Defining the "Newbie" -- and Textual IF Approaches Based Thereon

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Jeff Nyman

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Apr 15, 2008, 2:32:16 PM4/15/08
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** Fair warning: ** I'm not entirely sure where I'm going with this as I
start typing; I'm just hoping my brain will kick in before I'm done.

I'm speaking somewhat in response to the thread "The Next IF Parser" here
and I don't mean to single it out because I don't want to imply that
anything said there is "wrong" or "bad" or whatever; nor do I necessarily
disagree with anything said. Also I didn't want to derail that thread, hence
a separate one. But I'm also speaking to many other threads that pop up
routinely talking about what would get "new blood" interested in textual IF
or keep them playing textual IF ... but I see all that without a lot of
reference to how or to what extent it was determined what "newbies" actually
do and do not get frustrated with.

I often find general ideas touted, such that "newbies" are always frustrated
because of real or perceived limitations of the parser. Or they are turned
off because of a total lack of graphics or sound or some combination of
multimedia goodness. What I haven't seen is data that actually backs that
up. Maybe it exists and if it does I would like to reference it.

Here's why I bring this up. My own experiments in this venue are very
limited and are anecdotal to everyone here, but I can say that I rarely have
found "newbies" clamoring for a better parser that would recognize just
about anything. (In fact, I've found a reaction against that kind of thing,
due to the perception of added complexity for the *player* -- as opposed to
the author.) I've rarely found "newbies" who think that an "emergent" game
world (that writes its own rules as it develops them) or a game world that
realistically simulates many aspects of the real world would be a fun
experience. I've rarely found "newbies" who think textual IF would be so
much better if they could play it with all their friends (in some sort of
online, shared world or in a sort of "pass-the-adventure" fashion).

What I have found is this:

I find new people most often clamor for better and more engaging stories
that actually keep them interested in what the heck is going on. Or asking
for characters that actually seem like they play a part in the story rather
than just being another "thing."

I've rarely seen someone say "this parser really stinks." It has come up in
terms of when someone doesn't know what to do next and so they start trying
many things, most of which don't work. This may start to show the
limitedness of the parser in a small sense. But it often really boils down
to the player just being confused about what the heck to do, which a better
parser wouldn't necessarily help with. (After all, players can ask for hints
now if they truly get stuck.)

And even when you do want to allow for certain complex sentence
constructions, which is something I've found limited support for among
"newbies," the existing textual IF systems can, with some work (a little or
a lot), handle those. What's often not made clear to new people (at least
from what I've gathered in my own work to date) is what *level of input* is
allowed and having that be *consistently applied.* In other words, I find
"newbies" rarely have trouble with simple sentence constructions like
"north", "get sword", "kill troll". What they have trouble with is when you
have to "use sword" in order to kill the troll. Or when the game normally
works just fine with those simple sentences but then at some points requires
complex or abstract ones like "determine nancy's guilt" or "provide mary
with evidence about nancy." However, that last point being said, I've found
"newbies" are amenable to those more complex/abstract constructs if it's
made clear how and when to apply them *and* that application is consistent.

So, anyway, all of this leads to my question: who is the "newbie" that
everyone talks about?

You have to figure that most of us were "newbies" when we started playing
around with textual IF (whenever that happened to be for each person). Yet
many of us obviously stuck with it enough to hang around newsgroups like
this and we all managed to learn (and, in some cases, tolerate) the
idiosyncracies of the format, inadequate parsers and all. So why is that?

What did we like?
What kept us coming back (even when there was stuff we didn't like)?
What still keeps us coming back (even if our parsers aren't perfect and our
graphics are lacking)?

Now, granted, for some of us it may have been lack of choice, given that
back in the "old days" you didn't have many gaming options and text was
about the best you could do. That's no longer the case these days. Now
people have a plethora of gaming choices, most of them involving graphics
and sound or multiplayer capabilities.

Some have argued that this means textual IF should accomodate graphics and
sound -- even though this didn't help textual IF in its own commercial past,
either with its existing audience or with bringing in new audiences.
Further, those experiments of mine I mentioned (which did involve "newbies"
of various age ranges) showed near unanimous negative reaction to the
inclusion of graphics and sounds because it distracted from the one unique
element that textual IF can provide: a focus on text. Further, it provided a
level of expectation that could not be sustained. (For example, not every
scene had graphics. Not every scene's graphics changed even when it seems
they should have. And so on.) It would be equivalent, I suppose, to getting
past the initial level in 'Half-Life 2' and all the sudden finding that the
next level is all text-based. The expectations have been shattered just a
wee bit. I find "newbies" tend to react that same way to textual IF, when it
effectively tries to incorporate elements distinct from the text even when
the focus is clearly on the text.

I found this sort of matched how people formed expectations about those
complex vs. simple sentence structures. Too much use of graphics and/or
sound seemed to confound expectations in various ways with "newbies" that I
dealt with. A good example of a counter-example was a game we looked at
called "Mission Critical", which did have text you read, but with the
expectation that all movement was via the graphical interface at the top.
That was not found disconcerting. Another good example (for contrast) was
how "newbies" responded to two games from Legend Entertainment. One was
"Timequest" and the other was "Gateway". The latter was found to be very
effective in its use of graphics and sound whereas the former would have
been preferred as solely a text game, without the sound and graphics. I
thought those kinds of results were interesting, given that you are talking
about two games from the same company (Legend) and that, on the surface,
certainly would seem very much "identical" at least in terms of content +
interface.

So, I guess to sum up (and I don't even know if I really had a cohesive
point here) I'm not saying any of these ideas for appealing to the "newbie"
are bad or good necessarily. I'm just always curious upon what basis they
are being made. It usually seems to focus on the "newbie" as a collective
but without any real substantive analysis of what such people (and, let's
face it, "newbies" are a diverse lot) would truly find entertaining and
rewarding.

Am I overthinking it? Underthinking it? Barely thinking at all? Or am I just
plain ol' not getting it?

- Jeff


Mike Roberts

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Apr 15, 2008, 2:49:12 PM4/15/08
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"Jeff Nyman" <jeffnyman__nospam__@gmail__nospam.com> wrote:
> So, I guess to sum up (and I don't even know if I really had a cohesive
> point here) I'm not saying any of these ideas for appealing to the
> "newbie" are bad or good necessarily. I'm just always curious upon what
> basis they are being made. It usually seems to focus on the "newbie" as a
> collective but without any real substantive analysis of what such people
> (and, let's face it, "newbies" are a diverse lot) would truly find
> entertaining and rewarding.

For my own part, most of the time when I talk about "newbies" I'm talking
about my experiences observing people with no past IF experience beta-test
my games. So, a relatively small and probably non-representative group, but
a concrete and empirical reference point.

I think you make an interesting point about our general group discussion of
newbies, though - it does seem like there's a straw man in a lot of this
discussion. I personally don't think there's a lot of value in figuring out
what newbies specifically would find entertaining or rewarding, because it
seems to me that it ought to be the same things veterans find entertaining
and rewarding. Or, to the extent that different people find different
things about IF rewarding, I see no reason to think it should cleave by
experience level.

--Mike Roberts


Mike Roberts

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Apr 15, 2008, 3:02:26 PM4/15/08
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"Jeff Nyman" <jeffnyman__nospam__@gmail__nospam.com> wrote:
> Here's why I bring this up. My own experiments in this venue are very
> limited and are anecdotal to everyone here, but I can say that I rarely
> have found "newbies" clamoring for a better parser that would recognize
> just about anything. (In fact, I've found a reaction against that kind of
> thing, due to the perception of added complexity for the *player* -- as
> opposed to the author.)

This really resonates for me, because I remember back when I played my first
couple of Infocom games, reading through the instructions, I was terribly
intimidated by the part where they explained the "ACTOR, COMMAND" syntax.
The idea of having this whole separate axis at the author's disposal for
hiding puzzle solutions made me feel really overwhelmed. Of course, the
Infocom games actually used that sort of syntax in any sort of important way
only about 0.75 times per game on average, so it wasn't as bad in practice
as it seemed in theory. But initially I found the idea really scary, like
the games were going to be exponentially harder than the adventures I'd
played to that point.

--Mike Roberts


Conrad

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Apr 15, 2008, 3:07:14 PM4/15/08
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On Apr 15, 2:32 pm, "Jeff Nyman"

<jeffnyman__nospam__@gmail__nospam.com> wrote:
>
> I often find general ideas touted, such that "newbies" are always frustrated
> because of real or perceived limitations of the parser. Or they are turned
> off because of a total lack of graphics or sound or some combination of
> multimedia goodness. What I haven't seen is data that actually backs that
> up. Maybe it exists and if it does I would like to reference it. [...]

>
> What I have found is this:
>
> I find new people most often clamor for better and more engaging stories
> that actually keep them interested in what the heck is going on. Or asking
> for characters that actually seem like they play a part in the story rather
> than just being another "thing."

Frankly, I don't think the parser is where we need to focus
attention. The parser is only as smart as the gameworld can allow.
Develop smarter gameworlds and then upgrade the parser to match.

The only problem-domain I think a more sophisticated parser would help
much is in conversation handling. Can't think of an application
otherwise; and in any case, it seems the prior priority still applies
-- soup up the conversational game and then bring up the level of the
parser.

Having said that, I think what would be most benefitial would be NPC
and plot handling infastructure so that the storyline didn't need to
be kludged together as a custom job for every game.


Is any of this relevant to our hypothetical and undefined newbie? Yes
and no. Newbies want better stories; that's fine; that's within our
means, in theory.

But the problem is that to write one storyline is fatiguing. To write
several storylines, which are sufficiently modular that they can
occupy the same game-space, all meaningful and emotionally salient,
and checking that every permutation is reasonably consistent -- this
approaches the Herculean.

Especially since our writers' creative energies are largely directed
toward writing code. It takes it out of you.


Conrad.

Aaron A. Reed

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Apr 15, 2008, 3:23:24 PM4/15/08
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On Apr 15, 12:32 pm, "Jeff Nyman"

One data point is here: http://www.aaronareed.net/wttc/transcripts.html
<-- where 75 mostly new-to-IF people tried my game Whom the Telling
Changed.

Another is Peter Nepstad's survey of purchasers of 1893, the results
of which he discussed last year (here:
http://groups.google.com/group/rec.arts.int-fiction/browse_frm/thread/b8af1e5d3d03531d
and here: http://groups.google.com/group/rec.arts.int-fiction/browse_frm/thread/6bb02bf155aaaf08/)

There is a semi-legendary collection of transcripts of people playing
Zork through a web interface (phpZork?) which I've heard people
reference but never actually seen. It may be lost to the mists of
time.

Recently other people have mentioned looking at transcripts of people
playing their online IF games; I don't know if any of this data is
public.

Finally, I have a lot of anecdotal or otherwise uncollected evidence
(which I know isn't what you're looking for). Blogs and comments on
websites devoted to college classes teaching IF can be mined for
responses of college age kids new to the genre. Something I've been
meaning to write up is an experience I had taking my most recent IF
game to a senior center and getting feedback.

In the end, I think it's only natural to talk a lot about the
legendary "IF newbie" since that's presumably who IF has to appeal to
in order to expand its popularity. I agree that much more data would
be useful.

Aaron A. Reed
www.lacunastory.com

Jim Aikin

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Apr 15, 2008, 4:07:44 PM4/15/08
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Jeff Nyman wrote:
>
> I find new people most often clamor for better and more engaging stories
> that actually keep them interested in what the heck is going on. Or asking
> for characters that actually seem like they play a part in the story rather
> than just being another "thing."

My sense is that this is absolutely right. With rare exceptions, the IF
I've attempted to wade through reads, at best, like the amateur stories
submitted to critters.org. If you want to write good IF, you could do
worse than drop down to your local library and check out a couple of
volumes of "Year's Best Fantasy & Horror." Then join critters, read some
of the stories there, and get very analytical about the differences.

The skills required to write fiction are not produced by the Black Arts.
You can buy any number of how-to books on the subject, some of them
awful and some of them quite good.

> Now, granted, for some of us it may have been lack of choice, given that
> back in the "old days" you didn't have many gaming options and text was
> about the best you could do.

Yes. I'm sure that has a lot to do with it. (In my case, anyhow.)

Cheesy graphics and cheesy sound won't help at all ... but a
cheesy-looking text engine doesn't help either. My analogy is to a
nicely laid out, nicely illustrated book. I'm not sure an IF engine that
delivered the equivalent of a good published book would attract more new
readers/players, but I would hazard a guess that the unattractive
pseudo-console of the standard Z-machine doesn't help. Likewise, an
attractive package won't help much if the story falls flat -- but it
might make players more willing to recommend a good story to their
friends without embarrassment.

--JA

Captain Mikee

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Apr 15, 2008, 4:16:10 PM4/15/08
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On Apr 15, 2:32 pm, "Jeff Nyman"

<jeffnyman__nospam__@gmail__nospam.com> wrote:
>
> I often find general ideas touted, such that "newbies" are always frustrated
> because of real or perceived limitations of the parser.

There were a couple things that got me thinking about the parser. One
was someone who posted that they had games online, and were able to
see what people were doing with them. Most of them tried four or five
things that the parser couldn't hope to understand, then started
cursing and quit. That's why I thought there ought to be extra help
for the first few turns. (although others pointed out that this
doesn't necessarily require a more complex parser)

The other thing was when a friend of mine recently tried a game I
worked on years ago. (I eventually decided the game was a good
exercise for me, but not worth finishing) It was agonizing! I thought
he would be a good candidate - he's sort of geeky, he used to play
Ultima Online... but I eventually realized he's not that comfortable
with computers. He's in his late 50s. I'm including the transcript.
It's long and tedious, but that's sort of the point. Many of the
faults are mine, and could certainly be improved within the scope of
Inform 6 (what it was written in.) But there were points where I felt
the game could have offered help, and I wouldn't have known how do it
within the scope of Inform. (things like "do I have the ring?" or "Sir
John, I am ready.") I think the biggest help in this case would have
been some misspelling awareness.

>Look out windows
Out the windows lies [a bunch of text]

>goupstairs
That's not a verb I recognise.

>go upstairs
You'll have to get off the wooden chair first.

KNOCK KNOCK!

>get off chair; answer dor
You can't see any such thing.

>get off chair
You get off the wooden chair.

Downstairs

You can see a wooden chair here.

Knock, knock.

>walk to door
Just say which direction to go.

>walk west
You can't, since the front door is in the way.

>open door
Sir John the elf-knight is about to pound on the door once more when
you pull it open.

"So good to see you, my dear!" he oozes. "Quick, bring me your
father's gold and we'll go off to my homeland to get married! Do you
have the ring?"

He steps inside.

>do I have the ring?
That's not a verb I recognise.

[at this point I couldn't take it anymore and told him to type help]
>help
You are the main character in this story. To tell the game what you
want to do, type commands in plain English.

The most common commands are directions (N, S, NE, UP, etc.), TAKE and
DROP. Also useful are INVENTORY (or I) to see what you have, LOOK (L)
to look around, EXAMINE (X) to see a specific object, and WAIT (Z) to
do nothing. This is by no means a complete list. Feel free to
experiment!

To talk to other characters in the game, type their name followed by a
comma, and whatever you want to say: JIM SPEER, OPEN THE
REFRIGERATOR... or you can SAY whatever you want TO the character.

Lastly, there are some commands that deal with the game directly:
BRIEF, VERBOSE, and SUPERBRIEF: Control how much you see when you
enter a place.
QUIT: End the game.
RESTART: Start over from the beginning.
SAVE and RESTORE: store and recall your position in the game.
SCRIPT, UNSCRIPT: turn transcripting on and off.
SCORE: Display your current score and rank.


>i
You are wearing an elven engagement ring and your beautiful silk
dress. You are carrying a knitting needle and an unfinished shirt.

>up

Master Bedroom
The master bedroom of the house. The four-poster bed shines bright
white in the light from the windows. The only way out is back down the
stairs.

Your father's coffer rests under the windowsill.

>open coffer
You open the coffer, revealing some gold coins.

>take
(the coffer)
It's much too heavy.

>say to Sir John, heere is the gold
You can't see any such thing.

>john, here is the gold
You seem to want to talk to someone, but I can't see whom.

>Sir John, Here is the gold
You seem to want to talk to someone, but I can't see whom.

>down

Downstairs

Sir John the elf-knight is waiting here.

You can also see a wooden chair here.

>John, the gold is upstairs
Sir John pays no attention.

>Sir John,the gold is upstairs
Sir John pays no attention.

"Hurry up! Why aren't you ready?"

>i
You are wearing an elven engagement ring and your beautiful silk
dress. You are carrying a knitting needle and an unfinished shirt.

>up

Master Bedroom

Your father's coffer stands open under the windowsill.
In the coffer are some gold coins.

>look verbose
I only understood you as far as wanting to look.

>look

Master Bedroom
The master bedroom of the house. The four-poster bed shines bright
white in the light from the windows. The only way out is back down the
stairs.

Your father's coffer stands open under the windowsill.
In the coffer are some gold coins.

>take gold
Taken.

>i
You are wearing an elven engagement ring and your beautiful silk
dress. You are carrying some gold coins, a knitting needle and an
unfinished shirt.

>down

Downstairs

Sir John the elf-knight is waiting here.

You can also see a wooden chair here.

>Sir John,I am ready to go
Sir John pays no attention.

>w
John the elf blocks your way. "Give me your father's gold-- THEN you
can marry me!" he roars.

John paces back and forth in front of the door.

>John, I am ready
Sir John pays no attention.

>down
You wander around the house, but nothing holds your interest.

"Hurry up! Why aren't you ready?"

>Sir John, I am ready
Sir John pays no attention.

Jim Aikin

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Apr 15, 2008, 4:53:01 PM4/15/08
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Yeah, that transcript is revealing, all right.

A couple of player typos, which advanced software _might_ be able to catch.

The annoying business of forcing the PC to get out of the chair --
should be (and can be) handled with an implicit action.

'walk to door' reflects the fact that the player doesn't know a room is
a single indivisible location.

The default response to 'walk west' is infuriating, but again, an
implicit door-opening action could be implemented.

>> do I have the ring?
> That's not a verb I recognise.

The player does not know how to take inventory. A newbie-help system
could be implemented that would spot 'do I have', discard the rest, and
explain taking inventory ... but how many different ways might a player
phrase this? Can they all be spotted? 'what am i carrying?' 'check to
see what i'm carrying'. 'check whether i have the ring'. Et cetera.

The player does not know that the knight is still downstairs while the
current location is upstairs. This could be fixed by having the knight
say, "Oh, you're going to get the gold. Don't be too long about it! I'll
wait down here."

A bare 'take' command could print out a list of the currently takeable
items, which would naturally exclude the coffer.

Once Sir John has appeared in the game and is in an adjacent room, the
software really ought to say, "He's downstairs," rather than "You seem
to want to talk to someone."

Attempting to present facts ("the gold is upstairs") to an NPC is
another of those Gordian knot problems. The software could, however,
respond to 'john, [something not understood]' with "You can ask or tell
Sir John about an object. If you have the object, you can show or give
it to him." That would be implementable.

'look verbose' is actually an interesting attempt -- as in, "Show me
_every_ detail, even stuff I might not have noticed before."

Finally, when the PC appears with the gold, Sir John should notice. He
should say, "Ah, good! You've brought the gold. Give it to me!" That can
be implemented pretty easily, and would guide the player toward an action.

In sum, most of the problems this newbie had could be fixed with close
attention to software design. But that doesn't guarantee that some other
newbie might not have an entirely different set of equally frustrating
(and equally possible to fix) difficulties.

--JA

Captain Mikee

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Apr 15, 2008, 5:42:43 PM4/15/08
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That was a lot of helpful advice! And it goes to show how much you can
fix with good game design.

I wanted to add to this thread that I sometimes wonder how important
it is to expand the audience. Do we really have a good idea of how big
the audience is? I don't think r*if participation should be used to
measure that. I was off both of these lists for nearly 10 years and
was still playing IF occasionally. I bet there are many players who've
never been here. Are there statistics for game downloads from the
archive?

On the other hand, I think newbie-friendliness is VERY important. I've
played dozens of games but I still feel like a newbie sometimes.

Jeff Nyman

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Apr 15, 2008, 5:53:52 PM4/15/08
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"Jim Aikin" <midig...@sbcglobal.net> wrote in message
news:fu34ja$5ts$1...@aioe.org...

> The player does not know how to take inventory. A newbie-help system could
> be implemented that would spot 'do I have', discard the rest, and explain
> taking inventory ... but how many different ways might a player phrase
> this? Can they all be spotted? 'what am i carrying?' 'check to see what
> i'm carrying'. 'check whether i have the ring'. Et cetera.

And here it might just be a simple thing of letting the player know how to
get inventory. Once they know >INV or >INVENTORY works, they might actually
appreciate that rather than having to ask questions like >WHAT DO I HAVE? or
>WHAT AM I CARRYING?

Any medium has some conventions that the player/reader/whatever is going to
have to learn to successfully use the medium. One of those many be reading
some level of instructions or risking being confused. Working in quality
assurance and testing, I can say that I've seen game companies and software
companies try to go for some notion of "total usability" by removing even
the possibility of confusion -- and it usually ends up introducing a
unwieldy and intrusive "help" system that most users -- even the
"newbies" -- turn off in frustration.

That said, certain "contextual tips" might help. Perhaps the first item a
player takes, for example, has a note like: "[You can check everything you
are carrying or wearing by typing INVENTORY.]" Of course, this would only
help if some "new player" mode was on. But that alone, from what I've found,
usually suffices to get most people on the right track.


> In sum, most of the problems this newbie had could be fixed with close
> attention to software design. But that doesn't guarantee that some other
> newbie might not have an entirely different set of equally frustrating
> (and equally possible to fix) difficulties.

Exactly. For any one situation, you could imagine how you, as the author,
would handle *that* specific situation. But then another player might try
something else entirely. Perhaps you could see how to handle *that* specific
situation. Eventually you may start to build up a way to generalize and
handle a lot of situations that various players could try, responding to
numerous variations of similar commands.

Or ... the mechanics could just be presented to the player and you simply
have to trust that they'll at least do some of the work to figuring this
out. Or, like I said above, contextual help to could be given that explains
some of the mechanics when that explanation makes sense in context (i.e., a
note about "inventory" appears the first time an object is taken).

My personal experience with "newbies" (and, again, I know it's limited
experience) is that people are willing to read a relatively concise set of
"game mechanics" so that they understand basic levels of interaction or
willing to have the mechanics presented to them rather than having the
expectation that a game will simply understand anything and everything they
try to do.

- Jeff


Jeff Nyman

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Apr 15, 2008, 5:59:47 PM4/15/08
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"Captain Mikee" <captai...@yahoo.com> wrote in message
news:99fca71a-41c1-4f26...@2g2000hsn.googlegroups.com...

> On the other hand, I think newbie-friendliness is VERY important. I've
> played dozens of games but I still feel like a newbie sometimes.

Or, rather, *player*-friendliness is VERY important. As you just said, even
though you may be a veteran in some respects, you sometimes feel like a
"newbie." And I guess that was part of my overall point: rather than worry
about making textual IF more amenable to "newbies", just look at the
elements that effect enjoyment whether you are new or old to the format and
deal with those.

So do we (those "we" who consider ourselves to be non-newbies) feel that
more graphics would make textual IF more friendly? Do we feel that more
"intelligent" parsers would make textual IF more friendly? Or are there are
other elements we find lacking?

In my experience, "newbies" don't stay that way very long or, alternatively,
everyone considers themselves a perpetual "newbie" to some level anyway. So
it really just becomes a matter of looking at the strengths of the textual
IF format and deciding how those can be best be presented and dealt with as
a unique form of expression within the gaming market and within (possibly)
the wider storytelling market.

- Jeff


Jeff Nyman

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Apr 15, 2008, 6:08:40 PM4/15/08
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"Conrad" <conra...@gmail.com> wrote in message
news:8db0af75-b8c2-4fd0...@t54g2000hsg.googlegroups.com...

> Having said that, I think what would be most benefitial would be NPC
> and plot handling infastructure so that the storyline didn't need to
> be kludged together as a custom job for every game.

Sort of like a plotting framework, perhaps? Is that sort of what you mean?

If so, I can see that in some respects. A lot of writers will tell you that
while of course they apply their own unique brand of creativity and their
own voice to their works, they are often following the dictates of
successful frameworks for crafting successful fiction. Yes, you tweak here
and there, and give perhaps a little uniqueness to your own story, but
people tend to bring expectations to written fiction, such that when those
expectations are broken too much (and the framework thus not followed), that
written fiction may not do so well.

Having been a game tester for many years, I can tell you game-producing
companies do very similar things. Sometimes these frameworks are more
tangible (like having realistic physics and environment modeling) and
sometimes they are more intangible, in terms of plot direction and story
pacing. In all cases, they tend to use various frameworks (conceptual and
physical) to provide people what they, in the main, want.

Somewhat relevant to my other threads, this is where I think the
storytelling aspects of other formats can, at the very least, inform the
practice of the creation of textual IF. I'm not saying that there's a
one-to-one correspondence in every single little detail. But, rather, that
the thinking processes and the structural frameworks (again, physical or
conceptual) can have a bearing. Further, if those frameworks are already
known to appeal to mainstream audiences (to varying degrees, of course) then
perhaps -- just perhaps -- some of that may offer some hope towards getting
textual IF into that wider set of audiences. I'm not even saying this means
textual IF can become a successful commercial venture; maybe it can, maybe
it can't. I'm just wondering if approaching textual IF this way may open up
more possibilities, rather than just trying for flashier interfaces, more
graphics, or "smarter" parsers.

- Jeff


Jeff Nyman

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Apr 15, 2008, 6:19:06 PM4/15/08
to
"Aaron A. Reed" <aar...@gmail.com> wrote in message
news:e362914d-d510-4d77...@u12g2000prd.googlegroups.com...

> One data point is here: http://www.aaronareed.net/wttc/transcripts.html
> <-- where 75 mostly new-to-IF people tried my game Whom the Telling
> Changed.

Excellent! Very useful resource. Thanks for pointing it out.


> Another is Peter Nepstad's survey of purchasers of 1893, the results

> of which he discussed last year (here: ......

Yup - that one I actually participated in, having bought the game myself.


> Recently other people have mentioned looking at transcripts of people
> playing their online IF games; I don't know if any of this data is
> public.

That could be interesting. What would also be interesting (but I know harder
to get) would be having people play games that are designed for specific
purposes. This way you have the basis of an experiment whereby you might
draw conclusions. Certainly they would be provisional conclusions but they
would have a basis formed by comparison. This is kind of what I'm hoping to
establish in some sense, but it's tricky in some ways -- at least if you
want it to truly be an experiment.


> In the end, I think it's only natural to talk a lot about the
> legendary "IF newbie" since that's presumably who IF has to appeal to
> in order to expand its popularity.

Yes .... except I think the focus on the "IF newbie" is what leads to
thoughts about "we need more graphics" or "we need smarter parsers." In
other words, when this hypothetical group (which is often treated as a
homogenous collective) is considered, there are assumptions made about
what's needed, even though those assumptions don't necessarily seem to be
warranted by the data collected. (I'm generalizing there a bit, of course.)

I think if textual IF is to appeal to a wider audience, focusing on the
"newbie" may not necessarily make sense. Rather, it's focusing on the user
(whether new or not) and what might make textual IF competitive in either
the gaming or fiction market, both of which textual IF could at least
straddle. Would some (or even most) of those people be "textual IF newbies?"
Yeah, probably, but I really don't think that's the key determinant --
because most of them won't be new games in general and many probably won't
be new to reading books. (Even saying that I know I'm drawing the line
rather thin and it could argued it's just splitting hairs one way or the
other.)

- Jeff


Rubes

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Apr 15, 2008, 6:26:36 PM4/15/08
to
On Apr 15, 3:53 pm, "Jeff Nyman"

<jeffnyman__nospam__@gmail__nospam.com> wrote:
> And here it might just be a simple thing of letting the player know how to
> get inventory. Once they know >INV or >INVENTORY works, they might actually
> appreciate that rather than having to ask questions like >WHAT DO I HAVE? or
>  >WHAT AM I CARRYING?
>
> Any medium has some conventions that the player/reader/whatever is going to
> have to learn to successfully use the medium. One of those many be reading
> some level of instructions or risking being confused. Working in quality
> assurance and testing, I can say that I've seen game companies and software
> companies try to go for some notion of "total usability" by removing even
> the possibility of confusion -- and it usually ends up introducing a
> unwieldy and intrusive "help" system that most users -- even the
> "newbies" -- turn off in frustration.

This makes me wonder if it would be useful for someone to develop a
very short, very basic introductory sequence that could be inserted
into any IF game, that would serve a purpose similar to the HELP
command. In fact, I imagine part of the problem is that newbie players
just miss the HELP command when they start a game.

But rather than typing HELP and getting a screen dump of a whole lot
of information to remember, why not create a short simulation? With
graphical games, many include tutorials or very basic levels at the
beginning of a game, to get the players accustomed to the world model
and the controls. Would it help to do the same in IF? And could the
community agree upon one in particular that authors would be free to
insert into their games?

I imagine it could be done by having the game start with a simple "Are
you new to interactive fiction?" question, and if the answer is yes,
it would take you to the tutorial.

There are many different things that could be done with the tutorial,
but I imagine it could be set up to very gradually introduce the
player to the concept of the command line, rooms and room
descriptions, exits and movement, inventory, manipulating objects, and
interacting with NPCs. You could probably set it up in a small house
with multiple rooms, with something to learn in each room. Finally,
when you reach the last room and the last lesson, it could give the
player a few final words on things not covered, and show them the exit
door. When the player exits, the tutorial ends and the game is
formally started.

Perhaps this has already been done, I don't know. But I think it would
be a helpful way to (a) get new players right into the tutorial
without missing it; (b) slowly introduce them to the basics in a
comfortable way, rather than with a screen dump; and (c) allow authors
a way to include it in their game (like in a modular fashion), so that
there's a somewhat better way of making sure newbies don't necessarily
stumble right from the start.

Jeff Nyman

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Apr 15, 2008, 6:28:30 PM4/15/08
to
"Mike Roberts" <mj...@hotmail.com> wrote in message
news:bbydnTsNjNk2ZZnV...@comcast.com...

> I personally don't think there's a lot of value in figuring out what
> newbies specifically would find entertaining or rewarding, because it
> seems to me that it ought to be the same things veterans find entertaining
> and rewarding. Or, to the extent that different people find different
> things about IF rewarding, I see no reason to think it should cleave by
> experience level.

I couldn't have said it better myself. I completely agree.

I think that we don't have to go very far to determine what "newbies" would
like or get frustrated by because, to a very large extent, we can just look
at what various "veterans" or, at least, those with some level of experience
like or get frustrated by. Granted, there are always varying levels of what
is considered good and bad but, again, that could apply to new people as
well as those more experienced.

That said, sometimes a community (particularly when relatively small) can
calcify around a set of traditions and/or conventions that are just accepted
or tolerated because, after all, that's how it's pretty much always been. So
the value of the "newbie" can help people look at things with new eyes. The
problem often comes in that the old-timers, as it were, "indoctrinate" the
"newbies" in those conventions and traditions or the existing systems are
designed to foster those conventions/traditions. The only breaks you then
see in such a community are usually with so-called "experimental" works that
may be interesting to the small community who can appreciate the variation
from the "norm," but that do nothing for really furthering the craft at all.

So I think part of the goals of a community are to continually try and look
at things with "new eyes" as well. It's often the way you get those
"newbies" in the first place: by constantly looking at how you can reinvent
some aspects of the format but without removing the aspects that make the
format the unique thing that it is. Part of this, I think, is looking at
what types of audience you want to consider "newbie" and how you would like
to appeal to them.

- Jeff


Andrew Plotkin

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Apr 15, 2008, 7:59:48 PM4/15/08
to
Here, Captain Mikee <captai...@yahoo.com> wrote:
>
> I wanted to add to this thread that I sometimes wonder how important
> it is to expand the audience. Do we really have a good idea of how big
> the audience is?

Nope!

> I don't think r*if participation should be used to measure that.

Certainly not. Peter Nepstad sold what, three thousand copies of
_1893_?

> I was off both of these lists for nearly 10 years and
> was still playing IF occasionally. I bet there are many players who've
> never been here. Are there statistics for game downloads from the
> archive?

Yes, but most of them are robots or other automated downloads. And
they don't cover mirrors. So the statistics don't tell us much.

--Z

--
"And Aholibamah bare Jeush, and Jaalam, and Korah: these were the borogoves..."
*
9/11 did change everything. Since 9/12, the biggest threat to American
society has been the American president. I'd call that a change.

Emily Short

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Apr 15, 2008, 8:13:03 PM4/15/08
to
On Apr 15, 3:23 pm, "Aaron A. Reed" <aar...@gmail.com> wrote:
> There is a semi-legendary collection of transcripts of people playing
> Zork through a web interface (phpZork?) which I've heard people
> reference but never actually seen. It may be lost to the mists of
> time.

Yeah, I'm afraid so. It wasn't even a real collection of full
transcripts. There was this phpZork thing through which people could
play Zork, and then you could also, if you wanted, click a button to
see a random selection of commands other users had typed. The
intention of the site owner, I *think*, was that this would serve as a
weird sort of hint system. Personally, I used it as a way to try to
get data about the forms of commands people were entering.

What I found was a fair amount of experimentation in which players
were trying to type imperative commands but were including abstract
nouns, references to past events, or references to physical details
that IF doesn't as a rule implement: things like GO BACK (presuming
that the parser remembers the last direction typed); HIT DOOR WITH
FIST (and lots of other references to body parts); imperatives with
extra framing, like PLEASE GO WEST; etc.

So that's where I got the ideas for my original I6 NewbieGrammar
extension. It seemed to me that these transcripts revealed some
interesting edge cases where the user had successfully gotten the idea
that he should form a command of one verb and a noun and possibly an
extra prepositional phrase, but didn't yet understand enough about the
way IF world models usually work to figure out what sorts of nouns he
could use within that structure.

Anyway, I don't know whether the phpZork owner got in copyright
trouble or just got tired of paying for the bandwidth, but this whole
thing was taken down not that long after I surveyed it. So all that
remains to posterity is my (perhaps incorrect) conclusions about what
seemed to be stumping players.

Historically, I think at least some of us have also formed our ideas
about What They Want From IF on the basis of the snarky comments made
about IF on Slashdot et al. -- where the theme very often *is* a
complaint about the tedious guess-the-verbishness of it all, with
added pot-shots at the (lack of) artificial intelligence in the
parser. But this is probably not entirely useful data. I suspect other
sources are more telling.

And I continue to think a lot of this is more about game design
(showing the player what he *can* do) than it is about the technical
sophistication of the parser. But that's an argument I've already made.

stu...@animats.net

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Apr 15, 2008, 9:05:22 PM4/15/08
to

It seems that if you use 10% of command 90% of the time, there should
be a point where you can draw a line in the sand and tell the player
about a very limited set of commands and actually make them happier.
Sit someone in front of a board game with 10 legal moves to be made
and people will start to get into it. Sit them in front of a game with
100 legal moves to made and it will start to feel like work - a game
they have to study before they can possibly hope to play, let alone
win.

I am working on a new game at the moment and I am starting to think I
am going to make it solvable with the smallest set of commands
possible, as a sort of experiment, and tell the player what these
commands are up front.

Stuart

ma...@grandecom.net

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Apr 15, 2008, 10:23:22 PM4/15/08
to
On Apr 15, 3:07 pm, Jim Aikin <midigur...@sbcglobal.net> wrote:
> Jeff Nyman wrote:
>
> > I find new people most often clamor for better and more engaging stories
> > that actually keep them interested in what the heck is going on. Or asking
> > for characters that actually seem like they play a part in the story rather
> > than just being another "thing."
>
> My sense is that this is absolutely right. With rare exceptions, the IF
> I've attempted to wade through reads, at best, like the amateur stories
> submitted to critters.org. If you want to write good IF, you could do
> worse than drop down to your local library and check out a couple of
> volumes of "Year's Best Fantasy & Horror." Then join critters, read some
> of the stories there, and get very analytical about the differences.

I think both of these comments are really hugely important. I think
when we discuss how to expand IF we fall into an all too typical new
media literature trap -- focusing on the mechanism of delivery rather
than content. People aren't going to pick up an IF game because they
think the mechanisms of IF are intrinsically exciting. They will pick
it up because it offers them the chance to be part of an exciting,
compelling story. How many IF games, ever, have really offered that?

I really, really don't want to disparage anyone's efforts, because I
think the modern IF community has produced an amazing amount of
quality work. It does, though, just seem to me like something --
maybe I'll just call it storytelling ambition -- is kind of lacking,
especially in recent years, even among the very best games we have to
offer. When you drop down a notch from the handful of stellar
releases in any given year, the narratives and writing become VERY
amateurish, of course, but that's to be expected. It's even part of
the charm of the IF Comp for me.

But let's look at the very best games of last year or so, those that
have won awards, won the Comp, etc. We've got Lost Pig, an incredibly
charming and clever bit of comedic fluff. We've got Child's Play,
another charmer which forces you to see and interact with the world as
a baby. We've got Suveh Nux, a series of magic puzzles set in a
single room. We've got Act of Murder, a fairly by-the-numbers if well-
written murder mystery whose primary interest comes from its
randomization on each replay. I enjoyed all of these games and many
others -- well, maybe not SO much Child's Play, but that's mostly down
to a certain personal intolerance for and utter disinterest in
babies. Still, though, I don't see anyone who doesn't already play IF
being excited enough by these concepts to pick it up and give it a
try, unless they are presented in an almost ridiculously accessible
way, as Jay is Games recently did for Lost Pig. (The trouble with
that kind of presentation, though, is that players then view the game
as a passing curiosity to be poked at a bit before moving on. The
average Internet user is not known for his attention span.) I'm not
even going to mention the many community in-joke games and the
clever / ironic deliberately bad retro-games. (Even though, once
again, I've enjoyed the hell out of both types many times, they are
the very definition of preaching to the choir.)

What has Peter Nepstad told us again and again about his 3000+
customers who bought 1893? Most were not excited by the idea of IF
itself -- in fact, most who picked the game up in a gift shop probably
had no idea HOW it actually played. They were rather excited by the
idea of experiencing the 1893 World's Fair through their computer.

Again, I don't mean any of this as a criticism of anyone's work here.
I've gotten countless hours of enjoyment from this community's games.
I do think, though, that if anyone is serious about reaching beyond
this small community of IF literati, they need to raise the bar in
their storytelling ambition. Give people a story that really excites
them and they will learn how to work the parser and all the rest.
(Although the game ALSO needs to be at least up to current community
standards technically as well, of course.)

IF is not a novel, of course, and shouldn't be thought of like one,
but perhaps we might ask what IF games of recent years would stand up
as a short story or novel. What's the best we've done storytelling-
wise? Photopia? I replayed it recently, and frankly if a short story
I would call it a heartfelt and touching but somewhat heavy-handed
work by a talented amateur with a lot of potential. Anchorhead? A
very solid work, especially in its vivid setting, and guess what? It
gets mentioned and played fairly frequently outside the IF community
even ten years after its release and with little or no active
promotion from its author, something I think we might at least
partially put down to its storytelling ambition.

I'm not saying I could do better than Photopia, certainly not than
Anchorhead. I am, though, saying that if we want to deliver Jim's
hypothetical super-awesome game we need to look beyond parsers and
help systems and interpreters and auto-maps and think about what we
are actually saying with all those tools. People love stories, and
many will get excited by the idea of getting plunked down into the
middle of a good one. This is one area where Infocom excelled, not
just in delivering a good story through their games themselves but
always in selling a story through their game boxes and other
promotional material, and of course through all the feelies and other
stuff in their boxes. Sometimes the actual games were disappointing
after all that set-up, but it didn't matter -- they had our money. :)

It's as if we were a community of authors whose books weren't selling
to the general public, and instead of questioning the content of our
books we instead debated the quality of our paper stock, whether we
should be issuing paperbacks instead of hardcovers, whether our font
face and size were wrong, etc.

I'm not telling anyone what they SHOULD do. I enjoy the in-jokes, the
remakes, the micro-games, the subversions of IF assumptions, even the
badly flawed and amateurish but good-hearted Comp entries. If you DO
want to reach out beyond these newsgroups, though, I'm just suggesting
where you might most productively focus your attention. All just in
my very humble opinion, of course...

--
Jimmy Maher
Editor, SPAG Magazine -- http://www.sparkynet.com/spag
Thank you for helping to keep text adventures alive!

ma...@grandecom.net

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Apr 15, 2008, 10:52:21 PM4/15/08
to
On Apr 15, 2:23 pm, "Aaron A. Reed" <aar...@gmail.com> wrote:

I'm just a little skeptical about reading too much into this data. I
think we always need to remember context...

> One data point is here:http://www.aaronareed.net/wttc/transcripts.html
> <-- where 75 mostly new-to-IF people tried my game Whom the Telling
> Changed.

These were people casually wandering through a series of displays.
Was the Slamdance game contest set up right next to the film
festival? If so, I suspect some percentage may not even have been
interested in videogames, but merely killing time waiting for the next
film to start. Regardless, though, it doesn't surprise me that most
people would type a few tentative things and then wander on when
nothing obviously amazing happened in response. The environment just
wasn't at all conducive to really engaging with a work of IF
literature like your game, and most of the people there probably
weren't that interested to begin with.

> Another is Peter Nepstad's survey of purchasers of 1893, the results

> of which he discussed last year (here:http://groups.google.com/group/rec.arts.int-fiction/browse_frm/thread...
> and here:http://groups.google.com/group/rec.arts.int-fiction/browse_frm/thread...)

This data I also take, after considerable thought, with a big grain of
salt. Most of Peter's sales have come (according to his own
demographc data) from older people browsing gift shops. I suspect
1893 was an impulse purchase for most, and, again, probably got set
aside somewhat quickly when they realized how unfamiliar a creature it
actually was.

> There is a semi-legendary collection of transcripts of people playing
> Zork through a web interface (phpZork?) which I've heard people
> reference but never actually seen. It may be lost to the mists of
> time.

Again, this would be mostly casual surfers who stumbled across the
game, typed a few things in an idle way (usually involving some
percentage of curse words), and moved on.

In short, I think we might be taking these transcripts way, way, way
more seriously than the people who created them were taking their own
interactions with the games.

Of course, I realize that my rejecting all this data might seem
problematic. Perhaps it is just an exercise in wishful thinking. In
my defense, though, I think that the rewards of IF are not immediate,
and thus that the form may not be so well-suited for presentation in
these ways. Yes, a computer kiosk at a show or an online game may
make it easy to begin to interact with a game in a trival way, but the
fact remains that IF requires reading and a certain amount of
exclusive attention. Rather than focusing so much on finding a way to
let people pick up a game and play in a very casual way, perhaps we
should, as I've mentioned elsewhere, put more effort into giving them
a reason to want to play.

S. John Ross

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Apr 15, 2008, 11:39:58 PM4/15/08
to

> And I continue to think a lot of this is more about game design
> (showing the player what he *can* do) than it is about the technical
> sophistication of the parser.

When doing the testing rounds on ToaSK, all but a couple of the
testers were non-IF types ... some of them were genuine newbies (had
never played IF at all), some of them functionally so (had vague
memories of playing IF once-upon-a-time, literally *once* upon that
time, and never since).

Of course, ToaSK has _less_ sophisticated parser than normal, thanks
to lots of code chelating the intelligence of Inform and keeping it
locked away where the parser can't find it :) So maybe that makes
ToaSK a terrible example for this kind of thinking and maybe that
makes it an interesting data-point ... Either way, the noobs caught on
just fine. Looking over the testing transcripts, the pattern was that
the noobs caught on quickly (almost instantly in most cases), while
the couple of IF fans took a few dozen turns or so to rein in their
usual parser expectations, take a deep breath, and sink into the warm
stupidity like a cozy bath.

With only one exception, the testers all hung on for multiple rounds
(nine released testing drafts), with the most enthused playing the
game all the way through a dozen times each (the king of the testers
did even more than that). So, at least in one anecdotal (and possibly
useless, generally) example, steady doses of well-meaning amusement
trumped the need for parser sophistication and kept folks iron-manning
through the grueling testing rounds.

It is my personal strong suspicion (insert the usual disclaimers
describing my own ignorance in mildly poetic terms) that the single
biggest hurdle is nothing more or less than public awareness. I've
been talking to a lot of people about IF lately, and the responses
fall into exactly three categories:

(A) People who have literally never heard of a text adventure in their
lives.
(B) People who recall playing them back-when, and have negative
memories involving getting stuck (never parser complaints ... not a
one ... but always about getting _stuck,_ specifically), and who are
genuinely surprised to hear that people are still making such games.
(C) People who recall playing them back-when, and have positive
memories unmarred by stuckness, who are genuinely surprised to hear
that people are still making such games.

The common thread is that all three groups have no idea modern IF
exists. Now, of course, my experiences are not only anecdotal but
probably skewed every-which-way, but my circle of friends is pretty
broad and varied, and the consistency of the responses has been
notable.

Of course, I think improvements in game design, and writing,
implementation (parser and otherwise), and interpreter sexiness all
sound like peachy-keen things worth pursuing as passions, resources
and skills permit ... but I do also think there's a lot of folks out
there who'd be head-over-heels for this stuff exactly as it is right
now, if only they knew it existed :(

Heck, the only reason I found out about it was that a friend of mine
(some years ago now) was on the testing team for Anchorhead, and
gushed about it. Took me years to follow up on her advice to go
looking ... (and in fact, I never _really_ did until I got that
Activision CD collection as a gift) ..

S. John Ross

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Apr 15, 2008, 11:48:49 PM4/15/08
to

> What has Peter Nepstad told us again and again about his 3000+
> customers who bought 1893? Most were not excited by the idea of IF
> itself -- in fact, most who picked the game up in a gift shop probably
> had no idea HOW it actually played. They were rather excited by the
> idea of experiencing the 1893 World's Fair through their computer.

... similarly, the ToaSK customers (considerably less than 3000, but a
satisfied bunch nevertheless) have expressed little specific
excitement about IF, either, but rather about having a new Encounter
Critical toy to play with, a new way to experience the oddness they
already enjoy in the other Encounter Critical materials.

I think it will always be the case that individual works succeed or
fail on their own merits, rather than on the merits of their medium.
There is a certain dreamy sexiness in being a medium that has a high
built-in level of automatic attention, of course, but when it's down
to brass tacks (or brass lanterns) a work has to stand on its own two
feet (even if it's two left ones).

Dino

unread,
Apr 16, 2008, 12:06:38 AM4/16/08
to

[transcript cut]

But why would you make a Newbie struggle to work out how IF understands
player input? If you gave that guy a sample game transcript of 32 moves
(the number in the transcript you gave), he could be shown explicitly
how to check inventory, get on and off supporters, move around, examine
things, talk to and interact with NPCs. Now almost all of the mistakes
he made would not have been made at all. His first 32 moves in a real
game of IF would have been far less frustrating and far, far more
productive.

Would you put someone who had never before played a first person shooter
down in front of a keyboard and mouse and NOT tell them that W is
forward, S is back, A sidesteps left, D sidesteps right, etc (the
standard convention for this genre of game)? And then sit back and watch
them tap keys at random until they find the ones that move the player,
and reload, etc...

So back to IF, is a “newbie” someone who is new to IF and it’s
conventions? Or is it someone who has no clue, and who also has not been
shown how to interact effectively with the game world in this medium,
but expected to feel their way by trial and error? And which type newbie
should we cater for?

cejp...@googlemail.com

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Apr 16, 2008, 6:42:10 AM4/16/08
to
On Apr 16, 5:06 am, Dino <D...@oniD.com> wrote:
>
> So back to IF, is a "newbie" someone who is new to IF and it's
> conventions? Or is it someone who has no clue, and who also has not been
> shown how to interact effectively with the game world in this medium,
> but expected to feel their way by trial and error? And which type newbie
> should we cater for?- Hide quoted text -
>
> - Show quoted text -

I think there's a fair sized set of people who are interested in the
idea of text-based games and interactive stories, but who find
themselves frequently getting stuck when it comes to figuring out what
to type at that >_ prompt to make things happen. When people talk
about winning over IF newbies, regardless of what they actually mean,
this is the group of people I think of.

Gun Mute seemed to get a few positive comments from these kinds of
newbies. They liked the limited set of useful commands and the
obvious long-term and short-term goals. As has been stated multiple
times in this thread, I think this is a game design and not a parser/
technology/media issue. But I don't think it's a question of simply
*good* design. There are certainly people who enjoy games with vague
goals and loads of items to stick together in strange ways. Designing
a game for that audience is a perfectly valid choice, even though the
resulting experience is unlikely to appeal to the interested-but-
convention-ignorant newbie.

And when it comes to the strength of the storytelling and writing, I
think that the stronger they are, the greater the potential for
frustration if coupled to newbie-unfriendly game mechanics. I know
that I find nothing more aggravating than an IF with characters and
settings I love, but where I keep getting flummoxed by the puzzles.
That's not to say that you shouldn't aim to make the best story you
can, just that you shouldn't expect that to make it appealing to
newbies by itself.

-C.E.J. Pacian

David Fisher

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Apr 16, 2008, 9:09:34 AM4/16/08
to
"Jeff Nyman" <jeffnyman__nospam__@gmail__nospam.com> wrote in message
news:qJadnSj1VLySsZjV...@comcast.com...

> "Mike Roberts" <mj...@hotmail.com> wrote in message
> news:bbydnTsNjNk2ZZnV...@comcast.com...
>
>> I personally don't think there's a lot of value in figuring out what
>> newbies specifically would find entertaining or rewarding, because it
>> seems to me that it ought to be the same things veterans find
>> entertaining and rewarding. Or, to the extent that different people find
>> different things about IF rewarding, I see no reason to think it should
>> cleave by experience level.
...

> I think that we don't have to go very far to determine what "newbies"
> would like or get frustrated by because, to a very large extent, we can
> just look at what various "veterans" or, at least, those with some level
> of experience like or get frustrated by.

I have been making a list of these while going through the RAIF archives --
here are the results so far:

= Matters of taste =

* "story" vs "game"
* puzzle difficulty (enjoying cycle of stuckness & overcoming vs wanting to
keeping on making progress without being stuck for too long on one thing)
* small vs large games
* generic vs well-defined PC
* linear plot vs multiple paths (discovering the author's (single) intended
story vs feeling able to make genuine choices that direct the story)
* having to take notes / make a map
* time limits
* red herrings

= Near universal dislikes =

* "realism" at the expense of gameplay (eg. dying of thirst/hunger after a
certain time)
* severe inventory limits (and not being able to carry tiny objects through
a crack)
* "autopilot" mode (an unexpected series of actions in response to a
command)
* being told how you feel
* games becoming (silently) unwinnable for reasons the player could not have
foreseen
* having "winning" and "losing" endings where either path seemed like a
reasonable choice
* having to perform fiddly actions repeatedly
* missing synonyms
* the required command turning out to be something the player already tried,
but used different wording (or something the player implicitly tried, eg.
"hit statue" implies touching)
* not mentioning something in a description that would be obvious to the PC
(including exits that "bend")
* games not recognising objects in the room description
* puzzles not being logical (even after you know the solution)
* puzzles that require brute force (blind search)
* having to examine/search/look behind/look under absolutely everything
* having to repeat a command several times before it works, without any
encouraging feedback
* instant death without warning (or logical reason)
* unresponsive/flat NPCs
* permanently disabling "undo"
* lack of in-game clues (having to read the author's mind)
* having to be in a certain place at a certain time (without any indication)
* misleading messages (eg. unchanged default messages that lie)
* large number of unnecessary locations
* long text dumps
* bad spelling/grammar

= Universal "likes" =

* good writing
* creative and original situations/stories
* puzzles fitting naturally with the context
* responses to a wide range of commands
* immersive settings
* cool objects/subsystems to master (or play with)
* IF that does what it sets out to do: be pure fun (for a game), be moving
or thought provoking or inspiring or whatever else (for a story), be
challenging and satisfying (for something puzzley), etc.

(Note that these are not off the top of my head -- they are all from past
RAIF posts).

David Fisher


S. John Ross

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Apr 16, 2008, 12:38:25 PM4/16/08
to

> = Near universal dislikes =

Egad, it's the ToaSK design checklist! I'm found out! :)


Jim Aikin

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Apr 16, 2008, 1:01:25 PM4/16/08
to
Fantastic list, David. Thanks!

I would quibble on only one point. In my view, the player is not the
player character. (The player character is referred to as "you" by
convention, but could as easily be "she.") In some situations, telling
the player that the player character can't or won't do something for
reasons of emotion is both necessary and inoffensive. For example:

> dive into lake
You consider diving into the lake, but you've never learned to swim, and
you're afraid of drowning.

Or how about this:

> kiss troll
The idea of kissing the warty troll disgusts you.

Is there anything wrong with those responses? I don't see it.

--JA

Daphne Brinkerhoff

unread,
Apr 16, 2008, 4:55:59 PM4/16/08
to

As a player, I'm not a fan of such responses, variants of "You don't
feel like doing that." Well, yes, I do feel like doing that, or I
wouldn't have typed it. In your second example, I (presumably) knew
it was a warty troll to begin with, so your message gives me no new
information. A default (in Inform or TADS, can't remember which) is
"The warty troll wouldn't appreciate that", which I like better.

Now, if it's something like your first example, I'm more sympathetic,
since the alternative is "You jump. You drown. The end." so you may
as well prevent it in the first place. Yes, it does use feeling-words
("afraid" of drowning), but I read it as more neutral than the second
one. "If you jump, you will drown." That's useful info.

If your PC is really well-established, you can get away with a lot
more of this, IMHO. "Set fire to Hatsumomo's fan? A respectful
geisha would never do that!" if the game has made it clear all along
that you are, in fact, an obedient, respectful geisha. But if you are
a AFGNCAAP (or whatever), I don't see it.

--
Daphne

David Fisher

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Apr 16, 2008, 7:20:36 PM4/16/08
to
"Jim Aikin" <midig...@sbcglobal.net> wrote in message
news:fu5bd3$9ai$1...@aioe.org...

>
> I would quibble on only one point. In my view, the player is not the
> player character. (The player character is referred to as "you" by
> convention, but could as easily be "she.") In some situations, telling the
> player that the player character can't or won't do something for reasons
> of emotion is both necessary and inoffensive.

Totally agree ... such messages are great for PC characterisation (and
constraining the plot).

It should have said:

* being told how you feel, where the PC is intended to be generic ("you"
meaning the player)

Here's a related post in the "Crimes Against Mimesis" thread from 1996:

http://groups.google.com/group/rec.arts.int-fiction/msg/b20ed2251ecd5373

David Fisher


S. John Ross

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Apr 16, 2008, 7:41:27 PM4/16/08
to

> * being told how you feel, where the PC is intended to be generic ("you"
> meaning the player)

One of my least favorite default/canned responses in Inform 7 is the
response for throwing something at a person or animal ...

> Throw the ball of wool at the kitten.
You lack the nerve when it comes to the crucial moment.

Now, my example is pointedly unfair, of course, as the designer should
have kitten-antics coded appropriately and not rely on defaults. But
it's pretty easy for an unplanned-for situation to summon up that
response ... and I wince because it contains such a _definite_ note of
characterization for any kind of "generic adventure" experience,
whether I'm tossing a spellbook at a shoggoth or a shoe at a zombie.

Of course, it's fairly easy, once you get your I7 sea-legs, to replace
that default response with something more character-neutral, so all is
well and I7 survives with pure grooviness intact. But I still remember
the first time I saw it ... yeeek.

David Fisher

unread,
Apr 16, 2008, 8:15:46 PM4/16/08
to
>>> On 17/04/2008 at 9:41 am, in message
<efd59013-6670-4cdc...@24g2000hsh.googlegroups.com>, S. John
Ross<sj...@io.com> wrote:

>> * being told how you feel, where the PC is intended to be generic ("you"
>> meaning the player)
>
> One of my least favorite default/canned responses in Inform 7 is the
> response for throwing something at a person or animal ...
>
>> Throw the ball of wool at the kitten.
> You lack the nerve when it comes to the crucial moment.
>

...


> I still remember the first time I saw it ... yeeek.

I think it's hard for library designers to come up with good default responses ... here's an attempt at more realistic throwing (TADS, I think):

>throw lasagna at Peter
The cooked lasagna hits Peter without any obvious effect, and falls to the carpet.

Possibly the least helpful Inform response:

>push box north
Is that the best you can think of?

David Fisher

Dino

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Apr 16, 2008, 11:07:48 PM4/16/08
to
Jimmy, I fully agree.

S. John Ross

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Apr 16, 2008, 11:27:55 PM4/16/08
to

> I think it's hard for library designers to come up with good default responses ...

Oh, absolutely. I'd find the prospect terrifying and retreat into
dodging the possibilities or going unhelpfully dismissive ("There's no
need.").

> >throw lasagna at Peter
> The cooked lasagna hits Peter without any obvious effect, and falls to the carpet.

Yeah, in the "dodging the possibilities" category, I'd probably go for
something like that or a plain old miss (that would then treat the
thrown item as dropped in the room) like so:

>throw shoe at zombie
Fortunately, it lands where you can still see it.

[by this method I've cravenly avoiding even mentioning whether it hit
or missed, and likewise avoided words like "floor" or "ground" that
might be environment-specific ... it'd still be a bust during a
spacewalk, though ... there's just no way to win, and my hat's off to
the library-writers who soldier on in the face of it]

> >push box north
> Is that the best you can think of?

Yes, that raises an eyebrow :)


David Fisher

unread,
Apr 17, 2008, 12:16:22 AM4/17/08
to
>>> On 17/04/2008 at 1:27 pm, in message
<746f2172-a475-4ff4...@8g2000hsu.googlegroups.com>, S. John

Ross<sj...@io.com> wrote:
>
> Yeah, in the "dodging the possibilities" category, I'd probably go for
> something like that or a plain old miss (that would then treat the
> thrown item as dropped in the room) like so:
>
>>throw shoe at zombie
> Fortunately, it lands where you can still see it.

Hmm ... not bad!

I forgot to mention my favourite:

>throw stone at ground
You miss.

(The next command being:

>look
There is a stone here, hovering several inches above the ground.)

David Fisher

S. John Ross

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Apr 17, 2008, 1:28:10 AM4/17/08
to
> >>throw shoe at zombie
> > Fortunately, it lands where you can still see it.
>
> Hmm ... not bad!

Thankyew.

> I forgot to mention my favourite:
>
> >throw stone at ground
> You miss.
>
> (The next command being:
>
> >look
> There is a stone here, hovering several inches above the ground.)

Awesome. :)

Blank

unread,
Apr 17, 2008, 5:40:49 AM4/17/08
to
Jim Aikin wrote:
> Fantastic list, David. Thanks!
>
> I would quibble on only one point. In my view, the player is not the
> player character. (The player character is referred to as "you" by
> convention, but could as easily be "she.") In some situations, telling
> the player that the player character can't or won't do something for
> reasons of emotion is both necessary and inoffensive. For example:
>

I think this convention may be something that's holding us back. If we
want to have well developed player-characters, then perhaps we need to
switch to describing them as separate people and not allow the text to
conflate them with the player.


> > dive into lake
> You consider diving into the lake, but you've never learned to swim, and
> you're afraid of drowning.
>

> dive into lake

Virginia looks at the murky water and hesitates, rubbing her hands
together.
"Oh, Daddy," she whispers. "I know you never forgot Cecily, but you
should have let me learn to swim."

-- mind you, the experience of writing that snippet above already
suggests different problems: without the additional dialogue I don't
think it's clear that Virginia will never jump into the lake. (i.e. this
is the problem of modelling the boundary again. We don't want players to
waste time trying to explore game that isn't there, but at the same time
want the game to appear limitless. We're trying to both have our cake
and eat it.)

Attempting to make it clear that this is a game limit immediately forced
me to choose between "...somehow you just know Virginia will never take
the plunge." etc., or making her give reasons aloud. But then perhaps a
few games with player-avatars that walk around muttering to themselves
is the price we'll have to pay to investigate this route.

--jz

Blank

unread,
Apr 17, 2008, 5:46:54 AM4/17/08
to
David Fisher wrote:
>>>> On 17/04/2008 at 9:41 am, in message
> <efd59013-6670-4cdc...@24g2000hsh.googlegroups.com>, S. John
> Ross<sj...@io.com> wrote:
>
>>> * being told how you feel, where the PC is intended to be generic ("you"
>>> meaning the player)
>> One of my least favorite default/canned responses in Inform 7 is the
>> response for throwing something at a person or animal ...
>>
>>> Throw the ball of wool at the kitten.
>> You lack the nerve when it comes to the crucial moment.
>>
> ....

>> I still remember the first time I saw it ... yeeek.
>
> I think it's hard for library designers to come up with good default responses ... here's an attempt at more realistic throwing (TADS, I think):
>
> >throw lasagna at Peter
> The cooked lasagna hits Peter without any obvious effect, and falls to the carpet.
>
> Possibly the least helpful Inform response:
>
> >push box north
> Is that the best you can think of?
>

Yes, that one fails the "never be snarky to the player" rule as far as
I'm concerned. I'd prefer "That doesn't appear to be possible."

--jz

> David Fisher
>

Blank

unread,
Apr 17, 2008, 7:02:44 AM4/17/08
to
Jim Aikin wrote:
> Yeah, that transcript is revealing, all right.
>
> A couple of player typos, which advanced software _might_ be able to catch.
>
> The annoying business of forcing the PC to get out of the chair --
> should be (and can be) handled with an implicit action.
>
> 'walk to door' reflects the fact that the player doesn't know a room is
> a single indivisible location.
>
> The default response to 'walk west' is infuriating, but again, an
> implicit door-opening action could be implemented.

>
>>> do I have the ring?
>> That's not a verb I recognise.
>
> The player does not know how to take inventory. A newbie-help system
> could be implemented that would spot 'do I have', discard the rest, and
> explain taking inventory ... but how many different ways might a player
> phrase this? Can they all be spotted? 'what am i carrying?' 'check to
> see what i'm carrying'. 'check whether i have the ring'. Et cetera.
>

I've always felt that "inventory" is an alien way of describing the
activity of finding out what I'm carrying. "posessions" might be better.
For sure, as many synonyms for this basic activity as possible would
be a win.

The more I read these threads, the more I think we (the community)
should put aside parser development for a while and focus on making new
library default messages with the intention of incorporating them into
the standard libraries, so that "newcomer training support" becomes the
default. (Doubtless a meta-command like EXPERT to switch off the
training and support would be useful too.)

What do people think?

--jz


> The player does not know that the knight is still downstairs while the
> current location is upstairs. This could be fixed by having the knight
> say, "Oh, you're going to get the gold. Don't be too long about it! I'll
> wait down here."
>
> A bare 'take' command could print out a list of the currently takeable
> items, which would naturally exclude the coffer.
>
> Once Sir John has appeared in the game and is in an adjacent room, the
> software really ought to say, "He's downstairs," rather than "You seem
> to want to talk to someone."
>
> Attempting to present facts ("the gold is upstairs") to an NPC is
> another of those Gordian knot problems. The software could, however,
> respond to 'john, [something not understood]' with "You can ask or tell
> Sir John about an object. If you have the object, you can show or give
> it to him." That would be implementable.
>
> 'look verbose' is actually an interesting attempt -- as in, "Show me
> _every_ detail, even stuff I might not have noticed before."
>
> Finally, when the PC appears with the gold, Sir John should notice. He
> should say, "Ah, good! You've brought the gold. Give it to me!" That can
> be implemented pretty easily, and would guide the player toward an action.
>
> In sum, most of the problems this newbie had could be fixed with close
> attention to software design. But that doesn't guarantee that some other
> newbie might not have an entirely different set of equally frustrating
> (and equally possible to fix) difficulties.
>
> --JA
>

Blank

unread,
Apr 17, 2008, 7:12:14 AM4/17/08
to
Captain Mikee wrote:
> That was a lot of helpful advice! And it goes to show how much you can
> fix with good game design.
>

True, putting in more work and trying harder will improve just about
anything. But given the current situation of IF being almost entirely
produced by single hobbyists, there's a limit on the amount of
author-time any game will get.

But if we can put the work in once and then use it many times by
building the helpfulness into the system, then it seems to me there's a
better chance of such helpfulness becoming the norm.

-jz


> I wanted to add to this thread that I sometimes wonder how important
> it is to expand the audience. Do we really have a good idea of how big

> the audience is? I don't think r*if participation should be used to
> measure that. I was off both of these lists for nearly 10 years and


> was still playing IF occasionally. I bet there are many players who've
> never been here. Are there statistics for game downloads from the
> archive?
>

> On the other hand, I think newbie-friendliness is VERY important. I've
> played dozens of games but I still feel like a newbie sometimes.

jon.i...@gmail.com

unread,
Apr 17, 2008, 7:14:11 AM4/17/08
to

> Virginia looks at the murky water and hesitates, rubbing her hands
> together.
> "Oh, Daddy," she whispers. "I know you never forgot Cecily, but you
> should have let me learn to swim."

> > > kiss troll


> > The idea of kissing the warty troll disgusts you.

This sort of stuff serves two functions: one, to divert the player
into the right sort of thing, and two, to entertain the player. So the
first could be more like (assuming it's third person still)

>DIVE INTO LAKE
Virginia looks at the murky water and shudders. The thought of it, and
what happened to Cecily, is enough to fill the lake with monsters,
beasts and demons, the kind that would eat a swimmer in moments - and
would claw at the hull of a boat, if there was one.

and the second

>KISS TROLL
Although kissing the troll might well make him let you past, it'd
probably also make him follow you around all day giving you soppy
looks. Which is a little more than you can bear. Especially if anyone
saw you together.


Blank

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Apr 17, 2008, 8:00:43 AM4/17/08
to

Ah, writing skill. That's what I was missing! :o)

--jz

Conrad

unread,
Apr 17, 2008, 10:59:08 AM4/17/08
to
On Apr 17, 7:02 am, Blank <bl...@nowhere.com> wrote:
>
> > The player does not know how to take inventory. A newbie-help system
> > could be implemented that would spot 'do I have', discard the rest, and
> > explain taking inventory ... but how many different ways might a player
> > phrase this? Can they all be spotted? 'what am i carrying?' 'check to
> > see what i'm carrying'. 'check whether i have the ring'. Et cetera.
>
> I've always felt that "inventory" is an alien way of describing the
> activity of finding out what I'm carrying. "posessions" might be better.
>   For sure, as many synonyms for this basic activity as possible would
> be a win.
>
> The more I read these threads, the more I think we (the community)
> should put aside parser development for a while and focus on making new
> library default messages with the intention of incorporating them into
> the standard libraries, so that "newcomer training support" becomes the
> default. (Doubtless a meta-command like EXPERT to switch off the
> training and support would be useful too.)
>
> What do people think?

Why not set up a parser so that (a) with the third consecutive not-
understood command it adds to the default "not understood" message,
"Type HELP for help with framing commands."

Advanced HELP systems permit topic specific help. So, for example,
one can type

> HELP GO

And get information on movement. The basic HELP command would then
give the handles for these pages.

Also, I think one would want displayed prominently on the first page
of the main HELP page an EXAMPLES option, as well as ERRORS and HINT
options. The ERRORS option would describe what different default
error messages might mean:

ie, "I only understood you as far as wanting to VERB." --means that
the game, rightly or wrongly, took a certain word as the verb, and
could not unravel the rest of your command. Keep in mind that as a
human you can tell when certain words are being used as verbs ("ROCK
the boat"), which the computer might mis-understand as nouns (a rock),
and vice-versa.


Yes, using a command line can be unnatural. Pointing and clicking is
unnatural; but an instance of failure in a point-and-click interface
is less noticable than in a command line.


Conrad.

S. John Ross

unread,
Apr 17, 2008, 11:24:08 AM4/17/08
to

> Yes, that one fails the "never be snarky to the player" rule as far as
> I'm concerned.

Another rule that all my favorite games break. Maybe the thing I enjoy
most is the gentle snapping sounds. :)

Jeff Nyman

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Apr 17, 2008, 12:37:41 PM4/17/08
to
"Blank" <bl...@nowhere.com> wrote in message
news:48073beb$1...@news.kcl.ac.uk...

> Ah, writing skill. That's what I was missing! :o)

I'm not speaking about your example or against your example here so please
don't take it this way ...

... but your comment, I think, is right on, at least in terms of the general
problems I've found with people who give textual IF a try.

It more often than not boils down to the level and style of writing, moreso
than just about any issue.

And, of course, level and style of writing is often the same criteria that
people use when judging static fiction as well. So there's definitely a
corollary here but it's one that I've seen the least emphasis put on. (I'm
generalizing, since everytime I say something, somebody manages to point out
threads, Web sites, or whatevers that I totally missed.)

Along with this point, textual IF is not just static fiction. Textual IF is
also a game but, as such, it is *so* predicated upon text that the focus on
level and style of writing is inevitable in more ways than it often is for
graphical games, whether those be graphical adventures or shooters or
whatever.

Going with something you said in another post, you said: "The more I read

these threads, the more I think we (the community) should put aside parser
development for a while and focus on making new library default messages

with the intention of incorporating them into the standard libraries..."

Without speaking to that particular effort, since that could be a good one,
I would also say this:

"We (the community) should put aside certain developments for a while and
focus on making the level and style of writing take on a certain level of
emphasis ...."

There's a major caveat to that and I'll get to it in a moment. The "certain
developments" here that I refer to would be parsers that can understand
"everything" or the complete inclusion of graphics or the inclusion of
sound, etc. (The level of graphics and sound will probably not be able to
compete with other game formats that focus on those elements.) What I think
is necessary is getting people to take the hobby itself to the "next level"
as it were by realizing that you are, in no small measure, engaged in a
storytelling exercise and, as such, the techniques and the practices around
storytelling necessarily must take a certain level of predominance over
other aspects.

This leads right back to the caveat. My statement (and my continual focus on
storytelling over other aspects) probably only matters to those who do want
textual IF to reach a broader audience (or at least see if it can) or to
those who truly see textual IF as an expressive form in which storytelling
should dominate.

I've found the "newbies" are often pretty willing to put up with some level
of gameplay mechanics and learn some of those as they go. (Heck, I've mostly
found they're willing to read a simple "readme" or whatever rather than
having to worry about extensive newbie-friendly tips.)

What most people I've found ("newbie" or otherwise) are most definitely
*not* willing to do is sit through a boring/non-existent story that *also*
has confusing game mechanics. That's practically a non-starter. Also, such
people are often *not* willing to sit through a totally boring story or a
barely existing story. That's a key point. It's a game, yes. But they can
get their games in a wide variety of formats these days. What textual IF
offers over those other formats is emphasis on text and thus more on using
that text as part of a story. What I've found is that people "used to" the
conventions of textual IF are more often able to overlook a story that's
sparse on the ground if there are enough puzzles or other IF tropes to keep
them occupied. That's not the case for a broader audience, including a
broader non-textual-IF-game-playing audience. (I've found this to be
relatively the case among quite varying age groups as well.)

What I have found is that people ("newbie" and non-newbie alike) will, on
average, give some consideration to "sloppy" game mechanics or even learning
those mechanics (such as conversations) if the experience itself seems worth
it; meaning, if they are engaged by the story and entertained by trying to
figure out what has to happen to keep the story moving forward. That
engagement (again, much like static fiction) must be engendered *very*
quickly.

A little side-avenue of my research lately has been taking existing textual
IF works and seeing how *very* quickly it has to be and what seems to be the
determinants that keep someone trying and that keep someone from going
further. So far I've found that these elements are very similar to what
applies for static fiction as well. (I don't find that surprising but there
it is, for what it's worth.)

- Jeff


S. John Ross

unread,
Apr 17, 2008, 1:03:15 PM4/17/08
to

> "We (the community) should put aside certain developments for a while and
> focus on making the level and style of writing take on a certain level of
> emphasis ...."

Given that you guys (the community) have brought Inform 7 into
existence, that's much more likely to happen, I'd say.

As I've said before: if a game is well-written, I will forgive any
number of implementation sins and even a handful of design sins ...
and if a game is poorly written, it won't matter if the design and
implementation are perfect, because I'll never stick around to find
out.


S. John Ross

unread,
Apr 17, 2008, 1:08:42 PM4/17/08
to

I realized just as I hit SEND that my response above might be mistaken
as agreement. It wasn't. For my own tastes, writing will always be
paramount ... but I think that any statement about what game writers
"should" do on a "community" level is inherently counter-productive.
Priorities must always answer to the design goals, and those are
always going to be per-project and per-designer.

YM, as they say, MV.

Jeff Nyman

unread,
Apr 17, 2008, 1:51:02 PM4/17/08
to
"S. John Ross" <sj...@io.com> wrote in message
news:5b408a3f-7b85-4968...@8g2000hsu.googlegroups.com...

> I realized just as I hit SEND that my response above might be mistaken
> as agreement. It wasn't. For my own tastes, writing will always be
> paramount ... but I think that any statement about what game writers
> "should" do on a "community" level is inherently counter-productive.

I agree, hence my caveat in that same post:

"My statement (and my continual focus on storytelling over other aspects)

probably *only matters to those who do want textual IF to reach a broader
audience* (or at least see if it can) or to *those who truly see textual IF
as an expressive form in which storytelling should dominate*." [Emphasis
added.]

If certain people are writing for an audience that does not share those
priorities, then such things will not matter or at least not matter as much.
But if people agree with those sentiments, then I would still argue that
maybe they should focus differently. (Saying they should isn't saying they
must. It's really more a statement of opinion.)

> Priorities must always answer to the design goals, and those are
> always going to be per-project and per-designer.

Absolutely agreed. That being said, design goals are often predicated upon a
presumed audience. That audience (and its response to you) often helps
determine if you reached those goals. As you said: "...if a game is

well-written, I will forgive any number of implementation sins and even a
handful of design sins ... and if a game is poorly written, it won't matter
if the design and implementation are perfect, because I'll never stick
around to find out."

I've found that to be largely true when textual IF is presented outside of
its current community. So while it might be counter-productive to say what a
community should try to focus on, it may also be somewhat productive if it
gets that community thinking in new ways or trying new things. That's part
of what can help keep a community fresh and not simply accepting
traditions/conventions.

After all, if many of us seem to come to the same conclusions and have the
same responses as the "newbies", which numerous threads have seemed to
indicate to me, then that certainly is suggestive of courses of action that
could be attempted and perhaps should be if the community wants to put these
ideas to the test and provide a certain level of focus. That being said, I
do agree with your substantive point, which is that there is nothing to
force a community or even an individual author into someone else's "should"
or "must" (unless you're entering a Comp, I suppose).

- Jeff


S. John Ross

unread,
Apr 17, 2008, 1:57:17 PM4/17/08
to

> I agree, hence my caveat in that same post:
>
> "My statement (and my continual focus on storytelling over other aspects)
> probably *only matters to those who do want textual IF to reach a broader
> audience* (or at least see if it can) or to *those who truly see textual IF
> as an expressive form in which storytelling should dominate*." [Emphasis
> added.]

Fair enough, but in truth I'm in neither of those groups. So I guess
the good news is that there are even _more_ of us who care about the
writing :)


David Fisher

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Apr 17, 2008, 6:40:10 PM4/17/08
to
"Jeff Nyman" <jeffnyman__nospam__@gmail__nospam.com> wrote in message
news:t_WdnWfWWq4taZnV...@comcast.com...

> Who is the "newbie" that everyone talks about?

I had a couple of brushes with IF as I was growing up, and only really
(re)discovered it in 2005, so everything is still fresh for me -- I have
watched two or three people with no background in IF play right through a
game, but I am mainly thinking of myself and my earlier experiences when I
say "newbie".

My very first experience was with The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The
attraction was mainly that you could have a kind of conversation with the
computer -- it responded intelligently to what I typed. I managed to get
past the "Babel fish" puzzle OK, and made it onto the Heart of Gold, but I
had no clue what to do next (and there was no guidance from the game), so I
gave up on it.

My next encounter with IF was with Colossal Cave and Zork. What frustrated
me that time was having exits that led to the same location or turned a bend
without telling the player; that was totally confusing. It also meant that
the "rules" included not actually telling the player things that the PC
would know, which was enough of a deal breaker to quit the game.

Another offputting thing was when it was not possible to do something you
would have been able to do in reality ... not just any old things, but
actions which would have been a reasonable solution to a problem. This was
another deal breaker: being told (implicitly) that it is reality that is
being modeled, but finding out that the real rules are very different (and
feel arbitrary and inconsistent).

What kept me going was (1) the promise of IF -- the idea is fantastic, (2)
starting to get used to the conventions, (3) that there were well designed
games too, and (4) the IF community, which is wonderful to be around. Even
the trolls. (No, I take that back. The second bit, not the first bit).

David Fisher


Blank

unread,
Apr 18, 2008, 8:49:49 AM4/18/08
to
Jeff Nyman wrote:
> "Blank" <bl...@nowhere.com> wrote in message
> news:48073beb$1...@news.kcl.ac.uk...
>
>> Ah, writing skill. That's what I was missing! :o)
>
> I'm not speaking about your example or against your example here so please
> don't take it this way ...
>

Oh don't worry. I've long since gotten past the fantasy that my
first-draft output is pure natural genius. :o)


> .... but your comment, I think, is right on, at least in terms of the general

> problems I've found with people who give textual IF a try.
>

One of the things about IF is that to write it successfully requires
mastery of two different skill-sets: programming and fiction writing.
(Note that academic writing and report writing are two different but
related skill sets.) However, while there is an absolute minimum level
of programming skill below which it is not possible to create IF, the
same is not true for writing skills. It is entirely possible for someone
with um, embryonic fiction-writing skills to release a computationally
competent game.

The result of this is that people who want to create IF naturally first
focus on the essential skills (programming) that they lack, developing
writing skills later in their IF career as the programming becomes
progressively more transparent to them. Unfortunately the current
hobbyist environment of IF means that authors develop more slowly than
they would if they could write IF full-time, and many don't go on to
produce many games and develop as a writer. I think Jim put it best
recently when he commented that going through the archive and playing
games from it irresistibly reminded him of ... a web fiction site whose
name I've completely forgotten. Anyway, why should we be surprised at
seeing the same weaknesses in writing given that we're basically the
same hobbyist demographic?

Going back to an earlier point, I'd add that embryonic IF writers who
come to the medium with some fiction writing skills already developed
probably find that the IF-writing environment disrupts those skills (he
says, boldly extrapolating from a population of one.) I remember being
surprised at how difficult I found it to write in the 2nd person
present. It just felt unnatural and I found that the whole "I, you and
whoever the heck the player is" thing mucked up my POV sense for quite a
while, not only bunting me out of writing mode at particular moments but
as an uncomfortable self-awareness that stopped me getting into the flow
of writing a scene.

By the way, that was me just trying to write IF text in wordpad and not
worrying about the code at all; it was infinitely worse when I was
writing in the source code file. I truly did produce some abysmal,
boring text. The rhythm of what I wrote changed, becoming staccato and
machine-like, and all the descriptions went flat. I think it was echoing
the short programming phrases that I was writing at the same time. I'm
very interested to see if I7 with its more verbose syntax will have the
same contaminating effect once I've better got to grips with the system.
It may be of course that I'm blaming the code when it's just that skills
in writing 3rd person past don't carry over to writing 2nd person
present as easily as I'd assumed.

(It's also possible that IF is wholly unsuitable for me. I've never yet
managed to write a story by mapping out the plot and then slotting in
the scenes. I always begin by investigating the character. As the
character develops, so the plot becomes clear, and the necessities of
the plot then determine the environment. IF seems to demand that I begin
with the environment.)

> It more often than not boils down to the level and style of writing, moreso
> than just about any issue.
>
> And, of course, level and style of writing is often the same criteria that
> people use when judging static fiction as well. So there's definitely a
> corollary here but it's one that I've seen the least emphasis put on. (I'm
> generalizing, since everytime I say something, somebody manages to point out
> threads, Web sites, or whatevers that I totally missed.)
>
> Along with this point, textual IF is not just static fiction. Textual IF is
> also a game but, as such, it is *so* predicated upon text that the focus on
> level and style of writing is inevitable in more ways than it often is for
> graphical games, whether those be graphical adventures or shooters or
> whatever.
>
> Going with something you said in another post, you said: "The more I read
> these threads, the more I think we (the community) should put aside parser
> development for a while and focus on making new library default messages
> with the intention of incorporating them into the standard libraries..."
>
> Without speaking to that particular effort, since that could be a good one,
> I would also say this:
>
> "We (the community) should put aside certain developments for a while and
> focus on making the level and style of writing take on a certain level of
> emphasis ...."
>

Yes, I agree. But that's only been possible (at least for me) for a
short while. For a long time I've had to put up with the library butting
in and making writing decisions: shunting my paragraphs into an
arbitrary order depending on sibling age; insisting on beginning a new
paragraph when a new object is described; appending unwanted state
information - that kind of thing. Given that kind of tin-brained
interference, I can imagine a lot of authors who routinely use subtle
techniques of word placement concluding that IF is not the medium for them.


> There's a major caveat to that and I'll get to it in a moment. The "certain
> developments" here that I refer to would be parsers that can understand
> "everything" or the complete inclusion of graphics or the inclusion of
> sound, etc. (The level of graphics and sound will probably not be able to
> compete with other game formats that focus on those elements.) What I think
> is necessary is getting people to take the hobby itself to the "next level"
> as it were by realizing that you are, in no small measure, engaged in a
> storytelling exercise and, as such, the techniques and the practices around
> storytelling necessarily must take a certain level of predominance over
> other aspects.
>
> This leads right back to the caveat. My statement (and my continual focus on
> storytelling over other aspects) probably only matters to those who do want
> textual IF to reach a broader audience (or at least see if it can) or to
> those who truly see textual IF as an expressive form in which storytelling
> should dominate.
>

I was thinking about the current audience for IF last night, and I was
wondering whether IF in its current form hasn't (effects of
under-advertising aside) already maxed out its potential audience.

Out in the real world when a person comes across a new and mysterious
thing, the majority will look at it, poke it a bit, and then if it
remains incomprehensible and mysterious will just put it back and go off
and do other things. A few people though, find themselves irresistably
drawn back to the thing precisely /because/ it's mysterious. Let's call
these people "researchers." They batter away at a problem undeterred by
the lack of results: "stuckness" is a familiar, everyday experience for
them. It's not that they like stuckness per se, but they're habituated
to it and it's become part of their experience of worthwhile effort.

Doesn't that sound like IF in its current form? An intriguing situation
or object, a blank " >" that lets you try anything and a complete
absence of any hints or guidance. And look at the common response in the
threads to any suggestion of making IF "easier": "Oh, don't tell me the
answer (take away the stuckness) - that would spoil the FUN!"

I'm thinking that IF intended for "readers" rather than "researchers" is
a fundamentally different beast.


> I've found the "newbies" are often pretty willing to put up with some level
> of gameplay mechanics and learn some of those as they go. (Heck, I've mostly
> found they're willing to read a simple "readme" or whatever rather than
> having to worry about extensive newbie-friendly tips.)
>
> What most people I've found ("newbie" or otherwise) are most definitely
> *not* willing to do is sit through a boring/non-existent story that *also*
> has confusing game mechanics. That's practically a non-starter. Also, such
> people are often *not* willing to sit through a totally boring story or a
> barely existing story. That's a key point.

And I think this is the big problem for IF at the moment. Stories are
about *characters*. The thing that IF does least well is representing
characters in the fictional world. Doubtless you've already read all the
threads about npc characterisation so I won't recapitulate all that
except to say tha I believe that if we were able to implement strong AI
tomorrow it wouldn't mean that we'd be able to tell better stories,
because the presence of an AI in the world would be the representation
of an artificial /person/, and characters are not people. Characters are
fictional simplifications of people constructed for a dramatic purpose.
This is what gives me hope that IF can surmount the hurdle of presenting
convincing characters and so come good on the "Fiction" bit of IF.

The problem as I see it at the moment is that our audience carries over
from real life the hard division between living and inanimate objects.
So we present a character, say "Mrs O'Toole" who for the first few
interactions successfully manages to "pass" for animate, but the first
time she demonstrates her artificiality, the audience's belief
collapses. Why is that? It's not a problem when people go to the
theatre; stage sets are trivially distinguishable from the real world.
And photographs of people /are/ just "things", yet we often treat them
with respect and relate to them as symbols of people without for a
moment needing to believe that the image is alive, so why doesn't that
work for "Mrs O'Toole"?

I'm still thinking.


> It's a game, yes. But they can
> get their games in a wide variety of formats these days. What textual IF
> offers over those other formats is emphasis on text and thus more on using
> that text as part of a story. What I've found is that people "used to" the
> conventions of textual IF are more often able to overlook a story that's
> sparse on the ground if there are enough puzzles or other IF tropes to keep
> them occupied. That's not the case for a broader audience, including a
> broader non-textual-IF-game-playing audience. (I've found this to be
> relatively the case among quite varying age groups as well.)
>
> What I have found is that people ("newbie" and non-newbie alike) will, on
> average, give some consideration to "sloppy" game mechanics or even learning
> those mechanics (such as conversations) if the experience itself seems worth
> it; meaning, if they are engaged by the story and entertained by trying to
> figure out what has to happen to keep the story moving forward. That
> engagement (again, much like static fiction) must be engendered *very*
> quickly.
>
> A little side-avenue of my research lately has been taking existing textual
> IF works and seeing how *very* quickly it has to be and what seems to be the
> determinants that keep someone trying and that keep someone from going
> further. So far I've found that these elements are very similar to what
> applies for static fiction as well. (I don't find that surprising but there
> it is, for what it's worth.)
>
> - Jeff
>

Thanks for a very thought-provoking post.

--jz

>

Andrew Plotkin

unread,
Apr 18, 2008, 9:43:50 AM4/18/08
to
Here, Blank <bl...@nowhere.com> wrote:
>
> I was thinking about the current audience for IF last night, and I was
> wondering whether IF in its current form hasn't (effects of
> under-advertising aside) already maxed out its potential audience.
>
> Out in the real world when a person comes across a new and mysterious
> thing, the majority will look at it, poke it a bit, and then if it
> remains incomprehensible and mysterious will just put it back and go off
> and do other things. A few people though, find themselves irresistably
> drawn back to the thing precisely /because/ it's mysterious. Let's call
> these people "researchers." They batter away at a problem undeterred by
> the lack of results: "stuckness" is a familiar, everyday experience for
> them. It's not that they like stuckness per se, but they're habituated
> to it and it's become part of their experience of worthwhile effort.
>
> Doesn't that sound like IF in its current form?

Well, yes, but that has nothing to do with whether it's maxed out its
potential audience. It could just as well describe a situation where
most people haven't tried it yet.

--Z

--
"And Aholibamah bare Jeush, and Jaalam, and Korah: these were the borogoves..."
*
It's a nice distinction to tell American soldiers (and Iraqis) to die in
Iraq for the sake of democracy (ignoring the question of whether it's
*working*) and then whine that "The Constitution is not a suicide pact."

S. John Ross

unread,
Apr 18, 2008, 12:50:03 PM4/18/08
to
> One of the things about IF is that to write it successfully requires
> mastery of two different skill-sets:

Three, I'd say, equally crucial: Game Writing, Game Design, and
Programming. Just as (as you've said) a game can be well-implemented
but poorly written, a game can be well-written and well-implemented
but disastrously designed, and so on.

... and all three of those skills draw on differnent faculties,
different kinds of learning and thinking, and (I believe) thrive in
different personality types. Any of them can be learned to some
degree, but in terms of real affinity that's three big hats to wear at
one time (or even in rapid sequence). Some folks will have a knack for
all three, and here I pause for a moment of silent envy aimed
respectfully in their direction. For my own part, I'll _never_ be a
programmer. I lack the fundamental aptitude, let alone any real
interest, skill, or (outside of IF) experience. That's always going to
be my failing when writing this stuff, and I'll always make up for it
by (A) shaping the play experience around the fullest exploitation of
what little I _can_ do and (B) drawing on my experiences as a game-
testing coordinator to simply brute-force the game into a high
polish. :)

But, the usual caveat: my work has its own audiences (which only
barely overlap one another, and which have virtually no overlap with
the IF crowd), and is aimed solely at them, which means the relevance
of what I'm yabbering about may be minimal. My ignorance is vast, and
multi-faceted.

Jim Aikin

unread,
Apr 18, 2008, 1:37:59 PM4/18/08
to
Blank wrote:
>
> The result of this is that people who want to create IF naturally first
> focus on the essential skills (programming) that they lack, developing
> writing skills later in their IF career as the programming becomes
> progressively more transparent to them. Unfortunately the current
> hobbyist environment of IF means that authors develop more slowly than
> they would if they could write IF full-time, and many don't go on to
> produce many games and develop as a writer. I think Jim put it best
> recently when he commented that going through the archive and playing
> games from it irresistibly reminded him of ... a web fiction site whose
> name I've completely forgotten.

critters.org. It's an online-only critique group for aspiring writers of
science fiction, fantasy, and horror. You can join and read a couple of
dozen wanna-be stories (or novel excerpts) every week. Doing so can be a
very educational experience, even if you never submit a story or a
critique. (And I'd encourage all aspiring IF authors to do both.)

> By the way, that was me just trying to write IF text in wordpad and not
> worrying about the code at all; it was infinitely worse when I was
> writing in the source code file. I truly did produce some abysmal,
> boring text. The rhythm of what I wrote changed, becoming staccato and
> machine-like, and all the descriptions went flat. I think it was echoing
> the short programming phrases that I was writing at the same time.

That's one of my underlying issues with I7. I much prefer to separate
the writing part of my brain from the coding part of my brain.

The other thing that, in my view, hampers the production of interesting
prose in IF is that one is always writing short, self-contained snippets
that the reader will encounter in some arbitrary order. Thus it is, in
principle, extremely difficult to develop any kind of flow across
multiple paragraphs. Want to start a metaphor in the room description
and pick it up in mid-stream in the description of the vase on the
mantel? Good luck with that: The player may 'x vase' after examining
five other things, at which point the metaphoric allusion in the vase's
description will make very little sense.


> For a long time I've had to put up with the library butting
> in and making writing decisions: shunting my paragraphs into an
> arbitrary order depending on sibling age; insisting on beginning a new
> paragraph when a new object is described; appending unwanted state
> information - that kind of thing. Given that kind of tin-brained
> interference, I can imagine a lot of authors who routinely use subtle
> techniques of word placement concluding that IF is not the medium for them.

Or having often to suppress the temptation to hit the computer with a
baseball bat, yes. I have a big problem with this in TADS 3, precisely
because the library is so well developed. The library will often insert
little messages that unmercifully sabotage the writing. Figuring out
where the messages are coming from and how to suppress them is, frankly,
no fun at all. It gets easier, but it never gets to be fun.

>> What most people I've found ("newbie" or otherwise) are most
>> definitely *not* willing to do is sit through a boring/non-existent
>> story that *also* has confusing game mechanics. That's practically a
>> non-starter. Also, such people are often *not* willing to sit through
>> a totally boring story or a barely existing story. That's a key point.
>
> And I think this is the big problem for IF at the moment. Stories are
> about *characters*.

I totally agree. Last night I stumbled across a second issue that may be
just as telling. To elaborate:

I recently wrote a conventional story (sold it to F&SF, hooray!) that
brings tears to my eyes every time I read it. If I could manage that
every time, I'd sell a lot more stories. The thing that is so
emotionally affecting in this story (to me, anyway) is the narrator's
LOSS. At the end of the story, her life has been deprived of a rich
experience that she can't even envision very clearly. She only dimly
senses that something has been irretrievably lost.

I'm not sure that such an effect could ever be achieved in IF, simply
because the player expects to be able to *WIN*. A work of IF that relied
for its emotional effect on the impossibility of winning would most
likely send players into paroxysms of rage. At the very least, they
would persist in trying to win, thinking they had done something wrong,
when in fact there was no happy ending to be reached.

In an emotional sense, winning is boring. That's why Shakespeare's
greatest plays are his tragedies.

> The problem as I see it at the moment is that our audience carries over
> from real life the hard division between living and inanimate objects.
> So we present a character, say "Mrs O'Toole" who for the first few
> interactions successfully manages to "pass" for animate, but the first
> time she demonstrates her artificiality, the audience's belief
> collapses. Why is that? It's not a problem when people go to the
> theatre; stage sets are trivially distinguishable from the real world.

Right, but the actors are real, and the actors are what everybody is
focusing on.

I think good coding can help a lot in creating realistic NPCs. Using the
T3 StopEventList class, you can give an NPC a series of responses to
each single topic, ending with something like, "I've already told you
everything I know about that. Can't you see I'm busy?" (And even that
response can include random variations.) Other techniques, such as
giving the NPC AgendaItems to execute and various ActorStates in which
they may respond differently to the same topics, are also easily
achieved. It's just a lot of work, that's all.

--JA

S. John Ross

unread,
Apr 18, 2008, 6:09:30 PM4/18/08
to

> Three, I'd say, equally crucial: Game Writing, Game Design, and
> Programming. Just as (as you've said) a game can be well-implemented
> but poorly written, a game can be well-written and well-implemented
> but disastrously designed, and so on.

(addendum: for those who dislike/avoid the term "game," just mentally
remove it and the post's intended meaning remains unaltered)


Gio

unread,
Apr 18, 2008, 6:24:30 PM4/18/08
to
> (addendum: for those who dislike/avoid the term "game," just mentally
> remove it and the post's intended meaning remains unaltered)

I dunno. Why avoid the term at all? If you're not writing a game, go
write a novel or hyperfiction. Seriously.

- Gio

--
AND NOW FOR A WORD (an IF blog):

http://giomancer.wordpress.com/

S. John Ross

unread,
Apr 18, 2008, 6:39:30 PM4/18/08
to

> I dunno. Why avoid the term at all?

I don't.

> If you're not writing a game, go
> write a novel or hyperfiction. Seriously.

Why would I write anything but a game? I'm a game writer.


Jim Aikin

unread,
Apr 18, 2008, 6:40:24 PM4/18/08
to
Gio wrote:
>> (addendum: for those who dislike/avoid the term "game," just mentally
>> remove it and the post's intended meaning remains unaltered)
>
> I dunno. Why avoid the term at all? If you're not writing a game, go
> write a novel or hyperfiction. Seriously.

You may be right about this. The snob in me resists it, but it's
probably true.

OTOH, who could possibly take hyperfiction seriously?

--JA

Gio

unread,
Apr 18, 2008, 7:53:36 PM4/18/08
to
Not you, S. John. :) People that would avoid the term "game" as applied
to IF.

Emily Short

unread,
Apr 18, 2008, 8:19:11 PM4/18/08