Category Archives: Text Adventures

The website have now messaging system

We have been working for several weeks on an internal messaging system so that users can exchange messages and solve doubts in a faster way than the forum.

Now, any registered user can send a message to another user easily and intuitively from the profile page of the user to whom you want to send the message.

We hope that this improvement will help you to have more closeness with the rest of the community of users!

Thanks for all the suggestions we have received!

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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”.

Moquette in the IFComp – Post-Mortem and Review Roundup

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)

Notes from Publish! 2013 – New adventures in innovation

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.

Interactive Fiction News Roundup, August 2013

Here’s the first of what will probably be an irregular roundup of what’s happening in the world of interactive fiction and digital storytelling. Got something to share? Let us know! You can email alex@textadventures.co.uk or tweet @TextAdv.

Choosatron: This wi-fi interactive story printer is nearing the end of its Kickstarter – it’s already achieved way over its target amount, and you have until 30 August to pre-order one.

Seltani: Andrew Plotkin has unveiled Seltani, an online environment for creating multi-player works of multiple choice interactive fiction.

IFComp: The deadline is approaching for signing up on the IFComp website as an author – you have until 1 September. But don’t worry, you have until 28 September to actually submit your game. Looking at the current prize list, you could win $250 – or, if your game isn’t so good, you might be the unlucky recipient of a CD of the best of the Eurovision Song Contest.

A Very Serious Game: Allyson Whipple and Carly Kocurek are seeking funding on Indiegogo for an educational interactive fiction game called Choice: Texas, about access to abortion. They’ve currently raised over £2400 and funding will close on 18 September.

AdventureX: AdventureX will be held again this December in London – it was a great event last year and we’ll definitely be going this time too. Once again it will be free to attend, and they’re currently asking for donations to help fund the event – you can contribute by getting yourself a VIP card for £12.

Calendar: We’ve added an events calendar to the blog to help keep track of all the interesting things that are going on – let us know if we’ve missed anything!

That’s all for now, but before we go we should quickly mention our new email newsletter “The Text Adventurer” – nothing too frequent, just 3 or 4 times per year, covering all of this kind of stuff. We sent out the first issue a couple of months ago so we’ll be putting together the second one pretty soon – sign up now to be sure you get it.

IFComp 2013 announced

The IFComp 2013 has been officially announced!

This is the biggest text adventure competition there is – now in its 18th year. Entries can be written for any interactive fiction platform, and it usually gets some good coverage out there in the wider world. Many authors wait for the competition to release the game that they’ve been working on all year.

This year, I’m planning to be one of those authors myself, with my first work of interactive fiction – eeek!

There are prizes to be won too. As it’s only just been announced, no prizes have been donated yet, but you can get an idea of the kind of thing by looking at last year’s prizes.

If you’re planning to enter, take a good look through the rules. Note that all entries must be previously unreleased – this means if you’re working on a game now that you want to enter into the competition, make sure you don’t release the game publicly beforehand. This doesn’t stop you from having a few beta testers though – and in fact, getting your game tested by a few people is something I’d strongly encourage!

You have until 1 September to declare your intent to enter and until 28 September to upload your game. Games are made available a couple of days later, and the results are out on 15 November.

Good luck everybody!

The future of digital stories – thoughts from the Futurebook Innovation Workshop 2013

Last Thursday I attended the Futurebook Innovation Workshop, programmed by The Literary Platform – a very interesting afternoon of presentations and workshops on what I will call “digital storytelling” (although one of the recurring themes was that nobody has yet got a clear idea of what to call this, er, stuff).

Setting the scene – a changing landscape

Nick Perrett set the scene. He was in the games industry and has only recently moved into publishing, becoming group strategy and digital director for HarperCollins. He thinks that publishing over the next 6 years will change in the same way the games industry has changed over the last 6 years – moving from packaged games towards live services, with big changes in how users are acquired and products monetised. The ebook is a “dead end”, a “closed island” as it doesn’t connect to anything else – so publishers should be looking to create more innovative digital products. There will be a new focus not on pricing but on daily active readers and ARPU (average revenue per user).

He also asked, with lowering barriers to entry for creating digital content, how do we shine a light on the good stuff? A question I’m all too familiar with – running textadventures.co.uk, which allows anybody to submit interactive stories, means I deal with submissions which vary hugely in quality. (My current approach to the problem is fairly simple – leave it to users to post reviews so that good games float to the top – but some games never get any reviews, so that’s something I’m planning to address soon)

Success and failure – creation vs consumption

Two of the afternoon’s presentations were revealing in their contrasts. Cate Cannon, head of marketing and digital content at Canongate, talked about the Wildwood Story Map, and it was interesting to compare this to the talk given by Sara O’Connor, editorial director of print and digital at Hot Key Books, about Fleur Hitchcock’s Story Adventure.

I really enjoyed both of these presentations and how open both were with their figures. We can learn a lot from success and failure, and there is much more value in these kinds of presentations than in the kind where people just talk about what they did and how marvellous it all was.

Wildwood Story MapWildwood Story Map is a free iPad app created to promote a trilogy of books – The Wildwood Chronicles by Colin Meloy, targeted at 8 to 12-year olds. The word “disaster” was used to describe how well the app promoted the first book in the trilogy – as it didn’t actually launch, due to wrangling with various rights holders who all demanded final approval before it could go live. For the second of the trilogy, the app was launched and marketed alongside the book – the idea being that the app would engage the audience more with the book, even though this effectively meant it had failed its original stated purpose as way of promoting the book itself.

Cate said that “hundreds” of people had downloaded the app. Taking a look at the stats on App Annie, it seems to have achieved similar App Store rankings to my own recent free iPad book app, Filbert and the Broccoli Escape – so a download figure in the low to mid hundreds sounds likely. My app was created for a far tinier budget, and suffers from my own limited marketing skills – so it was interesting to hear that others, even with teams of people working to making them look great, and with established publishers behind them, can suffer from the same problems with finding an audience. Being beautiful and free sadly isn’t enough.

Contrasting with Canongate’s experience, Sara O’Connor’s presentation on Fleur Hitchcock’s Story Adventure shows how much can be achieved with a very limited budget. For this project, Hot Key Books used the NING platform to set up community resources – blogs and forums. “It’s not beautiful, but it’s all about the content”. Author Fleur Hitchcock started the story, and children aged between 9 and 12 contributed the details to move it along. Behind the scenes, the project was simply driven by a large spreadsheet.

The total spend was £2200 – this project was low-tech, low-risk and low-cost, yet resulted in high engagement. It got children excited about literacy, and gave a confidence boost to those whose ideas were included. Children are amazingly creative, as I have found when running my own Quest workshops – as Sara said, unlike grown-up authors who can struggle for inspiration, “children are used to having their creativity scheduled”. This regular schedule of weekly updates and challenges meant that children kept coming back, as it became part of their routine.

This shows how much can be achieved with very little, and especially how engaged and excited kids are when you get them to create instead of simply consume. And it’s so much cheaper to do it this way, as you don’t have to create all the content yourself either. Win-win! Could Canongate have saved themselves a lot of money and got kids more excited about the story, simply by getting them to contribute to the content of the app?

Value for money

Jodie Mullish, senior marketing manager of Pan Macmillan talked about a project to promote Ken Follett‘s book Winter of the World. A map-based app on Facebook allowed fans to post their stories about World War II. To promote the paperback, they released these stories as an ebook, donating revenues to The Soldier’s Charity in exchange for the charity promoting the ebook. This meant that Pan Macmillan paid for neither content nor coverage – so it was more about saving marketing budget than monetising the project itself. Over 3 months they got 50,000 words submitted, from 180 participants in 32 countries, and it resulted in a big increase in the rate of new Facebook fans.

This shows how digital projects can be done successfully without spending lots of money. Similar to Fleur Hitchcock’s Story Adventure, this shows how engaging and successful a low-cost project can be by getting people to submit content.

Publishers getting into Interactive Fiction

Black CrownDan Franklin, digital director at Random House, presented the just-released Black Crown alongside Failbetter‘s Alexis Kennedy (whose StoryNexus platform powers it) and author Rob Sherman.

There are various kinds of interactive fiction (IF) which people may be familiar with. There’s straightforward branching narrative – “Choose Your Own Adventure” (CYOA) or gamebook-style games. Then there’s parser-based text adventures, where you type in commands like “go north” and “open box”. Black Crown, like other StoryNexus games, works a bit differently to these. It’s kind of hard to explain, so I hope I’m getting this right, but it involves story sections (called “storylets”) which are accessed by choosing from a set of cards. The cards that are available to you throughout the game will change based on what you’ve done before. So, it’s sort of like a multiple-choice CYOA, but you can also come back and explore other strands.

Unlike many more game-like works of IF, there is no concept of failure in Black Crown, and there aren’t multiple endings to choose from. I think “no failure” is important for any type of IF that hopes to be mainstream – even if you don’t quite understand the plot, you can always get to the end of a film or book, so why should it be different for interactive content?

Another way Black Crown differs from other kinds of interactive fiction is that it is monetised. Income comes from “premium” story strands, which are locked away until you pay up. There are also so-called “living stories” – story strands where normally you might have to wait a week before seeing where they lead. If you’re impatient, you can pay to expedite these, to see what happens sooner.

Random House see three markets for Black Crown. Sci-fi fans, gamers and so-called “progressives” (which we take to mean “Guardian-reading Twittery types”). This seems a sensible audience for a publisher’s first forays into this area, but it makes me wonder how we can reach beyond these people, to create digital interactive stories which appeal to other audiences?

The other interesting thing about Black Crown is how it stands alone. Whereas many people are embarking on digital story projects which either piggy-back off existing IP, or exist solely to promote something else, Black Crown is simply a product in itself. It has to be promoted entirely on its own merits, and it will only make money if people pay for it. This seems a bold and risky experiment. It will be actively developed over at least the next four months – can it find enough of an audience to pay its own way?

Multiple platforms

The Thirty-Nine StepsSimon Meek, founder of The Story Mechanics, talked about a digital adaptation of The Thirty-Nine Steps. Using the Unity engine allowed them to bring the game to pretty much every platform you can think of – although this presented its own challenges as they had to handle multiple screen sizes and input types, it also brings the game to the widest possible audience. They have even made the game available as a packaged item via retail channels such as Amazon, Morrisons and WHSmith.

The player can explore the environment, and interact with the world around them – for example by reading newspapers. The world is “infused” with the story – you can experience it but not change it.

They got the game on Steam without having to through the “Greenlight” hurdle – showing that Steam know that interactive entertainment is bigger than just games.

Some interesting figures were shared (via pie charts, so these percentages are approximate). Combined iOS and Mac App Store accounted for 50% of sales, of which two thirds was iOS. Steam accounted for 20% and physical retail was 30%. For revenue, Steam and the App Store provide about 40% each, and physical provides hardly anything due to overheads. They have had somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 sales over the last month or so.

These figures show the importance of multi-platform – if they’d gone for making an iPad-only app, they would only have made half as many sales. But if you want to target multiple platforms, you need to design for that from the outset.

Art projects

Alyson Fielding demonstrated a project to modify physical books with electronics such as Arduinos. By embedding motion sensors into an old hardback, it can wirelessly transmit data to an iPhone which can then play speech, post to Twitter and so on. Alyson plans for this kind of thing not to be just a one-off, but to be able to provide the means to mass produce these “enchanted” books. I like the project as a piece of art, but I struggle to make sense of it as a product in itself – who is this for?

Lucy Heywood, co-artistic director of Stand and Stare showed Turning the Page, which is an installation that brings a used tourist guidebook to life. Sitting at a desk, participants don headphones and as they browse the book, image recognition software hidden in a lamp triggers sound and projections.

Tim Wright talked about The Haunter, a box of “haunted” electronics that is carried around by audience members. It knows where it is, so media can be triggered at particular locations. It connects to the web and also unlocks in one specific place to reveal its contents. Why not just use a phone or tablet for this? Well, Tim says it changes the experience – it’s a theatrical prop that’s “not yours”, it makes conversation between users, and frees up their phones for other stuff. He also doesn’t like the idea of people walking around holding tablets up – I wonder if this is so much worse than people walking around with weird boxes though, and apparently this will all be turned into an app at some point anyway.

It also has the idea of co-creation – participants can leave a layer of audio or memories for subsequent participants. This is an idea I’ve been mulling over for text-based games too – it seems like the kind of thing that could be added to the server side of Quest relatively easily, and could be a very interesting experiment, so do get in touch if you have any ideas for this kind of thing and let’s see what we can build.

The Most Important Thing

Do StoryBobette Buster did great workshop on storytelling, and there was a copy of her new book “Do Story” in the goodie bag, which I look forward to reading this week (I’m currently hiding away in rural Buckinghamshire, working on my own first piece of interactive fiction). Right at the end of the workshop, a key message:

For all of us working to do interesting things with technology in games, this should be repeated over and over again. Maybe we should chant this three times before breakfast or something. It’s all about the story. It’s all about the story. It’s all about the story.

If the technology or digital project that we’re working on is just a gimmick, there is no long term future – audiences will get bored. Books and films have stuck around because they’re great mediums for telling stories. We need to keep experimenting, but we should never lose sight of the fact that it’s the story underneath that’s important, and if the technology doesn’t enhance that, we are probably just wasting our time.

Thoughts about where we’re headed

My head was absolutely buzzing after a very interesting afternoon of talks with much food for thought – followed by a few more ideas which occurred to me as I chatted with various people over some beers afterwards. I’ve just about calmed down enough now to note down a few key thoughts, questions and conclusions.

Terminology: We’re not sure what we call this “stuff” for now, maybe “digital storytelling” is sufficient, but ultimately it doesn’t seem like such an important question. Especially as we haven’t really worked out what we’re doing yet.

Audience: How are we going to make this stuff relevant to most people – not just the hipsters with their lattes?

Creation: It seems much more effective, and better value for money, to engage the audience by getting them to create content, not just consume it.

Money: For digital storytelling to work, there needs to be a way to produce it quickly and cheaply. We’re still developing the tools. Plug alert! I have my own – Quest (it’s free and open source).

New audiences: Do these projects actually add to the audience for stories, or are these projects just cannibalising existing book and game audiences? I think it depends – I know from teacher feedback that introducing interactive fiction to a class of children can unlock reading and writing to kids who are otherwise disengaged, so I believe the potential is there to broaden audiences rather than simply giving existing readers/players a new toy.

Experimentation: It’s a time of great experimentation – will we see more experimentation over the coming years, or will things settle down? Lots of people are trying lots of different things – some things work, some don’t, some reach and connect to audiences, some things wither and die. This can mean there is a high risk and low ROI for these kinds of projects. Is it worth it simply for the art?

Story story story: It’s all about the story. Don’t get sidetracked by whizzy technology. Looking at some of the artier stuff, I wonder if they really need all that technology in the first place. A lot of things can be done manually – Lucy Heywood talked about previous iterations of their projects which worked simply with people hidden behind a curtain pulling strings – so a seriously low-tech approach may be the easiest and cheapest way to experiment.

So many things to think about here – it would be great to hear your views in the comments below.

Finally, if you’re interested in an easy and low-cost way to build cross-platform interactive stories, or want to do something more strange and experimental, then check out my Quest platform – if you want to stretch it to do something which it doesn’t currently do, I’m available! Email me at alex@textadventures.co.uk or find me on Twitter @alexwarren.

“Filbert and the Broccoli Escape” – an interactive children’s book for iPad

Filbert and the Broccoli Escape

Our latest free app is for iPad is now available – an illustrated interactive children’s book called Filbert and the Broccoli Escape, by Erik Fetler.

Filbert, the world’s laziest boy, always looks for ways to get out of doing what he is supposed to do, like cleaning his room, taking out the trash, or in this case, eating his broccoli!

When Filbert comes to the dinner table and sees his least favorite vegetable sitting on his plate, he is desperate to get rid of it any way he can.

Help Filbert find a way to take care of this vegetable dilemma in this interactive adventure!

Erik wrote and illustrated the original book, which you can read online at the author’s website (or order the printed version). He says:

I’d just recently finished putting together Filbert and the Broccoli Escape book and wanted to do some kind of audio slideshow, or a “Choose Your Own Adventure” version. Somehow that morphed into making it an interactive adventure. Originally I was going to just string the pages of the book together, but I liked the idea of letting the player use a little more of his or her imagination.

The game was written using Quest’s text adventure mode, but I have stripped back the UI so the game is played entirely via hyperlinks, and it looks more like a gamebook. There are no puzzles as such – the interactivity is fairly light, so it’s hopefully a nice and easy bedtime read.

If you have young children and an iPad, please download it and let us know what you think!

It would be really helpful to get your feedback of reading this interactive story – there are more books in the “Filbert” series, so any comments will really help with making the sequels as good as they can be.

iOS Simulator Screen shot 14 May 2013 18.35.46

Experimenting with stories and text

Continuing the theme of text adventure games are still new, a couple of excellent thought-provoking blog posts from the last week:

First, Jimmy Maher’s look at Infocom’s 1983 game Infidel raises questions which are very much still relevant today:

When you boot an adventure are you effectively still yourself, reacting as you would if transported into that world? Or is an adventure really a form of improvisatory theater, in which you put yourself into the shoes of a protagonist who is not you and try to play the role and experience that person’s story in good faith? Or consider a related question: is an adventure game a way of creating your own story or simply an unusually immersive, interactive way of experiencing a story?

And Emily Short finds herself ranting about text:

Text is not just cheap. It’s not just the medium you use when you have no resources and no high-end software. It’s a very powerful medium for communicating nuance, viewpoint, interiority, motivation, the experience of the outsider. It’s an artistic medium with its own beauties. … Sometimes people assume text games must be ugly and have low production values. That isn’t true either. It is possible for text games to be visual feasts.

Emily’s post links to a number of experiments that people have done, which show that an interactive text-based game can take on many forms.

Myself, I feel more than ever a need to do some more experimentation of my own. So far I’ve created a prototype split-screen text adventure, but that was a couple of years ago now and it’s clear to me that I need to work on something bigger to try out some more ideas. Something is taking shape in my head (and on various scraps of paper) … but very slowly. I’ve always seen myself as a programmer, not an author, so it’s hard work and involves stepping outside my comfort zone, but that can only be a good thing whatever happens.

As I keep saying, none of us has any idea what the text adventures of the future will look like, and the only way we’ll find out will be by trying things out and being prepared to fail.