2022 was the one of the busiest years of my life – even busier than 2021, when I sold my company, Six to Start, and wrote most of my book critiquing gamification, You’ve Been Played.
I’m still CEO at Six to Start. This year we continued expanding the company to more than double its pre-acquisition size to support new projects like localising Zombies, Run! to four new languages, notably bringing on and training up a whole new set of managers and team leads.
My book was released in September. I hadn’t expected how it would feel compared to self-publishing or writing essays – far more protracted, with a long gap between finishing writing and starting an endless series of interviews and commissioned essays and articles. Many people whose opinions I value have been very complimentary toward the book, and it had some excellent reviews in The New York Times and The Irish Independent, a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, yet I still have mixed feelings about the entire process.
Oh, and I started writing a monthly column for EDGE magazine about video games.
All of this took place amid the gradual lifting of travel restrictions around the world, and I took full advantage, travelling to Paris and New York and San Francisco (the latter two for my book launch) which was delightful and also tiring.
Learning Figma at Six to Start
I’ve already mentioned the big news in the introduction, and there are some unannounced projects I can’t talk about yet, but I do want to highlight my experience learning Figma this year.
I’ve been the lead game designer of Zombies, Run! since we started work on it in 2011. Less publicised is my role as lead UI and UX designer. This made a lot of sense when we were a tiny team and makes less sense today given all my other obligations, but I find it immensely satisfying and a way to remain directly connected to our users. Also, the UI doesn’t change that much on a year-to-year basis, anyway.
I originally created mockups in Omnigraffle, a vector-based rapid prototyping and design app. I moved to Sketch a few years later, a more powerful tool more suitable for app design. It was very easy to mock up new designs in Sketch and give our developers a sense of how things should be arranged on our app’s various screens, but the way I and many other designers used Sketch was more like Photoshop than anything else, creating mockups that didn’t use consistent layouts or properly cater for different text or screen sizes. This would save me time but would entail a lot of headscratching and questions from our developers when they came to implement them in code.
A big chunk of designers have moved to Figma in the last two or three years. It has two enormous differences from Sketch. Firstly, it’s a web app, whereas Sketch is only for the Mac. This has some obvious limitations (e.g. you can’t use it offline) but it enables seamless real-time collaboration, not to mention eliminating the need to constantly update apps or keep file versions in sync, all of which Sketch struggles at.
More importantly, Figma encourages designers to use its sophisticated auto-layout system rather than placing elements willy-nilly, a la Photoshop. This means that when you’re creating a list of items (e.g. a settings screen), you have to specify a consistent amount of spacing between elements, along with considering what happens when a text field is very short or very long, and ideally set up libraries of images and icons that can populate each part of the list.
In practice, this means that creating a new mockup (e.g. a carousel of banner images) takes ten times longer in Figma than in Sketch because you have to figure out how to make everything line up perfectly in all cases while not turning it into an incomprehensible mess of layers; the goal is rather to craft a beautifully nested series of reusable, configurable components that can be intuited in the briefest glance such that your developers will cheer your name through the streets as they behold its clarity and logic. If you’ve done your job properly, instead of designing five near-identical carousels that can’t be reconciled with one another and need five different implementations in code, you’ve designed a single super-carousel that’s adaptable for every conceivable circumstance that only needs to be coded once.
I realise it’s a little ridiculous for me to still be doing any amount of UI design work as CEO. The way I justify my work on Figma is that I’m setting up a design system which will be far easier for others to understand, adapt, and extend; and that it’s actually quicker for me to lay the foundations myself rather than explain it to another designer.
But if I’m being honest, Figma’s puzzle-like nature is probably the closest I’ve ever gotten to actually-useful programming. It’s hugely satisfying to know that designing things “properly” makes life much easier for our developers and results in a better experience for our users, who get a more reliable app and consistent design. Figma is a tool which seems daunting and unnecessarily fussy at first, but also rewarding to learn, to the point where I can now look at community-created designs and work out how to do them better. I like to understand the details of how processes work in my company because it helps me know where our limits and opportunities lie, even if I end up delegating the work later on.
My first book, A History of the Future in 100 Objects, was effectively self-published back in 2013. There was a print edition published by a small company and a new edition was published by MIT Press in 2020, but its original funding from Kickstarter meant I had near-total control over its writing and publicity.
My new book, You’ve Been Played: How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All, has gone through a very traditional non-fiction publishing process with Basic Books. The advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing vs. publishers are quite well worn these days and I mention them briefly in my review of John Thompson’s Book Wars, so I won’t reiterate my fairly obvious reasons for choosing differently this time (distribution, prestige, getting an advance, having an editor, getting reviews, being more well-known such that I can get an agent and publisher more easily, etc.).
What I’ll say is this: publishers still add a lot of value, but not as much for someone like me as I’d expected. I’ve always had to be my own editor, publicist, and marketer. I’ve always been happy hiring people to help me, like getting the excellent Jen Monnier to throughly fact-check my book. That’s not to say I didn’t have any help from my editor, but it wasn’t what I imagined.
I’m a little exhausted from talking about the book. I finished writing the core of it almost a year and a half ago, which might as well be a lifetime. Sometimes when I’m being interviewed, I find myself relying on the same examples over and over again, and I wish I could express its ideas as clearly as I did in writing. A book is the crystallisation of thousands of hours of thought by a single person into form that can be consumed in just a few hours. A podcast or a video might be more approachable, but I can’t imagine making one that would have the precision of argument or the breadth and depth of my book. All of which is to say, I can’t even really talk about the substance of the book here, all I can think about is what’s happened in the last few months, which is the book launch, the publicity, and the initial reception.
Some of the very biggest publicity hits for You’ve Been Played were things I did on my own, like being interviewed on Anne Helen Petersen’s massive Culture Study newsletter, or speaking at the NYU Game Center, or trolling Elon Musk into thinking my terrible ideas for gamifying Twitter were good. I often think I could’ve done these just as easily if I self-published. But I don’t think I’d have gotten reviewed by the NYT that way, and for better or for worse, that review is of immeasurable value.
I ended up wasting a lot of time on the book’s publicity, too. I said yes to every single interview for this book, bar one. Most of them were from pretty small outlets and podcasts and, I’m quite sure, did nothing at all except tire me out. I also said yes to every invitation to write essays and articles about gamification. At one point this summer, I was writing three original multi-thousand word essays simultaneously in my “spare time”. I was paid pretty well for most of them, but it was more work than I should’ve taken on.
Three months on from a book’s launch is a strange place to sit. Unless your book blows up instantly – which very few do – most people will still be in the process of reading it or hearing about it, so you won’t know what its ultimate reception will be yet. By any objective measure, my book has done well. Most authors would kill for the reviews I’ve had – I know past Adrian would’ve! But like most authors, I’d hoped it’d do even better. I wonder if gamification has been dismissed as being too obvious and old hat in the tech world, and too niche or unimportant by everyone else. There’s little I can do about that other than writing the best book I can, so I’m always pleased when readers say how engaging and accessible it is, and how it stimulates so many conversations.
Maybe it’d have done better a year or two earlier, when the topic was fresher. That might have worked had I self-published it, or been more famous so a publisher rushed it out, or if I were a full-time writer. Or maybe the title should’ve been something more obviously about gamification; practically every review used the word “gamification” in the title.
But this is just my impatience speaking. A History of the Future made far less of a splash on its launch and went on to gain an important audience in the following decade; in a year or two’s time, I hope You’ve Been Played will have had much more influence. And I hope my complaints here are understood as someone who’s spent three years writing about a subject he cares about deeply and wants it to have the very best chance it can get to reach an audience. Anyone who’s spent this long on any creative endeavour is going to feel a little protective of what they’ve made, whether or not they let it show.
Perhaps in the future, I can channel my impatience with the publishing process into solving the same problem for others.
Continue reading in Part 2…