Mailbag: IF and game writers

As you studied IF for a long time, would you think IF writers are videogame professional writers, or those are 2 separated groups of people ? And would you be able to estimate the number of IF writers ? 

[I’ve edited out a number of side points, but the longer letter also made clear that the writer is interesting in building a tool and/or platform, and is curious about the possible market for this tool and the ways people might use it. — Ed.]

Headcount is a very hard question to answer, because there is no longer one single “IF Community” — I mean, really there never was, but lately there has been much more of a diaspora. The Twine space or the Choice of Games space don’t always overlap and aren’t even always that visible to people working with the parser interactive fiction tradition (and vice versa); and then you’ve got huge, huge numbers of people who are doing interactive story of some kind but only within an app like Episode.

As for the skills you might find among IF writers, that’s again a spectrum. If you went back to 1998 and looked at who was writing IF then, you’d have found a community that was somewhat-to-very technically skilled, since writing code was necessary for almost all the projects that called themselves IF; but also pretty much entirely amateur, since almost no one had ever done any IF writing for pay. 

Now by contrast you would find that there are

  • gig-economy creators who have created technically simple projects and sold them on platforms (like Episodes or Kindle ebooks) that are designed for low barriers to entry; or who have built up some following on Patreon
  • technical inventors and academics who have built very complex and ambitious projects but never worked in the game industry at all; 
  • successful authors in linear media like Cassandra Khaw and Max Gladstone who have made a crossover to working with interactivity;
  • grant-funded interactive media artists who are often experimenting with form or subject matter features that wouldn’t necessarily work as for-market projects
  • well-known professional game writers and/or designers like Liz England, Meghna Jayanth, Jon Ingold, Brendan Hennessy, or Leigh Alexander; these may have background experience with interactive fiction or might still create some text-focused projects at times

So some of those people might be drawn to a new platform. Others, though, already have plenty of venues to publish, or on the other hand are engaged in IF precisely because it gives them a space where they can experiment, build weird science projects, or create personally meaningful art.

Then the question becomes: what could a new platform offer that would appeal to the largest possible subset of the above?

  • the ability easily to deliver experiences that people currently want to build but for some reason cannot — but then you have to figure out what there’s the most thirst to do — I haven’t done this in a few years so the answers are no doubt very out of date, but in the past I’ve run some informal interviews and surveys to find out what people found most vexingly absent from current platforms. Those surveys come from 2014, so there’s definitely room for new research here
  • an audience
  • money — but money typically follows from the audience, and if you had a space were new works got thousands or tens of thousands of readers, you’d definitely find at least some IF authors bringing their work there even if no cash were exchanged.

2 thoughts on “Mailbag: IF and game writers”

  1. I’ve come to think that people shouldn’t start out by saying “I want to make an IF platform,” but rather “I want to make a game” that turns out to require a platform. If it turns out that your game is popular, people will admire it, and want to make more games like it, and then they’ll want to use the platform you used to make your game.

    But the game comes first. Thus, it doesn’t matter how big your platform’s audience may or may not be; if you’re making a platform to develop the game you want to make, you are its audience, and that’s enough. Maybe you’ll want to make two or three games in your platform; the more you use it, the better your platform will be.

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