Money and Ambition

Victor Gijsbers recently posted about the peculiar comments “The Baron” has received: viz., that an independently designed, morally thoughtful game isn’t “feasible” in the present market conditions — even though “The Baron” exists and therefore has passed the feasibility test in the only meaningful sense.

For a long time I, like Victor, have been annoyed by the “market forces tell all” mentality that says that projects are only successful when they earn money and that artists prove their artistic credentials by selling their material widely. This tends to be contrasted with the “critical success” method of determining the value of material: something is good if it elicits the praise and admiration of a small cadre of those whose opinions matter. Bonus points if cat-fights arise between competing groups of critics.

There are pretty obvious problems with both of these approaches. Markets often value pulpy, least-common-denominator crap that gratifies some momentarily-trendy urge, which is why Dan Brown sells so many books and the commercial video game industry has such spasms about its own creativity (or lack thereof). Critics, on the other hand, can be extremely inward and academic, valuing formal innovation and meta-genre features even to the exclusion of meaningful content. Marie-Laure Ryan has written about the gap between highbrow and lowbrow interactive storytelling, suggesting that stories in videogame form are almost always targeted to one end of that scale or the other, leaving an undeveloped middle ground of thoughtful but still-accessible material.

Even if we shave away the argument about how to decide whether a piece of art is Good or Bad or worthy of canonization (an argument, by the way, that has never been satisfactorily resolved with respect to any art form), we are still left with the curious phenomenon that some players want the games they play to be commercial. Some of this has to do with perceived value — if I’ve looked forward to and forked over money for a game, I may be more excited about playing it and less likely to give up quickly. Some of it has to do with resources: a game with a sufficient budget may be up for a more thorough testing and better production values than one without. We’ve occasionally talked about these issues before.

A less-discussed part of the problem is the perceived contract between player and game designer. If I write a game and give it to you, you have no power to affect the content of the game. You can like the game or dislike it, play it or throw it out, write a positive review or give it the thrashing of a lifetime on IFDB, but there’s no force other than my possible interest in your good opinion to make me write a game that you’ll like. You have no reason to trust me.

In other words, I think some players don’t just (semi-perversely) want to fork over money for a game rather than receiving it free. I think they want to know that the game’s creators are making a living by their efforts, as a sign of good faith. The creator’s hypothetical concern for his artistic integrity or his reputation are not necessarily enough — there’s all sorts of junk on the internet, and it takes some kind of organized system of feedback to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Then the feasibility argument starts to sort of make sense again. It goes something like this: there isn’t enough of an audience for games of type X to establish a meaningful feedback loop between creator and fan base, in which the fan base supplies rewards in the form of money or reputation (the latter regulated in some way). The thing about big open source software projects is that they have gazillions of users — which means not only support, but response, and a relationship between the people who create/revise/improve and the people who use. (In some cases, a relationship known as “identity”.)

Historically, the player/author contract has been more of a problem than we would like in IF. There are lots of good games that don’t get reviewed nearly as much as they should, and authors have drifted away because the amount of response their work received was not enough to keep them interested. IFDB helps a bit, because it provides a low enough barrier to entry for review writing that more people seem to be interested in writing more reviews, and that’s terrific. But there are also still quite a few works that have not gotten the reception they probably deserved.

Conversely, every year there are a handful of games in the IF competition that are plainly there to irritate the judges (see: Sisyphus, Breaking the Code, Fat Lardo and the Rubber Ducky) and a larger number where the author contributed the game on a lark even though aware that it was junk, because, hey, what did he have to lose? This accumulation of garbage is dispiriting to judges and contributes to the external perception (from people who dip into the IF community once a year to try competition games) that it’s all amateur hour over here. The player/author contract is broken.

In this respect I agree with Jimmy Maher’s recent SPAG editorial, even though I disagreed with his comments on comedy and on the relative value of formal experimentation. We do have an ambition shortage.

But I understand completely. In the absence of money, or even a guarantee of reviews — without either the market forces or the critical cadre — it can be difficult to maintain serious ambitions in creating a freeware project. Especially a large one. Doing so often requires a deliberate rejection of perspective. Crunch time at Electronic Arts sucks, I’m sure, but at least the employees are getting a paycheck whose value the rest of the world will acknowledge. Putting major time in on a project that doesn’t pay and may not even get reviewed much, well, that can be kind of rough — especially if your significant other or your boss have other ideas about how you should be spending your energy. And besides, what are we doing that matters so damned much?

Here’s my answer, but then I deliberately got rid of my perspective on this point some time ago:

Interactive story-telling is the next great art form. It may not end up looking much like text-based IF, but some medium based on player/reader feedback will become (and remain) culturally relevant and widely-valued. I say this not out of homage to the technology — the computer is widespread, but so are cars and telephones, and they haven’t engendered any great enduring art forms as yet — but because there is potential for sorts of communication and forms of audience experience in interactive storytelling that are not mirrored in any of our existing media.

What’s more, the dynamic of interactive storytelling is especially suited to our difficult and questioning age, when — especially but not uniquely in the US — there is no uniformity of culture or values, and most of us live side by side with neighbors with vastly different views on religion, politics, sex, manners, etc. Interactive stories are strongly effective at communicating constraints and boundaries, and allowing the player to explore how those constraints differ from his expectations. They’re good at providing optional exposition, where the player can choose to explore issues that interest him or that are new to him. They allow for the development of a position that (at least partly) takes the reader/player’s views into account, rather than preaching the same message to all comers.

So I do think that it’s worth being ambitious about IF.

That said, I’m not always sure what ambitions are the most productive ones to embrace next, if you see what I mean. Writing the work I want to write, as well as I can possibly write it: yes, fine. I’ve got plenty of ideas about what I want to try next. But the external metric stuff is also important, both because it provides guidance for the development of craft, and because it’s worth contributing to a larger dialogue about interactive narrative, which we can only do if works get a certain amount of attention. But what attention? From whom? Where should we be trying to go, once we look beyond our own community?

I’m not always sure of the answer.

28 thoughts on “Money and Ambition

  1. Great post, Emily. Thanks for the link to Robb Sherwin’s post and the responses, too– I’m certainly there with Blue Lacuna, which has been pretty much my only hobby and creative output for the last two years. When you’re devoting your life to something which you’re unsure at times whether anyone other than yourself will ever appreciate, it’s hard to stay sane.

    And the desire for feedback can be intense. That’s probably why I didn’t drop out of the Spring Thing and released an unfinished version of Blue Lacuna, which was a huge mistake because a) people didn’t like or didn’t want to respond to an unfinished game, and b) it’s probably best that they didn’t, because in hindsight I had to strip out most of the interesting things about it to get to a non-buggy release in time. So I sort of shot myself in the foot on multiple levels, and don’t think I even helped save the Spring Thing (which was another motivation for not dropping out).

    But yeah, I keep at it because I believe the final product will be revolutionary, in a medium that is the future of storytelling. It’s not every day you get the chance to do something like that.

    The point I wanted to make though is that in addition to lack of feedback, I think technical issues are still a huge barrier for authors. Inform 7 is a huge leap forward on the authorial side of things, but it’s a single point around which all the talented people in the community can rally to improve; the interpreters are mostly maintained by single authors with more finite amounts of time and patience, so there’s less consistency in whether things will work. I’m trying to upgrade Zag for Java to support the latest Glulx spec, so there can be a single interpreter I can point people to that will work on any platform, and to do this I’ve had to dive straight into the ninth circle of programming hell and learn things like bitwise operations and what 32-bit signed two’s complement numbers are. I guess only a few games have to go through this gauntlet before it gets easier for everyone else, and if you’re working with z-code you can pretty much ignore these problems, but releasing a large IF game still requires programming chops above and beyond writing the game itself.

    Related to this is that I can’t get my games to look the way I want them to on any existing interpreters. When Whom the Telling Changed was at Slamdance, I managed to get Gargoyle to look like this: http://aaronareed.net/if/sd.jpg but that was after getting a programmer to modify the source code, pre-installing fonts and fiddling with .ini files on the host computer– not luxuries you have when releasing something. My ideal would have been something more like this: http://aaronareed.net/if/m1.jpg but this is completely impossible with any existing interpreter, as far as I know. There is so much that modern computers could be doing to enhance the visual look of text games. I’m not sure why there hasn’t been more response to David Cornelson’s FyreVM– at the moment I’m not looking at it because I’m using a Mac– but I think this seperation of game logic from display abilities is absolutely the direction things should be moving in.

  2. Some quick thoughts, since I should be doing Real Work(tm) right now:

    I think there is a market for IF, but it’s not the typical computer game market. I’m disheartened when I hear people like Meretzsky state that there’s “no commercial market”, because while I really like his games, I don’t get him as a person. I wonder, does he want to hold a monopoly on Infocom as the Golden Age of IF?

    The commercial aspect can be a forcing function, but it’s also a motivator. People expect quality if they’re paying, but they will pay for quality if they can afford to. If, as a creator, you’re delivering a consistantly high bar of quality (as one should if one is charging, IMHO), I think the positive feedback loop of fans and income will start to set itself up.

    Finally, I get a lot of free games through work. Lots of them. I can’t put my finger on any free games as games I particularly love, because they cost me nothing and thus have little value to me. I invested nothing to get them, so why should I invest time playing them or analyzing them to see if I got my money worth? However, the games I paid for, in cold hard cash, are the ones that either receive my spiteful derision (if they’re bad) or my overwhelming praise (if they’re great). The monetary sacrifice drives my commitment, and this feeds back into my interest in the next title by this author/group (anything by Valve Software or Relic, for example), or my total writeoff of a group or genre (fighting games, or yet another tech demo by Id Software marketed as a game).

    Release ultra high quality titles in a super polished state, market it to the masses of interactive readers (not “gamers”), and charge for it, and I can see a market coming to fruition, as well as a system that sustains the authors and allows for continued self-sustaining work in this genre.

  3. Great post. I’ll restrict myself to a single observation now, which is that taking Paul’s argument and transposing it to another art form gives us a really curious result. Observe:

    I get a lot of free novels through borrowing them from my friends or from the library. Lots of them. I can’t put my finger on any free novels as novels I particularly love, because they cost me nothing and thus have little value to me. I invested nothing to get them, so why should I invest time reading them or analyzing them to see if I got my money worth? However, the novels I paid for, in cold hard cash, are the ones that either receive my spiteful derision (if they’re bad) or my overwhelming praise (if they’re great). The monetary sacrifice drives my commitment.

    What is so curious about it is that it makes no sense at all. Nobody would even dream of saying that he can only be moved by novels that he has paid for in cold hard cash.

    I really don’t see why computer games would be different?

  4. Aaron wrote:

    That’s probably why I didn’t drop out of the Spring Thing and released an unfinished version of Blue Lacuna, which was a huge mistake because a) people didn’t like or didn’t want to respond to an unfinished game

    I didn’t play more than a couple of turns myself: I could see you’d put a huge amount of work into the thing, and I wanted to wait and play it when it was complete.

    I tend to have mixed reactions to introcomp games, too, though — very occasionally they serve as convincing teasers for the real thing, but sometimes I just wish I had the full game in front of me. Mileage varies.

    I’m not sure why there hasn’t been more response to David Cornelson’s FyreVM– at the moment I’m not looking at it because I’m using a Mac

    Well, so am I — but also, from what little I’ve seen, it hasn’t been clear how an author might start playing with it, because there’s not enough documentation/demo of the system. That may change, and I wish them the best.

    We do need better interpretation for Glulx. The state of things currently is pretty vexing, and I say that as someone with a) prior experience writing Glulx games and b) unusual access to the people who control this software. I still find it challenging. A Glulx version of Parchment would, I think, be my ideal: assuming I understand the specs of Parchment, that would mean you could set up your web page with some framing graphics for your game if you wanted, and also set CSS rendering to control the game’s fonts and display — which might get you closer to the look you want (and me closer to the look I want, and so on).

    The other issue besides interpreter upkeep (portability, consistent management of graphics and sound, and simply supporting the latest state of the Glulx VM) is speed. Optimizing a game file is a pain in the ass: one of the reasons City of Secrets became unmaintainable so quickly is that it contained all sorts of wacky hacks to make it play fast enough at all, including some hard-coded caching of conversation information because I just could not get interpreters to run acceptably quickly. Inform 7 makes it considerably easier to produce a Glulx file (and more likely one will do so, as relations and related features offer greater power at the price of storage). But it hasn’t made it especially easier to make a game run fast. So that’s an issue.

    Paul wrote:

    I can’t put my finger on any free games as games I particularly love, because they cost me nothing and thus have little value to me.

    I hear people say things like this, and I do sort of understand — but only sort of. Games I’ve really enjoyed in the past year or two include Portal (commercial, but I didn’t pay for it; I played it at a friend’s house); Miss Management (commercial, and I paid for it); Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom (commercial, but I got a comped version); Lost Pig (free); An Act of Murder (free); Chinese Room (free)…

    But maybe this is the key bit:

    I invested nothing to get them, so why should I invest time playing them or analyzing them

    …whereas I analyze pretty much everything I play, and play in part to analyze. If I think a game is too boring or ineffective to be worth discussing, that’s usually the point where I shut it off. I’m not sure whether this is some kind of strand of puritanism that magically converts even my gaming experiences into a sort of “work”, and aborts them if they aren’t “productive”, but I think the reason is not quite that cold; I just enjoy games more if they offer some fodder for design contemplation as well as the baseline experience.

    In that case, it seems to me that the habit of engaging with games analytically is something that can exist independent of your monetary investment, if you want it to.

  5. My off-the-cuff hyperbolic observation is apparantly full of holes, but I’d like to say that the opinions of the creators are usually vastly different than the masses of consumers.

    Some people will make art just to make art. Some people will make art to make money. Some will create hoping for both, and a select few from all categories will actually create quality content. It’s the quality stuff that will expand market share, both financial and intellectual.

    Joel On Software has some good comments on pricing, as well, although I can state first hand that because many people believe you get what you pay for, underpricing (or free) stuff will paradoxically garner less appeal than hitting the right (or higher!) price point.

  6. Excellent post. During time spent in the TIGSource community over the last year or so I’ve been amazed over and over — not only by the (mostly free) games coming from the creators in and around that ‘scene’ but by the response of the audience. From TIG and other sites there definitely is a groundswell of enthusiastic supporters of free games that is getting bigger (by the minute sometimes it seems). And I should note that TIG has warmly welcomed IF many times. You can say the same for Jay is Games and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are other sites as well.

    To take another example, the story game RPG genre, in some sense analogous to the IF genre (barring obvious dissimilarities with regard to replayability and so forth) as it is its own niche within the far larger RPG genre, is selling games — not a lot of games, but easily hundreds of copies for some titles, and typically in the $15-20 range per title.

    However I want to get away from the point of selling games, which I don’t see as the main thrust of Emily’s original post (I admit my thought on selling IF games is that it’s Just Not a Big Deal). I think people who create and play IF can cultivate, and really, not lose sight of the strong community that has fostered an amazing amount of creativity for the last 20+ years. I think there are critical times when a genre can push itself to do great things, and I venture that time is now.

  7. Victor, your analogy reframing of the analogy doesn’t entirely work, because the library (or your friend) still had to pay for the book.

    The concept of value in this case is a passed one; the author expected *someone* to pay for the book, even if not the one consuming it at the moment.

    So for those who need that particular psychic energy of value, it’s still present.

    Some of my favorite games are free, but I can understand why someone might not invest their energy in the same way in a free game, much like video games on free play have a different “feel” than ones that require quarters.

  8. Jason, I don’t think that entirely works–but mind you, I’m not criticising you and Paul, I’m just trying to understand why “I had to pay for this” is a factor for some people.

    Here’s why I don’t think the argument that the author expected someone to pay for the book works: there are some clear examples where this was not the case, and where it doesn’t seem to hurt the reading experience. For instance, Franz Kafka wanted his novels to be burnt after his death; instead, they were published by a friend, and made him one the most famous authors of the 20th century.

    Anyway, I’d say that any author (whether of static or interactive fiction) is asking me to make a huge commitment: a commitment of my time, which is more significant than a commitment of my money.

  9. The book analogy is, how we say, “fraught”.

    A book is a physical artifact. A book that someone hands you for free has the same heft and craftsmanship as a book that you buy up front. (Or, if it’s crap bookbinding, that diminishes the sense of worth. A comb-bound stack of photocopy won’t be taken as seriously as a “real” book, regardless of the content.)

    (This shows up even within the commercial sphere. A friend of mine just sold her first book — electronic publication only; it’s available as for-pay download. Is that as “real” as a physical book? It’s not the same thing, for sure.)

    Institutions matter. Libraries are an older and more respectable institution than the Internet.

    Institutions matter. A book sold by a major publisher is more “valuable” than a book sold by a small press. (Even though the latter probably has a somewhat higher price tag.) Software publishers also have a hierarchy, and self-publishing is in the basement.

    All of the above are complicated further by people trying strenuously to change the rules. Several people are referring to _Braid_ this week — a game which is indie in some sense, but in another sense has Microsoft as a publisher — as non-basement as software gets. That’s the point of the XBox Live Arcade platform. Similarly, both large and small book publishers (and Amazon) are trying to pump up the legitimacy of e-books. A couple of weeks ago, Tor gave away free e-book copies of a score of its best-regarded titles.

    Ergo: analogies are not only futile, but are actively being undermined as we speak. :)

  10. So, on software…

    My instinctive (arrogant) response to “If you think it’s good, show so in your price!” is “Okay, special price for you — ten bucks. Everyone else can still have it for free.”

    I don’t expect that would work — not exactly in that form. But we commonly think about two-tier publication for IF. Free Z-code file, pay for cell-phone play. Free for download, pay for physical package with feelies. Free on desktop, pay for iPhone game. All of these are at least potentially within the reach of the IF hobbyist (although they all get easier if there’s some publisher-like group to work with, e.g., the feelies.org of yore.)

    It will probably always be true that the free users outnumber the paid users. But the feedback relationship you talk about is *also* asymmetric; only a small fraction of users express an opinion, and only a tiny subset of those get to know that the author heard them. (And the coziness of the IF pond does not save it from that problem, obviously.)

    So, again, what people take seriously in the gaming world comes down to preconception and framing. Money is a big part of the current preconceptions, but that doesn’t mean it’s either intrinsic or unalterable. Much the same position as the IFComp itself, in fact.

    (Also: I do want to see a Parchment-like platform for Glulx. I have written the display side of the coin — see http://eblong.com/zarf/glk/glkote.html — and I tried to make it as CSS-able as possible. If someone implements a Glulx VM, either in Javascript or as a web service, that will be the other side of the coin.) (Speed, unfortunately, is a hard problem. It’s not so much that Glulx is slow, although it is slower than Z-code. It’s that we keep getting more — ha — *ambitious*; both individually, as in CoS, and toolwise, as I7 adds resource-expensive new features.)

  11. Part of what I was getting at in the original post is that I’m not quite sure what framing context to shoot for, if my aim is to showcase a piece of freeware IF that I’ve invested a fair amount of time in and think is good enough to interest a wider audience — especially if it’s more story- than puzzle-oriented.

    Charging money (how much to charge, whether it would enhance the respect I got, how to go about marketing, etc.) is more or less orthogonal to this other question, namely: whose attention should I be trying to get? What is the broader audience for interactive storytelling? Whose imprimatur matters next?

    I’d intended eventually to submit something to the Slamdance game contest, but I gather it has folded up its tent — and I rather soured on it after the Super Columbine Massacre RPG incident anyway. IGF, I think I may be ineligible to enter. So I really am not sure. Hm.

  12. I fear that it’s a matter of doing a lot of PR legwork.

    My last great idea on that was, well, somebody else’s great idea: put IF in a web browser and see if any of the existing web communities perk up.

    I don’t know how much attention the jayisgames presentations are getting. I have a hunch (uninvestigated) that a string of small games would work well for that crowd. Smaller than IFComp games — “snack-sized”, to recover a term from our history — and with a vaguely even difficulty curve. Ideally you’d want people to see a game on Wednesday and think “Hey, I just played one of those on Monday, and finishing it was fun. I should start this one.”

  13. Re: analogies

    The book-as-physical-artefact factor is surely important. This would suggest that you can give your IF game more legitimacy by making a physical product out of it, even if you sell this product at cost price. Still–I’m not sure that is the way to go, at this time when the mainstream game market is moving away from physical products.

    Re: speed

    One problem for Glulx, and IF in general, is that it is expected to run on a such a wide variety of platforms. What runs smoothly on my Athlon x2 4600+ might not run at a playable speed on a mobile phone. This is not a problem for big mainstream titles, since these are not expected to run on a phone; but IF is.

    Re: the broader audience for interactive storytelling

    I don’t know. My hunch is that book lovers are a better place to start than either hypertext aficionados or casual gamers, but that might just be because I am a book lover, and thus look at IF through book-coloured glasses. (My metaphors are melting as we speak.) When I click on a random “recommended” game at JayIsGames and find myself playing something where you see two almost identical photographs and you have to find the five differences… well, that’s the moment when I doubt that anyone who could enjoy that could also enjoy what I believe to be interesting interactive fiction.

    Still, I don’t see any easy ways to get more people to play interactive fiction. What might really help is if a couple of people managed to become well-known both as IF authors and as authors of static fiction–that might lure fans of the latter to try out the former. But this is hardly something you can try to bring about.

    Apart from that, I think we just have to try to reach out in as many ways as possible. Emily is surely doing a great job in getting IF at sites like JayIsGames and PlayThisThing, and I can testify that this does lead some people to play the games discussed.

    I have been playing with the idea of a document called “Reading Interactive Fiction”, where the reader is shown how to interact with several existing pieces. I can imagine the first chapter being an entire playthrough of a small game, where we see (indented) the commands that are entered and the result of those commands, and (unindented) explanation of what is going on, why certain commands are being typed, and so on. I think we should not underestimate the problem that even some intelligent people have with playing IF, especially if they are not really “into” computers, and even if the game in question has a kind of help-mode. Just the idea of having to try to navigate such an unfamiliar interface may scare away more potential readers (especially those with a non-gaming background) than we realise. For those readers, it might be reassuring to first experience interactive fiction vicariously, through a static document that shows a playthrough.

    Does anybody else think this might be worthwhile to try?

  14. But this is hardly something you can try to bring about.

    Well, sure, you can try. It’s not something you can bank on being successful at, though. And it does add some years to the Grand Plan. (Step 1: write three novels. Step 2: …)

    Re. JayIsGames: Yeah, I know what you mean — I’m not a big fan of whole genres they review, either. But there is a core of people reading JIG who do like IF, and a post there tends to produce a fair amount of feedback (by IF standards) and some evidence that we’re drawing new players to the medium as a whole. So that’s useful outreach. It’s just not the whole package.

    I have been playing with the idea of a document called “Reading Interactive Fiction”, where the reader is shown how to interact with several existing pieces.

    That could be interesting, sure. Where do you anticipate putting it?

  15. Okay, you can try. Adam Cadre is trying. I am trying. There are probably many others trying as well (these days, almost everyone seems to be working on a novel!). Just don’t hold you breath in anticipation, and don’t bet the future of the medium on it. :D

    I haven’t actually written “Reading Interactive Fiction”, but I’d anticipate putting it–well, I didn’t really think about that, but I’d probably start by hosting it myself and letting anyone who wants to link to that file. (If it turned out to be useful to people, I might want to make paper copies available through Lulu or another POD service, but that really is blue sky thinking.)

  16. Yeah — see, to my mind the tricky bit is figuring out how to reach the book-readers, as by and large they aren’t set up to look for indie works. I consider myself fairly net-savvy, but I still do most of my book buying in the old-fashioned way, by looking at novels in shops and bringing home the ones I can’t bear to put back on the shelf. Sometimes, by ordering things from Amazon — but then usually I order things I already know I want, because I’ve seen them before or because I like the author; so the bookstore and physical contact with the book really is the main source of new buying habits.

    (Even in my academic field, I mostly buy books I’ve had a chance to look at; one of the best parts of a professional conference is the book room, getting to stroll up and down and pick over the latest interesting stuff on drama or religion. Review journals are also valuable but feed my research more than my purchasing habits.)

    I’ve occasionally tried thinking, “okay, this game I’m writing is historical fantasy [or whatever], so maybe I should look on the web and try to find sites that deal with that genre and are aimed at readers”. I’m not even especially picky about whether the site should be an online ‘zine with short stories, or a review mag, or a bulletin board/forum. But there’s surprisingly little of any of that out there that I can find, especially if I search outside of SF (which for fairly obvious reasons seems to have more of an internet profile than most genres). Or maybe I’m looking in the wrong place.

    Still, as far as I can tell, fans seem to cluster instead around *specific* books/series/authors. So yeah, if I wanted to write some fanfic IF, I know where I could flog *that* (and then wait around to be served with a lawsuit for violating EA’s exclusive right to write computer games about Harry Potter, most likely…). If I want to get people interested in a new interactive story I’ve written based on my own IP, though, it’s a little harder to figure out where to start.

  17. IGF, I think I may be ineligible to enter. So I really am not sure.

    One thing I wanted to note is that unless your place of work puts some restriction on entering a game in the IGF, I don’t see any rule that would prohibit an IF author from entering a game as long as their platform allows commercial releases (which Inform does if I’m not mistaken, right?).

  18. Re. IGF:

    I didn’t mean that IF couldn’t be entered. The format of the contest does seem strongly biased against the kind of thing that IF is — several of the awards (for visual and audio presentation) most IF would simply be ineligible for. But that doesn’t mean one couldn’t enter, and I see some indications that IGF is in fact becoming more receptive to unusual, artsy, or experimental-format works.

    What I meant (somewhat self-centeredly, I admit) is that I personally might be ineligible: as a columnist for GameSetWatch, I am likely excluded under the restriction of all those employed by affiliates or subsidiaries of CMP Media LLC.

  19. I don’t know how much attention the jayisgames presentations are getting. I have a hunch (uninvestigated) that a string of small games would work well for that crowd.

    Yeah, I think that’s right. I’ve occasionally kicked around the idea of writing a small puzzle game or two specifically with the JIG crowd in mind: more tutorial than I would aim at the usual IFer; emphasis on juiciness and tight writing; some format customized to work well with browser-based play.

    However, that profile doesn’t really describe my current-most-ambitious project; so rather than running off trying to write something I think I could (as it were) sell, I continue working on this other thing and wondering where I should be planning to target it.

  20. “if a couple of people managed to become well-known both as IF authors and as authors of static fiction…”

    Yoon Ha Lee is selling a lot of short stories these days.

    “…as far as I can tell, fans seem to cluster instead around *specific* books/series/authors.”

    The new tor.com, maybe? It ranges across fantasy/SF topics.

    “…find myself playing something where you see two almost identical photographs and you have to find the five differences…”

    (cough) I enjoy those, actually. For a few minutes each. :)

  21. There’s also IndieCade, which is supposedly trying to take over where SlamDance left off. Something to consider.

    I think Andrew hit a number of good points. Getting IF to work in a web browser is really a big advance. The whole interpreter thing comes across as an unnecessary barrier — even though the overall concept is not really far off from the accepted standard of application/document, it still never seemed to be friendly for those unfamiliar with IF, given the many different formats and interpreters. It may eventually get there, and programs like Spatterlight help, but browser-based IF will overcome that barrier much more easily.

    I also agree that small browser-based IF games would work well. But I’m also thinking that this gets back to the free vs. purchased discussion. I’m much more likely to try and finish a free game if it’s short. But my patience and attention span become limiting factors when it comes to longer games, and in those cases the chances are greater that I’ll stick with the purchased game a bit longer than I would the free game.

  22. But my patience and attention span become limiting factors when it comes to longer games, and in those cases the chances are greater that I’ll stick with the purchased game a bit longer than I would the free game.

    Yeah, I understand that, but it still doesn’t answer the question of what audience we’re targeting.

    That said: I’m resistant to selling my games for several reasons. I don’t want to start thinking of IF as a job. I doubt that charging money would increase the number of people who played, even if it increased the persistence of those who did. I hate the prospect of devoting lots of time to marketing as an end in itself. My releasing a game that cost money wouldn’t help the rest of the community much. Etc.

    Besides, the amount of money I could hypothetically earn by selling my games is so tiny relative to the amount of effort that goes into them that it’s actually more depressing to sell them than to give them away free — because that constructs a value relationship in my mind that I don’t like, namely “the time I spent on this has turned out to be worth $0.35/hour”.

    The one thought along these lines that does appeal is the concept of doing a charityware piece: charge to download for a set period of time, proceeds to go to a cause I support, and then the game to be put on the archive after some deadline passes. But that changes the implicit relationship between me and the money that is being paid for the game, and also makes marketing it less about “hey LOOK WHAT I DID” and more about “here, please contribute to this worthy purpose”.

    I don’t know whether charityware would still have the desired effect on player psychology.

    Anyway, I’m not knocking those who are going the route of selling IF: I know Dave has some ideas for how Textfyre can improve IF tools, and it may be that an infusion of money and professional programming talent will make some real changes possible that just weren’t coming out of the amateur community. The process is not one that appeals to me to participate in — I like having control over my whole game from start to finish, and I want to be writing for adults — but I wish them all luck.

    The new tor.com, maybe? It ranges across fantasy/SF topics.

    Now that does look like the kind of thing I was looking for. I guess it just wasn’t there yet the last time I checked. Veerrry interesting.

  23. Eriorg: yes, exactly. Hadn’t seen that. However, I wouldn’t choose Earth and Sky, but something that would appeal more to a literary crowd. It would be good to have a couple of things like these on hand for different kinds of game.

  24. So here is a weird idea, my apologies if this kind of thing has been mentioned/shot-down already. How about a IF web magazine. I don’t mean something like SPAG (as nice as it is), which is more a review journal, but something more along the lines of a magazine publishing short fiction. Here is how I imagine it working:

    It would be web-based, obviously, and every–month? half-a-year?–a new ‘issue’ would come out. Each issue might have some reviews, interviews, general IF-related information, but most importantly would have several brand new games either downloadable, or playable on a nice looking internal interpreter, like Flaxo or Parchment.

    The magazine would have a one or more editors, each a high-profile and respected IF authors (you and zarf, say, to pull two names out of a hat). They would take submissions though-out the period before publication, accepting those they found interesting/well done/innovate, etcetera. Perhaps more importantly they could act as true editors–sending a piece back so that it could have its coding tightened up, or typos fixed, anything up to and including major structural changes to it by its author.

    A couple of quick benefits I see to this system:

    1 – It would provide a non-comp arena for games to get high exposure. People could get excited about each new issue because they figure that since Emily Short/Andrew Plotkin/Mike Roberts/whomever had editorial oversight, they are probably going to get a quality product.

    2 – It provides an entrance for new writers, who can get feedback about what they did wrong, what needs to be improved, without getting that all at once in the comp reviews.

    3 – There could be a number of such ‘magazines’. People who like straight text-adventure-puzzlefests could have one, people who wanted more ‘literate’ IF could have one, people who values experimentation above all else could have one.

    Anyway, there was some other stuff I was going to say, but I’m running out of time. *shrug* Kind-of an odd idea, but it appeals to me, though I admit I, as yet, do not know the field very well at all.

    Oh, and great article by the way. I discovered your blog a couple of weeks ago and have found it consistently engrossing reading.

  25. The magazine would have a one or more editors, each a high-profile and respected IF authors (you and zarf, say, to pull two names out of a hat). They would take submissions though-out the period before publication, accepting those they found interesting/well done/innovate, etcetera. Perhaps more importantly they could act as true editors–sending a piece back so that it could have its coding tightened up, or typos fixed, anything up to and including major structural changes to it by its author.

    People occasionally suggest something vaguely like this. I can sort of see the appeal: the editorial/publishing staff might be able to help with packaging up stuff, if authors are inexperienced or need help getting their work to run under a web browser; a set release date for the ‘zine might encourage people to look forward to the new material; etc.

    I also see a couple of issues with it.

    1 – The community already has enough of a problem with the perception that there are cliques, cabals, elitist persons enforcing their IF preferences, etc.; a system of this kind might exacerbate that. If such a magazine did come into being, it would probably be better if it were viewed as a sideline in the community rather than the main way for new games to get validation.

    2 – It doesn’t really address the issue of getting wider attention from the outside world, and at this point I think we’d do better to focus some of our ambition outward. You might say that better internal quality control would lead to more attention from outside; this might even be true. I wonder if we shouldn’t be going to the outside audiences, though, rather than dressing up and hoping they come to us.

    3 – I suspect the community is already supporting about as many institutions as it can afford to with the available volunteer labor: SPAG is terrific, e.g., but a lot of it gets written by a fairly small number of people. *I* sure don’t want this job: it sounds like a great way to annoy authors while simultaneously ensuring that I never have time to finish any of my own work ever again. Not to mention dooming myself to play a lot of garbage. Conceivably someone else would feel differently about it.

    I do agree it is important for new writers to get feedback, but there’s already a mechanism for this: they should get some beta-testers, ideally ones already familiar with the standards of the community, and pay close attention to what the testers say.

  26. Know I’m showing up a bit late here, but I agree it’s also a question of just finding new audiences and markets. The IFComp is one market that has done well, but there have to be others. Licensed work in particular for new properties seems particularly promising. If AI (the movie) can get an ARG, an IF game could be thrown in on the cheap. Web games could tie into an IF side as well. Alternatively, targeting the game critic/design market with “innovation” that hasn’t been done in other games could get good PR and create an audience, much like Blow and Rohrer are trying to do with “art games”.

    It seems like the other half of the coin though is that the IF format has to adapt too. I love IF, but the format has a barrier to entry for other markets. Rethinking the interface for a new market could get people excited. In fact, I think this has already happened with Lost Pig and Child’s Play. But this rolls back to identifying the market first for these titles and then doing PR. Lost Pig, for example, seems like it’d get all sorts of love from the Tolkien/D&D web audience.

  27. Rethinking the interface for a new market could get people excited. In fact, I think this has already happened with Lost Pig and Child’s Play. But this rolls back to identifying the market first for these titles and then doing PR. Lost Pig, for example, seems like it’d get all sorts of love from the Tolkien/D&D web audience.

    If by “interface” you mean “we should have this stuff in browser-playable format”, then I agree with you — that has proven to make a large difference to how many people are willing to give an IF game a try, and it’s an area the community is actively working on.

    Licensed work in particular for new properties seems particularly promising

    That I’m not so sure about. Many of the strengths of IF have to do with the freshness and novelty, the freedom to experiment, and so on. I’m not sure we’d do the development of the art form any favors by trying to link in to existing intellectual property, and we might just make IF look like a cut-price version of traditional video games. But I don’t know; there might be reasonable exceptions.

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