Is there still room for amateurs?

Just a little context, I’ve had an on and off interest in text games for about 20 years now–which I’m aware practically makes me new blood to some of you–and essentially zero awareness of the community itself until after covid happened.

So it’s possible I’m talking out my ass here, but I’ve definitely noticed in recent years there are more and more “professional” looking games showing up, with art and music and so on and more polish all around. And of course, commercial games.

For many players I’m sure this is great, and I’m not knocking the talented people who showcase their work this way at all. But I have to say that part of what originally drew me to this medium was the rough edges and the pure nature of all these hobbyists laboring on in obscurity, making and playing the clunky text based games the world had passed by for no other reason than they enjoyed it.

The IFComp with its cash prizes and high profile nature is obviously an encouragement to put the best foot forward. So just based on a few factors:

1.) It’s VERY difficult to say that any modern game with a plot isn’t “interactive” “fiction”. Moreso now that the insertion of CYOA style choices has become the norm in some very high profile titles.
2.) The communities official stance is that if the author says something is IF, then it’s IF, no questions.
3.) Completely linear works are also IF.
(I’ve seen many of these on the IFDB.)

I’m beginning to wonder what this whole scene will look like in another five or ten years. Experienced game devs have good reason to launch titles though the IFComp, and when you’re already getting 100+ entries, I can completely understand resentment from voters when, say a passionately written but obviously amateur game that has no hope of winning shows up to waste their time.

As someone who struggles with anxiety and doubt over my own writing, even with the state of things now I couldn’t see myself ever bringing myself to enter the IF Comp. But is that going to become the case for more and more people just starting out and wanting to get a little feedback and their foot in the door?

Many IF games now are far more slick and professional, attractive and easy to play than the original commercial games were. It was daunting for hobbyist authors to even have to compare themselves to them, and yet where are we now?

Unfortunately I’m not sure of a solution short of a separate contest for amateurs, which would be too vaguely defined to serve any purpose. Just musing on the subject here.

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I think the reverse is true. Experienced game devs have good reason not to launch titles through IFComp. If you want to ask money for a game, IFComp doesn’t work (and the prizes are tiny compared to even a niche Steam release). If you want a wide public release for a free game, you want to do lots of publicity in advance and release it on your own schedule, so again IFComp doesn’t work.

IFComp is for dedicated IF hobbyists who want to put their work in front of dedicated IF fans. This gives us a reasonable center of gravity for what counts as “IF”, even as the definitions shift around the edges.

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Welcome! Glad to have you here.

The “IF Scene” is pretty much 98% “amateur” in that most of us do it because we like it and aren’t expecting it to make money or become a career. IF is one of the most accessible types of game for one person to make without a budget nor a large team and that’s one of its strengths.

A lot of what you mention as “pro” games with art and music is simply that technology has made it easier to create works with media elements. Twine especially has several different flavors that incorporate other languages like JS and give hooks into Unity for use as a complement to other game types. There are many resources available online so that a non-composer/artist person like me has access to no or low-cost Creative Commons-licensed sound, music, and art that can give a game a higher sense of polish.

Despite a few notable examples such as @zarf 's Hadean Lands and former Infocom impementor Bob Bates releasing Thaumistry several years ago - and the specific Choice of Games catalog - there isn’t a lot of text-heavy “pro” IF development. Many IF authors have found they have inroads writing for commercial games that aren’t classically IF such as RPGs and plot-heavy AAA titles that include heavy dialogue like Mass Effect.

Without wading into the “what is IF” argument again, usually the games that are IF-adjacent commercial successes are those that can be played on a mobile device and tend to eschew keyboard typing and are “low twitch” meaning you can play them on the go without worrying you’re going to lose due to a time element. This has led to high-profile IF-adjacent games like 80 Days and Sorcery! (which are choice-narratives with heavy boardgame elements), Visual Novels, and management/dating sims.

The one thing most people agree upon: It’s very difficult to commercially market a modern game that is just pure text as Infocom did back in the 80s. So a lot of these will be amateur in the IF “niche”.

Indie game distribution websites such as itch.io have made wider release outside the niche IF community an actual possibility for non professionals since they accept all types of games from professional AAA titles down to someone’s first Twine experiment and have a huge audience looking for everything, though I don’t believe anyone gets rich off of itch donations unless they have a very popular and extremely polished game to sell there.

That said, there is a niche of text-only adventure fans as well as people who love cosy 5-minute Twine experiences here and elsewhere, and there are tons of tools and resources to make and distribute them.

So make the game you want and share it only as widely as you want. While IFComp and other competitions are one of the ways to get a game seen through the blizzard of signal-to-noise, you don’t necessary need to have anything like a “professional” game for it to become popular, nor is that a requirement. I don’t think there will ever be a shortage of new games on IFDB that include the “lovable jank” you describe and enjoy.

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Just write what you want to write and release it where you want to release it. If you believe in it then it’s 100% good enough to enter into any contest. Comparing yourself too closely with the competition, imagined or otherwise, is definitely to be avoided (easier said than done, I know).

[Spoken as a definite amateur, I might add.]

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I’d just like to throw in that adding a lot of bells and whistles doesn’t always add up to a ‘better game’.

I can give a personal example:

I was talking with a friend about this yesterday. I made a game 5 years ago in a single day, with minimal text and locations, called Swigian. It has < 15K words, standard puzzles, almost no NPCs.

I made a game this year called Grooverland. It took 3 years with 90K words, has procedurally generated text, tons of NPCS and unique puzzles.

My minimal game has been played and reviewed a lot; people I respect who never like my stuff liked it; someone made beautiful pixel art of it; and I always hear about people playing it.

My ‘fancy’ game has, if anything, been less popular than my minimal game. It’s not a bad game, and people have said nice things about it, but I spent about 20x the work on it and definitely haven’t gotten 20x the response.

I was asking my friend why, and they said “I think that sometimes people prefer simple, straight-forward things. If the high effort game had too many details compacted into it, then the audience may not be able to keep up or lose interest”

And that’s true! So why not just make what you like? People might like it better than the ‘slick and professional’ games you’re seeing!

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Instead of a long response, I’ll just leave this image here that sums up how I feel about it.

eV1wgom

image description

I just realized that response was alienating blind readers. Sorry.

The image is a two panel comic.

Panel 1 is captioned “The Artist” and has a man placing a small cake next to a much larger professionally prepared cake. With a sad face, he says “Aw man. That guy’s cake is way better than mine.”

Panel 2 is captioned “The Audience” and has a man standing in front of both cakes with a large grin and a fork and knife at the ready. He says “Holy shit! Two cakes!”

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Yeah, just to add to the chorus, I think the IF community is still very dominated by amateurs, and probably will be in the five to ten year timeline you mention in your post. IFComp is probably the most “professionalized” space – not because there’s money in it but because of the attention, so folks want to put their best feet forward – but if you look at the folks who’ve done well in recent years and see which are professional game designers, I’m coming up with Josh LaBelle, who co-won last year for Tavern Crawler, and that’s pretty much it?

Meanwhile, everyone else is a passionate amateur of one degree or other. Like, share my own personal anecdote, I’d never touched Inform 7 before November of 2019 and have never done anything remotely resembling game design before, and I came sixth in last year’s Comp with a very traditional parser game with zero bells or whistles, save a clip-art cover image that stressed me out way more than any of the programming. Of course, a large chunk of that is from picking a genre – comedy puzzle adventure – that the audience likes (the game I’m working on for this year isn’t going to do nearly as well), but that’s sort of the trick: if anything, I think the profusion of great choice-based games has also fostered a renewed appreciation of parser games from the folk’s who’ve tended to like them, and to the extent there are bias issues I think it’s more likely that the IFComp audience undervalues choice-based games rather than vice versa.

With that said, I totally get that IFComp can be intimidating, but I’d offer up that there are a bunch of smaller venues for getting attention, including IntroComp, which is a great place to put a work-in-progress for early attention and feedback, and Spring Thing, which is less about competition and ranking, and also tends to be smaller. It’s definitely the case that they get way less attention than the main Comp, though, so that’s something we as a community could be doing more to change to be more newbie/amateur friendly.

Finally, I’d echo Hanon’s point above about the ease-of-use for a lot of the things that seem like they indicate professional skills and high production values. I’m of a generation that’s really comfortable with text but finds visual design or anything involving graphics completely intimidating and the province of highly-skilled specialists. But I think the from Millennials on have lived with a much more visual internal, with way stronger tools, and can whip together stuff that looks amazing with not much effort. So seeing more of this stuff I don’t think bespeaks professionalization so much as it does a shifting skillset in the author base, and a lowered barrier to entry (having said all that, I’m still super anxious about working up a cover image for my next game!)

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I will note that Grooverland is new and Swigian has been out a few years!

I have experienced the same weird dichotomy on both ends.

After getting feedback for my overly-complicated The Baker of Shireton I planned to troll (similar to how you expected to troll with Swigian as an experiment!) people - they want an easy game that they can finish in under 2 hours, by golly I’ll write that! And I wrote Fair and it was surprisingly successful and still had a lot of what I enjoy about IF in it - it was short and due to that I was able to make it much deeper with lots of hidden elements and easter eggs like I tend to do.

After that, I decided heck with writing what people want… and I switched to a choice-based engine and wrote Cannery Vale under a pseudonym expecting it to be lambasted in IFComp due to it’s weirdness and sexual content and…won an XYZZY award. That was pure me writing exactly what I wanted and it also worked.

That kind of gave me the signal that it might be okay to submit the extremely subversive robotsexpartymurder which is my highest-placing IFComp title, and then Cursed Pickle of Shireton - which is my lowest placing entry and the most absolute hilarious fun I’ve ever had making a game completely for my own amusement. The low placement was most definitely because it shares Baker’s obtuse nature and jank (which is completely on purpose.) It was a bit of an awkward behemoth for a 2-hour IFComp game, but people who played and reviewed were mostly positive.

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Hello! I have generalised anxiety disorder, managed with medication, and I’ve managed to enter both IF Comp and Spring Thing. But I eased the way first with deciding to enter IntroComp, which gave me a flavour for things on a smaller scale.

Imposter syndrome applies in amateur IF too. But honestly it is a friendly community, and the competitions are very welcoming to new writers.

Please have a go, even if it’s on a small scale.

My two competition games Border Reivers and Napier’s Cache definitely are rough around the edges, and could do with improvements. But I’m viewing it as a slow learning curve. And I love writing games. My games are traditional text parser games. No audio or graphics.

A few years ago I’d easily have been able to write the same as you about not seeing myself ever enter IF Comp. But I worked up to it slowly, at my own pace, and got there in the end. I hope to be back, progressive neurological disease permitting.

All the best!

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You’ve also got

  • Filip Hráček, who entered a tiny experimental jewel box Insignificant Little Vermin
  • Elizabeth Smyth, senior narrative designer at Fusebox games who entered the much-lauded Bogeyman
  • Ian Michael Waddell, who has also worked for Fusebox entered Animalia

(I can’t say for certain though if any of them were in their respective professional capacities when they entered IFComps or if that came afterward.)

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IFComp is always an option, but there have also been casual/lower pressure comps. For example, some comps have had specific time frames for when or how long you could work on the game (ShuffleComp, Ectocomp). At least that way, games that have been years in the making aren’t competing against games that were quickly put together.

Also, testers help a lot with polish, if you give yourself enough time to make changes based on their feedback.

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Another thing I’d like to add is you can take as long a time to write and prepare your competition entry as you like. Yes some people do it in a few months. I took years! Many years if I go back to when I had the first idea for Border Reivers :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: So you can prepare to enter in a very low stress low key way. Lots of pacing. Potentially lots and lots of time for playtesting. Or just start working on a game for fun, with no fixed goals, and see where you end up.

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I think a significant factor is just the venue. IFComp is a huge yearly institution that is by far the biggest stage in IF. While it has been a lovely event, ParserComp is a smaller, community-focused revival of a previous smaller, community-focused competition. Also, Swigian had an air of mystery, a surprising backstory, and a big reveal; whereas Grooverland might prove a little intimidating because of its metatextual elements, with people feeling that they might “miss the joke”, as it were (if anybody reading this feels that way, you absolutely don’t miss the joke, it’s great fun even if you’ve never played a Groover game, give it a shot). So I think these games are hard to compare in terms of input/output.

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Even the professionals in IF mostly started out as amateurs. I think the most important thing is to try to create something you’d enjoy playing. If you can do that, you’ll likely find other people who enjoy it too. The competitions will still be there when you wish to join them, but there are plenty of IF creators who either never enter them, or only do so for the experience/for fun (as opposed to doing so for competition or with expectations of placing anywhere in particular).

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“It’s not the thing you fling but the fling itself that counts.” - Northern Exposure.

It doesn’t matter at all if there are a handful or a landslide of “professional” releases, it only matters that there are no artificial barriers to entry. And there are not.

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Frankly, I’m not convinced there’s a meaningful distinction between “professional” and “good”. The games with better content and polish, as judged by the community, place high in competitions. Writing is by far the most important factor. There’s certainly no evidence that being text only is a disadvantage. I don’t know exactly what you mean by “clunky” or “rough edges” but I wouldn’t use either term to describe any high placer in IFComp since it began.

If someone works hard on their comp entry, writing and coding, maybe adding some artwork or music if it’s something they can do and they feel it’ll improve the game, and their game places highly… at what point did they become “professional”? It’s not when they go above a certain pay grade, 'cause there aren’t any. Was it unfair of them to put more than a certain number of hours into improving their game? To use too much of their own talent?

Clunky games aren’t being beaten by “professional” games… just good ones.

(But then, so what? Not winning a competition doesn’t erase a game from existence.)

Quite a few of us are in The Industry™ at some level or another – another case of the line between “hobbyist” and “professional” being anything but clear. I know I’d been doing this shit for free for well over a decade before it occurred to me to ask if anyone wanted to pay me for it.

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29 posts were split to a new topic: Potential Speed-IF Jam ideas (Cloak of Darkness Jam?)

At the risk of getting back on track to the original post by @BilboB, I’d suggest that 99% of us are amateurs, meaning we don’t get paid for it. Most of us do this as a hobby because we enjoy it. It’s fun. When it stops being fun, stop doing it.

Is there still room for amateurs? Of course! Does it matter whether you’re a novice or an expert? Definitely not! Nobody becomes an expert before starting out as a novice.

If IFComp sounds scary, then don’t enter it. Write what you want, when you want and at your own pace. You don’t have to use multi-media if you don’t want to, but you should still aim to make it look and play as nicely as possible.

Then request testers on the beta testing channel to get feedback. If it’s really crap and your testers are honest, they’ll tell you so. However, testers tend to be very helpful and very supportive. They’ll not only find the bugs in the game that you thought was bug free, they’ll also offer suggestions for improvement. Listen to their suggestions and make those improvements. When you think it’s good enough to reveal to the general public, you have two choices:

  1. Publish it independently on your own web site or somewhere like itch.io. (A lot of us use itch.io nowadays.)

  2. Enter it in a game jam or one of the smaller competitions, such as EctoComp, Spring Thing, IntroComp (for an unfinished game), PunyJam (assuming there’s another one), ParserComp 2022 or one of the many game jams such as the Adventuron-hosted jams.

There’s a Beginner IF Jam running right now. This would be perfect for you. Games can be choice-based or parser-based. Submissions close on 30 September 2021.

Once you’ve published it, promote it here, on Facebook, Twitter, Discord or whatever you’re familiar with. Also, add an entry on IFDB.

Good luck.

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I have been reading this post for a while and I like it. We are amateurs almost all participants.
We like or even love IF. This feelings aren’t changing for now.
Some people gets disconected, another ones get in.
If you like IF, you will be here online from time to time, and if you love IF you will become member of some IF community.

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Dude!
writing your own game is not about makeing it the best of the best of the best… it is about HAVING FUN!!

Never be afraid of failing.

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