Word count vs branching

The question of game length (in terms of words) vs writer effort and branching seems to be one of the hardest to get right. I have been struggling with this myself (a branching game is nice, but so much more effort than a more railroaded approach, and writer fatigue can easily signal the death of the project). In a separate thread Jason recently commented how “the minimum word count of 20,000 for Hosted Games is total word count, not average play-through length”.

My feeling, however, (reading feedback from other authors, etc) is that the average play through must be over 20,000, or readers will complain it is “too short” (and I do understand that readers always want more anyway, and that this complaint comes about even in very long games). However, what do other people think about regarding game length? (and I know that a game can be good even if short, but here I just want to talk about length and branching for a “typical” game)

Also, at which point in the game is it nice to introduce some branching? My current feeling is that there should be a little bit of branching at the start at least (so that the reader understands that branching also exists later on?), and that if there isn’t so much branching at the end then the “inevitably ends up the same” also appears. Thoughts on this? But, how much branching is good? (I know this leads to very complicated thoughts and talk about “depends on the story”, but anyway…)


Well, I am only just beginning work on my first ChoiceScript project, so I don’t have much experience in that department, but I am a gamer and long time lover of IF. I personally value both replayability and length. Rather than thinking of your project as a tree, think of it as a vines that spread themselves out and entangle themselves multiple times. You would place the emphasis on these points of entanglement. Or you could also think of an RPG with one main quest and a variety of side quests. At the end it’d be wise to sprinkle in the effects of these side quests so that the player/reader feels that they had a genuine impact on the world you’ve created. Focus on the word count of your “main quest”. There will be a lot of people who are only willing to do one playthrough, so they will be satisfied by the length of the mandatory main quest, whereas people who value replayability will be interested in seeing how taking certain side quests will later affect the points of entanglement. Base your wordcount on one path through the game, but make sure the other paths are roughly equivalent in length so that there’s uniformity in the average play length. I would agree that a wordcount total of 20k is just too low. An average playthrough of 20k would be fine. The shorter it is, the more you should focus on replay value, and the longer it is, the more you should focus on one really strong main quest with interesting side quests and detours here and there.


The fly in your ointment is that there is no typical game or story in this genre. I’ll use my own WiP and another currently in progress to high-light this.

One is horror, the other historical-fantasy.
One is up to three chapters and one only has its first chapter done.
One has 150,000 words so far and the other 35,000

The thing is, both give about 16,000 words per play through on average.

The reason you can’t really compare these projects is because the authors are different. To answer your question, to the satisfaction for yourself, we really should talk in specific about your writing.

For your writing style and composition what would give the reader/gamer a feeling of completion and closure?

The same goes for branching. Again lets compare my WiP and the other mentioned above:

One is still in the introduction and the other is in full force. Does that mean the first has no branching? No. The project in the introduction uses vignettes (mini-stories) to accomplish its goals.

How is the work in question written and what style is it in - these are the determinants of what types of branching you should be expecting.

So again, I think if you are struggling, we should look at your specifics.

On the page where CoG describes hosted games, it actually says:

Games must be at least 30,000 words long; the word count includes code.

Although Jason probably might know something different. You’ll need to beta-test the game and specifically ask your testers if they feel the game is too slight. One of my projects has a jokey sort of “jump out the window” choice that ends the game right at the beginning which gives a play through word count of about 100.

There’s no way to make each individual play through gratifying without just making sure there’s enough words and content for the player to spend a significant amount of time on. Short games aren’t bad, but should probably be described as such, and CoG might suggest to offer them for a very low price or free depending on their impression of it.

@Hanon_Ondricek - Just so you know where the OP is coming from, here is @jasonstevanhill 's post in question:

So, the 20,000 are actual words and not code. And the pricing you suggest is in play already as seen above.

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Also, CoG players love branching, which is essentially the heart of the format. You can provide fake_choices at the beginning to introduce the concept without widening the highway of your plot too much. Even fake choices should be meaningful, at least providing new text or altering a stat if they don’t veer the plot somewhere else.

One common trick to include non-branching choice interaction is to use the *fake_choice in places to let the reader decide their character’s reaction to the plot elements. If a dog comes running up to the player barking, you could let them choose from:

  • Mangy mutt. I hate dogs.
  • I remain at a safe distance.
  • I try to cautiously offer my hand to see if the dog is friendly.
  • I approach it in a friendly manner.
  • AW cute widdle pooch! I want to pet it and kiss it and call it George.

Each of these can have a slightly different result text and make the player feel they are involved in the story without branching. (Or you could even set a “likedogs” variable based on their reaction so that the story can describe any other dogs in the story later on differently based on the player’s reaction.)


I feel like the most important thing is to make a long and enjoyable first play through. Branching is nice, but no one would know it exists unless they replay the game. The first play through is the first impression and a great game is still good even if there is little branching. I wouldn’t be satisfied with ten minutes of Game or want to pay for it even if there are 60 different paths and tons of replayability; the game would seem short even though it’s not and took a lot of effort. However, I would love a game that took a day to play even if it was more linear.

You also need to think why would someone replay the game. Is making a unique custom character important? Are the different unique paths important? Is the first play through good enough for someone to want to play again? For example, if a game offers unique superhero and supervillian paths, I would only be interested in the hero path and half of that replayability would be unimportant to me.

I agree with @Hanon_Ondricek that you don’t have to write completely different branches to have replayability. You can have fake choices that track the MC’s feelings or honesty and change a few sentences or paragraphs based on NPC reaction to the MC.

Branching should be logical. Normally, choosing to wear a sun hat instead of a baseball cap shouldn’t drastically change the MC’s life. There should be consistency and logic between routes.

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Except for vampires. :fire:

That said, constructive contributions: I think well-signed branching is also important. If a player is equally, or nigh-equally, fascinated by two different pathways, that player is hooked and likely to read a second time to explore possibilities. Or a third. Or a fifth. @Lucid’s Life Of A Wizard did this spectacularly well, as does his Lost Heir series - and of course there are plenty of other examples.

I think content and word count are not necessarily synonymous either - Choice of Broadsides would be my preferred example here, I think. Quite a lot happens in the story, even though the actual word count is relatively low compared to some of the other CoG titles. It’s possibly to say much in few words - or the reverse, as well, it’s possible to have a high word count with relatively few events (and I’m certainly guilty of the latter).


I’m also interested to hear everyone else’s thoughts on this :slight_smile: I think you already know my current thoughts, but based on feedback and looking at reviews, I’ve come to the conclusion that there needs to be a degree of railroading happening for an overall happy audience.

I’m guessing a lot of people only read through once (or leave a review after their first play through and then don’t change it later) and will leave lots of “way too short!” 1-2* reviews since the more your story significantly branches, the lower the overall word count will be for each story line. Some reviewers don’t understand that the total word count per story listed in the blurb is not the story count (I’ve seen it a few times where there have been complaints that the story they read was “no where near 100,000 words” etc.) but I think they’re probably in the minority. In saying that if it says it’s 100,000 words and the story branches so much that many storylines are under 20,000 it will seem unexpectedly short based on expectations of length, and create unhappiness.

Iron Destinies does sign post different storylines quite well but then has “the branches are railroaded” complaint. (I’ve only read it once so that’s not my opinion, but if that actually is what it does, I’d imagine it was done to stop the word count spiralling out of control). Storylines that are too railroaded will still get complaints as well, but it seems to be regarded as a lesser evil than lower than ave words per play through by most reviews I’ve seen and will generally get judged less harshly as long as the story itself is well written.

So short version I don’t think you’ll ever keep everyone happy. Some people like lots of replayablity, some people just want 1-2 play throughs of an interactive story. From what I’ve seen from reviews vs stories, the ones that often do best have a strong core story line with lots of flavour text influenced by stats and choices so that playthroughs sound different, and “side quests” that branch away from the story then rejoin it somewhere so you can get some replayability out of it. Ideally have few well sign posted diverging branches in the ending sections, especially if it’s not going to be series, to confirm the “multiple choice” nature of the book. (Think stories like metahuman which I think did this quite well). Otherwise branch, but have a large overall word count with a few very well signed separate branches each with strong finished story lines. Those are my current thoughts anyway and may be subject to change :slight_smile:


I agree. I think this is the “sweet spot.” And I certainly think it’s the safest route. For example, let’s say you write 100k words and a reader gets about 30-35k of those words in a single reading. That’s a solid 2-3 hours of reading for most adult readers, depending on the complexity of the text and difficulty of the choices.


(I’m currently writing my first game so I’m not an expert).

My work scheme looks more or less like that:

Text —> Choice ----> Option 1 ----> Option 1’s result ----> This result’s choice ----> option 1…

In other words, I write the entire storyline resulting from the choice made until I reach the next major event or to the chapter end.

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I found an interesting site that has the recommended word counts from two publishers based on the type of book, topic and audience. Although I had a bit of a laugh regarding anything over 100,000 words being considered an ‘epic’ (how many too short comments for a 100,000 word COG anyone? Yeah I know, it’s not the total word count people are seeing.), there is actually a point. If you’re aiming for YA to adult readers for a “regular” novel, the total word count is listed as 40,000-70,000 for YA and 40,000-100,000 for adults. (Younger audiences are lower). So I’d say our estimates of 30,000+ word playthrough length creating less too short complaints is actually not too far off.


So, this would indicate that a satisfactory “playthrough count” should be 40,000-100,000 words … since that is the expectations being set… :white_check_mark:


That’s a difficult spot for anyone who wants to produce IF for any kind of profit, isn’t it?

To have a story that isn’t “too short” in this format, the played section needs to be +40k. Depending on how much there is branching of any kind, that will mean that the real full story is probably at least +60k, and very likely +100k if an author wants to get rid of complaints that the story feels as if it’s railroading you forward.
In sheer number of words, that is starting to get up there with the likes of The Hobbit and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Meanwhile interactive fiction is sold for about a third of the price of ebooks of relative length. If we take the full writing output for one piece of IF, then that will drop further down. Even games that include graphical elements and make efforts to hide the IF nature within a more fancy UI still sell their work for less than ebook prices in many cases.
So someone who wants to write IF and only IF would have to keep writing at least twice as much for less than half the money. While still tolerating complaints about the story being too short / too railroady.

EDIT: And that’s not a complaint about writing IF or money share percentages or anything. Just an observation about the market in general and the expectation of the reader towards the writer.


This is exactly what is the issue - most consumers don’t differentiate between an IF novel and a YA novel as far as expectations go.


In the length alone I’d say you’re right, but in the bigger picture the readers do differentiate.

A YA novel is seen as a book. First and foremost. Everyone goes into it expecting to flip over a page and experience a single narrative running through from page to page until the end. It’s a novel.

IF is seen as a game more than a novel because the format not only adds interactivity, but also a gameplay mechanic with the stats. That immediately introduces a whole new swath of expectations and demands, as well as the paradox of the current gaming market where players want cheaper games at increasingly high production values.


My humble opinion on the issue, from the reader’s perspective, is that a game should have something like 40% of its text shown in a single playthrough. 50% seems nice too. I rarely replay a game a lot (almost never more than 3 times), except when I really love it (like the Infinity series, Lords of Aswick, etc.) or when I am testing it. So having at least 40-50% of its words appear during a single playthrough seems like a nice compromise between length and replayability. Don’t get me wrong, I like games where choices matter, otherwise I wouldn’t be buying CoG. But the story needs to be long enough to get me hooked and happy by the end of it. So, yeah, 40k-50k words by playthrough seems a solid goal for the big majority of games here.


I am failing at this. :slight_smile: But then, I am also well aware that I’m not doing this for the money.


I don’t like it any more than you do,(I don’t mind branching games) but it certainly matches with the general concensus some of us came up with a while back. I think people are treating IF as YA length books. Granted they’re IF so we’ll get away with the lower end of the word count, but if you notice if you drop below a 30,000 word play through, complaints often go up subtanstially Below 20,000 words (1/2 the recommended on this list) and the complaints often get very loud. I don’t know if I’m just more sensitive to it, but I’ve seen them turning up on books that I suspect do have that word count more lately. Anyway, I hadn’t seen a recommend length list set out like this before and it was a bit of an “Oh, now I get it” moment for me :slight_smile:


Quoting @Havenstone

When I finished certain titles, I know that I won’t be replaying them anytime soon. Don’t get me wrong, those titles are all good and has potential replayability (Tin Star, Mecha Ace, Metahuman). Heck, even The Great Tournament appears to be made for replayability.

But for some reason, replayability just don’t fit me when it comes to texts. In this case, the IF.
IDK why, maybe because replaying an IF means reading that same block of paragraphs; only small changes regarding the flavor texts. It’s boring.
Unlike video games, where you can have flashy animations and particle effects that keep it being a dynamic experience.

When this thought occurs to me, I’ve to realize that most people will miss quite contents of my WIP if they don’t go for replayability. But I think it’s for the best, tho, as I’ll most likely keep writing some nice story-branching while aiming for the quality of single-playthrough story is supposed to be, which is done right in XoR, I think :sweat_smile: