Question over parser games [Commercial Success]

Gaming has evolved along with everything else but people still like old cars, old motorbikes, old airplanes, old movies, vintage clothes, antiques and jarring home grown veggies.
We’re going to be OK! Write to your heart’s desire, my pretties.


I only wish to counter-spell a couple of beliefs and ask two questions.

The counter-spells:

  1. Parser games are not played by “a few dozen people”. My less relevant games have been downloaded or played online in the thousands each. And no, I’m not that popular. Don’t let IFDB fool you.
  2. Parser games are still sold today, complete with a package and feelies (i.e.: check here). Ofc, they have not, by far, the numbers of the Eighties, but in the Eighties we didn’t have Apple Store and Google Play.

The questions:

  1. How many copies did Infocom sell on average? Where they really the best-selling? How did i.e. the Marvel Questprobes fare, back then?
  2. How come a game that gives you the chance of writing your own command (with restrictions, ofc) and mixing, like, 40 unique actions + synonyms with 100 or more objects gives less choice than having to constantly click between 2/3 pre-formatted hyperlinks? (I’m not an enemy of web games, I’m really asking out of curiosity).

Superbowl Ad: check my next project on :slight_smile:


I’m not sure if this was a reply to one of my points, but parsers absolutely give way more choice. However, a lot of actions will result in default “that’s not important” messages. From the actions that remain, the number is still quite large, but it’s not infinite.

The point I was trying to make was you still need to type one of a finite number of commands which is both accepted and does something. Because this finite number is so vastly smaller than the seemingly-infinite possibilities which brand-new players likely see (especially in a post-AI-Dungeon world), it can feel like an extremely high-precision task. New players don’t have this precision that comes with developed parser skills, expectations, and intuitions. As a result, they either just deal with the endless “I don’t understand what you mean by that” and “that’s not important” responses, or they get paralyzed because nothing is working and they don’t feel like they have any idea on how to proceed.

I need that XKCD comic about specialists assuming what common knowledge is, because my explanation is too verbose.

TLDR: this.


I don’t have time for a longer post, unfortunately, but my quick take here is that all the points above about learning curves, presentation, and one-click playability are well-taken but IMO incomplete:

  • I’d say the most commercially-successful game of recent years that incorporates parser gameplay has to be Stories Untold, right? Its parser is incredibly archaic and even I, a veteran of hundreds of parser games, found it hard to get my meaning across. From a quick Google, it sold well over a 100,000 copies (note “sold” – not a free game).

  • The frustration and learning curve issues for parser games are real, but I have a very hard time believing that they’re worse than those for, say, Dwarf Fortress or NetHack or Dark Souls – in fact I’d be willing to bet that those massively successful games are way harder to get into than, say, a mid-ranking IF Comp parser game, by any fair measure.

IMO if parser games are ever going to again find a large audience, the key issues to look at have to include marketing channels, perceptions of novelty, and reexamining how parser gameplay does (or could) make players experience feelings of reward and satisfaction.

(Cards on the table, I don’t actually think parser games are ever going to again find a large audience and I’m OK with that :slight_smile: )


This one was backed by players who told stories of what happened in their playthrough, which pulled a lot of curiosity. Also, the game is extremely well-known, but I think only a small fraction of those people actually play the game.

After the recent UI patch, a lot of people took everything they learned from watching let’s plays and jumped in to play for themselves.

Haven’t heard of this one yet. I’ll need to check this out.

This one has had a lot of marketing, and the barrier to entry is quite low, but the game quickly grinds you into the stone floor. However, you can at least move around and swing your weapon easily enough.

Not saying you’re wrong, but more like I don’t think the analogies quite carry.

If you’ve ever taken an adult who has never played videogames before and had them try to play Minecraft, the initial difficulty isn’t actually with the game itself; it’s with the controls. Such a player is not actually focused on the game mechanics, because they’re trying to learn to use the keyboard+mouse (or controller) effectively, so that they can interact with the game world.

Once that is handled, they then learn the game mechanics.

I feel like learning to play a parser has an interface which so different, that every new player effectively has this experience of just trying to understand the controls before they can understand the game.

People who play Dark Souls don’t choose it as their first videogame.

Source: I have introduced a few adults to their first videogame experiences, and took notes.

Full disclosure of what games I taught someone to play as their first videogame:

  1. Doom (the 1994 one)
  2. Doom 3 (they were very determined to play this one)
  3. Crysis 2 (learned a lot about game navigation intuition as a learned skill) (also again: for some reason she really wanted to play this one specifically; not the same person who really wanted to play Doom 3, I promise)
  4. Minecraft
  5. Minecraft again

I second that and add what someone said about a sleeker interface. Most Inform games get bundled in a way too small environment, with boring typography and no UI at all. CSS ftw. And don’t try and sell me the “I want to play my game with my custom style” as NO OTHER KIND OF GAME IN THE UNIVERSE comes with a heavily customizable interface. Even WoW needed third party add-ons).

Popularity is a matter of being known. Parser needs larger venues, to prosper. That’s all. CYOAs won because of those huge aggregators, not because of Twine, imho. But I know nothing about this so I may stand corrected.

(Also; I sense a problem about the excessive availability of everything, today. In the 1850s they had like 30 books a year, now we have millions. Games? Back “in my days”: 300/400 tops a year. Now: millions. IF is going there too. I’m definitely not advocating against this, but rest assured that too much choice will create no stand-out: the best will be lost usually with the worst.)


Yeah, I 100% agree that the analogies don’t quite carry - it’s the reasons why they don’t that I think point to something that’s missing: as you say, Dwarf Fortress gives you unique, emergent stories; Dark Souls gives you a feeling of accomplishment; NetHack (it’s an old school roguelike) does both. And I think those help provide a positive impetus to push through the challenge of the interface.

Parser IF, by contrast, usually doesn’t offer nearly as many rewards to players - usually just the satisfaction of solving a pre-written puzzle in a pre-determined way, and seeing a linear narrative unspool - which I think means newcomers have less motivation to stick through what may be a tough learning curve.

(I Am Prey is an exception to this, which is one reason I find it really interesting!)


This is why I often say that parsers need to stop being a genre and become a medium instead. There are so many more opportunities in a parser than just puzzle games. Adhering to the puzzle genre puts certain design requirements on the interface which raise the barrier to entry. It’s like if all 3rd-person games had the mechanics of Dark Souls.

That means so, so much to me! You’re very sweet…!


Someone had a scan of a paper with some sales figures. Obviously not a complete picture, but some info. Anyone have the scan?


I don’t have the scan handy, but it changes over time. But my understanding is that they consider anything over 250,000 copies to be a tremendous success. Two of them are Zork and HHGTTG.

Normal games were selling about 80,000 to 100,000 with the caveat that the games are selling steadily. That is, they don’t have a point where their games stop selling. Meaning, the longer the game was in the market, the more it sells.

I believe the low end was at 20,000. Plundered Heart.

These figures do not include collections from Activision, which although I don’t have a figure, apparently sold quite well. This also doesn’t include the revival version of the new games. HHGTTG is the one I know out of four(?).

Their last games sold rather poorly. Nord and Bert(?). There’s also Infocomic (sold poorly), Frobitsky board game, and some RPG mechwarrior game by Westwood studios.


To some extent parsers have gone beyond just being puzzlers, but people like puzzle games. Puzzle games sell well. Storied puzzle games sell well. The games that sell just have graphics instead of text. Of the people I’ve interrogated about why they won’t play parsers, those who have heard of them immediately associate them with cruel puzzling and getting locked out. There’s a lot of folks my age who tried Zork and remember it with hatred.

So I’m not sure that being associated with puzzles is a bad thing. It’s that parsers have all been tarred with the “ridiculously difficult, unintuitive, unfair puzzles” brush that causes the problem.

Although your point is well taken-- not all parsers are puzzlers and there’s lots more that the genre can do.


Yeah, puzzles are amazing, but it’s really hard to onboard someone into parsers when puzzles necessarily ask experienced players to experiment and poke around, much less new players. It’s difficult to make a newbie-friendly interface that does not also spoil parser puzzles in some way.

It’s certainly not impossible, but there’s a reason why the parser community seems to dislike clickable text.

Although, you have actually made a parser game before (written for very young audiences) that solved a lot of these problems by explicitly keeping the verb count low, and also implementing the VERBS reference command (which is amazing, by the way, and I am making that standard practice in all of my games from now-on).

I feel like that’s an excellent first step for a parser that wants to onboard new players: Don’t paralyze new players with the vast capabilities of the parser, because an author typically implements a limited number of commands anyway. Instead, take a page out of visual puzzle games and start with a reduced verb count. The player can figure out the command pattern with these few verbs, and then you gradually trickle more in as the game goes.

EDIT: This is kinda why I recommend Dreamhold to new players. It slowly increases the complexity in an engaging environment. It also has some older parser design philosophy in it, but that gradual immersion is extremely useful.

The other challenge is how to help players understand that they might want to check out these “on-ramp” games, if they just stumble into this medium (without one of us personally making a “pspspspsps” sound around the corner, tangling a keyboard as bait).

The only reason why I stuck with parser games after stumbling into them was because my mom loves puzzles and was sitting next to me to help me play. Neither of us had played parsers before, so we made it a group effort to learn together.


All this has been said before, but hear me out.

The heyday of interactive fiction was back when using computers involved reading and typing by definition. It was the natural extension of an existing medium. Today only programmers and sysadmins still use command lines all the time. Heck, entire generations were taught to fear command lines. And then touchscreens became the way most people interact with computers.

Moreover, public expectations have evolved with the game market. Infocom and others made good money back when text games with a custom font and artful illustrations looked better than a bunch of colored squares that clashed together with a metallic noise. How were you going to sell a text adventure by the time interactive storytelling looked like Master of Orion?

Even choice-based games have a hard time selling nowadays. High-profile hits like Fallen London or 80 Days are the rare exception. Visual novels fare better, but as the name suggests they’re highly visual (and auditory), often with multimedia on the level of mainstream games.

Last but not least, in my personal opinion, most interactive fiction (parser based or not) suffers from trying to be high-concept stuff that Makes a Point™. It’s the literary fiction of computer games. There was an old-school revival movement for a while, but I’m not sure what happened to it. Unlike for example in tabletop RPGs, where OSR play won out and became the default again while high-concept games remained a niche. Well, now the market shifted again towards solo games, for obvious reasons, but those also seem fairly down to earth as a general rule.

Nowadays it’s hard to sell any games unless you’re a triple-A publisher, but maybe look at what indies are trying. Oh, and by the way: the most famous games of the Twine revolution weren’t commercial. Quite the opposite, they were as punk as it gets.


I live and breath parser games, so I don’t see any issue. However, see below.

Nothing. Parser authors can do whatever they want. They can choose different authoring tools, choose different game styles (puzzlers to narrative and everything in between), add sound and graphics, choose different run-time engines, even write their own if they want to. However, the vast majority of experiments seem to have failed. There’s something warm and fuzzy about sticking with what you know, either as an author or as a player.

Why do you need to close the gap? For most of us, this is a hobby. We write and/or play parser-based IF because we enjoy it. The alternative is to hire a large team of people, spend millions of dollars in development over a couple of years, thousands more in marketing, promotion and advertising and…who knows if it’s even going to succeed?

I don’t even know what that means.

The biggest problem with parser games is ignorance of their existence. Potential players don’t even know that they exist because of that lack of advertising and promotion that you expect from a commercial game. We’re all wasting our breath bemoaning the lack of players in forums like this. You should be promoting parser games in the wider community.

As far as parser-based puzzlefests are concerned, puzzles are popular! Puzzle books are popular. Puzzle pages in magazines are popular. Puzzle web sites are popular. Puzzle apps are popular. Puzzle hunts are popular. Escape rooms are popular. A puzzley parser-based game is just like a virtual escape room, except that you can play it by yourself, you don’t need to find a team of people and it’s inexpensive, even free. I played an escape room two nights ago that cost AU$309 for 6 people. And that was cheap. (Great room, by the way!)

This brings us to the steep learning curve. Learning to play a parser-based game is far easier than learning one of those fancy, fangled 3D shoot 'em up thingies that everyone plays nowadays. I’ll be stuffed if I can remember all the keys to do all those fancy things you need to do in those games.

Finally, we have the problem with the young generation. They have a short attention span. If you can’t grab their attention in the first five minutes, you’ve lost them. Fancy graphics and animation are appealing, like candy, but if you can get them to stick with it for half an hour or an hour, most people get the gist of the game very quickly and most people love it once they get the hang of it. Especially kids. Kids love parser games if you can get them away from their X-Box (or Y-Box or Z-Box or whatever it’s called nowadays).

End of rant. Garry steps down off his XYZZY-Box.


A few more thoughts, if I may.

We all bemoan living in the age of the hustle, when every hobby has to be monetized to make it feel less like a waste of time. I was once vocally against trying to make interactive fiction commercial again. But I can’t blame people for wanting to make a buck on the side. Times are hard.

As for public awareness of interactive fiction, I once wrote that the general public seems unaware that there was anything at all between Zork and the present day. But I’m not sure outreach efforts (or lack thereof) are to blame. It’s just how public consciousness works: always a generation behind the times.

Authoring might also be an issue. Nowadays the act of making games is just as visual and interactive as playing them. It weirds me out, as someone who started out with GW- Sinclair Basic and Turbo Pascal, but nowadays when kids ask “what engine do you use?” they mean “Unity or Unreal?” If you say Twine or Ren’Py they stare at you blankly. At least they’ve heard of Godot and GB Studio. A modern story game is much more likely to look like Hauntsfield.

Even so, I’m sure plenty of young people still make and play traditional interactive fiction, just as plenty of young people read and write poetry; if anything, it’s their genre nowadays. And it’s everywhere, if you look closely, just in bite-sized chunks. But when was the last time poetry was commercially viable?


My limited experience from telling people I know that I wrote a (terrible) text adventure is that while they think it’s cool and are somewhat impressed, they are more interested in the fact that I wrote it than actually playing it. Admittedly it’s a small sample size (<20) and doesn’t include anyone below the age of about 40, but the responses seemed consistent across the group.

Based on this, I take the view that continuing to potter about with it when I’m so inclined is 99% for my own amusement and edification.


Marco, you should weight your word when around an Historian:

Internet Archive: Digital Library of Free & Borrowable Books, Movies, Music & Wayback Machine.

Even accountong for dupes and all magazines/reviews, is obvious that there’s much more than 30 books published a year between 1850 and 1859…

Joey, as you know, even here isn’t much consensus on what is a common verb… I even bemoan the (literal ! no offense nor criticism to Zarf…) lack of TASTE in the well-known “Zarf Card” and notoriously disagree on FEEL and TOUCH as synonym (textiles being a point of case), also because I consider a mark of good BBQ’ing hovering an hand above the hot charcoal, feeling its temperature… (actually, a mix of feeling and examining: the distance between the hand and the charcoal is the actual scale of this “thermometer”…)

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.


Is that really true? In my experience the default for tabletop RPGs is “Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition and literally nothing else”; most people would rather use 5e character sheets and ignore the rules completely than try a system that better fits their intent for the game. Wizards of the Coast has an almost complete monopoly on the market.

Outside of that, there are a handful of publishers selling traditional physical books, and then a lot of indie games. And indie stuff always tends to be a lot more experimental than stuff from big studios.


This is a very good point! Parser adventures have been around long enough that the people who play and create them them are sophisticated about the tropes. So often the games that are most unique and memorable are those that do something completely meta or break the rules in a manner where the novelty is not obvious or makes the game incomprehensible to someone less experienced.

TL;DR: parser fiction often takes advantage of a kind of understood “magical realism” that isn’t familiar to new players.

Counterfeit Monkey is jaw-dropping once you realize the gimmick: you can literally transmute nouns in the text into other different nouns and create completely different game objects by re-spelling the words and this would be lost on novice players how incredible and difficult this is when they’re like “so…it’s auto-correct, the game?”

Even something classic and simple that would seem a good starting point: the one-room To Hell in a Hamper exploits and creates puzzles around the IF concept of “inventory” to the farcical point of “how can one person carry so many objects?” This is funny and ironic to any parser player who has nonchalantly stuffed a coat-rack inside a holdall but is lost on a new player.

It’s not just the new generation. I’ve been here (checks watch) around half a century and I often find myself unable to sit down and devote the attention to parser that it requires. There are very good games that are immediately engaging, but often the introduction to most games expect you will “wander around picking up a bunch of random objects that will somehow be useful later, and map the environment until you find a place you can’t go, then figure out how to go there.”


Ah, the weird mechanics of Counterfeit Monkey, To Hell in a Hamper/To Sea in a Sieve, and most recently Mathbrush’s Seedcomp entry Faery: Swapped. The good thing is there is a restriction on what things you can steal the names from.

I can relate to this. Post IFComp, I still have this parser strategy: start in the starting area. Next, try to >X what I see. Try to >TAKE ALL. Explore and map out whatever you can (some areas are indeed initially inaccessible). See where you can go from there. Rinse and repeat. I am slightly better at parser now. The hard part comes in making it yourself.