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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.