The Future of Work is a Game
Exploring NPCs as expansion packs in Gather
Hey folks! 👋🏽 Kavir here. Welcome back to another edition of The Discourse. In this week we’re taking a look at another take on the Future of Work. After writing on whiteboarding in a remote world, writing as a foundational skill for remote work, and how Polywork is the future of collaboration, I’m here to talk about how the Future of Work is a game.
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I’ve recently been fascinated by this metaverse platform called Gather. It’s an 8-bit metaverse where people in communities and companies can connect virtually, almost like they were players in a game.
I first came across the platform in Jan 2021 during my On Deck fellowship when few fellows were using the platform to interact with each other.
It immediately spoke to me. I’ve grown up playing 8-bit games in the 90s including Mario and others.
The casual nature of the platform makes interaction more seamless and warm than Zoom calls; Zoom fatigue begone.
To get a sense of how it works here’s a recreation of the Dunder Mifflin Scranton office (from The Office) in Gather.
But since June, I’ve been running an experiment for a virtual coworking space called Creator Cafe on it and it’s been huge for my (and others’) productivity!
I’ve modeled it on the Eudaimonia machine mentioned in the book Deep Work which mentions that the ideal workspace has 5 different spaces - deep work (as the name suggests, for uninterrupted work), shallow work (for low effort work), gallery (to showcase your work), lounge (to interact with others), and reading space (to gain knowledge).
If you’re following me on Twitter, you would’ve seen my tweets on it.
I’ll write more on the experience of running such a virtual community later, stay tuned for that! But for now, I want to focus on Gather as a platform.
How do people use Gather?
There are two ways to use Gather:
Replacement for physical office for remote work companies
I’ve previously discussed how I ran one-off events on Gather. But the range is wide. People have used Gather for campus interviews, office off-sites, virtual conventions, Thanksgiving dinners, and even weddings!
From a business perspective, it’s clear that a recurring model geared towards remote work companies is the more long-term sustainable option.
In an article in Forbes, the founder of Gather, Philip Wang told Forbes:
“The company had pivoted to focus solely on developing its product for remote work, its highest traction use case, instead of other functionalities such as hosting virtual events”.
Which makes complete sense in today’s market.
Calculating business ROI
Hypothesizing what would customers that subscribe to Gather look at to calculate ROI on the spend:
Is it being used? — are people actively using the platform?
Is it useful? — is it improving some metric of productivity or morale for the team?
To check whether the platform is being used, you could provide aggregated analytics, run surveys, or just generally get a sense if it were a small team.
For the second point, you could again gauge this through user interviews or surveys. There are merits to using this platform to avoid Zoom fatigue and to get a sense of togetherness that neither Slack nor Zoom provides.
Taking this usefulness point to the next level, I ran a thought exercise to see how Gather could add more value to a remote working team.
NPCs can be useful, after all
Going back to the game analogy: A game has playing characters (single player/multiplayer) and non-playing characters (NPCs)
Playing characters in the work context are the human beings who work at the company.
And as the name suggests, NPCs are computer-generated characters embedded into a game to make the game seem more interactive between plot points. They are essentially bots.
Now why do I think adding NPCs make sense?
You have to look at existing user behavior for clues. I’ve seen examples in communities like Gathernesia and Creator Café, where creators are using workarounds to add NPCs
From these examples, you can see the avatars showcasing a message on interaction. First a security guard from Squid Game and then an anime librarian.
I’ve added my own examples in Creator Café, including Ashneer Grover — a Shark Tank India judge who was famous (or perhaps infamous) for his curt responses and feedback to founders. As well as a barista to take coffee orders.
The closest to an NPC in Gather is the pet dog that follows you around when you pet it.
Comparison with Slack
Slack started off as a communication tool but later added elements to its platform that slowly transitioned into a place “where work happens”.
Slack bots and later the Slack App Store extended the functionality of the platform tremendously.
I believe that NPCs in Gather are what Slack bots are to Slack. Let’s take a look at use cases.
What use cases are possible
Going by my experience of using Slack, the following use cases immediately came to mind:
Birthday bot / Work anniversary
Internal podcasts or recorded videos
Continuous learning programs
Of course, the key is to figure out use cases that are 10x better in this environment than Slack.
While filing tickets can be easier in Slack, maybe onboarding quests that are a combination of text, video, and a treasure hunt could be better on Gather.
I remember Treasure Hunt being an integral part of my orientation experience for the MBA at the Indian School of Business. While Gather has created Escape Rooms, Treasure Hunts are not far away.
What are the strategies to build out NPCs
Now there are two strategies for this: First-party apps and third-party apps.
First-party apps are the ones that the platform builds in itself (for example, Slack has a remind functionality that is useful)
My proposed take on this strategy is:
First version: dedicated NPC avatars
Second version: Slackbot-esque
Third version: bot builder (IF-ELSE)
Fourth version: focus on building out an API that can be extended by third parties
Let’s look at them in detail:
First version: Dedicated NPC avatars
Currently, there isn’t any dedicated object for creating interactive avatars. The workaround right now is to create two images — one at rest and one at the time of interaction.
What these NPC avatars would accomplish is that instead of finding pixel avatars that suit different use cases — for example, security guards, baristas, robots — you could use one directly from the library.
This serves as a lean way to test whether NPCs are something that customers really want and will use.
Second version: Slackbot-esque
An iterated version of NPCs would be simple chatbots that are built by the team and that have limited functionality, but could extend the usefulness of the platform.
The closest to an NPC currently is the pet.
You could have an NPC that goes around and asks everyone about their birthday, so they can inform everyone and do a small dance and celebration on the day of the birthday.
Or a barista who hangs by the lounge and asks people a few questions when people approach and help you order coffee.
Again, the usefulness of these NPCs can target morale to start with, and then become increasingly more useful.
Third version: Bot builder
The next step in this process is to create a basic Bot builder that can employ a bunch of rules to achieve an outcome. The customers could build this out themselves.
A simple IF-ELSE system where if you do this then that happens. This is similar to how a lot of no-code apps are nowadays.
Customers could build their own interactive chatbots through messages.
For example, I walk up to an NPC, it knows my profile and pulls up my utilized vacation days, and shows me how many more I need to take in the year.
Fourth version: App Store
Finally, focus on building out an API that can be extended by third parties ala Slack.
This is obviously the highest involvement and needs multiple things set before you could go ahead.
This would be the maximum effort but would depend on what’s the demand, what’s the current level of usage, what’s the level of the API ecosystem, is there any demand from developers.
I’ve always been fascinated by video games since I was a kid. The first game that I played was space invaders in the early 90s on an Atari. And since then I’ve played almost every genre of game.
Gather feels like a game in every way. I felt this when I was designing the Creator Cafe experience.
Looking at Gather from a game lens is interesting, and I think NPCs is a natural extension to the feature set currently available.
We all know the future of work is remote. Why not make it fun and interactive, like we’re actually living in a game.
Thanks to Dhrumi for providing feedback on early drafts of this piece and Prabhjot Singh Lamba for the discussion on game development.
📘 Read of the week: Work on what matters - @lethain (10 min)