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Inside Bloomberg’s new interactive American Mall game

4 min read

Bloomberg Media’s new mall game, published last Wednesday, gives players a glimpse into the tough choices American mall owners face in today’s Amazon-dominated retail landscape. We spoke to one of the game’s architects, Bloomberg Deputy Editor of Projects Thomas Houston, on why they chose a game to tell the story of the dying American mall, how the game was developed, and when to use interactive formats.

Meena Lee

The Idea: Can you give us an overview of your role as Deputy Editor, Projects at Bloomberg?

Thomas Houston: I run a small team of designers, developers and producers that works on projects across the company, from Bloomberg News to Businessweek. We’ve done projects as big as tracking Elon Musk’s goals or as straightforward as commissioning art for reporting. Every project is different, but generally we’ll find a strong story or reporting effort around the newsroom, and we’ll coordinate directly with reporters and editors on the best way to tell the story.

We love the mall game you guys put out last week! How did you and the team behind it settle on a game as the editorial format? What do you hope players get out of playing it?

We’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and it wasn’t initially anything like what many people are now calling the “dark souls of mall simulators.”

Last summer, Kim Bhasin and Pat Clark came to us with their original pitch, which was “we’re building the worst mall ever.” The plan was to compile composite data on the bottom tier of U.S. malls. We got our hands on a list of high-vacancy malls, put all the store directories we could find into a spreadsheet, and we were going to build a random dying mall generator.

We realized it wouldn’t be quite so easy. Finding and working through the directories was a ton of work, and the data didn’t immediately convey how much the malls were actually struggling. A few tests gave us malls that looked like what you’d expect. These weren’t glossy, luxury malls full of high-end brands and Apple stores. Instead, they generally looked like decades-old, suburban, mid-tier malls that perhaps recently lost an anchor tenant and were mostly scraping by.

We wanted to put people in the mindset of a mall owner making brutally tough choices about malls, so we started experimenting with writing out simple scenarios, which you see in the finished game.

James Singleton, the lead developer on the project, whipped together a quick tool that let the reporters build and play through these choices, and we found it extraordinarily compelling even without any visuals hooked up (or the fantastic soundtrack from Kyle Yerhot). This became the core of the project, and at that point, we had a little more confidence that a game format could work.

Can you tell us about the development process, from idea conception to final roll-out?

The modular way that James and Steph Davidson (art director) built the game was a huge help in keeping the development and editorial process sane. For example, reporters and editors were able to write and tweak almost all of the game’s scenarios directly from a single shared doc. This let us quickly test and tweak new narrative paths or ideas, and then adjust how those story beats would affect money or happiness in the game. It was also a godsend for editors and copy editors to review, because there was no need to play the game over and over in an attempt to see every possible iteration of text.

By building this into the game early on, James and Steph were able to spend most of their time on building the rest of the game, the mini-games, and the different game mechanics across desktop and mobile.

Are there any types of stories that you think are better told via an interactive format, versus a more passive format like text?

At least in this case, we knew early on that we needed to stay away from a traditional reported narrative or photo essay. The idea Pat tried to keep in my head was that the game was a way to tell a trend story about American retail. There have been so many dying mall trend stories over the past few years that it was hard to find a new way to make a claim for readers’ attention.

The FT’s Uber Game did this really well. Interviews with drivers informed a game that forced players to consider the kinds of no-win decisions that drivers are grappling with.

Is there anyone else you think is doing a good job of telling stories in new and innovative ways?

There’s a ton of great experimentation going on with story forms and data journalism. Here’s a couple favorites from the past few months:

This Spotlight was originally published in the February 12th issue of The Idea. For more Q&As with inside intel like this, subscribe to The Idea, Atlantic Media’s weekly newsletter covering the latest trends and innovations in media.

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