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An Epic: How Quizlet won NodeJam

January 30, 2012

"It was all thanks to a funny hat"

On Thursday we won the NodeJam competition, a startup competition between 35 different startups to showcase applications of the Node.js framework. We won $100,000 in prizes and plenty of glory!

The story of how we did it is an epic tale of working really hard and having tons of fun.

(...and falling asleep at our desks)

Week 1: The intern backstory and deleting weeks of code

We decided a year ago (last January) that we wanted to build a multiplayer game. Our January intern Chase built a prototype that was an asteroids-like game. But it wasn't quite polished so we decided not to launch it, and it sat on the shelf because we were super busy with other things. Then in the summer, another intern, Jeff, dusted off the game and totally revamped it, turning it in to a working multiplayer game similar to Scatter. It got really far along but the game dynamics involved weren't perfect.

This January we decided we were going to go all-out to launch a game. We got both Jeff and Chase to come back, and we got their friend Eddie to come along too (all three are sophomores at MIT). Anand and I rounded out the team that would be focused on building the game.

We identified that our previously built prototypes were too chaotic - you spent more time aimlessly crashing into stuff than using the knowledge you'd learned on Quizlet. So we made the tough decision to abandon the months of work we'd already spent on building games and started from scratch. In the first week, we split up the whole Quizlet team into 3 groups of 3 and brainstormed new games. We came up with three tests that our ideal game should pass:

  1. It should have learning value: you should spend much more time with your brain turned on than navigating an avatar or clicking rapidly.
  2. It should make you laugh out loud.
  3. It should keep you on the edge of your seat and be playable for long stretches.

Week 2: Prototyping several games

We split up into two main development teams to build prototypes with two concepts: one, a pictionary-esque writing game, and one, a Tron-like matching game. Our Tron prototype looked something like this:

After several bad initial attempts where we all got bored after 5 minutes of gameplay, we built an off-shoot of our pictionary game that required everyone to write a sentence using the prompted words. When sentences were completed, everyone had to vote on everyone else's sentences. After 50 minutes of playing, we noticed that none of us had wanted to quit. I excitedly tweeted, "Just spent an hour glued to my screen playing a new game prototype with the Quizlet team. It'll be extremely hilarious and creative."

After tweaking it for a day, we piled into a meeting room and discussed what it would take to make that cool prototype into a full production-ready Quizlet game:

After enumerating the tasks, we added one more, somewhat-unrelated task. What if we won NodeJam? We knew it could be a distraction, but it would also be fun and a nice little PR win for us, while still requiring us to build the game we wanted to build for the site. So then, around January 11, we decided we would win NodeJam.

To do it, we knew we had to build something impressive that would show off the real-time capabilities of node. We thought it would be very cool if we could get a participatory demo where the whole audience could play our game from their laptops.  But we couldn't waste time building something cool that would be useless to Quizlet later. So Will, our intrepid operations director, coordinated a series of classroom visits to test out our prototype with real live students.

On January 13th, we brought our prototype to a French 2 class at the Urban School in San Francisco. It was clearly a hit -- we had to ask kids several times to stop playing before they closed their laptops and gave us feedback.

Students were playing the game very competitively - so we knew we were on to something.

Week 3: Building. Like. Crazy.

In week 3, we had a solid understanding of what we wanted to build, so it was a matter of getting it all done. Keep in mind that Node.js was relatively new for most of us, so we had to learn a new programming environment and build a new game at the same time.

Above, Jeff and Chase realize they left some bugs in the code the night before an 8 AM demo for a Chinese class, so they sat down to fix what they broke.

At one point, we ran out of Red Bull. At another point, we heard from the conference organizers that only 3 other companies were doing live demos; the rest were planning to do slideshows. "Are they crazy, or are we crazy?" we wondered. We were certainly taking the risky route. Three days before the competition, the level of intensity bumped up another notch when we learned that the previously unannounced grand prize for winning was worth more than $100,000. Wow, we thought -- what if we actually did win?

The night before: Chaos and despair

As the deadline approached, we got more and more nervous about our ability to finish it all. We had scoped out two completely separate views of the game -- one a spectator mode, and one a student mode, and they were having trouble syncing up. There were still lots of bugs, and as the day before our presentation turned into the night before our presentation, we still seemed far from a finished product. Not only that, but the script we had drafted for the presentation wasn't working. Every time I tried presenting it, I either ran out of time or it was barely comprehensible. On the plus side, I had bought a wizard hat that would be a fun prop for the presentation.

At around 3 AM, I uttered the words, "This is a disaster." For the next half-hour or so, I paced around the office, too tired to think, and wondered if we should just cancel the whole thing. On a whim, I challenged Anand to a ping-pong game, and that's when things started to turn around. Ping pong was the perfect cure for our creative doldrums, and we started to brainstorm a brand-new presentation script from scratch. I ab-libbed a new version which everyone agreed was much better, and then Anand gave it a shot.

Since we had the wizard hat, he put it on and started dropping hilarious lines into a mock presentation of his own (e.g. "Back at Hogwartz, we used to play this game all the time"). After a couple hours of straight laughter and some bug fixes from the interns, I fell asleep on the couch (the time was now around 6:30 AM). Anand redid the login screen and then called it quits. At 8AM, I woke up, merged some code, and went back to sleep for a couple more hours.

Going on-stage for 200+ people

After a few hours of sleep at the intern house around the corner from the office, we all piled back in around 11:15 AM to make final preparations for my 3 PM demo. We had gone to sleep with the idea that we had something vaguely working, but as I rehearsed my presentation, it was very rough and I could barely articulate what I wanted to say. Both Dave (Quizlet's CEO) and Anand jumped in to ad-lib their own versions of the speech, hoping to help me. With about 15 minutes before we had to drive to the conference, we finally printed out a decent script that I could read from stage if I had to, and one final rehearsal went well enough to give us all a modicum of confidence.

When we arrived I was whisked backstage to prepare my laptop for the presentation. A minute before I was supposed to present, I suddenly realized I didn't have my crucial wizard hat. Panicked, I texted Anand and searched the backstage area to no avail. I asked a stage assistant if she could look, and with 10 seconds to spare, she came running with the hat. Whew!

I came on stage, and gave my presentation:

I grew worried as the number of people connected increased. We hadn't fully tested the limits of all this new code and hadn't coded any of it with an eye on performance.

Here I showcased the incredible pulsing graph of everyone typing their sentences in real-time.

Another angle -- note all the laptops playing along. Thankfully, there wasn't a single bug during the whole demo. And that was after deploying some quick changes the interns wanted 20 minutes before the talk, which I swore I wasn't going to do and which is, in general, a very bad idea.

And the final results! We prompted the audience to write sentences for the word "mendacious,"  meaning "dishonest; untruthful." The sentence that got the most votes was: "The venture capitalist was mendacious when he said, we add value."

(Funny side note: the guy who wrote the sentence congratulated me on my talk afterward. He was a VC.)

Sweet success

As I was pulled off stage for going over the 5-minute time-limit, I knew it had gone well. It hadn't crashed! The sentence that won was actually decent! I checked Twitter on my phone, and saw some awesome feedback from the crowd.

I came back into the audience to watch the rest of the presentations. During the judges panel, all of the judges mentioned Quizlet, although some said they had a hard time seeing it as anything more than a cool demo. I thought we had a chance at winning some prize, but based on the judges' commentary I thought we had no chance of winning the overall.

When the moderator came on, he first announced us as the winners of the afternoon round (the semi-finals, sort of). Chase couldn't believe it. We were all super excited. Then they announced some other winners (audience favorite, best use of Node). I crossed my fingers and my knees bounced in anticipation. And the overall winner was......

QUIZLET! The whole team stood up in the audience and high-fived, and I went on-stage to collect the prize. Afterward, I was promptly interviewed on-camera (with my hat!). Here's the tech-heavy video, which includes parts of my live demo at around 1:40.

The real test: Launching the game to the site.

So you'll notice we haven't actually launched the game yet, which is what you all really want. But as you can hopefully tell by now, we've been working hard on it. If you're still not convinced, check out this graph:

This is the amount of code written by different people on the team.

Our plan is to launch this thing as soon as possible -- we want to make sure it's really good, and ready to scale to Quizlet's millions of users. So stay tuned for some announcements about when this thing will launch!

Many thanks to Chase, Jeff, Eddie, and Anand for being a killer team!

If you enjoyed this, I am Andrew Sutherland and you can get me on twitter at @asuth and also follow @quizlet. Also, we're hiring developers!

(Thanks to Alex Williams and Trevor Mcleod for photos)

Comments

  1. ctyonahl

    Haha, great job Quizlet. Cool blog post and congrats!

  2. Iceydude168

    Haha, sounds awesome!

  3. gerenjie

    THIRD!!!!
    Great job, Quizlet.

  4. Iceydude168

    The "Bismarck" codename reference to German statesman Otto van Bismarck?

  5. cathywu

    w00t! set out to win, and eh, it might just happen!

  6. ctyonahl

    Guys go to http://quizlet.com/jam it's really cool!

  7. 7

    so u write sentence with the words. are there other parts to the game?

  8. ctyonahl

    Never mind, they took /jam down. It was fun while it lasted, though.

  9. ctyonahl

    LOL, nice troll face....

  10. Anonymous (with a Facebook)

    I bet it's more cool then that thingy before.

  11. gg

    thanks for all you do to help kids succeed in school. i work with kids with learning disabilities and your site works! they have a concrete interactive study guide and tests to find out what information is sticking and what they need to work on. your old game sucked so i'm excited to hear that you have come up with a better one. keep up the good work.

  12. Confused

    Why did you take the thing down? Great job though!!!!

  13. Amreon

    Congrats. Thanks for this great site. I use this all the time in my classes. I'm looking forward to seeing your new game. I was wondering if you could add some way to just right click (or something) and insert a new line into the flashcard sets. With a big flashcard set, additions of new terms between already established terms can sometimes be tedious, but on the other hand, I could just break the sets into two different sets using that great copy the data to a new set command you have.

    Once again, Congratulations. It was nice to see the pictures of you at your office and presenting your game. Kudos to your whole team!

  14. youtube.com/thethirdpew

    But... I like mindlessly crashing into things...

  15. Maggie

    ha...nice job, guys.

  16. bill cosby

    this sucks!!

  17. aman

    I cant wait to play it! it looks so fun!

  18. aman

    I went to quizlet.com/jam and it was just a weird face and it said "multiplayer? " under it.

  19. Eben1999

    :roll:

  20. Bjalucas

    This is okish to me

  21. pizza and pie

    new game, cool. but you should make latin audio next. just sayin'

  22. love it haha

  23. allAstudent

    Congrats Quizlet! That looks like a crazy time preparing for that presentation. You guys deserve it!

  24. allAstudent

    I LOVE the hat!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  25. Me too

  26. s866149

    cool

  27. s866149

    yah i love the hat to nice touch :):):):)!!!!

  28. ????????????

    Congrats!! :lol:

  29. Austin Mahone

    Nice(:

  30. allsomeone

    thanks a lot i really got better in school

  31. This sounds rlly cool

  32. SpanishFreak

    Love Quizlet!
    !Ahora yo hablo mas rapido!

  33. nobody

    :mrgreen:

  34. really

    My brother showed this to me and I told him to look up quizlet.com/jam and the troll face comes up and my brother starts to play the troll song. I got trolled two times that day

  35. iplayquizletgames

    Awesome!
    Can NOT wait to play it!

  36. angelo maclean

    I am a UK based teacher and I love what you are doing. Keep it up! Students love it too!
    Have a look at the competition though. wordchamp.com. Any ideas you can steal from there!

  37. Little Man

    CAN"T WAIT!!!!!

  38. Boop

    i like this.... :3 3D

  39. Boop

    btw i like the hat :P

  40. josh

    COMEON YOUR SITE LAGS TO MUCH I GIVE UP ON THIS SITE JUST LIKE 20 OF MY FRIENDS ANYMORE AND ILL CHECK TOMMORO AND IF IT STILL SAME IM TELLING EVERYBODY ABOUT HOW BAD A SITE THIS IS

  41. Sue.

    Like a boss.

  42. Mike.

    Well said.
    "Sue.: Like a boss."

  43. @josh

    @ josh
    Maybe your computer is slow.

  44. sdfds

    Those games look so awesome. I can't wait to try them out!!!!!!

  45. Someone :o

    Looks awesome!

    P.s. Nice Hat :D

  46. Boop

    @josh
    youtube.com/thethirdpew is right. i <3 this a lot. it helps me do so well i used to be a straight b student now i get As :/

  47. JJ

    Sweet!

  48. Bill Cosby

    LOL! I went to Quizlet.com/jam!
    Nice one quizlet! TROLOLOLO!

  49. Little Man

    i'm waiting...

  50. Gracias

    wowowowowowowowowowowowowowwowowowoowwowoowoww

  51. Dil

    Woah!

  52. cassie

    nice

  53. Se

    hola andrew... what a great job you're doing with this site! my students LOVE using quizlet and have learned a lot. thanks! gracias! kevin beaulieu - fairhaven massachusetts

  54. Moderator

    Multiplayer is almost here. Less flaming is good.
    Oh, and that face is a troll face, to people who don't know.
    Also, no flaming. Only helpful comments.

  55. ahem

    Cool story, bro.

  56. TheThirdPew

    @b Riveting tale, chap.

  57. dsffhdf

    Where is it?????

  58. Phil

    Well it seems you just secured yourself some VC money without selling out your company. :D Congrats! Quizlet defenitely deserves a stable future!

  59. Iannh

    Sounds great, cant wait for that game, looks awesome. Can't believe Quizlet won the competition. Haha

  60. beret

    please post the new game soon!!!! i'm not sure if ill need to use quizlet next year

  61. heartbroken

    nice hat.........

  62. Hi

    Creepy I can't play the game

  63. Andrea Tang

    Cool hat I have one just like it i got it from Disney land. If you want one u have to drive to Disney land :P

  64. Tmazing A+ Machine

    PLZZZZ POST IT SOON! I'VE BEEN WAITING FOR A YEAR!

  65. Robert

    This is kind of stupid

  66. Patar

    sounds pretty cool. Can't wait till it's released on quizlet. keep up the good work!

  67. rccorney

    oh wow cool!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!kinda

  68. The child in purple

    i am a child in purple...... its kinda awkward

  69. MCNoakes

    Why not try blue or red?

  70. Chizz Fizz

    Nice work guys! Chedda Chizz.

  71. The child in purple

    @MCNoakes:
    But i like purple :_(

  72. Priya

    YAY!
    Can't wait to try it out!
    HURRY UP!

    Uh... please?

  73. evan

    awesome!

  74. u

    yoooooooooooooo

  75. MCNoakes

    @child in purple:Sorry, didn't know that you were so attatched to it =)

  76. mariannegdj

    congrats, guys !

  77. benjaminerikson

    COOL!! A mutiplayer game! AWESOME!!! :D

  78. Me

    quizlet.com\jam is still up, guys!

  79. Me

    I really hope that they put the game on the site soon!!!!!!!!!

  80. wangg15

    :D great. they changed it guys

  81. Glitterati

    Excited. It looks fun, a great way to improve the site even further..

  82. MCNoakes

    Can't wait!

  83. ctyoanhl

    Ype, looks like they brought back quizlet.com\jam, get it while you can! :)

  84. logans_babygirl

    i like your hatt(:

  85. coolboy9h

    haha sound frawesome (a.k.a. freakin awesome)

  86. wow pretty cool what would make someone work here

  87. dude541

    PORTAL GUN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! YEAHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! SAY IT WITH ME!!!!!! PORTAL 2!!!!!!!!

  88. dude542

    Portal 2....

  89. wiki wiki spider

  90. joe

    pigs

  91. Z

    This dominates Flashcardmachine

  92. BeautyGeek

    awsome

  93. purple-cow

    Congrats!!!!

  94. Alex

    nice

  95. Anon?

    I haven't been on quizlet for some time, and only used it for studying my Spanish, but this is a gamechanger. I might actually use Quizlet frequently if they add this now

  96. anonymous

    cooooooooooool

  97. Multiplayer would be awesome! You need to get that game out soon! I wonder how many people you need to play... :)

  98. Striped Sweater #Spongebob

    XD Gotta love quizlet!!

  99. Striped Sweater #Spongebob

    Like A Boss.

  100. yea, i'm STILL waiting

  101. Will

    This is Will at Quizlet. Check out quizlet.com/game for a sneak preview of multiplayer.

  102. Mr. Skar

    Thank you Will! My Freshmen English students will love this.

  103. justinop2

    this is amazing love it. keep going

  104. chambleton

    congrats!

  105. Benjaminerickson

    do we need to have facebook 4 this???

  106. neoneoneo5alive

    waaa! demo won't start!

  107. Nate

    Very exciting post! Thanks for sharing!

  108. Annie

    Nice.... when will the game be up on Quizlet

  109. lilzonricz

    niceeee jobbbb guyss congratss!!!!!!!!

  110. gessamyn

    GREAT JOB CONGRATULATIONS I HOPE YOU SUCCESS FAR IN YOUR LIFE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!GOD BLESS YOU ALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  111. reXic

    You should put it up asap!!!

  112. Garett

    That is so cool I wish that I could play right now

  113. emmycat

    :)

  114. Katie

    The game rocks!!!

  115. HarryPotterRocks 

    I just hope none of the sentences are offensive (I heard that people kept on using sentences that: a) had a swear word(s), b) didn't even use the words, and c) insulted someone who was actually trying to win). You should put an Offensive-Word-Detectinator or something to prevent stuff like that when it gets launched. You rock, Quizlet!

  116. deanhassan7 

    did you guys take off the multiplayer feature, I cannot find it anymore.

  117. JPAN4 

    awesome

  118. Celeste_Everwhite 

    When will it be back?

  119. Annabelle766 

    aw, man, i sort of stopped using quizlet 4 a little while so i never saw it!!! did they actually put it on the website and then took it off?

  120. deblynn Teacher

    Any other multi-player games?

  121. teacherjudyell 

    My students want it back--they loved playing it last year when it was on the site. In fact, it was one of the first things they asked upon beginning the new school year!

  122. akirah 

    I'm new to Quizlet. Where can I find this multiplayer game?

  123. LividFrost 

    It like been a year! Why won't they put is back on!

  124. bengals02 

    Congrats Quizlet! :) :) :)

  125. Go98 

    Is there a chance this could come back?

  126. dancergirl2001 

    I hope this game works out!

  127. AshleyYourien 

    i like it alot it helps me to study and spell my vocabulary good

  128. monkeyman77 

    cool

  129. One-Winged-Angel 

    Wait, WHAT? There are multiplayer games??? Why didn't you say so sooner?

  130. me2470 

    Is this still being worked on?

  131. headams17 

    I CANT WAIT FOR IT TO COME BACK!!! YAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  132. madaline 

    i love this website and i am excited for the new game

  133. dedougherty 

    Wait a go, guys! I can't wait to play it!
    Sincerely, dedougherty.

  134. dedougherty 

    Wait a go, guys! I can't wait to play it!
    Sincerely, dedougherty.

  135. dedougherty 

    Sorry for posting my post a second time!

  136. Rock270 

    How far is the game from being released?

  137. Rock270 

    This was posted about a year ago...

  138. ashfox164 

    i would like to play that!!!! great job guys!!!!

  139. rebbober 

    Nice!

  140. Araken-123 Plus

    Beautifully done! good job!

  141. sophie_taylor2 

    great job guys cant wait 2 play it

  142. alyssanix1111 

    I can't wait to try hope it comes out soon or I will go mad.

  143. RBALLER21 

    what are you talking about.

  144. kobe11037 

    bodonut

  145. RBALLER21 

    really...

  146. kobe11037 

    do you want some

  147. kobe11037 

    bodonut is hourse ****

  148. AdrianVetter1999 

    awesome!!!!!!!!!

  149. davidhill123 

    Cool game, but now, more than a year later, I don't see any multi-player game.

  150. VivaEva 

    When do we get to play this new multiplayer game? :( ( 150th comment !!!! )

  151. pdanielli 

    follow me on Instagram----> @ DJ_PDIZZLE

    please follow and ill follow me and ill follow back!!!

  152. pdanielli 

    i meant please follow me and ill follow u back* lol

  153. quellyyyy 

    Ain't nobody got time for this. Please re-instate the multiplayer-game. Before I get bronchitis.

  154. soccerking10 

    First Comment

  155. SirDaveTheGreat 

    @soccerking10
    Your the second to last comment! WHAT?!?!

  156. Miguezlu 

    Great job way to go and keep it up

  157. SirDaveTheGreat 

    @soccerking10...not anymore...but whatever

  158. Lola_H 

    I'm late to the party, as usual. Please put /jam up again, it looked really fun and innovative!! *supplicant pose from the Odyssey*
    Also live demos are way cooler than boring ppt lectures, as I found out first-hand...
    Keep on codin'~

  159. tiffanymdurst 

    wow how amazing quizlet won

  160. maria-thompson100 

    That looks like the crescent moon and star. By the way that is the symbol for
    Islam

  161. tjstol2000 

    wow. whens the grid game gonna come out

  162. annamccorkle 

    is it still out? was it ever???

  163. RMZACHMANN 

    cool

  164. jacobpeek 

    Nice job guys!!!

  165. bswenty Teacher

    Two years...where is this wonder?

  166. smasher1234 

    where do you get the game i want to play it now

  167. funfudge123 

    hi

  168. funfudge123 

    I love Quizlet

  169. BattleBearsPolice 

    that was funny.

  170. mkhan07 

    Can you guys bring the game back? I didn't get a chance to play it and it seems pretty cool. Also the Tron like game you were working on seemed pretty awesome as well and it would be sweet if a game like that was on the website so could you add that too?

  171. jammastere2 

    he said its not released yet...

  172. abeni888 

    Awesomesauce!!!! I love Programming!!!!! Can't wait to play the game!

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