Interview with Josh Williams, Alamofire

By Erin Bell |

In a previous life, the folks at Texas-based Alamofire created web sites under the banner of Firewheel Design. One such creation was IconBuffet, a website that supplies icons to web designers and geeks. When a community started to form around collecting and trading these icons, the idea for a game was born. The result was PackRat, a card-collecting game that has quickly gained a fanatical following on Facebook.

We caught up with Alamofire’s Urban Cowboy Fashion Consultant / CEO Josh Williams to talk about social gaming, Facebook, and of course PackRat.

Where does the name Alamofire come from?

We have a habit of naming things after wildflowers. My last company, Firewheel, was named after a wildflower common in the state of Texas. The name Alamofire is taken from a rare variety of pink or maroon bluebonnet found in central Texas. I’m not sure why it wasn’t just called a pinkbonnet or something… but Alamofire is definitely cooler.

Since Alamofire is an offshoot of Firewheel, you’re approaching game design from the perspective of Web designers. How has this perspective has influenced the design of your first game, PackRat, and how were you able to apply Web 2.0 principles to the game?

Well, none of us were professional game designers by trade — but we are now! — so we’re a bit naive when it comes to the "way games are supposed to be made." Building our first app Blinksale, a web tool for creating invoices, taught us a lot about creating an easy and refreshing user experience. In hindsight building Blinksale was a lot like trying to make financial software seem like a game. Now we’re just making a game without any practical purpose. PackRat is really a web-application whose sole purpose is to provide fun.

I feel like we have a lot to learn, but we also don’t have many pre-conceived ideas of what a game must look like on the social web.

Can you talk about the ways in which IconBuffet inspired PackRat‘s design? Where else did the inspiration for PackRat‘s design come from?

Shortly after we launched IconBuffet we realized that everyone loved collecting the icons, but very few actually used the icons in any practical manner. It got us thinking about what IconBuffet would look like if there wasn’t any point to it. This was the early premise behind PackRat. Of course Facebook provided us a vehicle to create PackRat where we didn’t need to rebuild the social aspect of the game, so we had to alter the experience to fit within the look and feel of the Facebook environment.

One of the mottos on Alamofire’s website is "addictive, lightweight social games that spark your mind without stealing your soul." Can you elaborate on this philosophy?

We want to build games that are easy to learn, fun to play, and leave you feeling good. There are a lot of great games out there that ultimately require a lot of invested time to get ahead. We’d like our games to be like a good friend that you can spend a lot of time with if you want, but if you happen to go weeks between seeing each other you can still pick up the conversation right where you left off. A guilt-free gaming relationship if you will.

That’s where the "without stealing your soul" part comes in. I want to have fun, but I don’t want a game staring at me saying "You haven’t played me in weeks and now you’re going to pay for it."

PackRat has a dedicated fanbase who isn’t afraid to voice its displeasure if they don’t like something. How do you balance keeping fans happy with introducing new features, and were you expecting fans to be so vocal and passionate?

I’m thrilled PackRat has such passionate fans. I’d definitely choose passion over apathy. It’s a sign that people care, and we value that. As the game’s designers we have a vision of how we’d like the game to evolve. Since PackRat is ever living on the web, it allows us to make changes and adjustments on the fly.

I think the idea of a changing, ever living game is a new concept though that people are still trying to grasp. It allows for a lot of flexibility but you have to be careful not to pull the rug out from under folks. We’re learning to be better communicators, and hopefully our community is learning that PackRat is not a sterile environment. If nothing changes, then ultimately it will get boring.

PackRat is constantly evolving in terms of new card packs being introduced, and others being retired. While many games offer expansions and extra content, PackRat is one of the few to actually retire content as well. What was the reasoning behind this design feature?

The primary reason is that the gameplay actually breaks down with too many collections in play. We’ve found that when there are more than a dozen or so active collections of cards the game gets confusing. It becomes difficult to find what you’re looking for. Additionally we want people to feel like there is value in collecting our cards — knowing that they won’t be around forever.

Of course just because old cards have ben retired, this doesn’t mean we won’t have a use for them in the future.

Why did you decide to make your first game a Facebook application as opposed to a downloadable casual game or Flash game – two slightly more traditional game formats?

We wanted to do something different. There are plenty of folks building Flash games (and frankly we don’t know much about Flash). In the same way there are plenty of downloadable casual games out there as well. We’re building something different. Something that leverages social relationships on the web. The social web can’t be found in a downloadable casual game or most Flash games right now.

What advantages and disadvantages are there to designing for Facebook?

Designing on Facebook cuts out significant development need since we’re able to reuse existing social relationships without building those features ourselves. We’re also able to expose our game to a larger audience with less marketing expense.

On the flipside, Facebook is constantly changing their developer ecosystem. It requires developers to think quickly and adapt to change, often in abrupt ways. Their platform is still young and needs work. That said, it’s the best social platform in town still.

In your opinion, how effective have game designers been in tapping into the potential of Facebook and other social networks? What is the "state of the industry" when it comes to online social games?

Honestly, I don’t think anything truly great has been done in this space. I think most of the potential of the social web as it relates to games is still being left on the table. I know we don’t feel like we’ve arrived with PackRat. PackRat is great and fun and all, but there’s so much more we need to be doing to leverage the social graph.

I think games like Friends For Sale have started tapping some unique game concepts, but none of us have cracked the nut yet. I think the state of the Social Games industry is young. We’re all trying to figure out what we want to be when we grow up.

Can you give us any hints about what you’re working on next?

I would tell you but it changes every week. You can certainly expect more from the PackRat universe, but I really can’t say at this point what else you’ll see coming out of Alamofire. We have a lot of ideas in the hopper, but nothing has gelled for us yet.

Any final words for your fans out there?

We love our PackRat fans. They’re crazy, and they’ve made PackRat one of the most active applications on Facebook. We’re grateful for all of them, and appreciate the opportunity they’re giving us to build a truly remarkable social game.

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