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A PC/MAC game in glorious 2D from the creators of Fallen London

Navigate, survive, explore! Roam a vast underground ocean in a customised steamship. Trade with strange new lands. Battle sea monsters. Smuggle souls. Seduce your crew. Go mad and hallucinate lizards.

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  • Apr 23 / 2014
  • 0

Art direction

Paul Arendt:
flensing weapons
do you have any steer on this? is it still basically harpoons, or flechettes or something?
Alexis Kennedy:
the equipment in question:
Leadbeater & Stainrod ‘Britomart’ Flensing-Cannon
Stampshod’s ‘Calvary’ Prong Launcher
Caminus Yards Heart-Ender
so there you go. prongs, flensing, shaft through the heart
I guess my main steer is
Paul Arendt:
spiky gatling, perhaps
Alexis Kennedy:
if it helps
Britomart is a really interesting figure
I came across her in the Faerie Queene
where she’s a virtuous female knight
but she’s actually a recasting of a valorous Greek nymph
who in turn appears to have been based on a feral Minoan hunting goddess
sort of Artemis meets Wolverine
so I liked the idea that she was a huntress, but also a Spenserian poetic reference for a patriotic manufacturer
what I’m saying is
Paul Arendt:

Alexis Kennedy:
I didn’t terribly think about how it would look at any point.
Paul Arendt:
You’ll be glad to know I’ve rejected at least seven responses to this so far

  • Apr 22 / 2014
  • 9
General Update


Six months ago, when the Sunless Sea Kickstarter was really gathering steam, Liam and I got carried away. We decided that we’d offer to get game-themed tattoos if our funding passed 100K (on an initial threshold of 60K). We set 100K because it sounded low enough to be plausible but high enough that we couldn’t, wouldn’t, surely, actually, make it…

We made it. I know for a fact that one of our higher-end backers increased their pledge by about two thousand dollars in order to ensure that Liam and I both got inked. I… still can’t work out the appropriate compound of fist-shaking and gratitude.

For context, this was my first tattoo. Liam’s too, but he’s a long-haired math-rock thespian boho, and if I were any more whitebread, you could slice me and sell me in a little plastic bag. So when I turned up at the tattoo studio, I felt like a preposterous impostor. They were very nice about it, though the guy did shake his head at me sadly when I asked about pain and location. “Don’t be dictated to by the pain!” he admonished me. “Get the one you want!”

(They’re good, Living Image, though. Friendly teasing aside, they were professional, matter-of-fact and very reassuring.)

Well, for the record, I’m quite happy to be dictated to by pain, but I settled easily enough on the location: I’m a runner, so a calf tattoo made sense, and it’s not too public in case I come to regret it. I havered for a long time about what to get. I’m not superstitious, but I didn’t want anything that convinced my subconscious I’d be dragged down while I was running. I hadn’t wanted to go with Paul’s buoy tattoo design just in case a backer got it as well… I thought it might be embarrassing for both of us to run into someone with the same tattoo, like an identical-outfit thing. But in the end, eh, I really like Paul’s art, it’s the emblem of the game, and it buoys me up, d’ye see? Maybe? Oh hush.

The pain wasn’t bad at all in the end. It was about the level of ow you might get from a cat that won’t put its claws away when it’s playing, although it goes on for a while. (Yes, tattoo veterans, scoff all you like, but I was nervous.) I can’t get over how casual the whole thing was. One appointment, a modest fee, and I’m marked for life. There’s a metaphor in there, or at least a cheap joke about marriage.



  • Mar 28 / 2014
  • 0

A Skirmish with Iron Republic Privateers

“Your first volley does satisfyingly grievous damage, but a half-dozen privateers snatch up weapons. One is a sort of Gatling gun. One appears to fire bubbles composed of rainbow meat. A third makes it rain in your heart. The fourth weapon explodes in a shower of fat purple sparks that chirp like canaries and chew their way through everything in the encampment – privateers, tents, loot. The battle is over before it’s begun, but by the time it’s safe to approach, the sparks have devoured many of the privateers’ treasures…”

  • Mar 13 / 2014
  • 9
General Update

Sunless Sea: dates!

Tuesday April 29th is now our solid beta date. If you’re a beta-level backer, mark your diary! We’ll contact you via your Kickstarter email with more instructions closer to the time. (A number of folk have emailed us and ask if there’s any way to get into the beta without having backed at that level: sorry, folks, we committed to exclusivity, and so we have to stick by that.)

In May we’ll be kicking off a Steam Greenlight campaign. We want to set aside a little time to look our best and edit a properly badass video for that, and we’re flat out on making the game right now.

Final release? This is now likely to be June, rather than May, but we’re going to keep our options open until we see what comes back from the beta! We will be releasing on Humble Bundle anyway, whether or not we get Greenlit. We know you’re eager to see Sunless Sea released. So are we! But we’re even more eager to release a polished, satisfying experience… so thanks for giving us the time to get it right. We really appreciate it.

To keep your appetites whetted,  here’s an in-game screenshot of our player ship exploring the Corsairs’ Forest, a treacherous region of rogues and scoundrels. As you can see, we’ve already begun naming features after our backers.


Very close now. Listen to the engines thunder.

  • Mar 11 / 2014
  • 1

‘For the bright side of the painting I had a limited sympathy’

‘My visions were of shipwreck and famine; of death or captivity among barbarian hordes; of a lifetime dragged out in sorrow and tears, upon some gray and desolate rock, in an ocean unapproachable and unknown. Such visions or desires — for they amounted to desires — are common, I have since been assured, to the whole numerous race of the melancholy among men — at the time of which I speak I regarded them only as prophetic glimpses of a destiny which I felt myself in a measure bound to fulfil. ‘

- Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

  • Mar 05 / 2014
  • 1
Technical, Unity, Visuals

Text in games

Hi all, Liam again. For today’s blog, I thought I’d share an issue we’ve been wrestling with throughout the development of Sunless Sea. Almost from the first moment we started right up until yesterday, we keep encountering this bizarre limitation that we need to find a solution for.

Text. Text just doesn’t play well with game engines.

It’s worth defining at this point what I mean by ‘well’. It renders fine, it’s not as if we can’t put text up on screen. For a company like Failbetter, that would be something of a dealbreaker.

No, it’s just that, by default, what you are capable of doing with that text that is very limited. We’re coming from developing a story-driven browser game, and we quickly learned how many expectations we were carrying over with us from the web.

Admittedly, browsers haven’t always been great when it comes to rendering text, as any designer transitioning from print to web design will tell you, repeatedly, and at length. However, it’s getting better all the time and there are plenty of tools at the designer’s disposal to make text formatting for the web attractive and easy to read.

Text in games is a very different kettle of fish. Think back to some of the more text-heavy games you might have played. It’s hard to pick any titles that had print-like (or web-like) text formatting; it has traditionally always been a very plain affair. One font size, no emphasis through bold or italic text, a paragraph break if you’re lucky. The reason for this is that, to put it simply, games treat characters like images. A font is a big texture with each letter on it and the game shows you a small piece of that image at a time. It can tint the image, but not much else. Want it to be larger? Use a different image. Want it to bold or italic? A different image again.

I suppose this is because there haven’t been enough games that have needed the kind of fine control we’re talking about. If you want to attempt advanced text effects in a game you’re straying off the beaten track. If I want to write some code to introduce realistic handgun ballistics into a game, I’m probably a web-search away from a mine of useful articles, tutorials and tech demos. Try to find a way to italicize a key word in a block of text and suddenly it’s as if you’re the only developer in the world!

That’s an exaggeration of course, there are games that do text formatting well, and we have found solutions to all the problems we’ve encountered, but it’s still been interesting to find that the area that we’re having to find work-arounds to make up for inadequacies in the engine is something we almost take for granted in our other games. The solution that we have implemented eventually involves treating each collection of uniquely formatted characters in a block of text as a separate object, so we can use a different image for each of these sections, rather than referencing the same one. This way, we can switch between font formatting  mid-sentence, rather than having to have each block of text all look the same.

I think we’ve got it working pretty well now, and it’s nice to know that the writers on the game will have the tools at their disposal that they are used to using.

  • Mar 01 / 2014
  • 15
General Update

Steaming towards beta

Not long now until the beta! We said ‘March’ for expected delivery: inevitably it was always going to be end March, but it might slip into April now. You know how these things go. It won’t slip as far as May.

So what you can expect in the beta? Working core mechanics, and working combat without some of the whizzier sfx. About a third of the final map developed into full assets – some familiar landscape around London, and a couple of more exotic areas like Whither and the Principles of Coral. The rest of the map in a minimal placeholdery state that you can, nevertheless, sail round and preview, rather like an inspection tour of the Earth before they’d put the sky on. The explorable areas will have enough story and beasties to keep you busy.

For another narrative teaser about one of the farther regions of the Unterzee, make sure you’re following our Twitter or Facebook account for another narrative snippet on Monday…

And music! We have Maribeth – an experienced film composer and a fan of Fallen London from way back – working on the main soundtrack. She’s worked on undersea documentaries, among other things, so it’s an excellent match. And Meghann, a writer-journalist-composer-developer (who you may remember from Thirst Frontier) has convinced us to experiment with some procedural aleatory music for combat – we’re still fitting that together, but it’s very promising.

Here’s a sample of the music to whet your appetite…

…and here’s some more screenshots. Alert Fallen London players may notice that the Echo Bazaar itself is visible in two of these shots…
  • Feb 25 / 2014
  • 2
Game Mechanics, General Update, Playtesting, Unity

Coming together

Hi all, Liam again.

I thought I’d do a post on one of the most exciting parts of developing Sunless Sea for me. Just as I get a kick out of seeing one of our placeholder textures being replaced by a game-ready sprite, the feeling of a mechanic snapping into place is an amazing moment where you can see how the final game will play. Everyone on the team has very similar gaming experience and our references and touch-points are usually the same, so when Alexis explains how a mechanic is going to work, we can all visualise how it will function… but it’s different seeing it in practice. We also try and play games together when we’ve got a spare moment, because having that shared experience of a game and talking through it really helps you understand the potential for your own game’s mechanics (Hearthstone is a particular favourite of ours at the moment due to the fact you can get a quick hand in during lunch).

I know what we are implementing in the game, I know what we’re aiming for, but the great thing is that I don’t get a real sense of precisely the overall impact on the game some of the mechanics will have until they are working. They start off as a concept, we work them up into a rough implementation, then we introduce them into the game. It’s that moment that is exciting. Watching something that was a tech demo before start to feel like a game. The mechanics that make the biggest difference to the play experience are the ones that make you lose, because as soon as you are able to fail, every moment you aren’t feels like a little victory.

Here are a couple of the best experiences I’ve had while implementing mechanics.

Terrain collision
Until we introduced the damage penalty when you hit land, you could just bounce around like a pinball. Once we introduced damage into the equation, I finally got a sense of the fragility of my ship. It’s strong, but it isn’t invincible. From then on it felt like an achievement navigating it across the Unterzee unscathed.

It used to be that I could cross from one edge of the map to the other without fear of anything hurting me (aside from the previously mentioned rocky bits). Once we started throwing down spawn points that spat out pirates, giant crabs and living icebergs, I had to tactically decide whether or not to deviate from my original course and use up precious supplies or power on through and tackle the beasties in my path. They are pretty savage at the moment too: we are currently working on implementing a bit of Artificial Stupidity to level the playing field a bit.

Fuel and Supplies
This was introduced very early on, and it was the first moment the game stopped feeling like a tech demo. I remember the first time my boat, low on fuel, finally drifted to a halt in the middle of the ocean. The lights winked out and I was left in darkness. Then the supplies ran out. Then the crew began to panic. I hadn’t paid attention and I was going to die because of it. It felt great!

This is one of my favourite features. The darker it is, the faster your terror rises. If it gets too high… well, let’s just say you don’t want it to get too high. I’ve learned to be careful when I extinguish my lights and to be wary of dark, open waters.

It is hard to stay excited about playing a game you spend so much time working on, and I realise that will become truer the further into development we go. That’s why I’m savouring these moments when they occur, and making sure I derive as much joy as I can from watching Sunless Sea develop into a game where I can be a loser.

  • Feb 19 / 2014
  • 14
Animation, Technical, Unity, Visuals

Rocking the boat (and other cheap tricks)

Hi all, Liam here again!

When we started working on Sunless Sea, we knew that we wanted it to focus on good gameplay and storytelling above all else. That said, we also want it to have a distinctive visual style and to look as good as it plays. Fallen London is a game of words, but it also has great artwork in it, and making sure Sunless Sea lives up to that is important to us.

Moving from static art to pictures that exist in a living world is hard though, and it can require a lot of time to get it looking right. We’re a small team and we don’t want our primary focus to be complex animations and visual trickery, that’s why we opted to make a 2D game in the first place. So, in order to enhance the look our game and make it feel like a living, breathing world, we’re using a lot of little tricks.

One of the tricks we’re using is parallax movement. Games have used this technique for a long time to indicate the relative distance between objects. I remember playing Shadow of the Beast for the first time and being blown away by the sense of depth the game created using this effect. Obviously, there isn’t as much use for parallax movement in a top-down game (and we’re very wary of over-using it with poor results), but it works well for giving a sense of the weight of your boat if you ‘cheat’ a little bit of rocking into its movement.

I’ve created a short video to demonstrate the technique (heads up, you won’t need sound for this video):

We experimented with this effect and we were really happy with how much heft is added to your boat, especially when turning. It stopped feeling like a rotating plane (which, of course, it is) and felt like you were forcing a heavy object to move around. It isn’t the only cheap trick at work on the boat however, we’ve got some particle emitters in there are well.

I LOVE particle emitters. Essentially, they are little objects that ‘emit’ a sprite and pass in a bunch of information on how they should behave. When they should grow larger, when they should fade out, how they should be affected by gravity, their velocity and direction etc. The great thing about them is, you set them up once and they can keep on emitting for a long time. They’re perfect for smoke, or fog, or the wake of a boat. As you can see in the video, we’ve got a wake that gradually grows and fades as it gets further away from the boat. Working in North Greenwich can be very useful when it comes to creating particle emitters for boats, because I can just look out of the window and compare the wakes with the ships cruising down the Thames.

Again, particles are a great way of making something static feel like it has life and movement. A picture of a house has smoke coming from the chimney and flies buzzing around the compost heap at the bottom of the garden, and suddenly it stops feeling like a picture and becomes a (stylised, to be sure) real house.

A little of this stuff goes a long way, and if you know how to use it, it can create great effects without taking up all our time. Which is great for us, cos that means we can focus on the elements of this game that are going to make it really unique.


We’ve been looking at this animation again, and I think that Jellydonut and others are quite right and it is leaning in the opposite direction for the size of ship that we are have in the game. We’ve flipped the animation and it does look better. In regards to the amount, this is slightly exaggerated and perhaps not a perfect simulation of the movement of a ship, but we are aiming for a slightly heightened look anyway and it adds a sense of weight to the feeling of turning.

The pivot is not directly at the back, but is very nearly at the back. I don’t think it’s easy to get a sense of how it is steering without actually being in control of the boat. JamsCB’s comment about the movement of the ship is correct though, this isn’t a physics simulation and our main focus is to make something that is functional and simple that feels like steering a boat. The feedback you have given has helped us refine that now and we are very grateful, and we’ll be continuing to tweak this as over time.

Thanks for all your comments people!

  • Feb 11 / 2014
  • 7
General Update, Technical, Unity

2D, or not 2D?

Hello everyone, Liam here.

You haven’t heard from me yet because I’ve been up to my eyeballs in development work, but we’re reaching a really exciting point with Sunless Sea, and I wanted to tell you all about it.

Building the game has been interesting. It’s got a lot of Fallen London in its DNA, but it is a very different beast all the same. We’re finding that every time we try something, there’s always the chance it won’t quite work as you’d expect it to. There are games a bit like this out there, but a lot of it is unique to Sunless Sea, so we’re feeling it out constantly.

On top of this, Unity3D is changing and improving all the time, and that’s good news for us because it means we get to take advantage of new benefits when they are introduced. Sometimes though, it can mean making a decision to stick or twist on an approach you’re taking if Unity3D suddenly introduces a new technique.

The biggest of these ‘stick or twist’ choices that we’ve been faced with came up when Unity 4.3 introduced a fully-integrated 2D workflow. Up until this point, we had been using Unity to make a 3D game, but basically ignoring and coding around a lot of the 3D-centric stuff (z-axis, who needs one of those?). When we read about the changes Unity 4.3 introduced for 2D game production, we found there were a lot of advantages. Collision detection was done in 2D, it allowed for better optimization for 2D games, the workflow was vastly improved. It should have been a clear choice to switch to using 2D.

Except that it wasn’t, because we had already developed a very significant proportion of the game with the 3D tools. It was going to be a big decision, weighing up the work it would take to convert our code and assets over to 2D against the faster workflow we would be able to enjoy and the performance benefits.

In the end, we moved over to 2D, and we’re all glad we did. The game runs more smoothly than ever, textures are rendering better than ever and, most importantly for us, it has sped up asset creation tremendously. Work that took 30 minutes is now taking 5, switching out artwork for islands, creatures and boats is now straightforward where it used to be a painful process. That is really important for us, being able to make alterations easily. We’re constantly playtesting, calculating if a piece of terrain is fun to steer around, if the distance between the islands feels right. A fortnight ago, we essentially trebled the dimensions of the map because we felt everything was a little close together. Using placeholder art that we can swap out once we’re sure that it’s playing the way we want it to means we can keep refining the experience without having a negative impact on our development time.

Currently, Sunless Sea is a game of light and dark greys

It does mean that it currently isn’t the prettiest thing to look at, it must be said. Paul does texture up island assets and replace the placeholders every now and then, and it’s a pleasant experience to be sailing through a sea of floating grey blocks only to meet a beautiful bit of terrain, covered in glittering lights. Sailing around is slowly starting to become a nice experience for me as we get closer and closer to the finished product.

The Faustic Corsair will inspire more fear in the final game...

The placeholders are starting to disappear, the game is starting to look the way we want it to, now we’re happy that it is playing the way we want it to. It’s an exciting time to be exploring the Unterzee.

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