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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?