Thoughts for prospective IFComp authors?

This is my second year entering IFComp, and I remember that I was surprised by quite a few things last year. So I thought it would be fun to compile some things as a sort of heads-up to people thinking about writing a game. Here’s my thoughts:

Bugs and typos are strongly frowned upon. Games with a lot of bugs tend to score very poorly, and typos are considered bugs. There was one reviewer last year who started every review with a quote from the game showing a bug or typo in it. If you have to pick between a big, buggy game and a small, very polished game, the polished game would more likely be successful. To help you out…

There are a lot of people willing to help. This forum has a subforum dedicated to beta testing. Every time I’ve asked for help, I’ve gotten quick responses. This page has some links to articles on good beta testing; the links to places to find collaborators are out of date (for instance, is defunct).

Judges can be harsh. The IFComp is probably the most harshly judged competition, and it attracts reviewers from several countries and from many different viewpoints. Every game got some negative review last year. Sam Kabo Ashwell has a great blog post about what to expect reviewers and how to handle bad reviews.

There is a private author’s forum in intfiction. When the comp starts, you’ll be linked to a private forum letting you talk to the other authors to have fun, vent, or to support each other.

Winning isn’t anything. Andrew Schultz gave me great advice last year: you can feel successful if you can enjoy every game that places higher than yours. Also, many people don’t even want to win; some just want to participate in the larger IF community, some want to get attention for their project, and some want to stir up controversy.

Miscellaneous The 2 hour rule can be interpreted in different ways, but if your game is going to take a lot longer than 2 hours to play, many people will not finish it. Spring Thing allows longer games, and this last Spring Thing attracted quite a bit of attention.

Also, Emily Short is not reviewing games this year, for various reasons. I mention this because many authors have worried about/pushed for these reviews in the past. Many others plan on reviewing IFComp this year, though (hopefully the breakfast reviews!).

Anyway, this was really long, but if anyone else has thoughts, feel free.

1 Like

A thought: there are some reviewers who frequently review IFComp. You can look at past competition pages at IFWiki (for instance, … on#Reviews) to find out who they are.

While I haven’t entered IFComp, I have found that it helps to put reviews in perspective if I’m already familiar with particular reviewers’ tendencies. It’s eye-opening to read their reviews of IF I’ve played to see whether/how much our preferences overlap. If a reviewer generally likes elements that I dislike, or dislikes aspects that I like, or is generally picky and harsh, I know not to expect them to be pleased with something I’ve written.

1 Like

This is a good primer, thank you for writing it!

It is a good primer. It’s a shame that probably the majority of new entrants won’t see it, but that’s always been the problem - they only become aware of the super helpful baseline advice after the comp’s started and they’ve joined this forum.

I suppose we could slow-repeat spam our collective social media channels with ‘THINKING OF ENTERING IFCOMP? READ THIS/THESE!’ type communications.


1 Like

This is why I joined the forum a month in advance! [emote]:D[/emote] Gave me a lot more time to get to know everybody and to establish something of a presence so people have a better idea what my deal is when I do need to ask for help or advice.

I gotta be honest, I’m a little sad Emily isn’t gonna review as I’m a fan of hers and the off-chance that she’d review my game, even if the reaction was “what is this garbage?” was pretty exciting. Still, there are other reviewers I’m looking forward to hearing thoughts from.

I’ve been very happy with the helpfulness of the community so far. As a rule, critical but helpful is a good combination for an author community.

One thing I could add is that self-proofreading does not work. Copy-editing is something I got experience with and if you think it helps me at all finding typos in my own work, you are wrong. The problem is that as a writer, you know what it’s SUPPOSED to say and often see that instead of what’s really there.

(Proofreading is something I can personally help out with. I’m pretty rubbish at parser games, but my ability to go through a text and nitpick is beyond reproach.)

1 Like

I might as well keep this rollin’ because I learned a lot last year on my first go-around. Note that the following might apply only to parser entries.

Include a walkthrough. Everybody has said this, and everybody is right, for the reasons that everybody has said before: doing so gives players the option of using it, which is very powerful. And, equally as importantly, (also via everybody) you don’t want players to get stuck on something stupid because, say, you forgot to implement some alternate verb. That happens a lot, and the walkthrough bails them out a lot.

Make your walkthrough foolproof. Because even non-fools act like fools sometimes.

People love a good ending. Endings are hard to write and are often of lesser concern to the author, but my feeling is they can have a disproportionate impact on the player’s experience. From what I’ve seen, people will often completely dismiss an entire movie, book, or game just because they didn’t like the ending. (This didn’t happen to me, per se, since no one ever reached the ending of my game.)

If your game is too long, for chrissakes don’t point that out in the ABOUT text like I did. Or anywhere. This goes for any shortcoming you perceive in your own work, even merely in regards to being a contest entry. If you do, it becomes a thing, and players won’t have to decide on that flaw for themselves. Just submit without comment.

Keep in mind that your game’s difficulty has a substantial impact on how long it takes to play. If we’re being strict about 2 hours, you only have time for one or two truly difficult puzzles, in my opinion. Of course you have to balance that with the rest of the game’s content.

If you want to place well, your game needs to be substantial and you should worry more about it being too short than too long. This is my own perception and may be controversial. When I look at the top 10 IFComp finishers from any year, I’m basically looking at a list of games that took me longer than 2 hours to complete. Maybe that’s only because there’s a good correlation between length of works and the quality of implementation and writing. Or maybe judges are lenient on the 2-hour rule when something really grips them. Or maybe I’m just slow. Perhaps all three, but in any case, I see a trend. On the other hand, attention spans are supposed to be getting shorter, right?

1 Like

Whoa, you’re completely write about the ‘apologizing in the blurb’ issue. I think there are quite a few games that would have scored better in the past if they didn’t shout out all their shortcomings in the blurb . John Evans’ game The Chronicler was more complete and interesting than many ifcomp games, but it said it wasn’t finished in the blurb, and it placed Dead Last.

I agree about length, too. Every high placing game in the history of the comp that I’ve looked at was long or required many replays for a satisfying ending

1 Like

You’re right - and I say that as someone who got lambasted for submitting a game that (I later heard) took many people 5-8 hours. There were a lot of complaints, but the benefit of depth offset them.

I’m not an IFComp author or an authority about how to place high, but I’ll add: The walkthrough is part of your submission, so make it good. Your walkthrough shouldn’t just be targeted at someone who’s planning to type it in as is, but also someone who’s genuinely stuck, maybe can’t figure out your hints if you have them, but would like to scan the walkthrough, find one solution, and keep playing. So try to break it up into sections where the player will be able to tell what’s going on and maybe explain some of why the commands are as they are. A walkthrough that’s just a string of commands can be very disorienting (especially if the player is moving from one room to another), and I’ve seen a few games that suffered from this–I would spend an enormous amount of time trying to orient myself in the walkthrough and accidentally spoil myself on stuff I would’ve liked to work on on my own.

1 Like

Even though the game is free, treat the blurb as if you were releasing it commercially. It should give you a good sense of the game’s tone and genre and what sort of experience you can expect to have with it. I see so many blurbs that are completely cryptic and one of two sentences long, and it’s really hard to tell from those what the game behind them is even about. Some of them still do really well, so I guess this isn’t really advice on how to win, just something I think would make the competition better if more people did it.

Remember that Comp voters have biases - Parser games have won every year, accessible games tend to do better than emotionally difficult ones, and games that overshoot the two-hour mark tend to outperform the ones that undershoot it. The people who vote in the Comp are a narrow cross-section of the IF audience, and not objective arbiters of value (as if such a thing existed). This can feel unpleasant if you really do care about your placement - particularly if the prize pool is helping you justify investing the time and effort into it. But:

Remember that Comp placement is not the end - Games that have not placed highly in the comp have gone on to be critically well-regarded. If you go back and look at the best IF of a given year, games with middling comp scores often show up. Attention from outside IF, Xyzzy awards, and just the game’s value as a portfolio piece are all things that are only barely correlated with Comp success in itself. In a lot of ways, the Comp does work as a platform to promote your work and get people to pay attention to it even if you’re not producing the sort of work that tends to place well.

My only real IF Comp advice is to give yourself as much time as is humanly possible. Way way way more time than you think you need.

Yeah I strongly agree with this! This is my biggest regret from last year.

Think about your cover art in advance. Even if you decide not to have covert art, make it a deliberate decision. You will feel silly if you forget that art is a thing until the day of.

If you know your game has bugs, or if you haven’t given your beta testers enough time to properly test your game, pull out of the competition. No matter how much it hurts. For every bug you see, there are others you don’t, and there’s no harm in holding the release until next year.

(Yes, I learned both of these the hard way.)

This is only gonna be useful for artist/writer types, but here goes: what matters with cover art is good design, NOT good art. If you have to choose between showing off what you can do as an artist and making something basic, but well-designed, go for the latter.

Cover art should be square, and 300x300-600x600 is a good size depending on the complexity of the image. (The IFComp site will automatically scale your cover to a uniform size.) If you use inform, the Small Cover should be 120x120. Simplifying the logo for the small cover isn’t a bad thing instead of just shrinking it, especially if it becomes unreadable.

At minimum, just the title with a well-chosen font is better than no image at all.
A good resource for easy logos is

If you wish to edit the image and don’t have a your own software, Sumo Paint has a free browser version, is easy to figure out, and is powerful enough to make a quite suitable logo.

Good advice, but in balance with this, the blurb shouldn’t be a novel. The blurb is not the place to explain the entire setting of your story, nor to relay background information the player needs. You want to entice the player to open your game and give them the goods inside.

Do not “talk” to the reader in your blurb or apologize for any perceived deficiencies. Do not tell the reader what didn’t make it in the game or disparage your story. Don’t announce this is your first attempt at writing or plead for leniency.

Here are some examples of good blurbs:

These are each only one sentence, but also very concisely infers the characters, the setting, and the main obstacle in the story.

I personally don’t want to spend more than 15 seconds reading a blurb. I’m actually a fan of the short cryptic ones with some type of hook, those are the kind I write, so take whatever salt with this advice as appropriate.

Hi. I’m Wes Lesley. You don’t remember me from The King And The Crown, a stupid pile of crap I submitted with love and immature jokes to IFcomp and I had a blast.

Everybody’s so nice and helpful and best of all -CREATIVE-. (( anybody remember my PLUS and MINUS reviews ? ))

My favorite part of competing in IFcomp wasn’t having people play my game (for only few seemed to get it for the in-betweener it was) but rather getting close® with all the fine people who put in actual work.

At it cost me nothing. Not just talking money. It cost me no effort, everyone was so great, I had the time of my life.

You should totally get in on that. Yeah, YOU.

… Then again, what do I know? [emote]:)[/emote]

I know being able to trade works with other IFComp authors for testing helps a lot. Like was pointed out above, we can’t see our own bugs no matter how hard we try, and also I found it makes me worry less about competition. If I won’t be winning, I can be a (relatively) small part of a game that does well. It still gives me nice kick when some small feature I suggest is pointed out in a review.

I also agree about walkthroughs being more than just typing in a string of commands. Give the player a chance to say “Oh, yeah, I could’ve seen that!” I’m pleased with my flowchart walkthrough from last year, and I want to use the format again.

Also I’ve learned and enjoyed a lot from all the post-comp work I’ve done on my games. I recommend it to others, as it’s fun to make should’ve into things you are doing or did.

And yes, don’t pre-censor yourself by worrying in advance what people may think. I did so, and tried too hard to avoid things without going after what I really wanted to do. And I wound up, well, having to make a post-comp release or two.

I also encourage people not sure if they’re ready to test another game. It’s rewarding to see that you enjoy a game even with bugs, which doesn’t mean they should be ignored, but it gets rid of some of the perfectionism, and it helps you realize that a trade of ideas can work.

I also think giving clear instructions to testers is a big help. Make sure their time is being used well. Let them know it’s okay if they’re baffled somewhere, or even if they don’t get far, and give yourself the time to straighten out a puzzle/scenario into what it needs to be. And, yes, get testers with different styles. Walkthrough-bashers and people who concentrate on introductions. If possible, give them commands to jump to what might be their favorite places. They’re doing you a favor!

I also like keeping a log of bugs that are changed, just to boost my spirits that I am indeed fixing things. Some testers find it useful and fun to see, yeah, I contributed to that and tipped off a new idea.

It’s so tough to sort out bugs vs small holes. I don’t think you want to put a game off for a year because there’s a small plot hole. And I think reviewers will be more forgiving of plot holes than bugs, even if a bug turned out to be esoteric. I tend to be forgiving of bugs because I know how easy they are to make and it’s cool to figure why they happened, but most people don’t roll like that.

Also, be prepared to lop off one big idea you’d really like to have fit in but didn’t have time to implement fully. It might even be something that helped you start the game, but you may have to perform triage a week before on something that just doesn’t work. The bright side is, it may be something you can dump in post-release.

I do think that playing the game or doing something every day is valuable, simply because you will get sick of trying the safe-and-known stuff that’s not going to break any more. On balance I’d say people’s suggestions have helped me improve games a lot more than if I’d held them.

Also yes the author’s forum is very valuable for trading bugs, hints for preparation, and so forth. But it’s best to see what you can do beforehand.

I’ve wrote something like this in different forms before so I hope it’s not too rehashed or reheated, but there are some things worth saying again and again.

Oh: the big things for Inform programmers? Don’t just run the debug build (F5 on Windows). Build: build for release regularly, to make sure the thing compiles. That will prevent nasty shocks a few days before release. The debug build is not the release build!

Also, you can/should have a walkthrough testing script or two, and it’s worth reading the transcript to tease out any big bugs. Twine authors, I imagine you have something similar, and if not, it should be coming soon, because Twine does have the use base to support it now.

I think the golden banana is a good way to mitigate some of that. It’s an achievement (of sorts) that does not rely on as many people as possible liking your game. I find that if I’m unsure what people will think about an element that I feel is important, I think “hey, maybe I can get the Golden Banana?” [emote]:mrgreen:[/emote]

1 Like

While that is somewhat true (IF Comp judges are, by definition, people who are motivated enough to play at least five entries and rate them), it is still a pretty diverse audience with diverse tastes. The more important point is that the IF Comp voting system, by averaging scores, rewards entries that have a broad consensus appeal, rather than those that strongly appeal to a large minority. (SpringThing and the XYZZY Awards have voting systems that reward the latter type of game.) On the other hand, there is also the Golden Banana award for the most polarizing entry, if that’s what you’re shooting for.

1 Like