Earlier this week, I froze the Seeking Mr Eaten’s Name content in Fallen London. This caused a tremendous stir among a small minority of the player base, and was mostly invisible to the vast majority. The post below is about why, and what’s happening next. It is also, I’m afraid, long to the point of self-indulgence, because this was a chunk of story I was personally invested in: to a degree which in hindsight was silly of me. Read on!
Turn Back Now
In the early days of Fallen London, we added an experimental storyline. It gave the player the option of developing a ghastly obsession which would ruin their character’s life, requiring savage ordeals that chewed up their abilities and resources. It was initially very popular, and then as we tightened the screws and people realised we meant the warnings that no good would come of it, only the most determined stuck with it.
Consequently it didn’t justify getting any updates. There are a lot of factors that affect why we choose particular storylines to update, but a key one is how many people have reached the current content boundary of it, and not many people at all got that far with Mr Eaten. But I liked the story, and I liked writing for an exceptionally small and receptive audience that were into the unusual premise of Mr Eaten: give up tangible resources that took time and effort to gain in the pursuit of a nihilistic, self-destructive goal, when you’re explicitly told there’ll be no happy ending. There’s a lot of that in novels, but not much in games, which tend to be fantasies of power rather than failure.
Off The Books
So I took it on as a side project in my spare time only. ‘Spare time’ is a bit of a fuzzy concept when you’re working for a small company that you part-own, but I was scrupulous as I could be about keeping it out of company time. I amped up the warnings and added experimental content where the players had the options of sabotaging each other’s efforts, betraying their in-game spouses, sacrificing their resources. I did some metagame stuff where the Mr Eaten Twitter account and in-game NPC would occasionally interact, and would haunt the forums editing posts that gave too much information about the storyline. (I spent, I came to realise, entirely too much time on this metagame stuff. More on that later.)
It got more buzz and visibility than I expected in the Fallen London community, especially because it became a target for hardcore fans who’d finished most other storylines. It also got negative feedback – people complained (among other things) that it was too frustrating, that it required anti-social behaviour, that it got updates when other content didn’t. If it had been mainstream Fallen London content, we’d quietly have sidelined it in response to that kind of feedback, but I wrote and intended it as art. That’s not a claim about its quality – there’s plenty of dreadful art. I just mean that I built it for personal reasons to satisfy a particular itch that didn’t need to be commercially justified. So I was happy to say, look, that’s how it is, don’t play it if you don’t like it.
Not Enough Boundaries
This wasn’t an unproblematic approach, though. For one thing, I declared early on that Mr Eaten wouldn’t receive customer support – that if you ran into a problem with Eaten content, it might be a bug or it might be a feature. I did this partly to add mystique, and partly because content added in spare hours that didn’t go through our internal processes tended to be quirkier and less-tested, and I couldn’t offer company support time. Plus, some players found that this added to the thrill – some just found it irritating – some sent me long, heartfelt, polite please-fix-this reports (my least favourite kind, because they’re so hard to say no to) when they accidentally lost their progress. I did tune the content, adding alternate routes through, making it harder to abandon progress by accident, amping up the warnings as high as they would go, losing the forum edits when the irritation won out over the novelty.
I worried that the no-support approach was going to bite in the long term. More than one player started on Mr Eaten, forgot about it, came back after a break and was upset by finding something appalling happening to them. It’s only human to read a STERN WARNING, think ‘oh cool’, click past it and six months later realise that, no, the idea wasn’t as fun as it sounded. It’s not like they were signing a legal contract, and people change their minds.
The breaking point came when a particularly savage – and buggy – piece of Eaten content did players more damage than they’d expected. A couple asked for a refund on the Fate they’d spent on the resources they’d lost (a third player even made a legal threat, but retracted it after it turned out he, er, hadn’t even played the content). I had worried for a while about the possibility of something like this. Mr Eaten content doesn’t (with one notable and deliberately absurd exception) ever cost Fate, because that would be too much like taking people’s money and then laughing at them – but it does consume resources from the wider Fallen London game, and in Fallen London you can spend Fate to get resources. I could have taken the usual Mr Eaten line of ‘sorry, you were warned’ – but when money’s involved, even small amounts, things change. It would have seemed plainly dishonest to turn down the refund request.
So I made the refunds. At this point my little hobby project had gone from being a bit contentious to costing my company money, and there was no way to safeguard against that in the future. If it happened once, it would happen again, and there was no way to firewall off the rest of Fallen London from Mr Eaten – the risk of losing real progress was what made it exciting.
The refunds issue happened to be the last straw, but it wasn’t the root of the problem. Mr Eaten played by a different set of rules from the game it was conjoined to, and no-one, including me, was 100% clear what those rules were. Some players were getting what amounted to personal, free attention from a designer running a game with thousands of players. That’s an unstable situation for a game, and a doubly unstable one for a business.
So I shut Mr Eaten down, retired the content that had caused most problems to prevent people from mailing me enquries about it, and went away to spend a few days thinking things through. It was, honestly, a bit of a blow, and when I realised how personally I was taking it, I realised just how daft it had been to run it as a personal project for that long.
What Comes Next
I was surprised by the effect the shut-down had. I’d always known the storyline had an additional engagement effect – that people followed it who weren’t directly involved, and that it kept some of our high-end (and paying!) players engaged – but the forums got a lot livelier than I’d anticipated. I looked carefully at the numbers, and, honestly, even taking into account the hard-to-quantify magic, the number of people involved was about 10% of what looked commercially sensible. But there is some creative responsibility here; and I frankly wasn’t wild about giving up on the project either; and I think it’s worth a try.
So some time in the future, after we’ve had some time to work on other projects and I’ve had a bit of a break, we will reopen the Mr Eaten storyline. It will remain entirely optional, it will remain self-destructive and horribly difficult, but it will be fully supported in-hours Failbetter content. It will have a non-skippable opt-in warning that places a permanent reminder item in the player’s inventory. It will likely have some Fate-locked elements.
Will it be the same? It can’t be exactly the same. I’ve seen forum chat about it being ‘de-fanged’. It’ll keep its fangs, but it’ll have to be domesticated. It’ll have an easier route in, it’ll have more predictable mechanics, and it’ll have some of the rougher experience edges sanded off it. (This isn’t a bad thing. Some of the content is very early, and early Fallen London content often looks brutally primitive compared to our recent stuff.) I will be stepping firmly back from personal engagement with players. And the chunk of content which kicked off this particular drama is already gone. But it’ll be the same writer, the same storyline, and the same unusually savage concept.
This is a substantial investment of effort, and I don’t know how it’ll work out. The popularity of the storyline will determine how energetically updated it is, although as with all our trailing storylines, we’ll ultimately provide a conclusion. ‘Betray your friends! Encourage them to come sink hours into playing a game of dangerous obsession and ultimate failure!’ is a difficult sell. But we’ll do what we can: and we like to think that all will be well.
EDIT ADDITION! Thanks for the hugely positive comments! I said above “the forums got a lot livelier than I’d anticipated”. To clarify that point – it is hard to measure the temperature of a player community accurately by listening only to its most vocal members: but you do develop an instinct for this over time. The degree of enthusiasm for Mr E – especially from the folk who, like a couple of the commenters, had only watched and never joined in – definitely surpassed my expectations. As did the surprising number of friendly offline messages. If I seemed brusque in my replies, sorry – I really wanted to take time away from this and I still do. I very much appreciate the crazy passions here displayed, and it played a significant part in deciding to bring Mr Eaten back next year.