I was privileged to give this talk earlier today at the Digital Technology Center at the University of MN. This was part of a two-day training and tutorial for Unity and VR.
I’ve always wanted to make some interactive fiction, and last month I decided to spend some time working on a procedurally generated Inform7 game. You can read more about it on the Github “Issue” thread where I announced my intent to participate, but I’m reposting my final “wrap-up” entry here:
Post-mortem / wrap-up post:
Mainly, I didn’t make a 50k word “story”. Although you could maybe argue that the inform “story” isn’t the “whole story”, that’s what my script generates, and I was planning on using that for the word-count metric. My plan for getting to 50k had basically been to increase the number of rooms the script generates until I hit that number, but that isn’t possible because some of the items I’m using for randomization don’t contain that many items. (And I didn’t realize or notice this until just now as I was prepping this post!) Turns out I can only push the script to ~25 rooms, before it tries to randomize from several sources with only that many items. The word count at 25 rooms is only about 4700-4800.
Also worth noting that version with 25 items doesn’t always work. I went ahead and pushed an example of this output as `output/v0.5-source-broken.txt`. Pasting that script into inform gives errors that I’m probably not going to take the time to fix. (Essentially, some of the source for my randomized room text is probably problematic, and should be excluded.)
Additionally, I’m pretty sure the game as-is at the moment of this writing isn’t that fun to play. There isn’t enough randomization of the puzzles. Essentially, each room has the same fetch quest. (If you’d never played it before, and went into it without my spoiling it for you –which I’m not going to do here– it’s possible it would take you a bit to figure out, but once you did, you’d know how to solve every other room, and it would grow tedious pretty quick. I think the version with 4 rooms (in a 2×2 grid) is probably the best way to play. There is some novelty in the randomized room names and descriptions which can sometimes be pretty surprising. It might be fun up to 12 or 16, but again, it would get old pretty fast in its current incarnation.
Another failure, I could argue, was my goal of learning Inform7, but I’ll write more about that in a bit.
Because I wasn’t really happy enough with the output of this script to post it anywhere, I also didn’t submit it to ProcJam. That was/is also definitely a fail.
I wrote some Python! Python is ridiculously easy to write. It feels a bit like I say this about every new language I learn these days, but learning the syntax (there is almost none!) and the various APIs was a very minor part of this project, and generally quite fun and easy. Debugging errors was quite easy, as error messages were very easy to search for, and often even that step wasn’t needed.
I learned quite a bit about writing Inform7! Unfortunately, that’s about the best I can say about it. Inform got harder and harder to work with, and was generally the opposite of my experience with python. My take-away from Inform is that you want to write one sentence at a time, compiling after every one. Every new thing you try and do will require searching through the documentation for an example you can copy/paste. There were dozens of times when I would modify even just one word from an example and then scratch my head about why that changed caused it to stop working. And debugging was always a nightmare. The error messages sometimes contain (sometimes hilariously) a bit of randomization themselves. This seems interesting/funny the first few times you see the same error and the text is different, but the 3rd or 4th time, when you are at wit’s end, it’s no longer funny. Here’s an example of an inform error (but not one with randomized text, I don’t think):
You wrote ‘now the Greyish Blue Book Of Matches is nowhere’ , but although ‘the Greyish Blue Book Of Matches is nowhere’ is a condition which it is legal to test with ‘if’, ‘when’, and so forth, it is not something I can arrange to happen on request. Whether it is true or not depends on current circumstances: so to make it true, you will need to adjust those circumstances.
In general, my take-away is that Inform7 syntax is a great big can of worms. It would probably take me a month of working full-time to really understand the entire system and how it all works together, and feeling competent in it would probably take much longer. (This was obviously not that month!)
Wishlist / TODO list
If I wanted to spend more time on this project, these are the things I was planning on doing:
* Randomized puzzles. Right now there is really only one type of puzzle. I would love to have 4 or 5 types (at least!), and generate different room descriptions based on the type.
* Additional inform elements: Right now, there are rooms, objects (some edible), containers, and that’s about it. I really wanted to get to the point where there was also a randomized person in each room. The amount of things you can do with Inform is staggering really. I’ve only just scratched the surface, for sure.
* Finally, making this available to the rest of the world. This boils down to how I wanted to do this initially, and how I think it’s feasible. Both would have been published as a webpage. A) I wanted to make a version that was different every time you play it. But the only way I could imagine that happening would be to install the command-line version of inform on a server, and at request time, generate the source, compile it, and redirect the request to that output. I’ve no idea if that’s practical, but it’s not something I wanted to attempt. B) The more practical alternative would be to generate a bunch of outputs all at once. So that would be writing another script to run my `game.py` script X number of times, saving the output off to a tmp directory, then using the command-line version of Inform7 (i7) to compile each output and save off a web-playable version into a subdirectory somewhere. Tentatively I was planning on doing this 365 times and then writing some kind of index.php to swap them out based on day of the year.
I really enjoyed working on this project, and learned a lot about Inform7 and python, but wouldn’t really consider this a “successful” project, mostly because I just didn’t spend the required time on it. There is always more you can do, of course, but in this case, I didn’t take the project far enough where I think it’s ready for public consumption. (It is all public, however, and anyone can play with the stuff I created. If you do, I’d love to hear about it!)
Please see the forum link above for all the specifics, but the crux of it is that in the original version of Catchup, you could claim a hexagon creating a group up to the largest group on the board without triggering the catchup mechanic. But with this new rules change, even tying with your opponent now triggers an extra claim for them on their following turn.
I’m working on an update to Catchup to make it iOS 11 friendly, and support the new iPhone X screen size, and figured while I’m at it, I’ll add this new rule as an option in the app. So I’ve created a new toggle in the game options, and I’m leaving it off by default, because I don’t think most people will know about it, and I don’t want it to take anyone by surprise. Also, for now, because I don’t really know how I would indicate which version is being played in the UI, you won’t be able to play with the new rule in online games. If there is enough (any?) clamber for it in online play, I may consider adding that in the future.
I did a quick (~15 minute) presentation at the last MN VR & HCI meeting earlier this week about the hockey game I worked on with/for Visual and Hiway Credit Union. When I polled the audience before launching into it, almost nobody in the room was a developer (it was one of the sparser attended VR meetups in recent memory), so I rushed through most of the technical bits. (Which was the focus of the whole talk!)
Anyway, here are the slides, for posterity:
I’ve been pretty lax on posting here this year. The main reason for this post is that I realized I hadn’t posted about Donuts in Space, which is a game I made explicitly to put on the Donutron. In case you’re not familiar, the Donutron is a donut-inspired arcade cabinet installed at Glam Doll Donuts on Nicollet and 26th in South Minneapolis.
The Donutron currently features all games made by local-to-Minnesota game makers. Donuts in Space was the first donut-themed game on the cabinet, and is a game where you play as a donut rolling around on top of a giant donut floating through space, racing the clock to collect mini-donuts. You can also play split-screen multiplayer. Here are a couple of screenshots:
So the other reason I wanted to post is that I keep meaning to write about Unite Austin. First of all, I decided to go to Unite because a) Unity is a good chunk of my freelance work now, (easily 50% in the last year, possibly as much as 80%), and b) it had been a while since I went to a technical conference where I expected to learn anything. I did learn a bunch, mostly about the new Timeline and CinneMachine features built into Unity 2017.x, but also a bunch about various AR stuff. I also got to try out demos of the Microsoft “mixed reality” headset and software, as well as the Meta 2 AR headset.
When I registered for the conference, the website also managed to upsell me on taking the Unity Certification exam while I was there. (So yes, I am now Unity Certified, at least for the next two years.)
Let’s see, other random stuff that’s gone unmentioned this year:
I was immensely lucky to be able to work on a project this summer for Motion Poems and Northern Spark called Chaos on the Green Line. It’s a mobile application (for iOS and Android) built to playback some beautiful 360-degree video (created by Pixel Farm) while on the Minneapolis/St. Paul Green-Line train.
Last Wednesday, July 26th, I presented on this project (along with Jeff from Pixel Farm and Patrick Swinnea, my developer collaborator) at the MN VR & HCI meeting. The slides are embedded below. Mine are after Patrick’s, and start at Slide 48. Enjoy!
But it won’t (just) be about Slide Quest… (Feel free to skip to the list of my three favorite Threes!-inspired games below.)
Okay, first off, I’ve never publicly talked about Slide Quest before. There are several reasons for this, but namely I’ve been embarrassed by it. I actually never meant to release it. (This is hard to believe, I know, but in some past versions of iTunes Connect — apple’s publishing webapp — you had to set a release date for your app. If you started creating the app in there, but you didn’t know if you wanted to publish it, one technique was to just set the release date to some far off date in the future. I did this, but then that date passed, and the app was released. No fanfare, I didn’t even get notified, or if I did I was too busy with client work to notice.) Anyway, when I found out it was released, it was to a few pretty terrible reviews. (It was basically not much more than a prototype.) I decided I’d rather it was out there than not, but I felt dumb, and basically never promoted it in any way.
The point is, within a month, there were probably hundreds of games inspired by Threes!, both in the app store and elsewhere. For more about Threes! and clones, you should read the Polygon writeup, but also read the post by the developers of Threes!, where they also post all their correspondence (emails) during the game’s creation. That post is rather heart-breaking, but the email archive is actually a pretty amazing resource for aspiring game developers.
Anyway, I loved Threes!, and played the hell out of it at launch. I bought the tshirt. At some point I started thinking about an RPG with the same “swipe mechanics” as Threes!, and the thought kept me up at night. I too put together a prototype of that game in a weekend. That game was initially called RPGeez, but eventually I changed the title to Slide Quest.
There are several subtle differences (aside from the obvious aesthetic ones) between Threes! and 2048. In Threes! a swipe only moves each of the tiles on the board one space; in 2048, they move until they can’t move any farther. There are of course other differences, but this is the main thing.
With Slide Quest, the main mechanical difference is that there is a character on the board. That character is “you”, and you slide around the board with every swipe. You have a level, and you level up if you attack (combine with) a monster on the board that is the exact same level as you. You can attack and defeat lower level monsters without effect. Higher level monsters just block the board and lead to (eventual) game over. Like 2048, Slide Quest is definitely much “easier” than Threes!, but it does have one more interesting twist, in that every 33 levels, the algorithm for what level monsters spawn on the gameboard changes, getting more difficult.
Over the 3.3 years since Threes! was released, I’ve sometimes taken note when I see other games inspired by Threes!, mostly because I’m curious to see how they tweak the mechanics.
Stencilsmith, by Nicholas Sepi Jr. — This game is probably easiest to describe as Threes! meets Minecraft, though much simpler than that makes it sound. Essentially, there are pickaxes that need to combine with land to make materials, and the materials can then combine with pickaxes to make more powerful pickaxes. There are also swords, which need to combine with materials before they can then combine with enemies to take them off the board. You have three hearts (in the main game mode), and when you combine an enemy with something not a sword, it takes a heart.
SideSwype, by Radiangames} — This game combines Threes!-style swiping and match-3 mechanics. I really enjoyed it, and it’s got an elegant graphical style. Incidentally, it’s also by the developer of Slydris, which is an amazing game.
Puzzle Chips, by Curt Stein — Curt Stein created one of my early app store favorites called DropOut. In this poker-chip-themed take on the genre, each tile is a stack of chips. When the stack gets tall enough, it can be tapped to remove it from the board. So basically the numbers don’t really combine or increase, but as you play, chips that are worth more will spawn more frequently.
In a post back in 2014, I talk about small grid games, and said that 2048 was my favorite threes-inspired game. But in my memory of the time, I didn’t actually play that much of 2048, I was actually just really excited to surf the many forks of it that added different mechanics. Now when I try and view forks on github (it says there are 15,037), it just gives me the error “Too many forks to display.”
Please let me know (either here in the comments, or over on my twitter) if you have other Threes! inspired games that you like.
Via a slack I’m on, I only just this morning became aware of the MegaProcessor, a 16-bit microprocessor with LEDs attached to all the gates and transistors, that is then blown up to the size of a room and mounted on walls so you can see it working.
Oh, and it plays Tetris.
Frankly, this thing is amazing, and I would love to see it in person one day. Here’s the computerphile video that let me know of its existence:
I am giving a talk this afternoon at GlitchCon 2017, a local games and game development con here in Minneapolis. Here are my slides:
Tonight Abstract Puzzle got a slight refresh, removing some expired App Store links, as well as adding headers for “Forthcoming” games Puzzle Prison and ActionGo, and “Retired” games ActionChess and Oppo-Citrus that were removed from the app store last September.
I also added Root Down to the lineup, and changed some wording here and there.
Sadly, For The Win will be moving from “Mobile Board Games” to “Retired” sometime in the next month or so. I got the same email from Apple about it as I got for the other two games. I don’t have time to update it to support all the new screen sizes (and that app in particular would probably require some new graphics).