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Expanding the Community, WAS: Long Form IF [Apr. 21st, 2008|10:04 pm]
The Interactive Fiction Community


I'm cross posting this here from RAIF, in an effort to follow my own suggestion, below:

I read through the Long Form IF Competition thread, and the gears started turning. I wanted to add my own two cents, but also cover some other ground. Thus, I decided to start a new thread, so I would not be highly derailing the old one.

Let me also preface what I write below with the following disclaimer: I tend to drift in and out of this community as time allows, mostly due to work and family pressures. Thus, if I misrepresent or slight anyone, or I'm unaware of something, I apologize in advance. I know there are people who are very dedicated and put lots of effort into the IF community, and I hope I represent your efforts fairly.

That said, let me begin by stating what I percieve to be the original problem: There is the perception that there are not enough "Long Form" Interactive Fiction titles (that being perhaps reasonably defined as being Retail Era Infocom Title equivalent) of sufficient quality (also defined as Infocom-level in quality), and the ones that are released are not played as widely as desired, nor is there the hoped for level of recognition for these titles. Instead, because of events such as the IFComp produce a large number of games, and the Comp itself is an annual event that is widely (for this genre and community) publicized, shorter and/or smaller games submitted to the Comp (or the Spring Thing, or whatever else exists that I'm forgetting) tend to overshadow any other releases during the year.

Now before I dive into my suggestions on how to approach this problem, allow me to take you on a brief trip down Game Development Lane. I've just come off of a three year stint in what is known as the "Casual Games Industry," mainly producing Flash games for websites and IM clients, with some occasional jabs at Next Gen Console games, and several years developing so-called AAA Games before that. Recognition and publicity are huge issues in this world, where the multimillion dollar contracts or the advertising revenue (in the case of Casual Games) generated make or break a studio, and determine whether or not any given group gets to make another title together as a team. Mostly publicity is generated via rather unscrupulous methods, such as bribery towards highly visible "game review" websites (look up the Kane & Lynch Gamespot debacle). There are of course advertising budgets to produce television spots, and the companies which happen to own networkable consoles can grab eyeballs every time the user turns on their system by pushing an ad to whatever the startup page is for their particular console. (Valve's Steam system also has this advantage on the PC platform.)

Yet, smaller, more risky, more artistic and arguably creative titles do flourish, although they struggle greatly to do so. Take, for example, Introversion Software, a British team of a dozen, who released Darwinia, the winner of the 2006 Independent Game Festival Grand Prize. Darwinia wasn't flying off the shelves initially, and was only receiving attention from indie game fans and former Introversion customers until it was released through Steam, via which, by Introversion's own admission, Introversion kept from going under. While certainly a great game in it's own right, the accolades of the IGF award and the visibility afforded via Steam were enough to raise Darwinia in visibility enough to be noticed by those who would otherwise simply be focused on the Supreme Commanders, Half-Life 2s, and Halos of the gaming world. Of course, Introversion had some good tactics even before hitting Steam, such as "free advertising" via magazine and newspaper interviews.

Finally, let me say this: while the vast majority of the modern game development community understands that IF is not commercially viable, there is a great respect and fondness for the heyday of Interactive Fiction titles. Sadly, most of the modern development community is unaware that these games are still being made, and that there exist tools such as TADS, Inform, and even Inform 7 (I imagine most C++ developers would be shocked at the capabilities of Inform 7, frankly).

Which brings me to some suggestions for how we can improve the length, quantity, and quality of IF games, as well as increase their visibility and improve our community.

First, I'm not sure another Comp is what we need. Instead, perhaps a better solution is the expand and raise the visibility of an existing annual award "show", such as the XYZZY Awards. Adding categories for Long Form IF, or Best Packaging/Best Feelies, or something-that-means-Professionalism-but-does-not-deride-other-entries, any of these may be a good idea. Just as films that are Oscar Nominated experience a resurgence in viewing before the actual ceremony, nominees for these awards will almost certainly get higer visibility and more plays than random releases throughout the year. And yes, if this is now how entries are currently handled, I think community nomination is the best way to go; I wouldn't worry much about ballot-stuffing just yet.

Next, we should strive to enhance visibility and cooperation among the IF Community websites. Crossposting the same information from XYZZY to the IFWiki to BrassLantern and even SPAG is a good way to innundate the community with much needed information. As a former manager once told me, "Information Is Blood", and no team or group can live without it. We should investigate RSS feeds so that people can be notified of new releases without having to seek it out. Even the LiveJournal groups for IF should get more traffic than they do now. We should also "polish up" the existing sites. I'm sure Eileen Mullen puts forth a Herculean effort to maintain the XYZZY site, and there's no doubt that the familiarity of the layout is extremely comfortable to the majority of existing IF players. However, I think we could attract a larger audience with a slightly more "appealing" layout, perhaps with some of the IF Cover Art gracing the home page, or more frequent updates. (Don't hate me, Eileen! I love the XYZZY!)

We should take another cue from the Entertainment Industry, and adjust our release dates. Everyone knows that movies come out on Fridays (well, Thursday at Midnight, unless it's a really big budget film released on a Holiday weekend, then it's Wednesday). Books, Music, and Video Games all come out on Tuesday. (All popular web comics follow a similar, rigid schedule.) A smattering of releases here and there in the IF community are likely to go unnoticed beneath the other traffic on RIIF if they are not timed regularly. We should select a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly schedule (although I personally would prefer more often if releases permit it), and stick to that for announcements. What if every other Tuesday we could all look forward to hearing about two or more new titles? Wouldn't that be exciting? Wouldn't the following Wednesdays be days that you would clear out so you could experience whatever new greatness there was? If the above coordinated community sites would enforce and promote this kind of schedule, I think we'd see more of a draw and a regular attendance.

Finally, I think we should attempt to partner or integrate our community and games with an existing game development community. Perhaps it's the IGF, or maybe we email the hell out of the Game Developers Conference and get a talk or two going there about the IF community and it's potential for cellphones, mobile devices, or attracting new audiences. One thing game developers yearn for but are loathe to admit is that they want to create games that are considered "art". I think there have been at least as many, if not more, genuine works of art in IF than in any other single genre in electronic gaming. If we can get some exposure and interest in IF, perhaps even by riding the resurgance in "classic" gaming, we can expand our user base and the number of authors creating IF. The Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) might be another possibility, as it has usurped E3 as the "Con To Attend" in the gaming industry, and I strongly suspect that Gabe and Tycho are both aware and (perhaps secretly) fond of IF and it's history.

These are my comments and suggestions. There is nothing that would please me more than to see a dozen or so Infocom-era length (and quality) games released every year, complete with available feelies and packaging. I'd love to see a real, live, attended-in-the-flesh by dozens (or even a hundred!) Awards Ceremony annually. I think there are more comments to be made regarding what it would fully take for this task to be achieved, but for now, I welcome your feedback.


-Paul J. Furio