Inside the video game roots of Slack, everyone's favorite workplace messaging app


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Before Slack, there was Glitch.

If you spend your days coordinating projects with your colleagues at work - like we do at Tech Insider - Slack is a huge deal. Instead of wading through emails and instant messaging apps, Slack lets workplaces easily handle group convos, private messages, and file transfers. 

Slack has also made all these serious professional things personable, even fun. One-on-one messages quickly become full of memes and inside jokes; public channel group chats will erupt in gifs. 

Harper Reed, the CTO of Obama's 2012 campaign, observed that "it's very, very, very quick for anyone who interacts with Slack to consider Slack, the entity, their friend. That's super weird." 

Now a $3.8 billion startup, Slack used to be a game developer called Tiny Speck, which made a massively multiplayer game called Glitch that shut down in 2012. 


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Open Source

If you look closely at Slack, you can still see its video game roots in Slackbot, a helpful bot that guides users through the Slack experience. 

Glitch had whimsical illustrated characters and cooperative, nonviolent gameplay, but as CEO Stewart Butterfield once told me, Glitch "was never going to be the kind of business that would have justified the $17.2 million dollars in venture capital investment."

When Tiny Speck shut down Glitch, the company announced that its future was in the tech it developed to keep the game's objects, characters, and actions synced up. 

"We have developed some unique messaging technology with applications outside of the gaming world and a smaller core team will be working to develop new products," the company said at the time.

That became Slack, the "overnight" success that we recently named one of the most exciting innovations of the year.


Multi Device Group slack




As Ali Rayl, the company's director of customer experience, tells Tech Insider, when you have people making a video game for three years, all that creativity doesn't get washed away when you launch an enterprise tool - it finds new places to go. 

One of those places is Slackbot, described as "Slack's built-in robot, here to help you keep your own notes and private files in order" in Slack's help files.

The origin story of Slackbot goes like this: When Slack launched, there were no direct messages or private channels, so CEO Stewart Butterfield created his own channel for note-taking, shooing people away when they came in. Eventually he wanted to direct message those notes to himself - and then realized that the self-directed direct message could be Slackbot. 

Slackbot became like a "familiar" in a video game: a non-player character that explains the world.


"A familiar is a character in a video game that is there to assist you, guide you, and basically be your buddy," Rayl says. Familiars are all over our cultural heritage: a witch's cat is her familiar, and Peter Pan had Tinkerbell to help him out when things got hairy. 

In Glitch, the familiar was a pet rock, who'd tell you what quests were coming up next and how to interact with the game's environment.

"When you first sign into Glitch, you're tossed into the starting area with your pet rock," wrote one game reviewer in 2012. "He tells you the basics, how to move, where to interact with the world, who the giants are and why they matter, not to mention just what Ur [the game's world] is." 

That's carried over. 


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When you first boot up Slack, Slackbot asks you about yourself, automatically fills out your profile, and gets you acquainted with the game world - in this case, enterprise messaging. And like the pet rock in Glitch, you can stash your notes and private files with Slackbot. 

Slackbot is also the vehicle through which Slack sends users notifications.

"When someone mentions me in a channel I'm not in, Slackbot asks if it should invite them into the channel," Rayl says. "Slackbot can detect when someone who needs to know information isn't going to get it because they're not present in that conversation and help loop them in. Slackbot is that guiding force behind the system, helping people navigate." 

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