Azurian Avatars: Where We Went Wrong and How We’re Fixing It

Azur Passage, Azurbala

GM Azurians and Writer’s Room members,

By now, you’ve almost certainly seen the art preview we dropped for the Azurbala PFPs. If you didn’t… well, there’s a decent chance you’ve been living under a rock. Our PFP art preview made its rounds, to say the least.

Friday was a tough day for both our team and our community. We began the day excited to share the culmination of months of hard work with you all and the broader Web3 community. We ended the day feeling deflated, embarrassed, and having let most of you down.

For the past 15+ months, folks have joined the Tally Labs community for various reasons: to help tell stories, to help dream up new IP, to collaborate with other like minded folks, and to contribute to something larger than themselves. Underpinning each of these reasons is a promise to uphold a certain level of quality from our team. Until Friday, it was a level we had maintained.

The Azurian PFP reveal was the first blunder we’ve made at Tally Labs. We’d love to say it’ll be the last, but it likely won’t be. We plan on being here for a while and continuing to help push the space forward. When building something, especially in public, we know we won’t be perfect.

However, there have been some major lessons learned throughout this experience. The biggest one is that our blunder did not occur on Friday. It occurred in the months leading up to Friday when we failed to lean into the community to discover exactly what you all hoped we would make. We built for the community and failed. That’s especially embarrassing when our business is one defined by building with the community. We will not make this mistake again.

In this post, we’ll address where we went wrong, what we’ve learned, and how we’re going to improve this process moving forward.

Addressing a few key points/questions

Does the art reveal imply this project is a rug?

  • No, it’s certainly not a rug. We understand you might be skeptical if the reveal was the first you’ve heard of Tally Labs. If you fall in that bucket, we firmly believe that you’ll change your mind if you stick around. We have 15+ months of great work in the space to show. We have an amazing community across two NFT collections, and we’ve been pioneers in community-generative storytelling as well as IP licensing. For us, a universe (Azurbala) is a natural next step to build on top of our Writer’s Room collection. We’re a venture backed business made up of awesome team members who are all committed to building this. We’re here to stay and we’re going to augment ourselves to fill the gaps that caused this problem to arise.

Did the team do this on purpose as a marketing stunt?

  • No, and this is a narrative that hurts to read. We understand this is just as hard (if not harder) for our community. We would never, ever pull a stunt like this and play with our community’s emotions. Folks have invested dozens of hours contributing to Azurbala lore, inventing characters, and hanging out in the Discord. We believed in the art and spent close to 6 months working on it.

How did this pass the team’s QA process?

  • We stood behind it and believed it would work. We recognized we were doing something different (3D, multi species, anthropomorphic/humanoid) but didn’t believe it would be as jarring as it was. Our goal was to create a new kind of species, one that would stand on its own and give the IP staying power it deserves. We didn’t want to just use another animal. Clearly, we bit off a lot. We tried to innovate in more ways than one, and this led to a poor end product.
  • In addition to this, we’ve since learned that we actually failed at the beginning when we committed to this premise. It’s now become clear to us that this premise — 3d, anthropomorphic animals on top of a single base model, only separated by texturing — was one that was potentially never going to succeed. While we were working on it, we thought it would. Since Friday, we’ve come to learn that it was a premise that was potentially destined to fail given all the moving pieces. At the time, we stayed committed to it, working through dozens of iterations. We improved the art immensely over the last few months, and internally we were so proud of that. But it’s now obvious that we missed the point. Because while we were making improvements and signing off on them, we were unknowingly fighting a losing battle. Next time, we’ll spend far more time upfront, with the community, defining the premise to make sure it’s something that we can all win with.

Was this Fiverr art?

  • It was not Fiverr art, and the work came from a reputable collective of artists. When we began the project many months ago, we vetted multiple artists before landing where we did. Out of respect for the artists and due to the reaction to the art, we won’t be sharing their names. We spent a lot of time and money with these artists, iterating on the base model, the texturing, and more.

Why no facial expressions or accessories?

  • We had a novel idea to release the PFPs all with the same base facial expressions (Gutter Cat Gang is an example of an amazing/successful collection with all NFTs sporting the same facial expression). From there, our plan was to allow holders to log into the Azurbala Member’s Portal (more on that below) to swap in facial expressions based on their mood whenever they wanted. This would allow them to generate a PNG and upload it to Twitter. We had the same idea for accessories. The accessories would be equippable for your Azurian using Marrow. Our vision was that you’d accumulate a collection of accessories over time. In fact, the tool to swap and add traits is already built. What we didn’t forecast properly was the space’s reaction to not having expressions or accessories in our reveal video. It made for a bland looking collection. We should have shared context and worked with the community to determine the pros and cons of both choices rather than assume people would be fine to hear this information later.

Where did you go wrong?

We’ve spent a lot of the last 72 hours analyzing where we went wrong, and here are a few thoughts:

  • Lack of community involvement: Simply put, we got away from what makes Tally Labs special. We had good intentions and wanted to “wow” our community with a really unique art reveal. This led to us building in a silo, not coming to our community for feedback, and ultimately making something that they didn’t want. We’re taking this learning as an amazing opportunity to get back to our roots. Tally Labs was built on the premise that thousands of people from all over the world can come together to make better content than we could on our own. We’re going to be bringing in the community intermittently throughout this process and ensure we’re building with them — not for them. Thank you for the second chance. We now all have the opportunity together to be one of the first PFP collections generated from community feedback throughout the entire art creation process.
  • No creative director guiding our vision: The collection lacked a cohesive look/feel. A number of team members chipped in to help take the collection across the finish line, but none were Art Directors or Creative Directors by trade. We wore the creative director hat, but it’s clear that there’s too big of a gap between our skills and the skills required. Having just an artist isn’t enough. We’ve learned how important it is to have a creative stakeholder on our side that acts as an intermediary between everyone else on our team and the artists. The creative agency that we contracted was supposed to be this intermediary, but we’ve learned that this needs to be a Tally Labs team member. The process was humming operationally, but it’s clear we lacked someone with heavy visual experience, and that we could not depend on the contracted artists or their representatives to fill that void.
  • Multiple artists tackling different elements: We had 1 artist doing the base modeling and texturing, we had another artist do all of the apparel, and a final artist doing headwear and accessories (accessories hadn’t been previewed yet). We believed that working with three separate artists from the same collective would allow us to work more efficiently and let each one focus on their expertise. Fashion was a huge part of the vision and we knew that someone who specializes in digital fashion may not be the best facial modeler, and vice versa. We worked with an agency who represented all of the contracted artists, and this agency’s job was to ensure cohesion among the various pieces. This involves texturing, lighting, and more. This was clearly not accomplished effectively, and we didn’t have the visual chops in-house to spot this.
  • Tried to innovate in too many ways at once: One of our values at Tally Labs is to take big swings. We didn’t want to launch another simple animal PFP. Ultimately this desire to innovate without community involvement became the collection’s downfall. We opted early-on for 3d which is a challenge on its own. We opted for a multi species collection which becomes more difficult when the assets are 3d. Ultimately, and for modularity’s sake, this led to us moving towards a single base and expressing the animal traits through coloring and texturing. This difference in color and texture wasn’t enough for folks to be excited about the varying species, and it made them look similar and strange to many people.
  • We entered the uncanny valley: Our collection wasn’t quite animal enough, but sure as hell wasn’t human. It was humanoid enough that folks (even subconsciously) compared them to humans. Needless to say, they aren’t as pleasant to look at as humans are. This phenomenon is called the uncanny valley and it’s clear we entered it. This is surely feedback we would have gotten from outsiders if we didn’t keep the previews so close to the vest.

The path forward

Since Friday, we’ve spent much of our time iterating on a go-forward plan, and we’re excited to share it with you. One thing that we’re not able to discuss yet is a timeline. We’re in a number of conversations with new artists but we don’t have enough information to put forth a revised launch date yet. We won’t do this until we’re completely sure.

Some of the timeline will be dictated by you all, the community. We look forward to sourcing your direction with respect to the collection art as well as launch details. For example, is concept art enough to be excited about burning your B&D books for Azur Root mintpasses? Is a preview enough? Would we all prefer to wait until we have the entire collection completely finished? These are the types of questions we’ll lean on the community to help answer.

We’re going to bring the community into the process, and we’ll use your answers to inform key decisions along the way, like the one above.

Azurbala Member’s Portal

We’ve spent the past few months building an awesome online home for Azurians to interact with our team, with each other, and with the story. The Azurbala members portal has all sorts of functionality to contribute your creativity. Holders can vote on proposals, submit ideas, interact with each other, and more.

We’ve been building the portal to source creative direction for Azurbala lore, but we should use it for community feedback on everything! To that end, we now plan on using this portal to build the PFP collection together. Most companies go PFP first and don’t have a built in community to source input from. We’re going to lean into our community and make this the collaborative process it should have been in the first place.

Over the next few weeks and months, you’ll be able to use the Azurbala Member’s Portal to consume official Azurbala lore, write your own lore to be shared with the rest of the community, respond to story prompts, read Azurbala news, learn about community events, and more.

Using the Portal to Immediately Contribute to the PFP redesign

We’re going to launch the portal this week to source your feedback on PFPs immediately. We’re opening up a token-gated survey for you to share your thoughts about the PFP previews we revealed. We’re putting the power in your hands to share what you liked, what you hated, your recommended art style, and more.

We’ve created a number of questions that, when answered, will help guide the next phase of art creation. This survey will be live in the next two days. Holders of Bored & Dangerous books and Writer’s Room NFTs will have access to the survey.

We’re token gating a survey for our community members so that we can collect structured feedback from people privately. The feedback on Twitter was great, and we received it loud and clear, but it was challenging to separate signal from noise. Some people, for example, posted criticisms but then shared with us privately that their posts were in part motivated by engagement. By moving to our portal, we can give our community a chance to provide any and all raw feedback and suggestions.

We’ll continue to use this portal throughout the process to allow the community to make key decisions, while still allowing for the ‘magic’ of a final reveal. This is the first step in creating a PFP collection together.

Community Council and More Frequent Updates

We’ll be posting more details around a “Community Council” to assist with the PFP art. The Council will be made up of community members of various locations, genders, bag sizes, perspectives, and more. This Council will have increased visibility into the art every step of the way and provide feedback throughout the process. Everyone will be able to trust that the final art that comes out will be directed by the full community’s feedback and will pass the eye-test from this representative council.

It will be made up of folks that are reflective of the community, and it’s our way of minimizing the amount of cooks in the kitchen. We’ll work with the Council to come back to the larger community with updates, prompts to vote on or direct, and more. We believe this is an awesome hybrid approach without opening up every single decision to thousands of different perspectives. All of this said, the entire community will certainly be consulted (not just the Council). The initial community survey that dictates the direction that we’ll take the art in is a great example.

We’ll also get in the habit of hosting more frequent town halls with respect to the art creation process. We hope the Council will look to take part in these as well. We understand delays are not ideal and the best thing we can do is keep you in the loop so you’re not wondering whether or not progress is being made.

New Artists

Needless to say, we won’t be proceeding with the original artists. The results of the community survey will inform the artist(s) we end up sourcing.

We’ve already received a ton of inbound outreach and have also begun reaching out to many artists whose work we’re fans of.

We’ve had a number of positive meetings with prospective artists already. When we land on a final art style dictated by the community, that will allow us to go out and lock in an artist who is a perfect fit for that style.

Creative Direction

As mentioned, one of the mistakes we made was not having sufficient Creative Direction in place on our side to ensure cohesion across the collection.

We’ll be opening up a search for a Creative Director to work on this project. This will either be an in-house position at Tally Labs or a Creative Director at some of the artist collectives we’re speaking with. We’re open to whatever gets the job done with the best quality.

This individual’s job will be to work closely with the artist(s) and ensure that the art matches the visual identity we’ve built for Azurbala (which everyone seems to really love).

Some timing changes so we don’t stay stagnant

As a refresher, the next project coming out of the Writer’s Room is the Jenkins Audio Experience. It’s a fiction audio series in partnership with SALT Audio. Jenkins will be visiting multiple communities with each having their own episode. Writer’s Room NFTs are required to license characters as well as vote on the creative direction of the series.

As many of you know, we’ve held off on launching the Jenkins Audio Experience (next licensing opportunity) so that Azurians can take part. Due to the delays, we’ll be proceeding with the podcast without Azurians. This will allow us to start voting on NFT communities much sooner and begin the licensing process shortly after. As Writer’s Room members you’ll have an opportunity to license one of many different NFT avatars you have (or partner with other community members who own any of the eligible avatars for the podcast).

We also have some fun surprises for the audio series on the NFT/gamification side. Much like with Bored & Dangerous, holding a Writer’s Room NFT will be your key to a free NFT claim.

This NFT will be instrumental in interacting with the Audio Experience on a deeper level. We’re excited for the Writer’s Room to once again come together to tell an amazing story — this time with even more communities.

Now, you’re probably wondering: If Azurians aren’t part of the audio experience anymore, what licensing opportunities will be present for them? We are actively exploring Azurian-specific licensing opportunities for media set in Azurbala. Our primary focus is correcting the obvious issue that lies in front of us, but we’re storytellers at heart. Azurbala has some stories to tell — that’s for sure.

In closing

This has been a difficult week for us, and we know it has been difficult for our community as well. There are a lot of people saying negative things about our project and our community. It’s because we lost your trust.

At a time like this, when all we can do is fight to regain your trust and show you we can deliver at the quality you expect, we are reminded of something that Thread Guy said on a recent Twitter Spaces… “When you wake up tomorrow, when you wake up in a month, when you wake up in a year, Tally Labs will still be here. We’re not going anywhere.”

We made a mistake. This mistake doesn’t define us. We believe there is a very clear path to rectifying it, especially since no Azurians have been minted. Azurbala is a vibrant community with hundreds of characters already emerging and building their own brands. We’re going to continue supporting them, we’re going to continue telling stories in Azurbala, we’re going to continue expanding its lore, and we’re going to keep building.

And from here on out, we’re going to do all of it together.

-Tally Labs

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Jenkins the Valet

Jenkins the Valet

I am the eyes and ears of the #BAYC. The unofficial storyteller. Now I am gearing up for my biggest story yet. Ape in and join me on this journey.