Open-sourcing “Moquette”

A year ago, I released my first work of interactive fiction “Moquette” into the IFComp.

Today, I’m releasing the source code for it: https://github.com/alexwarren/moquette

It might be useful if you’re interested in implementing similar text effects in your own Quest game – if so, this blog post may also help.

Or who knows, maybe you’d like to adapt it – fix up the writing, change the ending, whatever… you can now fork it and do what you like with it.

The commit history goes all the way back to when it was a very primitive London Underground simulator, so you can see how it evolved over time. You can see the bursts of activity on GitHub’s commit graphs, which give some indication of the ebbs and flows of my energy for writing.

I haven’t had so much energy for writing for the last year, though I’m kicking around ideas again. Who knows where they will end up. Perhaps we haven’t yet heard the last of Private Rod…

Squiffy 2.0

Squiffy 2.0 is now available. Just like Apple’s “Snow Leopard” release of OS X a few years ago, this release of Squiffy boasts an amazing 0 new features.

0 new features

 

Why no new features? Because Squiffy releases should only do one thing at a time, and this release is all about rewriting the compiler to use Node.js instead of Python.

This does make installation simpler, as Squiffy is now an npm package. To install Squiffy, you just need to install Node.js and then run

npm install squiffy -g

That’s it!

Everything else is the same as before, with the possible exception of there being a different set of bugs now. If you spot any, please log them on GitHub.

You can find out how to use Squiffy by looking at the documentation, and the Squiffy 1.0 blog post’s overview is still up-to-date except for the reference to Python.

Quest 5.5.1

Quest 5.5.1 is now available.

  • Containers can now be locked using multiple keys (contributed by Pertex)
  • Gamebooks can now have a script that runs for every page (contributed by Pertex)
  • New Grid_DrawImage function to draw an image on the custom drawing grid
  • New Setup uses InnoSetup instead of InstallShield, and has a smaller file size

Various bugs have been fixed by me and Pertex. In particular, there were a couple of bugs with timers that meant they used to work unreliably, particularly when playing a game on the web. These have now been resolved, so if you were avoiding using timers, please try them again!

This release is now live for the web version of Quest, and you can also download the Windows version.

Please log any bugs you find on GitHub.

Squiffy 1.0

Squiffy is a lightweight tool for writing interactive fiction. It is open source and runs on Windows, OS X and Linux. It generates static HTML, CSS and JavaScript files which you can upload anywhere.

I’ve already written one interactive fiction system, Quest – so why create another? It was while writing my first game Moquette last year that I realised I needed a simpler tool for the kind of interactive story that I was interested in writing. I wanted something that would let me sit down and “just write”, mostly getting out of my way.

So I’ve now created the tool that I wished I had back then. This version 1.0 release is intentionally very simple – it’s a command-line Python script that reads in a text file, and writes the output to the same folder. Here’s how to install Squiffy.

Game text is written using Markdown. Players click links to interact with the game. Unlike other systems, Squiffy’s equivalent of “nodes” or “pages” are split into two types:

  • Sections which move the story forward
  • Passages which provide a way to further explore or interact with the same scene

An example might help to explain the distinction between the two.

You enter the room. There's a [chair] and a [table] here.
You can go to the [[kitchen]].

[chair]:
Just a chair.

[table]:
An ordinary table.

[[kitchen]]:
You enter the kitchen...

Here, “kitchen” is a new section, whereas “chair” and “table” are links in the same section. You can click the chair, and the chair’s description appears, but the table and kitchen links remain enabled. If you click the kitchen link, the table link is now disabled, as you’ve moved to the next section.

If this sounds confusing, don’t worry – you can build you game entirely out of sections, and it will play as a traditional multiple choice game. But by including passages, you could create works that have a bit more of an exploratory feel. If Moquette were written now using Squiffy, I could use sections for each train, and passages for interacting with people in the same train carriage, for example.

Squiffy also makes it easy to use JavaScript. Any section or passage can embed JavaScript, simply by indenting code before the text. This would be useful for Moquette-style transitions – here’s an example of a screen blackout between sections.

A player’s progress is saved automatically to the browser’s local storage. They can close their browser tab, and the game will be restored immediately when they come back.

You can save state in attributes, replace text, and make links that replace themselves.

For publishing your game, you can upload it to any web space, or submit it to textadventures.co.uk. You could install PhoneGap or upload it to PhoneGap Build to turn it into an app.

Instead of “big bang” releases, the plan is to improve Squiffy one feature at a time. We will build up to a web-based editor over a series of what will hopefully be relatively frequent releases. For the plan, see the Development Roadmap.

For full details on using Squiffy, see the documentation.

I hope you will give it a try and give me your feedback in the forums!

Quest is now on GitHub

Ever since Quest was made open source back in 2010, we’ve been using CodePlex, which is Microsoft’s open source project hosting site.

Now in 2014, even Microsoft isn’t using CodePlex any more – all their open source ASP.NET is on GitHub, for example.

So CodePlex has been feeling a bit dead, but even worse, it’s been a bit buggy over the last few months – frequently giving me authorisation errors when pushing to the Mercurial repository.

I’d stuck with CodePlex and Mercurial for a while because Git tooling on Windows was always kind of horrible. Fortunately, that changed when GitHub launched GitHub for Windows, which finally makes it easy for just about anybody to use Git.

So I’ve now migrated Quest over, and the source code now officially lives on GitHub at https://github.com/textadventures/quest.

All issues from the CodePlex Issue Tracker have been migrated too. Please log all bug reports at GitHub from now on.

Finally, nobody had ever heard of the Ms-PL which Quest was previously licensed under. I kept having to say it was “just like the MIT licence”. So I’ve updated that too, and Quest is now officially licensed using the MIT licence. Nothing has really changed – you can still do pretty much what you want with the Quest code, including using it within closed-source projects – but hopefully it’s just a bit clearer now.

How am I doing? The Quest and textadventures.co.uk Annual Review 2013/14

I’ve done an “annual review” at around this time of year for the last few years, so it feels like a good idea to do it again, one last time. For reference:

This is the last time I’ll do an annual review because I am no longer working on Quest and textadventures.co.uk full-time. The good news is I’ve just started an absolutely awesome job at Stack Exchange, and for pretty much the first time ever I am thoroughly enjoying being employed.

Some stats

textadventures.co.uk has grown quite a lot over the last year:

  • It currently averages around 1500 unique visitors per day, up from about 800 a year ago.
  • Over the last week, there were on average 2150 game sessions per day, which is up from 480 per day. (That figure was the average over 2012/13, so is not exactly equivalent – the site grew over 2012/13 too, so the daily average by the end of 2012/13 would probably have been a bit higher).
  • There are currently 3693 games listed on the site, up from 980. Of these, 2536 are publicly available (the rest are private “unlisted” games only available to those who have been given the link).
  • Of the games on the site, 2752 are Quest games, of which 1671 are public. So, there are 941 non-Quest games – which is up from zero a year ago, as during this year support was added for all kinds of web-playable text games. 503 of these non-Quest games have been imported from IFDB (more will be added soon).
  • 24,548 games have now been created using the web version of the Quest editor since it was launched, up from 7300 last year. 1766 of these have been published, up from 331.
  • Of the 1751 Quest games added since 1st April 2013, 1334 were created with the web version of Quest – 76%. Last year it was more like 50%.

Some things that happened since the previous annual review

May 2013: Released Filbert and the Broccoli Escape – an interactive children’s book for iPad, and the beta of ActiveLit. I also spoke a bit about text adventures at GameCamp.

June 2013: Wrote up some thoughts from the Futurebook Innovation Workshop, and started accepting games built with Twine, Undum, Parchment etc.

July 2013: The first QuestComp competition finished. Open-sourced QuestJS, the Quest-to-JavaScript converter. Wrote up some initial thoughts about Quest 6, although my thinking has changed somewhat since then – carry on reading this post for my current thoughts.

August 2013: Added more games to the site by accepting external listings for web-playable text games.

September 2013: Wrote up some notes from the Publish 2013 conference. The IFComp games were released, including my very own first work of interactive fiction – a story set on the London Underground called Moquette.

October 2013: Enrolled on the 3-month Story Innovation Programme, experimenting with stories and technology with a whole bunch of interesting people.

November 2013: The IFComp results were in, and I wrote a two-part analysis of Moquette – part 1 and part 2. I also wrote a three-part series of blog posts looking back at 15 years of Quest – part 1, part 2, part 3. Meanwhile, as part of the Story Innovation Programme, I started work on an experimental interactive fiction project as part of a brief we had been given by book publisher 4th Estate, to come up with something to promote the forthcoming “Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer.

December 2013: After failing to get funding to continue with Quest and textadventures.co.uk full-time, it was time to start thinking about moving on. I didn’t let the knock-back stop me from released Quest 5.5 Beta though. The Story Innovation Programme came to an end, and we demonstrated our prototype to 4th Estate, who liked it enough to want to see it turned into an actual thing.

January 2014: Mostly job-hunting, really.

February 2014: After finally getting the go-ahead from 4th Estate, I spent most of the month working with Caroline Moran, Simon Mercer, Martha Henson and Sam Howey-Nunn to build our interactive experience Join The Southern Reach, which launched at the end of the month.

March: Released Quest 5.5 and started my new job.

Good, but not good enough

I think there are a lot of positive aspects to what’s happened over the last year, but ultimately none of the major projects were as successful as I’d hoped.

  • ActiveLit, the site I set up for schools using Quest in the classroom, has got off to a fairly slow start. It is getting signups, and there are other groups (presumably schools) which I can detect using the main site, but it seems like the energy has waned somehow – I used to see blog posts and tweets from teachers getting excited about the potential for text games in the classroom, but I don’t see this very often now. I haven’t been invited to an educational conference or asked to run a workshop for a while now either.
  • Moquette did OK in the IFComp – not terribly, which was a relief for my first game, but it hardly set the world alight. I still judge this a successful project though – it was my favourite thing I worked on all year and certainly the most challenging. It taught me a lot about writing interactive fiction, and I got to see Quest in a whole new light. It’s good to remember the importance of “eating your own dogfood“.
  • Join The Southern Reach is pretty good, I think, but it has attracted very few users. I had big hopes for this as it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time – a project with a traditional publisher. I got to focus on the coding, leaving other people to worry about the actual writing, the marketing, and so on. It got on to BoingBoing, yet it has had fewer players than Moquette. It shows that even if a project is backed by a publisher and an author with an existing fan base, that’s not enough.
  • I suppose “seeking money” was the other major project of the year. We came tantalisingly close with Emerge, but not close enough.

Where next?

What next for Quest and textadventures.co.uk, then? They are back to being spare-time projects, which is a relief in many ways as I no longer need to worry about how on earth I might make money from them – giving me a lot more freedom to just pursue the aspects I’m interested in.

textadventures.co.uk is growing, getting more visitors and receiving more submissions. Managing this is an interesting challenge. How should we highlight and encourage good games, how can we help people to post useful reviews and comments?

Quest itself seems less interesting to me. The textadventures.co.uk site is now bigger than Quest, as it now accepts submissions from all web-playable systems. And it feels to me like I don’t have much more to contribute to Quest itself – I’ve pretty much reached the end of my mental list of things I’d like to do with it. Significantly, in writing Moquette I came to the realisation that Quest isn’t actually working for me as an author. It’s too big and complicated, it tries to do too much, and the HTML/JavaScript aspects of it are not as flexible as I’d hoped. (I had to do a lot of hacking around to make Moquette, which is largely why the 5.5 release of Quest exists).

It was with this in mind that I started work on Squiffy, which is pretty much the system that would have needed to exist for me to have been able to write Moquette as simply as possible. I haven’t really announced it much yet, and there’s still some way to go before it’s really usable.

I will continue to accept any pull requests that are sent my way for Quest, but I can’t see myself doing anything too major on it in the future.

The wider world of interactive fiction continues to grow and change. Inkle seem to be doing very well, people are still making stuff in Twine, the IFComp is changing, there are new meetups like the Oxford and London Interactive Fiction Group. This is all very encouraging, but maybe over the last year I’m just not seeing the acceleration of change that I was expecting. I used to be convinced that interactive fiction could grow to become much more mainstream than it currently is, but now I’m not so sure at all.

So it feels like the right time for me to be putting interactive fiction projects back into the time-slot marked “hobbies”.

Quest 5.5 is now available

Quest 5.5 is now out of beta:

For details on what’s new in Quest 5.5, see the beta announcement blog post.

Changes since the beta:

  • Mauricio Díaz García updated the Spanish translation, and added a new editor translation – so the editor now is mostly displayed in Spanish when editing a Spanish game.
  • Pertex fixed a few bugs and did some more work on allowing the Editor to be translated.

Thanks once again to everybody who has contributed to this release: Pertex, Jay Nabonne, The Pixie, Guillaume Poulain, Katzy and Mauricio Díaz García, and also to Phillip Zolla for sponsoring the new drawing features in this release.

Quest 5.5 Beta is now available

The Windows desktop version of Quest 5.5 Beta is now available for download.

This is a relatively small update, with a focus on refining the player interface, and a few other tweaks and enhancements here and there.

Improving the player interface

This version features some enhancements to make it easier to create games that look a little more elegant. The location bar and screen border can be toggled off, and you can set a custom display width and padding. There are new display themes, so you can easily change from the Quest Standard theme:

Quest Standard Theme

to the simpler “Novella” theme:

Quest Novella Theme

And there are a few more fun bonus themes too.

In gamebook mode, the new default is to not to clear the previous page when clicking a link – instead, new text is added to the bottom. (The option to have the screen clear between pages is still available).

Drawing

Support has been added for drawing SVG graphics in the custom drawing layer. There are new functions for drawing arrows and arbitrary many-sided shapes. The automatically generated grid map now works when multiple player POV objects are used.

Tweaks

Various tweaks have been submitted by Quest users:

  • Pertex added more gamebook counter functions, as well as contributing some bug fixes.
  • Jay Nabonne has contributed a tweak to the “invoke” script command.
  • The Pixie has added a “select” command to the text processor, and updated the text processor’s “{if}” to allow not-equals.

Translations

  • Pertex has started work on allowing the Editor to be translated.
  • Guillaume Poulain has contributed an updated French translation.
  • Katzy submitted corrections for Dutch.

Other changes

  • The “return” statement now immediately exits the function.
  • The “Pause” request is no longer supported for games written for Quest 5.5 or later.
  • You can now create a blank JavaScript file straight from the editor.
  • There is a new “Features” tab for both the game and objects, making it easier to toggle Quest features on and off, so you only see the editor tabs you care about.

Thanks to everybody who contributed towards this release – please download it now and submit any bug reports to the issue tracker.

Starting a new chapter

I’ve been building Quest and working on textadventures.co.uk full-time for a couple of years now, on and off. Despite my best efforts to turn this into my living, I can no longer continue to work on this basis. As of January, I’ll be moving on to work on something else, with interactive fiction becoming a side project once again.

We applied to Emerge, a new startup accelerator focusing on education, with our aim of building up ActiveLit. I’m told about 80 companies applied, and we were one of the 20 selected for interview.

Unfortunately we are not one of the 7 or 8 that have been selected to join the programme.

We would like to thank you for taking the time to apply to and interview for Emerge Education ’14.

Places are limited and the applications were excellent. It was difficult to select participants from such a strong group. Unfortunately on this occasion, we are not in a position to offer you a place in Emerge Education ’14. We hope you will apply to our future programs.

We include below a brief summary of how we arrived at this decision and hope this is helpful to you:

  • Your product was more developed and had more traction than that of any other applicant to Emerge Education and we were impressed by the user demand it has received;
  • The selection committee’s main concern was a lack of clarity around whether your team had the strategic intent to take ActiveLit from an (already) successful product to a high-growth business;
  • In addition, applicants that did better in the selection process tended to have more business experience as part of the co-founding team.

I find it difficult to understand the logic here, and in fact this email makes less sense every time I re-read it. The highest traction product of all applicants, but a question mark over our “strategic intent”?

Whatever. You can’t expect too much from rejection emails. Any “reasons” given are always post-hoc justifications of the decision made. I expect the most typical would be “your product is not sufficiently developed”, so at least it’s novel to be turned down because our product is too developed.

It would only require one reason to say yes – “we think there’s a good chance of making money if we invest in you”. At least in this way it’s a more straightforward and honest process than awarding grants – it’s refreshingly simple compared to working out why, say, a government body won’t award funding. Any rejection from an accelerator is fundamentally because they couldn’t find this reason to say “yes”, rather than any reasons that may be given for saying “no”.

This is the feedback we’ve been waiting for, then – the simple yes/no answer to the question “Can we convince people that know about money and business and stuff that what we’ve been working on is viable?”

And the results are in, and the answer, at least from Emerge (and also Wayra), is “no”. And that’s fine.

They say that it takes grit to succeed, but what if you never give up on an idea that is fundamentally never going to work? Maybe it simply makes more sense for Quest, textadventures.co.uk and ActiveLit to be run as side projects. I’ve sunk a lot of time into these now – 2 years of full-time effort. I’d be much richer now if I hadn’t done this.

Of course, I’d be unhappy. I’m really pleased with what I’ve achieved. I used to sit at work, seething in frustration, because there were things I wanted to do with interactive fiction that I didn’t get time for. That’s changed now – I’ve built a lot of software, explored a lot of angles and spoken to a lot of people, trying to work out how an interactive fiction business might succeed.

And what I’ve discovered is, I can’t make it work. Not right now anyway. Maybe it just needs to live and grow organically for a while. Maybe something external will change, as more and more people discover interactive fiction, or as more teachers use Quest and text adventures in the classroom. I’ve got nothing left to “push” from my side, and I’ve run out of money anyway.

And even if nothing external changes, and it never grows beyond what it currently is, it will still have been worthwhile. I don’t regret anything. I’ve built what I wanted to build. I’ve scratched the itch. I’ve created software that is being used by all kinds of people for all kinds of things. Children are learning programming, being engaged with reading and writing. More and more people are playing and creating games on the site. I’ve met some great, interesting people. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been totally worth it.

But I can’t do this for a living, so it will have to become my hobby again. There are plenty of other things I can do – there are loads of opportunities for software developers at the moment, and there are some great companies out there doing interesting things which I can contribute to. It’s an exciting time, and I’ve now got some great experience that will hopefully prove useful in whatever I move onto next.