We will be welcoming 2012 with some major changes, and I will even do you the rare honor by posting about them :) I was going to make this post on Christmas but I suspect it will be akin to a lump of coal in the stocking to many of you. This is because, for really the first time ever, we are going to have to make some sacrifices to try to rejuvenate the project (allowing us to finish, among many things, some of our missed 2011 goals). I can only hope that the community can understand this!
BYOND MembershipIdeally, I'd love to give everything associated with BYOND away for free, and rely exclusively on the donations of the kind-hearted users here:
It seems to work for Wikipedia?
Unfortunately, that system simply hasn't worked out for us. We have tried to push Membership-- which up until now has been almost exclusively unnecessary add-on frills-- as a means to help contribute to BYOND, but only a small percentage saw it that way.
So, as of this site update, Membership will be a requirement for creating hub entries. Once a hub entry exists, it can persist without Membership, but further edits will require an active Membership. I honestly don't know if things will change with this restriction, but I sure hope they will. As I see it, usage of the hub is a real, tangible benefit (which will only get better with new changes.. read on), and one that is worth the paltry yearly sum we are charging.
When we first started BYOND back in 1996, Dan and I had a discussion over how we were to make money. Obviously not much came of that (it would be another seven or eight years before we made a penny), but I will tell you that our first idea was to charge for the creation of accounts. I ensured my own lifelong poverty (LOL) by vetoing that, because, in my mind, I didn't want to put those kinds of restrictions on our developers. I want developers of BYOND to understand that their creations are not shackled to our infrastructure, and that if, god forbid, BYOND ever goes under, their games will live on. This will become more evident as BYOND gets a web-presence. Although it's in our best interest to keep games on our site, to be a "portal" if you will, I WANT developers to spread their wings and let the rest of the world see what they've done.
Now, I would not consider the hub a part of this, and that is how I rationalize charging for it. The hub is a means to advertise a game, to expose it to this small segment of the Internet and to provide a logical space and some features that are useful in the effort. My motivation for keeping the hub free as long as it has been is that 1) that is what users have come to expect and 2) we profit from the hub by virtue of ads. But by going this route I hope we can transition more freebie users to paying ones and, ultimately, lose the ad model entirely. If I haven't made it clear in previous posts, I can't stand ads, don't think they comprise a legitimate business model, and consider it one of my biggest failings the day we put them on this site.
One important heads-up: we will be increasing the price of membership with the site update in a week or so. Tentatively I am looking at $24/$40/$75 for 1-year/2-year/5-year. I still consider this ridiculously cheap considering the typical monthly fees of other membership-based sites, but I want this to be accessible and affordable. So if you want Membership at the cheapest possible rate, you'd better buy one soon.
- BYOND Memberships will be needed to make hub entries.
- They are going up in price.
- If we can survive completely off Membership income, we can lose ads.
- Please help support BYOND!
Site UpdateWe have spent the last few months completely revamping this website, but in a subtle way: through massive simplification. From our point of view, unification and simplification of the back-end structure makes the site much easier to monitor and maintain, which should result in a better, faster, and more intuitive performance for the end user.
Front PageAs some users have pointed out, the main front page is somewhat stagnant due to the way games are ranked. Moreover, the well-intended featured standards are not accepting enough games to give any movement (while this may be due mostly to the low-volume of quality new games, it is nevertheless a presentation problem). We are considering different methods to display this data, but one very simple thing we are going to do is make it time-sensitive, so that, by default, games are ranked by recent fans. This should hopefully help promote newer games and give the page some life.
General Forum ChangeThe most significant change for us long-timers is to the forum system. Instead of this:
we have this:
While many of you may prefer the threaded-style of forum (and I'm among that group), it is somewhat of a relic on the Internet. Nevertheless, as it is merely a front-end presentation of back-end data, it is certainly something we can eventually provide as an option.
The major advantage to switching to this system is that we finally have a unified representation of our information, which currently resides on the site in two forms (blog style vs forum style). This means that we can have a common posting system, a common search system, and new features that instantly apply site-wide.
As an example, one longstanding request has been the ability to make "sticky" forum posts (those that always stay at the top of the forum). That was not something that fell out of the old system, but does with the new, and will come with the upgrade. Some others:
- Searching for anything posted by anyone on the entire site.
- Auto-highlighting of search terms.
- Read/unread status handling for all post objects.
- Consistent pagination instead of single-page or "next/prev" navigation.
- Easy access to moderation tools for authorized users, and access to moderator actions for everyone else.
Special ForumsWithin the general forum system, we've created a handful of "special" forums that operate slightly differently than general discussion boards but make logical sense to be located within the same infrastructure. For example, in the current site, the bug reporting system is completely separate from the discussion system because functionality necessitates it to be that way; in the new system, this isn't the case. Bug reporting is handled through the "Bug Reports" forum, but filing a bug report introduces the special tracker functionality (that doesn't make sense in a pure discussion forum).
The "Code Problems" and "Developer How-to" forums also use a special setup where users can upvote the best answers to gain reputation points:
Yah, Yahoo did it first, so sue us
The new "Contests & Events" forum lets users specify dates for such things and advertise them on a site-wide calendar. Let's bring back the Gathering of BYONDers!
Snow days are great for sitting inside and coding instead of, you know, having fun in the snow
And "Classified Ads", long the cause of many flame-wars, is now setup as a special forum for private dialogue.
Hub ForumsOn the subject of specialty forums, probably the biggest change is the introduction of hub forums and their cross-posting. Each hub entry (resource or game) now has three forums-- general discussion, bug reports, and feature requests. The first is for discussion (the public comment shoutbox being a sticky thread in that forum) while the latter two are the long-requested tracker systems.
Expect more real content here when this goes live.. this has taken a lot of testing!
Now, this isn't the first time we've had hub-based forums, but prior attempts have largely resulted in a lot of inactive space. The main reason for this is that it is difficult to keep track of a forum that resides outside of the main space (in BYOND's case, that has historically been the developer forums). In this site update, we've done two things to remedy this. The first is making it easier to follow particular forums. I'll elaborate on that later. The second is to crosspost important forum discussion. When the author or appointed helper of a hub entry makes a forum post, that post is crossposted to the main forums in the section to which it has been assigned.
Since "Original Games" is the most visible of these forums, this is further incentive for users to get their original hub entries listed. However, even games in development can crosspost in this way.
This section doubles as a replacement to the existing (and overlooked) "Game Submissions" section on the current site. BYOND admins can simply look at the combined listing for all gaming forums to decide how to classify games.
At the moment, the resource forum really only has one category for listing (that is, a resource is either accepted or rejected; there is no concept of "in development" forum for resources). However, we do want to come up with a way to better distinguish the really valuable contributions. That said, I expect this new system to be an improvement over the existing one-- simply because the current, organized "developer page" is rarely visited, whereas this will be right in the forefront with everything else. Having a centralized setup is, in fact, the main goal of this reorganization.
Site & Blog MergerWe did away with guilds in the last update, and in this one we complete the process and essentially abandon blogs as well. I realize this will come with some backlash for existing Members (who may have purchased Membership on account of the blogs), so I'll attempt to justify it. For those who still have a problem, contact me and we'll see what we can do about a refund.
The main benefit of the current BYOND blog is to broadcast a post to the community. But really, that's what a forum is for. And if a post isn't suitable for a forum, it definitely isn't suitable for a more widely displayed "front page". With the new forum setup, admins have better access to controls to cleanup and ban problematic users. Personal posts are perfectly fine, but we will not stand for the drama-fueled flame wars that plague the current blogs.
In line with the goal of simplification, new posts will all map to a few specific places:
- Existing "blog" posts -> Community Forum (or another forum TBD by the post author or an admin).
- Posts that attach a hub entry -> Corresponding hub forum (crossposted if made by the author / helper).
- Former "BYOND Help" site posts -> New "BYOND Help" forum in main forum setup.
That last entry is indicative of the new organization. BYOND Help has been largely overlooked simply because it requires looking at another section of the site. This is poor design, and something that should be corrected with this iteration. Similarly, we have a new forum for art & sound discussion instead of pointing people to yet another section. Also, having this stuff in a common search should make it much easier for users to find useful information.
You may be wondering what will happen with your current site, with all of the customized CSS, blog posts, and forum entries. As noted above, we will migrate blog posts to the appropriate forums. We do not currently have plans for custom forum support, as we would like those to be routed through the new hub forum system. That is, discussion on BYOND should be about BYOND games and resources, and this systems should handle that elegantly. Also, currently sites are not customizable, but we may allow limited access to that in the future, depending on demand (in particular, we may allow Members to customize the color scheme for their site and hub entries). In this update, a "site" is really just a shortcut to a listing of information about the user; posts, favorites, medals, maybe a shoutbox to leave comments, and so forth:
In testing, we've found that this "site" simplification works really well with the overall system, because it again focuses users back on the main discussion section instead of bouncing around from page to page.
Fans, Alerts, and Website PagesEarlier, I mentioned that one of the problems with hub forums is that they require the user to constantly check them, and establishing that kind of loyalty is very difficult. One way we've handled that problem in this update is through a fan/alert system. Users who are fan of a hub entry will not only boost its ranking and follow it on site and in the software pager, but they will also get notifications whenever posts are made in the hub's discussion forum (to a degree-- as we don't want an active hub to dominate the user's listings and force him to unfan it). This occurs through a completely revamped "home" page:
As you can see, all I care about are Lummox's test posts
Similarly, users who are fans of another user will get alerts when that user makes a discussion-based post (that is, not a bug report or a question-type post). Hopefully this will get the real contributors to BYOND a little more press.
You may have noticed in the above screenshot a notification in yellow. That is a page-- yes, the new website has proper embedded messaging support. BYOND Members can send pages to users through the forum or hub system by clicking on their name:
Which leads to a private conversation window for that user-- using the exact same forum infrastructure you are hopefully familiar with by now!
- We've greatly simplified the site, doing away with the "blog" and "guild" concept in favor of a forum-oriented approach.
- The trackers and new help system are integrated into the forums.
- There are new specialty forums for advertising games, resources, contests and classifieds.
- Hub entries now have forums and bug trackers.
- It is much easier to follow particular user and gaming posts.
- The web-pager is now much more integrated into the site, displaying conversation history just like a one-on-one forum post.
Software StuffIt behooves me to give an update on the BYOND software, since that is all 90% of our users really care about. Unfortunately, this latest web project has set us behind in our 2011 goals, but I think it's for the best as the aforementioned features will greatly simplify the daily maintenance that our existing site requires, thus freeing up more time to work on important stuff.
Flash ClientI really wanted to get the Flash client released this year. We had a pretty decent prototype months ago, but got sidetracked by a few other projects and some unpleasant (but expected) bugs in the Flash setup itself.
At this point, we have a version that supports map-oriented games with support for the mouse, input, and output. The one major thing holding it back is full sound support, because, although streaming MP3 works fine, there are licensing issues associated with that. We have been working with some OGG/Vorbis based alternatives; barring success with those, we could come up with a method of embedding MP3 (and other resources), which AFAIK, is acceptable. But that would add further complexity and keep our client from being generic, so I'm hoping it doesn't come to that.
I spent some time researching and implementing some limited 4.0-style interfaces, but realized that it would just delay things further and be somewhat incomplete upon release. It also makes porting more difficult. So, sad to say, interfaces will not be available in our initial release.
The client itself has largely been a design issue. Once we have our first version out, porting to another system, such as HTML5 or iApp should be do-able, given the time.
We will be making Flash BYOND our #1 priority and are shooting for a public release in the early months of 2012, and perhaps limited test releases prior to that.
Standalone Game ExperienceOne request we've gotten from a number of developers is the ability to provide a more seamless experience for their potential users by allowing them to download a game distributable, register an account, and play with as few visible website interactions as possible. While at first glance, this is contrary to our own goals of having BYOND be a game portal, anything that brings in more users and advertises more games is ultimately beneficial for us, because more off-site users make the gameplay experience better for those on-site. I also think that some of the new social-networky features on BYOND.com will appeal to users once they've passed that first step of playing a BYOND game.
Obviously we will have to consider the implications for ourselves and our own marketing, so this is early yet, but it is certainly something we're researching.
Upcoming FeaturesWe're working on BYOND v.494. There's a bit of a backlog on bugs at the moment and we'd like to at least look into those before doing a release, so that will come after we rollout the site update (and the inevitable week of stability testing). That said, we have been looking into a couple of things.
The first is slightly more efficient graphical updates, with the ultimate goal of improving ever-more-common screen (HUD) drawing. Since its inception, there has been a lag in screen drawing that I suspect is unnecessary, and we plan on getting to the bottom of that.
The second is something that is largely done, and that is native drawing of text on the map.
While users have made some remarkable soft-coded solutions to this, and in some cases they will continue to be more flexible than the native implementation, I've always felt this to be something that should be a part of any language designed for gaming. With the last major update of incorporating arbitrary bounding-boxes on the server, this turned out to be something that we could cleanly integrate into BYOND.
Generated via the new maptext vars:
- Our priority is getting the Flash out into public testing early next year.
- We are working on better in-game login and subscription implementations, so that the user doesn't need to visibly go through our website or the BYOND pager to accomplish such things.
- BYOND v.494 will be released in January with bug fixes, a few graphical optimizations, and new internal text-on-map support.
Hopefully this has been illuminating. 2011 was a pretty rough year for us, both financially and in terms of project load. Still, I am very optimistic about this project and everytime I playtest it during development, I'm proud of what we and the community have accomplished, even if it may not live up to certain expectations. If you feel the same way, please consider contributing in any way that you can, be it monetarily through Membership or by making and promoting your own net dream. Let's hope for the best in 2012!