24 August, 2018
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.
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.