A month ago, after one of the worst weeks of his life, Siqi Chen received a message from an unlikely source. Chen is the CEO of the company behind Stolen, a controversial game that let users buy and sell Twitter profiles like trading cards. Each user started with virtual currency that could be used to "buy" others; rapid buying and selling bidded up the price on popular profiles. After an initial surge in popularity, the game came under criticism for allowing people’s profiles to be traded and commented on without their consent. Facing a barrage of criticism over the game’s potential to enable abuse, Chen pulled Stolen from the App Store on January 14th.
Three days later, the direct message arrived on Twitter. It was from Zoe Quinn, the game developer, writer, and activist. Quinn was the original target of Gamergate, the campaign of harassment against women in the video game industry. The movement began in August 2014 after Quinn’s ex-boyfriend wrote a long, acrimonious, and inaccurate blog post about her; she subsequently became subject to doxxing and death threats. Today she runs Crash Override, a network of experts who offer support to victims of abuse.
"I know how nasty backlash can be on the internet."
Early in Stolen’s life, Quinn had sent the company a sharply worded note asking to have her profile removed from the game. (It quickly complied.) But Quinn’s message to Chen that Sunday morning was not accusatory. Instead, seeing the furor directed at Chen by Stolen players, she offered her support. "I know how nasty backlash can be on the internet," Quinn says. "I just reached out — I was like, ‘hey, I hope you guys are all right. I know you got a lot of backlash. If stuff gets scary or anything, I do run an anti-harassment organization. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.’"
What followed led to today’s release of Famous, an iOS app that picks up where Stolen left off. (An Android version is now in beta.) Like its predecessor, the game represents an effort to let people show off their fandom by collecting their favorite friends, celebrities, and brands on Twitter. But the game differs in several crucial respects, which has earned it the support of Quinn, who is now a paid consultant to the development team.
Famous is different from Stolen in two important ways. One, the game is entirely opt-in: unless a person joins Famous, you’ll never see them in the game. Second, the app has dropped its off-putting language related to "stealing" and "owning" people. Instead, you "become their biggest fan." What used to feel uncomfortably like a slave auction is now depicted as a show of support.
The result is a game that captures much of what made Stolen appealing without creating the same avenues for abuse. "This vision and this design are supposed to be about being a fan," says Chen, who remains unreservedly apologetic for the problems surrounding Stolen. The germ of Famous, he says, was: "What if we made it about being a fan? A sense of competition over who’s the biggest fan. … The game is explicitly positive. It’s not like, ‘ha ha, you’re mine now.’"
"It's not like, 'ha ha you're mine now.'"
Another new feature is called "Top Fans." It appears underneath your profile, and shows everyone who has competed to be your No. 1 fan. "It makes the gameplay feels a lot less ephemeral, which was probably the biggest problem with our old mechanic," Chen says. And it’s true — Stolen often felt pointless because someone could steal a person back instantly, without ever leaving a trace of your momentary possession.
Those changes aside, Famous looks and feels a lot like Stolen — which in turn was based on Friends For Sale, a once-popular Facebook game Chen released in 2007 that eventually sold to Zynga. With Famous you still log in through Twitter, and players are still represented by trading cards. Instead of showing a price tag, the card now shows a numerical "fame" value. To become someone’s biggest fan, you’ll have to pay up. You can buy currency using real money. Or you can use the currency you earn from your own, um … fan transactions? (The language around Stolen, while fatally creepy, was also much easier to grasp.)
There are currently no ways for users to communicate inside the app. You can add comments to your own profile, and people can "like" them, but that’s it. Chen is considering adding chat functions over time, but given the potential for abuse he’s being cautious. However, he says building a community inside the app is the only way to make it a sustainable business.
Over time, he imagines creating lists of high-profile users around topics like music, sports, and entertainment, and encouraging a friendly rivalry to determine who the biggest fans are. "The gameplay is a great hook, and it’s really, really engaging," Chen says. "But it’s only going to last for so long. The reason why people stick around is for the community."
"The reason people stick around is the community."
Famous will roll out slowly: For now, you’ll need an invitation to start playing. (The first 1,000 readers of this story can play by entering the code *VERGE; note the asterisk and that the code is case-sensitive.) In part, that’s because the sense of exclusivity around Stolen was useful in helping to generate buzz. In a clever move, all verified Twitter users could begin playing Stolen immediately, drawing lots of people with big followings to start playing and tweeting about it. But Chen also wants to make sure the platform doesn’t lead to abuse in some new, unforeseen ways.
Quinn says the company deserves credit for listening to criticism and taking it seriously. "It’s one thing to criticize stuff, which is super important and necessary," she says. "But the other half of it is, how can we do better? They’re so invested in trying to do the right thing. They don’t want to ignorantly blunder in there and accidentally make something that hurts people. It’s really heartening."