Slow Progress


As cynics may have predicted, progress on The Z-Machine Matter has slowed to a crawl since IntroComp.  I've been in a new job for some months and the workload continues to increase.  I love my job, so that's not going to change any time soon.  I've given up exercise for the most part, and my guitar playing is suffering.  But I still haven't found much time for programming.  

Still I managed to get in a couple of hours of editing this past weekend to focus on improving the writing in the game.  Seems to me I have to make some big improvements in that area before worrying about finishing the game. I will keep at this as long as I can, but I'm hoping that over Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays I might get some more time. 

Otherwise, I'm open to ideas...

More Z-Machine Matter Graphics

Maybe I've gotten a little carried away now on the graphics front when I should be more worried about finishing the game.  Nonetheless, here's a cover for the user manual of The Z-Machine matter rendered in the style of a 1950's pulp detective magazine.  I created this many months ago while the project was in the early stages.  But I haven't gotten around to adding it to the manual.


I thought the style of the graphics fit well with the whole retro / Infocom style.  The stories are tongue-in-cheek and centered around Johnny Dollar's role as an insurance detective.  I'll add this to a future revision of the manual.

Next Steps for The Z-Machine Matter

Considering the various reviews and Introcomp feedback on my game The Z-Machine Matter, there's no doubt a lot of work ahead of me.  I feel like I signed up for a 10k race and somehow ended up in a Marathon.  Maybe an Ultra Marathon.  Here's my own assessment of The Z-Machine Matter in its current state:

  • As a prototype or proof of concept, it's not bad for those who like old-school mysteries
  • The PDF manual, plot and characters pay hommage to classic Infocom mystery games
  • There's a hint of a multi-layered plot around a murder mystery with cold war intrigue
  • There's some decent use of Inform Extensions, built-in hints and standard commands to suggest the game may one day have reasonably good fit & finish 


  • Not everyone is impressed by having an homage to Infocom
  • The game needs to be more engaging  --IF references alone don't make it interesting
  • Where there are IF references they need to be more clever
  • Some of the IF references may be too much of a distraction
  • As a prototype, the code is a bit of a hack -- some things don't work as expected
  • There's a lot of hard-coded logic that need to be made more general
  • There's a combinatorial explosion of objects, some of which serve no purpose yet
  • There's a need to pace how much information, topics, objects are put in front of the player in order to have more controlled pacing and more digestible information
  • The writing, especially room descriptions, needs to better convey an atmosphere of mystery
  • The dialog needs work to be more authentic, less stilted
  • The NPCs need work to be more observant of what's happening around them
  • NPC reactions need to be based on what's been revealed and what's still a secret
  • The NPCs need to help guide the story rather than just respond to questions
  • There's too much stuff lying around in closets and desk drawers 
  • There are pacing issues that need to be adjusted
  • There are still occasional ambiguity problems
  • Commands like ANALYZE, ACCUSE, ARREST still need to be implemented
  • The logic behind motives, alibis and suspects needs to be completed
  • The paceholder end of Act II needs to be more dramatic and robust
  • I need to decide whether additional locations and characters are required or whether I can limit the scope of the story to what's currently in place

The last point is perhaps the most important.  My original story outline includes The Brass Lantern, a roadhouse not far from the Blakely Estate and a barkeep named Nelson Graham. I'm not so concerned with the additional effort of writing that section, but figuring out how to keep the pacing tight could be a challenge.  And in the meantime, I think I need to focus on tightening up Act II before jumping into Act III.

No doubt there's a lot of work ahead.  With a more-than-fulltime job, it's gonna be a challenge.  But if I can break it down into smaller steps, perhaps I can just take it 1 mile at a time.  Meanwhile, feedback, suggestions, input and SCRIPT transcripts are always welcome!  

I used the IntroComp time period as a way to take a break from the source code other than fixing very minor errors, typos, etc. So now I'm ready to dive back in.

Thank you IntroComp!

Now that IntroComp is over, I want to extend my thanks to Jacqueline the organizer as well as to all those who submitted games or voted.  Congratulations to the winners: Choice of Zombies, Speculative Fiction and Choice of The Petal Throne.

Even with today's great tools like Inform7, Tads, Hugo, Alan, ChoiceScript, it still takes a lot of effort (and gumption!) to create Interactive Fiction.  Hopefully this year's crop of entrants will have received feedback & motivation to help them finish their games.  

Creating IF is quite different from as writing a novel or conventional game programming. You've got to get the right blend of prose and interaction to make it work.  My respect for those who have successfully completed IF projects is immense.

While some of the feedback on my game The Z-Machine Matter has been encouraging, it's also been a humbling experience.  The first published reviews for The Z-Machine Matter were pretty harsh and I felt like I let people down.  But some of the more detailed later reviews were very insightful and pointed out areas of the game that could be improved, whether it was the writing, pacing or some of the IF references that became a distraction.

There are definitely some coding issues I chose to ignore in my IntroComp entry and these need to be addressed in order for the game to be more robust.  There's also a need to improve the writing to convey more of the atmosphere of the story.  Likely I will need to do some pruning in the scope of the game and the various objects to make things more manageable.  

But overall it has been a great experience and I appreciate all the feedback.  For anyone who has played the game I encourage you to send me the SCRIPT transcript file as well as any additional comments or suggestions.  I've found this the best way for me to see the game through the player's eyes.

Now I've got to figure out how I can spend weekends for the next few months boning up on Inform7 and writing in order to improve the game.  Or maybe I should just spend it finishing LA Noire...

IntroComp 2011

IntroComp 2011 is now officially open. This year there are an impressive 13 games entered --more than any prior year.  I don't know that any single factor has led to an increase, but I would imagine it's in part due to the proliferation of good tools (Inform7, TADS, ChoiceScript), excellent documentation (Inform7 book by Aaron Reed, Inform7 for programmersInform7 Cheat Sheet) and the release of the Get Lamp documentary last year.  

But whatever the reason, it's definitely a bumper crop of games of various genres including Science Fiction, Mystery and Speculative Fiction:

  • Bender, by Katz
  • Choice of the Petal Throne, by Danielle Goudeau
  • Choice of Zombies, by Heather Albano
  • Chunky Blues, by Scott Hammack and Jessamin Yu
  • The Despondency Index, by Ed Blair
  • Exile, by SimonGargoyle, by Simon
  • Of Pots and Mushrooms, by Devi and Maya
  • Parthenon, by Charles Wickersham
  • Seasons, by MT
  • Speculative Fiction, by Thomas Mack
  • Stalling for Time, by Dominic Delabruere
  • The Z-Machine Matter, by Zack Urlocker

I hope many readers of this blog will try out some of the IntroComp games and give the authors encouragement to complete their projects. Note that the voting deadline is July 17.  Some reviews are already popping up on the intraweb and I hope more will follow.

As proud as I am of getting my own Infocom-inspired cold-war murder mystery The Z-Machine Matter into the competition, I'm equally proud to be among so many new authors this year.  While I can't vote in the competition, I will be trying out some of the games. And for those who are interested to see the state of the art among new authors, I encourage you to check out many of these games.

Submitting to IntroComp

 Screen shot 2011-06-24 at 9.12.05 PM

After some final tweeks on timing and moving some objects around I'm ready to hit the upload button and put the latest alpha release of The Z-Machine Matter into the IntroComp hopper.  The source code clocks in at about 230 pages, 10,600 lines, 70,000 words.  There are 194 things, 44 rooms, 5 NPCs and at least 2 dead bodies.  And that's just the first two acts.  So who knows what will happen in the third act?  (Sometimes, I'm not even sure myself.)  There's also a 12 page Infocom-style PDF manual with mocked up packaging, on line Help, Hints, a Trizbort map, a mostly up-to-date walkthrough file and a fake ad

Based on alpha feedback, I've fixed more than a hundred typos, bugs, disambiguities and other problems. I have added dozens of new commands, synonyms, IF references, "understand as a mistake" statements and far too many "it is likely" commands.  No doubt there is plenty more code to be written in the next act of the game and even more bug fixes before the game is complete.  

Some months ago I started this project by writing a 20 page document that defined the background, storyline, characters and plot.  Then I picked up Aaron Reed's excellent book "Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7" and started coding a prototype.  I created the cover art and fake packaging early to help set the mood and make clear the game is inspired by the legendary titles of Infocom.  Over many months, that prototype has evolved into something that may now be a reasonably playable couple of introductory scenes.

Nonetheless, it has taken a lot of time and I'm ready to take a break while IntroComp is in progress.  I hope that anyone who has not yet played the game will test it out and send me feedback, suggestions and ideally a SCRIPT transcript file.  And if any of the alpha testers want to do a code review or help me with some programming tasks during this time, please let me know.  No doubt my Inform7 code leads a lot to be desired.

Thanks to everyone who has helped with this project, especially the extension authors Aaron Reed, Emily Short, George Tryfonas, Eric Eve, Michael Martin whose code I have used and abused. Special thanks to the numerous alpha testers who painstakingly replayed the game several times: Dan Fabulich, Colin 'Agent Kong' Djukic, Duncan Bowsman, James Curry, Doug Orleans, Adam Thornton, Jason Ouelette, Seth Spurlock and Ben Riga among others. 

Agent Kong really went beyond the call of duty for his many bug reports.  He earns an original 1930s Dennis Wheatley Crimefile.  That'll be in the post shortly.  And thanks to Adam for reporting a last minute bug that broke just about everything in the game! (Glad I found that one.) Adam will also be getting an original Dennis Wheatley.  And I'll also be sending out several 1970s Dennis Wheatley reprints to other testers in the next week or so.

And kudos to Jason Scott whose documentary film 'Get Lamp' and Chris Huang whose excellent game 'An Act of Murder' rekindled my interest in IF. I hope in some small way that The Z-Machine Matter can also pay tribute to the earliest days of Interactive Fiction and the games of Infocom that inspired a generation of IF authors.


Revized Trizbort Map

Erwin Genstein, creator of the mapping program Trizbort saved the day!  Now that my Windows machine passed away I had no ability to run Trizbort so he ran it himself on The Z-Machine Matter game and sent me the map output.  Thanks!  Much appreciated.  I'll put a Dennis Wheatley in the post to you.  I've included the map in the latest update to the manual which I'll be submitting along with my game to IntroComp shortly.  

Mock Z-Machine Ad


I created a mock print ad for The Z-Machine Matter some months back.  I tried to capture the style of Infocom's old magazine ads. Yes, yes, I really should be finishing up the Alpha.  Or at least working on a better map.  But it was kind of fun.

Also for any testers who requested Alpha access but have not yet sent feedback.  Please, please, please do me a favor and send me your SCRIPT transcript.  I will be eternally grateful.  

Trizbort map?


A while back, I created a map for The Z-Machine Matter, shown above.  It was just a simple 2D mockup for my own planning purposes using some piece of free software that I've since lost.  I thought I could get something better with Trizbort on Windows but for some reason it doesn't do anything.  And today, the power supply on my 10 year old Windows XP machine blew up (loud crackle, bang and smoke!) so I'm not going to get Trizbort working any time soon. (Luckily all my development is on a more recent MacBook, and yes, I do make backups regularly.)

So if any alpha testers have been successful with Trizbort, feel free to run a transcript from The Z-Machine Matter through it and send me the results as an image file or PDF.  Or for anyone who's a Trizbort pro, I'm happy to send you a transcript of The Z-Machine Matter and see if anything interesting happens.

For now, I've just put the nasty photo of the printout with handwritten corrections into a revised version of the manual.  And of course, there's another revision to the Alpha game that incorporates some more feedback from testers.  Thanks guys!

iPad Frotz 1.5.3 and an Updated Alpha Game


Craig Smith has issued an updated version of Frotz 1.5.3 for the iPhone and iPad that fixes a number of bugs. Not only does this eliminate some previous instability in Glulx games but most importantly it restores functionality to open games sent as email attachments.  

Craig, thank you!  My Alpha testers salute you!

There is a new version of The Z-Machine Matter alpha now available that includes some significant improvements.  Thanks to all those who have sent me their SCRIPT transcripts.  (And if you haven't there's still time.  But please download the latest version.  Contact me via email.)