Sierra On-Line vs. IF Competition 2001
Stas' groundbreaking thoughts
Stas Starkov <email@example.com>
Note: I wrote this article before the end of the IF Competition 2001. Then I've added only small part concerning a survey which I organized.
I remember a time when nearly every die-hard text adventure fan said, that late Sierra On-Line games were stupid, repetitive, very easy and otherwise offensive. There even was a joke that went along the lines of Sierra's producers eventually creating a game that interprets every single click of the mouse as the next, correct, game-advancing command. The joke goes further to state that there will be a sequel that will not only play itself, but also sells itself and can walk out the store door. Additionally, nearly every text adventure fan said that late Sierra games suffer from the following problems:
1. "Find the hot spot on the screen that will activate an event"
2. "Guess the right sequence of actions"
3. "Kiss a pig, and find later that the kiss opened a door to the dungeon several screens back"
4. A juvenile humor level, i.e. about sex (Leisure Suit Larry series)
5. An annoying, lazy-generic fantasy setting (King Quest series)
6. A cosmic stupidity (Space Quest series)
I know that there are a lot of opinions to the contrary, but I'm talking here not about Sierra's games. What I want to say so far is -- Sierra was (and is) a commercial company on a market where money rules. Sierra chose its own way into gaming market; and as you may know this way was quite successful, because many people enjoyed Sierra's games and were ready to _pay_ for them. Though, there were people, who thought that these games were very, very bad. The haters thought so for some serious reasons, but that didn't stop more and more people from buying, playing and enjoy Sierra's games! It doesn't mean that something is wrong with the people who enjoy Sierra's games, or with game business. It means, that to succeed on the market game company needs to pay attention to the desires of the average gamer. And it means that there always will be such themes as sex, generic fantasy with elves and dragons, stupid humor and so on. So if you think that all people are wrong -- it's you who are wrong. It's like being mad and thinking that the entire world is mad. :-) Take a look at an ad from the 3D shooter Doom 2: Hell on Earth:
Thanks for purchasing DOOM II. We hope you have as much fun playing
it as we had making it. If you don't, then something is really
wrong with you and you're different and strange. All your friends
think DOOM II is great.
As I said, Sierra eventually had evidence as to what people want. People want to be
heroes, have sex with everyone, and listen to dirty jokes. And of course there must be
elves, dwarves and dragons or lasers and man-eating aliens. "The average gamer"
Recently I made a sort of survey and Stephen Granade sent these questions to the IF Competition 2001 authors. The survey was sent a week before the Competition finished. You may see the detailed results of the survey on the Trotting Krips site (http://joltcountry.dreamhost.com/trottingkrips/if2k1-survey.html -- thanks to Robb Sherwin for web space). In this article I want to address some points on the following questions:
1. When do you think was (or is, or will be) a golden age of the IF?
Results: Too many to list here.
My comment: Late Infocom was a golden age.
5. What's your age?
Results: 16-18 yr. old -- 3, 19-21 yr. old -- 3, 21-24 yr. old -- 4, 25-28 yr. old -- 3, 29-33 yr. old -- 10, 34-40 yr. old -- 5, older than 40 -- 1.
My comment: I think that IF Competition 2001, unlike previous ones, had drawn quite a lot of adult authors.
12. Are you happy with your IF Competition game?
Results: Yes -- 21, No -- 8.
23. Have you ever sent scores of games to SPAG's Scoreboard?
Results: Yes -- 8, No -- 19, Pass -- 2.
27. If you liked an IF game, do you usually write a comment to the author of the game saying so?
Results: Yes - 14, No - 15.
28. Do you think that you'll write another IF game?
Results: Yes - 29, No - 0.
My comment: Before the end of the Competition all the authors planned to write another game. But previous years showed, that quite few IF Competition entrants write another IF game. Why? Something has turned them away from the authorship.
More and more people are coming into IF. They write games, participate on R*IF and on ifMUD. And of course they bring new ideas. They're changing a face of IF. It's clear that today IF is not what it was five years ago, and IF Competition 2001 shown that clearly.
There were (and are) a lot of discussion on RAIF on how to make a good game. Every IF Competition and XYZZY-awards show how the best games of the year look like. People learned some lessons and followed them. And from year to year majority of games turned out more and more to one side -- to "the average gamer"!
Process of crystallization was long and hard. And I think, only to the present moment many authors have more or less understood how to make good games. That's not too hard to decipher that they need to do the next things:
1. Write, write and write. The longer game will be, the more detail will it have -- the better it will be appreciated
2. Remove all those damn puzzles. Puzzles are hard and may turn people away from the story (plot, I mean), which is the supreme importance
3. Make games that look and sound good. (Visually and musically)
4. Anti-"show, not tell" technology forces the author to tell the story, fearing that the player will not understand it [the story] or won't be able to see it from start to end
5. Entertainment -- that's what people are playing games for. Give it to players. Don't let players to be bored of your game
6. Have your finger on the pulse of the IF community,
7. And, ironically, spend a lot of time on R*IF and ifMUD not only reading others thoughts, but also gaining authority, writing about IF
Do you notice something familiar? Yes, that's how the business of commercial games is working. (Though, there is no advertisement, at least.) You may ask, what's bad in commercial games? The bad thing is that commercial games as well as TV-shows are moving to degradation. Take Sierra, for example -- a model of the modern game business.
Perhaps, it's all my perverted fantasies? Unfortunately, I don't think so. :-(
It's not right to think that some smart-ass authors suddenly decided, that if they'll follow the rules, they'll be champions, they'll get all prizes and praise, they'll be a core of the IF community.
A lot of games were done during the last five years. Some of them were good (and well taken by the community), some were not so good (and mostly just ignored), some were awful (these games then were ripped apart and laughed at). Some people collected high authority, some were ignored as not worthy. Authors, as every human, fears pain; instead he/she wants to feel happy, to take some respect and to be appreciated. The answer on how to feel that happiness is easy -- to be a good author be a good author. But to be "a good author" one person must follow rules stated by the readers/players about good authors. "Readers'/players' community forces authors to do such games, that it [the community] will appreciate." The community established the rules and authors must either follow the rules or will be ignored. Someone can call this situation "elitism" -- and I agree -- but that's just how every community works.
However, the community is changing permanently. What was groundbreaking yesterday, today is hackneyed, boring or just strange. And a good author must changes together with community to remains "a good author". But not many authors are able to do that -- that's the one of reasons, why so many good old authors are not writing any more -- they don't want to be taken as senile fools after all that years. (Another reason, which I can think of, is a lack of feedback.)
You see -- it's a strange situation. People are not paid for their work in creating these games, but they follow the rules as if it was a real market. The difference is -- the currency for the IF community is a respect of the people whom you respect. The active IF legends are on the scene, so everyone wants to be near them, or even become a legend (everyone wants to become a legend). And authors follow the rules, they follow all the rules; they must to follow as much rules as possible to become a legend. And here comes stagnation, because only a few people can go against the rules, and even fewer people are able to succeed, doing so.
The result -- games become better and larger, authors are ready to put their lives on the altar of IF, they are spending hundreds hours of their life to follow all the rules and create a masterpiece. But are all of them happy?
On the other hand, not all authors are able to produce a work that is both long and good. IF Competition 2001 has several games which are long, but just underwritten. Why? Because community pushed authors to write long detailed games, but not all authors do that -- they lack the time, patience and talent. If he/she had had a chance to write a small game, he/she will, no doubt, spend a lot more time on any particular part of the game. Thus, players who want long, good games don't pay much attention neither to the short games, nor to the long bad games. Catch-22, isn't it?
But let's return to the "rules of good authoring" -- the IF Comp didn't show that the rules were effective, but the Comp has shown that the rules exist and influence authors to follow them. Competition has shown the rules very clearly. I felt that something was changing in the IF games, but I was able to notice and understand the changes only now.
I may sound like a snob here, but I don't like some changes that are almost de facto to the modern games. I'll list what I don't like:
1. The "most appropriate" conversation system
2. A lack of puzzles
3. A fixation on the literature aspect of the game
4. Repetitious attempts to smash my mind with "groundbreaking" ideas
5. An easy to assimilate ideas
(You may assume that I very much like all other games' features not mentioned here. :-)
I remember a time when these changes had just appeared and were new, fun toys to play with. Time has passed; more new ideas came in. They got mixed with the old ones and now we have what we have -- modern (or can I call them "postmodern"?) games. I do like some of the changes (from the list) individually when they are well done, but when I'm getting a whole bunch of them in yet another game, I'm feeling "that something is really wrong with me and I'm different and strange", because I'm not having fun playing this overall decent game.
I think, now I know the answer -- modern games follow the way of the Sierra. They follow the rules of "the average gamer". They follow a fashion -- this lash of our industrial age!
I don't like this process of "fake commercialization". I really fear that soon things will be worse and worse. And the process is already coming; games go more and more far from the traditional IF -- which we all love so much (but I'm not sure already) -- to the Sierra type of games. And it means not so much a trend towards increased use of graphics, but more towards a retardation of the IF scene!
Now I want to talk about those changes that I listed.
1. The "most appropriate" conversation system
I think you know that "the most appropriate conversation system" means, that a game itself considers current situation and chooses, which response in interrogation with NPC is a most appropriate. I don't like that, because I don't want to lose yet another freedom from the mighty author; I don't want to speak someone else's words all the time. Menu based conversation systems at least gave an illusion of a freedom.
2. A puzzleness, 3. A fixation on the literature aspect and 6. Linearity
I suspect that not so many people in the world can be compared with classic (or not classic, but highly competent) novel writers. But more and more people are coming into the IF community, because here they can write literature and be noticed. But why are they here, and not in a writers community (I do know that Internet is full of "writers clubs".)? Because here is (or maybe was already?) a small pond, and they may become big fishes even if they don't deserve that. Authors are raising the bar of the writing all the time. But that is escalation! Now, if author not able to write well (from the literary point of view), he/she doesn't risk writing anything at all. But still, average level of the writing in IF games is not so high, comparing to the real literature. So, my point is -- if I want to read a good story, I'm taking a book. I'm playing IF games for the possibility to be _in_ a story, I want to be a part of the plot, I want to act on my own. I don't want to be a mindless doll; I hate when author shouts a story into my ears. And the IF Competition 2001 has many games which try to drag me to the end of the game despite my will. It's very hard to mix good writing, a good story and a player's freedom in one game, but possible -- many games proved that. On the other hand, many games showed that games with less excellent writing level could be well appreciated.
4. Repetitious attempts to beat one over the head with groundbreaking ideas
It's a worldwide modern tendency of to repetitively smash the heads of one's readers/players/spectators against the wall through use of groundbreaking ideas. This tendency is easy to understand though -- the author wants to be different from his or her colleagues, so he/she writes (let's stay on books here) something that can hits everyone's mind/heart/stomach and burns holes in their skull/chest/gut. And I think that's a right way (as opposite to a wrong way) on how to write and what to read. But -- when I see another book/game with a heap of mind-bending ideas (and often they explore only a limited territory of taboos), my brain refuses to suck another pain to deal with. After heap of this terrible "things" I want a simple book/game about simple things in it. Recently, I have read two collections of short stories by the Robert Sheckley (first one named "Citizen in Space" and another one "Pilgrimage to Earth") and enjoyed them immensely. The short stories were simple and very optimistic. They were just for my level of a mood. And they were good. Moral -- not all is good, just because it is groundbreaking.
5. Easy to assimilate ideas
I don't like ideas, which I call easy or cheap, because they are so easy that they are near to stupidity. And what is more important, the ideas very often repeat each other. A usual Hollywood movie is full of that crap. This point is opposite to the point 4, as you can guess, but genius is the genius, when he/she can marry a beauty with a beast.
Nothing is new in the world, and quite many things were worn to death. Sometimes I wonder why did an author created a new weak work, when there are so many excellent old things, that it is enough to reinterpret them to become famous. But only genius can do that without provoking accusations in plagiarism on himself/herself.
You see, it's very hard to be a good author. One step to something new and people wouldn't understand you; one step to something old and people will say that author is inventing a bicycle (a Russian saying, which means that one is doing something that was done long before him). A good author must balance on the razor blade, understand his/her reader and sell product. That's how the _business_ world works.
But let's return to the current situation -- to the modern IF authors. From the one hand, the modern IF authors are trying to further the art of IF -- and I applaud. They also try to make IF accessible to everybody, increasing the quality of the games. From the other hand, they rise a quality from the side of the Sierra's games. Look at my list of rules for "the good author" (in the beginning of the article) and I think you'll understand me. I feel pity -- what is good for the average gamer doesn't mean that it's good for me. Is it only _my_ problem?
It's awful, but I think, that encouraging people to become an IF-er is a bad thing now, because here remains no place for _me_. IF gets overflowed with people, and often this people are very intelligent and productive. So, when there are a lot of people talking simultaneously in a room, the common sound is a noise. And nobody wants to pay attention to a noise.
And now let's count:
Consider that there are roughly a hundred humans who like all sort of games. Well, maybe a forty of them like space adventures, twenty that like a religious preaching and twenty that like an endless kind of cheesy humor. The remaining twenty of the hundred hate all of the above and likes other things, but each one likes different thing [every remaining human likes different type of games]. So, when author wants to write a game, to be noticed, he or she follows the majority (and the rules stated by the majority) and creates a space adventure, a religious preaching or a humorous game. The unlucky twenty, who hate all this games, are unhappy. Then a hundred authors made games in the same way. The unlucky twenty are very unhappy, because they have no game that they want. Most of the authors are happy, though, -- they got a lot of praise and respect, after all. But there were several authors who wished to make a game which they like (the authors were ones out of the unlucky twenty), but they feared to make a game which nobody will notice. And all of them have wrote in the mainstream genres -- a space adventure, a religious preaching or a humorous game.
I don't want to say, that the IF community doesn't create all types of games, but from year to year a number of mainstream games rises, and number of non-mainstream games lowers. What will be next? Sierra's type games? Or 3D adventure games? (It will be pain to do these games, but somebody will do that.)
Of course, somebody still believes in the commercial future of the IF, and they'll try to sell IF. What for? To become a Sierra with their games?
The process of commercialization is coming already. If you think that today is the time to rush into business, I fear to say, but -- too late. The Sierra was a pioneer on the market and the company learned how to do games for "the average gamers". It is too late to be a pioneer now. To become a successful company you at least need a lot of money and a taste of games directed towards those regular gamers. But if someone will create an IF company it will be not the IF anymore. It will be a Sierra's clone. But not all people understand that, because how can be explained the fact that IF games are approaching to the Sierra type?
Who must we blame of that situation? I think -- all the community. Most players are very, very passive. They are ready only to swallow half-munched ideas. They are ready to consume, not to give anything. Yes, Internet supports this very type of relations, but is it right? Is it good, that authors are killing themselves for players, who don't bother just to say "Thanks".
It's only my opinion, but I think the situation in common is far from the ideal. And the most hurt persons here are the authors. But it's not so hopeless as it sounds. Right here I have a solution ready. :-)
To the authors:
First. Relax and be free to do what _you_ want. Don't follow any rules or fashion, follow your heart. You're writing for fun, not for money, so be simple, but be good.
Second. Don't try to write extremely good and detailed games. It's escalation. You're risking to be very discouraged, if the IF community won't notice all the depth of your masterpiece.
Third. Create a bunch of your own fans, who will appreciate and criticize every your work [game]. Find friends who will be your fans -- and you will be free from the lack of feedback.
Fourth. Grow a thick skin so as not to be hurt. If players rail on you, shout in revenge: you have an advantage -- _you_ had written something, they hadn't.
Fifth. Stop encouraging people to enter IF.
To the players:
First. Think positive. Don't demand from the authors to be _your own_ author. Let him/her a freedom.
Second. Think positive. Do participate in an IF life: write game reviews (to SPAG, of course), encourage authors, hang on ifMUD. Without your help there will be no IF, no IF authors, no IF games or the IF community. And by the way, do the authors, who made games, which you (and me) love, worth neither respect, nor a ten-line letter? The authors are spending hundreds hours to write, you're spending several hours to play the game; and after that you can't find a ten minutes to support the author? Let him/her a note that his/her beloved child didn't go unnoticed? Don't be passive, and you'll receive more then you'll give.
Third. Think positive. If you didn't like game just don't write a note to the author. The fact that you didn't like the game doesn't means that writer is bad -- he/she is just different. It's very possible that soon he/she will do a masterpiece.
Forth. Think positive. Don't expect that every next game must be better than previous one. Value what you have _now_.
Thus to finish my article: don't ask what the IF community can do for you, ask what you can do for the community.
-- Stas Starkov