Apparently nobody is very serious about wanting a solid, modern presentation for interactive fiction in web browsers. My recent blog posts on the subject, which I mentioned in the IF Forum, have met with a thunderous silence. As Adlai Stevenson once remarked, “I’m underwhelmed.”
I suspect that the main reason nobody is hot to tackle this issue and wrestle it to the ground is because nobody really gives much of a crap about interactive fiction in any form. I suspect that the observation I made the other day about Quest — that it’s caught in a negative feedback spiral because nobody who truly cares about producing high-quality work would mess with it — applies to the entire field, not just to Quest.
The 2011 IF Comp was won by a game called “Taco Fiction,” whose premise is that you’re a down-and-out, seriously broke guy. You can’t pay your rent or make your car payment, so you’ve decided that the solution to your problems is to mug a passing pedestrian and then rob an all-night taco joint at gunpoint. You haven’t actually loaded your revolver; you’re not quite that much of a desperado. In fact, trying to hold up a taco joint with an unloaded revolver is sort of doubly pathetic, isn’t it? But there we are. That was the most profoundly meaningful or best developed IF story of the year.
It’s pretty easy to see why any writer who wanted to produce serious fiction (and we’ll include humor in the “serious” category) would look at the results being achieved by those who are devoted to the medium of interactive text and think, “Nah, maybe I’ll try something else.” Negative spiral. Down the drain, glub glub.
And then we come to the question of what authoring system you might want to employ. I got curious about this today, so I did an informal tabulation. Not surprisingly, Inform (the 6 and 7 varieties, but these days mostly 7) is wildly more popular than TADS 3. In point of fact, Adrift is more popular than TADS 3, at least if a tabulation of the entries in the IF Comp is to be believed. And Adrift is not exactly a cutting-edge software tool.
In the past seven years, by my count 151 Inform games have been entered in the Comp. There have been 21 Adrift games and 9 TADS 3 games. As far as I can tell, there are only three active TADS 3 authors — C.E.J. Pacian, Eric Eve, and me. And Eric hasn’t released a game since 2009.
There are, to be sure, several people experimenting with T3 at any given time. But most of them seem never to actually finish their games. Given the complexity of T3, this is not truly surprising. But here’s the big picture:
One person (Mike Roberts) produces and maintains TADS 3, which is an amazingly sophisticated authoring system. Three people (Nikos Chantziaras, Ben Cressey, and I) provide informal tech support on the forum, the other two handling the tricky questions and I fielding the easy ones. But neither Nikos nor Ben has ever written a game, and except for one little experiment, Mike hasn’t written a game in 20 years. Nikos is, in addition, maintaining the TADS interpreter software. We have three active authors, one of whom (Eric) has also written massive amounts of T3 documentation. Half a dozen other authors have released one T3 game (or, in one case, two games) in the past seven years. And as far as I can see, that’s it.
Possibly I’ve missed an author or two. The IFDB doesn’t index by authoring system, so it’s possible that there’s somebody lurking in the woodwork who, though actively releasing games, hasn’t bothered to enter the IF Comp in seven years. But if you’re looking for a yardstick by which to measure the dearth of activity in IF, here it is.
If we assume, based on the statistics of Comp entries, that Inform is about 15 times as popular as TADS, and that the other authoring systems taken together are perhaps five times as popular, then the total population of those who are involved in the development of English-language interactive fiction, either as authors of finished games or as system developers and informal support providers, is between 120 (20 x 6) and 250 (20 x 12, plus a fudge factor).
Based on the number of topic threads and responses in the IntFiction forum, 15 may be too high as an estimate of the proportion of Inform authors to T3 authors; the forum activity would suggest that Inform is no more than seven or eight times as popular as TADS. But let’s be generous and say 15. The number who continue, year after year, to be active in interactive fiction is surely no higher than 150; if we include one-time authors, maybe there are 250 people, total.
This says nothing about the size of the fan base, which might be five or ten times as large … although here again, we’d have to decide whether to include one-time curiosity-seekers in the statistic, or only those who maintain an active interest over a period of years. And if the peak experience you’ll have this year as an IF fan is pretending to be a guy who is sticking up an all-night taco joint, what would be your incentive to maintain an active interest over a period of years?
If you feel, as I do, that the medium of interactive fiction is really very interesting in its own terms, and deserving of deeper exploration by creative people, this picture is rather depressing.
Footnote: Here’s a new data point. In this year’s Spring Thing competition, there were 19 voters. I’m sure it’s true that the IF Comp (held in the fall) attracts more voters, because more games are entered, so there are more goodies to try out. Even so … 19 voters, worldwide, is not an inspiring turnout.