Failbetter’s next game will be “gentler” than Sunless Skies: “you won’t go mad or eat your crew”

Fallen London and Sunless Skies developers Failbetter Games have blogged about the dark art of running a sustainable business, while sharing a tiny bit more about their next, unannounced game. Said game is apparently a change of genre from Failbetter’s previous, exceedingly narrative-driven open world titles and free-to-play RPGs. It’ll also be a little less oppressive, aiming for a feeling of “fireside menace” – that is, “an awareness of the world’s dangers, but also warmth and comfort”, which certainly feels like an appropriate mood for a time of mass layoffs and game cancellations, to say nothing of recent conspiracy-fuelled harassment campaigns.


Failbetter are “doing alright” financially right now, despite less than amazing sales of their recent visual novel Mask Of The Rose. Partly, this is because they resisted the temptation to gamble on a big studio expansion following Sunless Skies’ early access launch in 2019. Here’s an excerpt:


After we released Sunless Skies from Early Access in 2019, we spent some time talking about what kind of studio we wanted to be. We were doing well.


In that situation, the expectation nowadays is that you hire aggressively. Perhaps in tech in particular, being profitable isn’t seen as enough. A good company is one with a plan to vastly increase the value of the business, preferably at least tenfold. Some companies take a lot of risks doing that.


We decided to focus on sustainability. A common source of instability for game studios is that generally you have to work on a game for a long time before you can start selling it; and most of the time, you can’t be sure how it will do. We make unusual games, so that holds true.


We decided that a key goal for us would be that if one of ours sold poorly, we could afford to make the next one without doing anything drastic. We don’t want to be forced to lay off our team members, or to take outside investment.


Failbetter don’t want to “remain static”, however. One objective is to get to the point where they can “comfortably” handle two game projects at once alongside updates for long-lived free-to-play narrative game Fallen London, which is still rubbing along with around 200 new players every day.

The blog touches on Failbetter avoiding paid promotion for Fallen London together with “addictive or exploitative design patterns”. Despite what Failbetter call the “politeness” of its monetisation, around 6% of Fallen London players spend money on the game, and Failbetter have a few thousand monthly subscribers. “We don’t cover our running costs with Fallen London, but it does give us a predictable source of revenue that takes some of the risk out of everything else we do,” the post comments.


Failbetter won’t be porting the aforesaid Mask Of The Rose to Xbox and PlayStation, despite expectations that they would break even on console sales, because they’d like to set aside people for their next, unannounced game, which they describe as “gentler” than their previous efforts, with minimal cannibalism or insanity. Here’s the full chunk:


Aside from Fallen London, we have one more game in development. We’re expecting to finish pre-production on it in a few months. You may have seen us mention that it’s in a new genre for us, and a new setting that isn’t related to Fallen London. It also has much more non-narrative gameplay than anything we’ve done before.


Unusually, we don’t intend to crowdfund this one. We probably will do an Early Access release, though – because of the non-narrative systems, we think the game will benefit from the extra feedback, and perhaps from being able to see people stream it, which we found invaluable when making Sunless Skies.


Tonally, this game will be gentler than what players may expect from us. We aim at what we’re calling fireside menace: the way it might feel to hear a scary story by the fire on a dark night, while branches beat against the windows; an awareness of the world’s dangers, but also warmth and comfort. You will find the same attention to narrative, atmosphere and mystery that you’ve come to expect from us, but this time, you won’t go mad or eat your crew.


We’re really excited to start talking about it properly, with details and screenshots and a trailer. With luck, that will be later in the year. We look forward to updating Fallen London for years to come, too. We’re very grateful to our community: your support makes everything we do possible.


While Failbetter don’t make an explicit connection between their situation following Sunless Skies’ launch and the beginning of the Covid pandemic later that year, their decision not to staff up like mad is a world away from the antics of publicly traded companies like Epic and Twitch, who have confessed to overhiring during the boom period created by pandemic lockdown conditions.

As for the new project: I am an avid enjoyer of Failbetter’s doings, and any and all comparisons between a game’s premise/mood and campfire tales always get my motor running. I wonder if it’ll be anything like the recent The Tribe Must Survive?


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