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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.

May 21, 2009

The One Thing He Forgot To Mention

It's blog post number 100, so time to catch my breath. Crazy string of weeks there from April through mid-May, trying to make deadlines, having those deadlines pushed back, trying to make the deadlines again, and so forth. Some successes, some failures, but you can't argue with the fact that deadlines are great for getting shit done, even if you don't get it all done.

It's a little weird because my day job is filled with deadlines. Basically, it's like a slow march from one deadline to the next, and every so often I get caught up in it and spend massive amounts of time working like crazy to finish under the wire. But that's work. This was a deadline for a hobby. None of the panic, despair, and regret to deal with. It was a very different experience.

One of those deadlines was for the last Utah Indie Night, back at the end of April. I missed the last couple, so it was nice to be back, and to have another rare opportunity to present Vespers in public -- even if we didn't get everything for the full demo done. TRC had some nice things to say, which I appreciated, even if the game isn't very playable yet. Now that Aaron Reed has finished Blue Lacuna, it's now down to me and Jay to see who finishes last. Sorry, Jay, that flying car is all mine, so better start saving up now.

On a related note, at the start of the Utah Indie Night there was a short presentation by Darius Ouderkirk on how to choose an indie game project, with the key being a project that you can finish and release. As Jay blogged, it was simple but hit a lot of very good points -- even if, as pointed out to me later, he hasn't shipped a game himself yet (d'oh!). It was filled with good advice; a collection of fairly common sense approaches that have been mentioned in one context or another in various places around the 'tubes, but assembled and presented in a nice way.

But as I think about it now, there was one thing he forgot to mention.

With most projects, especially those you put a lot of yourself into over an extended period of time, there are peaks and valleys. And sometimes, those valleys can really suck. Sometimes, as Jay mentioned in another of his blogs, it has a lot to do with motivation. All games have fun parts and tedious parts, and those tedious parts can start to feel like chores after a while. Designing and implementing dialog boxes. Placing endless numbers of decorative objects, like walls or leaves. Modifying terrain. It can get pretty dull, but there are ways to fight through it, mixing the dull parts in with the fun parts. The target is always in front of you, so you just plug away until you get there.

But then there's the other type of valley: the periods of self-doubt that grow insidiously the longer you work on a project. Often you end up spending so much time working with all of the pieces at the microscopic level that you go long periods without taking a step back to see things at the macroscopic level. But then sometimes, when you do, the view doesn't seem so pretty anymore.

The usual questions start popping up, questions like "What am I doing?", or "Why am I doing this?" You have a clear view of all of the flaws, and none of the virtues. Nothing looks as good as you thought. The game doesn't seem very fun. The interface sucks. And of course, nobody is going to want to play it.

And that can be a really deep valley, because now you're not just dealing with the motivation to push through the boring crap, you're dealing with the motivation for the whole project. It's the kind of valley that can kill a project.

Of course, as with many things, it's never as good or as bad as you think, and sometimes it just takes a little perseverance to get through those periods. Maybe getting back to the microscopic level until the bad mojo passes. Or maybe taking a little time off from things and recharging the batteries. Or, perhaps, using the opportunity to get other people involved -- letting fresh eyes take a look at things to see what works and what doesn't, recalibrating your inner barometer.

I don't know what proportion of game projects go through valleys like these, but I imagine it's fairly high. I think it's probably more of an issue for individual developers and smaller indie groups, since there are fewer eyes looking at things from wider angles. Regardless, I think it's an important issue to mention to aspiring developers. Hell, it applies to anyone working on any kind of creative project. Be ready to hit at least one, and decide whether you're gonna suck it up and fight through it, or let the project wither away.

So I'm in one of those valleys right now. The closer it seems that we get to a working demo, the less I think this is actually going to work. It's hard to imagine people thinking the game is fun. The performance will stink, the animations and voice acting will disappoint, and the interface will be nothing but a confusing mess. What's to love?

I've taken about a week off from the game, but I'll be getting back to it soon. And I think maybe the best thing to do right now is to start getting some new eyes to look at the game. Do some testing, see if it really does stink. Maybe see what parts can be improved, and what parts just don't work at all. It's getting to be that time. And so I may need some help with that.

May 8, 2009

Deadlines Are Just Rough Guesses, Anyway

So a couple of deadlines have been extended, much to my relief. Perhaps.

The deadline for IndieCade, the annual independent games festival/competition, was extended from April 30th to May 15th. This is good because I really had no chance of having something close to submission-worthy by the end of April. It's still up in the air if I can have the demo ready by the 15th, but at least I'll have another shot.

Additionally, the submission deadline for the Austin GDC conference (for presentations) was just extended from today to Wednesday, May 13th. I've spoken with a couple of people about a presentation already, and I've prepared a draft of my abstract, so the extension will allow me/us to edit and refine it a bit more. Although I've submitted many abstracts for scientific research conferences in the past, I've never prepared an abstract quite like this before, so it feels like I'm heading into uncharted territory.

The working title right now is, "Lessons from a forgotten genre: game design innovations in interactive fiction." It was fairly tough to nail down, given the 80-character limit, but I think it gets the essential idea across. I have some reservations about using the word "forgotten", but I haven't come up with a better alternative yet, and it has a certain degree of hyperbole that might draw some attention.

I'll offer a preview of the abstract here; feel free to comment or criticize as desired.

The modern commercial game industry is frequently criticized for a reluctance toward innovation, owing largely to the risk-averse approach taken by many mainstream developers. Although the independent game development community, to a certain extent, has accepted the challenge of advancing innovation in game design, gameplay, and storytelling, another small but devoted group of individuals has done precisely this for decades, behind the scenes, in a genre largely overlooked in game development circles: interactive fiction (IF), also known as text adventures. A closer look at the many ways in which this medium has evolved over the years will reveal a remarkable number of techniques and strategies that game developers, mainstream and independent alike, might consider exploring and translating to their own genres and projects.


If there is any actual interest in reviewing the abstract and perhaps offering some suggestions, let me know. Rather than post it all here, drop me an e-mail (slcrubes at gmail dot com) and I'll see if I can make a full draft available.

April 29, 2009

Austin GDC Submission Deadline Soon

As I cram for tomorrow's combined Indiecade/Utah Indie Gamers Night deadlines, another looms close on the horizon. The deadline for submissions to the Austin Game Developers Conference, or AGDC, is coming up in a little over a week. This is not a deadline for game submissions, but rather submissions for lectures, classes, or panel discussions.

I went to last year's conference and had a great time. It's much smaller than the main GDC in San Francisco, but there's a lot of great activity and opportunities to meet and talk with people. While GDC is probably overwhelming, AGDC is considerably more welcoming and relaxed (and less expensive). I'm planning on going again this year, and depending on when the IGF Showcase deadline is, perhaps submitting a demo of Vespers.

But one thing I thought about doing for last year's conference, and am now planning on submitting for this year's go-around, is a talk or discussion on interactive fiction, and what the commercial game industry might learn from it. Although my thoughts on the subject are not very concrete or coherent yet, I still believe strongly that the relatively older genre of IF, having been through decades of production, experimentation, and iteration, has a surprising amount to offer to commercial game designers and developers.

I know last September there were a couple of people that were interested in this idea to some extent, and perhaps it would be more interesting as a panel discussion than as a lecture. So as I think about this idea some more and start to formulate an abstract for submission, I'd like to know if others out there, who are planning on (or considering) going to AGDC this year, would be interested in participating in a discussion like this. It might be fun.

In any case, back to the grind. Lots of good stuff implemented, but still so much more left to do...

April 17, 2009

Indie Gaming on NPR

NPR's On The Media is running a story this weekend on the independent computer gaming scene called, "DIY Gaming". It's free to listen to or download on NPR's site, if you're interested.

Pretty standard stuff, although it concentrates mostly on the console scene, with a particular discussion of Microsoft and XNA. There was a nice portion at the end on Chen's "Flow" and "Flower", but in general it was not a very deep discussion, and it really didn't go into the PC indie scene at all -- except for a mention of how designing games just for computers, rather than consoles, is too limiting and not "the big leagues", based on the size of the user base. There was some mention of the creativity and experimentation in the indie world, and how this should eventually revitalize the mainstream industry, but all in all a relatively shallow discussion.

Still, it's nice to see the indie scene getting some more mainstream attention.

April 5, 2009

The Early April Vespers Thing

Turns out February kind of kicked me right in the family jewels, which is why there was no end of February update -- or much of anything, for that matter. We ended up getting very little done in general, to be honest, but it was for a whole variety of justifiable reasons and so as a group we just tried to put that month behind us. I also officially aged yet again during that time, but I've already passed the point where I should really be going public with that.

Then there was March, which ended up looking a lot like February, at least on the outside. But March actually did not suck, and we did make considerable progress on a number of fronts. But between all of the progress on the game and the travelling and extra work for the day job, blogging became the odd man out. Thus, the end of March update has been pushed into April. But there is much to discuss.

I ended up spending a large chunk of February wrestling with Torque's GUI system. We wanted to create a new set of GUI borders to use throughout the game, for small in-game windows like the text output window and the inventory window. Torque has a nice built-in system for re-sizing windows and their borders, so in some cases you can create a small image file for your border that contains only the critical parts -- the corners and a small portion of the top/bottom and left/right sides. Then the engine uses this to create the full window border at whatever size you specify, stretching the sides as much as needed. Problem is, this only works with border images that can be stretched. Since N.R.'s spiffy new border is most definitely not stretchable, we needed to revert to just a basic bitmap image of the whole border. For the text output window, though, we allow the window to be resized to three different sizes, so now we need three new bitmaps. Not a big deal, but it does mean more images, more memory, and more drive space. Oh, and for some ridiculous reason doing so completely screwed up the inventory window.

The inventory window, when visible, is supposed to sit on top of the text output window. So when the text output window is changed from one size to another, the inventory window position needs to be adjusted. This would seem like a straightforward problem, but I think I spent about two weeks trying to get it to work right. Rather than bore you with the details, suffice it to say that the more I think I know about Torque's GUI system, the less I actually seem to.



We also spent some time fixing up other GUI windows and adding some more environmental decorations, such as snow drifts in the cloister and on the front entrance. Things are looking nicer, but all in all not a very productive month.

March was far kinder than February. On the NPC front, Lem finished his work on Lucca, while Shawn finished up Constantin and Matteo, which means I've been spending a lot of my time exporting animations, putting in the code for each, and getting the timing of the audio just right. It's a lot more work than it seems at first, especially since things never seem to turn out right the first time. But it's also very gratifying to see animations and audio playing together in response to a command. It's one of the things that makes this feel like a real game.

N.R., meanwhile, has churned out the last of the main monastery structures, the stables and the infirmary. Neither of these are approachable until Day Two of the game (Act III), which is beyond the demo, so for now the structures will stay relatively empty. But he did a really nice job keeping the same structural themes throughout. And I think the stables will fit very nicely with 3d-diggers's Horse Pack, which we will be incorporating.


The infirmary.


We did have to make one relatively minor change to the game from Jason's original text version. In the original, the player can climb a ladder in the stables up through an opening in the roof. The roof, then, is dealt with as a single "room" or location in the game. This is generally not a problem in 3D, but it becomes complicated when you need to account for where the player is in space. Up on the roof, the player could move around to any of the four sides of the building, which would really complicate one of the puzzles in the game. It's another example of something which is much easier to implement in text than in 3D.

So instead of allowing the player onto the roof, we decided instead to make a hayloft inside the stables, and to use this location instead of the roof as the destination for the ladder. We'll then be able to use bales of hay to create a relatively small space for the player to move around, instead of the larger open space up on the roof, and it shouldn't have any measurable effect on the puzzle involving this location.



The stables, with the hayloft.


Finally, after much debate, we decided to implement the cat from the original text game. The cat has mostly symbolic meaning in the original, but due to some more 3D-related complications, we were thinking previously that we might just leave it out. Jason later convinced me it would be worth the effort, if only to lend a nice atmospheric touch to the game. So N.R. designed and built the model, and Lem got to work rigging and animating it. In the end, I'm really glad we did it -- even if it ends up being only a tiny, insignificant part of the game.



What's up Next?

April has arrived much sooner than expected, and with it comes two big deadlines, which just happen to be on the same day: April 30th is the next Utah Indie Game Dev Night, and it's also the submission date for this year's IndiCade. Although the game is obviously nowhere near done yet, we are closing in on being finished with Act I, which is to be our "demo" of the game. And since IndieCade permits and encourages the submission of works in progress, our plan has been to submit the complete Act I as an example of a "finished, playable level" from the game.

We had also planned on being done with Act I for the next Utah Indie Game Dev Night, so the fact that these both fall on the same day is helpful. But there is still a huge amount of work to be done to reach that point, and with the day job remaining extremely busy, I'm not sure yet if we'll really be able to do it. But the gauntlet has been thrown down, and we have taken it up. We'll see if we're up to the challenge.

March 18, 2009

XYZZY Awards Rescheduled

Due to a last-minute scheduling conflict, the XYZZY awards ceremony is being rescheduled for Saturday, March 28th at 3PM EDT. Same location, on ifMUD (http://ifmud.port4000.com), which itself is a fun experience. Come check it out if you're interested to hear about some of the best IF of the past year.

March 13, 2009

XYZZY Awards Tomorrow


Just a quick reminder that this year's XYZZY Awards for interactive fiction will be announced tomorrow, Saturday, March 14th, at 3:00 PM Eastern time. As usual, the format will be a gathering on ifMUD (http://ifmud.port4000.com), so head on over and get yourself an account if you don't have one already.

Come drop by and enjoy the ceremonies!

More info about the XYZZY's can be found here.

UPDATE: The awards ceremony will be rescheduled...at a date to be determined. Check the XYZZY site for further information.

Gaming on the iPhone: Natural Selection In Real-Time

It all started with a link. It always does.

I can't even remember now where I first saw the link, but I was easily drawn in by the shiny little object: "Mystery House", the 1980 aventure game by Ken and Roberta Williams of On-Line Systems (later Sierra On-Line, later later Sierra), had been ported to the iPhone by Artsiness (Josef W. Wankerl), in all of its original white-on-black lineart glory. This is the game that GamePro tagged the 51st Most Important Video Game of All Time -- nine spots after E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, although I guess that's fair since it wasn't the list of Best Video Games of All Time.

My first thought was, How cool. What a sweet idea, even if today's iPhone casual gamers barely give it notice, or even scoff at the concept.

Then, I saw that the game was being sold in the App Store for $5.99. Of note, the original Mystery House game had been released into the public domain back in 1987.

The responses, in the comments section and in their forums, were not unexpected -- ranging from "We need more nostalgic games like this. Just not $5.99" to "$5.99?! You’ve got to be frickin’ kidding me." Purchasing it was essentially lowered to TOFTT status, mostly because of the price tag.

Well, that and (as one person pointed out) you can play the game right now just as it appeared on the old Apple //e by clicking a single link for free and kicking back, which is a pretty good point. It's just not on the iPhone, which doesn't seem worth the $5.99 entry ticket.

Ignoring for a minute the fact that Mystery House can be played for free online, I find the larger pricing issue interesting, given the relatively young age of the iPhone/iPod Touch gaming scene. $5.99 was probably okay a few months ago when the App Store was still fairly new, but over time this price point has become almost unheard of.

Along similar lines, there is that story circulating just about everywhere about the match-3 iPhone game Dapple, whose author (Owen Goss) recently blogged about the sales performance of the game. Briefly, it took him about 6 months to make, with a budget of about $32,000, and revenue from the first month after release totaled about $535 -- despite good reviews and some decent exposure. There are a lot of factors that have contributed to this, of course, but it is interesting to note that the game went on sale originally for $4.99 in the App Store, and I imagine that had at least some role in its sales performance.

The reaction to this has generally been, "No kidding, really?" It is, after all, yet another match-3 game in a market already oversaturated with similar games. Yes, it had good reviews, yes, it has some original gameplay elements, and yes, it was featured on Kotaku. But there's not a whole lot to make it stand out, and at this point it just seems like another drop in the iPhone App Store ocean. So at $4.99, it isn't terribly surprising that more people haven't been tempted to TOFTT.

But that's where things have begun to settle, just a short time after the App Store started featuring games for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Five bucks is to the iPhone what sixty bucks is to the PC: the high end of the price scale. And the expectation is that, if you're gonna tempt someone to fork over a Lincoln for your hard work, it had better be something special.

I'm not sure why, I just find that fascinating.

This is especially true in light of Jeff Tunnell's comments last week about the challenge of the iPhone market (and, as I just now notice, Jeff has pertinent new comments about Goss's experience posted today). The iPhone is a relatively easy platform for developing games, where you can generally create a game with a small budget and short development time, and be looking at potentially large returns. But the market has become so crowded with casual games that it has become incredibly hard to get your game noticed.

And because it's an open marketplace, prices have gone down and down. The price point of $5.99 or $4.99 is now basically too high, which seems silly given how low that is, comparatively speaking. There are enough games out there now for $1.99 or $0.99 -- and many free games as well -- to choke out the more "expensive" ones.

This is in contrast with the mainstream PC gaming industry, where budgets and prices have generally gone up. But unlike the PC game market, where indies can make games for less and, as a result, charge less and generate sales that way, there's no longer much room for indies to undercut the competition on the iPhone platform.

So how in the world do you actually make back your costs on an iPhone game when you're charging just 99 cents for it? More sales helps, naturally, but you can't just hope to have sales in the tens of thousands. Hope and luck need to be taken out of the equation.

I don't have the answers, but I imagine it takes strategy, planning, and effort. As Tunnell says, don't put all your games in one market if you can help it. Cultivate a community, if you can, like the way Wolfire Games is doing (and elevating to an artform, if I may say). There are many approaches to take, some of which may work and some of which may not. The challenge to the indies is to figure it all out, if they can. It's just another form of natural selection at work.

February 26, 2009

Anticipation 1

A couple of indie games that have been in development for some time are nearing completion. I'm jealous. I've also really been looking forward to both, so I'm also very happy.

I'll talk about one of them later, but one I'd like to mention now is The Path, a game by Tale of Tales. I've discussed this title briefly in the past, but I've been following it for quite a while. These are the folks that made The Graveyard, the art title about an old woman in a cemetery that generated a lot of discussion on the tubes about games as art, and challenged people's assumptions about what technically constitutes a "game."

From what I've seen so far it appears likely that The Path will again stimulate conversations about games as an artistic and storytelling medium. See for yourself.


The Path, Grandmother's House teaser 1 - the hall from Tale of Tales.


The Path has a unique and stunning visual style that comes across as more of an artistic rather than a technical accomplishment; a style that flaunts the creative talents of the designers more than the advanced computational abilities of the graphics engine.


The Path, Grandmother's House teaser 2 - the kitchen from Tale of Tales.


The game is a short horror game based on the old Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, although set in modern times. Will it again challenge assumptions of what qualifies as a game? Possibly so. As they describe it, The Path emphasizes "exploration, discovery and introspection through a unique form of gameplay," where "every interaction in the game expresses an aspect of the narrative." It is a slow game, giving players the freedom to explore as they wish. I'm intrigued by the possibilities.


The Path, Grandmother's House teaser 3 - the stairs from Tale of Tales.


Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, the main duo behind Tale of Tales and The Path, recently announced that the game is at last out of beta and the plan is to release it on March 18th. It looks like it will be Windows-only (rats, not sure if there are any plans on a Mac release) and available for download from their site, as well as from Steam and Direct2Drive.


The Path, Grandmother's House teaser 4 - the library from Tale of Tales.


They also recently started up a new web site for the game, at http://grandmothers-house.net/, where you can check out more screenshots, movie clips, and eventually more material. I really like the style of that site. It reminds me of a few others I've seen in the past, and it has a quiet creepiness that appears to fit the game genre well.

If you can't tell, I'm really looking forward to this release. I hope it does well for them.

February 24, 2009

(Indie) Business is Business

Generally speaking, this is a good time to be an indie game developer. There are scores of inexpensive development tools and environments to choose from, many potential opportunities and channels for marketing and sales, and a number of great online communities for discussion and support. It's tough to make it as a full-time job, though. A few individuals or groups have done consistently well over the years, and of course there are the recent stories like Braid making everyone drool over the possibility of big-time success even for small developer groups. But for the most part, it's incredibly tough to find that sweet spot of just enough critical and financial success.

Take the story of Mousechief's Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble, for instance.

Mousechief has been at it for some time, with a pretty nice track record -- a finalist at the first IGF in 1999 (Flagship Champion), and another finalist at the 2006 IGF (The Witch's Yarn). Then, last year, they released DHSGiT, a casual game set in the 1920's from the "teen romantic comedy" genre. I've only played the demo, and briefly at that, but clearly they did a nice job with the game and they've received a great deal of attention and acclaim for it: it was GameTunnel's 2008 Innovation and Adventure Game of the Year (loosely defining "adventure"); it was on GameTunnel's Top 10 Games of 2008 and a finalist at IndieCade 2008; and it was recently nominated for the 2009 Writers Guild Awards for videogame writing. That's the kind of recognition an indie developer would slobber over.

However, an interview with lead writer Keith Nemitz popped up recently on GameTopius.com, in which I noticed this little nugget:

TC: Has the success of Dangerous High School Girls (critically and financially) changed the way Mousechief plans on approaching games? Does it give you more leeway and confidence going into your next project?

KN: I'd say is been pretty successful since people are still talking about it, eight months after its release. Metacritic-style of the eight reviews so far it's holding a > 80% average. Only two are recognized as official Metacritic reviews. (both at 80%) More are on the way. Financially, especially after catching an arrow from BFG, it has yet to recoup its measly $30,000 budget. But it's still being release on new portals. I'll just have to tighten my belt a couple more notches. I'm not yet at the point where I'll have to cut new notches. However, if it doesn't make a profit this year I won't be able to fund a new game.


A few interesting points to note here.

First, you don't often hear about how much it costs to develop a game, so it's nice to see some actual numbers. $30 grand is a tiny amount of money as far as the games industry is concerned, but for small indie developers, of course, that can be a prohibitive (and perhaps scary) amount as Nemitz suggests -- especially if you're trying to develop more than one game at a time as part of your business plan.

Second, I think it's notable that a game that has received so much critical acclaim has yet to break even. It's been only eight months since its release, yes, but given all of that recognition I would have thought its earnings had surpassed the $30,000 level. There are many potential reasons for this, of course, the most probable of which is the fact that the game got yanked from Big Fish Games just as it was kicking in, due to some content that was deemed "questionable" by a few vocal opponents. And yes, we all know that critical success does not necessarily guarantee financial success, but still. At $20 a pop, they would need 1500 unit sales to break even. If someone had asked me, I would've guessed that they sold that many some time ago, BFG snub notwithstanding.

But that's the thing; 1500 unit sales doesn't sound like a lot, but almost any amount can be a lot for small developers. It's easy to look at that number and think it should be simple to achieve, certainly not too much to ask for a game with as much critical success as they had. But without a dedicated marketing department it is far from an easy task, and in a case like Mousechief's it might mean all the difference between one project and multiple projects. I think it highlights what a lot of small indie developers are up against, whether they know it yet or not.

This is not a criticism of Mousechief, mind you, nor am I trying to implicate that they somehow failed to do everything they could have done to sell more copies. It's a complicated business and this is certainly how it goes sometimes, despite best efforts. Plus, it's still an ongoing process, and more recognition and exposure is likely to come. I admire them for the work they've done, and their recognition is well-deserved.

I do think that DHSGiT will surpass the break even point and be financially successful, eventually. But it's still a battle, even when you've got a solid, innovative game on your hands.

February 17, 2009

Targeting Older Systems

Way back when, when the Vespers project was first starting out, I had to decide which game engine to use. Initially, the choice was between the Torque Game Engine and the Unity engine. I eventually chose TGE for a few reasons -- at the time, the engine had been around longer than Unity, the community was larger, and it was less expensive and more straightforward to develop cross-platform games (specifically, Mac and PC).

Once that decision was made, then there was the choice of which Torque engine to use: the basic TGE engine, or the higher-end TGEA (TGE-Advanced) engine, which back then was called TSE (for "Torque Shader Engine"). TGEA offered a number of more advanced features, the most obvious of which was higher-quality graphic rendering. That came at a price, though; at the time, the engine would only run on Windows machines, and it required machines with graphics cards that could handle the bigger load. Also, although TGEA does now support OpenGL and Macs, back then it was not so clear if that would ever actually come to pass. Since I was more interested in developing simultaneously for Windows and Macs, TGEA didn't seem like the best option at the time. TGE had been around longer and was more stable, even though its graphics performance was not at the same level as TGEA.

For me, though, stunning shaders and slick water rendering were trumped by the desire to create a game that would run on a wide range of machines, especially machines that are older or without the top of the line video card. The problem there is that, given the length of time for development, it's hard to put (or perhaps keep) a finger on what constitutes an appropriately "old" machine. When I started development of Vespers, my main desktop dev machine was still fairly new and probably middle of the line. Now, however, the machine is going on six years old. That doesn't seem very old, and it still runs most of my applications nicely enough, but in computer years that's almost geriatric and at this point it's naturally much slower than the machines from the past couple of years.

This is not a big deal for day-to-day activities, but as we add more and more content to the game, we're seeing some serious performance issues on my now old machine, despite a few rounds of optimization. But that makes me start to question what I should be targeting for a minimum system requirement. I had always thought that my machine would still be somewhere in the middle by the time we finished development, but now I'm beginning to feel like it's toward the bottom end.

(In case the four of you reading this are interested, my dev machine is a Mac G5 Dual 2 GHz model, circa 2003, with an ATI Radeon x800 video card, but it also runs well enough on the same setup with an ATI Radeon 9600 card. My wife still uses a Mac G4 laptop, so there are certainly G4 computers still perfectly usable. But Macs have evolved over the years to faster G5 chips and now a couple of rounds of Intel chips, as well as more modern video cards.)

I've generally been going on the assumption that if the game runs well enough on my dev machine, by the time it's released that should be a fairly reasonable minimum system requirement. But it will be progressively more difficult to ensure it runs well enough on machines that are even just a little bit older. Still, my goal is to try and include as many older machines as possible. The more the merrier -- but within a still to-be-determined limit.

So that leads me to wonder: how long do you all typically own a computer before replacing it with a new machine? Adding memory or upgrading the video card extends the life of a computer, of course, but that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm interested to know how long people generally keep their rigs before replacing them with a new box. Some people of course keep their old rigs around for different tasks, but I'm interested in knowing how old some of the systems are out there that people still use for gaming (particularly 3D games, like Vespers), and what kind of system people would be interested in seeing this game run on -- Mac or PC/Windows. If you would, let me know in the comments below.

February 5, 2009

Making the Rounds: Machinarium

This game has topped my list for Most Anticipated Seriously Beautiful Game for some time now. Amanita Design is a small group of indie game developers responsible for some very cool, short point-and-click Flash games in the past: Samorost1, Samorost2, and Questionaut, which was nominated for a British Academy Award. Hell, they've even made a short little adventure for a band I've enjoyed listening to in the past, The Polyphonic Spree, which includes some previously unreleased music. In each case, the recognizable artwork is beautiful, the gameplay is light and engaging, and the accompanying music and sound effects are charming.

For a while now they've been bringing this same style to a full-length adventure, Machinarium, which is an IGF finalist this year for Excellence in Visual Art. I've been following along from afar, and every small snippet I've caught has been raising my expectations. Now some new preview footage is available, and it offers a juicy look into more of the artwork and gameplay.


Machinarium Preview 02 from Amanita Design on Vimeo.


For those interested in reading more, there was an interview with the developers about a week back on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Or, just visit the Machinarium website for more vids and screenshots. I wish them great success with this game, and I'd like to see it win the Visual Art award at this years IGF competition. If you can't tell, I'm looking forward to playing.

February 4, 2009

An Aging Brew

So as it turns out, I'm looking through my older blog posts and I realize that today marks one year since beginning The Monk's Brew.

Although I had written a number of blogs about the development of Vespers over on GarageGames.com prior to starting this blog, I remember feeling apprehensive about doing this given the extra commitment it would require. Time is valuable these days, and I'm not a fast writer. Ideas abound, but I often find I lack the clarity of thought to put them into meaningful words. The last thing I wanted was to start a blog, and then let it die out because I couldn't keep up.

There have definitely been times when it was hard to keep up, and times when I've blogged when I should have been doing other things. But I've enjoyed it throughout, and I like having a place to toss out ideas about game design once in a while or to provide an update or some thoughts on the development of Vespers. I'm amazed that a year has gone by already.

The one thing I've gained above all from doing this, though, is a tremendous amount of respect for those who do this really well.

Writing well is hard. Writing something truly engaging is altogether different, and harder still. Whereas I often struggle to find thoughts and words and occasionally spew gibberish that utterly fails in its communication, some blogs just seem to do it right, consistently, and those are the real gems. You know each time something new pops up in the feed there's going to be a tasty morsel waiting there. I imagine that takes a good deal of practice, but there's a talent there, too; some folks just have a knack for spinning a good tale out of anything. That's a nice skill to have.

Jay over at The Rampant Coyote is someone I admire for this, and I honestly don't know how he can do it while averaging over a post per day on top of everything else in his life. Shamus at Twenty-Sided is a machine, sometimes posting a couple of times each day and never disappointing, especially when he's tearing apart the writing for some new console game. Corvus over at Man Bytes Blog is posting less frequently these days, but still has an amazing ability to stimulate intense discussion on story and game design, and maybe even one day I'll finally grasp whatever that is he's dishing out. Emily Short seems to have that clarity of thought and an ease with words that is rare and special, and she has an inspiring gift for critically assessing interactive fiction (and games in general). And then there's Jason Scott over at ASCII, who I swear could talk about practically any topic and weave something mesmerizing; he has a combination of skill and style that is uniquely his own and it's just damn good stuff, every time. There are many more as well, too many to cover.

I admire these folks for doing this right. They've all been blogging for a few years, and I'm glad they have. We'll see where this blog ends up; I'm hoping this year will be a big year for Vespers, and that should mean some interesting experiences ahead. Should be plenty to write about.

Thanks for coming along, and raise a brew with me to another year.

February 1, 2009

The End of January Vespers Thing

January was a very busy month for the game, and I feel like we've made some great progress on a number of fronts. I think part of the reason is that we had set a goal for ourselves: try as hard as we could to get most of the work for Act I finished by January 29th, the date of the first Utah Indie Gamers night of 2009, so we could show it off in public. Setting goals can be useful for getting people focused on particular tasks, and it's probably a good way to work even when those goals aren't met.

Which is a good thing, because we didn't meet that goal.

Which itself is probably a good thing, because I wouldn't have been able to show it off at the Utah Indie Gamers night anyway. This past Tuesday morning, I recall having a slight wispy cough as I left for work; by late Tuesday night, I was begging for mercy. The microbes have barely let up on their stranglehold since. I was pretty sure this was influenza (despite getting my flu shot), although some of my colleagues tell me a similar bug called parainfluenza is making the rounds here these days, and the symptoms are similar. It matters little, they both suck. There are few things more humbling than sleeping on the bathroom floor (because the bedroom garbage can was already full of my heaving) or shaking with chills on the couch despite layer upon layer of clothing and blankets. The Utah Indie Gamers night was Thursday. By then I was only feverish. Now I'm finally not feverish, but I've been reduced to little more than a cough, mucus, and virus factory.

But enough of that. The Vespers engine code is up to version 04k with the addition of a few lines to detect animation triggers. The Torque animation exporter allows you to set keyframes within animation sequences that act as triggers for whatever response you want, which you can specify in the object's onAnimationTrigger method. Like most things that involve the Torque model and animation exporter, it takes a bit of time to figure out precisely how to set this up, but I believe I have it working now with Constantin. I'm now using triggers to specify when to play the scraping sound of the knife skinning the hare, which is nicely timed with the motion of the knife. I'm also using it to more smoothly transition between his idle animations. That should prove to be a very useful tool in the future.


Constantin video. Best viewed in High Quality (bottom right corner).
(Might need to turn up the volume to hear it.)


A lot of the progress in January has been with the animations. Shawn has been working his tail off, and we're now basically finished with the Act I animations for Ignatius, Constantin, and Matteo. The latter two were already animated by our previous guy, but we needed to re-do them for a couple of reasons: first, the animations weren't so great and we wanted to improve them while adding lip sync; and second, we would need re-rigged characters for the first cutscene anyway. Constantin looks tremendously better now than he did before (even my wife noted this), with much smoother and more interesting motions. The same goes for Matteo.

Lem continues to work on Lucca, although it's going slow for him. But that just leaves Drogo and Cecilia, and once those two are finished, we should have ourselves an actual, complete Act I. Add a cutscene on top of that, and we might just have ourselves a working demo. Soon.

Despite having some family issues that demanded his attention for a while, N.R. made some nice progress in January mostly on the 2D front. Most of his efforts were directed at spiffing up the GUI and HUD elements for the game, and I'm very happy with the results. In addition to updated window frames, he designed really nice Options and Help window GUIs, incorporating some of the elements from the church fresco designed by Régis.

Options dialog.

He also incorporated a sweet ribbon design with a medieval image he obtained and utilized in the Main Menu GUI.

Main menu screen.
(Click for larger version)


He's also been working on additional visual goodies such as a more realistic and bloody stone for Lucca to scrape at, and a more interesting and natural appearance to the top of the belltower, exposing the floor boards while mounding snow around the outsides.

The new bloody flagstone.
(Click for larger version)


The updated top of the belltower.
(Click for larger version)


N.R. also spent a crazy amount of time working on a new Orange River Studio logo design for me during January, and I think we're getting close. By next month's update we should have a design finalized. N.R. has been dealing with a lot this month and I'm amazed that he's been able to get as much done as he has, and he continues to do some pretty amazing work. I am a very lucky person.

Despite my bitching about fonts earlier this month, I'm still in negotiations with the P22 foundry for a much more reasonable licensing fee for the Cezanne typeface, which is good news. I really like the font and I appreciate it for what it offers, and it's nice to know the P22 guys are very much open to creative solutions for this and are willing to work with small developers like me. I'm pretty confident it will work out well, and I'm really looking forward to settling on that font once and for all.

Finally, as I reported last month, we decided to try a little something different and utlize Pieter Bruegel's famous painting, The Triumph of Death, as the main background for our opening splash screen. I tried a couple of new things with the splash screen, including some nice closeups and crossfades, and I'm very satisfied with how it turned out. I'd like to go over some of the Torque-specific techniques I used to create it in another blog, hopefully during February.

So despite the bloody, protracted battle with the microbes, January turned out to be a very productive month for Vespers, and I'm looking forward to a good February as well.