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Sunless Skies: less crawling back home, more exploring

Sunless Skies

Failbetter have been looking at Sunless Sea in order to inform what they do in Sunless Skies [official site], their Sunless Sea sequel set in a kind of Victorian/Fallen London version of space where the stars are being murdered. It looks like one of the lessons is about making the return journey part of exploration a bit shorter/less punishing. Obviously Sunless Skies is still in early development but the blog made for interesting reading from a design problem/solution point of view and I’ve been thinking about what I’d change myself for a while as a result.

A basic problem the team identified was that the core loop of Sunless Sea involves heading out to explore potentially dangerous waters, then coming back to the safety of your home port.

As per the blog entry:

“When we sat down to analyse what was successful about this loop, we realised that the exploration of the unknown was much more enticing than the return journey. Returning was essential, obviously, and much of the tension and emergent storytelling in Sunless Sea comes from those moments when you limp back to London after over-stretching yourself and barely surviving. However, after you’ve been playing the game for 20+ hours, those journeys backwards across the entire map can begin to take their toll.”

I’d agree with that. In my own time with the game I was still enjoying the outward journey but the balancing with the return felt off. I’d always have to head back before I was ready because otherwise I knew fuel and food would become an issue. There was also an uneasy state which I associated with those return journeys. You had to stay alert enough that you couldn’t spend the time listening to a podcast or just zoning out as your ship puttered across the waves, but there wasn’t enough to do that you didn’t get bored.

Liam Welton, director of game development, explains:

“For Sunless Skies, we want to keep this core loop, but reduce the amount of time spent traversing explored territories. In order to do this, there is no one place your captain can call home. Instead, you will find several large ports throughout the game. Upgrading your weapons and ships, picking up crew and passengers, trading in valuable goods – all of these can be done in any of these large ports.”

Sunless Skies

That’s as opposed to Sunless Sea’s single home port in Fallen London. Obviously these are pre-production gamethinks so there might well be changes to that before the game comes out. I like the idea of reducing the time to home and I think this is a decent approach because warping or adding in some other homing cheat would feel out of place in the world in which these games are set. That said, I’d be hoping that you could develop a sense of home in these larger ports, or that you’d have a “home” port of some description, even though the blog indicates there’s no one home for you at this point.

It also sounds like the team want to keep the map generation style around those ports, so where tiles and locations are placed randomly but within a given set of tiles so they relate to early/mid/late game instead of being a jumble.

“The tension created by having to struggle back to a major port will still be there, and the threat of overreaching and dying in the cold, uncaring vastness of space will be just as present as it was in Sunless Sea. But your journeys will be shorter and more varied, and the new opportunities awaiting you in ports even more tantalizing. For those brave enough to leave the safety of their known region, there will be other, perhaps greater, civilisations to explore in adjacent regions.”

Sunless Skies will be going to Kickstarter in February 2017 so I’d expect we’ll know a bunch more about the game by then.

OH. Before I go I also wanted to give a round of applause to whoever came up with the dev blog title for this: “Talkin’ Bout Proc Generation”.

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