Getting stinking rich by designing IF

I’ll never understand people who try to make commercial IF. A few years ago I raised my eyebrows at Robb Sherwin attempting this with Cryptozookeeper. Robb Sherwin makes (at least from looking at the dedication and pictures) thorough IF - perhaps the closest you can get to a commercial IF. …but I still think he must be mad. Anyone attempting this is like someone who buys a pick and travels to the american frontier to look for gold in random hills. Yes, these last years IF has made a comeback somehow (probably thanks to Inform 7) and people can get rich from indie games now (probably thanks to Steam), but there’s three problems:

  1. It’s been done. …a hundred times over. There are lots and lots of IFs, and people has to really explore innovative variants to keep things fresh.
  2. IF expects people to be able to spell. Back in IFs golden age, people who handled computers were nerds, and nerds have two qualities: They devote themselves to their games, and they are intelligent enough to spell.
  3. Unity exists. Instead of text, you can fairly easily make colorful landscapes instead, that looks pretty and alluring in screenshots. The gamers of todays like colors and pictures. They like to collect shiny orbs that go “Ping!” and increase a counter, and this can drive them mad with addiction. Few people are addicted to spelling.

…but today I heard of somebody who created IFs who wanted donations to be able to create IFs, and he apparently met his donation goal. He’s apparently making a successful living on this. …which means that I must be the crazy one.

The long tail is definitely making it more feasible to make incidental money with indie games. I don’t think I’ve seen a case where somebody actually got rich off of IF – the only indie games that ever made anybody rich were not IF. I dunno that anybody’s ever even made a living off of monetizing IF, though I haven’t researched that.

One model of monetization that has been gaining momentum is Patreon, a system where you pledge to make a small donation to an artist you like whenever they make something new. They promise particular creations when they reach a minimum amount of pledges per work. It’s really interesting, and far lower-commitment in some ways than Kickstarter. Also, in encourages continuous work rather than blowing it all in one go.

Some people have successfully made incidental money or supplemental income from IF, including our own jmac (who can tell his own story). Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest is also gaining momentum and recognition, I suspect in part because of its unusual content and in part because of its clever and stand-out use of audio and photographs to augment its text content.

I want to take a moment to discourage you from some of the assumptions you make about ‘gamers’ in your list. If anything has changed about ‘gamers’ it’s that it’s a far broader set of people than it has ever been, and different sections of that set have different preferences. The secret is figuring out who your audience is and how to get their attention.

(Also, not all IF ‘expects you to spell’ – only traditional zork-style parser. Also also, spelling is not the same as intelligence.)

In the many meetings I’ve had with advisers and investors, the one thing we all agreed on is that there is a large section of the population that doesn’t play video games and never will, reads a lot of books, plays a lot of reading/word based games, and loves thinking puzzle games.

It’s very difficult to reach these people because they tend not to coalesce in any real way on the Internet. The Kindle was one potential way to reach them, but a complete failure on Amazon’s part to market IF well on the Kindle doomed that avenue. Well, and the Kindle is a major pain in the ass to work with from a developer perspective. The keyboard sucked, the underlying SDK was needlessly crippled, and I’ll repeat, Amazon was simply deaf to anyone that wanted to do good things. It’s a miracle Jimmy Maher accomplished what he did getting Shreds and Textfyre’s Shadow published on that thing.

I think tablets have potential, but the real solution is if someone were to literally win the lottery and just drop a few million dollars on marketing great IF to a large audience or if some lucky publisher retained the rights to something like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones and published strong IF content.

In the mean time, some of us crazy folk just keep plugging away at solving the “commercial IF problem”.

The Windows 8 App of Shadow is about done with a touch-only (no keyboard) interface. It’s an attempt to solve the learning curve issues. The recent posting of an iOS app with the touch interface also has potential.

I think as a whole we are all The Greater Fool. But sometimes the Greater Fool wins.

David C.

(also, technically visual novels like Long Live the Queen are IF, and sell decently on mobile devices. Also check out ‘The Nightjar’, an audio IF game narrated by Bandersnatch Cummerbund for sale on the Google Play store.)

I believe Inkle have been very encouraging to authors who would like to try publishing on the Kindle store.

The company Malinche sells traditional Infocom-style IF. I haven’t purchased any myself but the author has praise from Meretzky on the site.

EDIT: The site appears to have vanished. Shame.

There’s definitely commercially successful IF out there. Three that promptly come to mind:

  1. Fallen London has been paying the salaries of 3-7 people for years now.
  2. Choice of Games.
  3. Dejobaan Games’s “Monster Loves You” is IF. It has a graphics-heavy UI and a bunch of stills, but it’s a text based game.
  1. Inkle.
  2. Christine Love.

I’m not convinced that there’s any “hard problem” to be solved with commercial IF. It’s hard but straightforward work to make a living on choice-based IF. It may be harder to sell parser-based IF, but even that isn’t very obvious, because so few people have ever tried to sell parser-based IF.

IFDB lists only 139 games with the “commercial” tag, and that includes all the Infocom and Scott Adams games. A lot of those games aren’t even available for sale any more, or are also available for free (like Cryptozookeeper). And of those games available for sale, how many are available on platforms that are known to pay a living wage to indie developers, like iOS and Steam?

Quick, can you think of even five non-free parser-based IF games available for sale today?

The Inheritance and Return To Pirate’s Island 2 and Cypher. Also probably 1893 and Future boy, but those aren’t recent.

Draconis, re Malinche… that guy is totally bogus, and that’s the best word to describe him. His games are shoddy, his ego was over-inflated, and his hype is misleading to the point of lying. You’re not missing anything.

Is it possible to make good money from writing commercial IF (i.e. enough for me to quit my day job and write IF full time)? I’d imagine the answer is: no, I could probably make a bit of money off it, but not enough to support myself comfortably. A bit like self-publishing on the Kindle the last time I looked into it. Will you make money? Perhaps. But enough money to make it worth doing purely for the money side of things? Almost certainly not. Unless, of course, you happen to write that one in a million book that everyone just has to have.

Saying that, I’ve always been curious as to what kind of sales figures the Choice of Games have. Enough to live off?

I think a patron system like what inurashii suggested could work well. And it fits me ideologically too.

And Shadow in the Cathedral and Jack Torresal and the Secret Letter are still available. Let’s not forget David C.!

I think Future Boy is currently impossible to obtain. I’m not clear about 1893; its page is up but I couldn’t see how to buy it.

Future boy: I e-mailed the developers about it and they seemed ready to transact another sale, this was a few months back. So it’s possible to obtain.

But yeah, Textfyre makes five. :slight_smile: Sorry, David!

I think Christine Love’s work counts more as “visual novels”; I’m not ideologically opposed to counting those as IF, but if we do I believe there are tons of people making a living from them. All of Hanako games for instance. (I could be wrong about how many people are making a living from this, at least outside of Japan, but there are definitely a ton of them commercially available.)

Thanks Peter! You’re quick. I think “e-mail the developers to sell you one” is a pretty borderline case of commercial availability, though.

It certainly is - today’s interest in Future Boy would need a boost to be called “minimal”, to be fair, and the developers have gotten (understandably) lax in terms of maintaining the distribution as it once was. While it’s true that anyone who hears of FB and is interested is already the type of person who’d get in contact with the developers, it’s hardly, as you say, easily and readily available for purchase.

Ah, okay. If that’s the case ignore my last post.

I put Shade and Heliopause up for sale for a dollar on iOS. They are not big sellers (for a start, they are available for free in iOS Frotz as well) but I’ve made a few hundred dollars.

It is also possible to support Merritt Kopas, Anna Anthropy and Porpentine via Patreon, all of whom sometimes produce Twine-based IF. I like the model, since it makes it possible to support indie creation with less audience expectation than Kickstarter. (Also on Patreon is the awesome Joe McDaldno, who does really cool tabletop storygames.)

The flip side is that it requires you to identify creators you want to see prosper, rather than specific creations you want to bring into being – but since that’s actually the reason I was usually supporting Kickstarter projects in the first place, that works fine for me.

Zoe Quinn (Depression Quest) is also on Patreon.

I’d consider Patreon myself, if I didn’t have this unfulfilled KS project hanging over me. Well. Progress continues.

Wasn’t Zoe Quinn’s experience horrible with Patreon? Thought she got a ton of abuse there, could have been elsewhere though.