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Author Interview: Michael Lutz
2015-10-01 · by sub-Q
Michael Lutz is a game designer, interactive fiction author, and PhD candidate in Renaissance studies. His interactive fiction, including The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo and My Father’s Long, Long Legs has been featured on Kotaku, Polygon, The Verge, Wired, and Paste.
This interview was conducted by email in October 2014, with additional discussion in May 2015.
Tory Hoke: When I saw “My Father’s Long Long Legs” [November 2013], it broke my mind. I’m frankly a bit star-struck.
Based on the energy you invested in “My Father’s Long, Long Legs,” what would you say the pro rate should be for an original piece on that scale?
Michael Lutz: The amount of work that goes into a Twine can vary incredibly, as you’ve no doubt discovered. One of my shortest narrative games, a story called “Patrick,” has very little in the way of branching paths and was adapted from a regular-format story I wrote for a workshop in undergrad, but it still took maybe 15 hours spaced out over four days to reconceptualize it for twine, put it all together, and make its artwork, with an additional day of about 3 hours’ work to edit, debug, try out in different browsers, etc.
On the other end of the spectrum, my game “The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo”—without a doubt my most elaborate creation—clocks in at 17,000 words over multiple branching paths. Some friends volunteered to do the debug work, bless them. I also commissioned an artist for some background pieces, and artist rates for this sort of thing usually run $100 per pop—so with six backgrounds and variants commissioned, that’s around $650 in addition to my personal time investment in the project. It took maybe a month and a half to write, code, and edit, with another two or three weeks for debugging, editing, and finalizing the art assets. I think that’s a pretty good indicator of how supple and adaptable the Twine engine is, and the sorts of projects it can accommodate.
MFLLL is somewhere between those two. It took a week to write, build, proof-read, and test. But this was an extremely work-intensive week: it was basically all I did for about 6-7 hours a day. (I was on vacation, believe it or not, and decided this is how I’d unwind.) In total it’s about 4,100 words long, which works out to a little over $200 at fiction market pay-rates, but given the extra amount of work that went into it (the CSS, creating sounds and images, and the beta-testing) I’d add at the very least $100 or $150.
One instinct I have here, perhaps, is to do a kind of flat rate based on a combination of length of the story and the amount of other assets it employs (either art- or sound-wise or even any particularly complex coding). That’s just a thought, though. The third option I can think of is something closer to the hourly rate of general programming/web design, but I’ll cover that when I get to adaptations more specifically.
Tory: It makes sense that the flashlight effect would have been the most painful to integrate, because it was the sickest.
Would you be willing to adapt the work of other writers to Twine?
Michael: Adaptations are trickier, because I feel like even if the story is already written, there needs to be some deep thought given to how the format of a Twine will best complement that story.
To explain: I first conceived of MFLLL as a traditional short story (I sold a couple scattered pieces of fiction before starting grad school), and though I never wrote it out, the germ of the plot of MFLLL had been hiding out in my notebooks for several years.
Once I considered making it a Twine, however, I realized I could use Twine’s Jonah format and auto-scrolldown to create an impression of continuously “digging” deeper into the narrative, resulting in a nice thematic symmetry between form and content. Would that be the sort of thought you’d want to go into adaptations?
Tory: One million times yes. There isn’t enough “yes” for this. That’s exactly the talent/thought/insight I would want from a Twine adapter—”how can the content reflect the theme?” And that field is wide open and unexplored. That’s what’s so psychotically exciting to me about this medium.
Michael: If that’s the case I feel like adaptations would operate more like web design, which frankly tends to be both hourly and pricier than simply writing. In talking this over with a colleague who does design, he told me his process is to usually charge an hourly rate (around $50/hour) for an initial period wherein he consults with a client on what is envisioned for the project, produces 2-3 plans/rough prototypes in a relatively quick turnaround, and then consults again to get the client’s feedback. After that he works until the deadline, keeping hours, and at the end provides the client with an itemized bill explaining those hours and any charges incurred in addition to his hourly rate.
This obviously boots us into an astronomically pricier (and more complicated) sort of relationship than the one you normally encounter in regular fiction venues. So while it’s a model to consider and perhaps work from, I don’t think it’s viable as-is.
But on the other hand, I’m not sure how you revision the labor as something other than contracted web artifact design, especially if it’s super complex stuff. It’s a different sort of thought process than the one required to just write a story, but it’s really incredible, I think, that Twine makes these two types of thinking necessary complements.
Now, would I want to do adaptations? I can’t see myself wanting to make that my livelihood, unless it was a project I chose specifically and a story I was already very taken with. I have a hard enough time writing my own CSS!
Tory: Understandable. No matter what, I’m seeing it as an art commission approach:
Editor: Would you like to provide some art for this piece?
Twiner: (Looks at piece) Meh, it’s not doing anything for me.
Editor: No problem. I’ll try you again with something else.
Michael: My general stance here is as a hobbyist. Twine is enjoyable for me precisely because it’s a creative outlet removed from my work as a scholar and teacher, one subject mostly to my whims. There are ways it’s starting to influence my professional work, but I don’t think I’d ever want it to be my professional work, you know? It’s a refreshing thought process that gets me out of the academic mindset.
Tory: I get this stance 100%—if you love something, for God’s sake don’t try to do it for a living. It seems to be to be the difference between being a novelist and being a screenwriter, and it’s worth noting that the price models for those two occupations are night and day.
Would you be willing to have your own content reprinted on another site (at the indicated rate)?
Michael: I’m not averse to reprints, or what reprints may mean in the case of Twine, since most of mine are freely released (Jay is games actually requested to host a mirror of MFLLL, and I happily sent the necessary files right along). If I had sold Twines before, then I might have a better sense of what I’d want out of a reprint rate, but I’ll say that in theory I don’t see it being a problem. Again, I’m a grad student, so I love to get paid. Buying groceries is a wonderful thing.
Tory: When MetaFilter linked to MyFLLL last November, did the flood of visits bring down your server?
Michael: Yes, MFLLL ended up bringing down my hosting temporarily (and the site continued to experience problems off and on for a few months). But I think it started well before the MetaFilter post—I’d released MFLLL in August 2013, but it went viral through Tumblr/Twitter in October. It was maybe mid-October, then, when my site started to crash intermittently? So before that I’d thought the game just wasn’t holding folks’ interest.
But at some point in late September, Leon Arnott alerted me that certain assets in the game simply weren’t loading, making it unplayable. I found out this was due to a faulty .htaccess file on my website, and after I fixed that MFLLL was posted to FreeIndieGam.es, which I think provided the main vector for spreading to other places. So it looks like the game simply wasn’t working for a lot of readers before then!
Very suddenly I had to deal with an influx of traffic I really wasn’t prepared for. It was an interesting experience, since I knew this was a thing that happens to websites, but I never really expected it to happen to my website. I’d had my first Twine game, “The Tower of the Blood Lord,” also linked by MetaFilter (as well as Reddit, FreeIndieGam.es, and others), but nothing I’ve done before garnered as much traffic as MFLLL. In the first place, I severely underestimated the audience it was going to attract (and in retrospect I feel like that was basically unforeseeable), and consequently I didn’t even think to account for the extra bandwidth its use of sound and images would eat up. It’s not even a particularly intense thing to host, but my hosting was in fact just that minimal!
So many things happened in such quick succession, it felt like a perfect storm situation from my perspective.
Tory: What would you like to see more of in interactive fiction?
Michael: I sort of walked backward into interactive fiction, and so I’m still familiarizing myself with what’s already here. I come to the territory from games, obviously, since I call even my most nonlinear, narrative stuff a “game,” and a lot of my stuff tends to exhibit preoccupations I pull in from the gaming sphere. I don’t have a comprehensive understanding of the long and established history of IF, but I’m working through things now, reading and/or playing, whatever verb you want to recognize there (a little parser joke for you, I guess).
But of course, I’m interested in the ways IF can be employed by voices usually discounted—women, people of color, queer folks—and how that can help them carve out a space for telling stories. A lot of the time marginalized folks are expected to just tell personal or confessional narratives, which we’re seeing a lot of with the advent of Twine, but we’re also seeing a huge explosion of people just being able to make cool stuff.
Lana Polansky, just for instance, is a game critic who also writes some really great interactive poems with Twine, more abstract and poetical things being something I’m increasingly interested in. Like this project called “Blind Son of Snow” by a McGill University student named Marcello Ferrara, which is not Twine, but it’s still a kind of extended interactive multimedia poem that reflects on the poetic legacy of Pablo Neruda, Chilean history, memories of Pinochet’s regime passed down by parents and so on.
And I am very interested in seeing more IF from that perspective, outside a strictly white North American and Anglophone purview. Another great Twine example—which people who like MFLLL may enjoy—is Kevin Snow’s “Beneath the Floes”, a story about a creature from Inuit mythology, which had a successful Kickstarter and thus has an Inuktitut localization coming out soon.
Tory: What’s next for you?
Michael: For the next couple years I’m gonna be working on my dissertation for my PhD in English lit. Some voices on my committee really want me to leverage my experience with IF to produce something related to the field, which I think is totally a possibility, but at this point it’s a matter of form and content clicking in my head so that I know what I want to make—would people be into an “edutainment” Twine about early seventeenth century English theater? Good Lord, I almost hope not. I’m also working on ways to deploy Twine in my classroom, as a tool for thinking through, applying, or demonstrating college-level composition to first-year students.
On the creative side of things, I have no idea what I’ll be up to next. I’ve got notes for a bunch of stuff—a multiple-path IF novel, probably a dozen shorter stories. I’d also like to dip into graphical game design a little bit, maybe make a short adventure game or something. All of this is basically contingent on my time and resources moving forward, as well as the little spark of inspiration that randomly urges me to get something completed now. Who really knows what the future holds?
Tory: Thank you for your time and your insight, Michael. This has been an education and a treat.
Michael: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure!