The painful death throes of a shiny thing.

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Bruce Baugh's one of the better people I know, both in general and from my RPG developer's days. These days, he's covering Roleplaying Games and other such stuff at the shiny, new Tor.com blog, which means... well, y'know. He's a blogger now. About cool things. Kickass.

Well, Mr. Baugh done pinged me last week over a new thing on Facebook -- Dungeons and Dragons Tiny Adventures. And it's sweeping Facebook like a hungry fire, desperately burning through profiles hungry for time sinks and glitter in the wake of the death of Scrabulous. He's blogged about it himself, with a more formal review than I'm going to give it. I'll just try to hit the high points.

Dungeons and Dragons Tiny Adventures is a Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro designed app, meant to be advertising for the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. And I'll be honest -- it's shiny and cute, and proves once again that you don't need monumental graphics or even true interactivity to make a compelling game. In Tiny Adventures, you create a character -- a Dwarf Warlord, say, or a Half-Elf Paladin, or a cross section of others. There's no questions of alignment or stuff like that. You name your character. You get starting equipment. And then you send your character out on a quest.

And I mean the above, by the way. You don't go out on a quest. You send your character out on a quest. And every few minutes -- anything from five minutes to fifteen depending on server load, on average -- you get a report back of one of his encounters. An encounter, for the record, seems to be defined as "any situation where you roll a d20." It might be a strength check, or a wisdom check, or an attack, or defending against being attack. Your character has a given difficulty number he has to roll over, he has his d20 roll, and he has any applicable bonuses due to statistics, magical effects, or other. He either makes or fails that roll, and either way, you get a brief paragraph or two describing what the situation was and what happened in it. Either way, he either gets some experience and/or some gold, and sometimes he finds equipment or a magical item or two. Adventures seem to run anywhere from six to fifteen encounters, which gives you a nice little synopsis of the adventure he had. And a given adventure will therefore take somewhere from a half hour to three hours when everything's running properly.

That's it. You don't actually do any of the dice rolling. You don't make any decisions in the encounters. Your relationship to your character is less role playing and more a sponsorship like the Christian Children's Fund. ("For just 2 silver pieces a day, you can adopt this Dragonborn Ranger, and make sure he has enough food to eat and healing potions to drink.") In between encounters you can use one of the two potions you've chosen for him to equip for the adventure. You can buy and sell magical items, and equip any of the non-potion ones. But otherwise, you're pretty much running on automatic.

Sounds dull, right?

It's not.

One of the things is -- when you send your character on his adventure, he goes through to the end. If you leave your computer and go do actual things, he continues plucking away -- you might find he's gone unconscious and failed the adventure when you come back, or he might be a conquering hero with a Dragon's head in his hand. But either way, it's a wonderfully light sense of engagement. You do the things you can do, and you wait for the timer to count down, but otherwise you don't have to monofocus on the game. You can go ahead and do all your normal online activities.

And, like the best Facebook apps -- especially when those apps are really thinly disguised advertisements -- there is the networking aspect.

You see, one of your tabs says "Friends," and when you click on it, every one of your Facebook friends who's also playing the game has his or her character appear in the list, along with their name. You can see their level, what adventure they're running, how many encounters they're into it, how much experience they need for the next level, and how many hit points they have left. And you can affect their character. If the character is in between adventures and is injured, you can send their character healing, making them ready to go back out all the faster. If they're actually involved in an adventure, you can send a 'buff' to them, giving them up to +2 on all their ability checks for three encounters. If you have a good number of friends playing, and you're all on at once, you can spend a good amount of that ten minutes counting down just clicking on buff and heal icons. It costs you nothing. And you have a list of all your friends who've sent you healing or buffs.

And that's genius. It creates a sense of camaraderie without actually requiring actual contact. You can be feeling entirely antisocial and still buff your college buddies' characters, and you can see a list of people who've actually sent you just the tiniest bit of goodwill. That's the kind of app that succeeds -- low investment, good emotional reward. That's using Facebook well, and this tiny little app is one of the best expressions of Facebook's innate capability for connection and advertising to come out recently.

That is the blessing of Dungeons and Dragons Tiny Adventures. It is also its curse.

You see if this was just a game where you had a character who went off and had adventures without you but couldn't put on a pair of gloves without your say so, you could just call it "Developmentally Disabled Adventures" and call it a day. This would scale up immeasurably, because each transaction could be queued up. There might sometimes be moderately high system load, but it wouldn't be any big deal. Just databases and algorithms, after all.

But, consider this. The database has to track every person on your friends list, and note which one's signed up for the app. When someone new signs up for the app, it has to flag every one he's friends with at the same time all his friends are checked for flags. When you hit the Friends tab, it has to query the status of all your friends' characters, indicate who can be healed, who can be buffed, who has been healed or buffed, and who's healed or buffed you. In real time. And refresh it every time you click an icon.

Since this game came out, it has grown exponentially -- and it has followed a viral pattern of friendslists. Which means that system load and bandwidth requirements have just exploded. The first day of the game the player base melted the server that Dungeons and Dragons Tiny Adventures runs on into slag. They upgraded bandwidth, servers, and ultimately providers. And that got us into the weekend.

By Sunday, their new much more robust server was -- you guessed it -- melted into slag. And according to the front page of the currently non-functional app, there is a strong possibility that all character data will need to be rolled back to Friday. Which means tens of thousands of characters and millions of encounters with their attendant experience, items and gold will just vanish. My own Dwarf Warlord will probably drop from fifth level to second, and have hard won buffs and magical items melt into the aether.

They promised to get the server back by noon P.S.T. They're now saying six P.S.T. It wouldn't shock me if it was later still. And I have no idea how they're going to ultimately fix this. They've clearly had to rewrite half the game optimizing it, but so long as there is the hope that the game will return and be stable, then the game's population will mushroom, and despite the fact that we're discussing a tiny little text based game where turns only trigger every fifteen minutes with as little direct interactivity as possible, the only thing this game can do is swell up beyond the bandwidth and processor capacity of whatever server it's running on and whatever provider has been contracted for it. It's the kind of problem we saw a lot of in the nineties, and it's the exact same kind of problem that makes Twitter so infamously unreliable now -- as users join the game, they represent a lot more processor activity than one more user on the system, and systems can only scale so much.

In the meantime, when Tiny Adventures comes back, I'll play it again, even though I'll probably need to rebuild my character back up. Worse things have happened to me, after all, and as I'm going into the Ohmygodbusy part of my year (ah, September at a school), a game where I can click a few icons, then walk away from it for fifteen minutes or longer and still have it doing stuff is appealing.

But, unless it becomes so unreliable that it gets a reputation and becomes largely abandoned, Tiny Adventures is going to have a rocky road of it. Time will tell if the potential advertising benefit of millions of people seeing the D&D 4th Edition logo and learning some of the basic terms and concepts outweighs the hosting costs and developer time required to keep it from exploding again.

11 Comments

Is it sad that I giggle? I mean, it's a cute app, which makes me giggle. And then it's a cute app which melts things into slag, which makes me giggle in the sense of "I'm not on Facebook so I can get a snicker at others' pain and the lack of foresight of what happens when something becomes *popular*."

I may have a teeny bit of sadism in me, due to headache.

Good luck to teeny adventures, I guess!

So, it's kind of like a branded version of Progress Quest that connects with other people? Admittedly, it's kind of an amusing thrill to wind up your little adventurer and watch him go. But it's limited... I personally find it bores after a couple weeks, and I would imagine that this app will go the same way - some dedicated followers, but it won't take long before it's pretty much ignored.

Aw how cute! Lookit the adventurers go.

If I were the type to actually have a Facebook account, I would be all over that.

I coded the app. It melted the server into slag. Then I coded v.2 of the app - and it melted the server into slag. And then I coded v.3 of the app ... and it caught fire, fell into the swamp, and melted the server into slag...

It is back up, and I've started the grind back up from 2nd (thankfully about 2 encounters from 3rd).

I've had a Facebook account for almost a year and hardly used it. This got me to sign in. Sure, it's a stupid little app, but for some reason, it's fun. One of my non-gamer coworkers even gave it a try. Be interesting to hear her take on it tomorrow.

The Facebook game: Tiny Adventures
needs a full-time staff of pro quenchers.
Its servers melt down
as users go to town;
it kills every one it indentures.

My first thought upon seeing the headline was, "Wow, what a weird way to describe the end of 'Casey and Andy.'"

(I gotta get on Facebook. Or at least get some sleep.)

Coriolinus: You must work for the NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me's Limerick Staff.

I would bet they got this idea from application the Final Fantasy staff made that involves turning your iPod song into a FF character. I hear if you use a Weird Al Yankovic song, it turns into a very powerful moogle.

For the record, they've got it back up, and yes we've had a rollback -- though we had enough warning that it doesn't really annoy. It's just "aw darn. Welp! Time to go back to work!"

Also for the record? Yup, we're in the process of melting the server into slag once more. Damnable slag.

Most tellingly -- one or two clickthroughs will usually get the adventure or inventory or store pages to load, but trying to load your Friends page (in application) is choking way harder. I'm not sure this is a resolvable problem without actually moving so many resources into this that it can't possibly be economically prudent for Hasbro.

Casey and Andy finally wrapped up? Archive binge away!

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