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January 27, 2009


Aaron Reed has written some pretty fine IF. Gourmet was one of my favorites from the 2003 IF Comp, just a lot of fun to play. It even has its own theme song (judge for yourself). And of course there's Whom The Telling Changed, which received much well-deserved recognition and was a finalist in 2006 at the now-defunct Slamdance Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition. I also see that Aaron was interviewed back then for Get Lamp, Jason Scott's (hopefully) upcoming documentary on text adventures.

He also lives about ten minutes away from my house. We met a couple of times at the quarterly Utah Indie Gamers Night, and he's a pretty fascinating guy.

Aaron is about to launch his epic new work of IF, Blue Lacuna, which he is calling an "interactive novel". Before that, though, there is an online prelude:

Rather than describe it, just follow the links and experience it.

I'm looking forward to trying Blue Lacuna. I've got some high expectations for it.

January 25, 2009

Curse My Expensive Font Tastes

Without question, some of the best advice I've been given on the business of indie game development has come from Tom Buscaglia, the Game Attorney -- probably one of the best attorneys representing game developers. Much of this advice comes from his Game Dev Kit, a set of information and forms for start-up game developers, which in my opinion is an excellent resource for any small start-up indie. Above all, the best advice is:

"Quite simply, you can not sell what you do not own."

So basically, any and all assets put into a game must be owned by the legal entity (company or individual) that owns the game, or they must have an appropriate license from the actual owner of the asset. Once you really get elbows deep into the development of a game, you quickly realize how complicated this can become due to the many categories and sheer volume of assets that are needed for game development. Every model, every texture, every musical piece or sound clip -- all of it must either be owned by the company making and selling the game, or they have to be licensed to sell it commercially.

This can end up being quite the chore, and it's good practice (especially for the small indie developer who is working primarily on his own) to keep a "master asset list" to track all of these assets and their ownership or licensing status. It also helps to bone up on some of the basic legal issues surrounding appropriate documentation of ownership, and to make sure you take care of those issues sooner rather than later. It's far too easy to slap a sound, musical clip, or texture into your game, even as as a placeholder, and then completely forget about it. Believe me, it sucks to have to track down that dude who helped you with your title music a couple years back because you never asked him to verify and transfer the IP over to you.

One of the assets which, I think, is most often overlooked in this respect is fonts.

Fonts are one of those things that I think a lot of people take for granted -- your computer comes with a whole mess of them installed, and it's easy to find hordes of free ones online. They're often passed around as easily, freely, and inappropriately as MP3s. But for games, fonts are an asset just like anything else, and unless you own it or are licensed commercially, you can't sell it. So the solution is to create your own or buy an appropriate commercial license, unless you want to stick with boring public domain fonts.

The problem for me is that I have a special thing for fonts. I love fonts. I collect them. I hoard them the way some women hoard shoes. I'm a regular customer on and if they offered a frequent buyer rewards program I'm sure I'd soon be platinum level.

So for me, finding the font that is just right for use in Vespers is a long, exhaustive research project. Right now, we're using two main fonts in the game, one for the text input and output windows, and the other for most everything else (the main logo, menu items, titles, buttons, and so forth). The font for the text windows is not a large concern for me, as long as it is clear and legible at multiple sizes, and has at least some interesting style to it. Early on, I settled for a font called Flute, which is shown below. Flute is a pretty cheap font -- I think it originally sold for $8 and last I checked was free on -- and there shouldn't be any problem getting an appropriate license for our use. The other font, however, is a bit of a problem.


Until recently, the font I have been using for all of the good stuff is called Cezanne, by P22 Foundry. Those folks make a lot of very high quality fonts that are used widely for commercial purposes. In fact, I've seen Cezanne in a lot of places -- on TV, in print, even on the cover of my local phone book. It's an extrordinary font that I think is absolutely beautiful, and of all of the fonts I've researched, this one really stands out from the others. I hesitate to say that it is perfect, but damn if it isn't close to that.


But you have to write to P22 if you want to use their fonts commercially and get a special license, like for what we're doing. And, of course, they responded by asking a wild amount of money for this, on the order of $1,500 -- half for embedding the font, the other half for the commercial license. Now, I understand this, of course. This font is a work of art, and it makes sense for them to expect an appropriate license payment from someone who wants to make piles of money on a product the appeal of which is due, at least in part, to their craftsmanship. But given that we're a small indie company with a development budget in the low five digits, this represents a significant fraction of our overall development costs. I tried a little negotiation, and they offered an alternative licensing plan that is less expensive, but it's still a lot. So I've been looking at alternatives.

I've always thought, for some reason, that the main font in the game should be a handwritten font. I'm not entirely sure why, I just feel like it communicates the feel of the game (from the Abbot's perspective) the best. So I'm looking to maintain that, but there are only so many options. Once you get past a few good ones, most handwriting or calligraphy fonts start getting far too curly, decorative, or perfect. And I'm not that easy to please.

Suffice it to say that I haven't come across another one yet that has jumped out at me as a clear replacement for Cezanne, but there are a few options. The best of the bunch is a font called Whitechapel, from Blambot, a foundry that specializes in comic fonts and lettering. It's a nice handwriting font that I think conveys the right image, although I still think it's a step below Cezanne and it doesn't completely satisfy me. So when Blambot told me that our use of the font constitutes "redistribution of a derivative work of the font" which would cost $500 for an appropriate license, I thought, "Thanks, but no thanks."


One of the problems here is that our use of the font is a little atypical. Often under most font licenses, it's illegal to include the font file itself, such as the TrueType file, with a distributed game. But with games powered by the Torque Game Engine, you don't need to include font files with your games -- the Torque engine takes all of the fonts used in the game and creates a special kind of bitmap file for each font and size. The characters are basically rendered to a bitmap and stored for later display. There's no way to reverse engineer it, and no way for clients to take that bitmap and somehow install it on their machine. Nevertheless, many of these companies still believe that this constitutes embedding and redistribution.

I do have permission to use another font, Secret Scrypt, a very cool font from another very cool font foundry called Canada Type. It cost a mere $30 for its commercial fee. It's a bit heavy for my tastes, but it was actually the first font I started using for Vespers, so I may end up just going back to the start with respect to this font.

Secret Scrypt

Curse my expensive font tastes.

January 18, 2009

Write from the Start

So pretty much one of the most challenging parts of making games for the small indie or hobbyist developer is getting the extra help you need. The developer who can do it all on his or her own -- programming, artwork, writing, modeling, animation, web design, yada yada -- is a rare breed with far too much talent and disposable time. When I made Missions of the Reliant way back when, in (gulp) 1994, I could handle most of it myself because things were just...simpler. I didn't have to worry about modeling or animation, and web design meant little more than plain text and a few animated GIFs (mostly I just focused on BBS's and AOL -- and, sadly enough, eWorld). Life, as they say, was so much easier when we were young.

Unless you start from the beginning with a set of partners, it's tough to find people who are willing to put the necessary time and effort into your project, particularly if they're not being paid. But once you start paying people to provide the services you need, the expenses can start piling up fast. That's especially true for modelers, animators, and 2D artists, where the good stuff usually doesn't come cheap. And since the majority of small indie and hobbyist developers who initiate new game projects are programmers, not artists, you end up with a lot of projects that die on the vine because they just can't obtain or afford the artwork that is needed. As one person I knew said, it's cheaper to program than to create art.

A while back, as these thoughts were bouncing around inside my head, I began to wonder how different it might be if a game project was started by a visual artist rather than a programmer. I started a thread on the GarageGames forums to see if people were familiar with any such projects, and it turned out to be a pretty long thread. Some good thoughts there, but not a lot of games that started with the artist and lasted through to completion and release.

That was a couple of years ago, though, and I know of (or suspect) a few examples since. One that came up recently, as reflected upon by Chris over at The Artful Gamer, is the Quest for Glory II remake by AGDInteractive through the efforts of artist Eriq Chang. As Chris notes:

"I call this a 'renaissance' of computer game re-makes because the creative torch has finally been returned to artists. Instead of designing and conceiving games from scratch without any attention to their expressive qualities (as we see in most commercial games), AGDInteractive (has) put artists behind the wheel and allowed them to drive the creative process."

But I'm not really here to discuss how visual artists can drive creative game development. The reason I bring this up is because I was reminded of this topic during a recent web chat about a similar concept.

Back at the Austin GDC last year, I found myself most interested in the discussions and talks on game writing, and through those interactions I was introduced to the Game Writers SIG, a "community of game writers whose goal is to improve the quality of games writing by increasing overall awareness of the craft of games writing and how it fits into the game development process." Although it's not exactly my specialty, I enjoy following the e-mail list discussions from a distance. Anyone else interested in signing up for the mailing list can check out their sign-up page.

One of the topics that often comes up on the list is how to better promote the idea that writers should be involved in the videogame development process much earlier than they typically are. What often seems to be the case, as I understand it, is that writers are engaged well after a game has been designed, such that the writers are frequently asked to fill in gaps or otherwise work within a well-established framework that has little chance of being altered much. As such, there is little opportunity to shape the project from the beginning, or to impact game design and gameplay mechanics through the writing process.

Something like this was brought up again on the SIG's monthly (roughly) chat meeting, which I checked out for the first time this past week. The discussion turned to the creation of a list of arguments the group could use to convince game companies of the benefit of hiring and involving writers. One member, Reid, posed the following question:

"Here's an idea. What if the SIG made a small game to showcase the value of writers when they have more creative control and are brought in early?"

In response, Corvus brought up the idea of using Inform to create a piece of interactive fiction. Nice idea, I would have to say. But then again, there are already plenty of excellent IF games already out there that have been written by, you know, writers. Is the problem that game companies aren't familiar enough with good IF games, and they just need someone to make them take a closer look? Or is it perhaps because companies that make graphical games might not be terribly interested in what text-only IF games might have to offer?

I don't know the answer to that, and maybe I'm missing the mark, but I do know how I feel about the whole idea -- it forms the basis for the Vespers project. When I started this thing, the goal was to create a 3D first-person adventure game that was based on an established interactive fiction game. The main reason was to see how a typical text-based interactive fiction game would mesh with a visual 3D interface, but just as importantly, the idea was to start with a game that was fully designed and written by a writer. That's one of the big advantages to having started with Jason's Vespers game -- the plot, dialogue, characters, setting, puzzles, all of it was already written, tested, played, and critiqued. We knew what worked well, and what didn't. Characters and setting were already nicely fleshed out. All we needed to do (easy for me to say) was to take that entire game design and translate it from text to graphics, while still keeping most of the text.

In the end, Vespers might not necessarily be the best example to show game development companies to convince them of the value of starting with a game writer, but I certainly hope it will encompass this idea and at least help move the field in this general direction. That's the goal, at least.

A secondary but related goal is to use this game as an example of what, specifically, interactive fiction has to offer to the mainstream videogame industry. While I wouldn't necessarily describe IF as a "mature" medium, it has been around considerably longer than most other types of videogames and, as such, I believe it has a maturity that perhaps other genres lack. This extends to some of the more interesting areas of game design (at least to me) -- puzzle design, narrative design, character development, and conversation dynamics, to name a few. I think there is a lot that mainstream game designers can learn from some of the better or more advanced IF games. It's an overlooked genre and community, and it's something I plan on submitting to an upcoming GDC for a lecture and/or group discussion. We'll see if anyone's listening.

January 15, 2009

Text Adventuring, MMO-Style

Coyote and Scorpia beat me to it, but apparently a group is interested in bringing the Zork universe into the MMO realm, as reported on Ars Technica. It's to be called Legends of Zork and published by Jolt Online Gaming, a group headquartered in Dublin. There isn't a whole lot of information available yet, though.

From the press release:

" will provide online gamers with a persistent online adventure, playable from any Internet browser. Players take up the role of a recently laid-off salesman and part-time loot-gatherer, as he explores the Great Underground Empire. Designed to provide gamers with a casual MMO game they can play on their laptop, desktop or Apple iPhone (in school, work or on the bus), there’s nothing to download, just go to"

I have to say I'm not completely surprised, given some of the recent advances in browser-based IF and multiplayer IF. Of course, there is Guncho, a multiplayer IF system based on Inform 7, which was released not too long ago and has received some nice attention, although I haven't spent much time with it. But multiplayer IF is also not exactly a new concept -- it just hasn't been done much.

Most people will think immediately of MUDs and so forth, which is entirely appropriate as a precursor to multiplayer IF but which I'm not sure I would necessarily classify as IF. And others have approached it in the past, notably Mike Rozak, who has both written about multiplayer IF theory and put his money where his mouth is with his graphical multiplayer IF-like system called CircumReality. Interestingly, Home of the Underdogs lists a couple of games under the heading of "Interactive Fiction Multiplayer Titles", but I wouldn't exactly classify them as such (both of them, Fallthru from 1989 and Zyll from 1984, are really just text-based RPG games).

Still, I can't say I've seen anything yet that I would point at and say "Now that's multiplayer IF", at least not until Guncho came around.

It will be interesting to see how they implement this, and I'm not really sure how it will go. It's also not clear if this will be free to play, or if they have some sort of business model for it. I do think there is a potential niche market for multiplayer IF, but I imagine those kinds of games and scenarios would be especially tricky to construct. I'll be keeping my eyes out for this.

January 7, 2009

2008's Top (Mostly Windows-Only) Games

As many folks in the blogosphere have duly pointed out, the end of one year and the start of another is usually accompanied by a proliferation of lists. Best of this, Top Ten of that, and so on. A couple of these that have particular interest to me are Game Tunnel's Top Ten Indie Games of 2008 and GameSetWatch's 20 Best Freeware Adventure Games of 2008.

Throughout the year I generally try to keep track of which games are making news in the indie gaming world, but it's still interesting to see GameTunnel's list to find out just how closely I've been paying attention. As it turns out, I've only even heard of 7 of their top 10 -- I hadn't seen or read anything about Noitu Love 2, Battle of Tiles, or New Star Soccer 4 -- and some, such as Zombie Shooter, Everyday Shooter, and The Spirit Engine 2, I have only sketchy recollection of seeing anything before. So much for being on top of things.

Perhaps even more embarrassing is the fact that I've only played one of the top 10 indie games, World of Goo, which I did purchase. I like World of Goo, mostly because you can tell the folks who created it (Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel of 2D Boy) did a bang-up job with all aspects of development. Slick artwork, nice audio, smooth animation and gameplay. It's a solid game that's heavy on style. The genre? Not so much, for me at least. I can see why a lot of people like it, but it's not really my cup o'. In fact, that's something that struck me about the GameTunnel list in general -- there isn't a lot there that I would consider a big draw for my tastes.

Most of them sound interesting, certainly enough to give them a shot. I'm attracted by the depth of New Star Soccer 4, for instance, even though I have little to no interest in soccer in general; Noitu Love 2, Mount & Blade, and The Spirit Engine 2 all have elements that sound appealing and worth a peek. But most of them seem to be within genres that I don't spend a lot of time playing. Still, I like to show my support for the other indies out there and I have to admit that I haven't done a good job of it for this group so far.

GameTunnel also has a list of their Top 5 Adventure Games of 2008, but I don't pay much attention to it. As they admit, they group classic adventure games with platform games and "action titles that devote a lot of time to the story," whatever that means, which is really just bizarre. The list reflect this, as there really isn't much there that I would consider a true adventure game.

I don't do a great job keeping up with all of the freeware adventure games out there, admittedly. So I appreciate having a list like GameSetWatch's Top 20 to peek at, just so I know what I'm missing. I like that two of the top 20 are interaction fiction games, Gun Mute and Everybody Dies, although more likely belong on this list. The latter did great in this year's IFComp, although it didn't do so well in my Capture Score evaluation. It was a good example of a game that ended up being great even though it fell somewhat short in its opening. I haven't played any of the other games on the list, although at #18 is DayMare Town 2, the second installment of Mateusz Skutnik's awesomely simple browser-based adventure game. I didn't realize it had been released, so that comes as welcome news.

Most of all, though, I was struck by one thing on both of these lists: the remarkable absence of Mac versions of these games.

Of the GameTunnel Top Ten, only three are listed as having Mac versions (New Star Soccer 4, Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble, and World of Goo), while over on GSW's Top 20, only one of the top 16 is Mac-compatible (Gun Mute). Overall, only six on the list can be played on Macs; aside from the two IF games, the other four are browser-based.

It's disappointing, of course, because it means Mac users need to go to extra lengths to play most of these great games, and for most Mac users that just means they won't get played. Not surprising, of course, because I think most of the game-making industry (indie or otherwise) still mistakenly believes the installed Mac base is too small to bother with. There appears to be a growing body of evidence that this is simply not the case, particularly for non-AAA-high-end gaming. Folks like Pocketwatch Games and Prarie Games would most certainly attest to this, and even the InstantAction folks from GarageGames had to put their Mac beta on hold because "all our current information indicates that the initial inflow of Mac users will (be) huge and probably bring IA to a crawl."

Obviously porting a game from Windows to Mac is not a simple, straighforward task, and it's one that requires time and resources, both of which many indie developers don't have. But it's a deceptively large audience and I think small developers are making a large mistake by ignoring this potentially rewarding chunk of attention and revenue.