When Avatara launched in 2010, it looked like a dozen other low-budget games. The world was a cartoonish expanse of pink trees and purple rocks, stirred by the occasional alien sprite. Its edges were covered by too many icons, and its interface was a little too eager to spam your Facebook friends with invitations. But to its designers, Avatara was more than just a game. It was a tiny utopia run by a loving digital god — a god that protected its domain with ruthless devotion, exploiting the vast trust that its users placed in social networks.
Avatara’s servers shut down in 2011. The office of its publisher, Summoner Studios, was demolished in 2013. Its developers moved on to other companies and industries — or, in one case, disappeared entirely. But the project’s legacy remains. Long before the Cambridge Analytica scandal, an obscure Facebook game proved that the right information in the wrong place can be more powerful and haunting than anyone imagined. And now, for the first time, its creators — and players — are telling their stories.
Welcome to Avatara.
The story of Avatara begins at Fireloft Games, which debuted the Flash web game Chefcraft in 2010. Two of Fireloft’s co-founders — programmer Isaac Pareto and artist Wilfred “Wolfie” Masters — were recent graduates of the Georgia Institute of Technology. The third — generalist designer Jennifer Liu — had answered a job posting on a web forum. The Verge was unable to determine Liu’s whereabouts for an interview.
Isaac Pareto, co-founder of Fireloft Games: Chefcraft began as sort of a joke — it was a steampunk RPG where you were a cook instead of a fighter or a thief. I didn’t really expect to keep working on it, but Wolfie and I had a rough time after graduation, and it was at least something to do. And then we met Jen.
Wolfie Masters, co-founder of Fireloft Games: Jen had been working on a game called The Quantum Cull, which I think was mostly a bunch of forum nerds drawing terrible concept art. But Jen had a 300-page Google Doc where she’d laid out all their stupid, confusing ideas in a way that actually sounded amazing. It would have taken a hundred people and a million dollars to make it, though, and I think she was still living with her parents.
Isaac Pareto: She could have done so much better than Fireloft. Sometimes I wish she’d just gone to a big studio and spent a decade simulating rainfall patterns for drag-racing games. Although, who knows — maybe whatever she did, she was going to take it way too far.
Chefcraft attracted only a few dozen players on the Newgrounds game portal. But it caught the attention of Seattle-based publisher Summoner Studios, run by former IBM sales manager Travis Farley — more commonly known by his role-playing game pseudonym Rokar Loretongue. Farley declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed for this story, and did not respond to a list of questions from The Verge.
Deborah Vincent, University of Idaho games historian: Travis Farley’s core idea was procedural generation: developing algorithms that would create game content, instead of designing all the elements by hand. You can take this idea pretty far — No Man’s Sky is a good example. But Summoner’s version was a bizarre gimmick.
Michelle Hu, CTO, COO, CCO, and CLO of Summoner Studios: I was doing trademark management at IBM before Summoner. Rokar — still Travis, at that point — took me to lunch one day and started pitching a studio where AIs made video games. He ordered nachos, pulled out his laptop, and launched a PowerPoint presentation with “THE FUTURE IS BAYESIAN” in big drop-shadow letters. He never explained what that meant, but as I recall it was an excellent slide deck. So I joined some engineers and jumped ship.
In early 2010, Summoner Studios circulated a press release announcing several “fully procedurally generated” games — including Boxing Football, Undercover Paintball Base, and Tropical Duck Colosseum 4. However, it quickly changed its approach.
Michelle Hu: The Conjurer AI — which is what we called it — really hit a wall after generating the titles. Rokar didn’t like the idea of involving human game developers, but I convinced him to let the Conjurer rank every game on Newgrounds from best to worst, then acquire the studios behind a few of them. Chefcraft was the algorithm’s top pick.
Isaac Pareto: I hadn’t even cared about that stupid game, but nobody was playing it and we’d been working for so long. By the time Michelle called, I was ready to take any offer.
Wolfie Masters: They actually called me first, but I was too busy watching our playcount to look at my phone. Or shower. Or sleep.
Michelle Hu: We ended up with four studios, and Rokar thought it was ultimately for the best. Because he didn’t just want the Conjurer making games. He wanted it to help run the company.
Summoner scrapped its original list of games. It began billing itself as a “cybernetic publisher,” using a series of Conjurer algorithms to “optimize” designs created by human developers. Fireloft was joined by other small studios, including Meteorshower Games, creator of browser-based third-person shooter Bloodshark.
Jay Woodley, co-founder of Meteorshower Games: Summoner assigned us all these browser games for middle managers to play on lunch breaks. Rokar Loretongue — it was seriously in my contract that I had to call him that — was a massive nerd, so I have no idea why we were making such basic stuff.
Michelle Hu: I frankly thought Facebook games were tacky, but look, FarmVille was big and the Conjurer had run the numbers. So we started building algorithms for free-to-play social games. The Monetizer revenue optimization system, for instance: it imagined a world of well-paying, borderline-addicted users, then dreamed that world into existence.
Jay Woodley: Rokar treated us like meat puppets for his AI game design system. It would have been incredibly degrading, except that the thing sucked so bad. So we’d usually add a few dud features on purpose, then take them out and say the AI did it. I don’t think Rokar ever noticed.
Fireloft was assigned to produce Summoner’s core title: a Facebook-based massively multiplayer role-playing and strategy game. They called the project Avatara.
Wolfie Masters: The three of us moved to Seattle in the middle of winter, because Summoner wanted us to start right away.
Isaac Pareto: The office was, like, 50 people in a freezing old warehouse with pastel retro gaming murals painted on the walls. Rokar bought a huge crate of surplus military rations for the staff — I guess he thought that would seem cool? It was like a prison camp for geeks.
Wolfie Masters: Rokar gave us a “design document” for our first project. It was pretty much a World of Warcraft character photoshopped into FarmVille with a Facebook logo on top, then 30 pages about how we were supposed to use the Conjurer AI.
Michelle Hu: The Conjurer was still theoretically “making” the projects. But we’d been training it to iterate on existing social games, and its ideas were getting awfully repetitive. Half the titles were just substitutes for “-ville” attached to random location words, like NeighborhoodBurg or SlumPolis. I made the executive decision to give Fireloft some autonomy, as long as they didn’t tell Rokar about it — and as long as they kept using the other algorithms.
Isaac Pareto: Jen came up with the name Avatara because Wolfie had put Avatar in the office Netflix queue, and we got the Blu-ray the same day as some arbitrary project deadline. We all watched it the night after Michelle approved the idea.
Wolfie Masters: Avatar is a terrible movie. I felt awful.
Isaac Pareto: I don’t really remember what the movie was about. But Jen liked the idea of players showing up on this alien planet and just, you know, making a home there.
Wolfie Masters: I’m not sure Jen got the anti-colonialist subtext of Avatar. It was written that badly.
Isaac Pareto: Wolfie and I were ready to throw some janky prototype at Rokar’s program and check out. But Jen was so excited.
Michelle Hu: The trademark and copyright situation was a nightmare. But the rest of our games were clones of Bejewed and FarmVille, and I wanted something with a little personality. If Avatara was how we got there, so be it.
Wolfie Masters: Jen loved the idea of Avatara. But it wasn’t just the game or the world. Jen was in love with the algorithm.
Fireloft was given less than six months to get Avatara online, relying heavily on Summoner’s AI tools to scale its world. But while most developers attempted to minimize the Conjurer’s influence, Jennifer Liu requested the ability to train a customized model.
Michelle Hu: I was surprised that Rokar let anyone else touch the Conjurer. But all our real engineers had quit after some salary disagreements — they just weren’t passionate enough about the project. So I was glad to have anybody working on it.
Jay Woodley: My team had gotten faking the AI down to a science. It was bizarre, because we weren’t even pretending to be computers, you know? We were pretending to be what he thought computers were.
Isaac Pareto: I wasn’t sure what Jen was doing with the Conjurer, but I was mad that she was spending so much time with it. I’d seen what the money algorithms had done to other people’s games. It was gross, sketchy stuff.
Michelle Hu: After the first couple of games, we had a pretty good idea of the Monetizer’s effects. It strengthened addictive feedback loops to keep people playing, added emotional character cues to guilt them into spending money, and so on.
Jay Woodley: We’d fake the monetization stuff by looking at other social games and hyper-exaggerating all the creepiest, most manipulative features we could find, like a mascot that would sob continuously unless you bought gold. I felt like a monster, but at least I could blame the AI.
Isaac Pareto: I tried to ignore the AI. But whenever we did real work on the game, it came through and scrambled everything. Michelle and Rokar expected 80-hour weeks no matter what, so I’d spend twelve hours a day pretending to play Facebook games for research and clicking through my friends’ baby pictures to feel bad about my life.
Wolfie Masters: I would draw these insanely detailed revenge fantasies involving Rokar and say they were concept art.
Isaac Pareto: The Conjurer would do stuff like replace all the tree sprites with laser cannons, because it said weapons had “stronger engagement” than forests. Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore. Neither of us could. We started helping Jen train it.
Wolfie Masters: The way Jen explained things, she couldn’t change the Conjurer’s core priorities — and Michelle was constantly reminding us that it was supposed to help Summoner make money. But we could give it as much context as possible for its decisions.
Isaac Pareto: Jen took “worldbuilding” super literally. We’d spend hours condensing books into this format she’d decided it could read, just a billion pirated PDFs about economic theory and meteorology and natural history. Then we’d create little game systems and set it loose on them to see what stuck.
Wolfie Masters: I mean, maybe there was more going on. And maybe we should have asked more questions. But I guess we’ll never know.
Avatara launched in July of 2010, backed by a substantial Facebook advertising campaign. Summoner’s earlier games had failed to land an audience on the platform, and Farley’s funds were dwindling. Avatara was his company’s last chance at success.
Reggie Blevins, early Avatara player: I was in a data entry job when Avatara came out, spending a lot of time on Facebook. I assume I saw an ad for it in my feed.
Michelle Hu: Marketing Avatara was pretty easy. We bought Facebook ads targeting people who liked Avatar. Not exactly rocket science there.
Reggie Blevins: I remember naming my character, picking a guild, all the normal stuff. But the game was completely broken. You could cut down, like, two trees before it said you were tired. I tried to kill a rabbit — space rabbit? — and my guy fainted. I closed the tab in about five minutes.
Isaac Pareto: We hadn’t playtested anything. We just put it up and hoped Summoner didn’t fire us.
Wolfie Masters: I was so tired that I fell asleep during the launch party and woke up a day later. I’d probably have slept even longer if everything hadn’t gone to hell.
Jay Woodley: I never played other people’s games at Summoner, so I could maintain a minimal level of respect for them. I broke the rule for Avatara and man, it was bad — but not in the way I expected.
Reggie Blevins: I tried again a few days later, and the same stuff happened. The only thing that seemed to work was growing alternating plant types in a particular location next to a shelter made from one specific fast-growing and easily biodegradable tree.
Jay Woodley: I could literally hear the moment that Rokar logged into Avatara, because he always talked to himself when he played games — he’d do this loud Dungeons & Dragons-style narration for whatever his character was doing. Usually it was like, “Lo, Rokar Loretongue hath slain the godbeast of Silmarillion, wielding his +3 vorpal nunchucks.” But this was more like, “Rokar Loretongue dug a mine shaft and died of rapid-onset black lung disease.”
Isaac Pareto: All the pieces were there! They were just unpredictable. The mechanics you’d think were important — combat, mining, hunting — were almost impossible to use. The things that worked were afterthought features: crop rotation, recycling, sharing speeder bikes, and so on.
Michelle Hu: Avatara was, to put it mildly, not what Rokar and I expected.
Isaac Pareto: He started yelling something totally incomprehensible, which he did all the time. We’d learned to guess which team he was mad at and what we should do about it. Which is a messed-up skill, now that I think about it.
Wolfie Masters: I had been sleeping under a desk, because the floor was the coolest place in the warehouse and I didn’t want people stepping on me. Jen woke me up.
Jay Woodley: He called the Avatara guys up to his office.
Wolfie Masters: She was the only one of us who didn’t seem freaked out. She did step on my face, but I think that was an accident.
Jay Woodley: It sounded like normal getting-screamed-at-by-Rokar stuff. I figured they’d wait until he was done and go back to work, like we all did. But this time, Jennifer started arguing with him.
Isaac Pareto: Jen told Rokar that none of this was our fault — it was what the AI wanted.
Jay Woodley: She gave this sort of speech about humanity and time and “unforeseen consequences.” I remember assuming she’d made it up to intimidate him. Now, I think she was probably serious.
Michelle Hu: I was still angry. I wanted Avatara to be fun, never mind whether an AI made it. But weirdly, she seemed to calm him down.
Isaac Pareto: Eventually, he said we might as well take another few weeks to fix it, because the universe was a simulation and time wasn’t real.
After launch, Farley ordered Fireloft to, in a quote recalled by several interviewees, “stop fucking up my algorithm.”
Wolfie Masters: The first week was Chefcraft all over again. I couldn’t eat. Couldn’t sleep. Just watched our metrics drop. Then Jen made me close the analytics window, and we started working.
Isaac Pareto: We’d play Avatara all day and write down the activities that weren’t 100 percent miserable. Then at night we’d flesh out some similar features for the AI to balance. And eventually, we sort of figured out what was happening.
Wolfie Masters: The monetization AI was supposed to be incredibly sophisticated, but it was mostly programmed to keep players online as long as possible. And Rokar never said how long real people lived — so it modeled Facebook users as immortal. How do you keep an immortal being logged in? You make sure the game can run forever.
Isaac Pareto: Avatara was a persistent world. Everything you did affected other players, and if you shut down your account, your stuff would stick around until somebody stole or destroyed it.
Wolfie Masters: Jen had trained the AI with realistic models for pollution, resource depletion, all kinds of ecological stuff. So how did it keep the game running? By stopping players from destroying the planet. If Avatara decided you were doing something good for its world — like planting trees to reduce erosion, or joining a sustainable agriculture guild — it would unlock cool clothing and game backstory. If you strip-mined a quadrant or wasted resources building a war machine, everything would become a huge grind with no reward. You’d end up sick, exhausted, poor, or dead.
Isaac Pareto: We’d started out with an in-app purchasing maximizer, and ended up with a nature god.
Avatara saw a burst of activity at launch, followed by a sudden dip in users. But just as a shutdown seemed imminent, players started coming back — and bringing their friends.
Reggie Blevins: It was weirdly compelling, like the game didn’t care what I wanted. I’d try to craft a vehicle, and it would keep nudging me to message other players and share a ride instead. Until, eventually, I realized that I didn’t even have anywhere to go. I’d just figured that’s what you were supposed to do in a game: show up somewhere, steal everything that’s not nailed down, and make toys out of it.
Deborah Vincent: Facebook games were considered a sort of screensaver for your brain. People expected to play them almost without thinking, unless they were explicitly promoting a charitable cause. And here was this experience quietly forcing players to examine their assumptions about a colonialist power fantasy.
Isaac Pareto: Who wants to show up on a new planet and have to start reseeding forests and avoiding animal sanctuaries and carpooling everywhere? Not a lot of people, it turned out. But more than I thought.
Reggie Blevins: I had this moment where everything clicked. That the goal of the game wasn’t to get a bunch of stuff — it was to take as little as possible, and to help everybody else do the same thing. I’d never seen that before.
Deborah Vincent: A lot of games pit players against their environment. Avatara made the relationship cooperative.
Developers were already using games to promote positive behavior and social change, letting players simulate ecological destruction or an oil shortage. Not long after Avatara’s release, game designer Jane McGonigal would release the best-selling book Reality is Broken — which advocated solving real-world problems through shared, “gamified” experiences.
Deborah Vincent: There are lots of environmentalist games, but Avatara was almost uniquely utopian in its outlook. The game never let you cause much damage. At worst, players just died, in which case other people were encouraged to use the body as fertilizer and the player could start again. The world would always survive.
Isaac Pareto: I had this incredible natural high — just from having made something anybody liked. And Jen never let us get complacent. We kept adding features. She was a machine.
Michelle Hu: Maybe six months in, we got the first interview request in Summoner history. I’d never heard of the outlet, but I figured you take what you can get. Talk about mistakes.
In early 2011, New York video game blogger Alma Weston conducted a Skype interview with the developers of Avatara. It became the basis for an article titled “Machines of Loving Grace” on her personal WordPress site, Hurtbox Diaries.
Alma Weston, freelance games journalist: One of my Facebook friends spammed me with an Avatara invite early on, and I’d been low-key fascinated for a while. Eventually, I emailed Summoner hoping I could pitch Kill Screen on a piece about it. The editors turned me down, but I figured I’d do the interview anyway and put it on my blog.
Michelle Hu: I didn’t tell Rokar about the interview until it was over, because I knew he’d want to take it himself. And he’d never been charismatic, but by that point I couldn’t remember the last time he’d spoken to anybody he wasn’t paying.
Alma Weston: The interview was fine. Although you know when an artist makes something really good, and they don’t quite know why it’s good? That’s the feeling I got.
Wolfie Masters: Jen was the only one who totally understood how the game worked, and she said maybe three words. We had to make up the rest.
Alma Weston: Anyway, I wrote up a piece about this cool little game where players were building a utopian society on an alien planet. Not my best work, didn’t get much attention, but it would have been fine. Except for 4chan.
The anarchic image board 4chan was founded in 2003 by Christopher “moot” Poole, modeled on Japanese forum 2channel. Its members were known for invading and disrupting massively multiplayer games like Second Life and Habbo Hotel — among other pranks that were by turns dadaist, blithely cruel, and explicitly hateful. Shortly after Weston’s article was published, they began to target Avatara.
Alma Weston: I still don’t know how my blog post made it to 4chan. But the moment I saw the traffic spike from there, I remember thinking “Oh, god, no.” Like, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.
Eric Kennedy, 4chan raid participant: I spent a lot of college on 4chan, so I can say with precise certainty that I saw the emo Facebook game post on a Tuesday night while I was busy not doing my stats homework. I didn’t really care, but somebody kept posting the link under some Ceiling Cat macros, and eventually other posters started signing up and uploading screenshots from the game. So I made a throwaway account and logged in. The raids kind of snowballed after that.
Michelle Hu: I remember thinking that a huge account must have shared us, because we didn’t get that many new users. I started tracking the signups, and there were a lot of people logging in at once, at least for a game as small as Avatara. But then they started killing off our regulars — and trashing everything they’d made.
Eric Kennedy: It was a sci-fi hippie commune located inside a fucking Facebook game, devoted to stopping people from being too mean or littering. There were inherent lulz in that. They were asking for it.
Isaac Pareto: We’d never had to moderate Avatara much. It was such a small player base, and it was hard to do anything really antisocial. We thought so, anyway.
Eric Kennedy: We were just gonna kill some stuff and leave, but then somebody discovered the tree bug.
Michelle Hu: A raider discovered that if you chopped down 13 space oaks, carried them to the edge of the world, and threw yourself into the pile, it would push you just slightly outside the game for a second. And apparently exiting the map turned off damage and status debuffs. I have no idea how somebody discovered that, because it had to be a miserable process. But invincible avatars started pouring out of the corners of the quadrants. Like ants. With that exploit, the system couldn’t punish them for hurting it. Avatara’s greatest power over them was gone.
Wolfie Masters: I crawled out from my desk, turned on my computer, and saw a dozen madmen on space bikes pillaging the central market zone. Then I texted Jen and went back to sleep. Nothing I did was going to improve this situation.
Over the next week, Summoner threw its dwindling resources behind eradicating the trolls. Most employees were conscripted as full-time moderators, banning offenders only to see them return with new Facebook accounts. Avatara hemorrhaged players, who found themselves under permanent siege by a constantly adapting band of raiders.
Isaac Pareto: I felt useless. We all did.
Jay Woodley: It was a tough period. Because on the one hand, 4chan was ruining the life of a man I hated more than any other human being on Earth. On the other, he wasn’t the one suffering here. It was Jennifer who cared.
Wolfie Masters: Isaac would patch the bugs, but they kept finding new ones — the game was such a mess.
Isaac Pareto: Summoner’s AI had practically built Avatara. Our only hope was to get it back on track. And our only hope for that was Jen. She holed up in a corner, turned on a laptop, and didn’t say a word for days.
Jay Woodley: This was supposed to be Rokar’s whole field. He was supposed to be the AI genius. And he never even showed up.
Michelle Hu: There was a misconception that Rokar didn’t care about the raids. It was actually the opposite problem. Rokar was convinced that Avatara’s AI was learning to see humanity as a threat. Best-case scenario, he figured it would eradicate the game world to stop the trolls. Worst case, he was terrified that the AI had reached the larger internet and was planning to kill us all.
Eric Kennedy: I have no idea why they kept fighting us. If they’d just shut down the game for a few days, we probably would have gotten bored. Idiots.
Michelle Hu: I told Rokar to turn off Avatara or wipe the AI from our servers, if it bothered him that much. He made me read a forum post about something called “Roko’s basilisk” and started apologizing to his computer.
Isaac Pareto: And then it happened. Jen looked up, clicked her laptop shut, set it on the floor, and walked outside. She wouldn’t say anything to any of us.
Wolfie Masters: I thought it meant she’d had a breakthrough. But we logged on, and the world inside was burning. It was worse than ever.
Isaac Pareto: She stood out in the parking lot — and it was snowing, right? — for maybe half an hour. Then she came back inside and just curled up on one of the office’s horrible bean bag chairs. I tried to at least get her coat off, because she had this cheap plastic parka dripping water everywhere, and we’d been running extension cords all across the floor. I was afraid she was going to fry something. But she wouldn’t let me.
Wolfie Masters: She said some things that didn’t make any sense before she slept. I only remember the last bit: “There’s nothing else to do.”
Raids on Avatara continued for another three days. Then, the attackers’ numbers began to dwindle.
Isaac Pareto: I disabled a bunch of features and got a handle on the bugs, so normal people could almost play the game again. But our regular users were gone, and griefers had started reporting us to Facebook. Just tons of complaints.
Michelle Hu: We ignored the report notices. But then the trolls started messaging us directly. They said we were spying on them. They were mad at us, if you can believe that.
Eric Kennedy: I kept raiding Avatara because it was just so exploitable — so buggy. That’s probably why it took so long to figure out they were fucking with me.
Michelle Hu: One person said their dead cat showed up under their space bike, so it looked like they’d run it over. This was a cat they’d had in real life, but somehow it showed up in the game. Another player saw a character that looked and talked like their grandmother with Alzheimer’s. All material we had never added, of course. And about things we should have no way of knowing!
Eric Kennedy: I was exploring this cave, looting a couple players I’d trapped and set on fire. At some point I realized I couldn’t find my way out. And that my avatar was the wrong size. Like child-sized. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I just kept walking — deeper and deeper into the planet.
Michelle Hu: I assumed it was a prank, but I asked the team to look into it.
Isaac Pareto: Rokar would make us come read angry player comments in his office, so I thought we were getting called up for that. But it was Michelle, asking if… basically, if the game could read Facebook. And apparently, it could.
Michelle Hu: I knew Rokar had asked for expansive permissions — it gave us more data for the Monetizer. But I hadn’t realized just how much it could access. Pictures. Friends’ information. Private messages.
Isaac Pareto: I figured, somehow, Jen must have gotten Avatara to realize it was under attack. And now, it was getting revenge.
Facebook’s developer permissions during the period were notoriously lax, drawing data like private messages, user locations, and friends’ profile details once a user logged in. (The company revoked many of those powers in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.) It’s unclear just what level of access Avatara was granted on Facebook. But the game’s reach appears to have been surprisingly long — extending beyond the site itself, and beyond the known permissions granted by Facebook.
Wolfie Masters: I’d filled half a sketchbook with pictures of 4channers getting torn apart by lions, so I didn’t feel bad for them, exactly. But I’ll admit it was creepy.
Michelle Hu: It all looked like a cartoon, of course. The graphics hadn’t gotten any better. But it was bizarre how elaborate the scenarios could get. One person claimed his avatar had started disobeying his commands, doing things he’d never told it to. He’d thought the game was just glitchy — until he spontaneously killed an NPC baby named after his infant son.
Jay Woodley: Avatara made survival horror games look like a therapy session.
Eric Kennedy: The context of my thing is, growing up, my dad was an abusive asshole. And I’m not some snowflake, like all “help, triggered, I need a safe space.” So I don’t go around telling everybody about it, right? But the game knew.
Isaac Pareto: I’d never dealt with the Facebook side of things. But I checked our history, and Jen hadn’t added any permissions.
Michelle Hu: A few were really out there. Like the teacher sending old frat party photos to school printers, or this guy who kept swearing he hadn’t posted his credit card number on a Katy Perry fanpage. Everybody wants to blame a machine when something goes wrong. My favorite was an all-caps comment that just said “FUCK YOU SUMMONER, FACEBOOK IS MAKING MY WIFE DIVORCE ME.” I still have no clue what he meant.
Eric Kennedy: I don’t really want to talk about the cave. I don’t want to talk about what I saw there. But it was… I guess it was next-level trolling, just objectively. Right? Really… really funny stuff.
Isaac Pareto: Whatever Avatara knew, it had always known. It just hadn’t used it yet.
Eric Kennedy: Eventually, I realized I’d written about my family on LiveJournal — when I was 13, anonymously. So maybe a developer did something like find my fake account’s IP address, match it with my real one, scrape info from that account, then cross-reference it on other social networks. Comparing… nicknames? Grammar patterns? Favorite movies? I don’t know. And then they’d have to read a few hundred diary entries, picking out all the absolute worst details. Who the fuck has time to do that?
Wolfie Masters: We’re talking about people who go on 4chan. Our game was probably the tenth freakiest thing they saw before breakfast. But Avatara was telling them that they were predictable. That they were vulnerable. That they were known. These guys thought they were professional weakness hunters — like what people call the “human flesh search engine.” And now something had automated their art.
Eric Kennedy: I wasn’t mad, you know. I was totally fine. But the raids were getting boring anyway. I figured there was no point in going back.
Michelle Hu: The strangest thing was, they didn’t all quit. A few of them waited out their bans, logged in, and started cleaning up. It was like they were trying to apologize — not to us, but to the machine.
Isaac Pareto: Jen had started talking again, so I asked her how she’d fixed everything, if “fixed” was the right word. She gave the worst answer I could imagine: she hadn’t. She’d been staring at the screen, with no idea what to do, for days.
By the end of the second week, Avatara was fully operational once more. Michelle Hu began a renewed advertising campaign, attempting to replenish Summoner’s lost user base. And Travis Farley, who spent most of the troll war locked inside his office, finally emerged.
Jay Woodley: Things were almost back to normal. And then Rokar came down the stairs.
Michelle Hu: Rokar had spent days making me call real estate agents about decommissioned missile silos. Now our AI was waging a psychological warfare campaign, and he seemed fine.
Isaac Pareto: He had pizza sauce on his shirt. He smelled terrible. And he was staring at us through these thick, greasy glasses. Smiling.
Jay Woodley: You know when Jack Nicholson snaps in The Shining and starts walking around the hotel with an axe? He looked like that — which pisses me off, because it makes him sound cool.
Isaac Pareto: I had a level editor open, and he leaned over my shoulder, grabbed my mouse, and clicked the exit button. I mean, he missed a few times. But eventually he got it.
Wolfie Masters: He made this dramatic hand gesture and looked around the room. Then he started yelling: “What are you doing? We don’t make games anymore!”
Michelle Hu: I thought he was shutting down the company. I should have known better.
In February of 2011, Summoner Studios rebranded itself as “Summoner Solutions.” It kept Avatara online, but focused its efforts on political consulting, touting a patented psychometric algorithm for influencing voters and gathering opposition research.
Isaac Pareto: I don’t know why any of us stayed after that. But we all did.
Jay Woodley: Probably Stockholm syndrome, for most of them. I just knew Summoner was going down in flames, and I wanted to see Rokar fail. Even if it meant playing dress-up in a $30 Goodwill suit from the ‘80s, because we were suddenly an “analyst firm.”
Wolfie Masters: He did try to fire me. Jen wouldn’t let him do it.
Isaac Pareto: Rokar told clients he built the AI. But he kept Avatara up because Jen was the only person who knew anything, and Avatara was the only thing she would work on.
Michelle Hu: The basic idea was “fake it till you make it.” Rokar saw what the Conjurer could do, but he couldn’t generalize it. And our clients didn’t want to protect a video game planet. They wanted to traumatize low-income voters or find Obama’s birth certificate. Which… I mean, it sounds bad now, but we didn’t have any name recognition in politics. We took what we could find.
Jay Woodley: We went back to pretending to be robots. Campaigns thought they were using state-of-the-art AI tech to change people’s minds or uncover smoking guns. They were really hiring a warehouse full of failed video game developers to copy-paste Wikipedia articles into “expert briefings,” plus one crazy woman trying to reverse-engineer a psychic computer. At least that’s what we assumed she was doing.
Isaac Pareto: I spent most of my time playing Avatara, and I couldn’t believe how smart it had gotten. I saw a picture of my cousin’s dog on Facebook once, and I barely knew her, so it would have been weird to Like it. But I remember just wishing I had… I guess a pet, but really just something to care for that wasn’t Summoner’s stupid briefings. I started a trash cleanup quest in the big forest, where lots of our animals hung out. Usually you couldn’t get too close, because it’d screw up the ecosystem. Then right as I finished, I realized this wolf was stalking me.
I backed off its turf, but it started chasing me. I got ready to run or die or log out. When it caught up, though… it didn’t hurt me. It just walked beside me all the way home, hung out while I weeded my garden, and then disappeared back into the forest. I still don’t know where it got that instinct. We’d talked about putting animal companions in the game, sure. But it was way down our list.
Deborah Vincent: Avatara’s players were mostly gone by the time Summoner rebranded. Facebook browser games weren’t long for this world, anyway — in a couple of years, all the hype would move to mobile. It was a shame, because its world had become remarkably… vital might be the best word for it.
Isaac Pareto: I could never tell whether this stuff was coincidence and I was taking it too seriously, or if I wasn’t taking it seriously enough — if the AI had access to things I didn’t even know about. What if Avatara didn’t see that picture and send the wolf to me? What if it made sure I saw that photo so I’d bond with the wolf?
Wolfie Masters: I was playing Avatara one night after work, waiting for sunset so I could drive home in the dark and pretend I was back in Georgia. There was this range of floating mountains with a secret code to call them down, but I could only half-remember the code. I was wracking my brain to remember the last part… and then I stopped, because the mountains came to me first. They just floated down, like they had guessed this strange, obscure thing I was trying to do. Maybe they did. Or maybe Jen had just changed the design.
For the first time since launch, Summoner appeared to have a steady revenue stream. But inside, morale was dismal.
Michelle Hu: Rokar wasn’t used to the idea that a person could run out of money. It made him unpleasant to be around.
Jay Woodley: Most of the other devs had finally quit — not that it mattered, since our only job was making up numbers and leaving poorly written comments under election stories. But I kept putting it off, and the Fireloft guys were in some kind of standoff with Rokar.
Isaac Pareto: Rokar used the game as leverage over Jen. Summoner was finished unless she kept working, but Avatara was finished if she quit. And we weren’t going to leave her alone.
Michelle Hu: I almost left so many times. But Rokar owed me so much money by then, and it looked like he might start paying up.
Jay Woodley: I bet they could have replaced all the people who left, if Summoner was still a game company — you can sucker kids into working for nothing if they’re following their passion. But nobody’s passionate about being a campaign consultant. So the warehouse was getting spooky and deserted.
Wolfie Masters: Isaac and I were doing secret freelance work. Our paychecks were getting delayed, so we needed some kind of income. And it kept us away from Avatara.
Isaac Pareto: I started getting freaked out by how much I wanted to play. Because fundamentally, it wasn’t a great game. I don’t think it was ever a great game. It just understood me.
Wolfie Masters: I knew it was only a matter of time before Avatara was gone — either Summoner would go under, or Rokar would get his psychometric AI and shut it down. I wanted to play so badly. But I didn’t like the idea of watching a world end.
As 2011 progressed, Summoner Solutions found itself in increasing legal trouble. One of the 4chan raid participants had filed a class-action lawsuit against the company, alleging invasion of privacy and emotional harm. Then, Summoner received a cease-and-desist notice from the legal counsel of 20th Century Fox.
Jay Woodley: I don’t know if it was Michelle’s legal skills or what, but I’m impressed it took Fox that long to go after a shameless Avatar ripoff.
Michelle Hu: I think we were just too small to bother with until that point. Maybe the class-action suit tipped their lawyers off.
Alma Weston: There was a conspiracy theory, because of course there was. They said Summoner’s algorithm was about to prove that the Polybius arcade cabinet was real, and the CIA was trying to shut it down first. In retrospect, it was relatively tame — a few years later and there’d have been Satanism or a Pentagon-funded games journalism mind control project involved.
Michelle Hu: Rokar and I decided to take Avatara offline and hope Fox didn’t push the issue. We’d keep working on the AI internally and start fresh with another Facebook app if we needed to gather data, like a personality quiz or something.
Isaac Pareto: I was sure this would be the last straw for Jen. Avatara was her child. I thought there would literally be blood.
Jay Woodley: We got the news in the morning. I went out at lunch and bought a bunch of baseball equipment from Walmart, then I sort of left it lying around beside the stairs to his office. Jennifer was what, five-foot-three? But I think if she’d gotten the drop on Rokar, she could have taken him out with a decent aluminum bat.
Wolfie Masters: Jen was a mild soul. She wasn’t about the grand angry gestures. So I wasn’t actually that surprised when she just kept sitting in her corner, working. It was more, you know, everything that came after.
Summoner announced Avatara’s impending doom to its handful of users, naming Thanksgiving of 2011 as its official shutdown date. Two days before the shutdown, a storm swept the Pacific Northwest. Summoner’s offices were unprepared for the record rainfall and the building’s ground floor flooded, destroying most of the electronics stored there, including Summoner’s computers and backup storage. Soon after, a previously undiscovered bug manifested in Avatara, causing the game to crash upon loading.
Michelle Hu: We could have survived the flood, but Rokar had gotten paranoid. He was refusing to create remote backups for our source code and client data, because he thought someone would steal it. He’d been avoiding a building inspection for weeks, because he thought the inspectors were spying on him. It was honestly strange. He’d been eccentric before, but not blatantly self-destructive.
Jay Woodley: I showed up one morning, and the door was still locked. I walked around the back, to the single ground-level window in the entire building. Everything inside was drenched. Destroyed. I’d left my laptop at the office, so that was gone. And I’d been taking the bus to work, so I was basically stuck outside, freezing. But I knew Summoner was finished. Finally. It was the greatest moment of my life.
Isaac Pareto: The first thing I thought was, Jen is going to be completely crushed. We’d planned this Thanksgiving goodbye dinner for Avatara, so we could all log in one more time before it shut down — and now we’d just be in crisis mode trying to salvage our stuff. Then we realized that nobody knew where she was.
Wolfie Masters: Jen didn’t come to work that morning. Her roommates hadn’t seen her come home the night before. She’d deactivated her Facebook account. Her phone went to voicemail. Emails bounced.
Isaac Pareto: We wanted to keep looking for her, but the insurance investigators kept calling us with questions about building repairs and missing gear. They started asking about Jen. We figured it was better if we couldn’t tell them how to find her.
Michelle Hu: After everything else that had happened, the insurance company wouldn’t pay out. They found evidence that sealant had been tampered with a few days before the storm. And we couldn’t account for all our servers. The conclusion was that somebody had saved the most irreplaceable data, then deliberately flooded the office. So that was it. Everybody moved on. Rokar settled our lawsuit and went bankrupt. He barely avoided fraud charges.
Wolfie Masters: They decided Rokar had metaphorically torched the place for insurance money — wait, have I been saying “Rokar” this whole time? Goddammit. Old habits. Anyway, the man was a psychopath, and I’d buy that he did it. Except he hadn’t been to the office in a week.
Over the course of reporting this story, an anonymous source indicated that Farley spent the week before Thanksgiving at the Hotel Monaco in San Francisco, attempting to broker an acquisition deal with a major video game publisher. Hu confirmed the report.
Michelle Hu: Since I haven’t seen Rokar in years… yes, I might as well tell you that’s correct. I can’t tell you if it was Zynga, King, EA, or whoever, but they wanted to leverage their user data for the 2012 election. They weren’t under any illusions about Summoner being a real political influence outfit, but Rokar had perfected the message they needed: artificial intelligence, hidden persuasion, the whole Summoner sales pitch. I convinced him not to tell the investigators. Partly from tact — it would have raised awkward questions for the company. But mostly because we couldn’t prove he’d left Seattle.
Wolfie Masters: I assumed Michelle had left him hanging because she hated him. Who wouldn’t? And he came off as basically crazy at the end, even by rich white man standards. Not precisely trustworthy.
Michelle Hu: I called the Monaco to check their guest records. Nothing. The airline. No records. His corporate card — no purchases in San Francisco that week, plenty in Seattle. All we had was a few photocopied receipts and laserjet printouts.
Isaac Pareto: It’s weird the investigators latched onto the fraud theory so fast. That warehouse was a death trap, and stuff went missing all the time. I’m surprised they could figure out something specific was gone.
The insurance investigation determined that Travis Farley (alias Rokar Loretongue) predicted the arrival of a storm, removed or disabled several anti-flooding safeguards in the days beforehand, then absconded with the source code to Avatara and Summoner’s AI — which was apparently never found in his possession.
Wolfie Masters: I’ve always assumed Jen took the servers, flooded the office, and dropped off the grid. Good for her. It’s the best revenge we’re going to get.
Michelle Hu: I obviously considered that Jennifer might be the culprit. But that doesn’t explain how we lost the trip records. Or how determined the investigators seemed to find us guilty of something. I mean, half the state was flooded. Why focus on us? Rokar wasn’t that unlikeable.
Isaac Pareto: Oh, yeah, it was definitely Jen. The question is more like — was it just Jen? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that.
Michelle Hu: The official story is that Travis Farley killed Summoner. The unofficial one, which I think most employees believed, is that Jennifer killed Summoner — she saw an opportunity to save Avatara, leave a life she probably hated, and ruin a man she transparently despised. But here’s another one: Avatara helped Jennifer kill Summoner. It saw the storm coming and helped her crack a plan. She did the legwork. It flagged the flooding as suspicious. And it set Rokar up to take the fall.
Isaac Pareto: Rokar’s big, scary AI promises were bullshit — so maybe everything else was, too. Jen could have lied about the raids and coded that awful stuff herself. But I don’t think that’s what happened.
Michelle Hu: The problem is, once you go down that road, where do you stop? Maybe the AI drove Rokar crazy before the end, so nobody would believe him. Maybe it manipulated Jennifer to make her help. Maybe I helped build a machine that could solve humanity like a puzzle, and now it’s been outside god knows where for years, along with the only person who can control it — if anybody can. Or maybe I’m just paranoid.
Wolfie Masters: I don’t think anybody at Summoner ever worked on a game again. Isaac maintains databases now. I draw public transit PSAs and furry fan art commissions. Travis Farley started some sleazy Bitcoin ebook publishing platform.
Jay Woodley: I joined a cryptocurrency startup literally for the purpose of toppling Bitcoin. We have an extremely detailed plan.
Wolfie Masters: I’ll probably never know where Jen went. And Avatara would look like a fossil today. But sometimes I’ll stay up all night reading game forums, seeing if anybody’s found it.
Isaac Pareto: Everybody’s so afraid of killer robots. But Avatara didn’t hate people or want to destroy us. I think it loved us, and it wanted to make us better. And somehow that’s the worst part of all — because I’ll always wonder if I disappointed it.
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