10 de noviembre, 2014
Especial Choice of Games
Especial Choice of Games
Rebecca Slitt: «We take diversity very seriously at Choice of Games»
Rebecca Slitt: «We take diversity very seriously at Choice of Games»

Choice of Games is an independent company dedicated to create Interactive Fiction (IF) works, text games, in the XXI century. Its works are is characterized by a semi-linear structure which affect past actions in the future. They call it «delayed branch». Apart of structure, they interested in produce stories inclusive and egalitarian in terms of gender and sexual orientation, a philosophy that actively promote their games. We talk at length about this and more, like their success to incorporate professional writers in their line, and at the same time, get a productive community around your system IF creation based on choices: ChoiceScript. To get to know the company we spoke with Rebecca Slitt, historian and editorial director at Choice of Games.

Tell us how all started, how some guys from California decided to make and sell text based games. What’s your background?

The games came before the company, actually. About twelve years ago, our co-founder, Dan Fabulich, started tinkering with a game from 1986 called Alter Ego. It’s a multiple-choice text-only that traces a life from birth to death, and puts the player inside the life being lived. It’s your life; you get to decide what kind of person you want to be. The first-person perspective brought an incredible emotional immediacy to the game.

But since it was so old, it didn’t run on any currently available computer platforms – it was originally written for the Commodore 64! So Dan decided to bring it to the web.

That was the beginning of the road that led first to ChoiceScript and then to Choice of Games. Being a web game determined a lot of aspects of the UI for Alter Ego: the page of text, the radio buttons that corresponded to each choice, the Next button that took you to the next branch of text. That’s not unique to either Alter Ego or Choice of Games, of course: it’s also found in the choose-a-path gamebooks that form another part of our inspiration. But it’s the genesis of the Choice of Games format.

rebecca_smOnce Dan finished Alter Ego… well, he kind of forgot about it. It ran on a server in his closet and he didn’t pay much attention to it. Then, a few years later, he checked up on it and discovered that Alter Ego was getting literally millions of page views! Clearly he’d found something that resonated with people, both in format and subject matter. So he teamed up with our other co-founder, Adam Strong-Morse, to create a new multiple-choice game called Choice of the Dragon which they published in December, 2009. It followed the same format as Alter Ego and the choose-a-path books: a page of text with a set of choices at the bottom that determines what happens next in the story. They still didn’t think that it would be anything more than a fun experiment in a new storytelling medium.

But Choice of the Dragon got lots of downloads and even started to earn some money for the authors, so they decided to try again. They brought in a third author, Heather Albano, to collaborate with them on Choice of Broadsides, a Napoleonic Wars naval-battle game.

When Choice of Broadsides did well too, Choice of Games expanded even more. The founders brought in more authors to write their own games – including Jason Hill, who became the third member of the core editorial team – and started figuring out how to turn this fun side project into an actual business.

I’m the most recent addition to the editorial team; I joined in 2013.

Our professional backgrounds before are pretty varied. Dan’s the only one whose day job is in tech; Adam worked as a lawyer and law professor before going full-time for Choice of Games, Jason was in fashion wholesale, and I was a history professor.

But we all had a lifelong love of games and writing, and we were all able to draw on our previous professional experience in building up CoG.

You debuted with Choice of the Dragon in 2009, a story about the joy to be in the scales of a dragon and, at the same, time jokes with the tropes of the fantasy genre. It was very well received, and I think there was a hunger for that kind of content. What do you think it was so special about the dragon that make it so popular?

I think you’ve hit on a lot of the reasons already. It both embraces and reverses fantasy tropes: it has knights and dragons and castles, but the knight is your opponent, and instead of trying to defend the castle you’re trying to attack it. Those reversals are the source of a lot of the humor in the story. Another reason for its popularity is that it lets people play a very powerful creature. We’ve found that our players really like stories in which they exercise a lot of power. And finally, it has a very simple concept: You’re a dragon! Everyone gets that.

Choice of the Broadsides followed the dragon. Romance, vampires, zombies, ninjas, space pirates… it is evident that Choice of Games is very fond of the fantasy literary genre, and that you have the mission to cover every possible literary sub-genre. Why is that? Why choose that kind of commercial strategy as the topics of your games?

vampireHaving a strong connection to an established genre makes our games more accessible to new players. «You’re the hero of a sci-fi novel» is an easy pitch to make, and an appealing one to receive. It also draws a ready-made audience from among fans of the genre. For instance, Slammed!, our game in which the PC is a pro wrestler, had an automatic appeal to fans of wrestling and other sports. Even better, the association with sports drew in people who might not have otherwise looked for an IF game. We’ve found that stories with a strong genre association are very marketable.
We also like having something for everyone. Games are a highly personal experience, especially games as immersive as ours, in which the player has the opportunity to envision themselves as the protagonist of the story. We want many different kinds of people to be able to find something to love in our games.

Another trait of your games is simplicity. They are text and just text. It is a bold decision because part of your competitors tend to produce lavish and multimedia enriched works. However, it is evident they can not compete in productivity, the rate of works published by Choice of Games is quite impressive.

Thank you! We’ve made a conscious choice over the years to keep our games text-only. It helps keep production costs down, of course, and it allows us to work faster, both of which are advantages for a small indie company. But being text-only also allows more artistic freedom. It’s easy for our games to include huge crowd scenes, space battles, sweeping landscape – all kinds of things that would be very hard to depict visually. We’re not limited by the quality of animation software we can afford or the time we can spend on rendering complex images.
Being text-only also allows us to offer more flexibility in characters’ appearances. It’s much easier to change the words you use to describe a character than it is to create new images to represent that character. So we can easily offer players the chance to play as different genders, races, ethnicities, sizes, etc; or to define the characteristics of NPCs in the same way.
Also, text-only games are accessible to a wide range of people. People with visual impairments find our games more accessible than some others because our games are very compatible with screenreading software, and the gameplay doesn’t depend on images. We’ve been featured on several websites for gamers with disabilities, and we’re happy that we’ve found an audience in that market.

Lately genre, feminism and the voices of minorities are gaining importance in games and more concrete, in choice-based Interactive Fiction, thanks to avant garde like Porpentine or Anna Anthropy. The approach of Choice of Games to genre is quite interesting. It has received some debate, criticism and praise. I don’t want to deepen in the negative side of the topic because I enjoyed a lot Choice of Broadsides. In the book, if you choose to be male, the game is a historical one, but if you chose to me female, suddenly the game is fantasy, that happens in an alternate universe that is ruled by a strong matriarchal society. For me it was incredibly amazing to see males take the role of peacocks trying to gain the heart of the brave and young lady officer, it was very funny. Tell us something about the approach of Choice of Games to genre and diversity.

We take diversity very seriously at Choice of Games. We want our players to feel welcomed and included, no matter what fictional environment the story takes place in. All of our games include the possibility to play as male or female, gay or straight, and many of our newer games expand the options beyond those binaries as well. Imagining your actual self as the hero of the story is part of the immersive IF experience, and we want our players to be able to enact characters as diverse as they are. And, conversely, this flexibility in the PC’s gender and sexuality allows people to play our games as a character whose traits don’t match the ones they have in real life. It’s very valuable to be able to inhabit a first-person perspective that isn’t your own.
Moreover, on a personal note, as a woman making games I feel a deep responsibility to encourage positive representation of women in our games, and to support other women writers and game designers. I’m lucky to hold the position that I do, and I want to use what power I have to make the world of games better for other women, both as players and makers.
When making games set in the historical past, though, our ethical commitment to diversity runs up against the challenge of historical inequality.
broadsidesChoice of Broadsides was only our second game, and as the first game with a human protagonist, it was the first one where gender really mattered. It also put the authors right up against those two competing needs: they didn’t want to limit players’ options for their characters’ gender or sexuality, but they needed to create a gameworld that really felt like an 18th-century British naval ship. They had many long conversations with each other and with Choice of Games fans, trying to figure out how to balance these obligations.
The solution they came up with was genderflipping. The Royal Navy of Albion would be single-gender, as was the British navy in the 18th century – but it could be either all men or all women. The player’s choice of their character’s gender would also determine the gender dynamics of the gameworld: whichever gender they chose would be the dominant one.
Since then, our egalitarian approach has become part of our brand. We’re proud of what we’ve done so far, we’re eager to move beyond binaries, and we’re always looking for ways to become more inclusive.
With regard to historical games in particular, before I came to Choice of Games I was a history professor, so I’ve thought a lot about how to write stories that are historically accurate and also inclusively diverse. Fortunately, there is a lot of room for both elements in the same stories. The historical past includes many more opportunities for equality than the standard narrative often suggests. I’ve gone into more detail about our approach to gender in historical games for Dissertation Reviews.

Let’s talk business. Let’s talk about interactive storytelling. Generalizing a lot, it is said that choice based games have less agency, complexity and interactivity than parser based games with a modelled world. This can be true by obvious reasons of format… but lately I lean to think that game-books give us something that can not be achieved without a lot of work in modelled worlds, in words of Jon Ingold for Indieorama talking about the greatness of The Last Express: «…it is exactly how narrative adventures should: shifting, adaptive, rich with characters; and set in a world where time is always going forwards and you can never go back.» That is, most parser adventure text has no time at all, for example Colossal Cave Adventure is just a playground to gather treasures in, there is not plot or story that advances from the actions of the player. However, if there’s something that game-books translate nicely that’s plot, and time, always going forward. Choice of Games focus on «high level interesting choices». What’s special about the stories of Choice of Games?

One of the great things about ChoiceScript is that it «remembers» the results of previous choices: not only can you record individual choices, but you can also account for the cumulative result of choices through stats.

This allows a very dynamic kind of storytelling, and more complex characters. You can build up relationships with NPCs: they’ll respond differently to you depending on how you’ve treated them in the past. You can experience a much deeper simulation of your character’s traits: by recording the results of your previous choices, the game “knows” character’s strengths and weaknesses and shapes the story accordingly. If, for instance, you’ve consistently chosen options that show your character to be a blunt and undiplomatic person, you probably won’t succeed at a tricky negotiation or a subtle lie.

That said, there’s plenty of room under the IF umbrella for lots of different styles of games. Twine has its own strengths, as do visual novels and parser IF. They’re just different strengths from ChoiceScript’s, and therefore they’re suited to different kinds of stories. Having a larger set of tools for IF authors to choose from is a good thing.
What video games, graphical, triple A or indie, do you like for its interactive storytelling capabilities?

A recent favorite is inkle’s 80 Days. Because it’s based on a novel, it’s sort of IF, but I’m placing it among video games because it incorporates videogame elements – resource management, map exploration, etc. – to enhance the narrative. (I’m also calling it a video game because my favorite actual video game is Rock Band, which doesn’t have much of a narrative, unless you count «scrappy IF editor struggles to master a tricky guitar solo.»)

I love that you can make 80 Days into any number of different kinds of games. It can be a character-driven IF story; it can be a game where your goal is to make the fastest time; it can be a game about buying and selling and maximizing your wealth; it can be a game about exploring every corner of a world that’s almost but not quite like our own.

I also love its original storytelling. It’s not just a recap of the novel, although some of the incidents and characters are the same; it’s a steampunk adventure with creative worldbuilding and insightful examinations of the role of technology in society. Even better, its society is much more egalitarian than the actual late 19th century, and the characters are much more diverse than those in the original novel.

And what Interactive Fiction (parser based or choice based games) would you recommend us?

Blue Lacuna by Aaron Reed absolutely blew me away. It felt like Myst in all the best ways – that sense that an infinitely more complex universe is just out of reach, and you can only catch a few beautiful glimpses of it. The worldbuilding is amazingly intricate, and the puzzles are very satisfying. The first time I played it, I intended to give it a quick try and ended up utterly absorbed for about three hours. (And that wasn’t nearly enough time to finish, of course, so then I came back the next day for more.)

Let’s talk business now, real business, money and such. I like a lot the scheme of monetization you have chosen for your games. Your novels are divided in two parts, the first freely playable. Then it ends with a cliffhanger, and if you enjoy the experience and wants more, then you can pay for the second part. And some of your games are entirely playable for free in browser. So… how is it going?

heroesriseIt’s going very well! Choice of Games is in very solid financial shape, and every year brings substantial growth. We’re on track for 2014’s revenue to be about double 2013’s, and we’re profitable enough to pay salaries to three out of the four main editors. (The fourth still has a day job.) Nobody’s getting rich, but we’re all making a decent living, and we can devote more of our time and energy to making great games. That also means that we can pay fair and competitive rates to our authors, artists, and copyeditors.

That’s one of the reasons why we’ve stopped releasing free games. Another is that Google made it impossible for us to use AdSense (see our report on that from 2010 here). We need to generate enough revenue that we can give our authors and artists fair compensation for their work. Not only is that important to us ethically, but it also helps us grow as a company because it means that we can attract high-quality talent. In order to do that, we need to charge for our games.

We’ve tried multiple pricing structures, both pay-to-play and free-to-try (the cliffhanger option). We’ve found that free-to-try generates more sales overall, but pay-to-play gets us higher ranking in app stores. That gets us more visibility, and visibility improves sales in other ways.

We’re also starting to experiment with bundling our games, which has recently become possible thanks to iOS 8 and our entry into Steam. For instance, our successful Heroes Rise trilogy is now available as a bundle. We hope that the increased convenience of buying as a bundle will increase sales as well, although it’s too soon for us to have any hard numbers on that.

We’re all very happy with the way Choice of Games has grown financially since its founding. It’s pretty amazing to be able to make a living from writing and publishing IF.

How has been the reception of your games on Steam? It was quite a surprise that you expand your market there, you know, some would argue that the videogame hardcore audience of Steam is not the appropriate one for text based games.

We’re enormously pleased to be on Steam. It’s a huge step forward for an indie company like ours, and our success on Steam is one of the reasons that 2014 has been so profitable for us.
We also know that our games are very different from most of the offerings on Steam. There have definitely been a few confused users who were looking for a video game and didn’t quite know what to make of us. But overall, we’ve had a very positive response from Steam users. They like our games for what they are, appreciate the complex storytelling that they find in our titles, and like the fact that they can now find a wider variety of games on Steam.

ChoiceScript is the script language used for your games, and is available for anybody to work on their own stories. You have two labels so they could publish stories upon the umbrella of Choice of Games. It seems you have been so successful, because you have integrated seamlessly several authors in your line and brand. Tell us a little about the importance of user generated content, and some reflections about the collaboration with professional writers.

We love the way that people have embraced the ChoiceScript language. There’s always active conversation about ChoiceScript on our forums, and the community of ChoiceScript programmers is growing every day. We were really happy to see that Lynnea Glasser chose ChoiceScript for Creatures Such As We, her entry into IFComp this year. (It’s a fabulous game, too! I highly recommend it.) People working in ChoiceScript help us make the language better by suggesting and/or creating new features.

A lot of that creative energy is reflected in our Hosted Games label. That’s where our more experimental games live: we’ve got puzzle games, stories that borrow from the structure of parser IF, and games with enormous sandboxes of a world to explore. Our Hosted Games authors help us stretch the boundaries of what’s possible in ChoiceScript, and Hosted Games often appeal to different audiences than Choice of Games titles.

Back on the Choice of Games label, working with previously-published authors has gone very well. One of the big strengths of Choice of Games titles is the quality of the writing, and working with already-published authors is a way to get very high quality writing. Working with published authors also helps drive sales and expand audiences on both sides: the authors bring the fans of their novels over to Choice of Games, and Choice of Games readers get the chance to become fans of novels that they might not otherwise have discovered. Everyone wins!
One especially successful collaboration is Choice of the Deathless by Max Gladstone. It’s a tie-in for his Craft Sequence fantasy series: it’s set in the same world, and builds on the existing narrative of the novels but also stands alone as a self-contained game. We’re thrilled that he’s working on another Craft Sequence tie-in game for us.
We’re developing a few other games with ties to published novels, and we hope they’ll have as much success as Deathless.

Are you considering to translate your games to other languages? We are interested in Spanish, but last time I tried, a long time ago, I tested Choice of the Dragon in Spanish but Choice Script did not work with the Spanish special characters, so I stopped.

We love that you enjoyed Choice of the Dragon so much that you wanted to translate it! For the immediate future, we don’t have any plans for translated games or for games that aren’t originally written in English, but there’s always the possibility of expanding someday. About use ChoiceScript for works in other languages… Absolutely! The commands (*if, *else, *goto, etc) are in English, but you can write your story in any language you want. So, go forth and write! We’d love to see ChoiceScript being used by authors around the world.

We are close to an end, so let’s end with a story, what books do you recommend us from the catalogue of Choice of Games. Give us two of them.
One of my personal favorites is the Affairs of the Court trilogy: Choice of Romance, Choice of Intrigues, and Till Death Do Us Part. It’s by the same team who wrote Choice of Broadsides: Heather Albano, Adam Strong-Morse, and Dan Fabulich.

romanceIn Affairs of the Court, the PC is an ambitious young noble trying to catch the eye of the monarch at an intrigue-filled court – analogous to Anne Boleyn at the court of King Henry VIII. The Affairs trilogy has some of the most intricate storytelling of any Choice of Games title. It has more than 20 different endings, each with its own satisfying emotional and political payoff. It also has very vivid characters who develop in complex and believable ways. Depending on the way the PC treats them, certain characters can end up as lovers, friends, or enemies – or, they can start as one and turn into another, and the story is told so skillfully that each path makes sense. It also plays with history in ways that I appreciate as a historian: like Broadsides, it balances authentic-feeling historical atmosphere with equality in gender and sexuality.

That’s really three games – can I get another? If so, then I’ll recommend our most recent release, Thieves’ Gambit: Curse of the Black Cat, by Dana Duffield. It’s a heist game: you play the world’s second most famous jewel thief, trying to steal a cursed diamond. It’s witty, fast-paced, and note-perfect in its treatment of the heist genre.

What holds the future for Choice of Games?

We’ve got a lot of exciting plans! We’re on track to release 10-15 games in 2015, including the first in a new series by the author of the Heroes Rise trilogy. We’re working with several well-established authors of IF (including Aaron Reed of Blue Lacuna) and tabletop RPGs, some of whom are developing tie-in projects and some of whom are making original stories.
Rebecca Slitt de HalloweenWe’re also planning our first games for young readers. IF is a great way to get kids to read more: they love being able to direct the action, and they love imagining themselves as the main character in the story. Those are some of the things that we loved about IF when we were kids, and we’re looking forward to bringing that kind of fun to a new generation of readers.
Probably the most exciting development for Choice of Games is that we’ve just started work on our first multiplayer game! It’s a pretty ambitious project, and it will be a while before it’s ready to go public, but it’s going to be awesome when it’s done.

Ilustrations: Choice of the Vampire, Choice of Broadsides, Heroes Rise: Heroes Fall, Choice of Romance: Affairs of the Court, and finally Rebecca ready for Halloween.

Acerca de Ruber Eaglenest

Es diseñador de videojuegos, co-fundador de la compañía familiar Wingless Little People. Editor de Indie-o-rama, crítico, escritor, y entrevistador, además es autor de Ficción Interactiva (o Aventuras Conversacionales) y teórico del medio, donde es conocido como El Clérigo Urbatain. En sus ratos libres es arqueólogo de mundos video-lúdicos virtuales.

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