Failbetter Games have made a name for themselves for two reasons. The first is their compelling, narrative-focused games Fallen London and Sunless Sea. The second is in how the studio involves its community during game development, something CEO and creative director, Alexis Kennedy, terms ‘open production’.
At the Game Developers Conference, Kennedy spoke about the benefits and challenges of creating a game with the doors to the production process wide open.
In 2013, Sunless Sea was backed on Kickstarter to the tune of £100,000. Succinctly summarised by Kennedy as ‘2D Elite with sea ships’, it has since earned acclaim for its world, mechanics and use of narrative (and sold over 350,000 copies in its first year). It was also the first game by Failbetter to benefit from open production.
Kennedy describes open production as a method for developing games that engages with an audience of existing and potential players. It encompasses everything from Kickstarter, Early access and paid Betas, to getting player feedback and community interaction. The core loop is to build the game, listen to the community, and build some more.
“Before we made Sunless Sea we were in a terrible place,” admits Kennedy. “Fallen London was not making enough money to pay the bills, so Sunless Sea was a bit of a Hail Mary pass – a last desperate roll of the dice.”
The studio had – to this point – only ever made browser-based games, but they thought they knew enough about game design and world building to embark on a full game. Three years later, in Kennedy’s own words: “It worked out.”
“This is not an epoch-making, headline success, but it’s a solid indie success that most studios of our size would be very pleased with,” says Kennedy.
“And the key thing is this: this is a very attainable success. If you are working with a team of two or four, if you are wondering if it’s ever possible to make a living making video games, there’s a bunch of stuff you can do. There’s a bunch of opportunities available to you that allow you to do this sort of thing.”
Although Failbetter were in dire straights when they embarked on Sunless Sea – with little in the way of resources or money – they did have one thing that was to prove incredibly valuable.
“If you have been working for four years, you’ll have built up a backlog of people who know you and know your work. And when you issue a call to Kickstarter, or Early Access, they’ll all come and help you,” says Kennedy. “Having a community is almost as good as having money in the bank. You can’t spend them but they will help you in terms of feedback and spreading the word, which is hugely important. And they’ll help you keep morale high in hard times.”
The resulting Sunless Sea Kickstarter was a success, raising just over £100,000.
“When we made one hundred grand on Kickstarter we thought we had all the money in the world,” Kennedy says. “However, all the money in the world doesn’t last long when you are making a game.”
Once Kickstarter’s cut, credit card fees and the studio payroll were taken into account, those initial funds were soon allocated. Crowdfunding success was just the start of the journey.
“It’s the same with the game at launch. We sold 40,000 copies in the first week of Early Access – far outstripping our most optimistic projections – but again, it was just the beginning of our journey. The money we made from that wouldn’t have lasted long.”
And just as the community was essential in making the Kickstarter a success. Kennedy is quick to point out that its involvement and support extends far beyond the birthing pains of a new game, and is fundamental to the long-term success of the studio.
“If you are running an open production process for your game, you’re making a game for an audience, and you want to bring the audience with you in future. You want to build a studio that will survive two, three, four games., and you want an audience that will help you and trust you because you built those games.”
Another aspect of community involvement that’s often overlooked is its contribution to the marketing of the game. In a crowded marketplace Kennedy believes you shouldn’t release a game without marketing it effectively, just as you wouldn’t put out a game without debugging it.
“The window of opportunity with an indie game, to get on Steam and sell through sheer luck, is over. The chances that your game will be so brilliant, that it will get picked up and become a world headline though sheer word of mouth is possible, but it’s a very low chance.”
“It’s not enough to send out a press release at the end and think that you’ve done your job,” he says. “You need to be thinking about how to explain your game – in a sentence or two – from the get go.”
Just as game development is an iterative process, so is marketing, and Kennedy says that audience input can be just as valuable as feedback on the game itself.
“When we first talked to our community about Sunless Sea we talked to a very small group of our own fans. We said it was going to be ‘2D Elite with sea ships’,” recalls Kennedy. “But nobody under the age of 40, or out of the UK at that time, had heard of Elite. Now you have – because of Elite: Dangerous – but we took that out of the pitch.”
The team at Failbetter had the opportunity to learn by exposing the game’s proposition. They then iterated and revised the game’s pitch throughout development.
“The tagline for Sunless Sea is ‘Lose you mind. Eat Your Crew’,” says Kennedy. “That came quite late in development and we didn’t get to it without all of the feedback from our community.”
Kennedy reminds us that you should not be completely beholden to the community, however. Although feedback on the game, its design, and marketing is as essential as the funding, it’s ultimately the job of the developer to find the best way to fix any problems.
Kennedy cites one example where community feedback actually sent the wrong message to the development team. In its early form, Sunless Sea featured a design flaw around its permadeath mechanic, meaning that many players had to keep repeating the introduction to the game.
“The reason we didn’t realise how big a problem it was is that we were listening to the veterans too much,” admits Kennedy. “People were talking about the end game experience, and we forgot to focus on the early game experience. Your veterans will be the most vocal people on the forums and with feedback but bear in mind they will not be new customers ever again. We thought we knew this, so think harder!”
Although the benefits of crowdfunding are clear – backers and money – there are also some less obvious upsides that come from involving the playing community early in development.
“We were forced to explain what our vision for the game was very early on, and then forced to stick to it,” says Kennedy. “This is a double-edged sword. For some studios it doesn’t work at all. For us it did. It kept us honest and it was very beneficial.”
Player feedback also drew attention to deficiencies in Sunless Sea’s combat system late in development. The resulting changes meant Failbetter lost a few months of development time while they changed the mechanics.
“It was absolutely worthwhile. And lifted the game from people going ‘The combat’s awful’ to people going ‘The combat’s OK – a bit meh – but I’ll take it,” Kennedy says. “I think of it like this: you have good will you can spend like currency. If you treat your community well and treat them honestly, they will understand when you make these changes but you can’t do it wildly. Just make sure you have some goodwill in the bank when you want to push them through”
Kennedy is also keen to emphasise the importance of personal community such as friends, family and colleagues.
“Make sure you are ready to be supported by your friends and your team, when you suddenly look around and see that the project you have been working on has finished, and you don’t know what to do with your life. Make sure there is someone there to catch you when you fall. It sounds like a nice problem to have: you’re successful, yet depressed. Even with a with a fairly minor success you get the post-project blues.”
Open production provided Failbetter with the insight and support to help make Sunless Sea the best possible game. Key to making this production method work was having a clear vision for the game, explains Kennedy.
“Vision is the most important thing. If you have a consistent creative vision it means that your team understands you, and your community understands you, and you have the ready-made message for marketing. Every creative decision we made, every tactical decision we made, every marketing decision we made, made reference to that. Find your creative direction and stick to it like a face-hugger.”
Image credits: Failbetter Games.
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