ASCII by Jason Scott

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IFcomp —

As I work on the GET LAMP documentary, one of the things that keeps coming up is that Interactive Fiction/Text Adventures are a moving target. Even though to some people the subject might be closed and gone, trapped in historical amber, this just isn’t the case. There’s scattered groups of people composing, working on, and crafting new games and projects. I’ll probably go into a number of these in coming months as I wend my way towards the end of my production, but one of these projects is about to pop up, and if you have any interest in the subject, it would do you good to check it out.

Traditionally, and by traditionally I mean for the last 15 years or so, the standard interactive fiction project was a solo affair taking months and more likely years of work, crafting and composing all the possibilities of the design you’d made, followed by months of bugtesting with your voluntary playtesters, finally releasing your work to the masses through the established distribution sites. At that point, the number of people playing it would likely number in the dozens, and your work would then join the pantheon of created IF works, and then, as far as a lot of the world was concerned, sink without a trace.

Now, this is a relatively glib way to put it all; in fact some games take off and are played far beyond the community of creators and players, some games are made in shorter times, some games are recognized as classics. One of the best aspects of text adventures is that playing one made in, say, 1998 holds none of the obvious earmarks of outdated software. You can boot up a game made 10 years ago and it will as fresh and enjoyable as one finished two weeks ago. But the problem of “how do we encourage more activity around the release of games” is one that’s been recognized and considered a long, long time.

In 1995, a solution was created, and it’s worked out pretty well: The IF Competition.

The IF competition basically sets up a framework where a bunch of games come out at once (giving players a bunch of games to choose from), around a deadline (helping to give people structure where there’s no financial incentive), and setting up judging rules (ensuring standards among the games in terms of play length). This last situation with length is rather clever: the idea is that you can get a very good idea about the game in just a few hours of playtime. This encourages the writers to focus on smaller, tighter games instead of expansive, never-to-be-completed games. While sometimes you get front-loaded creations (they look great up through to two hours and then aren’t as well done), what you often end up with are works that are understandable within an afternoon.

This may not sound like the games of old, but in fact a lot of people want to imagine they have the time to play massive games, but then they don’t. Nobody, on the other hand, can’t say they don’t have a few afternoons to tackle some good puzzles.

Yet another excellent metric are the winning entries themselves; I have friends who play these games who use the IFcomp archives to find the top-rated winners of various years. It’s a good way to know that you’re not going to follow the trials and tribulations of a given work until you suddenly stumble on a uncompleted hallway and a sign saying “BACK LATER”. Generally, the winners give a guideline of guaranteed quality.

So, we stand on the cusp of the 13th annual competition. On October 1st, the entries will be released into the wild, and you, yes you, can download the games, play them, and then rate them. Instructions on the IFcomp site give you all the guidelines for how this is done.

In other words, in just a few short days, you will be given not only a ton of crafted, honed games, but you will be asked to rate them, judge them, and reward those creators with prizes for their year of work. How could you resist?

See you there.

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