More post-PAX

Some more accounts of IF conversations at PAX East, covering a wide range of things that came up in discussions and panels:

Paul O’Brian
Sam Kabo Ashwell
Iain Merrick
Sarah Morayati
Andrew Plotkin

The question of outreach was especially dominant — how do we get IF to more people, how do we make it easier to pick up and play, and can we earn money from it?

That last point doesn’t feel as pressing to me as the others. I’d like to see a wider audience; I’m not sure that selling is hugely important. I care most about some other forms of IF evangelism. I gave my pocket manifesto more than once at the convention, but here it is again, for those who weren’t there:

IF has a lot to teach about interactive storytelling, and we should be sharing the discoveries of the last 10 or 15 years with mainstream gaming and interactive literature communities. I was much struck — and a little depressed — at GDC to find that many writers talking about their work for commercial games still very much framed the discourse around what storytelling options are not possible in videogame format.

There seemed to be less focus on what can be done with interaction that is unique and effective: the value of player-controlled pacing to manage exposition; the interesting effects to be gotten from the player/protagonist distinction; the pleasure (for the player) of being essentially an improv actor with a set character; the rhetorical capacity of a rule-based system, as explored by Ian Bogost but applied by him mostly to political and advertising games; the narrative possibilities of short games intended to be replayed (as opposed to the lightly-branching long games the commercial sector typically creates).

The good news there is that there’s an active thirst in the commercial game industry for what IF has to offer. My experience at GDC was that a surprising number of developers had heard of us; a lead at one company even told me that they really want to recruit experienced IF authors and would be interested in interviewing anyone I could recommend. (If you want to know more about that one, email me.) The packed and overflowing IF panel at PAX may be another kind of indicator.

I don’t mean this to sound defeatist, and I think there are a lot of ways we could make classic text-based IF more accessible to new players, and that we’d draw in a lot of folks that way. On the other hand, I don’t expect that IF as such will ever be mainstream in the sense that movies are.

On the other hand: I do think we have a potential role to play in the bigger arena of developing interactive storytelling as a field, and the cultural impact of that will be huge.

23 thoughts on “More post-PAX

  1. I’d like to see a wider audience; I’m not sure that selling is hugely important.

    Except that these to an extent go together: there is a portion of the audience who doesn’t take games seriously that are freeware, and at least one major website won’t review your game without a commercial aspect (according to one IF luminary I was discussing this with; they managed to get the game on the site and consequently a great deal more recognition).

  2. I don’t know — you might have problems getting people to download interpreters and game files, and tweak .ini files for freeware titles, granted.

    But as long as the games are freely available on websites, look reasonably appealing, and are playable online with minimal hassle I think they’ll be successful. Many freeware indie Flash games get a wide audience using this approach.

    • I’m not sure how this is in response to me … I am just saying there is a certain segment of the web sites that won’t take you seriously as freeware. Presumably one would like to look at all the outlets possible if we’re looking for a wider audience, so saying “I don’t care about commercial” ignores some of them.

      Of course one wants games show to up on JIG or whatnot and reach yet another portion of the audience. It’s just that’s not the whole picture.

      (That does bring up an issue: has the JIG audience converted into anything else? Do we know people involved in the regular scene that came from JIG?)

      • Me, if I count as involved in the regular scene. (Though part of the reason I came over was to see what Andrew Plotkin had been up to — I went to computer camp with him a long time ago — so that may not scale.)

        Also, it may be hard to measure people who have gone on to play games not featured on JIG but who don’t post on blogs or write IF or what have you.

  3. I agree with you, Emily. For my part, I’m just doing my best to talk up IF to everyone I meet, to everyone who reads my blog, and my editors (if they care.) I’ve found a lot of interest, actually. I think the main problem is that nobody reads newsgroups, and most people wouldn’t know what one was or how to read one.

    I really think IF needs an active community in an effective online format that’s easy to find – not Boston meetups, not outmoded newsgroups.

    • I really think IF needs an active community in an effective online format

      There are always the intfiction forum ( http://www.intfiction.org/forum/index.php ) which I recommend to people pretty much universally instead of the newsgroups these days, and Planet-IF, for tracking discussion in blogs ( http://planet-if.com/ ). The forum could be more active than it currently is, but it gets at least a steady daily trickle, and could pick up if we post there more. Lots of things (new interpreter announcements, games) are starting to get announced there as well as on the newsgroups, making it an increasingly viable way to track the community.

      In person meetups do have their value, too, and Boston is not the only place that has one. There’s also a Seattle group, organized through Google groups: http://groups.google.com/group/seattle-if?hl=en .

      • I like the intfiction forum, but I’m not sure that it’s the kind of effective online format we’re looking for — as you say, it’s not super active, and it seems to me that even if it were the experience would pretty much resemble the newsgroup interface as read through Google groups, without all the shoe ads.

        Another model for online discussion might be the sort of thing that Daily Kos and Red State do — as I understand it, every registered participant has their own diary which is basically a blog, and the moderators put some posts on the front page, and feature some diary posts, and put links to some interesting/active diaries. That might help organize the flood of stuff that you get from the newsgroup or forum or even PlanetIF. Another kind of similar model, with a different platform, would be the one used by SBNation blogs like this one. The level of centralized moderating involved might discomfit some, though.

        Of course part of the reason that those sites are more active than intfiction.org is that there are a lot more people who want to sound off about politics and sports (even the Pirates). And I admit that I don’t use any of those sites myself, and I’m not sure whether the models would really work better for IF. But I thought it might be worth throwing them out there as possibilities.

    • @matt w

      Some kind of IF news highlighter is a good idea, since not only is Planet IF somewhat random in terms of IF related content, there are a number of blogs and so on that aren’t on the planet site at all. A site like your examples would be an interesting experiment, I don’t know if you could predict whether there’d be enough buy-in to make it work, but you don’t know until you try. It might have a greater chance of success if people could keep their current blogs though.

      However there are advantages to the current automatic approach; one way to buttress a possibility of moderators or highlighters losing interest or what not would be crowd-curating or something like that.

      • I definitely didn’t mean to slag off PlanetIF or intfiction or RAIF; if I have coding questions I’ll definitely go to one of those last two. My suggestions were more bouncing off Karl’s thought about “effective online format[s] that are easy to find”; if you’re looking for a new format, those seem like ones that you could try.

        About RAIF, I can see why someone might consider it outmoded; I was actually a little surprised that Usenet was still around. Usenet seems like a pretty dark and dusty corner of the internet overall. RAIF is by far the liveliest and most useful of the (not many) groups I know of and just checked out, and even so it’s got a lot of spam. Also apparently people have been complaining about it getting ruined by newbies since 1993. So I would understand why people who weren’t already fairly committed wouldn’t flock to a Usenet group.

        (Also, the Google groups interface does funny things to line breaks, and doesn’t seem too easy to search.)

  4. Certainly from the feedback on our GDC session, it seems like developers and students are much more interested in IF then they are standard game applications of Interactive Storytelling, much to my surprise. Michael’s presentation at the academic panel in particular was a big shocker. There seems to be a *lot* of interest out there these past few weeks, much more then I ever thought.

    Other points of light out there – iPhone games monetizing directly off free web versions has been exciting. And there have been a few simple IS text facebook games that have done very well marrying simple game systems to repetitive quest IS, like Tiny Adventures. They strike me as primitive forms of Radical Dreamers, and some forms of IS.

    (Certainly things like an easier to use version of Frotz for the iPod/iPad would help too.)

    • Parchment is perfect to share IF with others. I am using it lately to recommend some stories on facebook. It is a humble success, quite better than free downloadable games, because, I sell it as “interactive stories”, so people clic and if the intro get a hook, they are willing to continue reading until the end.

      Jason, there are hundreds of readers of portals for non-commercial or indie games. And they cover IF too. It is a reality today; and IF is covered spontaneous, without the hand of Emily or others inside the medium, that started the movement.

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  6. During the IF Outreach panel in the IF Suite, I brought up “going commercial” as one of four deliberately over-sized topics meant to stimulate discussion. Although I tried to make it clear that none of the generalizations I threw on the table necessarily captured my personal POV, obviously I wouldn’t have brought up the subject of commercial IF if I didn’t think it worthy of examination. Two points.

    (1) I don’t write IF, so the following is easy for me to say. I was primarily interested in discussion of commercial IF as an outreach tactic (this didn’t happen except privately, post-panel, in talk between me and John Bardinelli). I believe there are potential readers/players who might enjoy IF but for whom it will always be under the radar if it is not packaged – yes, and sold – in a way that is at least moderately attention-getting. (Jason Dyer said the same in the first comment in this thread.) I most certainly do not think that Commercial IF is The Way to make IF blossom hither, thither, and yon. I think IF outreach is a battle that needs to be fought on a number of fairly divergent fronts, and I happen to think good IF properly brought to market might open some eyes that just won’t be opened any other ways. With all due respect to David Cornelson, whom I sincerely wish great success, I was not trying to suggest that the many IF authors in that room should at that moment be plotting to give up their day jobs. And yes, of course I know I have completely finessed the non-trivial question of the cost of bringing IF to market. Still, looking at the question primarily from this point of view, would the ultimate yield of new audience be worth the trouble and cost? I really don’t know, and I’d shrug my shoulders if anyone said they absolutely, positively knew the answer. But, unlike Emily, I do think it’s worthy of thought and discussion.

    (2) Here’s an incendiary remark. I personally, and I’m sure the majority of what we’ve been calling the “IF community” for some time, think that advancing the art and science of interaction is a large part of what it’s all about. Nonetheless, I think the law of diminishing returns will apply to the hope that greater depth, subtlety, and flexibility will of necessity broaden the audience for IF. To use one of Emily’s examples, I think that many people who might thoroughly enjoy simpler forms of IF would find it too much work and downright off-putting to be “an improv actor with a set character.” If I understand her correctly, I simply disagree that more sophisticated IF will of necessity lead to a greatly expanded audience for the form (does anyone think that more people read novels today because James Joyce wrote Ulysses?). On the other hand, I think it would be artistically tragic if Emily and other creative talents like her did not (don’t throw stones at me) “follow their bliss.” My feelings about this are strong enough that, when I threw down the “IF should go commercial” statement at the Outreach panel, I carefully qualified it by saying that not all IF should go commercial.

    • I didn’t say (and didn’t mean) that there’s *no* point in discussing commercial IF. It just makes me sad when commercial success is equated with outreach, which it sometimes is. (I don’t think you did this exclusively.)

      I also wasn’t really arguing that we can get to larger audiences via more sophisticated techniques, but rather that the sophisticated techniques we *already* use ought to be shared more with the authors of other types of games.

      For sharing IF in particular, we have a two-fold accessibility problem, as I said at PAX: the interpreters and the parser. We can work around the interpreters; improving on the parser is a harder issue.

  7. I’m currently writing up a review of Blue Lacuna for Jayis Games (where John Bardinelli is an editor, funnily enough.) I really think that Lacuna’s models of interaction and adaptive tutorials are the way to go, because I can’t see featuring a work of IF on a casual gaming site otherwise.

    Which is nothing new to anyone that reads this blog. But I think that it’s important to notice that it came up in the queue at all, largely because of its ease of interaction for newcomers.

  8. There are several CYOA titles doing fairly well on the iTunes store:

    – Choice of the Dragon (choiceofgames.com/dragon), recently written in HTML and well received by readers, for free

    – two original Choose Your Own Adventure titles, republished, bundled for $.99 now

    – two Fighting Fantasy titles, republished from the 80s, dice combat, at $2.99

    – Alter-Ego, based on an HTML game about your fictitious lifetime, for a whopping $4.99

    – Gamebook Adventures: An Assassin in Orlandes, an original CYOA with dice combat, also $4.99

    There are several interesting hybrid games, which have a lot of graphics, but dialog/text driven with significant choices that change the path you take in the game:

    – Survive High School, ranked 85 in paid games, for $2.99

    – myQuest: Rise of the Hunter, original storygame with RPG elements, for $2.99

    – Alternate Endings, also available in HD for iPad, which appears to be an “interactive movie,” for $4.99

    There are several classic LucasArts-style titles (purists boo here), like Monkey Island, Broken Sword, and Under a Steel Sky, and the new Sam and Max, going for $5-8

    There’s even an app called iStory which allows people to author extremely crappy CYOA games with graphics and share them on the internet.

    Also, there are plenty of HTML-based CYOA sites on the internet. One of the most interesting and active is myadventuregame.com. What the top rated games lack in polished writing, they make up for in interesting and often epic storylines.

    The point is, the idea of an interactive story isn’t dead, and people are willing to pay something for it (how many people is hard to say). People are paying $15-30 for books to read on the iPhone, so we do still read.

    The IF content has already been developed by the indie community, someone needs to package the best, most accessible titles as apps for the iPhone store (and Android, etc.), and give the authors royalties. Parchment may be the way to go, since HTML can be packaged as an app for most smart phones, I believe.

    One problem is that typing on a phone is a pain. A menu system, or clickable keyword-driven fiction like Blue Lacuna or Walker & Silhouette may be more accessible. And short descriptions would work best on a phone screen.

  9. @Karl, I’m confused by your comment, hasn’t JIG featured at least a dozen command-line IF games?

    HoraceTorys, great stuff about CYOA. Typing on a phone may be a pain — though I would suggest watching an 18 year old texting on their phone as proof to the contrary (notwithstanding the pain they may have in 20 years!) — but the larger virtual keyboards of tablets may get around that issue nicely.

    I’d like to see a few things happen this year in IF:

    1. Standalone apps released for mobile and tablets (Android, App Store, etc.)

    2. IF games entered in the IGF (I believe Jim Munroe was the first to do this with Everybody Dies, but there can be more than just one)

    3. an IF game released at an online magazine such as Strange Horizons

  10. I should have also mentioned mifiction: http://www.mifiction.co.uk/interactive-fiction/

    I don’t think this page is actually finished, it’s not available from their home page.

    I think Em mentioned them here. They ran a contest where people submitted the first chapter for an CYOA book, and the winners got cash prizes and digital publishing deals. The final stories were supposed to be 10 chapters long, of 3,000 words each, averaging 150 words per “page” with a decision (to fit on a cell phone screen).

    Their whole model is flawed, IMO. They told authors NOT to make the decisions significant, so that they didn’t end up with unmanageable branching. So, each chapter cannot have any effect on any of the others (except perhaps different information gleaned). They are selling the books by chapter, $0.39 each, and it’s web-based, so you’re paying for the privilege to log into each chapter on your smart phone and read it, not download an app that runs anywhere. “Mifiction” and “moooks” are not inspiring names (the former is pronounced “my fiction,” BTW). And they didn’t bother with editing or proofreading.

    Their target audience is teens, and they hope to encourage reading. But I’m pretty sure once anyone finds out there’s nothing particularly interactive about the “moooks,” they’ll stop buying chapters.

    I think the general idea is strong: people do read on their phones (in short bursts), and will enjoy having agency in their reading.

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