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Failbetter Games on how to not make a DLC

Sometimes the winning move is not to play

A couple of years ago, in 2019, Failbetter Games were thinking about a new DLC for their historical-gothic, RPG-with-a-flying-steam-train Sunless Skies. They were starting pre-production on their next game, but wouldn't need a full team's worth of resources on it. It would be, said CEO Adam Myers, "economically useful" to have something to work on that didn't have a deadline. They wanted it to transform the game, in the same way that the Zubmariner DLC had transformed Sunless Sea. It involved exploring history, and accruing a kind of meddled-with-time score for being a very naughty little time meddler.

By summer 2020, they'd swept the DLC off the table.

"It’s not quite right to say we cancelled it," Myers explained to me more recently over email. "The DLC never entered production. All the work we did towards it was about figuring out if we should go ahead and make it."

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The process of actually making games is one that is opaque to almost everyone on the consumer side. This isn't really different to most things I consume - I have no idea what processes go into providing me with dried spaghetti, for instance. But the difference is that you don't often see people going on Twitter to say they found their spaghetti to be creatively substandard, that the factory workers who made it are lazy, and there are very simple ways to "fix" said pasta.

So when I arrived at Failbetter in September 2019 to poke my nose into the development process (as well as talk about Fallen London's 10th anniversary), I already knew that studios often have their own terms or ways of doing things. I learned that at Failbetter, for example, "content" is used to refer specifically to written word bits in the game. I associate the term with jokes about hashtag content being optimised for social media interaction, so it was funny to hear narrative director Chris Gardiner saying things like "that can all be done with content" in a meeting.

I sat in on a very early meeting to discuss ideas for the DLC. As well as Myers and Gardiner, around the table were art director Paul Arendt, producer Stuart Young, and communications director Hannah Flynn. Specifically, the team were trying to nail down a mechanic they were tentatively referring to as Rust. The concept for the DLC was, in very broad terms, that the player would travel into the past - go physically into "a History", of which there would be several - and have opportunities to do things that affected the present. As part of that you would gradually accrue a new kind of Quality, used in Sunless Skies to track your Captain's progress with certain quests. In Rust's case, it'd be a sort of +3 to your stepped-on-a-butterfly-ness. But the team wanted to better define its limits and effects.

A Sunless Skies ship floats around a sunless sky, also, Big Ben is there.
Image credit: Failbetter Games

It was interesting to watch the dynamic of the meeting, with everyone pinballing off everyone else. Gardiner employed what I described in my notes as "big thinking face", closing his eyes as if reading off his own thoughts. Myers was a fizzing sort of a person, and in the meeting he kept neither his hands nor his brain still for very long. Arendt, who has been at Failbetter since the beginning, was a more grounded presence. He said things like, "Give the audience a huge slice of steak at the beginning, you can get by on sizzle for the rest of it", with the air of a carpenter measuring up lengths of imagination. Flynn, who later told me later that someone in her role might not be part of meetings like that at other studios, casually threw in suggestions that ended up being some of the most significant.

In trying to come up with a better name than "Rust", they touched on scientific vs. natural processes, summoning, and Victorian seances. Gardiner reeled off ideas like Nostalgia, Haunting, Visitation, and made a comparison to Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Myers casually dropped that, "another place we could look is the Book of Revelation, or the more imaginative theologians like Swedenborg." On it went like this. They discussed Stephen King and Pennywise, the Furies from Greek mythology, The Sopranos. There was no mention of famous time travel stuff like Doctor Who.

"For it to make sense, DLC generally needs to be relatively quick to make. It turned out the Skies DLC wouldn’t be."

My strongest takeaway was how vital producers are. Young didn't speak much, but he was the only one who made notes, listened very carefully to what was being said, and then transformed that into actual concrete next steps. I got the impression that without Young, Failbetter would come up with fabulous ideas and then, after a couple of years of studious and concentrated work, be faintly surprised that they didn't appear to have made a game.

Of course, soon afterwards, Failbetter decided to make something else. I asked why they cancelled production on the DLC, which is when Myers explained that cancelled wasn't the right word, and that it wasn't in production (further underlining my lack of real understanding of anything). They had been mapping out the DLC enough to be able to answer key questions like, "Would it be feasible, sellable, or any good?" But the most critical turned out to be: "How long will it take to make?"

"The answer was too high," said Myers. "You can only sell DLC to people who own the original game; it varies a lot, but maybe 30% of the people who own that might buy the DLC as well. So for it to make sense, DLC generally needs to be relatively quick to make. It turned out the Skies DLC wouldn’t be."

Gardiner also noted that they wanted the DLC to change the game world, but owing to all the free post-launch updates for Sunless Skies, making the DLC transformative in the same way Zubmariner was for Sunless Sea would need a lot more work. Zubmariner seems to be a bit of a white whale for the studio; it is always described as "enormous" or "massive", usually accompanied by an adverb like "mistakenly".

An upsetting maw in the Zubmariner DLC

Last year, Failbetter hired Emily Short as Creative Director, and began work on their new game Mask Of The Rose. It's a romantic visual novel set in the Fallen London universe (the first concept for which was originally a sort of joke example to show anyone on team how to pitch an idea for future projects, intended to be "something we clearly weren't going to make").

"I'm game-directing - and also doing the individual writing for - Mask Of The Rose. I'm also overseeing Fallen London," Short explained, when I asked her what her title means at Failbetter, since it varies between studios. "That said, this is a company with a number of very experienced people and some very developed existing IP. So there's a lot of collaboration."

She cited how, for example, Arendt has had a big creative impact on the look and feel of Mask Of The Rose, which then necessarily affects other areas of the game. Arendt himself complained about the "tremendous number of sleeves" he has had to draw for Mask Of The Rose - at least two per pose per character. "It is very difficult and I don’t like it any more. I see cloth folds in my dreams," he said, adding that they're using a "more painterly style" than is typical in most visual novels.

With Mask Of The Rose in particular, Short said they were at an advantage with a head start on the writing, since the setting is already established. But Mask Of The Rose is a different size and genre to what the studio has done in the past, and the team structure is definitely different - though how much of that is down to the project needing a different style versus Short shaking things up a bit is hard for her to say.

"The company has really grown in its creative capacity over the past couple of years – both how many projects it can do at once, and the potential of those projects," she added. "There are some lovely things happening in in-house prototypes."

A WIP screen of Mask Of The Rose showing the characters Archie and Griz

Failbetter's way of working seems extremely collaborative. People can give suggestions on things that are outside the areas of expertise defined by their roles. Even before the pandemic, Failbetter offered different kinds of flexible working and were ahead of the game on things like working from home, which many of them did already. Myers acknolwedges that they were probably better set up for the pandemic than most teams - though they have still struggled, and seen the impact on everyone's wellbeing.

They've now decided to permanently give up their office in London, though they hope to have meetings for those close enough to travel once or twice a month, and all-hands gatherings once a year - they have more international staff now too. Looking back, Failbetter may not have been the best studio to visit to get a typical view on development processes because they seem to be quite an atypical studio - but in a way that makes it more interesting to see what is actually possible. I'd be surprised if we ever heard about crunch conditions at Failbetter.

They do have a lot on, though. As well as launching the Sovereign Edition of Sunless Skies and working on Mask Of The Rose, Failbetter are making something else that's completely new. One of Short's personal goals was to "spearhead improvements to the tools and documentation", and according to Myers they've made space for proper tooling right at the start this time. "It is very good to have a bunch of powerful and flexible debug options we can just plug in to every prototype," he said.

I asked if there were any little details they could reveal about this mystery game. "I think it might be the first of our games in which it rains?" said Myers.

"Can we reveal that it might have a European bison in it?" said Gardiner. "They're called wisents, they've been dragged back from the very brink of extinction, and they look like a rectangle had a baby with a Muppet. Magnificent beasts; should be in more games."

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