Archive for April, 2010

I’ve started the search for a consultant to help develop a new user experience for general IF consumption. I’m flirting with the idea of trying to develop a general guide and leaving it open to the community to use and add onto. To use it for free and commercial works. I’m beginning to lean towards the idea of spending money and time on hobbyist outreach activities and letting the results of that flow into Textfyre organically.

I think I’ve found the right person to help too. Here is her very first take on playing IF:

Hi David,

So I’ve done some reading and tested out a few games–the online demonstration of The Shadow in the Cathedral and two others.

Being a newcomer to IF myself, I can see two barriers to its adoption. One is the hurdle of getting started (and it’s actually not that big of a hurdle) and the other is meaningful progression through a game. To get started, users have to download the correct interpreters or, in Textfyre’s case, Silverlight. These are not difficult steps at all but they add the perception of difficulty to first-time users. So, if this step could be eliminated at all (if users could play directly on the website?), I think that would help.

The help text and text formatting are key to getting someone started, and I think even more could be done with text formatting to help delineate the progress of the game vs. the help/hints. As an example “Remember, you can type “help” if you need assistance” might be put in italics so the user can easily scan a page and see what’s part of the game and what’s technical assistance. Some other suggestions are indenting help text or keeping the actual story in a different color or font.

Once a user gets started, the meaningful progression through the game depends on knowing what to input. In one of the games, Earl Grey, I was given keywords to use. However, it was hard to keep all those in my head. At least for beginners it would be helpful to have the keywords always onscreen (not scrolling off as the users progress) to refer to. It was also difficult to remember my past actions and my progression. Something like the idea of a breadcrumb (although a true breadcrumb isn’t possible since users will be jumping around) would help. Users need to know where they’ve been, where they are and where it’s possible to go. Documenting their past actions on part of the screen (again, instead of keeping it all in one scrolling page) would remind users what avenues they’ve already taken, and what it’s led them to. Combined with the keywords onscreen (the ‘where it’s possible to go’ part), that would cover all three states.

One last suggestion I might have would be short how-to videos for both getting started and what to do when one gets stuck.

One thing I wondered about was whether users and writers preferred the text part of IF, and whether they would resist graphics such as buttons, props or pictures of the scene. Is the point that the user gets to imagine what something looks like? Does showing too much ruin the creative experience of the game?

I think Laura is on the right track and if we go through several iterations on paper, we should have something reasonable on the back end. I’m also considering putting together a sort of usability panel. If anyone is interested, drop me an e-mail.

In looking for meeting space for the new Chicago IF Group, I discovered a teen new media center called YouMedia. It’s a very large space with computers, couches, after school programs, and mentors. I dropped off the outreach IF CD with Brother Mike and hope to interact more with the program.

I chatted with a couple of the kids and they were pretty excited about playing new IF games. They knew about Zork, but didn’t know there were new games and tools.

More to come…

One of the discussions that came out of PAX was with Iain Merrick. He asked me off-hand, “What sort of projects are there on the side that I could help out with?” and we talked a bit and he was very interested in the idea of a hosted IF platform. Something where people could upload a game file to a server and through a browser, the game could be played.

Interactive Fiction is moving in this direction from a number of angles, so from the discussion with Iain, I came up with Zifmia. Zifmia is a project that will be open source and hopefully have the ability to execute Z-Machine, Glulx, and TADS 2/3 games server-side, with the input and output happening within a standard browser.

The infrastructure is intended to be deployable on any system (Windows, Linux, OS X, Solaris) given the appropriate implementation layers.

I’m in the process of porting FyreVM to a client/server implementation. Since we developed FyreVM with Channel IO, this will likely be a relatively easy process.

I’ve also talked to Mike Greger about using his z-machine implementation for Zifmia and he’s tweaking a current version to allow Z5 and Z8 game play, but probably leaving out some corner cases. Any games that do “video graphics” aren’t going to work in a client/server model. Games that do layout might be adapted later, but we want to try to make the larger portion of “standard” output games work first.

Ironically, the TADS 3 Live Journal crew chatted about a similar solution and it sounds like Mike Roberts is working on something. Mike is looking at what Zifmia is trying to do and we may be able to incorporate a TADS 3 engine.

In order for this to move forward, I’m contemplating moving FyreVM to a standard open source license. Not GPL, since I don’t feel comfortable with it, but probably a Creative Commons license that allows free use and derivative works.

The goal is to give IF a shot in the arm as far as author platform choice and wide open web play on all devices.

I know Parchment is a different approach and Zarf is working on a similar implementation of Glulx. Zifmia is just trying to separate execution from I/O completely.

By turning the story execution into a stateless web service process, the user interface has to be connected, but it can be anything (Flash, HTML and AJAX, Silverlight, Java, Windows or Mac program).

Updated: 11pm

Inspired by the outreach panel at PAX, I came up with the following design idea.

There would be a very sparse color-border container for the main window. We would eliminate the status line and possible move that information to the right side or somewhere else. Commands would be entered on the right. Help text, command lists, and other items could be retrieved by clicking one of the friendly color buttons. When clicked, the UI would transition smoothly to one of the new views (help, map, about, or ?).

The entered commands would still be embedded in the transcript, but I haven’t nailed down if I would highlight them or add them in with the standard “> open mailbox” reference.

Previous layouts can be seen here and here.

I moved things around for a second pass. Buttons on the right or in between the input bar and main window. Help screens would slide in and out like the iPod Touch/iPhone.

New thoughts?

Shadow on Download.Com

Posted: April 1, 2010 in Uncategorized

The Shadow in the Cathedral is now on download.com. Please stop by, download the trial and review.