Interview: Jodie from Shadowlack
I recently stumbled accross Shadowlack, which is (according to the website) “a Science Fantasy Play-By-Post RPG”. I thought that it might be interesting to hear some thoughts from someone running a game that isn’t based on the mafia or vampires. I managed to get in touch with Jodie Struthers, who’s been running Shadowlack for an amazing eight years! Here’s what she had to say:
What moviated you to start/build Shadowlack?
Shadowlack began as an ongoing comic book that several of my friends and I wrote while during grade school (circa 1997). We would pass this beaten up notebook around during class and add panels to it without any sort of pre-planning. The comic book grew to include over 2,600 individual illustrations. Eventually we had a really neat story going on. In 2002, I thought that it would be a great idea to open it up to people on the internet – but in text form.
Shadowlack is based on this same type of haphazard story telling with people writing from the perspectives of their original characters. Each post is unique and adds to the collaborative nature of the world.
After 7 years of running Shadowlack, have you ever been tempted to shut it down? What motivated you to keep going?
Oh yes. The last time I seriously thought about it was when my best friend at the time (who was helping run the site for a period), ended up leaving. At the time I really wasn’t sure what to do. She had been an integral piece to many of the plots that were on the go. I was very tempted to close down the site, however it was the support I got from the member base that kept it going. My other constant form of motivation is my desire to learn, and Shadowlack has been a great tool to learn from over the years.
Is the platform behind Shadowlack an out of the box solution, or a custom one?
Shadowlack right now is based upon a phpBB forum. I’ve built and re-built the site using many different platforms over the years and each time it’s gotten better (at least technically). At first I was limited by my skill-set in regards to what I could do, but now the only limitation I have right now is time.
Many play-by-post games suffer from “inflated” member counts because they require you to create separate accounts for each character that you wish to play. Shadowlack solves this problem with a modification that I wrote, that allows you to create multiple characters underneath one master account. Many other features and add-ons have been written to compliment this.
So no, it’s not just an out of the box forum solution with a skin or banner slapped thoughtlessly on it. There are also several automated processes that help me run the site, as well as a fully fledged content management system which I’ve also augmented. I like to think of it as a mutated version of phpBB… you know, with a few extra arms, eyes, and noodles kicking around.
How much time a day do you spend managing Shadowlack? Do you have to manage it at all, or do the players generally police themselves?
Daily my time spent on the site can range anywhere from five minutes to several hours, or sometimes no time at all. Due to the nature of the game (people who join generally think writing is fun and want to contribute to the project), we don’t get many trouble makers. I’ve only had to lay down the perma-ban hammer down on about 5 or so people over the years due to rule breaking.
Do you ever have to add new features to Shadowlack, or does the game run itself?
New features generally come in the form of new plots, creatures, and races. However, unlike the majority of the play-by-post games these days, it is not just a forum. It’s also an original world setting. Players are free to create and build their own alien races, religions, cities, monsters, diseases, and other such things. The game does run itself to an extent, but I find myself acting largely as a director whose job it is to fit creatures and story elements together in order to solve puzzles and make things semi-believable (it is a science fantasy game… so things don’t have to be 100% logical). We’ve had discussions about magic, apartment utilities, nomadic hunting, pubs, racism, reproduction, governments, and then some – all in relation to the Shadowlack world. The world of Shadowlack isn’t exactly an idealized society – it has its vices – but it certainly is an interesting one.
How ’sticky’ is Shadowlack? Lots of games only see players for a few minutes at a time(although frequently throughout the day) – are most visits on shadowlack short, or long?
A player’s stickiness depends entirely on their level of involvement on the site. Over the years I’ve also been able to track a few trends that generally coincide with school. Given that the demographic of the site is 17+ (with the majority of players in their early to mid twenties), times of slow activity are generally around university exam times, and during summer vacation.
The average time a person spends on the site (including visitors who pass us by), is 5 minutes. Generally registered members will spend half an hour or more on the site at a time. Writing takes some thought and dedication and this sort of niche market really isn’t for the type of person who wants instant satisfaction.
Have you had any trouble retaining players as the years went on?
People come and people go. There have been multiple cases where players have disappeared due to life happening only to return several months (or even years…) later. That said, there are also a handful of people who have been around since the conception of the site. Those that join and find that they like it, tend to stay and play. Which can be said for most games.
What’s the coolest thing that you’ve seen happen in Shadowlack?
All of our awesome plots and characters aside, the coolest thing has been watching the long-time players evolve and over time become skilled writers. One of my favourite things to do is look at people’s old roleplay posts from when they first joined and compare them to the ones that they’re writing today. The differences are phenomenal, and it makes me happy to hear that a person’s writing on the site has significantly contributed to their performance in educational institutions. I’m proud of my players for reasons that most game owners probably never consider.
A lot of players are drawn to flashier games that they can play on their own, and roleplaying(especially play-by-post) seems to have fallen by the wayside. What do you think draws people to Shadowlack, as opposed to just playing neopets or forumwarz?
One thing that I would like to stress is that play-by-post roleplaying is an extreme niche market. You really aren’t going to make money off of it unless it is just a small feature of the rest of your game. All of the big “successful” play-by-post games (of which there really isn’t any more than a handful that I’d actually consider to be successful), do not have true business models. They are run by hobbyists (like myself), non-profit organizations, or are kept alive by the donations of the players themselves.
I’m actually a long-time Neopets player myself and was largely responsible for getting the Role Playing board added to their site. With that being said, the draw to a place like Shadowlack is largely different. It is not a heavily policed site. Players are free to do a lot of things. It also isn’t rated G or “family safe,” so swearing is unlikely to get you in trouble. Over the years it has turned into a sort of “safe haven” and home for creative types. The site is full of aspiring artists, writers, and musicians. So the greatest draw to the site most likely is freedom of expression and creativity. I mean, yes we are writing stories together, but we’re also developing characters and building an original world setting. It’s fun, and not a complete waste of time since players are developing their writing skills.
What plans do you have for Shadowlack, going into the future?
Because Shadowlack is also a world building project, I’ve spent a lot of time looking into various CMS solutions, from Wiki scripts to full blown enterprise CMS solutions, in order to make building the world setting easier. After trying so many options and being unhappy with them (either because of spaghetti code, lack of structure, too much bloat, or what-have-you), I’ve started developing my own CMS framework that integrates with phpBB user sessions. Generally I plan to bring a lot of the world building aspect back. So more flora and fauna, as well as expanding on the science fiction element of the game in terms of space exploration and the planet’s technology.
Looking back into the past – what plans *did* you have for Shadowlack, and did you fulfill them?
My only clear plan from the beginning was really just to have fun and learn while doing it. It has been my pet project for years and everything that I’ve learned while working on it has helped further my career. So in that essence, I have fulfilled my plans (sort of… the learning process is perpetual).
One of my larger plans, that I pulled off last year, was the renaming of the site. Originally the game was called Ramath-lehi (the name of the planet). Unfortunately this was a name that was a) hard to remember for newcomers and b) hard to spell! I changed the name to Shadowlack gradually over 2009. Ramath-lehi is still the name of the central planet. Shadowlack is just the name of the bigger picture.
Do you do any marketing for Shadowlack, or just rely on word of mouth?
Right now it is entirely word of mouth. In the past I’ve done up posters and handed out business cards. It has also been a part of several advertising campaigns. Over the past four years though I have not put much emphasis on advertising and have purposely kept the player base small and manageable due to my lack of time (sudo get degree). However this may change in the future.
What has been the most challenging part of running Shadowlack for so long?
Life interrupting. Things have this wonderful way of just happening. Shadowlack was with me through my high school years and also with me while I was obtaining my degree. I’ve gone through a lot of changes and so has it.
What are you working on these days?
I run my own media and design consulting firm which takes up the majority of my free time. Aside from Shadowlack, I work on a small in-progress PBBG called Black Shuck that revolves around the afterlife and also lend a hand in regards to providing design work and coding for various other gaming sites.
If you could tell new browsergame developers one thing – what would it be?
Don’t give up so easily. It is true that many, many games die due to lack of interest and time. In the play-by-post niche, most games don’t even make it past the three month marker, which I’ve taken to referring to as RPG SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). I believe that a lot of this has to do with the stagnant nature of most forum-based games. People set up a forum, create a fabulous plot, expect others to stay and play, and then get upset when their players have nothing of further interest holding them there. The game owner then loses interest, moves onto another project, and it dies. Rinse and repeat.
I’m not saying that every game idea is a clear winner and that constant persistence is key. I’m also not going to say that originality is a trump card. Simply take what you’ve learned, build upon it… and enjoy it. If you’ve got something good going on, other people will take notice of it (be warned that you may have to take to standing on street corners and flailing your arms – but oh, they will notice).
If you’d like to know more about Shadowlack, you can check it out at the Shadowlack website.