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Daily Archives: January 27, 2012

The King of Shreds and Patches, Kindle Touch Version — and Some Answers

I’m excited to announce that The King of Shreds and Patches is now available for purchase at Amazon in a version for the Kindle Touch as well as the Kindle Keyboard. Adapting the app to work on the small screen with the onscreen keyboard was a challenge, but we’ve arrived at last at something that both I and Amazon agree works really smoothly. If you have a Touch, I hope you’ll consider giving it a try. As always, your reviews and feedback are hugely appreciated — as are tweets, blog entries, etc., to help get the word out.

An Android version is also in the works. As shown by the picture, the game does run and is playable on the Kindle Fire and other Android tablets and phones. However, I still have quite a bit of work ahead of me to make it into a polished, bulletproof app. I hate to give myself deadlines, but with a bit of luck it may be available in the Amazon app store as well as the Barnes and Noble Nook store and of course the general Android store within a few months. Maybe.

I still get lots of questions about my future plans — which do actually involve more than releasing the same game on platform after platform. This seems as good a time and place as any to give some public answers. In fact, said answers are probably long overdue. So, if you’ll forgive my having a conversation with a straw man, let me first give some answers to some common queries.

How well is King doing on the Kindle?

Thanks largely to you guys who tweeted and blogged and got the word out, we had a pretty strong launch. Since then sales have inevitably tapered off, but the game still sells a little bit pretty much every day, and brings in a little extra money each month. All in all, I judge it a modest success. Hopefully as it appears on new platforms and as other games appear to join it (see below), we can really start to build something.

I understand that you have created an engine that can run Glulx games on the Kindle. When will you release that engine and (preferably) source to the public?

Not any time soon, I’m afraid. First of all, it wouldn’t do most of you all that much good. The only way to use this engine is by registering with Amazon as an official Kindle app developer, something that is not automatic, that takes some time even if you are eventually approved, and that as I understand it now involves a registration fee (I registered very early as a “beta” developer, at which time the fee was being waived). You will then be allowed to register a limited number of Kindles as development devices, which will be capable of running code signed by you only. In other words, there is no way for you to take my code and simply copy it onto a Kindle and run it. The Kindle app universe is, for better or for worse, very much a walled garden.

Secondly, I’ve spent a lot of time and labor developing these engines, and to justify that I really need to see something come back. If anyone wants to jump into what I’m going to optimistically label an emerging market, you’re welcome to do so. I just can’t justify handing you all my hard work. I’ve given and continue to give a lot to interactive fiction and its community; I hope I’ve earned the right to get a little bit back here. Please understand that this does not mean I want to horde the Kindle market for myself and my one game. See below for my grand vision of the future, which I like to think could benefit everyone who cares about IF.

When will you release a (commercial or free) standalone interpreter for IF on the Kindle?

Again, this isn’t going to happen. While it’s true that I do have a working Kindle Glulx interpreter, that wasn’t really the hard part of this project; the Glulx VM is pretty simple really, and by now I’ve worked with it enough that creating one for Java was pretty quick and straightforward. The challenge has been adapting IF to the very different interface paradigm of an e-reader. That requires considerable modifications to the story file, to add new GLK function calls that do things like define page and chapter breaks, to support a radically different approach to saving and undoing, and to tweak performance in places where Inform 7 is still inefficient. Creating the overall look and feel of The King of Shreds and Patches on the Kindle, which I’m gratified to say just about everyone has praised, required much, much more than just dropping a story file into an interpreter.

The next problem is that any theoretical interpreter would need to be approved by Amazon. They curate the Kindle app store very closely, looking not just for outright malware or broken programs but also deciding individually for each app whether it’s a good “fit” for the Kindle. They aren’t interested in an app that lets you run other games — that’s getting quite far afield from the Kindle philosophy of being an easy-to-use, simple device for everyday people, in addition to scaring the hell out of their legal department. (We all may know that story files cannot break out of their interpreters to do harm to the machines on which they run, but they don’t.)

To be frank, I’m not that interested in the idea either. One problem contemporary IF has is the old wheat-from-the-chaff dilemma. I would like to make the Kindle a place where only really first-class stories appear, stories that are polished and professional and worth spending a little bit of money on. Anyway, those who are technical enough to want a generic Kindle IF interpreter are probably also technical enough to jailbreak their Kindles and install one for themselves. If you want something that looks more polished than that… well, there’s really no way to give you that and also give it to you as a standalone interpreter.

What about the new base Kindle model?

All indications are that this thing is selling like crazy, but there’s just no way to make a parser-driven game tolerable on it. The only way to enter text is by laboriously selecting each letter from a menu using the five-way controller. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to play that way for hundreds or thousands of turns.

What about Europe?

I feel your pain, Mr. European Straw Man. I really do — especially because all the queries I’ve gotten must add up to quite a few sales I’m not making. Unfortunately, it’s entirely up to Amazon when and if they open up their non-U.S. Kindle stores to apps. Once the Android version is out, Europeans and others will at least be able to purchase the game in that version.

Will you release versions for the iOS devices?

The thing is, I’m just not an Apple guy. I don’t own the Macintosh system one needs to develop for those devices, nor do I own the devices themselves, nor am I excited about having to learn a new programming language and start over from scratch to develop for them. I’ve developed a good relationship with Amazon, and — even as I recognize what a huge market the Apple devices are — will be looking to build on the Kindle and Android platforms only for the foreseeable future. If someone experienced with iOS development were to express interest in developing a version of my engine for those devices, I’d certainly be ready to listen. Left to my own devices (pun intended), however, I don’t foresee taking on yet more huge programming challenges and big additional hardware expenses.

So, having told you what I’m not going to do, let me tell you a little bit of what my plans are in the short, medium, and long term.

In the short term, my immediate goal is obviously to get the Android version of The King of Shreds and Patches finished and into (at a minimum) Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and the Google Android store.

In the medium term, I want to publish other games from other authors on these platforms using these engines. I spent much of the latter part of last year developing extensions and tools to make that as painless as possible. It’s not quite a matter of “drop this extension into your Inform 7 source and you’re done,” and it never will be, but I’ve gone a long way toward building a very systemitized approach. Once I have solid engines on all three platforms (already have two out of three, of course), I’ll begin reaching out to some other authors whose games I think can work on these platforms and with these audiences. It’s not inconceivable that, authors willing, we could release half a dozen more games before the end of the year. (He says, knowing he’s likely to regret it round about December 31, 2012.)

Here’s a very optimistic vision of what could happen. The great IF community and the competitions could continue to run as they always have, with the additional incentive that those who author really great, really polished games will have the opportunity to get them published on the Kindle and Android devices. This would win them a whole lot more exposure, and would of course also give them the opportunity to earn some money back. I’m not sure anyone will be able to quit her day job, but you might just earn enough to take the spouse / significant other / family on a nice little vacation to pay them back for putting up with all those long evenings you spent alone in front of the computer rather than with them. Maybe such an incentive could lead to more games and better games, things the community could dearly use. In this vision the current IF community loses nothing. The hardcore will still have games to play, for free if they like, and all of the support and technical know-how will be as freely shared as ever. It’s just that now the community serves as a feeder system for a (hopefully) bigger market of more casual players who are just interested in playing a fun/interesting game/story now and then rather than discussing craft, beta testing (willingly or unwillingly), or trying to get through 40 or more games in six weeks for this competition thing — much less actually trying to write games themselves. Authors would retain the rights to their games on other platforms, meaning that if someone else wanted to publish them on (for instance) those Apple platforms I’m neglecting, they could feel free.

If you are interested in writing a game that can work in these markets, I’ll give you some guidelines. All of my tools are currently oriented toward Inform 7, so it’s definitely best to work in that language rather than Inform 6. (And TADS, much as I hate to say it about a very worthy system, is currently a complete nonstarter.) You also should plan to target Glulx rather than the Z-Machine. Your options for multimedia are, shall we say, very limited. You can display an occasional picture in-line with the text; in fact, that’s desirable. Not too many, though, because pictures add to the download size, using bandwidth Amazon will make us pay for out of the sales proceeds. Sound is a nonstarter for now, as are additional windows or really anything beyond the very traditional status line / text window approach that’s been with us since Zork. The screens we’re working with are just too small to get fancy here.

As far as design goes, puzzles are acceptable and, indeed, desirable, but they need to be fair puzzles. You will also need a hint system, preferably something context-sensitive like that in King. You can include a map with the app, but don’t use that as a license to create an overly convoluted geography. The game obviously needs to be very polished and well-written, and it needs to foreground a strong, interesting story with some forward drive. Genre works are great and in fact preferred, but nothing too geek-centric or esoteric. This is also probably not the market for formal experimentation or for getting too “literary,” at least right now. If interactive fiction can start to build an identity on these devices, this may change, but for right now the reality is that we’re competing against the likes of Final Fantasy gamebook adaptations. Hopefully we can do a bit better than them in the writing sweepstakes, but still, I’m looking more for solid genre novels than deep works of unfathomable beauty — Stephen King and Robert Heinlein rather than James Joyce and Umberto Eco.

In the long term, I think that the new generation of touchscreen devices offer some really interesting opportunities to get away from the parser at last without having to settle for Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style menus. I even think that (again, in the long term) this is the real path forward for IF. I’m excited by all of the experiments that have been taking place lately with alternative interface paradigms, and have some ideas of my own brewing. I’d love to bring some of these ideas together and build or help to build a next-generation IF system designed with touchscreens in mind (but still very usable with conventional GUIs). But that is of course another big, daunting technical challenge.

And, truly looking through the fat end of the telescope, I want to write another game, hopefully using that next-generation interface. Doing that, however, is kind of dependent on everything above happening first. Too bad, because I’m itching to start…

 
 

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