I've been meaning to make this post for a while. I actually wanted to make a video so you could see my sexy face but my audio jack seems to be broken. This may end up being long, but hopefully it'll be illuminating and maybe even useful. I'm starting off with a history but if you want to get to the informative parts, just go to the TLDR at the bottom.
A little history
BYOND was conceived almost 18 years ago to the date, in the summer of '95, the result of many late nights, more than a few shots of whiskey, and some bold, perhaps even irrational decisions. So in that sense it has something in common with some of you! But seriously, it is those of you who were born around this time that I'm hoping to reach here, because you, in your late teens and 20s, may be able to benefit from the mistakes we here at BYOND have made over the course of these many years.
In 1995, the Internet was more-or-less a cult thing, restricted to the bbs/hacker crowd and the college set. It wasn't until AOL spammed us with their mailers a year or two later that the mainstream started getting into it. During the summer of BYOND (which was called DUNG then), my friends and I also experimented with other Internet activities such as spamming invites between two unrelated chat rooms on IRC and watching the ensuing hijinks (who says "go Florida gators!" and "goth pride" can't be friends?) I was routinely booted from MUDs for instigating. The Internet was very small then, but it didn't take a rocket scientist (and I had a friend who is now a rocket scientist so I know of what I speak) to realize this had a lot of potential.
What Dan demoed to me that summer was a very rudimentary roguelike game, using the same text-tiles that we have in place (for whatever reason) today. This was somewhat astonishing to me, that one could move a character around on someone else's screen in realtime. So the first thing I did was jump on the hottest new search engine-- Lycos for the Mosaic browser-- to see who else had done this. And, to my astonishment, the answer was "no one", at least as far as I could tell. I found exactly one thing that one might classify as a "graphical multiplayer game", and that was a web game that showed images, probably inspired by Myst. So that was when I knew we had something quite innovative. I often wonder, had I found something similar to what Dan showed me, how it would have changed the course of our history, because I very much wanted to get there first.
It was around this time that we made probably the worst decision of this project, although I didn't realize it until much later. You see, our plan all along was to just take Dan's foundation, add some graphics and sound, and make a game out of it. I had two friends who were really into RPGs and another that was an artist, and we made some icons, maps, and plots (in fact, I think the icons are still around somewhere). What ultimately happened was that Dan and I couldn't agree on how we wanted the game mechanics to work. He wanted to make a roguelike like Rogue (that seems redundant) and I wanted to make a party-based game like Ultima IV. We kind of integrated both approaches into the system but as time went on, we got this warped idea that whoever played our game would have their own notion of what a game should be. And we also found that the process of making the game was more fun than actually playing it. While this may very well be true, this was a huge mistake!
Had Dan and I simply finished the project we started, we would have had likely the first real multiplayer graphical game on the Internet, before Furcadia, EverQuest, Ultima Online, WoW, etc. Had we involved a businessperson at that time, this unique position likely would have been a profitable one (you should see how investors were throwing money around in 1995-96!) But I don't regret the business loss so much as this: For our lost place in history, we can't even get a Wikipedia entry!
Lesson #1: Don't make a platform.
So we decided to make a game-development system and spent much of that year and the following summer hashing it out. At the time I had an SGI Irix system so our graphical client had a worldwide audience of maybe 1000 users LOL (ironically we have no graphical unix client now). What we produced in the summer of '96 was pretty impressive and a lot of that code is still around today (maybe that is a negative). I spammed newsgroups to get our initial playerbase, but it took a few years before we gained any traction at all.
Starting in early 2000, when we were on BYOND 2.0, we somehow acquired a core group of really smart, clever users like Deadron, Gazoot, Gughunter, Leftley, Lummox JR, Mike H, Shadowdarke, Skysaw, Zilal and I'm sure a whole bunch others who I'm forgetting now. In another thread someone was griping about the fact that there were no good games on BYOND but the games these guys & gals made with our then crappy-client way back when were, and still are, good games. Leftley in particular is a freakin' game-designing genius and given what he had to work with then, I just can't help but hear "boo hoo hoo" when people complain now.
Now at this point we weren't making any money (both Dan & I had jobs) and decided to give it a try (since no one had just volunteered to give us money, which is how the Internet was supposed to work). In 2002, we headed out to my old college to give a product pitch to some investors there. Actually, I didn't even realize it was supposed to be a pitch-- this is how clueless we were about business. A few groups went before us and talked about their products in development with flashy powerpoints and such. I sort of scoffed at them because, to be honest, what they had done was pretty trivial and incomplete in my eyes (which, karma has it, is many of you talk about BYOND now). For our "pitch", Dan sat at a computer and I babbled on about what we were doing. At one point he connected to DWO and the audience could see a bunch of BYONDers interacting in a game. I was pretty smug about it all-- "see what we have here?" But then I was rudely interrupted by some guy (I think some bigwig at Qualcom) who had the nerve to ask what our business model was. I hemmed and hawed a bit and talked about the e-commerce system we had in place then (a system that was only resulting in chargebacks at that time). It was pretty bad. We actually got an investor our of the deal but it didn't end up working out because Dan was just burned out at that point.
Lesson #2: Have a business plan.
After Dan left, I got a job for a few years and basically left BYOND as a hobby. We pulled in a few of the aforementioned guys to play with the software and revamp the website. Had I not gotten disgruntled with the cube life, the project probably would have stopped around then as the other guys slowly drifted away. And I wonder if that wouldn't have been for the best, because our decisions from 2006 on have, in my humble opinion, fundamentally shifted the direction of this project and not necessarily in the best way. But I did get disgruntled, which led me to leaving and trying to turn this into a legitimate business for the first time.
Before I continue, I want to make one thing clear: I am certain that the software, website, and backend servers today are in better shape than they've ever been. A lot of you don't see what goes on in the background, with the hub and site having to deal with what is frankly an awful lot of traffic for a small project, and that's because it all works. For some of you, this doesn't matter, but I think for new developers making a game and trying to get some traffic, having this functionality is essential and probably the biggest advantage that BYOND brings to the table.
Yet doing all this was probably a bad decision. And here's the reason: before interfaces, before fancy sound effects, before pixel movement, before friends and fans and favorites and social networking, what we had was a niche. We had a simple product that people were familiar with. They were familiar with its features and its limitations. And, for the most part, they accepted those limitations because it's not like BYOND was competing with other games. The moment we started adding more "core" features to BYOND-- by essentially removing our browser branding and letting the dev customize everything, not only did we introduce a hell of a lot of work but we also made that statement that BYOND is ready for the bigtime. But we weren't.
A few years ago we had a user here named Forum_account (I assume it was a throwaway account but he must have liked the system enough to stick around). This guy was bright, probably one of the smartest people we've had. He made some excellent libraries that people still use today and prettified a lot of terrible standards I introduced into the language. I would have loved to recruit him to develop for the project if he were willing, but for one thing: his attitude was just too negative. BYOND could never do enough for what he wanted, or couldn't do it right. Whenever we introduced something we thought was cool, he criticized it. And the reason was that he and I had fundamentally different views of BYOND: he treated it like a generic game building tool, and I look at it like the niche product it started out as (and still was, internally). The former is a much harder proposition! Moreover, it was trying to turn BYOND into a general tool that completely demotivated me from working on the project. The coding purists among you must know what it's like to try to fit a square peg into a round hole, and that is what generalizing BYOND is.
Lesson #3: Stick with your niche.
Once we had our "general tool" in a relatively stable state, we realized something disappointing, and that was that even though the software was better and more powerful, we still had no real incentive for people to pay for it. We had the side business of Memberships that essentially was for people to donate to the project, but it is flawed thinking to just assume that a better product correlates to more money. People need to have something to pay for, and BYOND is (and always will be) free.
Now one very positive thing I've gained from BYOND is encountering some incredibly generous people (I won't name them but they know who they are). There are users who have donated literally thousands of dollars to this little project which is unbelievable and inspiring. But in general, and especially on the Internet, people are not driven by altruism. Maybe big sites like Wikipedia can expect it, although IMO that is an outlier. And fundamentally this is problematic to me, because I, not being a businessman, would rather just give BYOND away for free. I don't like having to force ads on people (I hate ads) but I've learned that we just need some incentive for them to help out.
This whole thing would have been a lot easier if we had a business model from the beginning though!
Lesson #4: Have a business plan! (also Lesson #2)
So for those of you skipping here and, god bless, those of you who have read the aforementioned wall, this is the wisdom I'd like to impart. Undoubtedly some of you will find yourself, one day, interested in starting a business, or looking at that hobby of yours and thinking, "hmm, maybe this can make some money?" I have relayed four lessons (actually three) above, and they are:
#1: Don't make a platform.
#2: Have a business plan.
#3: Stick with your niche.
#4: Have a business plan. (reiterated for importance!)
That's it. This is unbelievably simple but something we fundamentally ignored at it resulted in many years of working basically for free (which isn't necessarily a bad thing).
Boiled down, what it means is that, if you really want to make a business, pick a niche and form the business around a revenue stream. Don't make a platform, like we have, because that's an endless endeavor and one that isn't all that self-satisfying, because you find yourself doing a lot of things poorly instead of one thing (the niche) well.
A game like MineCraft is a great example of an engineer becoming a businessman without having to think about the business. He had a niche, did a great job exploiting it, and people bought into it. The game sold itself. Compare that to us who, frankly, took on a far more ambitious project, perhaps didn't pull it off as well as we'd have liked, and can't make a sale because we have nothing to sell.
I have few regrets about BYOND the software because I feel like we've done a pretty good job given all that it involves. I do have regrets over BYOND the business though because that was a path we needed to either establish early on or should have never ventured down.
We will continue working on BYOND the software to finalize the products in development (mainly the Flash client). We may open source or bring in more developers down the line. I hope all of you can support BYOND the business by contributing games or becoming Members. If not, at least realize the work we've put it, largely just to realize our own "Net Dream" to impact the Internet in a positive way (even if it's not positive enough for Wikipedia, F them).