Thomas Dolby is a legend of synthesizer music. Most people know him for his mega-hit, “She Blinded Me With Science”, but the seasoned aficionado will know him as the wizard behind some of the most emotive, innovative electronic art pop of the age, including not just his solo work, but his collaborations with Foreigner, Prefab Sprout, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Trevor Horn, among others. Dolby left the music scene in the early ’90s to make it big in Silicon Valley by inventing the polyphonic ringtone, and returned in 2006 with a fantastic live show. Now, he’s on the verge of releasing his first studio album in 20 years. But this is no mere album release. No, this new album, A Map of the Floating City, is something of a concept album, preceded by an unprecedented experience: a community-based web game based on Dolby’s entire discography.
The game, also called A Map of the Floating City, is both a trading game and a roleplaying game, set in a post-apocalyptic 1940s, in which world-weary tribes attempt to sail the seas towards magnetic North, where the legendary Floating City resides. The game offers fans a chance to experience Dolby’s catalog in a new way, and gives new listeners a chance to be introduced to his incredible music, as well as a way to earn downloads of Dolby tracks. The grand prize is even more exciting: a private concert of the album in its entirety for the winning tribe. To pull off this incredible feat, Dolby enlisted the help of one of the leading minds behind alternate reality gaming, Andrea Phillips.
Consequence of Sound reporter and Nerdy Show host Cap Blackard, along with Nerdy Show‘s Sci-Tech correspondent Jon West, spoke to Dolby and Phillips about their visionary new project. Find out how it works, how it came to be, notes on a forthcoming world tour, early tales of D.I.Y. synthesizers, the exciting world of transmedia, and more, below.
To hear the interview, as well as our full chat with Phillips, head on over to the Nerdy Show, where it’s featured in the latest episode.
A Map of The Floating City will be your first studio album since 1992. The original plan was to do three EPs after the albums release, each of them embodying different sounds from the album. But, much to everyones surprise, the third EP was folded into a much bigger project: The Map of the Floating City game. What was the genesis for this project?
Thomas Dolby: Well, during the 20 years I wasnt making any music, while I was in Silicon Valley running Beatnik, my company, I was amazed to see that, on the Internet, there were little news groups and forums that sprung up, where people would analyze my lyrics, and my songs, and, in some cases, take on roles and characters from the music, and even write, sort of, collaborative fiction, like fan fiction. I started to feel like one of those guys that died and just got bigger, and so I was determined to try to get my arms around this, when I made my new album.
Ive been working for a couple of years on A Map of the Floating City, which has three continents to it. Each one has a distinct musical flavor. The first two came out as EPs. One was just for my fan club only, and then Oceanea in March was generally released. The plan had been to do a third EP, called Urbanoia, prior to the album, but I came up with the idea of folding it into, as you say, a much bigger project. I liked the way that all of the people, places, and ideas from the songs seemed to have a sort of continuum to them. So, I put everything into a big database, and then I met Andrea Phillips, a very well-known game designer, and we talked about it, and she said, “You know this has really got a good basis for a trading game.” So, she educated me about that, and I really set about working on the back-story, and figuring out how trading could be the basic day-to-day mechanics of the game, with a much more intriguing, mysterious back-story going on, which would encourage people to stick with the game and solve puzzles.
The game is set in a really unique, post-apocalyptic world. I was wondering what you could tell us about the cataclysm that reshaped the Earth in your vision. Ive seen a couple of different versions online, and its not clearly presented to the average gamer of Map of the Floating City, but the information is out there. Whats your definitive version?
TD: I think theres been a lot of speculation among the players, which of course Andrea and I love. What we tell people in the game, is that there was some sort of cataclysmic event, which altered everybodys brain chemistry to the extent that people dont really remember what happened before. Its set in the 1940s, which I think was a really fascinating time for technology, and for people, in general. I live on the North Sea of the east-facing coast of England, which faces Germany. So, theres the relics of two World Wars all over the beach, here. Theres huge concrete blocks designed to stop tanks, and the remains of experimental weapons, like poison cluster bombs, and even, theoretically, a way to set the sea on fire by pumping oil into it, and igniting it.
And, close by here, there were experimental RAF bases where they were working with things like death rays, where you could point things like sine waves at distant bomber pilots, and disorient them so they would crash into the sea. So, the scientists in the 1940s were under this intense pressure to come up with what would give them an advantage over the enemy, and yet the people around here were living in this constant fear of being invaded and occupied by Nazis at any time. So, it was really an extraordinary period of time that might so easily have turned out very differently.
I was wondering how you and Andrea met. What were the circumstances?
TD: Do you remember, Andrea?
Andrea Phillips: I remember…I think that a friend of mine just introduced me to a friend of yours, who introduced me to you. It was really kind of a funny thing. I mean, to be honest, I didnt plant this seed of a game. Thomas was already thinking along those lines. He was already thinking, and he had this fantastic, gorgeous vision, even before I came along. Its been my role in this to do the very boring thing, and turn it down to sets of rules and code, to make everything much, much more dull than it was in his head.
TD: Well, I think realism, actually, is what Andrea calls it.
TD: Ive made software before, and I’ve made Web sites before, but Ive never really, you know, designed a game. So, I think the filtering that Andreas sensible mind has brought to the project was far from making it boring. Occasionally, wed come to blows about what should or shouldnt happen, and in her infinite experience in how you do and dont treat the player, and to what extent you can depend on the gamers existing sensibilities based on their experience from other games, versus introducing completely new concepts to them, has been incredibly valuable. And, realistically, even when Andrea puts her foot down and says, “No, you cant do that,” it sort of forces me to go back into myself, and think of a more ingenious way around it.
AP: Isnt that always the way, with every creative limitation though?
TD: Hopefully [laughs]. Its not always, Andrea. Thats not always the case. Weve got the teamwork thing going here.
The game has some very principled trading mechanics, things that would make sense to the common gamer, but then also behind it are a lot of mechanics that regular gamers wouldnt be adept to, like free-form thinking, role playing, lots of things that revolve around creativity. That sounds like a very difficult thing to gauge, but of course, a lot of the game is based on a top-secret scoring system. I was wondering what you have in place to evaluate so much original content.
AP: One of our primary metrics is, actually, just the other players. We have this rank-up system in the forum, so if somebody says something that you think is really amazing, they can go and give you a thumbs-up on your post, and you get your own reputation increased by that, which in a top-secret way, will improve your tribes score over time. And then, we just have to do a lot of human judgment, in terms of looking at the patents, for example. We have a number of people going through and reviewing patents, just to make sure that theyre keeping with the world we have going, and theyre at least vaguely plausible, or at least highly entertaining. So, thats another way. Its, of course, very hard to be objective when youre judging someone else’s creative input. So, I guess, effort is one of the things that we treasure, even above execution. Somebody who spent five hours in MS Paint is going to be much, much more valuable than somebody who executed a really, really clever Google search and found something on Deviant Art.
In regards to the games patent system, whats the larger purpose of making inventions and filing patents?
TD: Well to explain patents for a second, its a trading game. You have a vessel, you have in your cargo a number of items which you trade, and build on with other players, and find some random gifts of items, which we call flotsam, items floating around in the sea. You can also pick up items on what we call daring excursions,” because, from time to time, bits of the sea bed are actually exposed, because the tides recede far enough, and you can make a daring excursion there and have a little experience which will result in picking up more items. So, youre building these items in your cargo hold, and they appear to have no value, other than just a name, but in fact they have a lot of value, because there are freak events from time to time. For example, an attack of rabid seagulls, or an outburst of pirates that gets reported on the high seas, and in order to protect yourself against this, you are able to invent something brand new which will defend you. So, in the case of the rabid seagulls, for example, if somebody had in their hold, I dont know, Jaffa cakes and radium, they could invent a poisoned confectionery, anti-gull device and this would be a way to get rid of the gulls. So, you file a patent for that using the items in your hold, and if it is approved, you get a nice little scroll in your profile, and you are now protected against the gulls. Somebody that didnt file a patent in time will get bumped southwards, and southwards is bad, because everybody is heading north, as a tribe. [Recently], in the Floating City Gazette, we announced were heading into drought conditions. So, youd better have something drinkable on board your vessel, or else youre going to be in trouble.
So, my fruit juice everywhere is really going to come in handy, then.
TD: Well, that will come in handy, but someone who didnt have a drinkable item might be able to invent, for example, an alcoholic still.
AP: Desalinization machines. I think were going to see a lot of those.
TD: I think so.
The game is filled with opportunities for winning actual prizes. Mp3s of your tracks are the simplest to get. I heard somewhere that there might be t-shirts as well, but then the grand prize is a private concert for the tribe that completes the game with the highest score. I was wondering how tribes are determined. Is it regional? And how top-secret is this concert going to be when it goes down?
AP: We do geo-sorting based on IPs. So, which tribe youre sorted into when you register is very, very much determined by where you are in the world. Its not completely precise and perfect, but its as good as, I think, we were going to get.
TD: We took care to distribute it as fairly as we could, along the lines of my existing fan club. Now, they may be slightly skewed, I think partly because if English is not your first language, you might find that youre a little bit disadvantaged in the game. So, its possible that the distribution of the players for the game is not quite the same as my basic fan club. The other aspect, as well, is that this is not designed as a game just to thrill my hardcore fanbase, which is very devoted and very loyal, but is quite small because I havent released an album for 20 years. The goal really, is to excite a new generation of music fans about the music, both the back catalogue and the new material. So, weve tried to create a game which is interesting to everybody, and make sure theres enough music in the game, both during the game, and as a prize at the end, that will hopefully get a bunch of new people hooked on the music.
Im from the Clubland tribe, and during one of the Daring Sorties, I encountered a new track called A Jealous Thing Called Love, which was positioned on the Urbanoia continent. Is this, in fact, one of the Urbanoia EP tracks?
TD: Yes, it is indeed. So, youve made a good discovery there. Ive played that song once or twice live, three or four years ago. So, there will be a handful of people that will have heard it. But, other than that, its pretty much the world premiere for that song.
Thats very cool. When I was listening to the track, and trying to determine whether or not it was from the new EP, I was attempting to discern a style, because the Amerikana EP was so very distinct, and Oceanea was also very distinct in its style. You’d described Urbanoia, in the past, as scary or haunting, but it wasn’t what Id expected from that description. How would you define the Urbanoia sound?
TD: I think what distinguishes Urbanoia is in the lyrics, and the sense of storytelling from the singer. As I mentioned, Im not really a city person. Im excited by cities, but I cant spend more than a few days there at a time. I sort of long to be out in the tranquility of my home. But, Im fascinated by cities and the things that, you know…I like the implied threat of being out late at night in interesting places, parts of town. So, I think what runs through Urbanoia is more of a sense of being huddled into a confined space with a bunch of other people, which is a little alien to me, you know? I think Im naturally more of a loner.
Is there a set end-date to the game, at this moment?
TD: Well, you know, we have somewhat of a sliding scale to the calendar, because we didnt know how rapidly people were going to progress. Theres a limit in the game, which Im sure Andrea could explain the reason behind it, but you can only do 10 trades in a day, and trading is how you move northwards in the game. That gives us a minimum amount of time it takes people to reach the North Pole. But, even after people reach the North Pole and the continents converge, the game is still not over, because there is still a lot of problem solving to do, related to the back-story.
So, finally, when a tribe starts getting, en masse, to the Floating City, is that where the tallies come in, or is there actually a very finite endpoint, a conclusion that they have to reach before the game ends, the concerts announced, and then the album release date is announced?
TD: Well, all of that is a little bit fluid. I mean, the sequence certainly will be that the game ends, theres then a free concert for the winning tribe, and then the album will come out. Those things are obviously interrelated. But, were going to watch very closely the progress in the game, and we have ways of reining that in a little bit. But, Andrea has really taught me that you dont mess with the world that you create. You dont sort of dump on players, and throw surprises their way, and make them feel out of control. You need to empower your players, right Andrea?
AP: Of course! I also think that it behooves us, in a situation like this, to be a little bit flexible about what were doing. One of the things that I like to do in a game is to adapt how it runs as we go along. Not changing the rules under a players feet, but adjusting for a better outcome, and, even toward the end, we have something in mind that we want to do, and we know how we want it to play out. But if it turns out that we find something slightly different that is going to satisfy a larger number of players, then well probably tweak what we have planned.