Sunday, 30 August 2015

Switching to Andromeda

Through things I said recently in a podcast, and in extremely vague form on the front of my Heiress Software homepage, I communicated that the next Inform 7 IF game I would do would be 'the murder one'.

I expected and expect this to be very difficult to do, for concept and design reasons. That's on top of my having had few specific story ideas for it yet.

The thing at the moment is that I need my creativity to be bolstering my motivations in life in general, not vexing me. Persisting with the planning stage of something really difficult ('the murder game') has been vexing me. So I've decided to switch to a project I'm confident will start to give me some gratification immediately. The third listed project on the Heiress webpage, namely 'A sci-fi game set in the Andromeda universe'.


If you don't know about the Andromeda games, they're a series of parser-driven sci-fi adventures started by Marco Innocenti with Andromeda Awakening, which he entered in IFComp 2011. His sequel, Andromeda Apocalypse, won the 2012 IFComp. Then Marco held two Andromeda Legacy competitions in which he invited other IF authors to make games set in the same universe. I co-judged both competitions.

The first comp produced Joey Jones's Andromeda Dreaming (the winner) and Paul Lee's Tree and Star. Both games expanded on the Andromeda mythologies in interesting ways.

The second comp produced Jim Warrenfeltz's Andromeda Ascending (the winner) and Joey Jones's Andromeda Genesis (not on IFDB now, but probably will be real soon thanks to my badgering).

I'm replaying all the games at the moment. I need to revisit Ascending in particular to remember how it fit in. I found Genesis to be disappointing when Jones's Dreaming was so good.

Collectively, the Andromeda games show that the concept of different authors producing IF parser games set in one universe is both viable and doable. The games fit together far better than anyone involved expected – not that there was even a rule saying they had to – and what's interesting is that the connections were produced entirely by the individual authors. There was almost no oversight or top-down coordination. The authors just kept generating material that fit into the sockets of mythology established by the original game, and by Marco's 'cheat sheet'.

I suppose there are actually a lot of examples of this kind of thing going on in fiction at large. What immediately comes to mind is Star Wars's expanded universe. All of those offshoot novels and comics that had to submit to some rules set above them. Maybe what helps the phenomenon work in any venue is when the people involved are attracted to the original material enough that they want to stick to its rules. The more you follow some of the rules, the more you may feel like you're a part of the entity you admire.

Andromeda is not Star Wars. This is unfortunate in the sense that I would like to be involved in a franchise that would rake in millions of dollars. But Andromeda Awakening has something in common with Star Wars in that it established a universe mysterious, charming and open enough to attract admirers interested in expanding it. The results so far have shown an impressive coherence of aesthetic, and been impressive in general. And I want to join in and add my bit.


As this will be a full-sized game, I'll have the luxury of my bit being large-ish. I've had some good conceptual ideas and specific story ideas so far, and I continue to cogitate on them and write them down (type them in) as they come.

Technically, I'm concerned about progress on various Inform fronts based on the example of the past few years. (I list these gripes and apologise for them about once a year on This year they are additionally informed by my experience of selling Leadlight Gamma.) My concerns will probably cause me to skew towards having fewer bells and whistles in the game than I'd like. There are lots of Inform play venues with no sound, no graphics, no colours or none of the above. There's no up-to-date Mac interpreter. No Mac interpreter advances for four years. No screen reader support on Macs.

I found it headachey trying to get Leadlight Gamma to deal with all these hurdles as best it could in a commercial context. A wise man (David Kinder) once said to me, 'Don't write around interpreter bugs.' That inspired me to strike forward as much as I could, but when I found I was going to have to tell players to be mindful of problems A and B and C and D to compensate for all the exceptions in the game delivery system, I slid backwards, because I don't want to tell players that stuff in the case of a commercial game. People don't want to pay for a game and then kick off their experience with it by reading through a list of potential problems and omissions it may exhibit.

Ultimately I balanced the game features so I could retain some moderately advanced tech (the dynamic map works everywhere) and only have to warn players about a few possible problems. Doing all the accessibility work on Leadlight Gamma and then not being able to share it with Mac users remains a particularly teeth-gritty point.

Regarding the content of my Andromeda game, I won't say more than what I've already said. I'm not much for talking about a thing I'm working on. That's what interacting with the thing once it's finished is for. I know that's not what the kids want these days. They want ceaseless updates and promo stills and character information and stretch goals and not-too-spoilery-spoilers and personality videos and ARGH!!!...

I might cave in later. Otherwise, at least on the front of this game, I'll see you when it's done. Which will not be for a fair while, obviously.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Leadlight Gamma - The sale I'm running and the competition I'm not

Have you noticed what month this is? Me too.

Do you know which events took place in the month of August five years ago? The events depicted in my game Leadlight.

Having noticed this anniversary, I'm announcing


Until August ends (about a week from today) you can buy Leadlight Gamma on for $1

You can still throw larger amounts of money at me during this time, but that's hardly the point of a sale.

After the sale window closes, the minimum price will revert to a more diabolical value. Maybe $6.66.

In technological developments: The game is now direct link-downloadable to the Frotz iOS app from Consider this a news item if you already own it, since any new files or features that are added to the page are available to anyone who has ever bought the game.


In other news: I briefly considered running a competition, too, with a prize for the first player* to send me a screenshot of the final easter egg from Leadlight Gamma's tour mode. However I've already donated a prize to IFComp, and I'm feeling too unemployed, ill and covetous to part with any of the horror-related items I was considering putting up for a Leadlight comp. So I shan't run one!

I will say that I think most people would find the final archive item shown in tour mode to be relatively surprising.

I view Leadlight as kind of a hardcore game, but by the standard of hardcore games, an easy one. It's considerably easier to finish the game per se than to finish it with all 80 points. So I saved Leadlight Gamma's tour mode as a reward for players who do get 80 points and who have thus demonstrated their commitment to the experience.

* Anyone mentioned in the game credits would not have been eligible to participate in the comp. But these people don't need to fret anymore, since I am not actually running the comp, only the sale.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015


Reading Jimmy Maher's July 31 2015 instalment of The Digital Antiquarian - The 14 Deadly Sins of Graphic-Adventure Design (or, Why Ron Gilbert Hated Adventure Games) stirred my thoughts on adventure game finishability. I'm using this cod word to describe the extent to which players can finish an adventure game without heavy or total reliance on hints and walkthroughs.

I hated Space Quest and the majority of Sierra's walk-around-on-screen-while-typing games for all the reasons described in Maher's article. I hated them as a teenager when they came out, so this isn't revisionism. They seemed to combine the wasting of player time with being a jerk about the wasting of player time, and also sported a finishability of zero. I remember Police Quest in particular as a game where you occasionally had to type in chunks of the manual verbatim or die.

Sierra's attitude to testing their games on real players before release (they didn't) was a dumb one. Let alone testing them for finishability. But I don't think you can ever fully quantify finishability. The more testing you do of your game, the more accurate a picture you get. But you still can't guarantee particular results for every single player. Probably the best you can do is to envision a core player demographic for your game (whether narrow or broad) and hope that its experience, if represented in the testing sample, will be reflected at large.

Looking for something I can test, I like to subject my games to the following:

At the strictest level, I'd like at least one tester to be able to clear the game with no help from me or anyone else. Extra-game hints don't exist at this stage, so I don't have to worry about cheating.

If this first condition is not achievable or reasonable, a step down is that I'd like to see one or more testers clear the game with no extra-game help except conversation they have amongst themselves.

If it turns out that someone who isn't a total freak can prevail under the strictest conditions, that's reassuring, and failing that, having one or more folks prevail under the second-strictest conditions is pretty reassuring. Having tested these conditions means I can say, 'Yes, a human cleared this game with no hints, so I expect other humans can do the same.'

In modern times, I have yet to make a game so big or difficult as to render these tests too onerous. Maybe my philosophy will be tested when I do make such a game, but I suspect it will still be my starting point for thoughts on the topic of verifying some kind of reasonableness in my game.

I think I started fishing around for more concrete ideas on testing finishability due to my experiences with Anchorhead (Anchorhead's IFDB page). I found it hard, and the nature of its hints and walkthrough were such that they kept tipping me into cascades of needing more hints and walkthrough. I got bored, then offside, then I gave up, since I'd spent too much time just typing in commands from extra-game documents.

Anchorhead is held in massive esteem, so I seem to be a minority of one in having had this particular experience with it (and other similarly difficult games with similarly styled hints) but on the other hand I've never heard anyone say, 'I cleared Anchorhead without any hints or walkthrough,' during any of those discussions.

It must be a tough life to be a puzzle-sporting adventure game when such a game is subject to complete spoilage by hints. Players will overcome problems in the game or they will not, and the latter path can lead to a total halt.

I'm playing Forbidden Siren on the PS2 at the moment, my latest pick from my backlog of survival horror games. And I'm relying on walkthroughs from start to finish (Chris Pruett recommended using walkthroughs in his review of Siren) – a situation which I'd normally regard as defining a failed game, even in the action genre. But Siren is so cripplingly hard, but also novel and good, that I've found the experience to be worth it. Even in using the walkthrough, my ability to execute the solutions described in the walkthrough is massively tested, and the game is still atmospheric and clever and frightening.

This reminds me of why I'm so anxious about the nature of walkthroughs and hints for pure, non-action adventure games. It's because their use can eliminate the experience of playing such games, rather than just facilitate the having of one in the first place.