Alexis Kennedy’s daughter Sonja is born and Echo Bazaar is now playable in its alpha form. Though the plan was to finish the game before his sabbatical had come to an end, he was still working to realise his vision – and tending to a newborn is making that even more of a challenge than it already was.
Alexis and partner Paul Arendt were about to take their project to the next level, and the timing couldn’t have possibly been tougher.
Things are different now. In 2009, Alexis Kennedy had no online following, no history as a games developer, and no studio to speak of. Echo Bazaar had been played by at most a little under 100 people. If he were to send an email out to the gaming press, he would be very, very unlikely to receive any response at all. This meant that he needed to take a different approach if he wanted to receive any attention for the project.
Onward to Playful
Alexis and Paul decided to try to make a splash at Playful 2009: A Day of Cross-Disciplinary Frolicking. Alexis had attended the 2008 edition of the event, and found it both to be excellent in many ways and nauseatingly saccharine in others. At that first edition, he saw games designers go deep on the links between gamebooks and French literature, algorithms used to procedurally generate cities in games, and heard a lecture from a designer of ARGs who relied on alcohol to reorient his sleep around online gaming with American friends (and why this turned out to be a terrible life decision). He also saw an architect speak on creating puzzle box apartments in New York City, saw a Guitar Hero controller that had been turned into a real electric guitar, and a whole lot of other things.
With its off-kilter focus on theory and ideas more than finished games themselves, he thought Echo Bazaar would do better there than at Game Developers’ Conference or another massive event where fully-realised titles get showcased and build momentum. He also wasn’t certain as to what exactly Echo Bazaar was, yet. Was it interactive fiction? Was it a browser game? He wanted to reach people with open minds and who wouldn’t be put off by what he was creating.
Looking back now, Alexis also realises that Playful was a source of real inspiration. In 2008, he heard people speak about how gamification and gaming culture were transforming human experience, storytelling, and much more – and he knew that he wanted to be a part of it in some way.
Alexis, Paul, and Paul’s partner Jane, who had just been laid off and was working on building her own business, attended Playful. She has a gift for networking, and was able to turn Alexis’s goals for Playful into a real strategy. Alexis wanted to make an impression on media and games bloggers, network, and possibly attract investors, but he knew he lacked the skills to do the networking himself.
Alexis envisioned bringing the game on a laptop and printing business cards. Jane explained the importance to the team of not wasting anyone’s time, and challenged Alexis and Paul to see who could get rid of all of their business cards first.
The Friday morning of the conference, Alexis was running through the act of handing out cards, carrying a cup of coffee, and holding a laptop. Though he ended up not using the laptop at all due to an untenable Wi-Fi connection, he did manage to get rid of his business cards. He did not find any VCs or feel like he communicated the story of Echo Bazaar effectively to strangers. He realised later that he failed to set a real goal to come away from the conference having achieved, and felt disappointed when he, unsurprisingly, didn’t achieve it.
However, only a day later, he discovered that one of the conference’s speakers was now following both Paul and Jane on Twitter, and Echo Bazaar had quadrupled its number of registrations. This, in fact, turned the game into a project with real followers outside of Alexis’s friend group, and meant that it now had some real fans. Not enough to build a sustainable business, but enough to keep things in motion.
Suddenly, Alexis was receiving messages because new players wanted to buy actions, which was something he was hesitant to do, as it meant the game was now charging players money. He also saw how quickly players were going through all of his content, and how poorly his code was running. These were all big issues to address, and soon he’d be putting plans – and people – in place to address them.
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