Going into 2017, Failbetter Games was in an enviable position compared to most other independent developers; now, not so much.
After gaining generally high regard with standout titles like Sunless Sea, the company had high expectations for their upcoming endeavors. They planned to revamp and relaunch their narrative driven browser game Fallen London, making it more accessible to players logging in from mobile devices; likewise, they were hoping for a positive response from the Early Access launch of Sunless Skies, which had already made waves when it surpassed its Kickstarter funding goal by nearly four times.
Fast forward to today, however, and their fortunes have flipped. Plagued by regular design and interface issues, Fallen London is scheduled to close down in the second quarter of 2018. Sunless Skies, meanwhile, met a lukewarm reception in Early Access with only 15 percent of the sales Sunless Seas made in the same timespan. To compensate for the lost profits, Failbetter has laid off four staff members and ended its Fundbetter program meant to provide financial support to smaller narrative driven titles, as well as delayed Sunless Skies’ official release to ensure it won’t sink the company.
So what happened? What went wrong and where did the company slip up? Put simply, they forgot that indie game development is never guaranteed to succeed, and aspiring indie developers can take a lot away from how they failed and how they’re moving forward.
A Roll of The Dice
Whether a developer has been in the industry for one year or 10, there is rarely a guarantee that their games will continue to succeed one after the other. Everything, from the first impression a title makes with screen shots and previews to the overall quality and polish of the completed version, sticks with a title and builds and impression , making it vital for companies to present the best of their games whenever possible and keep their design goals within the scope of their abilities.
Unfortunately for Failbetter, this wasn’t the case for either of their 2017 projects. After the release of Sunless Skies on early access, many players criticized the title’s lack of polish, even considering the title was a work in progress. This in turn hurt the potential buzz the game could carry, contributing heavily to the slump in sales.
“In hindsight, we went into Early Access too early,” Hannah Flynn, communications director at Failbetter Games, said in the company’s latest update post. “The game wasn’t immediately ready for media attention, we lost a key promotional moment.”
As for Fallen London, problems emerged in its upkeep development and transition to the mobile platform. While there are certainly benefits to releasing titles across multiple platforms, it can also create a much heavier work load for developers, requiring changes and updates to be tailored to each different system. This can create huge time sinks in development time, and if the title doesn’t perform as well as expected, it ends in wasted time and effort by the developer, not to mention wasted funds.
“Despite our best efforts during development, it just doesn’t function as we wanted it to, and we’ve reluctantly concluded that much of this is due to some fundamental architectural decisions that it’s not now practical to change,” Flynn said. “It also hasn’t been as popular as we’d hoped, and every update we make to the game needs to be duplicated for the app, making it harder and slower for us to improve the game overall.”
The end results were huge hits that even an established indie developer like Failbetter couldn’t take, leaving them in their current dire straits.
Continuing On, Cautiously
With all of that said, the story isn’t over for Failbetter. True, the last year has been rough for them, but they’re already taking the proper steps to improve moving forward. While some backers may be disappointed that Sunless Skies’ release has been delayed, doing so helps ensure they don’t jump the gun like they did with the game’s early access version and provide a final version capable of attracting new buyers. The closure of Fallen London meanwhile, as sad as it may be for long time players, frees up the team to focus whole-heartedly on projects with a better chance of drawing in new fans and profits.
It’s a tough pill to swallow, but sometimes all of a developer’s hopes and hard work won’t pay off the way they want. Games won’t always be received well and it can lead to some tough decisions that will make more than a few people unhappy, the team included. Yet as Failbetter Games shows, one can still stand up, evaluate what went wrong and try not to fail again.