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FailBetter Games' Alexis Kennedy is trying to make browser games that don't suck

In spite of the stigmata suffered by browser-based titles, Failbetter Games has succeeded in making its games work.

A smoggy cityscape. A single lampost cocooned by shadowy tentacles. An introduction that promises the ability to cavort with devils, converse with cats, wrestle tigers and navigate resolutions. A sly greeting, "Welcome, Delicious Friend."

The landing page for Fallen London sets the tone for the whole experience. In an industry fueled by big guns, dazzling visuals and coarse humor, Fallen London is an anomaly. Not only is it a browser-based social game that does not suck, it's one that has enjoyed positive attention from reputable media outlets like The Escapist and The New Yorker. Equal parts gothic steampunk and Lovecraftian mythos, Fallen London, which is probably best described as a social choose-your-own-adventure romp through a metropolis two streets away from R'lyeh, is slow, refined and beautifully written.

In a recent interview, Chief Narrative Officer and co-founder Alexis Kennedy explained that social games had been the 'Next Big Thing' when he first begin working on the original version of Fallen London. "I was a web developer and ex-English teacher. I wanted to do something with stories and something with games: I wanted to make a story playable in tiny chunks on the web," said Kennedy. "It so happened that social games were the Next Big Thing when I sat down to write it, so I built something that looked a lot like the social games of the day: partly because it was hard to explain the project to people, and at least a social game looked familiar."

"At the time, I just wanted to put a prison in a giant stalagmite and write something where the in-game activities were things like selling your soul and stealing weasels and writing poetry so racy you got hounded out of London." Kennedy mused. "With hindsight, I guess 'Lemony Snicket meets Planescape: Torment meets Mervyn Peake' would have been the high-concept pitch for the setting."

When asked about what made Fallen London such a success, Kennedy attributed it to the fact that the company took things far too seriously. "What I mean by that is that even players who don't drill down into the detail of how why the Bazaar uses echoes, or who Huffam is based on, or why London fell in 1861, can tell that we've thought or argued fiercely about these things. The enthusiasm and the commitment comes across. And what I really wanted to do - what we've done - is to provide a world that, like a book, you can wrap yourself up and roll around in, without the kind of concentrated effort you need for a CRPG. An experience that rewards intelligent engagement in small chunks. Like a smart webcomic."

"One of the fundamental ways of ensuring a story doesn't suck is thinking about the way the themes and ideas manifest through the actual experience, rather than the idea itself."

It hasn't always been easy. Originally, players could only play Fallen London if they were willing to connect their Twitter accounts to the game, something that many found abhorrent. "It was a bad blunder." Kennedy stated bluntly. "From the start, it was a point of principle that we wouldn't do anything aggressively viral with people's accounts, but there was no way for players to know we wouldn't."

"What makes people scared of it is that it's not always obvious what can be done with [social network] authentication info, and what's going to be done with it. Even if a game's not trying to be aggressive, you don't always realise what it's going to tell the world or your social network. And a lot of them are trying to be aggressive. Not all. There are plenty of good, responsible devs. But it's hard to tell who they are before you've exposed your data. I said later that it had all the PR disadvantages of dressing up as Darth Vader without the fun of actual dark force powers."

The team has apparently learned its lessons. Over the last few years, Failbetter Games has added alternative registration methods. "Since then, we've become convinced that it's just wrong to ask for social network authentication as the only way of accessing a game. It's rude, it's dangerous, it's counter-productive. It's like having to give a postman your front door key before you can get mail delivered," said Kennedy. "So these days, all the features - including social actions - are available in Fallen London without Twitter or Facebook. They're just there as optional convenience measures."

According to Kennedy, the stigmatism against browser-based games can be partially attributed to two reasons. "Firstly, the barrier to entry for publishing browser games is lower, and until quite recently tech limitations meant the experience was much worse than a dedicated PC or console game - even where graphics weren't important. So there's a tradition of understandable snobbery."

He also pointed out how such games seldom ever have a true 'pay-once, play-forever' business model.

"Some of the things we've seen over the last decade: advertising-supported; commissioned for polemic or educational agenda; install a browser bar and oh hey have some spyware; and most recently, free-to-play. Often they've got a viral component too. Some of the resulting approaches have just been unfamiliar to core gamers and caused suspicion - some have been downright skeevy."

Nonetheless, Kennedy seemed optimistic that times are changing. He claimed that the industry is currently in a renaissance for textual titles. "All those gamebooks on iOS. Lots of web-based story platforms - we've been keeping a list. This doesn't mean that text will take over from graphical gaming again; it's just that gaming's expanding in so many directions at such speed that there's room for great little culty domains like texty, story-driven gameplay. And it doesn't hurt that the book - our nearest cousin outside gaming - is having to reinvent itself at breakneck speed."

It's a belief that is very much in line with Failbetter Games' recent activities. A central component of their games, StoryNexus is a platform for browser-based interactive stories that the company has been building for some time now. Scheduled for open beta in the first week of October, Kennedy explained that StoryNexus was the plan from the very start. "But we needed to work out the best approaches, and we got sidetracked from time to time. Fallen London was a prototype and a funding exercise. User-generated content is hard to do right, and we wanted to be able to make good design choices to help people."

That said, Kennedy noted that he sees no fault in the traditional paradigms practiced by most mainstream titles.

"A lot of people buy what Robert Yang calls 'manshooters' and there's clearly an appetite for that, which big publishers are happy to foster. A lot of people also went to see Dredd, but I don't think cinema-goers really just want more violence and better CGI. But it's great fun for us to beat our breasts and talk about how it was better before there was proper graphics and we all loved the Hobbit and the Oregon Trail, so we do that. I certainly do. I founded a company which makes games without graphics, after all."

"Actually I went to see Dredd. Really liked it. Alex Garland is always fun." He quipped.

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