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Seeking Mr Eaten’s Name: What Went Wrong, What Came After

By Alexis Kennedy, December 12, 2013 · Failbetter Tagged with

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.

23 Comments

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It's Me Jun 8, 5:29am

All jellyfish. Boring, mindless, dull. Manipulation has taken the best part of the Jelly! Nothing that could break Mr or his appetite for real natural Jelly's chewed together with a glass n a half then carefully stored in the large locker room to be revealed at the perfect moment of rumbling stomach. As for my attire! Needing to sit with the popping Korn! And soak up the skills of a pure Oscar in The Devil Wears Prada. Never underestimate the power of a XE! The XFlow was a solid green apple! Never Break Me. But as for Betsy! Well, let's just say she's injured.

Verya Jun 26, 7:50am

I think it's back? I've been sitting, staring at the screen for more time than I'll willingly admit. I'm tempted, truly tempted. I'm also terrified of a couple off and on years of work being fizzled away in pursuit of just KNOWING. Please send help.

The Fallen Fool Jun 14, 10:13am

"You now have 1 - Flirting with Disaster x Seeking Mr Eaten's Name " Is it coming back... just now ?

Renan Vieira Jun 9, 1:20pm

Hello! I have come upon Mr. Eaten's story when reading through the snippets given at times as short messages and informations about the game's lore. Well, all the game is intriguing, just like Sunless Sea. Self-destructive goals seem to be part of out selves, and it is as disturbing as it is natural. Congratulations for such a strange story. I'm not a subscriber for the game, as I don't have the means to subscribe right now, so I play it for free, with no access to the fate-locked content, but I know there are things far from reach from time to time. Some day I'll explore those contents, some day I know Mr. Eaten will be available. For we know that certain accountings cannot be postponed indefinitely. I'll try to watch my step and not make great mistakes. You've warned us. I've warned myself. I already have that permanent reminder item. But I shall be patient. And curious. Again, it is a great game, just as dangerous, as hillarious, as frustrating, as a great game. I think it shows us how life really is. My personal, professional and religious points of view make me see this game through a different perspective. In fact, Fallen London does exist, here, there, everywhere. So we must walk this line with caution, but without giving up life. Someday those boundaries will be no more for those capable of traversing them with responsibility. Be fine. :)

Emma Jun 8, 1:53pm

I was a latecomer to your Fallen London franchise and only stumbled upon it after your involvement in the Last Court project - suitably intrigued I went from there to here and found this rich, dark, mysterious and ofttimes hilarious world. I adore it. The Mr Eaten story-line was always something that piqued my interest (even knowing that it had been discontinued) and today I found clues that it has been revived. Having read your post, I am probably even more excited for you to have the opportunity to continue with your pet project than I am to have the chance to experience it (which is a ludicrous amount). I hope that you have a blast! Thank you for all of your hard work, E.

sans_serif May 19, 2:34am

I kept hearing about this storyline. Is it available now, or still axed? It sounds amazing though :) can't wait to experience seeking the name myself some day.

Streever Jul 26, 9:28am

Does anyone know if Mr Eaten is back on? I see hints of it (Peckish) and am intrigued by "NORTH", and want to investigate; however, a few places I've run into, it seems like it may still be off?

Schem Mar 13, 10:11am

For the record Mr. Eaten got me into FL. As soon as it becomes available I and a bunch of people I know, and if that's the case surely others I know, will be creating accounts solely to find a way of getting through it. It's a good concept. I want more of that story. If id you defang it too badly I'll be very upset, because aspects of that content strike a chord with me and strike a chord with others like me that goes beyond 'oh cool, eating people n' stuff', you would be very surprised. Here's hoping that being 2015 already means it was delayed, not axed.

Zack Santee Nov 21, 4:03pm

I must say, Mr. Eaten was actually one of the things that first brought me here. Although Extra Credits heartily recommended the game, it wasn't until I was browsing TvTropes and saw this under Game Breaker that I was intrigued. An _inverse_ game breaker? That just didn't seem possible. And so I threw myself headfirst into the game, and I've not regretted it since. The game is amazing, and even the thought of self-destruction still drives me forward. I think there was a song in the forums , though, that truly sealed my determination: The Song of the Seekers. Upon reading the song lyrics, I decided that I, too, would join this reckoning. I'm quite pleased that I will still be able to enjoy the torment ahead because of my stubbornness, and I'm anxious to finally dream of water enough that this rumbling in my belly becomes more than a feeling.

PetraBealer Oct 29, 10:05am

This is quite late to the ball, but oh well. I was on a break from the game at the time the content in question came about (you know, the last one) and I just want to say that it's probably my single favorite storyline thus far, if nothing else than because it's so niche and because of the desire to know more, whatever the cost (Arthur, Beau and Destin so far!) I look forwards with anticipation to where things go.

Snowskeeper Ferenczy Dec 16, 6:47am

1. Not to the extent where it's damaging your ability to focus on other things, or to the extent where it's preventing you from looking at it objectively.

JohnEvans Dec 13, 9:36pm

1. "this was a chunk of story I was personally invested in: to a degree which in hindsight was silly of me" - Isn't being personally invested in something you create a good thing? 2. Having the game mechanics worked on sounds like a definite positive thing. In fact, isn't that the entire point of the company name? ;) 3. But in the end, the Mr. Eaten content is one of the most important storylines, isn't it? Mr. Eaten and its 'number' is obviously connected to the number of Falling Cities, and learning why exactly London was taken to the Neath is the entire POINT of the game...right?

nptacek Dec 13, 3:35pm

I just wanted to chime in and add my name to the list of those who loved the content for Seeking Mr Eaten's Name. In the past, I spent fate to refresh cards and actions just to get further in the storyline. I knew full well that nothing good would come of it, and did so anyway, and have absolutely no regrets.

Wonyenners Dec 13, 3:11pm

Hi, I'm one of those deeply gratified to be let loose from the clutches of my desire to Seek the Name. The abusive content was highly entertaining if constantly alarming, but I couldn't maintain my interest after slowly learning what it would cost me. Like life, you cannot chose only the good from amid the bad, and it was that that drew me to the storyline. However the straw that broke the camel's back for me was my DESTINY. Choosing the only TERRIBLE destiny, I began to get cold sweats reading the destiny's description. Did that mean that I was destined to fail in any endeavour? That no matter what I did I was going to end up an utter failure, a ruin of what I wanted to be? Knowing the Mr.Eaten content as I did, I thought that it was entirely possible. I was able to lose resources and friends with a gusto, but the idea that this might determine my ultimate fate, and that it was guaranteed to be bad soured my entire experience with Fallen London. I have contemplated giving up my character entirely, as it seemed pointless to try when trying was only a more time-consuming, costly way of failing. When you offered me the option to opt out of the storyline completely, I hesitated, masochistically anticipating the next level of the story but my desire to rid myself of this awful destiny cinched it for me and I have opted out. And kept the destiny. The destiny that GAVE me St.Destin's candle in the first place! The destiny directly tied with Seeking Mr.Eaten's Name! The destiny that seriously stopped me from playing the game since I received it. Now I have lost all those resources in the pursuit of the Name, lost all progress in that storyline and KEPT destiny that ruined it for me anyway. No items, no progress and I kept the destiny I hated so. This seems an apt end to the story; brutally unbearable. However, seeing as we're on the topic of recompense, I would greatly, greatly, GREATLY like the ability to lose this destiny. I mean, I'd like to choose a new one - I think it's only fair, but more than anything I want this destiny gone.

overspawn Dec 13, 12:01pm

I am very happy to hear Mr Eaten content (if not the dread creature itself) will return to Fallen London. I am also very curious as to whether there will be more routes opened up/restrictions eased as to how me might progress through the content. By no means am i asking for it to be easier, just more 'single-player' friendly. Not all of us have the time to dedicate to finding and meeting with people on the forums, or the desire to bother friends and family with endless online requests just to advance to the next stage. I understand that betrayal is a theme of the Mr Eaten story and the online-community-ish nature of the game allows you/us to explore that in a very interesting and personal way, but its not always possible and inevitably ends up being a content wall much more restrictive than if you just asked for nex. Chide us for ignoring common sense, scar and chain us for walking into damnation,but don't stop us from enjoying the story just because we're not super-active in the forums or have an exhaustive list of contacts to call on. Sincerely, A devoted seeker.

gulbanana Dec 13, 6:19am

thanks for coming up with a good follow up to this situation. I look forward to when it's possible to pointlessly resume this mad quest :)

GabrielMorgan Dec 13, 5:27am

FWIW, I would also be happy to purchase chunks of Exceptional Friend. Three months, six, and a yearly option, ideally, I think. Perhaps with a stern No Refunds if someone buys a year and then decides to stop playing. My main, whom I have typically only kept up with for the past year due to life, stopped seeking when I'd heard of one losing lodgings to it, and the tremendous, hideous grind for the whispered secrets for the Bazaar was still sitting well enough in my memory to make me extremely reluctant to lose said lodgings. But I loved the Mr Eaten story and wanted to know what would happen, so I set up an alt to do that and to do the things that my main would not do because his personality is just radically different. I'm glad it will come back next year and I can continue to send Anthony down disturbing paths. He hasn't gotten far, so I can enjoy the vast majority of whatever gets altered. I'm extremely glad it will not be completely abandoned, because the mysteries and theories and all of that about it are at least as important and fascinating as when we were all trying to understand the correspondence and the masters and identify the cities in 2010 and raiding every piece of literature we could find. It was /fun./ It still is. I think Mr Eaten has become /more/ fascinating, because we've been handed more snippets about some of the other masters and about the Bazaar itself and what the Bazaar is trying to do, and there's still so much we don't know about Mr Eaten and his whole story. I nearly passed out when he showed up last winter, I don't mind saying. Everyone else at the door, fine, lovely, intriguing, lovely tidbits of lore. Mr Eaten in my window, oh my god, if my browser crashes before I finish reading this I'm going to seriously start wailing. So. You know. It works, and works well, even for those of us who aren't seeking, and I will always throw down money for lore with great joy and delight in every shred that manages to crawl in front of my face.

DNA Cowboys Dec 13, 5:21am

Seriously though, thanks for sticking with your crazy experiment as long as you did.

DNA Cowboys Dec 13, 5:20am

Thank you for writing at such length about the decision and your process. It's not the outcome that I wanted to hear, but that's not what Mr. Eaten's about, is he? This is all another test, isn't it?! Arguments, darkness, a closed door. That's what it would appear to the casual seeker. But all it takes is a look with slightly... different eyes, and a door can become a crack in the system or a candle-chasm or the tolling of a bell.

Snowskeeper Ferenczy Dec 13, 4:41am

I don't think I've ever cheered so sadly in my life. I was looking forward to getting involved in Eaten content (to the point where I was occasionally quoting Mr. Eaten ("an accounting is not to be postponed indefinitely" where it felt appropriate, and using him as a huge reason for people to start playing Fallen London). On the other hand, if this means Eaten will be coming back stronger and harder than before, I'm all for it. I look forward 2014, and hereby dub it "The Year of the Name."

Swinter Dec 12, 8:22pm

Thank you for the response! Can I give you a Bitcoin tip? I want to give you a Bitcoin tip :). Oh and I bought a big bag of Nex so I could bribe Mr. Chimes with enough to keep him from throwing me out of his parlour for a while. But he has some odd sense of honour, only accepting one months fee at the time.

alexiskennedy Dec 12, 7:56pm

"But if you’re talking about the refunds, then you haven’t really said how it cost your company money. Are we talking bank transfer fees since you had to actually refund money? If you’re just giving back the Nex/Fate spent, then you’re not losing any money. You’re just rolling back the status quo. The money is still in your bank. Sure, the user get a second chance to use it, but since you fully admit it only got used due to a bug you had to fix, well then you really didn’t lose anything at all. (You didn’t even lose “potential” earnings either, since you didn’t want people to spend Nex on Mr. Eaten content.)" I refunded $10 over this to one of the players in question. Strictly speaking it didn't cost my company money, it cost me money, because I felt it was fair to take the hit, but yes, I refunded cash. Perhaps they bought currency specifically with the intention of spending it only on Mr Eaten and would never under any circumstances have spent it anywhere else, and perhaps that's true of every possible future player who would go on to ask for a refund, but the odds of that are, I think, low. And, yes, this has probably eaten up a day of my work time this week, when we're in our busiest period. I can't possibly sustain that.

Swinter Dec 12, 7:31pm

Hi! I'm going to post my bit of little "would be feedback, take it with a grain of salt" thing here, just to be special! I am going to ramble, and you might never read it, but it's fun to do anyway. First of all, it's lovely to see such a long response from you, and it's always fun to read! Secondly: "At this point my little hobby project had gone from being a bit contentious to costing my company money," That's... I can't possibly see how this is true. If you spent "company time" on it, then yes, that's something that cost your company money. I can accept that. But if you're talking about the refunds, then you haven't really said how it cost your company money. Are we talking bank transfer fees since you had to actually refund money? If you're just giving back the Nex/Fate spent, then you're not losing any money. You're just rolling back the status quo. The money is still in your bank. Sure, the user get a second chance to use it, but since you fully admit it only got used due to a bug you had to fix, well then you really didn't lose anything at all. (You didn't even lose "potential" earnings either, since you didn't want people to spend Nex on Mr. Eaten content.) The Mr. Eaten content you've been pouring out have been stellar. I'm not a Seeker. I'm much too cowardly for that. But since I begun playing, almost a year ago now, I've been following every revelation with bated breath. It's not without faults. Your enthusiasm has made the new content appear too quickly compared to the rest of the content, but it has mostly been exciting. Heck, I've long wanted my own, safe, way to contribute with Nex just for this storyline. I'd have loved it if I could throw some Nex into a well, and when it was full, you'd prepare some new Mr. Eaten content to be released. If you add more monetization to it overall, I heartily approve! But make sure to make a way for us non-seekers to help contribute with fate by the sidelines in some manner :). (Like making the "Free of the Name" quality open up some small Nex opportunities maybe?) And finally: Having you step back from having such a personal engagement with the player is also a shame. It might be "unprofessional", but I'll be dinged if it wasn't fun. It's rewarding to see that being part of the community can, if you're dedicated, "pay off" like that. It was delightfully refreshing. If anything, it showed quite well that the people behind the game are ordinary people, and it showed that you're actually interested in your community in turn. At least for me, it gave me a good reason to take part myself, despite usually being more likely to lurk than actually engage in Anything. But I digress. I'm going to keep playing as usual. I'm going to keep paying my dues to the House of Chimes. All shall be well. Do ask Mr. Chimes if he haven't considered offering yearly or lifetime memberships though. It's a chore to hand him his payment every time it's up for renewal. He really should offer some token trinket to long time members as well, as it gives a much better incentive to actually stay on as the months pass by!

BabelFishWars Dec 12, 6:43pm

Mixed feelings: 1. Much relief. You don't need to hear more b... more babble (THAT's the word I was looking for) about how much I appreciated the content. (Or how I didn't want it to change not one buggy jot.) I am merely extremely pleased that it's coming back, and you're laying cunning plans as to how to make it as enjoyable a horrendously unpleasant experience as possible. 2. Sorrow. I liked being special for being among the nuts, and I suspect we won't have to be quite so nuts to play this. I'll cope. 3. Sorrow: "I will be stepping firmly back from personal engagement with players." Completely understand, and think it's the right thing to do. We were privileged for some time, as it's a pretty rare experience to get such direct contact/feedback/play with a main dev. However, I, at least, will deeply miss it. 4. Pleasure: Seeking is returning and will be fully supported. You get to keep your baby, we get to keep playing it, and maybe, just maybe, being able to do it in paid time might mean you can devote energised brain energies to it, rather than the leftovers. It was awesome already - what wonderful nightmares will you be able to create now.