A Story Of GameLayers, Inc.
November 10, 2011 Page 8 of 8
What Happens to the Stuff We Built?
Through the company ending and the divorce, I, Justin Hall, now own the code, art, trademarks, and URLs for The Nethernet, PMOG, Super Cute Zoo, Dictator Wars and GameLayers. Wow! It's all worthless unless someone invests more time and money to make something compelling from those bits, bytes, and ideas. Social games require paid servers to run, engineers to keep them alive, community managers to run events and designers to make new content. None of this stuff runs without constant tinkering. So all these assets are aging quietly on hard drives awaiting purpose; at least the code for PMOG is open source, so it might have life beyond.
The Nethernet is up and running today, paid through 2011 -- maybe you can play it with a copy of Firefox 3 and a link to http://thenethernet.com/. Bless 'em, there are still players as of September 2011, two years since we worked on the game. By 2012 it will cost about $100 a month to host. Who wants to pay that? Paying down a year of credit card debt after my startup doesn't make me too inclined to support the game personally.
Twenty years from now the "social games" of the 2010s will be screenshots, but not anything anyone can play; without servers you can't boot up and run a social game.
I will confess I haven't played The Nethernet in a long time. I actually switched browsers -- I needed to clear my head, and now the game only works in Firefox 3. Rebuilding it for Chrome / IE / Safari is a challenge; maybe we could somehow port it to a floating HTML5 pallette, or some other web hackery.
Maybe some day, we'll have a Kickstarter-type fundraising campaign to keep evolving this thing. I'll be keeping an eye out for projects that make use of the open source code! And I'll be keeping out for people who evolve the idea of games embedded in our daily activites, and social play across information space.
Running a Startup or Having a Balanced Life
I still have this California "PMOG" license plate -- during GameLayers, I figured, why not advertise the game in traffic?
I threw myself into this startup. It felt like a combination of a cause, a lottery ticket, an identity, a vehicle for realizing a better me, and a better life for my family. Looking back, I savaged a number of my relationships through inattention and stress. I might have made a better CEO if I had taken some time for hobbies, reading, chatting, travel -- some life balance. But I can still remember life in the startup trenches; I felt so important, like my every minute could feed this hungry entity and make it more likely to succeed. I felt so profoundly responsible, and I got off on that feeling.
After being CEO of a startup, being a producer at Ngmoco was so nice, because I could just focus on making a product, to not worry about payroll and investors. Working just 60 or 70 hours a week feels like a relative vacation. Being CEO meant I woke up at 4 am most days in sheer panic about any one of a dozen looming madnesses. Now I wake up at 4 am mostly because I had spicy garlic noodles.
I feel like my churning mind lent itself naturally to running a business. I like to deliberate over potential future issues and opportunties. John Lilly was at that time CEO of Firefox, and we had some useful meetings. He advised me: "don't borrow problems" -- don't worry about things you can't control. Lilly also suggested being a CEO is often about looking over multiple fires and deciding which fire needs water most, because you can't ever put them all out.
I now understand that most businesses don't succeed. While success is rare, opportunities to learn and evolve are limitless. My investors were gracious to the end, explaining that they knew they were taking a risk when they invested, and they appreciated the work we'd done to make a good go of GameLayers. I see them every few months now.
Months after GameLayers ended, I heard about another failed startup -- this one had been funded by family members. As a result of the startup failing, someone had a mortgage they couldn't afford, and there was bad blood between the businessperson and their supportive kin. So I'm glad I worked with professional investors; they shared valuable experience, and they could afford to take a chance on this idea without painful loss.
I felt supercharged being responsible for a shared destiny, and though it didn't work, I would definitely do it again with the right concept or team. Work is best when it's fun and meaningful. Next time I would want to have more balance in my life; exercise, socializing, family time. But maybe I'm just saying that because I'm older. I'm not sure whether I'd be a good CEO again; I'd definitely do better than last time. Mostly I'm excited to pitch in wherever I can with compelling people and amazing ideas on crazy challenging new networks.
Why Did We Fail? What Could We Have Done?
We saw three competitors start up: RocketOn and Wello Horld and WebWars, each making some version of "browser plug-in based gaming across all the web". And our players were frustrated when we took The Nethernet offline and so they created their own PMOG-ish toolbar game: Nova Initia. None of these has cracked the code of widespread browserplay goodtimes as far as I've seen yet. Maybe browsing the web and playing a game are two/too distinct activities for most folks.
Flickr was often on my mind: the popular photo-sharing service from the 2000s that was purchased by Yahoo!. Flickr started off as an attempt to make a complex web browser game; a sort of MMO for comparative literature majors called "Game Neverending." The Flickr founders figured out that photo sharing might be a better use of the tech they'd built. I thought about how we might adapt PMOG to other web sharing, but there was no ready product coming out of our toolbar. And we really wanted to make an entertainment experience.
Working at Ngmoco has developed in me an intense discipline for "compulsion loops" -- what are the core activities in a game that keep people engaged? How does one in-game activity lead readily to another? And what is the core fun at the heart of your game? Ultimately, I believe PMOG lacked too much core game compulsion to drive enthusiastic mass adoption.
The concept of "leave a trail of playful web annotations" was too abstruse for the bulk of folks to take up. Yes, being a Firefox MMO was a weird and challenging hurdle to adoption, but people will go to insane lengths for a good time. If we had presented an amazing fun entertainment product with a clear path to fun, we would have had a larger audience. More players would have made it easier to raise money and make money.
We heard the feedback "I don't know what I'm supposed to do" from new players and people who tested it. We thought we could add features or somehow convince people to power through to become dedicated players. Looking back, I believe we needed to clear the decks, swallow our pride, and make something that was easier to have fun with, within the first few moments of interaction. That may have meant scrapping "passively multiplayer" as a game concept, or a toolbar as the mode of interaction. Those were pretty core to our initial business plan, so it took us a long time to see those concepts through to revenue failure.
Then we pivoted: we shifted strategy from "build the best game played across the web" to "build games to learn how to make money on Facebook." We brought our vision in from the horizon to our bank account. It prepared us employees for careers working in social games (four of five of the last GameLayers employees were making social games for Facebook or mobile within six months of the company closing). The sector was hot and we learned it.
But what if we had doubled down on our goal of building a big game? "Okay, so The Nethernet can't support itself. We're going to break apart that technology into something smaller, a simpler game to play across the web" or "We're going to take what we've learned about play across the web and make a big game you can play anywhere on your mobile device." Would we have found a sustainable path by pivoting towards another bold future instead of quick Facebook monetization?
Don't know, can't know -- happy to live on, to see all kinds of new games made on new platforms by new dreamers.
Ultimately, I'm honored and humbled by the chance I had to work with fantastic, motivated, brilliant people each day on dynamic complex problems, to take an idea and make it real, to test our theories on the human market, and to fail with as much support as we rose. We didn't win the capitalist gold medal but hopefully we generated some useful knowledge and entertainment!
Why Publish This?
This writeup started as a writeup for a March 2010 talk at the Game Developers Conference - here's the keynote from that presentation, a summary set of slides covering this story - 201003-GDCfate-03.pdf 9.6 meg PDF, 23 slides. Here are Raph Koster's Notes on that presentation.
Executives at Ngmoco speak of building "a company of consequence." That sounded powerful to me when I heard it. You can keep score with money earned; you can also look at how much you contribute to or augment the human experience of life on this planet. Barring some insane resurrection, GameLayers will at-best be a memory, or a useful teaching example. Sharing these notes might serve as fuel for other schemers. I think of this article and data as open-sourcing our business process, alongside the software code we open-sourced as well.
This article was originally published on the author’s personal site. The version there will always be the latest and most inclusive: http://links.net/vita/gamelayers
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