Commercial IF

Thought I’d start a new thread for this seeing as it’s drifted away from Malinche and his games.

How important would RAIF’s approval of the whole thing be, though? They might be the biggest collection of IF fans in the world but, as someone (I think it was Jimmy Maher) pointed out, 95% of the world probably doesn’t even know that newsgroups exist.

If you were going to do a commercial game, you’d advertise it on RAIF of course, but your main audience wouldn’t be the people who browse an obscure newsgroup, it’d be from the more mainstream game sites. Submit a demo to some of them*, include a note about the full game being available from X site, mention a trivial fee of something like $5, and see who bites. At such a small amount, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that someone would decide to give it a try. Now you aren’t going to become an overnight millionaire from that sort of thing, but it’d be nice to make something.

  • I’m using ‘them’ because I don’t know offhand who ‘they’ are, but I’m sure ‘they’ exist.

Oh, I definitely think more sales would come from outside the community than from within it. But, without community support, the project is likely to be torpedoed at every turn. Look at what came of the simple notion that newsgroups might not be the best way to conduct IF discussions, now that using them correctly and to their full potential has become such an esoteric endeavor. I mean, the kinds of nonsense I saw as a result of that was nothing short of astounding. So much non sequitur rubbish over a single topic…

But let me start over. Without community support, any public exposure this hypothetical commercial IF might get would result in a backlash. Howard Sherman seems to deserve it. Kent Tessman and Peter Nepstad, for their respective games, are favored. We’d need to do it like they do: good games, community participation, and honesty. To some degree, I feel like the forum debate that was raging not long ago may have burned a few bridges already. I got a real feeling for just how petty people can be, when it comes to challenging their comfort zones. That makes it that much harder for any of us who are using forums to get the kind of support and acceptance we would need from the rest of the community. I guess what it boils down to is, don’t piss people off. :confused:

Even without community support, the lack of community ill-will would help.

I’d like to think that the more open-minded folk on RAIF would be all in favour of a commercial project as, hopefully, it would be a step towards the idea of an actual commercial base for IF. And the more open-minded folk probably would be in favour of it. Unfortunately, as the recent thread on there highlighted only too well, the open-minded ones are in a definite minority, and are far less vocal than the rest. I get the impression that some of them would openly criticise any commercial IF game, even if you charged an absolute pittance for it, even if you gave away your proceeds to charity, because that’s just the way they are.

But, saying that, I’m also sure there are enough people out there who would like the idea of commercial IF and would be willing to give it a try.

It’s just a case of finding out who those people are.

A commercial IF game wouldn’t even have to be the best thing around. I liked both “Future Boy!” and “1893” yet while there are better free games out there, people still bought the commercial ones. Find the right audience and they’ll buy something, even if something similar is available elsewhere. (Why do we buy books, after all, when they’re free of charge from the local library?)

The first thing to do, ideally, would be to make a demo version of the game (maybe 5% - 10% of the overall thing), test it to heaven and back to make sure it’s totally bug free and you’ve covered every possible sensible response someone might think to type. Make the demo long enough to give people a genuine feel for what the finished product would be like, end it at a cliffhanger moment… then worry about getting the final product done.

Maybe, but I’d be surprised if more than a half-dozen IF enthusiasts hold any hopes for a commercial comeback. That would take some serious resources. If established authors of static fiction partnered with skilled programmers (who were willing to use an IF authoring language) and co-wrote something, and if a publisher with the right know-how could put it in Barnes & Noble, Borders, Waldenbooks, Hastings, or wherever, with some PR and marketing to go along with it, maybe. I think those people could reach a market that would be very much receptive to buying interactive fiction. I believe the games would need to be more story-driven, and less puzzle-driven though, to really capture this market.

Yeah, I think so. Reaching them is the trick.

I think it’s that segment of the public where “frequent reading of fiction” and “frequent but general computer use” intersect. Even then, it would be just a fraction of those people. Still, I can’t help but think that if you put a great and accessible work of interactive fiction in professional packaging and sold it in a bookstore, it would do well. Market it not as a game, but as interactive fiction.

Well, I buy books because I collect (and often read). I have shelves full of sci-fi. In the case of commercial IF, though, the closer it is to “the best thing around”, the easier it would be to attract customers via favorable press and reviews, right? Besides, I wouldn’t want to charge if it wasn’t something unique and good.

Yeah, if the intent is to attract a publisher. I think, though, that publishers of novels wouldn’t have the first clue about (nor an interest in) publishing and distributing software, and software publishers wouldn’t be inclined to distributed a text-based game. If the intent is to get a grass roots type of customer base built up before the finished product is released, I’m not sure that’s a good idea either. If you show 10% while the other 90% is unfinished, that’s a world of time for people to completely lose interest in the finished product. I’d rather complete the product, test and polish, and then release a demo at the same time the full package is available. Maybe later, after there is an existing base of products, having “preview” versions might work out.

I don’t know if Barnes and Noble or an actual publisher is the way to go. Like I said in the thread I linked to in the Malinche discussion, I’ve always thought the way to sell IF would be through a website. People pay a few bucks via Paypal or whatever, and then download the game, and…you know what, I don’t really feel like retyping everything, so I’ll just be lazy and quote it here for anyone who didn’t read the thread. :slight_smile:

And later:

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I need to read those posts, I guess. :slight_smile:

A website and online distribution would be the most cost-effective, yes. It’s just so hard to be seen. There are what… millions and millions of websites out there, right? Thousands and thousands of home businesses with something “unique” to sell, if only the visiting masses will take notice. For IF to really be commercially viable, it needs an outlet. Bookstore distribution is something I think would work.

It’s also something that’s out of reach. People buy books even though (as David said) there are public libraries (and let’s not forget the free amateur stuff readily available online) for a reason. Professional authors, professional binding, professional presentation, and retail visibility. If commercial IF can really make a mark, I believe that’s how. I also find it very very unlikely that circumstances are ever going to see to that. I would imagine professional authors are comfortable and satisfied with static fiction, and I would imagine publishers have defined and refined their methods. Nobody’s going to take a chance on retail IF.

So, not being a professional author and having no “ins” in the publishing industry, a website and online distribution (possibly with mail-order options for “boxed” versions) would be the route I’d necessarily take. I doubt it meet with huge success, but I wouldn’t go into it with high expectations anyway. I think it would be something fun to do.

1 Like, or someone like them might be a good publisher to try. Even though they’re still a website, they’re pretty well established. (In particular you might want to check out Stormcloud’s game Coliseum; it’s not IF, but it’s text-based just the same and is selling for $20.)

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A balance between puzzle- and story-driven games might do the trick. From what I’ve been scouring off Sherman’s website (yes, yes, wrong thread :smiley:) and other sites related to adventures, most people tend to stick to their idea of what “interactive fiction” is - or was, which is more of a game than a story. Something that’s fun and accessible, not too punishing, though they’d still welcome a real challenge or two. What matters is, there’s something for everyone.

Having a slew of testers would also help in further polishing the game and making it ready for both veteran and newbie IF players.

Brian Moriarty’s thoughts on commercial IF is something to read about as well, though he did not elaborate much.

I guess I’m delving more on design here than the actual publishing, but I think that’s where it should all start.

One thing that I think may be needed for commerical IF would be much broader parsers.

It is a big shock to the system to be told things like “you can’t see any such thing” when an object is obviously there in the room with you, or for the parser not to understand unnecessary commands like “go to shelves” or “turn around”. These were the biggest problems for me when I was getting started. It takes quite a while to get used to the unspoken conventions of IF …

That’s more the sort of thing I had in mind. Now I don’t know the realities of setting up something like that, but I’m going to hazard a guess that it’ll be a lot easier than persuading the likes of Barnes & Noble to display your game in their store, particularly as you’d be asking them to display your game instead of something like a novel that is a guaranteed sale.

Also, if you go along the route of having the game in a high street store, you need an attractive cover for it, a little booklet explaining what it is, etc. Cost-wise, you’d be lucky to do something like that and make any kind of profit if you were selling your game for $5 or even $10. Make it available as a download, and you’d just need the game itself.

I guess that would be a necessity. While you’re never going to be able to cover every response people could come up with, with enough time and patience, and enough people to test the game for you, you’d come close.

One thing to note about making commercial IF cheap: as you lower the price point you’ll reach a point where people are less likely to purchase your games, because of the perceived cheapness.

I’ve read a few articles in computer magazines about that sort of thing with regard to open source software. People tend to be reluctant to use it because it’s free and the assumption is that something free can’t be as good as something you pay for.

But hopefully that won’t apply here. After all, the majority of IF is free and no one assumes that it’s of poor quality solely because it’s free. So maybe a price tag of $5 or $10 might even give the impression that the product is better than the free software.

Of course, Howard Sherman charges $19.95 for his games and no one thinks they’re any better because of the price tag, but I’d like to think that the average game writer is capable of producing better work than Howard Sherman.

There are probably two sides to it. The existing community, being happy with plenty of free IF, would see any charge as “more”. I think if the game was good, the author was respected, and perhaps if people just wanted to show support, they’d buy. On the other side, people unfamiliar with IF but attracted to the idea might see a low charge as “less” – less than some other forms of entertainment, anyway. This is probably where too low a price becomes a bad thing.

I wonder how cheap is too cheap? Maybe $5 for a single game would appeal to thrifty IF enthusiasts, but seem trivial and not worth the bother to everyone else. Would $10 be overpriced for the IF community, but just right for the rest of the (hypothetical) market?

I’m the kind of person who likes to get “something” when I purchase a game. I’d like it to come on CD/DVD, with a box and manual and all that. If I’m paying the same price for a download, I feel like I don’t really “own” anything. Most of my purchases are retail. I’ve been known to buy and download games to my Sprint phone, but even that feels a little awkward to me. I wish I had something tangible as a result.

I’m not saying a commercial IF project shouldn’t or can’t be strictly an online and download thing. I just wonder if that would cheapen it? After all, if you’re paying and downloading – not really “getting” anything – how is that better than just browsing BAF’s and downloading good stuff for free? Still, I can also see the impulse buyer wanting the game now – instant gratification and all that. I just wonder if more professional packaging may be the edge that would make a commercial game seem more worthwhile.

The problem with a printed manual and a CD (“feelies” if you will) is that they drive the cost up. I don’t know how much they cost to manufacture, but you wouldn’t have a lot of change left from $5 if you went down that route. You’d also have to put up a fair chunk of money before you even sell a single game - is that the kind of thing you want to do?

Given the choice between buying something physical and downloading it, I’d go with the physical thing. But given the choice between a $5 download that I can play now and a $10 CD that I need to wait to be posted to me, I think I’d probably go with the download.

Well, my own goal in such a project would be to just cover the expenses. I’ve ran an online games business for several years now, and while it has never been exceedingly profitable, it pays for itself and ends up being a pretty good tax write-off. I make my living at my day job, so I wouldn’t really be depending on sales of IF to add anything to that. It would just be something fun. It might launch something more profitable, but I wouldn’t be starting out with that expectation.

For commercial IF to be really successful beyond just a few meager sales, I really believe a retail outlet is the way to go. It would also need to be written by more professional authors. Barring those things, I’d be happy for a small-time, online effort. I just wouldn’t be real worried about the profit, personally. I’d probably pour it back into the business anyway.

I think the best thing would be to have it both ways: a physical copy that can be purchased and a download only copy (perhaps with an attached PDF manual and all the feelies that come as part of the physical copy). But while a download only copy would be a reasonably straightforward process, I’m not sure the other option would.

Getting professional CD printing done isn’t that hard (although, if I’m correct, it’s cheaper in bulk). It could even be semi-professional (I even have a CD printer that works with white-faced CDs). The bad thing about home-made CDs, though, is that they’re not supposed to last as long. The data is stored by tainting the magnetic ink on “writable” CDs (or something like that – somebody more in-the-know could probably explain how it really works), while “pressed” CDs have the data printed directly to the upper layer (if I’m not mistaken). Then there’s the production cost of the manual, any feelies, and the box itself (unless you don’t use a printed box for the package, which I wouldn’t be too concerned with if it’s strictly mail-order anyway).

You’re probably right. It wouldn’t be cost-effective for self-publishing. But, if all you wanted to do was break even, $10 or $15 would probably cover the media, the shipping, and any printed inserts.

Now, if we’re talking about a small-time outfit actually making a profit (even if a small profit ) on commercial IF, I guess the rules do change. But what would the “edge” be? What could be done to attract customers to paying for an IF download? Officially licensed/authorized IP might be a good idea, if such an agreement could be arranged. Something in collaboration with a well-known author of static fiction? I know none personally, and they probably won’t be attracted by a small-time offer. Good, appropriate, and original illustrations done by someone with actual artistic talent?

If it’s just us amateurs trying to do our best, we need an edge – because I don’t think my best is quite good enough yet.

Marketing is probably the key to it. If there’s one thing Howard Sherman’s good at (and it certainly isn’t writing interactive fiction), it’s promoting himself. Now that kind of thing, backed up with a decent game, would be admirable indeed. If someone did what Howard did, and they knew a thing or two about writing games, and they didn’t act like such an unpleasant individual over it, they might well succeed.

As far as the cash side of things is concerned, I’m not under any illusions that this would ever turn into a profitable cash cow which would allow me to quit my job and pursue my dream of writing IF for a living. Breaking even would be nice. But I think I’d be reluctant to invest money in it if that wasn’t guaranteed (and it wouldn’t be) - I don’t want to spend a lot of money to put commercial IF out there if it’s going to get me nothing back financially. I might as well just continued releasing free games and entering them in comps. The download-able only aspect would be easier than the physical aspect, and cheaper, and so would be the one I’d be more willing to try out… at least until such a time as at least breaking even was a distinct possibility.

Turning to the actual logistics side of things:

  • A demo would be a necessity as people would be reluctant to spend money (even a few dollars) on an IF game if they didn’t have at least some indication it was going to be good.

  • The full game would have to be large. And by large, I mean large in terms of the amount of time it takes to complete. The IFComp caters to 2 hour games and some of them are damn good (the best game I’ve played for years won the IFComp in 2004), but as the majority of them are short, people would feel that they hadn’t really got their money’s worth. I remember one of the criticisms levelled at, say, Doom 3 was that it could be finished in 15 hours, which wasn’t a lot of gameplay considering the price of it. An IF game, to be considered decent value for money at, say, $10 would need to last a good 10+ hours, and, preferably, have a lot of replay value.

  • The game would need to be deliberately easy to begin with, or contain a very, very good hints system, to ease newbies into it. One thing I disliked about both 1893 and Future Boy! was that neither were very easy to begin with. I imagine quite a few people played the demo of Future Boy!, got stuck, and didn’t buy the full game as a result.

  • Deciding on a system. For me that would be a simple choice. I only know Adrift and Quest, and I wouldn’t even consider writing a commercial game in Quest. Adrift’s parser often takes a pounding from the RAIF crowd but I’m not sure anyone outside of the immediate IF community would bother so much.

Adrift would be the easy choice for me, too, but for people who can actually program I think something like Glulxe has a lot of potential. It’s the best I’ve seen so far for making slightly ‘flashier’, more professional looking games. (City of Secrets, etc.)

Inform 7 might be able to do this too, but I haven’t played any major games with it yet so I’m just guessing.