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”.


  1. Tiax says:

    Well, if their first idea is to fix the only issue I had with Sunless Sea, I’ll back their KS for sure.

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      subdog says:

      It was certainly the biggest problem, but not the only one. I really took issue with needing to consult a wiki just to know what to do with every little trinket I picked up. With the tiny amount of inventory space you’re given (and no real storage, because having access to a warehouse would make too much sense), you’re constanly having to get rid of things that you may or may not need dozens of hours later. Since lots of these items require precise steps and long travel to reobtain (if they’re even possible to reobtain), having a wiki open on a second screen is annoyingly necessary.

      • Oozo says:

        The warehouse thing is what’s really baffling to me. While the constant need to return home makes an awful lot of thematic sense, there is literally no reason at all to not have a place somewhere in London where you can stash things that you don’t want to sell or take with you at the moment. (The ‘trophies’ you get in the latter game are especially tedious to have to haul with you at all times.)

        You’d still have to decide what to take with you on a given trip, if you keep the small storage room on the ship. I really can’t think of anything that would be worse or impossiblly difficult to balance (even though you would have to tweak the balance a bit) even when having a warehouse in the game. While I could readily accept the endless spiral some people found tedious, this one here was the one negative thing that stood out for me in a game that I, by and large, really enjoyed a hell lot.

        • brucethemoose says:

          A warehouse would mean more micro-managing your inventory. I would especially despise trying to keep track of quest items I need to swap in and out every time I stop in London.

          Sure, you could willingly avoid the warehouse and the micro… But turning down a gameplay advantage in Sunless Sea is a hard thing to do. I would feel compelled to take advantage of such a system if it were there, no matter how much I hate micro, and such a system would certainly factor into the balance if the game.

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            subdog says:

            That micromanagement already exists, and because of the limited inventory space, the frequency of having to do that micro is wildly exacerbated.

  2. unacom says:

    When I first read “Sunless Skies” I thought: “Wow! Airship! Steamplane!” But Spaceship will be good, too. I guess.
    Why the heck would one want to make the voyage home easier?
    I really love what Sunless Sea does with the exploring. But as Ulysses and his deminishing band of merry men found out -getting home is the really interesting part. So easing up on the coming-home pressure might weaken the experience. The question “How do I get back?” incessantly ringing in my head from the moment I leave port in London. That´s something I tremendously like about Sunless Sea.
    Maybe if the World itself were to be always shifting -thus making the crawl to port an exploration towards home…
    That said, I´m already totally sold.

    • ZigomatiX says:

      When travelling in circle, the journey home was more interesting as you’d still have stuff to do along the way. But when going for far away islands then straight back to London, with nothing else than avoiding zee creatures, it felt really bland, specially if you tried to save as much fuel as possible.
      A problem i see with their pre-prod idea is that the world may become heavily split in early/mid/late game areas. In Sunless Sea, most of the Zee stays “usefull” even lae in the game.

      • brucethemoose says:


        They just need to add more events on the journey back. Maybe more neutral/friendly ships to keep things interesting.

  3. teije says:

    Great news. Currently playing the Zubmariner expansion and can’t wait to see how Sunless Skies improves on what they created with Sea.

  4. Babymech says:

    Can I just preorder a Kickstarter-backing already?

    • gunrodent says:

      Preorder the Kickstarter? LOL! You just took Preordering from “Just a Craze” to “Mass Psychosis”

  5. TheDesman says:

    When I read the intro I was a bit too fast and misread it as a “Sunless seaquel”. At first I thought that you’d gotten an entry for the pun of the year award. Then I read it again and was disappointed. So much lost opportunity.

  6. Chaz says:

    Darn. Seeing that diagram of those bubbles made think of the Virga novels by Karl Schroeder, especially coupled with the title Sunless Skies. Guess I’ll have to keep wishing for a game with that sort of setting.