Image: screenshot by the author

Developers Hope ‘Literally the Worst App’ Won't Be Quite So Bad This Time

The makers of Stolen! are back with new version Famous!—and hope that changes to the app will address harassment concerns.

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Feb 19 2016, 1:45pm

Image: screenshot by the author

The storm of controversy caused by "people trading" mobile game Stolen!, which closed unceremoniously before it even got out of beta, only happened a month ago. So it's surprising to see Siqi Chen and the small team of developers behind the contentious game already back with a rather familiar-looking app, this time called Famous!. In the lightning-fast world of tech, redemption can be hard-won, but with help from an improbable source—game developer Zoe Quinn—Chen is hoping the new app can rise from the ashes of its short-lived predecessor.

If Stolen! passed you by then here's a quick refresher: The app, a viral sensation jokingly referred to by the developers as "literally the worst app ever," allowed players to "steal" other users' Twitter accounts, using an in-game currency to make the trades. But through a mixture of naivety and exuberance, the developers overlooked the potential this offered for abuse and harassment, and the resulting widespread backlash saw them voluntarily remove the game from the app store. The self-proclaimed tagline turned into a self-fulfilling nightmare for Chen and his team.

"It was a weird time," Chen told me over the phone. "In the moment we were just being reactive to the response so it didn't affect me emotionally, but once the press started hitting home a few days after I was not feeling good."

"Under the circumstances, [Zoe Quinn] was just about the last person I'd expect to reach out to me."

The backlash against Stolen! was as vehement as it was brief. Valid concerns about the potential for abuse gave way to members of Congress calling for Apple to ban the app and ended in the kind of reactionary witch-hunt—on both sides of the debate—that naturally played out mainly on Twitter. "I can totally understand why people are upset by what we built," said Chen with a heavy sigh. "I mean we're not clueless about it and that's why we chose to pull the app—but seeing your name in print associated with all that negativity just wears you down."

It left Chen and his team in limbo, with limited time and money trying to figure out what to do next with the Kanye West of apps: celebrated and vilified in equal measure. It was at this low point that Zoe Quinn—writer, fellow developer and the initial focus of Gamergate's online wrath—got in touch with Chen via Twitter. "She just asked me if I was okay and offered support if I need it," he explained. "And that meant so much because under the circumstances, she was just about the last person I'd expect to reach out to me."

This communication spurred Chen and his team on to rethink Stolen!, because at its core was a fundamentally good idea: After all, before the backlash people had been begging him and his team for codes to play the game while it was still invite-only. "It's difficult to find that magic in a product, it's the thing startups work for years to find," he said. "So we began discussing ideas that captured the essence of Stolen! but without the problematic aspects that we'd unintentionally released into the world."

"If you're just a random person on Twitter and you're being 'traded' in this game that you can't even get access to because codes to play are so scarce, then it's understandable that you might find that upsetting."

The result is Famous!, which once again uses social accounts on Twitter as the bedrock of its gameplay. Famous! works very similarly to Stolen! but no longer requires you to "steal" or "own" people. Instead, you can become someone's "biggest fan," with the social value of users incrementally increasing with each new admirer. "The reason people were drawn to Stolen!—and our original intention—was to show how much a fan you were of someone," said Chen. "But that didn't really come through in the external perception or our theming, so we looked to make that more explicit." Part of that explicit change has been to drop the dollar equivalency—the in-game currency is now stylized as a heart—and remove the highly problematic chat function completely, as well as adding a leaderboard of each player's top ten fans, which gives a greater purpose to maintaining that fandom.

Image: screenshot by the author

So far, this might all sound like Stolen! with a facelift and fresh semantics. But Chen insists that beyond these small changes there are wider modifications at the heart of the game. "If we were just going to change some copy around, it would have taken a matter of hours," he said.

One of the key changes is a 100 percent opt-in policy (in Stolen! every Twitter profile was available to trade, even if the user didn't know about it). "If you're just a random person on Twitter and you're being 'traded' in this game that you can't even get access to because codes to play are so scarce, then it's understandable that you might find that upsetting," explained Chen. "So we decided that we really don't need to opt everyone into the game."

While there's an option to invite other Twitter users to play, they have to opt in before they appear on the app. It's a move which changes the dynamic of the gameplay, with people unable to become fans of others who don't have the app; it's an important move in terms of safety, but it makes for a somewhat less compelling play.

Image: screenshot of the author begging @motherboard to join the game so he can be its biggest fan

Behind the scenes of Famous! will also be a trust and safety board, on which Zoe Quinn will be among a group of consultants. "It means that when we do bring in more social features they'll be well thought-out," said Chen. "We can't just toss ideas out into the wild, because there are some things—even as someone who follows the issues of harassment on the internet—that would never occur to me. So you need people who understand the way social and communication features can be used for malice, in a world where things can get out of hand very quickly."

"That's something we found out the hard way," Chen added.

With all of these measures in place, whether Famous! can remove the bitter taste left by Stolen! so soon after the latter's demise remains uncertain. But perhaps in time, it will achieve the kind of success and potential that Stolen! only briefly managed to glimpse. Chen certainly seems optimistic, with caveats. "The one thing we've learned is that you can't assume anything," he said towards the end of our conversation. In a world steered by the power of online opinion, assuming everything's going to be fine could be the biggest mistake you make—especially when you're asking for a second chance.