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State of the Studio 2024

If you follow games industry news at all, you probably know 2023 was a year of redundancies. Those have continued into 2024, and now we’re also starting to see many studio closures. So we don’t find it surprising when we get enquiries about how we’re doing.

Even more so because when we released Mask of the Rose last year, it didn’t sell particularly well. We don’t expect to make back the money we spent developing it. And yet, we’re doing alright. We’ve had better years, but also much worse.

After we released Sunless Skies from Early Access in 2019, we spent some time talking about what kind of studio we wanted to be. We were doing well.

In that situation, the expectation nowadays is that you hire aggressively. Perhaps in tech in particular, being profitable isn’t seen as enough. A good company is one with a plan to vastly increase the value of the business, preferably at least tenfold. Some companies take a lot of risks doing that.

We decided to focus on sustainability. A common source of instability for game studios is that generally you have to work on a game for a long time before you can start selling it; and most of the time, you can’t be sure how it will do. We make unusual games, so that holds true.

We decided that a key goal for us would be that if one of ours sold poorly, we could afford to make the next one without doing anything drastic. We don’t want to be forced to lay off our team members, or to take outside investment. (Failbetter is mostly owned by people who work here, and that makes it easier to prioritise some of our other values. We win Best Places to Work awards most years.)

That said, we don’t think sustainability lies in remaining static, either. Another of our goals is to get to the point where we can comfortably make two new games at once while frequently updating Fallen London. We’re not quite there yet, but we’ve made progress. We no longer have to neglect Fallen London when we work on other games.

We think that level of growth will help us with sustainability: it puts our eggs in more baskets. Our team is larger than when we released Sunless Skies, but still smaller than it was in 2017.

One decision we’ve come to is not to go ahead with porting Mask of the Rose to Xbox and PlayStation. Given sales on other platforms, we actually expect we’d break even on these (not a terrible thing with the industry as it is right now). So we previously planned to go ahead with them. On consideration, though, we’d rather focus on our unannounced project: it’s at a point where the extra programmer time would be really useful.

As for what we are doing, first of all, there’s Fallen London. We’ve been giving it a lot of attention over the last few years, and will continue to – you can see Bruno’s retrospective and roadmap post from January for more.

Commercially speaking, Fallen London is rather eccentric. A common, maybe standard business model for free-to-play games is to find new players via paid advertising, and earn more for each one you find this way than you had to spend.

We looked into that for Fallen London years ago, and never found anything that scaled. These days, we don’t run paid adverts at all. Instead, Fallen London survives on people finding the game on their own, maybe from friends or seeing it discussed online. For years now, when nothing special is happening (like a festival or us releasing another game), about 200 new players try it each day. That might sound like a lot, but it isn’t by industry standards; and you have to bear in mind most people who play never spend money on a free-to-play game.

Fallen London is a bit unusual in that area, too. We try to keep the monetisation very polite, and to stay clear of addictive or exploitative design patterns. Whether despite or because of that, more players than usual ultimately spend money on the game. Last time we checked, it was around 6%. We’ve heard anything over 5% is considered excellent.

We have a few thousand Exceptional Friends, too, who subscribe for a monthly story and various perks. We don’t cover our running costs with Fallen London, but it does give us a predictable source of revenue that takes some of the risk out of everything else we do.

Aside from Fallen London, we have one more game in development. We’re expecting to finish pre-production on it in a few months. You may have seen us mention that it’s in a new genre for us, and a new setting that isn’t related to Fallen London. It also has much more non-narrative gameplay than anything we’ve done before.

Unusually, we don’t intend to crowdfund this one. We probably will do an Early Access release, though – because of the non-narrative systems, we think the game will benefit from the extra feedback, and perhaps from being able to see people stream it, which we found invaluable when making Sunless Skies.

Tonally, this game will be gentler than what players may expect from us. We aim at what we’re calling fireside menace: the way it might feel to hear a scary story by the fire on a dark night, while branches beat against the windows; an awareness of the world’s dangers, but also warmth and comfort. You will find the same attention to narrative, atmosphere and mystery that you've come to expect from us, but this time, you won’t go mad or eat your crew.

We’re really excited to start talking about it properly, with details and screenshots and a trailer. With luck, that will be later in the year. We look forward to updating Fallen London for years to come, too. We're very grateful to our community: your support makes everything we do possible.