Last year, Failbetter Games moved to new offices near London Bridge. To the incautious, the building is a maze of identical white corridors and glass walled office rooms, punctuated by sleek break areas with helpfully labelled cupboards. I kept thinking it would be a terrible place to get stuck with a serial killer, especially because I only had a visitor pass and couldn't open most of the maglock doors. I was visiting to talk about the 10th anniversary of Fallen London, the studio's free-to-play browser game. It doubles as the 10th anniversary of the studio. Sort of. Within an acceptable tolerance, anyway.
It is a very modern office - the sort where each business based there has glass jars of mixed nuts, Smarties and Kit Kats, periodically refilled by the building managers. (Disclosure: I have eaten more than one of Failbetter's free Kit Kats). It seems at odds with the tone of Failbetter's games, which are all of a Victoriana, Steampunky persuasion. CEO Adam Myers restores that balance by saying "Do you have any interest in tea brewed in a pot?"
He produces a cast iron teapot, vanishes to fill it, then returns to let it brew. He gives information and instructions about the tea: it is whole leaves rather than ground up, and is paler than teabag tea. It works with milk if you want, but you should use less than you would normally. He carefully distributes it among the people in the room. "I have a feeling that we'll need to use it twice," he adds. "But that's no problem."
Communications Director Hannah Flynn had previously explained that Failbetter have "a lot of different working from home arrangements across the team", so while maybe half the full-time staff have a permanent desk at Failbetter's office, the others have to book out an empty room to use when they visit the building.
On the day I'm there to talk to Flynn and Myers about the anniversary, we're in a small, hot attic room with a slanting roof, and Operations Manager Helena Morris, writer James Chew, and Art Director Paul Arendt are all quietly working away at the table, too. Arendt grumbles, in a good natured way, that Flynn did not bring a Kit Kat for everyone.
Myers answers my questions thoughtfully, in long sentences that have long pauses in between, so he can give a considered, accurate answer. He says that it was Flynn who first raised the issue of the anniversary, perhaps as much as a year before, in part because they had to actually nail down the date for it. "You have to pick a birthday that means something," Flynn explains. "We picked the date that was the incorporation of the company which was the 11th of January, but there were betas and people using the site before that."
"The site" means, of course, Fallen London, a story-based browser game set in an alt-Goth version of Victorian London a mile beneath the surface of the Earth. Failbetter's roguelike games Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies are set in the same universe. As Flynn points out, "10 years is a tremendous achievement in the lifespan of anything, let alone a browser game."
Fallen London is a particularly strange browser game. It has been in constant development since it launched, with regular editions of Exceptional Stories that are sort of like seasons of DLC. Doing almost anything in the game requires you to use actions, which restore over time, but the premium currency Fate can be used to refresh actions instantly or unlock extra storylines. Probably the most economical way to be a premium player is to subscribe for a fiver a month.
I dabbled in Fallen London when I was about 19, the start of the aforementioned ten years ago, and reacquainted myself with it now. You start a homeless newcomer to the city and flail, fight, or otherwise raconteur your way through various unlikely adventures. I immediately pursued "The Case of the Honey-Addled Detective", and received "20 x whispered hint" upon finding him. When you create your profile, you can choose to be a gentleman, a lady, or 'My dear sir, there are individuals roaming the streets of Fallen London at this very moment with the faces of squid! Squid! Do you ask them their gender? And yet you waste our time asking me trifling and impertinent questions about mine? It is my own business, sir, and I bid you good day.' That's the sort of game it is.
"One of the things that has always been best about Fallen London, I think, is the sense that if you play it you don't quite know what the boundaries of its possibilities and affordances are." Myers says, explaining that they have quite a few ideas for the anniversary, and very few were outright rejected (though some were set aside for later, being too ambitious in their scope). "It's a game that can bend the rules when it wants to."
I am given glimpses of some of the secret somethings the team is working on to mark the anniversary. One, now announced, is that the Ambitions will be finished. Myers describes them as "the closest things FL has to a core story for an individual protagonist" - one is about avenging the death of a loved one, another about stealing a comically enormous diamond - and they started around '09 or '10, so now seems a natural time to make that kind of meaningful change to the game. But they also don't want players to think that's a reason to stop playing. It is, Myers emphasises, "a good opportunity to offer up new and exciting things that will hopefully convince players to stick around," adding that "there are underdeveloped areas all over Fallen London, geographically and in the lore, which we have lots of ideas for."
The number of players for Fallen London does fluctuate a little over time, but they have a base of very dedicated players. Flynn says she thinks that Failbetter fans get something from the studio's games that they can't get elsewhere, and Myers agrees.
"There are some hallmarks to Failbetter's narrative work which I think are really distinctive, and inspire passion rather than mere fondness." In their games, he says, they try and tempt the player away from being in actor stance, making decisions from the point of view of the protagonist and their best interest ("that's not what it really means but I'm going to use it"), to director stance ("to abuse language again"), where they think about the overall value of the story that they're participating in making. The strongest motivation for that, they've found, is curiosity - to pit the player's curiosity against their character's interests.
There are other things, too: finding a way to add a third option when there are only two obvious paths; making a failure one that the player won't expect; offering a choice that is clearly a terrible idea but would be really funny.
The reactions to this sort of thing can be unexpected when Failbetter games come into contact with players outside their normal community. This was the case with The Last Court, a free browser game they made for BioWare that's set between Dragon Age 2 and Dragon Age: Inquisition. "There were definitely players who were irritated that it was asking them to choose between optimal gameplay and access to exciting narrative content," says Myers.
But the core fanbase cleaves to their values. Myers describes Failbetter fans as "unusually lovely", citing that they hadn't had to take a single moderation action in their newly opened Discord server. Flynn shows me a shelf of gifts and fan art they've received, including a set of smooth, rounded figurines cast in different metals and emblazoned with a big F on their tummies. Every so often, a new one appears in the post, anonymously. Flynn tells me, conspiratorially, that she's pretty sure who's sending them.
"It's a lifestyle for a lot of them," she says. "They meet friends through it, we've had multiple marriages through it, people have moved continents to be together having met through it." She describes an "extremely wonderful couple", one of whom has a tattoo of the clockwork Dawn Machine from Sunless Sea, the other who does amazing Fallen London fan art.
"They met through our games! That is a privilege as well. Having that position in people's lives is an extraordinary privilege."
The success of Fallen London has put Failbetter in a privileged position in other ways, and ones that they acknowledge as such. "We have to be very careful to not give advice to people who are coming up after us that is advice they can't take," says Flynn, explaining that as much as Failbetter's success has involved hard work, it's also been down to luck and being in the right place at the right time. The formation of Failbetter came a little before the indie breakthrough period, so they were able to find success with Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight before those platforms became saturated. Myers notes that he wouldn't advise anyone to try and make a version of Fallen London for their fledgling studio.
"We've kind of stumbled into that position and it's a good position for us, but creating an enormous browser game as a free to play project and hoping that your community will stick around for ten years is probably not your strongest bet... " he says, although adds that "there aren't many secure models in video games" with a laugh.
Nevertheless, that Fallen London remains "relatively predictable" as a revenue stream means the studio can make games on their own terms, without having to do any negotiations with publishers. Flynn says that "getting to make our own decisions on our own terms is extremely freeing and a relief."
It also means that Failbetter has a reduced risk for any future ventures, and they are, Myers says, "quite risk averse", and yet Failbetter hasn't been comfortable, even in recent years. While Sunless Skies was eventually commercially successful for the studio, it underperformed in early access compared to Sunless Sea, and in early 2018 the studio delayed the full release and laid off several members of staff. Myers now pegs making Failbetter a good place to work as a key priority, "and part of that is being in a place where we're not all constantly worried that it's going to go bust and we're all going to lose our jobs."
"I think for a lot of us, that might be the most important thing," he adds. "We want to make good and interesting games, but probably the majority of us care more about having a really good compassionate, decent workplace."
Now, back in a more secure position, Failbetter is cautiously expanding, having recently hired Emily Short as Creative Director, and looking towards the future. Myers smiles happily when thinking about the next games they're going to work on, after capping Sunless Skies with the Sovereign Edition. "We have all sorts of ... things... in the ether for what comes next," Flynn says, with what I would characterise as deliberate mystery. "It feels really nice, even having been doing this for so long, to feel like there is lots of potential, still. Not just in Fallen London, but outside of that universe too."
Myers explains that their position right now means that there's more room for creative risk, so they can take their time with preproduction and potentially even throw out ideas after a couple of months of work if they're not panning out. "One of the intentions we had when working on Sunless Skies and deciding the scope of the game was to broaden the range of other games that we'd be able to make afterwards," he says. "For all the ups and downs of making it, it definitely achieved that. We have so many more possibilities open. That's going to be really fun."
"I think," he says, after a characteristic thoughtful pause, "the company's in a better place at the moment than it has ever been before."
Disclosure: Nate was once the recipient of Failbetter's now defunct microfunding scheme Fundbetter, but the game was cancelled. Former RPS columnist Emily Short is now Failbetter's creative director. I, Alice Bell, have had one (1) lunch with Hannah Flynn and it was nice.