Echo Bazaar – A View

I’m reluctant to call it a review because I don’t feel I’ve played the game enough to see everything, but I’ve played enough that I know I won’t be playing any more.  After discussing the game last night with Richard Cobbett, I decided to write this blog post. 

Echo Bazaar is a game from FailBetter Games, which is an ironic name for a company considering that the game has failed to keep me entertained enough to continue with it.  However, before I continue here, I should say that lots of people have said lots of nice things about the game (see the Failbetter site) so it could just be that it’s not my kind of game; in which case, sorry guys.

Firstly, I must say that I love the feeling they’ve created with the idea, graphics, setting and background details.  There is the potential for something wonderful here.  It hints at Neil Gaiman and China Miéville, but doesn’t quite deliver in the gameplay to match this promise. 

The game nearly failed at the first outing.  There is no tutorial or clear instruction that covers what the new player is supposed to do or indeed what everything represents.  It was only after persevering through experimentation that I began to get a handle on how it worked.  The mechanics are a combination of RPG and card game where the possible tasks that are uncovered are very generic. 

I say “possible tasks” because I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve chosen something from the list only to find that I can’t undertake the task because it’s currently locked as I don’t have enough of the inventory item that will unlock it.  So why is it even in the list, wasting my time?  Or why isn’t it in the list greyed out and showing what I need to collect to unlock it? 

The generic aspect is what bugs me most.  Not because generic tasks are a problem in themselves – many RPG games have such things – but in the way they are presented.  When they’ve been completed they stay available, which kind of shoves their generic nature in your face.  It’s worse when a task might seem more specific – “seduce an artist’s model” for instance – but you can try it again and again, starting from scratch each time.  The worst part is, you’re often forced to do the repetition just to meet a target and move onto the next stage of the task.  Suddenly it becomes a kind of levelling up grind. 

The game is seriously lacking in specific characters to come into contact with.  There are hints of characters in the “lore” snippets, but nothing substantial.  As a result it’s difficult to get a handle on my own character because, in many ways, interacting with other characters helps define a player character.  Admittedly, it’s not the type of game where the mechanics make character interaction very easy, but because the whole thing hints at character filled locations, there is the impression we’re seeing them through layers of dirty, smoky glass or they’re staying in the next room out of the way. 

The game is in beta still, so I may be looking at it a little harshly, but it’s difficult to see how they would make major improvements without changing the mechanics substantially. 

I do wonder if they’re approaching it the wrong way around when it comes to making money from the game.  If you click on the “Fate” tab there is a whole swathe of ways to pay for fate points, which can then be converted into game related things.  I can’t help but wonder if starting out with money-making aspect is putting the cart before the horse.  Don’t you really need a strong player base before monetising the game will make any sense?

To be honest, I don’t see a huge benefit in buying Fate points.  The ones that I earned while playing I have yet to spend, mostly because I don’t have enough or the things I have enough for seem trivial.  There is nothing that really seems to give me a huge advantage in the game or if they did, what that advantage might be.  You can’t, for instance, spend the fate points on cool or expensive inventory items.

Ultimately, I’m reluctant to pay for anything in the game when I can’t see how it’s going to help me towards the larger goals in the game.

But wait…  I have no idea what those larger goals are anyway.  And this may be the biggest failing.  What is the game actually about?  When I look at it like this I can see a great setting and this is coupled with the game mechanics, but there is no real heart to the game.

I’m afraid that this is a game with huge potential, but which is not delivering the right experience for me.  What a shame.

7 thoughts on “Echo Bazaar – A View

  1. Jakkar says:

    Sautations, Steve. I was recommended you by name in conversation with Arberth Studios, and hope to say hello with greater intention shortly – but browsing your blog felt like chipping in a comment.

    I recently discovered Echo Bazaar myself – I understand your criticism, but would contest (from a.. relativistic point of view) that it does indeed have a great style and atmosphere – and while there’s virtually no real ‘game’ to back that up, I’ve not seen anything better.

    What I have seen is a lot of ‘games’ with equally little meaningful content, but without any style or atmosphere either.

    .. Echo Bazaar is at least a step in the right direction. Unless I’ve missed something magical in the genre =)

    Furthermore, it’s certainly not my type of game either – I’d much rather have my head buried in Fallout, if I’d not replayed it so many times, or finally finishing The Witcher as I’ve just resumed.

  2. Steve says:

    Yes, there is atmosphere, up to a point. It’s also presented very well, too. Maybe I came across a little harshly, but I think that what frustrated me more than anything is that I wanted it to be something I enjoyed and it wasn’t.

    It is definitely a step in the right direction, particularly when compared to other, similarly presented games. I tried Omerta and couldn’t see that game as anything other than a spreadsheet thinly disguised. The presentation style did nothing to help create the right atmosphere for the game.

  3. Alexis Kennedy says:

    Hey Steve – Alexis Kennedy from Failbetter here.

    Thanks for cushioning a negative review with courtesy – rare and welcome in an age of shouty Internet rants. 🙂

    It sounds as if, fundamentally, you just don’t get on with the genre – social text-based RPGs (there are less kind descriptions) are by their nature simple, casual and repetitive. As you’ve seen, we wanted to make a point of providing content – and a small number of slightly meaningful decisions – rather than just progress bars; it sounds like you’re still after meatier gameplay, and in that you’re not alone.

    A word on the generic (aka ‘grind’ stuff). There are around 200,000 words of content in the game (two-three novels’ worth), there’ll be a lot more before we’ve done, and our resources are *tiny*. I’d like to run a more lateral and challenging game, and EBZ is a first step towards this – but in the meantime we simply have to provide repeated tasks to be texture and filler. It’s no sillier really than killing the same blue-haired orc 800 times in WoW – of course in WoW there’s actual gameplay involved with killing him, but on the flip-side we only require a click, not five minutes combat, to repeat the action. But ultimately it’s the nature of the beast, and if it doesn’t work for you I can’t cavil

    I’d like to address a few specific points.

    1. “There is no tutorial or clear instruction” – this is an ongoing issue we want to address. A couple of kind fans have put together Getting Started guides – we should really link to those from the opening page as a first pass.

    2. ” I can’t help but wonder if starting out with money-making aspect is putting the cart before the horse.”

    The game was in beta for around a month before we switched on the Fate sales. The reason we did this is

    (i) we really are a shoestring operation – we started with no investment beyond my savings and the revenue we’re making now gives us a sporting chance of keeping the lights.
    (ii) back in December, when we had a player base of around 200, a half-dozen of our players mailed us, unsolicited, to ask if we’d take cash for extra actions. We weren’t inclined to say no. 🙂

    Incidentally, because actions are the way to money in the game, buying Fate does translate into ‘cool or expensive inventory items’ at one remove.

    3. “But wait… I have no idea what those larger goals are anyway. And this may be the biggest failing. What is the game actually about?”

    Above all, when I came up with the Fallen London setting I wanted to immerse the player in strangeness and leave it up to them to learn to swim. Of course that can be a recipe for drowning, which is why we’ve provided things like the Ambition tracks: but it is a challenge to balance exploration with confusion, and I imagine that’s something we’ll keep working on in the months ahead. Thanks for your feedback on this and the rest.

  4. Steve says:

    Hi Alexis,

    Thanks for dropping by the blog and for being so understanding about my comments and for taking the time to explain your motivations. The last thing I wanted to do was create a shouty rant – I stopped following Zero Punctuation because it became just an excuse to be nasty.

    I do like the setting of Fallen London and the potential it offers, but I guess that ultimately a text rpg is not a game for me. I never liked those old “fighting fantasy” books and rarely found text adventures appealing (which will shock a lot of people I’m sure), so this is probably just an extension of that.

    Okay, I was wrong about the payment side of things. Sorry about that.

    I started to get into the ambition track that appeared, but after a time I came up against a brick wall when I found I needed 50 foxfire candles and hadn’t seen a single one anywhere or how they might be acquired. It felt like my goals were unachievable.

    I’m a strong believer in giving the player goals that they can understand and work towards.

    Thanks again for dropping by.

  5. Jakkar says:

    Alexis: Lots of textual content is a good start, but keep writing if you can, hire more writers. Hire me! I don’t need money, just love.

    Randomised content perhaps – a variety of choices such as “take your chances down a dark alley” leading to a variety of random possibilities one might never see twice, chiefly leading to amusing, mystifying or chilling segments of interactive fiction. I enjoyed the introduction to the game, only to find the game itself was empty.

    Fill it with bits of interactive fiction, even if the freedom of choice between options is only illusory the smile it brings the player will remain valid, for he or she need only play it once. Ideally, it should be locked to prevent replays of the same event.

  6. Jakkar says:

    Steve: We seem to see eye to eye on the matter of Zero Punctuation – Croshaw had my respect for his excellent horror adventure games, the first P+Cs to hold my attention since the third Monkey Island – he lost it when Zero Punctuation ceased to be a joke, and became a poor excuse to recycle tired laconic sarcasm and hyperbole for a paycheck.

    His personality became a circus attraction. Few more literal ways to sell your soul than that.

  7. Steve says:

    I think there is a trend in “comedy” where so-called comedians dress up nastiness as comedy. This is why I particularly dislike Ricky Gervais.

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