Running an IF Meetup

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The Oxford-London IF Meetup has now been running for a little over two years, and I thought I’d stop and talk a bit about what we’ve experimented with doing and how it’s worked, and what I think could be better.

First of all, I should say that the meet has been more successful than I had imagined at the beginning, and I’m very grateful to everyone who’s come and contributed their ideas and input. I’m especially grateful to Failbetter for supplying a venue; without access to their space in London, we would have had to find (probably expensive) meeting rooms in central London, which would add quite a lot to the overhead of running the group. Having a supplied venue means that we can continue to offer the meetup without charge to members.

From an organizational perspective, though, it’s also been more challenging to run precisely because of the interest level. What I expected to have happen was that I’d announce a meetup, I’d get six or eight diehard IF community enthusiasts showing up, and we’d grow outward starting with a small set of committed volunteers who could help me figure out how to scale and who wanted to pitch in for what. In practice, we routinely have 30ish signups for London meetings, and people are coming from a range of backgrounds. So I’ve had to improvise a bit from the outset.

But I did have a set of specific goals in mind, which were

  • create social connections between people interested in IF (basic networking)
  • build a peer group to support people working on games and tools — which in an ideal world would mean everything from mentoring/encouragement for new authors to expert feedback for advanced tool-builders
  • educate myself and other people about the range of work currently being done

and — informally but importantly —

  • have enough fun that people come back

Here are some thoughts about what has worked and hasn’t:

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Competitions, Anthologies, and Shows

IF Discussion Club this month is looking at the incentive systems and formal infrastructure in the IF community: competitions, anthologies, and shows. But as there’s a lot of material out there, I wanted to preface that discussion by providing a little bit of an overview to some of the things I’m aware of. (Edited to add: the transcript of that discussion is now available.)

Consequently, I contacted a number of people who have put together one of these events, and asked them to give me an overview of their thinking: what were they trying to do? Why? How did their goals change, and how well did it all work? I got a lot of response: many thanks to all those who took the time to write detailed responses.

I did not try to capture and describe things that were primarily about presenting a single IF work to the public (e.g., read-alouds of Lost Pig) or talks or demos of IF creation system (such as talks about how to use Inform 7 or intro-to-Twine workshops). I also didn’t attempt to cover sites that do/did on-going curation, such as IFDB, Baf’s Guide, freeindiegam.es, or Forest Ambassador, whether or not those were IF-exclusive.

Even without those restrictions, I’m sure there are a number of things that I left out. There are many general-purpose game jams that sometimes turn out to include IF entrants, which would be impossible to track down thoroughly. I didn’t try to cover all of the themed minicomps of the past decade and a half, because there have been so many. ifwiki lists 44 standalones of varying degrees of seriousness and specificity — including ToasterComp (12 entries) and BreadComp (0 entries). There are also people I wanted to contact but couldn’t reach, and there are also doubtless events I’m not aware of.

If you know of projects that are not discussed here but you have some insight into how they’re run, please feel free to add information in the comments.

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ICIDS, Some Thoughts

ICIDS is an academic conference in interactive storytelling. This year it was held in Singapore, and I was invited as a speaker, which was awesome. I spoke about Versu and Blood & Laurels. Graham Nelson accompanied me, and though he was sightseeing for some portion of the trip, he did come along to one of the workshops, which tackled story modeling and authorship; and we co-guest-taught Alex Mitchell’s class in interactive storytelling at the National University of Singapore.

I found the whole experience pretty fascinating. ICIDS is devoted to a lot of the same things that we discuss in the IF community: how to make interactive stories, how to build tools for authors, how to make use of procedural techniques to do things that stories haven’t mostly tried before, how to gauge player/reader responses to interactive story experiences and learn to make better ones.

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IF Community links and resources

Recent reader email prompted me to revise and expand my guide to ways to get involved with the IF community. But the IF community (or communities, I should say) have been dramatically expanding and diversifying in the last couple of years, and I’m sure I’ve omitted some useful content. Did I miss things you think I should have covered? Events or venues people should know about? Please feel free to comment and I’ll update with whatever seems like a good fit.

A tangent about marketing

This is a spin-off from the post about Jon Blow’s remarks on the IF parser, but it goes in a different direction, so I wanted to take it back to the front page.

I’ve been having a comment exchange with a commenter named Veridical Driver, who suggested a number of possible improvements to the IF interface (automapping, journaling events as they happen, bolded words to show what’s interactive, etc.). I pointed out that there are games that try most of those things; Veridical Driver responded that it’s not enough because IF should be standardized on those features.

So this post started as a response to Veridical Driver’s last comments, especially these bits:

These are things that the IF community may have experimented with, but not things that are any way standardized in the IF interface. The standard IF interface has barely changed from the Infocom days.

Adrift may have mapping, but Inform and z-machine is the standard for IF and do not. Some games might have custom note systems, but this is really something that should be standard, just inventory is standard in all IF. Sure, there is a keyword interface extension… but this kind of functionality should be a standard part of all modern IF.

…The problem is, you are thinking as an IF author, not as a gamer. You don’t like the ideas/features I mentioned, or suggestions other have made, because they constrain your artistic vision. But as a gamer, I don’t care, I just want some fun.

Nnno, I don’t think that’s quite it. Two of the examples I pointed to (Floatpoint, Bronze) are my own games; other projects of mine (especially Alabaster and City of Secrets) include graphical sidebar content that’s nonstandard but is designed to ease player experience and communicate game state better. So it’s not that I dislike these features categorically.

Where I’m pushing back is on the idea that we can or should enforce these features as a standard.

There I’m speaking not just as an artist, though I can think of several of my works for which the features you describe would be a bizarre and awkward prosthesis on the text — what’s automapping for in a one-room conversation game? what’s journaling for, in a game that runs for five minutes and is designed to be replayed?

But setting that aside, I’m also coming to this as someone who’s handled a lot of feedback on one of the most-used tools in the IF community for the last five or six years. People want to do a lot of different things with their interactive fiction, and they should have the opportunity to try their various visions. Some specific use cases, other than the artistic concerns I already mentioned, where your suggestions might be an active hindrance include

  • games intended for mobile platforms or small screens, where screen real estate is at a premium
  • works for the visually impaired, which need to be simply accessible with a screen reader
  • works written with a heavy narrative focus, which may put aside the concept of “rooms” entirely in favor of a different style of presentation; these aren’t always even intended for a gaming audience at all

These aren’t hypothetical; they’re things that people are actually working on and are the basis of real support requests.

So the issue is, tools that force too many features run a big risk of narrowing the creative range to just the projects that work well with those features. Inform has tried to err on the side of making a lot of things optional — through extensions — while not imposing too many constraints through core library decisions. This is always an area of compromise, and there are some features we’ve added that have made Inform games larger, to the chagrin of those optimizing for very small, low-processing-power machines. So these things are always on our minds.

I’m happy to say that a lot of progress has been happening, and continues to happen, on the extensions and interpreters side. The desire to foster collaboration, conversation, and creative thinking about IF interfaces is a major part of the impetus for the IF Demo Fair we’re putting together for PAX East.

Still, this opt-in stuff is obviously more work, and it’s not going to force authors to include the features you’re looking for — and the novice authors are the ones least likely to put in the extra work if the tool doesn’t make them do so. I typically consider it a good sign — not always but often — if I start up a competition game and find that it has cover art, a splash screen, a non-standard status bar, etc. That’s not because I think those are universally important, but because it means the author put some time into generating non-default content. Which means he thought about it. Which is good.

From a game consumer’s point of view, I think what would help the most is curated collections and branding.

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