Fallen London’s creator on why free-to-play could be the future of storytelling
Why did you decide to go free-to-play instead of just charging a one-off fee for Fallen London? At the time free-to-play wasn’t as widespread as it is now.
I’d like to say it was part of a foresighted business strategy, but if you read my business plan from 2009 it was basically three steps: Mafia Wars has 11 million players and a rubbish story; we will look a bit like Mafia Wars but have a brilliant story; profit. Sadly, it didn’t work out that way. We’re still quite small-shot; we’re not Zynga, which is probably a good thing. And that’s because people do care about writing, but a lot of the stuff that made early social games so successful simply isn’t present in Fallen London. We went free-to-play originally because that was the model that social games were adopting at the time. Over the past three years we’ve actually pulled back from calling ourselves a social game at all.
Do you think social games have earned a bad reputation after companies like Zynga pushed them to the forefront?
Absolutely. There are so many good developers doing good work, and even Zynga hasn’t survived purely on cynical commercialism, although they have made some cynical decisions. But everybody has had an experience – or knows somebody who has had an experience – where a social game has been aggressive about monetisation, or demanding access to social information. And because of that people have developed a very jaundiced expectation of social games. Now, the term ‘social game’ is more of a commercial category – not a gameplay category.
Plus our audience doesn’t propagate in the same way that a social game audience does. The big problem was that we’ve always been very gentle about our virals, and we’ve always been super-polite. So again and again people would say “Oh yeah, Fallen London, I hear it’s great but it’s one of those social games on my Facebook stream”. So we had the reputation of an aggressive company, but none of their powers. It was like dressing up as Darth Vader but not actually having any dark force powers… That’s why we’ve moved away from it. The storytelling was always the most important thing, and social gaming was just the commercial medium we adopted because it was 2009.
How many people regularly play Fallen London now?
We’ve got more than 200,000 registered users, most of who dip in and out. We’ve got about 20,000 active monthly users. And one of the things we say about Fallen London is that it’s a proper fictional experience that you can have in your coffee break. Recently, we’ve done some work with Random House. They’ve commissioned us to create an entirely new fictional property, of novel size, with a new writer they’ve discovered. It’s called Black Crown. It’s explicitly aimed at people who regularly use e-readers and mobile, to deliver them story in small chunks.
It’s a big deal for Random House because it’s going to be the first exclusively digital fictional franchise that they’ve done, and it may end up generating a print novel of its own. But for now it’s an exclusively free-to-play digital project from a traditional publisher, which I think is a first – it certainly is in the UK. So that’s exactly the market we’re looking at; it’s people who think of themselves as readers, but whose lifestyle, preferences or opportunities don’t lend themselves to just sitting down in an armchair for three hours with a copy of Bleak House. It was actually Bleak House that got me into e-readers, because I didn’t want to carry a book of that size on the Tube.
Can you tell us more about Black Crown?
I think it’s just as playful as Fallen London, but it is grimmer and filthier. The mood is different. However, one of the biggest things is that we want to take the grind out of the game as much as possible. We’re working out ways to mix it up with our core gameplay, add some variety, and we’re looking to pace things differently. If you unlock certain story beats every 12 or so hours, then you only need to visit the site a couple of times per day to keep the story going. There’s going to be a lot more emphasis on the story reaching out to you, too. Characters will be messaging you, waiting for your response, and things like that. That’s something we’re really innovating with in Black Crown Project. It’s all written by a new writer, who has been specifically commissioned by Random House because he’s such an outrageous, wild talent. They’re keeping the writer under wraps until we’re ready to go live with the game.