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“Aspects Are Always True” Considered Harmful

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I recently wrote a long piece on Reddit for a role-playing game system I love, FATE. People there use a shorthand for a part of the game, and I think that shorthand is not helpful to new players. My post got downvoted to obscurity, so I copied it here for safekeeping. You can safely ignore it if you’ve never heard of the game or probably even if you have.

One of the frequent aphorisms in the FATE community is that aspects are always true. Clearly intended as a guideline for using FATE, the term has too many problems to be really useful. I don’t use it in my games, and I think you should avoid it in yours. Here’s why.

It’s not true mechanically

Aspects are changed periodically throughout the “long game”, at major and minor milestones. Early in the game, players can add aspects to their characters to round them out and provide focus for play. They can modify their characters’ aspects to clarify them. They can replace aspects with new ones, or just remove them if that narrative element has been resolved.

It’s not true narratively

The character who is the Captain of the good ship Discipline was not born that way. She may not die that way. There was a time that she started Seeking the Northern Passage and there may be a time that she stops. She won’t be Dying of the Catarrh forever, and although she may Trust my First Mate Davies for now, he had to sign on, become first mate, and earn that trust at some point. Whether he loses that trust in the future is up to him (and her).

Human lives have a limited extent in time; they have a start and an end. So do important elements of their stories: jobs, relationships, philosophies, obsessions. Stories about humans and human-like creatures will have elements that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They don’t extend infinitely into the past or the future; they are not “always true”.

It confuses people

Many of the posts on r/faterpg are about trying to figure out the logic problem about something being “always true”. “If the knight is the Wearer of the Dragon Helm, can he take it off to eat or sleep?” “If the detective is the Sworn Enemy of the Gemelli Syndicate, is he immune to amnesia, since he wouldn’t remember to be their enemy any more?”

“Always true” locks props, characters and places into unnatural poses and positions, as immovable as Thor’s Hammer. Except in extreme cases, that’s not how real or fictional worlds actually work. Nobody wants to play the character whose helm is stuck eternally to his head, who can never kiss or swim or cut his hair. That’s not why players choose aspects, and it’s not how they want to play.

It’s occasionally interesting to explore the logical paradoxes around absolute terms like “always true”, but it’s not good for playing games or telling stories.

It’s not necessary

It’s easy to describe the importance of aspects without relying on them being “always true”. In a game that is about telling stories together, aspects are the story elements we want to talk about. They are your elevator pitch for the character; the supporting structure that everything is built around.

You can get players to come up with good aspects without resorting to the “always true” idea. “Why do you want to play this character? What about them would the other PCs notice or care about? When the songs are sung by the minstrels, what will they say about your character?”

If you are finding yourself and your players getting wrapped around the wheel over what is or isn’t “always true”, you should steer clear of the concept, and just concentrate on what parts of the story are fun and interesting. That’s what we’re all here for, anyway.

One thing that’s been pointed out to me is that the FATE core rulebook has some wording that is similar to “Aspects are always true”, to talk about how to role-play in a game.

Finally, aspects have a passive use that you can draw on in almost every instance of play. Players, you can use them as a guide to roleplaying your character. This may seem self-evident, but it should be called out anyway—the aspects on your character sheet are true of your character at all times, not just when they’re invoked or compelled.

From Using Aspects for Roleplaying

That’s very reasonable, but I think the distilled wording that “aspects are always true” gets people confused. A search for “always true” on the FATE sub on Reddit shows dozens of people getting confused by the phrase. So, maybe there are better ways to say it.


Written by evanprodromou

February 6, 2019 at 2:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Building the next product at Mozilla

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When I applied for a product manager position at Mozilla Corporation last year, the group I applied to asked that I write up how I would launch new product if I joined. I did a pretty traditional SWOT assessment to guide strategy and evaluate risks. I didn’t end up joining, but I’d still like to share this unsolicited advice to people at Mozilla and similar orgs who might be thinking about their next steps.

Technology products have a limited lifetime. Technology companies often use revenue and market presence of a mature existing product to support development of their next generation of products. Mozilla is due – probably overdue – to use Firefox in this way.

The Mozilla Corporation has some key strengths that make it especially fit for new product launches.

  • Large population of desktop Firefox users. There are hundreds of millions of users of Firefox on desktop operating systems. These are a key potential market for future products.
  • Revenue necessary to build next generation of products. The company has annual revenue of hundreds of millions of dollars, primarily from its agreement to provide search engine and home page space to Google, Yahoo, and other companies.
  • A mission that matters. The company has established a brand and lived up to that brand both inside and outside the organization. Its mission to support the Open web, with open source software, using open standards, is one that resonates with users and partners alike. This mission’s mindset can be a strong differentiator for future products.
  • Reputation with developers. Web developers depend on Firefox and Web sites like Mozilla Developer Network (MDN). They use Firefox as a primary browser and debugging tool, or as a secondary browser to test cross-browser compatibility of their own software. Author Stephen O’Grady calls developers “The New Kingmakers” in his book by the same name; having developers on Mozilla’s side can be a key advantage.
  • Momentum coming off a product re-launch. The release of the Quantum rendering engine and related technologies in 2017 has given the market a sense that “Firefox is back”. The company has established a reputation for technology leadership that can be used to promote future products.

The technology world in 2018 provides some important opportunities for new products built with Mozilla values.

  • Users are exhausted by abusive practices. Weary users are tired of how their technology uses them, and not the other way around. Software, particularly mobile software, depends on constant engagement and uses intrusive notifications and UIs optimized to keep them scrolling and clicking against their own best interests. Press stories of privacy violations by bigger players have made users angry at the incumbents, but gives them feelings of helplessness in being unable to walk away from the platforms. User-aligned software that works well could flourish in this environment.
  • Few other companies are fulfilling the Mozilla mission. Open source and standards strategies have worked well for infrastructure companies, but there are few companies that take a Mozilla attitude in user-facing technology. Open Source projects or community efforts face funding problems that make it hard to compete against well-funded competitors.
  • Collaborative product development has gone mainstream. Crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter have brought end users into the product development cycle much earlier than in previous models. Users are used to thinking of a product launch as something with explicit milestones necessary, which they can participate in and help make successful.
  • Good business models exist that are compatible with Mozilla’s mission. The freemium SaaS business model works well for many companies. In this model, basic service is free, but upgrades are paid. For example, up to a limit of storage or uploads are free on Flickr or Dropbox, but going past the limit requires a paid membership. For other systems, like Github or Gitlab, open content or Open Source service is free, but private usage is paid. E-commerce or marketplace business models could also work well with Mozilla’s needs.
  • End users are familiar with browser-cloud integration. Google’s Chrome browser has helped make end users familiar with using a browser that integrates and supports cloud services.

Mozilla does have some structural weaknesses that may make it difficult to launch new products.

  • A single large, mature product with a few large customers. Firefox, the primary product for Mozilla is mature, launched in 2002. It is almost the only source of revenue for the company, and the customers for the product are very few – search engine and large Web platforms. This is a situation that can destabilize quickly; one or two customers choosing not to renew could cause significant turmoil in the company and make it impossible for Mozilla to invest in new products.
  • A high bar for success. The company makes hundreds of millions of dollars per year from the existing Firefox product, with few other sources of revenue. The company may be reluctant to nurture and support products that bring in no revenue, or even revenue in the single digit millions, long enough for them to grow into a significant part of the company’s bottom line.
  • The existing revenue stream depends on partners with different business practices. Customers like Google provide services to end users that don’t support Mozilla’s core values, especially with respect to privacy. There may be organizational resistance, conscious or unconscious, to launch new products that compete with customers’ products, especially if the differentiation is based on business practices that cast the customer in a negative light.
  • Long-term, market share of Firefox is dropping. In this decade, user share of Firefox has dropped from highs in the 30%-40% range to the low teens. The launch of Quantum has helped reverse this somewhat, but Firefox is probably a less attractive product for its current customers because of this drop in usage. Its ability to support future products depends in part on its user base, so loss of market share hurts that development.
  • Small presence on mobile. The Firefox browser has a single-digit percentage share of the mobile browser market, and Mozilla has only a few other products available for mobile users. Since a growing majority of Web usage now comes through mobile devices, this further marginalizes Mozilla.
  • The ambitious Firefox OS project was cancelled. This large-scale project was costly for the company and has probably caused some internal lack of confidence and risk aversion. The organizational motivation needed to make new products might be lacking. There may be a tendency to stick to what they’re good at, even if that market is shrinking.
  • Short-lived labs projects have muddied the waters.Mozilla has launched multiple “experimental” products over the last decade that have existed for 1-2 years or less. End users make an investment in the services and software provided to them, and having those tools taken away is difficult for them. It makes them reluctant to try new products.

There are external threats that could make new products difficult, too.

  • Some scalable revenue streams are at odds with the brand. Although there are business models that can work for new Mozilla products, there are others that would go against the mission and the brand. Proprietary software licensing is a bad match. Advertisement-supported services, especially ones that aggressively target users, could be at odds with Mozilla’s commitment to privacy. Conversely, collecting personal data to sell to third-party advertisers would also be hard to justify.
  • Some growth strategies are at odds with the brand. Modern growth marketing can depend on intrusive notifications, intrusive emails, and aggressive advertising with 3rd-party data. Just as these make poor business models, using other companies’ services for growth might be a problem.
  • In competition with established brands with network effects. One way to develop products may be to go into existing markets and provide a solution with Mozilla style and user alignment. However, in some cases this may put the product in direct competition with difficult network effects. For example, a photo-sharing service would need to compete with popular services like Instagram and Snap. The large number of users already on those platforms makes them attractive for users and brands.

Given these existing factors, I propose the following strategy for launching new products for Mozilla.

  • Use Firefox. The Firefox brand should be front-and-centre for any new products Mozilla launches. It is well-known and well-regarded; the most powerful tool in the toolbox. New products should integrate with Firefox technically, using Firefox accounts for authorization and, where possible, deploying as Firefox extensions. Promoting new products through Firefox channels (email, extensions directory) should be used judiciously.
  • Stay on brand. Building with Open Source software, open Web standards, and open data, with a commitment to privacy and user alignment, should underlie every product launched.
  • Be “great artists”. As Steve Jobs and others have said, good artists copy and great artists steal. New products that solve existing problems with well-established solutions, but with a Mozilla approach, should be encouraged.
  • Focus on developers first. This doesn’t mean making developer tools like programming editors; it means building products that developers would like as users. New products should be hackable, with APIs and data exports, as soon as possible. Encouraging participation in Open Source projects, SDKs, and the product ecosystem to turn developers into team members and advocates.
  • Lower users’ stress levels. New products should solve real problems for the users. Users who are queasy about existing software and services should feel confident investing their time and data into Mozilla products. They should understand that there is no hidden agenda and that Mozilla products work “the right way”. Make it easy and fun for users to experiment with new products.
  • Be explicit and collaborative with users about lifecycle. New products should come with an explicit pre-defined time limit and a milestone metric for taking the product to the next level. For example, “We will be developing Firefox Photos for two years starting Jan 1 2019. If at the end of that time we have 100,000 monthly active users, we think we’ll have proven the thesis for the product and we’ll schedule a next milestone.” Users can count on the product to be around for that period and can work together with the product team to reach milestones.
  • Build in end-of-life for products from the beginning. Make sure users are able to get their data out of the service. Back up data to existing cloud services, the Open Archive, or other third-party storage. Users shouldn’t have to watch for end-of-life emails to preserve their data.
  • Be explicit about business model. New products should have revenue-generating features enabled ASAP, possibly at public launch. How the company makes money from the product should be clear to users.
  • Multiple, frequent, inexpensive experiments. In order to contribute to Mozilla’s bottom line, there should be multiple products launched frequently. Getting to tens of millions of dollars of revenue will mean trying a number of different product areas, approached in different ways.
  • Use iterative development; double down on winners. Initially products should be created as cheaply as possible, moving up the cost range: from manual processes or using off-the-shelf software and services, to Web sites and/or Firefox extensions, to mobile or desktop apps. Software development shouldn’t happen on a more expensive platform before the functionality has been tested on a cheaper one.
  • Use opt-in metrics and feedback. Users should be able to opt into analytics in software to support the product, and give feedback within the UI itself.

I see the following risks that Mozilla will take on with this strategy; there are mitigations that we can apply for each risk.

  • Financial risks. Launching new products costs money. Some products will not generate revenue that covers their costs. Using iterative methods, with inexpensive experiments that lead to further development on proven success points, can mitigate these risks, but there is always the option that some money will be lost on these new products.
  • Tarnished brand. New products that go strongly against brand could hurt the organization’s reputation. One way to mitigate this is to measure new products and features against a “values check”. Does the new product or feature match Mozilla’s mission? If not, don’t deploy, even if it’s a small feature “nobody will notice” (because somebody will).
  • Alienate allies. Launching products competitive with existing Web services could alienate those companies towards Mozilla and the Firefox browser. This might be compounded if the differentiation is based on how the competitor treats users. They may not work hard to support Firefox, may ignore bugs for Firefox, and may have flagging support for open Web standards. There are a few mitigations here; picking the right product area is important. Also, building in features or APIs that allow collaboration or data sharing could ease tensions.
  • Dilute advocacy messages. Mozilla has led a strong campaign critical of Facebook’s privacy practices in 2017 and 2018. As a relatively neutral browser company with a social mission, it has been able to speak from a place of moral authority to this and other topics. If Mozilla launches one or more products competitive to Facebook’s, for example, this advocacy may be perceived as self-serving advertisement instead. To mitigate, new product launches should coordinate with advocacy programs to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest.
  • Organizational impatience. It’s unlikely that even a suite of new products launched in 2019 or 2020 will reach Firefox’s level of revenue within 5 years. If the organization steps back from launching new products because they’re not meeting Firefox’s high bar for success, it may be back to square one. To mitigate, the organization should agree up front on a new product plan and milestones for success ahead of time.

Written by evanprodromou

February 4, 2019 at 2:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized