A Plea to IF Authors (which I’ve probably made before)

It’s easier for interested third parties to promote your stuff outside the community (e.g., on indie game blogs) if your game has some cover art that can accompany the review/article. Screenshots of pure text are usable, but not as much fun, and it takes a little more time to set them up and crop them to be the right shape.

The cover art doesn’t have to be fancy, and it doesn’t have to have a picture. The title of the game in an appropriate font, with appropriate colors, still catches more attention than a) no picture or b) a screenshot of text.

39 thoughts on “A Plea to IF Authors (which I’ve probably made before)”

  1. True that promotions of non-interactive fiction either feature a photo of the book’s cover or the author. Imagine if they just included a photo of page 27.

  2. I agree. Even if it’s just the title of the game in an attractive font, cover art makes a difference. I join your plea, Emily.

  3. Well, yes, but look. I can program. I can write. But I could not draw a picture if my life depended on it, nor do I have the typographical knowledge to find a font that would fit my IF.

    I mean, I’d love to be able to give you some great cover art, but I just don’t think I can do it. (Unless I get someone else to do it for me, but the only person I know who is skilled in making computer drawings does so for a living, and I always feel bad about asking people to do for free what they normally do for money.)

    I am amazed at the number of IF authors that CAN draw; the IFDB is full of good cover art. I envy those people.

  4. Most of my cover art comes from drawings by other people, or from manipulated stock material.

    You can always request help from RAIF. Several artists have in the past offered their services in creating free cover art for IF games. You could track down one of those people or make a fresh call for volunteers.

    But really what I was getting at is that the cover art doesn’t *have* to be ambitious to be a valuable tool in marketing your work. Typographical savvy doesn’t hurt, of course — expertise is never a bad thing. Even without it, though, you can peruse a freeware font site until you find something that you think fits the feel of your game; download and install the font; type the name of the game over a background color; save as a square-ratio’d JPEG and upload to IFDB. “Fits the feel” can just mean that you like it, even.

    The “Feelies, Maps, Cover Art” article on this site has some links to possible tools and suppliers of fonts and so on, but there are lots more only a Google search away.

    The result won’t compete with the covers of commercial games, and it may well be obvious to experienced designers that you are not one — but you don’t *have* to compete on those terms. If it’s more colorful and eye-catching than a screenshot of some words on a page, you’ve already won.

  5. Victor, speaking from experience I’ve found that my friends who are artists are totally into making something for a project for free or little money. Many artists that work for a living don’t get as much creative freedom as they would like and the chance to do something different is refreshing. Plus people like to do things for friends, it’s just human nature.

    Anyway, you inspired me to spend literally twenty minutes with GIMP and the website Da Font (and I am no artist by any stretch of the imagination!) and here is an example of a cover, probably not appropriate for your specific game but I needed an example title!:

  6. So this has given me a potentially stupid idea: an IF cover art drive, in which people can submit art designs for their favorite games, and the authors would be free to take up submitted cover art and use it in IFDB and other promotional contexts.

  7. It sounds like quite a good idea for this reason. I just did a very simple search on IFDB of all games published in the last two years with a rating of four or better. Less than half had cover art. What this says to me is that many of the best recent games of IF, which should get some coverage in the general game press somewhere, don’t have a basic cover image that could represent the game.

  8. A cover art drive sounds like a wonderful idea, Emily.

    We’re hammering out the 2.0 for The Chinese Room right now, so I’ll take this on board and see if we can’t fix something up.

  9. As to cover art, I would suggest spending some time looking over deviantart.com and, believe it or not, the netlabel scene. Whenever I’ve needed art for something, I’ve had no trouble finding a willing participant there.

    I might bring this up too often, but it seems important to me and the context is opportune: the greatest deterrent to the promotion of IF for third parties is the tendency for the player to need an interpreter (as a separate package). Cover art is, I agree, very valuable, but when a player downloads .gam or .z5 file and doesn’t recognize it, it may well be deleted with a “well, that didn’t sound like a fun idea anyway.”

  10. The separate package interpreter problem is something that authors mostly aren’t in a position to affect, though. I agree it’s annoying and difficult on indie game blogs to have to go through the same spiel every single time (“…so you also need an interpreter… get it here… or here… or here…”) and then troubleshoot when players post confused comments. So I don’t really know what to suggest to authors on that score.

    The people working on Flash interpreters may be on to something, as regards at least getting casual players to *try* something, but I still don’t really enjoy playing IF online very much, as it’s always slow and sticky and awkward compared to the experience with a good interpreter.

  11. It’s not that authors aren’t in a position to affect the interpreter + story file package (really they’re in the best position to affect it, right?) but that the accepted practice is to release just the story file. It’s not that big a deal to bundle a story file with a specific interpreter into one executable.

  12. I think that fact that we separate executable from content is on of our greatest assets. I don’t know about you guys, but I am very happy that I don’t have to release versions for Linux i368, Linux x64, MacOS X, Windows, FreeBSD, Solaris, and so on. I am also very happy that if I want to download some IF, I don’t get to the relevant download page to see that the author thought that providing only a Windows executable was a perfectly good idea.

  13. In response to Emily:

    I agree about the awkwardness of playing IF online, and will always find it awkward, even once the experience is not cumbersome and the interpreters are excellent. I’d rather play a game independent of third-party programs (like an internet browser) and without the need to be connected to the internet (especially because IF is a nice laptop diversion when traveling.)

    To Kooneiform:

    While that may be partially true, we (as a community) have been trying to expand the authorship of IF to a broader base of less tech-savvy people who may not want to go to the trouble of creating executables, especially considering that hardly anyone is doing it as things are now. In order for it to take place often, I think the authoring/compiling software would need to incorporate a mechanism for creating an executable (even an interpreter with a .bat file to launch the game would do) easily.

    To Victor:

    While you and some other members of the IF community (including myself, actually, though I’m a Windows XP user) enjoy the benefits of using multiple interpreters for the same content, an alternative must be in place for IF to be marketable to a broader audience than we have now. To bring the idea to a sharp point, most MacOS and Windows users, even gamers, will not download a program to run a game unless they are already thoroughly convinced of their affection for the game, because it has the appearance of needless work. Not only that, it appears to be needless work for something that is not at all attractive.

  14. I guess from my point of view as author, IF-promoter, and player on a non-Windows system, is that it would be nice if there were an easy, easy, *easy* drag-and-drop mechanism for even third parties to make Windows and Mac executables or installers, given a game file. Authors would still be encouraged to build and upload the basic game file, and repeat players would probably want to pick and customize an interpreter for their own tastes. But people who needed to make the game available in an easier way could do so.

    It used to be possible to do this with MaxZip, back in the day — there was a menu option along the lines of “Export this game” or something that would make it into a stand-alone instantly. I miss that.

  15. Some of this work has been done, I think quite recently, by JDC (search on RAIF) who bundled Moebius and Zoom into one downloadable package. He also noted that this was transferable to Windows (with a different interpreter presumably). One issue that came up was whether he needed to include or host the source for Zoom as it is licensed under the GPL (and whether all authors would have to do so if they used this system), but I think the conclusion was that they wouldn’t — I need to re-read that thread.

  16. I seem to recall there still being something irritatingly tricky about his solution, but yeah, it’s probably worth revisiting why and seeing whether it could be resolved.

  17. The executable approach has some very definite disadvantages, even if the author also releases a non-executable data file. Whether these outweigh or do not outweight the advantage of greater marketability is something we may have different opinions about.

    The disadvantages are these:

    * It will become harder to find the data files. People will start linking to executables without realising that these executables don’t work for everybody; and only those savy enough to find the IF Archive will be able to get the data files. (This means that for at least some people, IF will become less accessible rather than more.)

    * You will need to download different versions of the game for different computers: the game you played on your home PC won’t run on your PDA, because they use different OSes.

    * If you switch to a different operating system, you need to download your entiry collection of IF anew. (This and the previous point mean that it might actually be more work to use executables than to use a separate interpreter.)

    * People will be needlessly using outdated, buggy software with potential security vulnerabilities. Instead of just making sure that your interpreter is up to date, you’ll have to make sure that each and every game you use is up to date.

    * For authors, this means they will have to rerelease their games every time the bundled interpreter gets fixed for bugs or security problems.

    * The number of programs the end user will have to trust will vastly increase, and most of those programs will not be open source. The security risk of running Gargoyle, Zoom, or any other single open source interpreter is rather low. The security risk of running dozens of different executables, the source of which is not open to public scrutiny (and which thus might be infected with any number of trojans), and the authors of which are generally unknown to you and hard to trace, is very high indeed.

    For all of these reasons, executables seem a very bad idea to me.

    A solution that I would greatly prefer would be an interpreter with automatic download and install capabilities (either for all games in the IF Archive or just for selected good games). That would give you all the goods of a single executable and none of the bad stuff. Combined with either packaging for well-known distro’s (Linux)* or some kind of auto-updater (Windows, OSX), this would be real killer-app. Let people download and install one program, and they’ll always have an up-to-date all-in-one entrance to the world of interactive fiction.

    * The only potential problem with this is that if the program downloads non-free data files (and most IF is non-free), it might not be accepted into some of the more scrupulous distributions.

  18. While your solution sounds like a good idea (and a lot of work for the programmer), I do not think most of the disadvantages you see the idea Emily and I have been talking about are very strong ones, in terms of making IF more marketable.

    When creating an executable, the program which does so can have a message saying “Be sure to make the .z5 file available as well so people with any operating system can play.” That’s a very simple way to make sure that the author realizes the reason for doing so. Beyond that, if an author wants to limit the game to a particular set of operating systems, that’s his/her choice, not ours. Besides, the authors who do choose to create an executable always have included the original game file, to the best of my knowledge. (example: http://adamcadre.ac/if.html) In addition, I think that players willing to download an interpreter are likely to be capable of using the IF archive.

    The idea of downloading and updating software to play a single game is common to the market we’re seeking to gain, so that is not a problem for them. It’s standard. Besides, once someone becomes a fan of IF and actually is getting a lot of games, he/she will be much more likely to be interested in the idea of using an interpreter combined with data files, especially if your wonderful interpreter-library idea became an actual program.

    Interpreters are pretty stable now and tend to remain so as they are updated, so I wouldn’t be so worried about bugs and security problems. Besides, if the author released the game with that version of an interpreter, the author obviously thinks it is appropriate to the game, so all should be well.

  19. These objections have largely been rehearsed before, and while I have basically agreed with them in the past, my current experience has been that this isn’t working out too well.

    The kind of interpreter you describe does exist for the Mac: Zoom lets you look at IFDB from inside the interpreter, and many games can be downloaded and launched with just a click of a Play This! button. However, if I’m pushing IF to a novice crowd, there’s no way for me to give them Zoom in a way that will navigate to the right part if IFDB for them.

    JDC’s solution, which arose out of a lot of just this kind of discussion, involved being able to package the game up with some kind of installer or launcher that (as I recall) installed Zoom and made a shortcut for launching the game; so the end user wound up with the advantages of an installed, multi-use interpreter, but didn’t have to understand that fact or download two things. Personally, I’m mostly looking for a bundling solution like this, that would let me as the reviewer make an executable package for a game that otherwise mostly floats around the IF universe in data file form.

    Anyway, I’ve agreed with a lot of these sentiments in the past, but I suspect at this point that the IF community is not *really* likely to forget how to find the data files immediately, and that the current situation is turning off more people than the community generally realizes. *Every* time I post an IF review to JayIsGames or a similar site, there are a string of comments from people flummoxed by the job of installing the interpreter first. And that’s just the ones who haven’t rolled their eyes and given up without saying anything.

  20. Interpreters are pretty stable now and tend to remain so as they are updated, so I wouldn’t be so worried about bugs and security problems.

    I agree that the security threat of our interpreters isn’t significant, and said as much in my post. But the security threat of an executable that someone supposedly created by bundling his game with an interpreter is quite a different story.

    How do you know, when you want to play Jeremy Hanson’s IF “Another Day”, that AnotherDay.exe doesn’t contain a trojan? (This is a fictional example.) You should never run executables from a source you’re not certain you can trust.

    I don’t know. If there are lots of people out there who’d rather run just any executable that they find on the internet than make the minimal effort of installing a relatively trustworthy interpreter, then there are just a lot of people I do not understand. This might of course well be the case.

  21. The particular context I’m thinking of here is *not* one where John Doe finds “Another Day” on Jeremy Hanson’s GeoCities page and downloads it. I’m thinking of one where John Doe finds Another Day.exe on a reputable gaming blog like JayIsGames, where things have been vetted in advance a bit.

  22. In fact, I doubt that there are many John Does finding IF on personal websites and downloading it, if any at all. I’d be a little surprised to even find IF _enthusiasts_ downloading IF from personal websites other than a few reputable ones. If that were the case, they would very likely choose to download the data file rather than an .exe for efficiency’s sake.

    Also Emily’s bundling solution sounds great, except for one possible downside. Imagine a new IF player downloads two games. Not knowing about interpreters (and we don’t necessarily want them to at this point because they may be put off by extra and confusing information) will there be any problems created by overwriting the previous interpreter installation? I suppose it wouldn’t be much of a problem to make the installer overwrite safely or check to see whether or not the interpreter is already installed.

  23. Don’t most interpreters simply run from the directory they’re located? How much are they really ‘installed’ on an OS in the first place? That is, could I have twenty copies of Zoom, numbered Zoom1…Zoom20 in twenty separate folders running one game each?

  24. I think I may have sounded a bit too negative in the second half of this thread. I really do appreciate it when people try to make IF more visible to the general public, and if executables are a necessary part of that, so be it (and you are better judges of that than I am). I just wanted to make sure people understand that if it is necessary, it is a necessary evil. :)

    Michael, I don’t think multiple instances of the same interpreter will pose a problem. And if we are talking about single executables which automatically load a game, they won’t even be the same interpreter, strictly speaking.

  25. Victor, would you consider a *.swf (shockwave flash file) as kind of executable file?

    Yeah, it is a proprietary file format, but it is so common… :)

  26. @Iulia: As far as I understand shockwave and flash, a .swf would not be an executable, would it? It is platform-independent and has to be loaded into a platform dependent flash/shockwave player.

    (I’m not a huge fan of Flash or Shockwave, and I won’t be able to run it if it doesn’t run under Gnash, but that’s another point entirely. :) )

    @Michael: Yes, but that’s only an inefficient use of harddisk space. I don’t think we have to worry about that; IF is generally very small, even with a built-in interpreter.

  27. I think Spatterlight (for the Mac) has got the right idea. It can play most game files regardless of the type. I’m surprised there aren’t equivalents for the Windows and Linux platforms.

    There are still a few game files that don’t work correctly with Spatterlight, but it does help greatly with the issue of multiple file types. Still, I agree that the multiple interpreter-game file type issue is one of the major stumbling blocks for increasing the IF audience.

  28. Rubes, where did you get the idea that there is no all-in-one interpreter for Windows and Linux? There is, for instance, gargoyle.

  29. It wasn’t really a statement that there aren’t any, it was just an unfamiliarity with what’s available for Windows since I don’t use it. I was familiar only with Zoom and Spatterlight, not Gargoyle, and I was gathering from the discussion that perhaps such a thing might not yet exist on the Windows platform.

  30. There is gargoyle. Unfortunately, it isn’t actively developed anymore, and that is starting to show. Still, it remains my interpreter of choice under Linux. (Though not under Windows, since I only boot up Windows to play IF if a game does _not_ run under Gargoyle. ;) )

  31. Under Linux, there’s also IFP, which is being maintained (though it goes a long time between releases). As far as I can remember, it includes all the interpreters that Gargoyle does plus Geas. The neat thing about it is that includes all the GLK libraries available on Linux, so you can choose one at run-time. I usually use it with GarGLK, the Gargoyle front-end.

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