We’re not dead yet!
I wrote up this article for Building Browsergames, a cool site for people who are interested in building games like Forumwarz. I’m cross-posting it here.
For most retail computer and video games, once your game gets shipped into stores, the job is done. Sure, there may be bug fixes or future downloadable content, but those require a skeleton staff and minuscule budgets compared to the development of the initial game.
On a browser game, the process is a bit different. Since there is no physical product shipping out in flashy boxes, you can deliver new content with virtually no deployment costs. However, in this sense, it means the job is never quite done. It becomes a constant effort to continuously improve the product. It also becomes trickier to try to sell it.
So this article will be a little different than a “post mortem” on a typical console or retail game, as I am still actively working on the project. Forumwarz is my full-time job. At any given time we have a lengthy list of enhancements we want to add to the game. In a given week, I typically deploy 10 to 30 updates. Most of them are small bug fixes or enhancements to streamline the process, but sometimes they are larger features that make up entirely new components of the game.
Forumwarz is a parody role-playing game. You play it in your web browser. The hook is, instead of playing as a knight battling orcs in dungeons (or whatever), you role-play an Internet user “pwning” fake internet sites. Yes, that’s right: Forumwarz is an Internet game where you simulate an archetype of an Internet user. You can play as a Troll, Emo Kid, Hacker, Camwhore or Permanoob. Within the game’s universe, there are hundreds of fake internet sites that you navigate to, leveling up, gaining new abilities and employing new equipment. You also meet and interact with all sorts of interesting and sometimes bizarre characters along the way. We like to call it “the Internet — in game form.”
Our team is quite small. I’m Robin “Evil Trout” Ward, the only full-time employee and I’m responsible for the programming. I came up with the initial idea for the game. Our head writer is Mike “Jalapeno Bootyhole” Drach and our third partner is Jason “BINGEBOT 2015″ Kogan. I’d say at this point all three of us are game designers and heavily involved in every aspect of the game’s development.
It is awesome to have created something from nothing (okay, nothing but a high-speed internet connection and healthy dose of caffeine). A few years ago, Forumwarz was just an idea, and now it’s a game that players enjoy every day. I remember the first few pieces of fanmail I got and how awesome it was to hear people gush about it.
My professional background in programming before Forumwarz was J2EE and PHP, although I’d dabbled in many other languages in my spare time. For Forumwarz, I decided to try out Ruby on Rails because I’d heard positive things about it. I quickly fell in love.
Ruby made all other programming languages look ugly to me. Rails made complicated web tasks simple. I found it easy to jump in and start learning, but hard to master. I am still learning to this day and it’s a huge privilege to be able to work with it.
Before I worked on Forumwarz, I was a web developer who implemented other people’s ideas. This sometimes meant doing things that I thought were wrong for the products I was working on. Don’t get me wrong: I understand that I was building software for other people in exchange for their money, and I was happy to build things however they wanted it. But there was always this feeling in the back of my head that, “Wow, if that was my money I would do things differently.”
It’s one thing to constantly tell yourself that you wouldn’t make the same mistakes that other people make. It’s something completely different to step up and start putting your money where your mouth is. In fact, it’s downright terrifying.
I remember when I first started telling people about the game. Some were friends and family. Some were members of the local Ruby/Rails community. I must have explained the concept several dozens of times. I am not exaggerating when I say that, save one or two exceptions, I always received a blank stare. It wasn’t hard to read their reactions: They either didn’t understand the idea or, worse, thought it was stupid. The honest ones even told me so (and I appreciated it)!
If I could go back in time and give myself only one piece of advice it would be: Doubt is normal. If you are investing your time and money in a new venture or project, you will doubt yourself.
I worked for over a year on Forumwarz before we opened it up to the public. I kept up a furious pace of development, working 10-12 hours a day, usually taking one day a week for rest. I was investing an enormous amount of time in something that I couldn’t even explain to people properly! Before we launched our beta, I’d tell myself on sleepness nights that at least it was a blast to learn, and it gave me the opportunity to fall in love with Ruby on Rails, so it wouldn’t matter if only five people ever liked it. Still, I knew there was someone out there who would get the joke.
We launched the game in an invite-only beta on Halloween 2007, through the popular Something Awful forums. Hundreds of people played that day, and we watched them post their responses. Our entire team was blown away at how much positive feedback we received right out of the gate.
To this day, it remains one of the most positive experiences of my life. I learned a valuable lesson: Just because other people don’t get excited about your idea doesn’t mean it’s a bad one. I’m not sure if I was just terrible at delivering the pitch. Or maybe Forumwarz is a game that’s simply better experienced than explained. It’s likely a bit of both.
We took off the “beta” tag and opened our doors to the public in early 2008. We quickly grew to 30,000 accounts. In October, we launched our second episode of the storyline which had a small fee ($10) to play. Shortly thereafter we hit 100,000 accounts and have been growing aggressively since. Word-of-mouth recommendation and positive feedback from influential sites like Wired.com and Gawker gave us the initial boost in membership, and we’ve followed up by advertising wherever we think we have a chance of being noticed. Now, after about a year of being open to the public, we’ve seen more than 130,000 people sign up for the game. I can finally say with confidence that more than a few people do get the joke.
Scaling from 1,000 users to 100,000 users in one year presents a great deal of difficulties. When I say “scale,” I am not simply referring to the site’s performance (although we underwent several major hardware and software upgrades to sustain the load). I am also referring to the infrastructure you need to deal with a community that large.
If your forums get 1,000 posts in a day — especially on a site that’s essentially “about” flaming forums — will you have the resources to moderate them?
What about bug reports? Would you expect that many users will submit a bug reports just because they can’t solve a puzzle in the game?
A small percentage of your users will try and hack your site. Most people are smart enough to avoid SQL injection, but is your site safe against XSS or XSRF attacks?
And there are other, less immediate issues related to having a suddenly large community. Some users will simply email you with personal comments and you’ll seem ungrateful if you don’t reply. In a given day, I receive hundreds of emails related to the site (errors, correspondence from users, bug reports, etc). If I responded to each one I wouldn’t have any time to work on the game at all!
This is something we are still very much working on. We have elected a couple of moderators who are doing a great job maintaining our forums. We recently launched a knowledge base to help people find answers to their questions, but it’s far from perfect. I know that we’ll never be able to help every user through the game, but we want to make sure that people have as close to a painless experience as possible.
Having a Thick Skin
Gamers are awesome because they’re often intelligent, focused and passionate. However, that also comes with the side-effect of them often being quite opinionated.
Gamers will criticize just about every decision you make. A certain percentage of it can be ignored as trolling, but sometimes I’ve made decisions that I thought were in the best interests of the game and it wound up upsetting many people.
Forumwarz has evolved to encompass many different gameplay styles that all interact in one game ecosystem. As I mentioned before, our team is small. We do our best to think things through, and we often solicit our users for feedback on upcoming features. However, in my experience, no small group can effectively predict how tens of thousands will use a new gameplay feature. We do our best when we launch new content, but the real testing is done when all those eyeballs fall upon the page.
If there is a major problem with something, it shows up immediately. Fortunately, since the game is web-based we can deploy updates quite quickly. In fact, I have gotten somewhat used to only launching a feature when I’m sure I’ll have a couple of days set aside to throw up patches to address any initial issues.
As I said, most of our users are passionate because they truly love the game and want it to be the best game on the web. Their feedback is invaluable. Others, however, can be quite mean. If your project ends up attracting any kind of sizable community, be prepared for nastiness. People will say hurtful things, and they will make it personal. Sometimes I find it hilarious (like when they Photoshop my head onto images) but other times it does sting. So make sure you have a thick skin!
The Road Ahead
I recently read a comment on the Hacker News that resonated with me:
I asked Jessica Livingston to speak at the business of software conference, and I suggested that she talk about all the ways Y-Combinator startups fail. “That would be boring,” she told me, “it’s always they same thing: they just stop working on it.”
As someone who has started hundreds of software projects in my lifetime (most of which only lasted a few hours of development), I fully understand this. Keeping a web business online involves working hard through many periods of doubt. Most people don’t stop because they are starving to death and can’t feed their family; they stop because they have grown tired of it or have been discouraged by some kind of recent event (perhaps income drops, a new feature was a disaster, etc).
I’m quite proud of Forumwarz and the community it has spawned. It is worth the occasional sleepness night or headache to keep it going. Ultimately, it’s been quite rewarding to work on and I will continue doing it as long as I possibly can. If I hadn’t persisted through the doubt when this started two years ago, I’d still be developing other people’s ideas and wondering if anyone would get the joke.