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Visual Experience (from XKCD)

Minding your IP’s

Over at TWW HQ we’ve been preparing for some exciting conversations with book publishers at the same time as pushing ever forwards towards a feature complete beta. John Lubbock, kickstarter supporter and long time friend of TWW has some words.

I took a little trip to The Written World HQ today and found developers Simon and Toby preparing for a meeting with a major book publisher to pitch a collaboration with Playlab. I got a good impression of how games developers in small companies also have to do their own PR and marketing, developing a solid business model and crunching the numbers to get a good idea of what kind or returns they are likely to make from their product.

There was much talk of Intellectual Property; the idea being that big publishers might want to capitalise on their ownership of the rights to literary worlds and allow parts of The Written World to ‘inhabit’ them. People would be allowed to ‘tip’ stories they liked, creating a metric of the most popular fan fiction stories which could become popular in their own right, as recently demonstrated by Fifty Shades of Grey beginning as Twilight fan fiction. Simon and Toby want to make writing in the The Written World something which offers a platform as well as a fun experience. The world that you create and the stories you tell might be enjoyed by enough people to start to generate noticeable rewards for the authors, or even an income. 

There has been a lot of progress with the latest build of the story writing interface, which is now up and running as a web app. Story creation and map building have been redesigned as a multiplayer process, taking the cooperative ethos of the game into the plot construction of every story. The map builder is being prototyped at the moment, and the team are about to commit the new design to code. There is a real sense that the entire experience has been changing dramatically in response to player feedback, with each iteration bringing significant growth. I hope to find time to playtest the narrative construction interface in the near future and be able to bring you a nice field report from the front lines of Narrative Theory, and all the unlikely Plot Devices are said to be found there.

Ah, but I get ahead of myself. The possibilities of what purposes The Written World could be put to are both tantalising and still being formed. Playlab has already had discussions with a Bosnian charity to translate and use the game as a creative community-building project in areas where there is tension between the three ethnic groups of Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats (we’re super excited about this! - dev’s note). Fundamentally it’s about a positive cooperative experience and inspiring people to create stories, not just to consume them. Getting access to the worlds owned by publishing companies would be the cherry on the icing of the cake. It seems to me like it would be a mutually beneficial deal, considering that traditional publishing is in economic decline and the possibilities offered by The Written World’s format are many and varied.

So now that your appetite is suitably whetted, I suggest you go play some kind of MMORPG and keep in mind how much better it would be if you could decide on the plot and you could tell your dwarf companion exactly what you think of him.

Fixing Good - Making things better

Over at the TWW offices we’ve been putting the game through it’s paces, and emerging with some serious changes. Kickstarter supporter and long-time friend of TWW John Lubbock has been kind enough to write a little about what’s been going on.

Hello there, John here, your new Written World news anchor. As you may have noticed, there has been a bit of a lull in updates in the last month or so as the game has undergone some serious alpha testing with a number of different groups of people. As a result, the game has undergone extensive modification or re-scoping in response to the issues and suggestions raised during testing.

As well as testing an alpha code version with schoolkids, there was a lot of internal testing with code-free prototypes in order to speed up the feedback loop from one iteration of the design to the next. This process was quite successful at progressing the design of the game significantly in a short time without spending hours writing code that would have to be changed later. The design has gone from Alpha version 1 to 4 in a relatively short time.

One major aspect of the changes in game design brought about by the testing was to change the way Force Points work within the game. Whereas previously they had a competitive function, it was felt that they would support the intention of the game more if they were used to support collaboration between the God and Hero roles. They will now be used to act within the world as the Hero, or as the God to reward the Hero for completing objectives and exploring new parts of the game.

Simon tells me that ‘the ultimate goal is to have both players come out a little richer’ in FP as a result of this process, though the exact mechanism for this to happen is still being balanced.

Lovers of cartography will be pleased to note that the map design is now also fully integrated into the functioning of the game, changing as the God progresses and the Hero explores the story world.

There has been some excellent news on the funding front, with an extra £25k being awarded to PlayLab by the Abertay Prototype Fund, a grant fund who give to exciting indie gaming projects.

These funds have meant that PlayLab will be employing another programmer to help with the workload, as well as allowing for the development of a mobile application version of the game. I think this is a really great thing, because I can see the game being played like people use other mobile games like Draw Something; waiting for their playing partner to guess or draw a picture while travelling to work, and then responding when their phone tells them their game has been updated. How nice it would be to see commuters on the tube (yes, there will now be wi-fi on some tube lines apparently) writing a story rather than reading some embarrassingly trashy work of pulp nonsense.

Simon told me that perhaps the best aspect of the funding increase was just having the space and time to look at a more ambitious design, by virtue of having the resources with which to achieve it. He says that they went back to the drawing board, did a lot of rapid testing and came out with something quite different to the alpha version.

Although ultimately the new design is the same concept, it now works much better (something I can attest to personally having played the new code prototype, though I’m told that it’s now even better than it was a couple of weeks ago) and Simon is looking forward to inviting kickstarter supporters to test the game in a few weeks.

I hope this gives everyone a decent idea of where the game is and how far it has progressed recently. We hope to be keeping you more up to date as things progress from now on so that we can keep your appetites whetted and your attentions fixed. I’m told to anticipate the completion of the entire game’s functionality by the end of the year. But as Simon has mentioned, when you’re making a game, the first 90% of the work takes 90% of the time, and the second 90% of the work also takes 90% of the time.

Tales of Fallen London: The Silver Tree

Congratulations to our friends over at FailBetter games for the tremendous success of their Kickstarter project supporting ‘Tales of Fallen London’. 

"Decide the fate of a city in a game of love, intrigue and empire from the creators of Fallen London."

Wendell the Tyrant and His Red Riding Hood

We’ve been doing a lot of internal testing recently. Here’s an excerpt from the final text of one of our tester’s stories. Wendell was a sociopathic Tyrant. ‘Unloved as a child, he was shifted around between family members until finally settling with his uncle, a well respected lawman. Wendell lived happily there until the day he saw his uncle cut down by a vicious wolf of the forest’. 

Wendell had no surname. He also had no shame, no sense of remorse and no reason to hold himself back.

If he seems at odds with his surroundings it’s because he always has been. Pushing his way into a stranger’s’ home with barely a second thought, Wendell hurried up into the tiny sleeping quarters on the upper level.

After carefully weighing up the utility of disturbing a sleeping man with no clear intentions, Wendell climbs down from the bed quarters and sits for a moment in the open area below. Everything is still. A cheerful sunbeam filters in through the window leaving a swath of floating dust motes in its wake. The universe enjoys a brief and perfect respite.

And then, because nothing perfect lasts forever, Wendell gets up, pushes over some furniture and steals most of Marcus’ food. He imperiously strides out the door into the street, leaving it open behind him and finds himself presented with his childhood home, the door locked, though inviting.

Anyone watching from between cautiously parted curtains might have inferred some existential regret in the mind of the man who stood in the village square that morning. Squinting up at the sky for a moment before smashing down a doorway is not the action of one at peace with the world. Wendell was silhouetted dramatically, framed by the doorposts and lit by the morning sun. He was inside.

Wendell grabbed the cotton riding hood waiting on the table (his own name embroidered on the inner seam) and threw it at his mother who was already beginning to cower. “Hello Mother” he drawled, voice thick with anger and loathing. “Where might you have left the knife that you used to chop up your little cakes?”
 

*****************************************************************************************

That excerpt was taken from the final ‘on the record’ text of the story. Here’s a chunk of the full transcript of the play session, to give you an idea of the back-and-forth that went into constructing that piece of fiction.

*****************************************************************************************

A village square
A picturesque village square. Cheerfully lopsided wooden frame houses line the square, their roofs thatched and smoke belching occasionally forth from their chimneys.
- A street is North
- Mum’s House is East
- A Village Street is South
- A cheerful home is West


Hero
This village shall be mine!

Enter home west (10FP)


A cheerful home
Wooden beams line the doorway into this tiny home. It’s a small space to live in, but clearly loved. A wooden chair painted white sits before a cast iron stove. Pots and pans hang from the ceiling above. A vertiginous stairway, barely more than a ladder, leads up to a sleeping space.
- undefined is North
- A village square is East
- A messy home is South
- water is West



Wendell had no surname. He also had no shame, no sense of remorse and no reason to hold himself back.

Investigate sleeping space (10FP)


If he seems at odds with his surroundings it’s because he always has been. Pushing his away into a strangers home with barely a second though Wendell hurried up into the tiny sleeping quarters on the upper level.

God
Marcus is here. Marcus is burly. Marcus is burly like a fox is cunning - everyone assumes he is because everything else about him feels like he ought to be. He wears flannel shirts, he owns several pairs of boots, he carries an axe around and because of all of this the minds eye fills in the rest. In reality Marcus is tall but somewhat slimmer than he ought to be and possessed of an obsessive eye for detail which leaves him uncomfortable when presented with something like a crooked painting or mismatched cutlery set.

Hero
"Rather than creating open hostility Wendell re-organises the furniture arranged in the living room and takes food from the pantry, creating an awful mess while he does so. Wendell has learned what he needed to about Marcus. He *exits the house heading back to his mum’s house in the East. Why had she chosen this village to move to??


After carefully weighing up the utility of disturbing a sleeping man with no clear intentions, Wendell climbs down from the bed quarters and sits for a moment in the open area below. Everything is still. A cheerful sunbeam filters in through the window leaving a swathe of floating dust motes in its wake. The universe enjoys a brief and perfect respite.


And then, because nothing perfect lasts forever, Wendell gets up, pushes over some furniture and steals most of Marcus’ food. He imperiously strides out the door into the street, leaving it open behind him and finds himself presented with his childhood home, the door locked, though inviting.


A village square
A picturesque village square. Cheerfully lopsided wooden frame houses line the square, their roofs thatched and smoke belching occasionally forth from their chimneys.
- A street is North
- Mum’s House is East
- A Village Street is South
- A cheerful home is West


Hero
Wendell regretted his actions only briefly. Giving thought to the problem of the door his first thought is the most caveman of all, FIRE. He decides against this. Wendell checks the position of the sun/moon in the sky. What time is it?

God
It is about 8 o clock in the morning.

We've been Googled

The rather splendid Google ‘zine Think Quarterly have gone and featured us in their ‘Play’ issue. We’re super proud - scroll down about two thirds to find out chunk of the article. Thanks Google!

Alpha - Better, testing reports from the front.

Kickstarter supporter and long-time friend of TWW John Lubbock came and spent a sunny afternoon in the playlab offices helping us to test the newest prototype for The Written World’s story writing experience. After months of iteration and massive changes made as a result of testers’ suggestions, here’s what he thought. 

Years ago, I don’t even remember where the idea came from now, but I imagine it was the product of various late-night geek talks, Mr Simon Fox, the jovial behemoth, cajoled a number of his friends into sitting down and trying to write stories together. The idea picked up a little bit of momentum and then lapsed. But showing that no effort is truly wasted, The Written World put down roots. The rest of the story, of course, you know.

It’s been quite difficult for me to describe The Written World to people until I went over to Simon’s little offices on  Monday to playtest an early version of the game. Things seem to be progressing nicely, and I got to create my own hero to play through the story which Simon had constructed to show off how the game now looks and works.

First I had to name my character, describe him briefly and pick three character traits which would be verbs which I could use in the story without spending Force Points, which are collected by completing objectives and can be spent to do actions which progress the plot. For example, upon starting in a little village, I had to ‘find mum’, spending points to travel east, look around her house and knock on her bedroom door.

The story I was the hero of was essentially the fairytale plot of Little Red Riding Hood. However, I had decided to create a character somewhat similar to Ignatius J O’Reilly, the Quixotic anti-hero from JK O’Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I added in a dash of religious zealotry and repressed homosexuality, which I hoped would make him as ridiculously comic as possible.

‘Lyulph Milner is a religious nut. Corpulent and flatulent, he is also secretly gay and in denial. Lyulph is generally satisfied with the status quo of his existence, and fears any kind of material alteration thereof. He is a sheltered and immature country bumpkin with little life experience.’

You’ll notice from the screenshot that there is a little 2D map of the game world which is generated by the God player and has a fog-of-war encouraging the player to explore hidden squares. Simon mentioned that many immersive fantasy worlds have ‘Mythoi’ (plural of Mythos, a sort of shared fictional universe like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, which can be represented visually like the Lord of the Rings map), and this is an element which really successfully brings life into The Written World’s concept.



The Written World, then has something of the NeverEnding story about it. If diving into the pages of a novel has ever appealed, this could be an experience you will really cherish. As a former Literature student, I also love how the division of the God and Hero roles perfectly correspond to the position of Author and Reader in the construction of a text. The text is essentially the bridge between the two, as it requires both in order to come alive, and its meaning is decided in the interplay of intention and comprehension which they both bring to it.

After meeting mum and receiving a quest to take granny some freshly baked cakes, I decided that my hero should probably comply with this task rather than eating all the cakes, even though as a fat pig, his first inclination was to do just that. However, as a religious zealot, he is constantly aware of the terrible wrath of the deity he calls ‘GodMan’, whose theology I was rather enjoying fleshing out as the story progressed.


"Lyulph, look. Your Grandmother is ill, and I’ve not heard from her in a full week. You know she lives out in the sticks, do your old Mum a favour and take here these sweets will you?


Hero
'Go all the way there? Without eating any cakes? What do you take me for, some kind of lackey? Is there no nutritional incentive for me to perform this task? I might get hungry on the way. I'm sure Granny would be happy with just one cake…'

'Lyulph you could go a month without eating and still run a mile! Do a kindness for your old Mum'

Hero
'Oh alright then. But only because GodMan says we must do whatever our parents tell us, 'Lo, whether it be humiliating to the dignity or involve the baring of nether-regions'. Truly his wisdom is inscrutable. Give me these cakes then and let's get this chore over with. It's not like I have anything else to do.'

Hero
Help mum. [10 FP]


So it was with humility and an unmatched kindness of spirit that Lyulph agreed to undertake the journey to visit his Grandmother. Armed with a basket of cake and a spiffy new cotton riding hood he set out onto the path that led into the woods.


As you can see, on taking the action ‘Help mum’, I spent force points, which you don’t do for just babbling on and fleshing out the character. It is entirely up to the stories’ God, however, to set  the final text of the story.

I then set off into the forest, exploring the fog-of-war in search of granny’s house to complete the objective and get more force points which I could hopefully then use to eat gratuitously or proselytise to some irritated neighbours. I was rather getting into my role as this idiotically pretentious oaf. I was quite proud of the bunch of hilarious neuroses with which I had lumbered him and was determined to see where they would lead.
Alas, all too soon the working day was coming to a close, and we had to abandon the story. Needless to say, I was pretty hooked and would have gladly played through to the end given enough time. The game engine still needs plenty of graphical work, and I’m looking forward to being able to see a better visual representation of the hero, as well as a clearer set of map tiles.

Essentially it is a turn based game, with the narrator having to read, accept and progress to the next part of the story after each text block written by the Hero. It’s a bit like in Civilisation when you have to wait for other players to finish their move (or if your reference area is more boardgame based, it would be the same for a game like Risk or Diplomacy). This never became too boring though, and I can envisage people having the game in the background while doing something else on their computer waiting for the next development in their story to come through. I’m also very much looking forward to getting my hands on the God’s side of the game, and being given all the creative powers that come with it.

I hope this gives some idea of how the game is progressing and excites those who are following its development. I love writing, so it is a game I feel is perfectly designed for someone like myself, but I can equally imagine children being inspired to write and read more because of it. I put it to Simon that it could even be a way for proper published books to start life in future, given the recent success of Twilight-with-bondage-alike 50 Shades of Grey, and was told that this is a hook which is already being mentioned to interested publishing companies.

I tend to think that this sort of thing represents a further nail in the coffin of the publishing industry. Perhaps though, trying to avoid getting too pretentious here, The Written World could help to nurture a new kind of narrative, one that is an open-ended and infinite game, a negotiation and a conversation between multiple individuals. I think that the potential of that idea is something to get excited about.

Brain Tripping - Fun with words

Making some changes

Good morning all,

We’ll be making some changes to the alpha today, so do expect some interruptions to service.

Thanks! 

We’re experimenting with better ways to let you guys browse stories and characters - what do you all think of this bookshelf display for your stories?

We’re experimenting with better ways to let you guys browse stories and characters - what do you all think of this bookshelf display for your stories?