Comp Games Should Be Playable on the Web & Downloadable

I have a suggestion for a modification to the rules of next year’s competitions (especially IFComp, but also IntroComp, Spring Thing, maybe XYZZY 2013): for next year’s competitions, I think it’d be great to have a rule that submitted games must be both downloadable and playable on the web (using Parchment/Quixe or whatever web export system the authoring tools provide).

I think web access is important because IF competitions are (at least in part) intended to acquire new/casual IF players; downloading and installing an interpreter is a big hurdle for new players. Players whom I’ve tried to introduce to IF are getting seriously hung up on it, even just opening a game in an interpreter they’ve already installed. On the web, I can say “click here and start typing; here’s Zarf’s cheat sheet to help you figure out what to type.”

[edit Aug 12: I should clarify that the idea is to acquire newcomers when online gamer media like Rock Paper Shotgun feature good/winning IFComp games; newbies probably won’t enjoy playing random competition entries.]

I claim the hurdle is getting bigger over time, as both Mac and Windows are increasingly obscuring the filesystem from the end user. Finder/Explorer are becoming less and less essential as part of day-to-day computer use, as applications keep their own in-app repository of documents, like Google Docs and iTunes. All applications available via the Mac App Store must now be “sandboxed,” which restricts their access to the full filesystem. Windows 8 “Metro” apps get similar restrictions.

As a result, when explaining how to install and run an interpreter, I say things like “OK, now open your Downloads folder,” and people look at me quizzically.

Having said all of this, I also think downloadable games are important for archival purposes. Making games that are only playable on the web would probably interfere with that goal. (And I’ll admit that my own system, ChoiceScript, has been guilty of shipping web-only versions in the past.)

As it stands, we’re already pretty close to what I want. Inform, TADS, ADRIFT, Hugo, and Quest all have at least some web support. But a lot of games just don’t work at all on the web. Adding “web support” to the rules would make a big difference here; it would no longer be acceptable to say “oh, yeah, my game just doesn’t work in Parchment. Try it in Spatterlight; that’s what I use.”

What do you think?

I can see the value in the proposal, but I hate to think that making it mandatory would leave eg. Leadlight, hacked out of the Apple II’s Eamon a few years ago, out in the cold. (Or a less-acclaimed recent example, “R” made using Scott Adams’ Adventureland game data structure.) Though I suppose there are Java Apple II emulators (and C64 ones, for the ghost of Paul Panks.)

I don’t see that this onus needs to be on the game-makers so much as the game-system-authors. Already being machine-portable and web-playable is a strong advantage to a contest entrant (fewer spiteful “I can’t believe I had to boot into Windows to play this crap” lowball votes) but with the systems you name covering the lion’s share of current IF development, I don’t know if we gain much by formally forbidding eg. Alan, AGT, Quill etc. games from the compo. Already these cluster near the bottom of the final votes due to their technological obscurity (up until recently, with only a few exceptions browser-based IF suffered the same stigma), but I do like the idea of being at least allowed to submit one of those weird text adventures written in MS-DOS batch files if I so chose to.

I suppose the crux of the question is wondering which particular aspects – the technological underpinings or just the presentation – we choose as a community to achieve a rough consensus over being nostalgic about.

I’m not a comp guy myself, so I have no real dog in this race, but: comps tend to feature a (sometimes sizable) portion of very unpolished (poorly-written, poorly-designed, poorly-implemented) games at the low end, and until the comp is over, there’s no simple way for a newcomer to distinguish the “low end” from any other. A newcomer won’t recognize the names of reliable authors, for example. The idea that comps should keep outreach in mind, at any level, strikes me as foolish. If anything, every comp’s homepage should bear a handy “if you’re new, click HERE instead” link, leading them to a small set of well-polished games that have proven to be newbie-friendly. And sure, having those be web-playable would be a bonus …

I do think it makes sense to consider the “newcomer wanders into the comp” scenario … but as a damage-control situation, not something to invite. For a new/casual/potential player, a comp isn’t a gold-mine, it’s a minefield.

I agree with UnwashedMass. Another test case is The Blind House, which wouldn’t run in a browser because Quixe (at the time?) didn’t support graphics. I don’t want to ban games like that because the available online interpreters lack some features. (Also, as of last year, any game that included Smarter Parser ran like poo in the browser interpreters, although I think Aaron has done some optimization.)

As far as “newcomer wanders into the comp,” the ideal scenario is probably something closer to a game jam than an outreach showcase. No one expects any random game in a Ludum Dare to not suck as a playing experience. (Or to be playable on anything but Windows, but that’s another story.) I don’t usually pay attention to one of those unless someone posts “Here are some cool games from the jam,” and hopefully that’s how newbies get introduced to an IFcomp.

Sending newbies to a list of comp games alphabetical by title, yeah, that’s probably bad.

Hugo doesn’t have web support (for now.) Also, people are writing games that don’t run in interpreters, but are native executables. Obviously you can’t make those playable online.

Is webHugo not a thing? I thought it was, but upon further glances, it looks like it’s still in progress.

I don’t think that’s acceptable; that poses a real risk for archivability. If the executables are Windows-specific, there will come a time when it’s difficult to get them to play. Lots of Windows 95 games basically don’t work on Windows 7, and won’t run at all on Windows 8 RT.

Today, the requirements are to allow anything playable into the competition, but I think we should hold ourselves to a higher standard than that.

I agree that newcomers shouldn’t start playing random games from the comp, but they should be able to play the winning games. The IFComp winners regularly get press in online gamer media; it sucks when people say they can’t play the winning game, not because they can’t figure out the interface, but because they literally can’t start the game.

(I suppose you could have a rule that you’re allowed to submit games that aren’t web-playable, but they aren’t allowed to win, but even to say that rule aloud is to recognize that it’s very silly.)

I don’t think people will need to judge competition games 10 years after the voting deadline has expired [emote]:D[/emote] Also, games are generally platform-specific executables. It’s just that IF tends to deviate from that.

I think we should let the voters decide on what’s an acceptable entry, by voting on the entries.

Even though I’m relatively young and I’m not a technical guru, this makes me sad. Windows 8 will be the Apocalypse of real home-computing. [emote]:([/emote]

From an objective standpoint, IF probably has too many platforms. All these little platforms that only a handful of people in the world are vaguely interested in. Not all of them are on the web, and at any rate, it’s inconvenient to support all of them. However, I would hate to see any system disqualified from the Comp, especially since the Comp is so widely inclusive in just about all other matters. These little systems all have their uniquenesses. I use Hugo, and I like ALAN and JACL. JACL was making strides toward supporting multi-user serves before TADS 3.1 got there, I believe. I don’t want these systems to be condemned to death by being disallowed from the Comp.

At which point it’s a post-comp issue. If you want a winning game to be web-playable, and it isn’t currently, make a nice request to the author. If you think a lack of web-playability makes an entry less worthy, vote accordingly.

Exactly so.

Google’s Native Client for Chrome is a way to run native code in a browser sandbox. It’s browser-specific but I believe it’s OS-agnostic. However, you need to use their compiler, so you need source code to the whole game, and you need to use their APIs instead of system calls.

You want to talk about archivability, let’s talk web games like Sun and Moon 8)

I think we’re at an interesting crossroads where people are thinking about IF more and approaching it with the tools they have and the tools they know, resulting in more eg. visual novel type submissions and consequently more curious and intriguing IF hybrids with other genres (such as, ahem, multiple-choice games 8) I’d hate to see us disqualifying entries made in AGS and Ren’Py because they weren’t web-playable. (Would you kick Digital: A Love Story out of bed?)

I think the comp is in part one of the best ways for the less popular systems to advertise. If Quest, Adrift, Hugo or JACL put a winning game in the comp they would attract a lot more attention than they usually get. While it would be good for all systems to be web playable, I wouldn’t want to forbid any from the comp.

But sadly it’s rare for good games to not have been written in Inform or TADS.

I think that if we’d wanted this kind of standard, we’d have had one before web-playable IF was even an issue, and required that all games be playable in Windows, Mac and Unix – that would shut out Quest and Adrift, which have never really given a damn about non-Windows platforms, and (depending on the state of interpreters, and at various times) sometimes Hugo as well. (We could also, if we wanted to get super-picky, require that browser-based games work in all browsers, downloaded or not. Do downloaded ChoiceScript games still have that issue with Chrome? And there’s always going to be That Guy who’ll be pissy about anything that won’t run on his Kindle, and so on.)

Also, I think that the download requirement would shut out Varytale, no? And the web requirement would do for Hadean Lands (though that’d only be relevant for XYZZY purposes.)

The philosophy of the Comp and similar institutions has (at least, since the days when there were only Inform and TADS categories) been big-tent. Which is why we allow in things that aren’t parser-based, for example. I think that’s healthy, even if it’s sometimes bloody inconvenient.

I should probably add to the chorus of voices emphasizing that none of the existing comps/awards has outreach as its primary purpose, and this is unlikely to change. If we want an outreach-centric institution, it needs to be built from the ground up, rather than trying to repurpose existing things that are oriented towards different purposes (and, not incidentally, have reputations based on that).

I’m opposed to shutting out any game based on webability. First, because it would have eliminated both of my comp entries to date (Leadlight and Six). I could have put up a web only version of Six last year, but I chose not to because it would have meant sacrificing the graphics and sounds and would have created different experiences for people playing online and offline.

I would also strongly advise any 2012 IF entrants reading this that if they are going to make their game available online by ticking a checkbox on the IFComp entry site, to make sure they test it out in that format prior to the competition if that is at all possible (obviously not relevant for web-only formats). If you tick the box and don’t test it online first, you could be really annoyed initially when your months of work doesn’t come out online the way you experienced it in testing. Another factor in me not putting Six online in the 2011 comp was my experience of watching many people in the 2010 comp suddenly lose control of aspects of presentation, find their games subject to web only bugs or for there to be confusion over the existence of materials related to their game, when their game appeared in an online version.

Back on topic, a lot of the technically cool advances in areas like glulx are not web-possible yet. Until a day when all powers of all systems are very web-possible and friendly, I don’t think anyone can contemplate a web-only rule just on technical grounds - on top of other reasons people have mentioned. To do would deprive authors of huge areas of design and aesthetic possibilities, which you certainly can’t do for the big annual IF event.

(I think everyone can relate to the general frustrations of interpreters in general. If you adopt a glass half empty view for a moment, there’s sorta one thing wrong with everything. Zoom has no sound. Gargoyle has no preferences GUI. The Adrift webrunner’s presentation gave me a headache last year to the extent I didn’t feel I could play the Adrift 5 games (as there is no Mac interpreter for the latest Adrift.) Quest is way cool, but again, no Mac version. Quixe has no graphics or sound. Etc.)

Since nobody seems to like the idea, I’ll give up for now.

Though, if my hunches are right, I’ll probably bring this up again in a few years, when Windows/Mac are even further locked down, and web interpreters are fancier and less buggy. Perhaps by then, the point will be obvious; making a game that isn’t playable on the web will be like shipping a game that only works on Apple II.

For now, I’ll say this: it’s surprisingly hard (perhaps harder than you think) to install an interpreter on the latest versions of Windows and Mac, and this problem is going to get worse over time, not better. By default, OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion blocks all currently released IF interpreters from installing (it’s a two-second workaround, but it’s a hidden workaround) and Windows 8 RT allows only Metro apps. Someday, perhaps sooner than you think, the web will be most players’ only option.

As terrible as Metro is, a Metro app still runs on the client, and an existing interpreter can surely be wrapped. Microsoft still wants to run Office on those devices.

We can only hope that if that dark day ever comes, something better will have come along to replace JavaScript.

Sorry to anyone who doesn’t get the reference, but this dystopian vision reminds me strongly of Ripburger’s plan to turn Corley Motors into a minivan company. It would be a betrayal of the vision of personal computing to turn them into glorified iPads.

The day that happens is the day I stop playing IF games.