Turning Readers into Players

We’d all like to see a lot more people playing and enjoying interactive fiction. The question is, how do we move in that direction?

Okay, maybe “all” is an overstatement. I’m sure there are a few people who enjoy being part of a tiny, obscure community because it helps them feel special. And to be fair, if Stephen King and Dean Koontz were writing IF, nobody would ever pay a bit of attention to my games … so there are pros and cons. Nonetheless, it seems to me that fostering a greater public awareness of IF would be a good thing.

Here’s a portion of a post on the newsgroup from David Cornelson that’s worth pondering: “I think Interactive Fiction’s number one marketing problem is that we haven’t been able to reach the ‘literate game player’. One of the reasons this is so difficult is that this demographic often doesn’t even know they are in it. They are mostly readers and purposefully avoid computer games because it’s a ‘waste of time’. It’s nearly impossible to reach someone that would love our games if they’re actively, if unknowingly, avoiding them.”

The problem has other dimensions, to be sure. To name one … reading a novel is an easy recreational activity. If I curl up in my easy chair to read a murder mystery, it’s because I want to be entertained. I don’t want to have to work at it! The quality of the IF experience is just different. It requires more active participation. Sometimes people want to participate, sometimes they want to kick back and not work too hard, that’s all I’m saying.

I think the goal of turning readers into IF players is sound and needs to be looked at closely. For the goal to be realized even on a small scale, I think we need to see three or four inter-related things:

  1. High-quality games (the more, the better).
  2. Much better parser handling of weird command inputs from novices.
  3. Technological transparency (i.e., ease of use).
  4. A central hub (a website) through which newcomers can reliably find good games.

With respect to item 1, we don’t have an unmanageable problem. There are dozens of great games around — make your own list of favorites! I would add, however, that the definition of “great game” is not fixed. It depends on the demographic you’re trying to reach. To get noticed in the overheated world of 21st century entertainment products, you need to think carefully about such things as the hook you throw down on page 1 of your story. (You need to think about lots of other stuff too.) I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable putting even the best current IF into competition against a run-of-the-mill mass market paperback. That’s a much more competitive field, so the published authors work hard at it.

There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done with respect to item 2. Even the best of the current games would fail this test. No game should ever respond, “You can’t go that way.” Or, worse, in response to N or E, “You’ll have to get off of the chaise longue first.” That’s way too crude. To some extent, this issue can be addressed with better error messages and better implicit action handling, but that’s not the whole ticket. A good game needs to help the novice get into the flow, not put up irritating obstacles. The obstacles (i.e., the puzzles) should be there because the author wants them to be there — because they’re integral to the experience of the story.

With respect to item 3, the browser-based interpreter is (or will soon be) a solid step forward. Going in a slightly different direction, it would be lovely to see free-standing games (an .exe, if you’re in Windows) that used the OS menu system rather than relying on the player to type SAVE and RESTORE. Those commands are a hold-over from the 1980s. They should be consigned to the dustbin of history, and without a moment’s delay.

The point is, you don’t want people to have to fight with the software. They’re going to have to learn what’s going on in the model world of the game in any case — let’s not force them to learn too much other stuff too. They already know how to use the Save and Load commands on the File menu. So let them use those commands, damn it!

I anticipate that item 4 may rub some people the wrong way. What I have in mind is a sort of “gatekeeper” site that would recommend, and provide downloads or online play for, only the best games. People who are new to the whole idea of IF (and there are millions of them) could go to this site, read one-paragraph blurbs on the games, and be able to choose games to try, with some assurance that the effort might be rewarded with an enjoyable experience.

Am I being an elitist? Yes, I’m being an elitist. I have no problem with that. My point of comparison, in the music arena, is the difference between Magnatune and Soundcloud. Anybody can upload their music to Soundcloud — and as a result, finding good music on Soundcloud requires a lot of poking around and listening to crap. Magnatune is a gatekeeper site: They only add about 5% of the music they’re offered. Finding good music, music you can genuinely enjoy, on Magnatune takes only a few mouse-clicks.

For the IF audience to grow, newcomers need to be able to have a Magnatune experience. The IFDB (Interactive Fiction Database) is rather like Soundcloud. It provides a genuinely useful service to the IF community, but it was never intended to be a gatekeeper site.

Someone who has some free time and a passionate interest could set up a gatekeeper site this week. There’s no barrier. In the absence of a better gaming experience, however (items 2 and 3 above), such a site would have only a small impact. But maybe that’s the place to start. I might even do it myself … but first you’d have to clone me. Right now I’d rather work on my own projects. But if anyone else feels motivated, I’d be happy to pitch in and help.

This entry was posted in Interactive Fiction, technology, writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Turning Readers into Players

  1. Sarah says:

    Better writing. That’s it.

    • midiguru says:

      Hmm. So you’re saying that if a game has good writing (prose? story values? both?), the quality of the writing will outweigh every other factor? Good writing will cause thousands of happy players to overlook bug-ridden game play? To patiently put up with an interpreter program that requires downloading three separate components, the installation of which is undocumented and the download links for which are broken, and then, once it’s installed, crashes every five minutes?

      Really? Is that what you’re saying? You’re an excellent writer, so I’d prefer to think you have better judgment than that.

      I’d be the last to deny the importance of good writing. Good writing comes first — and if the writing is top-notch, the current interpreter software and authoring tools are certainly good enough to deliver the story to players.

      But only if the players know how to find the game! And only if they have the patience to put up with some fairly clumsy UI elements, such as typing SAVE rather than using the nice File menu at the top of the window.

  2. georgek says:

    There’s a cool site that might be a good example of your gatekeeper site idea — http://db.tigsource.com/. It even has a fair amount of IF (which is usually tagged ‘not_a_game’, by grumpy videogamers apparently).

    I don’t really like the idea of ‘one site to rule them all’ though. What I would like to see is a greater number of, for lack of a better word, imprints, or labels, (or perhaps a periodical like McSweeney’s?) where collections of games are curated and editorially selected. I think that would serve the broad IF spectrum better and be more interesting.

  3. Juhana says:

    The problem with #4 is not creating such a site, but how will people get there. There’s already a bunch of sites that have such lists, mostly people’s personal recommendations. Creating a central hub is easy. Having people use it and having people find it so that it would become the central hub is the hard part.

    • midiguru says:

      Good point. The internet is full of personal sites. I think what I’m envisioning would have, for starters, an editorial board of some sort, so that recommendations were solid and well-rounded. A good site design would be needed, of course. And then, publicity.

      I’m not a publicist, so I don’t know how that might work, but I do know several professional publicists who would probably be happy to give me free tips and pointers. I’m not proposing to do such a project all by myself. Not this fall, anyway. Next spring … maybe.

  4. Ali Muñiz says:

    One idea I’ve been tossing around is an online static fiction anthology of stories written by IF authors and set in the worlds of their games, for which there would be links to online playable versions. Such a thing could get attention in the speculative fiction community, and hopefully draw in a few new players.

    Now if only I knew a published static fiction author who is also an IF author… O HAI!

    • midiguru says:

      I’ve thought seriously about ways to mesh IF with static fiction. (In fact, one of the stories on my website, “Eleanor,” started out as an idea for IF. I ended up writing it as static fiction instead.) But as far as having actual works that relate to one another … maybe next year. Good suggestion, though.

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