Joannes Truyens

Blog posts by Joannes Truyens

A look back at Neurocracy's Kickstarter campaign

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With 376 backers having pledged a little over £12,000, we're beyond thrilled to report that Neurocracy's Kickstarter was successful! We even managed to push on to our first stretch goal in the campaign's final hours, meaning we are now able to contract and work with an illustrator for the visual aspect of Omnipedia.

In this blog post, we'll take a look at why we decided to go with crowdfunding for Neurocracy, the preparation that went into our campaign, and what we learned from the experience. Please note that this is specific to Neurocracy and not meant to be a general roadmap for success! There's no single way to guarantee a Kickstarter's outcome, but there are ways to increase its chances.

Why Kickstarter?

Neurocracy's premise is easy to grasp, but it doesn't slot neatly into a genre, let alone a medium. It blends elements of alternate reality games (ARGs), hypertext fiction, and epistolary novels into something more than the sum of those elements, but it still amounts to an experimental and therefore unproven concept. This was both an asset and a liability when we pitched Neurocracy to indie videogame publishers last year. Most were intrigued by the novel premise, but all ultimately passed on it due to practical concerns over marketability and risk management.

Another stumbling block during our talks with publishers was the fact that Neurocracy plays out entirely on a website, which makes it a challenge to position on distribution platforms like Steam. There were repeated suggestions to retool Omnipedia so it could function as a downloadable app or be explored inside a game-like setting (much like Her Story's interface is embedded in a desktop environment). Matei and I discussed the technical side of such a retool, but ultimately it felt like an excessive step for the sole purpose of labelling Neurocracy as a game or fitting it onto a distribution service.

What struck us was the tendency on behalf of publishers to candidly describe Steam as a necessary evil, an unavoidable pain when it comes to releasing a game. Given that Neurocracy tells a story that critiques monopolistic systems deploying inscrutable algorithms, we became increasingly invested in the idea of forgoing Steam altogether. Using a single purchase via a paywall incorporated into Omnipedia would also avoid Steam's distribution fees and eliminate our concerns that Neurocracy could be review bombed for not sufficiently qualifying as a game.

Conversely, any attempt to qualify Neurocracy as a game at all by listing it on Steam could alienate it to potential markets outside of gaming circles. We approached indie videogame publishers because that's a world we're more familiar with, but we also pitched Neurocracy to book publishers interested in electronic literature and the digital space. There we received mostly boilerplate rejections if there was an answer at all. You don't know until you ask!

When a few publishers went on to suggest that Neurocracy would be a project ideally suited to crowdfunding and self-publishing, we weighed the risks and decided that the idea of sending Neurocracy out to live or die on its own terms was worth owning those risks. We leaned towards Indiegogo for our crowdfunding campaign due to Kickstarter's stance against unions, but when its employees successfully unionised in February of this year, we no longer had any qualms about using the platform.

Campaign strategy

Now we just had to figure out how to Kickstarter. To help us put together a campaign, we turned to Game If You Are (GIYA), a marketing agency geared towards small studios and solo developers. It's run by Lewis Denby, who had previously consulted on Neurocracy's design and sparked the idea to use Wikipedia previews to mimic the sheer expanse of Wikipedia's content without having to replicate it. Given his familiarity with Neurocracy and GIYA's experience with planning crowdfunding campaigns, it was a perfect fit.

After we signed on the dotted line, GIYA delivered a tailored and comprehensive strategy for the marketing of Neurocracy's Kickstarter, conceptualising it as a game without shying away from the unusual nature of the project. In the words of Melissa Chaplin, GIYA's head of client strategy: "Communicating the concept of Neurocracy to the uninitiated was always going to be a challenge. As a team, we spent a long time picking apart terms like 'interactive fiction' and 'game', trying to get to the heart of what Neurocracy truly is and isn’t, before deciding our best bet was to have people try it for themselves."

To that end, we took the Neurocracy excerpt we had slapped together for last year's IntroComp and repurposed it as a demo. Since the campaign strategy also stipulated the fostering of a community ahead of launch, we initially limited access to this demo via a Discord server, which also provided us with an opportunity to test out Neurocracy's ARG-like collaborative storytelling aspect and serialised release format.

Between June and September, over a hundred people jumped into our Discord to acquire an Omnipedia login, browse the articles as they were released across the demo's four episodes, and debate story interpretations. Along the way, we were pleased to find that people started looking forward to the coming episodes as well as the additional lore and clues that came with each new Omnipedia article. The final episode's release was even streamed on Twitch!

We also worked with GIYA to craft a trailer for Neurocracy, which you can view below. It was an interesting challenge to portray 'browsing a futuristic Wikipedia' as a visually appealing activity, so we ended up combining brief shots of the Omnipedia user interface with mocked-up headlines that communicate the history of Neurocracy's near future.

While the trailer was scheduled for release alongside the Kickstarter's launch, we sent it out early when Neurocracy was unexpectedly chosen to be part of the Leftfield Collection, an annual showcase of select games and game-like projects at EGX Digital. Taking place between September 12th and 20th, Neurocracy's presence at the online event was a great help in getting the word out ahead of our Kickstarter.

How things shook out

GIYA had impressed upon us that running a Kickstarter campaign amounts to a full-time job, so we had committed the month of October to doing just that. The suggested launch date for the campaign was September 23rd, which we overshot due to verification issues with Kickstarter. Since we wanted to avoid ending the campaign in November because of the dread election in the United States as well as the release of a new generation of consoles, we ultimately managed to launch on October 1st with a closing date of October 31st.

The first target was for Neurocracy to be 25% funded within the first 48 hours. As per GIYA's strategy, we asked those who had offered to pledge to do so upon launch and reached out to people who had previously expressed an interest in Neurocracy to promote the Kickstarter within their networks. We also headlined the campaign page with an immediately visible link to the Neurocracy demo, which we had previously opened up to everyone for our presence at EGX Digital.

To raise further awareness and mitigate the mid-campaign slump after successfully making our first target, GIYA had recommended for Neurocracy's guest writers to announce their involvement with the project at specific moments across the Kickstarter's duration. This led to a renewed rise in pledges with every announcement and got us noticed by sci-fi fans and authors outside of gaming circles. In addition, we effected constant outreach and follow-up through Twitter and posted about Neurocracy on Reddit, which resulted in members of the ARG subreddit joining our Discord to take part in ongoing story debates.

We made sure to keep the pledge tiers close to the entirely digital nature of Neurocracy by avoiding any physical rewards. Those interested in access to Neurocracy upon launch could choose a discounted preorder tier, with additional reward tiers offering different opportunities to be mentioned in Omnipedia, ranging from an appearance in one of its fictional citations to a custom written article.

When the campaign hit its funding goal with four days left on the clock, we decided to reshuffle our stretch goals and announce the hiring of an illustrator as the first one. Thanks to a burst of activity in the final 48 hours due to reminder emails being automatically sent out to prospective backers, we managed to clear that stretch goal within 83 minutes of the campaign's closing! Here is a brief Twitter thread on what that means for Neurocracy.

So what did we learn from our crowdfunding adventure? With lots of first-time backers and relatively few dropped pledges during and after the campaign, we feel that Neurocracy's premise doesn't necessarily enjoy a wide audience, but it can foster a deep and dedicated one. Embracing that premise to the fullest in both the design of Neurocracy as well as the messaging around it gave our campaign a solid foundation to build on. Or as Game Maker's Toolkit puts it: "Instead of making a game that you hope many people will like, it's sometimes better to create a game that you know a few people will love."

How Neurocracy blends science and fiction

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We have two blog posts for you today! The first is over at Gamasutra, which goes into specifics on how exactly Neurocracy leverages Wikipedia as an interactive narrative device. It looks at whether Neurocracy is more of a novel or a game (spoiler: it is) and examines how using Wikipedia as a medium can provide novel approaches to interactivity and non-linearity. We also posted a Twitter thread that highlights the problem of having to replicate Wikipedia's sheer expanse of content, or at least the feel of it, and how the solution led to an interesting narrative mechanic. The second blog post, which follows just below, details the balance between science and fiction that we're attempting to establish with Neurocracy.

At Playthroughline, we're fans of hard sci-fi, or at least sci-fi with a certain degree of logic and consistency to its inner workings, whether it's couched in real science or not. A recent example is The Expanse, which looks at the physics of space travel and applies those to its worldbuilding instead of conveniently ignoring them. How ships generate gravity, how people communicate across vast distances, The Expanse cares about how these things work, not just that they work.

An added bonus of this approach is that a fictional world with a cogent ruleset can inform plot developments and twists in ways that are more satisfying and might not have occurred otherwise. Breaking one of those rules in a way that puzzles both the characters and the audience then becomes a neat way of introducing a mystery to the story, as long as the solution to that mystery is internally consistent. The Expanse may feature an alien substance that violates the laws of physics in seemingly impossible ways, but it does respect its own set of laws.

The writers of the book series that The Expanse is based on have stated that they aim for a "Wikipedia-level of authenticity" in their work. For obvious reasons, we're attempting the same with Neurocracy. If the idea is to sell a convincing facsimile of Wikipedia in both form and content, its status as an educational tool almost necessitates the presentation of articles that go into more detail than is strictly necessary for the purposes of Neurocracy's story. As a result, every character comes prepackaged with their backstory, every technology with its development history and operation manual.

Let's take Cariappa-Muren disease as an example. The fictional pandemic that shapes much of the world of Neurocracy is based on research into the infection properties of prions, which are proteins that have misfolded and can transmit their misfolded shape onto normal variants of the same protein. There's a relatively limited set of known prion diseases, all resulting in the progressive and incurable degeneration of the brain and other neural tissues. Prions are the simplest disease-causing organisms we know of and there's no consensus on how exactly they work. They're scary.

While Cariappa-Muren disease is fictional, its pathology is informed by the science of prion diseases, which is reflected in its Omnipedia article. When we came across a study that explored the transmission potential of prions to and from fish, we found a plausible way to let our fictional disease grow into a pandemic. We got in touch with one of the neuroscientists who authored this study, and when they read the fruits of their work, they commented that Neurocracy's "level of scientific detail, accuracy, and completeness is unbelievable." This has turned into a common tactic.

Since Neurocracy also explores artificial intelligence, we've consulted with AI researchers to make sure we avoid many of the hackneyed tropes and pitfalls that come with fictional depictions of AI. We've likewise designed a range of brain implants based on current trends in the field and extrapolated how they would work and how they could affect society. In the words of Frederik Pohl: "A good sci-fi story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam." Additionally, as we figured out how all this technology works, we also came up with ways it can fail, providing yet more narrative opportunities.

The challenge is to offer an incentive to make this ancillary information worth the effort of taking it all in, whether it's describing a technology, an organisation, or even a movie that exists in the world of Neurocracy. It might not matter how a character spent their childhood or which college they attended, but it adds up to a mental model of that character, which helps in figuring out their true drives and motivations beyond what their article communicates about them.

If the goal of Neurocracy is to deduce its story from the worldbuilding, to learn from just the facts, Wikipedia is an ideal format because it's a format meant to explain how things work and what rules apply. The better your grasp of how (and whether) the rulesets of Neurocracy fit together, the more you develop an intuition for what could be happening between the lines of Omnipedia's articles.

One of our self-imposed rules for developing Neurocracy is that we can't replicate any article that already exists on Wikipedia. If we want to show how China evolved between our present and the future of Neurocracy, we can't simply have an article about China on Omnipedia (if only because we'd also have to write up its entire history, its successive dynasties, everything such an article would conceivably contain). Instead, we can introduce an article about, say, a fictional resistance group in Hong Kong and its ongoing struggle against China's very real and very authoritarian government.

This means every article on Omnipedia features a fictional idea or concept, though without being consigned to the realm of allegory or symbolism. The world of Neurocracy is built on top of our own and wears this on its sleeve. That's why each Omnipedia article will have a blend of real and fictional citations at the bottom. Figuring out what's real and what's not is an enjoyable part of the experience, as we've found from a few recurring pieces of feedback. This wasn't a specific aim of ours, but it emerged as a happy accident of Neurocracy's drive for authenticity in its worldbuilding and verisimilitude in its medium.

The story world of Neurocracy, such as it is

Joannes Truyens's picture

Hello again! We are so very pleased with the initial response to the unveiling of Neurocracy, with the premise of browsing a futuristic Wikipedia immediately resonating with people and our nascent Discord community taking its first deep dives into the world of 2049. If you're interested in joining that community and getting early access to Neurocracy, you can do so right here!

In our introductory blog post, we painted the broad strokes of what Neurocracy is and what we hope to achieve with it. In this follow-up post, we'll be taking a closer look at the story world of Neurocracy as it's presented through the various articles available on 2049's version of Wikipedia, which we have dubbed Omnipedia. To do that, let's highlight one of Neurocracy's principal characters: business magnate Xu Shaoyong (with his surname written first in accordance with Chinese naming conventions).

Xu is a principal character for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he is considered to be the most powerful person in the year 2049. Secondly, he and his company are emblematic of three current and developing trends that will intersect in the world of Neurocracy: biosecurity, neurotechnology, and surveillance capitalism. Thirdly and finally, his assassination is the inciting incident of Neurocracy's story and the main mystery you must solve.

Who is Xu Shaoyong?

Establishing a fictional society, especially a sci-fi one, means establishing its vocabulary. There are different ways of embedding this exposition in a story, some clunkier than others, but with Omnipedia as a medium, the story of Neurocracy is essentially told entirely through exposition. Each novel concept specific to the world of 2049, be that a character, organisation, technology, or event, gets its own article on Omnipedia. Xu's article will be one of the very first to be made available, since his life is inextricably linked to many of these concepts and the trends that underlie them.

Initially, most of Omnipedia's internal hyperlinks are limited to hover-only previews that are only a few sentences long, so reading all the way through Xu's article will introduce both the man himself and the vocabulary of Neurocracy. Given its episodic release format, each of these previews has the potential to be expanded into a full article somewhere along the way. The idea is that each article can tell a story of its own while also contributing to an overarching narrative of what has happened, and what is happening, in Neurocracy.

What does Xu Shaoyong represent?

The world of Neurocracy is governed by a techno-totalitarian regime originating in China. This is made possible by Zhupao, a Chinese technology conglomerate (founded by Xu) that has effectively privatised and standardised most all data mining operations under the guise of biosecurity. This high-concept setting is then filtered down to the micro level, with different Omnipedia articles showing the interconnected political, social, cultural, technological, and economic implications of a world where governments suddenly have cheap and streamlined access to all their citizens' data (including their neural states).

Rather than imagining a scenario where artificial intelligence becomes sentient or malevolent in a "man vs. machine" fashion, Neurocracy will extrapolate the impact that technology has on society today. With a running throughline of "data is power," Neurocracy deals with themes of machine learning, data mining, biased algorithms, climate change, the corrosive influence of big tech, China's treatment of minorities and dissent, and the dangers of the proliferation of technology outstripping the development of political and moral expertise.

While near future sci-fi runs a greater risk of being cancelled out as soon as it is written, Neurocracy avoids this pitfall by introducing a fictional pandemic caused by an infection known as Cariappa-Muren disease. The global fallout of this pandemic acts as a "reset button," with references to events between the present day and the spread of the pandemic kept largely vague and non-committal, and the time between the pandemic and the year 2049 used to redress the global balance.

However, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will be included in the worldbuilding of Neurocracy because it's frighteningly difficult to ignore (though many will try). Since Cariappa-Muren disease was written as a pandemic that elevates the overlap between the surveillance state and biosecurity to a global level, some of the initial steps of this progression will be attributed to COVID-19 instead. Neurocracy then goes ahead and mixes in consumer-grade neurotechnology for the hell of it.

Why does Xu Shaoyong get murdered?

Neurocracy conveys a linear story across its successive episodes, but that story only exists between the lines of the various Omnipedia articles. That's why Neurocracy is a murder mystery, with you having to figure out who killed Xu Shaoyong and why. It's up to you to dive into the rabbit hole of Omnipedia, explore the intricacies of the world of 2049, find clues, draw connections, and in so doing tell yourself the story of Neurocracy.

Xu's article offers plenty of reasons why someone might want him dead, and each one is an avenue of exploration into the world of 2049. This leads to subplots and lesser mysteries that then play out in their own articles, which appear on Omnipedia and receive updates as additional episodes are released. While you don't play a specific role or character in Neurocracy, you are conducting an investigation. If we inspire you to reach for pen and paper to make notes or fashion a conspiracy board with red string, we'll know we've done our jobs.

We are making Neurocracy, and you can too

Joannes Truyens's picture

Hello! Welcome to Playthroughline, a narrative design team composed of writer Joannes Truyens (that's me) and web developer Matei Stanca (that's them). We've previously used this blog for musings on narrative design in videogames and a series of movie scripts that poke fun at them, but now we are focused on something new. We are currently developing Neurocracy, an anthology of sci-fi stories told entirely through a futuristic Wikipedia. That's the elevator pitch, and what follows is the stuck-in-an-elevator pitch.

In generous terms, Neurocracy is an interactive narrative experience that combines elements from alternate reality games (or ARGs), hypertext fiction, and epistolary novels. It depicts a near-future society (set in the year 2049) in which a Chinese biosecurity network has come online and grown to encompass the entire world, elevating China to the status of global superpower. Neurocracy uses the medium of a fictional web-based encyclopedia known as Omnipedia that exists within the world of 2049 and closely resembles present-day Wikipedia in style and layout.

Instead of telling a linear story, Neurocracy invites you to piece together what has happened, and what is happening, solely from the information available on Omnipedia. To do this, you navigate a set of hyperlinked articles that detail various characters, organisations, technologies, and events relevant to the story and themes of Neurocracy. Most of these articles are in orbit around a high-profile assassination that throws the world of 2049 into disarray, leaving it to you to solve the many mysteries that follow. As additional articles are released in weekly episodes (with each episode representing a snapshot of a single in-universe day), more information becomes available, providing clues as to which articles provide other clues and/or could be seen in a new light.

You will be able to experience Neurocracy on your own, but if you are so inclined, you can join forces with others to truly bring it to life! That's where its interactivity lies: instead of a choose-your-own-adventure story that offers different outcomes based on your choices, Neurocracy is more of a choose-your-own-interpretation story. When browsing Omnipedia, you never really learn what transpires between characters, what their true actions or motivations are, or who did what with/to whom. However, this can be deduced by drawing connections between various hints and allusions peppered throughout the articles. The events of Neurocracy may be strictly linear, but there is plenty of ambiguity in between the lines.

We aim to foster a community that comes together to compare notes, debate interpretations, and ultimately tell the story of Neurocracy to itself and others. If you want to help build that community and get exclusive access to Neurocracy's first episodes as they are finalised, please do join our Discord server! You'll get a head start on speculating about Neurocracy's story, take part in challenges that will put you inside its world, and even have some of your interpretations influence its development!

In three months' time, we will be launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds we need to hire additional writers and designers to enrich the world of Neurocracy with new voices and craft its audiovisual elements. If the campaign is successful, we can wrap up the final stage of development and present Neurocracy to you before the year is out! Until then, we will be using this blog as a platform to tell you more about Neurocracy, so expect a series of deep dives on how it works, what went into it, and more. In addition, you can check out our official website and follow Neurocracy on Twitter for regular announcements.

That's all for now! Stay tuned for further updates as we reveal more of what we've been working on. We're really excited about opening up the world of Neurocracy to you and we hope you'll dive in with us!

Quaking in my reboots

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Doom is an integral part of many people's personal gaming histories, but it only briefly waved at me as it passed me by. I was thrown into the world of shooters with a copy of Quake instead. I recently had a chance to play through MachineGames' additional Quake episode, which they released for the game's 20th birthday. MachineGames already breathed new life into another of id Software's venerable gaming properties with Wolfenstein: The New Order, and so proved that they could combine a solid grasp of the original game with a range of fitting new elements. That design philosophy is also apparent in their new episode for Quake, which demonstrates a keen insight into what makes Quake tick and a willingness to play around with it.

So, Wolfenstein has been successfully pulled into modern gaming and Doom followed suit with its celebrated 2016 reboot, but what of Quake? The next entry in the franchise was announced last year, but it's set to be an arena-based multiplayer shooter named Quake Champions. I was left with a feeling of oh-okay because we wouldn't see a return to Quake's singleplayer, and playing MachineGames' episode got me thinking what that kind of reimagining could look like.