In my IFComp research, after playing 20-30 games from each of the comps, I’ve noticed some patterns in what the players and judges are looking for, and I wanted to share those here.
I’ve noticed a sort of ‘hierarchy of needs’, which I’ve abstracted for the following list. The idea is that things at the beginning are so glaring that players won’t care about things later on the list. This is of course a gross over-simplification, but it can be useful.
The hierarchy is as follows:
Tier I-Basic competency
- Level 1: The author needs to be trying. Games like Sisyphus or Toiletworld or The Absolute Worst IF Game in History end up last because the author is just trolling.
- Level 2: All bugs should be eliminated. Guard Duty came in 2nd to last in 1999, even though it had complex characters and a rich world, because it had a game killing bug right at the start. In general, lots of big bugs will send your game to the bottom of the list. No one can get rid of all bugs, though. Emily Short won with Floatpoint in 2006 despite a big, noticeable bug.
- Level 3: All typos should be eliminated. As Paul o Brian said about a 2001 game that placed almost last: “It’s too bad this game didn’t give out points every time I spotted an error, because if it did, I think I’d have earned 524,000 points out of a possible 200, earning me the rank of Gibbering Grammarian.” This is just one person, but it shows how some people are very opposed to any typos.
Tier II-Amount of content
- Level 1: The game needs a lot of content. Well done but short games can still place high, but the top games always have a significant amount of content. I’ve tried to formalize this before as a specific amount of commands (around 150 typed commands or 200+ hyperlinks in a playthrough), but it’s best just to play other top games to see what’s expected.
- Level 2: The content needs to be visible in some way. Final Exam, Pogoman Go!, Spy Intrigue and Baker of Shireton all had a significant amount of content that was hidden. Many people rated these games lower because they didn’t know there was anything else. Birdland solved this problem by dividing the game into different Days with a ramping up of tension, and crossed-out links showing what the player was missing; Detectiveland solved it by having 4 ‘Cases’; after completing one, you had an idea how long the others were. A lot of long games suffer from ‘flail around till something happens’ syndrome, where there’s no guidance as to what the player can do next. This is similar to the hidden content problem; players have no idea when the game will end. At least one author has said that this advice I’m giving is not good, so take it with a grain of salt.
- Level 3: The content needs to not be repetitive. The House at The End of Rosewood Street is very cool, but requires you to knock at 8 doors and deliver 8 papers for 7 days in a row. It is extremely tedious; the game is otherwise very good. Your content is only fun if it isn’t being recycled over and over. That’s why procedurally generated games are so often boring.
- Level 1: The game needs an original setting. Many of the middle zone of IFComp games are games that have trite and over-used settings. Dungeons and Dragons-type quests for gems and fighting wizards are almost always down here, including in the last few years. Office and home-exploring games are often down here too.
- Level 2: The game needs interesting mechanics. You can get pretty far with just TAKE, DROP, LOOK, EXAMINE, etc. but a consistent set of original mechanics can get you far (like Morayati’s Take or Kwak’s How to Win at Paper Rock Scissors). The mechanic doesn’t have to be a gameplay one; Untold Riches had standard gameplay, but a fun mechanic where the narrator would tell funny stories about everything.
- Level 3: The game needs good writing. This is hard, and I can’t really comment on this too much as I’m not that qualified. Fortunately, there is a wealth of help for this online.
I debated about the ordering of Tier II and Tier III; so don’t take this all too literally. But I think it helps me focus on my priorities in writing. Please feel free to comment if you disagree or have thoughts.
Notice that creative but short games like Take, Mirror and Queen, and The Queen’s Menagerie placed below longer games with more standard gameplay. Fair and Midnight Swordfight were short but with high replay value, so they still count as ‘a lot of content’.