all places had one. And I never could figure out the laws governing what types of alcohol were allowed in non-private clubs, or some of the bizarre laws regarding the serving of alcohol (like, in some cases, bartenders being unable to directly deliver drinks to patrons at the bar, instead having to go through a server intermediary). One longtime bar owner in Salt Lake City likened the private-club era to "living behind the Iron Curtain." It was enough to make you not want to bother, which I suppose might have been the point.

But now, all of that is gone. Well, at least most of it.

I would postulate that three events likely contributed to the repealing of our arcane liquor laws. The first was probably the 2002 Winter Olympics, which brought a huge number of people into the state for their first visit. My guess is that, once outsiders realized how special this place really is, many of them wanted to return often, or even stay for good. So that likely contributed to a large influx of tourists and new residents over the subsequent years, which helped to raise public awareness of the eccentricity of the alcohol laws.

The second contributing event was probably the election of our now-departing Governor, Jon Huntsman. Huntsman recognized the public embarrassment of these laws and the likely impact they were having lately on tourism. He made it a goal of his to address the state's alcohol laws, which normally would be considered political suicide here. But Huntsman knew he was only going to serve two terms at the most, and then move on to a presidential run or, as it turns out, an important diplomatic position, so it was worth the shot. And he held true to his word.

The final contributing event, some would argue, is the recent death of former LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley. I'm not LDS myself, so I can't say I know much about the man, but it was fairly well publicized that he was against any loosening of Utah's liquor laws. In fact, another longtime Salt Lake bar owner recalled speaking to LDS Church lobbyists and being told that as long as Hinckley was alive, the state "would never get rid of private clubs." (Some might wonder why this is relevant given the whole separation of church and state thing here in America, but we Utahns stopped wondering about that a long time ago.) Now, just 18 months after Hinckley's passing, what was once unthinkable here in Utah has now come to pass.

That's not to say all of the weirdness has gone. Yes, we can now walk into an establishment and order a drink of any kind without buying a membership or, at least in some places, without also buying food. Things are now much simpler, and more normal. I can get regular (non-3.2%) beer at any bar, and I can get my drink right from the bartender, with no server needed.

Still, establishments are now broken down into three groups: restaurants, dining clubs, and social clubs. A lot of the distinction has to do with how minors are dealt with, the percentage of receipts for food, and the way some alcohol is handled. Restaurants now must have at least 70% of revenue from food, and restaurant diners must order food with any drinks. Then there are some weird things, like restaurant diners may not wander from one table to another with a drink in their hand. Plus, remnants of the "Zion Curtain" remain: new restaurants (current ones are grandfathered in) cannot have a "bar", and if any drink mixing is to be done, it must be in a secluded room or behind an 8-foot high wall, so that sensitive diners can't see it actually happening.

So we're not completely rid of the craziness, but for the most part, we've embraced normalcy.

To quote Morpheus from "The Matrix": Welcome...to the real world.

July 1, 2009

The End of June Vespers Thing

Hard to believe June has completely come and gone already. We're now halfway through 2009. To be honest, by this point I was hoping for more with this project -- a completed Vespers demo, more frequent blogs, maybe my own television series. Really, you'd think by now I'd know better than that, since I seem to say the same thing about every six months. I'm not that bothered, though. Earlier this month the wife and I were having dinner with some friends when the topic of the neverending game came up, and one of them was struck by how much passion I seemed to have for the project, having stuck with it so persistently for so long. She understood and acknowledged that it must be more about the process than the product. Although I knew this already, it still had an impact hearing it from someone else. It was nice.

Vespers continues to march inexorably toward its inevitable, yet completely unforeseeable, release.

Most development now is proceeding on three fronts: models, animations, and the vast pile of miscellaneous extras such as bug fixes, parser refinement, a web site, company logo, and so on.

As far as the models are concerned, we've advanced beyond the basic models needed for Day One of the game and are now working on the good stuff that isn't seen until Day Two and beyond. Since the planned demo is to contain action only from Day One, that means we're really now working on material for the final release. I find this exciting, although mixed with some unease since it means I have to actually finish the demo and get it out there or else nobody will ever see this new material.

It also means I have to tread a bit lightly, since I am now at risk of giving away spoilers.

The most interesting model work for Day Two so far has been in the infirmary and the stables, which are really starting to come together. The infirmary work by N.R. is especially nice. I wish I could show it all put together, but I'm not quite there yet. It's too interesting to pass on, though, so I can at least offer a glimpse of one of his updated bed textures. His texture work is really quite excellent.

The new bed textures portend ominous things.


The stables are also looking fantastic, although there is still a bit of detail work to do on it, and we don't have any horse models ready yet. But I do think N.R. did some amazing work on the damaged stall doors and the hay, and I think it nicely sets the scene for the action that occurs there on Day Two.


The nearly complete stables.


A good chunk of my life disappeared while I designed the outer wall of the grounds and placed every last section of the wall, which was incredibly tedious and required constant updating of the terrain in order to keep things as level as possible. I'm pretty happy with the end result, but I did notice that the presence of the wall is affecting performance on older machines. I wasn't expecting this, since the wall is comprised of small, lightweight objects that Torque calls TSStatic objects, which are designed to be placed in relatively large numbers without greatly impacting frame rates. But it seems that, with the large number of wall sections and the vast number of other TSStatic objects in the game (including all decorations, like straw and leaves), performance on older, slower machines is starting to take a hit.

A shot of only a portion of the outer wall.


I'm not extremely concerned, though, since I've come up with a relatively simple and straightforward solution similar to what I've done with other, more important objects in the game (the ShapeBase objects, such as the beds, desk, chairs, and so on). More on that in another post.

Finally, there's the graveyard. It plays a very small role in the game, but I wanted to make sure we had a good representation of it, and I think N.R. did a great job with the grave markers. I haven't yet had the time to drop them in their proper places in the game, but I thought it would be worth showing off a bit more of N.R.'s work here.

Gravestones and impromptu grave markers.


Character animation work, as always, continues to be a challenge. Dave Cornelson, he of Textfyre and the return of commercial interactive fiction (more on that another time), had an interesting and relevant blog recently about how difficult it is to find and keep a good artist; seems he went through several over the years during development of his just-released game. I share his frustration. I'm still working with the same set of local University students, but some are too busy with classwork, while others are too busy with life. Work proceeds in spurts, separated by lengthy droughts. We've been in a bit of a drought the past couple of months.

Nevertheless, things do continue to move forward. Drogo, one of the more interesting and challenging characters in the game, is all but finished for Act I. I had been looking forward to implementing him for a long time, and it's great to finally see him in action. I'll introduce him in a separate post.

Drogo pondering what to say.


I still have a lot of work left to do on Constantin, Lucca, and Matteo to bring their animations and sound up to date, so there is certainly plenty of scut work for me to spend my hours (upon hours) on. But once that work is done, the only character left is Cecilia. Oh, Cecilia.

She's going to be a major challenge. We already have some of her animations worked out, but putting her together is going to be quite the experience, since the player interacts with her very differently than with the other characters. There are so many more possibilities with her, so many more "unusual" situations or actions. She is, in many ways, a series of "exceptions to the rule" of NPC interaction, at least with respect to the other NPCs. I'll report more on her as we go, although again it will be a bit tough to avoid spoilery material.

Then there's the miscellany. I spent a good deal of time fixing the kitchen cupboards so that the opening and closing of doors appropriately impacted the SEARCH command -- in other words, you should only be able to see items inside cupboard doors that are open, but not ones that are closed. I also spent some time revising the code that implements supporters, so that various inventory objects can be placed on top of other objects (such as a bed). The whole issue of supporters (and containers, for that matter) is another one of those features that is relatively straightforward in text, not quite so much in graphics. That will be the topic of a future post.

Bed, as supporter.


The endless revision and refinement of the parser continues as well. One of the big problems with working with the parser code is that most of it was written a couple of years ago, and my impression of it is that many parts seem to be held together with Elmer's glue and a little duct tape. Most of it works the way I want it to, but there are still a few nagging issues that haven't yet been resolved, and going back to the code is a risky proposition. Although I've commented the code profusely, there are still many areas where I have the parser doing things that maybe don't quite seem right. Are those bugs that I just failed to previously identify? Or are there good reasons for the code and I just forgot to comment on why I chose that approach? Not to mention that going back and making even small changes could trigger a whole chain of downstream errors that I may or may not catch.

One good example is the GIVE command. You can give items to NPCs if you choose, but you can spell that out two different but equivalent ways: GIVE THE KEYS TO DROGO, or GIVE DROGO THE KEYS. The first construct is easier to deal with, since the preposition (TO) nicely separates the two objects (THE KEYS and DROGO). Thus, the parser has an easier time distinguishing the direct object from the indirect object. In the second construct, this is more difficult, particularly since one of the first actions of the parser is to remove definite articles (THE). So the phrase that is parsed becomes GIVE DROGO KEYS, and the parser sees that as a verb followed by a single token (similar to an adjective-noun combination, such as GOLD KEYS). At this point, the parser would have no idea what the DROGO KEYS are, so it would deliver a mostly unhelpful error message, such as "You see no such object."

Going back and modifying the parser code to better handle this type of construct will require a bit of work, and I cannot possibly predict what it will do to the rest of the parser's behavior. Just one of those things I'll have to dive into, hope for the best, and test the crap out of it.

We've also been spending a good deal of time on more public concerns, such as an official web site for the company and the game. We've decided to go with Joomla as our content management system, and so far I'm fairly happy with the system. The site should be up and running soon. One of the issues is figuring out how to incorporate this blog with the new site, since Joomla and Blogger don't play well together. I may end up converting this blog to Wordpress and then integrating it with Joomla, since it's relatively easy to convert from Blogger to Wordpress. I'll have to see. If anyone has any particular advice on that, I'd love to hear it.

A new company logo is also on the way, and I'm pretty happy with where it's going. More on that to come, hopefully very soon.

That's all for now...on to July.

June 8, 2009

Priceless Memories, Now Just 99¢


I was a child of the late 70s and early 80s, and personally I think it was a great time to grow up. I was 10 years old when Star Wars was released. Could that have been timed any better? Plus, even though I had to be subjected to disco, I wouldn't actually start developing a taste for music until the fad had long passed. I didn't think I watched that much TV back then, but looking back at the top shows of 1978 (Laverne and Shirley, Three's Company, Mork and Mindy, Happy Days, and What's Happening!), I guess I did considering I knew them all, and many more, pretty well. (Speaking of which, you mean to tell me "Soap" never got higher than #13?)

As I've mentioned here and elsewhere a few times, that was around the same time I started to learn programming, on my dad's hulking NorthStar Horizon computer. I loved that beast. It came with some version of BASIC -- I have no idea which version now, but I remember I picked it up pretty quickly. But I had no idea what kind of door had been opened until my dad bought me an amazing treasure of a book:



David H. Ahl's 1978 book, a collection of 101 games written in BASIC, was the perfect kind of resource for an 11 year old -- a book teaching programming and patience in the context of lots and lots of games. Some of them, of course, stretched the definition of game -- I'm not sure how much fun you can have with a program that prints out a calendar, or endlessly repeats words in a sine wave, but what the hell, I mean, people were into biorhythms back then after all, so who knows.

I remember some of them vividly. Acey Ducey, Football, Hammurabi, even Hockey. And, of course, Super Star Trek, the game that would eventually lead to "Missions of the Reliant" some 16 years later (although truth is the first versions of Star Trek started appearing in the late sixties). Looking back now, many were just horribly bad games, as far as games go. But they were still a new experience, and I learned BASIC just by going through many of them and typing them in, line by line, hoping I wouldn't make any typos along the way. Meanwhile, I became familiar with the names of things and places I hadn't heard of before and knew nothing about, like Ahl's magazine "Creative Computing", some town called Morristown, New Jersey, and a strange place called "Decatur". Mostly, I remember that the games were programmed in a way that made them play like dialogues between myself and the author or computer, since so much of the experience was communicated through text.

The AtariArchives.org website is a fantastic archive of books from that time period, along with its sister site, AtariMagazines.com, a computer magazine archive with articles from Creative Computing, Hi-Res, Compute!, and more. I was stunned when I first found the site and discovered the entire BASIC Computer Games book had been scanned in PDF format, from the front cover through to the back. I've kept the link in my bookmarks for years now, returning once in a while to make sure it was still around. It would be nice if the whole thing was available as a single PDF download, but that probably violates some agreement. I toyed with the idea of just downloading all of the PDFs for it in case the site ever disappeared, but at around 185 files, I wasn't about to put in the time.

It was during a recent visit that I finally noticed a link tucked at the bottom of the index page:

"You may be able to buy a pre-owned, printed copy of the book from amazon.com."


I clicked it, and I was amazed to find how many used copies were available -- a number of them, in very good condition, were available for 99 cents. $3.99 for the shipping, of course, but could you really argue with owning, once again, a copy of a book with such personal historical significance for less than the cost of a cup of coffee?

(Looking back now at the link, I see there is even one available now for only 33 cents. 33 cents! And another for just 61 cents that is, as keenly noted by the seller, "Ready to read.")

Well, I could hardly pass that up, sucker that I am for such things.

So the book arrived the other day, and it was a strangely disorienting experience flipping through those pages again. It's in fairly good shape, a copy that used to be owned by a school library at Holdrege Middle School, which I'm guessing is this one in Holdrege, Nebraska. The card holder, still on the inside front page, indicates it was actually last checked out in 2006, if you can believe that. Prior to that, it hadn't been checked out since 1996, but I'm even surprised it was checked out that late. I wonder if the kids who checked it out then learned much of anything, that being the year of Quake, Diablo, and Marathon Infinity. I'm guessing Poetry probably wasn't a big hit then.

I don't know what I'll do with this book, probably stick it on a shelf in my office next to the other keepers from days gone by. Still, it's comforting to know it's there, a hard copy of a memory that won't disappear if a web host decides to pull the plug one day. Sometimes, a link to an online PDF just isn't enough. And for 99 cents, who could argue?

June 7, 2009

IF@AGDC

So apparently the powers that be at the Austin GDC were curious enough about modern interactive fiction to give it the floor (part of it anyway), for a few minutes at least. I received notice the other day that my proposal for a talk on "game design innovations in IF" was accepted for presentation during the Game Writers Summit. I'm pretty happy about that, especially considering that last year I found the Game Writers Summit to be the most interesting part of AGDC. I'm curious to see how many people are intrigued enough by the topic to attend. I'm hoping it's more than four.

Of course, the e-mail notice was soon followed by one of those "Oh shit" moments. I suppose this means I actually have to do it now.

That happens on occasion in the day job. We submit grants all the time for various ambitious research projects, and we're pretty used to rejection. But, occasionally, we do just enough to bullshit our way past the review committees and the work gets funded. Yayz. Except usually it's quickly followed by a collective, audible *gulp*.

So, we'll see how this goes. Many thanks to the people who supported this and helped with the editing. I'll be preparing the talk throughout the summer, so if anyone is interested to see how it evolves, just let me know and I'll keep you updated on it. Below is the synopsis of the talk that will appear in the program guide, which is pretty similar to what I had posted earlier. If you're interested in seeing the whole abstract, just drop me a line and I'll e-mail it to you.

"What's old is new again: game design innovations in interactive fiction"

Synopsis: The modern commercial game industry is frequently criticized for a reluctance toward innovation. Although independent game developers, to a certain extent, have accepted the challenge of advancing innovation in game design, another small but devoted group of individuals has been doing this for years, behind the scenes, in a genre largely overlooked in gaming circles: interactive fiction, formerly known as text adventures. A closer look at the many ways in which this medium has evolved over the years will reveal a number of techniques and strategies that game developers, mainstream and independent alike, might consider exploring and translating to their own genres and projects.