What Went Wrong



Back in the 1990s, I built a system for interactive storytelling; I called it "The Erasmatron". It was actually pretty good for its day, but it proved to be too difficult to use, and ultimately it failed to attract the interest of any authors.

I spent the next few years writing books, doing research, and thinking hard about how to take another stab at it. Then, in 2006, I realized that Internet usage had penetrated so deeply that it could provide a basis for a new business model. I worked for three months putting together the entire plan, then set to work in January of 2007. We jumped through all the hoops of setting up a corporation that could receive venture funding, and I recruited Laura Mixon, Dave Walker, and Irene Boczek to serve on the Board of Directors, and we all set to work.

Like any startup, it was an intense effort, with long hours day after day, and no breaks or vacations. We recruited several more people to help with the programming, and they made huge improvements in the rather amateurish code that I had written until then. Kathy and I took out a big mortgage on our house, and we got some "friends and family" money, and we were actually able to pay the employees.

The crucial task was the creation of a good demo of our technology. Since we were planning the technology to be used both for entertainment and business training purposes, I decided to create a storyworld that straddled both areas. This was my first big blunder; by trying to meet two divergent sets of goals, I guaranteed that I would meet neither set of goals. Moreover, I allowed my perfectionism to screw up the schedule: the development tool, SWAT, was not ready in time. I had to work frantically on SWAT and a hundred other things that have to be done in a startup. I simply didn't have enough time to do a good job with the demo.

Nevertheless, we published it in March of 2009. It stank, which pretty well destroyed our chances. Nevertheless, we tried to rustle up some investment money so that we could build some more demos. Our timing was execrable: we were trying to raise money in the middle of the most serious recession since the Great Depression. Venture capitalists were not exactly eager to invest in us.

So we ran out of money. I first attempted to fix up the original demo ("Balance of Power, 21st Century"). That didn't work, because the subject matter was insufficiently dramatic. I made another attempt with a storyworld based on the Arthurian legends. That one actually got pretty far, and was pretty good, but I ran out of creative steam and set it aside. In early 2011, I had a brainstorm for how to build a storyworld more easily, and made goodly progress on that. However, in June of 2011 we set that project aside as well.

The fundamental flaw in the design was that I had been insufficiently ruthless in keeping the technology simple. Every time somebody thought of a new improvement, we threw it in. Sometimes I resisted improvements that I thought didn't add enough. But overall, I permitted the thing to become a huge monster. Just look at the tutorials or the author's guide elsewhere on this site; this thing makes Microsoft Word look like "painting program for children".

There are a zillion people out there who'd love to build storyworlds, if only there were a tool that could let them do it. SWAT was far too complicated to be understood. Indeed, despite the fact that many people worked with SWAT, only four people ever learned it well enough to be able to build something interesting -- and not one of them ever finished their work.

That's why the old Storytron failed. But fixing it is a matter of simplification, not adding more technology. That's my plan for the future.

There was one other problem that deserves mention: creative burnout. I've been working on the problem of interactive storytelling since early 1992. That's nearly twenty years. In all that time, I have plunged forward through thickets of difficulties, refusing to accept defeat. Most people thought that I was crazy and would never succeed, but my ego was big enough to keep me going. However, starting about two years ago, when I realized that Balance of Power 21st Century was crap, my morale collapsed. I continued working hard, but only out of pig-headed determination, not artistic inspiration. I had the guts to keep going but not the heart. For another two years I kept staggering forward, trying to get something working. Eventually I had to admit failure and step way back.

It has been said that the only people who create progress are those crazy enough to refuse to adapt to reality. I was certainly that crazy, but eventually reality won. I put up a damn good fight, but I lost the second round. Now I'm going into the third round, and recognizing my own frailty I'm planning it more carefully, proceeding more slowly. This is my life's work, and I'm not dead yet.