Failbetter lay off a few staff and delay Sunless Skies

Following a difficult year, Sunless Sea and Fallen London devs Failbetter have battened down the hatches and scaled back some of their plans, including laying off several members of staff and delaying Sunless Skies. Part of the problem is early access sales of the encounter-unspeakable-cosmic-horrors-then-eat-your-crew space survive-o-exploration RPG sequel have been lower than expected. The small English studio assure that they will finish Sunless Skies but they want to be sure they’ll be safe to fund another game beyond that, so they’ve made a few cautious cuts.

Failbetter’s Hannah Flynn reveals in today’s blog post that Sunless Skies hasn’t sold nearly since hitting early access as well as Sunless Sea did – “about 15% as many copies as Sunless Sea in the comparable time period.”

The post has a few ideas why that might be, including that it entered early access too early and missed out on some attention and word-of-mouth because of that. When Fraser Brown Prematurely Evaluated Sunless Skies last year, he enjoyed parts but did note that he’d rather not return until the game was more complete. It was due to leave early access in May, but now it’ll be later.

Whatever the reasons, Failbetter are feeling a little cautious about the future. “We’re in no danger of failing to deliver Sunless Skies, and never have been,” they insist, but looking ahead further they want to be careful, saying “the business has a lot less cash in the bank than we wanted to have at this point.” They continue:

“Late last year we made some hard decisions to ensure a couple of things: that we don’t reach launch in a financial state that would put the studio in danger of closing before we can make another game, and that we continue with a better structure for a business making games of our kind. With much regret, we have just completed a redundancy consultancy process and four of us are leaving as a result.”

They’re also shutting down the mobile app for Fallen London, their free-to-play RPG. It hasn’t been as popular as they’d hoped, and needing to update both it and the original browser-based version separately has been a lot of effort. On the bright side, Fallen London’s browser version will getting a makeover soon, and it looks quite nice.

Failbetter’s cost-cutting measures include suspending Fundbetter, their punfaced scheme to help fund small narrative games, “until business improves for us.” Launched into 2016, the scheme has helped fund games including The Edgelands and Astronaut: The Best. Failbetter say, “Giving back to the community was very rewarding, and we have some ideas for how we’d do it again in future, but right now we just don’t have the spare funds or bandwidth.”

Best of luck to everyone affected by the layoffs.

41 Comments

  1. zulnam says:

    Wasn’t sunless skies kickstarted?

    • Archonsod says:

      Yup, they mention that as being one of the potential reasons (thousands of people already backed the kickstarter, so naturally didn’t buy the game at the EA launch).

  2. ran93r says:

    I jumped in to Sunless Sea with both feet as soon as the Kickstarter was available, played it as soon as I could and then played it some more. By the time it was actually released, I was mostly done with it and that felt quite anti-climactic.

    I am still very interested in Sunless Skies and absolutely will be buying it upon release but there is no incentive for me to jump on board again in early access.

    I’m sure the game will be fantastic and I sincerely hope the sales are there. I wish everyone who has had to part ways the best of luck.

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      Yeah, this.

      Sunless Sea is a great game, but releasing narrative-based games into early access is always a tricky proposition. Players risk ruining significant portions of the game for themselves if they take advantage of the opportunity to preview an unfinished product. Many of us made this mistake in the early days of EA and Kickstarter and have now learned from our errors. I suspect that accounts for much of the difference in numbers.

      I’ve been avoiding the demo of Consortium: The Tower for the exact same reason, despite adoring the first entry in the series and investing an obscene amount into their Fig campaign. The more I care about a narrative-based game, the less likely I am to spoil it for myself. Failbetter should not necessarily take the low EA sales numbers as a sign that their audience is not interested in the product that they’re making.

      • mmandthetat says:

        That’s a great point. I love Sunless Sea and am very interested in Sunless Skies, but I haven’t even considered buying it in EA.

      • Vastial says:

        It works both ways. The Lone Dark being a prime example of a game which at release on EA only provided a sandbox experience but later added more narrative based gameplay. By that point people had already clocked hundreds of hours and the story mode felt underwhelming.

      • skittles says:

        One of the major issues I see with the game is that it seemingly offers nothing new. People aren’t interested in the EA because they can play Sunless Seas, they know how the game works. Playing the EA when you know all the mechanics and how the game works is therefore less enticing. People will wait for the complete game. If they wanted a horde of people to support EA they really would have needed to add something enticing to the mix, change the game up a lot more than they have, something that would make players want to play it NOW.

    • dontnormally says:

      Just adding my 2c to the “will absolutely buy as soon as its released” bucket for Failbetter to hopefully see. I am less enthused in general about early access these days.

    • Coming Second says:

      Absolutely this, plus you’re paying full whack to experience it in EA. Which is a bit cheeky like, given they crowdfunded it. I look forward to playing it in its fully realised form, but anticipating a lot of sales in this period seems shortsighted to say the least.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Mikemcn says:

    I love fallen london’s world, and comeback to the browser game and sunless seas every few months.

    Its a great world held back by obtuse and clunky “game” mechanics, i dream of someone like the dishonored devs building a sprawling RPG in that world.

    • Blackcompany says:

      Oh God this.

      Grinding just to read words in the age of self published novels and literary freedom of choice is…not working for me. I’ve so many options for reading that I cannot be bothered to grind paragraphs.

      But a big open RPG in this world? I’d throw money at it, were it done right, with emphasis on exploration, choice and secrets as opposed to just combat all the time…

    • April March says:

      Ugh, no. I’d hate a Fallen London game where you could actually walk around Fallen London. First, because that would take a lot of mystery once the city has an actual map. Second, because a game that takes place in a physical space will almost certainly have a focus on physical actions, and one of the things I love the most about FL is how fighting a duel, casing a nobleman’s mansion, writing a novel and participating in a fancy high society dinner are all activities that are done through the same interface and have had around the same amount of effort put into them.

      All I’d like is a version of it without the grind. Just explore the world, do stuff, talk to people, read great delicious words ungated. Too bad the game would need to be restarted from the ground up for that to happen.

      • TheBetterStory says:

        I agree, the joy of Fallen London is the joy of its excellent prose. I wouldn’t be interested in a more traditional experience. I found Sunless Sea far better than Fallen London in terms of not forcing me to reread the same thing over and over, at least not to quite the same extent. I also discovered far more about the lore of the world within a few hours than I did puttering around in Fallen London for years.

        The devs said they used the grinding to pace the story, presumably because it wouldn’t be possible to write an equivalent amount of prose to fill in the same amount of time. Still, I will be quite content if Sunless Skies has similar mechanics, so long as it provides me new morsels of story.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    I just find the idea of a huge, dark, underground ocean full of sorta-lovecraftian-mess a lot more evocative than “steam ships in space”.

    That said I do hope it does well enough to keep the studio going. They make interesting games, and that’s more than can be said for a lot of companies.

    • GernauMorat says:

      I have to agree – it lacks the immediate attraction of the Fallen London setting. That said, I’ll probably end up getting it as I thoroughly enjoyed their previous efforts.

  5. Scelous says:

    Just speaking personally, I bought Sunless Seas when it was in early access due to the hype. I thought the game was junk, and I’m definitely avoiding Sunless Skies. Maybe that accounts for some lost sales? Some people who didn’t like the first one?

    • nottorp says:

      Tbh I enjoyed Sunless Sea a lot, but I fail to see the difference between Sea and Skies. I got it on Kickstarter but I don’t feel like playing at all… it’s more of the same.

    • rochrist says:

      Considering its very positive rating on Steam and 81 metacritic rating, I’m pretty sure you’re part of a very small minority.

      I loved it.

    • Viral Frog says:

      Agreed. Sunless Sea is (completely subjectively) one of the least enjoyable games I’ve played in the last three years. I wish I could just have all the writing with none of the game. That’s exactly why I will not be pursuing Sunless Skies.

    • Premium User Badge

      Aerothorn says:

      Sunless Sea is a niche, divisive game, and no doubt some people who played it will not want to play Sunless Skies. But that goes both ways – a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t know or care about this game DO care because they played and liked Sunless Sea (and based on sales/feedback, it seems there are more people who liked it then disliked it).

      I suspect it’s a combination of “already backed it on Kickstarter” and ‘waiting for actual release,” with a healthy helping of “oh god we’re drowning in games I don’t have time.”

    • Vilos Cohaagen says:

      I also didn’t enjoy Sunless Seas as much as I really, really wanted to. I have no interest in grind and for me the grind was even worse than in Fallen London which I also quit when it got too grindy. So though I bought the first game I have zero interest in Sunless Skies.

    • dontnormally says:

      FWIW I only really enjoyed Sunless Seas after I cheated a bit and started myself off with something way faster.

    • Shadow says:

      Sunless Sea has great writing and world-building. And that’s it. It’s an interactive fiction game to which they tried to append gameplay mechanics, mostly failing in the process. The barebones systems that are there are just undeveloped and not fun.

      I feel they could’ve been without sacrificing story quality, but it seems that was not the developers’ intent.

      I hold no illusions towards Sunless Skies in that regard. It will most likely be more of the same with a somewhat different backdrop.

  6. playzintraffic says:

    Aww, that’s sad. The last SSkies update was really good, too.

  7. Quite So says:

    I bought Sunless Sea after release, bounced off of it, then got hooked when I tried it again months later.

    I’m very much looking forward to Sunless Skies, but decided to skip Early Access because I want a fresh experience with the finished game.

    Having played the first one, I know how repetitive the story bits can be as you’re building up your familiarity through numerous restarts. I didn’t want to exacerbate that issue by slogging through the starting bits in Early Access.

    • Premium User Badge

      magnificent octopus says:

      I think I remember reading an interview somewhere(helpful, I know), where the devs said that they knew people didn’t like the repetition, and were hoping to avoid at least some of it in Sunless Skies. Personally, I played Fallen London for a while, got tired of grinding to read the story, didn’t buy Sunless Sea for that reason, and I’m watching the Sunless Skies with interest. If it’s less repetitive and grind-y, I will probably buy, but that means waiting for the release.

      • Someoldguy says:

        Likewise. I like story led RPGs. I don’t like repetition, which is why only the very best get replayed once every few years. Anything that makes me replay sections repeatedly in the course of one playthrough usually falls by the wayside, so I’ve stopped buying them now. Fallen London was very atmospheric but that didn’t overcome the grind threshold to be worth sticking with.

      • mashkeyboardgetusername says:

        Similar, the heavy grind in Fallen London, and the fact that recent updates (especially the renown changes, which rewarded those who’d grinded ridiculous values and screwed over everybody else) have tended towards a lot a grind, has made me cautious about Sunless Skies. It still feels like the company culture is to waste as much of the player’s time as possible, so am waiting for reviews of the new game to hear if they actually had managed to change that habit before I buy in.

  8. Hyena Grin says:

    Obviously finances are tricky, but a business plan that relies on pre-orders does seem… risky.

    Especially in a world where game oversaturation is a real thing.

    Sunless Sea is one of those things that appeals but relies too much on mechanics I dislike for me to get very into it. Mainly the whole replay to unlock new content thing. I want games I can play until I’m done, and having to restart frustrates me.

    So I will probably get sunless skies, but because I suspect I won’t play it much, it’ll be on sale. =(

  9. hungrycookpot says:

    I bought seas when it was out of EA and I’m glad I did; after seeing what type of game it is, I’m all in for Skies, but I’m 100% not buying it before full release. I’m totally good with EA games when they’re showcasing new and interesting mechanics and concepts, and that’s not to say that SS aren’t interesting, but they’re interesting because of the stories and writing. And I don’t want to play through half a game, and then have to come back and sit through that same writing again so that I can finally see the other half.

  10. RadicalHorse says:

    I wonder if it’s beginning of steapocalypse. A lot of indies will go under in coming years.It’s getting so bad they openly talk about it. It’s really sad, I have no interest in 40h experiences of established IPs from AAAs. What will happen to steam once all big companies will have own platforms and all there will left are asset flippers pouring more manure with 10000 achievements and CS:GO / DOTA2

    • batraz says:

      That wasn’t the case before Steam and this recent indie golden age, was it ? Sunless Sea, with all the inconveniences everybody mentions, was indeed a reason to believe in indie games, but in many cases it just felt that indie « gems » were promoted by aging critics, who were not really into gaming anymore and were looking for shorter and more original experiences. It’s an interesting path, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t have to take so much space and attention; so I think a bit of natural selection won’t drive us to a nightmarish future made of callofduties and lols.

    • Shadow says:

      Steam apocalypse? Unlikely, but golden ages end at some point.

  11. Vast_Girth says:

    I quite liked Sunless Sea, but i got bored way before i finished it and certainly do not want to play anymore. Skies just looks like more of the same. They really should have made something different.

  12. aircool says:

    Early Access is fun for the first few times… some never get released and others, well, by the time they’re released, there’s just no more milk in the cow.

    Better to wait for the finished product.

    • Shadow says:

      That’s something many gamers have learned in the years since Early Access’ inception. Apparently, not all devs have, which is why the risky proposition of relying on EA sales becomes even riskier in the case of a story-based game like Sunless Skies.

  13. April March says:

    Sad news. I wish all the best for those who were let go and (quite unusually) for the company as well.

    But it’s definitively wise to abandon the FL app – that thing is junky as hell. Retrofitting the site to work better on mobile (as they probably plan to) will be a much simpler and useful thing to do. (Then maybe they can release an app that just opens the website? 😝)

  14. nitric22 says:

    I’ve never heard of this series or developer. I just watched the Sunless Sea trailer and it looks cool. Added to Wishlist. I’ll pick it up soon.

  15. second_hand_virgin says:

    First of all – the price for Sunless Skies in EA was absurd, like for a finished game. It’s a really big curiosity killer, even if i have fond memories of two previous Failbetter games and want to play another.

  16. ZakG says:

    The ‘atmosphere’ in Sunless Sea; generated by most of the games graphics and all the games sounds/music, and off course the writing, was top notch.

    However the gameplay, coming as it does from mobile/app familiarity and traditions, was not, for a ‘PC game’ imho.

    I had to do two things before i could enjoy and play the game for more than a few hours:

    1. mod the game to reduce slightly fuel usage, not a cheating level or reduction, but enough to avoid the OTT grind. It massively helped reduce frustration and aid a better PC game flow imho.

    2. mod the character portraits to an ensemble of better looking artworks (taken from various suitable games like the Fall From Heaven II mod for CivIV etc) that really helped me ‘get into’ my character.

    Love the game to bits now, and still not finished it, but it gets way more playtime than it would in release-state.

    IF i want to play a grind-heavy designed mobile game, i would do that on the platform it suits.

    IF i want to seriously sit down and get into a game on PC it needs to ‘feel’ like it belongs on my desktop and is worth the time put in.

    I hope Failbetter do manage to keep doing what they are doing, and also i hope they become better PC game designers and better versed in that platforms strengths and play to them.

    A great example might be Armageddon Empires:

    link to en.wikipedia.org

    Built in an odd-ball way by a small dev, and like Sunless Sea dripping in atmosphere (minus the writing!) BUT 100% perfectly balanced for PC as a design. PC games and mobile/facebook games are different beasts, you need to really build/design specifically for the different platforms to get best success.

  17. hughie522 says:

    I’m waiting for the full release. I want to play the complete game, not the beta.

Comment on this story

HTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>