Secrets from the Floating City

Once upon a time, a friend put me in touch with some people who were looking for some help with a project. Within days, I found myself on Skype talking to Thomas Dolby, man, can you believe it? and learning about one of the most richly embroidered and charming story worlds I have ever had the privilege to work with. It was meant to be a small game, mostly text; and there wasn't much budget for it. But I was very much enchanted by the idea -- and to be fair, not terribly occupied at the time -- so I signed on for a token fee, just to be a part of it. 

That was in October of 2010. I had no idea what I was in for. It has been an adventure.

In the months between, I launched half a dozen other games, and sometimes Floating City got short shrift as a result. During the game's actual run, I wasn't able to do active and ongoing moderation and felt a lot of guilt over it; but the stuff that pays your mortgage and feeds your children does have to come first. Still, Floating City was a wonder, a marvel, and in some ways even a homecoming for me, and I am profoundly grateful to the players and to Thomas Dolby himself for letting me be a part of it.

The Game

For those of you who aren't aware, Floating City was basically a trading and set-collection game, in which the sets you were collecting were items from Thomas Dolby songs. Players were assigned to one of nine tribes on signup, and had to work their way to the North Pole through trading those items. Collecting all of the items associated with a particular song would give you a free download of that song.

This was all interwoven with a fiction played out through an online newspaper, forum posts, and chatrooms; some of those inventory items were special intelligence items, shedding light on the backstory that led to the players' mysterious situation. Periodically, there would be in-game events where a map location would briefly become available, and players could solve a simple challenge in order to get new items and information. The newspaper would sometimes cover oncoming hazards, from time to time -- players would have to make and submit a patent in time describing inventions to protect them from, say, marauding pirates, or risk losing items and progress.

There was prizing, too, and achievements; players garnered reputation from trading, posting on forums, sharing on social media, and so on. Milestones of "reputation," as the points system was called, would earn you more items and currency to trade.

And this is... this is my very brief description of it. To think we set out to make a simple game!

Development Process

I could write a very long and tedious post about various design decisions and why we made them: Items weren't distributed randomly, but instead were weighted so we had some control over how many popped into the world. Some items were only available to a single tribe, with the hope that each tribe would have a unique trading advantage, hopefully offsetting the disadvantage of being in a small tribe to start with. Trading was your sole source of movement, and you had to rely on someone else for your own forward progress, to force players to work together and plant the seeds of larger-scale cooperation. 

The only element anyone cares about is scoring, though. The scoring mechanism caused... some significant controversy, both when it was secret, and after it was revealed. So I'd like to talk a little about why it was the way it was.

The grand prize for Floating City was always meant to be a private Thomas Dolby concert, and for reasons of art, Thomas wanted nine tribes. This made a lot of design decisions for us: the game had to be competitive because we had to have a way for someone to win a prize; we had to do geosorting so that we could determine where to hold the final concert. 

It also meant that we'd probably be dealing with tribes of wildly varying size. But we weren't sure how much they'd vary, or how those tribes would shake out, exactly. We evened them out as much as we could by looking at the physical distribution of Thomas's existing fan base, but even so, there were sure to be wild disparities. We needed to strike a lot of balances so as not to give either end of the size spectrum an unfair advantage.

I've described the precise formula in detail elsewhere -- it amounted to an average of the scores of the top 20 players in a tribe plus the whole tribe's average distance from shore multiplied by 100. That was the result of walking a lot of fine lines and asking ourselves a lot of questions and thinking about a lot of edge cases.

Would it be fair for a few highly involved players to be dragged down by a tribe in which a lot of players signed up, played three days, and then left, leaving abandoned ships behind? Would it be fair for two or three very active players from a small tribe to earn more points than thirty, who had less reputation but were more cooperative? We felt that average distance was a great metric for our score, on the assumption that all tribes would have roughly similar ratios of abandoned accounts; but rewarding achievement, too... that was harder. 

We could have gone by a sheer percentage; but then a theoretical one or two manic players might win the game for a tiny tribe, and we wanted collective achievement to be the point, not individual achievement. Compounding that, we had literally no idea just how many players we'd be seeing. A hundred? A thousand? Fifty thousand? Averaging your top five percent (or your top thirty percent) wind up being very different metrics, depending on if your player base winds up being a hundred players vs. fifty thousand.

We settled for something like a per-tribe leaderboard -- that top 20 players -- hoping that our smaller tribes would get enough active players for this to be achievable for them. This meant that a winning tribe would need a critical mass of active players making progress, and not a mere handful. Cooperation and achievement together, even at the highest levels of the game: Bingo.

Ultimately, the scoring worked far better than I had dared to hope. By the end, both the top-20-players measure and the average-distance measure were of equal weight, meaning that we were, in fact, rewarding both achievement of the most active players and communal progress of the whole tribe evenly.

On the other hand, small tribes never had the fighting chance I'd hoped they would. Luckily, this was readily solved by our alliance mechanic, which applied the scoring formula to the pool of players from the combined tribes. All said and done, I'm content that it worked the way we meant it to.

Personal Accomplishments

Floating City held a lot of firsts for me.

For one thing, this was the first time I was personally denounced in a game I'd made (that link goes to a locked forum -- sorry, it's there for my own reminiscence). I don't believe anyone knew my role at the time. A curious milestone, that.

The person denouncing me had sent me a private message essentially asking to speak to my manager at one point, another thing that had never happened to me before -- at least, not since I was a receptionist at a computer repair shop too many years ago, trying to tell an angry man that his laptop was out of warranty. 

The first time I ever sprained my wrist. I took a bad fall off a tall pair of shoes in early August, while traveling for my aunt's memorial (another very unhappy milestone that happened during the game), and have been in a splint ever since. Even still. And me with a book to write.

On a lighter note, this was my first time working directly with someone you could call a celebrity! (For America 2049 and for 2012, I wasn't directly involved in any of the filming.) I am delighted to assure you that Thomas Dolby is a charming, kind, thoughtful man, and not anything like you imagine a celebrity might be based on tabloids. Completely sane in all the ways that matter. I'd love to work with him again one day, in fact.

As was pointed out to me by a player, this is the first time I've been so very accessible to my player base while a game was running. The first time I was speaking as myself, and not as an entirely fictional construct. I really loved being able to do that. I'm going to have to find a way to do that again soon.

Finally -- Floating City reminded me just how much I love seat-of-the-pants, performative storytelling, even despite the scrambling and drama. It wasn't a perfect game, but for all its flaws, I think it's one of the ones I've wound up loving the most.

And now: I'm happy to engage in a longer discussion of Floating City from a design perspective over here, both with players and with other designers curious about what we did and how it all worked. If you have a question you'd like to ask, go on and ask it; if you have a point you'd like to make, go on and make it. Pull up a chair, pop some popcorn, and let's have some fun, shall we?

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