On Tuesday 24 September I went to Publish! 2013, a conference looking at innovations in publishing organised by Media Futures in partnership with REACT. Here are a few notes and thoughts from the day (I won’t attempt to cover absolutely everything, and I’ve rearranged the order of things a bit).
How to innovate
Tomas Rawlings of Auroch Digital talked about lessons learned from building Call of Cthulhu: Wasted Land, a Lovecraftian RPG. It sold about 70,000 copies at around $5 each, and took three people one year to develop. Rawlings said this approach has a big risk, as 90% of apps sell nothing - it’s hard to get noticed in the App Store. For their current projects they’re taking a new approach of rapid prototyping and iteration. The idea is to test the market, evolve the content, and see which bits people do or don’t like.
From building an initial prototype in a game jam, it might take two weeks to produce the initial version of a game. Testing with the actual audience will allow them to see which bits they respond best to - so they can then expand on those, and maybe even throw the rest away.
To me this sounds pretty much like a normal, modern startup software development process - rapid prototyping and a pivot. Everybody should know the flaws of a waterfall model so it’s no surprise to hear that this is an approach to be avoided within games and apps too.
Clare Reddington, director of REACT, talked about the “Sandbox” projects which they have been running since 2007. These aim to bring together academics and creatives to explore ideas collaboratively and build low-cost prototypes (Chrome tells me that the word “creatives” is a typo).
Clare gave a quick run-through of the various things they had learned running these, which I shall attempt to summarise:
Clare said she is tired of the “fetishisation of failure”: Making something that turns out different to what you set out to do is not failure. Taking longer than you meant to, or moving on to something else, is not failure.
Diana Stepner from Pearson spoke about the Future Technologies department that she heads up. The idea is that it acts like a startup within a big company (which is the kind of thing I seem to be hearing from recruiters a lot recently, which is a sign of how fashionable being a startup or working like one has become). The aim is to make Pearson more open to innovation, in a number of ways. One way is to make content available for people outside, via Pearson Developer, which allows people to create mashups using content from, for example, Penguin Classics. She cited some examples of people creating mashups that explore how food or music relates to the content of a book - though it wasn’t clear to me how this worked or what the point was. The second method of innovation was to run internal hackathons - instead of starting a project with a lot of meetings and documentation, they now take an initial idea, and see what they can do with it over a 24 or 48 hour period. This is then built up into a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Once again, here is an example of a company taking an approach to innovation which doesn’t seem all that surprising to me, but really is still quite novel within larger companies.
Solving genuine needs and sharing knowledge
Chris Yapp of IT Futures and Scenarios said that we are currently in a time of great experimentation. Over the next 20 years or so, we will see a lot of creativity and failure. We can be sure the sector as a whole will grow, even though looking at individual projects, each one is risky. He says projects should start by looking at unfulfilled needs, instead of starting at the technology. He gave the example of a Nigella Lawson cookbook app which is voice activated, which sounds gimmicky but does in fact solves an actual problem, as when you’re cooking you often have stuff on your hands.
Trevor Klein, Head of Development at Somethin’ Else, said that the experimentation won’t just be for the next 20 years - the status quo now will be constant new technology, new platforms, new niches, new formats and new models. Publishers will need to choose which ones to move into, or whether to let others make mistakes first. He says that currently, innovation is often pretty bad - as some people pay no thought to the outcome or what the value is of their project, or how they will learn from it, or apply that knowledge to their business. Many people are losing money by making the same mistakes others have already made, so there is a need for much more sharing of knowledge.
Examples of innovation
James Huggins from Made In Me talked about Mebooks, their platform for audio-enhanced ebooks. He described how their innovation was pretty simple - add customisable audio to ebooks - and that’s it. They wondered if that was really enough, but the project has been successful with 1,000 daily app downloads and a cumulative total of 250,000 downloads so far, and 750,000 books downloaded from their in-app store.
He said their innovation was more in what they hadn’t done - they kept focused and decided not to include pretty much any other feature. He recommends keeping it simple - “don’t innovate beyond what people will understand”.
Simon Evans, owner of Slingshot talked about their latest project Jekyll 2.0. It’s an interactive adaptation of Jekyll & Hyde, using bio-sensors - so parts of the story can be unlocked by asking the player to hold their breath, by detecting their heart rate and so on. It’s entirely automated, which means it doesn’t require a huge number of staff, unlike their previous project 2.8 Hours Later (although it sounds like they’re still making good money from that).
I’m sceptical as to what extent these bio-sensors are absolutely essential for the story though - indeed, when I asked Simon the question afterwards, he pretty much conceded that they weren’t. So, it’s just a marketing gimmick, really - but then I suppose you’ve got to do whatever it takes to make your project stand out.
Jon Ingold of inkle talked about their Sorcery! apps, of which they have currently sold around 40,000 copies. He spoke about their innovations in the UI for interactive fiction - using small pieces of paper to represent choices, which move up to join the story text when you select them. This avoids the ugliness of clearing the screen after each choice, which is what most existing multiple-choice systems do. He emphasised the importance of making the UI seamless so people can get to the end - and their stats show that 85% of their players do indeed make it all the way to the finish.
Inkle’s approach is to present the player with a lot of choices, every 150 words or so. By remembering each choice made, text can be subtly adjusted to reflect the kind of character the player is suggesting with their selections.
James Attlee talked about his project ”Writer on the train”. He spent over ten years commuting from Oxford to London, and wrote three books in that time. After he stopped commuting, he wrote to train company First Great Western, suggesting being their writer in residence, and they agreed. He started a blog about encounters on rail and thoughts on commuting, and applied to REACT for funding to turn this blog into an app.
A REACT workshop put him together with Dave Addey of Agant to create the app. They wanted to focus on commuters who used the Bristol to London line every day, giving them one small piece of writing each day over several weeks - delivered with an alert at a particular time or location. Keeping it short was important, as they knew that commuters would of course be busy doing other things while travelling. About half of the stories are to do with the location you’re passing - maybe a local landmark such as Brunel’s Box Tunnel, or Didcot Power Station.
Although the author wanted “bells and whistles” like video and audio, there was no time to develop this so the app is kept quite simple.
It appears that the app isn’t in the App Store yet, and development is continuing with Alex Butterworth, as Dave Addey has been lured away to become an employee of Apple. First Great Western are extending the residency and they are looking to secure further funding. They want to expand by adding more writers and more locations, with the ultimate aim of creating a platform for location-based writing.
George Walkley, Head of Digital at Hachette, spoke about their investment in Encyclopedia of SciFi - this was previously published as a physical book (and quite a large one at that, with some three million words). They’ve taken the entire text and made it free online. This might sound like it makes no sense, and indeed it only works as part of their overall publishing strategy - they sell classic out-of-print sci-fi novels as ebooks, so having the searchable definitive reference online drives more traffic to them.
A few of the same points kept coming up, which are worth keeping in mind:
The IFComp games are now out! 35 games in all, the vast majority of which are playable online.
You have until 15 November to submit your votes - if you’re voting, you need to have played at least 5 of the games.
Here’s the first of what will probably be an irregular roundup of what’s happening in the world of interactive fiction and digital storytelling. Got something to share? Let us know! You can email [email protected] or tweet @TextAdv.
Choosatron: This wi-fi interactive story printer is nearing the end of its Kickstarter - it’s already achieved way over its target amount, and you have until 30 August to pre-order one.
Seltani: Andrew Plotkin has unveiled Seltani, an online environment for creating multi-player works of multiple choice interactive fiction.
IFComp: The deadline is approaching for signing up on the IFComp website as an author - you have until 1 September. But don’t worry, you have until 28 September to actually submit your game. Looking at the current prize list, you could win $250 - or, if your game isn’t so good, you might be the unlucky recipient of a CD of the best of the Eurovision Song Contest.
A Very Serious Game: Allyson Whipple and Carly Kocurek are seeking funding on Indiegogo for an educational interactive fiction game called Choice: Texas, about access to abortion. They’ve currently raised over £2400 and funding will close on 18 September.
AdventureX: AdventureX will be held again this December in London - it was a great event last year and we’ll definitely be going this time too. Once again it will be free to attend, and they’re currently asking for donations to help fund the event - you can contribute by getting yourself a VIP card for £12.
Calendar: We’ve added an events calendar to the blog to help keep track of all the interesting things that are going on - let us know if we’ve missed anything!
That’s all for now, but before we go we should quickly mention our new email newsletter “The Text Adventurer“ - nothing too frequent, just 3 or 4 times per year, covering all of this kind of stuff. We sent out the first issue a couple of months ago so we’ll be putting together the second one pretty soon - sign up now to be sure you get it.
A couple of months ago, we started accepting more game listings on textadventures.co.uk, opening the site up to allow all kinds of web-browser games, such as those created using Twine, Inform or Undum.
We’ve now opened up listings even more - with new links to off-site games, all of which can be played in a web-browser, and/or downloaded as an app.
We’re adding listings manually at the moment, so if you have a link you’d like to add, email [email protected] with a description, cover art and category. The only rules are that the game has to be a text-based story game of some description, and it needs to be easily playable - by which we don’t mean that the game itself should be easy, just that it should be playable directly within a web browser, or at least available from an App Store.
We’ve also added an events calendar. The idea is to list any events that are of general interest to the world of interactive fiction, digital storytelling, and anything related. This includes conferences, meetups, competitions, performances… basically, if we think it’s interesting, and it relates to the world of stories, interactivity and technology in some way, then that’s the kind of thing we want to add to the calendar.
It seems "digital" is a word people in the "culture" sector use when they want to pretend they don't work in IT.— Alex Warren (@alexwarren) July 23, 2013
I work in IT. I have done so for a long time. I’ve always loved programming - it has grown from my hobby to my profession over more than 20 years now. I first sold software over the internet in 1999 - quite a long time before the App Store came along and made that kind of thing a whole lot easier.
It’s never been particularly fashionable to say you’re “in IT” though. Historically, the cool kids always thought of computers and programming as rather boring, with a couple of major exceptions - the Dot-com bubble of 1997 to 2000, and the boom in apps of 2010 to the present day.
For much of my professional career I’ve worked building and maintaining financial software. It’s not glamorous, it can often be difficult and dull, but it certainly pays the bills. So that’s my background. Recently though, I’ve been moving away from financial software as I build up textadventures.co.uk. My work now is introducing me to a whole range of new people - people who are involved in education, games, interactive storytelling and so on.
This means that over the last couple of years, I’ve been exposed to a lot more people who are professionally in the arts, culture and media sector. And it’s been interesting to see how attitudes to technology differ here compared to elsewhere.
There’s one word that seems to typify the difference in thinking about technology: “Digital”. It’s not a word that I encountered very much before, but it seems to be everywhere here.
I remember that “digital” always used to be an adjective. Digital watches, digital thermometers, digital television. But in arts/culture/media, it is used as a noun. I’ve seen job titles like “Head of Digital”, and people talk generally about being “in digital”. From what I understand, it’s used as a shortcut to mean, approximately, things to do with apps, websites, smartphones, tablets… that sort of thing.
What I find strange is that outside of this sector, when people talk about apps, websites, smartphones and tablets, they don’t tend to talk about “digital”. They’ll just use the actual word for whatever it is - or if they’re talking more broadly, they might say “software”, “technology”, “IT” or “the internet”.
So why the new term? Are the old terms too boring? Perhaps those words are not “creative” enough?
Effectively, anybody with “digital” in their job title works in IT. They may swear blind that they don’t, but they do. If your work involves building something technological, even if you’re providing creative direction or doing project management, you’re doing the same thing that the millions of people who work in IT do.
(An exception may be if you work purely to create content - as a writer, artist, filmmaker etc. I’m not really talking about those activities here, although once again we already seem to have good existing words for them. Prefixing “digital” to these just because the end result appears on the internet isn’t meaningful.)
Still, this is not really a problem if it’s just about the badges and labels we use. Different groups use different words for the same thing all the time. You may use a particular word to describe your job, because consciously or unconsciously it gives you a certain social cachet. This is fine, if everybody in your group understands what you mean. It is a problem if it alienates people with a technical background from outside the arts, though (and I can’t help but feel there could be something of a class issue here, as if not wanting to risk being associated with “blue collar” IT work like maintaining servers and fixing computers).
More seriously though, I think the use of this term is actually detrimental to the success of “digital” projects. Many of the problems that digital projects in arts and culture face are down to this denial that these are really IT projects - boring old IT projects, just like people do in the rest of the world. Building apps, creating websites, making games - the rules do not change just because you’re in a different industry. By pretending that “digital” is a brand new area, it seems to me that a lot of knowledge is being discarded - knowledge that we have accumulated over the last few decades of building the exact same kind of stuff under a different label.
My friend Martha Henson, who knows a lot more about this sector than I do, wrote a blog post covering some of the issues she has seen - Why I’m fed up with digital projects (and why I’m not): a rant
I am fed up of seeing people and organisations produce digital rubbish: poor apps, clunky games, badly designed microsites and other half-arsed online, mobile and technological systems and whatnots. I am fed up of people who are smart about digital, who think about users, who ask the right questions at the start, who embrace technology without fear and understand how to apply it, being over-ruled by people who’ve just bought an iPad for their kids and now assume that everyone has them and that this is all the justification they need to insist upon spending £50k on a new app for their organisation.
The problems range from poor design to poor project management, unrealistic budgets and a general lack of understanding about how technology works and how software is built. As Martha suggests in her post, the people who call the shots often don’t have a technological background - but they do have an iPad.
They think “apps” are different to what we used to call “software”. Software was expensive. You went to a shop and could pay a lot of money for something that was slow, and difficult to install and use. Apps aren’t like that - apps are cheap, very quick to get hold of, look lovely and they’re easy to use. Good iPad apps feel a world away from the clunky programs we used to use on our beige desktop PCs - so different, that I suspect some people think a lot of the things we learned about building software no longer apply.
And of course, because consuming apps is cheap and easy, then building apps should also be cheap and easy. Right?
So we see insultingly low Invitations to Tender from cultural institutions with low budgets, thinking that they can have an app built for them for a tiny amount of money. There are clients who don’t even know why they want an app in the first place - they just know that there are loads of apps, and their competitors have apps, so they must have apps. And there are clients who want to spec an app in detail up-front, and get the lowest bidder. The classic waterfall model. You wouldn’t build “software” like that - but somehow, this is “digital”, these are “apps”, and so the rules must be different, for some reason.
Within the world of computing and software, we’ve learned a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t. We’re not there yet - the whole of IT is an incredibly young industry, which is why I love working in it. It would be silly for cultural institutions to throw all of that knowledge away because they think they’re working on something even newer and completely different.
But I am new here and may be missing something, so please let me know what you think in the comments. You can also find me on Twitter @alexwarren.