Winding Down Skittish

After we cancelled XOXO in the early days of the pandemic, I spent much of 2020 wondering if there was any way to recreate the unique experience of a real-world festival like XOXO online: the serendipity of meeting new people while running between venues, getting drawn into conversations with strangers and old friends, stepping in and out of conversations as simply as walking away.

Those explorations ended up in Skittish, a colorful and customizable browser-based 3D world that let you talk to others nearby with your voice while controlling a goofy animal character. It was weird and silly and I loved it.

Sadly, for a number of reasons, I’ve decided to shut it down this December.

There isn’t enough demand to keep it going, probably a combination of an overall decline in demand for virtual events and its niche featureset, and it requires ongoing support and maintenance that’s hard for me to provide on my own.

An Exciting Beta

I’m exceedingly proud of what we built with such tight resources:

  • A 3D environment in the browser, fully functional on desktop and mobile browsers
  • High-quality spatial audio based on your location
  • Built-in editor for collaborative world editing
  • Public and private audio spaces
  • Embedded videos and livestreams
  • Roles for organizers, speakers, editors
  • Chat with moderation tools
  • Subscription payments integration with Stripe

Throughout most of last year, we ran events large and small as part of an invite-only beta. Festivals, conferences, workshops, a summer camp, and meetups of all sizes. In that first year, it got some great press from TechCrunch, The Verge, and others, and feedback was incredibly positive. It seemed like we built something that was niche, but unique and special.

A Rocky Launch

The problems started shortly after our public launch in November 2021, when we opened signups to everyone.

Two weeks in, our audio provider, High Fidelity, dealt us some devastating news: they were shutting down the spatial audio API that made Skittish possible — with only six weeks’ notice.

We scrambled to negotiate an extension with them through January 2022, eventually hosting the service on our own AWS infrastructure at great expense to prevent a disruption of service while we migrated to Dolby.io, the only other service that provided a spatial audio API.

As we were tied up with these infrastructure changes for over two months, the winds were shifting.

Waning Demand

Starting in late 2021, covid restrictions lifted virtually everywhere, and despite the pandemic raging on, event organizers were resuming in-person events.

Consequently, the demand for virtual events dropped off a cliff. This is an industry-wide trend: Hopin cut 30% of their staff, only four months after a hiring freeze and major round of layoffs. Gather laid off a third of staff and announced they were pivoting away from virtual events entirely, focusing solely on remote work collaboration. It seems like many platforms are doing the same, or quietly folding.

I still believe there are huge benefits to virtual events, especially for those devoting the time to building thoughtful social spaces like Roguelike Celebration, but the demand for virtual event platforms like ours feels very low right now, partly because we built something niche, but also simply because many people just want to meet in person now, regardless of health risk.

As our revenue dried up, we also ran out of cash. Skittish was initially funded from a grant provided by Grant for the Web, and I considered doing a small fundraise, but with the future looking so uncertain, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk.

Skittish doesn’t cost much to run without contractors, but it’s still losing money. And frankly, I’m not well-equipped to adequately support it and continue development entirely by myself.

Calling It Quits

So, as much as I love it, Skittish is winding down. I’ve already disabled upgrading to paid plans, and will disable signups on December 14. If you have unusual circumstances and need access to it longer, get in touch.

I always knew there would be risk building something like this during the pandemic. Fortunately, I built it in a way where nobody would be burned: we fully honored the terms of our grant funding, it never had investors, never took on debt, never had employees, and I’ve made sure no paying customer will be negatively affected.

I’m extremely grateful to Grant for the Web for the initial grant funding, all the events and organizations that used Skittish over the last two years, and everyone who worked on it — but especially Simon Hales for his herculean effort on every part of the platform.

Thanks for playing!

The very busy Flash Forward wrap party

Comments

    Thank you for imagining a better way. Thank you for all the hard work to actually ship it. Thank you for building it in a way where no one would get burned. And thank you for so gracefully moving on.

    Doing even one of those steps well is hard, let alone all of them in a row. ❤️

    Interestingly, I got an offer from Hopin in late 2020, and I was already planning to move to Europe, but I decided not to take the position because I was really concerned that demand wouldn’t have longevity. My guess was that people would have virtual-fatigue and would want to go back to the office, or want to go back to in person spaces, and I also didn’t have much hope for there being enough political will globally to push back against this desire.

    Thank you for making cool and fun stuff for the rest of us, it’s hard to do and even harder to commercialise.

    Hey Andy! Thank you so much for making Skittish and sharing it with the world. I played around with it, and shared it with some colleagues, but we didn’t end up using it for a real event… we should have.

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