How To Win The IF Comp (a work in progress)

Part of the problem with part 2 is that the IF community is, y’know, an actual community, an organic thing scattered over a half-dozen community cores and dozens of secondary locations. Similarly, community expectations are scattered out over nearly two decades of discussions, which makes it bloody hard for outsiders to quickly absorb them.

So if we could distill those expectations, best principles and the example of history into a single set of advice to comp entrants, something that (perhaps) the comp organisers could point potential entrants at, I think that would be useful. (Of course, this will never catch everybody. But if we can save a few well-meaning people from misunderstanding, it’d be worth it.)

A partial, super-rough first draft follows: further suggestions, rewordings, clarifications etc. highly encouraged. Also, if anything doesn’t belong here, tell me.

Plan to take more time than you think you need, especially if you’ve never made a full-sized game before. Two or three times as much time as your initial estimate would be a good start.

Voters generally won’t punish a game for being too long. Larger games tend to place a bit higher in the comp than very small ones; players respect the effort that goes into a larger game. Lots of reviewers complain that a game was too short to really accomplish what it set out to do; almost nobody makes the opposite complaint. Although IF Comp has a two-hour play limit, the judges are unlikely to mark you down if they haven’t finished in that time, provided they were two hours well-spent. (Of course, if you write a ten-hour game, most of it won’t be seen by judges, so that’s not the best use of your energy; but don’t fret that people will be angry if they don’t quite get through everything in the allotted time.)

Test, test, test.
It’s ideal to test with a variety of testers. It is a very, very good idea to have several rounds of testing. [I am not sure how much detail to put in, here. Some novice authors seem to have only one round of testing, or test only on sympathetic family-and-friends, test too late in the process, or test only for bug-fixing purposes, all of which are worth addressing; but this could easily sprawl into a treatise on testing, which may or may not be appropriate here.]

Credit your testers. Do so in a place that’s easily accessible from within the game. This is basic politeness, and demonstrates to your players that you’ve put in a good-faith effort. Some people will not review your game unless you do this.

Don’t submit unfinished games. If you can’t finish by the deadline, consider entering next year, or waiting until Spring Thing.

Include a solid hint system. No matter how easy you think your game is, there will always be someone who manages to miss something. Nothing will kill your game’s scores like a player who is stuck and frustrated.

  • Your game should always respond in some way to commands like HINT, HELP, ABOUT or CREDITS.
  • “Don’t use hints, they’ll ruin your experience” or “email the author or ask on the forums if you get stuck” are almost as bad as nothing, unless you are absolutely confident that it is literally impossible to get stuck in your game.
  • A walkthrough, either within the game or in an external file, is not a very good hint system, unless it’s thoroughly annotated.

Try to reach as many people as possible. Ideally, players should be able to choose whether they play your game in an online browser or offline. Not everybody can be online all the time, or wants to be; not everybody wants to bother with getting the right interpreter. Of course, this is not possible for every platform; but if it’s possible, you should do it. Similarly, a game that runs only in Windows is not the best idea.

Expect tough criticism. This is a tough crowd. Even the best games won’t please everyone, and people will point out lots of flaws even in games that they liked. This is not because we hate you and want to be mean: it’s because we high standards and like to see authors improve and grow. Be prepared for it, and take it gracefully. Never, ever argue with a negative review; there is no way that you can win that argument. (Discussing it with the reviewer is another matter; that can be constructive, particularly if it’s in private. But don’t attempt it if you’re feeling angry or slighted.)

Play other games. Looking at some high-placed entries from previous Comps will give you a good idea about the kind of thing that is received well. (And looking at reviews of low-placed games can give you some idea of the kind of thing that does poorly.)

Content, subject-matter and genre. The IF readership are pretty broad-minded, on the whole, and are typically more interested in a game’s quality than in which genre it falls into. That said, the community definitely has tastes, which can be summarised as Stuff Nerds Like: science fiction, fantasy, children’s literature, superhero, horror, mystery and non-genre works have traditionally done well. But introducing a rarely-used genre will usually provoke interest rather than dismissal.

That said, games that touch on controversial or unpleasant subjects can easily run into unexpected problems, and disturb or alienate some section of your audience. If you’re writing a game about these, you should definitely ask your testers about how those issues come across, to make sure that you’re not doing anything ugly without realising it. And try to get a diverse set of testers. In particular, games that strongly and directly advocate some ethical, religious or political point (rather than exploring an issue and allowing the player to make their own mind up) tend to do badly.

The judging methods of the Comp tend to reward solidly-made, meticulous, conventional design rather than avant-garde experiments; that said, the Comp is still a good venue to try out an avant-garde experiment. (It’ll get more discussion, even if it places poorly.)


I am nowhere near done, but I’d like this to be a group effort, so I’ll await discussion.

Wade’s comments on feelies and walkthroughs also seem relevant here; and maybe it would be worth linking to the IF testing site as well, since that does incorporate suggestions about how to test as well as a way to find testers.

Edited to add: occasionally people do mark down for too-long-for-comp games. Paul O’Brian used to do so routinely. And I find, on the whole, that without having his policy of punishing games that were submitted someplace they don’t belong, I tend not to enjoy a game I didn’t finish enough to give it a score in the 8-10 range. It’s more likely to come in at 6-7 if it was looking promising before I ran out of time. (Of course, I’m also totally willing to hit the walkthrough in order to finish a game in time if it looks like I’m not going to get through before the judging period – and it may be useful including said walkthrough for the judges who want to do that even if the author really thinks the game is super-easy.)

I don’t think we should discourage it, but we should definitely warn that homebrew systems are looked down upon, and that unless your new system is brilliant it will severely hurt your comp entry. In light of Campbell’s recent topic maybe we should say the same about Adrift 4.

I don’t think you need to list the common genres as you’re listing most of them, with the notable exception of romance, which is likely due to the difficulties in modelling interpersonal relationships, not due to a lack of appreciation for the genre.

I think it could be helpful to have a note about the broadening of the IF community to include more from non-parser based systems. It’d be good to note that the community is far from reaching a consensus about what we think about that! It’d also be good to note that the two types of systems produce different play experiences, and potentially lend themselves to different types of stories, so that choosing the best system for the story you want to tell is important.

I’m not sure I agree with the comment that conventional design generally does better than avant-garde experiments. Photopia has won, All Roads has won, Slouching towards Bedlam has won, Rover’s Day Out has won.

In a section on testing or separately, please point that in a text game, spelling and grammar mistakes will be considered bugs. Point out that having language mistakes in your first room description is a bad idea.

If your game is accompanied by a map, a PDF, or anything like that, point it out in the game, because otherwise people will miss it. (As Byzantine Perspective made clear.)

The “expect tough criticism” point, while true, doesn’t really belong with the rest. If you want it in the file, I’d put it at the end.

I think you forgot the main point: make a good game.

Also, i guess compelling stories are better than puzzle nightmares. (Maybe)

Also, an important point is that even if the new system is brilliant, players will rate the game and not the system. If the game is crap, you won’t get extra points for missed potential.

Much of this list is true, I’d like to add a couple of points (and contest some):

Be aware that many judges will vote using a negative, rather than a positive approach. This goes along with the points about testing: Many judges will implicitly start out with a virtual rating of 10 for each game and then deduct points for every bug (or perceived bug) or even puzzle roadblock they find. A solidly made, but otherwise unexciting game can place well, an extremely thought-provoking, but even slightly buggy game won’t, because the same judges will not increase their vote due to positive traits.

Don’t include puzzles. Many judges seem to view any real puzzle as a bug/roadblock and deduct points. See above. It will also make them drop to the walkthrough immediately and once started, it’s playing straight from there, so they will not see most of your game. In particular, they will conclude that your game is badly (or impossibly) clued, because playing straight from the walkthrough, they will not see any of the hints you built in.

Do include non-puzzle world interaction, though. Completely non-interactive text-dumps which only ever accept a single command to proceed will not do perfect (they will usually end up in the middle of the pack).

Thematically, choose something which…
a) …includes character interaction.
b) …revolves around a depressing subject, preferably with the protagonist moping the whole time.

Put in as many pseudo-meaningful conversations as possible. Use any many big words as possible. Never say anything outright when you can make long-winded and unclear allusions instead. At least the majority of the review-writing ‘bloggers’ love this sort of thing, because it will be perceived as depth. Quite a number of other, non-reviewing judges will read these reviews and be influenced by them, so try everything to please those reviewers which are considered ‘influential’.
Also on the subbject of theme, make heavy use of symbolism related to Christianity. There should be at least one allusion to crucifiction, preferably self-crucifiction of the protagonist. Use strong moralistic themes, but without ever fully committing to one side of the argument explicitly (while making it completely clear implicitly what your opinion is). Again, this will be perceived as ‘deep’ and ‘thought-provoking’.

Mind you I’m not saying this will help you make an excellent game; I’m just saying it will help you win (or place well in) the competition.

I’d also add “don’t include a maze” because if there’s one thing people seem to hate, it’s mazes.

Unless of course, your maze is a-maze-ing. Or maybe not…

Oh, I forgot one thing:

Define your characters. Make the NPCs as strange as possible. However, do not make the mistake of applying the same technique to your protagonist! Judges are picky with protagonists. The same negative logic as for the general rating system applies: If they find something in a protagonist they dislike (i.e. everything not shared by themselves, their best buddies or a fairytale knight in shining armour), they will dislike your whole game. Therefore, only define your protagonist through external traits, like giving him a name, a job and a physical appearance. Avoid giving him any actual idiosyncrasies at all costs (ref. negative rating scheme)!

This is A*mazing!

It was my favourite game show as a kid. But my school was never selected for it [emote]:([/emote]

Neither was mine [emote]:([/emote] I would have ROCKED the maze. Those idiot kids never looked in the most common hiding spots! It’s like they never watched the show!

Why are ‘bloggers’ in inverted commas? People who write blogs are bloggers. Are you saying these people are writing in things that are not actually blogs?

Why is ‘influential’ in inverted commas? Who are these influential people? Who are the people who consider these people to be influential? You wrote ‘considered to be’ in the passive voice, avoiding attributing action or thought to anyone. Are these people doing the considering you? You haven’t said who anyone is. Answer my queries! Stop hiding behind these allusions!

I also want the names and addresses of these weak minded non-reviewing judges I might be able to control. It’s better if I can identify them so I can exert my will on them directly. Using my competition blog is a dumb and slow way to wield the titanic powers I know I possess.

Also, I want a list of the words that are too big to be used. I have a red pen and I can use it to strike these words out.

I’m ready to stop big-worded mopefests like Taco Fiction from winning this competition.

  • Wade

See? It’s working [emote]:D[/emote]

Ah, yes, I remember fondly the good old days of 2005, when On Optimism stormed to first place on the basis of its flowery moping and cheerleaders among the ‘blogger’ cabal. Afterwards, Stephen Bond, Admiral Jota and I celebrated our nefarious manipulation of the easily-led electorate by cavorting naked across the corpse of all that is good and true in IF.

I’d quibble with some of these – I wouldn’t consider Slouching or Rover as anything near avant-garde, etc – but if it prompts this kind of quibbling, it definitely doesn’t belong in here.

Part of the title’s point here is to be a bait-and-switch, which includes both advice about how to place well in IF Comp and how you can “win” in the sense of getting the best possible experience out of the Comp. But, yes, it’d be useful to organise these in rough chronological order: here’s what to consider before you even start, here’s what to work on, here’s what to expect during judging.

As an IF author wannabe, I find this discussion fascinating.

I love Hannes’ comments; they have a delightful taint of sarcasm to them that drives his points home with memorable forcefulness. (Makes me want to try playing his games.) However, they do raise questions in my mind:

  1. I desire to author IF, but, for better or worse, I’m stuck with the IF community as my audience. Is this audience really as shallow and superficial as Hannes seems to be saying it is?

  2. While following Hannes’s guidlines may indeed produce a winning game (don’t know, never managed that feat yet, so I can’t say Y/N) will that winning game be something I can be “proud” of as an author? To be honest, there is a trend of doubt in my mind.

  3. Is winning the Comp important to a wannabe IF author? In other words, are the Comp judges a resonable sampling of my target audience? Since I don’t know of a better way than the competitions to release my work, this is an important question in my mind.

And so on… thanks for listening.

rdeford: I wouldn’t worry about anything Hannes has said because its all palpably untrue. Hundreds of people will end up voting in the comp, and most of them will vote highly for the most solidly implemented, enjoyable games. Look at the top five games in any previous comp and they’ll mostly be fine games that the authors can rightly be proud to have entered.

Also, I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks this, but winning the comp is hardly the biggest motivation to enter: having people play your games and discuss them and (if you’ve done your job right) enjoy them, is fine enough for me.

See bait-and-switch comment, above. Though if the title is confusing everybody we can certainly change it.

No, I appreciate the point that truly winning the IFComp is to get the best experience you can out of it. If I might add two more suggestions:

Familiarise Yourself With IF Conventions

The Chinese Room did well but might have placed slightly higher if we’d known about synonyms back then…

Try Not To Be Too Ambitious

Or if you are very ambitious, leave yourself plenty of time to realise that ambition. Hubris may have been Calm’s IFComp downfall.