Let's Get This Thing Out There, Already...
Late Friday of last week, in the middle of an evening snow storm that blanketed the city with about three inches of snow, we played through the first complete round of The Game of Books from beginning to end. There were five of us, three in the room, and two dialed in via Google Hangouts and webcams. We walked through a complete play-through of a map of The Game of Books as it will exist in the mobile app, including what badges we earned, our final game score from the "round" and the various different rewards and bonus modifiers we drew for the books we read.
Later, after everyone else was heading slowly home through the winter storm and I was turning off the lights, I found myself in the conference room one last time looking at the badges we'd printed out and taped to the map drawn on the whiteboard. We'd rolled dice during the game to see which bonuses we'd draw with each book, and we'd scribbled little notes at each level, like, "Epic Wizard Bonus!" to indicate what we'd drawn and how that would impact our final score. And I realized that I was deeply, deeply impatient and ready to get this out and into people's hands. This is a sentiment that many of you have expressed, as well. It's time, in other words, to push towards a target release with the goal of having it in the wild and collecting feedback.
Most of our updates lately have been about the badges, graphics, and smaller portions of The Game design. I wanted to spend some time today on an overall status update on The Game of Books, including putting some stakes in the ground for delivery of the first iteration. I say the first iteration because no matter what, The Game of Books is not a one-time thing; the goal of The Game is not only to be available when initially released, but to evolve and grow and still be relevant in 5 or 10 years. In more ways than one, The Game of Books has to operate like a platform that enables book discovery for those interested in book discovery, reward tracking and total experience points for those like myself that like to quantify what I've been exposed to, trophy collecting for badges, and an engagement tool for teachers and libraries. Among other things.
The Game can be a lot of things to a lot of people, but our goal isn't exactly to be all things to all people going out the door. So for the moment let's focus on talking through this first iteration. What are we targeting for release and when are we targeting releasing it? Let's start there.
When we initially set out to build The Game of Books after funding, we had a number of big technical hurdles that we had to hit first. We wanted to expand the corpus of books by recruiting additional publishers. We needed to nail down what we referred to as "StoryDNA 2" - which was the evolutionary next generation of our technology suite for identifying the themes that are present in books. Finishing StoryDNA 2 would take us from our initial theme count of 131 themes we were tracking in every book, to more than 500. We needed to build out graphics for the first generation of game badges, which we couldn't do until we'd finished StoryDNA 2, with a target of launching with 30 to 60 badges that could be earned by readers. We needed to prototype and develop tools to help minimize artificial claiming of a book, so that players were at least mildly discouraged from just rampant claiming of books they may not have read as carefully as one might like (meaning, at all).
Most of that list has now been completed. As importantly, we've nailed down what features we need included in the actual game design on the first pass. This includes a focus on book discovery and a more aggressive inclusion of visual "themed maps" - stand-alone game boards in the app that players can select to play through based on specific story themes. These maps track your progress through The Game of Books, and provide a much easier framework for explaining how exactly one "plays" The Game of Books. We've found that, though the concepts behind The Game of Books are not complicated, they can be a bit difficult to explain if you're not a gamer already. Shifting the focus to selecting and playing themed maps as the first introduction to The Game of Books still allows us to do everything we want to do in terms of targeted reading suggestions, ReaderXP, and badge collection, but also gives players a much more grounded starting point to just jump in and start playing. It also allows for a lot of creative freedom, with certain journey's giving you bonuses that match the map you've chosen. For example, playing through the "Winter Wonderland" map may give you bonuses on badges and themes that relate to the holiday seasons, cold weather, etc. A Science Fiction map might give bonuses to science themes, like chemistry, physics, and space.
We'll post graphic work for the maps that will ship with the initial Game of Books when we have them.
We've also stepped up our efforts to identify the most important titles we need in our corpus and make sure they're included for earning points, so you'll find a wide variety of books in our corpus earn you awards. We currently have more than 110,000 titles, and it's growing every day. Also as important, we've made steps toward opening up enrollment for the growing world of independent and smaller publishers, so that it's not a program only available to large publishers.
We've completed 99% of our work on StoryDNA 2, as you can see by the fact that we've been working and posting graphic design elements for various badges. We couldn't do that without getting that out of the way first. Badgecrafting and expanding the number and variety of badges is an ongoing process, but we're on target for our 30 - 60 badges at initial release.
So probably the most important aspect of this update is that we're setting a new target release date for the initial mobile versions, which will be the initial testing bed before rolling out on other platforms. At the moment, our target is to have a finalized internal design functional and in testing on the mobile platform by January 31st, with an expected first release in February. You should start seeing actual screenshots of The Game a few weeks after Christmas. I'm really excited by this; I so look forward to getting this out the door so we can start iterating on builds. It will be so much easier recruiting partners to the project with an actual game they can play and interact with. There's a number of exciting announcements we expect to be making around library partnerships, soon, which will hopefully be tied to maps geared to supporting specific summer reading programs. That's all in the pipeline, though.
In the mean time, it's once again late in the evening, and while it's not snowing now, I'm still the last in the office. In a matter of hours it will be Christmas Eve, and family is gathered in town. We had cinnamon rolls and sugar cookies show up in the office this morning (the gift of generous significant others), and I have a few extras to take home to my wife, brother, parents, and family. In case I don't talk to you before the 25th, Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.