The new Treaty of Babel standard for interactive fiction files allows games to come with cover art, to be displayed by complying interpreters at the beginning of a game. Not all interpreters do this yet, but it is becoming increasingly common. Having cover art can be good for a game’s publicity outside of the IF community: bloggers and other websites that take notice of independent game design often like to have some image to put into their articles, and IF doesn’t usually offer much of a screenshot. It’s not required, but a cover image can be a nice extra.
“Feelies” are a different thing. In the days of Infocom, “feelies” were the physical goodies that came in the box with the game. They were often a form of copy-protection, since some games required that you use information from the feelies to progress past the very beginning of the game. Many of those original packages are now collectors’ items, but online scans are available for some. Then during the 90s, some authors offered feelies as an incentive to register shareware IF. Since then a few enthusiastic freeware authors have created feelies as well — occasionally ones that players could order for a game, but more often “virtual” feelies, PDF files containing goodies such as maps, fake newspaper articles, and other things of that nature.
None of these things are necessary in creating a game, but they can be fun. I’ve tried a variety of packaging approaches to make my games more appealing or simply because I wanted to see how hard it would be to create old-style feelies. I’ve also been associated for some time with feelies.org.
What follows is a discussion of the things I’ve been asked about most often, and the things I’ve tried.
Before you get started, it’s a good idea to answer some questions in your own mind.
What’s the scope of the project? Do you want just a cover image to go with your game file, or are you planning to distribute something in physical copies?
What’s your budget, in both time and money? Are you planning to sell the results, or give them away? How much spare cash do you want to devote to the project? How long are you willing to work on it? Is there an important deadline you need to observe?
For some of my projects, I’ve wanted to spend as little as possible; for others, I’ve had a budget of $500-$1000 dollars, passing on part of the cost to feelie-buyers in the IF community and subsidizing any remaining expenses. It would be possible to spend a lot more than that, but probably not sensible for hobbyists. (As a point of reference, though, it is entirely possible to sell 50 copies of a $10 feelie packet to the IF community.)
How big is your audience? Is everyone who plays the game going to have the feelies/art, or are those an optional extra? Is this for the freeware IF community, or do you intend to distribute it more widely? Are the players going to be novice IF players or veterans? Will they need instructional materials?
The feelies for Savoir-Faire were something I dreamed up and originally offered only to readers of rec.games.int-fiction, mostly because it seemed like a fun thing to do, and because I had a bunch of ideas about the background of the game that I wanted to share with people. The feelies were meant to be interesting even to players who had already finished the game, and I didn’t figure that anyone would order them who wasn’t already an IF junkie. So there’s no manual or any other kind of game-playing assistance, and the game itself is compact enough I didn’t think there was any need to offer a map. Instead, the contents are all meant to a) be entertaining to read and b) tie off a few loose ends and answer some questions about the world in which the story occurred. (In retrospect, I would have designed certain things differently: I intended to make one set of physical feelies, so I didn’t worry too much about ensuring that the process would be easily duplicated. As a result, when people wanted to order feelies after the originals ran out, it was annoyingly hard to put together again — and where the original batch had many handwritten components which I painstakingly wrote out myself, the later batches were based on a computer font. Well: they were probably more readable, too, so I’m not sure who got the better end of that deal.)
By contrast, Bronze is meant to be novice-friendly, and so it comes with a PDF (no physical feelies) containing instructions for play and maps to help orient the player. My only expenses there were the photographs I used to illustrate the manual.
What do you want your packaging to accomplish? What do you want your art to say to players before they even pick up the game? What about while they’re playing? (1893, for instance, comes with a game map that is more or less vital for successful play; Savoir-Faire came with a letter for the player to read after finishing the game, that served as a bit of an epilogue and answers some questions one might have.) Are the materials supposed to offer useful clues? Fill in background about the world that doesn’t fit into the game itself? Provide some additional entertainment?
In the case of City of Secrets, I wanted the packaging to feel relatively deluxe — the project was originally planned as a semi-commercial release, so people were looking forward to something fancy; I wanted to help orient the player in a complex geography by providing a map and a few notes about what kind of environment he’d encounter; and I knew the game vocabulary was a bit different from the IF standard, so I included a card of recognized commands, in case the player found it a handy reference. The rest of the content was meant to aid in world-building: a couple of flyers and brochures that suggested the propagandistic nature of the City. And I wanted the feelies to be as tactile and rewarding as possible, because the game was lush but abstract; so I included a mailing that could be torn open, a bag that could be opened, things that had physical texture and smell as well as appearance.
Resources for making your own cover art
We aren’t all artists, so not everyone has the skills to draw, paint, or render a suitable piece of cover art for IF. There are other options, though, such as combining imagery and fonts to design a cover from unoriginal material.
This sounds potentially dull, but in fact quite a lot of the books and music released have covers that were created by designers from stock elements; in the hands of a skillful designer, the right pieces can give a strong sense of atmosphere and individual character. If you yourself don’t feel you’re up to doing graphic design, a few hours of a designer’s time to create a custom cover may still be much more affordable than a commissioned artwork from a professional artist.
- Freeware fonts as listed at freewarefonts, dafont, and others; and paid-download fonts at fontguy. Also of possible interest are the (purchasable) historical fonts at Oldfonts, the Walden Font Company, E-phemera, and Crazy Diamond. Some of these are of very high quality. The HP Lovecraft Historical Society also has some fonts specially developed for making realistic 20s and 30s era props, some free and some for pay.
- Public domain images. There are huge numbers of public domain image sites out there. The challenge is going through all that content to find what you want, since it tends to exist in niche locations and to be badly indexed. On the other hand, if what you want is (a) historical imagery of people, places, or things from a hundred years ago or more, or (b) imagery to do with outer space, postage stamps, or certain other domains likely to be covered by government publications, then you may be in luck.
- iStockphoto is a vast repository of stock photography and illustrations licensed at a very low price for royalty-free use, and much of it could be useful to the right IF game: landscapes, architecture, vintage shoots of people in period clothing, images of all kinds of everyday object; vector diagrams and maps, including outline maps of just about every country in the world; and quite a lot of abstract or conceptual art, too.
If you are not familiar with image rights, “royalty-free” means that once you have paid your licensing fee, you may use the image as much as you like within the terms of the agreement, without paying any additional costs. (There are a few restrictions. You may not use images to produce your own templates to be used by other people, or on publications selling more than a [high] number of copies.) This is different from “rights-managed”, where the seller of the image exercises careful control over who gets to use the picture where and for what. Rights-managed images are great for advertising campaigns where the marketers want to make sure the competitor isn’t going to use the same picture the next week. For dressing up a piece of freeware software, though, royalty-free stock is both cheaper and much more flexible.
iStockphoto currently has well over a million images and is growing at a phenomenal rate, so it is much easier to find material here than it used to be. I’ve occasionally checked out other microstock vendors, but I’ve never found a site that could compete with iStock for range, flexibility, and quality of content. (Several other microstock places require you to subscribe, for instance, which means committing quite a lot more money up front.) Over the years, I’ve bought hundreds of images from iStockphoto, including many of the pictures used in the feelies for City of Secrets; cover art for Damnatio Memoriae, Bronze, and Glass; the imagery used in the Introduction to Interactive Fiction PDF; and a number of the pictures used internally in Inform 7.
- Tools. To manipulate any photographs you buy from a microstock agency, you’ll want an image-editing application of some kind (I use Photoshop Elements most of the time); there is also the freeware GIMP. If you don’t need that much power but just want to do some basic cropping or filtering, iPhoto may be enough, or you may find some use in something like BeLight’s Image Tricks (freeware, with some functions reserved for the paid “pro” version. Image Tricks also generates some neat algorithmic abstract backgrounds.)
To manipulate vector illustrations, you’ll need something a bit higher-end, an illustration program like Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw. If you don’t own one of those programs already, they may be more expensive than you want to pay for. There’s also the freeware inkscape, but it looks non-trivial to install and operate. On the other hand, many of the illustrations on iStockphoto (say) do come with a large JPEG pre-rendered that you can use if you don’t plan to make a lot of modifications, so check the image description.
If you’re just planning to lay some text over a background color or pattern, you can get away with simpler tools. A few notes on options for the Mac: I wasn’t impressed with Paintbrush for the Mac, which is so primitive that you can’t move text once you’ve laid it down — this is really on a par with MacPaint, only in color. You can probably wring something out of this, but it’s going to be laborious and reminiscent of 1984. Art Text seems intriguing, but it isn’t freeware, and it is oddly limited: in the demonstration, I couldn’t find a way to position two pieces of text in different styles (like, say, the title and the author’s name).
More freeware design tools for various platforms and tasks are listed here.
One of the items authors most often include with their games is a map. It might be schematic or it might be more naturalistic, but giving the player a map can help orient him in a game with a large environment; it can also set some of the mood of the piece and hint at what lies beyond the boundaries of a game.
There are several ways to go about this. You can draw your own box-and-line scheme using GUEMap (Windows) or a more general-purpose diagramming program; I use Omnigraffle (Mac OS X) for some of my mapping needs. Or, if you’re an Inform 7 author, you can have Inform export your game map in EPS form and then tweak the output until it looks the way you want. (The manual contains a few hints about how to customize the results for different effects.)
If your map is to be based on a modern real-life location, you may be able to find a vector outline map of the area. iStockphoto has some of these at a reasonable price; considerably more expensive, but also more thorough, are the maps sold by mapresources.com (especially US cities) and Maps In Minutes (especially British cities). A web search for cartographical resources will turn up more of this sort of thing; you will need a vector drawing program to manipulate the maps. Alternatively, the USGS has a program that will will create an outline map (raster, not vector) of physical areas when given latitude and longitude limits to work with. Or you could always use Google Earth.
Another approach is to generate a map using some of the fantasy-map creation software out there. I’ve never tried this myself, but have been most impressed by the galleries I’ve seen for ProFantasy maps. Most of these involve putting together tiles and pre-designed icons to lay out terrain.
Finally, it’s possible (though I’ve never done this myself) to hire an illustrator who specializes in map illustrations. There’s quite a lot of call for this commercially — think of all the cute tourist maps and commercial brochures on the order of “Wine Producers of the Pacific Northwest” — and as a result there are people trained to draw maps in all kinds of styles, including various faux-historical genres. I don’t have any special advice to offer here, but if you’re interested, I’d recommend reading (below) about hiring an artist, and then do some web searches for map illustrators. The last time I looked at this kind of thing, I was most impressed by the look of Ivy Glick, a group that includes a number of map illustrators offering different styles, but I’m sure other options abound.
Creating and mailing out physical feelies can be quite a lot of work. A somewhat less daunting task is to mock up an interesting document just once, then scan it and include the scan as a PDF or JPEG document with your game. To do this, you may find that you want to start with special paper that looks antique, aged, or unusually-textured. Or you may want to use an old map, a vintage form, an old postcard… There are lots of sources for these sorts of props, and the following are just a few suggestions:
- Vintage ephemera on eBay and elsewhere. A quick search will turn up images of vintage menues, postcards, train schedules, baseball cards, pharmacy labels… all sorts of paper goods, some dating back to the 19th century.
- Antique handwriting samples at dohistory.org.
- Collage and craft supplies, including rubber stamps, unusual papers, paper dyes such as walnut ink (to make a paper look aged), and add-ons for collage work: Manto Fev (small, one-person business that sells whatever she happens to have on hand at the moment; swift and friendly service); Stampington (site run by a company that also produces a crafts magazine); Michael’s (national chain with numerous real-life outlets, which supplied the newsprint paper for the Losing Your Grip feelies). artpaper.com, Dick Blick, and even Office Max carry a large selection of different paper styles to order online.
There’s lots of other stuff out there, if you know where to look. If you can’t immediately find something you want, one useful approach is to try to think of other hobby communities that might need the same kind of goods or services: the world is currently full of self-publishing authors, board-game developers, RPG hobbyists, miniature collectors, scrapbookers, amateur historians, etc. Many of these groups have developed resources that are also useful for IF packaging.
Bringing aboard an artist
If you can’t make what you want yourself and can’t find it on the web either, you may want to work with an artist.
One option is to look for a collaborator within the interactive fiction community who would be willing to produce artwork for free or for a smaller-than-normal consideration. There have been several threads about this on rec.arts.int-fiction in the past, so it’s worth searching there to see whether anything interesting pops up, or perhaps posting your own “Help Wanted” post.
If you find that that doesn’t do the job for you, you may choose to hire an artist. I’ve done this on a couple of occasions, and the process works like this:
- Find someone whose work you like. There are several ways to do this. One is to look at portfolio sites online: I found the artist for Floatpoint by paging through theispot.com, which is one of the larger ones I’ve found. (Unfortunately the search process there is best described as infuriating — they have lots of good keywords but a basically broken engine.) Other portfolio sites exist as well.
I’ve also found artists by contacting individual contributors to iStockphoto with whom I had good dealings. Some of the artists there have illustration or photography businesses; you can get an idea by looking at their profiles.
- Ask for a quote for the image(s) you need. Describe the size and shape of the image, your ideas for what it should look like, and whether you’ll need any figures. (If your artist has to hire a model for a preliminary shoot, for instance, that may raise the price of your image.) Make sure you explain what kind of project you’re working on: if you tell a professional artist you need a cover for a computer game, they may quote you a price appropriate for the box of a commercial work — probably in the thousands of dollars.
- Negotiate. The quote may be higher than you want to pay, but some artists will be flexible if you let them know that you need only limited rights, are willing to let them work at their own pace, etc. This will mean they can do your job in between more lucrative projects that have a closer deadline. Note, though, that even if your negotiations go well, you should expect to pay hundreds of dollars for piece of color cover art by a professional artist.
- Sign a contract and pay the deposit. If you’re working with a professional artist, he or she will already have standard contract boilerplate to work over and send to you. A very standard operating procedure is for the artist to charge half the quoted price up front at signing, with the other half to be paid when the finished product arrives. This protects the artist from doing a lot of work for nothing if you decide you don’t like the work; on the other hand, if they produce something unusable, you won’t be stuck paying the full price either.
- Look at drafts and give feedback to the artist. Usually you will be sent in-progress images for your approval before the final image is delivered. Try to be as specific as possible about any feedback you have to offer. This is your chance to make sure that you get the final product you want.
- Get your final copy of the image and pay the second half of the fee. The times I’ve done this, the image has always come in the form of an electronic file; the artist either sends me a download link or mails a CD containing the data. After this point if you decide you need any further changes you should expect to pay the artist again for extra work, so be sure you are satisfied before accepting the final delivery of the file.
Creating and distributing physical feelies
This is a potentially bottomless topic, since one could imagine packaging just about anything with a game for distribution — and Infocom did, everything from scratch-and-sniff stickers to glow-in-the-dark plastic stones. It’s a lot of work to put something together for a non-commercial product, and many games aren’t really substantial enough to make it worthwhile: creating the feelies for City of Secrets took more time than some other entire games I’ve written. But this can be fun, especially for a large game that players may have some substantial investment in.
To help with this, feelies.org organizes feelie distribution for authors, which means collecting orders and doing the fulfilment, and periodically paying authors back a per-packet production cost.
Whatever else goes into them, the majority of feelie packets tend to be based around printed materials. Creating these can be easy or it can be quite difficult, depending on what exactly you have in mind. Copy centers such as Kinko’s can do a lot these days: not just copying black and white images and binding small booklets, or the rather muddy color copies of a few years ago; many now have the facilities to do very beautiful color printing with crisp lines and attractive colors. Many also rent computer time, and the computers they have available tend to be pre-loaded with software such as Illustrator and Photoshop; so if you do not have this software at home and need access to it, that’s one way to go.
Kinko’s is not the only option, either. Many traditional forms of printing are too expensive to do in small runs, but digital offset printers will often produce 100 or fewer copies of something. I printed the map for City of Secrets with imagers.com; their work was speedy and reasonably priced. This is a good way to go if you want something printed on paper that Kinko’s color printing won’t handle, or if you’re planning a run of many copies — color printing rarely drops below a dollar per side of a page, whereas offset printing costs drop dramatically with volume. (I’ve also received some quite attractive samples from, but never actually worked with, psprint.com; they offer a wider range of slightly unusual things, such as ID badges, event tickets, and so on, which might be useful.)
A word of caution, though: preparing material to be printed by a professional printer is technically finicky work, and it generally requires that you have access to professional-quality graphics or page-layout software. You will be asked to set color profiles, embed fonts, place crop marks, and so on. Many places will send you a template file on which you can just position your own material without having to construct the markings yourself, but it can still be tough going. Moreover, computer rental is not cheap (I think it was around $25/hour a couple of years ago for the good machines with the fancy graphics abilities), and it’s not easy to work with a professional graphics or page-layout program if you’ve never used one before. Even with some experience, I found that it took several hours of work at Kinkos to complete the materials for the City of Secrets maps, and that was after I’d done most of the design in Photoshop Elements at home and had someone help me with the color profile issues.
In the end, it would have been cheaper to hire a graphic designer to do the prepress work for me (and less stressful, too). I didn’t know that at the time, but let me recommend it now. Sometimes doing something yourself really isn’t cheaper.
There are various sites out there that will produce custom mugs, cups, posters, etc., with your choice of imagery, and some people want these to go with their games. The most obvious and widely-known is Cafepress, but I’ve never been entirely satisfied with their work: the posters have come out muddy, the t-shirts have the colors wash out, and images printed on mugs often wind up looking grainy and pixellated. I’ve had better success with Zazzle.com: their t-shirts still do fade a bit after many many washings, but the posters are crisp and glossy. Product purchases are highly configurable, too, so you can get your image printed on anything from a little card to a giant wall-hanging. Should your feelie needs somehow dictate such a thing.
There are all sorts of other goodies you may want for feelie packets — I’ve been asked about board game components (such as physical tokens), keys, cloth bags, and custom-made coins and medallions, among other things. There’s such a spectrum of possibility that it would be hard to offer a useful list here, but the internet is a terrific resource; for many kinds of customized physical object, I start my search with custom-printing services that create business promotional materials. Someone, somewhere, has put their company logo on just about every kind of gadget you can imagine. You should also remember that you may need special packaging for any oddly-shaped or fragile item you plan to mail out, so count that into your budgeting and preparation too.
If you want to distribute your game on a CD (or just have some copies to give to friends), you can obviously burn copies yourself, put them in sleeves, and hand them around. If you want a more professional look, though, I recommend
Mixonic produces print-on-demand CDs. You can upload your content and have them burn it for you, or you can buy prelabeled discs and burn them yourself. Mixonic will also do a variety of types of CD and DVD cases with simple inserts. You can order as few as one at a time, though of course there’s a considerable break in ordering a hundred or more at once. I worked with Mixonic on the City of Secrets disc, and Robb Sherwin also used them for publishing Necrotic Drift. Their results are sharp and brightly colored. If you have a dream of seeing your game on a professional-looking CD or DVD, in a DVD case, with a cover and shrink-wrap, they can make it happen.
If you want to work with Mixonic, plan well ahead of any deadlines you have for your project. You’ll want to design your CD surface and cover, upload them to Mixonic, and order a sample disc to make sure that it comes out looking as you wish. (They will give you templates to help plan your artwork, but there’s nothing like actually seeing the surface of your CD for yourself.) I’d advise against committing to a full order until you’ve gotten an individual disc that looks the way you want. This isn’t hugely expensive — getting just one disc printed will run less than ten dollars — but you should be sure to give yourself enough time for several exchanges of mail with Mixonic.
Mixonic’s customer service has always been excellent, and (at least when I signed up) they were sending out free samples of their work.
Occasionally people have asked me about customized cardboard boxes for games — you know, glossy ones like the kind they sell in stores.
The bad news is that this is one of the areas in which small-run production is really prohibitively difficult. I have done a number of searches for people, but professional box-makers are usually working with companies that will order a minimum of thousands — not fifty or a hundred. There’s a hefty set-up fee, and that doesn’t take into account the time and graphical design resources that would have to go into designing the box in the first place: it doesn’t look like a trivial job, lining up all the artwork on a (usually very odd-shaped) template. So I wouldn’t recommend trying this. Somewhat more affordable, though this is only relative, is to work with a company that does packaging prototypes; still, when I enquired for feelies.org a few years ago, they would still have charged $50/box for a run of fifty custom boxes, or $120 for just one.
There are a couple of compromise positions. One is to go the route Robb Sherwin went with Necrotic Drift: the game comes in a DVD box with a nice, color printed insert, and it looks good on the shelf with all the other games that come in DVD boxes. The down side of this is that if you intend to have any bulky feelies, they’re unlikely to fit inside the DVD box. (Similarly, Peter Nepstad distributes his work of commercial IF, 1893, in a CD box; I don’t know whether he has remained with the same people, but at one point the CD labeling was done by atozmedia.com; Kent Tessman’s Future Boy is sold on a labeled CD through a CafePress store.)
My approach with “City of Secrets” was to take a standard size of cardboard box and apply to it a printed sticker of my own. (I may be wrong, but I think this was also the approach Cascade Mountain Publishing took with “Once and Future”, when distributing it many years ago now.) This has several advantages. One is that places like Papermart.com have lots of sizes of cardboard box sold at pretty reasonable prices; the only catch is that you have to assemble them yourself, but that’s not so bad. Another is that you are designing your art to fit on the sticker, not on the whole surface of the box, so it’s a problem in two dimensions rather than three.
It’s easy to get caught up in planning something and forget why you’re doing it. My final recommendation is to keep an eye on the coolness factor of what you’re doing. Is each piece of your project going to add significantly to the player’s experience of your game? Is it fun and interesting?
If you’re aiming to charge for your game, it’s true that putting it in slick-looking packaging will probably earn you sales. If you’re working on a freeware product, though, professionalism may be less important than whether you create something fun and memorable for your players. And to a large extent, the coolness will come not from money put into production features, but from the content. About the only way you can make your feelies/packaging genuinely more cool by spending more money is if you use that cash to hire an artist, designer, or other production assistant whose work complements yours. (For that matter, when it comes to making a product look professional to a wider audience, I’d bet a good graphic designer is probably still a better investment than most other forms of packaging upgrade.)
In any case, have fun with it.