Productive Collaboration: Team Fortress 2 Manual

SomethingOne of the coolest games I’ve ever played is Team Fortress 2.   While it’s tons of fun to play, one issue with it is that it doesn’t come with a manual.  Just over a week ago, reddit user ‘lolard’ posted this to the new to tf2 subreddit, asking us to solve this problem.  The reddit community responded.  We fired up an etherpad clone and got to work.  Here’s what we accomplished:

  • In less than 24 hours, we had written nearly 8,000 words.
  • Today, we’re close 13,000 words.
  • More than 50 people have contributed in some way.
  • 28 people have contributed substantially.
  • Gone through at least two major transitions in the style of writing: from 2nd person to third person, and from the voice being used.
  • 4 different websites (3 etherpad clones and crocodoc.com)
  • My copy of the manual is 56 pages long, formatted.
  • There is now a website: http://tf2manual.net/
  • We were flexible enough to neutralize trolls who deleted all our work.

The list can go on.  The message is clear: this has been a massive collaborative work that has produced something amazing in a very short amount of time.  I’ve been involved throughout the whole process, stepping up soon after lolard made the first post.  From this perspective, I’ve learned several things.

  1. The future is live collaboration at the level etherpad (and it’s clones) tried to provide.  Wiki’s are last generation technology that only slow things down.
  2. None of the etherpad clones were able to fully function at our level of collaboration, including the new Google Documents.  We used ietherpad, openetherpad, sync.in, and I privately tested Google Documents.  All of them experienced difficulties dealing with both the number of collaborators and the size of the document.  Sync.in functioned the best of the bunch.
  3. Crocodoc is awesome, but does not scale up to groups of more than 2-3, especially for a 50 page document.  It’s flash driven, and was extremely slow.  It claims to be ‘live’ in the sense of etherpad, but it really isn’t at the levels we were using it.  I had to refresh the page to make sure I was viewing all of the changes.
  4. Do not use the time slider on any of the etherpad clones.  This basically made the document useless for everyone over the next 20 minutes as the website did who knows what.  This feature worked great in the original etherpad, so I’m not sure why these clones have trouble with it.  Even sync.in had this trouble.

I can’t emphasize enough how much this changed my view of collaboration.  This has been collaboration how it’s supposed to be done.  While reflecting upon this experience, I’ve identified several reasons I think this went so well.

  1. We’re passionate about the subject.  Of course this is important and must appear on the list.
  2. We’re passionate about the community.  This is not necessarily an extension of the first point.
  3. There was no barrier of entry.  Once the pad was created, we could simply spread the URL around, and once people arrived on that page, they could start editing.  There was no registration, no waiting.  They could immediately jump in and start writing.  This was true for all the etherpad clones as well as crocodoc, and I applaud all of those websites for that.
  4. The latest work was immediately available, down to the keystroke.  We could see exactly what others were typing as they were typing it.  Corrections could be done within seconds, and they were not always done by the person who made the mistake.
  5. Version control was transparent.  We didn’t have to think about keeping track of a history; the application did it for us.  Hypothetically, we could even playback that entire history as it played out, but that feature was broken on every website we tried.

The biggest theme is that while we were all very good with technology, the technology was completely transparent.  We didn’t have to think about it (except when it broke, like with the time slider).  We just focused on what we were trying to do, and then we did it.

It’s been an amazing experience so far, and while this project is far from over, our parts are winding down.  Soon, we’ll have a nice manual for team fortress 2 users to go with all this valuable experience we’ve gained.