15 de abril, 2015
Failbetter Games
Failbetter Games
Alexis Kennedy: «The next big breakthrough in Interactive Fiction is more social storytelling» (with Hannah Flynn)
Alexis Kennedy: «The next big breakthrough in Interactive Fiction is more social storytelling» (with Hannah Flynn)

With the launch of Sunless Sea, Failbetter Games experienced a qualitative and quantitative jump for a company traditionally dedicated to publishing Interactive Fiction. It was a concious risk, but an important leap to make. The company needed wings, or better said, sails, to reach further shores, further markets. And hopefully a financial stability too. To commemorate the launch of such an important game we talk with Alexis Kennedy CEO and co-founder of the company (the guy pictured on the right in the photo, next to the other founder, Paul Arendt), and Hannah Flynn, marketing and PR girl in general. Both have been really kind answering this questions in the maelstrom of the first month after release.

Alexis, let’s talk about the beginning. The precedence that led the founders Paul and you to build a studio of interactive fiction. (Editor’s note: sometimes abbreviated IF).

Alexis Kennedy: I just wanted to write; I wanted to design games; and Fallen London was both. Paul was a film journalist who wanted to be an artist, and I realised that I probably needed pictures.

So, in what moment the partners decided to fund Failbetter Games Ltd.?

Alexis: In 2009, I thought I might just about be able to make a full-time living doing it solo. I asked Paul to draw me some pictures and offered him a little bit of cash up front. He thought it over and asked «how about you give me a percentage instead?» I said «sure, I prefer that, because I’m short of cash… but I feel obligated to tell you that we might literally never make any money at all.»

He’s been on salary for five years and the studio is now ten people, so on balance, it’s worked out better than I hoped.

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Hannah, when did you go aboard and what’s your role in the company?

Hannah Flynn: I’ve been with Failbetter for about six months, having known the team for a little while. I do communications – which has turned out to be a pretty broad role, covering marketing, press, community, content and looking after all of our social platforms. I love our community. They like to send me rats on a string. I am rats, at this point. All rats.

From Fallen London the company shared the engine, StoryNexus, so people could do Interactive Fiction in Failbetter’s way. I have asked this to others before but… how important was to provide an engine for the masses?

Hanna: Storynexus was an experiment for us. We thought: loads of people want a tool for writing Interactive Fiction, and if we can get even one hit the size of Fallen London from opening Storynexus up to everyone, then it will have been worthwhile.

So do you think it has been worth the effort?

Hannan: Well, we didn’t get a big hit out of it. As someone who wasn’t with the company when we launched Storynexus, it feels like we did everything we could with it. We needed a sizeable audience who could successfully complete a game in StoryNexus, and in the end the volume wasn’t there to get momentum going.

But it enabled us to do projects like The Black Crown, and to make connections with some amazing writers who have gone on to bring their distinctive style and perspective to the world of Fallen London; people like Meg Jayanth, who wrote 80 Days.

Why the change of name from Echo Bazaar to Fallen London? «Echo Bazaar» sounded so good…

Hanna: I think it was specifically because people could understand Fallen London when they first read it, whereas «Echo Bazaar» was a bit too mysterious. But the Bazaar hasn’t gone anywhere!

Interactive fiction could be CYOA based, parser based (Editor’s note: parser is referred to the data input of a game based on natural language and syntactic analysis), like a simulation of a space, or the simulation of a drama; a branching story, or pretty linear, it could have a lot of different structure styles. However, the narrative style of Failbetter, the kind that is given by StoryNexus Engine, is card based (that is me failing to define it). Please, what kind of narrative system is the distinctive flag of Failbetter Games and how does it work?

Alexis: «Quality-based narrative» (QBN). The «qualities» are the variables which form the paths through the story, rather than the story elements directly. If CYOA is a tree, and parser fiction is a palace, then QBN is a constellation. There are many clearly defined points you travel between, but the routes are varied, mysterious, and up to you.

One of the downsides of QBN is that it requires a lot of content before it feels fruitful. Another is that you can see the bare wires of the mechanics. We’re focusing on some new techniques to fix both of these.

One of the most important features of the Fallen London style is the ambiguity of its narrative. The texts of the things that happens are always written in a non concrete way. For example, you may be told about a terrifying story that give you nightmares by night; but the nature of the tale is only suggested and the concrete details of it completely absent. And it works! Why? Why this kind of narrative works so well, apart from the high quality of the writing?

Hannan: That ambiguity really compels people, but it’s crucial that we’re still offering meaningful choices. Players are able to influence the world and their character through these choices – a lot of which are categorically bad ideas – but a huge amount of the detail is held in their minds. So it’s really personal to everyone.

Alexis: We call it «underspecified» writing. The player’s experience of the space between them is the spark that leaps the gap.

Let’s talk about grinding. Failbetter Games are in a way «roleplaying games», so some kind of grinding is necessary to fulfil the requirements of some snippets and arcs of the story. Whence that game-play element came from? Some people just don’t like grinding.

Hannah: We’ve worked (and are still working) to make the beginning of the game less grindy, but there is always going to be some element of leveling and handing out the story in small pieces. It’s built into the game. Some people ask us why Fallen London is still free-to-play, when they’d pay a AAA price for all the content at once – so much that we’ve written a blog about it: Why Fallen London is still free-to-play.

FallenLonfonEZNL_S

Past October news broke from Failbetter games blog that you were working now on finishing the main narrative arcs of Fallen London (I mean the «ambitions» that a player could choose to follow in the game)… finishing, now, since five or six years in the making. Tell me, how big is Fallen London? And how one company develops such a beast through the years while people are playing it?

Hannah: Fallen London is persistent, which means we can rely on it to keep us going while we’re working on additional projects. It’s an ongoing hobby for our community, so it’s an ongoing project for us.

It’s about 1.2 million words strong at the moment and showing no sign of stopping; wrapping up the ambitions is just one strand of content in our plan for 2015. It’s also an engine for the whole universe: Sunless Sea is a stand-alone package, 250,000 additional words of stories. And we’re not stopping there.

Updating the game little and often has partly been down to the size of the team – at one point we were down to four people, working on both Fallen London and Sunless Sea. Now we’re nine, soon to be ten, so our production power is growing and our output can grow accordingly.

Another thing that marvels me it’s the nature of the relation of yours collaboration with authors. From time to time you invite a writer to come in to fill and create a new arc of story for the Fallen London Universe. You have made this in Fallen London, for example with Emily Short, or even inside Sunless Sea; it seems you gave several island to different authors to create. Tell us about the nature of this collaborations and why they fit so well in the created universe.

Alexis: We’d dabbled with freelance work in Fallen London, but it’s actually not very suitable. The writers need to be very familiar with the mechanics, the economy, the house style and above all the world lore, and it’s generally been less effort to write it ourselves than to work with other writers.

But Sunless Sea is much more suitable. Because it’s an archipelago, it’s okay for an island to be only loosely linked with others, and if the voice or style is distinctly different, then that can add variety, not dissonance. So I think about 25% of the game was written by freelancers, in the end. And now we’ve developed some new collaboration techniques – and now we have a full-time editor, who’s a long-time fan of the game and gets our approach – we will probably be using freelancers a little more in Fallen London.

Let’s talk about your collaboration with Bioware. For some time now I see, for example in the discussions at the IF theory club, that the techniques and structures of Interactive Fiction could be applied to every genre/medium/platform of game; that is evident when in the that discussions, graphic intensive games like Telltale ones came along, and it’s evident that the narrative structure of Dragon Age series is along with some CYOAs structures. So it seems to me that it felt very natural for Dragon Age to have a little piece like The Last Court made by Failbetter. How did you came to work for Bioware?

Alexis: Mike Laidlaw, creative director of Dragon Age, emailed us completely out of the blue. He wanted to know if I’d fly out to do a workshop on our approach to interactive narrative. My response was of course «letmethinkaboutthatjustaminuteYES» immediately followed by «AAARGH» – these people made a bunch of the games that inspired me to found FBG! but it was great, and while I was out there they asked if we would be interested in a tie-in project with Failbetter Games.

LetmethinkaboutthatjustaminuteYES. AAAARGH.

Then we had to maintain absolute secrecy about it for about three years.

How do you cope with the threat of losing a product like Fallen London in the way that The Black Crown was switched off? The Black Crown was an piece of interactive storytelling by author Rob Sherman, praised by critics. But the 31 October 2014 the game was retired, that is, there’s no way to read that game in his original form. I was shocked. So, how do you cope with that? That Fallen London could just fall forgotten to bits… Do you have a plan for the preservation of Failbetter Games productions?

Hannah: There’s a question around the preservation of digital works which is much, much bigger than us.

Alexis: The best safeguard for a digital project is to keep it alive. Fallen London is a key part of our strategy – a hub for a community of passionate players – and we have plans that should keep it going for years to come, even if sometimes it’s buzzing and sometimes it’s a bit of a backwater.

[Note: For more information about The Black Crown and its retirement read this blog post.]

Let’s talk of something more merrier, like sailing in a sunless sea, fighting off tentacled monstrosities, starving to madness and eating your own crew in the process. The jump from pure text interactive fiction to an Elite/roguelike/rpg/narrative driven/sailing simulation. It is just a feat, it is a qualitative and quantitative leap. How did you came to the concept and the necessity to take that leap in nature of the game?

Alexis: At the start of 2013, honestly, we weren’t paying the bills with Fallen London, and we hadn’t landed any more client work after The Last Court. So the Kickstarter was two things: a last ditch effort to find another way to make a living, and creative restlessness, because we’d been doing pure-text for years and we wanted to do something different. Fallen London, like its surface counterpart, is defined by the maritime – and our office is in Greenwich, the heart of London’s maritime heritage. So the moment we looked at going outside the city, it was always going to be the sea.

Ironically, and rather beautifully, Sunless Sea also brought a huge rush of players to Fallen London, and revitalised it! – making it, as I said, the hub of our strategy from here on in.

SunlessSeabuoy

Dark tides embrace us while we play Sunless Sea, but it’s not just an environmental thing. The narrative in the game seems ominous, oppressive, in a way that strongly remind us of weird fiction in literature: we’re thinking on British authors like Mervyn Peake or China Miéville. Has this genre been an inspiration somehow? Is there any author you’ve taken as a model, maybe any story or novel for the universe of Fallen London?

Hannah: Most of the lore and atmosphere rolls directly out of Alexis, like a thick fog. Here’s a list of our inspirations:

A batch of Sunless Sea influences.

AMA on Reddit.

Fallen London and King of Dragon Pass.

Fallen London y Fabled Lands.

Why the Unterzee eats ships.

How is it going? It is just the first weeks of Sunless Sea out there, although it has a long period of open access through Steam. How important has been this kind of open development?

Hannah: It’s nerve-wracking but completely was the right thing for us on this project. Having the community effectively in the room helped us make lots of small decisions and at least one big one: we completely redeveloped combat from turn-based to real-time after a lot of deliberation and reflection on community feedback.

Alexis: And it’s been a natural extension of the way we’ve always worked. Fallen London launched when it was about 5% of its current size, and we’ve iterated on it and grown it in public for years.

[Editor’s note: Failbetter Games has published three articles postmortem the first month on sale of Sunless Sea, one for the Kickstarter that help to fund it, a second for the Greeenlight campaign, and the third for Early Access and the first month on sale.]

Talking about monetization. In previous interviews I marvelled that selling text based games could be a profitable enterprise nowadays in XXI century, but the case of monetization of Fallen London it’s weirder than that. It is a free-to-play game with its microtransactions and such. Could you comment us the economy philosophy of Failbetter games through the years and how it has worked to end in the release of a retail game like Sunless Sea?

Alexis: It’s very hard to make people pay for text online, so the free-to-play model made sense. At the beginning, we naively thought that a good story would compensate for extremely ethical, extremely minimal monetisation and near-total lack of enforced vitality. Yyyeah. Not so much We struggled for years, but Fallen London was so distinctive and the fans so passionate that we made enough scraps to survive on.

But the lean years taught us caution, and we say now that our priorities are safety first, fun second, profit third. We’re hedging our bets and trying to manage a variety of projects, so we always have something new to pivot to. The big insight with Sunless Sea is that some of those fans prefer a boxed, pay-once experience, and some prefer a free-to-play experience… but people cross between the two over time. So we can address more than one audience, but stay distinctive and Failbetter-y for both.

After the enormous effort of creating Sunless Sea, what comes next for Failbetter Games?

Hannah: We’re taking a small breather to replenish our creative juices for the Sunless Sea DLC. Zubmariner was funded as a Kickstarter stretch goal. We’re talking a lot about what kinds of terrible things might exist beneath the Unterzee. It’s excellent fun.

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What pieces of interactive fiction or graphical games are you playing right now in the office?

Hanna: I know I’m really late to the party but I’m digging Porpentine’s games at the moment. I absolutely relish the connection to the real-live-body in something like With Those We Love Alive. And quite pathetically I’m still trying to get around the world in less than 80 Days, which my wife managed on her first try, so that’s my WHOLE LIFE right now.

Alexis: I go through thematic phases. I’ve been playing a lot of XCOM; Offworld Trading Company; Prison Architect; and the Fall from Heaven mod of Civ IV, which is an old favourite. Not much traditional IF in those, but I think the theme’s apparent.

So, what do you think will come next in the interactive storytelling world?

Alexis: I think we’re going to see more fruitful hybrid uses of text – more than flavour text, less than full-on parser or CYOA. Over here, we talk a lot about breaking the text out of the little beige boxes and letting it operate in context. I think there is going to be a general shift towards more interesting NPCs – not the hype-driven, vacant-eyed bot-puppet stuff we’ve seen in the past, but something more like compellingly scripted characters with a range of responses based on cunningly hidden heuristics. I think Twine will cross over from «hip» to «niche commercial», and I think a lot of gamebook-like approaches will mature from nostalgia into reapplication of good ideas. I think the audience is much more mechanically literate than it was even ten years ago, and that will provide for interactive fiction (in the general, not-just-parser sense) that is more fundamentally ludic.

I think the next big breakthrough in Interactive Fiction is more social storytelling – but I think that requires so much iteration and smart, careful thinking that it’s more five to ten years away than «next».

Acerca de Ruber Eaglenest


Es diseñador de videojuegos, co-fundador de la compañía familiar Wingless Little People. Editor de Indie-o-rama, crítico, escritor, y entrevistador, además es autor de Ficción Interactiva (o Aventuras Conversacionales) y teórico del medio, donde es conocido como El Clérigo Urbatain. En sus ratos libres es arqueólogo de mundos video-lúdicos virtuales.

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