You can also see some marketing here.

So Jonathan Blow’s recent criticism of the IF community has been getting a lot of attention (Aric Maddux, Chris Klimas, Robb Sherwin, Stephen Granade, indiegamer, metafilter), and that may be why we got a spin-off Metafilter thread on the topic of parsers today.

I have a couple of thoughts about this.

1. This is Jonathan Blow. He tends to be outspoken — what he has to say about adventure games in this article is nothing compared with what he has to say about social games, which he labels as outright evil. There’s some content backing both points, but it’s been generalized and strongly stated for effect. While I disagree with a lot of the substance and think it could stand to be quite a bit more nuanced, he’s giving an interview about a future product, in which he has successfully said a lot of provocative things, generated a buzz, and positioned himself memorably with respect to a couple of other schools of gaming. To a reader less sensitized than we are, this might come off as no more than “this game will be content-rich, not work like social games, and will have some of the appeal of an adventure game, but more accessible.”

2. That said, the examples that he’s using suggest that he’s not really responding to the latest and greatest. So I feel free not to take them especially seriously as criticism of the latest community output.

2a. Yeah, the hat tip to the awesome plot device that is amnesia — that’s worth a snicker, but so what? Someone sufficiently skilled could still do a cool game about amnesia. Whether that person is Jonathan Blow remains to be seen.

2b. It looks like he is taking a specific potshot at Telltale’s episodic adventure games. I haven’t played by any means all of them, but I find them relatively free of maddening adventure game logic, pleasantly accessible, and really funny. That said, they are closer to graphical adventure roots than much modern IF is to its roots. IF has made forays into the puzzleless, the systematic/simulationist (where puzzles are based on a standard set of learnable rules and multiple solutions are available for most problems), and the tactical (where there is a whole scale of possible win/loss via randomized combat, etc.) I do occasionally wonder what would happen if there were more graphical adventure games that explored some of that territory — though I’m sure there are more than I’m currently aware of. See also Life Flashes By.

3. The idea Blow repeats here is a standard meme. On the big scale of Cluelessness about the Thing He Is Critiquing, this rates only about 5 picoEberts. And that’s our problem to solve. There will always be a serious barrier to sharing and marketing IF as long as the standard perception is that it’s about fighting the parser.

Part of the problem is that lots of people haven’t really played much IF since 1980-odd; another part is that the way IF has developed isn’t in the direction that they think it should have developed. There are good reasons why the parser hasn’t (and shouldn’t!) become a chatbot that pretends to understand all player input, but that’s a natural direction to wonder about; see this old chat with Brian Moriarty, who, I think we can agree, has more of an insider view on the problem than Blow ever has.

Meanwhile, we’ve made some progress on teaching the player IF affordances — which I think is the real solution here — but it’s not a finished process. We’re working on these issues, in a lot of different forms and projects.

Anyway. Long story short: yeah, I agree Blow is incorrect about what we’re doing and about our evolution. But I don’t think his being off base is really anything more than a reminder of something we all already knew: IF has PR problems. Our best steps forward aren’t visible enough. They don’t do enough to supplant what people already think about interactive fiction.

PAX 2011 programming

People who might come to IF events at Boston PAX, is there anything in particular you’d like to see discussed in the IF programming? Tutorials, panel talks, other stuff?

(If so, obviously you can edit the wiki with ideas, but I am wondering whether there’s stuff people would like to see but didn’t write down because it’s not something they would offer themselves, or whatever.)

More IFDB data

On my previous post, Ron commented speculating about what has changed about IF in the last few years, and that spurred me to check a couple of other hypotheses.

(1) Slice of life games have gotten more popular in the post-2000 period.

Not so much, it turns out.

I’d really love to do a full breakdown on genre percentages and see how horror, SF, fantasy, and other elements have fluctuated over the years, but that would require a Lot of Counting.

(2) Games have gotten more novice-friendly since about 2004, with more tutorials, help menus, built-in hints, maps, improved parser messages, smarter can’t-go replies, navigation by GO TO ROOM, and so on. Certainly it feels like we’ve talked a lot more in the past five years or so about how to make games accessible and reduce stuckness, and there have been a host of libraries, extensions, and goodies designed to make this easier.

But is it making a significant difference?

This one is harder to address, because there aren’t tags for most of these features. (I did go in and tag games that I know of that have included feelie maps, built-in maps inside the game, room-name navigation like GO TO THE KITCHEN, or tutorial modes, but my memory is faulty and incomplete. If other people want to go in and add their own tags, that would be very welcome.)

The one tag that is readily searchable is “built-in hints”, and it doesn’t give the results I might have expected:

In fact, it’s a bit dippy around 1998. But wait! As we saw last time, 1998 was the year of the puzzleless-game spike. Do we expect built-in hints in puzzleless games? Probably not so much. A “Puzzleless *or* built-in hints” chart looks like this, a kind of anti-stuckness graph:

Still, even with the adjustment, it looks as though game “friendliness” or accessibility has developed in just the opposite way to what I would have expected.

This could be another sign that my expectations are just wrong, all wrong, but I think there might be some other issues.

These graphs don’t account for game length: games used to be longer on average, and therefore there was more need for built-in hints in order to get through the morass. And there are a lot of options that IFDB tags don’t currently cover, as mentioned, or don’t cover enough to be significant. For instance, several of my games don’t have built-in hints but did feature invisiclues-style accompaniments outside the game, and there are other people who have done feelie hints as well in preference to something inside the game. So I feel like we’d need a lot more tagging of various kinds to give a clear idea of accessibility features as they’ve evolved over the past few years.

Another thing this graph doesn’t deal with is the difference between major releases and trifles or toys. Speed IF isn’t likely to come with any player niceties — because there’s no time, and no one is expecting any polish. But a year with a lot of Speed IF competitions in it tends to bulk out (in a numerical sense) with dozens of tiny games that are never intended for presentation to a wider audience. Likewise, IntroComp games might reasonably be lacking the features of a full and complete release. But it’s difficult to factor out those sorts of things without a different and more sophisticated counting method.

Or, you know, I could still just be totally wrong. That’s possible too.

Estimating numbers

An interesting argument that the IF-playing community is much larger than we usually estimate:

Gargoyle’s last release had over 12,000 downloads – double counting some folks, to be sure, but also omitting anyone who installed the Debian packages. In the last 45 days, with a single announcement on raif mired in negative feedback, the new release has been downloaded 1800 times.

These are not huge numbers on the scale of global populations, or indeed more than a footnote on Activision’s balance sheet, but they also represent only a fraction of the overall market in IF interpreters: the players passionate enough to download a dedicated interpreter and willing to use Gargoyle for this purpose. I doubt this amounts to more than 25% market share, all told, which gives us around 50,000 interested players. This is a couple orders of magnitude above the pessimistic estimates I routinely encounter. (The first approximation of community size I saw was in an article that suggested there were a few dozen authors and a few hundred players in the field.)

Ben Cressey

Readings, News

A new post from the Echo Bazaar folk, on choices in games — including what they call the “reflective” choice, which invites the player to think about why he’s doing something, or act expressively, without necessarily expecting the game to pick up on that. We’ve seen that in IF in a few places. Certain portions at the beginning of Blue Lacuna do this thing of collecting responses from the player without using them to affect the world model — but they certainly affect the experience of playing and the meaning of the story.

PAX Prime is going to feature an IF panel and its own IF suite! (That’s Seattle, Sept. 3-5.) But tickets are selling quickly. If you want to go, you may want to make your plans soon.