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Sunless Skies Pre-Production: Talkin’ Bout Proc Generation

By Liam Welton, November 24, 2016 · Pre-Production Sunless Sea Sunless Skies

When we started working on Sunless Sea, there weren’t many games that attempted to blend exploration of a randomised playspace with interactive storytelling. In the process of making that game, we learned a lot about the sort of experiences we wanted to create, and also a few that we would perhaps want to avoid in future.

Sunless Skies presents an opportunity to refine the formula we created in Sunless Sea. In order to make sure the sequel improves upon the first game, we’re breaking the systems down, analysing what worked well, what worked less well, and testing new approaches.

One area we’ve been focusing on is the shape and layout of the world itself. In Sunless Sea, the Neath is a vast ocean bounded on two sides by a cavern wall. When a player starts a new captain, we generate a map by shuffling collections of tiles and placing them within predefined areas.

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Some tiles are always fixed in the same location (the grey ones), but most move within a predefined region (red, blue, yellow, orange & purple). Restricting their placement meant we could balance the difficulty. Anything in the region surrounding London would be for the early to mid-game, whereas the far eastern area of the map would be late-game content.

One of the core loops in Sunless Sea is setting out from the known location of the Southern Archipelago towards unknown and increasingly unusual locations. You set off and explore, discover new areas of the map, and return to London.

There are two halves to that journey – outwards toward the unknown, and homewards towards safety. When we sat down to analyse what was successful about this loop, we realised that the exploration of the unknown was much more enticing than the return journey. Returning was essential, obviously, and much of the tension and emergent storytelling in Sunless Sea comes from those moments when you limp back to London after over-stretching yourself and barely surviving. However, after you’ve been playing the game for 20+ hours, those journeys backwards across the entire map can begin to take their toll.

For Sunless Skies, we want to keep this core loop, but reduce the amount of time spent traversing explored territories. In order to do this, there is no one place your captain can call home. Instead, you will find several large ports throughout the game. Upgrading your weapons and ships, picking up crew and passengers, trading in valuable goods – all of these can be done in any of these large ports.

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These major ports act as the points around which we will build the entire world. Each sits in the centre of a region of space, surrounded by other settlements and discoveries. The central ports will remain a fixed location in each game, but the surrounding areas will be randomised within a radius around that central point. In one game, the small colony of amphibian potters might be on the outer north-westerly rim of the region, in the next they are closer in to the south-east, providing a trading opportunity unique to that captain.

The tension created by having to struggle back to a major port will still be there, and the threat of overreaching and dying in the cold, uncaring vastness of space will be just as present as it was in Sunless Sea. But your journeys will be shorter and more varied, and the new opportunities awaiting you in ports even more tantalizing. For those brave enough to leave the safety of their known region, there will be other, perhaps greater, civilisations to explore in adjacent regions.

A note for readers: This was posted in November 2016, during pre-production of Sunless Skies.  Any details in this blog are subject to change between now and the Kickstarter, in Early Access or after release.

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Solosite Jan 2, 10:07am

I agree, excited for the new game but would also really love to see expansionz at sea. Making it possible to move east, south and north on to different maps when you have the skills to survive. Most importantly thanks you for this wonderful game.

Yuri Nikolai Dec 7, 5:23pm

Hello. I am really excited about this new game and i am sure you will manage to make it a memorable experience. However, please don't abandon Sunless Sea ): Too many companies ditch their previous title when they release a new one, and it would be nice to receive some updates for Sunless Sea every now and then.

Lewis blitten Dec 7, 9:38am

This looks so cool! Can't wait for release!

Ryan Richards Dec 1, 7:30pm

If this also means a larger map, and more ships, I'm in. Also, port or island sized bosses/mini-bosses? Black hole and nutron star mini-bosses? Supermassive black hole boss creatures with GRB level attacks? Getting to shoot and attempt to kill whatever The Eye is? This is happening, right? I want there to be a very good reason so few reach the high wilderness and beyond, or return from it. I want my captain to sail as far as possible, and get utterly demolished by several massive things he could only a glance at. Or get Rekt for attempting to shoot an otherwise passive judgment. For the place to just get less and less survivable as more stars die. Till Kingeaters Castle, were it to be used as the new Avid Horizon, decorated will all the wells of the neath, would have appeared less terrible a place.

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Ben Turner Nov 25, 2:37pm

Hey, I played Sunless Sea and absolutely enjoyed it. I've only just seen this and read it but I loved every bit that it had to say. I loved the randomized in a certain area bit in Seas and I think it would be just as fun if not better for Skies. I love the idea for numerous major ports, cause not gonna lie traversing back to Wolfstack with low fuel, hull, supplies and crew was a nightmare at times. I can't wait to see Skies released. I'm sure as anything I'll play it!!!

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Carlo Nov 24, 5:34pm

Sounds like a great change, and I appreciate you guys analysing the mechanics. Sunless Sea didn't quite grab me, but I think Skies will have enough improvements to really pull me in. Almost like the boardgame release of Forbidden Island, where the formula was being roughed out, and then was refined in the much better sequel Forbidden Desert.

Bricriu Nov 24, 4:43pm

Will there be cross-connectivity to Fallen London? There was a hint in this month's exceptional story, I thought.

porpoise Nov 24, 1:51pm

This sounds excellent. A suggestion - if you're going to be using the Something Awaits You system again, *don't* link it to sailing time. It was frustrating to finally be able to afford an engine upgrade, then realise that getting to my destination faster was costing me a lot of SAY events at ports along the way. It was hard to avoid the temptation to just wait around at each port for the SAY event to arrive (and sometimes wait for a second event afterwards), which was not much fun but was often the most resource-efficient way to play. I reckon this would work much better if you got one SAY event at each port for each journey, with a visit to a main port (and maybe other events as well) resetting them. Anyway, good luck with the game! I can't wait!

NiteBrite Nov 24, 1:49pm

This seems reasonable. In sunless sea once you are sufficiently advanced in the content you don't even really need to go to London at all except to tick up things like time the healer. There were a good amount of work arounds for basically every problem encounterable. I hope this is true in sunless skies too, that sufficiently advanced play can effectively cut itself off of even the major ports and enjoy free roaming.

Stephen Nov 24, 1:45pm

Fantastic idea. I always thought it would have been nice to renounce London and call a new port home. This seems to bring the game a bit closer to an eldrich Escape Velocity =)

Harold Segrera Nov 24, 12:31pm

It's not that I don't like this concept or multiple "Home-ports," it's that I personally loved the act of knowing there's only one really safe port on the map where I could recollect myself as it added that sense of dread, danger, and planning to see if, "Am I gonna be able to make it with this much fuel/supplies," or, "Oh s__t, my b___dy terror is nearly 100," or anyhting else that may happen that puts a dent on your passage back to that one "safe" place made the journey that much more enjoyable.