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The Secret to Life is Programming

(This post created for and first appeared on Samantha Gay’s blog, February 21, 2015.)

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Twenty years ago I was depressed, confused, and out of ideas. Then I discovered programming.

I’m not sure how it started. It helped that the family had a Tandy TRS-80 at one point, and I ran into BASIC and Oregon Trail at school, so a flashing green cursor was never something to fear. But it wasn’t until my second try at college–after flunking out of a fine art program, getting treatment for depression, and realizing my total lack of real-world problem solving skills–that I was desperate enough to pursue the one degree guaranteed to get me employed and out of the house: computer science.

I can’t recommend this strongly enough.

No, I don’t remember the Internet protocol diagram. No, I haven’t written an Access database since 1998. But the thing that stuck was realizing anything you can do on a computer, you can automate.

Need fifty images exported as thumbnails? Automate that.

Want to port a website’s old forum to a new format? Automate that.

Want to find your insurance company’s best-rated primary care provider across four different ratings websites? Automate that.

Some people encounter programming and think, “Oh, no, I’m no good at math.” First, math takes practice, but anyone who practices can be as secure in math as I am in high heels: embarrassing but functional. Second, programming is not math. It’s logic. It’s sudoku. It’s a series of trivia questions you’re allowed to Google.

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And anyone with interest and Internet can learn. Long-term success comes from research and habits. To do what I do you don’t even need a degree; it’s been handy for me to have one on my resume, but the older I get the less meaningful it is.

Through all my life’s subsequent mistakes, panics, stupidities, and do-overs, programming has been my saving employable grace. When I ended up in Los Angeles in 2008 (a move Sam Gay assisted) with a scheme to be an art director or storyboard artist or anything else that would get me paid, it was my failure to find any of that work that sent me back to the technology listings. Because of programming, I ended up with the best-paying, most flexible, least stressful, least physically demanding, least goes-home-with-you job I’ve ever had.

Working in technology gives me time to create.

I have a healthy freelance career in speculative fiction and illustration. I’m working on the second edition of my Meddling Auntie advice comics for kids, and working on the launch of a web platform for interactive fiction. I hit the gym, see the doctor, and clean the house. I have emergency savings and a retirement fund. I can go to an out-of-town wedding without getting heartburn over the cost.

(I also created Sneaky VFX, a webcomic about converting to the church of code.)

It’s been a really long time since I’ve eaten a potato old enough to take a handprint.

old wrinkled potato

There are other factors, of course, but that’s a subject for another day.

If that sounds like what you want, start searching; I could give you links, but 1) that would look like I was promoting a particular place and 2) Internet searches are 20% of a programming so you might as well practice. If you ever touched HTML, brush up on that. Look into Python. Dip your toe in JavaScript.

There’s never been a better time.

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In 2015, You Will Read Interactive Fiction… and Maybe Write It

This post first appeared as a Chick on the Draw Column at Luna Station Quarterly, January 9, 2015.

You may not know it when it happens, because it will sneak up on you in your browser or Kindle or mobile device. You were reading a thing, and then it gave you some kind of choice, and you clicked a link, and BAM: interactive fiction.

There may have been picture. There may have been sound. But mostly there was story that you, the reader, took a role in telling.

It may have already happened. You may have played some Professor Layton or Phoenix Wright… or both. You may have already read Michael Lutz’s My Father’s Long, Long Legs or Lydia Neon’s Reset. You may have picked up Dragon Age: Inquisition because Solasmance was all over your Tumblr.

You may be way ahead of me. You may be signed up for Ludum Dare 32 and IndieCade East and taking code binge breaks to check for updates from Porpentine and anna anthropy.

Wherever you’re at or want to be, the party is ready for you.

What is interactive fiction? Is it a game? Is it a story? Is it the democratized, digital reincarnation of Edward Packard’s Choose Your Own Adventure novels?

Yes, yes, and yes, and it’s poised to explode this year.

 

The Demand is Massive

Want a main character with the gender, color, or other character traits that interest you? IF lets you choose.

Enjoy cities named Rha’athal? Can’t stand cities named Rha’athal? IF lets you name.

Prefer metric over US customary? Prefer US customary over metric? IF lets you decide.

Want to participate in the characters’ problem-solving? IF lets you solve the mysteries.

Want the The Princess Bride, but with the chance to romance Inigo? IF says “viva España.”

Romance will be a big part of the IF boom, and women will be the driving demographic. According to the International Business Times and The Daily Dot, 22 million women worldwide play otome apps–a dating sim for mobile devices–whose model offers the first chapter for free and the remainder for $5. BioWare’s been incorporating story, game and romance since 1998, with the combined sales of last year’s Dragon Age: Inquisition topping 2 million.
Obscurasoft‘s Kickstarter-funded sexy, funny gay dating sim “Coming Out On Top” raised over seven times its $5000 goal and was released to critical and consumer acclaim. Fiction, games, and dating sims on devices are expanding westward, and anyone can play.

 

The Devices are Ready

If you have a computer or a mobile device, you can read IF. According to the Pew Internet Project, as of this time last year:

  • 58% of American adults have a smartphone, skewing strongly toward young people (83% of those age 18-29 vs. 49% of those age 50-64, moderately toward people of color (61% of Hispanic Americans, 59% African-Americans, 53% white), and slightly toward men (61% of men vs. 57% of women)
  • 32% of American adults own an e-reader
  • 42% of American adults own a tablet computer

Downloading text-based IF takes little bandwidth, and content can easily be stored on the device for offline reading. Fiction can go everywhere the reader does.

 

Creators Wanted

Interactive fiction combines the efficiency of the written word with the showmanship of film. You can make a big impact on a smaller budget.

If you’re a writer, you may not think of yourself as a programmer. You may see a semicolon or curly braces and run for the hills. Fortunately we’re in a golden age of tools to turn writers into programmers. The lists below are by no means comprehensive.

For text-based games:

  • Twine: Flexible and powerful. Anything you can do in a browser, you can do with Twine. Open source, gratis and libre. No central publisher, but a robust community of creators and supporters.
  • ChoiceScript: Simple and streamlined. Central publisher Choice of Games has interesting royalty- or commission-based payment options. Good choice for writing Choose Your Own Adventure-type stories for pay.
  • Inform 7: Builds story environments via human-readable descriptions. I haven’t tangled with it too much, but Rock, Paper, Shotgun has.
  • Failbetter Games is a studio that occasionally seeks contributors

For picture-based games (e.g. visual novels, the Professor Layton series), there’s Ren’Py.

If you’re feeling energized, you may even enjoy PuzzleScript for making Sokoban-type transportation games–you know, stuff like Rodent’s Revenge (90s PC game alongside Ski Free.) I mention PuzzleScript only because scripting with it is very, very fun.

 

Find Out More

If you’d like to talk more about the future of IF, reach out on Twitter @toryhoke or through my blog. If you want to see what I’m doing, visit my games on itch.io.

JDI on How to Ask a Good Programming Question

The coworker featured in this comic has written a post about the problem with short questions posted to StackOverflow. It is haughty and good.

For those that are immediately inclined to provide the complete code snippet to solve the problem, where do we draw the line? What if the question being asked would need 10 lines of code? 20? 100? And if you are also interested in frequently helping people, would you be willing to provide 5 lines of complete code to 10 people a day, knowing that each person probably didn’t learn much? Furthermore, after having given this individual a quick answer, you have now rewarded their lazy behavior, and more than likely just encouraged them to repeat the bad habit again.

WriteMyCode.net

That is all.