Earn Experience Points While Reading with The Game of Books
An Interview with BookLamp CEO Aaron Stanton
On December 17 of last year, the Boise tech startup Novel Projects not only joined the 44% of submitted Kickstarter projects to successfully reach their funding goal, but one of 401 projects to raise over $100,000 in the process. Their third project, following the success of the BookGenome Project and BookLamp.com (“the Pandora of books”), is The Game of Books, which promises to merge the worlds of literature and gaming into an interactive experience. Participants in The Game of Books earn experience points and other rewards which they can share with their friends by a mobile app or kit found in their local library or classroom.
Aaron Stanton is CEO and founder of BookLamp as well as a former games editor, passionate businessman, and all-around great guy. I sat down with Aaron where we discussed his career so far, his experience with Kickstarter,the next step for The Game of Books, as well as stories in video games and the missing link between Reading Rainbow and Star Trek.
It was in 2011 you launched BookLamp, correct?
Yes and no. In 2011 we re-launched BookLamp. We had a serious launch, a first time coming out party, for the BookLamp.org, but the project - the book genome project - that powers BookLamp got our start from something called cangooglehearme.com, back around 2007 or so when I was just out of college.
The initial concept for the Book Genome Project came from long before we had any books in our system. We needed the full text of a book for our software to work, and Google had just come out with Google Books. I wanted to connect with Google because they had access to books, and I thought that stylistic analysis for recommendations was valuable.
After a while I bought myself a plane ticket to Mountain View, California where Google is based, and I blogged about it. I went to California and I sat in their lobby. And the journey went viral. Cangooglehearme.com was a blog and it went from something like 5 people to 180,000 people coming through the site in the next few days. That was my first connection and experience with the industry. The journey was covered by Mashable and TechCrunch and many others, including articles in languages all across the world. I've been mailed articles from Iran, Iraq, India, and many others. I was on the front page of the largest newspaper in Australia, apparently. So if you were looking for an official “start” it was probably back then, when I put together a team to work on BookLamp after that adventure and really started to harness development in 2008. And the data from all that work is also powering The Game of Books.
How did the BookLamp and the Book Genome Project lead to the conceptualization of the Game of Books?
Everything is powered by the same primary technology engine.The Book Genome project, which was the foundation for the tool that is used to analyze a book, breaks a book down into chapters and measures writing style and theme, things like Pacing, Dialogue, Density, and if a book is 5 % vampires or 15% vampires. That data powers both BookLamp, the discovery method, and The Game of Books.
In some ways, The Game of Books is a way to think about data in a less technical way. It sounds pretty technical to say a book is 17% about vampires, but if we can look at it differently, and say, “If you read this book, you will earn 17 vampire experience points,” then it's not nearly as technical. It’s much more engaging. That’s where The Game of Books came from. As gamers ourselves, we wanted to combine our loves into something that empowered reading. Think of The Game of Books as a gaming engine for reading, a layer of data underneath every book that the entire game is built upon.
Can you explain how the Game of Books will work, particularly with the two different products of the kit and the app?
The Game of Books ultimately is intended to be platform independent, so that you can play it on many platforms. I don’t mean platforms like just PC, web or mobile. I mean platforms like Goodreads, and to have an API that someone like Goodreads could connect to and let their users engage with The Game without leaving home, so-to-speak.
It’s designed to power multiple locations. In terms of products, there is the app, the website, and all will behave similarly. You'll be able to use them to record how many books you have read, find what points you have earned, and any other mechanisms in the Game. The kits are really intended for students in families, classrooms and libraries, where we very much wanted that a library or classroom with a limited budget can play The Game of Books. That means we can’t rely on every student having a cell phone, and we can’t rely on every person in the library to have access to their own personal communication device. You have to be able to make The Game playable in an analog form to some degree. The kits contain things like bookmarks, stickers, and rewards that you can collect through your journey. It allows you to play and track your score without a digital device. You have to have access to the Internet from time to time to learn how many points you earn for each book, but it's intended to be lighter touch than, say, an iPhone app alone.
I saw on your Kickstarter page there are some pretty obscure badges you created for the game,what were some of the crazier badges you have made so far?
Well, you can get really crazy if you like. Badges are given to books that have unique themes or writing style, and combinations of them. So, the number of badges is technically limited by the number of theme combinations that can exist. Currently, there are 131 elements of thematic measures, but in the next generation tools that we are using for The Game of Books, there are somewhere in the range of 1,000 individual thematic measures. A badge is a reward for combinations, and that's a lot of combinations. But, for the time being, badges will be created to help balance The Game, so that you don't earn badges too easily, but they're not too hard to find as you explore the written universe, either.
At the moment, one of my favorite badges is called the Nerdy Vampire badge, which you earn by reading a book with both a high degree of vampires and a high degree of science, technology, or astronomy. It's a fairly rare badge, but one of the books that earns it is about a bunch of vampires running around a NASA space station. You see how these kinds of elements come together to create unique badges, sort of treasures that you can collect for visiting unusual environments in what you read. The key is figuring out what badges should exist.
You also don't want to punish a book for not earning a badge, which is where ReaderXP comes in. Part of the reason we use experience points is so that every single book, regardless if it earns a badge or not, contributes to a reader's score.
In video games there are big rewards and minor rewards. A bigger reward is like when you beat a level you can move on to the next level, minor rewards are like collecting coins in Mario or collecting a power upgrade. The problem is that you can’t do minor rewards like that for books without an awful lot of data about every section of a book. So in terms of gamification in relation to badges, badges are the completion of a level, the big reward, but I’m more excited about the experience points, these micro rewards that allow me to receive a little bit of benefit by reading a little bit and a lot of benefit by reading a lot. So if I am a high level vampire reader, it means I have spent a lot of time in universes from books that are about vampires. That's where I tend to hangout when I read. It's almost a measure of what you've been exposed to.
One of the most exciting parts about it to me is to be able to compare with friends and see how I as a reader differ from them.
Yeah, I think so, too. One of the things that is interesting, well two things are interesting from that perspective. One is that I'm primarily a fantasy/science fiction reader, but I also read a lot of non-fiction business books. So if you look at my profile I’m a fairly high level reader in total, but there are subcategories. When I say I read Fantasy, I actually mean I read a sub-category of fantasy. I read swords and sorcery style fantasy, like Tolkien, I don’t read as much about magical creatures, I don’t do a lot of dragons, I don’t do a lot of unicorns.That’s a distinction I wasn’t making consciously when I say, “I like Fantasy,” but it's very true, nonetheless. But the other thing is that I also level up very strongly in things like economics and conferences, because of the business side of things, and so my basic profile is very representative of me. I look at it and I’m like, “Oh, I guess I do have that interesting side and I have that boring side. That's true.”
You decided to raise the money for the Game of Books by Kickstarter, how was that experience and why were you attracted to that method of funding?
First, it was terrifying. It was pure terror. You expect there to be some interest at launch, and then there will be this long period in the middle where there is not much traction. So we entered the project thinking to ourselves, “We are going to market it like a traditional product throughout, dedicated PR, and we are going to try to gain momentum and get media mentions out there so we don’t have this lull at the center. And then you quickly find out that the media generally does not cover a Kickstarter that has not been funded, for the most part. There are so many Kickstarter campaigns that don't make it, so the media is very skeptical. We would say, “Hey, here is interesting stuff in publishing,” and they would say, “Sure, this is interesting, but call us when you're funded.”
And so the way we had been trained to do our marketing and outreach kind of fell apart. We had an interesting idea, so it was terrifying because we fell in that exact trap we were trying to avoid. We had an initial burst of traction at the beginning and there was this big hole in the center. During that big hole, you start reevaluating and questioning everything. You start questioning the very foundation of the concept, of whether or not it was a good idea, or if you're on the path of failing to hit your goals. You make as many adjustments to your approach as you can, and keep going. And, as with most successful Kickstarters, between the combination of the tweaks to the story and the last minute nature of the ending of the project, it had a fantastic last-minute viral traction and took off.
It went through the roof. I remember reading an interview with Peter Molyneux where he made this comment, they were running a Kickstarter event at a similar time, and they had a goal larger than ours. And he said the exact same thing, he said “Oh it was terrible, we were sitting there, we had this big rush at the beginning and then a big slot in the middle where it didn’t look like we were going to make it. And I was really sitting there questioning everything I’d ever done on this.” But at the same time, Kickstarter is an excellent lean start-up tool. It allows you to test, modify, and tweak your product long before you commit to actually building it. So, from the start-up perspective, even a failed Kicktstarter, as long as you learn the right lessons from it, is very powerful.
I can’t wait until the Aaron Sorkin "Game of Books" movie where you are on the plane and turn off your phone in the final hours of the Kickstarter and you were just going to wait until you got off to see if it was funded or not, that happened right?
Yeah, I didn’t plan that but it was kind of fun how it worked out. There was something about it that rings of “Fate,” in that story. There was a point where I had cast my dice. I’m going to get on the plane and when it lands, it lands and there is nothing more I can do from this point on out. I’ve been involved in a number of startups and as you see more and more of them you get more confident in your ability by sheer force of will make something happen when it's really important to you. That by working really hard, putting in a huge commitment of time and energy, and believing in it, and understanding the market, and doing everything you can, you can make something happen. But by the end of the Kickstarter, I realized that I reached the end of what I was able to do. Whatever will be, will be. I had pulled the levers I knew how to pull. It was out there, and was now up to the rest of the community to respond or not. So, I made my last update to the Kickstarter from my cell phone in the terminal at the Boise airport, got onto the plane, turned it off, and took off. By the time I landed again in New York, about 8 hours later, the Kickstarter had closed while I was out of communications, and I got to see how we'd done.
Why the price point of 102,364?
We decided that we were going to raise 100,000 dollars, and then I was about to submit the Kickstarter for review and I thought, “$100,000 is so typical, it would be really cool if we could do something a little more interesting.” That was very naive of me,because I now know how rare $100,000 campaigns are, and how few of them actually succeed. Only 380 other campaigns in the history of Kickstarter have been successfully funded at that level, as of today.
But at the time, I thought $100,000 seemed too boring. I wanted something that connected both the sort of nerdy books with nerdy Science Fiction. I was looking at combining nerdy books with nerdy technology stuff, and I’m a big Star trek fan and I used to watch Reading Rainbow with Levar Burton, who played Geordi La Forge. He was basically the bridge between the universe of reading and technology. I first planned on using his birthday – from Star Trek - but the numbers wouldn’t work. They would be too large or somehow not fit, so I had to look around until I found this date that was suitably honorific enough to be kind of fun but wasn’t setting the goal too high. What I ended up on was the date that Geordi La Forge joined the Starship Enterprise in the Next Generation.
As a reader and a gamer, how do you feel about storytelling in games and how they compare to books? Are there certain types of stories suited to either medium? How do you think stories in games can improve?
That’s a fantastic question. I’m a huge supporter of storytelling in games, for me personally it’s one of the primary drivers of what I like about games. I remember a game called Advent Rising a few years back for the Xbox and I remember being super excited about it because it was written by Orson Scott Card, who was one of my all-time favorite science fiction writers. I remembered being so excited and then the game universally did not get good reviews; it ended up not being great. I bought a copy, and thought about buying a second because I was worried they wouldn't finish the trilogy, and not end the story. And they never did, sadly. I remember being so disappointed, but what I love is finding a game that has a well-developed story or plot. Beyond Good & Evil was a fantastic example, and one of the first games I remember playing like that was Fallout II. The first time you are playing Halo and the Flood appears, the first time it’s a transcendental experience. I do think that there are certain stories that are easier to tell in video games, partly by genre. Science Fiction lends itself to the mechanical infrastructure of the unreal engine that most games use. You see stories based around that science fiction, and the overlap between science fiction fans and gamers is high. Much more so than I’d say romance and video games. But what I really like is when you take fantastic ideas seriously. I really like the concept of Kingdom Hearts because I like the mixture of childhood imagery from Disney with the more adult style RPG elements that you have to take seriously. So I always liked that intermixing in games. I respond to the same sort of thing in books. In books I look for the same sort of plot twists, the same unexpected nature as a game, as I go through a book, if that makes sense. They're highly interconnected mediums, in my opinion.
Finally, what is the next step for your team now that the project is successfully funded?
I’m a fan of what’s called a lean startup methodology, which basically means that you identify the most simple version of what you want to release, and then release it fast and get feedback. You don't build inside of an ivory tower. This way, you can ask people to tell you if you are on the right track or not, and then modify the product to make it better quickly based on their reactions. In the past, we made the mistake pulling back in on ourselves with our cool projects, and we were very proprietary and secretive around the technology we were building. The Game of Books doesn’t need that. We want to be very public about what we're trying to do. That's the advantage of being genuinely honest in your effort to do cool things; you just do what you think is best, do it publicly, and you might not be great, but you also don't have to be ashamed of people's thoughts on it.
So in August 2013, we are supposed to be releasing a mobile app, but long before we actually do that, I want to create and release very simple versions on the web as we go. So, for many of the design concepts we do, put them out on a website where people play with them and can submit feedback. We can say, “Here's a feature, and we think it'll work really well and be nifty. What do you think?” Ultimately we want to design a game that we enjoy playing, but not built in the dark. So to the point of the question, the next step is to put structures in place to allow everyone to be engaged in the period it'll take us to build and execute on The Game of Books. Not to the degree that we aren’t paying attention to actually building the product, of course, but so that there are no surprises for anyone, and good ideas can be heard. And then when that's in place, to build the best damn product that we know how to.