When a plan doesn't come together

I love it when a plan doesn't come together.

I've been working on my Interactive Storyworld Phosphors of the Dark, which told the story of the computer revolution from the perspective of folks trying to build both a computer and a company around it. It's been my focus for a long time now, starting off life as a table top roleplaying game, taking a brief detour as a board game, back to a table top roleplaying game, and then as an interactive storyworld.

And today I think I'm ready to let it go into the world. Give the idea to someone else. Maybe they can do something with it.

I didn't think this would be the case, but it took me leafing through the book Programmers at Work. And then it hit me.

All of these stories are about survival bias or cautionary tales.

The story of Apple and Microsoft? Survival bias. Smart people working together to make something amazing. Oh, and being in the right place at the right time to exert their will on an industry.

The story of Bill Gates? Survivorship bias. Oh, and being in the right place at the right time to exert pressure on an industry.

Jack Tramiel? Amazing fellow and someone who's story needs to be told proper. And also someone who was at the right time to exert pressure on an industry. (Jack would have figured heavily in the story, but I never actually got to where I wrote any of his material).

All of the success stories in this industry are stories of cunning, deception, greed, and colossal hubris.

It's fantastic grist for a story, but the more I looked at this book I realized why I've been struggling with this storyworld.

I've spent most of my career thinking of these folks as amazing folks. The chosen ones. The anointed that figured it out. The gurus.

Plain old survivorship bias.

Survivorship bias explains it thusly:

Survivorship bias or survival bias is the logical error of concentrating on entities that passed a selection process while overlooking those that did not. This can lead to incorrect conclusions because of incomplete data.

Survivorship bias is a form of selection bias that can lead to overly optimistic beliefs because multiple failures are overlooked, such as when companies that no longer exist are excluded from analyses of financial performance. It can also lead to the false belief that the successes in a group have some special property, rather than just coincidence as in correlation "proves" causality.

I don't know much about the companies that didn't make it. And part of the story I wanted to tell was about folks doing their very best while being doomed to failure. The IBM PC would crush anything they did over time. It crushed everything that I loved: the Atari, the Sinclair, and anything that wasn't a PC.

I wanted to tell their stories. The folks who once ruled the world but were slowly pulled under by their hubris, greed, and failure to realize that they needed to become small avian creatures instead of lumbering beasts beating each other up.

The obvious one that did manage to become the foil for IBM PC dominance was Apple, and even they succumbed to eventually becoming yet-another-Intel machine.

Trouble is there's hundreds of folks singing the praises of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

The story I was telling was essentially the story of Apple with the Steves filed off. I was telling a story of Survivorship Bias.

This is my second attempt at telling this story. And while it's interesting and took some interesting turns I'm basically telling the story of Apple. That's because nobody tells the story of Cromemco, North Star Computers, or even Ohio Scientific. They're extras in the story of Apple, of the Homebrew Computer Club, of The People's Computer Club.

Someone needs to dig up those stories. Perhaps someone will. But I'm not able to tell those stories for these folks. The best I have is the story of Atari, and Atari was a completely special company. Unfortunately anyone talking about Atari focuses on either the arcade machines or the video game machines. Few folks talk about the computers that Atari built. They were the result of Atari wanting to compete with Apple and make a consumer computer.

It's a fascinating story, but it's not the one I want to tell either. Not with this interactive storyworld.

(It probably also didn't help that I read Abolish Silicon Valley while designing this. It felt like I was perpetuating the myth of scrappy folks sticking it to the big guys. Unfortunately those scrappy folks are the big guys now.)

I'm not done with this engine or with interactive storytelling, but I'm putting this story to bed for now. I'm a little disappointed it ended this way, but I can't say I'm surprised. The muse is a fickle beast. Plus I've made enough bad designs to know when I'm trying to float an idea that isn't seaworthy.

Maybe the muse will whisper sweet nothings in my ear again, but for now I need to let others tell those stories.

I am going to share the encounter that I dreamed up for meeting Jack Tramiel after IBM has essentially crushed Atari and your company. Jack would have been one of the main antagonists that would constantly taunt you and thwart your plans. After both of your companies are dissolved you meet him at a dining establishment.

Jack motions over to you. "Come! Sit. Eat. It's good to see you again." You look at him, incredulous. "You made our lives a living hell. You almost bankrupted us on several occasions. You squeezed our supply chains." Jack chuckles. "Yes, I did. Business is war. But this is not business. This is food. Food is pleasure. Come. Pull up a chair."

You'd then have several choices

  • "Go to hell. I hope you choke on your food." (Jack chuckles. "Suit yourself. You enjoy your anger. I'll enjoy my meal." He smiles, looks down, and continues to eat his meal.)
  • "No thanks. I've dined with enough vipers today." (Jack smirks, bids you good day, and finishes his meal.)
  • "You know, I will join you. Let the past stay in the past." (Jack smiles. "The food here is excellent." You both have an amazing meal in-between joking and reminiscing about you experiences in the computer industry.)