1st Quarter Progress Report

Today is the last business day of the month and of the first quarter of 2018. That means it is time for a quick look at what I’ve managed to do so far on my “time off.”

My dream of creating StoryTime for real is almost realized. This is the first-generation, baseline level of StoryTime, which is all I would have expected to produce by myself given three or so months. At this point, people can play story-games, establish an account, and create their own story-games. That’s all working today.

In the next two weeks, players will be able to publish and share their stories. That’s the last step in establishing the basis for the game. Once writers can realize their dreams of creating online worlds of their own, it’s game-on for StoryTime.

In corporate-speak, Happy Spirit Games had a great quarter and is poised for success.

Now the big question is what to do next.

 

Irrational Optimism

Today I did something rational. I looked at what I have accomplished since I left my previous employer in December.

  • Launched the StoryTime Reader with an original story-game, The Mission.
  • Got 11 responses to the player’s survey.
  • Completed 4 minor releases: authentication, administration, API and UI enhancements, and the Writing Desk
  • Posted 26 times to this blog (now 27)
  • Signed up 14 subscribers to my newsletter.
  • Published 3 newsletters.
  • Updated the Happy Spirit Games website.

Maybe a few other odds and ends. I had hoped to be a little further along. StoryTime players can create their own games now, but publishing is not yet available. That’s okay. I never thought I would be done by now. Close enough for horseshoes.

From the player’s survey, I gleaned a few insights. People want longer stories than The Mission with more intricate plot lines. The Mission is intentionally very short to be sure that my very early adopters could make it through in one sitting. So it’s good to know that people want more.

People also want pictures. Yeah, I know. While a good interactive fiction story gets you to keep reading, just like a page-turner of a novel, the eye candy is essential to draw people in and jump-start the imagination.

The third insight is that it’s easy for people to miss the nuances of a story-game. I wrote The Mission using a somewhat vague style, attempting to keep things a little mysterious until the end. Many who only played once did not understand the basic premise. Some took things too literally. Others didn’t have enough context to make sense of it.

You could say that was due to poor writing. In fact, someone did. After my son played, I asked him a couple of thought-provoking questions which showed that he also missed some of the key aspects. By asking, that made him curious enough to play again and look beneath the literal meanings of words to see what is really happening in the story. I won’t tell you here—spoilers.

The point is that some well-phrased questions at the various endings can raise the value of the experience. Comprehension becomes part of the game play when players are aware that the story is also a bit of a puzzle to solve.

So I learned some things. Add that to the list of accomplishments.

  • Learned some things.

Then I thought about what to accomplish next. The short list for the upcoming six weeks looks like:

  • Release StoryTime v1.5 with publishing.
  • Design a course on how to create an online game.
  • Grow the audience to 500 or more people.

I can do the first two, no problem. That last one looks hard. To get a sense of who already plays these games and where I might find people who want to create their own, I peeked at some of StoryTime’s competition.

Here’s where being rational gets the better of me.

I already knew that the StoryTime has more than a few competitors. Still, ignorance is bliss. Not knowing what else is out there means I am not blatantly copying (not sure whether that is a virtue), and I get a kind of pioneering excitement by pretending I am the first.

It’s also irrational to remain ignorant.

A few companies, such as Choice of Games, are doing well at this and making money. Choice has been going for 8+ years, proof that a commercial effort can work, and also way ahead of me. Simultaneously heartening and discouraging.

Many of the systems for interactive fiction are free, powered by hobbyists. Many have been abandoned, sometimes with parting words from their creators. “All is lost. We have abandoned hope. There be no profits here.”

Let me know if anyone wants this…

Not exactly the best marketing effort.

When you see that someone has gone into the dark forest that you are about to enter never to return, how does that make you feel? A fool keeps charging in. The rational person looks for another path.

Today I found a system that is just like StoryTime but more complete, with a graph of the chapters that shows how they’re connected. It’s all online and easy to get started. But when I tried to plunk in The Mission, I couldn’t get past the first scene. The story was gone. Hmm. Might be a training issue. The documentation says it should work.

So I checked the blog, and the last post was in 2015, saying something like “2.0 beta — improvements coming soon…” I can see the first release in December of 2014 and a steady stream of releases until about June. Like it’s me on an alternate timeline from three years ago. Elsewhere on the site, I see that the creator moved on to writing and selling two story-games and pretty much abandoned the tools for authors.

It already exists. Bad. It’s better than mine. Worse. It was given up for dead. Awful.

Ugh. Demotivating. Being rational makes me depressed.

So forget it. I’m going back to being irrationally optimistic. Tomorrow I will get back to work on StoryTime and enable publishing within the next two weeks. Or maybe in three.

Call me foolish. Someday I’ll get this to work out while others are sitting around being smugly rational. Or I will have learned a lot trying.

Now where am I going to find 500 readers?

 

Want to Create Your Own Games?

I have an easy way to start creating your own online games. Play StoryTime, the premier game by Happy Spirit Games.

As of yesterday, StoryTime sports a brand new Writing Desk feature that allows you to create your own stories. Write scenes and build signposts. It’s easy. It’s fun. The quickest way to get it is to try it.

Yesterday I posted instructions on how to get started.

Here’s a little sample of a story-game I created in about 10 minutes.

WD-Raindrop

It’s simple and it wouldn’t take long to play. Like I said, I only spent 10 minutes on it.

Imagine what you could do in your spare time. You could create an entire game world with twists and turns, full of adventure.

At the moment, StoryTime games are based on writing. Someday I will give you a way to add images. For now, focus on the power of your words.

Try it now. I know you have 10 minutes. Once you start thinking about it, you won’t want to stop until you have created a masterpiece.

Play StoryTime.

And remember to click Save to preserve your work. Auto-save is coming, along with a lot more features.

Tell me what else you wish it would do. Leave a comment below or send a message using the Contact page.

Finally, sign up for the Happy Spirit Games newsletter to get insider news and early notifications.

Have fun!

Try the StoryTime Writing Desk

StoryTime 1.4, featuring the Writing Desk, is released and ready for your creative minds.

This is where you can create your own story-games. Everything you need to write scenes and connect them is online.

To get to the Writing Desk, you have to become a StoryTime author, which is easy. It just takes a few steps.

First, you have to sign in.  Use the “Sign In” button in the upper right corner.

Choose a Google or Facebook account to use for authentication. We have to know who you are so that you get credit for your work. Also, we don’t want to let anyone else mess with your stories.

If this is your first time logging in, an account will be created automatically for you. We get some information about you from Google or Facebook. It’s safe enough, and you already agreed to share that information, like your nickname and email address.

Second, once you are signed in, click on “Account” in the header navigation. Here you can modify a few pieces of information about yourself. You can also click a button that shows you the terms and conditions of becoming an author. Click whatever you need to agree. Your account will show that you agreed to the terms, and the button to agree goes away.

At this point, you should be good to go except for one small glitch. After you click the “I Agree” button, refresh your browser window. That will force the Writing Desk link to appear.

The next time you Sign In, Writing Desk will be there without having to refresh. Also, at some point I will fix the glitch, so you may not have see the issue.

Here comes the fun part.

From the Writing Desk, you can enter your first story title and click the plus (+) button. That’s your first draft, ready for editing. Click on the pencil to the right of the draft name, and go to the draft editor.

From the draft editor, you can change the title and add a quick tag line and longer about. Be sure to click Save whenever you change something and want to keep the change. Also, see the scene titles and add more scenes.

The first scene was created for you, so you might want to edit that first. Click on the scene, make changes, click save, and so on.

On the scene editor, you will notice a button that says “Change Signpost.” Before you can add a signs to the signpost, you will need some scenes to go to from the one you are on. Use the breadcrumbs at the top of the editor to go back to the draft editor. It’s the link with the name of the story.

When you have an extra scene or two, find your way back to the first scene and change the signpost. Give it a couple of signs, each pointing to a different scene.

That’s enough to get you started. Jump in and give it a try.

By the way, if you play long enough with the Writing Desk, you will find things that don’t quite work and think of ways it could be better. Add a comment to this post and share your ideas.

Or if you would like to keep things private, you can use the Contact Us link at the bottom of StoryTime. That will use your email client to send whatever you type.

Tell me which improvements I should prioritize. Like being able to delete. How about being able to publish? A way to visualize how the scenes are connected. What else?

Enjoy!

A Sneak Peek at the Writing Desk in StoryTime

Creation is messy.  Although the end result can be clean, simple, beautiful or tasty (depending on what you’re creating), the process of putting it all together often gets out of control.  Problems crop up.  Maybe the design glossed over important details, so you make things up.  Maybe your improvisation goes badly.  Maybe the materials are fussy and unyielding.  Maybe you are still learning.

It’s okay.  No one is an expert the first time.

Still, people like things that are done.  Neat and tidy, no loose ends.  Completely working. Perfect.  Some of those people claim that they “don’t want to know how the sausage is made.”

You’re not that kind of person, are you?  You are curious.  You want to see how things work.  You can handle a hot mess because it’s fun to see where things are going and how they get there.  And you like to know that other people create things that are flawed, too.

Great.  In that case, try my game StoryTime.  It’s a work in progress to be sure.  In fact, I’m going share my staging environment loaded with the latest code that’s “working” but is by no means ready for release.

Is that crazy?  Yes, it is.

Will it be crazy fun?  I doubt it.  But you still might want to check it out.  You need to hurry.

This post is going to age quickly.  Today is Friday, March 16, 2018.  By next Friday (March 23rd), the next release of StoryTime (1.4) will be online, and you will have missed your chance to see some sausage in the making.

Let’s play.  Here is the StoryTime 1.4 work-in-progress snapshot (1.4 WIP).  It is different from the current release (1.3) because you can actually create your own story-games.

StoryTime 1.3 (current) and 1.4 (WIP) use the same database.  So if you become an author in the 1.4 WIP, you will retain that privilege when the release is completed.  Whatever you create in 1.4 WIP will still be there when I release the finished software.  Any mess you make will be there for you to play with later.

No need to be shy.  Nothing can be published at this point, so whatever you do will remain private.  (Full disclosure: I’ll see it, but no one else will.)

You can create draft story-games.  You can change the story information to your heart’s content.  You can add scenes and write as much as you like.

BUT, and this is THE BIG BUT, you cannot create or modify the signpost.  What’s a signpost?  Play The Mission.  There’s a signpost at the end of each scene.  It shows the list of actions you can take.  Still not sure what I mean?  Get in there and try it out.

Come on.  Try it.  It’s fun.

Just one note to save you some frustration.  When you log in, the navigation system doesn’t realize it needs to refresh itself.  So just hit the refresh button in your browser.  Then you’ll see a link to Account.  Once you agree to the terms of being an author, you might need to sign out and back in, then hit refresh, and then you should see the Writing Desk link in the header.

Yuck.  What a pain.  I know.

And the wood background is nice, I guess.

And the colors are okay, I suppose.

Right, it’s a hot mess.  Come on it and try it!

Time is running out.  (Don’t worry.  We’ll make more.)

 

Living the Dream

Picture this. Your have a job. It’s not quite what you had in mind when you were a kid, but it definitely pays the bills.

There are some inconveniences. One is the commute, over an hour each way to and from the office. That is an opportunity to keep up with your favorite podcasts, so it’s not too bad.

Another is having to start work early and keep working until evening. But it’s flexible. Need to go to the dentist or take a walk around the block. No problem. You choose which 12 hours you want to work, and your schedule can be different every day.  But you have to take that conference call at 6 AM, and they’re going to need to stay on email until 10 PM to key an eye on things and answer any questions that might come up.

A third inconvenience is having to sit patiently through meetings that accomplish little if anything. Maybe by saying nothing the meeting will end more quickly, and you can get back to the real work.

These days the “real” work is to have more meetings of your own. You have to be up to speed on what everyone is doing. You wouldn’t want anyone to be stuck for long.

And don’t forget to submit your weekly status reports. Other people need to know what everyone is doing, too. That way they can spot trends and apply course correction.

Except that they never do.

Wait a minute. This is nothing at all like what you had in mind as a kid.

This reminds me of the Monster.com commercial from 2006. Check it out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myG8hq1Mk00

If you haven’t guessed by now, I am describing the work life of a manager. It’s what I did for many years, step by step removing myself from the important work of creating and fixing. Getting more and more into the mental games people play to avoid work while looking like they’re working extra hard.

When I gave that up by going back to programming, I started to unwind the tangles I had allowed myself to get into. I started to dispel the illusions that I could help realize far-fetched visions through will power and words alone.

Before long I started dreaming again about programming games, about running my own small company and making something for the world to enjoy.

Here I am a year later, living the dream.

Last week I released StoryTime v1.3. Don’t expect much—I’m working alone here. Still, it’s an important release because it makes the next release possible, the one where anyone can create story-games.

I am aiming to release v1.4 in about two weeks. Better get to work. If I don’t, no one will.

 

Another Deadline

About a month ago, I planned the StoryTime release that goes out today.  If you work in software, you might guess that today’s release is not quite what I had in mind a month ago.  Regardless, today is the deadline, so the next version of StoryTime will be out there by the end of the day.  That’s how I roll.

The word “deadline” sounds ominous.  Cross this line, and you’re dead.  Or more figuratively, pass this point in time without finishing, and disaster is sure to strike.  Apparently the former meaning can be attributed to the American Civil War, and it was literal.  The latter meaning goes back to 1920 in the newspaper industry.  Finish that story plate by the deadline, or it will go in the garbage without going to press.  (Thanks, Wiktionary.)

Deadlines push you to get on with it.  In software development, they provide a heartbeat that brings a product to life.

Without deadlines, I would go off on more tangents than I do.  I would add more scope than I could handle.  I would put a half-dozen irons in the fire, never finishing any of them.  I would re-design and re-write parts of the system that are already good enough, moving them toward unattainable perfection.  I would find all kinds of reasons to delay.

Do you work on a team with these bad habits?  I have the cure.  Set a deadline, and stick to it.  Then set another.  Make the deadlines 70% tighter than you think is possible.  Keep tightening each time until all of your bad habits are squeezed out.

Then, as the deadline approaches, you might have to adjust your notion of an acceptable release.  Or you might have to push it out by a day or two.  That’s what happens in real life.

By the way, you never have to release garbage.  I am not suggesting that.  If you think I mean that, it’s your own fears talking.  Apply discipline to your work so that you can release what you have.  Then err on the side of releasing “too little” rather than delaying to squeeze in just a bit more.

For the previous release of StoryTime (1.2), I gave myself an extra day to get things right.  Life got busy, so I moved the deadline rather than stress about it.

For this release, I have to reduce scope.  I am trying to release the Writing Desk, the place in the application where authors can create their own story-games.  So I started with a mini-redesign of the entire app.  Okay, so maybe that was a slight tangent.  After designing the Writing Desk, it made sense to apply some of the ideas to the rest of the app to keep it consistent.

Then I had to design and implement a new API for the authoring service.  The StoryTime API spec was written using Swagger and needed an upgrade to OAS 3.0, the latest standard for defining RESTful APIs.  So that was a big chunk of work.

Third, the application already has a lot of stuff going on.  That’s the technical way to put it.  The application client is build on React and runs in a Web browser.  In the land of React, good citizens use Redux to manage the state of the client.  Want to remember that the user prefers the red theme?  Flip a bit in the Redux store.  Want to show a list of stories?  Fetch them from the service and stash them in the Redux store.  Then the screens just read from the Redux store and show what they will.  Easy peasy.

Except that it’s not.  After an extra week of wrestling Redux into the mix, things are back to working about as they were.  The benefits of doing this work ought to become clear as the application gets more complex.  Perhaps I will not notice.  Perhaps it will keep things from grinding to a halt.

One way to find out if Redux “works” would be to build another functionally identical system without Redux.  Hmm, that feels like a tangent.  I know people who dedicate their entire careers to this kind of tangent.  They never accomplish anything useful.

I don’t have time for it because I have a deadline.

So here we are at release day, and StoryTime works pretty much like before, although it looks slightly better, and the backing service is ready to support authors.  The Writing Desk itself will have to wait until the next release.

And after that, you’ll still need a way to publish your creations and get them into the Library to share with the world.

And after that…

Deadline…deadline…deadline…lump-thump…lump-thump…lump-thump…