How I Got Into Games, Part 1: Echo Bazaarfeatured

I get asked a lot how I got into games. I always feel unhelpful when I tell my story, because it’s such an unconventional and such an unrecommendable one. But it goes like this.

At the beginning of June 2009, I sat down in front of my computer to start making a game. My computer was crowded into a corner between the window and an oversized chest of drawers. It was also in the spare bedroom, which was destined to become my daughter’s bedroom. My daughter was due to get born in August 2009, so whatever game I was planning to make, I probably needed to get on with it.

I had:

  • a six-month unpaid sabbatical from my then employer.
  • enough savings for me and my then-wife Ana to live on for half a year or so if we were careful.
  • No income of any kind. Ana was most of the way through an MA degree for which she’d left her last job, and she didn’t have any maternity pay to look forward to.
  • No clue or leads on any kind of funding.
  • A team of one.
  • Average software development skills.
  • Completely unproven design and writing skills.
  • Quite a fuzzy idea of what sort of game I was going to make.

You might point out that’s an unpromising start for a business. You’d be right. So what the hell was I thinking?

I was thirty-seven years old. I’d been an EFL teacher, then a secondary school teacher, and then a software developer for companies working on projects whose names you’d forget as soon as you heard them.1

But all my life I’d wanted to write, or to make games, or both. I’d been involved in a couple of extremely abortive attempts with friends to make games. I’d written a novel that I couldn’t get published, basically because it wasn’t particularly good. I’d made several attempts to build something in my spare time, but life kept intervening and I had never got past the early prototype stage. If you’ve ever thought about switching to a creative career, this will probably sound familiar. I’d begun to resign myself to my day job being my day job forever.

But now Ana and I had a kid on the way, and I was in spitting distance of forty. I knew that I would have no spare time at all once my daughter arrived, and this was probably my last chance to put real working time into a project.

And in 2008, as you probably remember, the global financial system had gone into convulsions. Something like half of my then-employer’s clients were financial institutions. So my employer was suddenly quite short of money, and had already gone through one round of layoffs. They had already suggested that if any consultants wanted to take extended unpaid leave, that would be very helpful.

So if I wanted to roll the dice, it was now or never. It might even make my job a notch more secure if my project didn’t work out. My employer hadn’t said that consultants who took extended unpaid leave were less likely to get the axe in the inevitable next round of layoffs, because that’s not the kind of thing you say out loud, but a lot of us had drawn that conclusion.

Understandably, Ana wasn’t entirely happy about all this. When we’d planned for her to take a year off to do an MA, we hadn’t expected to get pregnant, and when she had, we’d been planning that I would continue to work while she took a year off to raise Sonja. Becoming a zero income household while I tried to start a business hadn’t been any part of that plan.

So we agreed on a hard deadline. In seven months, at the end of the year, I needed either to have some way to make enough money to support me and Ana and the incoming daughter, or I would go back to my employer. After that we wouldn’t be able to afford to pay the mortgage anyway.

So what was my plan?

It was going to be a web-based game, because I was a web developer, and that was really the only thing I knew how to make. It was going to be narrative-based, because that was what interested me most, and I had some tech left over from earlier attempts that I could reuse. I did consider making a mobile app, but this was obviously a daft idea. I had seven months to make something — six months, actually, because I didn’t expect to get any work done in the month my daughter was born — and I couldn’t afford the time to learn a whole new skill-set. Probably the whole mobile thing was a fad, anyway, probably.

Remember, this was 2009. This was a time when it was still possible, if you were a semi-informed software developer, to think that mobile development was a fad. The iOS App Store was less than a year old. No other mobile app stores existed. PC games were made, as far as I knew, largely by big companies, or by a handful of wildly talented indie developers who had skills I didn’t and often seemed to have somehow scraped acquaintance with someone like Sony or Microsoft. I didn’t know where to start with any of that. But the hot new thing just then, the thing that was making headlines, the thing that for a little while masqueraded as the future of gaming, was Facebook games: Mafia Wars, Farmville, some vampire thing that seemed to show up in everyone’s feed, even people who didn’t play games.

Facebook games! Do you remember those? People still play them, but no-one thinks they’re the future. Even back then I was suspicious. I’d been reading tech commentary for years about how Facebook wasn’t actually making any money, about how its runway was limited, about how it would never reach two hundred million, three hundred million, never reach four hundred million, definitely never reach five hundred million users.2

Twitter, on the other hand, was newer, cleaner, and had plenty of cheerleaders explaining to naifs like me that it would overtake Facebook. Better still, there were almost no games on Twitter at all. Blue ocean! Growing market! To a wannabe entrepreneur sitting alone in a corner behind a giant chest of drawers, those sounded like good things!

But I wasn’t a total naif. I had realised the chances of generating a salary’s worth of revenue from a standing start in six months with no experience, no audience, no contacts… I couldn’t see it. So my tentative plan, in June 2009, was to build one or two or three small projects, and hope one of them got enough attention that I could build an audience and some reputation, and somehow, on the back of that, get some kind of funding from somewhere.

As I look back on it now, I think ‘plan’ was probably quite a charitable way of describing this contrivance of half-cocked optimism. But I really, really wanted to make games.

I needed a name for the company (not that it was a company yet, but we’ll get to that) and the ‘one or two or three small projects’ approach gave me that name. There was a Beckett quote I’d long been fond of:

Ever tried. Ever failed. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

I needed to acknowledge that I didn’t really know what I was doing. I needed to be ready to try things, see what worked, throw away the rest, and not get too attached to my ideas or my ego. Calling the whole thing Failbetter Games seemed a good way to keep that in mind.

So I needed to get started. I got up from my desk by the giant chest of drawers and went for a long walk and I tried to have an idea. Having an idea is difficult to do on demand anyway, but when you’re absent-mindedly calculating the number of hours left in the weeks in the months until you have to go back and make insurance software. But the June sunshine was bright, and I was feeling optimistic despite frequent lurches of existential terror, and I always find it easier to think when I’m moving around.

When I got back from the walk, I sat down and wrote an email to Paul Arendt. Paul was a talented but struggling freelance journalist with a drama school background: a friend of Ana’s, really, but a friend of mine by association. Paul was, like many freelance journalists, having a tough time finding work, although he’d written for some big places in the past, and more importantly was sick of writing and was trying to reinvent himself as an illustrator. We’d talked already about collaborating. I had no money to speak of; he was just getting started, wanted to practice, and thanks to the work situation had plenty of time on his hands.

“Wotcha,” I wrote.

"We talked about my taking advantage of another facet of your many talents, viz. i.e. arting.

I’m looking for about a dozen little iconic (80x80 gif sort of size) piccies in a scratchy, vivid Tim Burtonesque style, like an ear trumpet, a characterful bat, a castle made of jawbones[1]. Do you think that’s something that you could art?

[1] I mean identifying them as mandibular at 80x80 seems unlikely but, you know, osseous and castellate.”

(This was the kind of email I wrote in those days, when I was trying to impress someone. The footnote isn’t that bad, but crikey, do now I wince at ‘viz. ie. arting’. l imagine you do too. Sorry.)

Paul replied just three minutes later:

“Sure. Just send me a list, and I’ll get on it.”

I had to write the list very quickly, because the idea was barely even an idea. It started with these:

"Ear trumpet

Menacing hat

A bell with a growling face

A silvery glove

A fanged black glove

A characterful bat..."

and so on.

I added:

“I know you said you didn’t want to take money, but could you (please) pick a fair price for these pics if you do them? and if I ever make any profit on it I’ll pay you out of that, if not, I’m sure ears are riveting to draw.”

Paul told me he honestly didn’t know what a fair price would be, and suggested he draw the things and see how I liked them first. And we were off; that was it.

What was my embryonic idea?

I wanted to make a Twitter game. I’d thought about the things people do on Twitter. And I’d thought about prediction markets, which are much beloved of tech entrepreneurs and wannabe tech entrepreneurs. A prediction market allows you to buy and sell shares in possible future events — like that a particular candidate will win an election. They’re interesting because the prices of particular outcomes tend to reflect an aggregate of people’s beliefs. They also nearly all use virtual currency, not real money, because from a regulatory point of view they’re basically a form of gambling.

I’d thought: what if you could sort of bet, with virtual currency, on the things that people with lots of Twitter followers might say? Like, you’d bet that Stephen Fry (or whoever) would tweet something that included the word ‘apposite’ or ‘convolvulus’. And you’d want to win your bet, so perhaps you’d tweet at Stephen Fry to get him to say ‘convolvulus’, and he’d ask why, and perhaps this would win the attention of Stephen Fry, and people would hear of this Twitter betting game because Stephen Fry tweeted about it, and then I would… get funding?

I spent some time sketching out how the game might work. People could cooperate in syndicates. People could get power-ups from some sort of story element, which would all be ear-related, mouth-related, speech-related.

I’d already chosen the name, of course. It was going to be ‘Echo’, which suggested Twitter-y, ear-y, mouth-y, speech-related things, and it was going to be ‘Echo Bazaar’ because ‘Echo Marketplace’ sounded like dropping a book in a bucket.

Then I spent the next week making the game; but by the end of the week I had found I was making an almost completely different game.

This sounds like I’m being cute — like an author agonising over a character commandeering the narrative. But I wasn’t being cute, just undisciplined. I sat down to write code that would wire up Twitter to a market mechanism and it was difficult and boring and I ended up spending more time working on the system of power-ups. Ear things, mouth things, underground things… Echo Bazaar sounded to me like Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market. Something dangerous, luminous, toothsome, chthonic; something like a children’s story, but definitely a story for adults; something that would leave the reader nearly satisfied.

I had begun to imagine a city far underground, with windows glowing candle-yellow and gas-blue — something bustling and jovially sinister, elaborately patinated, like the London of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, or like an MR James ghost story. I called it the Fifth City, to give it that sense of layered civilisations past. I gave it mandrakes and gallows and a great many bats. I put it on the shores of a great subterranean ocean. Why? Partly because London was foremost in my mind, and London is defined by its maritime heritage. Partly because I remembered the Sunless Sea in CS Lewis’ Silver Chair, and the sunless sea in Coleridge’s Kubla Khan that must also have inspired Lewis. But mostly because I could imagine the glow of those windows on dark water, and once I imagined it, it was difficult not to write it.

Echo Bazaar, I decided, would also be the name of a presence in the game — an implied host which would speak to the player in an energetic tone of welcoming menace. I added a message to the simple application I was building: when you were logged in, text at the top of the screen would announce “It’s [your name]! Welcome, delicious friend!” I liked the double-take effect of ‘delicious’, and the phrase became the touchstone for exactly that sense of welcoming menace. I had no idea, in 2009, how widely that phrase would eventually be used.

I began to think about what the player might do. ‘Explore the city’ was the obvious answer, but the city was going to be mostly text. I’d requested fifteen icons from Paul and maybe I’d get as many as fifty in the end. I didn’t have anything like the resources to create a 3D or even a 2D environment. So I decided that players would explore the city’s social and artistic and criminal landscapes as much as its physical one. To put it a bit more juicily, the player could be a social climber, a debauched poet, a master thief.

And this was really where the idea caught fire for me. The history of computer role-playing games was mostly the history of fighting, with conversations in between. But most novels, even picaresque or adventure novels, even epic fantasy novels, are about conversations with fighting in between. What if I could make a game that was more like a novel — not in form, but in content? What if I could make a game where you mostly weren’t fighting?

Hold up! the veteran gamer will say at this point. In 2009 there had already been hundreds of games based on conversations with occasional fights. The veteran gamer will be right. But there had been very few role-playing games about non-combat activities — games with non-linear choices, games where the player makes resource choices and experiences the vicarious pleasure of growing their abilities in another skin.

I thought about the kind of activities that would attract a newcomer seeking their fortune. I thought about notable characters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I imagined players as artists, spies, intriguers, entrepreneurs, explorers, seducers, thieves… and, a little reluctantly, as duellists and monster-hunters. People do like stories about people punching people. I laid out axes of ambition along which players could proceed: Persuasive for politicians and poets, Shadowy for burglars and spies, Watchful for archaeologists and detectives, and Dangerous for those monster-hunters.

All that was enough to start writing. So I started writing.

1. For instance: I’d spent a while working for William Reed, a venerable publishing company whose output is best described as the kind of thing that features in the Have I Got News For You guest publications slot. Meat Trades Journal was one of the more exciting ones.

2.As I write this in 2020, Facebook claims 2.5 billion active users, of whom about 375 million play games on Facebook. Twitter claims about 330 million active users, and they’ve locked down their platform so that there are no games to speak of on Twitter at all.

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