Linden Lab's Versu wants to make hobbyists storytelling superstars

Linden Lab launches its robust interactive storytelling app, Versu, today. CEO Rod Humble talks about why "the time is finally here" for romance and drama to come to the forefront of games.
Linden Lab's Second Life is still pulling a million users per month, and last year reported half a billion dollars in user-to-user transactions in-world, according to the company. But the virtual world, whose "residents" often create their own communities and businesses within, is just one component in the company's goal to offer social creation experiences. Rod Humble, former head of the Sims label at Electronic Arts, joined Linden as its CEO about two years ago in the hope of extending its portfolio to new approaches on social simulations that let others build things. "It's a massive opportunity," Humble tells us. "It's the kind of thing where I enjoy waking up in the morning, coming to work and instead of seeing what we've built, I get to see what others have built." Some of Humble's work has involved bolstering Second Life, easing the signup process, offering more structure and direction for new players, and a performance upgrade geared at reducing lag and improving pathfinding. But a year ago Linden made an exciting acquisition: Little Text People, founded by interactive fiction and social simulation expert Emily Short and Maxis veteran Richard Evans. The founding of Little Text People held important potential for exploring and advancing the emotional and social potential within interactive fiction, and its acquisition by a virtual worlds firm like Linden Lab held exciting possibilities. When Evans reached out to Humble, his former Sims colleague, to ask about funding, Humble said he was more interested in buying the company outright.

Enter Versu

The fruit of that relationship has just launched on the App Store today: Versu, a character and choice-driven storytelling app. It launches with a tutorial plus two stories penned by Short, but later this year the tool is expected to open up and enable users to write, illustrate and publish their own interactive story experiences. This initial version is free; the tutorial ("An Introduction to Society") employs the mannered rules of a Victorian tea in order to teach players how to interact within the story, make choices and fulfill objectives. The two full stories let players experience the breadth of Versu's affordances more robustly. Importantly, Versu's stories require reading and electing options, but go well beyond the "choose your own adventure" model. players can choose among multiple characters to play as within the story, and non-player characters have an array of reactions and responses depending on the player's actions. It's interactive reading, but there's also a sense of engagement and agency. Versu's the exciting result of a confluence of creators interested in artificial intelligence and the interaction and emotion among characters. Humble himself has designed a few unconventionally-themed independent games, most notably The Marriage, which aimed to be an abstract art piece on spousal communication. "The Versu tech is character-based; it's very good at doing things like drama, romance and history. It's very bad at doing action, and adrenaline-based things, and that's just fine by me," Humble tells us. "It kills me that to this day, when you go into a bookstore or look on an ebook reading list, the top sellers are almost invariably romance and drama. And then you look at what games make, and there's no romance, no drama. Discount any drama that's got killing with it and all of a sudden the amount of games goes way down. "Romance is going to be a mainstay in the games business," Humble states. "Someone is going to do it and I'd sure love it to be us."

Superstar hobbyists

The proliferation of tablets and e-readers helps create an entirely new and engaged audience for interactive reading. "I think that the time is finally here," he adds. That Versu also wants to create an ecosystem for independent creators and storytellers is a major part of its story. "The back end for Versu is pretty robust," Humble says. "There's a whole bunch of AI going on. The first tool will be a character creator, so you get to create characters with motives, and then put them in settings and play with them," he adds. "And then there'll be a scene and a plot toolset, and that will complete the circle. Then we allow you to upload them to our servers." Players can sell their stories free or paid; in the latter case Linden takes a percentage in a fashion very similar to the user-generated content economy of Second Life. "I think hobbyists are becoming the new stars," says Humble of the explosion of creative tools for text games, and of communities around those tools. "I celebrate the idea that hobbyists are going to become the new superstars, because I think that's where it belongs. If you aspire for interactivity to be any kind of meaningful art form, then it has to get down to normal people, not genre-makers." Constrained genres are often the most obvious sign that a revolution is coming within any medium, he continues. Impressionism surfaced from the saturation and ultimate decline in 19th century portraiture, for example. So long as Linden can get Versu into the hands of interested audiences, there are incredible opportunities. Humble says non-gamers take to and understand the app much better than gamers generally, so the current plan is to reach out to and partner with online reading communities for visibility. "The time is right for there to be a flourishing of new kinds of work within interactivity," says Humble. "I think it's going to become a significant force, and I hope Versu will play a part in that."

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