I don’t think this is the cause. It always takes a while to learn a new user interface, and command-line interfaces aren’t initially familiar to most people (including myself) who were born in the 90s or later.
My favorite way of explaining text commands to new players is “caveman English.” That phrase, with a perhaps a couple of quick examples, seems to cover it pretty well. At least, I hope it does.
That said, an experienced author will try to anticipate as many commands as possible. For example, if you have a fence that the PC can climb (in order to get to the other side, perhaps), you don’t just want to implement ‘climb fence’. You also want to handle ‘climb up fence’, ‘climb over fence’, ‘climb up on fence’, ‘climb up over fence’, ‘get up on fence’, and probably ‘ascend fence’, just to be safe. And after you’ve done all this, one of your testers will try ‘crawl over fence’. It’s never-ending … you do the best you can, and it will never be enough.
“Cruel” is a bit of a technical term in interactive fiction; it’s often used to refer to how easy it is to make the game unwinnable (and nothing else). See the zarfian cruelty scale:
By Jim’s account I think that Mrs. Pepper qualifies as merciful and his other games count as nasty or perhaps tough. (Looking at this exegesis, it’d be “tough.” Or by this one, “polite” even. Maybe depends on how broad the hint is.) Though this is complicated a bit by the presence of “undo”; it may be that his hints are broad enough that you always immediately know that after you throw the key into the lava you need to undo, and then you don’t need another save file.
Anyway, this particular use of “cruel” is distinct from things like “how responsive is the parser?” and “how good is the game about giving feedback when you’re trying something that’s almost right or completely wrong?”
…and that’s a slightly different topic. The classic example of a misleading parser output would be the first response here:
Again, I don’t think the author can ever get it perfect – there will always be things you don’t think of. But it’s vital, while you’re developing a game, to try to think like a player, NOT like the author. YOU know the correct commands, so it requires an ongoing mental effort (and lots of extra time) to stop and think about all of the other things the player might try.
I’m feeling the love! There’s certainly a wealth of information about the genre and its conventions on this board, on various blogs, in articles, and on the net in general. But not so much in the games themselves.
Maybe this is my inexperience showing, but I find this silly. Why are games for novices even necessary? Why can’t you make a game to be both a vessel for introducing novices to IF and a stimulating experience for veterans? That might mean including a tutorial with an on/off switch, an easy/hard mode setting, well-placed hints, and lots and lots and lots of synonyms. I’d even consider these requirements for seeking broad appeal outside of the community.
Though from reading your posts Jim, it seems you’re pretty well aware. The length shouldn’t be an issue as long as you can appeal to all players and hold their attention.
That’s a good idea, I hadn’t thought of those synonyms. You could also add a hint after “examine me” that would tell you to take inventory.
We can also thank caving simulations for the word “room” being used to describe any place you can be, whether or not it’s indoors. That’s one bit of terminology that still annoys me.
EDIT re busterwrites: Bronze fits most of those. It asks you at the beginning whether you want novice mode, and you can switch it on or off later as well. Novice mode highlights implemented nouns in the text, suggests verbs if the player appears unsure as to how to interact with something, and provides adaptive hints if you ask for them (e.g. asking about a puzzle might tell you that you’re still missing a piece of information you need, that it’s in a room you’ve visited but involves an item you haven’t interacted with, and ask whether you want to know which room that is).
In a broad sense, you may be right. And in fact, games have been written with tutorial on/off switches and easy/hard mode settings. But this is extra work. A novice-oriented game can be well written and fun, without challenging the newcomer so vigorously that he or she gives up in bafflement. Also, there are some very good games (“Ad Verbum” comes to mind) that deliberately defy the conventions of IF. Such a game would likely be off-putting a newcomer, so there’s certainly a place for non-newbie games.
I’m a huge fan of hints and synonyms. (My first game, back in 1999, had an elaborate hand-built hint system, owing to the fact that I’m lousy at playing IF – I myself need all the help I can get.)
Finally, I should perhaps point out (based on discussions and/or my personal whining a few years ago) that really there’s very little hope that even the best IF will ever have “a broad appeal outside of the community.” We’d all like that, or most of us would – but in truth, there are so very many sexy things folks can do with a computer that a text-based game interface is operating at something of a disadvantage in the big wide world of entertainment.
That’s not to say that a few games don’t reach a wider audience, because occasionally that does happen. But it’s an uphill slog. There are even people with business plans; David C. might want to chime in on this point.
The lack of a sexy interface is a bit of a downer for me. I’d love to include animations with my current project (Imagine typing ‘look under rock’ and then watching a little guy look under a rock! Endless fun!), but for now I can only include illustrations. Though maybe someone’s already working on this?
I’m sure others will chime in with their favorite multimedia story authoring systems (Ren’Py, Quest, Twine, etc.). But as I said, none of them is ideal.