Spring Thing '16 post-mortem

The 2016 Spring Thing Festival of Interactive Fiction closed on May 7th. This was the second year of Spring Thing with the new format (details of the change here), and as organizer it seemed to be a successful one. Almost all the forward-facing aspects of the festival worked the same as last year: most of my improvements were on the back end, such as better systems to automate making game listings and handle author submissions.

First, some statistics: there were 17 entries this year, compared to 9 in 2015 and 9 in 2014 (the first year I was organizer, and last with the old format). It’s hard to say whether the uptick this year is a delayed reaction to the new format, coincidence, or some other factor. I did not do extra promotion this year compared to last (although in general in each of the last three years I have put some amount of work into announcing/promoting the event in various places). My logs show 2,864 unique visitors to springthing.net during the month of April (up about 60% over last year).

Most games were accessed between 250 and 500 times: usually around 90% of this was though the “Play Online” link. (The “all games” download on itch.io was downloaded 54 times.) Interestingly, traffic was pretty consistent across the full month (with an expected spike in the first few days): the site only dropped below 100 visitors per day three times while the festival was open, all on days during the final week. The top 5 referrers, in order, were the IFDB, PC Gamer’s “Free Games of the Week”, Facebook, Twitter, and the intfiction.org forum, meaning promotion is still mostly within the community and via word of mouth.

Here are some specific issues on my plate to think about before next year. I’d welcome responses to these, or to any other thoughts you have about the Thing, either here or to aaron at spring thing dot net.

** We had a non-digital game entered this year, “Standoff.” The story behind this is a little complicated: Matthew is someone I know IRL, and when he mentioned he was working on a new game, I invited him to submit. I didn’t realize it was a non-digital game, and when he submitted, I realized the site’s banner text says Spring Thing is for “celebrating new text-based computer games”. As a compromise, I asked if he’d be okay putting it in the Back Garden instead of the Main Festival: he graciously agreed, and besides a few raised eyebrows in reviews, I wasn’t aware of anyone having a big problem with this. While a little rule-bendy, it seemed in spirit with a different part of the site saying that the definition of interactive fiction is “a subjective judgment, and it’s one we’d like to leave up to authors whenever possible.” And in general, I’d like the Thing to be a place where we can encourage experimental games and a wider variety of games in general to co-exist: IF folks and tabletop storygame folks getting exposed to each others’ creations more is, I think, a win for both.

Going forward, however, I’m unsure how the Thing should handle submissions like this. I could broaden the scope to be “new text-based games” of any kind, but that might risk diluting the focus. (Would a riddle be a valid main festival entry? What about a text-heavy board game like Tales of the Arabian Nights?) Part of me thinks it would be delightful to promote works like these alongside more traditional IF, but I’m also worried this seems like too drastic a change. Another approach would be to allow these kinds of games only in the Back Garden; another would be to firmly state that the dominion of Spring Thing is digital text games, although this is still problematic (why should a Twine implementation of a CYOA be acceptable, but not a PDF of the same?) Another option is sticking with allowing authors to decide whether their game “counts”. Thoughts?

** The Alumni’s Choice ribbon. This hasn’t happened yet, but with the relatively low number of alumni, there’s a risk next year we might get, say, four nominations for four different games, and I’m not sure how I’d handle that. There’s also the chance (like last year) of both ribbons going to the same game, which is not a problem unless it tends to happen more often than not, in which case the value of having two ribbons is diluted. I really like this ribbon in theory, but I’m curious to hear people’s thoughts on its future.

** More pro-active outreach. The site says Spring Thing “welcomes all kinds of games by all kinds of people,” but the second part of that, especially, would benefit from more active effort. In particular, I would love to encourage more submissions from women and people of color. I have some preliminary thoughts, like announcing the festival in more places and making the site language more explicitly welcoming, but would love to hear more ideas on how Spring Thing can be a Thing that more folks from these and other underrepresented groups can discover and benefit from.

Some smaller points:

** Estimated playtimes. A few people have rightly pointed out that it’s strange to have games that can be played in two minutes next to longform games, with nothing in the description to indicate the difference. While this is true of many other IF / game events, I’m thinking of adding a second default tag (along with the game’s system) denoting the length. Something like:

  • Micro: Playtime around 5-10 minutes or less
  • Short: Playtime between 10 minutes and 2 hours (IF-Comp length)
  • Long: > 2 hours.

Concerns: that people might dismiss certain games out of hand they might otherwise have discovered and enjoyed, i.e. “I don’t have time for a long game”; that the audience won’t understand what these labels mean; that not all authors would want their games labeled like this or even know which one their game should be. Part of this might also be explicitly stating that games that can be exhausted in less than five minutes are probably too short for at least the Main Festival.

** Changes to rules on author speech. Right now there are none, just a guideline to be respectful. There was some concern from authors over whether it would be appropriate to review or comment on other games during the festival: the advantage of a rule is it makes this more clear, with the disadvantage being enforcement is difficult and problematic (hence IF Comp’s experimental relaxation of the author discussion rule). Not to mention whether the answer to that question should be yes or no…

** In-comp updates. These are allowed, and in general I think it’s a big win for authors to be able to improve their game based on feedback during the festival. The archivist in me is a little worried about reviews for games not being matched to specific versions, especially since several games went through significant revisions during the run of the festival. Right now I’m just replacing the build on the site and only archiving the most recent version: one idea would require authors to version their updates (which is not built-in to, for instance, Twine) and maintain a changelog of dates for each update which is saved along with the game. Should each prior version be archived/available on the Spring Thing site? Submitted to the IF Archive? This becomes tricky for larger games especially. Am I overthinking this? Does anyone care?

Thanks in advance for your feedback. [emote]:)[/emote]

Well, as someone who submitted several updates, it’s worth it for me to track the different binaries etc. Having a changelog helped me track things.

I don’t know if it’s necessary to submit each version to the IFArchive. I think that if the author takes the time to sort out which bugs are fixed between the beginning of the comp and the end, that should be good enough. I’m definitely willing to keep a changelog if that is the price of writing in updates. I don’t want to force process on my fellow authors, but I know when I take the time to do it, good things happen, and I get good fixes in. (Of course, good process before the comp is also a thing.)

Re: speech rules, I think “be nice” works. On the one hand I think it’s just polite not to review other authors’ games during the festival, though on the other hand “I’m in Spring Thing and I also enjoyed competitors’ games like (X).” I’d keep it open until someone pretty clearly abuses it.

I liked that you gave us a last chance to fix a few outstanding issues.

As for the 9-9-17: the chooseyourstory.com entrants may’ve seen the money and said, wow, why not give it a try? They were a big component of the 2014 comp, so if they decided not next year, then I think that may account for why we only saw a jump one year.

I also felt more comfortable entering this year than last–and I think the Back Garden worked well. I felt I was able to put my game there without saying or implying “Oh, but this isn’t my best or close to it.”

I also thin the

(Everything that I say below about “during a comp” should be read as applying to the main festival, not the back garden.)

Non-digital games: They should be excluded from both categories. Lots of things are cool and worth promoting, but that doesn’t make them IF. The more we stretch the definition, the harder it is to compare works meaningfully. Since Spring Thing is now more of an exhibition than a competition (a decision that I don’t favor), this is less important, but, still, genres exist for a reason, and people come to an IF festival to experience IF.

Alumni’s Choice ribbon: Keep it. If a problem does arise, I’m sure that people trust you to resolve it fairly.

Playtimes: I don’t see a need to label anything under 2 hrs. It wouldn’t take much longer to complete a micro game than to read the disclaimer that it’s micro. However, very long games could do with a warning. This might harm their chances, but the issue of people favoring judging short games (although not necessarily giving them higher scores) is inherent in a comp that allows games with drastically different playtimes. I don’t think that micro games should be excluded from the main festival; let them have their shot at delivering such a powerful experience that someone would vote for them over a more traditional game.

Author speech: I’m in favor of limitations on author speech during a comp. See the IFComp hush rule thread for my posts on this topic.

In-comp updates: I think that updates should be prohibited during a comp. If a game is broken or people don’t like certain elements of it, the author shouldn’t be allowed to fix it during the judging period to the detriment of competitors who designed and tested their games properly. If someone’s main festival game is so broken that it can’t be played at all, then it should be disqualified from that category. If the author produces a working version during the comp, it can go into the back garden.

I think non-digital games should be allowed in the Back Garden but not in the main area. It’s interesting to see some stuff that’s going on in IF-adjacent areas, given that IF is nebulously enough defined that it’s hard to tell whether something is IF-adjacent or not.

I’m strongly in favor of in-comp updates, just because they improve the experience for the players and also for the author of the game. As far as fairness to other authors goes, I think that even in a competitive environment it would shake itself out–if a game starts out bugged and gets updated during the comp, a lot of people will play the bugged version, and that will hurt its overall scores. (That’s what’s happened in IFComp, I believe.) And since Spring Thing has become more of an exhibition than a competition, I think there’s very little reason to prevent bugfixes that will lead to the production of better IF, which is what we’re ultimately interested in here.

Re: In-comp updates for Spring Thing, I second what matt w said.

Re: Non-digital games. Ehh, my gut reaction isn’t positive. I think the answer to questions like ‘why should a Twine implementation of a CYOA be acceptable, but not a PDF of the same?’ is usually ‘We can tell they’re not the same experience after a couple of seconds with each.’ There exist things like the Windhammer prize for paper CYOAs, and we have Windhammer winners right here on intfiction who also make digital games (FelicityBanks!)

I’m more open to the possibility of having non-digital games in the Back Garden only, though still concerned about the possibility of the dilution of the core mission of digital text games if suddenly it filled with more paper than text games. Then again there’s all that cross promotion. I suppose maybe if I were to saddle you (Aaron) with a ton of work, I’d say ‘Go out and find out about all the venues where people can exhibit that kind of work.’ : ) If it turned out there aren’t/weren’t many, you as the organiser could consider fostering the Spring Thing Back Garden as a place for that. I say that even as I’m not crazy about the idea.

Thanks for running it.


On PDF games: don’t forget that Simon Christiansen’s Trapped in Time won the 2013 XYZZY Award for Best Implementation (and was a finalist for Best Use of Innovation). Now it was clearly a choice based game, whereas Standoff was not.

None of Spring Thing, the IFComp or the XYZZY Awards are intended for prototypical board, RP, or story games, and I think it would be fine to generally block them. But there should also be some flexibility for when someone does inevitably produce some kind of mutant parser board game.

I see no problem with having an extra “Experimental Expo” type category for anything that people want to submit with the caveat it must be interactive, and it must be story-based fiction somehow. It could be a transient (on demand?) category depending on what is submitted each year.

I’m for every judge having one ribbon to award and leave it to the judge. If they all get awarded to one game, great. If every judge ribbons a different game, and there are five honored games, that’s also great. It’s a much more flexible system that allows a result other than “winner”. I would even consider letting alumni judge award any game including back garden based on their preference.

If prizes are involved, the alumni ribbons wouldn’t be considered in general voting. They’re a special recognition sort of thing.

Very much agreed. I like that this feels more like a workshop than a contest, and reviews could be purposely slanted more toward the constructive “let me get in here and tinker with your concept” type of advice rather than opinion whether the reviewer liked it. Exposing this process might be helpful to new IF authors. It would be neat if especially interesting and constructive reviews (perhaps chosen by the author) could be posted along with entries if they affected the development.

I’d perhaps suggest that authors must clearly label entries as they are updated, and reviewers must state which version they are reviewing. The site should increment this and it should be very clear that seeing a work-in-progress is part of the magic of Spring Thing.

This is a really interesting question. You could make a PDF that functions like a hypertext story–you could hyperlink words and they’d take you to other parts of the story depending on what you clicked. But many PDFs are functionally equivalent to printed pages.

I wonder if there are events in existence that welcome both digital and printed IF-adjacent stuff. That almost sounds like it could be a separate event.



Non-digital games: PDF/RTF/EPUB games are on the brink of digital and computer games but they are still digital games one can play on computer, they just have a better portability than other games because one can print them. Why kick them out of the comp?

Alumni’s Choice ribbon: Have every alumni send two nominations: first and the second place. Score each as 2 points for first and 1 point for second. If the winner wins the Audience choice, Alumni’s Choice goes to the runner-up.

Long games: maybe instead of playtimes you could publish the word count. That is a good exact metric, but I don’t know how it would align with mid-comp updates.

Hush rule: I don’t understand what’s the point in having it. We do want discussions around Spring Thing, right? If we don’t want any drama, maybe make a rule about that.

In-comp updates: A trick question because some games can be online partially or completely, with no way to archive them. Think Aspel. That’s a situation when the only person who can tell the last update date is the author herself.

So I want to counter this question with these:

  • Do you want to close the comp for online games or not?
  • Do you want more online-only IF?

I think it’s great to have all-inclusive comp that treats IF in broader terms. It gives more room for experimentation.

FWIW, re the update, I’m always against it, but it seems that it’s here to stay so I’ll be happy as long as there’s notification. I’d like either there to be an updated feed so that I know a new release is up, a dedicated thread where someone goes “Games X, Y and Z” have been updated, or some way of quickly seeing on the site which games have been updated.

I think this is only fair. If I download all the games on the first day but don’t get around to playing some of them until a few days have gone by (which is normal for me), I want to know whether I should re-download something to get the best experience.

Matt w, I don’t think it improves the player’s experience at all. It certainly didn’t improve mine to play the first version of the first Andromeda, not being terribly impressed, and then seeing a trickle of new updates making me feel like I’d missed something that the new updates made clearer - and not being motivated to play the whole thing again. Updates in-comp tell me I’ve wasted my time on a game. Post-comp updates do not have that message, and they have the bonus of having ALL the fixes and updates that were mentioned during the Comp period, instead of a trickle of versions. As a player, a trickle of new versions is downright frustrating! Especially in Inform, where saved games can’t “travel” between versions.

Of course it is, it’s one of the best things about post comp releases. During the actual comp… meh.

(I use “comp” to mean “spring thing” in this post, accourse. But it applies equally to both and all)

Hanon’s comment about the feeling of a “workshop” and seeing how a work evolves is the first time someone’s actually provided an argument for the in-comp updates that I can feel is valid. Even, so, though, in a workshop like that, you go past the thing, you see it, you read about it, you move on; you come back, you spot the differences, you read about them. That doesn’t translate well into a game, does it? In a game you replay the whole thing from scratch.

(Not pouncing on you in particular, vlaviano; just that you’ve been the first to express the opinion that I want to respond to.)

As an author, I do not think it is “to my detriment” that buggy games can get fixed during the festival.

The only way I can see it being to my detriment is if I want my game to win and I see “other games being bad” as helpful to that end. This is not the sort of competitiveness that I want to see or take part in, and I think Spring Thing already deliberately moved away from that when it became a festival. It’s also clearly a bad choice for the audience, since they don’t get to play the fixed game.

I’d be up for more transparency when a game is updated, though; partly so that judges can rank down bugfixed games if they want, but mainly so that players know they can have another go at a game if they hit a bug the first time.

Standoff isn’t what I personally want from interactive fiction, but I think it fit well into the back garden. That’s a good place for weird projects and/or cross pollination between mediums. I’d say you should accept more things like it. If you choose to put them into the main festival, though, that will definitely change the dynamic, which would probably entail reevaluating Spring Thing’s purpose. Right now I think that it’s fine for you to act as a curator to decide whether something belongs in the back garden, if you’re comfortable doing that. I doubt anyone will be able to come up with concrete rules about what should or shouldn’t fit. Each project will need to be considered individually if the lines between mediums are being blurred.

Which is why I’ll still dislike the “updates allowed” thing but am not really totally against in in the context of the Spring Thing. It does make sense here.

Just, y’know, make sure people know when updates happen. [emote]:)[/emote] That’d be enough to make me happy!

Re Standoff and its ilk, FWIW, that’s the beauty of the Back Garden. Experimentation! Crazy new stuff! What better place for that than a place like the Back Garden of the Spring Thing? It’s a festival, it’s a show, people entering those things may not necessarily want to win anything but instead just want to get their CRAZY IDEA out there and see it if catches, and see if it’s worth expanding - even less demanding than IntroComp in that regard.

I’m all for that!

Though neither a participant nor judge in THIS comp, it seems obvious to me that in-comp fixes should be banned, especially if that results in an unplayable game. I’m wíth vlaviano on this. If the changes are trivial, and only make it more difficult to play, then let the awkwardness be a justifiable minus point to the game.

I think that preventing updates to buggy games serves two purposes. First, it provides a more level playing field for competitors. Second, it provides motivation for authors to fix buggy games before the comp. They can’t tell themselves “oh, I don’t have time for extensive testing, but that’s ok. I can just fix it later.” Encouraging authors to test their games provides a better experience for players, not a worse one.

Someplace that’s not a computer game competition? I’m reading people’s opinions on this and feeling like I’m in Bizarro World. Standoff is a PDF, a pencil and paper RPG, not computer-mediated in any way, and requires 3 or more players. If this is IF, so’s a PDF of the AD&D Player’s Handbook.

I felt the same way a long time ago when I saw that a graphical adventure had been entered into the comp. I don’t remember the name, it was before my time.

Compared to that, and given the influx of CYOA and Sorcery! and Trapped in Time and 80 Days… even Actual Sunlight is listed on IFDB… and then there are some entries in the imaginary jam…

My point is, it’s kinda late to stop these things. They’ve been here awhile and they continue to come. We might as well embrace the diversity - even if, privately, we don’t bother to play the ones which are not the sort of IF we have specifically come to see.

EDIT - There are some “games” in the ifarchive which are nothing but transcripts of imaginary games. I mean… If a line was to be drawn, it was to be drawn quite a while ago. If it was, it got rubbed out.

Forbidding people from updating games during the comp seems pointless to me (honestly I don’t understand the mindset at all that makes people care about this). I don’t see that it would have an observable effect on the state of games that are submitted, to begin with; the only unplayably broken game submitted to a comp that I remember from last year was submitted to a comp with a no-updating rule, so the small amount of anecdata we have actually suggests the effect is negative if anything. And if a game is unplayably broken, it probably won’t be fixed in time for an in-comp update, at least not before people notice it was released in a broken state. So the only real effect of a no-update rule is forcing minorly bugged versions of games to stand for the duration of the comp, aggrieving players and authors. Such a rule definitely has no place in what is supposed to be a primarily non-competitive exhibition.

And, to be quite honest, I feel like people with seemingly no experience doing software development presume too much; there is no guaranteed way to find and correct bugs, and games have been released with significant bugs even after extensive testing. Saying “if your game has bugs, you have to live with them for the duration of the event” seems at odds with the welcoming approach ST is trying to take, particularly w/r/t the portion of authors who are not programmers or who have limited experience as programmers.

On the subject of paper games, I would actively encourage them as back garden entries. Cross-pollination is a great thing, and perhaps the identity Spring Thing wants is to be the site of that cross-pollination. Cross-pollination, in fact, is sorely missing from the IF community and the discourse surrounding it, so I view actively resisting it as counterproductive. And, if something can be classed as a cyber/hypertext or a proxy for such a thing, it should be eligible for the main festival. Things that could be IF or IF-adjacent enough for Spring Thing, in my view: A tabletop storygame with an web/digital component; a gamebook alongside schematics for a physical machine that implements its game mechanics; CYOA books; gamebooks; card deck fiction.

Wow, the revision rule has been in place that long. I see your point in a way, and it’s a shame that this diminished your experience–but without the revision rule, it seems like you’d have played the first version, not been impressed… and everyone else playing the comp would’ve played the same version with its flaws. I get your idea about post-comp revisions (though I’m not sure why in-game updates tell you you wasted your time and post-comp updates don’t), but as far as I can tell very few people play most of them compared to in-comp updates. Even the post-comp comp, when it happened, didn’t seem to get much traction outside of the few participants.

(I did try to play the post-comp release of Snowquest, thinking “Gosh, the changes are very subtle,” all the way to the Big Thing, whereupon I realized that since the post-comp release had been posted as a .zip file, the Play Online link went to the original version, which I’d already played. Now that told me I’d wasted my time. This is a periodic reminder to post the unzipped versions of your story files. Of course this plays into my particular idiosyncrasies in a way that wouldn’t affect you at all.)

So AFAICT, the balance sheet for players is that a fair number of people play an improved version of a game, while some people who play earlier wind up playing the less-improved version of the game and perhaps feel frustrated about missing out. It’s not exactly an improvement for everyone, but I think it balances out better for the players.

Why is this important, though? The Spring Thing has already moved away from being a competition to a festival; how does is it really hurt one author if another author gets the chance to improve their game during the comp? It seems unlikely that a game that starts out buggy would wind up taking the ribbon.

(And, as I said before, even in a more competitive competition, a game whose first release is buggy or flawed will get downvoted by the people who play the first release, so the playing field is still level. Actually, here’s a question: Since 2011 what’s the highest-placing entry that was revised in-comp, and more subjectively, wouldn’t have placed so highly without the revision

But most authors do test and try to fix buggy games before a comp. It’s just that testing is very difficult and not everything can always be caught. Especially if you release something untested and buggy, waiting for the reviewers to catch the problems; you aren’t gonna catch 'em all. Authors are already encouraged to test their games–the in-comp revision rule doesn’t change that! It only encourages them to keep trying to fix their games. I can say from sad firsthand experience that it’s possible to find yourself releasing a game with a bug in it even after extensive testing. (Also, this speaks to the other point about the competition, I don’t think most people actually played the later uploaded version that suppressed the bug.)

(On preview I see that Sequitur has said more or less the same thing.)

It may be too subjective for me to try and convince anyone, and I’m cool with that. I want to play the game the author wanted to make. The post-comp dynamic is: the author made the game they wanted to make, with the usual constraints of the comp (anxiety, sudden lack of time for testing and development and whatnot as the deadline approaches, etc). The game gets played and rated. The author takes all the feedback from during the comp and gets to work on making the game they really wanted to make in the first place.

As a player, I know what I’m being offered - a post-comp version with all the little things hopefully ironed out. Maybe they’re not, because nothing’s every finished and totally bug-free, but the author has taken all of the feedback of a lengthy period of people playing and reviewing and made me a polished version of their game, so that I can play something a lot closer to what they had in mind!

With the in-comp updates, the dynamic is totally different. In this last IFComp, the first week of October saw lots of updates daily, some of them to the same game. As a player, I’m being told “Here, play this. No, wait, play this. Argh, no, play this instead”. My reply is “Tell you what, I’ll wait until you’re done - because you obviously aren’t - and THEN I’ll play it”.

(I’ve been holding off playing Scroll Thief and Synesthesia Factory because of this. I’ll probably be getting around to ST soon, and SF’s post-comp release is supposed to be so much closer to what Lucea intended I prefer to just wait a while longer. But of course, this perspective is utterly impractical and impossible to apply in an actual Comp situation, which is why I usually play them after the comps and the updates. Which makes me probably unsuitable for this discussion. Meh)

There are probably too many variables here to say for certain. For instance, anyone playing the online versions will almost certainly always have played the latest version at that time. Anyone who downloaded the big zip file is more likely not to have seen any updates at all, unless they were actively looking for them (an unusual activity for a potential judge!).

I’ll grant you that a post-comp release means a player will have to play the game again, and that’s not always palatable. That’s possibly the biggest reasons authors are so keen on it. More people play the in-comp updates, sure - they might not even know the game’s updated, or not even care, as long as they can click a link that’s always updated and get the latest version. They don’t really choose to play the in-comp updates the way they’d choose to play a post-comp.

To be fair, the only time when this was actually abused, IIRC, was “A Comedy of Errors” - that’s the one that even changed its name mid-comp, wasn’t it? For the most part, the fixes are simply crucial bug-fixes - likes in your own Terminator game. I find it hard to fault an update that fixes a critical bug, as a player (my opinions as a judge are quite different, but I never judge at the comp, so it’s moot).

There’s a difference, though, between “Here, sorry, have this one instead, it’s the same as the one you have except it’s got a critical bug fixed” and “Here, have this one. Oh, no, sorry, have this one. Erm, actually, this one is best. No, wait, can you come over tomorrow?”. Andromeda did that a lot, as I recall.

That is a reasonable argument. I’ll be content to accept that. Thank you for that perspective.

FWIW, that’s a reasonable thing to say in ANY competition. I see the advantages of in-comp updates for authors (matt w explained it in a way I could better understand it, bless him), so I see why authors will want to keep the rule… but it puzzles me that authors will see this as an obvious rule and their given right. In any competition, you have a deadline, you submit your piece, and you get ranked. The updates-allowed rule is not an undeniable right, it’s a privilege.

HOWEVER: I don’t want to take things out of context, and you said this in regards specifically to ST, and you’re very right that ST has taken pains to be relaxed and welcoming. It’s just that I’ve seen that attitude before towards the Comp as well. So it’s slightly off-topic here, but since we’re all talking about it all, well. [emote]:)[/emote]