I Should Have Gone to Business School

In the thread developing on Inform 7 and TADS 3 over here, one of the things that is coming up is that VMs other than the z-machine are at a bit of a disadvantage attracting players, and thus at a disadvantage attracting authors who want to reach those players. (And, for that matter, that some of the tools themselves are better ported to Windows than to any other platform.)

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the question of how as a community we might fill in some of our most significant implementation gaps: better, multimedia-friendly TADS 3 interpreters on non-Windows machines, browser-based terps for both TADS 3 and Glulx, and so on. (Selfishly, I would also be pleased to see a TADS 3 Workbench that installed easily and ran natively under OS X. I7 is likely to remain my main language, but I would enjoy educating myself better about TADS 3; booting over to Windows is enough of an disruption of my other workflow, though, that in practice I never do that. I can’t call myself the primary audience for such a thing, but I think it would be great if one existed.)

In general my attitude towards such things is, “well, if you want X done, go do it” — but it would take me a long, long time to acquire the necessary skills to tackle any of these. And I recall that a while ago there was a movement to provide a bounty to the first person to write a satisfactory multimedia TADS 3 terp for the Mac, but to the best of my knowledge that never went anywhere.

I know that Textfyre is investing some money in developing IF tools, and that Dave Cornelson has suggested he intends to share some of the results of that with the community — but for the time being, anything he produces is likely to be entirely in the Glulx arena.

I also did briefly kick around the idea of a sort of inverse street-performer model: complete and test a sizable game, show it to a few people who could confirm that it existed, and then announce that the game would remain unreleased until (community programming task of choice) was finished. People who wanted to help but didn’t have technical skills could contribute cash to a fund to remunerate the programmer who did this. Buuuut I have serious reservations about that idea: one, it feels manipulative and egotistical and would likely produce some bad feeling the moment I announced it; two, it might fail, and produce more bad feeling later, if people did contribute and yet no volunteer stepped forward.

So I don’t know. My limited grasp of the theory of comparative advantage suggests that I should do what I know best, then convert the value of that activity into an incentive for someone else to do what they do efficiently — but I’m not really sure how to do the conversion. Possibly the problem is precisely that freeware games have no value, economically speaking.

It doesn’t help that I also don’t know how much time or specialist knowledge would have to go into any of these projects.

21 thoughts on “I Should Have Gone to Business School

  1. I recall the TADS 3 offer too. The problem, though, was that the amount of money offered — a few hundred dollars? — was completely out of proportion to the amount of work this task would entail. It’s a very ambitious project, and anyone with the skills to take it on can make a lot more money a lot more quickly on another project, by several orders of magnitude. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t a noble offer and worth a try, of course… but anyone who decides to do this will have to do it for the challenge and for the altruism, I think.

  2. The problem, though, was that the amount of money offered — a few hundred dollars? — was completely out of proportion to the amount of work this task would entail.

    Yeah, that was my impression as well. But I’m not yet entirely clear on how much money would be proportional to the amount of work involved, and how that intersects with the nature of the community. It might be that a fair offer for the project would be on the scale of $10K-$30K (I am making this number up because I just have no idea how much work it would be; a couple of months’ full-time for someone normally earning programmer money would be a fair amount, though). But on the other hand there might be people who were willing to/could afford to take it on for less than that (but still substantially > $0), and consider the difference to be their volunteer contribution to the community.

    Just don’t know.

  3. It might probably go over better if you released a game as donationware and either told people to contribute to (community project X) or set up a fund yourself that gathered $$ until X was accomplished. The latter might be sort of a pain to administer, of course.

  4. Heck. As far as I’ve been able to find, Linux doesn’t even have an acceptable zcode terp.

    An acceptable terp would be one that formats text nicely, (Gargoyle/Garglk is very good here, Zoom was fine, but started using a crappier font when I upgraded Ubuntu) allows text to be selected (this is crucial, and Gargoyle failed here last time I checked) is maintained and low on bugs, (gtkglk fails here) plays .zblorbs (would be nice if it actually displays the cover art, but I’ll settle for being able to play the game) and does not require me to download 50 MB of Sun Java over dialup.

  5. I still think that one of the big things hindering IF popularity is the need for interpreters *at all*.
    I can see the advantages, of course, but the advantages are really only there for those who are interested in ‘IF’, rather than ‘this specific game’. I think that any game that was released as a standalone binary (at least for Windows if nothing else) *as well as* a z5 file or whatever would have a significantly greater amount of interest among casual gamers than one of equivalent quality that needed an interpreter.

    And Alexandre is right – we still don’t have a decent interpreter for GNU/Linux at all…

  6. Alexandre: you can get around Gargoyle not allowing you to select text by starting a transcript when you begin playing the game; you can then copy from the resulting text file. Not quite as user-friendly, but it works.

    (And gargoyle is finally getting unicode support!)

  7. I think that any game that was released as a standalone binary (at least for Windows if nothing else) *as well as* a z5 file or whatever would have a significantly greater amount of interest among casual gamers than one of equivalent quality that needed an interpreter.

    Hm, possibly, though among very casual gamers I often see a sentiment along the lines of “argh, I have to download something?” In other words, they’d rather click on something in their browser and have the game start playing immediately, so that they can see on an investment of 10 seconds whether they like it or not.

  8. Does anyone know how well web-based IF fares with the casual crowd?

    I was mostly of the impression that most casual gamers want something they can play for maybe 15 minutes, then quit and forget, and *maybe* come back to the next day or week.

    I don’t see IF outside special cases like the Aisle, and maybe Mute Gun fitting that model too well. Most IF games — for me at least — take more than 15 minutes to really get into, and are somewhat hard to get back to if I take a break longer than couple of days.

  9. Does anyone know how well web-based IF fares with the casual crowd?

    My main evidence comes from looking at the comments on games run by JayIsGames (list of all IF found here). The response has generally been pretty positive, and it’s clear that people are willing to play pieces that run longer than 15 minutes — “Lost Pig”, “Suveh Nux”, and even “Child’s Play” and “Varicella” have done quite well.

    Of course this isn’t statistically useful because we have no way of knowing what percentage of JIG readers are interested in IF, and what percentage of those are interested in theory but are turned off by some aspect of presentation; or even how the number of comments correlates with the total number of players. Feedback will naturally come disproportionately from people who bothered to play at least a bit of the game in question.

    It might be that Jay has access to some stats about how many times the games have been run.

  10. In America, business is indeed the skill to cultivate. (I say that as someone lacking those skills.) And I’m sure you could profitably study up on it if you really chose to.

    But for what you’re talking about, Emily, business skills are not what you need.

    The relevant tool for this is the focus group: identify the relevant social network, its resources and needs; get them talking; identify where we are currently, what would be to our best advantage immmediately and long-term; determine what actions might take us from here to there; who, if anyone, is prepared to take those actions, and under what circumstances; see what the benefits and values are for them and others; all that good stuff.

    Small communities organized around ideas — hobbyist communities; birdwatcher communities — do focus groups all the time. If it comes to that, I have an old friend who sometimes runs little focus groups pro bono: “little” as opposed to the sprawling corporate deals.

    She’s in Connecticut, but is also tied in to that scene and might know someone convenient to you. (Although I imagine the communication would happen via internet anyway.)

    As I understand, you’re in academia, and I imagine you’d have recourse through those venues; but I’d be glad to introduce you via email to my friend, if you’d like.

    Conrad.

  11. I’d say that releasing a compelling new game that leverages missing or under-developed features on a particular platform is a good way to promote grassroots innovation.

    I undertook the Unicode revisions to the Gargoyle project solely to get “Nightfall” working on Windows. It helped that the necessary changes were fairly minor, and had actually been implemented before. But it got me publicly involved with the project and familiar with the underlying code, and that paves the way for more significant contributions.

    I think this works best if the change you target is kept small, such that it matches the passion a given programmer might feel for your project. A game like “Everybody Dies” written in TADS, which made very modest demands on multimedia capabilities, might tempt someone into adding those features. A game that made heavy use of graphics, audio, and video would have a much higher perceptual hurdle to clear.

    This presupposes the existence of a suitable code base to build from, and I don’t think you get that from the community without a substantial library of compelling titles. Are there enough multimedia-heavy TADS games to spur that sort of development? I’m not an authority at all, but I can’t even think of one.

  12. Are there enough multimedia-heavy TADS games to spur that sort of development?

    Off the top of my head:

    TADS 2 games with moderate multimedia include Arrival, Bolivia By Night, Kaged, Six Stories.

    TADS 3 games with moderate multimedia: Max Blaster and Doris de Lightning Against the Parrot Creatures of Venus (a couple of images)

    TADS 3 with extensive multimedia: Macrocosm

    A more complete list on IFDB can be found through this search.

    So there’s stuff out there. In the case of the TADS 2 multimedia games, they may have missed their window to provide incentive because when many of them came out, there was HyperTADS available to run things on the Mac under Classic mode. But Classic has gone away, HyperTADS doesn’t work on OS X, and some of these older games aren’t playable under ideal circumstances.

  13. (about ‘argh, I have to download something’)

    I don’t understand why more game interpreters aren’t written in (or ported to) Java.

    A Java-based interpreter could run in all sorts of different contexts: a browser applet is the most obvious, along with a standalone application which would run on all platforms. But you could also make a servlet-based system using AJAX (so the end user doesn’t need Java installed, and can store savegames etc on the remote server), and for the application route, Java WebStart can hide the complexity of ‘installing’ something for users. (You launch the program by clicking on a web link, which automatically installs and runs the program.) Theoretically, the application could even run on mobile phones, although this would take some effort and realistically would be restricted to the larger smartphones.

    Java has some disadvantages: Java programs tend to use significantly more memory, and still run slightly slower than native code (though with the latest VMs, this is less significant). But for interactive fiction, neither of these things matter a damn – it’s not like say a video editor.

    If you make your game available as a browser applet (let alone just a plain webpage with no plugins required), that’s a pretty low barrier to entry.

    Ironically, there was one game written in Java in this year’s comp. It wasn’t packaged so that you could run it by double-clicking, so launching it was a right pain (on a Mac – they supplied a .bat for Windows, maybe that worked). To add insult to injury, the actual game was console-mode and laughably bad in every sense. That is not an example of how Java should be used for IF. :)

    (Oh, and is it just me who thinks ‘multimedia’ support is overrated? I mean, it would be nice if pictures worked – there was one competition game where I had to go look at a JPG because there was only a blank space in-game – but music or – gods forbid – video is anathema to me… I was actually annoyed that Spatterlight supported the music for that crappy Mars game.)

  14. Java has some disadvantages: Java programs tend to use significantly more memory, and still run slightly slower than native code (though with the latest VMs, this is less significant). But for interactive fiction, neither of these things matter a damn –

    This is really, really false. For old-style IF, sure, the performance overhead is usually pretty low. For IF taking advantage of new language features in TADS 3 or Inform 7, though, performance does become an issue, because games are doing pathfinding or sense-passing, or calculating complicated chains of NPC goal-seeking, or various other similar things. One of my major concerns with my large WIPs is to make sure that they run adequately fast — and that’s targeting a VM customized to a specific OS, running on a desktop machine. I don’t think Bronze performs remotely acceptably on most handhelds, for instance: there’s simply too much calculation going on with the map.

    Oh, and is it just me who thinks ‘multimedia’ support is overrated? I mean, it would be nice if pictures worked – there was one competition game where I had to go look at a JPG because there was only a blank space in-game – but music or – gods forbid – video is anathema to me…

    Clearly some people feel that way. Just as clearly, some authors have ideas they really want to try out with sound effects or music. I’m not quite ready to write off their ideas without even seeing what they want to do. (And for that matter, I’ve played IF where I thought sound was incorporated very effectively. Six Stories was really cool. And Kaged did some interesting moody stuff with its sound and images.)

  15. Thanks Ben, it was neat to see Everybody Dies used as a hypothetical example.

    I’ve been pretty excited about Parchment, and have been in touch with Atul a bit to let him know there are, in fact, people who would love to be able to run Glulx files in browser.

    However, for my modest computational needs Zag will work well when I release it from my website after the comp. Many of my (book) readers are interested in checking out the game, but I know I lose people with each additional step. So given that most Macs, Windows and Linux machines have java installed makes it a one click affair. I’m kind of bummed the fonts can be jaggy depending on people’s machines, but I can live with it — especially since I will have alternate instructions for fellow type fetishists on how to get it working with Gargoyle/Spatterlight.

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