by Bob Kruger
Sometime last June, in 2011, Tony Daniel and I were having a phone conversation, when he slipped me an unassuming little bomb. I can’t remember what the impetus for our talk was. I’d been Tony’s e-publisher a long time; we’re both good friends and former students of Lucius Shepard; we argue politics. One of those topics might have been at issue. I only clearly remember the bomb: “Could you develop a Facebook-type game to promote ebooks?” And just now I awaken, ten months later, to find that we’re well on the way to having done that, and also that I’ve promised to write about the experience by a deadline I’ve already missed, and it’s all just surreal and implausible.
The idea, like a lot of Tony’s ideas, was both brilliant and insane: to create a social-networking game to share the general ethos of the Baen Books catalog and let people earn some of those books for playing; in short, to make advertising fun for everyone involved. Tony said we'd start small and see where it went, just do a spec, get some encouragement. I told him that game design was an art and he really wanted a top game designer. I said I'd call up a few of my friends and see if they might be interested.
I thought that’s what he really wanted. I know a lot of game designers.
When I was a kid and heavily into the same geeky stuff I am now, like fantasy novels and games, my dad said, "What do you think you're going to do for a job when you grow up, work on Dungeons & Dragons?" In late 1993 when I was two years out of college with a degree in English and desperate to get out of my nowhere job proofing and indexing municipal codes, my wife found a tiny ad in the paper. A local roleplaying-game company needed an editor. I figured it would turn out to be a rinky-dink basement operation; they didn't even advertise their name. I decided it couldn’t hurt to try anyway, so I sent them a resume; they sent me back an editing test. Their letterhead said "Wizards of the Coast," which didn't exactly sound like a blue-chip enterprise. I did the test, which comprised really messed up copy obviously produced under the influence of psychedelics, and sent it back. Four months later, well into 1994, I’d forgotten all about it when I got a call. The ring interrupted a good run at a level of Doom, and when the woman identified herself as the "senior editor" of Wizards of the Coast, I really just wanted to get rid of her.
You see, the municipal-code thing had driven me crazy. It’s really a pathetic story, and involved X-rays, a CT scan, and even hyperbaric recompression, before a savvy doctor realized I was a depressed hypochondriac and got me on meds. I’d returned to a bookstore I used to work at, and it was familiar, and I was not feeling adventurous. The world had crushed my faith in fantasy, all except for the game of Doom that currently occupied my attention.
The woman said, "You did well on our test, and we'd like to have you in for an interview."
"Uh huh, well, I just had a bad job experience, and things are pretty good where I am now. What do you pay?”
"You'd start at eleven dollars an hour…."
I paused the game. "Eleven dollars an hour?"
My God, I thought, I'd be in the middle class.
Over the next three years, I worked on the roleplaying games Talislanta and Ars Magica and the Netrunner trading card game. I also did side projects for the companies Pagan Publishing and Daedalus Games. (Wanting to spend time writing fiction, I quit Wizards three months before they acquired TSR Hobbies and, along with it, Dungeons & Dragons; also, I let my stock options lapse just before Hasbro acquired Wizards itself for big bucks, so I missed my big shot at vindicating my childhood hobby.) After Wizards, I attended the Clarion West writers’ workshop, and then went on to found an e-publishing company, ElectricStory, while working on Microsoft’s Internet Gaming Zone (writing for Asheron's Call, among other games) and later Won.net.
In 2000, while building the catalog for ElectricStory, I got acquainted with Tony. Lucius Shepard talked to him about my e-publishing ambitions, and we did a deal. I met him and his wife at the Philly Worldcon in 2002. Two months after that meeting, realizing that ElectricStory would never thrive as just an e-publisher, I went back to school to become a programmer so that I could create e-commerce sites. I did the original site for Night Shade Books and a site for ElectricStory (which badly needs to be overhauled), before doing dev work for a variety of companies, including Microsoft.
As of last year, when we started Planet Baen, I had worked in games for years as a writer and editor, had coded websites promoting Xbox games, and had recently architected software for a fantasy sports game. I knew that designing a game, much less coding a game, is tough work, and I wanted to hand it off to someone I knew could see it through.
I called Jonathan Tweet, former lead designer at Wizards who revolutionized Dungeons & Dragons with the Third Edition and the D20 open-source system on which it is based. He was busy. He said all of our cohort who really knew social-networking games was busy, and that without a serious budget, it would be tough to get help. He said he’d mull it over for a couple of days and see if his brain caught fire.
A couple of days later he called me back. No fire, no spark. His head was too far into other work.
I called Tony and gave him the bad news.
"Okay, why don't you do it? Why don't we do it?"
"You mean you and I design a game together?"
We began to discuss the idea seriously but somehow got derailed. Instead, we mostly argued about politics. Again.
I hung up the phone an hour or two later, begrudgingly impressed with his riposte and wondering how serious he was about the game thing. Mostly, though, I stewed about the politics. Tony and I share the same Moral Liberty outlook, to use the Planet Baen term. We're both closer to Plato than Nietzsche in our philosophical outlook. We both like old-school F&SF, with big ideas and big heroes. We both… Okay, enough bridging the gap. We’ll never agree on politics.
We resolved to draft a game spec, and spent a few days exchanging links on what makes a social-networking game hook people. After a week of research, Tony sent me an email that said, "Hey, when I was on a run yesterday, I came up with an idea for our game."
He explained it to me on the phone the next day: "We've got an election year coming up, and you're on one side and I'm on the other, and it's what everyone is talking about, and I think players would be interested in playing a science fiction game about politics."
"But how do we make it into a game?"
He said we’d work it out as we went along, after discussing politics, which we then did, with much acrimony. You probably wonder why I’d want to collaborate with a political adversary, from an inferior contractor position, on a political game where he could ultimately load the dice in favor of his wrongheaded concepts. It’s a good question. Go read “Dry, Quiet War” or another of his excellent stories; then you’ll understand. Either that, or you’ll never understand. Working with Tony is an honor.
But also, I was really thinking we'd do something simple, a project that, if we were carpenters, would be like building a small workshop, or at most a cabin or bungalow. (I was pretty deep in before I realized that Tony was thinking “shopping mall.”)
"How do we make it into a game?" That question led to the playing pieces. Tony resolved we'd have Plats and Stats (later, "Assets and Resources," but I still like "Plats," and all my database tables refer to Plats), and we'd have all kinds of raw materials, and their productivity would be tied to your political alignment, and we'd have Whacks, which would be bad things that happened to your freehold, and aliens would be responsible for some Whacks and fellow players would be responsible for others, and everything would have to be tied to ebook advertising, and you'd earn ebooks in the game, and…
I'd share his enthusiasm, and then we'd get off the phone, and I'd start sketching database tables and foreign-key constraints; and I'd realize that this was going to be more than just two months' work if I didn't rein it in. And over it all hung the budget, which was ill-defined but small, because this was really uncharted territory for all of us, and just as we came up against the budget, there'd be a little more, and I realized that I'd let myself get strung along, but I couldn't complain because Baen was a good client, and I was curious where this was going to go, and…
And now I shake my head and realize that most of a year has passed, and other Web projects I thought I’d have done by now aren’t even begun, and I’ve had my head down so far that I haven’t even taken stock of the exotic landscape I’ve blundered into. To quote A. E. Housman:
Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where….
I strongly discourage anyone from trying to do a project this way. There were too many variables to commit to a plan and a budget, not just for Baen but for myself. A project like this requires too much trust in your partners, too much to be prudent business. You need faith in their skill, their integrity, and their ability to pay their bills and you need to trust their trust in you.
Somehow, aside from a few missteps, we’ve made steady progress. That’s pretty amazing.
Despite it being clear that I was the co-author of the game mechanics and the software developer, and Tony the project manager, visionary, and content driver, our roles were very loosely defined. We kind of fell into them. Tony’s smart enough to manipulate someone into a role, but I think he instead guided the project in good faith by intuition and dead reckoning. He trusted me to rein in the scope according to the somewhat-flexible budget, and so he pushed the vision wherever he could, toward simulation where I demanded abstraction. He negotiated up, and I negotiated down. He made me pretty uncomfortable, which I think was the correct thing for him to do. He wanted the game to have lots of resources, including various raw materials; gifting both in-game and on Facebook; alliances; deep strategy; endless extensibility; a clear political impact; the ability to incorporate ebook promotion into every element; and a professional appearance….
In late November, four months into the project, we brought on artist Kurt Miller, who’s done brilliant work on games and science fiction book covers and has diva skills without diva attitude. While doing Thanksgiving at my mom’s house in central Oregon, I had a three-hour phone conference with Kurt and Tony to go over the game. It gave me the sinking feeling that rather than being almost done, we were really just beginning. Earlier that same day, I had contracted a crew in India (CrayonPixels, aka HTMLFirm) to do the website cuts and the final HTML. However, by the time Tony, Kurt, and I signed off, I’d committed to a lot more work for all of us.
In January, I began integrating the HTML crew’s sample files into the website. They had completely replaced many elements I had been working with, and this was a bit more challenging than I had bargained on. Kurt’s UI is lush and hard to implement. Like Tony, he pushed the envelope, and I had to keep up.
In early February, we went to limited beta. I’d been so busy on every other front that I had neglected the gameplay on the Asset grid, and Kurt pointed this out. “I know, I know, trust me,” I said, not trusting myself. We had the Asset catalog and the ability to drag and drop items but there was not much you could actually do with the Assets. You purchased them and they produced resources, and you tried to keep your Bliss (called “Wellbeing” up to that point) high enough to avoid production losses. I had some plans for making Asset management strategic, but we were running into budget-driven deadlines. We needed to bring in some players and try to gauge the prospects for the game soon.
The general feedback from our dozen or so initial invitees was bewilderment. It was a little discouraging; we’d worked very hard but left so many gaps that no one could see what we really had in mind. Tony fretted about the help content. I worried about the Assets. Although we’d pretty much agreed to polish up and go with what we had, I knew that we were missing critical features. Now it was my turn to push on scope. The Asset grid needed work. I knew that some parts of the grid needed to have more gameplay value than others. Also, the game lacked urgency. You came back every few hours to buy more Assets and take care of Whacks and see how your freehold was growing but that’s it. Tony and I had a long discussion about this, and told him an idea I had. Every cycle you’d have a fixed number of points to spend on getting a production bonus, or “dividend,” out of an Asset, and once you did that, the Asset would have to recharge. To address the lack of strategy in grid management, parts of the grid would be prime real estate and Assets on those squares would recharge faster than others; also, once you placed an Asset, you’d have to pay to move it.
By the first few days of limited beta, I scrambled to get these features in play. Tony corrected my nomenclature. Both “dividend” and “production points” sucked. The proper term was “surge.” A few hardcore gamers began to post about the game at the Baen Bar forum site, and not with praise. Stalwarts like Rekinom, Warpish, Martin, and William K immediately saw that the game was unbalanced and seemed arbitrary. They filled up the Assets grid and poked holes in the system – buying, surging, and selling Assets to run up huge gains; zeroing in on the useful Assets and dismissing the rest. The speed of the onslaught caught me off guard. I’m not naïve about playtesting. I sat in on the bug triage for the early tests of Asheron’s Call, and at Wizards of the Coast, I’d seen our team of obsessive mathematicians (actual PhDs in a few cases) scramble to address unforeseen card combinations that unbalanced tournament play. But they had hundreds or thousands of players at their gates, not a few dozen. We had more problems than time to deal with them.
It was time to call in the Cleaner.
Take a look around you. Everywhere you look you see technology refined by unsung heroes. Very few people who advance the state of an art or technology ever get much credit for it. The same goes for games. Collectable card games have had a far-reaching impact on game design and marketing. Richard Garfield’s rightfully praised as their inventor, but he had help, notably from Skaff Elias, Dave Petty, Chris Page, Mons Johnson… and my good friend Jim Lin.
Jim helped balance Magic: The Gathering when he was in school with Richard at University of Pennsylvania; he co-designed some of its first blockbuster expansion sets; he served a stint as Wizards VP heading the R&D department; and he’s contributed to many games since, including social-networking games. In the mid-'90s, we worked closely together for months, and to say I had enormous respect for him would only be presumptuous – far smarter guys than I am have enormous respect for Jim.
It was now early March. With Tony’s support, I called Jim and asked if he could spare a little time. He wasn’t thrilled, given how busy he is, but he generously said he’d take a look. We scheduled a Starbucks sitdown meeting for a week out, and I didn’t expect to hear from him before then. The next day, he sent me a high-level rundown on what needed to be done.
The fix for the surge-and-sell was easy: don’t allow a recharging Asset to be sold, but how to keep the grid clean and Asset-placement logical was a different matter. I’d already drafted an idea for a new super Asset that I called the city core. I wrote a hasty email to him and Tony explaining it, dropped everything else I was working on, and coded it before they could balk. The work took several hours, because of the refactoring needed for the multiple resources, unique upgrade conditions, and so on.
Jim arrived at our meeting with yet more notes. I was eager to know if the city core had helped in his opinion, but he hadn’t had time to evaluate it. He had sketched costing formulas and algorithms that would be important regardless, and left me chastened but hopeful. I took his list home, and started working through it, correcting the relationship between the Bliss penalties and the surge output and eliminating some complicating factors like the way Assets gave you some of their surge resource merely for buying them. Meanwhile, Jim assembled his notes into a complete report.
All that was just over a month ago. Since then, Kurt Miller handed me a graphic redesign of a few of the pages, and I’m trying to get it done, I’ve upgraded the code for interfacing with Facebook and fixed several crashing bugs on that front, and we’ve moved from limited to public beta, with launch due in June. Tony has a lot of content to manage. The game is getting better fast. I finally really dug into it myself as a player a couple of weeks ago, and found it incomplete but compelling. That may sound schizoid, but there’s just so many roles I can take on here at once, and I’ve got a company to manage apart from all this.
I honestly can’t see Planet Baen ever being complete. What we really have is just a part of the resource-management piece of a much larger game, the goal of which is to redefine book marketing. It’s no secret that this is advertising, but it’s meant to be advertising that’s participatory and transparent. What’s special about Baen is that its management, employees, and contractors have a genuine passion for their books, and their marketing is based on sharing their enthusiasm rather than trying to manipulate anyone into a purchase.
Planet Baen so far represents a very small step toward realizing Tony’s vision for using a game to promote books. So far, I’m encouraged. I can foresee mapping the territory of Planet Baen, placing the various freeholds in spatial relation to each other and allowing the players to compete for new territories to manage. I see possibilities for one-on-one challenges; player-contributed content; new, more responsive interfaces. The audience will determine what happens. I’m grateful they’ve given us the chance to play.
Robert P. Kruger is CEO of Electricstory.com and co-creator of the Planet Baen game
Copyright © 2012 by Bob Kruger