“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…”
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.
‘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
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.
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.
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-
Here’s a sample of the music to whet your appetite…
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
Hello again! We’ve been back and forth on how engines and fuel work, and this is the latest refinement. We’re interested in what you think.
The basics! Ships carry Fuel. Running the engine or switching the lights on uses up Fuel. Run out of Fuel, and you’re adrift in the dark. That won’t end well. Fuel takes up cargo space, so you can go longer distances but then carry less other stuff.
A problem! Something we realised quickly in playtesting. It’s hard to decide what the top of the fuel gauge means, if we don’t have a dedicated fuel tank. If we have 100 units cargo space, then is the gauge ‘full’ at 10 units, or 20, or 50? And what happens if you swap ships and get 200 units? Either we have an arbitrary top end, or the top end is always ALL YOUR CARGO space in which case the gauge is usually half-empty even when you have loads of fuel.
Another problem! Either the ticks in which fuel is used up are quite far apart – which leads to weird and exploity behaviour – or fuel is used up every second – in which case either we have to track half-used barrels, or fuel gets used so quickly that it takes up all your space.
We could just have got round this by having a dedicated fuel tank – but we really like the idea of fuel being cargo. It ties into some story and it allows people to make hard decisions about what they can afford to take across the zee.
Our solution! When you undock, your stokers will load a unit of fuel into the engine (you can’t leave dock without at least one). Your boiler starts warming up: as it does, your maximum speed and light radius increases. Pretty soon it’ll be toasty, and you’ll be up to cruising speed. The fuel gauge shows the fuel currently in your engine, being used up incrementally, and we also show a merry flame icon to indicate that your boiler’s warm. When the fuel in your firebox is used up, your stokers load another unit of fuel in, and you get a low-key notification about that. You can see the amount of firebox fuel at a glance, and flip to cargo view to see how much you have in your hold.
If the fuel in your engine runs low and you don’t have anything in your cargo hold, you get a warning. If the engine runs out of fuel and you don’t have any more, the boiler temperature starts dropping rapidly… and your max speed and light drops with it. You have a narrow window of grace to get somewhere you can refuel, but you’re beginning to coast, and the light is dwindling. Grim!
We think this makes the ship feel a little more like a steam-driven vehicle, as well as rationalising some of the resource decisions nicely.
A further refinement! We like the idea that you could instruct your stokers (with a mouse-click) to load extra fuel into the boiler, increasing the temperature beyond normal, before you run out of fuel. This would really burn through your fuel, but mean the engines would run faster than usual. It’d take some fiddling to get right, and we’ll test it, but we wondered how you feel about that extra bump of complexity. If you’re choosing a course, wondering which port to trade at, steering round enemy ships and watching your secrets tick up, do you also want to be working on how to keep your engines at max speed? Does that feel like an extra fun wrinkle, or a little too much? There are hybrid solutions, of course, where we could set the boiler preferred temperature or something – but we could just leave that complexity out.
Let us know your reactions!
One of the higher tier rewards we created for the Sunless Sea Kickstarter was the Officer’s Pack. Among other things, this pack offered our backers the chance to be immortalised in the game as a member of the player’s crew. We’ve just finished putting these together, and we thought you might like to meet them. As ever, we can’t thank you all enough for your support and encouragement.
The Alarming Scholar. This one likes to place special orders; orders that only a discreet Captain can fulfil. But where do they really go? And what’s with the peculiar diet?
The Cladery Heir. She may have run away to sea, but she’s faithful to her family’s surgical tradition. But she has another legacy, too. You might say it’s in her blood.
The Irrepressible Cannoneer. Once a leading light at the Department of Infernal Rarefactions; but there are only so many Deans you can set on fire before they lose their sense of humour. Their loss is your gain.
Maybe’s Daughter. Deadly gunner, talented engineer, and chef of legend… or so she claims. Can you believe anything she says? She’s very convincing. But what’s her connection to the notorious tattooist Clathermont?
The Sleepless Mechanic. Night or day, he walks the deck, tunes the engines, watches the false-stars. How does he keep sleep at bay? And why won’t he permit the stokers into the engine room when he does his best work?
The Merchant Venturer. They say he’s been all the way North and lived to tell of it. He certainly has a houseful of peculiar souvenirs… and a thirst for more.
The Merciless Modiste. Her savagery, and her terrifyingly avant-garde designs, saw her outlawed from the Game of Knife-and-Candle. Now she prowls the seas with the renegade artists who call themselves the Set, seeking blood and velvet. [Based on an original image by Joe England]
The Sigil-Ridden Navigator. It burns. He dreams. Somewhere there is a mask that will set him free. He knows the black lanes of the Unterzee. Can you trust him to take you where you need to go?
The Voracious Diplomat. Secrets for secrets. The Navy has its place; but some commissions are too sensitive, or too ruthless, to be fulfilled by any but a true patriot. Why else would you do these things? God forbid it be just the money.
The Monkey Foundling. Shipwrecked, rescued, raised by soul-stealing simians. Watch her warily. [This is what happens when your mother pays your business partner to put your daughter in the game.]