Mailbag [sort of]: Inform status

The following was posted as a comment on another post to which it was not related; I’ve removed it from there to space of its own. It concerns the status of Inform 7.

Totally and completely off topic but I don’t know where else to ask it: are you ever going to talk about the “death” of Inform 7? You seem to have spent a lot of time working on it initially.

But it’s pretty clear that active development on it has stopped. There are bugs — some critical — that have been in place for a couple of years now. More continue to pile up, literally as I write this. Further, you have complete disconnects between the Inform 7 versions on different operating systems. For example, the Skein and Transcript have gone away entirely in the Mac version, replaced by a Testing panel. A Testing panel that doesn’t fully work and has one divergence that breaks functionality entirely.

The downloadable Mac version has had an issue that prevents it from running on newer Mac versions. An app store update version does work, but there are reasons that not everyone will want to use the app store version (overwriting existing other versions, being one of those). This should literally just be the copying of the new binary to the Inform site. But even that, apparently, is too much involvement to be expected.

The extension situation is bad and appears to have been bad for quite some time now, going by the history of posts about it. Many of the extensions aren’t accurate, aren’t up-to-date, conflict with other extensions, don’t work with current versions of Inform. Given the multi-year cycle that it takes things to get done, it’s hard to imagine why extensions, at the very least, can’t keep pace. Further, there are three locations now where extensions can be gathered from, one of which is annoyingly difficult to use.

Certain interpreters still act inconsistently such that certain design decisions come down to a lot of “either-or” micro-decisions, that are poorly documented.

Beyond the maintainers of the IDE portions, the involvement of the Inform 7 development crew — whomever they actually are — has been infinitesimal (at best) or entirely non-existent (at worst) with the wider community.

It’s sad to see it happen. But unlike what happened with Curveship (as just one example), let’s not have Inform 7 just fade away completely without the decency of a wake and a proper burial. Yes, that’s melodramatic. I know Inform 7 is still being used by lots of people. But for something that had such promise, I think it’s sad to see no one comment upon what it has become.

When it comes to my own engagement with Inform, you are right that it is significantly diminished. I announced several years ago that I was stepping back from the position of Inform community liaison that I once occupied. This means, among other things, that I now do not speak for Graham to the IF community, nor for the IF community to Graham, except under extraordinary and limited circumstances.

There is a volunteer on the intfiction forum who emails me whenever anything happens that is considered to be critical, and I escalate that to Graham’s attention where I think that there’s something a) immediately feasible to do that is b) absolutely required in order for users to have access to the system. But this is a comparatively rare circumstance.

I also did, just within the last few weeks, offer some feedback on an Inform-related development where I felt like it might be useful to have my views specifically. That project isn’t mine to announce, but I consider it extremely promising.

I continue to engage with the community in a variety of other ways. According to my time-tracking software, I have logged roughly 120 hours of IF community support over Jan-March 2017, which is the equivalent of a full-time week each month; this actually represents a considerable diminishment of time contribution on my part over previous years, but I also have a lot of work responsibilities currently. In consequence, I’ve prioritized my IF community work where I think it can do the most good — reviewing in larger venues, public speaking, mentorship, crossover work between IF and industry/academia, and meet-up organization being my biggest priorities. I’ve also done as much as I could to pass on roles that were transferable.

I understand that my choice to disengage is potentially disappointing. I am confident that it is necessary to prioritize where I allot my time and that it is best for me to focus on the ones that a) affect the largest number of people or b) are things that I’m unusually suited to do, where someone else could not reasonably step into the role. But I am aware that those who are deprioritized may feel some irritation, and I regret that fact.

As for funerals, epilogues, or whatever else: Inform is still, in general, both usable and used. People have written and continue to write games in it. The IFTF has very recently taken on the task of organizing improvements to the Gargoyle interpreter. The IDE maintainers do, as you say, sometimes issue updates.

There are volunteers who have come up with an extension repository, separate from the Inform website. My impression is that they have done some useful work updating the extensions to be compatible with recent builds, but I don’t supervise this, because I dropped my role as extension librarian even longer ago than I dropped the role of community liaison. I’m sure that there are things that could be cleaned up about how this is presented to the public (and potential confusion with the Public Library site), but these are beyond my power to affect directly.

6 thoughts on “Mailbag [sort of]: Inform status

  1. Pingback: Weekly Links #165 « No Time To Play

  2. So, I’m just discovering IF and was thinking about teaching a class (I’m a CS prof, among other things) in Inform7 next year. Is that something I should reconsider?

    • I can’t tell you whether Inform is fit for your purposes in this particular class, but in general, as I said, Inform is both usable and used. Perhaps I should have highlighted this point more strongly.

      Usable: The current release has been through many years of iteration and bug-fixing; it is actually in most respects a pretty mature piece of software, and its remaining bugs, whether or not marked “critical” in the bug tracker, are generally things that do not prevent progress, except in specialized situations. Foreign language translations of Inform may struggle, for instance. I agree that it would be very good to fix these; I understand that a sense of forward momentum on the project would be reassuring for users, and it would be good if that momentum existed; but I don’t think that the current known bugs make any difference to the majority of Inform projects.

      Used: There is also a sizable group of Inform developers with the experience to provide coding guidance, an assortment of documentation and support information, many example code files, etc.; the latter community can help with finding extensions, as well. Figuring out which of several websites contains an up-to-date version of an extension is indeed more of a pain than it ought to be; it’s also, I suspect, likely to be irrelevant to the amount of Inform work one would do in an introductory CS class.

      In other words: it is fine to use Inform. If I were to write another parser game, I would almost certainly use Inform to do it. (I don’t expect to write more parser games, but that is a different conversation.) I still frequently use Inform for small prototyping tasks. Third parties still build extensions and extras designed to work with Inform in various ways. It is not in some urgent state of dilapidation.

      What this current conversation reflects is that:

      a) The IDEs, the extension sites, etc., can be and at various points have been maintained by other people — and indeed some of those peripheral elements are open source already. It is likely that external parties could improve the situation around extensions, for instance.

      b) Graham Nelson is the only person with the power to do the core development tasks (or, currently, the website updates) to which the original commenter refers. His involvement has indeed not been very visible for a while. He does not intend to open up the source unless/until it reaches a level of code cleanup he is happy with. He has said this publicly on a number of occasions.

      c) some vocal users of Inform want more insight into the debugging and release cycle, to see a regular schedule of updates, and to be given firm commitments about what will happen when. This has always been the case. While I understand where that desire comes from, it is not compatible with Graham’s process, and that process is not likely to change.

      d) it was clear that my involvement in communication didn’t satisfy the community because what they actually wanted was a process change beyond my power to make. Consequently, I announced several years ago that I was no longer taking a liaison role. This current post does not reflect any state change in Inform’s development situation vs. last week, or vs. three years ago for that matter.

      • The Mac IDE and Sierra issue is a big problem in my opinion. Not everyone who wants to run Inform in that situation would know that they need to download the App Store version, not the one on the Inform 7 website. And it’s a pretty killer bug. We’re already seeing people on the intfiction forum, newbies to developing in Inform 7, who’re coming unstuck because of it. And they have at least found the intfiction forum, and can get advice. Other users won’t.

        At the very least that Mac IDE bug fix needs to be a priority to make Inform 7 a viable platform in its current state.

        But I thank you for all your efforts in this in the past Emily. I fully understand why you would want to step back now.

        I’m currently developing 3 Inform games, and won’t upgrade to Sierra for fear of Inform 7 being broken ;)

      • Okay. This conversation has left the territory where I am comfortable hosting it. If people wish to continue that conversation elsewhere, without me, that is their prerogative.

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