Not sure if I’m breaking some sort of unspoken question quota here; let me know if I am.
It’s been a few years since your last IFComp submission (A Rope of Chalk) and your last EctoComp submissions (Castle Balderstone). Your last few games have been released outside of Comps altogether. Is this coincidental or does this represent an intentional shift away from releasing new material through IF competitions? Either way, have you noticed a difference in community engagement compared to Comp releases? (And, yes, I know that’s two questions, but they’re pretty intertwined.)
I don’t think there are any limitations on how many questions people can ask me. I HOPE not.
Very few of my games have been released through competitions. Right? Just the Balderstones, Taco Fiction, Verdeterre, Robin & Orchid, and Chalk. And The Horrible Pyramid! That’s nine games, but out of like forty. And Taco Fiction/Verdeterre/R&O/Pyramid were all in 2013 or before.
I was planning to enter another Castle Balderstone in EctoComp 2022, and I wrote most of really cool story called “Like a Sky Full of Locusts,” but I had a very busy summer and the project didn’t materialize. Hopefully I’ll manage to finish it for EctoComp 2023.
The reason I enter Balderstones in EctoComp is that it’s my Halloween tradition. I just want to do something Halloweeny, because I love Halloween! But if you look at it more practically, it’s a bad idea: Barely anyone looks at EctoComp, and the huge effort I’ve put into the last couple of Balderstone games (especially Even Some More, whoosh) is completely out of proportion to the amount of attention they got.
But most of the time I’m not very interested in entering competitions. My inspiration and motivation don’t really interlock with the competition schedule. A lot of my projects are (or I can construe them as) inappropriate for competitions, because they’re too small or too big or too high-concept. And entering a competition is supposed to get a lot of people to see your game, but the attention those people can spare for your entry is inversely proportional to the number of entries in the competition. A Rope of Chalk took me years to put together. It’s extremely clever and deep and good. The reader who carves out some time to play it in a leisurely, mindful manner will get a lot out of it. All the people who saw it during the competition saw it as an entry on a list of a hundred games they were supposed to give fair shakes to.
I don’t have a useful way of quantifying the community engagement I get from competition releases versus noncompetition releases. When people contact me to say they like my work, or they subscribe to my Patreon, it always seems to happen out of the blue. I guess it would be possible to analyze what little data I have, but I feel disinclined to do this. I believe it would be discouraging.
I guess in general I don’t find competitions very motivating, and I tend not to enter them unless I have some reason that appeals to my particular desires—and I further guess that the increased visibility a competition affords usually doesn’t qualify. I would like to add that I don’t have a strong grasp on the competition environment and so I don’t think anything I’ve said here should be interpreted as advice on how other people should handle their own projects.
Anyway, I hope you and everybody else will eagerly look forward to my IFComp 2023 entry, The Little Match Girl 4: Crown of Pearls.
I’ve noticed that the effort that goes into a game and even its overall quality doesn’t directly relate to its popularity or amount of comments on it. I’ve been replaying all the games on IFDB with 100 ratings or more for fun, and tons of the “big ones” (in terms of literal size) aren’t on there: Muldoon Legacy, Finding Martin, Cragne Manor, Worldsmith, 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery, Worlds Apart. And complex games like Endless Nameless aren’t on there either. Something Adam Cadre said reminds me of what you said:
I was recently startled to discover that I’d been given a shout-out on the blog of the London School of Economics by a researcher who’d studied the IF world. In the absence of a commercial market, he argued, IF writers produce work pretty much exclusively in order to create “cultural value.” This may be as good a descriptor as any for why writing Endless, Nameless now strikes me as probably a waste of time. Back in the day I might work for weeks or months on an IF piece, and maybe it would get a hundred downloads — but fifty of the people who downloaded it would post about it. And those fifty people had all gotten to know each other a little bit, if only through the newsgroups, and so those posts tended to lead to actual conversations about the work — and therein lay its cultural value. I could look at those conversations and feel like I had accomplished something. Endless, Nameless may have garnered exponentially more downloads immediately upon its release… but if only four of the people who downloaded it actually say anything about it, and if those posts don’t end up inspiring much discussion, that doesn’t give me a whole lot of motivation to do another one.
So at some point it feels to me like putting more and more energy and work into a game just gets released into the void. I think the individual players often enjoy it more, but I don’t think making a game 40x longer makes it get discussed 40x more even 4x more; and often it gets discussed even less.
Emily Short said this too:
Should I write parser IF? To which my answer would be almost always no. Let me inflect that a little, though.
If you want to write a game that you have a reasonable prospect to sell for money, you should not write parser IF. There is a commercial IF scene that makes money, but essentially none of it is parser-based.
If you want to write something quickly and easily, you should not write parser IF.
If you want to create something that will have a large built-in audience, you should not write parser IF. Likewise if you’re hoping to get a lot of feedback on your work. This is an area I’m sad about. When I came up, in the late 90’s/early 2000s, the parser IF critical community was still very active, and a game submitted to IF Comp could look forward to dozens of responses from people very experienced in the form. Now admittedly those responses could be extremely curt or harsh if a game was perceived as not-up-to-snuff, and the definition of IF was a lot narrower than now. But an ambitious and experimental game could get a lot of really thoughtful engagement, too. That is less true now.
If you want your parents to play what you build, you should not write parser IF. (My mom plays parser IF. She introduced me to it. But lots of people find it challenging to get into, even when created by loved ones.)
If you want something to put on your portfolio that will look snappy to potential employers, or that they will even know how to play, again, do not go to parser IF.
If you’re curious about natural language processing, parser IF is still not for you. What you can learn from parser interactive fiction is how to wield tools from the 1970s for a very particular craft purpose. That’s fine. I like old things. But what you learn here doesn’t always completely translate to the modern version of that domain. (It’s not totally useless either, as I’ve found — but if this is your goal, there are more direct ways to go.)
You should write parser IF only if you have goals outside those categories. Perhaps you are nostalgic for Infocom; perhaps you think parser is just so cool; perhaps you have a game concept that really fits parser and there’s just no better place to do it. Possibly you are tickled by a medium where you can spend half your time writing responses to commands like LICK PARROT. Maybe there’s something you aspire to learn about game design that you think parser IF could teach you.
Sorry for adding so much to an ‘ask ryan’ thread, especially since you already know this stuff, I just thought it might provide context for others.
Here’s my question for you: what was the main driving concept behind ‘little match girl’? Was it, ‘the juxtaposition of a sweet orphan girl and her gun-wielding death job’ or ‘visiting different dimensions through fire’ or something else that got you hooked on the idea?
I only knew the “little match girl” as a pathetic image, no narrative attached, before I saw this video in December 2019: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lzrFVUBpNkY&ab_channel=むにむに別館 I swear there were English subtitles on it at the time, and they described the story in such bizarre terms that I felt compelled to check out the original and find out how much had been lost in pop-up Lego translation.
When I saw exactly how bizarre the story really was, I felt compelled to write the first Little Match Girl game (and rush to finish it so I could send it to my Patreon people on New Year’s Eve). My whole idea was that in the original story, the little girl dies, that’s the point, but in this version she’s not going to die, and what happens to her instead is the main joke of the game.
“The Little Match Girl 2” is an inherently funny title for the same reason; she rightly ought not to be available for a sequel. And it seemed like it would be nice to give my Patreon people another exclusive game when New Year’s Eve rolled around again. It was intuitive to suppose that this second game would take place exactly one year later.
This reminded me of something either Jackson Publick or Doc Hammer said about The Venture Bros. (a series that has become a big influence on the Little Match Girl saga): We only see tiny half-hour snippets of these characters’ lives. We don’t witness even a tenth of all their adventures. If the little match girl realized this incredible time-travel power on December 31st, 1845, then by the same day in 1846, she would have seen and done A LOT OF INTERESTING STUFF. And I had been thinking about her through all of 2020, so she had developed quasi-realistically in my mind as well.
By the time I finished the second game, I had really become enamored of the character; her situation and her worldview reminded me of characters I admired from long-running epic stories that I wanted to emulate. And I had established a tradition of making Patreon exclusive games for New Year’s Eve. So I was basically obligated to make the Little Match Girl into a long-running epic story.
Nowadays I’m so jazzed about the series that I’m motivated to work on it even outside of a New Year’s Eve Tradition schedule, so that isn’t really part of the equation. What I’m most excited about is the opportunity to build these games into a story on the scale of Venture Bros. or Sandman or Adventure Time, something that will reward the invested player with some percentage of the joy I derive from putting it all together.
If you’re planning to pay attention to feedback, you need to start out with an understanding of what your work is trying to accomplish. Then, when reviews come in, you can evaluate that feedback according to whether the reviewer is evaluating the thing on the level or levels you give a care about.
As far as I’m concerned,
The extent to which an audience enjoys a work of art measures the success of the work as entertainment.
The extent to which an audience understands the message of a work of art measures the success of the work as communication.
The extent to which an audience is convinced to believe the message of a work of art measures the success of the work as propaganda.
The extent to which a work of art expresses whatever-the-artist-wanted-to-express measures the success of the work as art.
I really think this mission to do a thing with your ideas is the sole obligation of the artist-qua-artist, and you will notice that success in this mission doesn’t require any audience’s sign-off or even the existence of an audience. In that sense, all reviews are stupid and pointless. And if you approach them with this mindset, they can be a lot easier to deal with emotionally. Not everybody will understand what you’re doing (especially if you’re doing something interesting), and that’s fine; you can write off the people who don’t get it and get useful feedback from the people who do.
#2. Ryan Whines
In the American public school system as I experienced it, there was a lot of direction given on the correct way to evaluate fellow students’ work, and I get the impression that some people learned that giving feedback is about finding X nice things to say, Y critical things to say, making sure you say W but not Z, and putting it all in the right order to get an A on your Feedback Evaluation. I think this checklist-type approach tends to obfuscate or disregard the reviewer’s authentic reactions and opinions, and so I tend not to trust reviews that look like they were written from a received rubric. There’s also a limit to how seriously I can take reviews composed in a competition environment where people feel obligated to write feedback for dozens of games over a period of six weeks.
Even with all these coping mechanisms in my toolbox, I can get very anxious about reviews. I think it would be ideal, if you experience this type of anxiety, to have a trusted friend read a review first so that they can tell you whether you should read it. This method requires that you have access to a friend who understands you very intimately, though. Someone who’s a good enough friend to know and deal with exactly how emotionally vulnerable you are at any given moment, but not such a good friend that they tell you “Ryan, you don’t need me to vet your reviews for you, you’re an adult.” A tough needle to thread.
Hi Ryan, I’ve been listening to Clash of the Type Ins recently and enjoy it a lot. Are there any plans to make any more episodes? I noticed that the 10th anniversary for the first episode comes up next year. If you’re on the fence, what would persuade you to do more?
If anyone reading this hasn’t listened to any episodes, I do recommend them. I tend to try to play the games before I listen but actually the spoilers aren’t often a big deal as Ryan and Jenni don’t always solve that many of the puzzles and do like a chat in the meantime!
Hey, this kind of follows from the earlier question about entering games in competitions! When I release a game outside of a competition, there’s no deadline telling me when the game has to be done. I decide when to release it, and that means I have to make a call as to whether it’s good enough to be released. On that day, by my standards at that time, the game is finished—and in every single case, I know that this “finished,” “good enough” game must contain some problems or omissions or bugs, because of course it does. There will always be more bugs. That’s reason number one.
Reason number two is: Those problems, omissions, bugs, etc. are part of the work. The omissions speak to my priorities during the writing process. The bugs represent my level of skill at the time. All the elements of the work contribute to its meaning, even if they detract from its quality, and by fixing those problems I would be chipping away at the original Thing I Made, in a way that feels disrespectful or distrustful of the guy who made that thing.
Reason number three has to do with how much value you and I and the world get out of the time and effort it takes to update games. It’s hard to say. But I’m pretty sure we all get a lot more value out of time and effort spent on making fun new games. Take Reference and Representation, and imagine the timeline where I never made that game because I was busy updating other games. How many fixed bugs would be worth it?
On this last episode of Type-Ins I found a couple of continuity errors between that game and the larger Little Match Girl universe. I am a huge nerd about this continuity, and those errors rankle me mightily, even at this very moment. It wouldn’t take long to go in and fix them—but that way lies madness. I have cooler stuff I should be doing.
I don’t feel beholden to these principles when I’m updating a game for larger reasons. When I make a Little Match Girl game for my Patreoneers, I’m able to pretend that I’m writing for an invested audience who knows the series; when I get the same game ready for public release, I have to consider a wider audience, plus I have a chance to pretty it up and fix the music and the continuity errors. Visit Skuga Lake - Masterpiece Edition has some amendments and additions, but I didn’t put it together because the original game needed to be fixed—I put it together because the original Visit Skuga Lake was already a masterpiece and I just wanted more people to play it
I wanted to ask about your hosting experience with Ryan Veeder’s Authentic Fly Fishing.
Have you had concurrent players on your server? What was the peak number of people simultaneously playing your game? Did you have peaks in traffic, like over the lifetime of the game as well is in daily/weekly patterns of traffic? Alternatively, did you have dead periods?
I have a kernel of an idea in my head, but it depends on what these patterns look like for a parser game released in this space and your game looks to be the nearest analogous example I could find.
P.S. Will there be a third Quadrennial Ryan Veeder Exposition for Good Interactive Fiction announced sometime soon as the last event was announced in 2019?
I’m afraid the data I have access to aren’t very detailed. It’s basically just page views per day. Play in RVAFF doesn’t actually take place on the server, so I’m never able to tell if more than one person is playing at once.
The day the game was launched saw the most traffic at 120 page views. For a few weeks after that there was a range of 20-50 views per day, and then it was 5-20 views per day for a month or two. Since then it has been more like 0-2 views per day, with occasional bumps. I would say that the overall history of the game has consisted mostly of dead periods.
Here’s the surge in traffic that you can expect when your year-old game wins a XYZZY for best implementation:
Hey, didn’t I say in some other answer that I didn’t want to look at these data? Because it would be depressing???
(Of course, I can’t be too sad, because even in 2023 the game still gets a few hits per week, and it’s very nice to know that people are still thinking about it after so long. I have plenty of other old projects that get maybe ten hits per year oh good now I can be sad about those instead)
Anyway, I would say only in the first blush of popularity would it have been likely for two people to be playing RVAFF at exactly the same time, and even then it wasn’t something I’d rely on.
The wheels of the Third Quadrennial Exposition are in motion. They’re not moving as fast as I’d like. Probably it will become necessary to adjust the original schedule.