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Monday, 10 February 2003

Collective Detective

BBC News covers the collective:

It is not just many hands that make light work. Many minds do too.
New forms of collaboration on the net are giving rise to clever crowds able to solve challenges and puzzles that most individuals would struggle to tackle alone.
These novel forms of problem-solving are emerging because the net makes it easy for people to keep in constant touch, to bring together experts on wildly different subjects, and to access much of the world's knowledge. [more]

54 comments and trackbacks

"The first stage of the challenge, which had a $25,000 prize, was supposed to take people a month to solve. Collective Detective cracked it in three days.

Faced with this intellectual powerhouse, Mind-Quest has had to admit defeat and close the competition - and refund the registration fees paid by all its players."

Say what? From what I've gathered, the reason Mind-Quest shut down the competition was because they didn't have enough players, not because of the prowess of Collective Detective. But of course, that doesn't sound as good for the BBC, or CD.org for that matter.

Posted by: Adrian Hon on February 10, 2003 01:57 PM

Since when do reporters get things right?

Posted by: Tom Bridge on February 10, 2003 04:01 PM

I don't know why MindQuest ended the game, but it occurs to me (based on my own experience with failed companies and projects) that what the PR department spins as the reason for failure is often not even close to reality.

It is at least possible that MindQuest's given reason for closing down the game is this same PR smokescreen, and that MQ was definitely thwarted (at least in part) by how quickly the puzzle was solved.

After all, we saw the very same thing in the Beast, and we know that MQ was engaging in shocking hubris by assuming publicly that the first round of the game was going to require a month to complete.

So perhaps it's a combination of the two- if your month-long puzzles are demolished in three days, it's awfully difficult to attract new players during those other 27 days when nothing is going on.

Posted by: Tiff on February 10, 2003 04:03 PM

I would have to agree with Adrian... claiming responsibility for 'bringing down a game' without viable proof just doesn't make sense. I think the lack of players had more to do with than the Collective Detective management would like to admit.

This is no slight against the people who worked together at solving the first stage so quickly. I know of a few other message board systems that solved it ahead of time too. Of course, the moderators of those boards sure didn't celebrate the closure of the game like CD seems to be.

Posted by: jamesi on February 10, 2003 06:20 PM

Well the article was filled with errors and misinformed opinion, which is a real shame. Despite the claim that CD was responsible for TerraQuests early demise, they also claimed that the BMW :k: winner was a member of CD (not true), and that CTW is due to launch in late 2003 (also not true).

A quick look at a number of websites, including the CTW website that they link to, would have informed them otherwise. He really should have spent 15 minutes checking his facts.

Posted by: imbri on February 10, 2003 06:40 PM

Tiff makes a good point about PR departments being out of touch with reality. However, it seems to me that a spin that says "not enough people played" would be less preferable than "there was a group of players that was more formidable than we expected."

There is some circumstiantial evidence that upholds TerraQuest's announcement though. For instance, even when directly questioned they were guarded about how many people were registered. They never updated their front page to increase the prize money, which was supposed to go up in proportion to how many people registered (this would have made it an easy math problem to figure out how many that was).

Also, even though some people apparently solved the first stage early on in the time period, Mind-Quest never acknowledged that fact. I would imagine that if they had announced in the first week that the phase was won, it would be harder to attract players to play *that phase,* but on the other hand it might have attracted more players to the overall experience. I personally think they added their 3-day free trial way too far into the life-cycle to do any good, and that may have been a big reason why they didn't get more participation: it was really pretty hard to tell what you were paying to get into, without actually trying it out first.

Maybe I'm just holding out hope that organized player groups are not detrimental to the creation of games, for obvious reasons. It would be a shame if the genre were to be killed prematurely by the very groups who are trying to enjoy it, just by virtue of their organized efficiency.

Posted by: SpaceBass on February 10, 2003 06:49 PM

Wow. Nice to see the genre get a shot in the arm like this. However, I feel I must correct some glaring innacuracies in this article:

The statement that the BMW winner was a CD member isn't correct. I spoke to the winners myself that night, and Jon and his wife played and solved the game on their own. They were not a part of any online community. This fact goes contrary to the very premise of the article, so I feel a retraction/correction may be in order here.

Further, I'm sorry to see that CD is taking even partial credit for the demise of TerraQuest. In my personal conversations with Keith Griffin (MindQuest CEO) and the folks at MindQuest, they were indeed suffering from a low player base. The first play period was solved in three days simply because it was solveable within three days. The clue that made the solution possible was returned in the first batch of reports.

Then, as has been mentioned, CTW is launching any day, according to my personal contact with the PMs behind the game. Guess we'll all have a jump on the folks that read this article, as they'll be waiting for the end of the year.

Posted by: vpisteve on February 10, 2003 07:05 PM

SB, I think of the PR-department's spin in an exactly opposite manner:

"Not enough people were playing" is infinitely preferable to "Our puzzles were too easy." It's a fairly typical trick used by many failed companies: blame the size of the market, the economy, but never, ever, under pain of death, acknowledge a deficiency in your product. All the failed dotcoms did this- they blamed the market, the slowing economy, their absentee fathers, the weather in Venezuela, everything but their complete lack of product.

If you're going to an investor to get them to fund your company, or trying to keep your stock price up, acknowledging that you misread the market is a forgivable sin- that's what more market research is for. But acknowledging that your product isn't good enough is the kiss of death for any company. That's why Microsoft frames its supposed new emphasis on security as an issue of customer trust: It's not that Windows is bad, it's that consumers don't trust it. That's why Kia slaps a huge warranty on their crappy cars: It's not that our cars are junk, it's that consumers need to trust them. In MQ's case: It's not that TerraQuest was too easy, it's that we overestimated the size of the market.

I don't doubt for a second that TQ players never reached the mass that MQ wanted- as I said, it's hard to attract players when your game lasts three days. But I think that MQ's PR department is very purposely downplaying the three-day solve so as to deflect attention from whatever deficiencies may have been present in the product.

Disclaimer: I didn't play TQ (haven't played much of anything since the Push disaster), so I don't know if it's any good or not.

Posted by: Tiff on February 10, 2003 07:17 PM

Personally, I don't think they're taking credit for the demise of the game, not in the slightest. The reporter was the one who made that particular causal loop and not CD. Yes, it's true CD closed the case on the opener in 3 days when the owners thought it might take longer. Shades of Time Hunt, anyone?

Or shall we call this all a case of "witch hunt" and jealousy on the part of some not wanting certain factions in the community getting credit for the greater glory of the genre itself.

Posted by: Tom Bridge on February 10, 2003 07:20 PM

Why, I had almost forgotten about TimeHunt. The head PM of that game was, shall we say, a wee bit concerned about the collective model of play since we were tearing through his game at a rate that would have finished it before official launch. The collective style of play (which, as we all know, is not unique to Collective Detective- the main thing that sets CD apart is its technical infrastructure) threatened to destroy their revenue model.

But I don't think it's the fault of the collective gaming community that is to blame for any setbacks the genre experiences. People want to play games in groups. PMs want to write games for individuals. PMs need to start writing their games for the players they've got, not the players they wish they had. So maybe "not having enough players" and "the game was solved too quickly" are really the same problem- "We aren't building a product that meets the needs of the market."

Personally, I think that the more games that are prematurely solved by collective groups, the sooner that PMs will wake the hell up and start designing games for their audience, rather than trying to form the audience to the game.

And that can only be good for the genre.

Posted by: Tiff on February 10, 2003 07:35 PM

Yes, the reporter's comments were not accurate. Yes, people are commenting about it. A witch hunt? Hardly. Since when does pointing out inconsistencies equate to a witch hunt?

Posted by: jamesi on February 10, 2003 08:00 PM

I think Tom was referring to the manner in which some people seem to think that it's CD's fault that the reporter connected a few particular dots. Reporters as a profession are known for such errors in judgement.

It is not CD taking credit for TQ's demise, and CD is not "celebrating" it. Holly's quote about "we are having an impact" doesn't necessarily even refer to TQ- we don't know what question was asked that elicited that respnse. And CD IS having an impact- see above comments about TimeHunt.

It was the reporter who assigned credit/blame for TQ's demise to CD, and adopting a holier-than-CD tone on that basis does indeed seem to be a rush to judgment, which is how all witchhunts start, is it not?

Posted by: Tiff on February 10, 2003 08:16 PM

I have a problem with solely blaming the developers of these failed games for the failure itself. The collective playing of immersive games is assuredly a niche audience, with probably 10,000 people or so interested in it, and a core of diehard players around 500-1,000 (a liberal estimate). The audience is just not large enough to justify tailoring a game to, if the game is for-profit.

As Second State found out, by appealing greatly to the collective playing audience, they were unable to attract a larger player base, and hence the disappointing subscription rate failed to support the game. TerraQuest was aimed at individual play, and so was to some extent susceptible to the increased power of the player group. However, it is unlikely that they closed up merely because people solved their puzzles - if they had a million players, I'm sure they would have been more than content to keep running regardless of how quickly the solutions fell. I'm not sure what TimeHunt's revenue model that Tiff mentioned is, since I understand that registration is free, but the only comment on the matter that I've seen from a TimeHunt developer was more along the lines of it not appearing to be as *fun* to play in a collective manner than to solve the puzzles individually, at which point he mentioned that some individual players were far ahead of the collective anyway. And indeed, TimeHunt has continued to run successfully for quite some time now regardless of who plays and how they play, which may just be because they are not relying on subscription revenue to support it.

Perhaps when this genre has grown to an audience size that can support for-profit games monetarily, the audience can begin to demand that games be tailored to its style of play. Until then, however, it smacks of hubris to assume that developers must either cater to the collective or fall by the wayside.

And technically, CD did imply some responsibility for TQ's downfall in their "trophy case," where they stated, "Unfortunately due to organizational failures and the inability to keep up with CD's "Collective Effect" it seems, they cancelled the game after just one period." Perhaps this is where the BBC author got the idea.

Posted by: SpaceBass on February 10, 2003 09:01 PM

With the demise of groups like the Hive at MS, and others, we may be at the end of "for profit" ventures in terms of puzzle campaigns. Whereas groups like Game Neverending may be the tip of a new iceberg all together. Their appeal was broader than just people who like puzzles.

Yes, it's a tricky future for online gaming. We're in a bad time to expect companies to pour tons of money into new development when their own bottom lines are being effective. Perhaps campaigning for grass roots efforts that are well-planned and well-run is the hope of the genre until the economy gets turned around and the business models for involvement in such is better planned out. For now, we have to either hope for charity cases from companies attempting to expand their market, or the labors of love from people who find the genre interesting.

Like the publishing world, we're stuck in a quandary. Sometimes the labors of love begin small, a la Harry Potter. Sometimes the mass-produced games end up not doing as well as they hope, a la Sims Online. But sometimes you get lucky, like a Neal Stephenson, a talented writer and a brilliant mind behind a project.

I think we have to hope that we discover a group of people who are either independently wealthy to produce quality gaming experiences, or be willing to pony up more money for an all-engrossing game. I'm betting we'll have to depend on the latter for the time being.

CD's chest pounding in the trophy case, I was not aware of. Whatever spin CD chooses to put on the demise of the game doesn't necessarily exempt the reporter from asking about it. Had there been a quote from someone inside CD, I would feel this is more damning. In the meantime, I'll assign blame to the reporter for not checking that particular fact, but applaud as well for taking the time to write the article.

Some people may not like CD because of their hubris. That's fine, but don't spite them because they got some publicity for the genre. I don't see a lot of other groups getting their name out to groups like the BBC.

Posted by: Tom Bridge on February 10, 2003 09:33 PM

In case anyone is still wondering, TimeHunt relies on "sponsored hints" to generate revenue. What that means is that a sponsor will host a hint several clicks deep on their website. If players need hints, they go to the hints page, click a link, and hop around the sponsor's site until they find it.

What Danny said, in addition to not thinking it was fun, was that the faster the game was solved, the less able he was to sell sponsored hints to people. He recognized that even if certain individual players were way ahead, that they would be at a disadvantage if they got stuck, and that those individual players would also be able to tap the resources of the collectives if they had that problem.

I don't remember if this was all stated publicly, or if some of it was posted on the CD TimeHunt board, but his concern about the financial effect of collective gaming was clear.

And my point about making games for the existing audience is that it's a bad idea to create games that depend on players acting on their own, because there will always be some group like CD or CM or Unfiction or whatever. Even if it's a game designed for individual play, if it can't *withstand* being solved early by a group of players (who, I think we can all agree, tend to solve puzzles faster than single players), it hasn't been sufficiently designed for the audience.

Posted by: Tiff on February 11, 2003 12:38 AM

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