Ideas that don't make money

The sad Internet news of this week is that the multiplayer online game/community Glitch will have to shut down next month. The announcement makes it sound like mostly a financial problem (not enough revenue to keep going), with a side order of getting caught between technology curves. They built the desktop client on Flash, which is on its way out now, but the technologies that will replace it are not completely ready yet; meanwhile, Flash is mostly not available at all on mobile devices but they didn’t have the engineering manpower to build a whole new client for each such platform.

This is a personal disappointment for me, since I liked the game, but it’s also not the first time I’ve seen an Internet community built around a compelling idea fall apart because the money wasn’t there. Something very similar happened to Metaplace and Faunasphere. It’s not just games; the WELL, paragon of elder days, had to be bought out by its users, and this was only possible because it goes back to elder days and has users who are very, very rich. TV Tropes, timesink par extraordinare and valuable resource for high school English students, is ad-supported so it keeps getting jerked around by Google.

You get the idea: the ecology around the Web is only capable of supporting ideas that bring in the money. It doesn’t really matter how good the idea is on its own terms, or how desirable it is to its audience if that audience isn’t big enough to provide enough money. Kickstarter and the like help with that last bit, but they don’t work for things that need lots of money or a continuous stream of money. Glitch staff quoted a figure of six million U.S. dollars a year to keep the game running, which is comparatively small for a business—thirty-ish people at $100,000/yr, plus however much the servers and the connectivity cost, plus overhead. But one million dollars is extraordinary for a Kickstarter project.

The requirement for a continuous stream of money to keep the servers running also hurts things on the Net that were successful but are now declining. I can still play Super Mario World any time I want; even after the original hardware stops working altogether, there will be emulators. But I can’t go back to Star Wars Galaxies, and I’m not sure if I should believe the website that’s telling me I can still play Uru Live. Again this isn’t just about games; we all remember what happened to Geocities.

Free software helps, but not enough, because it’s not enough to be in possession of all the code and data that you need for a client-server MMO. Some specific person or group has to actually run the server, and now we’re back to that continuous stream of money requirement—most of which will be going to people, not to computrons or tubes. You might not need developers, but you definitely need sysadmins. I was a sysadmin in college, for a tiny little computer lab that almost never had crises at four in the morning, and it was still a shitload of work. For an MMO you also need in-game and out-of-game moderators, which is even more difficult and thankless a gig than sysadminning, and while people do sometimes volunteer to do it for free, often those are exactly the people who should not be doing that job (yeah, I’m looking at you, Reddit).

Is there a solution? I don’t have one. I think it’s more a problem of capitalism than a problem of software architecture.

Responses to “Ideas that don't make money”

  1. Colby Russell

    I liked this post, but I don’t really have anything to say. Is this kind of feedback useful?

    Free software helps, but not enough, because it’s not enough to be in possession of all the code

    Though this part does remind me of the recent article on LWN, Crowding out OpenBSD, which has a similar theme to the one you glance in your quote above.

    1. Zack Weinberg
      Is this kind of feedback useful?

      I appreciate knowing that I’m not just talking into a vacuum, at least.

      …the recent article on LWN, Crowding out OpenBSD,…

      Unfortunately I’m not an LWN subscriber and your link is not working for me (possibly because I’m on dodgy hotel internets right now) but I will look at it when I can.

      I’ve also worked on conventional (directly installed on your computer) free software projects which withered for lack of interest and other tools crowding out the problem space. There, at least, because the code is the whole of the thing, it would not be hard to dust them off if interest reappeared.

  2. Stephen Kraushaar

    Glitch’s story reminds me of the similar fate of PMOG. In fact, I know they share many of the same players. Justin Hall, founder of GameLayers wrote a great post-mortem describing the struggles in detail (http://www.raphkoster.com/2010/03/11/gdc10-justin-hall-fate-of-a-social-games-company/). I myself have been writing Nova Initia for near 3 years now with no firm business plan in hand, but working hard to make it FUN. Justin makes a great point that monetization needs to be planned for from the beginning. The communities built by social games like this can lead to great cooperation, or huge backlash when profit measures are implemented at a later stage.

    I’ve got all the historical evidence I need now to say this genre won’t support pay-to-play. Advertising might work, but in our particular case it could come across as much too invasive, seeing that the game exists on any page one browses. The end of your article really has me thinking about self-sustaining models. NES games may still be around, but it took worldwide army to accomplish, and it’s saving grace was having it’s engine forced open source. A more similar example of a self-sustaining game: community recreational centers. Generally they are built with low overhead, provide fee services to all level of sports players to collect revenue, and maintain only as much staff as is needed to support their users. In the end the rec center survives because of what it inherently gives back to the community.

    MMO game content doesn’t survive it’s passing, but blogs will live forever on Archive.org because the provide some level of perceived literary value. Nova Initia has a mechanic known as Tours which are basically the internet equivalent of the old chose your own adventure books. It’s not the most robust system yet, but it’s getting there. I think we can provide the wider internet community value through the unique way it’s indexing/linking web content: people. I’ve already taken steps to get these tours indexed by Google, and I’m hoping in time the human touch given to such a broad range of subjects will earn us a trusted place in search results. Or a bunch of trolls could make LOLCAT tours and it will go nowhere. I guess we’ll see. Thanks for the insight and allowing me to rant.

    1. Zack Weinberg

      I remember playing PMOG for a while, in fact, until the extension stopped working. I will definitely check out Nova Initia. I think you’re right about that specific class of games (shall we call them annotated reality?) not supporting pay-to-play. More, er, secondary-world games do seem to be financially successful on the freemium model (e.g. Kingdom of Loathing, Fallen London) but the ones I know about have much lower staff and resource requirements than Glitch did (which ties into your analogy to community rec centers). Tiny Speck may have fallen victim to their own ambition as much as anything else.

      I actually still play original SNES cartridges on original hardware, but only because my SO happened to keep hers around and in working condition.