Here I shall answer a few questions posed to me via email regarding my work last year on the Interactive Fiction Competition. (These questions came to me from Emily Short, who has in turn excerpted this post for a huge and comprehensive article about interactive fiction competitions, anthologies, and shows.)
What were your initial goals for the Comp?
I immediately knew that I wanted to update both the appearance and the basic attitude of the ifcomp.org website. By the end of 2013, the site, originally programmed by Stephen Granade and maintained by Dan Shiovitz, both benefitted from and suffered under 15 years of gradual code-accretion, in the manner of countless other long-lived software projects. The software’s roots reaching back nearly all the way to the IFComp’s origins in the 1990s meant that it made many functional assumptions about interactive fiction, its authors, and its players that that no longer proved universally applicable by the mid-2010s.
With Stephen’s encouragement — as well as a shopping-list of known comp issues, both technological and philosophical, that he shared with me at the outset — I sought a return to first principles. I wanted to replant the competition in twenty-first century soil, and so gathered a
cabal team of trusted advisors to begin a long review of the comp’s many rules, conventions, and habits.
A necessary bit of personal background to explain what happened next: I am, at core, a hacker. Building software, and web-based software especially, has been my day job since the first dot-com boom. I have worked as a freelance software consultant for many years now, and hack on other projects in my spare time. It is therefore perhaps inevitable that every problem I face which so much as brushes against the internet in any way always looks to me like a software-engineering challenge to meet. Others in my position would have taken a different tack than I, and I don’t mean to suggest that a complete a technological refresh represented the only way to reinvigorate the IFComp. But it’s what I knew how to do, so it’s what I did.
I want to stress that Stephen and Dan played an active role through all my organizational adventures, always replying to my questions quickly and constructively. I’d also like to offer thanks in this regard to Joe Johnston, who ported over the old site’s authentication system, and Andrew Schultz, who volunteered to act as IFComp 2014’s QA chief. I give them full credit for the way the competition’s new technology hit blessedly few snags once it went live.
With all the above in mind, I shall now list some goals I set out to meet:
Let the website exist as a permanent and year-round museum about the IFComp and all its past entires, as well as the fairgrounds for the actual six-week competition. The most obvious new features I introduced here were a “gallery view” of past entries, which one can find at various places around the site, and new or updated static text pages about the competition or about IF in general.
The new gallery view puts a new emphasis on entries’ cover art and blurbs, something that I always felt lacking before. This had the entirely intended side-effect of encouraging authors of 2014’s entries to put especial thought and effort into crafting their own entries’ cover information. Multiple reviewers commented on how strong the blurbs seemed this past year, so I call this whole exercise a success.
Ifcomp.org prior to 2013 focused only on the current or most recent competition year. It maintained links to lists of entries and authors going back to 1995, but offered no easy way to play these games. I had the impression that the site still operated under the assumption that any visitor who wanted to play a given game would of course log into the IF Archive at ftp.gmd.de through their favorite FTP client, manually navigate to the appropriate year’s competition directory, locate the game’s title among the resulting scree of raw filenames, and download it. (And then research which interpreter they’d need to play it on their computer, and repeat this process to obtain that separate program, as necessary.)
This was, indeed, how one obtained new IF in 199X, but times have changed rather a lot since then. And here we find the first point I met my goal by taking a large shortcut: taking the opinionated but defensible stance that Mike Roberts’ wonderful, web-based IFDB had long since become the primary clearinghouse for distributing IF, I linked every single entry’s listing in the new gallery view to its respective page on the IFDB.
I take a risk here, setting up an apparent single point of failure like this. Should the IFDB go away (as has happened before with beloved and late-lamented IF web resources), ifcomp.org would suddenly stink with a thousand dead links. But the indestructibly redundant IF Archive still serves its purpose — I myself have run an Archive Mirror for years, proudly — and I feel entirely confident that the community will always have at least one game-aggregating resource that ifcomp.org can aim its past entries’ links at.
Link to — and, when necessary, create — modern interactive fiction resources, and keep these links and resources up to date. IF has grown tremendously during the current decade. An explosion of new web-based platforms for creating text-driven games, led by (but not limited to) Twine, has brought a lot of new interest to the medium. I knew that the IFComp had to embrace this growth and change if it wanted to stay relevant.
I expressed this in one way the new site’s various About pages, many of which are original hypertext articles about IF and the IFComp. “About Interactive Fiction” may be the one I feel most satisfaction with, with “History of the Competition” (adapting and updating a page from Stephen’s site) after it. Both of these pages represent my best efforts to describe the current state of IF, giving equal time to all its most prevalent forms today without forgetting its parser-exclusive past.
Whenever possible, from those pages and others, I link to the modern tentpoles of the IF community. Ten years ago I would have pointed to the Usenet newsgroups that gave birth to the community in the 1990s; today I instead link to the IFDB, and to the intfiction.org forums. But some things never change: IFMud remains as relevant as ever, happily, and the IF Archive will forever fulfill its role as lowest-level storage substrate for these weird text games we love.
Weaken the no-copyrighted-anything rule. The previous organizer had this on the top of his own to-do list, and I willingly pushed it to the top of mine as well. The old rule took a quite conservative route for many years, explicitly forbidding transformative works such as fan-fiction or explicit critique, unless one could obtain written permission from the first work’s owner. We wanted to re-examine this.
At Stephen’s suggestion, I began by speaking with IF fan and transmedia maven Flourish Klink, who directed me in turn to fan-fiction-friendly lawyer Heidi Tandy. Heidi kindly provided the IFComp with enough consultation on this topic to result in the revised author rule 1, with a new, clear allowance for transformative works.
This rule could use more work; I heard criticism from last year’s authors that, as written, one could still read it as disallowing fair use. I intend to re-examine all the rules once again for 2015 (now that my first revision of them has run through the wringer of reality), and will include this on the table.
Provide explicit guidelines to authors and judges, based on collected community wisdom accrued over the past two decades. Core community member (and current XYZZY Awards organizer) Sam Kabo Ashwell inspired this directive; you can find my giving credit to an intfiction.org thread he started at the bottom of the author guidelines page I wrote, and I had other observations he’d made in mind when writing the guidelines for judges. (In particular, the observation that IFComp’s tradition of its judges actually using the full range of possible ratings available to them, versus just giving things they like a “10” and things they don’t like a “1”, runs contrary to the reality of most every other well-known internet-based ratings system.)
Apply a modern design sitewide that looks equally great on both huge desktop monitors and tiny phone screens.
This meant implementing the philosophy that web designers call “responsive design”, where the page’s content quickly and quietly resizes and reflows itself depending upon the width of its window. Alas I am not a designer, so I took the impatient hacker’s route of deploying Bootstrap, a front-end framework that rewards learning a handful of rules about grid-based web layout with truly beautiful output. It also allows access to a great deal of marvelous and modern UI components, many of which the new ifcomp.org site uses.
As an unexpected and delightfully welcome side-effect, the site apparently works great with screen-readers and other accessibility tools, according to a blind comp participant I corresponded with. I lay full credit at Bootstrap’s boots for this outcome.
Related to this, I set up a Tumblr-based blog, and activated @IFComp on Twitter. Together, these replaced the hand-updated news crawl on the old site. I felt the IFComp’s Twitter presence proved especially useful. Beyond the nice ego-boost of its rapidly gaining hundreds of followers, it provided a way for people who loved the competition to easily help me broadcast announcements through the magic of retweets. At no point did I need to type anything resembling Please RT!; I know from personal experience how pressing a button to boost a message you care about can be its own reward, and I loved seeing that phenomenon work for the IFComp.
(I was able to land such a cleanly literal Twitter handle, by the way, because long-time IFComp assistant Mark Musante had the foresight to quietly register it several years ago, awaiting the day that the organizer would ask for it).
Make it easier than ever for judges to play and rate the games. To this end, I de-emphasized (but still made available) the tried-and-true “download the whole competition as a .zip file” method, which (as Stephen had warned me) makes a little less sense every year as online play increasingly becomes the norm, even for traditional parser-based IF. I instead gave every entry a full-sized display that emphasized the games’ cover art and blurbs, modeled after the same gallery view visible elsewhere on the site. I further provided each entry with big, separate “Download”, “Play Online” and “Walkthrough” buttons, with backend smarts governing these buttons’ respective appearance and behavior.
I also removed the way that the old site segregated games by platform, listing all the web games in one group, then all the Z-code games, then TADS, and so on. Instead, both on the website and in the full-comp download file, all entries appeared in a single, alphabetical-by-name list (which visitors to the website could randomize with a button). I figured that, among games’ titles, cover artworks, blurbs, and platform information, the latter was the least interesting to players, as well as the most potentially confusing. Players determined to play a game based on the first three aspects will find a way. (The new site provides, for those who seek it, the usual song-and-dance instructions about IF interpreter programs. All rather obviated by the big shiny “Play Online” buttons available for all but a handful of entries, and I felt perfectly OK with that.)
Design robust, modular, tested software that I won’t mind revisiting and revising year after year, nor will feel apologetic about expecting others to work with — be they folks helping me organize, or my eventual successor as organizer.
The most stereotypical pitfall any hacker trips into, when inheriting an existing codebase, is their giving into the temptation to throw it all out and start over. They do this both due to personal hubris that whatever they make will greatly outshine the original work in beauty and stability, and their certainly that it couldn’t possibly take very long. They are wrong on both counts approximately 100% of the time.
Aware of all this, I did it anyway. The legacy IFComp software performed the tasks it meant to do perfectly well, but since it existed as a big pile of PHP scripts that freely mixed code with HTML, I found it very difficult to extend or modify on the scale that I envisioned. Naturally, this became the core of the reason I spent months and months on this project instead of a few weekends.
No regrets. The IFComp’s guts now live as GitHub-hosted open-source software for the first time. I feel confident that this modern MVC-based adaptation of Stephen and Dan’s past work represents an investment worth making: it enabled all my desired competition design changes, and provides a stable, testable basis for me and others to continue building on for years to come.
How did your plans change over time? (For instance, did you wind up changing your goals, changing rules for participation, etc.?)
I’m happy with how Nick Montfort — MIT professor, People’s Republic host, and poetic text-mage — convinced me to eliminate the IFComp’s previous restriction against translations of previously released works. We didn’t end up seeing any such translations entered into 2014’s competition, but I did change that rule mere months before the final deadline. I feel hopeful about seeing applications of this loosened rule in future comps.
I would end up adding two new rules to the list based on various conversations with competition participants around the start of the judging period. These included judge rule 7, which asserts the organizers’ right to disqualify any ratings that they suspect were not cast after “a good-faith effort to actually play that game as intended”, and a new code-of-conduct policy for the whole comp.
Both new rules give the organizers the full authority to disqualify participants for actions that run counter to the spirit of the comp, doubling as assurance to all participants that the organizers care enough about these topics to act when necessary. They don’t add any new restrictions to reasonable participants’ behavior (where we define “reasonable participants” as not inlcuding cheaters or jerks).
I didn’t wish to note it at the time, but my motivation for adding the code of conduct came from several comp participants approaching me in private with concerns about Gamergate. This anti-feminist reactionary movement had, by the competition’s October 1 start date, helped bring high-profile harassment and harm to many game developers — women in particular — with which it felt political disagreement.
The IF community has long enjoyed great diversity among its authorship. The lower barrier to entry afforded by creative tools like Twine meant more games from new voices addressing progressive political and social topics, appearing both in the world at large and as entries in the IFComp. With certain elements on Twitter and the intfiction.org forums starting to talk about the IFComp in a #gamergate-hashtagged context, I heard from people who suddenly felt quite nervous, even scared, that their own participation in the comp may make them targets for doxxing and death threats. (Heartbreakingly, I also heard others stating relief at not entering any games that year, figuring this at least made them less vulnerable.)
Wise and calm counsel from trusted colleagues gave me invaluable help in quickly deciding on a measured response. I implemented the code of conduct as an entirely new competition rule (only around 50 words long), and did my best to make sure all participants, as well as the interested public, knew about the addition. From feedback I received I could see that this helped heal the immediate symptom of competition participants feeling unsafe. I would continue to monitor public discussion about the competition, but at no point felt the need to otherwise directly intervene.
As I wrote in the blog, even though it came from a response to crisis, I feel the CoC’s assertion of the IFComp as a safe space for all has made it permanently stronger (at least so long as its organizers continue to show willingness to enforce it). I feel glad to have ushered it into place.
On the more technical side of things, after the first full week of October I sank a day into coding and testing a way to allow authors to update their own entries, with updates appearing on the site through a per-entry changelog. I originally intended to just punt this technology and just manually handle updates myself, and so found myself overwhelmed by how quickly the update requests started rolling in, literally from the moment the judging period began.
I asked authors to please adhere to the honor system when updating their games through this system, using it only to fix flaws and not to extend or otherwise continue developing unfinished work. This allowed me to additionally address authors of entirely web-based entries, hosted elsewhere, who of course had the means to update their work however they’d like without needing to go through me or ifcomp.org. To the best of my knowledge no author abused their ability to update their work; some of the authors of remote-hosted work even used the new system just to add publicly visible changelog entries.
The extant rule that frees judges from any obligation to replay an updated game absolutely worked in my favor here; I would quote it quite a bit as I continued to refine and document the entry-updating system. I also maintained a course Stephen had set in past years by leaving all game files’ initial, non-updated versions in the all-in-one downloadable zipfile, for those judges who would rather play the games as they existed on-deadline. (Though, again, this would prove unenforceable with remote-hosted entries.)
What were the biggest challenges that you ran into?
Besides working through the crises described above — as well as transient technical issues like riding out the day-one traffic spike that swamped my unprepared server for a few hours — my most significant ongoing challenge involves the competition’s rules. Two rules in particular, author rules 3 and 4, caused the most friction and confusion among authors — as well as among would-be authors unpleasantly surprised to discover that they couldn’t enter their work.
To the best of my current knowledge, both of these rules trace their history to IFComp’s origins as a contest tightly bound to the two Usenet newsgroups that, between them, essentially contained 100% of all internet-based IF discussion. (There used to be another rule that forbade anyone from discussing or writing about the competition during the six-week voting period. This fell away some years ago as obviously impossible to enforce any longer. The fact that this once did seem like a reasonable restriction does speak a lot to how much the IF world has changed since the IFComp started.)
Answering many questions about it over time gave me much stronger affinity for Rule 3, which forbids entry of previously released work. This is the rule that disappointed many hopeful authors, and in particular I took no joy in repeatedly breaking the bad news to students feeling proud of a game they wrote for a class and had, as part of the process, published to Playfic or the like. I don’t currently think that’s reason enough to kill or weaken the rule, but I did gain fresh awareness that it runs counter to expectations within the larger independent game-making community. In that light, the rule deserves a deeper look.
Rule 4, barring discussion from authors before the end of voting, proved — and continues to prove — much thornier. I thought it quite clear-cut at first, but the many questions, confusions, and perhaps-infractions that continue to come to my attention makes clear this rule’s utter murkiness.
Based both on concerns brought to me directly and conversations among others I observed, I fear that many authors spent much of last year interpreting this rule according to best-guess, and the fact that I myself changed its wording at least once last year (a reaction to one author making an honestly clever trailer for their entry in the days before judging began) didn’t help matters. Since the 2014 comp ended, I have received mail from folks worried that their letting slip in public their entent to enter the 2015 contest meant that they had disqualified themselves. Just today, I overheard someone on Twitter expressing sadness that their plans to blog about an IF they hope to write this year means that they can’t enter it into the IFComp. I really don’t think that’s its intended effect at all.
Rule 4’s perceived capriciousness moves it to the top of my list of IFComp aspects to reconsider at the start of this year. I feel successful in my examination of first principles for the IFComp’s 20th iteration, and look forward to applying the experience of the past year, as well as the IF community’s continued counsel, to make the IFComp’s foundations that much stronger for 2015.