Spring Thing '15 postmortem and feedback thread

The 2015 Spring Thing broke with tradition in a couple of significant ways. My general impression is that things went well this year, but I’d love any comments on how people thought it went, or what you think could be improved for future years.

Things that seemed to go well, from my perspective:

  • Participation. There were nine games submitted from a variety of systems, which is above the historical average for the Thing and quite close to last year. Yay!

  • Drama. No major drama this year among authors or between communities, at least none that I was aware of (although this is statistically much more likely to be coincidence than attributable to the new format).

  • No Entry Fee. Nothing seemed to change appreciably because of this.

  • Relaxed Rules. Again, this did not seem to cause any problems this time around, although it might need to take a year with some tension to really test the laissez-faire approach.

  • The Back Garden. A win, from my perspective: it seemed to provide a place for a handful of interesting games you wouldn’t normally have seen in a comp.

Things that went okay but could have been better:

  • Some outreach, but maybe not enough. I announced the Thing here on intfiction.org (home base of its traditional parser-based community), but also on Twitter, and forums for Ren’Py, ChoiceScript, ChooseYourStory, Twine, and two academic groups of interactive story people (the Electronic Literature Organization and the GamesNetwork mailing list). I also made a reminder post about a week before intents were due to most of these places. I tried to keep the Twitter account active with posts about past and current games, although I’m not sure how effective this was since it has fewer than 100 followers.

The outreach seemed at least somewhat successful: there were Twine and Ren’Py submissions, and I’m pretty sure the latter at least was due to my post. There are lots of other interactive story communities I didn’t reach, however: either because I didn’t know about them, couldn’t find a community forum to advertise on, or didn’t have time to reach out to them. Maybe Spring Thing needs an intern to help with next year’s outreach?

  • Traffic. springthing.net had 1,802 unique visitors during the month of April, which is almost identical to last year (the first year I was organizing the festiva). So it seems at least the new format didn’t discourage traffic, although it didn’t seem to increase it much, either.

  • Ribbons. Both ribbons were given to the same game this year, which is totally fine, but I think if it happens consistently every year, the benefit of having multiple ribbons is somewhat weakened. My impression is the main IF Comp’s Miss Congeniality Award tends to go to a different game than the 1st place winner, but it could be that in Spring Thing alumni vote less like authors, or the pool size of games or voters is too small to see such an effect. Alumni participation was also quite low (predictably: alumni may not even be involved in IF any more, and playing enough games to vote for a winner is a big time commitment).

  • Prizes. There were fewer this year than in prior years (only two, not counting mine). My suspicion is that cash prizes were a very hassle-free way of helping the festival, and by disallowing them I threw up an obstacle not everyone had time to overcome. I also probably could have done a better job canvassing for prize donations (maybe to some of the same places the festival itself got promoted).

Things to definitely improve:

  • Submission Snafu. I messed up the intent to enter form and thus had to scramble to track down and confirm authors. I don’t know of anyone who submitted an intent and got left out; but I can’t rule out that this happened, either. Hopefully this was a one-time thing to do with the site redesign.

Things I’m not sure about:

  • No numerical feedback (rankings / public voting data). Curious to hear people’s thoughts on this: I’ve heard some mentions that it’s frustrating not to know how well your game was received (to the extent a ranking is a proxy for this), and some sentiment that it has the intended effect of reducing pressure on authors.

I’d welcome feedback anyone has on these or any other aspects of the new Thing, either here, in a comment on the duplicate blog post, or to aaron at spring thing dot net.

I agree. I wanted to do something to contribute even though I had no time to play or review due to trying to finish my B.S. program. I knew I would have time after the festival ended, so I offered to make a website. And this past week, I’ve realized how ridiculous my offer looks alongside only one other service prize. I still think it might have been appropriate as a novelty prize for the fall Comp, as one of many varied prize donations. But as a featured “grand prize” (simply because of being one of only three prizes), it doesn’t make any sense. The people who would be choosing the prize may well be far more qualified to make a hand-crafted HTML5 web design than I am, and at any rate everyone can make a website for their game with something like Weebly.

Yeah, I definitely did not expect to be only one of two people donating prizes this year. (I also ran into some computer problems a while ago, so that’s probably going to cause a delay.) Maybe you should be more aggressive about it next year?

Perhaps it would be possible to set up something like an Amazon wishlist for prize donation, to accommodate the people who would donate to the cash prize pool (who presumably don’t want to go the trouble of picking something out to donate, buying it, shipping it, and so on).

I’m not sure I would have donated anyway, but when I saw that awarding prizes was basically a random raffle rather than a competition, I didn’t really see the point of adding more prizes. To be clear, I’m fine with moving away from the competitive aspect, but the idea of prizes seems kinda vestigial now.

My understanding is that SpringThing started as a way to encourage works that were longer than the 2-hour-limit encouraged by the IFComp. None of the entrants this year seemed any longer than a typical IFComp game, and most were in fact shorter. I haven’t played most of the games from recent SpringThings (I just happened to have free time to play all the games this year), so maybe it hasn’t been about long games for a while now. But I think it would be nice to figure out how to encourage longer games again, if possible. Perhaps SpringThing is no longer the venue for that, which I am also fine with.

Personally I am always in favor of full transparency in voting, but that’s just personal preference and I respect the arguments against it. Usually it’s fairly clear from reviews (on blogs etc) how people felt about all the non-winning games, but it seemed like there was a dearth of reviews this year. But maybe I just wasn’t looking in the right places for them?

I would have liked to be privately told how I did in the ribbon vote; I have a reasonable guess based on reactions from blogs and so on, but it’s only a guess.

Having the alumni’s choice ribbon “fall off” to the second-place winner (Perhaps using some form of approval/ranking vote?) seems like a reasonable idea to me. Or perhaps replacing that with a judge panel?

I feel like the environment for IF and alt-games has shifted significantly from the time when Spring Thing was created, honestly. I’m not sure long games specifically need a venue; it seems to me that if you write a longer piece of IF, releasing it outside of a comp is pretty reasonable and likely to get you plenty of exposure.

Oh, also: For people who didn’t see this already, here’s a podcast talking about the Main Festival entries.

Edit: I do feel like this year’s festival was a success and I was happy with how it went, though.

Adam Cadre wrote about how disappointed he was by the lack of response to Endless, Nameless. Maybe winning SpringThing wouldn’t have improved the response much, but if even a “famous” author like Cadre can’t get “plenty of exposure” for a longer non-commercial game released outside a comp, I doubt very much that any non-famous authors would.

I’m not sure a sample size of one is really the best to make that case, though. Hadean Lands was also released by itself (of course) though after what we might call an extensive hyping process. Regardless, producing a longer work and submitting it to Spring Thing is still possible. But I wouldn’t disagree that a comp for longer-form works might be a good idea. Though maybe that’s the sort of thing best served as a year-end retrospective or award kind of deal.

I have to say that I really appreciated the relaxed rules. Especially how we were allowed to update our games mid-festival. I finished Toby’s Nose so close to the deadline that I had no time for beta-testing, which I realize is meant to be a big no-no for Spring Thing games. But I entered anyway because I felt confident that the game had no major bugs. The game did play well enough with that initial release, but it was still a relief to be able to go back and fix any little disambiguation errors that reviewers ran into.

Maybe it’s bad that the relaxed rules permitted this behavior on my part. I still have to call it out as a positive thing because it made the festival much less stressful than it otherwise would’ve been for me. I was already stressed enough running up against the deadline!

Regarding the ribbons, I’m of course happy that I was able to win both, but it’s true that you can’t really appreciate their value when you don’t know how many people voted. If only three people voted for the Alumni’s Choice Ribbon, that deflates the impact.

If the festival had fewer reviews than normal, it still had plenty where I’m coming from! I’ve been writing for years and I’ve never had work featured on a podcast! Toby’s Nose has garnered more attention than any novel or short story I’ve put out.

It’s a little sad for me that this is the only year there hasn’t been a cash prize, because as a freelancer in a dry spell that would’ve legitimately helped me pay my rent. I would’ve been willing to pay an entry fee to contribute to cash awards for the winners.

Overall, though, this was a very positive experience for me!

Chandler, have you considered a Patreon for IF? I’d back you. [emote]:)[/emote]

I don’t have a Patreon, but I probably should make one. I appreciate the encouragement!

I also appreciated the relaxed rules and the presence of the Back Garden. I don’t mostly enter competitions these days, but I felt I could put something in the Back Garden without causing any distress or taking anything away from others, and it also felt like an ideal place for something rather experimental. And that seems to have worked, as I haven’t gotten any “you shouldn’t have entered” blowback this time. I’d love to see this feature continue.

Prizes: I can see a couple of objectives to these.

  1. to build a sense of community through the exchange of small friendly gifts. I feel like this is what most IF Comp prizes have been, especially once you got past the top five or so. This doesn’t require the prizes to be vastly costly; the important thing is more that a bunch of people are contributing.

  2. encourage authors to put in more work to make a quality project, or reward authors who have done so. Maybe would require more prizes and money, would definitely require those line up with winning (and having a ranking system). That said, I think a fair amount of quality stuff is being written without that incentive already.

  3. As Chandler says, and as we also discussed in the IF Comp postmortem in theoryclub at one point: to support some freelancers so that they can do IF work sometimes and still pay the rent. But if that’s the aim, I’m not really sure whether competition is the best way to do it – prize amounts in comps tend to go up and down (IF Comp’s top prizes have ranged from a hundredish on up to $400 or so, IIRC), it’s unpredictable whether they’re going to line up with who actually would most benefit financially, and “can I pay the rent?” stakes suddenly make competing and voting a much bigger deal with larger concerns about fairness. For that kind of support, it seems like backing steady Patreons and things like the IF Fund could be more useful. But maybe others feel like that’s not the case, I’m not sure.

(Also, from a prize donation perspective, now that I live in the UK, I’d much rather donate either cash or things that can be done via Amazon or gift certificates; otherwise the odds are pretty good I’m going to wind up spending more on shipping than on the object itself.)

OK, so my thoughts: I ended up dropping out due to one part thinking I might have to review the games for SPAG in lieu of others (in practice, all of Spring Thing became accounted for, but at the time it was up in the air) and several parts my own schedule/feature creep/sluggishness/suddenly, completely unexpectedly, having a 9-to-5 day job where I couldn’t write IF. It had nothing to do with the rehaul of the comp, though, and I thought the changes were for the most part excellent and much needed.

As for longer games: Part of this, I think, is a bit of… inspiration creep? The longer games of the past, I feel, were largely the result of writers attempting to emulate Infocom and, subsequently, the longer games that came in its wake. These days there are very few longer games out there, and the ones that exist are largely commercial affairs and/or often specifically commissioned by experienced writers. I’d actually say the opposite – if you release a longer game, and if it’s neither of the above, it’s likely to get little attention. Of course I’d like this to change (and am in fact in a position to help this change, if "being reviewed/Specifics’d in SPAG counts, which it might not for much), but I’m also part of the problem in that I have not yet completed any of my works that are probably going to go longer.

There’s also the issue of time spent vs. possible reward, or less euphemistically working for free – which brings me to prizes. The “cash prizes are probably more hassle-free” is a point I hadn’t thought of (I know that I’d be more inclined to PayPal someone than find something to donate, go to the post office, etc.) But honestly, I think the mere existence of cash prizes is likely to encourage some writers to enter, who would normally view the comp as, quite literally, not worth their effort.

(Also, and apologies to hijack the thread to self-promote… if anyone wants to provide that feedback, at length, in print [well, “print”], my inbox is always open.)

Thanks to everyone for the feedback. I’ve read and thought about it all, even the points I’m not responding to directly here. A couple additional thoughts:

I definitely don’t think there’s reason to ever feel bad about donating a prize to anything, especially something handmade! That said, perhaps the wording of the prize listing could be changed to emphasize these aren’t “grand prizes” (as felt more the case in years past) but individual gifts. I definitely don’t want to discourage prize donations.

I do hear and respect this sentiment; it’s probably the change I’ve struggled with the most.

My hope was that the new system could work, as emshort said, “to build a sense of community through the exchange of small friendly gifts.” I don’t think there’s any way to have large-value prizes without ranking games, which makes things more stressful for authors, gives incentive for cheating, which in turn necessitates stricter rules and enforcement about everything, etcetera.

Having a single cash prize for the ribbon winner would avoid ranking, but provides if anything even more incentive to try to manipulate the vote (with no runner-up perks).

I wonder if there’s some way the resources of Spring Thing (however limited) could be applied to help ribbon-winning authors make money off their games. I’m thinking of literary or film competitions that offer winners a “chance for a distribution deal” with a major publisher or studio, which I assume equates to setting up a meeting the winner wouldn’t otherwise be able to arrange. With more paid venues for text games appearing, something like this might be increasingly possible. I suppose a related idea would be prize donations from people able to help an author package their game as an iOS app, or similar technical assists.

I tend to agree with the notion that Spring Thing has rarely, if ever, actually been about this: despite explicitly providing a space for it, in contrast to IF Comp, there just aren’t really that many long-form text games released in any given year, and these days, the ones that exist are often released commercially. I feel like we can encourage all we want, but the content’s just not there. I also think de-emphasizing this aspect of Spring Thing helps increase submissions: I’ve talked to a lot of people in the last two years who weren’t sure if their game was “long enough” to be a valid entry.

Something I would like to do a better job at in future years is compiling links to reviews. If you subscribe to Planet IF, follow IF people on Twitter, watch IFDB, keep up on message boards, etc., you see a lot of reviews pop up, but authors might not be doing any of these things, let alone random visitors to the festival page. Maybe this is just a matter of linking games to IFDB pages and encouraging people to keep adding review links there.

I definitely understand the concern, but I think this has to be all or nothing: if some of this info is released, there’s a power dynamic about who has it and who doesn’t, missing info can be reconstructed from pieces, and then I might as well have just publicly ranked the games in the first place. (See also: sites that reconstruct a private dataset from user-submitted info, like trackers for the current wait time on App Store approval).

I guess it boils down to whether the negative emotions involved in not knowing how well your game did outweighs the potential negative emotions in knowing it did poorly. I’m glad to keep the discussion on this open, but for the moment my tendency is to say I’m still okay with Spring Thing being on the opposite side of this from the IF Comp.

Having a judging panel is one situation where it would potentially make sense to associate a cash prize with it, but wrangling a representative panel of judges (itself no small task, given the huge range of authors and communities writing IF today) not to mention getting them to commit to a big time investment is a lot of work. I’m not sure I’d realistically be able to handle it on top of running the comp.

I’ll point out, though, that it’s completely possible for a third party to set up something like this in conjunction with the Spring Thing, and award either a ribbon or prize of their own devising to one of the entrants.

The last Windhammer Prize supposedly was going to get the top three published by Tin Man Games, but I don’t believe that’s been finished yet.

The unfortunate detail here is while the choice games have some possible outlet like the aforementioned, parser games are pretty much out of luck (at the moment?)

If nothing else, you could make Itch.io “pay what you want” links the default for games that want that mode of distribution, I guess? But it’s complicated because not everyone has the same idea of what they want for their game. Regardless of its quality, for instance, Mere Anarchy is short enough that I don’t think I could commercially distribute it with a straight face (beyond the level of just saying “pay me 0 or more of your US dollars”); other authors may feel differently, if they submitted a several-hours-long opus for instance.

Also: A thing that was talked about on IFMud that I don’t think filtered down to this thread is, now that Spring Thing is no longer just for longer works, how do we go about encouraging those, and is there a problem with releasing longer pieces (Ie, longer than “comp length”) of IF right now?

Re: prizes, what if there were some small limited-edition physical thing that every author got for participating? I’m thinking along the lines of a mug or a laser-cut medallion. If it were something that could be bought from a fab/print-on-demand place like Shapeways or Lulu or Spoonflower, they could handle the distribution and donors could simply contribute cash. This seems to me to be in line with the “festival” atmosphere.

I like that idea tove! Shapeways do gold plated things - which could even be used for the winners (although then the ‘ribbon’ language would seem a big off.)