Postmortem: My experience writing for Choice of Games

In 2017, my resume was accepted by Choice of Games and I started writing a cute Christmas story about Mrs. Claus. By 2019, I finished the game (In the Service of Mrs. Claus), writing about insanity-causing gods and castles of horror built from the tortured dreams of kidnapped children.

Working for Choice of Games was a wild experience. While I was writing I had trouble finding people with similar experiences I could compare with. Even before I was accepted, I wondered what it would be like to be one of those cool CoG authors I saw. So here’s a long, rambling post about my experience

Background

I was mostly an interactive fiction reviewer. Obsessed with IF, I had played and reviewed over 1000 games (mostly parser). I learned from the games I reviewed, and I had entered and won prizes in several writing competitions and had my work featured in online magazines, but it was all parser games.

I had always admired and even envied CoG writers as ‘real writers’ who were amazing and professional. I never considered myself worthy of even sending in my resume.

But then my cat got a $4000 trip to the emergency room and my disabled wife was trying to get a wheelchair van, so I applied to CoG with my resume, as well as another, less established and more volatile company.

I ended up being accepted by both; I also had two previous parser game commitments to finish. I was in way over my head. I picked the option (that CoG had at the time) for less advances and more royalties so that I’d be more invested in the game.

The work process

CoG was a dream to work with. Compared to the other company I was involved with, they were thoughtful, experienced, timely, and patient. They helped me work through numerous revisions of an outline, which was an immense task, as well as giving me several rounds of advice on the first chapter.

Writing was really, really hard for me. Incredibly hard. In parser games, I could have a sense of place: you create a room, you describe the room, you describe things in it.

But CoG is about story and relationships. The further I went, the more I doubted myself. I tore through pages and pages of online writing advice. But I realized that I hated my writing.

So every single day for 2 years I sat down from the time my son went to sleep until I went to sleep and spent the whole time ‘writing’. It was really 75% overcoming self-loathing and 25% writing. Sometimes I would write 3000 words (very rarely!) and more often 0. Near the end, I committed to 500 words a day, and that was the fastest I ever got.

Real life intervenes

At first I split my time between both companies, but then the more volatile company went under and folded all their projects. It meant less income at a critical moment, but I could finally dedicate more time to CoG.

But life went bad. Both my grandfathers died. A student at my university tried to get me fired because I had joked that 'They’ll probably fire me so I can teach whatever I want" when in fact I was scrambling furiously to get a position at the same school next year. I was struggling with my religion and my wife and I got divorced.

All of this, I poured into my game. Many of the choices in the game reflect real life choices I was going through. Writing got even harder; it was like squeezing bits of my soul into the computer. I wrote, I revised, I hated it, I’d get feedback from my wonderful editor, I revised.

But as it went on and I read stuff from long again. I realized that my writing actually wasn’t horrible. It’s not the strongest in the CoG oeuvre (I’m looking at people like Lynnea Glasser and Kevin Gold), but the story was good, and I was proud of it.

It took a long time, though. Two years, and it was only 160K words. That used to be strong for a CoG, but now it’s pretty far below average. But I couldn’t add any more. It was too late, and the story was already done. Winter was coming, literally, and a Christmas game can only be released one time in the year.

Advance installments were so helpful during this time. They helped pay for the cat, the van, the divorce, and moving.

Release

The lead-up to release was great. Working with artists and copy editors was so fun. I spent literally 6-10 hours a day working on the numerous revisions. They made the game SO MUCH better. For instance, they identified an annoying writing quirk that I had, so I found all 200+ examples in the text where I perpetrated that quirk and rewrote them.

I haven’t seen many sales figures from CoG authors, especially underperforming ones, so I wanted to share mine. My game has sold 1998 copies (Edit: I had miscounted before!), with the vast majority occurring around Christmas and < 200 games a month now. For me, this is an incredible success. I can honestly say that I am now a published author with thousands of copies sold. And I feel so happy about it.

For Choice of Games, they didn’t earn back the advance they gave me, not even close. They’ve been very kind about it; never has anyone in the company said anything negative to me, but as someone who values themselves by their service to others, I feel a personal debt to CoG and a sadness at “letting them down” by my own standards.

The game is great; all reviews have been very positive. I suppose that the subject is off-putting, especially to a base that isn’t very interested in Christmas to begin with. And the first chapter is rather dull, but to be fair I had 2x as much writing experience by the time I was done as I did when I started. I hope you all check it out come this Christmas!

Future

Writing a 160K game was so incredibly difficult and exhausting that I don’t think I could ever do it again, let alone write the longer ones that are now the norm. As a kind friend pointed out, my background is in game writing, and not fiction writing. I’m better at mechanics than narrative.

For a few weeks, I thought I’d never write anything in any form again (from burnout), but I’ve already written 3 parser games this year (winning a competition in the process), started another, and ran an anniversary contest for famous IF author Emily Short.

I love the games you all are writing, and I think you’re incredible. Thank you for reading this; I hope it might be helpful to some hopeful author or someone currently writing a game. Thanks!

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Thank you for your heart-felt Postmortem Developer Diary Brian.

I will edit my post with my more in-depth dive “soon”, but understand upfront, having you as a contributing and engaging member of this community enriches us all.

@Brian_Rushton here are my thoughts from bottom of the post up:

Re Future:

I am of a like background, so I understand this sentiment quite well. Regardless, you have turned out quite a fictional story and I did see how your background in mechanics helped you work your CS structure easier.

I understand the difficulties of learning to write fiction and the frustrations of using your advanced mechanics knowledge while trying to splice the two together. When you get an unexpected result from what you envision, at first blush, the mystery of it all is much like trying to translate a Latin mass into today’s living languages.

I know you are experiencing a revival of creativity within your parser-game wheelhouse and a lack of inspiration for an IF story currently. I have a feeling that sooner or later, you will get re-inspired again; your love for the writing in this community runs deep and it will replenish over time, your muse.

Re Work Process and Release:

The staff at CoG is the main reason I have been consistently trying to add value to the HG author/developer’s experience specifically and the forum community in general – it is rare to find a collection of good people gathered together the way there is here.

Interacting with them from the CoG side of writing is something that is (from all that I’ve learned) is a great experience and something that a lot of HG authors desire to benefit from.

Your feelings of being a writer/imposter and your feelings of having disappointed your publisher and your audience is also something that a lot of us feel. As @poison_mara and others point out, wanting to please and then feeling that your efforts did not bring you over that goal line is heartfelt by many of us.

Thank you for reminding us that we are not alone.

Re Background:

I’m sure your drive and your will-power to succeed will be adding qualities to your background abilities and accomplishments as you continue to mature as a fiction writer. I recognize some things you say and some you left unsaid as providing you the motivation and fuel necessary to power through the obstacles, such as burn-out.

I foresee you writing IF again; the end product you write will be on the next level of achievement because you take what you learn and build from it … it won’t matter the actual ending word-count. Regardless, I will be one of your fans, in your corner, cheering you on.

:cheer

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Incredibly helpful and inspiring. Thank you! :mask:

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This is definitely helpful for aspiring writers to read. I’m where you were at the beginning, struggling with not liking my writing, and it’s nice to know that it’s something that can be overcome. Thank you for giving us insight into the process of both your writing and how CoG operates!

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I teared up reading this. :cry:

Thank you for sharing your experiences (and feeling safe to do so). I apologize for the struggles you have endured.

As an aspiring IF writer your input here is meaningful. I hope one day to have a resume that could look like yours and feel satisfaction of finalizing a game for Hosted/Choice of Games.

I do hope life is getting better for you.

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Thank you so much for sharing! That was a very thought-provoking and motivating read.

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I am not a real writer or anything but your post has been really emotional and useful for me. Because I suffer from the same problem every day. I think my write is terrible, and I am a fraud. I decided to try to improve myself and write at least 1k. words every day. And trying to improve through practice, I will never end published but my goal is at least make one person inspired or happy with what I write.

You should be proud of yourself, and end a good game even with all the problems you were through. Nobody would take that achievement from you. And you are not alone.

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Your experience is basically how it’s gone for me. I’ve written for another company as well (I quit a few months ago), and I doubt I’ll ever work for any other company than Choice of Games again. They really have their #@$% together.

Thank you for sharing your experience.

Also, wheelchair vans are expensive. I actually wrote one of my games to help pay for my wheelchair.

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Wow, that was very inspirational! Thank you for taking the time to share your very helpful thoughts. :smiley:

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I have felt since you began Mrs. Claus that you were easily one of the most open and approachable first-time CoG authors (I’m obviously not including our forum faithful ones, who are nothing but approachable), and that you had a great approach to the process. Admittedly, the very unique nature of your story made mainstream success a bit of a longshot, but as someone whose first story has sold less than a third of what yours did, I can say those sorts of things don’t always seem apparent in the moment. But you have to consider that CoG is playing the long game here; your story hasn’t made back the advance yet, but give it six months, a year, two years, five, whatever it takes. It’ll be out there that whole time, and if it gets to the profit mark for CoG slowly, well, that’s still getting there. They have virtually no overhead beyond the cost of initially creating a game, after that all money rolling in for it, whether that be large or small, is pure profit minus the author’s royalties and platform costs. Your story will absolutely hit that mark at some point. And hey, when it does, you start getting royalties yourself, so that will be even more good news.

Whatever you next do, be it here or more parser games and things like that, just know we’re all rooting for you. And hey, if you ever want to team up, I’m a writer who is a truly execrable coder…

And if you ever want to talk about your religious struggles, I’d be glad to, having undergone similar circumstances a few years back.

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@Brian_Rushton To put things in perspective, I criticised a lot @hustlertwo first game. and he took very well that criticism, and he has grown a lot since then as a writer, don’t let bad sells or critical constructive feedback affect you use it to grow. And just forget the trolls.

I hope you will return to write here or anywhere. You are good and have lots of potential If you keep going.

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Yeah, I believe “worst story you had ever read” was bandied about. But you were classy about it, at least, and now you’re one of the credited beta players for Parenting, so I have definitely appreciated that you gave me another go.

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As @JimD @Eiwynn @Havenstone can tell you, starting our friendship with a negative analysis from me is some sort of forum tradition. But really, your growth as a writer and as a game designer from a game to the other; it is like a day at night.

For me a clear example, that hard work and take account testers can make one reach new goals. You are an inspiration for me

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Thank you for sharing this powerful account. I’m sorry that it’s been such a rough road, but I’m so glad that you stuck with it and you’ve made something you can be proud of. When I was first dipping my toes into the world of online IF you were a welcoming and positive presence and I’m certain that your work has inspired a ton of people as well as being awesome in its own right.

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Thank you for sharing all of that, and I appreciate how open and honest you’re being. I’m glad you were able to persevere, and doubly glad that you have the tangible result of all of your hard work.

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