Sometimes during a moment of low concentration when I’m sat at my desk, a cruel epiphany occurs. “Oh god, what am I doing? What am I actually doing? Seriously? I quit my job for this?”
And I feel very stupid and alone.
I’m working on various bits of software and websites related to interactive fiction, and there’s a vision behind all this.
It’s a vision of interactive storytelling becoming more of a mainstream art form - with people interacting via smartphones and tablets, and taking up writing interactive stories as a hobby. A vision of kids being introduced to interactive fiction at school, as a way of engaging them with reading and writing, and also for introducing them to programming. A vision of authors doing interesting things with technology. And a vision of me helping all of this to happen.
But at times this vision escapes me. It flutters off and leaves me with a different view of things. Perhaps my vision never becomes reality. Or, arguably worse, maybe it does - and I am nowhere to be seen.
An idle glance at Tweetdeck can be all it takes for my vision to vanish in a puff of smoke. I see others succeeding where I am failing. I see somebody talking about their successful project. I see people talking about interactive fiction, and my platform and website is not there. Sometimes it can feel like I have spent so long building my part of this world of interactive fiction, and yet to many in it I am completely invisible.
If I take a moment to calm down and think things through logically, I can get the vision back and have some confidence that I’m not completely wasting my time. I look on my forum and see people building things using my software, and helping each other out. I search Google for “text adventures” and see my own site comfortably at the top. I look at the number of people submitting games to my website. I think of all the teachers who have contacted me about using my software in their classes.
It’s like I can see two different realities, success and failure, side by side, and they are both simultaneously true.
I will probably always perceive things this way - even if I do manage to make a living out of this business I am building. There will always be people doing exciting things without me, and I will always have the worry that somebody out there is doing something similar, but better.
Feeling failure acutely is, I expect, necessary to succeed in the first place. If I thought I was successful already, what would I be aiming for?
There will probably always be times where I feel bitter, jealous, stupid and uncertain. The challenge is to harness these emotions instead of letting them get the better of me.
The winner of QuestComp 2013, and the £100 prize money, is Heal Butcher with Worship the Pig. Congratulations!
Very close runner up is Jonathan Estis with Pest.
For the full results, listing all the votes for each game, see the QuestComp 2013 Winner Announcement thread on the forums.
Many thanks to Evan Williams for organising the competition, and thanks to Phillip Zolla for donating the prize money. Thanks also to the entrants and everyone who voted.
If you missed out on entering a game for the QuestComp this year, you’ve got just over two months to enter your game for the IFComp!
Scary story if you are developing apps! http://t.co/9u5VISsbh9 There maybe some big winners but lots aren't.— Ben Barton (@bartoneducation) July 10, 2013
The BBC News article App Store ‘full of zombies’ as it celebrates fifth birthday comes as no surprise to anybody who has much experience with developing apps - most of them make very little impact at all.
Even Apple’s own spin on its app store stats sounded a warning bell, when Tim Cook revealed this stat during the WWDC keynote:
93% of iOS apps get downloaded every month - so 7% get none. Makes me feel a bit better about my apps, at least they all get SOME dl's daily— Alex Warren (@alexwarren) June 10, 2013
If 7% of apps don’t get downloaded at least once a month, there must be much higher figures for apps which don’t get downloaded at least once a week, once a day or once an hour. And an app that isn’t getting downloaded regularly isn’t making anybody much money.
I thought it was well established now that the App Store gold rush is long over, but it’s worth repeating the message so that more people don’t end up wasting their time. You will not make yourself rich by making an app now. You will not even make yourself a living. You will barely make some beer money, if you’re lucky. It is an insanely competitive environment and the easy wins were a long time ago.
If your plan is “I want to make an app”, go back to the beginning and start again. What do you actually want to achieve? You don’t need to make the world a better place, but you do need to provide something of value to some people. Come up with a proper aim and see what flows from there - starting at “apps” is thinking backwards. (It’s really the exact same point I recently made about educational games, but with some of the words changed).
Apps are cheap and disposable. They’re sold in a similar way, and for similar prices, to songs on iTunes. It certainly takes a lot of skill to create a best-selling song, but the best musicians don’t pin all their hopes on one song making it big. And many musicians fail, but that doesn’t stop thousands from trying - there’s a lot of glamour at the top of showbiz.
I suppose there’s a lot of glamour in being at the top of the App Store rankings too.
But don’t be distracted by shiny things that are far away from you. Be realistic about the risks. Concentrate on how you can provide value and be useful, instead of hoping for a hit.
Here’s a really good question that I was asked as part of the discussion arising from my previous post, Life is not a conveyor belt:
@alexwarren You’re right of course. Any response is better than none. But did you not hope for a positive reception? Or are you a sociopath?— Howard Yeend (@user24) July 08, 2013
Quick answer: No, I am not a sociopath.
Longer answer: Actually, the question doesn’t really make much sense. Surely a sociopath, of all people, would want a positive response? Sociopaths want everybody to like them. They have charm, and the power to manipulate and seduce - all characteristics which I find myself sorely lacking.
I actually really want people to disagree with me. Why would I bother writing anything on this blog if I thought everybody would agree with it anyway? What would anybody gain from reading this, and what would I gain from writing it?
By writing my thoughts here, I get to work out what it is that I think in the first place, and then offer it up for people to add their own views. Maybe readers will spot something I’ve missed, or something I’ve got wrong. Maybe people can point me to articles expressing alternative points of view, or maybe I’ll meet people who really do feel the same as me. I can’t see any downsides either way.
It’s also interesting to see ways in which what I write can be misinterpreted. The comments on a couple of my recent posts have often sounded like people are responding to something completely different to what I actually wrote. But even that feedback is useful - it makes me think about what I can do to express myself more clearly.
So if nothing else, it’s all good writing practice. Communication is a fundamental skill, and by blogging I can practice it by spending half an hour here and there. If I maybe make some friends, give people something to think about and learn something myself along the way, that’s a wonderful bonus.
I’m pretty sure a sociopath wouldn’t do that, but please feel free to correct me in the comments below.
I think a major failing of the education system is that it gives kids an expectation that life is a series of levels. All you have to do is succeed at the current level, and then you’ll be moved along to the next one.
In the UK, school is divided up into “Key Stages”, with two or three school years per Key Stage. It’s a similar structure to a game like Sonic the Hedgehog - complete all the levels in a stage, and face Doctor Robotnik, in the form of a timed exam.
I’m not saying I have a better idea for structuring mass education - there are a lot of children that all need to go through school (while their parents are busy doing other things to earn money). Perhaps inevitably the system must share features with the factory, the farm or the army boot camp.
But what kind of mindset can this create? I’ve met people who seem to retain an idea that life is a sequence of stages that you go through, even though they have long left school. After graduating from university, they measure their success by how far they have progressed through what they perceive as the necessary next levels - in employment, work your way up the career ladder. In your spare time, get married, buy a house, have children.
I tell them my thoughts on marriage, for example. “Oh, you won’t feel like that when you get to my age”, they say. “Not when you get to my stage in life” - like I simply haven’t scored enough points yet, but maybe there is hope for me some day. “Now, look at this lovely kitchen we’re having installed.”
Once you’ve achieved all these levels, presumably you will find happiness. Eventually, you can retire, and later, when you’re too ill to feed yourself, you will be looked after by your children and grandchildren, and the equity released from your house. You can die happy, knowing that you got through the last 80 or so years without fucking anything up too much. Well done you.
Not everybody is like this, and I’m not quite there yet with my model for how all of society should be living. But this does seem like a rather boring way of life, indicating an absence of imagination. More worryingly, there is an implicit trust in this view, that the lifestyles of our parents and grandparents, cultivated in the 200 or so years since the industrial revolution, are somehow correct and permanent. This is the way things are. This is the way things should be. This is the way things will always be. This is how you succeed in life.
If you just fit in, follow instructions, act like everybody else and don’t ask questions, you will be fine.
But although it may be comforting to believe that our way of life is pretty stable, we humans have a pretty poor track record keeping anything constant for any length of time at all. Blindness and assumptions lead to all kinds of groupthink and bubbles.
I would love for all of those years of school to teach kids these lessons instead: Don’t follow orders, don’t blindly copy what others are doing, and always keep your wits about you.
Difficult to test these things under exam conditions though.
Once again, some interesting comments on this over at Hacker News