Monthly Archives: February 2010

How much can we tell about an unreleased project?

We are closing in on our one year wedding anniversary, or paper anniversary as they call it. For this big event, I was planning to write a full description of the C³ experience. I asked a lot of questions, draw diagrams, wrote a very long article. I was very excited because when I start reading myself, I felt that we had a very innovative concept, something that would improve the experience of programming for all. But then I started to have doubts, how can I be clear enough that this is an intention, a dream, and without creating expectations?

Marketing

We cannot deny the importance of marketing. In video games, statistics show that marketing influence sales three times more than ratings. These numbers probably vary depending if you are aiming at mass market or a niche of specialized people, but the first impression you do is always important, no matter who you are targeting.

I worked on many projects that had huge marketing budgets. For all those, we had to keep quiet on what we were working on until the marketing reveal. This moment usually happens quite close to the launch which means most of the job is already done when the world learn about the project. The team usually have a hard time about this, you are very proud about this very amazing project you are working on, and yet you cannot talk about it to anyone. “The only thing I can say about what I am working on, is that it is incredibly fantastic!” We do show our work to selected people in order to get feedback, focus tests, but this is rigidly controlled not to interfere with the marketing reveal.

Reality is, this is necessary, you want your project to be hyped as much as possible. You start with a big reveal, then you maintain, and attempt to rise the hype until the product is truly available. If you cannot maintain the interest in your product, you start falling. Apple have been a very good example of this in the last few years, launching their products with a big boom, creating as much hype as they possibly can. Well timed hype translates into sales.

“A (…) problem: The company sells the visionary project before it has the product. This is a version of the famous vaporware problem, based on preannouncing and premarketing a product that still has the significant development hurdles to overcome.” –Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey A. Moore

I have seen many project trying to create a hype too soon and missing the wave. Some games that were presented at my first GDC in 2006 have a hard time getting credibility when they aren’t completed four years later. My personal reaction is that their game got to be amazing because my team got a fraction of this for our own work, and we still manage to make great stuff. I imagine that the general customer simply forgot about it, and is mislead into thinking that it is an old thing that he just missed when it came out.

Even worst are the projects that are hipped but never see the light of day. In life, many projects get cancelled. Believe me, it happens all the time. People starts working on something, but things change, the project becomes something else, or the team simply starts over on a new concept. If nobody knows about it, you waste some time, but if you are already public with it, you also add shame on your name. You end up spending a lot of energy to justify yourself to a lot a people that don’t matter that much, and your reputation goes down. Easier to crash down a credibility than it is to raise one. Even if you have very strong creations in you port-folio, you aren’t protected from this.

Talking about a personal project

So I imagined that C³ would be different. It is a personal project, not some block buster anyway. Following the creative adventure of my husband helped me renewing my love for programming, and push myself learning new stuff. I love writing, why not write about it? Most comments, from friends or on the blog, have pushed us forward in our reflection, shaping the project into something better.

When I started, I never anticipated any problem writing about anything. My husband didn’t agree with me. Many of the concepts we were talking together were early into development, and subject to change. “Won’t people judge us if they see we are changing our mind all the time?” Not only do I think it is normal for ideas to change, I believe it is in the nature of great project to iterate on them. I am fascinated by the creative process. This is exactly what I wanted to talk about: how a project evolve, how the vision refine itself, ideas that shape themselves with the various challenges, new discoveries that add themselves to the big picture.

I was seeing myself as some kind of journalist, I though it would be obvious that I was following a creative process. But my enthusiasm led me to write a lot about C³ in a descriptive and somewhat “selling” way. I cannot claim neutrality, I care for my husband, I care for his project. No matter how I try, my words become some kind of marketing involuntarily.

I first become aware of this when my former schoolmate Michel talked about C³ as vaporware. I was disappointed at first, I though I had failed to make it clear that this was the documentation of the process, and not an actual reveal. Now I realize that this is impossible, as soon as you start talking about something, it is a reveal.

Compromise for the best of both world

So comes the dilemma, either I just don’t care about it and continue talking about it. Too bad for those who think we don’t have credibility because we don’t publish anything. They should know that creating a programming language takes time. Or I start writing behind closed door, showing my stuff only to chosen people. Closing ourselves from potential feedback and suggestions.

All this may seems obvious from the outside, but it wasn’t for me. But now that I am aware of all this, I cannot unseen, and have to take a decision. C³ is an ambitious project and we will need all the credibility, and hype we can get when the time comes. How can I keep from creating unnecessary expectation, raise my credibility while getting maximum feedback at the same time? I also want to keep on writing and drawing for the fun of it!

I don’t have a simple answer for this, but I do think of a few approaches on the subject that I feel wouldn’t interfere with the project while attracting constructive feedback.

First thing, I should go back to my primary idea of documenting the creative process. As a manager, I develop a strong knowledge of this in my day job, and I choose that way because I have a passion for it. Talking about challenges, how we overcome them, methodology and tips are interesting things to share. By nature they apply to various types of projects, thus it can reach a wider audience. This is also a nice way to get feedback on how to face certain situations. All this without really talking about the nature of the project itself.

I also realized that when we get challenged, it is more about our view on a certain topic, than how it really translates in the C³ design. Our opinions are shaped by our experience, I find it interesting to challenge my conclusions and seek advice from people that have a different background than me. I am very confident in my beliefs, but there is nothing like a good fight to improve them and make them stronger. I feel I should continue talking about our opinions, without going deeper on how it translates into the project.

As we will approach release, I will want to be as transparent as possible, describe with great details how things work, and why so, but only when the design on those aspects are complete. This is necessary to build a relationship based on trust, especially if we go open source and and want people to contribute. For now, things are evolving too quickly to spend energy on describing publicly something that is destined to change.

And then I cannot turn my back on this long article, exhaustive description of the project, a first draft documentation. I think it is necessary to write this in order for the project to go forward at an optimum pace. But now I realize I don’t have to publish these, they have to be written for ourselves, to clarify our vision into words. Maybe we can use them in focus tests. So no pressure to publish everything I write as soon as it is complete, leave space for iteration in the writing as well. The world can wait.