Of new websites and anti-reversing the game

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Just as 2006 ends, we'll be polishing the jagged edges of a big SF0 website update, and (probably on the 31st) making the Big Switch. The whole process has been a bit complicated since we're actually swapping out our trusty old Dell Dimension 4300 for a slick new (to us) unbranded beast of a dual-processor, hardware-RAID'd beast that a close friend donated. So things will break, and the site will vanish, but when it comes back it'll be much faster.

More importantly, the code for SF0 has been completely re-written, with an eye towards improving things now, and making it easier for us to add or change things later. We've been less active, publicly, since we came back from New York, as we've tried to plot out what needs to be done to make SF0 better for you, and for us. I know I've been very happy with how the game has grown over the past year, but there a few areas where Sam, Ian, and I agree that there's plenty of room for improvement:

For Players

Starting the game - As of this writing, SF0 has 853 players, but many of these are people who signed up, maybe submitted a photo or a Celebrity Doppleganger, and were never heard from again. We'd like to turn more of these passers-by into active players.

Playing the game - Did you know that (counting retired ones) there are more than 600 tasks? Of these, more than 200 require either 0 or 10 points. Whether or not you believe in the theory that, "the more choices someone has, the less happy they'll be with their selection," that's a lot to sift through. And while those dauntless Minneapolinites built a local SF0 community from the ground up, the game has players from NYC to England to Holland who've found it a bit harder to figure out who else is in their area. Even San Franciscans can have trouble finding a group of people to tackle some of the collaborative tasks with.

Finishing(?) the game - There's also an incredible number of people who've done a lot - everyone on the first page of the score list has somewhere over 1,000 points. Many of these people have slowed down in the last couple months - and high score or no, we want to make sure that the game stays fun even after you've cracked the first page, reached Level 6, etc.

So: gameplay changes

The website update should help with a lot of this. Some things have been simplified - everyone now has unlimited votes, so rationing them will be one less thing to worry about. It'll be much easier to see where people stand in terms of levels - which have always had a complicated relationship with score as a way of measuring progress or standing. You can search through players to see who lives within "X" miles of you.

Task requirements have been changed a bit, too - some tasks now require people from multiple groups (e.g. Aesthematics and BARTpa - a marriage of convenience), and others just require that at least one player be from one of multiple groups (e.g. Humanitarian Crisis or Biome or EquivalenZ - a marriage of True Love). And, since we think User-Generated Narrative may be an even more important buzzphrase than User-Generated Content, you can now declare yourself a "Foe" of other players. Some tasks will now require you to work with someone based on your Friend/Foe relationship.

The "Updates" page has been completely re-done to provide a better picture of what you and your friends have been up to. Working on multiple tasks at the same time is much easier - you can upload proof and write your description without actually submitting the task. You can leave it in this "draft" form and go work on a different task. Players will be able to create Events (proper, rather than just making a task) which will show up on everyone's Updates calendar - though this won't be available immediately.

We still have some difficult decisions to make about the other challenges, though. With the website update, we retired several tasks, and re-scored and/or re-grouped others.

The big idea...
...to fix some of the new/old player issues, though, is still something we're trying to work out. We've been discussing moving SF0 to a "cycles" structure. Each cycle - which would last somewhere between 1-6 months - would start everyone at zero points, bring a new selection of tasks (limited to, say, 100 total), potentially focus on one general "theme," and involve one or more events specific to that cycle (at least one big event to mark the end of the cycle). This would be a big change, but it could make a lot of sense: newer players would no longer be insurmountably behind the likes of Cameron and Piratey, and all of you 1,000+ points folks would again have something to prove. For me at least, "deadlines" are always a help. Limiting the number of tasks should make it easier to figure out what to do. The time limit should make alliances and rivalries more intense, and keep us engineers/bricoleurs focused on getting events together. Having themes could do a lot to keep the game new interesting.

This is another change where the workings are in place, but we won't flip the switch just yet. Some of the Big Problems with the Big Idea:

  • Do players create a new a "character" for each cycle, or at least get to change groups?

  • Does everyone keep their previously-completed tasks/score in some way (we've talked about having a "backstory" section of the player homepages for such things)?

  • Do these past completions/points accumulate in any way, or give you access to different ("endgame") tasks, etc?

  • How do we let everyone be involved in choosing and organizing new cycles? How long should the cycles be?

  • If these cycles are more intense and involve (to whatever extent) events, how do we avoid excluding the SF0 diaspora?

  • We'd even talked about whether there should be a separate website for the cycle-based game - along the lines of the World of Warcraft "periodically start a new server" strategy for keeping the n00bs and the greybeards balanced. Would that be too complicated, or a helpful delineation between "what's happening" and "what happened"?

  • Do you think this would, on the whole, make SF0 better?

For Us!

Here's what we want: we want to keep making SF0 better, we want the game to grow, we want to game to be the "activation energy" (remember high school chemistry?) that lets people think about the world and lead at least part of their lives as a series of adventures, and we want to be able work on SF0 steadily and without turning to friends and parents for rent and food money when we spend all month working on a new website instead of making money.

That last one is where it gets awkward. The problem isn't hypothetical. I (Sean) work >40 hrs a week, so I can pay my rent but I can't spend nearly as much time as I'd like working on the game. Recently Sam and Ian have been in pretty much the opposite position - so the new website is ready, there's an article coming out about SF0 in the Contra Costa Times, and they've had a meeting with someone we think can help us figure out the best ways of making SF0 better.

The elephant in the room is money, unfortunately. When we started The Playtime Anti-Boredom Society (P.A.B.S.) and SF0, we felt that keeping the game valuable (and honest with itself) meant that we could never charge people to play games, sell the whole thing to Yahoo, or plaster the site with ads. That's why The P.A.B.S. is a non-profit - the Plan was to survive on donations and arts grants. Almost a year on, I still believe that SF0 contributes to the Public Good, and think the evidence of that is everywhere on the site. Organizations handing out grants, however, have yet to agree with me. We've gotten some incredibly generous contributions from players, though: co-locating our server runs $100/month, and through October, donations actually covered this cost - which is fantastic! But to put in the time and resources to keep making the game better, to put on events, and to keep steadily making SF0 bigger and better, we need to be able to spend less time worrying about money.

The result, for the moment, is that the new site has Google Adwords on it. This was a very difficult decision - not least because it may go a lot further towards annoying people than it will towards generating any revenue. But at this point, the three of us agree that we can't keep working on the game in fits and spurts in between working day jobs, and we may even need to pay for some professional help for things like media relations. Granted - we should be more actively and publicly asking for help with these things from the community of players; we've been much better at working on the game itself than badgering people for money and help.

And again, it's awkward, but we think, in the long run, we need to be able to work on SF0 as Work instead of as a hobby. If you're a dot-com'ing millionaire in the mood to be an angel investor (or if you know one), drop a line. In the mean time, here are some other ideas we've been throwing around:

The Nuclear Option: Paying for SF0 - better get this out of the way, first. We've been throwing around the idea of a subscription model, tied to the "cycles" structure. There are a few possibilities:

  1. SF0 continues as is, and the "new" cycle game is pay-to-play. This was one of the first ideas, and after a lot of discussion about it, I don't think it's a likely option.

  2. SF0 continues (whether cycle-wise or not) with subscribers getting to hide the Google ads, and maybe getting some nifty additional features.

  3. SF0 moves to the cycle model, and players need to pay $x to keep their history/backstory when each cycle ends. This is a bit more palatable in that storage space isn't free for us, so it makes some sense for players to cover this.

It's a little hard to say, again, whether any of these would be more successful at destroying the game or actually making things better. We'll keep talking about it - and, as I mentioned, we've started chatting with a legit business guy about some of these ideas - but I really hope some of you will let us know what you think. Some other ideas, that would have less of an impact on SF0, involve us becoming Fun Consultants, selling aspects of the SF0 codebase as part of a task-management package (no one's ever had that idea before!), or setting up various other types of games on a pay basis.

This may implicitly draw a line, somewhere, between what's better for us and what's better for players - and obviously, SF0 doesn't exist, and doesn't matter, if people don't continue doing great things as Players. And I understand if it feels wrong for us to say that we just want to make SF0 better while talking about charging for aspects of the game or putting ads on the site. My hope is that in 2007 we'll be able to find a balance, where we can make SF0 better with both increased openness and help from players and some way of paying to keep us bricoleurs working on the game more steadily.

So Happy New Year, I hope you enjoy using the new site, and please please let us know what you think about all of this - if you don't want to comment publicly on this blog, I'm sean {a t} paragoogle.com, Sam's sam { a t } paragoogle.com, and Ian is ikb { a t } paragoogle.com.


Anonymous pirateymonkey said...

shiny! lovely swanky new interface guys. i'd love to chat with you about several of the issues you bring up. lunch sometime?

- piratey

3:18 PM  
Blogger s4xton said...

I like the cycle idea a lot. It'll bring a lot of new players into the game I think and a lot of collaboration between experienced and new people.

My opinion on handling legacy points and task completions (and I'm sure many will disagree) is to consider everything from the beginning of SF0 time until the change as the first big cycle. Preserve that as read-only and everything else resets.

Keep a hall of fame and the complete historical record, but I think there's more pros than cons to having everyone start out at [SF] zero again. In fact, there's a lot of metaphors and analogies to "zero" that seem to make complete sense to me on this idea.

No legacy experience, numbers or points should have any influence on new cycles. In fact, I wouldn't be disappointed if we all had to create a new characters... Just keep the history viewable.

The greatness of all the collaboration, competition, creation, cohesion and company we've all given each other transcend the points and our game characters.

Many players won't end up participating in a second cycle and IMHO the pros outweigh the cons there too.

(...and ha-fucking-ha re: "anti-reversing.")

8:36 PM  
Anonymous anna one said...

At first I was skeptical... but after thorough investigation, the new format and game-play changes are anna-approved.

I think the cycle idea is fantastic- in a way it reminds me of the contests on lomography.com... although I agree that it would be a bummer to lose the already-played legacy.

11:50 PM  
Blogger Jason 7au said...

I'm still thinking on this! This is a lot to think about but I like that you guys are coming up with this stuff. More later. :)

9:06 AM  
Blogger Jane said...

I'm a bit late discovering this post, but it's beautiful, brilliant -- thank you so much for your transparency! I am going to share this with my game design students as a super-example of thoughtful iterative design.

I love the cycle idea. I vote for it!

12:43 PM  
Anonymous laflaneuse said...

I see the note that you're moving to the cycle in April. I hope that means we can keep our characters and completed tasks....it would be too much, too sad to lose that history, even if we start over on points.

7:38 PM  

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