Thursday, March 13, 2014

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Versu's Epilogue: How an Interactive Fiction Pioneer's 15 Year Project Ended Up in Limbo at Linden Lab

Versu 1

Janine "Iris Ophelia" Hawkins' ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style

When Linden Lab discontinued its interactive fiction platforms dio and Versu not long after Ebbe Altberg took the reins as CEO, it seemed like most people understood why. For some, these two products were a bit too far removed from the Lab's wheelhouse. Others were relieved, assuming that by trimming the fat LL would be refocussing some of its energy on Second Life. In Altberg's own words, it was just "clean up". "There’s some things that are not as aligned," he told Hamlet during a recent interview.

However there's a particularly sad tale tied up in Versu's fate (literally) and it's why you won't find me applauding this clean up any time soon.

Versu was co-developed by acclaimed interactive fiction writer Emily Short, and for over a year most of the stories she's made have been strictly for Versu. The unfortunate result of this is that Linden Lab now owns these stories as well as the platform itself, including titles that were developed but had yet to be released. That library includes Blood and Laurels, a story that Short had been working on in one form or another for nearly 15 years.

"This is a story premise I thought of back in the early 2000s," Short told me via email, "and I then tried several times to write it in various IF languages (Inform 6 and 7, and ChoiceScript). None of those engines were well suited to handling the amount of social interaction involved." She continued, "I wanted a big sprawling piece with lots of plot, but in which in each individual scene it mattered how you treated the other characters. I couldn't really make it work until I tried it as a Versu project, and it was finally possible to build it the way I wanted to."

It seemed like Versu and Blood and Laurels were a perfect fit, but when Linden Lab shuttered the platform, her masterpiece had yet to be released. It had only been seen by a handful of people, and rewriting it for release outside of Versu with LL owning the rights just isn't a possibility.

Initially, Short had hoped to buy Versu and related IP back from LL. In fact there was more than just Blood And Laurels on the line, as she'd also been pushing for Versu's use in education. As she wrote on her blog:

Aside from wanting to see our hard work out there, I’m concerned that people who had started working with the Versu toolset in academic environments continue to be able to use that toolset and, ideally, have a way to publish their work for others to play with. I may not be able to make that happen, but it would mean a lot to me to be able to do so.

Linden Lab later denied her request to buy back the code and IP... As is their right. Short herself has said that without Linden Lab's early support, Versu likely wouldn't have come together at all. Even so, their choice to sit on something they don't want is a disappointing one to say the least, especially for Short and fans of her work... Myself included. 

The handling of both Versu and dio never did sit right with me. Released within only a couple weeks of each other, at the time it all seemed a bit much. At a time when interactive fiction and visuals novels are experiencing a resurgence in popularity thanks to the DIY gaming community and programs like Twine, neither platform seemed like it was being given a fair chance. 

All said, Short herself is still optimistic. In response to a comment on her blog, she said, "This is definitely not the end of my trying to build more socially-focused IF, and we did learn a huge amount about how to make that work, not just in terms of a technical engine but in terms of authoring approaches." Even beyond her own projects, the surge of interest in interactive fiction and visual novels is heartening for Short. In our email exchange, she told me, "I think that's all extremely exciting: there's so much going on at the moment that it's difficult for me to keep up with it, and I spend a lot of time in this area. It's wonderful to see so much interest in interactive storytelling, and so many different approaches to it. There are still, I think, some tools I'd like to see that don't yet exist, but we'll get there."

Even if I never get to read Blood and Laurels for myself, even if every piece of Versu is caught in corporate limbo indefinitely, I'm looking forward to seeing what Short will do next. Her forward-facing attitude and the lessons learned during Versu's short life will no doubt lead to more exceptional work in her future.

 

Mixed reality iris 2013Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times, and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.

Comments

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Adeon Writer

LL acquiring things is always grave. I am still worried about Desura, as I am a customer and had a library before LL came around.

Ever since they bought Avatars United and promptly shut it down, I have viewed LL's acquisitions in the same way as Yahoo's.

Iris Ophelia

@Adeon If they ever closed Desura, I think I would just be done. Full stop. Wrap it up, close the set, DONE. BYE. But considering Desura's success (prior to and post acquisition) hopefully it just won't come up.

Ciaran_Laval

Yes this is an incredibly sad tale. Linden Lab didn't really promote Dio or Versu. Dio seemed to lose its way completely and went from being an interactive fiction and photo sharing site, to being just a photo sharing site with some bolts.

Whereas LL have Flickr pic of the day for Second Life, they didn't have anything for Dio.

Versu was full of promise, one of the comments on Emily's blog was from a former Linden who said of Versu:

"The Versu underpinnings are genuinely revolutionary; my jaw dropped in the meeting where you explained how the engine works. "

So much potential but it seems to have struggled to find a footing.

Linden Lab do have course have the right to do what they want with the product, they paid for it and Emily has certainly been supportive of Linden Lab in public, pointing out they spent money on the project.

However why they want to keep it on a dusty shelf when others were prepared to develop it further is a bit of a mystery, some have suggested that even though its dormant, it still has value as an asset in the valuation of the company.

Whatever the reasons, it's a sorry state of affairs and also emphasises why the TOS issues should be rectified sooner rather than later. Linden Lab have the right to do what they want with creators content and whereas they would be foolhardy in the extreme to go down the roads some of the more vociferous have suggested, they absolutely could if they wanted to. This is why their intent needs to be reflected in binding words.

Pussycat Catnap

It always felt to me as if these products were brought to LLs by its last CEO as personal perks to his friends, and maybe the rest of the company resented that, and what we're seeing now is a bit of sour grapes over it.

The products should never have been with LLs to begin with - not a fit really for the culture of what they had before. So the lack of a fair shake could also just be from not really grasping what they were dealing with.

Yoz

I worked on Dio for the last of my six years at Linden Lab. It was the most satisfying engineering experience I ever had there, with a completely awesome team: a smart and talented game designer, eager devs doing good peer review and test coverage, really good QA people, all working remarkably well together under a decent agile process. Unfortunately, during my entire time on the project, the people who told us to build Dio never gave us a consistent explanation of what it was for, or who it was aimed at. The last time I looked at it, they seemed to be pushing it as a photo sharing system. (It's a product evolution that sounds ridiculous, until you remember that Flickr came about almost exactly the same way. I don't think you can do it twice, though.)

If you don't have a good product vision, even the best implementation in the world won't save you. Or, as a very rich and now very dead man once said, "Design isn't what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."

Versu was different. I was lucky enough to spend time with Emily & Richard when they first arrived at the Lab, and I honestly can't praise them or their work highly enough. I'm too used to seeing supposedly innovative platforms created from just throwing stuff together until it just about works; the LTP engine, on the other hand, is an audacious, brilliant technical design with a new kind of programming environment to support character-based IF. I find it highly unlikely that LL is hanging onto it for anything other than financial reasons, but hey, maybe they'll find a way to glue it onto SL or some future incarnation. (I never saw Blood & Laurels, but given Emily's unmatched talents, I'm certain this is a huge loss to the IF world.)

Overall, I don't think all the acquisitions and new projects were necessarily a bad idea. If LL were simply to focus on "fixing" SL, improving the experience, and getting it to a place where all its current users were something approximating "happy", then it *still* wouldn't be enough to guarantee the company's future. You have to try radical new projects, you have to get them out to the public to see if they work, and even then it's almost certain that most of those projects will fail. You learn from those necessary failures and you do something better next time. Occasionally, one happens to succeed. (In this case, Blocksworld.)

Iggy

Eastgate Systems worked so well with the academic customers who developed their own IP using the StorySpace tool set. It's a pre-Internet hypertext technology, for those who have not tried it.

What a shame that a tool like Versu was in Linden Lab's, not Eastgate's hands. It might have re-ignited the mostly dormant market for literary hypertext, a technology that lacked the interactivity that Versu provides.

LL has a proven track record of doing exactly the right thing to alienate academic customers, who have long memories since their annual evals might be tied to these projects.

Pussycat Catnap

"The last time I looked at it, they seemed to be pushing it as a photo sharing system. (It's a product evolution that sounds ridiculous, until you remember that Flickr came about almost exactly the same way. I don't think you can do it twice, though.)"
**************
You see this all the time in the web - people try to copy 'those famous guys' or 'be just like that popular tool/app/site' and fail to reason that the fame and popularity that other place has came about from innovating something.

Even if it's just minor like tweaking mySpace into Facebook. You have to be different (it also helps to be second, not first, to the idea. Second to the idea, but first to knowing who the right audience is - that's the perfect combo: the iPad and iPod for example (tablet computers were on sale at the campus bookstore of my undergrad in 2003, iPad is not original. But its the first one to know who to sell it too. The one's on my campus bookstore came bulky, in laptop gray, and with excel pre-loaded rather than something like angry/flappy/drugged birds. :) ).

LLs has/had an innovative product in SL; and even had the hype train at one point. But they've never been good with marketing - the hype train arrived and they seized all the wrong parts of the bull, and got trampled.

The thing about buying acquisitions is you better make sure you are a fit for it before you do so, and know what you're going to do with it. Or you've just wasted resources on both ends.

The prior CEO's choices seemed motivated by who his friends were, and not so much by what there was a solid plan in place for. And that's ended up hurting his friends when he left.

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