Chapter VI: Comic Book Dollhouse
6.1 Goals
The goal of Comic Book Dollhouse is to create a magic crayon which encourages a practice of storyworld authorship and play. Comic Book Dollhouse is intended to be a complete, robust, and publicly available system that will be iterated based on user feedback. CBD isn’t as computationally sophisticated as other interactive storyworld systems, such as Façade, but as an interactive storyworld construction toy, the system is unique, complete, robust, and usable. CBD is the simplest system that works. Design began from an analysis of relevant artifacts and a subsequent articulation of desired player experiences. Participatory conventions and pleasures from games are drawn upon, since games are experientially the richest and most sophisticated participatory media form. The visual language of comics is used because of its plasticity and intelligibility along the axes of narrative, authorship, and computation. Comics are representationally powerful, easy to write in (with the proper support), and lend themselves to procedural manipulation.
6.1.1 Encouraging a Storyworld Practice
What is meant by a practice of storyworld authorship and play? Users making, sharing, and playing storyworlds. Users should be able to engage storyworlds in a variety of ways, including reading stories made by other users, playing with authored storyworlds, modifying existing storyworlds, or creating storyworld materials for others. Participatory modes should be graded in sophistication and make use of overlapping interface conventions to facilitate mobility between participatory modes. The design intent is to lure someone who comes across a completed story on a web page to download the software and play with an existing storyworld, and also tempt players into becoming authors and making storyworlds. The interactive fiction community and the storytelling community that gravitates around The Sims Exchange are examples of the desired social structures: people specialize in reading/playing, tool development, and making particular types of world content. On The Sims Exchange, more sophisticated users help new ones, exchange of work is facilitated, player stories are foregrounded, and demands are made upon authors and tool makers [30]. CBD’s simplicity is designed to encourage usership and feedback on avenues for elaboration. Comic Book Dollhouse is unlike interactive fiction software such as Inform, because Inform is not a magic crayon, and CBD storyworlds are visual rather than textual.
6.1.2 Experiential Goals
6.1.2.1 Immersion into a Miniature Dramatic World
CBD affords creation of miniature dramatic worlds. The primitives authors and players work with, such as actors, props, actions, and comics lend themselves to the domain of story.
Comic Book Dollhouse storyworlds will have an internal life of their own. A conscious decision was made to target the participatory pleasures of composition and construction first, and then add constraints and dynamics that add life after iterating the system based on feedback by real authors and users. Dynamics and constraints that create life will also add strategizing and problem solving to the experience of playing a dollhouse world. What kinds of dynamics and constraints do authors want to add to their miniature comic book dollhouse worlds?
2.4.5 Pleasures of Participation
CBD engages the participatory pleasures of composing and making things. Authors and players should be able to look at what others have made, export their stories to other forms, like web pages and printouts, and save and exchange storyworld materials. CBD offers primitives that authors can use to make a variety of things, and authors, in turn, can make primitives for other authors and players to assemble into storyworlds or stories. The Sims Exchange is a medium that storytellers use to share stories, and functions as a catalyst for the practice of using The Sims to tell stories [30]. I plan on making a web site where authors can share storyworlds, which will add a social impetus to the practice of storyworld construction.
Eventually, CBD will engage players, and not just authors, in strategizing and problem solving, and player decisions will evoke a stronger sense of responsibility. The constraints and dynamics that generate problem solving possible worlds landscapes will be the same mechanisms that imbue CBD’s miniature worlds with more life and reactivity. Rather than implement dynamics and constraints that may or may not be useful for authors, I’ll wait for authors to demand certain kinds of constraints and dynamics.
What is the player’s point of view within a CBD storyworld? The player will not manipulate the world from the point of view of a player character, as there is a problem with having a character you manipulate in the first person also have its own internal simulation life, as Maxis discovered when transmogrifying The Sims into The Sims Online: “I’m having fun, why isn’t my sim?’’ Also, the system gives players broad control over a dollhouse, which is inconsistent with linking the player manipulation to a specific character. Players will be temporally located at the end of a story. Although players can go back and retroactively edit any part of a story’s visual layout, the player interface is structured around manipulation at a story’s leading temporal edge.
6.2 Strategy
6.2.1 Representation & Comics
The Sims and Lonely Time suggest representational mechanisms for efficiently conveying dramatically compressed action on the computer. Both Lonely Time and The Sims use some very clever shorthands (abstractions) for explaining the life of their worlds. In The Sims, one cannot zoom in and see the expressions on character faces, so body language is how one assesses mood. Also, conversation, desires, and dreaming take place through evocative icons. Sims will produce mops and garbage bags out of nowhere, the fridge contains an infinite supply of foods that can be purchased at will, and all of this feels completely natural. Although Lonely Time is animated, it borrows conventions from manga. When the bathhouse is entered, it occupies the entire display, but superimposed in the corner is a small man in a circular frame thanking me for paying. Both displays are simultaneously animating disjunct moments in time, and yet the narrative compression and flow is intelligible. Also, the waitress in the restaurant doesn’t walk between the cash register and counter, but jumps back and forth, which feels natural despite the combination of animation and cutting between separate moments in time on a background of continuous time. Representational shorthands and abstractions are used to make the systems’ construction tractable, cognitively easier on the user and author, and to maintain dramatic interest.
CBD uses conventions from comics to represent the unfolding action of a storyworld. Video is combinatorially inflexible, computationally unwieldily, and very labor intensive to fabricate.
Another problem with video is that it looks very realistic, and so false expectations about the domain and realism of potential storyworld events are established. The vast majority of video games use animated cartesian spaces for representing their worlds. Representing a cartesian space, however, is at odds with the needs of representing compressed dramatic action. Fabricating animated graphics, while not as labor intensive as video, is still a great burden to place on an author. Text, while exceptionally cheap to author, hardly takes advantage of the representational strengths of the computer.
Representation of time and space in The Sims is too literalistic, but Lonely Time points the way towards appropriating conventions from comics into an interactive system. Lonely Time’s economy of representational affords the construction of a dramatically oriented world. Comics are a strong language for dramatic compression and abstraction, and have been used to cover every conceivable type of narrative ground.
While comics don’t have any established conventions for participation, they are an exceptionally powerful and flexible representational medium. Comics make use of a light weight and highly malleable language for representing time, space, action, and emotion. Conventions such as the panel and motion lines are well understood. The Sims, for instance, taps into comic iconography. Comics are flexible along the axis of visual abstraction, and with the proper tools, writing in the visual language of comics is very easy.
Comics have a natural discreteness that lends itself well to computational recombination. Visual elements, such as frames, faces, speech balloons, and character bodies, can be parametric. Not only can the computer parametrically pull the strings that describe the appearance of such visual elements, but users can directly manipulate them. Layouts can also be parametric: rather than specify exactly which visual assets go where, layouts can be templates that afford substitution. Also, the computer can add animation to the visual language of comics.
Interactive and procedural generation of comics has been done in Comic Chat and Comic Diary. Comic Chat is chat room software where the conversation is displayed as a comic strip, and participants have parametric control of their characters’ expressions and speech balloons [38]. Comic Diary uses data collection and templates to generate comic strip diaries of users’ conference experience [72]. Neither program is an authoring tool for making comics, which is the kind of interface CBD provides.
6.2.2 Authorship
HTML’s widespread use resulted from features intrinsic to the language’s design. HTML is robust, open, fluid, easy, incremental, and modular, features CBD aspires to.
CBD is a robust, stable system, and will be freely available for both Macintosh and Windows. The authorial description of Comic Book Dollhouse storyworlds are available for players to examine, and interface conventions are reused across player and author modes, which gives fluidity to the participatory roles. Storyworlds are represented to players and authors in relatively similar ways, and the cross-role consistency of representation and manipulation should encourage migration across roles. Authorship in CBD is incremental. One doesn’t have to author a huge world to have something which works.
CBD storyworlds are modular to make authorship easy, and to encourage circulation of storyworld materials between authors and dollhouses. Storyworlds are modular as dollhouses (they contain everything else), objects (props and actors are self-contained units), and verbs (each is self-contained and lives within an object). This modularity will make it possible for users to exchange actors, props, and other storyworld materials. Modularity also means encapsulation, which makes authorship easier for authors. Each entity has clearly defined boundaries and an overview, which makes getting your head around each primitive straightforward. Each CBD object and verb is a neat, self-contained entity.
Modularity is key to the The Sims and the storytelling which takes place on The Sims Exchange. At the heart of the The Sims’s architecture is an object oriented design which allows new objects to be incrementally added to a world. Sims know how to use and integrate new objects into their decision making and behavioral patterns because objects contain the properties, scripts, and animations that define their desirability, behavior, and representation. Stories on The Sims Exchange make heavy use of distributed authorship. Sophisticated storytellers use props and objects created by other users.
CBD, unlike other story generation or interactive storyworld software, emphasizes authorship and story construction as the primary mode of participation for both players and authors.
6.2.3 Participation and Authorship, then Generation
CBD is intentionally designed to solve the problem of storyworld participation and authorship, and leave the question of generation for later.
My hypothesis is that the problem of generation will not be so hard once we have a grasp on the design problem of authorship and player participation. Making and playing storyworlds should encourage users to ask for specific generative features whose solutions might not be so hard. Current work in generative systems, such as Universe, Tale Spin, Minstrel, Erasmatron, and Façade, privilege generation, authorship, and participation differently. All these approaches take the stance that the solution to participation and/or authorship will follow logically from generation. None treat generation as a problem to be solved after participation and authorship is understood. It seems to be quite easy to build generative systems that are hard to author in or build satisfying participatory conventions for. CBD addresses the problems of participation and authorship first, with the hope that simple generative models will follow from the demands and usage patterns of players and authors.
6.2.4 Shallow Architecture, Deep Surface
Pencil and paper is a medium whose material architecture is simple and intelligible, but yields a deep surface that authors can put to a variety of uses. HTML, also, is a shallow architecture with a deep surface. HTML’s simplicity makes it easy to understand, and its surface can be manipulated by authors to fabricate all kinds of things not anticipated by the language’s designer.
CBD strives for computational simplicity to maximize intelligibility and plasticity for both authors and players. Simultaneously, its representational primitives are designed to maximize expressiveness. Panels, line drawings, actions, actors, and props are primitives that can be put to a wide variety of representational purposes, and appropriated for new uses. Computational complexity is deployed only when it results in a corresponding experiential payoff for authors and players.
6.3 Design
6.3.1 Overflight via Screenshots & Descriptions
Conveying a computer program through screen shots and narrative text is a poor excuse for playing with the real thing. Nonetheless, here are some screen shots and descriptions to communicate a taste of CBD.
The first screenshot is what the player sees after loading the storyworld “A Tale of Two Robots.’’ The column on the left gives an overview of all the objects in this storyworld: stories, actors, props, and sticker sheets. A story object is open on the right. In this story object, which is a comics layout, players engage the objects of the storyworld to play/make a story:
Figure 45: A story object in Comic Book Dollhouse.
Players drop objects into the story, and pop-up menus attached to on-stage objects prompt the player with possible sentences involving the on-stage objects:
Figure 46: Comic Book Dollhouse verb pop-up menu.
The curtain previews options for what comes next in the story. These options are generated from verbs the player selects in the pop-up menu, or the plot generation mechanism:
Figure 47: Question mark curtain previewing story possibilities in Comic Book Dollhouse.
Users can drop below the curtain, and edit the story’s layout directly:
Figure 48: Editing a story’s layout in Comic Book Dollhouse.
Editing the graphics for “boybot.’’ The actor graphics component is based upon Soude, a program I wrote for sketching posable figures [27]. You can directly manipulate the pose of the figure, and draw upon it:
Figure 49: Editing an actor’s graphics in Comic Book Dollhouse.
Editing the verb “hug,’’ which belongs to the actor “girlbot:’’
Figure 50: Editing a verb in Comic Book Dollhouse.
Editing the morpheme “meet-girl,’’ which belongs to the actor “boybot.’’ First, “boybot’’ acts lonely, he finds some flowers, and then gives them to “girlbot:’’
Figure 51: Editing a morpheme in Comic Book Dollhouse.
6.3.2 Storyworld Primitives
6.3.2.1 Objects
The basic architecture of CBD descends from The Sims. The world of The Sims contains objects which provide actions for sims to perform. The sink in The Sims provides the action “wash hands,’’ which becomes available when the player clicks on the sink. The action “wash hands’’ is also advertised by the sink to sims, which is how sims make autonomous decisions. Sims can also be the providers of actions to other sims, such as “kiss.’’ This object oriented architecture is intelligible and modular to players and authors.
CBD prop and actor objects provide verbs for actors to perform. Dollhouses also contain objects that don’t provide verbs, like sticker sheets and stories. Sticker sheets are reusable collections of icons that users can make, use, and trade. Stories are where players interact with dollhouses, making stories from dollhouse components.
6.3.2.2 Verbs
Actors and props provide verbs for actors to perform. Verbs describe storyworld actions, and are the atomic units of activity. Each verb has one to three parameters. Verbs always have an agent, which is the actor performing the action. The object that contains a verb is always a parameter of the verb, which enforces the object oriented structure of CBD; verbs cannot float free without existing in an object. Parameters can also require certain types of objects. The structural constraints of a verb are designed to give intelligibility to a world’s actions: all verbs are always performed by a actor on another object. A need for more than three parameters has not been encountered, and adding a totally variable number of parameters would add significant complexity without a corresponding experiential payoff. Each verb is a comics layout, and the parameters can be matched to elements in the layout, which is how layout templates interlock with substitutable verb parameters.
An example verb is “hug,’’ which belongs to the actor object “girlbot.’’ “Hug’’ has two parameters, one of which is always “girlbot,’’ since she owns the verb. The other parameter is the actor whom she will hug. The verb describes the linkage between layout and parameters: which parameter should be drawn where?
Why verbs and not a spatial simulation, goal seeking artificial intelligence, or generative grammar? Verbs with parameters and comic layouts capture CBD’s core representational needs: computational recombination through substitution, player participation, and compressed dramatic action. Structuring verbs as sentences whose parameters needs to be filled in accounts for player participation at the lowest level of storyworld description.
The descriptive language of verbs and layouts is intelligible and plastic to both authors and players. Many possible substitutions result from a small number of objects and verbs, yielding interesting player choices, and big payoffs for authorship. The structure of verbs is generic enough to provide great representational flexibility: a verb can capture a small action, like a actor looking up at the sky, or a big action, like the betrayal of one lover by another. A single verb could even represent someone joining a cult and living out the rest of their life alone in Montana.
The object-verb system successfully gives rise to a combinatoric explosion of object interactions and possible sentences, which makes composition and construction possible and interesting. The problem to solve, however, is making this possible worlds landscape topographically interesting. Dynamics that guide and push the player into these diversified possible worlds are needed, along with constraints that hold possible worlds into configurations that correspond to experiences such as responsibility, problem solving, and risk.
6.3.2.3 Plot Fragments
CBD uses a very simple plot generation mechanism to suggest possible worlds pathways to the player. Objects can contain morpheme declarations, which are layouts that describe linear sequences of actions, such as somebody finds a flower, and then somebody smells a flower. This declarative language describes story event sequences, and once the user interface is improved, writing in it should be very easy for authors. CBD is continually reading over the history of a story and looking for partially completed morphemes. If part of a morpheme’s event sequence is found, the missing parts are suggested to the player. Morphemes can be recursively embedded within one another, have variables, and unspecified variable values. CBD unrolls unspecified variable values into possible parameters, which generates more bifurcation. If a morpheme suggests that one actor should give flowers to an unspecified actor, then CBD will suggest recipients. Future work in this area will include improving the interface, allowing more complex expressions, and prioritization of morphemes based on embedding relationships. The plot generator is run each time the story advances, which suggests zero or more sentences for the player to choose from. Only three sentences are previewed, so suggestions must be prioritized. Prioritization will be opportunistic: the system will favor sentences that fulfill more than one morpheme, and those that help construct overarching stories.
The plot mechanism was implemented to give dollhouses a little bit of internal, reactive life. The original design called for an event handling mechanism: verbs would generate events that event handlers could listen for and respond to. The advantage of declarative action sequences is that they can do everything an event response mechanism could have done, but without adding an entire event signature, generation, and recognition apparatus. Also, plot morphemes can respond to sequences of actions, not just single actions. Another advantage is representational: a sequence of verbs can be represented as a sequence of comic panels.
Plot morphemes do in fact give worlds a bit of internal life and surprise, but are still missing constraints and state that place the player into a situation where choices generate player responsibility. Choosing one action over another should have consequences, but all possible worlds remain available, which decreases player responsibility.
The plot mechanism solves the problem of reactive life, but as a dynamic, it doesn’t yield responsibility and problem solving. State modification and precondition syntax are needed to constrain the possible worlds landscape of a CBD dollhouse.
It is desirable for a single system of rules to be responsible for giving a world internal life, surprise, intelligibility, and player problem solving. More rules will also provide input constraints that make navigating a richly populated dollhouse feasible. While creative players can add constraints in their head to make new microworlds with these properties (I shot girlbot, so don’t use her again), I want to computationally instantiate these constraints.
6.3.2.4 Visual Primitives
CBD provides visual primitives for making comics. Speech and thought balloons are primitive visual elements that can be directly manipulated into different shapes. A user can create speech a speech balloon, for example, and interactively drag on the spoke to stretch it out and point it towards an actor’s mouth.
Actor figures behave like rag dolls, and can be easily posed through direct manipulation. The rag doll behavior of actors is achieved through an inverse kinematics system based upon springs. This system is a subset of Soude, a program I wrote for making hand drawn actors [27]. Soude allows users to create arbitrary skeletons, but CBD uses a fixed skeleton to enable visual substitution of actors.
Panels are another primitive CBD provides to facilitate making comics. CBD panels can be used to prompt mental closure. This is a form of hide-and-reveal that operates on the space of a page, rather than the represented space of a world.
Stickers are icons users can make and reuse in layouts. Examples of stickers are hearts, exclamation marks, question marks, motion lines, and sighs. The idea behind stickers is that there exists a vocabulary of icons users will want to author, reuse, and trade.
Visual primitives interact to make compositing easier. Legos snap together in certain ways to ease construction, and CBD’s visual primitives adhere to one another in ways that afford constructing comics. Placing a visual primitive inside of another one causes Comic Book Dollhouse to structure them into a hierarchy. Dropping a sticker inside of a panel, for instance, causes the sticker to attach to the panel, so moving the panel will move the sticker as well. The spoke of a speech balloon directs its attachment: if a balloon’s spoke lands inside of another element, such as a panel, the balloon will attach to it. CBD doesn’t place logical constraints on hierarchy. Speech balloons can contain actors, additional speech balloons, panels, or anything else. An entire story could be written with everything contained in thought balloons.
6.3.3 Playing & Authoring
6.3.3.1 Time
Story time advances in one of three ways: the inner life of a storyworld suggests options for what should happen next, players choose a specific action, or players dig into a story’s layout and manually arrange panels, make speech balloons, and pose actors.
Players often ask about arbitrary insert into a story’s past. The ability to go back and change a story’s past is probably suggested to users by CBD’s interactive spatialization of time. There is no architectural reason why this type of play shouldn’t be possible. Random insert as well as parallel, branching stories are avenues for further exploration. Squares, an interactive comics piece I made, allows intervention in a story’s past to see how changes cascade into the future [28]:
Figure 52: Squares, an interactive polyptych.
Architecturally, this will require capturing the state of a dollhouse in each time step of a story, which should be tractable with an object prototype architecture. An object instance in one time step will inherit properties from the global definition of that object. What we’ll have is an architecture which can represent multiple, interdependent ontologies. Such a system could be stretched for more bizarre uses. A story could contain a dream sub-ontology which descends from a particular world state. Stories could branch into parallel paths and recurse into dreams and embedded narratives. These multiple ontologies could interpenetrate in interesting ways. A character could meet a version of himself from the past or an alternate instance of himself from a parallel world. Dream and actual worlds could collide, letting people enter each other’s dreams, or disjunct dreams could leak into one another. Scott McCloud achieves similar effects in his multiform comic “Choose Your Own Carl’’ [49].
6.3.3.2 Question Curtain
The question mark curtain separates a story’s past from its possible futures, and visually prompts the player to take action. The curtain also functions as a boundary that generates player safety and invites participation. The boundary divides a story’s completed past from its inchoate future, so that the empty space to the right of a story doesn’t make players feel uncomfortable. Having a totally blank piece of paper in front of you can be exciting and inspiring, but can also be overwhelming and intimidating. This boundary between the actual and possible is fluid, and the curtain moves around as players add to the story and preview possible futures. The curtain completely disappears when players edit a story’s layout, which gives the sense of going behind the curtain. When players are done editing, the curtain descends again. The question mark curtain also functions as a seam between the microworlds of editing story layout, and playing a story.
Earlier in CBD’s design, an interface style more closely related to The Sims was used, where players selected an agent to control, and then clicked on objects to see a menu of things the selected agent could do with the object. This approach, however, requires players to formulate ahead of time who will perform the action. CBD adopted an interface where players throw multiple objects into the story, and then click on objects to get a menu of verb sentences which result from the interaction of on stage objects. The chosen action is previewed in the story scratch space, and the user can choose to commit one of these previews. If a chosen action can be interpreted by the system in multiple ways (should the girl give the boy flowers, or should the boy give the girl flowers?), both possibilities are previewed in the story scratch space. The strength of this approach is that players don’t have to know ahead of time what objects will be what parts of speech. Players simply choose what they want to work with, and compare possible sentences. The verb grammar is hidden from the player, but this makes learning how to author with the verb grammar harder.
If users don’t place a sufficient number of objects into the story scratch space, then no sentences can be made. Users often place a prop into the story scratch space and are then surprised that no verbs are available, but this is because an actor is needed to do something to the prop. The solution is to have Comic Book Dollhouse automatically place previews of possible sentences into the story scratch space as soon as just one prop is added. Results from this search could be pruned against the sentences suggested by the plot generation mechanism.
6.3.3.3 Overviews
The dollhouse view provides an overview of the entire dollhouse as a collection of thumbnails. The intent is to give the user an overview of the world, and make the world feel miniature and safe. CBD’s original design called for scenes, which were also overviews. A story would be located in a particular scene, and a scene would contain the objects in play. The purpose was to scope the objects in play for both the player and computer. Scenes, however, made the interface too complicated.
The dollhouse view isn’t sufficient for dealing with a large number of objects. If a dollhouse contains more than a dozen objects, navigation will be hard. The solution to this problem is having a dollhouse reveal and hide its objects during play. Such dynamics will give us input constraints that make using a richly populated dollhouse feasible. A dollhouse might only start with one or two visible objects, but reveal additional objects as a story unfolds. Using a dollhouse could then become an exploratory activity in which players look for new props and characters.
6.3.3.4 Exchange
Building an exchange where authors and players can exchange storyworld materials is an important step in encouraging a practice of authorship and play to develop. One of the pleasures of building something is sharing it with others. Part of CBD’s web site will be a virtual fridge door, like the Maxis Picks section of The Sims Exchange, where authors have their work foregrounded. Research into The Sims Exchange indicates that authors post things for others to read, and also enjoy helping others make things. Social dynamics such as recognition inspire making and playing [30].
An exchange will encourage authorship, as users will be able to download and leverage other people’s storyworld objects into their own storyworld, leading, hopefully, to what Will Wright describes as a big bang of content. Will Wright has suggested transparent mechanisms for extracting actions and plot sequences from player activity, and cross-pollinating material across CBD storyworlds.
Users often ask about exporting completed stories and printing them. This follows naturally from the impulse to look at and share what one has made. CBD will need to support export of finished stories to web pages and printable files. It would be nice to privilege web page export, as this kind of sharing provides another entry point for users to see what can be done with CBD.
The biggest obstacle to the exchange of materials between storyworlds is a fixed taxonomy. CBD’s architecture is ready for user defined abstract data types, but proliferating taxonomies will work against object portability. User defined data types are also key to specifying more interesting verb parameter constraints. One solution is to package the abstract data types of a dollhouse into a genre package that can be used across multiple dollhouses as a lingua franca. A genre package for a domestic situation comedy might define prop types and character stereotypes that would allow authors to exchange particular characters and household objects. Exposing abstract data types will require authors to agree on object taxonomies before exchanging storyworld materials.
6.3.3.5 Authorial Plasticity
Watching a creative user play with CBD is very rewarding, as users will reinterpret the basic materials provided by CBD for a variety of representational purposes. Space, time, drawings, and actors are highly plastic in the hands of a creative author, and the given materials of a storyworld prompt creation. Ideas are planted in a player’s head by what is available, and if the imagined action isn’t provided, players will often construct it on their own. Players are successfully called upon to participate in the imagination and construction of a world. The activity of making, arranging, and adding things is fun.¹
¹ Informal user testing has been performed throughout Comic Book Dollhouse’s development.
An interesting problem is encouraging users to abstract and build reusable storyworld components. Users will often make new designs in the story layout editor without adding new verbs to objects. It is my hope that that when users become more proficient, they will add new verbs and objects to a dollhouse’s objects for later reuse, rather than simply make things in the story for one time use.
Adding a “learn new verb’’ command might bridge this gap. Players could build something concrete in the story view, select part of a layout, and tell CBD they want to make it into a new verb. CBD could then ask the user which object the verb should be added to, and guide the user through the task of abstracting a layout with all parameters specified into one with substitutable parameters.
The lack of drawing tools in the layout editor forces people to make reusable stickers, which has good and bad side effects. The fact that players make reusable images is good, but drawing becomes a less improvisational activity. This could be solved, similarly, with a “learn new sticker’’ feature. Guiding players through the act of migrating things made in the story view into reusable verbs and stickers will make the transition between playing and authoring easier.
CBD doesn’t intelligently layout panels appended to a story. While this is, in one sense, a problem, it is also an opportunity for player participation. Players will often choose verbs and then go in and fix any layout issues, a satisfying design activity. On the other hand, this does get tedious, and I believe that a dynamic layout system that allows for user control would make tinkering with the layout possible, but not always necessary. My Paper prototype demonstrates one approach to the problem of dynamic layout. A simulation is used to position panels and adhere to constraints such as reading order [26].
CBD would benefit from a richer graphics model. Allowing the user to draw anywhere will add a tremendous amount of authorial plasticity to the system. The design problem is figuring out how to segment user drawn graphics. Users will probably be expected to create canvas objects to draw on. Also, Emotisketch was originally going to be integrated into the system, but time was short [25]. At present, one character body skeleton is hard coded into all dollhouses. In the future, dollhouses will be able to define their own character body skeletons, and afford multiple skeletons within the same dollhouse. Having one skeleton makes substitution easy, but diversifying skeletons within a dollhouse requires more sophisticated substitution and mapping techniques.
Rather than specify the appearance of a visual asset in a top down manner, by telling a character to draw itself in a particular pose, the state of a character could inform how it is drawn. A character whose state specifies it is sad or wearing a hat would know to inflect its appearance with these emotional and visual modifiers. This isn’t a hard problem, and games do it all the time. The difficult part will be integrating bottom up constraints specified by a character’s state with top down constraints specified by the user or layout template.
6.3.4 Interface
6.3.4.1 Navigating Multiple Editors
CBD is organized into multiple views. On the left is the dollhouse view, which provides an overview of everything in the dollhouse. Double clicking on an object in the dollhouse opens it in a new view to the right of the dollhouse. Keeping everything in one window makes navigation easier on the user, but sometimes users have problems getting back to the story they were editing. For example, users will edit a story, decide they need to make a new sticker, make the sticker, and then be unsure of how to get back to their story. One possible solution is to add a “back” or “done” button that takes users back to the story view. A “done” button was added to the story layout editor mode to make switching back to the story play mode easy. HyperCard’s recent window shows a collection of thumbnails of the last several dozen cards visited by the user, and clicking on a thumbnail returned the user to that location. Another possible solution is tinting the last object edited with red in the dollhouse overview, so users can easily identify where they were. Multiple saturation levels could be used to indicate the last few objects visited, and in what order.
Another problem is visually connecting a view, such as an actor, with its parent view, the dollhouse overview. When an actor is opened in the dollhouse, a new view appears to the right, but the connection isn’t always clear. The Macintosh Finder solves this problem with a zooming rectangle animation that connects a folder window to its icon. I couldn’t get zooming rectangles to look nice, but it seems some sort of animation would help. Repeating visual elements across views, such as labels, colors, or thumbnails helps to visually connect related views.
Lateral navigation elements would help move the user across different editors and modes. The “done” button that hovers over the story layout editor is an example of lateral navigation. Users can use a menu to turn off the layout edit mode, but users generally want to return to the story view after editing the layout, so a button appears at the right moment to take users immediately back. Other buttons could hover at appropriate times to prompt users for the next logical action or mode change. More user observation will be required to streamline navigating multiple editors.
6.3.4.2 Selection
CBD integrates multiple editors together into the same window. It is general interface design practice to give each pane of a multi-paned window its own selection, which means that only one pane has the user focus. Focus modes, which is understood to be bad design practice, is used to resolve user actions such as copy and paste against a particular pane’s selection. CBD solves this problem not by introducing additional modes, but by allowing only one active selection across multiple editors. If something is selected in the verb editor pane, and the user clicks on an object in the dollhouse view, only the object in the dollhouse view is selected. The experience is of working with a single editor that supports editing many different types of things, rather than multiple editors placed into a moded window.
6.3.4.3 Sculpt vs. Specify
If a user wants to make a speech balloon, should they draw the outline of what they want, or get a speech balloon and shape it into what they want? CBD follows HyperCard’s approach. Rather than ask users to describe an object before creating it, CBD creates an object for users to sculpt. Users ask for a new balloon from the menu, and a new balloon is created in the center of the layout, which can then be shaped. Sculpting is better than specification, because specification adds a redundant interface for describing objects, as well as an additional mode. Users would have to choose the speech balloon drawing tool, or specify the balloon’s dimensions through some other mechanism. Also, sculpting lets users see what they are getting as they describe it. Prompting users with default content is a strategy CBD tries to follow elsewhere. New dollhouses always contain an actor, prop, and story; new actors always contain one verb; verbs always contain default layouts that users can manipulate.
Starting from zero is harder than sculpting something given, and CBD should extend this idea. New dollhouses should automatically inherit more default content from a template. Giving authors partially completed material that demands completion is a design strategy for encouraging authorship. The character body editor in CBD presents the user with a humanoid stick figure, and users rarely have trouble understanding what it is and building on it.
6.3.4.4 Fluid Authorship
CBD leverages code and interface conventions between authorial and player modes to encourage mobility between playing and authoring. The same layout editor is used in the story view and verb editor. The verb editor can preview a verb as it will appear in the story. Authors can also preview what the verb will look like with particular objects plugged into the parameters.
CBD needs to follow HyperCard’s lead in constructing multiple user levels that hide parts of the interface that aren’t relevant to a user’s proficiency. CBD doesn’t make its use clear to new users. It should always open into a storyworld, and prompt players to participate. Graded participatory levels would focus the interface, and not distract less experienced users with options. It is better to pleasantly surprise the user with more authorial possibility than distract with irrelevant widgets and options.
6.3.4.5 Drag and Drop
Much of CBD’s interface was designed around drag and drop. Direct manipulation is great, but if everything can be dragged to something else to issue commands, then the possible things you can do with a system becomes opaque. Making everything drag and drop seems to approximate the experience of being at a command line, except one uses direct manipulation rather than typing free text to make sentences.
6.3.4.6 Undo
CBD affords infinite undo, which encourages users to experiment. This raises a problem with integrating multiple editors into a single window. One undo history exists for the entire dollhouse, which isn’t natural from the user’s point of view. Each document in a word processor, for instance, has its own undo history. Undoing in a word processor affects the frontmost window. Undoing in CBD will simply undo the last thing the user did, even if it isn’t the object being edited. CBD’s undo history needs to be scoped, but what should the units of segmentation be?
6.3.4.7 Direct Manipulation Scrolling
Scrollbars are banished from CBD. Originally this was done to ease porting from Macintosh to Windows, but Scott McCloud argues that direct manipulation is preferable. He observes that scrollbars were preferable to direct manipulation only because our computers couldn’t keep up with real time redrawing of smoothly scrolling content. Now they can, but a new issue is raised: with a scrollbar, one can keep scrolling in one direction by holding the button down on a scrollbar arrow; direct manipulation requires a back and forth motion to keep grabbing and moving the data. McCloud’s direct manipulation idea includes physics, which solves the back and forth problem. Story scrolling in CBD has physics, and the content can be grabbed and thrown around.
6.4 Future Work
The next phase of Comic Book Dollhouse’s development is encouraging people to use it. If a small group of people begin using it to make and play storyworlds, then Comic Book Dollhouse will be considered a success. I am also eager to see if people find alternate uses for Comic Book Dollhouse’s primitives.
Future work will include development of an exchange web site where authors and players can upload and download storyworlds. Once this exists, and it contains a handful of storyworlds, it will be time to invite more people to download Comic Book Dollhouse, play these storyworlds, and make their own. Feedback from users will direct Comic Book Dollhouse’s development.
Ultimately, I want players of storyworlds to feel they are taking risks, making strategic choices, and solving problems while engaging miniature dramatic worlds, and authors should feel they have a magic crayon for making these worlds.
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Miniature Gardens & Magic Crayons Chaim Gingold © 2003