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You visit a website. You sign up for an account. You play a game. And just like that, you're a writer. That's the promise of Storium, a web-based game that hopes to make creative writers of us all.
Storium is a digital card game in which players choose a fictional world created by one of over a dozen popular authors and game creators, pick characters and play out a scene. If the idea of writing scares you, don't worry: Storium has done all of the hard work. The blank page has been filled in with characters and settings and even plot points. You, as the player, must simply connect the dots.
"It allows you to write fan fiction without the stigma," says award-winning author Mur Lafferty, one of Storium's advisors and world creators.
"Nancy Holder is going to be doing Dracula for Storium. You could write Dracula fanfic and be called a vampire fangirl, or you could go play Dracula fanfic on Storium and then you're just playing a game. You're still working on your writing skills. You're still having fun with your friends. ... it's a wonderful way for new writers to try their hand at writing."
It's also, potentially, a learning tool. Storium's creators are working with educators to adapt the game for use in classrooms. Some day soon writing students may learn their craft by playing a game.
"There was this overwhelming response [to the Storium Kickstarter] from teachers and educators and parents, who wanted to see Storium used in schools, and for education more broadly," says Stephen Hood, co-founder of Protagonist Labs, Storium's creator.
"I think a big part of why the Kickstarter was successful is because we spent a lot of time getting ready for it." And, in a way, he's been getting ready for it all of his life.
Where it came from
Hood is the kind of Silicon Valley guy that other Silicon Valley guys watch to just to see what he's doing next. He worked at del.icio.us. He worked at Yahoo!, Accenture and Extricity. He co-founded Blockboard, a community-based social network-type activity board thing. You may have heard of it, or not, but it has a Klout score counted in real dollars. The Social network influence aggregator purchased Blockboard in 2012 for an undisclosed sum, absorbing its product and four-person team.
"Storytelling has always been important to me," Hood tells me via Skype. "Whether I was doing it through games, computer games ... It was just a really important part of my childhood. Then I went off to school and ended up in a career in technology, out here in Silicon Valley.
"As the years went by I felt like that creative outlet was missing from my life."
Hood's next, big thing aims to bring that creative outlet back. Storium is an online storytelling multiplayer game service, which sounds like a mouthful, but is basically "stories with friends." And if you think that's an idea too small to succeed, think again. Storium raised over $250,000 on Kickstarter, reaching it's $25,000 goal in less than 24 hours.
"Whether I was doing it through games, computer games ... [storytelling] was just a really important part of my childhood. Then I went off to school and ended up in a career in technology, out here in Silicon Valley." - Stephen Hood
"It's the sort of thing that feels, to us, kind of obvious in retrospect, but we came up with it because of our own unique backgrounds and interests," Hood says. "They collided in an interesting way."
These backgrounds, at least for Hood and co-founder Josh Whiting, involve gaming. Specifically tabletop gaming. Hood was big into Dungeons & Dragons growing up. He had a game group. They'd get together for game nights: good friends, some sodas, some dice—fun. Then, like kids do, they grew up, spread out. Those great game nights faded away. As Hood's fortunes took him to Silicon Valley, he tried getting the gang back together online.
"I started experimenting, building little prototypes," he says. "Those early ideas didn't quite work, as early ideas often do, but I was interested enough to keep playing with the idea."
Meanwhile, Hood started his startups. When he left Klout, he decided to go back to that idea of getting friends together online, to play games and tell stories. He founded Protagonist Labs with Whiting, drew in writer and game maker Will Hindmarch and created another Kickstarter success story.
"The thing we were all thinking: 'It's great to know we're not crazy. We're not the only people who like this crazy idea,'" Hood says. "That's really the most gratifying part of the campaign. The money is very important, of course, because it'll allow us to develop Storium into what we think it can be and bring it to the public ... but really, in a way, the number of backers is even more important, to me personally. It says to me that almost 6700 people agree that this is an interesting idea and it speaks to them and they want to play it. That's the most valuable thing."
What it’s made of
To make Storium work, Hood knew he’d need two things. The first was the technology—that’s where Whiting comes in. The second is something more precious, albeit slightly more abundant. The secret sauce of Storium is stories. And to get good stories, Hood reached out to good writers.
I talked to Storium's three author/advisors, J.C. Hutchins, Mur Lafferty and Chuck Wendig. They all told me some variation of the same story: Hood caught up with them at a convention in Los Angeles or San Antonio. Or maybe it was a phone call. Maybe an email. And then he pitched this almost unimaginable game. A role-playing game, but without the dice, without the rules. And you didn’t play so much as write.
Playing and writing. To writers, the idea was like mind candy. "Storium is a remarkable fusion of simple rules, lots of player empowerment, and a hint of round-robin campfire storytelling," J.C. Hutchins told me. Hutchins has gained fame as a "transmedia" storyteller, writing stories that jump from media to media. He's worked for major television networks, and is an award-winning thriller author, and co-writer of Effects: Dark Art with Shadowrun creator Jordan Weisman.
"Anything can happen. And the best part, at least to me, is that there are no rulebooks or charts insisting that you 'can't do that,' whatever 'that' might be. Fun first, you know?"
Each advisor brought their own creations on board. These, along with lead game deisgner Will Hindmarch’s stories, were Storium’s first "worlds." Full-fledged settings with characters and plot points. All of the elements of a good role-playing game. Some were created out of whole cloth, some borrowed from the writers' existing works. And then it snowballed.
Writers are a connected bunch. Word spread. Like the old television commercial, one writer told two friends, and so on. Storium now contains over 60 worlds and counting. Many unlocked during the game’s Kickstarter as "stretch goals." There are worlds from Saladin Ahmed, Keith Baker, Elizabeth Bear, Stephen Blackmoore, Richard Dansky, Steve Jackson, Robin Laws, Andrea Phillips, Jordan Weisman, Filamena Young and more.
"Anything can happen. And the best part, at least to me, is that there are no rulebooks or charts insisting that you 'can't do that,' whatever 'that' might be. Fun first, you know?" - J.C. Hutchins
"I did a lot of gathering other writers to be part of the project, to advertise during the Kickstarter," says Lafferty. Hood wanted her on board for her experience in tabletop games and deep connections to the dark and secret world of writers, which is mostly conventions and pubs. "It was just fun trying to sell the project to other people and show them what it was. And then Charlie Stross got in touch with us, kind of annoyed because we hadn’t asked him. That was awkward."
Lafferty was attracted to the idea of Storium because of its melding of writing and play, but of its potential to be a powerful tool for building writing skills. She produces a podcast called "I Should Be Writing," in which she continually encourages newcomers to start writing. A game like Storium, she believes, could be another tool in that bag and a better experience for doing so than any other game.
"It pushes you to write," she says. "And while MMOs are more — I mean, they're pretty mindless. You point and you hit the run button and click and you choose your spell, but you're not writing. Even if you do have dialogue choices, it’s limited. Even if you said, 'Well, I wouldn’t say any of those things,' you don’t have a choice. This allows you to really play a character however you would want."
Each writer has their own unique hook; some thing only they could see or feel that attracted them to Storium. Most agree that the ability to inspire creativity while encouraging people to play is the thing. But some stress the learning or the creativity harder than others. And then there are some like Chuck Wendig who are in it just because it's weird. "We’re seeing people use Storium in unexpected ways," Wendig tells me. "As learning aids? As ways to connect with old friends? As a way to harness and hone their own storytelling and writing? For me the fascinating thing is when people come at it sideways."
"Storium is a remarkable fusion of simple rules, lots of player empowerment, and a hint of round-robin campfire storytelling," - J.C. Hutchins
I asked Wendig what he hoped people would take out of Storium.
"The only thing I really hope they take away is fun," he says. "That’s my first and foremost goal — I want people to have fun in these environments. The two sub-goals are that they come away with the material having made them a) think and b) feel something."
"I was really intrigued by the idea of time-shifted play and storytelling," says Hutchins. "I really thought Storium could be for everyone, not just gamers ... That's way harder to pull off that it sounds. You can't impose endless rules on players, but you also can't shove players at a blank screen and say, 'Go on, now. Go on an adventure.' That's writing. That's a Word doc. That's not fun. We wanted to build something that was fun."
How it works
Hood and Whiting co-founded Protagonist Labs in February of 2013. Hood had reached out to Whiting with an idea of how to create a good storytelling game online. whiting's first reaction was "Doesn't this exist?"
As Whiting looked into it, he realized he was wrong. There are lots of story-based games, but most of them repel casual users because they aren't made to be inviting. They're made to be complex.
"We're really hitting on something new here, especially in that we're trying to simplify the game aspect of it and make it more about storytelling, more about creative writing, and just about being imaginative," Whiting tells me. "Less about rolling dice and a crunchy — The things that role-playing games are generally known for, that make them inaccessible to a lot of people. ... And so [Storium] just struck me as, all right, he's on to something here."
Whiting builds the Technology for Storium. In fact, as we speak, he's on semi-vacation in Sedona, AZ researching the next iteration for Storium: a massive overhaul of its underlying technology designed to make the game more robust, more responsive to multiple users and, most importantly, modular, so that it can continue to be enhanced and added to over time.
"We're really hitting on something new here, especially in that we're trying to simplify the game aspect of it and make it more about storytelling, more about creative writing, and just about being imaginative." - Josh Whiting
"We [initially] cut a lot of corners on the technology," Whiting says. "I didn't do a lot of things, for instance, around making the pages load fast, or making the code maintainable and things like that. Once we completed the Kickstarter, that was a real affirmation for us that the product was — there was some demand for it. It was great. We decided that it's time to double down on it and build it correctly, from a technology standpoint."
The trick, Storium's creators tell me, is relieving pressure. It's about giving people boundaries and guidelines. Not crushing creativity with rules, but encouraging it with boundaries. It's a subtle distinction, but one the Storium team believes in.
"We started talking more and more about what the vision was ... [and] it occurred to me that Storium is a technology for human creativity, for human dreaming," says Whiting.
The writers' enemy, says Hood, is the blank page. It's a gaping maw of endless possibility that practically goads you to fill it. And for many, even the most experience writers, that pressure can be crushing.
"The blank page is the foe of all writers, whether they're professional or amateur or anything in between," he says. "When you stare at a blank page, the abyss stares back. And so a lot of what Storium is about is fighting the blank page. ... The more, ironically, constraint you put around a creative problem, often the more people are able to step up and explore I. Because I think our brains need to know—They benefit, often, from seeing the edges. You know what's inside that box, and you also know when you've gone outside it. You can choose to do either."
Storium sets up like any role-playing game. There are a few players, one of whom is the narrator. The narrator picks the setting and then describes the initial scene. But from that point, Storium is quite different from most role-playing games. After setting the scene, the narrator cedes control to the rest of the players, who can each shape the narrative in their own ways by playing or responding to story cards.
"There's a bunch of types of cards in Storium," Hood says. "You can create your own, or you can use cards that come with what we call a world, which is a pre-packaged story construction set for a given genre or style or even a specific setting. For example, our beta comes with very simple and easily-repurposable worlds for telling cyberpunk stories and space operas and fantasy and horror. Even medical dramas. So you can choose a world, or you can make your own from scratch, and you end up with these cards."
"We started talking more and more about what the vision was ... [and] it occurred to me that Storium is a technology for human creativity, for human dreaming." - Josh Whiting.
The narrator plays story cards to start the game, establish context and provide motivations and dramatic challenges for each of the characters. Hood uses an example of a fantasy game world, in which the narrator plays his cards describing the setting (throne room) and a challenge (convince the king to let the players explore the ruins).
"The other players in the game each control a character, one of the major protagonists of the story," Hood says. "Their job is to use their cards to address those challenges.
"If the challenge is to convince the king, my character, let's say, might have a card which is that his personality strength is fast-talking. He's a very convincing talker. He might play that card to show how he addresses the king. What happens in between all of this is writing ... You play your card and then you write."
With setting and plot points established, the players then take turns filling in the blanks, playing cards to take control of the narrative or alter its context, and writing what their character will do or say. Like MadLibs, at short story length.
The cards were one of Hindmarch's major contributions. Early in the game's "alpha" test, in the summer of 2013, the Storium team realized the cards weren't working quite right. Players were hoarding them, or else using them in ways that didn't lend themselves to having a good time. Hood and Hindmarch realized that it wasn't obvious how the cards could influence the story-telling, and there was no incentive to use them at all. Players were stuck—stymied by too much possibility. So they made a change. Hood says this is the major benefit of the Kickstarter process. Not only have the Storium backers provided encouragement and validation, they've also helped shape the product.
"We were watching people play and seeing that the cards would just get spammed," says Hood. "People would spam them all the time. That made them sort of feel less special. We also noticed that people were struggling, sometimes, to keep their stories moving. They would get to the end of a scene and have trouble figuring out where to go next. 'What happens because of what we just did?' ... They weren't seizing the microphone, really acting out their character. I think that was because they didn't really have a sense of what they were allowed to do."
Since the alpha stage, the cards have evolved to become the engine driving the Storium experience, and are much more attuned to encouraging creative collaboration and ensuring every player feels engaged.
"[Now] everyone gets their moment in the spotlight," says Hood. "Stories, therefore, are sort of unpredictable, in what's usually a delightful way. You don't ever really know what's going to happen next, because people's imaginations are being sort of bumped up against each other in new ways every time."
Why it works
"The interesting thing to me is that being a novelist means putting all your ego onto the page — it's about *my* story," says Chuck Wendig. He's a novelist and screenwriter, author of Blackbirds, Mockingbird and many more. He's also a Storium world creator and advisor. "But games are the opposite; in many ways: it's me removing my ego and facilitating your story. Storium is one of those 'cake and eat it too' scenarios. Chocolate and peanut butter."
Since the Storium "beta" test began, the team at Protagonist Labs has been inundated with positive feedback from backers and game testers. Some of it, like the call to action from educators, has promoted explorations into possible new Storium side projects. Others come in the form of letters from backers and game testers who feel that the fantasy gameplay of Storium has helped them address challenges they face in the physical world.
"Storium is one of those 'cake and eat it too' scenarios. Chocolate and peanut butter." - Chuck Wendig
"We got an email from a user who said that Storium gives them a place to express themselves free from being judged or attacked in the way they often find themselves in real life," says Hood. "Those words were precious to us, because it's always been our goal for Storium to be a safe and welcoming place for everyone."
"He can tell the story in this safe world and no one's going to put him down for what he's doing or what he's telling," Lafferty adds "He can just write in this world and include his friends and it's safe. He just was — The outpouring was — It was a very emotional letter, about how incredibly happy he was to have this safe place to go to write in this world and no one was going to get on him for it."
For the team at Protagonist Labs, the social benefits are just that: benefits. They believe the educational opportunities are exiting opportunities, but ultimately the game is about empowering individuals on a more personal scale.
Storium is a game that can inspire people to create. And that, as simple as it may sound, is a large enough goal.
"To me, that's the secret "killer app" feature of Storium, and it hides in plain sight," says Hutchins. "You're becoming a better writer, even if you don't know it. Storium is designed to inspire creativity in easy-to-craft bursts. You're not taking on this monolithic task, see. You're not 'Writing A Novel.' You're just telling a story. ... Suddenly, that person who's pined for decades to be a writer is doing exactly what she dreamed of."
After the game's current beta program ends, there will be another round of pre-release testing before publish. Hood calls this the "gamma," and the current plan is to incorporate feedback from the beta and give backers one more opportunity to influence the direction of the design before the game is officially launched some time at the end of 2014.
"To me, that's the secret "killer app" feature of Storium, and it hides in plain sight. You're becoming a better writer, even if you don't know it." - J.C. Hutchins
"We're learning as we go," Hood says. "I think Storium will probably never be 'done.' It's probably going to always be evolving as people's needs change and as we learn. I certainly wouldn't claim that we have all the answers. I think we've got a lot of good answers, though, which is a good start."
When it's released to the public, Storium will have dozens of worlds written by over 60 authors and will come with a $25 (projected) annual fee. Hood says he hopes the game is at least successful enough to become self-sustaining, but beyond that, he's keeping his ambitions intentionally modest.
At least 6,000 people loved the idea enough to back it on Kickstarter, and to fund it in less than a day. Right now, those people are Storium's focus. Success, for Hood, would mean building a product loved as much by its audience as the people who built it.
"We want to work on something that we really believe in," Hood says. "And so Storium, so far, seems like a wonderful chance to do that, because it's something we deeply believe in and love. It's something we can see ourselves working on for a number of years to come."