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Ships Of Steel: Sunless Sea's Revamped Combat

Before discussing information about the upcoming combat redesign in the splendid Sunless Sea, I’ll share some information that you may already know. Failbetter’s collaboration with Bioware is not related to the recently announced Shadow Realms, which means there’s still something to look forward to even though Gamescom has chugged its last energy drink and collapsed for another year. We should all concentrate our excitement on Sunless Sea for now because it’s shifting and swelling like a lunatic tide. Details in the briny deeps below.

I made some minor complaints about the combat in my write-up of the earliest release of the game so I feel almost entirely responsible for any changes that occur. The original (and still current) system simulates a chase in the dark by pitting opponents against one another in what is essentially a turn-based system of exchanges. To cause damage, visibility must be raised, either by closing in or firing flares and the like, but powerful weapons illuminate the ship they’re fired from, putting it at greater risk of retribution. It’s an interesting system but repeated combat against the same creatures becomes rote and predicting how a confrontation will end before it begins becomes a routine task.

In a striking example of Early Access being a way to adopt feedback and change entire systems, Failbetter are completely redesigning combat. Rather than being a minigame of sorts, it will now take place on the map, in real time. The changes begin, as all things should, in the search for delightfulness.

The core team sat down together and chewed on how to get to delightfulness.

So, okay, we said, let’s go one more time round the reasons we don’t do ship combat in real time on the map, bearing in mind that it is of course impossible and we shouldn’t do it.

Two hours later, we’d decided that it wasn’t impossible, and we should probably do it.

Two days later, we’d run the numbers, done a bit of prototyping, and we’re going to do it!

Combat in SUNLESS SEA will still be gently paced not frantic, still be pausable, still involve light and darkness. But it’s going to occur right on the main map, with the primary game systems plugged into it, not in a turn-based secondary card game.

It’s really hard, as a designer, throwing away a cherished mechanic. It’s like euthanasing a beloved pet that won’t stop eating children. But when it’s right, it’s right. We – and you – are lucky enough to have some extra time to work on this, so we’re going, once again, to do it right. This is a significant, exciting, scary change – we’ll be letting you know more soon!

Of course, the term ‘real time’ fills me with more dread than the subcutaneous inkjections of the sleep-haunting land squid, but the words ‘pausable’ and ‘gently paced’ soothe my worries like the ginjections of fabled tavern/clinic, The Salty Sailor’s Repose.

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Adam Smith

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