The end of Versu: Emily Short looks back

Linden Labs cut off development of Versu, mothballed the completed games created using the interactive fiction, and let developer Emily Short go. Gamasutra speaks to her about what she accomplished.
About a week ago, Emily Short announced that Linden Labs had given her "a definite no about selling me the codebase and IP" for Versu, the interactive fiction engine that became Linden's property after her studio, Little Text People, was acquired by the company in February 2012. Linden let Short go in February, and discontinued all development of Versu at that time. She had hoped to get the rights to the engine back from Linden, but that won't happen now -- nor will the completed game Blood and Laurels, which was developed while she was at Linden, be released. Short has no plans to further negotiate with Linden Labs for the rights to the project, she tells Gamasutra, nor does she encourage others to fight on her behalf: "What remains to do is to accept the outcome with a good grace and plan future work that might draw on what we learned while not impinging Linden's IP," Short said via email. That's not all she has to say, however. Gamasutra spoke with Short about what she'd accomplished with Blood and Laurels: "I was very excited about it, both as a work of mad science and as a story. I'd watch people play and they'd sort of swear to themselves when they got to the first big twist. It was gratifying," she says. Short is a preeminent name in interactive fiction, or IF, so there's no doubt her work will continue. Though we may never play Blood and Laurels, it's valuable to know what almost was. "It's based on a story premise I've tried to write three times before, but could never finish because other engines weren't up to the level of conversation and narrative modeling I needed. I was so excited that it finally worked in Versu, that I finally had an engine capable of pulling it off," Short says. "It's probably the most plot-heavy, agency-rich piece of IF I've ever written. There were characters you could kill off during the first act or wind up romantically involved with at the end. There were hugely more scenes than you could ever see in a single play through. At one point I estimated that one pass through the story would show you something less than 10 percent of the possible text." While at Linden, Short and her collaborators also "completed several new stand-alone apps," she says, which will are now very unlikely to ever see the light of day. This was possible because the Versu tech improved significantly while she was at Linden, Short explains: "We improved on the narrative aspects of a simulator, so that stories we were building at the end felt more coherent and more tightly constructed than the earlier released Versu material," she says. "We had a pretty decent mechanism for detecting whether a scene was still moving forward or whether the action and conversation had run out of steam, and drop in a new event when it needed to get things rolling again. The result was that scenes often felt like the pacing was hand-authored even though the content was actually very dynamic." The team also built a "new, more author-friendly toolset for writing Versu stories, including features for visualizing story flow and analyzing test results. That sped up content production by a factor of at least ten and meant that we could produce much bigger, longer stories than previously released." Short showed off this high-powered version of Versu at conferences, and the tech was also shared with some external collaborators. Sadly, they're also likely out of luck, says Short. If they want to continue to use Versu, "I'm afraid they'd have to negotiate terms with Linden directly," she says. However, for all of the problems she's run into thanks to Linden shutting down the project and letting her go, she's philosophical about what was gained as well as what has been lost. "I want to stress this because some of the people I've talked to about the closure of Versu don't seem to understand this point: I remain hugely grateful to Rod Humble and to Linden for picking us up when they did, and for giving us the run they gave us. There are so few opportunities to do this kind of research within existing companies, and if Richard Evans and I had taken venture capital, we would have had to spend a lot more of our time trying to learn to run a business and a lot less writing stories and code," she says. "And that doesn't begin to count the other resources besides financial support that Linden put at our disposal, such as a hugely devoted and enthusiastic QA team, or the opportunity to work with other experienced interactive-story authors like Deirdra Kiai and Jake Forbes. Both of them not only wrote content but contributed useful thinking about how to develop the system as a whole. "I don't think there's a possible version of this story in which Little Text People retained the rights in 2012 and somehow arrived at 2014 with an open-source Versu that contained all the progress of the past two years," Short concludes. Though this may be the end of the Versu story, Short and her collaborators' work will live on, she says. "We learned things from the Versu project that can be carried on in other ways. I'm still receiving invitations to speak and write about it even though it's been canceled. I can also see ways of applying some new knowledge about narrative pacing and authoring tools to other engines. "I've been giving a lot of thought to those aspects of Versu's possible legacy, even if it's never possible to do anything more with the code. We also gained experience and understanding of the problem space, and that doesn't vanish regardless of what happens to the IP."

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