For years, Amy Jo Kim has been a well-known and respected member of the video game design community, as well as the author of perhaps the best book ever written on building online community.
But for the most part, through years of working on other peoples' projects--Ultima Online, The Sims, the virtual world There.com, Rock Band, and many others, as well as consulting for countless companies--Kim has played a supporting role.
That's all set to change. Kim, along with her husband and consulting partner, Scott Kim, are in the midst of what might be their most ambitious project ever: Building their own game company from the ground up.
Their start-up, known as ShuffleBrain, plans to announce the public beta of its first effort, a Facebook game called PhotoGrab, in a matter of weeks. On the one hand, PhotoGrab is a puzzle game, tasking players with matching small snippets of photographs with the full pictures they're taken from--and doing so against a clock that's quickly counting down. The more accurate the placement and the more snippets you can match, the higher the score.
But PhotoGrab is also a social platform that is built around the idea of encouraging photographers to upload groups of their own pictures and make their own games from them.
So, for example, after playing for a little while with a few of the games already in the system, I uploaded five pictures I took last summer while visiting the Corvette factory in Bowling Green, Ky., on my CNET Road Trip 2008 project, and then spent a few minutes selecting small circular pieces of the photos for players of my game to identify.
I may have made it too hard, though: Once the game was ready, I tried playing it, and didn't do too well. I chose elements of the photos that were too hard to identify on a time limit, but I did learn something in the process about what would make for a fun, yet challenging new PhotoGrab game.
The idea, says Amy Jo Kim, who'll serve as ShuffleBrain's CEO, is to bring an interactive social element to photographs, especially as more and more people take more and more pictures and post them online, and as people's leisure time shrinks.
For Kim and her husband, both longtime game designers, making games that "are good for you" has been a goal for years.
"We like brain games, puzzle games, and I love music games," Kim said. "We love those kind of games, and we think that those games are good for you...a positive force."
As games like Nintendo's Brain Age, which theoretically trains players' brains by presenting them with a series of daily puzzles to solve, gained in popularity over the last few years, Kim said she and her husband began to get excited as they watched the ways their family and friends played games and spent what little time they had looking at family pictures.
"Games can bring you closer, and games are social," Kim said. "It's a brief blip in gaming history that games are single-player. Most games are social."
For some time, investors had been approaching the Kims about starting their own social games company. These were largely people she had consulted for, or those who were acquainted with her work through other means.
So, knowing that they wanted to do something involving photographs, something that was social and interactive and fun, they set out to see what people were interested in.
"We took some seed money, and we talked to a lot of older people," Kim said, "friends and family, about what they wanted, and saw that looking at pictures of their family was a really core activity....(We asked ourselves), how can we make that a richer, deeper, more fun experience? So we're launching PhotoGrab."
Any Facebook member will be able to play PhotoGrab whenever they want, as it will be populated with plenty of public games created by others. But people will also be able to play games in small social groups, where, for example, they are challenged with games made from friends' or family members' private photos. Similarly, friends and family members can try to outdo each others' scores at the games, and try to build the best overall game rating.
Challenges: Scoring and rating
Kim said that one of the biggest challenges ShuffleBrain faced while creating PhotoGrab was designing a scoring system that would be challenging, yet which would reward players who do well without overly penalizing those who need improvement.
Further, because all the games are created by players, a significant hurdle--one that nearly tripped up the project--arose in developing a rating system based on games that have a wide range of difficulties.
In the early stages, Kim said, they incorporated a system that was essentially like simplified chess ratings: Players would start with a score of 1,000 and go up or down, depending on their performance each time they played a PhotoGrab game.
"It was a chicken and egg problem," Kim said. "It doesn't know if the game is hard or easy, and there's not an accurate sense of skill (level)."
So the problem was that most people's scores would go down from the get-go, a psychological barrier to playing more that the designers knew they had to overcome.
"You don't want to see a new player come in and see their rating go down," she said.
The team worked on the system, fixing it, tweaking it and trying to make it work.
But one night, just a few weeks ago and not long before the game was supposed to be finished, they realized it wasn't working.
"One night," Kim said, "it was 11 p.m., and we had put the kids to bed. It's like 11 at night, and we'd been wrestling with the rating system. And we said, We have to throw it out and start fresh."
The problem, she explained, was that the system was a mathematical algorithm based on the idea that the game would be the same each time, something that was pointedly not the case with PhotoGrab.
She said that at this point, they decided to give themselves two days to figure out if they could salvage the rating system--and thus, the game itself.
"We divided forces," she recalled. "I said, I'm going to use all my skills at doing scenarios and player experience walk-throughs, all this stuff I've done for years and years to design great systems....What do I want the player to experience the first 10 or 15 plays?"
At the same time, Scott Kim was looking at the mathematics--the probability and the statistics--of the problem. "He's a quant guy," Amy Jo Kim said.
"What do we know, when do we know it?" she said. "How do we cope with a tremendous amount of uncertainty? Other systems have those properties, so Scott went out and looked at those systems. This was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my professional life, because (we had to ask) what if we can't solve it?"
The problem was critical because the key to not just attracting players, but keeping them, was helping them find a way to feel that they were getting better in the ratings, yet still make it feel challenging.
Further, the more you play, the "steepness of how fast (your rating) rises drops off, just like every other MMO I've ever played," she said.
As their self-imposed deadline approached, Scott Kim reported that he'd uncovered some predictive models based on calculus that helped solve the problem, and quickly, everyone on the development team played 20 games or so to test the new system.
Looking like it was working better, they took another day, invited five outsiders to test the system as well, and then "played and played and played."
Finally, Kim said, "it felt right. And then we collapsed into a little puddle on the floor."
Now, PhotoGrab is in the final stages of development, and Kim said ShuffleBrain hopes to launch it into public beta in October. And the young company is already at work on its second game, a memory game called WordStream that uses players' Facebook and Twitter status updates.
"It's Concentration meets Wheel of Fortune," Kim said.
The similarity between PhotoGrab and WordStream--that the games are "engines" for players to create their own games--is precisely what ShuffleBrain is all about, Kim said.
"They're engines of creation for other people," she said. "They're really a cross between games and Web 2.0."
Ultimately, the idea behind ShuffleBrain's games is that not only will individuals themselves play, but they'll also issue challenges to their friends to play the games they've made, and even create their own contests using ShuffleBrain's system.
"Individual games are interrelated on the back end," Kim said.
ShuffleBrain, of course, is a business, and Kim said she hopes it will make money through a combination of microtransactions, short advertising, and premium services.
For now, however, the Kims are still wrapped up in the vagaries of building the company, and knowing that the rewards--or the penalties--are theirs alone.
"After being a consultant for years," she said, "I really like having my butt on the line."