Some design notes with major spoilers below:
The Prongleman Job is a real-time game masquerading as a turn-based game. The rule that determines when Prongleman comes back is simple: he comes back after three minutes.
The game is mostly an experiment to see how hard it is to shift your thinking away from the convention that text games have no awareness of real time. After replaying a number of times, it becomes obvious that the turn count is changing. Based on tester feedback and the Club Floyd transcript, it seems like players have two main theories: that Prongleman’s return is determined randomly, or that there is some kind of AI that looks at what you’re doing and punishes or rewards you for the way you’re playing. (It seems to be pretty common in video games, that a game’s behavior intuitively seems more complex than it actually is.)
I wondered if, after playing 20 or 30 times, players would notice that the runs were all taking about the same amount of time. Interestingly, that doesn’t seem to register.
It’s pretty unfair to use a secret timer like this, so I tried to give a warning with the opening comment that the game is “unusual” or “not fair”.
I like the idea of using real time, since it allows for a different kind of challenge than text games usually have. Of course there are previous attempts to have real time in a text game, but not many, as far as I can tell. Border Zone is the only one I have played myself. The main thing I didn’t like about that game was the way you could be interrupted while thinking of your next move. I found it irritating. (You can even be interrupted in the middle of typing a command.)
So, in The Prongleman Job, the game doesn’t interrupt you. That interferes with the verisimilitude a little: you can wait as long as you want before typing the “last command”, so Prongleman might technically not return for a long time. But since most players type commands pretty frequently, I didn’t worry about it.
That’s related to the main hint in the game, which only some players will stumble on: if you don’t make your first move until after time has expired, Prongleman will return “immediately”, and you’ll get a note that “thieves shouldn’t stand around.” (It’s a giveaway, but I felt like I needed to say something!)
Most of my testers figured out the real-time element. Some of them got it from that hint, and one had an epiphany after reading that the grandfather clock “ticks ominously”. I think at least one tester just figured it out from observation.
The idea is that players will go through three stages:
(1) Observe that the limit is in real time.
(2) Figure out how to get the treasures individually.
(3) Put it all together and get everything done in one run.
Some testers got #1 and #2, but didn’t feel like they could play fast enough for #3. I actually think there’s plenty of time, if you have a good sense of your sequence of play (which might require some note-taking). I can pretty regularly finish in under 80 seconds, leaving 100 seconds to spare.
I hope others try and write some games with real-time challenges in the future.
There are two reasons that verbs are mostly dispensed with: first, because the game is about simple search-and-use, not detailed manipulation; and second, to save typing, which seems only fair in a time-limit scenario.
The Prongleman Job actually has nothing to do with Sugarlawn. (That’s not a knock against Sugarlawn, which is certainly worthy of imitation.) I was pretty well into writing it when the 2019 IF Comp opened, and when I noticed the obvious similarity (find valuables in a house with a time limit), I slapped my forehead and sent a note to Mike Spivey. I guess great minds think alike?
One reviewer wondered if “hard mode” is just a joke. No, it’s real! (And it’s possible to do!)