The Interactive Fiction SMS Text Based App I Never Built

I wondered if I could build a SMS/text-based interactive fiction (IF) app. This is a story of how I researched the problem, but ultimately failed to actually execute on making one.

I didn’t know what I was looking for or even if it existed, but I had the desire to play a game via SMS (simple message service) text message that would allow me to unravel a mystery – something that would tell me a story throughout the day as long as I kept interacting with it.

I was influenced by early childhood memories of reading “choose your own adventure” books and playing point-and-click adventure games like Shadowgate. In both cases the choices you made in the game affect the outcome and this interactivity with the story intrigued me (Note: I’ve written about games like Shadowgate before).

Cavern of the Evil Wizard

I did searches for “SMS games” and “text message games”, but couldn’t find anything. I eventually started searching for “text based games” which led me to discover the term “interactive fiction“. I immediately recognized it as the type of games portrayed in Tom Hanks’ Big (Cavern of the Evil Wizard) and the original Leisure Suit Larry.

A friend of mine had the 1987 MS-DOS game, Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards and we would have to hide from his parents to play the game. In the game, Larry is controlled by a text parser that can interpret typed commands like “talk to woman”. You never knew exactly what to say or how the game would react.

It seemed the interactive fiction community was quite small by Internet standards as I kept running across one name: Andrew Plotkin, who also goes by Zarf. That lead me to download some IF apps on the iPhone and learn about some apps you can use to create your own IF games.

I looked into Twillio for the SMS gateway, but eventually I learned enough to realize I didn’t really want to make my own IF game. Sometimes I do that. I think I want to do something, like making furniture, designing an app, or designing games, and then once I know how, I stop. That happens sometimes.

Interactive Fiction Resources

Seektivity – My First Failed Startup

This is a story about Seektivity, the idea I had for an activity and event locator app that I worked on, but never completed. While I did a lot of fun things growing up, I wouldn’t say I had a lot of fun. I grew up in an environment of scarcity. There was never money to play games or buy snacks. While I got to participate in bike rides, Boy Scouts, church activities, and the occasional trip to an amusement park, I didn’t go to as many movies, arcades, and social events as I would have liked to growing up. #firstworldproblems

Kids Park

The summer before I entered 3rd grade my parents moved to Indiana and by 5th grade I was walking with a neighborhood friend back from the store when we came up with the idea for an activity park for kids. It would have the “normal” stuff like arcade games and go-karts, but also weird and dangerous stuff like hot air balloons, hang gliding, bicycles that fly, recumbent bicycles, and a zip line. It would also have spa-like attractions such as a lounge, a pool, and an indoor eating area.

Kids Park

In August of 2012 I had an idea for an app that would “facilitate play”. The idea was born out of a desire for anyone to improve where they live (wherever they live) by communicating and facilitating activities in their community. I proposed an app called Seektivity or Outure or something else as a new business for me to run. I began looking for feedback and criticism of this idea (and whether or not they wanted to be a part of it). Initially nobody gave me any feedback at all and no one wanted to help. I began defining what the app would do:

  • It will allow people to create paths/routes for others to follow based on GPS tracking (gamification and/or nature trail creation from public streets and paths)
  • Incorporate geocaching element if wanted (again with the gamification element to outdoor activities)
  • Allow others to find and post activities to do (based on a Foursquare-like interface where users can add activities, set them to reoccur or occur once)
  • Facilitate the creation of activities/games (allow users to turn their life into a game, their town into a game, but basically just make their lives better/funner)
  • Allow users to upload/add what equipment they have (this allows users to find activities that match their equipment ie. pickup hockey games)
  • Monetized by selling equipment/things to upgrade/do activities (affiliate links or ads) or by selling app
  • Predict and announce upcoming activities based on likes/equipment/past history (push notifications / emails)

I didn’t know how to program and so I decided to create a minimally viable product (MVP) using an architecture I was already familiar with to begin building the app: WordPress. Although it would eventually be a mobile app also, I decided to first build it as a website (or web app). The thinking went that worst-case scenario the mobile app would simply be a ‘wrapper’ that displays the website’s content. This is similar to how Facebook’s app initially worked.

I was able to cobble together pre-existing parts in WordPress to create an MVP that did most of the things I was looking for the app to do. I experimented with several different plugins and custom post types, but settled on GEO my WP, which “Adds location to any post types, pages or members (using Buddypress) and creates an advance proximity search.” It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but logged in users of the site could add locations and anyone could search for locations.

The primary benefit the application was supposed to provide over similar apps like Foursquare was the ability to add activities and events to a physical location. WordPress would allow users to add a location via a post and tag it using WordPress tags, but those who followed behind wouldn’t be able to add tags or events to that location without having editor permissions or by using the comments functionality of WordPress. This was enough to have users start to use and test it.

Seektivity

I loaded up the database with several places and activities so that there would be something to search for, but it didn’t survive the first interaction with a user. She typed in “tennis”, which wasn’t in the database anywhere so she saw little value in the application. Welcome to the chicken and egg problem. One way to get around this would be to attach this application onto Foursquare’s database and use it for locations, and then adding events and activities on top of that.

In January of 2013 I contacted a local iPhone app developer and said:

I am looking for a developer to code an app that is like Foursquare for activities and events rather than just places. It will need to store user account information on a web server and be able to use GPS mapping tech to locate the user in space. They should be able to browse activities and events around them or do custom searches without logging in. With an account they can add activities or events. Places should exist as close to once as possible in the database so an address lookup feature would be necessary. Each event should also have privacy settings and be able to invite and get checked into. Users should also be able to comment or add meta tags to an activity or event. Activities can occur based on a set of criteria I’ve come up with. I have tables and diagrams and wireframes on how all this works, I just need a developer to help code it up.

He said it would take at least 2 months at $10,000 a month to get to a MVP. I decided to wait, but that first user, Joy, thought the idea was good enough to urge me to keep working on it so I thought I’d take 2 months and learn Ruby on Rails, which I started to do in March. I was working through Michael Hartl’s Rails Tutorial, but I couldn’t even get through the first chapter. Even at the most beginning levels, it was still over my head.

Reflections on a Failed App

Joy thought it would be a good idea for me to document my thoughts on the development of Seektivity at this moment so that when people are writing a book about my future success they will be able to give a correct account of how the company and app got started. Even though this probably will not happen, I thought it would be a good exercise in figuring out what went wrong. Before that I’ll start by describing a little bit about our backgrounds, how we met, and what we have been up to lately.

Joy grew up around presidents, astronauts, and famous writers. Her father ran a large Christian organization in Colorado and is well connected. She helped friends make millions of dollars with one of her ideas and one of her friends ended up marrying a millionaire. She married an Air Force pilot and after having four kids, started her own interior design company. After dating a NFL player from Wisconsin, she ended up marrying a dentist in Indiana and that is how she met me.

I grew up around computers, the Internet, and farmers. My father worked for General Motors in Indiana and was well liked at his job. I helped friends start businesses and helped small business owners survive and thrive. One of these businesses was called Neighborhood Geeks, where I worked part time as a computer technician. After moving to Indiana, Joy called Neighborhood Geeks to help setup her children’s computers for school and that is how we met.

I worked for Joy off and on for several years at her home, until eventually also taking over the website management and marketing functions for her husband’s dental practice. Years later I would also take over the IT work at the office and then assist with a staff transition period when Dr. Reese was between managers. It was during this period of time working in the dentist office for 9 months when I first shared the idea of Seektivity with Joy.

Before I worked full time at the dental office I was a business analyst at a regional bank. During the day I would daydream about starting new business ventures all while running a side business of IT and web consulting at night. One of these ideas was a search engine called Seektivity. The idea didn’t get very far – just a search engine that used Google search to deliver Google Ads via search results, but I liked the name enough to hold onto the domain.

The summer I started working at the dental office as interim manager I would go on long walks through Tipton to exercise and think. It was during one of these walks that I decided that I should start an e-Commerce business – one that sold stuff to “facilitate play”. I thought I’d use my Outure™ brand to make an outdoor adventure company, but after doing some customer interviews found that there was more of a need for finding and sharing things to do, which brought me back to Seektivity.

Joy initially thought the idea was good and encouraged me to build it. I worked on the specifics and even created a web version as a prototype, but when faced with programming obstacles beyond my reach I dropped the project to focus on areas where my web design and IT skills could be better used: eCommerce. I began to work on building the original Outure idea and went looking for a partner. Joy was excited to help, but she couldn’t stop thinking about Seektivity.

Immediately after New Years 2013, while vacationing with her family in Hawaii, Joy finally had time to clear her head and it was through this clarity that Seektivity came back to mind. At the same time, back in Indiana, I was explaining the idea to a group of friends when one of them turned to him and said, “You know, I still think that’s a really good idea and even if you can’t build it yourself, you should try and pitch it to someone.”

When Joy came back she asked me to meet. I came to tell her that I couldn’t work with her anymore and that I was moving on. She understood, but wanted to share how she had come to think about Seektivity while on the beach in Hawaii. She said that a group of people wanted to go fishing, but had no way of finding someone to fish with. It was something that Seektivity would have fixed and this is how her interest was renewed.

Her interest in the project inspired me to ask her again if she’d like to be a part of making something great. She said she wanted to change the world and that she believed that the business had the capability of connecting people and creating experiences that simply would not occur without the app. She believed it would help bring people together and to be more active. It is in this way that Seektivity was born.

I AM thinking ALL THE TIME about possibilities with Seektivity…as I travel, ideas and options for the app become so evident!!! It is an Erich “DUH” moment — why it has taken us this long to capitalize on it is mind boggling!! -Joy

There’s nothing like doing something to realize what you need to do next. This happened to me when I was first developing Seektivity. When I actually could use the thing, my perspective changed a lot on what the product actually was. Design sure does matter a lot. Obviously Apple is a cliche example, but I’m thinking “Eventbrite” vs. “Foursquare”. Both allow user-generated content, but one is ‘cool’ and one is not. The difference? Design.

I considered making Seektivity using Foursquare’s API but even in the briefest of research I glimpsed that the idea violates their API terms. In other words, you can use their data like a data set and run analysis’ on it and make your own ‘pivot tables’ out of it or you can publish to it, but you can’t use it as a address database for a whole other service like I’m wanting to. I’m not sure I’d want to spend all that effort doing that either since one click would disconnect my whole app.

By February of 2013 somebody else made a Seektivity app called Shoutt. It wasn’t exactly the same but pretty neat and it actually worked. I signed up. I think my idea has more sticking power in the midwest where I live. My use cases are more practical I think than theirs. It’s all about the use cases. But use cases don’t matter if your app doesn’t work. As of this writing their app is still up and running. Meanwhile I’m writing this blog post.

Epilogue

By September of 2013 Joy and I had started an ecommerce company called SkinnyCoconutOil.com with her son. I was onboard as an SEO and IT advisor. My bio reflects what I was trying to accomplish at Seektivity:

I’d like to help people meet more people and do more things. I hear so many people say they don’t know what there is to do and don’t know who to do them with. I’m not talking about boyfriend/girflriend matchmaking – I’m talking about the question of how to make new friends and how to find new things to do. In a world with an overwhelming amount of information, people are more isolated than ever. I want to help fix that.

This problem is not from a lack of information, but from a lack of organization of that information. If Shoutt is not successful, someone else will be. In December of 2012 Foursquare added the ability to add events to a location. This problem is real and software like Foursquare, Shoutt, or Meetup can help bring people together and make the world a better, funner place. It’s all about #community.

What Happened to the Color App?

Why Did Instagram Succeed When the Color App Failed?

We hope you’ve enjoyed sharing your stories via real-time video. Regretfully, the [Color] app will no longer be available after 12/31/2012.

That was the message posted on Color.com [Update 7/15/2003: The site is no longer up.], the domain Color Labs paid $350,000 to acquire in 2011 almost a year after Instagram was founded. A year later their photo sharing app would be on the way out while Instagram was getting bought for a billion dollars. What went wrong? Why did Instagram succeed when Color failed?

Color vs. Instagram

What Happened to the Color AppColor Labs was a start-up based in Palo Alto, California whose main product was a social application for photos called Color. It allowed people to take and view photos matched to a location. Color grouped photos based on a user’s friends so that they are more likely to see those pictures that are most relevant. Like Color, Instagram is an online photo-sharing and social networking service that enables its users to take pictures and optionally tie them to a location. Unlike Color, users can apply digital filters to photos and share them on a variety of social networking services. It confines photos to a square shape, similar to Polaroid images, which along with the filters gave photos a retro look and feel.

A Difference in Startup Methodologies

Color Labs started after co-founders Bill Nguyen and Peter Pham received $41 million in funding between 2010 and 2011 from Sequoia Capital, Bain Capital, and Silicon Valley Bank before the app had a single user. Conversely, Instagram was started by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger in October 2010 with $500,000 and teams of just a few people. As Instagram introduced successful products and attracted users, they slowly raised more money and hired engineers. Meanwhile, Color Labs spent $350,000 to buy the domain color.com (and an additional $75,000 to buy colour.com), rents an office in downtown Palo Alto, California, where it employs 38 people to work in, according to the New York Times, “a space with room for 160, amid beanbag chairs, tents for napping and a hand-built half-pipe skateboard ramp.”

Instagram’s $500,000 seed funding round came on March 5, 2010 from Baseline Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz while Systrom was still working on Burbn. By February 2, 2011, it was announced that Instagram raised $7 million in Series A funding from a variety of investors, including Benchmark Capital, Jack Dorsey, Chris Sacca (through Capital fund), and Adam D’Angelo. The deal valued Instagram at around $25 million and later that month, Facebook made an offer to purchase Instagram and its 13 employees for approximately $1 billion in cash and stock. By May of 2012, the number of photos has exceeded one billion. Google offered to buy Color for $200 million in July of 2011, but Color Labs turned down the deal. They were later acquired by Apple (mostly for their patents and talent) in October 2012 for an undisclosed sum.

A Difference in Responses to the App

On March 24, 2011, Color Labs launched its first application “Color for Facebook” in Apple’s App Store and within a week released an update allowing users to see photos from events “Nearby”, a “Feed” of relevant photos, and a “History” of groups that users can participate in. In June 2011, less than three months after the company officially launched, Peter Pham left Color. When it first launched, the application had around 1 million downloads, but as of September 2011, the service had a little under 100,000 active users. The app was poorly recieved, attracting few users and many who did not understand what it was supposed to do. One reviewer in the Apple App Store wrote, “It would be pointless even if I managed to understand how it works.” Users were confused with the application’s user interface and purpose. Its initial rating in the App Store was 2 out of 5 stars.

For Instagram, the response was much different. It rapidly gained popularity, with over 100 million registered users as of January 2013. Support was originally available for only the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, but on April 3, 2012, support was added for Android phones. Instagram for Android was released[18] and it was downloaded more than one million times in less than one day. An app rating under 3.5 stars makes users considerably more reluctant to download the app. With an app rating of 2 out of 5 stars, the Color app was doomed. Once entered into the cycle of bad reviews it was nearly impossible to break out as there were wasn’t enough new downloads or positive press to bring the average back up and over the 3.5 stars mark. Meanwhile, as of this writing, Instagram has 4.5 stars ouf of 4 on the Apple App Store with over 62,000 reviews.

A Difference in Purpose

Color was first meant to help you find and share pictures related to your location, but Instagram was solving a different problem. They were making mobile camera photos look better. The Color app only worked if other people were using it (a chicken and egg problem), while Instagram solved a problem people had right away. This could have been because Kevin Systrom had already developed a check-in app called Burbn. Josh Williams of competitor check-in app, Gowalla, said, “Early user feedback, coupled with a desire to avoid the check-in battle…led them to drop everything to focus on one simple feature: photos. They made the act of taking and sharing photos (many of which just happened to be location-tagged) fast, simple, and fun.”

In Summary

Color was a company in search of a product. They didn’t have much more than a mountain of cash when they started, but it was spent on things like numerous employees, fancy offices, and marketing rather than product development, user feedback, and customer interviews. Color may become a PR lesson for the future as they may become legends for squandering one of the biggest and most covered product launches in app history. On the flip side, Instagram already had a product they were trying out, were listening to their users, and created a new company based on the results. They continued to listen to their users and made their product even better. They didn’t hire a bunch of people or spend a lot of time talking about their company. Their product solved a problem, people liked it, and they used it. Each company had a runaway effect, albeit in different directions. Once those directions were set in motion, it was hard to change them.

In closing, I’d like to quote from Color’s about page, which says a lot about how the company thought. If you have a different opinion about why Color app failed and Instagram succeeded, please let me and other readers know in the comments.

At Color, we believe in the opportunity that the new mobile era presents and are excited about developing products that transform the way people share the stories of their lives. We work collaboratively, iterate often, and enjoy problem solving. Color is a company of entrepreneurs and innovators, highly skilled in their respective specialties, constantly striving to learn and grow. We’ve cultivated a very relaxed and informal culture and enjoy our extra curricular activities, which include but are not limited to: ping pong tournaments, ball pit acrobatics and impromptu poker nights.

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