Build Retreat Pt. 3

Fun hats. What makes a game "a game"? Testing anxiety.

January 28, 2022

(About 6 minutes)

Locked In

I truly cannot believe that another full week has already passed. Whereas my experience of time for the first two weeks in the cabin was that of a steady stream of work punctuated by memorable moments of novelty, exploration, and relaxation, this last week has been more of a grinding experience. As I sit here and try to think back on what happened of note this week, my mind mostly turns up various things that I accomplished in my work, which I'll get into a bit more later in this post. All in all, it was a very disciplined week of work, exercise (thank to Tom), and nutritious meals (thanks to Nate). I'm afraid to admit that my most significant contribution socially to the cabin dynamic over the past week was in leaving a series of unusual hats around the house and encouraging the others to wear them—in order to break up the sameness of things.
Nate in a hat
Until a lack of food stores prompted a grocery run into town this afternoon and forced me to leave the property, this had been the longest amount of time that I've stayed in one place in... maybe my entire life? At least post-infancy. I've never really planted my feet like I have here. And it's been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the level of focus and disciple I've been able to achieve has really enabled me to get some fantastic work done and to engage in some healthy habits. But on the other hand, I feel the acute lack of novelty in my surroundings. I guess this is why they call it "cabin fever"!
Cup of joe in the morning
But I'm not helpless in this situation. There's plenty to do and explore on the giant property that the cabin is situated on. I've just fallen into the habit of chaining myself to my computer during the brief daylight hours, such that by the time I finally rear my head to take a breath of air and look around, the sun is almost setting and the air is getting inhospitable. One of my goals for the next week is going to be to change up my schedule so that I can take advantage of the surrounding forests, paths, and the peaceful solitude they can offer. I'm habitually an exploratory person, and while it's been fun to play-act at being otherwise for a few weeks—and to reap the benefits that come along—I now feel the need to bring a little more diversion back into my routine.

What Makes a Game a Game?

The upside of all of this desk-time, however, is that Subject+Predicate has made some major strides. I'm happy to report that I have barely worked on the backend server-side architecture this week, having made good on my promise from my last blog post to move along with new features and frontend development.
The original version of Subject+Predicate that I had developed almost a year ago was less of a game, and more of a "conversation topic generating activity." I say this because there was never really a "win condition," or even a way to know when the activity should be over. Usually the end of a "game" would be prompted by an astute social-reading of the players' collective interest-level by whoever felt themselves to be most in charge of the social situation. Don't get me wrong, the original version of the game and its open-ended nature are still compelling and I think will always have a devoted, niche audience. But my sense is that most people like to play a game that feels like it has a story to it, even if that story is small and only lasts 15–20 minutes. A cast of characters. A beginning, a middle, and an end. A winner and a loser. Some kind of narrative arc: boasts, foibles, stumbles, conflict, and resolution. A lot to ask of a little piece of software—but I think it's possible!
Results Page
That's the guiding idea behind all of the features that I've been building into the new version of the game, and I'm happy to say that I do think of it as a "game" now. In addition to the original game's strength of allowing players to express their creativity while delighting at the prosaic power of the muse-like random matching algorithm, the new version also has mechanics like forced-advocacy, debate, and voting, which I think add just enough spice to keep people coming back. Although a little of the open-endedness of the previous version has been sacrificed in the process, I think it's ultimately going to be a more compelling game for a wider audience. (And hopefully an audience that doesn't mind giving me a little bit of money.)
Results Page

Time for testing

But we'll see! Now that the game is almost at the point where I'm comfortable with it leaving the safe haven of my local development environment, it's time to test, test, test. I know what I think of the game, but with the minor exception of my cabin-mates and a few generous friends who have participated in Zoom-testing, not that many people have played it yet.
Testing with Will and Daniel
And if I'm being honest, I feel a deep unease about this next phase of the project. Of course I'm excited to see the thing that I've spent so much time building over the last few weeks actually get into the hands of others, and to see them interact with it in ways I haven't thought of yet. But at the same time, I'm scared to find out that people might not like it. There's undeniably a lot of my ego woven between these lines of JavaScript and CSS, and I'm afraid that I'm going to take any negative feedback as a reflection of me and my worth.
After many conversations and commiseration sessions with Nate, who has much more experience with building things, testing them, soliciting feedback, and iterating on them, I'm convinced that this is just part of the process. I have to put the game out there and see what people think of it. I need to watch, listen, and learn from their reactions and behavior. And then, I need to make the game better. After all, every piece of feedback, especially negative or uncomfortable feedback, is a direct way to understand what is working for people, and what isn't. And if I'm serious about building something that people like and want to use, I need to court those opportunities for growth.
This is definitely going to be a struggle for me, though. I'm much more comfortable writing JavaScript and wiring up APIs on the backend than I am with these other aspects of the product development cycle. As much anxiety as the upcoming testing-iteration cycle is giving me, just imagine how I feel about the prospect of eventually needing to market this thing...
But hopefully this next phase of the project will be an opportunity for me to widen my horizons a little bit, experience something conceptually foreign and uncomfortable, and maybe develop some new skills. I have been craving novelty again recently, so perhaps this project is about to ladle me up a big spoonful of it. If any of you reading have any advice for me, or would like to sign-up to be a beta-tester of the new version of Subject+Predicate over the coming weeks, get in touch!