Interview with Anodyne Productions!
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with two leaders from Anodyne Productions, the company behind the most popular and most widely used software for Play-by-Post games on the net. From their humble beginnings several years ago, they’ve ascended to producing the premier simming solutions package. Instead of putting words in their mouths, here’s what they had to say…
Charles Star (CS): Today, I’m here with Anodyne Productions’ co-founder Jon Matterson and current CEO David VanScott. It’s good to see you guys.
David VanScott (DVS): We’re happy to be here. It isn’t every day we get the chance to really talk at length about Anodyne, so we’re excited about talking about the past, present, and future!
CS: Fantastic. Before we get into the specifics of Anodyne today and your signature product, Nova, can you tell me how your company came about in the early days? What void were you seeking to fill?
Jon Matterson (JM): In the early 2000s, most sims used both an informational website and a writing platform such as a mailing list, message board or chat room.
CS: Like an Angelfire or Geocities site plus a YahooGroup?
JM: Exactly. Anyway, as a new programmer at the time, enthusiastic for a challenge, I felt it could be done better. I started working on a single integrated system for my sim where posts, characters, news, etc., all flowed through a single site. As soon as I rolled it out, people started asking if they could get a copy of it. I thought about it for a minute and then promptly decided there was no way I’d give that code away–it was one of my first PHP projects ever and horribly messy. But I told them I’d start working on a new version that was more suited for a release. Six months and two versions later, the packaged version was ready to go.
JM: Yeah, I had a zip of the “Simm Management System v1.2” sitting on my computer, ready to be shipped out, but there were two things missing: a distribution channel and a development community. At the time, I was associated with several Star Trek writing organizations. Each of them had web properties and a handful of developers that might be able to get in on the platform. However, I knew that if I released the software under any one of them, the others would have looked skeptically upon it. That’s when the idea of Anodyne Productions
started to ferment, an independent organization dedicated to the production of free simming software.
DVS: I think that’s actually a big reason why Anodyne has thrived over the years. We don’t have any affiliations. A lot of people have tried, but we’ve always stuck to our guns on the idea that the best way for us to make awesome software for RPGs to use is by staying 100% independent. Of course, over the years, we’ve all been in various
fleets and organizations, but we don’t ever let those relationships drive what we do in Anodyne. It can be frustrating for some organizations sometimes, but it allows us to make the best possible decisions for our community and our products. At the end of the day, that’s what’s most important to us.
CS: I think it’s great that you’ve maintained your independence, which has facilitated a much wider audience for your products. Can you tell me more about that first fully integrated platform, the Simm Management System? How successful was it?
JM: As successful as any of us could have hoped! The Simm Management System took off right from the start. Within a couple weeks, we had a dozen or so sims using it.
JM: Yes. And within a couple months, that number had more than doubled. On the whole, the feedback was immensely positive:
- “It’s excellent i love it!”
- “With the SMS released I find now I have more time to do what I love.”
- “This is AWESOME. The design is so simple that I can edit things with little effort, and now I have more time to dedicate to roleplaying.”
- “SMS takes the cake!”
- “The work you do is appreciated.”
JM: For anyone building free software, this is the sort of stuff that propels you forward. As soon as SMS 1.2 was out the door, work began on the next version. The community offered more than inspiring words though. They also submitted bug reports and feature requests, and just as I’d hoped when establishing Anodyne, a few started contributing back once they’d gotten their feet wet. Where I wrote every line of code that went into SMS 1.2, by the time SMS 1.5 made it out the door, it had seven contributors and David had taken up the reigns as its new lead developer.
CS: It’s amazing that you were able to build such a dynamic community so quickly.
JM: I think, if asked what Anodyne’s biggest success early on was, I would say it was the community. If it wasn’t for modifications from Jeremy, Wade, Nathan, Richard, Volak and others, or the marketing efforts of Cordell, or the testing and bug reports of so many, or ultimately David’s willingness to step into a leadership role when real-life forced me to pull back, Anodyne would not have made it to SMS 2, let alone Nova.
DVS: It’s kind of funny to talk about SMS 1.2 these days because it really was a lifetime ago! When you stop and look back at RPG management over the last 10 years, it’s kind of incredible to see how far it’s come. Anodyne certainly wasn’t the first to come out with this kind of tool, but unlike others, we really focused very hard on the community. Like Jon said, we were getting huge contributions from the community at the get-go and that really set SMS apart. It really game SMS a very grassroots type of feel to it; everyone contributed to make it better.
CS: What led to the eventual replacement of SMS with Nova? And what big advantages does Nova have over SMS?
JM: SMS started as a pet project for me to learn PHP and provide a more integrated experience for my sim. Somewhere along the way, it evolved into a shareable piece of code, but SMS 1.2 still lacked a ton of polish. SMS 1.5 filled in the gaps with over thirty new features, but it still shared the same code base as SMS 1.2 – which, by our standards today, was extremely primitive. Its simplicity helped with its initial rise – people used to getting their hands dirty with the PHP, as had been required before SMS, could get in there and make a lot happen – but over time, there was a demand for it to be far more plug-and-play. There was a lot of discussion among the development community, and ultimately Anodyne took the plunge into a new architecture for SMS 2.
DVS: It’s pretty amazing when you realize that SMS was really the first steps in web programming for both of us. When I first got my hands on SMS, I’d never dug into code before. It was as much a learning experience for me as it was for Jon. It’s really easy to get so wrapped up in doing things “right” that you never end up shipping your product, but back then, we really just had this reckless abandon to get it out there and learn from our mistakes (and there were plenty of them). It really is this fantastic process where you learn from what you’ve done before. I’m sure Jon will agree that building SMS taught him what to do and not to do and those experiences helped him become a better programmer. Likewise, I learned what mistakes I’d made with my own work on SMS and that informed my decisions about SMS 2 and eventually Nova, too.
CS: What a great example of group learning in terms of feedback and development.
DVS: Like Jon mentioned already, in the earliest days, SMS thrived on community contributions. It kind of felt like the wild west in some ways. If you had an idea, you built it. It may not have been part of the SMS core, but it was there on the forums for anyone to install. People asked questions and learned how to do all these neat things with what was, at the time, a very raw product. Those contributions from so many people really became the heart and soul of SMS and have even carried through to Nova.
CS: That sounds similar to some of the many open source success stories on the internet. What were some of the best suggestions you received?
DVS: The awards system was something that wasn’t in SMS 1.2, but a contributor built it and it’s been a core feature since SMS 1.5. Multi-author posts wasn’t on anyone’s radar during SMS 1, but a contributor built it and people can’t imagine RPG management without it! The list goes on, but there are a lot of core features in Nova
today that came from the community.
CS: Very interesting… many of the features I take for granted!
DVS: Even today, we get ideas on the forums about ways to make Nova better and we love hearing those things! These days, we don’t have very many people building the features themselves like back in the “good ole days” but we still have a very creative community that wants to see Nova become as useful as possible in as many ways possible. Our role has kind of changed over the years though. We see ourselves more as curators of Nova more than anything. Sometimes it’s about figuring out what shouldn’t go in to the core as much as what should. It’s a
tough balance to strike sometimes, but we’re never short on ideas from the community.
DVS: As for the most challenging thing we’ve added from customer feedback, I’d probably have to say post locking. Several folks in the community had the idea that posts should lock when someone is editing them so 2 people don’t overwrite each other’s changes. It was really tough to find the right balance, but once we did, it become a wildly successful feature.
CS: Do you have any idea how many games use Nova today?
DVS: For a little while, we tracked all kinds of stats, but we haven’t tracked those numbers in a long time. Before we stopped though, I think we had almost 300 unique sites running Nova. Seeing something like that is deeply rewarding because of all the hard work that’s gone into it. At the same time though, it’s also incredibly intimidating,
too. There are a lot of people using Nova and they’re trusting that we’re not going to screw up their game!
CS: Indeed, and I’m one of those many! I tend to see Nova used with Star Trek sims much moreso than with other genres. Is that correct?
JM: I would definitely agree – although with the caveat that there’s no technical reason anymore for this to be the case, as Nova provides everything you need to spin up a sim in pretty much any genre.
CS: Why is that then?
JM: The primary reason, I think, is marketing. SMS’s rise in Star Trek simming didn’t come effortlessly. For the first couple years of Anodyne’s existence, we had a staff member devoted to public relations, and we all put a lot of effort went in to bringing people on-board with the software–but we were mostly attached to Star Trek simming groups. By the time we added multi-genre support in full, there wasn’t quite as much of a marketing push anymore.
JM: I also think part of it was the cohesiveness of the Star Trek community. There aren’t many genres with writing groups that have been around for more than ten years with dozens of sims at any time – yet in Star Trek, there are several. By putting the word out to four or five Fleets, we were letting hundreds of sims know about our software.
In some ways, it was this which allowed the rapid and thorough rise of SMS/Nova in the Star Trek genre.
DVS: I think that really boils down to the “SMS Effect.” SMS was a Star Trek-only system, so other genres simply didn’t have the option of using it. Because of that, Star Trek gaming organizations already knew about Nova and it’s been a little slow to expand into other games. You also have to look at what offerings other genres have out
there too. There aren’t as many Battlestar Galactica games as there are Star Trek games.
CS: You’ve already mentioned a few, but what are some of the most important special features of Nova?
DVS: I think there really are a handful of features that make Nova what it is today:
- Posting. Having the ability to play your entire game from a single site just makes life so much easier. I know some people prefer using aforum instead, but for those who can get used to the whole “play by web” experience, it really is a great way to keep everything together. And when I talk about posting, it really is all-inclusive of things like multi-authored posts, post locking, saving posts to work on, and everything else that goes along with it. Nova really boils down to the posting system.
- Characters/Users. I was recently helping someone who’s running a game through a Yahoo group and an HTML site. Every time one of his players wants to change their bio, they email him the changes and he makes them. Surrendering that kind of control to the players themselves is a huge timesaver.
- Customization. Being able to change the look and feel of Nova with some HTML and CSS is huge. I know that there aren’t a ton of people skinning Nova these days, but they’re out there and those people are able to help games look a little more unique and maybe have people stop and look at what they’re doing. Even beyond that, little things like changing rank sets is actually a huge thing for game masters. They love having that kind of control and it’s a big part of what Nova is.
- Developer tools. Nova has come a long way from the earliest SMS days and we really pride ourselves on allow Nova to be customized in a lot of different ways. If you know what you’re doing, you can do just about anything with Nova.
CS: How customizable is Nova?
JM: While I might be a little biased, today I’m mostly just an end user of Nova – and from my perspective, it’s reached that point where, if there’s the will, there’s the way. I’ve made some substantial modifications on my current sim, and Nova really hasn’t gotten in the way all that much. Only a few times, such as when changing some core text processing logic, have I even had to modify a core file.
JM: I think the biggest hurdle out there right now is that modding Nova heavily right now can lead to pains when you upgrade–but this is not a problem unique to Nova, and what David’s got in the works for Nova 3 looks fitted to really cut down on the upgrade pains for those folks who make deep seated modifications.
DVS: I think you’re always going to have issues when you modify a system like some people do with Nova. There are just too many factors to take into account. The biggest thing is to communicate the changes that are coming so that skin and MOD developers can make sure their stuff is ready to go for the next version. That’s always been a
challenge with Nova, but we’re committed to getting that information and those changes out to people as quickly as possible, including make some pretty sweeping changes over the next few years to make sure that’s the case.
CS: Definitely. How many people are on your team?
DVS: Over the years, the team has fluctuated. Originally, it was just Jon and Cordell handling everything. After SMS was out in the open, I stumbled across the product and started using it. I added a bunch of MODs to SMS and eventually was asked to step in and help out with SMS. As Jon’s time became more sparse, he handed over the reins to me. Since then, I’ve had a designer, a developer, a QA person, and a support person at different points. Today though, it’s just me.
CS: That sounds like a lot to handle!
DVS: There’s always a desire to get more people involved, but it’s important to make sure it’s the right people. We’re not looking to add people for the sake of adding people. It needs to be a very natural and organic process.
JM: And I’m still lurking in the corner, hoping to bite some off once I finish up a big project over in Bravo Fleet.
DVS: And that project alone is really exciting, not just for what it means for Bravo Fleet, but also how Nova 3 will be able to tie in to it as well in the future!
CS: I can’t wait to see that. If someone wanted to get involved with Anodyne, how would you suggest they do so?
DVS: I think the best place to start is on the forums. There are always questions being asked or people looking for help with a skin or a MOD. That’s the way to get our attention. Back in the early days, people did that kind of stuff; they just jumped in and helped out and that’s really what kept Anodyne moving forward. I think that’s really the best place to start.
CS: Great advice. How has the simming community changed since you first founded Anodyne?
JM: Back in the old days, making a website was one of the biggest hurdles for running a sim. Today, anyone with an interest in storycraft can spin up a sim without any knowledge of how to build a website. This has made simming more accessible than ever.
DVS: Neither of us are prideful people, but we do take a lot of pride in the fact that Anodyne really has helped transform the way people play their games today. I honestly believe Anodyne, SMS and Nova have had the single biggest impact on making these games more available and accessible to a wider audience over the last 8 years. Before, it was a chore to run a game. Today, it’s a lot easier and that’s always been our biggest driving force.
CS: Indeed, the community is ever changing, and Anodyne has been able to stay ahead of the curve. And for the final question, what should we expect from Anodyne over the next few months and years?
DVS: *In his best Admiral Ackbar voice* It’s a traaaaaap!
DVS: I always hate this question because I feel like it puts us in a corner. That being said, I think it’s important to highlight some of the stuff we’re working on behind closed doors.
CS: Of course.
DVS: Obviously we’re working on Nova 3, and that’s simply a massive undertaking. No timeframe on that, but it’s gonna be huge. Much like the jump from SMS to Nova, moving from Nova 2 to Nova 3 is going to feel like a totally different product. I think a lot of people are going to be wondering how they survived all these years without some of the things we’re adding (social application review, built-in forums, totally revamped messaging system, responsive design throughout Nova to make it easier to use it on different devices, brand new rank system, brand new access control system, and the list goes on…). I can give you this timeframe though: not 2014.
CS: Wow, that sounds impressive. What about the immediate future?
DVS: There are some pretty cool things on the horizon for 2014. The first thing, and something we’ve wanted to do for a while now, a full-blown site for community extras. The current version of AnodyneXtras only has first-party solutions, but we’re going to open it up to the entire community to upload their MODs, skins and rank sets that anyone will be able to download. It should be a huge thing for the community and for helping people get their skins and MODs out there for more people to see.
CS: That will be great.
DVS: We’re also committed to providing new learning tools for our products. To help with that, we’re looking at building a learning management system where people will be able to enroll in classes to learn more about skinning Nova and developing for Nova. We’re looking at the idea of offering certifications through that so that people can
prove their mettle with these different topics and lend them some credence in their organization. Wouldn’t it be awesome if a fleet or organization had someone who could say they were a Gold certified Nova skin developer? People would know exactly who to go to. Same thing goes for MOD development and support. We’re excited about the possibilities!
CS: Jon and David, thanks again for talking with me today. I’m sure the Ongoing Worlds readers will really appreciate the info and insights you’ve provided. Best of luck with everything!
DVS: Thanks for having us!
JM: You bet.