The Menagerie of Roses

By Failbetter, May 17, 2011 · Tagged with ,


Bear with me. It’s time for a long, convoluted analogy about how we write content.

Echo Bazaar is a garden. A vast, sprawling, ever-expanding maze of a garden, with lawns and vegetable patches and greenhouses and a pond and walled formal rose-gardens and pockets of wilderness and rockeries and streams. Some of it’s mature and settled; a lot of it’s young and flourishing; and the nurseries are full of tender young seedlings that we haven’t planted out yet. And the occasional sinister sprout or edible mushroom.

So how do we nurture a story to maturity? First comes the brainstorming. Our seeds and cuttings are ideas. We collect some – not all – from established plants and shrubs. We look for ways to extend them, or plan something new to complement them. Alexis, Paul, Nigel, Chris and I have lived in Fallen London for a long time now. We have our plot – in the map sense and the broad story sense. Now we’re laying the paths and digging the beds and building the ornamental bridges of detail as we go. If we’re brainstorming together, we might use a whiteboard that we’ll then photograph, transcribe and realise we don’t understand because we used too much shorthand. Often we’ll have a thread open on our Yammer network, especially if it’s a day when we’re not all in the office. Someone might pitch an idea to everyone else, or one might grow organically out of a conversation. Ideas are plentiful, and a lot of seeds will fall on stony ground.

We bring ideas we want to keep to our fortnightly day-long writers’ meeting. The agenda varies – sometimes we have to devote a lot of time to non-EBZ projects. Sometimes we talk about the techniques and technicalities of writing and developing our narrative structures. One time we each chose something we’d written for EBZ for everyone to critique. Most often, though, we’ll spend the day planning future storylines in general or in detail. We’re experimenting with ways to foster creativity in these meetings, such as having them away from the office, or picking images from the icon library to use as inspiration. We’ll see how that goes.

The next step is planting the story ideas into the compost-filled seed tray that is our master Plan spreadsheet. They live here together in their blanket of soil, competing for space. The spreadsheet has four tabs: Trailing Hooks, Mission Board, Commissioned and Live. Trailing Hooks is where we remind ourselves of unfinished stories, or characters whose tales we want to pick up in future content. The Mission Board is where we put solid ideas, things we definitely want to do, and prioritise them. If something’s a lovely idea, but only likely to affect a tiny percentage of players, it will have a lower priority than making sure we fix a gap in live content. Things might sleep on the mission board for a while like bulbs overwintering, or they might germinate really fast like marigolds.

When the idea seedlings sprout their first leaves and are looking healthy and viable, they get pricked out into individual pots. In other words, officially commissioned. On that part of the spreadsheet, we estimate writing time, assign writer and subeditor and set a deadline for each chunk of content. We review this sheet all the time – things come up, we can be flexible – but the aim is to plan releases to the live site weeks to months in advance.

By this stage we usually know broadly what kind of shape each episode is going to take. We can tell our sunflowers from our tomatoes, our carousels from our midnight staircases. But each episode is unique, and we’ve found it’s enormously helpful to set out design notes for each chunk of content before we write it. This will be one or two paragraphs detailing the structure  (or fifteen paragraphs if you’re Paul trying to write Light Fingers) , the progress qualities involved and whether or not we need to create new ones, and an outline of the plot and how it interacts with the rest of Echo Bazaar. We also keep our grand Secrets document up-to-date as much as possible – as we create and develop the secrets, we need to add to it constantly.

This stage is also when we’ll put our art requests in. Paul’s got a spreadsheet with cryptic notes asking for icons like ‘a pair of pink bloomers’ or ‘a searing enigma’. Some are more challenging to realise than others. Art’s a finite resource, and almost all the icons have to illustrate multiple, disparate stories, so we have to ask for the most flexible kinds of image and Paul has to pull off the trick of making them both individual and generic. The ‘gossip’, secret’ and ‘rose’ icons, for example, have been used for all kinds of situations, literally and metaphorically. The art’s vital to creating the atmosphere and character of the game, of course. What would it be without the beautiful location headers? They’re the ornamental fountains and the wrought-iron gates.But the art’s also an important source of inspiration – I often look through the icon library when thinking about how to frame a particular storylet, like choosing roses to train over those decorative gates.

It’s not until after all this has happened that the seedling puts forth its secondary leaves. That is, we sit down to write the actual content. That’s not to say we’re not writing all the time, we are, but we’re writing things today that were brainstormed weeks or months ago. This has advantages; it’s easier to check that the jigsaw pieces are fitting together when you’ve got lots of them at different stages all at once. Writing is the main part of what Nigel and I do. We think we have pretty different styles – broadly, Nigel does swashbuckling action and tentacled Rubbery grotesquerie, I do gentle romance, heaving bosoms and creepy dreams. But I’m not sure if anyone but us can tell. Anyway, the process is pretty collaborative. We’ll use Yammer to query plot points and solicit sanity checks from each other; if we’re stuck for how to phrase something, we ask for suggestions. A Yammer thread is much better than an email chain for this sort of thing. We love Yammer. Yammer is our Baby Bio.

We create new storylets and opportunities in our lovely content management system, Jonathan. Jonathan is the pergola that supports our vines and the trellis our passiflora clings to. In Jonathan, we input text, quality rewards, qualities required to unlock, and any associated special events. We tag all the elements in an episode so they stay together. We create the qualities we need and provide descriptions for players and mechanical notes for ourselves – for example, which episode the quality governs, whether it’s something that gets zeroed on ending a story or remains with the player as a memento, whether an item is usable, and so on. This is essential. Keeping track of qualities can be like herding cats. At the moment, we’re concentrating on formalising reward structures, so we have meaningful rewards to give out at all levels. You probably don’t need 150 Whispered Secrets in the later part of the game (unless you’re saving up for something). But you do need a Mystery of the Elder Continent or a piece of Incendiary Gossip, which will in turn unlock future stories for you. We practise parsimony – we never make a new quality if the narrative would be served by using an existing one.

Once our seedling has outgrown its pot, it’s time to pinch out the growing tip. Or sub-edit, if you prefer. Sub-editing is something we all do, although Paul is chief sub. Sub-editing someone else’s work is a brilliant way to improve your own. It’s also the best way to improve the work you’re subbing. You immediately see what needs to be changed, where the problems are, in a way that you just can’t do with your own work. We’ve refined this process a lot over the last year or so. We used to provide a lot of detailed feedback but these days, we tend to need less. It’s partly because we’ve all improved as writers and partly because we’re all so comfortable now with the style and feel of EBZ. There will still always be issues and dialogue between writer and sub is a big part of the process. ‘Did you really mean for it to sound like Jenny is flashing the player?’ Paul will ask. Or, ‘Why on earth does kneading some dough give you a point of Nightmares?’ (Answers: ‘Good grief, no, I can’t believe you read it like that’ and ‘Erm. Something about it sticking to your hands and face and smothering you. No, OK, fair enough.’)

An integral part of the subbing process is playtesting. We discovered it’s good to playtest first, because sorting out mechanical problems while the writing is being subbed saves a lot of time. Playtesting can be fun, it can be complicated, it can be frustrating, especially if you have to set yourself up with twelve different qualities or give yourself fifteen separate opportunity cards. But it’s vital. There are mechanical snags that only playtesting will bring to light. It’s also the best way to judge how well the plot fits the structure. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem – because the plots have been through so much refinement and discussion already – but then again, there might be issues that only actually playing the thing will reveal.

As Chief Narrative Officer, Alexis reviews everything before it goes out. A final check for rootrot, damping-off and other blights, like wonky numbers or plot inconsistencies. Alexis is increasingly busy these days, but we all agree it’s important he keep doing this – he’s the one with the overview. The head gardener. Alexis finally removes the Key of Dreams from each storylet or opportunity and it’s time to plant it out in the live site. This is actually a quick process – a database sync that takes a few minutes. But we all hold our breath while it’s happening. Just in case. After the release, there’s publicity to do on all the various streams, and then there’s customer support, which we all do a share of. Content bugs, typos, emailed questions, tweets, facebook comments, blog comments – we have to keep on top of all of them.

Then we add sidebars to go with new content. This is partly to give players something new to read, partly to trail new content and partly to deepen and enrich the world of Echo Bazaar. Sidebars are byways where we can throw in little facts, or travellers’ tales, or snippets of myth or history. They can be two sentences or twenty. They illuminate the characters and setting of Fallen London in a way that’s essential to providing an immersive experience and a sense that there’s more to this world than you’re ever going to discover. Or they’re just ornamental birdbaths with a shallow puddle of lichen inside.

Even after an episode has grown into a mature shrub peacefully dreaming in one of the walled gardens, or an apple tree happily bearing fruit in the orchard, there’s still maintenance to be done. Pruning, feeding, watering, getting rid of bugs. We’re constantly updating early content as problems arise or recent developments suggest brilliant new things to do. Sometimes, content is just suited to growing organically like that. I write most of the dreams, for example, and I’ve refurbished practically all of the dream cards in recent months by adding new branches and rebalancing the rewards. It would be a mistake to think of any of it as set in stone or ‘finished’ while the garden as a whole is still growing and maturing.

We hope you enjoy wandering the gardens. Try not to leave the greenhouse door open, but feel free to have a picnic on the lawn. Please don’t taunt the gnomes.



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Vael Victus May 22, 10:57pm

Brilliant post. Though, I admit I was lost in the cultivated imagery a bit. I have a question regarding Jonathan. I want to know how it works. It seems very interesting, and I love the idea of someone who cannot write code still being able to develop for the game. Do you imagine that there will ever be a day that you release Jonathan open source? I'm guessing you've coded it in asp, is that true?

James Walker May 18, 10:26am

Interesting. A strange point though: So Mysteries of the Elder Continent will be needed as unlocks? So why have they suddenly become saleable? I've been hoarding them for ages (and have over 50) but my knee jerk reaction when I saw that they could be sold was to sell them: after all, if they become saleable direcrly after Unterzee goes live, my assumption was that they were going to be a standard reward overzea (especially of course IN the Elder Continent). Fortunately for me, I delayed selling them until I'd done more research (including reading this!) Whispered Secrets grinding is of course a live wire: but that can wait until the appropriate blog post! I'm worried that I must look (both here and in feedback) overly critical - the thing is, reading this article was fascinating, and my thoughts were "so that that's how they get things right" - it's fun to read bout how you create the game I enjoy. I'm just not sure how to express that usefully. 'Yay that rocks' is accurate, but doesn't seem terribly helpful! If there are things you want praised, do let us know! Still, I will say that I'm very pleased to see you have a Trailing Hooks tab - often the minor plots are the best part of the game, nad it's good to know that you have intend to complete them. :)

Lily May 18, 12:51am

This is all at once a greatly entertaining post, enlightening, informative and inspiring. I have often wondered what the writing/development process was now I feel I have a clear image of it. What particularly had my eyes popping in 'brilliant idea, must steal!' was the section describing the Master Plan spreadsheet: "The spreadsheet has four tabs: Trailing Hooks, Mission Board, Commissioned and Live." I am Lead Storyteller on a roleplaying website and I at least take our work quite seriously. I do sometimes feel that, a few months after starting roleplaying properly, we are in danger of losing the plot, not to mention the interesting NPCs, locations and random clues. A document like this would be extremely helpful... or rather, will be.

Little The May 18, 12:09am

Another one of these! I do like these analogies, they're very helpful for visualizing how Echo Bazaar works. So you're the person who writes the dream cards? Great job, they're one of my favourite parts of the story. :) I must question why a gameplay detriment is added to them, though; shouldn't something that's only there for the story not have any impacts on gameplay, positive or negative? I still read them despite the nightmares, but according to the feedback forum, many people are put off by it.

Alexis May 18, 12:07am

Elanor - yup! That's (I believe) what Yasmeen meant by 'unless you're saving up for something'. The point is, 150 whispered secrets are a huge deal when you're Watchful 5 but a fraction of what you need later on. Balancing this stuff is a different issue and a whole different blog post...

Elanor Waters May 17, 10:43pm

Please don't take this the wrong way: I really enjoyed this blog and read everything you post ASAP and with great delight, but this is something that has been niggling at me for a bit and mentioning it in the post just made me want to point it out. Yes, higher up players DO actually need 150 Whispered Secrets oh-so-badly. I've reached a bunch of the free linear content boundaries and I'm now playing around with A Person of Some Importance and an Ambition I recently (!) picked up... partially hoping it might get me some Whispered Secrets. The only way I can see to get the Whispered Secrets at my level is by looping through the second level of the Labyrinth of Tigers over and over again just for the shorter middle bit that offers them: gaining a small amount of the many necessary secrets for a lot of the bits for A Person of Some Importance and a lot of unneeded Glim/Jade/Primordial Shrieks in the process. I recognise this may be a design decision, of course, but it is quite frustrating when it is one of the most-needed commodities and one of the hardest to get. (The Unfinished Business in... storylets have made it so much easier, those were a great idea IMO) In short, I may be wrong and/or it may be on purpose, but I'd say it would be nice for the higher level content for at least one quality to offer more straightforward access to one of the most looked-for commodities. Sorry for spamming your blog post like this, again... as a Software-Engineer-in-training, it's very interesting to examine the process you undertake to produce the brilliant content you do!