Lab pauses Blocksworld development and promotion

Blocksworld was a sandbox type game allowing users to create and build from blocks, purchase specialist packs, and even sell their own creations through a marketplace

Linden Lab has confirmed it has “paused” development and promotion of its iOS sandbox app, Blocksworld.

For those unfamiliar with it, Blocksworld has been a part of the Lab’s product stable since 2013. Initially developed by a trio of Swedish guys calling themselves Boldai AB, it was acquired by Linden Lab at the time the company was looking to broaden its product offerings under the stewardship of former CEO Rod Humble. This effort encompassed:

  • The in-house development of games like Creatorverse (Android and iOS, 2012-2013 – now defunct) and Dio (browser based, 2013-2014 – now defunct)
  • The acquisition of companies and their products (LittleTextPeople  and Versu, 2012 – IP released back to the original developers, 2015; and Boldai AB with Blocksworld).
  • Partnering with Free Range Games to produce Patterns (2012-2014, still available via Steam, but only in “off-line” mode, no shared worlds).
  • A short foray into owning a games distribution platform through the acquisition of Desura (2013-2014, sold to Bad Juju Games).

Since its launch, the game has been steadily developed and has performed reasonably well – including gaining some brand support through Hasbro (with their G.I. Joe brand).

More recently, the Lab made it available through web browsers (although it never really worked well in Firefox) and through the Steam Early Access programme. As a part of the Lab’s product family, it has always appeared on the More Products listing at the foot of the secondlife.com web pages – which is how I found something may have changed.

Blocksworld used to appear in the footer area of the secondlife.com web pages

In looking at my SL dashboard at secondlife.com on July 3rd, I noticed Blocksworld was no longer listed, leaving only Sansar. I also noticed the two websites associated with Blocksworld either redirected back to the Lab’s corporate website (in the case of blocksworld.com) or had an expired security certificate issue (playblocksworld.com).

Over the course of July, the footer area of the secondlife.com pages have continued to be revised so they focus on SL, Sansar and Tilia and appear to leave little or no room for Blocksworld to make a return. Nevertheless, the game continues to be available on the Apple Store App Preview, and on Steam Early Access, and to appear on the Lab’s product page.

The revised secondlife.com web page footers seem to leave little room for Blocksworld with their focus on SL, Sansar and Tilia

All of which made me wonder what was going on, so I reached out to the Lab in early July to ask. It took a little time to get a reply, and when it did come in, it was a little short, considering the length of time it took for it to arrive:

Our primary focus continues to be on Second Life and Sansar, so we’ve paused new development and promotion for Blocksworld. However, Blocksworld continues to be available in the App Store as it still has a healthy amount of users and many people continue to enjoy it.

Which is fair enough to a point. When one considers the Lab is now engaged in developing an iOS “companion” app for Second Life, then possibly stepping back from working on Blocksworld (assuming the skills used to develop Blocksworld are indeed still at the Lab) allows in-house iOS talent to be re-directed towards this new SL companion app.

Even so, something of a nagging doubt remains, for two reasons:

  • The last significant update to Blocksworld was March 2018 – well before  any work started on an iOS app for Second Life. This tends to suggest the app’s development cycle had perhaps already reached a ceiling in terms of resources at the Lab.
  • Also, if skill sets have indeed been diverted away from Blocksworld to focus on the SL iOS, then they are potentially going to be re-directed for some time, simply because of the amount of time app development and enhancement takes.

So it’s hard not to wonder what the future might actually hold for Blocksworld. How long is the pause likely to be? Is there a risk that  – given the amount of time since the last update  – this “pause” might also stall the apps ability to acquire / retain users? If so, what then?

Will it be considered to still be a worthwhile enough revenue generator to warrant future development, or at least on-going support? Or might it come to be seen as a nice little app that has run its course, left to slowly fade away over time? I’m hoping for the former, and will continue to try to keep a check on it, even if it only sates my own curiosity!

Advertisements

Versu is reborn!

versuOn Friday June 6th, Emily Short announced through her blog that Versu, the interactive fiction engine she and Richard Evans developed while working at Linden Lab, and which was cancelled as a part of the Lab’s product review in February 2014, will now continue, and that Blood & Laurels, the interactive novel she has been working on for 15 years, will be launched on June 12th.

Following the announcement of Versu’s cancellation by the Lab, many of us speculated whether it  might be allowed to live on separately to the Lab’s involvement, and Emily herself confirmed she was talking to the Lab on matter of IP. However, hopes this might happen seemed to have been completely dashed in March, when the Lab said no to any idea of selling the IP involved. However, they’ve since had a change of heart.

The notification that this is the case came in the form of a blog post which first appeared on the  new Versu wesbite, and then reblogged on Emily’s site, which is where I came across it.

The announcement reads in part:

Nu-versu-1
Versu was lauched to considerable acclaim prior to being cancelled by Linden Lab. Now it is set to continue (image from the Versu website)

Until February of this year, the Versu project had its home at Linden Lab, exploring the possibilities of interactive storytelling with advanced character AI by Richard Evans (Sims 3, Black and White) and dialogue modeling by Emily Short (Galatea, Alabaster), as well as work by authors Jake Forbes (Return to Labyrinth) and Deirdra Kiai (Dominique Pamplemousse).

When the Lab decided to refocus its offerings and cut support for Versu, the project was only three days from launching a Roman political thriller called Blood & Laurels. Blood & Laurels represented a significant step forward in complexity and depth from previous Versu stories: a large cast of characters, a richly branched two-part storyline, and over 240,000 words of interactive content — of which a player is likely to see only about 7% in a given play through. Character behaviour and relationships were modeled with at least as much fidelity as in earlier examples, but in a context with much higher narrative stakes. What other characters think of you affect whether your character lives or dies, thrives or fails — and those relationships are driven by both large and small decisions.

After Versu’s cancellation, it looked for a long time as though neither the underlying technology nor the finished stories had a future. However, we are delighted to be able to announce that Linden Lab has negotiated a new arrangement that will allow us to release these stories and explore a future for the engine.

The Versu blog post reveals that Blood & Laurels has been made possible by a language called Prompter, which is used by Versu and has been designed by Graham Nelson of Inform fame. Graham is also now a part of the new Versu team, joining Emily and Richard Evans.

Emily Short and Richard Evans are joined by Graham Nelson, the man behind the Inform IF language, and the creator of the Promptor language used by Versu
Emily Short and Richard Evans are joined by Graham Nelson, the man behind the Inform IF system, and the creator of the Prompter language used by Versu

Blood & Laurels is set to be followed by Bramble House, an interactive fantasy story written by  Jake T. Forbes, the author of Return to Labyrinth, a four volume graphic novel sequel to the Jim Henson film Labyrinth, and the English-language versions of the best-selling manga series Fullmetal Alchemist, Fruits Basket, One Piece and others.

Bramble House focuses on the character of 15-year-old Penny, who is “bound in service to the witch Stregma, forced to deal with everything from mundane dishwashing to evicting monstrous guests”. In it, the reader takes on the role of Penny, progressing through various situations and events in two stories set within the Bramble House world.

There is no publication date available as yet for the title.

Blood and Laurels (due June 12th) and Bramble House will be the first two titles released under the new Versu banner
Blood and Laurels (due June 12th) and Bramble House will be the first two titles released under the new Versu banner (from the Versu website)

The new titles will be appearing on the iOS platform. At the time of writing, it is not clear as to whether there are still plans to make Versu and its titles available for the Android platform; the website only goes so far as to state, “While we would like to support Android, we do not currently have an Android version available.”

This is excellent news for all with an interest in or passion for interactive fiction. Congratulations are extended to Emily, Richard and Graham with the launch to this new venture, and kudos, as well, goes to Linden Lab for reversing their decision on the Versu IP and allowing the project to continue.

Be sure to listen-in to an upcoming edition of the Drax Files Radio Hour interviews, when Drax will be talking to Emily Short about interactive fiction, Versu and more!

Related Links

Lab says “no” to an independent future for Versu

One of the original Versu titles
One of the original Versu titles

Following the Lab’s move to axe Creatorverse, dio and Versu, I raised the question with Emily Short and the Lab on whether it might be possible for Versu to continue. I wasn’t alone in cogitating the idea, several others raised the same question, such as Ciaran Laval.

At the time I made my enquiries, Emily confirmed that discussions were underway while the Lab were reticent  to comment – understandably, simply because discussions were in progress.

On Saturday March 8th, and true to her promise that she would blog on the matter when she was in a position to do so, Emily issued a brief update, stating:

So for those who were curious, Linden has now given me a definite no about selling me the codebase and IP.

In reply to a comment expressing the hope that this won’t spell the end of Emily’s forays into social IF, she replied in part:

This is definitely not the end of my trying to build more socially-focused IF [interactive fiction], and we did learn a huge amount about how to make that work, not just in terms of a technical engine but in terms of authoring approaches. So there are things that can be built on even without access to the code or IP.

There is understandably a huge amount of disappointment involved here as well.  Blood and Laurels, the latest title Emily had been developing for Versu, represents the culmination of a concept she had been periodically working on for some fifteen years, and she acknowledges that she was really excited to see it finished. Even so, Emily remains pragmatic:

Still, on a total scale of possible bad things to have happen to one, it’s not very far along the bad thing spectrum. So we go on to the next.

Whether the Lab’s decision was based on them seeing a possible means of using the IP and code elsewhere is unknown. However, as Tateru Nino points-out in a further comment, that while regrettable, the decision by Linden Lab is actually a logical business decision, as whether it is used or not, the Versu IP represents a company asset. Even so, if the IP and code is destined to sit on a shelf unused, it is a shame a way could not be found to allow the project to survive. While it may not fit the Lab’s “shared creative spaces” model, the IF market does represent a viable niche market, and Versu itself represented a unique approach to presenting IF – and of even reaching beyond it into other fields of use.

While I never got to use Versu, of all the initial new product offerings from the Lab, it was the one that intrigued me the most; I’ll miss it.

Could Versu Live On?

Ciaran Laval beat me to the punch on this one, having cogitated on the matter and posted on the matter of Versu being allowed a Second Life.  However, I’m going to blog anyway 🙂 .

Of all of the offerings from the Lab which were axed on February 19th – Creatorverse, dio, and Versu –  it was Versu which I found most intriguing – and also most frustrating, as being restricted to the iPad, it was the only one I couldn’t try.

Versu offered a new approach to interactive fiction
Versu offered a new approach to interactive fiction

The concept and capabilities within it, both as an interactive fiction application and as a potential engine for wider things, such as a means of studying real-world social situations (as the UK’s New Scientist magazine reported in June 2013), were certainly fascinating, and it would be a shame to see them suffer an early death.

As I do feel Versu has a lot of potential, I dropped Emily Short a line on her blog, expressing my hope that a way could be found to allow it to continue. She replied:

I don’t have a concrete answer to that yet, but I’m currently investigating whether it’s possible to regain the IP from Linden.

If so, I’d likely take it forward in a slightly different direction than the Lab would have done, but still with the aim of making some tools available to the general public. I’m actually really pleased with some of the things the authoring tools could do at the end — I was able to put together Blood and Laurels, which is a massively branching, 250K word piece, in a couple of months. I’m obviously biased here, but the output feels way tighter than our earliest Versu stories, has much more plot, but still allows for considerable variety in the outcomes of various character relationships. Basically, it’s a type of IF I have been wanting to write for a long time, and for which most of the existing tools are not a very good fit.

So I’d really like to see both the finished stories and the toolset reach an audience, since outside of Linden and a few conference demos hardly anyone has seen what we did. But a great deal depends on what I’m able to arrange.

Anyway, if I have news on the future of Versu, I’ll mention it on this blog.

Not long after she replied to me, Emily also posted on the subject directly.

Blood and Laurels, a 250,000 word title for Versu had, prior to the Lab's 19th February announcement, been expected soon
Blood and Laurels, a 250,000 word title for Versu had, prior to the Lab’s 19th February announcement, been expected soon

Obviously, and as Emily says, there is nothing concrete here to say Versu will be able go ahead, and negotiations are down to her, the Lab and (I assume) Richard Evans to see how it might be taken forward outside of the Lab’s purview. However, I can’t help but keep fingers crossed on the matter; particularly given there is a chance the tools for people to create their own stories would remain a part of any continuance.

The news that Versu was to be axed must have come as a severe disappointment to Emily. As she notes in her blog reply, Blood and Laurels, which had been reported as “coming soon” to Versu as recently as January 25th, 2014, amounted to a 250,000-word piece, which is roughly twice the length of something akin to a work of historical fiction.

The idea of a company releasing technology IP as a result of a shift in focus coupled with a departure of staff isn’t new. Perhaps the most recent high-profile example of this occurring was when Gabe Newell allowed Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson walk away from Value with the IP for castAR, an augmented reality (and potentially VR-capable) headset they had been developing on the company’s dime. By doing so, Newell enabled them to set-up a company and Kickstarter in order to continue the work. So it’s is not beyond the realm of possibility that an agreement between the Lab and Ms. Short / Richard Evans cannot be reached.

CastAR: Gabe Newell allowed  glasses (image courtesy of Technical Illusions / The Verge)
CastAR: Gabe Newell allowed Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson to depart Valve with the IP when the project was effectively canned. could LL reach a similar agreement with the creators of Versu? (image courtesy of Technical Illusions / The Verge)

Meanwhile, Qie Niangao has been musing whether Versu’s technology might find a re-use in SL helping content creators develop more immersive user experiences alongside of, or a part of, the still-to-be-released Experience Tools.

Again, it’s an interesting idea. Pathfinding has not turned out to be quite the AI winner in Second Life that perhaps had been hoped, but whether the actual engine from Versu could be re-tailored for use within the platform is perhaps questionable (as Qie himself also notes). It is also unclear what expertise in terms of Versu’s development remains at the Lab, both Richard Evans and now Emily Short having departed.

Of the two options, I confess I’d rather a means be found for Versu to continue elsewhere in more-or-less the form in which we’ve come to recognise it (just with a flavour for the Android OS!). As already noted, it’s an intriguing approach to IF, and one with potentially huge opportunities.

Note: While preparing this piece, Ciaran contacted me to say he was working on a further piece related to Emily Short’s blog post. you can read it here.

Lab confirms dio, Creatorverse and Versu axed

LL logoUpdate: Peter Grey has confirmed with me that Versu and Creatorverse will be removed from the App Store (and the other places Creatorverse had been available) and their websites taken down in the immediate future. The dio website will remain until the end of February, with a message announcing its forthcoming closure.

Linden Lab has just confirmed that three of its products, Creatorverse. dio and Versu have been axed.

The announcement in full reads:

After careful consideration, Linden Lab has decided to cease development and support for dio, Versu, and Creatorverse. We’re grateful for those who took the time to experiment with these products in their early days, but ultimately we have determined that due to a number of factors, we and our customers will be best served by focusing our efforts on continuing to provide exceptional service and compelling new experiences for the users of our other products.

Where's dio and Creatorverse?
dio, Versu and Creatorverse gone from most LL web properties

The products have been removed from the footer area of the Lab’s webpages, and from the corporate home page banner and products page.

So Ciaran Laval called it right!

Ancient Rome coming to Versu – but is Versu coming to Android?

LL logoUpdate, February 19th, 2014: Versu was discontinued by Linden Lab on February 19th, 2014. Links to the Versu website, etc., have therefore been removed from this article.

Of the various new products the Lab have launched, Versu has, to me, always looked to be the most interesting of those in the “apps” category (although I admit I’d also like to fiddle around with Blocksworld).

Launched on the iPad in February 2013 with four accompanying titles, there was the promise that people could expect both more titles and tools they could use to create their own stories for Versu which they could then sell. There was also the assumption that the app would move to the Android platform much as Creatorverse has before it.

The additional titles – well, two of them at least – arrived in August 2013, penned by Deirdra Kiai. However, while former Linden CEO Rod Humble talked-up the “democratisation” of the creative process while discussing Versu, nothing has actually appeared in that vein as yet.

Indeed, the two titles from “Squinky” (as Deirdra Kiai likes to be known!) and the fact that the Versu engine would appear to have great potential as a means of studying real-world social situations (as the UK’s New Scientist magazine reported in June 2013) notwithstanding, the app appears to  have been all but forgotten by the Lab.

Blood and Laurels
Emily Short’s new Versu title – available soon

Such has been the situation that I’d actually given-up checking on progress with Versu, despite Emily Short herself breaking the news late last year that she was working on a new title.

Fortunately for me, the Gov’ner, Ciaran Laval, is still watching things, and he brings word Ms. Short actually revealed some news on the new title back in January.

Details are still scant, but the new title is to be Blood and Laurels and is to feature, according to Ms. Short, “Cults. Conspiracies. Poison. Stabbing. Blackmail. Seduction. Prophecies and rumors. Divine wrath — or possibly just bad weather.”

So death and glory is to be Coming Soon (TM) to the iPad. But what of the app’s expansion to Android or elsewhere? It’s the one question Emily Short seems to get asked every time she blogs about Versu (which, if nothing else, would suggest that interactive fiction fans are more than aware of the app). Sadly, however, she’s not in a position to comment.

Maybe I’ll poke the Lab about it …

Related Links