Failbetter Games talk Fallen London, Sunless Sea and Beyond

I was lucky enough to get talking to Alexis Kennedy (then CEO of Failbetter Games) over Twitter in 2014. When I parted company with the website I originally wrote the Failbetter articles for, Alexis invited me to come and assist with the launch of Sunless Sea. It was a great experience and one I still look back on fondly.

 


It seems rather fitting that the makers of Fallen London are based so close to a London landmark, albeit a modern one: the company’s offices overlook the O2 Arena. On the cusp of releasing their latest project, Sunless Sea, and with whispers of big Bioware related announcements coming soon, I spoke to Failbetter Games’ Chief Narrative Officer Alexis Kennedy to find out what’s happening in the UK games company.

You’re best known for being the makers of Fallen London. Did the company grow around Fallen London, or did Failbetter exist from the start?

Failbetter came first. I was a software developer for a decade, and software developers like to make startups because we like building things and we don’t understand the other things you need to make a start up, like sales and marketing, which are always on different floors in a big company. I used to think sales and marketing, for example, were surplus. So software developers always think if you build a website things will just happen. Failbetter Games was originally going to be Buzzkill Games, but we thought it gave the wrong idea. Failbetter is a bit more positive.

How did Fallen London start?

I’d always wanted to do something around games and something around writing, and every time I tried to write I felt drawn back to games and every time I tried to do game design I felt drawn back to writing. My original interest was in the Storynexus engine, which was at the time called Prisoner’s Honey.

Echo Bazaar actually started out as a Twitter game, based on bidding on things online. We’d encourage people to tweet things online using certain words and phrases, and there’d be prizes, or “echoes” for getting so many people to retweet it, getting someone well known and with a lot of followers involved and so on. I started writing bits of lore and creating power ups for that… and then I lost total interest in the original concept, but I liked some of the narrative that had been created from it.

So it started to creep toward the game we have now at that point. We changed the name because a developer friend told me “I’d play a game called Fallen London, I wouldn’t play a game called Echo Bazaar”. We’d moved so far from the original concept that I agreed and we became Fallen London. There’s still little moments that reference where we came from though, like Echoes being the games currency, and of course, the game does still have the Bazaar.

When you first launched, how did you feel about the response?

Blown away. To be honest, when you’ve been working on something in your bedroom, seeing that 300 people are playing feels like a massive achievement. But real professional game developers were playing the game and talking about it, and that was as scary as it was exhilarating. I think we got lucky with the flavour of the game and people’s reaction to it – we were in the right place at the right time. Two thirds of our audience is actually American – we think they like the game in the same way they like Sherlock and Doctor Who, in that they like the tone, the humour and the setting.

And then Extra Credits (a web series by several game developers about the difficulties of making a game) plugged us in a 2010 episode – bless them! They actually crashed us! So many people went to check us out based on that video that they brought down the server.

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Extra Credits praised you for making a game that involved more than just combat, where you could do little things like inviting a friend to dinner. Do you think that has a lot to do with your popularity?

I can understand why people might enjoy the variation. We’re a fantasy game, and the fantasy genre often does involve more than “just hitting things” – although we do have combat in the game for those who prefer it. I liked being able to offer lesser found activities, like being a court poet, where becoming renowned was more than just a few dialogue trees, but you actually felt like you’d worked for it. Dream sequences are another thing I think we do differently – in most things, dream sequences are done for exposition, whereas we made them more a part of the rhythm of everyday life. You sleep, you dream, sometimes you have nightmares.

Fallen London is very narrative heavy – do you think that’s been to your benefit?

It gives us a lot of leeway in my opinion. When most of the story is being communicated through the text, it allows for a lot of ambiguity. If we had to do 3D renders of every setting and character, we’d lose so much of the mystery, and without the mystery half our atmosphere would be gone. We can switch perspectives, do flashbacks and dream sequences in ways we’d have no chance to do in a more visual game.

There is some debate about whether we can actually be called a “video game” though. We’re undeniably a game, but there’s no “video”, no animation – we won an award in 2009, and when we went to the ceremony, the footage on the screens cut from gameplay from Arkham Asylum to the page of text and pictures that makes up Fallen London. They actually had to pan over the page since nothing moved!

How long does it take to write a Storylet (Questline)?

That really depends on the Storylet. We calculate story time by the number of branches – a two branch story can take five minutes. A recent storylet had 42 branches though! On a full day where we’re working mostly on Fallen London, we try to do about 20 branches, which works out to about 5-6 stories on average. Writing content takes time, and that’s before we consider the mechanics and continuity we’ll have to test to make sure the new story works before we release it. Sometimes it’s also as hard to write short as it is long.

Can you see player’s progress in the game?

We can! We have a mountain of data that we’re sitting on at the moment about all the players and their experiences of the game. We actually hired someone from the Fallen London community to help us analyse the data, and look at the most common paths for players and so on. But it’s such a big job that it’s hard to know where to start.

We’re wary of publishing too much data though, partly because we don’t want players to feel overly monitored, and also because we don’t want to ruin the feeling of anonymity for players. Many players “crosscast” and play as the opposite gender, or maybe as a sexuality that isn’t their own, and we wouldn’t want anyone to feel unsafe in doing that.

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Fallen London has been praised for letting players create gender neutral characters. What was the thought process behind that?

That was a conscious decision right from the start, but we never set out to be revolutionary with it or to make a point. The concept of gender binary and non-gender binary weren’t really a hot topic the way they are right now, they weren’t as on the radar. We were aware that people may prefer the option to not say their gender, so we provided that option. I’m called Alexis, so many people who meet me were expecting a woman (and many were greatly disappointed that I wasn’t), and as you can imagine I had a fun time with such a name when I was a teenager. So I can sort of understand why some players want to feel “untethered” in a game, that their gender is inconsequential.

It actually started the idea for the Rubbery Men (people in the game with the heads of squid), because I loved the line about “There are people walking around with the heads of squid, and you ask me something as irrelevant as my gender?” and wanted to make sure that could stay, so since it promised squid faced men, we made squid faced men.

You’ve been called Lovecraftian a few times…

We have. I originally searched for any other word than squid to describe the Rubbery Men because of the Cthulu overtones, but squid was by far the best fit, in part because it’s such a funny word. I would argue – with decreasing conviction, I’ll admit – that there are no Lovecraftian elements in Fallen London. The same with Steampunk, although again with the same decreasing conviction. I’d argue we don’t have the same unrelenting misery of Lovecraft stories – we’re a cosmic horror story, yes, but we’re a cheerful one! Instead, we’re all borrowing from the same common sources, so of course, eventually there will be overlap. Also, when you’re trying to create strange and wonderful new animals, eventually something’s going to end up with tentacles.

It’s been four years though, and I don’t think anyone’s worked out that the Bazaar has tentacles yet.

With four years behind you, what would you do differently if you had a chance to redo the game from scratch?

Oh, lots. So much, but I think the biggest thing I’d change was our original overreliance on Twitter, such as people having to use it to log in, encouraging people to tweet about the game for extra actions and so on, because that probably put off potential players who didn’t have a twitter account.

We also underestimated the commitment of the players. When we were just about to launch, I set up a spreadsheet with four classes of player: Casual, Dedicated, Hardcore and Bot. Three weeks after launch, a huge chunk of the players were classed under the “Bot” category! People can change from a bit engaged to super hardcore players very quickly, and we didn’t expect that at all. Players also got through content a lot faster than we’d expected them to, so to start with we were trying to lay down tracks for the game only a step ahead of the players, and then of course they’d play the next step so you’d have to set up another. It took us a while to realise players were happy to wait for new content if it meant they’d get a good amount at once.

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Moving on to your latest project, Sunless Sea – is this is an extension of the Fallen London Universe?

Yes, it is. We actually fought being “The Fallen London guys” for quite some time, we tried other projects, but nothing succeeded with anywhere near the numbers Fallen London brought in. Most Failbetter fans are Fallen London fans, you get fans who say they love Fallen London, and another game we’ve made, but we’ve never had anyone mention one of the others games as their favourite.

We funded Sunless Sea using Kickstarter, which we’d had mixed success with in the past, one successful campaign, one failed. But we wouldn’t have put the game on Kickstarter unless we thought it could succeed, considering we had to spend time making concept art, it was a serious commitment. We honestly thought we’d hit £80,000 at the absolute most, so hitting £100,000 was a great feeling. Some people donated thousands to us to push us over the £100,000 mark, which is good but also terrifying – you don’t want to let people down!

How does Sunless Sea differ to Fallen London?

At the risk of stating the obvious, Fallen London is set in a city, while Sunless Sea is set on the ocean. Sunless Sea whips away the familiar almost entirely, taking the player from busy streets to windswept cliffs. We wanted to highlight the loneliness of being at sea, with only a small crew, unlike Fallen London where you can wander the streets and meet people.

The gameplay is different as well – we suddenly have this whole game where it’s possible to play while barely looking at the text. It’s tremendously freeing to not have to write 20,000 words every time you want to do something new, but suddenly having to deal with real time gaming brings up whole new problems and difficulties.

So the plot revolves around exploration?

It’s a layered plot, but yes. What you’re doing from moment to moment in Sunless Sea is making decisions on how to survive, dealing with your rising fear and hunger, while deciding what ports to head for. And then when you reach port, or talk to a crew member, or a storylet pops up because you’re scared, then there’s choices to be made there.

There’s four ambitions, for lack of a better word, for the game, and those are your end goals. You can sail off the edge of the map, set up a utopian society on one of the many islands you discover, unlock the legacy of your family… or you could just make enough money to retire comfortably. It’s entirely up to you.

There’ll also be tough choices to make along the way – activities such as travelling new areas and discovering new creatures fill up your exploration bar, which gains you secrets, which you can use to boost your stats or spend to further stories on the ship. If you want to learn more about a member of your crew, for example, you’l have to invite them to dinner in your cabin, which will use up more of your food supplies. When an journey ends, you won’t be able to keep everything you find, so you’ll have to choose what’s most important to your game and your story.

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How would you describe Sunless Sea to people who haven’t played Fallen London?

It’s a challenging game, where the emphasis is on the atmosphere of exploration, where you might cross the next wave and find something completely new and unexpected.

When can we expect Sunless Sea Out?

We’re hoping to release the game at the end of May, but it might slip to June or July.

Any plans for DLC/Expansion on the original story?

We committed to one expansion pack in the Kickstarter for getting past £100,000. Anything beyond that depends on how well the game does. Ideally, we can keep adding content indefinitely. The biggest obstacle is adding new artwork, which would require more of a patch than an update.

Do you have any further plans for Fallen London?

We have plans, but it’d be charitable to call them concrete in any way. We’re interested in creating a “hardcore” version of Fallen London for mobile devices called The Flit, which would probably focus more on the poverty found in Victorian London, where every single scrap of resource counts.

We were originally hoping to continue the small Fallen London comic we started, Sophia and Mr Soap, but unfortunately the online host we found fell through. We’d like to continue it one day, but we’d have to find it a decent home first.

Now, about that Bioware Collaberation…

Ah yes. That has actually been two years in the making.

Two years? How have you not burst?

I don’t know! It did take a long time to become more than just a possibility, so that made it a little easier to not be able to talk about it once it became a real thing.

We were originally invited by Bioware to give a talk about interactive narratives – there’s quite a few people in the company who’ve been vocal fans and big supporters of Fallen London, but it was still terrifying to stand in front of big time games developers and say “This is how we do it!”, and then they suggested we might want to do a project for them, and of course we said yes.

How was it working with Bioware developers?

It was great! The people at Bioware are really smart, and they were good about letting us stay in creative control because they wanted the Failbetter touch. Every time there was a decision to be made, they went with what we wanted to do.

Any last clues you can give us?

Sadly, it’s not a full Fallen London RPG. It definitely has elements of Fallen London though – it’s definitely a Failbetter-y game, because  that’s what interests us. What I can say is that we are going to be making an announcement in the coming months. Watch this space!