Fallen London is quite possibly the greatest browser game ever made. It’s hard to say for sure since our scientific panel is tired after concluding that Fallout: New Vegas is the greatest game ever made. But even the best browser games have their limitations, and one of Fallen London’s biggest flaws was its repetition. You can only complete 20 actions a day, and if you wanted to do more, you had to pay hefty fees.
So when developer Failbetter Games decided to branch out and create a full game, it was welcome news. That game turned out to be Sunless Sea, one which required the services of Kickstarter to obtain funding. How did that turn out? Well, Failbetter hasn’t made it into our Crowdfunding Hall of Fame by mistake.
The Silver Below
As popular and well-known as Sunless Sea is today, it wasn’t Failbetter’s first Kickstarter project. That honor falls to Tales from Fallen London: The Silver Tree, launched in August 2012. Officially run under Failbetter writer Elizabeth Sampat Kickstarter profile, The Silver Tree is a prequel to Fallen London. It plays identically to its post-predecessor(?). It’s a browser based game built on story, a deck of cards, and limited action points. The campaign was modest, yet still managed to raise $45,503 from over 1,000 backers.
Before Failbetter could get their crowdfunding empire off the ground however, they ran into a snag. Their first campaign ran under their studio name, Below remains the studio’s only failure, and is often forgotten. Launched not long after the Silver Tree in November 2012, Failbetter was asking for £15,000.
The minimal presentation employed in The Silver Tree’s Kickstarter was carried over here as well. There’s a playable prototype available for anyone to play, which is still up. It’s hard to give an exact reason why Below failed so miserably, collecting less than £5,000, when The Silver Tree succeeded, given they’re so similar in both gameplay and presentation. Perhaps that’s exactly why Below failed, people were just tired of these browser-based card games.
This failure wouldn’t keep Failbetter down, their next Kickstarter campaign proves they only learned from it. Not only would their crowdfunding campaigns be radically improved, but the games they were making would take a turn as well.
The Sea, She Has No Sun
Sunless Sea, a game that takes place in the “Fallen London Universe,” is an open world exploration with so many twists it looks like a man with a broken back eating a pretzel. The game takes place on a giant underground sea that links several different colonies together. As the title implies, there’s no sun, at least visible to you. And of course the sea is full of horrifying monsters that want to eat you. This creates interesting gameplay opportunities where you have to use your light, but your light takes up fuel. You don’t want to go too far away from shore or not use your light because your crew has a sanity meter that gradually goes down.
But the real show-stealer here is the fact the level of freedom afforded to the player. Like Fallen London before it, you’re free to choose everything from your backstory, your objectives, your motivations, your crew, how you react to certain situations, where to go, and what to do. This isn’t a TellTale game where you get to make superficial dialog choices every now and then, every players game is fundamentally different because there is such a deep level of customization.
Failbetter launched their Kickstarter campaign for Sunless Sea on September 3, 2013. On its first day, the campaign received £20,944, over a third of its £60,000 goal. Like many crowdfunding campaigns, it slowed down after that, but was fully funded after two weeks. When it was all said and done, the campaign raised £100,803.
Former Cliqist writer Amanda French loved it, saying “Failbetter Games managed to effectively combine different interactive genres for one enthralling experience. It has endless replay value with lots of variety.”
The House, She Has Many Doors
Before Failbetter launched their next crowdfunding campaign, they first made another drastic change. The studio announced that they would start an “incubation” program from new game developers, essentially becoming a mini-publisher, similar to Double Fine Presents. Their first project would be A House of Many Doors, created by Harry Tuffs.
Tuffs worked in Failbetter’s London studio on the game, using Sunless Sea’s engine to power his own game. Failbetter would also provide advice on the game. Their level of involvement is clear the moment you lay eyes on the game. One of the criticisms of it was that it was too much like Sunless Sea, featuring the same gameplay, and similar story elements and art. It was only a slight road bump though, as the campaign £12,866.
For all its similarities, A House of Many Doors wasn’t well received when it finally launched two years later. Philippa Warr at RockPaperShotgun said of her time with the game that she was “invested and interested but also frustrated and bored at times.” She concluded that “the thing I’m struggling with is why I would recommend this to someone when Sunless Sea exists, has a similar sensibility and is more polished.” Why bother playing a near copy of another, better game?
Failbetter is as a group of game makers that they can announce themselves as publishers and get their first project crowdfunded despite such criticisms. And it’s not as if A House of Many Doors is terrible, it’s sitting rather comfortably with “Mostly Positive” reviews on Steam right now.
They Sky Ain’t Got No Sun Neither
Four years later, after releasing the Zubmariner DLC for Sunless Sea, Failbetter returned to Kickstarter themselves with Sunless Skies, a sequel to their underground seafaring game, and yet another huge departure with it. While still set in the Fallen London universe, Sunless Skies takes the series in a drastic new direction, up.
Fallen London has always taken place in London, submerged underground in the 1800’s due to an invasion by the armies of Hell. It’s a steampunk world, but never before has the series dealt too much with what’s above ground. Not only does Sunless Skies leave the underground confines of London, it leaves the confines of Earth entirely. This new game in the series is set in space.
But it’s a concept that’s captured the attention of Kickstarter users, quickly becoming Failbetter’s most successful crowdfunding campaign. It met its £100,000 within hours on its way towards £377,952, making it the 69th most funded video game on Kickstarter. Nice. The game is expected to release in May 2018.
Failing Better Than Ever
Failbetter makes this list not only for their number of campaigns, their success, their great games, or their incubation program. They also make this list because of how well-run these campaigns are. In a community full of drama, the studio founded by Alexis Kennedy and Paul Arendt has avoided controversy no matter how big or successful they became. They did so by running great campaigns and with great, frequent Kickstarter updates.
They learned from their mistake with Below, and they came back better than ever. Failbetter wren’t afraid to re-invent themselves or their games, either. Those are qualities you don’t see often in game development, much less crowdfunding. Because of this, Failbetter has more than earned their place in Cliqist’s Crowdfunding Hall of Fame.