Steel, Stone and Spiders: what’s coming next on Sunless Sea

By Failbetter, September 4, 2014 · Sunless Sea

Sorry we’ve been quiet lately – we’ve been really busy on the real-time, on-map combat revamp, and there’s been a dreadful plague going round the office. (No-one has died, or if they have, they haven’t mentioned it.) But we’re back, with some progress to talk about and a likely release date, both for STEEL (the combat update) and the whole game. Here’s a couple of screenshots of our working prototype, to give you an idea of the direction we’re going.

ALL THE USUAL WARNINGS APPLY: this is PLACEHOLDER LOOK AND FEEL! All the mechanics are subject to change! (and feel free to make suggestions in the comments)

(Click to enlarge these screenies)


Those abilities in the bar at the bottom are attacks. You’ll click an ability to attack a targeted enemy – you won’t be aiming bullets – and you can still pause the game. You need to keep your enemy in view while your crew work out a firing solution – this works rather like the existing warmup mechanism, but it only builds up while your enemy’s in the right arc (we’ll show you the arcs in a mo). But you can fire prematurely, as long as you’re at least halfway there, with a greater risk of missing but a chance of getting licks in early. If your enemy is illuminated, by your prow light or other features, you can attack that much faster. The same goes for you, of course.


See those red and green arcs? That’s your, and their, Deck (wide arc, less damage) and Forward (narrow arc, more damage) gun arcs. You need them in that arc to fire your weapon, and you also need them in that arc to build up firing solution warm-up. (Smaller ships can only mount a Deck weapon; the largest ships can mount Aft weapons as well). But if they drop out of your arc, you keep the progress – as long as you can get them back in your sights, you can use the progress you’ve built up.

This is because early experiments were really frustrating – ‘gaah! not again! I lost it’ – and tended to encourage what we call THE WALTZ OF DEATH. You’ll know this one from top-down games, probably – two ships trying to get each other in a front firing arc, endlessly orbiting a common centre, both turning as hard as they can around and around. We’re iterating to discourage that in a bunch of ways. More about that next time.

(BTW, the arcs will probably be visible by default, but easily togglable off – the final version will be prettier but they’re always going to interfere with the look of the game.)

A few other tasty details…




Iron, Mirrors and Veils still play into combat. Iron improves damage; Mirrors pre-fills some of the firing solution warm-up; and Veils reduces the enemy’s visibility range (as does turning off your light, and being in the dark). This means that avoiding combat is a much more interesting proposition. It also means that you should be able to get some mileage out of turning off your headlight, sneaking up behind an enemy and surprising them.

Zee-beasts don’t have ranged attacks (other than Lorn-Flukes and Mt Nomad, who both use an attack that we’re colloquially referring to as ‘cuss’). So that they remain a challenge to ships with ranged weapons, we’re allowing them to submerge (or disperse, in the case of bats and Blue Prophets): they’ll remain unseen while submerged, they’ll surface, they’ll take a charge at you and try to damage you. If you position yourself right, you can deal them damage or evade with a boost. We’re devoting considerable effort to maintaining the stately feel of the rest of the game- we want it to feel like you need to take care with your movements, not like you’re dodging an ARPG boss.

Items and abilities – we’re preserving the use of as many items as we can from the current combat. Strange Catches to bait zee-beasts to the surface – Blue Scintillack to illuminate your enemy, and Unclear Devices to hide you – the Pneumatic Ratsender for emergency repairs. One suggestion that we keep seeing on the forums is flares to illuminate patches of ocean – this is pretty likely to go in, but there are some balance issues we’ll need to find a way through. Combat’s been our focus – but we’ve been working on story and terrain too.

Content releases have been thin on the ground lately – it’s difficult to push content out right now, because of the way the content engine is being reworked around combat – but you’ll see more islands drop along with STEEL. Here are some images to whet your appetites.


The Reef of Roses: touched by the light of a place behind mirrors.


  Gossamer Way, where was spawned that dread octomaran, the Tree of Ages…


  The Isle of Cats, the smugglers’ port where forbidden roses grow…


The core port of the Chelonate, built on a long-dead turtle. This is the cheery part of that zone, actually.


The Gant Pole, where things go to die. This is the less cheery part.  


Nuncio, sometimes called the Isle of Lost Postmen.


Visage: choose your mask carefully. You may be required to live it.

We’ve also got some news around Kickstarter rewards (and some goodies available to customers who weren’t backers) but this post is HUUUGE already, so we’ll save that for next time.

So when will you get your hands on this? We’re aiming for the end of September, an aim we would describe as ‘fairly confident’. This will push final release to early December (gah!) – final date TBD. We’ll probably  juggle the exact date to avoid releasing in the middle of the Steam Autumn or Steam Christmas sales, and we don’t know when those are yet. We’ll update the roadmap shortly.

Thanks, as ever, for your patience. This is a big change to make late in the day – it’s making the whole game feel more vibrant and unified, but we don’t want to rush it. The message from the community has always been ‘later and better’ – and although a later release is hurting us, it’s nothing like a mortal wound, not yet. So we’re going to take the time to give you the best game we can.


Leave a reply

xhunterko Sep 21, 2:09pm

Oh yes of course. AFTER I make the post. Engine speed. It really does need to be looked at. I have the best engine available and it still feels like I'm only moving at initial speed plus one. I expected that you would move if only a little bit, slightly faster than that. And yet it still feels like you're moving at a snails pace. Also, I am not sure if this is a known bug or a feature or not. The fast travel only seemed to work once for me. The other times it's just been usual speed plus overheating and disaster. Which, and hopefully I'm mistaken, is not the intended result. Cause moving fast and quickly away would have been rather nice at times. Cheers and good luck!

xhunterko Sep 21, 2:02pm

One of the few things that I'm worried about with the top down combat is how slowly the ships move going backwards. This is a problem with combat that is normally fast paced and I hope that it's mitigated or done right. Wanted to also add that I LOVE the combat the way it is. The illumination could use a little work but otherwise I like the turn based card like structure. Maybe keep it in as an option for those of us that like it? Another thing. When playing Fallen London, I loved how you could go mad and come around at the end of it. Most of the time it was cheaper (and more interesting) to just go completely mad, wander about in madness for a while, and come around at the end. Not so much here. The only thing waiting for you is a rifle to the chest. Not so terribly interesting. There was something else. But unfortunately my scatter brain has lost it to the back of the head. Then later, it will come up from the ether where it submerged. And it will most likely happen where I will not have internet access or some such nonsense. Perhaps a sorrow spider dragged it off. Nasty little things.

Shockedder Sep 16, 5:01pm

I'm listing several more things that might be tuned to improve immersion ( if you gentle chaps are so inclined) - the light cone in front of the ship could vary in size depending on the mirrors stat - the ships size : the dreadnought and the cargo ship are way too small related to the other ships: should be longer - several more slots fore more outlandish equipment may be added ( take a look at Silent Hunter submarine presentation it might give you some ideeas for a much nicer ship presentation screen) Regards.

Shank Sep 15, 6:13pm

I hope we will have a choice between the new and old combat. This new combat system looks good but, sometimes I like to just relax and play, and having a real time combat system would just irritate me.

Eshjee Sep 14, 8:04pm

An honest question... Is the point/purpose of Sunless Sea to DROWN the player in a constant battle of managing resources because it's honestly starting to feel that way to me. You can not explore or discover anything outside of ports without battling resources, now apparently you soon will not even be able to battle at sea without that burden too. Unless the costs of FUEL and SUPPLIES are drastically reduced, I wager profit margins will go out the window too. That does not sound very fun to me.

Eshjee Sep 14, 7:48pm

Yeah MoxieMan, Mark W made that comment and I agree that real-time combat does not fit the feeling or play-style of the game either. Even inserting random combat event "cards" or events (where the player could make choices), that was relevant to the enemy being fought and could be based on hidden Skill tests, crew #s or anything really.. that could result in positive or negative results would go a long way in making combat more unique, different and challenging yet would KEEP the feeling/play-style of how Sunless Sea is now. The player could even choose to do nothing with the event for no penalty whatsoever if they did not want to gamble it (the event could hint at the applicable skill or some such thing). Real-time combat though? I'm not in favor of that either.

patchanka Sep 14, 11:00am

Looks really good, can't wait for the final release (but take your time please, waiting a few months until easter or so is ok if you feel like you need it !)

Chaosgerbil Sep 13, 6:01pm

Congratulations on your bravery! It took guts to scrap what you had and put in a more robust but difficult to implement system. I'd like to think our comments made a difference. Thank you.

MoxieMan Sep 13, 2:00pm

I'll weigh in as well as one of the few people who like the current combat system. I like playing the game as a merchant captain, avoiding combat at all costs, and the new system seems like it's going to make that much more difficult, or will at least require consumption of large amounts of resources. This point was a good one, made by someone earlier: "It just doesn't fit much with the feeling of the game, where pretty much everything is more text based and not reflex-based. I just hope the combat is not too overbearing to the point that I don't even want to play"

Shockedder Sep 12, 8:59am

Another thing that would be useful to be addressed is ship handling. It should be very different to captain a steamer vs a large freighter for example : different turning circles for one, and stopping distance being another. Also the actual speed of the ship should be influenced by the ship's deadweight : mounting a "Elderly Steeple Engine" on a large freighter should barely allow it to move, conversely mounting a "Caminus Yards 'Compulsion'" on a steamer should be able to shake it to pieces. This should add another tactcal layer to the fight and a lot of immersion in the exploration phase.

Kinoso Sep 11, 10:38am

I must be one of the few who like combat just as it is right now; anyway those last pictures look just great!!!

Derek Sep 11, 7:11am

Zapato and Kris370 have good points, so I first wanted to give them a *bump*.... and I second the "later and better" policy. Give us the best game you can and I don't care if it's Christmas, New Years or Bastille Day by the time there's a final release. Keep up the good work.

The Grouch Sep 11, 6:26am

Man all this looks really good! I've realized that the need for a flare that illuminates the darker patches of the ocean will not be necessary once the unfinished portions of the ocean are completed. I'll be honest, most of my complaints so far have been the result of a very untimely ingame demise. My following replays have allowed me to learn how to really keep the terror meter down, and now I only gain large portions of it (besides storyline stuff) from running through unfinished sections, which sometimes have no buoys or islands.

Eshjee Sep 11, 3:44am

I'm a bit concerned regarding the combat update... traversing the zee already is a constant drain on every resource and now during combat encounters too? 'Ehhhhhhh.....

Schoenga Sep 11, 2:51am

Does the release date given mean that this link is quite out of date, or am I misunderstanding the release date?

Mark W Sep 11, 2:38am

I agree with Egypt Urnash -- I rather have more thoughtful game content than twitchy action combat. I find exploration, items, and storylets much more important than dime-a-dozen combat. I find it quite silly that the inclusion of a real-time combat system was a real big deal for many people. It just doesn't fit much with the feeling of the game, where pretty much everything is more text based and not reflex-based. I just hope the combat is not too overbearing to the point that I don't even want to play.

Zapato Sep 10, 5:07pm

I agree with Kris370. I think the new combat should take place in a "zoomed-in" representation of where you encountered the enemy. Very similar to the way Sid Meier's Pirates handles the start of combat. That way we could keep the option to try to run in exchange for fuel. And in the combat screen you can lower the fuel consumption rate, so fuel is still a precious resource. That way, a single long combat doesn't use all your fuel and put you so far from port you have no chance to make it back.

ThatGuy Sep 10, 2:17am

A fade in/out effect would also make the arcs easier on the eyes just before or just after combat, as well as not terribly ruining the atmosphere.

ThatGuy Sep 10, 2:05am

Could the arcs just turn visible when an enemy is within a certain range? Say, just above the max possible range of hitting them?

Janissaire Sep 9, 8:46pm

Shp will have true special stats?The game will be modable?

Victor M. Pire Sep 9, 7:25pm

My god, I cannot wait to get this update. The new combat system looks AMAZING and much better as the stuff you had before. I'm very grateful that you've listened to us. The visuals of the new islands are just... wow. Can't wait to visit Visage, Nuncio and all the other new ports! The giant pole does look very scary and makes me wonder again: What LIES actually down there in the dark water? Whatever it is, we shouldn't anger it.

Shockedder Sep 9, 10:23am

I would also think, it would be interesting that the crew numbers and officer(s) mean something in combat : you should be able to allocate crew to several posts (Guns/Navigation/Lights) and based on that to affect the time to fill the options. Eg: SalvoRechargeTime = InitialsSalvoRechargeTime - IronStatEffect - GunneryOfficerEffect - CrewManningGunsEffect This could work in reverse too : Too few people manning a station, the recharge is slower ... Another interesting thing, depending on the Officers/Stats extra combat/lighting/dodge options in combat should be available.

Reidlos Toof Sep 9, 2:17am

For the targeting fields I would recommend using lines of dashes (- - - - - -) to show the limits of the field, rather then a colored area. You can also put labels with low opacity, such as "Deck" "Forward" and "Aft" within the fields for better readability. These fields should also only activate when the player is considered to be "in combat".

Shockedder Sep 8, 6:09pm

The actions available in the fight could be grouped per ability impact ( e.g. Salvo / Flensing / Devastating salvo ... in the Iron group, Flares/Search/Observations in the Mirror group, Evade/.. in the veils group ). There could also be a specials group for anything that doesn't neatly fit the categories. As for the gun arcs, they could be less intrusive (coloured dotted lines with no inside fill) and they could appear whenever you hover the mouse over an offensive action (so that they won't look weird when exploring). My .02 echoes. :)

Weekenders Sunday News 9/7 | Cliqist Sep 7, 7:32pm

[…] It’s not all sad news today, though, so fight through the heartbreak and read on! Sunless Sea has been quiet for quite awhile, but they’ve broken the tense silence with a big update full of great news including screenshots, a ton of incredibly cool islands, and gameplay details for you to read through. You can read all about it over on the official website. […]

Jabberwok Sep 7, 6:29pm

I am wondering how this will affect fuel use. Seems like it will take a LOT more fuel if I'm going to be circling enemies in combat instead of just making a bee-line for my destination. I did think it was somewhat odd that the forward arc does more damage, because it's not what I'm used to from naval combat in other games, but it does fit the existing ship designs. Will my starting boat have only a front arc, since there's only one deck gun, or is it supposed to be a turret? Illumination on the map should make this really interesting.

onyhow Sep 7, 2:46pm

@Griffin: So you mean that nowadays ship still should fight with broadsides only? Oh wait, we now mostly use missiles... The reason why it's like that in the past is because of the lack of effectiveness of guns (ships are TOUGH), which means that you need a LOT of them to do any appreciable damage...18/19th century saw massive development in gun technology that makes them do a lot more damage, like explosive shells and such...broadside guns also limit how ships can move, which is why they are put in turret they can fire on many other directions. Also: this looks awesome!

liam the gray Sep 7, 10:25am

the combat looks great and i think you are doing an outstanding job i love fallen London which i got into from this you rotters suck all my time with that game props on the art assets in the game they really are cool as heck i am trying to get into games design and watching your game develop is helping me understand some things.

Evaristus Sep 7, 6:29am

Ever so pleased with this and the previous update, it is quite heartening to see that FB Games are willing and capable to make challenging revisions to their extant product to produce the most faithful actualization of the Prisoner's Honey-addled Dream that is the world of the Unterzee. You're doing God's work, friends.

zubzee Sep 6, 2:32pm

I agree with cris370

curiousgeorgie Sep 6, 4:05am

Initially, I didn't really want any change in combat, but I do generally like the arc combat style, so I'm okay with this change. Will different guns also change the width and length of the arc? And will torpedos and harpoons follow the same style?

Nathaniel Sep 6, 3:01am

I think this seems like a lot of fun. I really appreciate the hard work you're putting into this! It seems very cool. I would like to let you know that personally, fuel is occasionally a challenge for me to manage and supplies almost always are. I've gotten to the point where I have had an Iron-Clad Will once, but I couldn't get another one to pass on. ANYWAY! my point with that is that resource management is still a challenge for some of us; I'm not sure if you might be able to address the ease that some have with the difficulty of others with some sort of slider for difficulty, or multiple sliders for "Fuel Expenditure," "Enemy Occurrence," or whatever. In any event, I'm sure what you will do will be great. I found the first screenshot particularly thrilling; I really look forward to opening up on some of the monsters and fleeing others. I appreciate the heartsong you're pouring into this: it's beautiful.

Adam Sep 5, 6:25pm

Griffin: I believe you're thinking of the Age of Sail. Gun turrets were widespread by the 1890s.

Kris370 Sep 5, 3:05pm

I know I wittered on a lot in my last post about scale so I'll try and be briefer here, but I still think it may be an issue here. I could be wrong as I haven't seen how it works first hand yet, but a fight where you dance around for longer than a minute or two could see you crossing a large area of ocean or even ending up game devastatingly far off course. I think if you took the main map as a "representation" of the large scale world, it would be nice to have the combat displaced from the main world like with the card game, but maybe more in the sense of many JRPG or a tactics type game. An enemy spawns, and if it manages to contact you or vice versa, then you could be taken to a smaller separate map to fight it where fuel, supplies and terror aren't affected(as much?) and if you win you reappear where you were. You could have a few random rocks/reefs spawn to make it fit with the area of zee you are in and provide cover and a need to come up with different tactics for the situation, and to stop people from being able to work out a repetitive tactic to fight X enemy that spawns in Y area on the main map. Also it could maybe allow you to escape the combat if you exited the side of the "small map" whilst out of sight or even allow for combat with more than one individual enemy?

LadyTarvish Sep 5, 2:59pm

One Suggestion: The Red/Green Arcs are going to be confusing for anyone playing that is Red-Green colorblind, might I also suggest the Sextant/Compass style arc as Constantine put forward or some sort of Colorblind mode.

Griffin Sep 5, 2:28pm

Did you know that historically, broadsides were what ships were aiming for in a fight, not front shots? I think it's silly that front cannons do more damage, and you should use a broadside mechanic.

Constantine Caolho Sep 5, 11:38am

Good news on the Combat update. I think the ideal solution would be less action-y, but at least it seems it won't drag down the game as the current system is prone to. As a visual cue for the arcs, instead of the colored placeholder, I would suggest to use something reminiscent of the borders of navigational instruments, such as a sextant or a chronometer. I think it would compliment perfectly the visuals of the game. They need not to be actually functional (not even sure how they work), but if they could mimic perhaps their gear movement, instead of a fixed asset, of azimuths and degrees, it would look (and feel) lovely.

Egypt Urnash Sep 5, 4:26am

I'm not sure how I feel about that combat. I really liked the sedate abstraction of the card-based combat; it had a conceptual unity with the card-based narration of the story parts of the game. If I wanted to think about my actual position with regards to the enemy I'll go play a reflex-based game. YMMV, but I'd be perfectly happy with the card combat and a whole ton more content over twitchier new combat and only not as much more new places to explore and find horrible doom in.

NotJim Sep 4, 11:43pm

Go Failbetter! I admire the ammount of rethinking that must've gone on to change the combat so radically. I'm excited for it. The new islands are looking very atmospheric and the combat direction seems engaging and well thought out. It's really refreshing to witness/be part of such a patient and understanding playerbase. I think at least part of that is the confidence we have in your talents. What we have so far in Sunless Sea is of such a high standard that future changes merit little apprehension. Get well soon Drownie team members. Best of luck for the coming weeks.

Dr Wellington Yueh Sep 4, 11:28pm

Great news! Keep up the good work! A contribution: An enemy that is invisble unless is enlightened, that would be a huge challenge! Also a place in the Unterzee cover with a mist, reducing your vision to a few "meters" Greetings from Chile, at the end of the world.

The Incorrigible Raconteur Sep 4, 9:38pm

Hold on, is that Port Cavendish I spy there on the Isle of Cats? I'm Cavendish! *squeals with delight several times, all of them inappropriately*

alexiskennedy Sep 4, 8:51pm

another idea worth considering, thanks!

alexiskennedy Sep 4, 8:51pm

I think fuel will be okay, because it's usually not at a premium, but as say we can tune; Terror, though, is a bigger issue, and we're likely both to be softening Terror and giving a Terror reduction reward for defeating enemies.

alexiskennedy Sep 4, 8:50pm

Worth considering, thanks!

alexiskennedy Sep 4, 8:50pm

I wouldn't give a hostage to fortune that way! :D '2015' is a safe bet. Our original estimate was way too optimistic.

alexiskennedy Sep 4, 8:49pm

There are generally going to be fewer spawns (and in particular fewer bats).

alexiskennedy Sep 4, 8:49pm

>Does this mean the final release will be a Steam exclusive, dear me no! It's available on the Humble Store right now, and we're talking to other distributors. But we do by far the most business on Steam, so we have to be most careful there.

LittleTimmytheThird Sep 4, 8:03pm

Exciting to see these changes, keep up the good work! Does this mean the final release will be a Steam exclusive, or are you looking at other distributors?

Carver Sep 4, 7:03pm

I'm so excited! And am generally happy to wait. Being a fan of Valve & Blizzard, Lord knows I'm used to it ^^

IceCreamKoan Sep 4, 6:01pm

I found bat conflict repetitive and wondered why they would attack a superior opponent in the first place - wouldn't they make an estimation of survival and avoid combat? Could that be a pre-combat mechanic? Maybe you could have control to "big up" your appearance to dissuade possible foes or appear weak to lure some bats into the stewpot. Of course banging a few pans together won't scare off creatures who exceed your perceived strength, or see through your ruse. The longer they pace you, the better their estimation. I picture this as a combination of Iron (your true strength) and Veils (what you choose to show). Veils can apply a negative or positive glamour - much like the forward or reverse speed control, perhaps.

ancusohm Sep 4, 5:45pm

Take all the time you need to make a good final product. Out of curiosity, can you give any estimate about when you'll release the zubmarine stuff?

Ratko Mlady Sep 4, 5:13pm

How about making the arcs briefly flash when the enemy enters or leaves them (or stays just on the perimiter), with a key to toggle them on/off at other times? This way you also get feedback that your attack has started or stopped charging, while keeping the view clean most of the time.

Andrew Crystall Sep 4, 5:11pm

I'd much rather have a more polished game than something rushed through :) (One concern would be the amount of fuel you'd burn on this sort of combat, but that's a fairly-easily-tuneable change...)

ZoddTheHuman Sep 4, 3:44pm

Lovely changes. Idea for the arcs: Just stylised outlines/frames, not transparent filled shapes. That way not much of the game would be obscured, and it would fit in much better with the aesthetic.