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.
What I mean by this is not that IF necessarily has to go commercial to re-find its audience (though there are a lot of people who *do* think that).
Rather, the community does not currently have a good way of saying to outside players “this game meets quality standards X, Y, and Z, and it provides a gameplay experience of an established type that you’re already familiar with.” We’ve got reviews and awards and rankings and star counts on IFDB, and that’s all really great and useful. But we don’t have a way to
- create and enforce a standardized-yet-not-bare-bones look and feel
- build brand identification and loyalty in a way that would make new materials recognizable to prospective players
What we’d need is an editor or editorial body that would
- define a clear brand identity, such as “NPC-rich games with a romantic theme” or “traditional puzzle games with attractive automapping and hints”
- solicit and accept game submissions from authors
- try them out to make sure they conformed to the brand guidelines and do some QA
- provide support to polish the game in accordance with branding, especially in those areas where individual authors might have a hard time meeting expectations. This might include hiring artists for in-game assets and the cover, or supplying a standard automap extension that everyone had to use
- publicizing the games of this series in a standardized way, on a website or similar, with marketing teasers, press releases, author bios, interviews, and probably a support forum
This editor would need to offer identity definition, graphical design, website development, understanding of user experience, organization skills, sufficient tact to deal with authors, and sufficient clarity about the project to ignore or reject angry complaints and community backlash along the lines of “this is so elitist!” or “why didn’t you accept my masterwork, you clueless buffoon???” Which, I’m reliably told, is the constant lot of editors in other fields, except that they typically get money.
If this were a commercial concern, they’d also need to provide community support and customer service to players, a web store, contracts and royalties for authors, etc.
I think something like that could be enormously useful, and I’m not the only person to have had that idea or similar ones. See for instance Mad Architect’s posts on interactive fiction, many of which focus on curated collections and other marketing approaches, as well as In the Company of Grues‘ remarks on branding — in both cases I’m not linking to just one post because both have written fairly extensively on these topics.
The kind of game you’re describing — IF for a gaming audience, with polished UI trappings for movement, compass information, journaled quests, etc. — would be an appropriate direction for one such brand. Having a brand focused on this could also increase the quality level on those projects.
I really liked The King of Shreds and Patches, for instance, which does have automapping, journaling, and a bunch of other features similar to what you’re describing, and was definitely developed with an eye to what puzzly, large-scale IF could learn from RPGs and large-scale commercial games. That said, I think the features that were there could have been presented more attractively with a slightly better interpreter toolset and the services of a graphic designer. I don’t mean this to knock Jimmy Maher’s work at all — I don’t know that I could have done better, and the features he provided really make the game easier and more fun to play. But when I look at a screenshot, I see something that doesn’t suggest the involvement of a graphical designer: the proportions are not quite right, the contrast is sometimes hard to read, I’d tweak the typography here and there…
…and these things make a huge difference to user experience and perception. A lot of people, myself often included, would rather entirely skip adding certain features to their games than add ones that look painfully amateurish. (And some of the things I did years back looked okay to me at the time, but now look wrong.)
I can’t blame users for making judgments on this basis: I constantly judge things this way. If I have two websites offering me apparently identical products, I guarantee you I’m going to buy from the more attractive, more polished site, because competence in that area is a shorthand signal for professionalism and competence in a lot of others. For very low-information transactions, this signal is the only way I have to judge quickly whether the sale is likely to be legitimate, or whether I’m being offered eyeglasses by a dodgy con artist operating from his garage. With IF, we’re not trying to make people pay, but we are asking for their time, which also has value. So quality signals are hugely important, and an editorial/curatorial body would have the job of making sure those signals were clear and consistent for the brand they were promoting.
If the next question is “why doesn’t an editorial branding body exist, then?” …well, I suspect because it would be an enormous but largely thankless job to be the editor, publisher, and support staff for this project.
Possibly there does exist somewhere a person who has both the skills and personality to take on such a job and who would enjoy doing it for its own sake.
If there isn’t, though, then there has to be some kind of incentive to be that person. A commercial venture is one possibility, but a risky one, and it’s probably conceptually harder and riskier to start a publishing company than to write some games yourself and try to market them. (Ha ha. As if that were easy to start with. I realize that’s like saying “it’s easier to fly to Mars than to Saturn.”)
Failing that, I’ve occasionally thought about whether authors would support such a service up front: I might be willing to pay someone that I thought had the skills to help me polish and present a game of mine, if I thought it would ratchet the production values up into where they looked like a commercial project.
But there are problems there too. I’m probably at the extreme high end in terms of my willingness to spend money on developing freeware, and even I doubt I’d be willing to spend the amount necessary to make this really worth the time of the consultant and his subsidiary artists and designers. I can’t imagine it would cost less than about $10,000 to roll out the WIP I’m working on now, and possibly quite a bit more depending on what we wanted to do with it: say 100 hours of QA; artist time to provide cover art, an attractive map, and a poster art series for the teasers; editorial time to assess and comment, create website content, generate a jacket blurb and write press releases. And that assumes that the publisher website has already been completely built and has a reliable CMS.
This is not a business model for freeware.
The other problem with the artist-hires-editors model is this: if part of the point is to develop a brand and brand identity, then the editor is partly responsible to the players, which is not compatible with being financially dependent on the authors. I don’t want a vanity press here, where the richest authors get glitzy packaging and game quality becomes totally decoupled from presentation quality.
So I don’t know what the solution is. But forcing features into the IF creation tools is absolutely the wrong way to standardize, and community consensus doesn’t (and isn’t going to) exist about negatively reviewing games that don’t have automap, for instance, the way people tend to negatively review a game with mazes or a hunger puzzle.
We’d need a third route, something involving an editorial voice and vision.