August 9, 2005

A Few Façade Post-Release Comments

by Andrew Stern · , 3:12 pm

It’s been five weeks since we released Façade, and we are hard at work at recuperating. :-) Those last few months of development work were brutal, and we’re still feeling fried, like when you cross the finish line after running a marathon and you’re bent over trying to catch your breath (not that either of us have actually run a real marathon to know what that truly feels like). That it’s summer right now is good timing, it makes our recharging more sun-filled. It’s nice to get our lives back after so long.

Here’s a “thank you” again to those who helped out during the project, from beta testers and demo assistants, to blog commenters and well-wishers offering moral support, to those proselytizing interactive drama to the non-believers, and for everyone patient enough to keep their vaporware-radar and hype-o-meters at bay during the past few years.

Thank you to those who have already donated a few bucks or euros to the project. If you enjoyed Façade (or hated it) and haven’t tossed an electronic tip our way, it’s never too late! We’re continuing to add juicy secrets to the invaluable “Behind the Façade” guide /cook’s tour — this all can be yours for a mere $5 donation. “A must-have for the interactive drama enthusiast.”

The release has been pretty smooth — we’ve just passed the 100,000 downloads mark! That’s the total of our own BitTorrent traffic, Download.com’s mirror, Gamespot’s mirror and a few others. Considering that the installer is 800MB, that’s 80TB of data moved over the Internet at virtually no cost to us, thanks to BitTorrent and external ad-supported mirrors — a nice proof-of-concept for the future of digital distribution, I think. A few gaming magazines are including it on their current or next month’s demo disc, including UK mags PC Gamer and PC Zone, and The Games Machine (Italy). About 75 people have ordered it on CD-Rom.

Till now, you’d been reading about Façade for a long time, hearing us jabber on about it on GTxA. I’m sure it fell short of your expectations in many ways — but perhaps equalled or even exceeded them in others. As you can now see, Façade has its share of limitations and problems, although it does some unprecedented things. The nature of the feedback so far (press, blogs, forum, GTxA comments) has been all over the place. Most of the thoughtful critique has been a balance of positive and negative criticism, leaning towards the positive. Some has been harsh, particularly from some gamers (although it maintains a rating of 8+ out of 10 on Gamespot), while some feedback has been wildly enthusiastic, to the point of hyperbole. It’s all been interesting!

Examples of the variety of commentary: harsh (1 2 3 4 5), balanced (1 2 3 4 5), enthusiastic (1 2 3), inspired (1 2 3), frustrated (1 2).

In future posts we’d like to comment and react to some of the feedback it’s been getting. We’ll write up a production post-mortem at some point, hopefully to be presented at or published in a game development outlet. We’ll eventually start talking about future directions, as they gel.

One thing seems certain, that we’re of course pleased about, is that Façade has gotten people talking — players and developers both. Time will tell what influence this research/art experiment/prototype in interactive character and story will have on commercial game development, but at a minimum, we hope folks now have a new touchstone they can point to, to say, for example, “sort of like Façade.” “But better.” :-)

Several individuals and groups have already requested the authoring system and technology, to make their own interactive characters or dramas, their own Façade mods, or to apply the techniques to their own projects, commercial, academic or independent. We very much want that to happen; our technology page has information about our current plans for making parts of the overall system available to other developers, researchers and individuals. There will be more information coming as soon as we further figure out our plans, and do the required work to make it possible. We already have our first Façade technology user, an interactive narrative prototype project at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies. So, please contact us if you’re interested, we’d love to talk to you and hear about what you’re interested in doing.

More about the release… Some players have had some technical problems, but it hasn’t been too bad, better than we expected really. We’ve only received about 200 or so emails and forum posts with questions (less than 1% of downloaders) — some irate, but mostly polite. There’ll be a patch to fix some of the problems, including allowing installation to drives other than c:, and being smarter about checking the CPU requirements (e.g., better supporting Pentium-M). There are a few users who can’t seem to run Façade at all, even though their computers seem compatible. Once we’ve recuperated a bit and can stand the thought of cracking open the code base again, we’ll get right on it.

Several Macintosh-savvy folks have volunteered to help us with a Mac port. Much of the code base runs on top of Java, and the animation engine uses OpenGL, so 95% of the code will port easily. That said, hopefully Façade for the Mac will be ready by the end of 2005 (but don’t hold us to that).

One adept Façade player came up with a good scheme to better compress all of the sound files before downloading, and then uncompress them during installation. (They need to be fully uncompressed when Façade runs, for maximum speed performance.) This could significantly reduce the download size, without a noticable reduction in sound quality. We’ll try it.

A few players have requested a version that shows text balloons instead of playing audio; some are non-English speakers who can better understand written than spoken English, and some who want it for closed-captioning purposes. Great idea, that’s easy, we’ll include that option in the next release.

Anyhow… now that you’ve finally gotten a chance to play Façade (well, hopefully — Mac and Linux users, do you have a friend with a fast Windows machine?) we’re interested to hear critiques you may have, big or small. If you have any, including questions, comments, thoughts for the future, etc. you’ve been meaning to say or ask, don’t hesitate to unload them or link to them here.