Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Fourdiopolis/Spring Thing 2016 postmortem

This postmortem has spoilers for Fourdiopolis and Threediopolis. The TLDR is, I had an idea and waited on it a bit too long, but thanks to Spring Thing's forgiving format and rules, I pushed through with something I'm pleased to have finished, and I wasn't much worried about reviews, posterity, etc. But I'll have to do better preparation to enter IFComp.

Hanon Ondricek pushed me into it at first. His fake review of Onediopolis (we had a nice long thread for fake reviews) in the 2013 IFComp authors' forum got me laughing that it wouldn't be much of a game, and
neither would Twodiopolis.

Fourdiopolis, though? No! It'd be too tough to choose directions! It occurred to me that there were 20 choose 4, or (20*19*18*17)/(4*3*2*1) possibilities. 4845 in total. And teleports, well, they just SCREAM future, so they're perfect for a sequel.

I'm going to go with the technical stuff, first. If you want to skip it, search for the equals sign.

@unusedLetters = ('a', 'b', 'c', 'f', 'g', 'h', 'i', 'j', etc);

for $a (@unusedLetters) (etc)
grep -i "nsewud$a$b$c$d" files.txt | grep -i "[$a$b$c$d]" > "$a$b$c$d.txt"

Where files contains first names, last names and words.

I suppose I could have run a script to track all of them, and see which would've given enough words without giving too many, but I figured I could cut down on them by looking for obvious opposites. Kata and Ana fit the bill, as did From and To. Which way would From be, and which way would To be? And what would their displacements be? And how would they fit on a 10x10x10 cube? Some neat locations were sure to go out of bounds if the teleporters led anywhere interesting! And if they didn't, how were they different from walking?

These obstacles were too big to overcome, so I put the idea aside. But maybe something was there.

Then it hit me. I could make the city bigger in the name of progress and global overpopulation. That's always a good one! I just needed to know how--and the break came when I realized the locations didn't have to go 0, ..., 9, a, b but I could put 000 at the center. I remember Threediopolis slid by with you starting at 444, which is not the center but it said it was, until Jenni Polodna called me on it. I laughed a bit, because her reviews are good for that, then I fixed it. So it felt good to have a bona fide center.

So I felt having i..a 0 1..9 was also intuitive enough. It made things bigger. But I still had to decide on direction names! One thing I let trap me was that Inform wants directions to be opposite. Down/up, in/out, etc. But they don't have to be. I had an idea for a pinwheel sort of direction-collection, but I was just stuck on four moving directions, and rotating four moving directions through three physical directions didn't work. So stuff like +2x-2z, +2y-2x, +2z-2y was appealing, but I felt I needed another letter.

And so I thought for a first try I might have the four teleport directions be +2 x, +2 y, +2 z, -2 xyz. Or with the signs flipped. This was...symmetrical enough.  The most used letter would be the one that took all three directions. But it still felt a bit artificial. I mean, the game's ideas are, at their base, artificial, but it seemed like a pain to remember which direction was which. And how would you sort out the +2x directon from going east twice? And would the -2xyz be too obvious?

So. Teleports that kick you far enough away that they aren't confused with walking, well, at least until it gets hard. And some sort of symmetry. This was a tough one, but it wasn't until I saw a pyramid that I had a bit of an idea. What if each transport leap was at the edge of a regular pyramid? Where would the center be? I still had the idea +2+2+2 would be a good leap, and suddenly I saw -2-2+2 and the three others--well, every one was the same distance!

So I had my directions. I declared pairs (H/I and J/K) as opposite though they weren't. As for not being able to reverse? Well, pseudo science fiction mumbo jumbo takes care of that. Just--what if two people transporting the opposite way ran into each other? Too much risk. So that was solved.

I had trouble with the directions, though. But then I was reading about, well, something. Maybe it was Galois theory and why there's no quintic formula. But I recalled the Quaternions. And cross products, and so forth, and how IJ=K and JI=-K and so forth. I liked them, and both HIJK and IJKL gave a lot of results. They were equally enough matched that I became the donkey between the two haystacks. Well, not really, once I saw L would get confused with LOOK. Not much to do about I and Inventory, though really, you weren't going to HAVE inventory in the game.

I ported the Threediopolis fake-moving code over (did I mention there's only one room in each game?) made sure SID showed an entry and gave you a point, and then put it away til late March. The thing was, I had a vague idea that 100 things to find would be too much until they got too easy. It'd crowd out your inventory, etc.


The story took a long time to get going. I liked the idea of more friends--finding people is good first. And the idea of finding things: who wants what? Why? Supplies--what for? I didn't want some rich random guy telling you what to do, so I decided to go with the opposite route. You needed to escape detection. Doing things with technology was traceable. But I didn't want a super-big table that just sprawled, as that'd be a pain to search through, even if alphabetical listings would make it easier to track the next clue the more you had. Maybe smaller tables could organize things. And I just decided on 20, which turned out to be a perfect magic number.

I also might not have had an idea how to wrap things up if I hadn't grepped my last-names.txt file with nsweudhijk. But once I did, it seemed like a nice evil final puzzle, if you liked the rest of the game.

But all this took a while, even with a handy test file of all the possibilities. There was stuff I could've been doing even when I was deciding this. Okay, I wrote a rudimentary script to make sure a word-path didn't go outside the city bounds, Sorry, "hehheh" and "huhhuh," I need another way to make that Beavis & Butt-Head reference!

Just porting Threediopolis code to Fourdiopolis would've been big, though. Writing random stuff or helper functions or game text in. This doesn't seem big, but it has a way of building up, or making me feel at least I didn't forget (insert basic thing here). And if it doesn't feel inspired, it organizes things so I can just drop any inspiration in. And I brain-locked myself by saying, well, I'd better be working on the biggest thing, but it wasn't clear what it was. I didn't just hack ahead to see it--and I should've had faith I could get it done with steady progress. If I'd used my "off-days" to paint the corners, writing in commands or stubs big or small, I wouldn't have been worried about those details while writing the big stuff. This is non-technical stuff, about doing what you want with the time you have, instead of wasting it with something no longer (or never) fun that's just easier to start.

I didn't motivate myself to work on 4dop at the start, and it all piled up at the end once I realized it may be intimidating but I didn't want to leave it for another year. The result was several days of intense programming. And the stuff I was scared about? It wasn't hard to port from 3d to 4d, because I'd already made the big technical mistakes I wouldn't make again. And it would've been simpler to do so back in January, where if I made a mistake, I could just kick the can to tomorrow or next week with no stress. I had experience, but unfortunately, all I remembered was how long it took, when what I could've remembered was that the code worked, and cutting and pasting would get me 95% there.

Fortunately I'd taken time at the athletic club or on the bus to draw out the big picture: get a list of 20 or so different things, roughly related, and slap them together. Remember "x is a table name that varies." Change it with a save-file. This meant Fourdiopolis would have to be glulx, but eh well.

But given my silly procrastination I was grateful for the things that let me create and fix Fourdiopolis. I gave my testers something pretty, well, awful. One of Aaron Reed's "helper elves" managed to give me a mulligan to fix something pretty obviously broken. Then I started checking off what I could've done. With the few extra days, I even wrote up a script to detect clear errors in the logic document, e.g. if a location was wrong. And I wrote the logic document for more than just friends. Working through it, I realized a certain repetitiveness in the puzzle-solving. But I couldn't do much, then.

I also used bitbucket/source control before releasing, but again, I didn't use it enough. It was extremely helpful for in-comp updates, of which I had a lot. The pressure was off. I could offer a hint here or there. Or just take a feature from Threediopolis. I was aware the logic document was...rickety, but that took a back seat to actual bug fixing.

Still I got a nice list of bugs and features tweaked, and Aaron Reed let me roll in the updates, which was nice. I'm glad I took the time to mark my changes individually. I figured stuff like how to give "almost" clues where maybe you didn't realize there was a plural. I figured I'd have to put headers that listed all your tasks off until post-comp.

But...source control, again. Easy to revert if I made errors. I did some basic stuff for an hour or two, and, well, it looked okay! It looked more than okay! It was nowhere near as tough as for Threediopolis, which had modes depending on which scenarion you were in, and all sorts of toggles. With 4dop, all that mattered was the current table. I even snuck in a fix so the game didn't refresh the header *until* you found something new. This was something I'd have liked in 3dop, and it's going in, in the final release for that. Other things followed--cluing what "kinda far" and "far" meant will also go in, and even the logic document checker for 3dop got a rewrite. I found a few bugs.

So writing Fourdiopolis, which I worried would be frivolous, turned out to help me in a lot of ways: nailing down threediopolis features, really using BitBucket, and also being able to get through a project and not let it hang around. I also noticed the code was more compact than for 3dop--200k vs 120k.

And I think having that stressful week--for me and my testers--was the final straw. I set up things like my nightly build system to make sure projects, new and old, built. I even put my logic document checker in it. Any errors go right to an HTML file, so I know what's fixed, and I'm not worried what needs to be. It's already been a big help for my Stale Tales Slate (fixing bad anagrams and punctuation in my random tables, as well as flushing new random anagrams into the source--I'd written these scripts but they were a pain to remember) and Problems Compound (make sure the EXPLAIN verb tracks everything) as well as just generally making sure I've got no backlog of notes. There are a lot of tests to run, but it's nice to know what's messed up--and even to know that some stuff hasn't broken for a while.

So overall 4dop was worth my time, even though I should've spent that time better and earlier, and it was more than just something to get out of the way to clear my brain for a real game. I hope it was worthwhile for those who played it, whether you just browsed and grokked the idea or tried to solve all the scenarios. Given the bugs in the initial version (even after my helper-elf mulligan,) as well as the level of competition in the main entrance, I'm glad I put it in the back garden. But unlike Dirk, my entry last year which was clearly a joke with no real reason to go into a serious competition--even not a very intense one--4dop feels like it holds up and is a bit more lasting. If I'd prepared it better, I could've put it in the main event.

I feel like I can move sooner than from my other projects. Part of that's due to Fourdiopolis not having a lot of story nuances, and whatever technical nuances it has, I covered in 3dop. Of course, one more run through the logic document. Maybe add some more scenery, too--there's a text file with a few stragglers. But I feel like, once I got started, I knocked things down quickly enough. And writing 4dop wound up being more fun than the things I used to procrastinate it. That's a lesson, there, one I want to apply to my next work.

No comments:

Post a Comment