Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

24 August, 2018

Why Storybricks failed
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 11:42 PM

After a week of talking a bit about the promise and a little behind the scenes, I wanted to look at the reason why all this talk is reminiscing instead of excitement about what we’re doing. Storybricks is no longer around and I wanted to dig a bit into the reasons for this.

Let’s take a look at why something that had promise withered on the vine.

Failure is complicated

Failure is an interesting thing. On one hand it gives us experience and knowledge. Often knowing what doesn’t work is useful if we don’t know exactly what does work. In startups, the reality is that most startups fail, and so there’s a culture of accepting failure as something that happens: not something to be sought after, but not something to be shunned.

But on the other hand there’s still some stigma surrounding failure: was someone just not good enough to succeed? We lionize the person who takes a risk and succeeds, seeing them as bold people fighting against the current; but the person who took those same risks and failed before that “visionary” are forgotten at best, or belittled at worst because they should have known that risk was too foolish.

I’m going to be a little tender in talking about failure here so I don’t come across as blaming someone in particular. To be clear, the engineering team on Storybricks that we had before the SOE deal was top notch and did amazing work. I think there are some interesting things to consider here to see why having a good team and a good idea isn’t always enough.

Bad marketing

I think one fundamental problem is that we had no idea how to market Storybricks. We might hate marketing, but the reality is that people need to be aware of something and need to understand why it exists for them to be interested. The idea of building a product and people just showing it because it’s good just doesn’t happen. So the reality is that we need marketing as long as people aren’t going to go out of their way to find these theoretically good products they want.

We tried to position Storybricks as something interesting for players, when to be perfectly honest most players don’t have the vision to understand what something like Storybricks is good for. We built the story authoring tool, but it was hard for this to capture attention. What we needed to do was to develop a game, but we didn’t have the funding to develop a game using the technology. And we couldn’t get the funding because of what investors would invest in.

Strange business model

Investors tend to look for very specific thing to invest in, particularly Silicon Valley investors. Keep in mind that Storybricks was formed about 2010, when everyone was starting to fall out of love with social media games and everyone was looking for the next “platform”. Investing in a single game is risky because you never know if it will be successful or not, especially doing something untried. So the best thing to do is have a system where you can get multiple games developed and then profit from them; the successes pay for the failures. Even better if you can be like the App Store and get money from other people using your platform.

What this means is that most investors not going to invest in a single game. Which is why we had to position Storybricks as a tool, to show it off to the players. The idea was that we could show interest in it to investors as something more than just a single game. This is why Storybricks had to be a technology that could be used by other games as well, like EverQuest Next. This was seen as a big step for us, showing that a major game was interested in our technology. Unfortunately, the deal wasn’t as good as we had hoped.

A bad deal

When we were looking for partners, two deals came to the company. Riot, makers of a little game you might have heard of called League of Legends, called upon us. They wanted some better AI for their bots, and they were working on some hush-hush projects that they didn’t tell us a lot about, but hinted that maybe there was a reason they were interested in our group’s work. The other was SOE who were working on EverQuest Next (EQN) and showed us some amazing things.

Now striking deals is a tough thing. You have to weigh a lot of different factors. Riot had a lot of money and was eager to spend it, but they wanted AI that wasn’t exactly what we were looking to do. SOE was pouring all their effort into EQN and it seemed a perfect fit for what we wanted, but it was obvious now that it was a Hail Mary attempt to keep the lights on for them. But there was one thing about the SOE deal that I didn’t like: they wanted us to be exclusive to them until they launched the game. To me, that was a bad thing and what I think ultimately killed Storybricks. That we couldn’t have another deal going on and were restricted in what we could do to keep our company afloat when SOE had their own problems.

While taking the Riot deal would have delayed us releasing what we “really” wanted to do with Storybricks, we probably could have been making enough money and had enough liberty to pursue other deals.

Gone but not forgotten?

My hope is that people haven’t completely forgotten about Storybricks despite these problems. There was a kernel of a good idea that got me passionate about the project, and gave me enthusiasm. But in the end we failed to accomplish our goals, and it does feel a bit like the opportunity has passed us by.







9 Comments »

  1. I admit to being somewhat sceptical whenever talk of StoryBricks comes around, but perhaps it is a lack of imagination on my part. There’s a lot of generalization and hopes, but nothing specific and concrete I can get my mind around.

    I wonder, if it is not too much trouble, to simulate in text a small-scale example of what Storybricks might achieve. For example, one village (or floating island city sector), 5 NPCs with the emotion/motivation variants, and how a player might interact with whatever their unique stories or relationships are, to form 5-10 player specific experiences.

    Every time I imagine a player, I think of a simulated pillager who would rampage across the village and slaughter the five NPCs outright without interacting with them… or just end up with fed ex fetch quests giving various items to them for various rewards. I guess I would need more specific examples of allowed player actions in order to open my mind to the possibility space involved.

    Comment by Jeromai — 25 August, 2018 @ 1:01 AM

  2. Would a word or two about the unsuccessful Kickstarter be appropriate for this blog post?

    I’m still disappointed that didn’t work out. There’s no guarantee it would have saved Storybricks, but… maybe?

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 25 August, 2018 @ 1:47 AM

  3. Talking purely about the pre-SOE days below.

    I think bad marketing was definitely one of our big failings, but for me that was a symptom of a lack of clear focus. We had a wealth of talent and practical ideas, which I think made us reluctant to decide on just 1 or 2 of them to begin with, because we didn’t want to close off promising avenues that we knew could work well. If I remember correctly, our Kickstarter video had one person saying “It’s like a computerised version of a D&D Games Master”, one person saying “it’s procedural generation for MMO quests”, and someone else saying “it’s about letting people share stories”. On the inside, we knew all those statements were true, because we understood the common ground across those areas and we knew how to deliver on each promise with much the same technology. But by looking outwards in several directions it meant not only that it wasn’t clear what we were offering, but it reflected the fact that we were postponing making hard decisions, such as whether the story editing was for players or developers, whether it was for an MMO setting or for small instanced stories, whether we needed strong game-like aspects or just storytelling and roleplaying systems, etc. The product has to be clear for it to be marketable and we failed there.

    If we’d been more ruthless about the focus then we could have both improved the marketing and probably delivered more working tech for people to play with. If I could go back and change one thing, it would have been that.

    Another pretty boring problem we had was one of technology. We spent a lot of time hacking around things that the Unity engine didn’t do well back then, such as animation and UI. If we were doing the same thing today we could have iterated on those ideas much faster. Obviously technology is always improving and all teams and projects encounter this to some extent, but our team was definitely too small to absorb the time cost of having to write all the low level features as well as the high level stuff our company was actually about. The same project today would be able to deliver things 3 or 4 times sooner for exactly the same cost, something I think about a lot.

    Comment by Ben Sizer — 25 August, 2018 @ 2:57 AM

  4. Hey Brian thanks for posting this. From my perspective the biggest issue was that I came from a series of startups that had no problem fundraising (albeit in a different market) and we were very cost-heavy from the get to, and in retrospect it was the wrong thing to do. My plan was to raise $20m, and when it became clear it wasn’t happening should have reduced costs immediately. Instead I raised what I could and kept working towards a larger raise. The lack of a clear vision was an outcome of that as we never knew if we would have one, two, or twenty millions to build something. Or a hundred thousands. Again from my side should have planned for the worst and just build slowly upon that, but back then there were a lot of things I didn’t know about the games industry. That was the first big mistake. There were others, like betting against deep learning, that didn’t do us any favors, the cancellation of the Unity deal which would have given us funding to do our own tablet game.
    SOE was a mixed bag, as had huge potential, it exposed us to a wider audience.

    As for the future I do think that there is potential in systems that can procedurally generate content, might not be MMO, might not be text based interactive fiction, might not be a new incarnation of storybicks, but I do believe AI-assisted authoring is going to get bigger, and ultimately it will bleed on the player side as well. Brian Schwab mentioned something like IK-for-stories on twitter the other day and really liked that idea. There’s hope.

    Comment by Rodolfo Rosini — 25 August, 2018 @ 6:07 AM

  5. After all this time it finally struck me what Storybricks reminds of: Artificial Life games. Those are the ones where computer-generated creatures are each given a simple set of rules, and exhibit surprisingly complex behavior as a group, like hunting in packs. But in Storybricks, the behaviors are related to buying and selling, setting up guilds, and conquering land, instead of, say, trying to eat each other.

    Comment by Shawn V. Wilson — 25 August, 2018 @ 11:08 AM

  6. Dave Mark, who was a consultant for Storybricks, linked to this piece he had written about Storybricks and EQN:

    http://intrinsicalgorithm.com/IAonAI/2016/03/on-everquest-next-and-ai-driven-mmos/

    Jeromai wrote:
    I think of a simulated pillager who would rampage across the village and slaughter the five NPCs outright without interacting with them…

    There’s no reason why an MMO with NPCs would be open world. This is a problem with any game type where if you let the players just kill whatever they want the world will be a barren wasteland soon after. Yes, there are some people who just want to go into the woods and grind rats, but I don’t think that invalidates wanting to do something more interesting.

    I guess I would need more specific examples of allowed player actions in order to open my mind to the possibility space involved.

    One example I liked to use is that a quest reward might be “the Queen’s Favor”, an intangible item that essentially gives your character a reputation. Other people knowing this would change how they interact with you: people who feared the queen might fear you, those who hated her might hate you as well, etc. It’s more than simply a faction value that you affect by killing the right (or wrong) enemies.

    Think of it in terms of having more rounded characters and the ability to track relationships between them dynamically, including relationships between NPCs and player characters. And having those part of dynamic plots like a love triangle, or a rivalry between friends, or any of the other common story structures we see in other media. With the ability to change over time rather than every time someone comes up to the Baker they hear him lamenting about his unfaithful wife just as they have since the NPC was put into the game.

    Bart Stewart wrote:
    Would a word or two about the unsuccessful Kickstarter be appropriate for this blog post?

    The first two points really speak to the failed Kickstarter: we were terrible at marketing and we had a strange business model because of what investors were interested in. It was hard to get people interested and aware of what we were doing (poor marketing), and a “tool for content creators” was needed since a business-to-business (B2B) company wasn’t sexy to investors then, even though we were really thinking of this as a dev tool.

    I think these two factors are why the Kickstarter failed even if I didn’t say it explicitly. And frankly I don’t think the KS would have saved us as it wasn’t quite enough money to turn things around. I don’t have it in me to do hindsight business decision-making to say what could have worked.

    I’ll post more later!

    Comment by Psychochild — 25 August, 2018 @ 11:37 AM

  7. One question after all of these fantastic blog entries is what happened to the StoryBricks code and are there plans to do anything with it in the future? For example, sell part of it as a Unity3D plugin… maybe you just get smarter combat a.i. without the dynamic storytellung, or maybe you just get a part foraking towns npcs more lively, etc.

    Comment by JasonM — 25 August, 2018 @ 2:54 PM

  8. JasonM: what happened to the StoryBricks code and are there plans to do anything with it in the future?

    The work we did pre-SOE, still exists. But the concept of Storybricks is about the whole suite of things, from the low level AI to the high level dynamic story generation and the interactions between them, and that was not something we ever had the funding to finish, and which absolutely requires a full game as a testbed to show it working, one which is somewhat geared towards facilitating the interactions that we were building towards.

    Also, most of it expects to run as part of a persistent world and none of the AI logic is written in C#, so there’s no quick route to making a Unity asset from it.

    I would like to revisit these ideas in future but I’m unlikely to use any of the old code to do so!

    Comment by Ben Sizer — 27 August, 2018 @ 7:24 AM

  9. I feel like a MUD build on Storybricks could have been very interesting as a fully-fleshed out demo, probably next to useless from a marketing perspective but as a way to demo the potential at minimum costs. Something that could be played for real to see how PC-NPC and NPC-NPC relationships work. I expect this was already discussed elsewhere.

    I also could imagine Storybricks or a similar system replacing the IMHO underwhelming Amity system in Black Desert Online. The game does a very good job of simulating a living breathing world, with NPCs that talk about one another, and the world around them, but then you get dumped in the weird pseudo-card game system and, for me at least, it rips you out of any immersion.

    Comment by Telwyn — 10 September, 2018 @ 12:28 AM

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