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Getting to Know Volity

posted by jjohn on 2006.05.01 9:05   Printer-friendly
Recently, I had a chance to talk to the developers behind Volity, an open source P2P gaming platform built with a lot of Perl and Java (yes, the two can play nicely together). The Volity client, Gamut version 0.3.4, was just released. If you are a game developer are looking for a new platform or you are a gamer looking for looking for a more "board game"-like experience, learn what volity can do for you.

The types of games currently available on Volity are modeled existing table-top games that you may never of heard of: Fluxx, Aquarius and Space Station Assault. These "underground games" have quite a following. Fluxx and Aquarius are card games published by Looney Labs. Space Station Assault is published by Your Move Games.

Volity is an open platform for Internet-based multiplayer casual games. Its main development hub is at, which includes downloads and docs and a Wiki and all that good stuff.

Volity Ventures LLC is the company set up to accelerate the platform's development and promote its use to both the game developer and player communities. is part of the Volity Network, which is Volity Ventures LLC's own instance of the Volity platform protocol, and one that's open for any developer to target and publish to. The website features some self-service tools to help developers get their new games online and visible to players.

Who is Volity?

Jason McIntosh: Jason McIntosh originally conceived the Volity concept and is the project's manager. He's been a Perl hacker since 1998, and an avid follower, player, and would-be designer of obscure card and board games since approximately the same time. Volity began life several years ago as a way to make the development of one particular design idea easier, and it rather got out of hand from there.

Andy Turner has been programming professionally for the last eleven years. He's been programming in Perl for the last nine years of that. At Volity he is sysadmin, author of the server side of Space Station Assault and Partner-With-Business-Experience.

Andrew Plotkin (aka Zarf) has been attempting to write game software since the age often, with wildly varying degrees of success. He is best known for old-style text adventures and text adventure development tools. He is currently the primary developer of the Volity Java client, and also wrote the Python game development library. (Yes, he is one of those non-Perl people.)

For a player, what's a good way to get introduced to Volity?

Andy Plotkin: Gamut, our Volity client program, is designed to be a fully-functional gaming portal. Download it (it's a Java application: and start it up. It will lead you through the process of registering an account -- this is a free service which tracks your game-playing history across all Volity games.

Once you have an account, you'll see the Game Finder window, which lists the games available in the system. Poke around and pick one.

JM:What Zarf said. You can also nose around our website at to look at player records and game histories and such, though that will probably be less interesting until you play a few games.

What games are already available for Volity?

AP:We have implemented a couple of pure strategy games as demos (Treehouse, Barsoomite Go); also Fluxx and Aquarius, two popular card games designed by Looney Labs. Space Station Assault is another card game published by Your Move Games, a small company here in Somerville. Finally, Phil Bordelon has just contributed two strategic connection games, Hex and Y.

What's the best way for Perl hackers to get involved with Volity?

JM: I maintain a package of Volity-related Perl libraries and programs called Frivolity. You can download it from or via CPAN (as "Volity"), install it, and then "perldoc Volity". I've taken care to write its documentation primarily for people interested in making games, and cover the whole process from writing server-side game and bot modules to creating the SVG-based client-side UI, even though the latter doesn't have much to do with Perl per se.

The distribution ships with modules and a server config file that lets you test Volity by connecting a live Tic-Tac-Toe parlor to the game network. For purposes of illustration, it also includes that game's UI and ruleset files, even though those aren't used server-side.

I'll also note that Zarf is maintaining Python libraries that do the exact same thing (and are similarly well-documented) for folks who swing that way. And we certainly would welcome (and would love to hear about) library implementations of the Volity protocol in other languages. It's just that the core team happens to like Perl and Python best.

You can also view the docs for both flavors as HTML at And in any case, developers will want to spend some time nosing around our Wiki to get a feel for how the platform works: They'll also want to grab Gamut and try out some games, too! Of the titles that Zarf mentioned, Space Station Assault is written in Perl.

What's the business model for third-party Volity developers? How can they make a buck from this?

AP: We have not chosen one business model; we want to experiment.

What we're experimenting with is variants of one basic idea: developers ask for money from players, and Volity handles the paperwork. We will act as a middleman, collecting money from players and distributing it to developers.

One nice thing about this arrangement -- I mean, aside from Volity offering a useful service -- is that we should be able to finally make micropayments work for small developers. You can reasonable charge 25 cents to play one game, or ten cents, or whatever you want. We'll be able to aggregate both player payments and developer payments, so overhead charges don't swamp you.

The variations will be different ways that developers can structure their games. Pay-per-game; weekly or monthly subscriptions; lifetime membership. Free games with paid upgrades or paid bonus features. We want to allow developers to offer free trial periods, or free sample forms of their games. Or, of course, totally free games that promote a developer's non-Volity products.

Where do you see Volity in five years?

JM: If it catches on among developers and then players over the next couple of years, we're hoping to hook into the increasingly recognized casual-games segment of the greater computer-game market. This has its own healthy growth rate, but so far all the numbers have been based on closed systems like Yahoo games or EA's, where all the games that appear do so with the controlling company's say-so. We're taking a radically different approach by maintaining a completely open platform that any game developer can publish to, and giving users tools to foster a meritocracy by making the better games easier to find.

Our ultimate world-takeover-style goal involves becoming the default platform for developing multiplayer casual games; by making a game for, you not only have all these development tools that let you bypass worries about network handling, user management, or interplayer communication, but you will also plug in to a ready community of game players who will immediately see your title appear, and need only click its name in their clients to try it out.

While Volity is obviously at home on personal computers, I think there's a place for the platform on cell phones, and I'd also love to see Volity clients for Internet-savvy game consoles. I've had a particular hankering to put Volity on the Nintendo DS, where I think it would be a perfect fit. Tackling these hardware platforms seriously would involve a time and resource commitment we can't afford right now, though.

What computer games do you remember fondly from your youth?

AP:I am a text-adventure fan from way back in the 80s. (When dinosaurs walked the Earth, yes.) So what I remember fondly are the old Infocom favorites: Starcross, Spellbreaker, Trinity.

Beyond those... Sundog was an early space game (for the Apple 2 -- that's what I had) which really prefigured the idea of the freeform CRPG. You could buy and sell cargo, fight space pirates, walk the city streets, upgrade your spaceship, explore planets. That was great.

And then there was The Prisoner. Yes, based on the TV show. The greatest mess-with-your-head game of all time. An inspiration to me.

JM:I was an Infocom fan too, but I had only an Atari 8-bit computer and no friends with PCs, so I actually didn't play a lot of what's now fondly remembered by my fellow Gen-Xers as the classic computer and video games. I did hang out in arcades a lot, though, and I read all the video game magazines of the 1980s. I maintain that I learned to write by reading those.

The truth is that I didn't really start to become the game afficionado and would-be expert that I am today until the late 1990s, when I first met Zarf and rediscovered board gaming though the Looney Labs titles he mentioned. I quickly got into the whole world (or, um, continent) of Euro-gaming, all those German titles and design principles that are only now just beginning to make mainstream headway in the U.S. with games like Settlers and Ticket to Ride.

Volity tends to be much more informed from board game principles than video game ones.

What's your current favorite computer game platform?

AP: Currently? The platform follows from the games... I still play modern graphical adventures, the Myst genre, and those are all PC games. And I like action/exploration/environmental-puzzle games, like Ico or Soul Reaver. You can pretty much play all of those if you have a PS2, so I do.

JM: My favorite hardware platform right now is the Nintendo DS, the portable system they released in 2004. It's packed with cleverness, and is the first game system I've played that seems to have Internet happiness baked in at the hardware level.

I've been doing a lot of "market research" by playing Tetris and Mario Kart against people around the world, and observing how Nintendo has implemented Internet play. They do some things right and some things wrong. (This based on the yardstick that Volity does everything right.) Generally they make it very easy to jump in and play with people, but a lot of their system is opaque, and it's basically impossible to communicate with other players except at the most abstract level (such as taunting poor Mario Kart players by driving around backwards in circles around them or whatever).

I really want to see Volity on it.

I've heard a lot a good things about the XBox 360, and would love to check out XBox Live Arcade, which sounds something like Volity as filtered through Microsoft. But the thing costs several hundred dollars. Maybe I'll pick a system up after we get funded, ha ha.

My favorite software platform, of course, is Volity. I say this without irony, since I started to work on the system years ago as a framework for making a board game that I invented. It's now at the point where I could sit down and hammer it out quickly, but unfortunately I'm too busy running the company to do so now! I hope I get the chance at some point soon.

What are your favorite table-top games?

AP: I fear I will sound ignorant here, because I'm not as widely experienced in those games as the serious board-game fans. I like the ones that most people like. Catan: good game. Carcassonne: great. But I'm just educated enough to know that there are thousands of games I *don't* know. I can easily spend the rest of my life playing a new game every time I sit down, and what does "favorite" mean then?

I played a lot of Cosmic Encounter in college, mind you.

I have a particular fondness for the Icehouse game system, which Looney Labs has been working on for years. I am not a big fan of the game Icehouse per se. But there are several Icehouse games, like RamBots and Zarcana, which I greatly enjoy and am planning to add to Volity at the first opportunity.

JM:My list as of a few years ago is here.

Last year I got into Days of Wonder, a publisher of very clever, very pretty, and (unfortunately) very expensive board games. My favorite of these is a wonderful lightweight wargame called Memoir '44, which was the result of my search for a game that was like Axis and Allies except not horrible. They also run beautiful online versions of some of their own games, and their system is a model for Volity in several ways.

I also really enjoy a card game by Bruno Faidutti called Citadels, but I don't play it much since it's kind of mean and a lot of my friends don't like it.

Is there a role for volity in translating "alternative games" like Fluxx or Settlers of Catan into computer games?

JMAbsolutely. We would love to see small game publishers of all sizes -- from established companies to semi-pro hobbyists -- see Volity as a way to promote their games. Companies with clever online initiatives like Days of Wonder have shown how this is not only feasible but translates into good business, and outside of the U.S. game companies often turn to services like to host online versions of their products.

What advice would you give a novice game designer?

JM: Do you mean someone coming new to Volity, or in general? We're certainly more able to ask the former question; Volity doesn't really impose any sort of design best practices on its developers. Our advice to Volity newcomers is pretty simple: Download Gamut and try some games, then explore the developer-oriented website at to see how everything works.

As to the latter question, I'd advise playing a wide variety of games -- digital, analog, even sports -- and do some reading. Designer extraordinaire (and fellow crazy entrepreneur) Greg Costikyan put together a great list on Amazon that I've been slowly eating my way through.

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