Bastion’s Last Stand pt.2: When to Stop

TLDR: I got nowhere with my first efforts, tried a different thing that also didn’t work, pity party then got back to making a fun book.

Where did we leave off again in the story of Bastion, the app I made? Oh right: being a sucker for the profits follow passion thing, crickets and being a product designer. You can read all about how that started in part 1.

Somehow, if you can believe it, putting imagery like this on your projects doesn’t make you one of the best rock bands in history at all.

You still there? Great. Now strap the hell in.

Crickets, Tumbleweeds, the Deafening Hollow Wind Whistling Through my Work

When living in London there are loads of things for entrepreneurs. There are even more for people who think they can or should be entrepreneurs. By this I mean there are roughly 254 meet-ups per day, per person, that encourage you to say to hell with everything, damnit, I’m going to quit whatever modicum of stability might exist for me in this death cage of money monsters and go start that Papuan Macrobiotic Taco Truck I’ve always dreamed of. There is infinite encouragement to follow some sort of dream or idea and give you just enough to think it’s a thing and then sort of leave you to rot really.

I was going to these things like it was my job. I punched in, put on the apron and the paper hat, the gloves and asked the world if they would like fries with that. There was some thing sponsored by somebody where I talked to a guy from Google who said something along the lines of “huh,” but like in a nice way, when I showed him Bastion. He showed me some thing where you put things in four squares and that makes you sell like crazy. All of this sort of thing made me dizzy. More importantly it made me stop making.

I was for a short while still getting this government research funding enrolled in this course where guys, they were all guys, who were successful I was told would sort me out. Somehow the only thing I remember is learning is about sales funnels. At the time they made complete sense, like everything else I was told. In case you don’t know what that is, neither do I anymore. For some reason all’s I can think of when I even write the word right now is the carnival food. This is likely very telling.

“Engagement.” This was one of the myriad of things I had to do I was told. Or read. Or to have the TechCrunch feed mainlined into my aorta. I latched on to it like a barnacle. A fastidious, yet tired and sad barnacle trying to get on to a really cool pirate ship. It seemed like my style of thing, basic, pragmatic and something that didn’t sound like it could be a euphemism for sex. Or wait, it totally is. I had gone about doing one of the few things I know how to do in terms of engagement which is talk to anyone and everyone about this thing I made. So “engagement.”

I talked to anyone and everyone. I got lots of intros, lots of chats. It was now years, not just a little while, and the passion I was sold to myself so hard wasn’t working out. Hmmm. I had talked to people in media, TV, games even and publishing and there was that all the interest in the world, but no intent.

This is something they don’t tell you: Interest does not equal intent.

A couple of issues became clear after a little while, a.) authors weren’t interested in yet another thing they would need to do and not get paid for, b.) mass consumerism wasn’t ready or that interested either and c.) I didn’t listen to any of this.

The road I was trudging down was already rutted and impassibly muddy, now before me lay three overturned Oldsmobiles and piles of burning tires. I was convinced after yet more innumerable conversations that I needed to do what all the famous apps, platforms and digital media services had done. This worked for that one famous guy or something and I was desperate, so I obviously needed the Pivot.

The Pivot

The Pivot is a firm part of the tech world mythos, a biblical scale tech concept where you are making a thing and after it doesn’t work out, you realise it could be used for something else, so you go and do that. It sounded simple enough. I had an idea that I couldn’t let go of, and surely the answer was to just shove it down another hole it didn’t belong. I just remembered I was trying to avoid sex metaphors.

Why of course, if you start making a video game and then end up creating Flickr or Slack without even knowing it, I had obviously the same trajectory towards riches and glory. I would find what I had done was really for, which hadn’t yet magically revealed itself to me. It would appear on high or in a fever dream, or ideally a burning bush, and show me the way across the desert.

I had initially done all this work because I wrote an absurdist, historical comedy called The Gates of Vienna. This was what I was into and what started me on any of this. Along the way, because London, everyone told me it needed to be a product, it needs to be an app, it needs to be a thing beyond itself. I listened like my life depended on it, because in some ways it did.

It was actually a working thing

Around that time I also had been intermittently doing work for academic, cultural and historical organisations like The Council of Europe and EUROCLIO trying to make history education fit for the digital age even better. Oh, I know, history education it is then. There was the Pivot.

I worked for a bit with some of these fine institutions, even going so far as to work on a Bastion book about the 1918 Storming of the Winter Palace. I even presented it to a conference of history educators in Belfast and garnered interest from people who said they could use something like Bastion. Again plenty of interest, no intent. But then it happened.

More tumbleweeds.

Then this time, an ever so quiet, soft hiss fizzling before me. Then silence.

So I tried to pivot yet again. Publishing! Kids! Kids publishing! I hated the idea actually of making a thing that would have kids read on phones even more but let myself get talked into it. The argument that worked for me was, “Well anything that gets them reading…” seemed valid enough. There were conferences and more talking to people in publishing that would have me.

Then the abyss. I just finally stopped.

Bastion is dead, long live The Gates of Vienna

The whole reason I even got started was that silly story that you could navigate in an interesting way. About two years after letting this Bastion thing get swallowed by time I get an email from the server platform Heroku and found out I would have to pull the app or else throw even more money and effort keeping it on life support. It lived in squalor in the App Store for about three years. I was so scared to pull the plug. Thankfully I came to my senses, killed all the accounts, opened a beer or three and then sighed like I’ve never sighed before. There would be no viking funeral or cannonade salute, but it did feel weirdly good to have it end officially.

Recently I began work in what could be called strategy and what some call category design. In a nutshell what I’ve been trying to figure out is that you don’t just design a new thing, you design a completely new thing that creates an entire category. Thus Category Design. I thought I was doing this before I even knew if the term or of the field of practice. There were issues, ones as big and wide as the sea.

I thought I had the main idea (POV) nailed: reading being broken. The problem was what I had designed was missing the one big thing you sort of desperately need when trying to make software. Users. Readers. People. I was dead set on changing people’s minds, to create a completely new category of reading, but their problem wasn’t as big as I thought it was. In fact it looks like it might not be a problem at all. It seems there’s a reason books are still around in the same form for the past half millennia. Books you read from front to back still work.

I feel like this now dead thing deserves more. It deserves tens of thousands of words, one for every hour I spent, sending it off in a blaze of glory. Or a whimpering shove off a cliff.

Oh wait, The Gates of Vienna, what happened with that you ask? Why, I made it into a web book! It’s free, no downloads, and it’s lovingly crafted by me in a leather apron with a moustache painted on my face. It’s here for you all the time. Read. Be free. Wander a ridiculous and cruel world 338 years ago..

There’s more coming of actual story though believe it or not. The story is what it was always about anyhow, and that is what this story is ultimately about. More ridiculous, funny, wild and weird stories that I’ve either been hacking away at for a decade or exist in bits in text files and pieces of this design-clogged mind. There is a camel that hates people and a more historical figures drenched in incompetence. One day, hopefully soon, I’ll bring them all to you.