Monday, April 21, 2008

The problem with the idea

Just sent this to the project mailing list for comment:

I was thinking about the idea last night. Remember, Mike, when we were rejected from WFP08 I told you that I felt there was *something* wrong with the idea, but I didn't know what it was, and the best way to find out was to keep working on it. Well, I think I have some idea now. I'm going to start with a story about my last employer for context:

My last employer was founded "To manage information flow on Wall Street". It sounds like a *great* problem - in 2001, everyone saw this as the next big problem for the financial industry. Several people instantly said "Let me give you money." He turned them down, but based on the strength of the idea, he self-funded.

Problem is, "managing information flow on Wall Street" is a huge problem - it's practically the whole financial industry. So what he actually released was "Something that looks vaguely like a Bloomberg terminal, with charts & graphs & tables and a window where you can write code to manage it." This sold to maybe 1 or 2 clients; enough to keep going, but not a huge success.

Then there were a series of other products. I was hired "to work on hard problems in financial analytics", but what I ended up working on was "a webapp to ensure compliance with an obscure SEC regulation." Not really what I signed up for...

So where are we? GameClay was founded "to let users create their casual games." It's a bit narrower than managing information flow in the financial industry, but it's still a huge area. It's not a product, it's a mission statement. What we're actually delivering is "A webapp that lets users create their own single-player arcade games, as long as they stick to prearranged actions & patterns of movement."

The question is whether that revised description still makes for a compelling product. I suspect the answer is yes for Mike, no for me - hence the recent motivational difficulties. I'm not a huge fan of single-player games; I love multiplayer games, but that's not what we're building. (Ironically, when I was asking my former boss what his daughter thought of the idea, the note I wrote to myself was "Concentrate on the **multiplayer**", since her comments seemed to focus upon the "playing with friends" aspect.) I also like puzzle & word games more than arcade shooters and such.

Remember, users can't see your vision: they can only see your product. I think that's what's behind PG's response. He sees the description of what we're doing ("Letting users create their own casual games") and intuitively knows that that's too broad for a product, but he only looks at these apps for like 2 minutes, so he doesn't consciously write that. Instead, he pulls in all his preconceptions about games ("they're just for teenagers", "they're easy to write", "they're a highly competitive market") and superimposes them on our app to fill in the missing details. That's why he doesn't "get it".

So, I guess the next question is what do we do now? I guess I've got 3 main options:

1.) Push forwards until launch, then add whatever features are necessary to make a compelling product afterwards.

2.) Step back and try a different tack, finding another entry point into the casual game creation market.

3.) Quit and take a job at FriendFeed.

#1 sounds like the logical choice, and I know you guys are kinda egging me on towards that. Thing is - I'm not sure it works. That was the approach taken by my last employer: when they found out that their topic was too broad, they figured "Okay, let's build applications on our platform and show people that it's useful." But the platform - and all its mistaken assumptions - acts as a drag on future development, making you go *slower* than if you'd just thrown things out and started fresh. Then everything you do later ends up being harder to use than it otherwise would, because it has the accumulated warts of all the false starts you took.

There're a couple options for #2 that I want to bounce off people:

1.) Step back and write *a game*, just a game, and then gradually add customization capability to it. It'd probably be some sort of chain-reaction puzzle game, since those are the type I most like to play. But then I've got to come up with compelling gameplay, which can be very much hit-or-miss.

2.) Start with a *chat room*, and then expand that out so that anyone in the room can place graphical objects on the screen and manipulate them. Basically, it'd move from chatroom -> multiplayer game -> customizable multiplayer game -> full game creation platform. The advantage of this is that each individual step is compelling, fairly easily implementable, and useful on its own. Heck, people even manage to make money charging for chatroom applications. If the primary draw of games will be multiplayer, might as well do that as the fundamental instead of adding it on as an afterthought. And I could do like a FaceBook app for chat (I'm amazed people haven't done this yet...FaceBook is supposedly coming out with it as a site feature soon) and put it up. And if games turns out to be too small a market, I could switch into telecommuting tools (like WebEx), which will likely be huge soon if the price of gas keeps going up.

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