Monday, 14 May 2012

Vox Ludio: Innis Carson

Innis Carson This is the first in what will hopefully be a series of articles in which I pester apterous players for their thoughts on various things and share them with you, the loyal player base. Hopefully this will interesting and give some perspective on players at various skill levels, and maybe even stimulate some discussion. (On which subject, apologies to anyone who tried to comment on the last post; apparently Blogger is having some trouble and ate all the comments, including mine. Sigh.)

So, where better to start than with the player who has just recorded his 62nd consecutive week atop Pro Ranks, another accolade to add to his quite astonishing stack of them: Innis Carson. It hardly seems necessary to introduce him; since starting out in November 2008, Innis has set innumerable records across multiple languages and variants and is, by almost any reckoning, simply the best player in the game right now. Now on to the good stuff.

Charlie Reams: How and when did you first discover apterous?
Innis Carson: I was one of the several hundred people who flocked to the c4countdown forum out of curiosity when you plugged it on TV back in October 2008, and I followed a link from there to the then-new apterous website. For a mind-game-loving internet nerd like me, it was like stumbling upon a treasure trove. Back then the website was a lot smaller and the game much less developed than it now is, but the possibility of playing and chatting with other enthusiasts gave it a sort of community feeling, which made it infinitely more enjoyable than any other online game I'd ever come across. Instantly I was hooked, and 3 and a half years later I still very much am.

CR: Was there a point at which you decided to put in the hours to excel, or was it more of an organic process? Were there particular landmarks along the way?
IC: It definitely wasn't something I planned; I would have been horrified if someone told me when I was starting out that I'd end up spending over 2000 hours playing! It just so happened that I found apterous during a particularly dull year of my life when I was still at school but had an unconditional place at university, leaving me with no motivation to study or even turn up to school. Apterous filled a vacuum in my life at that point, and I probably spent more time playing it than is healthy for a human being. Those first 8 months or so were when I made the bulk of my progress as a player. It was always purely voluntary though, it's never felt like a training regime. I only ever play when I want to, which just happens to be quite a lot.

There were lots of small landmarks for me during the process - I remember being thrilled when I first got a max score in a 15 rounder, and each time I reached a new height in the ratings list and Pro Ranks. Another quite significant milestone for me was my first win against Kirk Bevins, who was very much the dominant player in the earlier days of apterous. Seeing each of my personal targets fall one by one was immensely satisfying, and definitely spurred me on to keep playing.

CR: Are there any players you particularly look forward to playing? Either competitively or recreationally.
IC: It's very hard to pick favourites - I'm very happy to play anyone, and everyone makes their own contribution to the apterous community. I'd say Adam Gillard in particular is always fun to play with since he's willing to experiment with the more off-the-wall variants of the game - like Hypertouch, Aegilops and Bullet - which most players steer clear of, and shares my appreciation for statistical and linguistic quirks that only us and about 4 other people on the planet find interesting. From a competitive point of view, Dan McColm and James Nguyen spring to mind as examples of people who will always push me to the limit and give me a great game, there are countless others though.

CR: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment in the game?
IC: Again it's difficult to choose one, but completing the Star Chart (except the CSW path, I'm allergic) was a pretty significant one, in that it required me to reach a competitive standard in practically every discipline of the game. Admittedly it's largely a test of will power rather than skill (Star 30 of the American Way took me no fewer than 70 attempts), and no doubt many players could achieve this too if they cared to, but there's something very gratifying about looking at a complete wall of stars and knowing that you can overcome pretty much any challenge the game has to offer if you put your mind to it.

(If you ever introduce a Spoilage path, you're a dick.) (Is that a feature request?! — CR)

CR: You've topped the monthly Duel leader boards 19 times from 24 in the last two years and rarely miss a day. How do you stay motivated for the long-haul contests like that? Is it still stimulating or is it now something of a chore?
IC: It's definitely not a chore, I would have given up long ago if it was. The Duel is one of the very best features of the site in my opinion, since it only requires a small time commitment and it gives everyone something to aim towards, whether it's an individual win for casual players or the monthly title for the more dedicated. I certainly can't take it for granted that I'll win the monthly contest - there are plenty of great all-rounders like Matt Bayfield and Adam G who almost always match me every step of the way, and there's enough variety in the duel formats that you never know who'll have their moment of glory next. And even putting the leaderboards aside, the duel serves as a nice light-hearted challenge that you can log on and test yourself with whenever you've got a spare few minutes. I'd only ever miss one if I had no internet access that day for whatever reason.

CR: You're often a front-runner when new variants and formats appear, setting high scores in the first few days that prove to have considerable longevity. Is that something you look forward to? Do you think the different variants draw on essentially the same skills or is there a new learning experience each time?
IC: Well there's no doubt that those who can play the Normal variant well will by and large be the same people who can play Octorock or Lockdown Jr. well; ultimately the underlying skills of pattern recognition and word retention pervade all variants (maybe to a lesser extent in the mindscrew variants like Hyper Unlimited and Duckdown). That said, I do think each variant gives a subtly different perspective on the game, enough that they help keep the game fresh, even if they don't always present much of a new challenge. I'm always keen to try new variants when they come out. The first few days of each variant's lifetime, where everyone's fighting over the high scores, are particularly good fun.

On a related note, playing variants is a seriously underappreciated way to get better at the game. In my earlier apterous days I used to play Speedgoat/Goatblitz nearly as much as I played Normal, and I strongly suspect it did far more to improve my word knowledge and anagram skills than playing Normal ever did. I daresay it's also more fun (these two observations might not be unrelated). I definitely think people who stick religiously to 30-second Normal 15 rounders are missing out on a huge part of the apterous experience.

CR: People often consider you one of the more quiet and introverted amongst the top players. Do you think your personality affects your play, how people play against you, or how they consider your achievements?
IC: I do have difficulty expressing myself in a social way (both online and off) and it wouldn't really surprise me if, as a result, people got the impression that I take apterous too seriously. In reality though I'm just in it for the fun like everyone else - I certainly wouldn't have the patience to spend 2000 hours of my free time doing something I didn't enjoy. In general apterous seems to be a relatively understanding community towards introverts (as one might expect from an online word game!) so I haven't found it to have too much of an impact on my experience with the game or with other members.

CR: As the game's top player, you presumably receive a lot of challenges. Do you prefer the closely-contested games against other top players or the more exhibition-type games against newer players who just want to see you in action?
IC: It's definitely a lot more satisfying to be involved in a competitive match, where both players' performances are noteworthy, than it is to completely overshadow somebody. Hopefully people won't interpret this as me saying that I don't like playing newer and lower-rated players; I enjoy all games and will always accept a challenge when I can, but it definitely adds another layer of enjoyment for me when there isn't an automatic expectation that I'm going to win.

CR: What motivates you to keep playing and improving? Do you have unfinished goals in the game?
IC: There aren't really any long-term goals left for me now, I've already progressed way more than I could have fathomed that I ever would when I first joined the site. There's always going to be little things to aim towards, like getting max games and high scores in obscure formats and finally spotting that 9 you've always known but never had a chance to use, but ultimately, apterous still serves me well enough as an amusing time-waster that I don't really need any further motivation to keep playing. The friendships I've made with other members and the fun I've had at the occasional in-person tournaments (such as Co:Lon) contribute a lot to the lasting appeal of apterous too. There hasn't been a point where I've seriously contemplated giving up playing, and I don't foresee there being one any time soon.

CR: Thanks for your time!

And there you have it. I hope this was an enjoyable change from the usual introspective ramblings. Let me know via the comments if you'd like to see more or less of this sort of stuff in future.

Monday, 7 May 2012

The new front page

A month ago I wrote about the ticket system and its limitations. To recapitulate, my complaints were: attending to tickets left less time for my own really new ideas; it's hard to say no to other people's ideas; and the only person who read the tickets was me. Well, a lot has changed in the last month, thanks to two big, related changes. The first is the total overhaul of the front page, and the other is the introduction of ticket voting.

Overhauling the front page has been on my mental list of priorities for a while but I could never quite figure out how to do it. Realising that I wanted to find some way to get tickets onto the front page (suggested by comments on the previous article) was the first step; that would clearly require compressing the other elements, which led to the idea of merging the "News" (announcements from me) with "Happenings" (announcements from player activity), and everything else flowed pretty naturally from there. If someone were designing a website from scratch, it's doubtful they would ever have hit on the old design, which filled 80% of the front page with updates from the designer (updated a few times a day at most) and squeezing everyone else's activity into a narrow sidebar, but these sort of things happen with incremental design. Ho-hum.

The other is ticket voting, which is such a blindingly obvious innovation in hindsight that I feel a bit stupid for not having done it before. But it only really makes sense in a context in which enough people even see the tickets to get a representative vote going, and in which tickets are organised into some larger structure so that people can actually vote on things worth voting on. Both of those are recent developments, so maybe it's not so stupid. But it's clearly been a very popular innovation.

So now, my new ideas can be fed into the ticket system and compete with existing ideas on a level footing, which resolves the first problem. (And in fact, I tend to get more excited about ideas that have had a lot of up-votes, even if I was initially reluctant personally, so motivation is less of an issue anyway.) Bad voter response is a good and equitable reason to reject an idea, which makes it possible to say no; plus it's easier to leave tickets hanging that have had bad or indifferent user response, so that has changed my feeling about the ever-growing list of feature requests. And clearly a lot of people are reading and thinking about the tickets, now rebranded as "discussions", and that addresses the problem of player involvement.

There are some new challenges engendered by this new system; how to deal with popular tickets that are technically infeasible, for example. But it's a big step forward and I'm pretty happy with it so far. Thanks to all of you who continue to be part of this little democratic experiment!