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Alexis Kennedy is co-founder and Chief Narrative Officer of Failbetter Games. He was creative director and lead writer on Sunless Sea, and mostly remembered to water the office plants.
Sunless Sea was born out of both creative restlessness and financial need.
We had a much-loved but unprofitable browser game with a cult franchise that had never quite made enough money to support the studio. So we leveraged our browser game fan-base into a Kickstarter; leveraged the Kickstarter into a successful Early Access campaign; graduated from Early Access after seven months.
As each stage went well, our budgets and ambition grew a little. Soup to nuts, the game took about fifteen months. The core team was three - writer, artist, Unity dev - but around a dozen people worked on the game at one point or another.
It’s a very Failbetter game: distinctive, untidy, dark, daft, meticulously detailed, with an awful lot of carefully written words. We’ve been around for five years, and we’ve established our voice and our vision. But Sunless Sea was also our first actual videogame, after years of making only browser games.
So although it wasn’t our first rodeo, it was… um… our first fish rodeo. I don’t really know how rodeos work. We don’t have them in the UK. This metaphor’s not working out. So let’s just say it was at the same time both well-explored territory, and a gigantic learning experience.
These two things - our patchwork of experience and inexperience, and our careful, eat-only-what-you-kill, gradually growing approach to scope - were at the heart of everything that went both right and wrong during development.
In the Kickstarter pitch, I described Sunless Sea as a game of ‘exploration, survival and loneliness; a game of light and dark.’
From that point on, we wrote, drew, recorded or made everything with that in mind. The resource management aspect emphasised hunger and terror. We iterated over the art direction, trying to find ways to convey the sense of vast subterranean space with islands of light, and feed that into the systems which rewarded the player for discovering new land.
We filled every scrap of land with stories - so that you were exploring destinations, not just rock formations. We chose the theme of home, and nostalgia and homesickness (saudade, hiraeth), as a way to emphasise loneliness. We found ways to surface that theme again and again in our writing. We shaped the game to encourage you to return again and again to Fallen London - your home port - and to feel relief when you saw London’s lights in the distance. We found a (very talented) composer who’d worked on IMAX documentaries about the deep sea and the Hubble telescope.
Every single review of Sunless Sea has picked up on this. Every thread we see in a new forum emphasises the atmosphere, the mood, the sense of peril. Even when some of our creative decisions have made the game a more niche experience, we feel that we’ve achieved what we set out to do, and the players who click with the game really click with the game.
Ship speed is a good example. Sunless Sea is a stately game. You could reasonably call it a slow game. But we’ve resisted speeding up the ship, because it would reduce the tension, the sense of space and distance, and the menace of the dark. I think it’s quite possible that if the ship was 50% faster, the game would be more fun and less grindy - but I also think there’s an invisible line we’d cross, somewhere before that 50%, where the atmosphere was diminished without anyone quite knowing why. If we hadn’t had that iron creative focus from the beginning, I don’t think we’d have held our nerve, and Sunless Sea would have ended up a zippier, slighter experience.
We have a really good relationship with our very lovely community. Kickstarter, Greenlight, and an Early Access launch were all great for us, in terms of early feedback, buzz and cash-flow. Lots of indie projects use these approaches, and you’ve probably read retrospectives talking about how wonderful it is to develop in the open, how useful the community is. It’s all true! But you’ve heard it all before - so I’ll focus on a couple of things that worked out for us specifically.
The worst outcome for a Kickstarter is not that you might fail to reach the goal. It’s to reach the goal, start building the game, and then run out of money. As I described here in our Kickstarter retrospective, the original design for the game needed us to raise about 90K (plus our war chest and other revenue). We thought we could expect to raise about 60K. So we cut about 30% out of the game.
In the end, we did manage to raise 90K. So we slipped our release date; and we also went for Early Access, which brought more money in and allowed us to increase scope further. In the end, our dev time went from 6 months to 15 months, but we had a regularly updated public roadmap at every step of the way. It mutated as we went, but we made sure that our public roadmap was the same one we were using internally. Everyone could see that we’d regularly released milestone updates, even when they’d run a bit late. Again and again we saw people ask on the Steam forum about whether it was worth buying into EA, and again and again we saw players respond that we seemed pretty reliable, and hey, here’s the roadmap.
So it helped with sales, it helped keep us realistic, and we now have the enviable reputation of having done Early Access right. That reputation will follow us into our next project (although Valve now discourages EA devs from providing a roadmap, in case those expectations aren’t met). The key to this was keeping scope and expectations tight, and making sure that the player base could see our plans.
It did cost time and effort, and we did drop the ball occasionally. We had separate communities on Kickstarter, on our own site and on Steam - it was extra effort to keep them all in the loop, and on one occasion in particular we irritated our Kickstarter backers by neglecting to warn them of a major system change on Kickstarter (it’d been on the roadmap and other channels, but of course, why would they go looking?) Once you’ve set good communication expectations, people get understandably upset if you don’t meet them. Early Access gave us enough funds to hire a good comms manager to make sure this angle was 100% covered.
That’s irrelevant advice for AAA studios, and for indies who aren’t fortunate enough to be able to afford a comms person, but it was a really big help for us, and I’m glad we did it. Extroverts: they’re not just for marketing!