Interview: Failbetter Games on whether Early Access ‘curiosity’ is dwindling

Failbetter Game’s latest release, Sunless Skies, has hit a bit of a hitch.

In a comparable timeframe, Sunless Skies has sold around 15 per cent as many copies as Sunless Sea, something Failbetter’s communications director Hannah Flynn admits is ‘disappointing’. But in an interview with MCV, Flynn and deputy CEO Adam Myers discussed why Sunless Skies hasn’t gone as well as they hoped, but also about Failbetter’s plans for the future.

"We launched on Early Access, in hindsight, a little early," says Flynn. "There wasn’t a great deal in the game. It led to us losing a bit of a promotional moment, which is absolutely crucial for driving conversation. With so little in the game, we lost that talkability."

Flynn also suggests that the game’s launch success was cannibalised somewhat by the strength of the game’s Kickstarter campaign, which saw 11,739 backers pledging £377,952 to bring Sunless Skies to life. Many of these backers already had the game as a backer reward,which meant that they weren’t purchasing the game at launch.

"People releasing indie games will know that reaching storefront visibility on Steam is getting harder, and we didn’t have that big influx of day one purchasers that would have granted us more visibility, which would have given us more of a boost." said Flynn.

The game has also been hit by several changes to Steam’s marketplace, which is affecting Early Access games negatively.

"Valve has reduced the exposure Early Access titles titles tend to get on the platform, very sensibly," Myers mentioned. "It’s very sensible, probably as a way to protect people from problematic early access games, ones that end up not getting finished."

However, Myers says there also seems to be less interest from the public with regards to getting stuck into an Early Access game. "Players have sated the curiosity that initially seemed to motivate a lot of players to back Early Access projects, in terms of going through the development process," adds Myers.

"Now, players are more likely to base their purchasing decision on whether or not they think it’s the right time to experience the game."

For Sunless Skies, a game with a heavy narrative focus, Myers posits that a lot of players could be waiting for the game to be complete before they throw themselves in rather than experiencing just a small part of it.

It’s a tough blow for Failbetter, and has unfortunately seen them part ways with several members of staff, delaying the game past its initial launch date. Work on the game continues, rapidly, and both Myers and Flynn say there’s no risk the studio won’t deliver.

"We’ve been focused on ensuring that we’re in a sustainable position to keep making games, even if Sunless Skies doesn’t ultimately meet our hopes in terms of sales when we complete it." says Myers. "We didn’t want to have to wind up the studio after the game is done. That was what the risk was, not that we wouldn’t finish the game, just that we wouldn’t make enough from it."

"It was important to us to be able to keep doing what we do, making the games we believe in, with sales figures that we were fairly confident in. We didn’t want to be reliant on having a Sunless Seas sized hits, for instance."

Flynn says that the response from Failbetter’s community has been "gorgeous," describing herself as "a little tearful" of the support the studio has received.

"A lot of them have asked what they can do to help, which is really sweet. Because we don’t generally fall into the pitfalls of games in open development, so we keep in touch with our players and backers, and we’ve told them about this as soon as we could, considering the consultations have just finished and they are quite sensitive, with people’s jobs being in question."

Failbetter’s candour throughout the development means that they’ve achieved a nearly impossible task: announcing a delay to a Kickstarted game without angering the entire community. The game continues mostly as planned, although Myers mentioned that the scope of the game has expanded and contracted in several areas, not because of financial considerations but because the team are committed to making the game as complete as possible.

So, does Sunless Skies’ disappointing launch change much for Failbetter? It’s led to the suspension of Fundbetter, the funding initiative set up by the company to support interesting narrative led games. However, Myers says that it hasn’t changed the way Failbetter do narrative, now or in the future.

"We have our own narrative doctrine throughout the types of interactive storytelling we want to do," adds Myers. "We think that they’ve been vindicated and we like what comes out of them, so we’re going to keep on doing that.

"Obviously one of the things that is core to what we do is being experimental, so expect plenty of experiments and changes, but things like really choice-rich, consequence-heavy storytelling with complex world states, not being afraid to challenge the player, trying to make failure interesting." Myers pauses for impact. "Those kinds of tenets are things that are dear to our hearts. The fundamentals won’t change."

Failbetter is a small company, and Flynn has described the morale in the office as supportive, despite the uncertainty. However, for Failbetter, work continues. Flynn says there’s a heaviness in the workplace, but also optimism. People are eating a lot of cake, and trying to forge on.

Failbetter’s 2018 could still be a good one. During 2017 the team focused on rebuilding their browser game Fallen London for a modern age. This new site will look and feel more modern but it is also more responsive for mobile users, meaning Failbetter can discontinue its mobile apps and focus development.

For Sunless Skies players, and the audience Failbetter hopes the game will find, there’s a bright future. The next update brings Albion to the game, a huge new region that introduces many new mechanics to the game. For fans of Failbetter’s own particularly brand of dark fantasy, it’s also the update that sees Fallen London blasted into space courtesy of Queen Victoria. Out of context, this sounds nonsensical, but the good news is that it doesn’t really get any less nonsensical as you discover more of the context around the capital city heading into orbit.

Video games are often perceived as a hit based industry, which can be difficult when a game doesn’t become the hit you expect. Now, Flynn is looking at the task of getting people invested in Sunless Skies again as it approaches it’s 1.0 release.

"The difficulty of a launch gone badly is that you lose momentum and a bit of morale," Hannah says, adding with a laugh that Fail Better is the name of the company. "It just presents you with a new challenge, really. Even bad news is something that we can talk about and learn from and share, and it gives us another reason to talk about the game. I’m an eternal optimist."

This could be one of the toughest moments for Failbetter since the company was founded in 2010, but it’s hard not to feel like the plucky company is doing the best it can to weather the storm. Redundancies and delays are inevitable in the business, and our thoughts are with employees who were affected, but despite the disappointment surrounding the launch of Failbetter’s newest game, the Skies aren’t the limit. 

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