The Warbler's Nest, and some IFComp thoughts

I am pleased to announce the release of my new game, The Warbler’s Nest. It’s a very short work of interactive fiction, a mood piece more than a puzzle-filled adventure. An experienced IF player might take 15 minutes to traverse it once, and around half an hour to explore more thoroughly. Less experienced players may wish to budget a little more time, and keep a friendly quick-reference card handy.

The game is sufficiently brief that I really can’t say anything else about it here, except to mention that you can play it in your browser, thanks to the happy modern-IF technologies I celebrated in my recent video. (And to remind you that works of pure text like this are about as safe-for-work as a videogame can possibly get, ahem.) Naturally, you can also download a copy to play on an interpreter, if that’s your thing, and a visit to the game’s homepage will satisfy any further curiosity you may have about the work.

With that done, I’d like to share some thoughts about the Interactive Fiction Competition. A less polished version of Warbler eked out a tie for ninth place (of 26 entrants) in the 16th annual IFComp, which wrapped up last month. This was a very strong year, so I’m pleased that the game even made it that high; I played and quite enjoyed most of the other contestant works. First prize went to Aotearoa, Matt Wigdahl’s masterfully constructed take on the “modern kid visits an island full of totally awesome dinosaurs” style of young-adult adventure story.

The annual community-wide metagame of creative and intelligent reviews of IFComp entrants seemed stronger than ever this year, as well. Among my favorite review collections of 2010 are those of Christopher Huang, Sarah Morayati, Brooks Reeves, and Emily Short.

And yet: even though I look forward to writing and releasing my own next work of interactive fiction, I do not plan on doing so as part of the IFComp.

My experiences as a contestant were quite mixed, mainly because of how the competition’s rules prohibit authors from modifying (or publicly discussing) their entry for the entire six-week-long judging period. I did not foresee the real pain I felt when the first reviews came in, soon after the comp began.

Every reviewer, whether or not they liked the game, ran without fail into the same handful of bugs and stylistic flaws that had managed to elude me and my initial playtesters, writing about them in their reviews. (The reasons they were invisible to us make for an interesting design lesson and story unto itself, and one I hope to write about in another post.) By the end of the first week, I’d catalogued all these problems, and planned fixes for each. But there’s the thing: the reviews kept coming, naming the same problems, and I couldn’t do a thing about it. With the comp rules binding my hands, I could do nothing but silently allow people to continue playing my flawed game for another entire month, even though I could fix it with a single file upload.

In all my work, both professional and creative, I’m used to — perhaps spoiled by — digital tools that let me work quickly and iteratively, attacking errors as soon as they’re identified. But in this case, I found myself fixedly and weirdly misrepresented by my past self’s flawed vision, when my present self had something better to offer but was unable to share. I found it a deeply uncomfortable exeprience.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I found all the feedback and criticism I received during those six weeks, both in public reviews and private communication, immensely valuable. I worked hard to synthesize it all into the game’s current release, and Warbler as it stands now is so much more polished and playable as a result of all this free labor from smart people. This is brilliant, and I can’t thank everyone enough.

But, for me, that damned rule did its best to outweigh my happiness about the good stuff. As the days after the October 1 starting gun stretched into weeks, the torture I initially felt at being unable to leap in with bugfixes and improvements boiled away into simple frustration, stress, and heartbreak. While I continued to promote the comp online, I found myself conversationally advising people not to play my game until December, when I planned on publishing and promoting the “real” version. (Unless they wanted to run the whole comp gantlet as a judge, of course, but that’s not really a feasible suggestion for new or casual IF players.)

You’ll note, however, that at no point in the article do I suggest that the rules themselves are flawed. They didn’t end up working out so well for me, but that’s OK because — thankfully — it’s not about me. The rules of the interactive fiction competition are not put into place to make Jason McIntosh happy. The rules are there to make sure that the comp functions as a stable engine that rotates once per year, burping out dozens of fantastic new IF games unto the world. And I argue that, by god, it’s done it again, meeting a high watermark entirely appropriate to a 2010 that’s seen more exciting news and advances in the art of IF than anyone last year could have predicted.

I am pleased and proud that I participated in the 16th IFComp, regardless of how well my work scored. But now that it’s over, I intend to promote Warbler as an independently produced videogame in its own right — and will skip directly to this step with all my future IF works. While the comp helped give me the confidence that my work is worth promoting, the salient point is that I do have that confidence now, and intend to make full use of it from now on, all under my own power.

And I will release bugfixes in a goddamn timely fashion!

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2 Responses to The Warbler's Nest, and some IFComp thoughts

  1. Joe Johnston says:

    Perhaps you can merely send all the comments to a mail folder that you look at only when the comp is over. I sure feel your pain though. I too hate not being able to correct my online mistakes -- particularly in blog/FB/twitter comments. I think we're moving to a Write Only web. :-(

  2. Marco Innocenti says:

    Well, being at mere 6 hrs to 2011 Comp's end, I think I can share something on the subject without the risk of being banned from the competition.

    First: I've loved Warbler's back then even with the minor spoils it had. I'm sure I've finished it with no hint/help/walkthrough and it deeply disturbed me as I suppose it was supposed to do.

    Then: on the subject.

    You may be relieved knowing that even a Comp with updates can be a pain.
    I got big reviews on the first week, and I HAD the opportunity to update the game.
    This resulted in two outcomes:
    1) Half of the people around the Comp, especially non-runners, thought I (along with the others upgrading their work) was actually cheating, even considering there was a RULE consenting it.
    2) The first and the last reviews treated my game equally. In the sense they kept bashing at the same old problems like if I didn't update them. And -- this is sinister -- they kept saying things like they were actually paraphrasing other's reviews. You know that feeling when everyone seems to use the same adjectives and peculiar verbs when referring to you and you end up thinking there's a damn scheme behind it? Did they really play the game or is this just a resume of another's resume?

    Fortunately, a 50% of the reviewers thought my game was in part brilliant and that balanced things up a little.

    That said, I'm sure if I have time writing a game again I will post it in the next available Comp-whatsoever. Cause the stress is much, but at least 1.000 peeps got to play my game and a dozen bogged about it. I'm not sure I would have gotten so much counseling on game-making if I'd released it non-comply.

    My two cents. :)

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