Fortunately, through our executive search, we found an amazing advisor Michael Buhr. Michael was an executive at eBay and the CEO of StumbleUpon, a Firefox toolbar helping people experience the breadth of the web.
Michael had worked at a 1990s game console company called 3DO, but he wasn't deep into games. Instead, Michael knew about motiviating people and executing on business objectives. Michael was a great manager, a great leader, and he became our advisor and executive coach.
For a few hours a week by phone or in-person, Michael helped us shape the short story of the company, putting forward a vision for concrete action. He sat down with the founders and asked hard questions so we could substantiate our plans.
Michael would have been an ideal CEO for GameLayers -- he understood the Firefox toolbar space, he would have given us freedom to run product within business constraints, he was fanastic to work with. We left every meeting with him feeling smarter and more able to have fun at a challenging job. But Michael already had a job, and wasn't drawn in by the opportunity to lead GameLayers.
Michael explained to me that a CEO needs to be able to state his or her primary objectives at a moment's notice. What is your core focus? Use your core focus as a razor -- everything else is distraction.
In late 2008, we wanted to get more users to play our game, get them to be more active once they started, and get them to make friends and invite more folks into the game. We called these three things Accessibility, Engagement, Social. Then Michael asked us to name three to four efforts we were undertaking to move each of those forward. Here's our December 2008 GameLayers strategic priorities document, the type of focused thinking we developed with Michael's help.
We renamed our game from PMOG to The Nethernet (TNN); perhaps calling it a place instead of an acronym would make the product more tangible and accessible. The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences nominated PMOG for MMO of the year for 2009; we lost to Blizzard's World of Warcraft. We had more attention, and we scored a huge distribution deal -- being a recommended Firefox plugin by Mozilla. Suddenly we had a ton of traffic, and our servers began to groan.
March 2009 -- a meeting in the chilly GameLayers conference room
We had an active, thriving community. One of our early hires was a part-time community manager: Joe Wagner, a San Diego State University student with a passion for online game community. He helped surface issues from players and communicate our intentions to the passionate fans.
We were consistently honored and delighted by the folks who shared our game with us. They made a podcast, the Tubenauts. They ran a gambling circuit using our currency. They made thousands of guided tours of the web. They banded together to create games within our game. They stepped up to serve as stewards: guides, ambassadors, chaperones, and unpaid expanders of our game world. They supported us, expanded our vision of what was possible, and made us believe that we were helping bring beauty and delight to citizens of the web.
The Nethernet toolbar in the spring of 2009, your HUD for information warfare on the world wide web! So many buttons! There's around 28 things you could click on here: tools, weapons, powers, community, communications.
These days, I would do a full day of 10 to 12 hours at the office, then have some dinner, maybe a beer and a bong hit, and work another four hours or so. I avoided caffeine nearly throughout; light substance use in the evening allowed me to unwind briefly and then plunge back in with renewed vigor. Sometimes, late at night, I might sneak in some work on things like GameLayers promotional vids to post on YouTube and hopefully find new audiences:
Promoting "Reverse Sheep" a game our players built using our forums
Promoting an alternate reality game that M ran using our in-game tools, a sort of mini-campaign of a literal scavenger hunt solved by the community. We built fake web sites with embedded PMOG data and other URLs. This was a promo video.
Working long-distance with our Dartford, UK-based co-founder and CTO Duncan Gough had allowed a round-the-clock approach to running GameLayers and building PMOG. We would chat in IRC continually, just before each of us went to bed, and check back in, in the morning. All of us chained to our laptops in different time zones, watching the servers hum, hacking on code, design, Google Docs, Keynote slide shows, Photoshop, TextMate, Ruby on Rails, Capistrano, memcache, Highrise, GitHub, hiring, staffing, management, strategy, focus.
After two years of that we needed to have GameLayers working in one shared location. Getting Duncan a visa to move to the U.S. had been an expensive challenge, and Duncan couldn't move from the UK to SF, so we parted ways in March 2009.
Here's a snapshot of what was happening that month, and stats from our game: the April 2009 Board of Directors presentation: 200904-GameLayersBoard.pdf 16.6 megs, 41 slides.
A puzzle crate on a web site showing The Nethernet in its most polished state, Spring 2009. If you answered correctly, there was probably a prize inside, if there wasn't a nested prank! This is a puzzle crate on the Colorado School of Mines, and mines were the most popular weapon in the game. Let the surfer beware!
Now we had a lot of traffic, overwhelmed servers, and no CTO. I devoted all my time to finding a replacement, and a recruiter lead us to John Cwikla. He had the exact experience we felt we needed: he'd taken products with some potential, and some stability issues, and gave them a solid software foundation from which to grow. A veteran of multiple startups, Cwikla hit the ground running as CTO in May 2009. We revised our infrastructure some, and prepared to exit "beta" -- to launch a product to earn money.
PMOG / The Nethernet was expensive to run. We had built prototypes to prove ideas; we hadn't built something that was conservative with computing resources. We had thrown money at web hosting, figuring that our hosting costs would only grow more expensive if we were successful. Cwikla rigged up The Nethernet to run using the cloud, basically preparing the software to scale inexpensively. Unfortunately, we were chained to a dedicated cluster server and service contract with Engine Yard from before his time, that ran us around $20k a month. I worked to lower our monthly bill, but Cwikla's code couldn't immediately trim our overhead.
Mid-2009 we were pressed up against a wall, watching the money remaining steadily decline. Sad times. We took salary cuts, we laid people off, including our talented, optimistic UI/UX designer Kristin Neinhuis, and a promising writer Seraphina Brennan. We had tooled around with innovation, piling features into our web browser game.
But when it came down to it, we hadn't baked-in monetization. We had a few ideas for earning revenue from The Nethernet; based on our small traffic size and custom platform, selling ads seemed to be an uphill battle. Plus the most popular Firefox extension was about avoiding advertisements (Adblock Plus). So we thought, we'll give people the basic toolset for free, but we'll ask them to pay for the more crafty and crazy tools. Microtransactions!
We called the currency "bacon", which was a sort of inside joke in our player community, and we had fun talking about bacon as a currency: "bring home the bacon", maybe units of currency could be called "bacon bits" and so on. We launched monetization in a hurry, and made a few key mistakes: we took away powers players had already and started charging money for them. We didn't give players much warning.
Selling bacon and monetizing The Nethernet was an abject failure. Plenty of vocal players hated what we'd done. Some folks understood why and were generous -- one woman even ordered us a mega-pack of beer in congratulations. But there weren't enough spenders. We made about a hundred dollars a day the first few days. Within three weeks of launching monetization, we were averaging under $20 a day. $20 a day is $600 a month; two orders of magnitude off from where we needed to be. Considering we had a burn rate over $60k a month, we were profoundly far away from having a sustainable or profitable game studio.
When we launched PMOG we called our new players "shoats", a word we discovered that meant "young pig." Ultimately, with The Nethernet, we weren't able to turn the shoats into bacon!
One of my favorite images from PMOG: a shoat eating a book. By Douglas A. Sirois, a talented illustrator. I had this classy, happy, info-eating pig on my CEO business card until we became The Nethernet.