Interview: Scott Lowe and Philipp Lenssen, Creators of Manyland

January 22, 2014 | By | 1 Comment
Manyland Logo

Welcome to Manyland

I recently had the immense pleasure to sit down and interview Scott and Philipp, creators of Manyland.  Philipp and Scott, with the help of their loyal and growing community, continue to build and run Manyland, pretty much by themselves. Manyland may be a labor of love, but that love shows in every aspect of this high quality game, and it is definitely much loved by the game’s inhabitants, who like to call themselves, manyzens.

For those of you who haven’t seen or heard of Manyland, it is essentially a massively multiplayer, platform builder game that runs in your browser.  You should go and check it out as soon as you’ve finished reading this interview, and you can find out more about the game in our article here.

The Interview ..

Indielicious:  Scott and Philipp, could you introduce yourselves, and tell us a little about your backgrounds and experience?

Scott & Philipp: Scott is from England and living in Poland, and I live in Germany.  Scott is the tech lead on this project and set up the whole stack. He was working with mobile applications in another company when I met him, but when we started working on Manyland, he followed his heart, took a leap of faith, and quit his day job for the project. I’m focusing on the concept and design, now with a lot of input from the great community, and help with programming.

IL: How did you both get into making indie games?  How did you end up working together?  Between the two of you, who is responsible for what?

S&P: I’ve started making games on paper when I was a teen in the 1990s, back then, mostly choose-your-own-adventure games, where each station would have multiple choices leading to other stations. The stacks of paper were becoming bigger and bigger. At one time, an angered player (who had just died in the story on an alien planet) ripped some of the papers apart. This, and a variety of other factors, made me get into programming to set up such an adventure system. But once I started programming, I got addicted and tried out all kinds of game concepts. Playing the Amiga for years surely helped with inspiration.

Some years back, I quit my day job in an office and have been working on individual or team projects since then. When the idea for Manyland grew more concrete two years ago (after some rough sketches in 2008), it needed a terrific developer. In Manyland, not only is the universe massively shared, it’s also infinite, so that’s very demanding technically. After putting up an ad at StackOverflow, I was lucky to have stumbled on Scott. He immediately jumped into the concept, we tuned and expanded it, and it became a merged effort.

After StackOverflow brought us together, we did a prototype. We worked together in location, and do a lot of communication by email and video chat. We’re flexible in our work patterns and adjust to the style that fits us and the project best, from phases where we sink our heads into something for days, to times when we communicate a lot.

And now, the community is a huge part in shaping the concept, too, through feedback and ideas. This is a labor of love, and we’re truly happy the way the manyzens join in on the fun.

IL: For the benefit of our readers, please briefly describe what Manyland is.

S&P: Manyland is an infinite, open, shared universe where people are truly responsible for the shape of the world, their activities in it, the games that arise, the themes they set. The goal was to have no goal defined, but just provide a tool set of creativity from chat, to drawing, to making music, to building (and to have those parts be combinable endlessly, like Lego bricks) in order for people to truly take it away and make for completely unpredictable outcomes. Every single pixel should be shapeable for full creativity. Manyland doesn’t know if it’s fantasy, science-fiction, contemporary age; it doesn’t know how the universe was born; it doesn’t know what its structure, social phenomena, or politics one day will be. We’re as curious about how this evolves as everyone else, and there’s a lot of insights and fun to watch it evolve.

IL: Where did the idea for Manyland originate? Why a multiplayer platforming builder game?  What inspired you to make Manyland?

S&P: In 2008, I emailed some of my friends: wouldn’t it be fun to have a giant, massively shared platformer, running in the browser, where everyone jumped around solving puzzles and challenges, but the core fun would be… that you’d see everyone else?

At around the same time, I had a separate rough sketch of a project where everyone, everyday, would draw on a shared grid, each person responsible for one part of a big painting. The theme would be set randomly every day through words shuffled together — say, “robot horse” — and people could up and downvote each tile as it was placed, so that the tiles people like best would be part of the picture at the end of the day.

Both of these ideas, and a whole lot more, kind of got merged into what became Manyland over time. Looking back, I think there’s ingredients from so many places. Everything Scott brings to the table and his inspirations, and from my perspective things such as: the Lucasfilm adventures like Maniac Mansion or Zak McKracken; the platformers like Great Giana Sisters; building games like Lemmings; open worlds like Hunter; drawing tools like Deluxe Paint; chats like IRC and visual chats like Worlds Away; graphical adventure game creation tools I wrote in the 1990s, visual web chats from the 2000s I explored, and more.

IL: Besides yourselves, how many other peolpe are involved with making Manyland?

S&P: We’re two, Scott and I, and now a superb, growing, terrific community of manyzens participating, shaping, guiding the world and new citizens.

Development-wise that’s a small team, and we prioritize features by thinking about how scalable, combinable and open they are. As an example: if someone were to suggest “it would be neat if there was a tree object that could carry apples”, we’ll ask ourselves: how can we abstract this need into something that covers not one, but a multitude of use cases? What if someone wants to make this tree be a person handing out apples? What if it’s a magic machine handing out potions? What additional settable attributes could this object have to be useful for a million things we can’t predict?

Once we are confident the feature is becoming an open tool that understands almost nothing specific of what can be done with it, we believe it’s powerful enough for people to do anything with it. We then try to find the most self-explanatory way for this object to present itself in the interface and world, so that you can play around with creating it casually and instinctively. Without reading a tutorial, yet learning more and more about it over time… and importantly, learning things about it which we as developers did not know either — we’re just as greatly surprised by some of the things people come up with.

IL: Is the multiplayer server software custom?  What is your technology stack for the game’s back end?

Scott: Yes, the server software is custom.  Tech stack for back end is Node.js/MongoDb/Redis.  One big benefit of node is that it allows us to use the same language for front/back end, so avoiding mental context switching.

For the iPad version, with the help of Nikolai Kordulla, the app mainly wraps a borderless browser pointing to manyland.com. So most of the work there was for us to get the speed and memory working, and find ways for the UI to feel good. This window into the live world approach greatly helps with updates, which we often deploy several times a day, and which are then immediately live on all systems, including the iPad version. (HTML5/ Canvas is very challenging to get right speed-wise on older iPads, by the way, so this approach has pros and cons when it comes to current-generation tablets.)

IL: Is Manyland in Alpha, Beta or full launch?  What is your timeline for release?

S&P: It’s a kind of “eternal beta”. We have a lot of features planned, while also watching the evolution of the world from the sidelines to support what people need every day.

We had a soft launch where we invited a specific group of people: ex-Glitchens, users of the previous online world of Glitch. While we never got a chance to join Glitch, I was reading through some of the forums when it was closed down, and the community spirit was so inspiring. Back then reading those forum posts, we were in the middle of the development process for Manyland, but I had wished to reach out and tell them, we got something for you that you might like! So when we were finally ready for the first smaller opening, we posted to the Glitch Facebook group at first. (That makes Manyland’s birthday July 29th, 2013!)

A few months later, in September last year, we opened the world to a bigger audience and started to get the word out elsewhere too. (Wow. That was just September?)

IL: What tools did you use to develop Manyland?  What is your core development philosophy?

Scott: Tooling is fairly minimal on my side, mainly Webstorm – great JS IDE (and perfect for both client side and back end).  For version control we use Mercurial.

Philipp: For graphics I use Corel PhotoPaint and Paint Shop Pro, for sound editing Audacity, for movie editing Sony Movie Studio, movie recording Open Broadcaster, for programming I prefer a simple full-screen text editor with minimal UI (I’m using homemade Netpadd).

IL: How do you manage vandalism, innapropriate content or griefing in the game?

S&P: We as developers try to provide the tools to the community so that everyone can help with this. World health is a big portion of conceptual thoughts. Here are some of the approaches and tools we have:

  • We have an outer ring and an inner ring. Everyone is “born” on the outer ring at first, at rank 1, and can then uprank to 5 over time through exploring the world, getting to know some of us and our etiquette, and later taking a citizenship test. One important signal we use are up and downvotes, but there’s more signals. Once you’re at rank 5, you can create truly anything, and also take the portal to the inner ring.
  • At rank 1, you can already do a lot, but not quite everything yet. However, it is important that even immediately when you join the world you have full responsibility. Yes, you can then draw something “nasty” and place it in the world, but that’s an easy signal for others that may make them downvote you, which can result in a temporary soft ban, a rank 0. (Zero-ranked people can still run around, but not build or remove anymore.)
  • When you remove a block that’s considered established (using several signals), it will leave removal dust for others to see for some time. You can then investigate this dust to find out who removed this part, and if you want, undo the removal and take other actions.

In all of this, we as community really must stick together. It’s an open world, so it does rely on all of us. We have the responsibility and the power to do everything. Every good citizens makes a HUGE difference in the world.

IL: What is your vision, and hopes for Manyland?

We all hope that many more great people join… it’s just so much fun in groups! We hang around, chat, come up with totally new stuff to do, stumble on fascinating places in the world, create our own games.

As the world is infinite, even when a lot of people join we want to ensure everybody who wants to can find more quietness still by going to a location further away. That’s one of the reasons why we try to avoid any kind of global messaging for now, and any kind of instant transportation to a place (unless you already discovered it once by walking there). We believe that location is a powerful angle for naturally deciding on groups to hang out with, and it doesn’t require binary “is this your friend?” or groups-as-buckets sorting (social dynamics are much more gradual: for instance, we may want to hang out with different groups in different times of the day).

As for what the world will look like, we truly don’t know, and it depends on each of us in it. As developers we’re watching it and will assist with tools and balancing tweaks needed for people to take it away. We’re in this for the long term, and want Manyland to be a place where you can really stay, and live.

IL: OK, now for a few general questions. What is your all time favorite game?

Scott: Very difficult question! Depends on the era, but maybe: Older: Deuteros: The Next Millennium, More Recently: Fallout 3

Philipp: Oh, I have too many, and wouldn’t be able to pick a single one! One fascinating game I played for weeks with friends as a kid at my grandpa’s place (my grandpa’s a tech and science geek, always providing us with quests and puzzles when we visited!) was Batman for the Amstrad PC: [Youtube]

I never ever finished this game — the world was too big, too complex, behind every room was a new room and new puzzle.

To pick another game from the long list, I really loved Loom. It was an adventure game, but instead of using objects, you’d play tunes… weave sounds into the structure of the universe to amend it!

IL: What is you favorite game of 2013?

Scott: Probably Papers Please.

Philipp: I really enjoyed playing through The Cave, and am happy that adventure games (like Kickstarter-financed Broken Age) are seeing a comeback. Other than that I really enjoy playing bite-sized sessions of casual, fast-paced first-person shooters… and am looking forward to the Octolus Rift and what can be done with it!

IL: Who are your heroes, and why?

Scott: I’ve got a lot of respect for the old chip tune composers of the 8-bit era like Rob Hubbard, Ben Daglish and Martin Galway. As well as composing great tunes, they were often creating their own tools, and working on the bare metal – a unique combination of tech skill and artistic talent.

IL: What about your thoughts on the current state of Indie Gaming?  And the future?

S&P: There’s tons of great stuff on Steam’s indie section, in mobile gaming, in web games. Development frameworks (like the great Corona) and self-publishing options are making the barrier of entry easier and easier. Getting a project to be seen, on the other hand, and perhaps that’s the nature of the game (as the cumulative attention span of all of us players doesn’t increase) is not easy. I’m excited to see where things go.

IL: Care to share any pearls of wisdom for other developers trying to make games?

S&P: Not advice, but some inspiration for everyone out there: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahv_1IS7SiE

IL: What’s next for you both?

S&P: Manyland, still So many features planned!

————————————————————

So there you have it.  Scott and Philipp, creators of the great and wonderful Manyland, and a couple of great guys too.  Please show them some love, and check out their game.  It’s super easy to get in and play.

Visit and play Manyland here.

Read the Indielicious Manyland review here.

 

Category: Features, Interviews

About the Author ()

I am a man, not a machine, contrary to popular belief.