Future of Text Games (and impact on game design)

I’m curious what people see the future of text games as being. I’ve played around in the AGI and SCI space (and a little in AGS) so I can see why people do those even as a hobby, because the graphics aspects can be scaled up as you learn more about game programming. So there’s a steady progression from AGI, SCI, AGS to maybe something like Panda3D or OGRE or whatever. What you’ve learned in the old, outdated systems definitely translates well to the newer systems that produce output people will actually play.

But what about text games?

I’ve seen it mentioned numerous times that the casual gaming crowd seems to be one of the major (if not only) areas that text games have any chance for traction within. Checking Wikipedia I see that casual games are “typically distinguished by their simple rules and lack of commitment required.” So is that what text games essentially are now? Something simple and with a lack of committment necessary? I remember the old Infocom games (and the Magnetic Scrolls and Legend games) and those certainly weren’t simple in the sense that I think casual gaming refers to and they certainly required committment. I’ve seen other people, particularly in regard to Inform 7, say that now writers (who aren’t programmers) can make stories and these are often contrasted with “static fiction.” (Although text in a text game is also static; it’s just a different form of reveal. But never mind.) So that would imply at least the level of committment that an audience would give to a book that they were willing to read. Again, not necessarily fitting the “casual” aspect. I think the definition of “casual reader” is a bit different in focus than “casual gamer” so I wouldn’t be too quick to bring the two together necessarily.

So as I started to think on all this, I realized “Wow, text games have just about no future if the only community supporting them is going for the casual gaming focus.” But then I thought, “Maybe I should see if that’s true.” So who do you write your text games for? Are they just for the people familiar with Infocom/Magnetic Scrolls/Legend? Are they for people new to text games? Are they for purely casual gamers? Are they for some combination of all of the above?

If the last question is answered “yes”, that must have some impact on how text games are designed and that seems like a fruitful area of discussion, but I really don’t see a lot of that discussion going on as I’ve trawled this particular forum. In fact, I see almost nothing about reaching audiences except for discussions about catering to “newbies” but those all seem to circle the same particular drain after awhile; namely, a refocusing of certain techniques rather than discussions of rethinking the design and presentation of text games.

I also checked out the Casual Gaming section of Steam – something I hadn’t done up to this point – and tried to imagine the entries there interspersed with some text games. It was hard to imagine enough people flocking to that to make it worthwhile. Unless there was some real compelling value-add over the existing casual games. But I don’t know what that value add would be. More involved story? But these are “casual gamers” who often don’t want in depth story and don’t even want to rely on saving a game necessarily. Smarter parser? But how “smart” does it have to be if the game is going to be relatively short and constrained to fit within a casual gaming mindset? Better graphics? But it’s a text game and there are already games with graphics if people want that. Better interface? Yeah, but for what: the text, graphics, and smarter parser? We already said those might not cut it.

Curious what people think. Do you think there’s a future for this? Does it even matter to you? What motivates you to create text games? What drives your design decisions?

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Echo Bazaar.

In act, a lot of virtual ink has been spilled on that topic in the past year or two. Check out Emily Short’s blog, search for “IF outreach” – there’s been a lot of discussion. (Not necessarily on this forum, which tends to be more about specific programming and game design questions.)

Like you, I am sceptical about the idea that IF is a medium especially suited to casual gamers. In fact, I find IF to be the opposite of casual: each play session in challenging and unique, and thus quite the opposite of, oh, playing your twentieth Bejeweled clone. However, some of the outreach towards causal gamers seems to works. I believe that the Casual Gameplay Design Competition #7 organised by jayisgames was quite a success.

But it’s certainly not the case that everyone is trying to seduce casual gamers. Textfire markets its games as educational tools for middle school children. I myself have recently published a piece about experimental IF in a Flemish literary journal. There is no consensus about the future of IF; nor do I think it would be useful to have such a consensus. We’re not here to set up a focused marketing campaign, but to make whatever games we want to make. That will necessarily be a very diverse bunch, from casual to educational, from literary experiments to RPG-like games, from old-school adventures to interactive journalism.

I guess that the only true answer I can give to your question “So who do you write your text games for?” is the most clichéd of all: myself. But as to who would enjoy them: The Baron can be anjoyed by anyone who wishes to explore serious themes in an interactive medium; Fate by people interested in moral choice and adventure puzzles; Figaro, 'Mid the Sagebrush and the Cactus and Jason and Medea mostly by IF authors or other game designers interested in exploring new ideas about player choice, combat and/or conversation; The Art of Fugue by people who like logic puzzles; and the game I’m currently working on by anyone who enjoys roguelikes and tactical combat. I write for as many audiences as I belong to. :slight_smile:

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How do you even play that? I went to the website and could find no link that led to the actual game.

You have to login to play; you login with either Twitter or Facebook.

I confess that I’m not entirely sure what the difference between casual gaming and non-casual gaming is, and I don’t think other people do, either. I see games on casual game sites that take hours, days, weeks to complete. I see games that require sophisticated use of tactics and management of resources. I see games that require punishing amounts of hand-eye coordination. So the games don’t seem to be necessarily casual in length or brain power or raw skill. Maybe they’re games that can be picked up/put down at any time, but that’s not too far off from many serious commercial releases, so . . . I don’t know.

Single works can revitalize entire genres and ways of making games; I suspect it’s only a matter of time before we get a fad that happens to be IF and we see a sudden explosion of interest (probably short-lived, but still). But in general, I see the future of IF being somewhat similar to what it is now, perhaps with gentle upswings in audience and writers as fads are born, and not-so-gentle downswings as the baby boomers pass on. What will be interesting is whether it will last much beyond the lifetime of those of us who grew up playing Zork. But guessing that far ahead in technical fields is almost totally worthless; we just have no way to predict that far ahead. (For example, if I had quick, easy to use, easy to program tools for making a pretty 2D (or possibly 3D) game on my own that did the stuff I wanted, I probably would have gone that route.)

Programming stuff you learn in IF can be carried over into graphical systems, too; maybe not directly, but I’ve learned a ton from my work in Inform, and a lot of it is general good practice. There’s still plenty I’d have to learn if I went to another language, but I’d be a stronger programmer. Too, I’ve learned some things about what I value as a designer, programmer, author, and player that would carry well outside IF. But that’s not a main goal, unless I decide to make a game that requires moving outside IF.

(The rest of this comment is totally skippable, self-centered musing about Me and My Game.)

I don’t particularly expect my game to be a mega-smash hit. In fact, I suspect that there may be an audience of one. I have a game that I really want to play, and I waited a long time for someone else to make it, and no one did, or looked like they were going to, so . . . I guess it’s up to me. I am taking some pains to make it accessible in the ways that I know how, and I hope other people will enjoy it, but it’s mostly for me. Other people that might enjoy it? People who like games like Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing - games where there’s a fair amount of slogging, but with payoff in the sense of narrative expansion. People who enjoy working out systems of things - there’s a lot of tiny internal rules in the game, and some people really like poking complex systems and seeing what happens. People who have fantasies about self-sufficiency - smallholders or homesteaders (cough Americans cough). Geneticists. People who like open worlds and sandbox play, and like reassurance that the game is not going to kick them out after a certain period of time. These are some of the groups I’ll probably target on release, probably with targeted appeals.

But that’s just the game I’m working on now. My other ideas would have other audiences, because they’re different, and I think that’s true of most works of IF. The Venn diagram of the audience for Treasures of a Slavers Kingdom, Aisle, and Earl Gray are going to look pretty different - probably as different as any three books. I think specific, because the work itself is specific. I don’t spend much time thinking much about the future of IF, to be honest. I hope people write more of it, but in the same way I want people to write more books, make more movies, create more games, paint more paintings.

I’m not sure how I’m going to reach people I think might be interested; self-promotion is not something I’m particularly good at, but I don’t necessarily think it’s just a genre issue. Trying to get any game/movie/book beyond the inner circle is tough; it’s why there are marketing teams. If you are your own marketing team, things are tougher. I’ll probably look into social networks and forums; try to get reviewed by as many people as possible; put gameplay excerpts online; pimp to various other communities that I have a presence in, including people who have already put out effort to understand various other games that require dedication to “get”. (If you’re willing to learn Minecraft, learning IF conventions should be a piece of cake.)

I’m not going to lie - I would like to know that at least one other person loves my game. And my design decisions boil down to making it possible for the other person to discover they love the game, while making the game I want to play when I’m finished. I think the best decisions I make are those that are based on a concrete plan for how this will improve the game and/or the player’s experience of the game. I can tell you very clearly why each of the difficulty settings is a setting and not a default, and do so in terms of play style and things I’ve experienced or other people have experienced and described in detail. Trying to keep the game accessible for blind gamers, trying to reduce the number of parser errors, trying to keep disambiguation issues to a bare minimum - these are things that I hope will improve accessibility. I added graphics because it made my game experience better. You can turn them off if you disagree, but I wanted to encourage player-character identification, and cut down on some of the sillier commands the player was forced to type to find out information the character would just know. It’s not about better graphics - it’s about information/immersion. (Oh, okay, yes, it’s also for curb appeal.)

I think it’s absolutely possible that there are design elements that would help my game appeal to casual gamers, assuming I had any idea what defined the group. Since I don’t, I guess I’ll just have to muddle along without.

In the future, I will write more text games (even some serious ones). Others will, too. My target audience is my existing commercial fanbase.

Cool. So why text-based games rather than other types? Is that your preference? Or the preference of your fanbase? (That may seem obvious, but some people choose a format based on where they think they can get traction rather than necessarily the one they want to write in. This happens a lot in the modding community where people’s aspirations take a backseat to a certain reality of skill.) Also, if your fanbase wasn’t commercial, would that matter to you? Would you still want to produce games for them?

The attraction of text games for me is simple: I’m a writer. My ability to produce attractive graphics is close to nil. I enjoy the programming challenges, and I enjoy crafting a scenario that I feel can work in an interactive form.

If I were concerned with attracting a fan base, I’d be doing something entirely different.

I think so too :slight_smile:

Well, there is no “rather than,” really, since text-games are already a secondary medium for me, and I do tie-ins in other media as well. As for why text-adventures at all: I enjoy them more than most things, so it follows that I do them more than most things, in proportion, and in proportion to what I’m able to do.

I make things that I love passionately (pen-and-paper RPG material, and then tie-in material because I’m restless and enjoy tangents). That created (and grows) the fanbase; not the other way around. All of my large text-adventure projects are tie-ins to my existing RPG material in some way.

It would matter in practical terms, inevitably. In personal terms … I guess I’d wonder why they left and worry that I’d gone all “Steve Jackson” or “George Lucas” on them. Fortunately, I haven’t had to face that question yet. :slight_smile:

Well, I write games because it’s what I love more than anything apart from sex and food. I’ll always write games. If they stop selling, the process would change a bit, probably … I’d probably stop spending so much time fussing over things like the typography or the index, since those are about keeping things clear and accessible to the reader and aren’t nearly as critical to my own enjoyment of what I make. I’m meticulous with my work but I’m also lazy and a sensualist, so there’d be more sex and food, less indexing, at least to the extent that I could afford to support that lifestyle :slight_smile: I guess it would take me back to where I was when I was mainly freelancing: I’d be more purely a writer again, and less of a publisher. Plus, you know, whatever job I’d end up taking to pay my share of the rent :slight_smile:

But it is amazingly useful to have the fans, not just as a source of encouragement and support (honestly, they knock me the fuck out with some of the stuff they do to share the love) but also as the aforementioned target for the tie-in efforts … because otherwise I’d suffer from a kid-in-a-candy-store syndrome. There are hundreds of text adventures I’d love to write, and I don’t have the time or free resources to write hundreds, so I have to choose. Having the arbitrary compass of an existing audience makes the choices easier, which is pretty valuable. Without them there, I’d probably have three-dozen WIPs, none of which ever get complete :slight_smile: With them there, I have four WIPs that I’m going too slowly on, which isn’t perfect but it’s better

Yes, exactly so. If the idea were to attract a fan base, that’d be another story entirely.

I do love text-adventures, but I don’t love them enough to devote that kind of center-of-life, center-of-career focus to them.

For that, there’s only paper-and-pencil RPGs for me (and for you, presumably prose fiction or music or whatever your primary focus is).

Re: talk of outreach.

I would say the first step of reaching out beyond the IF community is simply placing your games before people in non-IF community gaming venues, so they have a chance to look at them and/or play them. This is the thing I don’t see happening around here.

I entered Leadlight in IFComp 2010. As far as I can see, I was the only entrant to put out a press release for their game to gaming media. The release showed up all around the place and led to the game being reviewed at gamasutra, and other articles appearing.

I don’t mean to disparage the other entrants, as each person’s goal for their game is their own. My point is actually about what the response from ‘the outside world’ was to a piece of IF.

Since I started hanging in this community post IFComp I have read lots of blogs and posts fretting about the state of the parser and the fear of turning bewildered newbies off I, but I put an 8-bit IF with limited parser and requiring an emulator in front of general gaming media, and it received coverage, favourable response and no complaints about how intolerable modern players might find it (the latter being a primary focus of some IF community reviews).

This might read as vindication or something, and it’s a sample space of 1, but what I’m trying to say is - if a neutral modern gaming media responded this okay-ly to Leadlight, might not much of the fretting about IF itself be misplaced?

I think at this point, new people aren’t playing IF because nobody is even putting new IF in front of them. I would encourage anyone who releases an IF game that they believe has the quality to withstand (or bask!) in general coverage to seek that coverage. You may be pleasantly surprised at the response from outside the bubble, and I think putting text games out and about is a more fundamental step than any other for widening the audience base, for those who want that.

If this isn’t part of whatever the “IF outreach” project is – assuming it’s a project of some sort – then it’s probably not doing it’s job well. I agree that if nobody is putting IF in front of people, it won’t get played. Then again, nobody put it in front of me. I just happened to stumble upon it via other gaming venues I frequent. As did many of my friends. However, of those, I’m the only one that has tried to figure out if text games are still viable or worthwhile as an effort, even if only a hobbyist effort for gamers. So I’d be curious if people are getting IF “put in front of them” – or coming to it on their own – but simply not playing because they don’t like it.

It’s interesting because I’ve heard similar things about text games from non-IF gamers but far from talking about the state of the parser, the conversation is often about the inclusion of the parser itself. From what I can gather, it seems many people would prefer the parser to be far more constrained and/or relegated to the background than it currently is. Typing out strings of commands is not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, particularly when in most other media they simply don’t have to do that. It’s a matter of not seeing the value-add. I don’t know if that turns off “newbies” necessarily, but I can say that it does seem to turn off many gamers.

I think I would agree. And widening the audience base would always seem to be a good goal. Not too many people want to work in something where the audience base is static or, worse, shrinking. Not only does that seem like an incredible waste of time when there are other options, but a changing and increasing audience base keeps authors on their toes and keeps innovation high. One thing I think Inform 7 did is bring people in who may not have ever considered authoring text games. (Whether it brings in more people to play text games is harder to say since the output of an Inform 6 game seems to be largely the same as an Inform 7 game.) Whether there is any effort to capitalize on this is what’s hard for me to see. If you want more interested gamers who enjoy text games, you also have to keep up the pace on bringing in people interested in authoring them.

What does this mean, exactly? Obviously there are still people who enjoy playing and writing them, so in what way might they not be viable/worthwhile?

To game makers, “viable” usually doesn’t just mean there’s lots of people playing around with it. Or even a lot of people writing it. It means there’s a critical enough and receptive enough audience to help us further our skills as game developers by providing an appropriate level of critique, analysis and code sharing. For game makers, even our hobby tends to be one we use for a lot of learning. We also tend to spend our time on things that at least ostensibly have something of a future so that audience of authors and players continue to increase, not just in number but in terms of the input and sharing of resources.

To someone who has already invested the time and/or effort, the question of “am I wasting my time” has probably already been answered or was never a concern. To others, that’s not the case.

That’s probably all that we need to do in order to keep IF alive, and I don’t think there’s much more we can do to try to make it thrive. Obviously, we write and play IF because we see value in IF, and despite the small size of the IF community, it’s not so small as to suggest that the value we see in IF is irrelevant to the culture at large. I think IF will never die out completely as long as it is known among the general public, because there are at least enough people in the general public who could potentially see value in IF to keep the form going. Those of us – myself included – who were either not born or else did not know about IF during the commercial period have either learned about IF through the media (probably the Internet) or by word of mouth, so obviously knowledge of IF is still “out there” somewhat.

But is word about IF widespread enough? If we can keep IF visible to the public, we can maximize the potential of the IF community by allowing the greatest number of people who may be interested to come and experience IF for themselves. I don’t think there is anything else we can do to encourage people to like text games, since the form is admittedly pretty narrow in focus (only for people who like literature or at least don’t mind reading, and are in to gaming or at least don’t mind the odd “puzzle”, and own and know how to use either a computer or a compatible portable device). IF may never be widely popular, but I’m sure that there are enough people who fit the bill for IF to keep the form alive and well.

Would you mind telling us how to do that?

A good idea. What I’ll do is write about what I learned, and put it in a new topic as something of a how to.

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