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.