Tuesday 29 January 2013

How ticket ideas get plucked into reality

Lately I've had a handful of people asking me questions along the lines of "When will such and such a feature be implemented?". These are perfectly reasonable questions, if not also so politely phrased. So rather than answer these recurring queries individually, I thought I'd write a blog post about it and try to demystify the process a bit.

The first thing to recap is that apterous is almost entirely the work of just one person, which is to say, me. The lovely Matt Morrison deals with people's avatar photos, and everything else is me. That means I'm simultaneously the designer, programmer, webmaster, database admin, test engineer, customer service operative, pixel artist, and various other things besides. Some of those things I'm quite good at; others are more of a struggle. So, perhaps not surprisingly, apterous takes up pretty much all of my free time. I'm passionate about this site and I love working on it, so I don't say this in search of any sympathy, but you should understand that the skeleton staff is the reason we can charge £20 a year and not £20 a month. And I really am going as fast as I can.

The amount of stuff that can get done is therefore essentially limited by how fast I can work on it. And the list of tickets grows faster than I can attend to it. Which is great! It's awesome to be able to focus my efforts on just the best ideas which will make the most people happy. But it does mean that some ideas will lose out, and some will take a long time to happen.

It also means that's it quite hard to for me to predict when I'll get around to a given idea. The overall order of precedence is generally: bugs first, then performance issues, then feature requests. In practice it's a lot more liquid than that because some bugs are just not that important, and some feature requests are quite urgent. There are also certain types of ticket that tend to get de-prioritised. The most common example is variant ideas, for a couple of reasons: first, the number of variants needs to be kept under control, in order to keep the game usable; second, people need time to enjoy the existing variants before a new one comes in; third, variants are quite easy to come up with and a lot of work for me to build, so the incoming flow of ideas will always greatly exceed the outgoing flow of implementations. But broadly speaking that's how I allocate my time.

Within that basic order of precedence, I generally work through the list of tickets in approximately votes × time order. This is a refinement of the obvious "most votes" order, in which we imagine that people are not limited to voting for each ticket once, but rather can vote again every day, and continue to vote every day in the same way that they voted the first time. So, for example, if a ticket had one up-vote 100 days ago, and one down-vote 30 days ago, it would have a net score of +70. This means that popular ideas will bubble to the top very quickly, while any ticket with a positive net score will eventually amble its way to the top, so even niche ideas eventually get their day in the sun. (We also do various other Bayesian things but that's a discussion for another day.) So to give your favoured ideas the best chance of getting implemented: vote early, vote often!

Beyond that, various other considerations come into play, such as: how much work it would actually take to do something (easy crowd-pleasers are great!), whether I have any good idea of how to execute the idea, and what I feel like working on at the time. It's quite unpredictable. That's part of the fun.

So, to answer the original question head-on: I don't know when or even if your idea will happen. But most likely, as soon as I can!

PS: Don't forget, you can now follow apterous on Google+! There's a bunch of stuff there that doesn't appear anywhere else.

Monday 21 January 2013

Brief maintenance today

We're having some electrical work done at Apterous Towers, so the game might be briefly unavailable. Don't panic!

Friday 4 January 2013

Vox Ludio: Jim Bentley

Jim Bentley It's that time again! This time around we're chatting with the delightful Jim Bentley, apterous and C4Countdown stalwart and Series 50 semi-finalist. Jim appeared on Countdown in 2003, becoming an octochamp with a robust 756-point total. He returned for a quarter final with Adam Laws, and the two players were neck and neck going into the conundrum. Laws buzzed in first for the narrowest of victories, marking a gripping end to Jim's run. Since then, Jim has been ever-present voice in the online Countdown community, and was one of apterous' earliest users. Over to the interview.

Charlie Reams: You're still involved with apterous and online Countdown in general nearly a decade after you appeared on TV. What keeps you coming back to the community as a whole?
Jim Bentley: Over the years, my reasons have probably shifted quite a bit. Early on, it was to keep up with events on the TV show, but as the community developed, it's become less and less about the show and more and more about the people. Countdown seems to attract clever people who have interesting and funny things to say, and who wouldn't want to associate with such people? That's definitely the reason I've stuck with the various forums over the years, even after I stopped watching the TV show regularly. But the main reason now is apterous, as it provides a perfect platform to combine two things I enjoy doing: playing the game and talking rubbish to people on the internet.

CR: You were one of apterous' first players and you've played over 10,000 games. Can you pick out a favourite word from all that? Offered by you or against you, actually.
JB: I do remember being pleased to get BLOWFLIES because I'm not good at seeing nines or compound words. And also because it sounds cool, like an early 1970s blaxploitation film with a soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield. I'm always impressed when someone beats me with a word that I've never heard of, but also when I'm beaten by an everyday word that I've just not spotted. Both these things still happen frequently, but no specific words really stand out, I'm afraid. Oh, except JUXTAGLOMERULAR in Aegilops, that was quite a good one.

CR: You're probably the only player in the "10,000 club" who is still quite casual about the game. Are you ever tempted to take it more seriously or are you happy in your relaxed state?
JB: It's true, for somebody who's played so many games, I should probably have improved a bit more. But then, I'm very slapdash, I still see letters that aren't there and I still go for plenty of words that I'm not sure of at all. I have no concentration and get distracted by all sorts of things – plenty of times in numbers rounds I'll glance up at something on the TV or whatever and in doing so, completely forget what I'm trying to do with the numbers, even if I'm halfway through a method. I'm quite good at recalling words, but they're just as likely to be valid words in the dictionary as they are to be brands of Hungarian toilet cleaner or something I've seen written on a road sign. It sounds perverse, but I actually quite like all that uncertainty, it makes things more exciting.

I realise I probably could improve if I put a bit of effort into learning words and it's something I did consider a few years ago, but that's as far as it went. For a start, the idea of rote-learning words has about as much appeal as a midnight swimming lesson with Michael Barrymore, plus I'm not even convinced that the information would go in - I think my memory's still pretty OK, but I probably don't remember things as easily as I did twenty years ago. Or maybe I'm just lazy. Or maybe I think learning words would take the fun out of the game. Or maybe…I've run out of excuses.

The other thing is that standard games are only really a small part of apterous, I definitely play more non-standard stuff now. One of the most impressive things – and there are many – about apterous is the range of games and formats on offer, and there aren't many that I don't enjoy. So I suppose that as more and more formats have emerged, I've spent less and less time on the standard format, and perhaps this has contributed to me being a bit rubbish at it. Another excuse!

To be serious though, to get to the standard of the uber-players, it seems that you need near-perfect word knowledge and near-perfect anagramming abilities; I don't think that I have the necessary inclination or brainpower to achieve either, so I'm happy enough to flatline.

CR: Talking of casual play, how often do you play drunk? I've heard rumours...
JB: To be honest, it's very rare for me to play apterous having not had a drink, but that's because I generally have a drink most evenings and I don't get chance to play apterous until then. So you could say that it's more unusual for me to be playing completely sober. But I don't really get drunk very much any more, probably the only two days in the last couple of years that I've been properly drunk were the last two COLIN Saturday nights. That said, I've definitely played games on apterous where I've been a couple of steps beyond "merry", but I can't recall an occasion where I've been inebriated enough for it to make any appreciable difference to my game. Although, to be fair, there may well have been innumerable occasions and I just can't remember any of them due to being shitfaced.

CR: You do have some very non-casual accomplishments, including one of longest standing untied records in the history of apterous, which is more than just a matter of endurance. Talking of which, you famously fell asleep in the final hour of the Endurance Event and missed the decisive duel. How did that happen?!
JB: Haha yeah, the Endurance Event was fun. I'd like to claim that it was a deliberately contrary act – like an art statement – to do the first 23 then deliberately not do the last one. But it wasn't, I'd been up for about 40 hours and I must've just lost concentration, or got too comfortable and fallen asleep. Maybe it's a sign of age, as I occasionally stayed awake across two nights as a student (whereas the Endurance Event was only one) but then of course I did take a lot more drugs back then. I remember feeling pretty stupid at the time, but now it's just funny. It's like a really typical sort of thing that I would do.

CR: You're also known as the musical talent behind the techno band Fahnn. Do you ever listen to your own music while you play? Does it affect your performance?
JB: I do almost always have music on while I'm playing apterous, but it's very rarely any of my own stuff. Fahnn wouldn't be a good choice, it's too distracting. The original intention of Fahnn was to make music that was too unpleasant to listen to, but that went a bit awry as some of the tracks ended up having a conventional melody (sort of). Generally most of it is too abrasive to make it useful as any sort of soundtrack, though. It would be like trying to play at the bottom of a very deep hole alongside a group of malfunctioning robots having violent cyber-sex with a pile of rusting farm machinery.

Some of the stuff I've done since Fahnn can be good, though – I think anything long and repetitive and relatively mellow is good for apterous. And I think generally upbeat is better than downbeat and it's probably better if it's not too wordy. But maybe different formats would suit different types of music, possibly I should be listening to more happy hardcore to truly reach my best at Octolock Numbers Attack, I don't know. I hope not. I can't believe I haven't thought more about this until now, though, it could be a whole new exciting area of study.

CR: What's your favourite soup?
JB: I love all soups, even the unpopular ones like mulligatawny and lentil. Probably my favourite is leek and potato, but it has to be home made, all the tinned leek and potato soups are too gloopy and unpleasant (actually the Baxters one is OK, but nothing like as good as one I can make myself, and I'm a rubbish cook). Home made tomato soup is also in a different league to the tinned ones. But hey, I'm not a soup snob, tinned soup has its place, especially if you're pressed for time. I quite like a Heinz beef and vegetable or chicken and vegetable, they do those ones quite well, but of course you're straying towards the area of stew with these. Is a stew still a soup? Where is the line drawn? It's certainly a troubling issue.

Thanks Jim! More Vox Ludio soon.