Starting up the game discussion thread again

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Lance Campbell

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Feb 5, 2020, 3:30:32 PM2/5/20
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Hi all,

Now that my calendar has cleared again, I would like to open up a new thread for my next game suggestion. Since we already have the author in our midst, I suggest we check out A Beauty Cold and Austere.

Personally, I have only played a small part of the game and I am looking forward to returning to it again. I am a big math geek and I also thought it would be interesting to hear from people who are not big math fans. That should provide a diverse discussion.

I will check back in a month to see what you all think.

Lance.

Lance Campbell

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Feb 9, 2020, 10:53:20 AM2/9/20
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So, I finished up ABCA this weekend. I'm not going to go into too many game details on this initial post as I want to give others a chance to check it out and contribute this month.

I did have a few initial questions for Mike, just to get some more background on the game.

My first high level impressions are: it's big, it's polished and well-implemented, it's tough but fair (I had to use the hints and walkthrough a few times, but the solutions made sense), and it's a very Mike Spivey game: academia, history, puzzle intensive, and, of course, mathematics.

I'm going to try to ask some questions that have not been posed, but overlap is inevitable. Still, I will do my best.

I was very impressed at the scope and quality of ABCA. So, just to confirm again, this is your first game you've ever made? Did you originally design a game this large? How much revision did it go through after testing? How much addition, etc.? I only ask these questions because I feel like ABCA is unusual for a first time author.

You listed out the author names of the extensions you used, but what were some of the extensions you used that really helped provide some structure and heavy lifting in different parts of ABCA?

I thought I read that there is supposed to be a reference to a reviewer in the latest version of ABCA but I didn't find it. Or did I just create that fact from one of my own hallucinogenic mathematical dreams?

What's with the laundry room? (okay, one game detail)

The Chinese Room has been cited as one of the influences for ABCA but, other than that, are there any other games that are like ABCA out there? I think the answer is "no" and that was a big motivation for you to make it. But maybe I missed some possibilities.

That's it for me for now. Appreciate any info.

Mike Spivey

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Feb 9, 2020, 5:52:32 PM2/9/20
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Hi, Lance (and everyone else).  Thanks for your interest in my game.  Responses embedded below.


On Sun, Feb 9, 2020 at 7:53 AM Lance Campbell <lkcam...@gmail.com> wrote:
So, I finished up ABCA this weekend. I'm not going to go into too many game details on this initial post as I want to give others a chance to check it out and contribute this month.

I did have a few initial questions for Mike, just to get some more background on the game.

My first high level impressions are: it's big, it's polished and well-implemented, it's tough but fair (I had to use the hints and walkthrough a few times, but the solutions made sense), and it's a very Mike Spivey game: academia, history, puzzle intensive, and, of course, mathematics.

I'm going to try to ask some questions that have not been posed, but overlap is inevitable. Still, I will do my best.

I was very impressed at the scope and quality of ABCA. So, just to confirm again, this is your first game you've ever made?

A Beauty Cold and Austere is the first work of IF I completed.  When I was a kid in the 1980s I got my hands on a copy of something called the "Computer Novel Construction Set" - it was on off-the-shelf toolkit for creating text adventures.  I tried making a few games with it, but none of them amounted to much.  Then in 1995 I bought a book called Fatal Distractions: 87 of the Very Best Ways to Get Beaten, Eaten, Maimed, and Mauled on Your PC.  There was a copy of the Adventure Game Toolkit on the CD that came with it.  Using the AGT I wrote part of a "my crappy dorm room" game set at the summer camp where I was working.  The game was terrible, and I never finished it.  Between 1995 and 2017, though, I gained a lot of stick-to-it-iveness, patience, self-confidence, and all-around maturity. :)    

Incidentally, Fatal Distractions was one of the links that eventually led me to writing ABCA.  I had loved the Infocom games as a kid but had thought (circa 1990) that text adventures died with the demise of Infocom.  But the CD that came with Fatal Distractions had some really good text adventures on it (like Shades of Grey and The Multidimensional Thief) - games that had been written with the AGT.  I went looking on the (at-the-time) nascent Internet to see if there were more text adventures out there, and I discovered what I think must have been the rec.arts.if group.  I bounced off of it for some reason (perhaps because there was a game I tried that was recommended but I just couldn't get into - I can't remember its name now).  But 20 years later when I decided to give IF another try I remembered that those folks on that discussion group had been talking a lot about some game called Curses.  So I looked up Curses, tried it, and loved it.  That led me to the modern hobbyist IF scene and to the writing of ABCA. 
 
Did you originally design a game this large?

Even larger, actually.  When I decided I was going to write a game where the puzzles were all mathematical I realized I needed some unifying theme.  It didn't take long to settle on the history of mathematics as the theme, so that the player starts with basic concepts (a number line) and then moves to algebra and geometry and eventually to more complicated and recent mathematical developments.  To help plan the game, I created a concept map for mathematical ideas, and then I built the game around the concept map.  However, after getting ABCA up to about 1900, mathematically speaking, I realized I had a lot of game and just needed to wrap it up.  So there's very little post-1900 mathematics in the game.  I'm a little sad about that, but if someday I decide to write a sequel I've got plenty of material to work with.

Also, when I first designed the game my mental templates for "This is IF" were the Infocom games and Curses.  Those are all much bigger than many of today's games.  So while I knew my game was on the large side, on some level I thought it was still within the normal size range for IF.  I hadn't realized yet how much IF had shifted over the years to shorter games.

How much revision did it go through after testing? How much addition, etc.?

Lots of revision, although nearly all of that was polishing.  Timewise, I think I finished the first draft of the game in mid-June of 2017.  I can't remember for sure, but I think it may have been about 60,000-70,000 words in Inform 7 at that point.  I sent it out to testers, some of whom (Brian Rushton, Andrew Schultz, and David White in particular) gave it a very thorough playthrough.  I spent most of July and part of August responding to their suggestions and fixing bugs they found, as well as writing the hint system.  The version I submitted to IFComp was nearly 120,000 words.  I hadn't intended to write that much, but it just kept getting bigger as I kept fixing things, adding synonyms, etc.  (The hint system is quite large, by the way - about 18,000 words.  So it's roughly 15% of the entire game.  For comparison, Junior Arithmancer is only about 20,000 words.)

Major changes resulting from testing... the biggest one I can think of has to do with the farmer.  Originally you were supposed to acquire a black box that you could use to represent a problem algebraically.  Then, when you met the farmer, he just described his problem to you instead of writing it down.  You were supposed to activate the black box, which would represent his problem as an algebraic equation on a card of some kind.  Then you use that card as normally in the published version of the game.  The idea was to have the game emphasize that the process of modeling a real-world problem mathematically is a challenge separate from solving a math problem.  But every one of my testers who got that far found the black box confusing, even after I tried multiple variations on the box.  So I ended up scrapping it.  Pennings the dog was a late addition, too, and he wasn't thoroughly tested.  I expected players to find some bugs with him, but nobody has reported one so far.

Oh, yeah - another major change was a rejiggering of the locations on each level.  Originally the Zork area was at the bottom level of the game, as I intended it to represent the development of computers as an outgrowth of mathematics in the 20th century.  However, multiple reviewers complained that they were collecting a bunch of books that they didn't know what to do with.  So I moved the Zork area up to a higher level and dropped the roller coaster and sequences-and-series machines areas down a level each to compensate.

The scene in the hotel was a late addition to the design, but it was probably before testing.  Same with the 69,105 location.

I did make a few major changes to the game after IFComp 2017.  A few of my testers had found the early room with the balance scales confusing - in the sense that they couldn't even figure out what they were supposed to be doing with it.  But I had also had my then-nine-year-old son play through the early part of the game, and he (despite no algebra background) had figured the puzzle out.  So I thought that if a nine-year-old could handle it, it was probably fine.  Then, during IFComp, one of the most common criticisms I saw of the game was how confusing the balance scales puzzle was.  I remembered that my son had been playing the game with me by his side, offering little nudges.  So he hadn't figured the puzzle out independently, and I should have been listening to my testers all along!  (General authoring principle: Listen to your testers!)  So I rewrote part of the balance scales puzzle to make it more clear what's going on there.

Another big change had to do with the inventory limit.  Again, I had the Infocom games and Curses as the IF templates in my head, so I thought it would be really cool to mimic Curses and have ABCA feature an inventory limit that could be overcome fairly early in the game with a carryall that the player can find.  Well.  I hadn't realized that many modern players despise inventory limits with the burning fury of 1000 suns, and I also hadn't fully appreciated that I had positioned the carryall in ABCA so that you could get at least a quarter or so of the way through the game without discovering it.  IFComp enlightened me on both counts, and so for release 2 I made it much easier for the player to acquire the carryall.  For what it's worth, three years later and much further into the modern IF scene I find myself agreeing that inventory limits aren't much fun and don't add a lot to most games.  That still didn't stop me from enjoying - in a slightly subversive sort of way - creating a scoring system that incentivizes players to work with inventory limits in Sugarlawn. :)
 
I only ask these questions because I feel like ABCA is unusual for a first time author.    

I don't think it's unusual for an author's first game to be big.  We aren't good at scoping at that point, and we don't realize how much testing and polishing will add to the size of the game.  Maybe what's unusual is that I finished it?  I did have some big advantages, though: Much of what sustained me in the writing of ABCA was my hope and excitement that it could be used for professional purposes - teaching mathematics in a new medium.  So it wasn't just something fun I was doing in my spare time.  And since I'm an academic, I was able to give ABCA the better part of three months' full-time work during the summer of 2017.  

You listed out the author names of the extensions you used, but what were some of the extensions you used that really helped provide some structure and heavy lifting in different parts of ABCA?

Eric Eve's Adaptive Hints was absolutely essential for the hint system.  Jesse McGrew's Conditional Undo was necessary for the removal of UNDO in the Casino.  The help menus rely on Emily Short's Basic Help Menu.  Emily's Basic Screen Effects does a bunch of things in ABCA as well.  I would have had a hard time coming up on my own with the code that those four extensions provide.  Most of the others are cosmetic (e.g. Andrew Plotkin's Serial And Fix) or made things easier but I probably could have gotten by without them (e.g. Graham Nelson's Rideable Vehicles).
 
I thought I read that there is supposed to be a reference to a reviewer in the latest version of ABCA but I didn't find it. Or did I just create that fact from one of my own hallucinogenic mathematical dreams?

Release 2 changed the PC's nameless math professor to "Professor Glasser."  That's because Lynnea Glasser won the reviewer side contest run by Brian Rushton during IFComp 2017.  The authors offered a few prizes and then voted on the reviewers we thought did the best job.  Lynnea had done these great video playthrough reviews of all 79 IFComp games and won the reviewing competition.  She chose the prize I had offered and had her name appear in the game.  If you look up Professor Glasser in the math book it gives you a little info about her. 

Also, Lynnea suggested the Maryam Mirzakhani quote that appears on the door of the white house in Release 2 and later.  I'm glad she suggested it: It's a great quote, and since the Fields Medal-winning Mirzakhani died of cancer (at age 40) during the writing of ABCA I'm happy that I was able to put that in the game as a small tribute to her.  

What's with the laundry room? (okay, one game detail)

Without the laundry room it's possible to lock yourself out of victory.  If you get the x-finder wet with the wrong value on it you're stuck.  So you can fix it by drying out the x-finder in the dryer in the laundry room.
 
The Chinese Room has been cited as one of the influences for ABCA but, other than that, are there any other games that are like ABCA out there? I think the answer is "no" and that was a big motivation for you to make it. But maybe I missed some possibilities.

The idea for ABCA came more from Trinity.  There's a puzzle in Trinity where the player has to understand the properties of a Klein bottle.  When I played Trinity at age 13 I had never before heard of a Klein bottle, and the concept was fascinating - as was  encountering it in a work of IF.  While playing Curses I started thinking, "What if wrote an entire game full of puzzles like that puzzle in Trinity?"  In fact, I only discovered The Chinese Room after I started working on ABCA.  The Chinese Room's primary influence was more in the sense of a successful proof-of-concept: Here's a really good game that does for philosophy what mine is trying to do for mathematics.  It gave me more confidence that I had settled on a sound game idea.  

There are a couple of old British text adventures from the 1980s that are full of mathematical puzzles: L: A Mathemagical Adventure and Giantkiller.  You can find them both on the IFDB.  They're aimed at a different level, mathematically-speaking, than ABCA is.  I haven't played L, but Giantkiller was better than I expected it to be.

There are some other IF games that have lots of mathematical puzzles, like Erewhon - and maybe Strange Geometries (although I haven't played the latter).  And there are some other games with a heavy educational focus, like Andrew Plotkin's Scheme tutorial Lists and Lists.  But, yeah, as far as I know The Chinese Room is the closest IF to what ABCA is trying to do.
 
That's it for me for now. Appreciate any info.

If all that verbiage I just wrote is not enough, I also wrote a postmortem for ABCA after IFComp 2017. :)  


Mike
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