15 years of Quest, part 2: 1999-2000

26 November 2013

This is part 2 of a look back at 15 years of Quest - part 1 is here.

Immediately after releasing Quest 1.0, in November 1998, I got started working on Quest 2.0 - the first alpha version was released only a month later, in December 1998. This version incorporated the early feedback I’d received from v1.0 - making room descriptions more customisable, adding functions, numeric variables and “for” loops, improving the in-game debugging information, and fixing various bugs.

It seems surprising to me now that I didn’t ever do a bug-fix release of v1.0 - I guess that so few people were actively using it, and there were so many rough edges anyway, it must have made more sense just to plough on and pour everything into v2.0. And this was before I’d ever heard of source control anyway - in fact, I doubt I’d have even had any kind of backup copy of the Quest code at the time. (It was a time when I was constantly running out of hard disk space, when floppy disks were too small, before I had a CD writer, and before any significant amount of online storage space was easily available).

Over the following months I added more features - more text formatting options, allowing objects to moved and hidden, and libraries to allow Quest functions to be re-used between games.

It was all a nice break from working on my A-levels and filling in my UCAS form.

Quest 2.0 was released in August 1999, and for the first time included a beta version of a new visual Quest game editor called “QDK” - meaning finally you no longer had to code games using a text editor. (I would have called the editor “QED” but there was already a Quake editor of that name).

QDK 1.0

Editing a room in QDK 1.0

Editing an object in QDK 1.0

The script editor was very basic:

Editing a script in QDK 1.0

The main player interface for Quest 2.0 still looked pretty much exactly the same as v1.0 - which is to say, hideous. This was finally rectified in November 1999 with the release of Quest 2.1, which has a layout which is awfully similar even to the current version of Quest:

Quest 2.1

Quest 2.0 is the first version for which at least one actual game was made - and it’s still on textadventures.co.uk, and it still works today, whether you download it or use the web-based player - The Adventures of Koww the Magician.

There are a total of 28 games on textadventures.co.uk which were written for Quest 2.x - see if you can find them… (the column to the right of the game listing will tell you the version of Quest used to build the game).

The “libraries” feature got some early use, with Alan Bampton creating a “Standard” library to add some features, including containers - which Quest was still years away from supporting natively. This library was included with Quest itself as of v2.11. (10 years later, when redesigning Quest for v5.0, libraries became the way to add all functionality to Quest - without its Core library, Quest 5 does very little at all).

By early 2000 my thoughts were turning to Quest 3.0, which would be a huge update - I was getting lots of suggestions from users, and there were various aspects of Quest I wanted to tidy up - things which didn’t make sense to me at all any more, such as: why was “an object in a room” a separate concept to “an item you can carry”? It was time for the first of many overhauls of Quest. In the mean-time I carried on releasing bug-fixed versions of v2.1 up until Quest 2.19, which was released in January 2001.

Next time I’ll carry on with a look back at version 3.0 and beyond. If you want to peruse some archive material, the forums from 1998-2000 are still online.


Moquette in the IFComp - Post-Mortem and Review Roundup

19 November 2013

My first work of interactive fiction “Moquette” came 15th out of 35 entries in this year’s IFComp. Now that the competition is over, the vow of silence has been lifted (authors are not allowed to talk about their games publicly during the judging period), which means I can now write some blog posts talking about the ideas behind the game and how it was built.

15th place is a bit lower than I was hoping for, of course, but given the reviews it was roughly what I was expecting. There were various elements of the game that people were impressed with - but very few people really loved it.

The IFComp results page has a good breakdown of the voting statistics, including the standard deviation, which is a measure of how wide the range of votes for each game was. Moquette has the 6th highest standard deviation, so was one of the more divisive games in this year’s competition.

It received 62 votes in total, on a scale of 1 to 10:

  • 4 votes for 1
  • 2 votes for 2
  • 7 votes for 3
  • 8 votes for 4
  • 11 votes for 5
  • 11 votes for 6
  • 8 votes for 7
  • 6 votes for 8
  • 4 votes for 9
  • 1 vote for 10

That’s quite a range, with votes across the whole spectrum but mostly falling within the region of “not terrible, but not great”.

I deliberately set out to do something different with Moquette, so perhaps a wide range of reactions is not surprising. From the reviews, it seems people were mostly impressed by the text effects and the simulation of the London Underground. The writing itself got more mixed reviews - some people liked the style, others thought the plot was too slow or didn’t make sense (or didn’t really exist), and a lot of people didn’t warm to the main character.

I suppose this is simply a reflection of my own limitations. The text effects and tube simulation were the easy parts. I’ll go into those in detail in another blog post, but the tube simulation was the first bit I had working and it wasn’t difficult for me to implement. I saved the text effects until last, and there’s not an awful lot to them - a little jQuery goes a long way.

The plot was what gave me trouble. I was tearing my hair out for ages trying to work out just what should happen in the game, and how it should end. I just can’t fathom what the secret ingredient is for generating a plot. I don’t have much experience writing static fiction, but from what I gather, at least if you’re just writing words on a page, you can kind of “go with the flow” and see what plops out as you let your fingers walk across the keyboard. How can you do that with interactive fiction, which can’t be created in such a freeform manner? I need to know what I’m building so I can break it down into its constituent parts and implement it - I don’t see how it’s possible to build something interactive the other way around, at least not if it is going to have any kind of strong author-created plot. Or, perhaps it is possible, but only by discarding a lot of work along the way - and it’s difficult to do that if you’re working to a deadline.

It turns out that characterisation is also a challenge for me. I thought I’d got around this by basically making Zoran a version of myself - albeit a “me” from about 10 years ago when I was in my early twenties. But reviewers really didn’t like Zoran all that much. I felt conflicting emotions whenever my writing was praised for its portrayal of someone who, as it turns out, is intensely dislikable. In the author’s forum, somebody wrote “The awkward conversation with the failed flame was just executed perfectly to paint a picture of a hateful, disgusting human being wasting his life and self-absorbedly assuming that everyone else is doing the same”. Thanks, but… owch!

Experiments

So, how did Moquette come about, and what was I trying to do with it?

Well, I’ve been talking about my vision for the future of text adventures for a long time now - in previous blog posts such as Text adventure games are still new, Thoughts on interactive storytelling and The Hobbit, Experimenting with stories and text, and in my talk at AdventureX. I realised that my thoughts would have a lot more weight if I backed them up by actually trying to create something, instead of just talking in the abstract about the kinds of experimentation that are still to be done with text-based games.

So what I tried to create wasn’t simply a technology demo, but to play around with various ideas and theories about how interactive story experiences might be constructed.

I will split the experimentation up into five aspects, which I’ll explore in more detail below.

  1. A different way of using links
  2. The nature of choice
  3. It's not a game
  4. First-person
  5. Special effects

Experiment 1 - A different way of using links

Quest started out as a parser-based system, although it has supported a hybrid hyperlink interface for a while now. It also now supports a simpler multiple-choice style of game - gamebook mode, which lets you create Twine-style works.

In Moquette, I’m exploring a style of game which is somewhere between the two. It doesn’t have the simple branching structure of a gamebook, but it doesn’t leave things completely open-ended like a parser game would. It is designed to be interacted with like a gamebook though, but underneath it is actually using the parser mode of Quest - I’ve just turned off the command input box and there are no objects with verbs to interact with.

I’ve used the power of Quest’s ASL programming language to model the tube network, and handle the passengers which are randomly thrown at you as the game progresses. The result is a game world that can be explored in a similar way to a parser game, but with a simpler interaction model. It’s the kind of game that couldn’t be written with Twine, or printed as a Choose Your Own Adventure book, because the game doesn’t use a branching model (if it did, the branch map would be huge as you can explore the tube network freely - it would have to be a ridiculously large book to handle all the possible combinations of choices).

I wanted to show that even with a minimalistic UI, you could create an explorable world, and you could do it more subtly than continually asking binary choice questions like “do you want to speak to the woman, or change to the Northern line?”. In Moquette, choosing one option often doesn’t rule out exploring other options too, and it’s easy to keep track of what you’ve done - the screen doesn’t clear between choices, but irrelevant links are deactivated so you always know exactly what options are available to explore.

Moquette

Experiment 2 - The nature of choice

Despite all the options that are available throughout the game, there is only one real choice - and it’s right at the beginning. Do you let Zoran follow his usual routine and go to work, or do you intervene and try to stop him? Even here it doesn’t really make much difference - the choice you make comes back to you at the end of the game, but there is no real right or wrong answer (in my mind the “winning” move here is actually not to intervene, because that results in Zoran reaching his own conclusion and making his own choice. But, on the other hand, it’s also a winning move to show him the way).

Many people worked out that the choice of which tube train to get on was ultimately inconsequential. Some people didn’t like that. They expect to have a choice and to affect the outcome of the story. “You are the hero!” - but you’re not the hero in Moquette. You’re not the protagonist.

This is contrary to the assumptions of most interactive fiction, but in writing Moquette, I haven’t really been following the examples of text games I have seen before. I have been much more inspired by interactive theatre - the explorable worlds created by the likes of Punchdrunk and Secret Cinema, and wondering how to adapt those ideas to text-based fiction.

I believe that it is possible to create immersive, interesting story experiences where you have no effect on the outcome at all. You don’t win or lose when you experience Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man, and you can enjoy the experience safe in the knowledge that you can’t get anything “wrong”, and that you will always make it to the ending. Surely text adventures can do this too?

One of the things that appeals to me about Punchdrunk is that everybody has a unique experience - there is always far more of the world to explore than you could possibly get around in one performance. I wanted some of that feeling in Moquette too, but without the flaw that often plagues Punchdrunk performances where the plot can be difficult to work out. As a single-player text game, I can adapt and move the world around according to the player’s choices - so you always get the complete plot, but different players will experience it in different locations. I wanted players to think that the encounter with Heather really is random - and that you felt that maybe if you’d gone a different way, something else would have happened instead. I wanted the game to feel bigger than it is, that when passengers got off the train before you’d had a chance to interact with them, that there were unexplored possibilities.

Of course, the illusion is shattered as soon as you play the game for a second time, and I expect many players are wise enough to work out the mechanics even when playing once. But hopefully it shows the kind of “magic tricks” that a text game might easily be able to perform.

Experiment 3 - It’s not a game

There are no puzzles in Moquette, and you will always finish if you just play it for long enough. But this gave some people a problem - there is no objective. Some people even emailed me plaintively - “what am I supposed to do?”. It’s interesting how that seems to matter, and I’d like to challenge the assumption that there should be an objective in interactive fiction. You don’t expect an objective when reading a book or going to the cinema - or if there is one, it’s simply “experience and understand the story”. Can’t that work for interactive fiction too?

Experiment 4 - First-person

I’ve never really liked the second-person style of most interactive fiction. “You are standing in an open field west of a white house” - no, I’m really not. I think writing in the first-person neatly sidesteps a lot of issues - I’m no longer wondering what my role is, how I got here, what my previous memories might be, or what I’m supposed to be feeling. Instead I can simply enjoy seeing the world through somebody else’s eyes. In Moquette we teleport inside Zoran’s brain, and we get to play with some of the controls. But the suggestions we make to Zoran are just that - suggestions, which he doesn’t have to obey.

Maybe this aspect of the game isn’t really that experimental - certainly none of the reviewers picked up on it. But given that nobody complained about it, I think the choice of first-person works well and is probably something that should be considered more as a sensible default voice for interactive fiction.

Experiment 5 - Special effects

Text Effect

There are various screen transitions throughout the game - I liked the idea of it having something of a graphical feel, even though it was only using text.

I’ll talk about the implementation details of the effects in a separate blog post - they’re nothing more than relatively simple JavaScript. It would be easy to go overboard and include too much of this kind of thing, but most of the reviews have been positive about these. I think it shows that HTML offers some interesting visual capabilities which most IF hasn’t got round to exploring yet.

Reviews

Here are all of the publicly available reviews and mentions I came across (let me know if I’ve missed any and I’ll update the list).

  • Indie Statik: "Moquette is a droll game that encapsulates the act of travelling nowhere in particular and the thoughts you amuse yourself with remarkably well"
  • Francesco Cordella: "Moquette is too slow to thrill"
  • Robert DeFord: "I'm not sure I liked it, but I can see where some people would"
  • Michael Martin: "I kept trying to have goals and the game was very ambiguous about whether or not I should... I can't make up my mind whether to be annoyed or impressed"
  • Puppystuff: "It’s about some asshole with a hangover who sits on the London subway and silently judges everyone after deciding to skip work"
  • PaulS: "in the end it doesn't work, because it forces the player to make endless unimportant choices, but gives no opportunity to make important ones"
  • Doug Egan: "I expect it will only finish near the fiftieth percentile as a competition entry" (good call!)
  • Emily Short: "I had a hard time feeling deeply about someone whose chief personal characteristic is a tendency to editorialize about other people’s hat-wear faux pas"
  • Sam Kabo Ashwell: "Game designers, take note: if you ever come up with a premise that boils down to 'okay, so the player can't really do anything significant and is just hanging out getting bored, right, but every now and then some plot happens', then you should throw it out."
  • Bainespal: "its plot is both too eclectic and too unambitious to be interesting ... Moquette is probably more of a technology piece than a literary piece, but it still manages to evoke the modern social condition"
  • The Xenographer: "I've always thought that intentionally boring your audience is a tough thing to do well and in most cases should probably be avoided"
  • Wade Clarke: "Overall, a mix of good elements and others which didn't work so well"
  • Pissy Little Sausages: "Yeah, that was pretty great.  Docking it three points for not letting me get my cock out, though."
  • Deirdra Kiai: "Impressive tech demo. Not really a fan of the protagonist dude's narrative voice; he came across to me as a judgemental prat."
  • Ricordius: "Eventually, Story Happens. In the meantime, until Story Happens, I'm just blindly hopping on and off these trains. I suppose Story Continues eventually, but I no longer cared. ... But this is Quest. It means that Quest is capable of some seriously eye-opening shenanigans that I had not thought that system capable of before. And that, in spite of the very flawed central core, means I am still impressed."
  • Eric Olson: "I still have hardly an inkling of what this was supposed to make me feel outside of frustrated at the amount of my time it wasted."
  • ifwizz.de (German - a quote from Chrome's translation: "The language ripples then, sometimes sparkles forth with unexpected impressions and insignificant observations here and there, rocking on to thoughts that suggest the image of a man who wants to break out of the eternal recurrence of the same in his gray life.")
  • Other reviews and ratings on Moquette's IFDB page

I also tried a little to get the word out beyond the normal IF circles. With the game set on the London Underground, it made sense to reach out to London blogs - it got small mentions on Londonist and Diamond Geezer. The competition rule requiring authors not to discuss games publicly hurt a bit here - if we can’t promote our own games (and the competition in general), who will? Who will take responsibility for plugging the IFComp outside of the circles of people who already know about it?

Finally

See how many times you can spot me in this highly appropriate video. (If you don’t know what I look like, check out my Twitter profile)


Quest is 15

7 November 2013

Quest is 15 years old today! I posted the announcement of Quest 1.0 on the rec.arts.int-fiction newsgroup on Saturday 7th November 1998. (And the original link in that post still gets you to the right place today, eventually)

Quest 1.0

So Quest is itself now almost as old as I was when I started writing it. But what got me started on it in the first place?

You’re probably expecting me to say something like this… I’d been interested in text adventure games since their heyday in the 1980s. On my family’s home computer, I got hooked by classic games like Zork, Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and Planetfall. Such wonderful worlds of the imagination! Such crafty puzzles! I would spend hours drawing maps on squared paper and looking out for grues and giving myself eye strain and…

Well, no. That’s not how it happened. I never played any of those. In fact, I was never really into text adventures at all.

But then, they were before my time. I was just a bit too young. I first dabbled with a computer in, oh, about 1990 or so. We had an Acorn Electron in our house. We did have a couple of text adventures for that - we had a copy of Acornsoft’s Sphinx Adventure (never really played it, couldn’t get anywhere, found it boring) and my dad had typed in the listing of a game called Necromancer from Electron User magazine. Which never quite worked properly, as something had been mis-typed somewhere along the line.

Necromancer

So I was just never that interested in text adventures. I was more into playing whatever shareware games had found their way onto my PC - Commander Keen, Wolfenstein, Doom and so on. But what I was much more interested in was creating my own. I probably spent more time in front of QBasic than any game. And that is where it all begins, really.

Schoolboy Humour

In 1994, at the age of 12 I started secondary school. The IT lab there was open at lunchtime for anybody to use. So instead of running around getting exercise, or loitering somewhere else, me and my friends played around with the computers. They were probably 486s, running MS-DOS 6 and Windows 3.1. They were connected to some kind of network but there was no internet access - we’d barely heard of this internet thing anyway back then. There wasn’t a whole lot to do other than write silly little programs using QBasic (or Visual Basic 3.0, which was also installed) so that’s what we did.

After my schoolfriend Martyn moved house and went to a different school, we kept in touch by writing letters to each other - this being a time before either of us had an email address. We would enclose 3.5” floppy disks to share our latest programming efforts. It was in fact in Martyn’s first letter, around January 1995, that he sent me a game he’d written called “Sid Snibble and the Curse of the Curry Stain”.

I still have a copy, in a heavily nested folder full of archives of archives, and I can still run it today using QB64. It looks like this:

Sid Snibble and the Curse of the Curry Stain

It was a text adventure, but even this had a graphical element to it - you didn’t walk around the game by typing NORTH, SOUTH etc., you moved an ASCII face around with the arrow keys. When you entered a location, you could look at things, speak to characters, pick up items and so on - all in an attempt to solve the mystery of what happened the night before, and why you woke up in the middle of the road in a strange town with a large curry stain down your shirt.

SID.BAS

This looked fun. I could write something like this. It would be hilarious! And so I set to work, doing what I’d always done - copying Martyn’s ideas, but doing them a lot worse.

So, in April 1995 I wrote my first text adventure game.

It was called… well, there’s no easy way to put this. I don’t want to rewrite history or tell a lie. I was young and the game was only for me and my friends. It was called ”Where’s My Nob?!

How I wish that weren’t true. How I wish I could sit here and tell you the story of how I poured my soul into a creative work of genius, a work of art, a literary masterpiece. With a title like that, maybe I could claim that it was an earnest work exploring gender issues. But it wasn’t. I was 12. The game was an excuse for a load of the kind of sophisticated humour that 12 year olds are known for. Featuring locations such as Dracula’s castle, a teacher’s house, a corner shop, a dairy, a Skoda dealer and Potato World.

So, a throwaway game that should be played by nobody. But for me, a 12 year old boy who didn’t do any kind of creative writing, it was a fun thing to do that got some kind of creative juices flowing.

[Aside: Although it’s not a work that I would ever want anybody to see - indeed, I would be absolutely horrified - I think what it represents is something that still persists as I develop Quest today. Specifically, although I want Quest to be a useful tool for building very high quality works of interactive fiction, there is still a need for something that allows people to create their own Sid Snibbles (and, er, to find their own Nob? I think deep down my sense of humour remains the same). To give people a way to express themselves, to allow them to develop their artistic sense, to allow them to get started, and then to improve their craft. It’s easy to be snobbish about this kind of thing, and to moan about low-quality games, but if we didn’t have bad text adventures, it’s unlikely we would have very many good ones either.]

Anyway, back to my, er, game. I sent it to Martyn on a floppy disk together with a second one called “Make Mrs Booth Friendly!”, a game about my French teacher. Also on that disk, I included a terrible chatbot, “Dr Mad!” who would diagnose your illness, and a fortune teller called “Sadistic Smeg”.

Over the following months I wrote some more text adventure games, always full of in-jokes about school, only ever written for my friends, and never to be seen by anybody else ever, certainly not now. “It’s Mad!”, “Fantasy Land!”, “Park Parade Adventure!” and “The Town of Terror”. It seems the running theme was titles with exclamation marks.

Making Text Adventures for Windows 95

Fast forward a few years to 1998, when I’d started dabbling with Visual Basic 5.0 - which meant I was no longer stuck writing programs for DOS, I could create programs for Windows instead, featuring buttons and menus and message boxes and pictures and everything. I was rather stuck for ideas though. I’d spent some time working on a virtual pet, which were all the rage back then, but wanted to try something a bit meatier. I’d just finished my GCSE exams and was looking for something to keep me occupied over the summer break before I started sixth form. I thought back to the text adventures I’d written, and wondered - what would a text adventure game for Windows look like?

I decided to write myself a little engine before writing a game, so I wouldn’t have to hard-code everything like I’d done in QBasic. I started coding something that would take in a simple text file which would define all aspects of the game, and handle things such as allowing players to save their progress.

It turned out that I was actually far more interested in creating the engine than I was in writing a game anyway, and I was interested to see what other people might come up with if they used my system. At the time, I was fairly ignorant of any pre-existing systems which would do a similar thing to mine, until somebody suggested I take a look at the rec.arts.int-fiction newsgroup. I started checking out the competition, and reading about Inform and TADS. It was clear to me that they were difficult for newcomers to use (this was before Inform had a natural language syntax - the syntax of Inform 6 still looks bizarre to me), so it looked like I should be able to get people interested in what I was doing.

I released Quest 1.0, and it looked like this:

Quest 1.0 Start Screen

(Those two globes were animated and bounced back and forth between the edges of the screen. For some reason.)

Quest 1.0 loaded text files which were in a simple format I’d devised, called ASL - Adventure Scripting Language. The syntax was simple, designed to be coded by hand using Notepad or similar - there was no visual editor yet (“QDK” appeared the following year).

Here’s the Quest 1.0 Readme file and ASL Reference if you’re interested in some historical detail. You would create games by using Notepad to edit the included template.asl file, which looked like this:

' Quest ASL Template
' All sections must exist in the game, though the text sections may be empty
' if desired.
define game <Enter name of game here...>
    asl-version <100>
    game version <1.0>
    game author <You>
    game copyright <© 1998...>
    game info <Enter game info here...>
    start <Enter name of place here...>
    possitems <Enter items separated by commas here...>
    startitems <Enter start items here...>
end define

define room <Enter name of place here...>
    look <Enter description here...>
end define

define text <intro>
Enter intro text here...
end define

define text <win>
Enter win text here...
end define

define text <lose>
Enter lose text here...
end define

This file format lasted a long time. It was used right up until Quest 4.x, the last version of which was released in 2011 - albeit heavily extended and changed in various ways over the years.

The empty template looks like this when loaded in Quest 1.0:

Quest 1.0 running a game

The user interface is still very similar to what Quest offers now - in fact, after it was rearranged in Quest 2.1 it has effectively remained an identical layout. There is the game text of course, a command box, a space to show what items you’re carrying, and a list of things you can see in the current location (which would show “Look at” and “Take” buttons if something was selected). There are also the compass buttons for easier navigation.

Quest 1.0 supported rooms, characters, objects, things you could pick up (“items”), quantities of things (“collectables”), string variables and some basic script commands. It could play WAV files, show images and display pop-up menus. It supported text formatting, and let you set up your own custom commands using a syntax like “eat #object#” - the same format that is still used in Quest 5 today.

There was a small sample game distributed with Quest 1.0, “A day in the life of a salesman”. It is of a very similar standard to my QBasic efforts - which is to say stupid, crude and borderline offensive in places. So no, you can’t have a copy, but yes, it does still run in Quest 5.4!

What happened next? We’ll pick up the story in the next blog post, where I’ll talk about how Quest grew, changed and even shrunk over the years to become what it is today.


ActiveLit Launched - interactive fiction for schools and groups

9 October 2013

After several months of beta, we have now launched our new service ActiveLit. Many thanks to all of you who have signed up and given us your feedback so far.

ActiveLit provides you with a safe, private, curated area in which to play and create text adventure games and interactive fiction with a group or class. After setting up each of your students or group members with their own login, they can access your ActiveLit area from anywhere - on your own premises or at home. They can play and create their own games and stories directly in their browser, whether that’s on a desktop, laptop, phone or tablet - there is no need to download any software.

To get started, sign up and request an account. ActiveLit is free for groups of up to 10, and we have various packages available for larger groups - with an introductory half-price offer until 31st December 2013. You can switch to a larger package at any time, so you can try ActiveLit with a free account and then upgrade later.

When we process your request, you’ll receive an email with instructions for logging in to your admin area.

ActiveLit Admin

The admin area lets you add members to your site. It also shows you the web address where they can log in - it will be something like activelit.com/yourschool. It’s quick to add users, and passwords can be generated automatically, but if you have a large number of users to set up, email us and we’ll import them for you.

Playing Games

Choose the games you want to display to your group. You can choose any game from textadventures.co.uk. It is easy to search, and you can also browse by category.

Choosing games for ActiveLit

Clicking the game name shows you the description of that game, where you can play it and also jump to the listing at textadventures.co.uk to see the reviews and comments.

Viewing game information

Once you have chosen the games you want to display, you can customise how they are shown.

Customising the games list

You can choose which order they appear in, and you can also give them your own description - for example, to set a particular game as homework.

Customising a game description

When group members log in to the area, they will see the list of games you have selected.

An ActiveLit area

They can click on the game to view your description, and play the game in their browser.

Customised game description

After playing a game online, as the group administrator you’ll be able to see session transcripts in the Reports area.

ActiveLit Reports list

An ActiveLit report

Creating Games

Group members can build their own interactive stories online using Quest. When they’ve finished creating their interactive story, they can publish their game to the area to share it with other group members.

More coming soon

Sign up and give us your feedback! Stay tuned for more updates - we’ll be continuing to add functionality over the coming months, so do get in touch and let us know what will help you with using interactive fiction in your group.


Notes from Publish! 2013 - New adventures in innovation

30 September 2013

On Tuesday 24 September I went to Publish! 2013, a conference looking at innovations in publishing organised by Media Futures in partnership with REACT. Here are a few notes and thoughts from the day (I won’t attempt to cover absolutely everything, and I’ve rearranged the order of things a bit).

How to innovate

Tomas Rawlings of Auroch Digital talked about lessons learned from building Call of Cthulhu: Wasted Land, a Lovecraftian RPG. It sold about 70,000 copies at around $5 each, and took three people one year to develop. Rawlings said this approach has a big risk, as 90% of apps sell nothing - it’s hard to get noticed in the App Store. For their current projects they’re taking a new approach of rapid prototyping and iteration. The idea is to test the market, evolve the content, and see which bits people do or don’t like.

From building an initial prototype in a game jam, it might take two weeks to produce the initial version of a game. Testing with the actual audience will allow them to see which bits they respond best to - so they can then expand on those, and maybe even throw the rest away.

To me this sounds pretty much like a normal, modern startup software development process - rapid prototyping and a pivot. Everybody should know the flaws of a waterfall model so it’s no surprise to hear that this is an approach to be avoided within games and apps too.

Clare Reddington, director of REACT, talked about the “Sandbox” projects which they have been running since 2007. These aim to bring together academics and creatives to explore ideas collaboratively and build low-cost prototypes (Chrome tells me that the word “creatives” is a typo).

Clare gave a quick run-through of the various things they had learned running these, which I shall attempt to summarise:

  • First, collaborate with people who are not like you (in size, outlook, skills, etc) - although this is challenging.
  • Keep the client out of the room, as you don't want people saying "that's not how we do things around here".
  • Move quickly and test. She recommends Leila Johnston's "Making Things Fast" talk (which I have just watched - and I concur, this is highly worth 20 minutes of your time).
  • Throw away your ego, as you're only as good as the current project you're working on.
  • Don't forget despite all this technology, the audience still have the same desires - to be informed and entertained.
  • Be coherent - remember that just because you can add interactivity doesn't mean you should.
  • Make it simple or you will lose people along the way.
  • Share and share more - questions and failings.
  • And finally, "innovation" does not just mean "apps".

Clare said she is tired of the “fetishisation of failure”: Making something that turns out different to what you set out to do is not failure. Taking longer than you meant to, or moving on to something else, is not failure.

Diana Stepner from Pearson spoke about the Future Technologies department that she heads up. The idea is that it acts like a startup within a big company (which is the kind of thing I seem to be hearing from recruiters a lot recently, which is a sign of how fashionable being a startup or working like one has become). The aim is to make Pearson more open to innovation, in a number of ways. One way is to make content available for people outside, via Pearson Developer, which allows people to create mashups using content from, for example, Penguin Classics. She cited some examples of people creating mashups that explore how food or music relates to the content of a book - though it wasn’t clear to me how this worked or what the point was. The second method of innovation was to run internal hackathons - instead of starting a project with a lot of meetings and documentation, they now take an initial idea, and see what they can do with it over a 24 or 48 hour period. This is then built up into a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Once again, here is an example of a company taking an approach to innovation which doesn’t seem all that surprising to me, but really is still quite novel within larger companies.

Solving genuine needs and sharing knowledge

Chris Yapp of IT Futures and Scenarios said that we are currently in a time of great experimentation. Over the next 20 years or so, we will see a lot of creativity and failure. We can be sure the sector as a whole will grow, even though looking at individual projects, each one is risky. He says projects should start by looking at unfulfilled needs, instead of starting at the technology. He gave the example of a Nigella Lawson cookbook app which is voice activated, which sounds gimmicky but does in fact solves an actual problem, as when you’re cooking you often have stuff on your hands.

Trevor Klein, Head of Development at Somethin’ Else, said that the experimentation won’t just be for the next 20 years - the status quo now will be constant new technology, new platforms, new niches, new formats and new models. Publishers will need to choose which ones to move into, or whether to let others make mistakes first. He says that currently, innovation is often pretty bad - as some people pay no thought to the outcome or what the value is of their project, or how they will learn from it, or apply that knowledge to their business. Many people are losing money by making the same mistakes others have already made, so there is a need for much more sharing of knowledge.

Examples of innovation

James Huggins from Made In Me talked about Mebooks, their platform for audio-enhanced ebooks. He described how their innovation was pretty simple - add customisable audio to ebooks - and that’s it. They wondered if that was really enough, but the project has been successful with 1,000 daily app downloads and a cumulative total of 250,000 downloads so far, and 750,000 books downloaded from their in-app store.

He said their innovation was more in what they hadn’t done - they kept focused and decided not to include pretty much any other feature. He recommends keeping it simple - “don’t innovate beyond what people will understand”.

Simon Evans, owner of Slingshot talked about their latest project Jekyll 2.0. It’s an interactive adaptation of Jekyll & Hyde, using bio-sensors - so parts of the story can be unlocked by asking the player to hold their breath, by detecting their heart rate and so on. It’s entirely automated, which means it doesn’t require a huge number of staff, unlike their previous project 2.8 Hours Later (although it sounds like they’re still making good money from that).

I’m sceptical as to what extent these bio-sensors are absolutely essential for the story though - indeed, when I asked Simon the question afterwards, he pretty much conceded that they weren’t. So, it’s just a marketing gimmick, really - but then I suppose you’ve got to do whatever it takes to make your project stand out.

Jon Ingold of inkle talked about their Sorcery! apps, of which they have currently sold around 40,000 copies. He spoke about their innovations in the UI for interactive fiction - using small pieces of paper to represent choices, which move up to join the story text when you select them. This avoids the ugliness of clearing the screen after each choice, which is what most existing multiple-choice systems do. He emphasised the importance of making the UI seamless so people can get to the end - and their stats show that 85% of their players do indeed make it all the way to the finish.

Inkle’s approach is to present the player with a lot of choices, every 150 words or so. By remembering each choice made, text can be subtly adjusted to reflect the kind of character the player is suggesting with their selections.

James Attlee talked about his project ”Writer on the train”. He spent over ten years commuting from Oxford to London, and wrote three books in that time. After he stopped commuting, he wrote to train company First Great Western, suggesting being their writer in residence, and they agreed. He started a blog about encounters on rail and thoughts on commuting, and applied to REACT for funding to turn this blog into an app.

A REACT workshop put him together with Dave Addey of Agant to create the app. They wanted to focus on commuters who used the Bristol to London line every day, giving them one small piece of writing each day over several weeks - delivered with an alert at a particular time or location. Keeping it short was important, as they knew that commuters would of course be busy doing other things while travelling. About half of the stories are to do with the location you’re passing - maybe a local landmark such as Brunel’s Box Tunnel, or Didcot Power Station.

Although the author wanted “bells and whistles” like video and audio, there was no time to develop this so the app is kept quite simple.

It appears that the app isn’t in the App Store yet, and development is continuing with Alex Butterworth, as Dave Addey has been lured away to become an employee of Apple. First Great Western are extending the residency and they are looking to secure further funding. They want to expand by adding more writers and more locations, with the ultimate aim of creating a platform for location-based writing.

George Walkley, Head of Digital at Hachette, spoke about their investment in Encyclopedia of SciFi - this was previously published as a physical book (and quite a large one at that, with some three million words). They’ve taken the entire text and made it free online. This might sound like it makes no sense, and indeed it only works as part of their overall publishing strategy - they sell classic out-of-print sci-fi novels as ebooks, so having the searchable definitive reference online drives more traffic to them.

Summary

A few of the same points kept coming up, which are worth keeping in mind:

  • Start with solving a problem first, not with the technology.
  • Use an agile approach, refining prototypes.
  • Learn by doing small experiments, instead of hoping for profit immediately.
  • Keep it simple - don't try to innovate too much at once.
  • And please, please, please share successes and failures. We are all learning!

Many of these are pretty much exactly the lessons from Agile software development and the lean startup - and they apply just as much to publishing as they do anywhere else.


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