How's this for a confluence: I like gamebooks like the Choose Your Own Adventure series and the Lone Wolf books. November is NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month.  Also in November, Microsoft is launching their Xbox Live Community games system, an online distribution system that makes it possible for any gaming hobbyist to sell their Xbox 360 fan-made games.  I like video games and would like to make my own.

Put all these pastimes together, and what do I get? … Molly the Were-Zompire.

I am currently writing Molly, a digital interactive novel in the style of the Choose Your Own Adventure novels.   It will be released on the Xbox Live Community games system with a price tag of 200 MS points ($2.50 in US currency).  Before that happens, I need to get the plotting and first draft done in November, the programming done in December (some of the coding is already done from a previous version of this project), and then do editing and debugging in January, with a public release later that month.

The premise of the story is that Molly is just an ordinary girl with dreams of becoming a heroine.  One day, she finds a magic book with a spell that promises great power to the one who casts it.  She casts the spell, summons the undead, is simultaneously killed by a werewolf, zombie, and a vampire, and then is reborn as Molly the Were-Zompire, potential heroine extraordinaire.  At this point, the game begins proper and the player decides what choices Molly will make.  Depending on the player's choices, the story could end up progressing in very different directions: an ally in one path of the story could be an enemy in another; entire locations and plot points are exclusive to certain plot paths; and so on.

The game was initially envisioned as a cross between interactive novels and traditional console RPGs, but in the end, I decided to just make it a straight interactive novel.  The problem with the previous version was that the two aspects didn't want to play nicely with each other. The RPG aspect kept wanting to interject combat situations and complex leveling up systems into the game. That complexity interfered with keeping the pace of the story moving briskly while exploring interesting non-combat situations.  In the end, the story aspect won out.  (I'll save the complicated formulae for a later RPG.)

Doing this kind of branching story in a digital form should have several advantages: the pacing should be a lot brisker without any of that pesky page flipping in search of a new page number for each choice; players won't accidentally read other storylines when they're searching for the next page; it'll be very easy to program in the ability to backtrack at any point if they reach a premature ending or just want to try a different path; the game can keep track of which endings have been seen and maybe even display a flowchart showing which parts of the branching storyline have been experienced; and perhaps my favorite digital advantage, the novel can be as long as I like without having to worry about page counts and editor concerns.

To be honest, I have no idea if this will be successful.  I believe there's a market for interactive fiction like this, though Molly's almost entirely text-based nature could deter people.  The $2.50 price tag could result in impulse purchases, but some people might see the low price as an indication of lack of quality.  Regardless of whether the game is a commercial success or not, I still think it'll be a success for me.  I've had the unfulfilled goals of writing a novel and making a video game ever since I was a little kid and this is a way that I can accomplish both goals at the same time.  Plus, the experience and self esteem gained from working on this project could pave the way toward future project.

3 thoughts on “Text Adventures on Xbox Live Community

  1. Ken Gagne

    Rob, best of luck with this venture! I hope it is a successful experience for you.

    How does the Xbox Live Community games differ from the XNA tools that have already been released? How will Molly be different from, say, this wiki of similar offerings?

    FWIW, I'd be careful using the phrase "interactive fiction" to describe a choose-your-own-adventure game. Though Wikipedia agrees the term can be used to describe multiple choice narratives, the term IF often refers more specifically to text adventures such as Zork and Colossal Cave.

  2. Community games and XNA are different aspects of the same thing. Xbox Live Community games are games that are distributed via Xbox Live. The XNA tools are programs that can be used to create those games (as well as PC games).

    The game I'm making could be made in a web format similar to the Choose Your Own Adventures on that wiki. Making it an actual program has some benefits (no need to wait for Internet page loading, tracking of which pages & endings have been read, easy integration of pictures & audio if desired, save/load features, etc.), but the core experience would work in a free online format.

    Ultimately, the major difference between my Choose Your Own Adventure and the ones on that wiki will be the quality of the writing. It's not that the CYOAs on that website are poorly written, it's that they're scarcely written at all! Most of them end after a few pages (projects that were started and abandoned), and the ones that are longer tend to have next to no text per page. It's hard to get into a story if there's only an average of 2-3 sentences between choices (as opposed to the official CYOA novels which tended to have 100-200 words a page and you'll sometimes go a few pages before hitting the next choice). I'll admit that most of officially published CYOA novels weren't that well written, but if you removed the choice aspect of them, they would still be passable children's books. That's not true of the vast majority of CYOA-style games on the Internet.

    I'm approaching this project like I would a novel: outlining, multiple drafts, editing, and the like over a period of time (I'm thinking my initial time estimate may have been overly optimistic). That alone should make it drastically better than 99% of the CYOA-esque games out there.

    As for the Interactive Fiction issue, do you have a better title? In the case that I make more than one of these, it'd be nice to have a title I could give the series that was catchy, descriptive, and didn't infringe on any copyrights.

  3. Ken Gagne

    Hey, Rob — I figured that quality of writing would be your hallmark compared to those more freely available alternatives. I doubt many of their authors would truly consider themselves "novelists".

    What do you expect the word count of your final product to be? How much of it do you think a reader will encounter in a single trip through the story?

    As for interactive fiction, there are no legal issues involved. It's just the name "IF" tends to conjure a specific kind of text adventure, and I wouldn't want you accidentally misrepresenting your game.

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