Thread about writing your first game

My first proper game that wasn’t just me following a tutorial was Vampire Ltd. The idea of a vampire puzzle game had been knocking around my head for a while, and I’d had big plans for it - lots of locations and cool puzzle ideas. But I know myself well enough to know that if I had tried to do all this, I would have got bogged down and never finished it. Also, because I was aiming for IFComp, I wanted to be sure the game would be beatable in under 2 hours. So I scoped way down to a handful of locations and puzzles and NPCs to make the project manageable.

In doing so, I fell into an unexpected pitfall of over-scoping. What I thought was a 90-minute game turned out to be beatable in a casual 30 minutes, the puzzles were a little too easy, and in general I think a few people wanted a lot more game. But I got more positive feedback than negative, and the game placed pretty well in a crowded IFComp ballot. So I think going small was the right decision for me in the end.

I guess the problem I have with scoping is that it’s very delicate, and a little change can be way more dramatic than I think. If I add an object to my game - say, a sausage roll - I have to think of the context of the object (does the player just find it lying in the street? Do I need a sausage roll vendor NPC and a buy action? Do I need a bakery location?), the verbs the player may expect to use on it (do I let the player eat the sausage roll, meaning I need to let the player get another one if they eat that one? Throw it? Break it apart? Bribe an NPC with it?), and the potential interactions with other objects and NPCs that the player may want to explore (shouldn’t there be a special response to trying to give the sausage roll to the vegetarian NPC? Shouldn’t the sausage roll vendor notice if the player consumes 10 rolls, one at a time, right there in the bakery?). Likewise, removing an object may leave lots of ripples in a project that take forever to clean up (I want to remove the roll; now I need to clean up all the lines of code like “Instead of giving the roll to the vegetarian…” otherwise the Inform project will hang; now the bakery has no purpose so I ought to remove it too, which means removing the bakery from lists of rooms and changing the dialogue where your roommate asks you to go to the bakery…). It’s a lesson I’m relearning in my current project. Combinatorial explosion is a real killer if you’re not expecting it.

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I did a postmortem on my first game, which goes into a lot of detail on the process – similarly, I’m a non-programmer with a tiny bit of long-ago coding-type experience who made an Inform 7 game.

Some high points that are potentially interesting to share:

  • My game started with a three-act structure, and ending with a three-and-two-halves-act structure. I had an overall sense of where the story would go, but more or less moved through each act linearly in a design-implement-polish cycle. In the implementation phase, I also moved pretty freely between writing and coding. This wound up being pretty motivating, since whenever I was feeling bored with doing structural programming, it was pretty easy to switch gears and write some jokes or punch up the prose, and I was able to alternate in-the-weeds debugging with big picture tasks like thinking up puzzles. For my second game, I took the approach recommended by Emily Short and others of implementing a minimal version of the structure and then doing more writing, polish, etc., which I found much more of a slog, FWIW.

  • I also sorta had each act focus on a different part of Inform in order to teach myself the relevant skills: Act I was meat-and-potatoes stuff; Act II was more timing and condition-based puzzles; Act III was scenes and alternate solutions; then the finale was kinds (and I guess the help menu taught me tables, sorta). This wasn’t systematic – I didn’t have a part that taught me relations, and in fact I still don’t really understand or use them, for example – so I don’t think it went too overboard in a way that a player would notice, except that the first act has a dumb rope puzzle that’s really just there since I wanted to tech myself how ropes work.

  • I was able to get a beta version done in mid-August, which gave me a good amount of time to find testers and implement their feedback (hi @rabbit!) Everyone always says this is the most important thing for authors, especially parser authors, especially especially first-time parser authors to do; they are right.

  • I found Inform not that hard to get a handle on? In the first act I definitely did more copy-and-pasting of code I didn’t understand and implementing hacky workarounds without knowing what I was doing, but for most of the rest of the game I did a better job of digging into the documentation, trying to actually grok the principles, and coming to the forum with questions, which was a much better way of doing things (then I decided to center the finale puzzle on fiddling with multiple interchangeable copies of a kind, which is tricky to do and led to more hackery). Of course, this meant that some dumb decisions I’d made in the beginning forced me into even more, even dumber workarounds later on, since I was too lazy to do a total rewrite of problem children like the dialogue system. I’d have probably been better off having my first game be shorter, so I could have left these growing pains behind more quickly and embark on a more robust second game as a more experienced author – but this was the game I was excited to write so I can’t regret this too much!

  • Releasing my first game in IFComp was a little intimidating but lots of fun! There’s great camaraderie among the authors, a fun authors-only forum, and there’s just a lot of energy and excitement. Spring Thing (and now ParserComp) are really cool too, don’t get me wrong, but I think they’re lower-key. I can see different folks seeing the latter as a selling point and better way to dip their toes into the water, though (my game also had a somewhat-undeservedly very positive reception, which might be giving my rose-colored glasses about how anxious I was at the outset!)

One last point about this:

Since my first game was puzzle focused, I found I could design it the way I’d prep for a tabletop roleplaying game session – like, I’d jot down notes on locations, bullet points with snatches of dialogue or jokes or evocative phrases to work in, and a rough idea of the challenges and potential solutions. Then implementation was kind of like running the game, where I’d work those details in, improvise alternate solutions or realize what I’d planned on didn’t work, etc. I’m glad I didn’t “overprep” since I think it would have led to wasted effort, since as Amanda says your perspective often shifts once you’re in the weeds and seeing what’s resonating and feeling effective.

Anyway, congrats on your game, I’m looking forward to checking it out once it’s done!

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Lots of good stuff to think about!

Now that I have the verbs ironed out, this is the main thing I’m thinking about. I’m making it a little easier on myself by having several small, discrete regions instead of one big map, but I want to reward player experimentation. The possibilities for each object x each verb must be considered, even if I can’t give elaborate responses for each possibility.

Long, long ago, I ran OG AD&D and Gamma World games. I think those experiences are pretty helpful for my project.

I’ve wondered what I want to do with the game when I’m done. I’m not a competitive person by nature (or else I’m overly competitive and have pushed through the other side of it). I like the excitement here when a big event rolls around, though.

I appreciate that you (and the others, too) took the time to discuss your experiences. It’s definitely helpful hearing about them.

If I haven’t played your first game yet, I will soon!

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I’m not competitive, either, but I love entering the comps. Even EctoComp where I placed pretty low was an excellent experience. In my very limited experience, entering a comp is the way to get lots of feedback, which I think is pretty important for your first game. Come at it with no expectations but getting feedback and learning from the experience, and entering a comp is a really valuable time. The camaraderie and goodwill of all the authors toward each other is really a thing of beauty.

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Yeah, I think that’s fine – honestly, while there’s definitely a correlation between a game’s quality and its place in a competition, there are also significant extrinsic factors that can swamp things (comedy games tend to do better than serious ones, longer ones do better than shorter ones, traditional ones tend to do better than experimental ones, etc.), plus the difference between places can be very minor and depend on only a few idiosyncratic voters. So IFComp might actually be a little frustrating if you’re a competitive person! But it’s a fun experience and a great way to get folks to notice your game, so if you’re the kind of person who’ll feel satisfied with a couple reviews indicating at least a few people really dug your game, I think it’s super rewarding.

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The postmortem for Past Present goes into my thoughts around building it, so I won’t repeat that here.

The deadline of a comp (in my case, the Winter TADS Jam) was an important part of the process, and kept me focused on finishing the project. So, I would add to the above that comps and jams serve as a good way to keep one motivated.

I’ve said elsewhere the Past Present is my first computer game, and that the impetus for finishing it was to complete a lifelong goal of writing one. Recently I remembered I coded a Core War implementation many years ago for the Atari ST. It’s not interactive fiction, though, and I didn’t design the game’s rules, merely ported it to the platform. Still, in a technical sense, it was my first game. (And fun to write.)

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Was Past Present SERIOUSLY your first game???!? Holy cow. I would never in a million years have guessed it. It played like a veteran’s game.

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When I played through those comp games, I just assumed that you’d been around the IF block a few times already. Quite a debut!

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Give 'em a lighter and everyone’s a firestarter. How many variations on “Maybe you shouldn’t burn the carpet/curtains/ballgown/dwarf lady,” can one person think of?

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LOL yeah tell me about it :grin: I came in 70th place in 2021 IFComp, and the only game I beat was a non-IF graphical card game ffs :rofl:

As for writing my very first game (not submitted to any contests), I think there were two things that I took away from it. Keep in mind that I write choice-based IF as opposed to the parser stuff.

  1. It’s very difficult to understand the difference between authoring linear prose (a novel) and IF, especially getting away from the “railroad” aspect that is the backbone of all linear writing. In other words, your beautiful narrative arc can be smashed to pieces by the players, so you need to arrange all of the beats differently so they’re more “stand alone” or “self-contained”. Also, the speed at which characters are developed and plot lines are revealed feels 10x faster than a traditional novel, yet good writing of the old-fashioned kind is what makes that lasting impact for the players of IF.
  1. Interestingly, the “game” elements (as opposed to “story” elements) seem to come intuitively, even to folks like me who aren’t big gamers. I think we just all know what a fun game feels like. That being said, calibrating the game elements to get the right amount of tension between the player’s ability to succeed and fail is where the work is. It took me a solid two weeks of jimmying a handful of starting values to get one of my games to hit that sweet spot of “I can beat this, I know I can!” Honestly? It’ll put a tear in your eye when you watch someone play your game and it’s calibrated right.
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I generally believe that I have a good idea of this, but sometimes I feel like a bit of a flake with no idea what people like or think.

This second thing, though, the calibration–I am already wrestling with this. I think there has to be a honeymoon period where players learn the systems and their potential before ratcheting things up a bit. I agree that getting difficulty right will be the trickiest part.

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I had some notes and ideas for my first parser fiction but, after dipping into Inform 7 and implementing one of the mechanics (following the approach Emily Short called prototype the hard part first), I realized that I would never finish the full-length game.

So I developed the main mechanic completely and then built a minimal story around it. The result was a very compact one-location game that I still like a lot. I used this game twice as a pilot run: first, building and shipping a complete parser game, and second, entering an IFComp (an English version did quite well for a game of its size in 2020).

A good piece of advice is that shipping is a feature, so it’s better to start with a small project, and to not hesitate to reduce the scope if you feel you can lose your development momentum.

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Oh, God, yes. Thank you. (I’m blushing right now.) I appreciate you saying it plays like a veteran’s game. It’s not, at least in that sense.

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Sweetpea was my first self contained game- I’d been noodling around with Twine on and off for some time beforehand, but generally to enhance other projects or D&D campaigns, not really as anything stand alone. I wrote up a post-mortem (with sub-headings, as it direly needed those), which does go into most of my immediate thoughts after hurriedly shoving it out the door with the rest of the SpringThing entries when the deadline sauntered on over.

Having had a fair number of reviews (quite a lot more feedback than I’ve gotten in awhile or expected, I was thrilled and am still very excitable whenever I see a mention to it’s name or a full review out in the wilds of the forums, my dear sweet friends have been putting up lovingly with me abruptly cheering during our conversations), and a little more time to think it all over…

I think I’m very pleased by the fact that most people seem to point to the writing as the strongest factor, and comment on how it seems like I’ve done a good job in writing in the gothic tradition- I consider myself a poet, writer, artist, and general creative (mucking around with making chip tune-y songs, poking at coding, small things I pick up for fun and am not as good at) in that order, and the gothic is an area I’ve spent a lot of time studying in and writing for in both an academic and personal context. So, yay, good to hear that that panned out!

I’m also so happy that people found Michael eerie, as mean as I feel for being pleased people were unsettled, hahaha. My absolute favourite bits of writing in Sweetpea were the Michael components, after all- body horror and making the surreal supposedly familiar (but not really, as the reader is disjointed by the conflict of how accepting the characters are, versus the reader being very aware weird hijinks are afoot) are some of my favourite toys in my toybox of writing tropes and tools.

I am a little surprised people felt there was a decent amount of choice in it, (it was a linear story really, though I did try to not go for the whole CLICK SOLELY TO CONTINUE cardinal sin of Twine, apparently). Also, I was surprised to hear a few people apparently thought it had been written with some form of state tracking- unfortunately no, I wasn’t sophisticated enough to do that, and the snarl of writing out individual passages and linking them led to the one big (not gamebreaking, thank goodness) error with the study loop. But I mean, it apparently faked the job well enough, hahahaha. In the future I’d look into that more, it seems to be pretty convenient.

The criticism I got I mostly am not really surprised by, and agree with- in terms of layout accessibility/colour choice, confusion on which links progressed the plot versus which were brief side jaunts before braiding back into the main thread, a bit of oddness around pacing (plot structures have always been my weakest element of writing), and the errant typo or two. Things I’d need to buff out and polish, but that didn’t totally fridge the game, thankfully. The major bits were mostly related to programming, which I anticipated- I am very new to it!

I had a lot of fun making Sweetpea. I would like to enter next year’s SpringThing again, maybe with that survival horror romance I’ve got simmering in the background… It was really cool getting feedback from the forums. I’m still too afraid to enter IFComp (and I don’t think the sorts of things I make would rank well in it anyways), but I had enough of a good time I’d consider giving it another go.

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Piffle. Everyone has loved Sweetpea, quite deservedly, and you should definitely think about IFComp. Make what you like and don’t worry about the rankings. It’s the best way to get your work out there, seen, and played.

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I’ve been tossing around the idea (sort of like Dr. House with his silly tennis ball when he’s mulling things over, a fitting comparison considering I’ve been having a horrible pain day today, hence the extra convoluted and waffle-y posts- I usually edit my stuff down for coherence, and my mind tends to wander when I’m particularly ill), but honestly, it’s the idea of a larger audience interacting with my work that has me nervous.

Normally my stuff is written for a very small group- me, if I think it sounds like fun and I like it, and my friends, who put up lovingly with me hopping around excitedly like GUYS LOOK WHAT I MADE! And while venturing out into larger groups (peer workshops, classrooms, this year’s SpringThing) have gone generally well, the trade off of greater recognition to maybe a harsher reception has me a little anxious. Smaller venues tend to be a lot nicer?

And of course, I’m always thankful people do take the time to interact with my work and share their thoughts, and I wouldn’t be so rude as to lash out even if I got a harsh critique, (I’d probably just take some time to myself before responding to thank them for the review if anything, or just not respond if I felt that was best) but it feels really disheartening and scary to put out something that I might really like, but would tank upon reception. And since historically the things’ve that’ve done well are the total opposite of what I like to write- puzzle-y, funny, light hearted works, it feels a bit silly to put forwards something that I already know will have a niche audience. The competitive element kind of makes me worried it’d be a bit more cutthroat than the SpringThing’s emphasis on showcasing, rather than ranking.

I’m a deeply anxious person who prefers the gentleness of non-competitive spaces because I write things I know I enjoy and maybe a handful of others will, especially when it comes to things that are very close to home for me- content warning for alcoholism like how Sweetpea touches on family dynamics and alcoholism beneath the glittery paint of the gaudy gothic extremes but that I don’t think would have larger appeal, and IFComp has more emphasis on ranking that makes me kind of nervous, haha.

I guess all of that could be summed up as: having my work out there for a larger audience isn’t something I’m super interested in, though I do appreciate people interacting with it. The trade off of exposure at the cost of maybe a harsher reception, especially with the ranking system, makes me pretty nervous.

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Fair enough. I do hope that I get to see and play more of your work, though-- I hope you will still publish games even if it’s not in a comp setting.

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That’s really sweet of you to say!

I’d like to think that I’d keep writing interactive fiction as a hobby- I know for sure that writing will always be a love of mine, as it has been since I was old enough to figure out how to scribble together silly little picturebooks of bunny adventures, but no one’s ever 100% sure of the future, are they? Haha. Especially since I’ll be in for a real shock when I (fingers crossed) graduate next year…

But, I’ve been thinking of entering next year’s SpringThing (…and with work put into it ahead of time, rather than spur-of-the-moment deciding to cobble something in a month during exam season next go around, ahahahaha.) And I have entered a gamejam recently with a friend- though I’m rather insecure about that work, since it’s in a totally new program/engine(?) and tone (script/dialog is the norm, rather than prose) but I’ve got the safety blanket of being confident enough in my art to give it a stab, like how I scaffolded off of feeling more assured of my writing in the gothic for Sweetpea, so hopefully that goes well. I’ve been having fun with it at any rate, and that’s the important part!

So, for the time being as far as I can foresee, yeah, I’ll still probably be around tinkering around with games. And blathering on forums. LOL! :blush:

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It’s especially hard to receive criticism for something you’ve put your heart and soul into, because it can feel like a personal attack. I have a harder time receiving criticism on my fiction than I do for IF, because with games it feels like there’s a layer of distance between the work and myself: the interface, the gameplay/replayability, personal taste etc. But it’s also something that’s gotten easier with time. For me, the process of releasing work into the world to be experienced by others is inextricable from the process of making it in the first place - I have something I want to express, and it’s psychically excruciating for it to just sit in my head bouncing around. But that might not be the case for you. For me, anyway, it’s worth having people dislike it (sometimes even perversely pleasurable) because I have the relief of finally expunging it.

For what it’s worth, I found the alcoholism content in Sweetpea more affecting and relatable than any other part of the game. I’m grateful you decided to include it (and chose to release the game publicly).

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I’m actually returning to IF after a long hiatus. Last time I was regularly writing IF they were called “text adventures” and rolling your own parser was par for the course.

I can’t really recall what my first game was, or even my first IF game. The earliest game I can nail down to a specific date was published in 1988, and I wrote it in 1987. This was for one of the magazines devoted to the TRS-80 Color Computer, Rainbow magazine. For several years they ran an annual competition for text adventures. The winning games were published in the magazine (as source listings the readers were expected to type in themselves). There was also a standalone book for each of the contests containing all of the winning entries, The Rainbow Book of Adventures, with each year being a new volume.

I entered a game in the contest in 1987, subsequently published in 1988 as the Fourth Rainbow Book of Adventures. That turned out to be the last time they ran the contest, and my game was the last one in the book, so I guess I killed it.

Anyway, I think I got something like $200 and a copy of the book for being a winner. I wrote other games, including IF games, around the same time that also got published, but I couldn’t give specific dates for any of them. I kept copies of the magazines that had my stuff in them for awhile, but lost them to water damage years ago. As chance would have it my copy of The Fourth Rainbow Book of Adventures survived (the magazines were in bottom of a cupboard, the book was on top of a bookshelf) so it’s the only tangible proof I have of any of the games I wrote way back then.

Anyway, the game was called Life: An Everyday Adventure. The goal of the game is to do various everyday tasks (make coffee, take out the mail, put out the cat) before catching a plane. It was, I think, probably a terrible game in that specific way that a lot of IF of that era was: it was violently unforgiving and maximally cruel (in the Plotkin sense of the word) and there were many hidden timers.

The parser, such as it was, was implemented entirely in BASIC, mostly as a nest of ugly conditionals.

The game text–room and item descriptions and so on–were written in, and I can’t apologize enough for this, in a bespoke Caesar cipher more or less equivalent to ROT13 (I didn’t know what ROT13 was at the time, or I probably would’ve just used it). You know, so the people at home with a copy of the magazine propped up on their keyboard wouldn’t get any spoilers. While they typed in page after page. Of random gibberish. With no error correction or checksumming.

I’m frankly astonished that literally anybody put up with that nonsense to get the game entered, but some people apparently did, because I subsequently had people contact me about the game.

Anyway, in addition to the nightmarish data entry problem I created for aspiring players, the game itself was someway larger than could fit into the confines of the computer it was designed for. The game program (actually several independent programs) wrote data to a dedicated floppy disc, which the parser then accessed as needed. This was, of course, incredibly slow.

So: that’s not the first IF game I ever wrote, but it’s the earliest one I can make any concrete statements about. And I’m willing to believe that it’s worse, by modern standards, than virtually anyone else here’s first game.

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