UK Startup Failbetter Games: Steampunk, Storytelling, Flowcharts, and Twitter as a Gaming Platform

Although the popularity of games like Farmville has caused social gaming to be associated primarily with Facebook, UK gaming startup Failbetter Games demonstrates that Twitter can also be a viable platform for game developers.

In early April, investor Fred Wilson wrote on his blog that Twitter was at an “inflection point,” and pointed to the potential for “killer apps” to emerge in several areas, including social gaming. Dan Porter, CEO of the gaming site www.omgpop.comresponded in an article in Business Insider, arguing that “Twitter is not (yet) a Game Platform.”

Failbetter Games proves otherwise, recently winning the Escapist Magazine‘s award for Best Browser Game of 2009 for their game Echo Bazaar.

Echo Bazaar: The Game

While some people are highly critical of social games, arguing that they don’t really contain much “gameplay” at all, Echo Bazaar takes that click-then-wait-then-click grind and transforms it into something very entertaining and compelling via the game’s complex storytelling.


Echo Bazaar takes place in a post-apocalyptic Victorian (Fallen) London. Your character can develop major stats like Persuasiveness and Watchfulness, alongside attributes like Scandal and Nightmares. You get 10 “actions” at a time (these refill over the course of the day), and these actions that move you through the story.

And it’s quite a story – an experiment according to the developers, in storytelling and coding. As artist and content developer Paul Arendt notes in a blog post, ” it’s fair to say that the majority of RPG browser games run on this simple hierarchical system: do a mission, succeed, do another mission, succeed, and so on. There’s little in the way of branching narratives for the player to follow, less still in the way of flavour. ”

Instead, Echo Bazaar embraces a “coalescent narrative structure,” a phrase that makes more sense to the non-literary minded, perhaps – until you see their pretty awesome flowcharts. These charts point to the elaborate series of repercussions that might occur with any particular choice made in the game. The content of Echo Bazaar is impressive, and while the game has been described as “mostly beige, mostly text,” undoubtedly the artwork and design adds to the game’s steampunk atmosphere and appeal.

Echo Bazaar on Twitter: The Platform

In an interview with ReadWriteWeb, Failbetter Games “Chief Narrative Officer” Alexis Kennedy explained how the startup has utilized Twitter and talked about some of the advantages and disadvantages of Twitter as a platform of gaming.

According to Kennedy, the advantages of Twitter as a game platform involve the ease of authentication and messaging (both between developers and players and as players themselves spread word of the game via Twitter). Although the company did have some problems last week with the Twitter API, the advantages “massively outweigh” the disadvantages, says Kennedy, “in viral growth alone.”

Currently the game utilizes the hashtag #ebz to designate game-related tweets, and Kennedy says that the company will likely implement annotations, a feature announced at Chirp, to the gaming experience. Kennedy says he can imagine annotations allowing game-related tweets to become both more conversational and more instrumental to the gaming experience – “an extra layer of gameplay on top” – but notes that much is still speculative.

Unlike other social games that are often accused of “spamming” social networks and news feeds, Kennedy contends that Failbetter Games are “polite” and contends this is key to their viral growth. “We are gentle in the inducements we offer to encourage people to tweet,” says Kennedy. “We’re scrupulous about not abusing our access to the Twitter account, and we allow players to edit the tweets” they send in relationship to the game.

Failbetter Games: The Startup

Failbetter Games is a self-financed startup that runs very lean, with a core team of Kennedy, Arendt, and Richard Johnson, as well as a handful of freelance writers. Echo Bazaar is still in beta and is a “research project” for the company’s next game Prisoner’s Honey.

Although other developers have started working on gaming projects using Twitter as their platform, most recently the “trading card” game TweetTrumps, Failbetter Games is clearly leading the way for both Twitter and RPG gameplay. But with the potential for Twitter as a gaming platform, there does appear to be plenty of room for other startups.

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