A bittersweet end for Nothing To Hide

You might have already guessed it, from all my slipped deadlines and failed promises. I'm sorry. It's been a long time coming, but here it is: The Nothing To Hide project is coming to a (bittersweet) end.

First off, YES I'll refund everyone. Sorry this is coming so late, but I'm finally financially stable enough to offer refunds. Specifically, 75% partial refunds, due to technical and financial limitations. (I'll explain more later. For exact details on how you'll get your refund -- or if you already have your refund! -- it's all at the end of this letter.)

Secondly, Nothing To Hide isn't dead, but it won't look anything like the original demo at all. I really believe what I'll be making instead will be far better for the cause... but it's not the exact game you backed me for.

This letter is going to be a long read, but I owe this to you.

I owe this to Nothing To Hide.

I owe this to the cause.

The cause. My goal has always been to help the cause -- to rally peeps to fight against mass surveillance, and make privacy a core value in our culture, companies, technology, and governments.

Nothing To Hide is ending (or taking a different form) because I realized it wasn't working. It was getting more and more exhausting to work on, and I no longer believed it really helped the cause. But making Nothing To Hide has helped me discover a far better way of helping the cause, and the new form the project will take!

That's the "sweet" part of this bittersweet ending.

. . .


// The amazing fan art above was made by Ockeroid.

Nothing To Hide was such an experimental project.

Rather, it was a bundle of experiments. But here's the thing about experiments - if there isn't a chance for failure, it's not really an experiment. While Nothing To Hide as a whole is ending, I can confidently say many of the individual parts, the sub-experiments, have led to much better discoveries.

Experiment #1: Mixing gameplay with activism.

Like I said, the first and foremost goal of NTH was to help the cause. If I'm going to be honest, I have to admit that this experiment showed mixed results, mostly learning towards failure.

NTH's mechanics were merely themed around mass surveillance. They didn't explore or explain the real-world mechanics of big data, surveillance, or privacy. The hyper-surveillance was always just a world setting, a background. This may not seem like a big deal, but it was to me. I still believe play can be a powerful way to change hearts and minds -- that's why I made it a game in the first place -- but theming a game doesn't cut it.

(And to be honest, I had totally exhausted all possible uses of the line-of-sight game mechanic in the demo. I'd been really struggling to expand that to a four-hour game, without making it all filler.)

But there was a bigger problem: I had two conflicting goals. I wanted to make a fun game that was hard to beat, but at the same time, I wanted to make privacy issues easy to understand. If I wanted to educate as many peeps as possible, making it as hard as possible -- and the game mechanics weren't really about privacy -- was exactly the wrong way to do it.

The next experiment, though, would be NTH's saving grace.

Experiment #2: The The Wall cutscenes.

For the "cutscenes", (and having separate cutscenes is probably a huge indication that I'd already failed to mix a message into gameplay) I made them imitate a social media feed. You'd scroll through a web page, with pictures and texts and posts and audio, showing what happened.

Now, this experiment worked.

People loved this part the most, and I also thought it was the most innovative section of NTH. In fact, if I were making NTH from scratch today, I'd have the entire interface mimic the web. Imagine! Scouring a fake version of a dystopian internet, a very limited walled garden due to tight control on information, trying to piece together what happened, and being part of a secret resistance. (and by playing, learning how to actually use cryptography, Tor, and other good security practices?)

That may be an idea I pick up on in the future, or, because NTH is public domain, you can turn those The Wall sections into a game of your own! Public domain means you already have my permission.

Because I wanted open source, I also attempted open funding. How'd that experiment go?


Experiment #3: The pledge-in-parts crowdfunding system that I coded from scratch, entirely by myself, for one single project.  

It went horribly. That experiment went horribly.

To refresh your memory, when you backed Nothing To Hide, only 25% of your pledge was claimed, and then as I hit future milestones, the rest of the pledge would be claimed. This milestone system is how freelancers and their clients mitigate risk, in case either party fails to deliver. And we keep hearing tragic tales of failed Kickstarters, why not bring this mechanism to the world of crowdfunding?

That was a good idea. I still think it's a good idea.

No, the problem is that I tried implementing it entirely by myself on top of already trying to make a full-length indie game. This isn't even a failure others can learn from. If I was smart, I would have at least used Patreon, a milestone/month-based crowdfunding platform.

But noooooooooooo, I had to fly too close to the sun.

And because I made the system myself, it was buggy. Good enough to last the few weeks of the crowdfunding campaign itself, but as Stripe/Paypal/Coinbase's APIs changed over time, and credit cards expired, everything went to poop.

That is the reason I can't offer full refunds, and why even if I continued with NTH, I can't even claim the remaining 75% of your pledges.


While writing this section, I just realized that... in a sense, maybe this experiment actually succeeded? I mean, it proved the original premise that this milestone system does mitigate risk in crowdfunding. You're all getting 75% of your original pledge back, as opposed to losing 100% as in countless other Kickstarters. And the 25% you gave still resulted in lots of cool stuff and an hour-long demo.

It's not often an experiment's failure is its own success.

. . .


// The photo above was of a papercraft of an iEye I made. Yes, its eye followed you! I made a bunch of these and placed them in random public spots.

And now, the lessons from those three experiments finally come together.

While making Nothing To Hide, I'd make a few side projects here and there. I find that I function best when I have one Main Project and one Side Project going on simultaneously. Like a sitcom's B-Plot. It's in these side projects that I'd experiment more, and put the lessons I've learnt together.


Side Project #1: Sight & Light

In the last few days of the crowdfunding campaign, we were still $10K short. Probably coz people don't trust a self-made crowdfunding site, understandably. In a last ditch effort, I made Sight & Light as a promotional thing.

S&L applied the lesson I learnt from making The Wall cutscenes, that mixing play with a web page is frikkin' awesome. So, S&L was a gamedev article on how to make the shadow/light effect in NTH, spliced with playable sections showing the effect at various stages of progress.

This blew up. Frontpage of Reddit, Imgur, and Hacker News simultaneously, and it brought NTH over the funding goal. Many of you backers reading this might have come from S&L!


Side Project #2: Parable of the Polygons

Because S&L got so popular, I got a chance to collaborate with Vi Hart (!!!) on making another half-play-half-article educational thing.

This time, we made a thing about the game theory of segregation: using math to explain systemic bias and diversity. And it worked! It was the most popular thing I've ever made. Several times more plays than Nothing To Hide. Heck, it was even one of the most popular things Vi's ever made, and she has a bit under one million YouTube subscribers.

Most importantly, this is the first time I really managed to mesh mechanics with a message. This was it. This was the thing I'd been hoping for so many years, to find the way that games are uniquely capable of changing hearts and minds.

Too bad my main project, Nothing To Hide, didn't have the right mechanics...


Side Project #3: Explorable Explanations

Calling it "half-play-half-article" got annoying after a while, so we called it Explorable Explanations. By "we", I mean the growing movement of Explorable Explanation creators.

Because this format's really taken off. I think the best example of this would be the fact that, last month, Carnegie Mellon University hosted a hackathon for Explorable Explanations, citing Parable of the Polygons as an inspiration, and even having me do the opening keynote video!

Nothing's a panacea, of course, but I think Explorable Explanations could be the best way we have to explain the complex systems of the world... turning real-world systems into playable systems.

. . .


// The sweet fan art above was made by Yalyn Vinkindo.

The side projects were part experimentation, but if I'm going to be honest, also part distraction from facing the fact that Nothing To Hide was not working. But now that we had Explorable Explanations, and the community around it, it was time for me to look at NTH again, and its core goal:

To show why privacy matters.

It was pretty clear at this point I couldn't make NTH work without overhauling its gameplay. (thus making it not the game I promised, the game you backed) So how could I show why privacy matters, through its mechanics? If you're a gamedev with a cause, or an activist/educator who wants to more effectively teach things, here's the most important step I've found:

Turn a real-world system into a playable system.

For privacy on the internet, I found danah boyd's model of context collapse. I think I mentioned her work before in a previous newsletter.

Basically, this sociological model says we act differently in different contexts. We wouldn't act the same way around a friend, the same way we do a stranger, or a nosey NSA agent. But the current architecture of the internet makes this near impossible. There's no way to know who will see what.

Will the NSA flag you over innocent browsing habits? Will a company fire you for something you posted on Facebook? Will some roving internet mob take something you said out of context, and dox/hack/publicly shame you for it?

That's context collapse. And it's not just at the government level, it's at the industry, technological, media, cultural, and individual level, too.

So, that's a real-world system that I'm making into a playable system, an Explorable Explanation. It currently looks like this:

This is just a prototype screenshot! I can't say much about this project right now, but it's being made in collaboration with a big news organization. So, this will been seen by, and impact, a LOT of people. That's super exciting!

And yes, that is a monochrome Poppy Gardner, the main character of Nothing To Hide!

. . .

// The above screenshot is from the very last iteration of Nothing To Hide. It shows a new mechanic - The Rover - which would interact with iEyes, Power iEyes, and conveyor belts. Its ability to interact with everything else made it mechanically rich. But again... these mechanics did not relate to any real-world mechanics of privacy/surveillance whatsoever.

All things considered, things worked out pretty okay.

I mean, I'm sad that I'm finally letting go of a project I've been working on for 20 months. That's almost two years. That's almost three human babies gestating back-to-back. I know letting go is the best thing to do, especially since I've found a new and better form that NTH can take, but I'm not going to lie, it hurts.

Letting go hurts.

But, as you saw above, I might re-use Poppy Gardner or The Wall in future projects, and you can too, since it's all public domain. Also public domain: an hour-long playable demo, and all the work, code, and art I've done since then. So, the 25% of your pledges you gave went to something good! It wasn't a total loss. Maybe it wasn't a loss at all! Unlike other failed game projects, everything made didn't disappear, it's now open -- free as in beer, free as in speech.

On Github: Everything from Nothing To Hide, dedicated to the public domain.

Oh! And thanks to activists like us, and the digital rights organizations that the Nothing To Hide crowdfunding campaign gave to -- and thus, that YOU gave to -- the USA Freedom Act (reducing the NSA's power) was passed just this month!

Here's an article on The USA Freedom Act recently passing, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the charities NTH benefited. As EFF notes, they wanted more, and we still have a far, far long way to go to dismantling the surveillance state, but it's still cause to celebrate. To quote:

The USA Freedom Act shows that the digital rights community has leveled up. We’ve gone from just killing bad bills to passing bills that protect people’s rights.

We should be cautiously optimistic, but still, optimistic! This is a small step in the right direction, and it will be activists like us that help create the next several small steps. And I hope, truly believe, my upcoming Explorable Explanation on privacy will be a great small step.

And I have you -- fans, friends, and backers -- to thank for that.

. . .


// The GIF above was the very first screenshot/GIF of Nothing To Hide. I posted it two years ago, on September 28th, 2013. I didn't have a main character yet, so I used the Placeholder Catgirl I used for most of my prototypes. Also, NTH was a survival horror game back then. Yep.

So long, as in "goodbye".

So long, as in "it's been so long".

Jeez, I'm getting a little teary-eyed, writing this final letter. FINAL letter, gah, it just feels so weird to type that. FINAL. This is it. I mean, it's not really a goodbye. There's Twitter and stuff to keep in touch. But still... after almost two years, the FINAL letter.


Alright. Alright. I need to finish this letter before I lose my nerve AGAIN, because this isn't the first time I've tried to write this letter.

Here's the details about your 75% partial refunds:

If you pledged with Credit Card, you already have your 75%! I never charged that 75% in the first place, so, that's one success of my pledge-in-parts crowdfunding system!

If you pledged with Paypal, I will send the 75% back to you, by the end of this month. Many peeps I've talked to asked me to keep their full pledge -- and I feel honored that people really believe in me, not just the project -- but I need to stick to my principles. I will refund y'all that 75%, to whatever Paypal address you first pledged with. You can always support me through my other/future projects!

If you pledged with Bitcoin, whoooooo okay this will be complicated. Unlike Paypal, I have no return addresses for your bitcoin. Which makes sense, because it could have been sent through bitcoin mixers, or shared wallets like Coinbase. So, I'll email all you bitcoin pledgers, asking for a bitcoin/Coinbase address I can send it back to. I'll have to do this manually for about 70 people. This will take a while.

If you don't remember what you pledged with, or how much you pledged, check your mail for an email with the subject title, "The first quarter of your Nothing To Hide pledge has been claimed." It should have a link there to your pledge.

If you would like a full 100% refund, rather than 75%, I totally understand! Please email me at with your Paypal address, and I'll give you the extra 25%. (direct replies to this letter might be lost, because of over-enthusiastic email thread collapsing)

Nothing To Hide may have failed as a whole, but many of the individual parts worked fantastically, changed a lot of hearts and minds, and will guide me in my future art/activism projects. (Especially the Explorable on privacy, coming soon!) I've grown a lot in the last two years, both personally and professionally, and it's because of you.

Just... thank you. Thank you for giving me a chance. I'm going to make the most of it, and give as much as I can back to the world. Thank you, thank you, I really mean it, thank you.

Nicky Case, the creator: @ncasenmare,

Phyrrna, the musician: @phyrrna, soundcloud, patreon

ZERO Copyright © 2015 Nothing To Hide, NO rights reserved.

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