When VICE Gaming wrote about Sunless Sea earlier this year, the words were topped by a no-messing-about headline: "Sunless Sea Is the First Essential Video Game of 2015." We meant it. It's great. And here we have an excerpt from a forthcoming book on indie gaming, Independent By Design, which goes behind the scenes of its makers, Failbetter Games. The book will also feature the likes of Roll7, Vlambeer, The Chinese Room, Subset Games, Acid Nerve and Dennaton – find out more, and support the book, on Kickstarter.
"Ever tried. Ever failed.
Try Again. Fail again.
Overnight success rarely happens overnight. That moment in which everything comes together is often the result of a long period of hard work, constant re-evaluation and several healthy missteps that help determine an eventual successful direction.
For Failbetter Games, the creative process has meandered this way and that over the past five years. The team size has fluctuated with its seesawing fortunes as it has chugged away industriously on exploratory forays into unknown territory. But while its recent story is one of success, momentum and forward thinking, its past is one of tentative steps and hesitant beginnings, where progress was measured in far smaller increments and output was determined as much by constraints as it was determination and ability.
"Everything the studio did in the early days was entirely dictated by the things that I could personally do," remembers Failbetter Games CEO and creative director, Alexis Kennedy. "[That meant] writing and coding, while my visual abilities – or anything to do with art or animation – wasn't something that I could get anywhere with, and so I wanted to do something text-based.
"At the beginning, it was a product of necessity. I was looking around at what was happening in the game space and back in 2009 people were still saying with an entirely straight face that casual Facebook games were the future of gaming. There was this idea that they were going to evolve magically from being cheap viral tricks to become more sophisticated, in the way that XCOM eventually evolved from Pong, and I bought into that and so the thing that I created looked a lot like that in lots of ways."
Kennedy first toyed with the notion of creating a game based around Twitter, predicated on the idea of bidding on terms that people might use in Tweets and even encouraging them to say them, accompanied by a suite of power-ups to promote the idea of progression. This concept, of a type of marketplace dealing in words and phrases, led Kennedy to coin the title Echo Bazaar, but he found that as he developed the idea it took on a different shape entirely. The tinge of the macabre and perverse that characterises Kennedy's writing style led to a darker, more nocturnal vision and, as he became more interested in the fiction, he found himself leaning towards something in which that element became a far more substantial part, and the idea of a social media tie-in fell away.
The result of Kenney's new direction was Fallen London, a rich tapestry of a fictional city spirited away by bats and taken underground. Powering Fallen London and forming its technical bedrock was StoryNexus, a toolset created to enable those interested in weaving their own tales of branching narrative and richly flavoured text. It's unusual for a toolset to be made available to the community before a fully realised experience exists, but for Kennedy the simultaneous creation and on-going curating of StoryNexus and Fallen London simply mirrored his twin passions of writing and game creation.
"I wanted to write all my life," says Kennedy. "But every time I sat down to write fiction, I felt I had the other itch of wanting to write games, and every time I sat down to write games… So there we go, I was obviously always going to do a hybrid of the two. But having started out that way, it was so unusual to be doing a fundamental free-to-play text-based game that was making any money at all."
Nonetheless, while Kennedy lived and breathed the words that caused him to champion the notion of interactive fiction, he knew that he would need to provide some basic iconography to enrich the world that he was asking the players of Fallen London to inhabit. As Kennedy puts it, "I realised that my aggressive stance of black text on a white background and lo-tech aesthetic really needed some pictures."
Enter Paul Arendt, at the time a film journalist whose primary passion was art and drawing. Kennedy asked Arendt for a few icons for the Fallen London browser-based game he was creating, and then a few more, and before long an agreement was reached. Instead of Arendt being paid cash for his work, as was Kennedy's initial offer, he would take a share of the fledgling company, something both men were happy with while remaining fully aware that it may yield little to nothing in the way of a living wage.
For a while after, Failbetter bobbed along. Kennedy brought in friends to work at the company to alleviate some of the pressure of having to spread himself thin, fulfilling the responsibilities of a few too many roles. But that brought with it its own burden of later having to let those same friends go, as the realities of trying to generate sufficient income from a free-to-play text adventure hit home.
With the company facing the very real prospect of closure, consolidation was clearly necessary. A Kickstarter campaign for a "story-fuelled, dungeon-delving digital card game", titled Below, had failed and Kennedy realised that the client commissions the company had undertaken to pay the bills and help increase options for revenue generation – including a project for BioWare – was actually holding them back. "The problem with doing client work," Kennedy muses, "is that the client ultimately has a bigger claim on your attention than anything else." Something more radical was required, and it was necessary for Kennedy to take stock of where they were before deciding where they should be going.
"We sat down and I said, 'We're going to run out of cash,'" Kennedy recalls. "My attempt to create StoryNexus as a toolset that would allow people to create micro-Fallen Londons had failed, and I think now that was for a variety of reasons, but primarily that it was never the right business model.
"People don't love the idea of free-to-play text, and it seems ridiculous now that we thought that was what made money. What people loved was the content and the world, so Fallen London, even at its worst, always made more money in a day than all of the other StoryNexus games made in a month, which shows you how small the sums involved were.
"We decided to do something Fallen London-like, and we decided that would be a Kickstarter for an honest-to-goodness video game."
Soon after, Failbetter had created a game that quietly extolled the virtues of independent design and shared a symbiotic relationship with Fallen London, allowing for ideas to pass back and forth between the two projects and for both to be enriched by its ties to the other. That video game was Sunless Sea.
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