Mailbag: Writing Commercial IF for Mobile Devices

Dear Emily,

I am a professional writer–22 years plus of making my living from my pen–who is just now sticking my toes into the world of IF… I recently had a chance to revisit the world of IF in drawing up a planned project for a grant proposal. It’s been many years since I’ve played in this world, and it’s changed monumentally. Your blog has been tremendously helpful in giving me an overview.

I haven’t yet, however, come across an entry from you where you really get into the nuts and bolts of which engine you consider the best for independent writers hoping to create a commercially successful game as a  phone app.

Like a lot of newbies to this form, I don’t come from a programming background, and have little facility with coding. After trying Adrift and Inklekwriter, along with a couple of others, I settled on Quest, but I’m finding the lack of a GUI and the amounts of coding that are expected pretty daunting.

Before I jump down yet another half-dozen rabbit holes to try to find the best solution for me, I thought I’d ask you. What, right now, November 2017, would you recommend as the best IF engine for creating content for a phone-based app, that would work best for experienced writers with little coding experience?

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So the short answer to this is: I don’t know of any solution that requires no programming or technical savvy, but that will let you write free-concept, text-only IF and sell it on mobile, with reasonable odds of making money, and without going through anyone else’s platform.

“Commercially successful” does introduce technical requirements, because that does imply that you’re going to need attractive, non-generic screenshots, and that it has to be an app; merely being able to play the resulting IF on a phone, e.g. as browser-based IF, is not enough to meet the asker’s criteria.

Furthermore, most genuinely commercially successful IF has the advantage of an experienced studio putting it together (Big Fish’s Lifeline series, Choices), a really attractive front end/additional gameplay (inkle’s stuff), and/or a brand concept that has been developed with a bunch of titles over time (Choice of Games, Episode, Choices again).

Also, I consider “commercially successful parser” to be such a hard target that I’m not covering it here. And it’s harder to get solid results out of a parser game unless you’re willing to code more. So I think we can rule that out.

However, there are a few approaches that I consider currently realistic, given the right combination of circumstances.

The first three of these are in my opinion the most likely to actually make money for the first-time, no-coding-skills author; they also involve working with an existing brand or publisher.

coglogo2Write for Choice of Games. If you do that, then instead of having to figure out the technical and sales aspects, you just need to deal with getting a pitch accepted, fitting their brand concept, and working with your editor. (They’re very used to cultivating people relatively new to the space, as well.) They will take the sales from there. You will not receive 100% of revenue, of course, but what you do earn will still likely be a lot more than you’d make by yourself, as a newcomer, trying to put something in the app store and get it played and reviewed. Choice of Games has a following and a customer mailing list. And if you don’t want to spend time on art and other front-end-gussying, this is also probably your best option, because CoG will set up cover art, and otherwise their audience is used to a pretty barebones, text-only presentation.

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Screen Shot 2017-07-19 at 4.36.47 PM

Pitch to the Lifeline Author Program. As with Choice of Games, you have to be accepted, and they have editors and brand regulations — but also artists and marketing. If you do become part of their program, they’ll release your work on their platform with revenue sharing.

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IMG_0311Write for Episode. This is not what I’d do myself — there’s no actual guarantee of revenue at all, I don’t think, and the free-to-play concept has some curious effects on how it plays. Also, it’s targeted primarily at teens, which means it’s probably not a good fit (and not going to make money) for every genre or target audience. Finally, the style is visual novel-esque interactive fiction, meaning you’ll mostly be writing dialogue, not room descriptions/etc.

I talk a bit more about the Episode experience here — but it is an option, and it makes some money for some people.

And it is designed to be easy to step into, with minimal technical barriers. It’s another case of the parent company shoveling plenty of cheap content in one place and seeing what happens. This Gamasutra article goes into more detail.

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All that might not be right for a grant proposal situation, though, so here are a couple of other options that give you more creative control but also leave you in charge of the marketing (and possibly the app store submission process, which is no small feat in itself).

title screenWrite in Twine and partner with Unmapped Path for publishing. Unmapped Path has access to the Disbound engine, which allows Twine work to transfer to mobile. This is the approach taken by Nocked. I have no idea what the terms are for working with Unmapped Path, but I would guess you’d have more artistic control over what goes in, not need to get your story accepted by anyone, etc. (Personally, I think having an editor is generally a good rather than a bad thing, but you do first have to be in agreement about what the goals of the edit are.)

This route assumes you’re doing your own marketing. I’d also recommend making sure you understand Disbound’s options before rather than after writing your saga, in case there are any technical limits on what Twine capacities it’s able to put on a phone.

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inky-screenshot@2x.png

Write in ink and have a Unity-savvy friend or volunteer bundle it up for you.

This is the method I would recommend if you’re looking to put together an attractive, premium IF app with as much creative control as possible, and sell it cross-platform. ink is a robust language that’s been used in lots of released games, successfully. It’s much more suited to a large-scale project than inklewriter, and it can embed into a massively customizable Unity front end, and then via Unity released to a host of target devices — iOS and Android, yes, but you could also do PC/Mac builds for Steam, etc. You can also find information about other projects that have used it and even some tutorials, including this one on Youtube.

The downside here is that, if Quest is a bit daunting, Unity is unlikely to appeal to you at all. One approach might be to solicit a paid or volunteer helper at the intfiction forums to help with bundling. Another, depending on the size of this grant and the other resources available, would be to pay someone with proper experience in making swanky Unity front ends.

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Finally, at the extreme other end of the spectrum, there’s the option of building a choose-your-own-adventure book as a Kindle ebook controlled by links. Some people do this, and sell the results. I don’t know what their income looks like, and I wouldn’t expect such a product to be a big seller, but it is a route that bypasses the app store and likely has a significantly lower set of technical barriers overall. I think this is likely to be very marginal on revenue, but the costs of input are lowest, too. This type of interactive fiction is the subject of Deb Potter’s instructional guidebook, for instance.

3 thoughts on “Mailbag: Writing Commercial IF for Mobile Devices

  1. Another option is to work with me!

    I have plans to start a new publisher brand and I’m in need of authors to work with. Of course I’m a no-one right now, so any option found above is better. But, I’m looking for an approach of pair writers with narrative designers (me) where writers are interested in sharing the authorship of the whole experience, and I have an interesting editorial line.

    You can cast an eye to a sample of this approach in our last work Tuuli. Placed 16th out of 79 games in the last IF Comp.

    http://ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=ngcuiadqoqzy1yn0

    Drop me a line if mildly interested at rubereaglenest at gmail dot con

    We can start with a brief piece for a jam or comp to see if we are a good fit, then go to a more complete work with a commercial approach..

    Either we get something valuable our not, you will learn a hell a lot.

    Regards!

  2. I have a lot of experience writing novels, and started into interactive fiction a couple of years ago. Now 99% of my income is from IF (and even with 3 books coming out next year, that is not likely to change).

    I strongly, strongly agree with Emily’s wise words. Choice of Games has a VERY strong following (even for Hosted Games, which are technically rejected stories) and works very closely with authors. They and the Lifeline folks (also financially competitive, according to their site, although they don’t publicly announce their rates like CoG does) do contracts based on (detailed) outlines, so you don’t have to learn their tool before finding out if you’ll be getting paid or not.

    Both have increasingly specific styles. I think the results—stories that are both brilliant and commercially viable—prove the value of their editorial style & team.

    I’ve got notes from some IF Turorials targeted at writers on my blog. That might be of use to you. FelicityBanks.wordpress.com

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