The Riddle of STEEL

By Failbetter, August 17, 2014 · Sunless Sea

Last month, we announced we’d devote an entire update – STEEL – to improving combat. Improving and polishing, not rebuilding from the ground up. Some mechanical tweaks, some substantial balance improvements, and some of the enhancements we’d always planned (like better story integration) and we’d be on our way.

So we spent a couple of weeks planning and arguing around the whiteboard…



…building paper prototypes…



…and digital prototypes…



We ended up with a promising candidate. It figured in both visibility and a separate audibility mechanic (run silent!), it was much more cat-and-mouse than the current implementation, and it felt like a hunt through the dark.

But nobody on the team – including me – responded with delight.  And people have responded with delight, consistently, when they’ve first started playing SUNLESS SEA, when they’ve first seen London in the dark or nosed out into the Archipelago. And we would really like  a combat system that provokes delight. The core team sat down together and chewed on how to get to delightfulness.

So, okay, we said, let’s go one more time round the reasons we don’t do ship combat in real time on the map, bearing in mind that it is of course impossible and we shouldn’t do it.

Two hours later, we’d decided that it wasn’t impossible, and we should probably do it.

Two days later, we’d run the numbers, done a bit of prototyping, and we’re going to do it!

Combat in SUNLESS SEA will still be gently paced not frantic, still be pausable, still  involve light and darkness. But it’s going to occur right on the main map, with the primary game systems plugged into it, not in a turn-based secondary card game.

It’s really hard, as a designer, throwing away a cherished mechanic. It’s like euthanasing a beloved pet that won’t stop eating children. But when it’s right, it’s right. We – and you – are lucky enough to have some extra time to work on this, so we’re going, once again, to do it right. This is a significant, exciting, scary change – we’ll be letting you know more soon!


Leave a reply

Dylan Sep 20, 9:00pm

Good for you all. The game world is beautiful and the more time I can spend there instead of staring at a weird combat screen, the better.

Chessure Aug 31, 4:09am

Yes, yes. Quite exciting. Although, I will miss the card system, especially against the Lifeberg. I would suggest a two-way system in which there is an option to choose between the new battle system and the old battle system, but... Yes, yes. Quite.

The Grouch Aug 29, 5:23am

I left you a lengthy bit of text last time. So in the name of brevity and eyeballs: Nice work, I'm excited to see how this turns out! As a suggestion, it would be nice to see flares as a commodity, both to reduce the use of it as a favored illumination device, but also so that it can be used to mitigate terror while traversing the darkest portions of the zee.

Nathaniel Aug 27, 3:51pm

You are the b-o-m-b, Alexis. I apologize for the lapse in my memory; I remember that was one of the things that attracted me to your game in the first place. It's money well spent. I am delighted to have your game, and I appreciate how much work you're putting into it. Thank you so much for making the game!

Shockedder Aug 27, 2:24pm

@Moderators Any chance of spacing up a bit my reply, please ? It looked fine in the comment editing box, but was displayed as an unreadable wall of text after approval. :( Thank you in advance.

alexiskennedy Aug 27, 11:42am

Nathaniel: it's always been listed at the top of our influences :)

Shockedder Aug 26, 3:43pm

Yup Sid Meyer's Pirates ship to ship combat mechanic would be interesting however I do not know how it could be made to work with the special actions / mechanics of Sunless Sea (also I don't know how they would fit with the general feel of the game). In any case, here are several thoughts on those, for that matter : -silent running -> enemy will not detect the ship if it hasn't spotted it yet (until the ship gets too close) -> this might be done via the ship speed throttle -> would mean a slow forward/turn speed so if the enemy is around and spots you you'd be hard pressed to avoid the attacks -evade -> this can be achieved by increasing the distance from the enemy -> enemy should have a perception and an attack range ( not necessarily the same) a movement speed , an attack speed( for each of the attack types) and a pursue range -> once the pursue range is exceeded the enemy should be considered successfully evaded -search -> this would allow detection of enemy probable location via exploration -> hints of the enemy location can be given via visual and/or auditory cues (auditory cues can be more important if running silent so you are able to actually *hear* them better) -observations -> should allow for detection of enemy weak-points and capabilities (possibly ?) -> also story flavor text and maybe trigger of special actions/ quests ? -flare, ship lights variance-> should allow for faster discovery of the enemy with increased risk of tipping them off of your location -> should allow for special actions (blinding light for enemy confusion ?) -ram/board -> (where applicable) this should allow for special actions towards large enemies -> ramming would imply flank speed towards the target and pass a target evade check ( an enemy opportunity attack might occur here too) -> boarding might work on both ships and monsters , triggering supplemental actions (loot or salvage the ship) (butcher/capture for monsters) -harpoons/cannons/torpedoes/enemy attacks -> would each have their own range, speed of recharge, effect against targets, chance of success based on target illumination and evasion skills -> could be supplemented with some special actions (baited traps, sea mines) Etc.

Nathaniel Aug 26, 4:00am

Please take a week to play Sid Meyer's Pirates!

Nathaniel Aug 26, 3:54am

HURRAY! HURRAY! Thank you! I know it's hard to set aside a system. Maybe you can use it in a different setting, but I appreciate what you're doing so much. Thank you, I love you.

Preston Aug 26, 12:04am

Brilliant! You guys... it takes guts to throw away that much work but thank you thank you thank you! The combat system made this game nearly unplayable for me. It did not do the rest of the game (nor the universe) justice. Excited to see what you come up with!!!

Simon the Mad Aug 25, 10:56pm

COOL! Although, how the heck you're going to pull it off sure beats me.

Jabberwok Aug 23, 8:23am

To me, the terror system feels fairly accurate. It should rise more slowly near London, as it does, but it should still rise. The game is about a land that is constantly in the dark. Even when the ship is near a buoy or city, everything beyond that light is darkness all the time (except for whatever strange lights are casting from the cave roof). And this is not even considering all the weird stuff that goes on. If you've played Fallen London, you probably know that it's not exactly a safe and sunny place to live, even in the city itself. I will say that there are some events in port that I think should have a bigger terror reduction to feel useful, especially in London, since you can always reset it to 50, anyway. But other than that, the rate of terror increase at sea feels accurate to me. One thing that interests me about the combat changes is how turning your ship's light on and off will affect things. Right now, it increases terror to have it off, but I haven't found much reason to really turn it off. But turning it off seems like it could be very useful in combat to reduce your visibility to enemies.

Henry Madron Aug 23, 4:28am

Hooray! Can't wait!

Arto Aug 22, 10:00pm

This is fantastic news, the lack of transition will go a long way to maintain the atmosphere in the game and hopefully open up the game to more fight or fly type moments as your resources dwindle. Keep it up guys :3

Aerouge Aug 21, 3:15pm

This was the best decision you could EVER make. While beeing tactical and all the combat in it´s current state WAS plain boring and repetative. Especially considering that once you figured out the pattern of an enemy it was really just a short way of figuring the optimal choices and hoping that the RNG did not eat you. So here you have a chance of turning the most boring part of your game into one of the most interesting. Dont make it to arcade-y as this would not suit the mood of the game, but make it something better than clicking "Illuminate-Illuminate-Dodge-Fire" over and over again. Aerouge

Donuts StrongJaw Aug 21, 4:09am

And here I was hoping you would've gone with arena-based real-time combat contextual to your on-map location. Still, I respect your decision to rebuild the combat in hopes of making it a truly delightful experience, and wish you the best of luck in your endeavors. Sunless Sea and Fallen London are both lovely games, despite their mechanical simplicity (and I love me some mechanical complexity!).

Edward Aug 21, 3:13am

I've been monitoring this game for a while, and now i'm definitely going to buy it when this new combat system gets implemented. The tactical possibilities that emerges from this decision will be awesome, like engaging more than a enemy at a time, for example. I just disagree on the gently paced part, I would like to panic when confronted with a difficult combat situation (wouldn't a sailor?), even though I could pause to think straight, but that's ok. I also think the sea would have to be a lot vaster that it is now, and darker. Like someone already said, the Terror mechanic should be reviewed, its doesn't make sense that it grows so fast when you're close to the city shores or near sea lights. Other than that the game seems to be working out great. Congrats to the devs.

JIMA Aug 20, 1:33am

Hey Developers, First, I love your game. It eats more time than I can afford to spend! Second, I'm personally really glad you are making a step to revamping the combat! Thirdly, I know you guys are really responsive to the questions and suggestions of the community, so I was wondering if I can suggest you keep the option to retain the old system? I personally really really want a new system of combat and I look very forward to it! But my mind was kinda changed when I read Nathan's comment below, and I don't think anyone wants to deny this gaming experience to anyone, so it seems kinda logical and easy to keep both options (somehow?) I don't know, I'm not a program god, just a gaming petitioner. =) Thanks for your time and a sincerely awesome game! A world like no other! To the zea, gentlemen, to the zea. JIMA

George Aug 19, 5:25pm

whenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhenwhen gibe realtime combat pls

Cody Aug 19, 5:08pm

I'm excited for increased story implementation, such as 100 different events that could happen when fighting a crab. He reveals his vulnerable belly, or he has one blind eye, or he damages the ship such that the rudder is jammed, or he climbs aboard the ship!! What do we do, cap'n!? This was done well in King of Dragon Pass.

Issyt Aug 19, 1:20pm

Bought Sunless Sea, but yet to play it. Waiting for the full game to emerge, but this change, by all accounts, is most welcome. I am sure it'll be a labour of love for all of us to enjoy not very far into the future.

nomotog Aug 18, 8:19pm

This is nice to hear. I liked the idea of STEEL when I noticed it on steam. I watched a lets play of it to see how it played, saw the combat, went nope and closed the video.

Devin Lay Aug 18, 7:48pm

I am really excited about this post. When i first started playing your game i was awestruck with the rich story and eerie yet fitting soundtrack, but one thing i found lacking... an engaging and strategic combat system. I am very happy you guys are going to make a big development because before now combat simply annoyed me...(no offence)but i am looking forward to the steel update. Good luck my friends see you on the zea.

Hank Aug 18, 7:12pm

It's daring move you made there, one shall respect it. If you ask me, and I know you don't, and shouldn't, the game could gain in intensity if the unterzea was really dark, and the light on your deck would be the only way to see what's coming for you, so you'll have to choose where to point your projector, or shoot real time flare, looking for potential threats, or turning it off for stealth. Right now, I feel like terror rises way too fast, not only in zea, but also in random events. The result is that you're not really terrified, you're just frustrated because it drasticly reduce the field of possibility (sailing near coast and beacon or taking your chance with probability, which should be fun, but currently is not). Their is nothing more frustrating than having to slay half of your crew too cool down a mutiny while your hold is full of fuel and food, that should not occur (unless your sailing straight to unknown water or zea monsters). Don't Starve, for example, deals with insanity by slowly introducing hallucination, shapes, shadows and sounds. At first, they are harmless, but soon, they try to turn off your light, or start chasing you. I think this is a lead that could really enhance the game.

Yanni Cache Aug 18, 6:15pm


SmallFish Aug 18, 6:03pm

Wow! That sounds very promising!

Olivier Neron Aug 18, 4:44pm

I didn't think the turn based card game idea was necessarily bad, I just don't understand why there was so much down time in it - waiting 5 seconds, 8 seconds, without being able to skip turn times, was really the biggest issue for me, not the concept of card-based combat. Still, I hope it turns out as great as you guys envision it - One of the types of turn-based combat I could see work in this game is reminiscient of a game called Space Rangers, especially with all the upgrade slots in your ship - It would work perfectly with the design of this game and at least give animations to the combat, which would make it still turn based but more engaging for the player, also allowing to move around the world map while fighting and still having to manage your fear and all that.

Sir Price Aug 18, 2:01pm

I tip my hat for the bravery required for such a daring bet. Though I don't think it's a foolish one. I've never really disliked, or at least hated, the fighting mechanics. It does halt the game a bit, but the game has never been frantic or fast-paced to begin with since that was never the point. However, neither does it really add anything significant to the feeling of the game. It's pretty much just an additional activity in the gameplay that's just there, where the outcome is, beyond luck, decided beforehand based on your stats and the loadout of your ship. Again, I've never really recented it, but I do look forward to seeing how the new layout will turn out. Thank you for a great game, best of luck, and I will see you in the deep.

JH Aug 18, 12:48pm

I'm really happy to hear this. The combat was the only quibble I had with this game. I can't wait for this to come out.

Gnardak Aug 18, 12:45pm

Hmm, interesting. Though I'm not sure that combat on the main map would really work at that scale. I'm reminded of Pirates where meeting a ship would move you to a separate combat map because combat really wouldn't have worked on the scale of the main map. One of the things I found about the old combat system was that the difficulty of the game itself(though game difficulty isn't a bad thing in itself) really hampered what you could do with combat. For instance I never even think about using potent flares or flank speed because fuel has to be managed so carefully that you can't throw it away in combat and by the time you are in such a bad place so that you would want to use it just to survive then it's too late for it to make any difference anyway. Mainly I found, though I've been fighting with high mirrors and iron but not veils, that the current system is too much based on luck to provide a challenge. With high mirrors and iron you can take on some medium sized monsters and get some decent loot but it's really not worth doing it in the long run. Mirrors, and possibly Iron too, seems to work by increasing the maximum effect as it increases but not really increasing the minimum effect by very much. So I might be able to take down a monster with one flare and two shots and get decent loot for that. But sometimes it takes two flares(only after the first flare fails to be potent enough do you wish you'd used potent flares but by the time you know a second normal flare is enough so it's not worth blowing the fuel) and sometimes it takes three shots. But sooner or later you just get unlucky it's it takes two flares and three shots to take it down and that's a death sentence because so many things can almost one shot you. The consequences of this are that it's not worth fighting monsters that you can actually probably kill because sooner or later you'll just come across a brief run of bad luck that is enough to end your game. So you end up only fighting things that it's guaranteed that you can stomp on and that's just tedious when the combat is kinda drawn out like it is in the current system. Though I haven't really tried the combat with a high veils stat so that might be different. Though when I briefly tried with veils it seemed that it causes combat to be even more drawn out. So I welcome these changes. It seems like a system based slightly more on skill and less on luck is a better way to go. Though I do have reservations about having the combat directly on the main map due to the scale.

Day Aug 18, 12:20pm

Ahhhh, that's lovely! I love Sunless Sea but the combat has always been achingly tedious. I'm interested to see how you'll make the little beastie fights interesting as well, though; after a while, it doesn't really matter how unique the mechanic is if you're swarmed by three bat swarms in a row. But I have faith that y'all can pull it off. Thank you for listening to feedback about this, because this is fantastic!

Penknife Aug 18, 12:07pm

I'm glad to hear this! I wanted to love the card game combat system, but it was so incredibly slow that I found myself playing with a book on hand to read while fighting lifebergs ("flee-flee-flee-flee-yawn-flee-flee ... okay, now I can start actually attacking") or sitting through "flare-flensing salvo" one more time to kill zee-bats or little crabs (at the point where the outcome isn't in any doubt whatsoever, being forced to stare at attack timers for ten seconds before you can get back to the game feels like being punished). I'm looking forward to what you come up with for the new system.

JiminyJickers Aug 18, 11:47am

Great news! This is exactly what I wanted from the combat. I didn't do enough research before buying the game and, stupidly, assumed this is how the combat will be. After playing, I was very disappointed in my purchase. But now that you are changing the combat system, I am very excited and cannot wait for the update!

AgentDerf Aug 18, 11:45am

Eating children is bad, you take the right decision :)

Chabliya Aug 18, 11:26am

That's really awesome to hear! I liked the old combat in THEORY. But in reality, it sadly turned out tedious, repetitive, and not at all challenging. It's great that you listened to player concerns about it. Kudos to you as the developers that you could make that step and get rid of a mechanic that wasn't working. Not an easy step to make, just goes to show that you care and take your players seriously. Thanks for that.

Dimitri Loxias Aug 18, 9:09am

This sounds GREAT! I love naval games, and I think playing too much Turn-Based RPGs on SNES when I was a kid kinda makes me feel bored in TB combat. When I saw Sunless Sea on Steam, I fell in love immediately, but got bored with the combat. Can't wait to see the new combat system!!!

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Joe Aug 18, 7:48am

Thanks for confronting the game developing equivalent of the Dubois Maelstrom: "Do we focus on putting content into the game, or do we focus on revamping the combat system?" If the new combat system will delight us, then maybe it's worth pursuing. N.B. Can you please move the "full power" command from "f" to, say, "p" on the keyboard? I'd really hate to attempt a starboard turn to engage Khanate pirates with my deck gun and end up lighting my ship on fire instead.

Jabberwok Aug 18, 7:31am

This is really exciting! I will, of course, miss the card game element since it is something I've grown used to, but I agree that it's probably for the best. I think it will be neat to see how things like using the ship's light, engine sounds, flares, etc, work into combat on the main screen. I suppose more twitch elements might prove difficult for people who can't or won't play games that way... However, for other sorts of naysayer, I'd suggest seeing what they come up with before you dismiss the unborn result as being shallow, or whatever your particular beef is. Ultimately, I can see this really tying the sailing portion of the game together with the combat in a way that will feel more meaningful and cohesive, and possibly more visceral, as well. A solid piloting/combat system with occasional text-based random events thrown in to spice things up. It's also interesting to see a developer making such a big design change so far along in the project. Good luck.

Deadbreeze Aug 18, 6:06am

Wow... All I saw before was everyone was unimpressed/annoyed with the combat. Now they make a change, and the majority of the comments are "Nooooooo..." I didn't hate the card game combat myself, but it got old quick. It definitely needed a change. I trust the decisions of the devs, and look forward to what they come up with. Thank you guys for tackling a big task at the request of your customers. You guys are unprecedented in your community response and interaction in my book. Keep up the good work.

Voxavs Aug 18, 6:03am

Big thumbs up, can't wait to try it myself.

Nathan Aug 18, 5:35am

NoooOOOooo! Please don't do this! Although I agree combat was in need of work, the fact that it was turn based, or at least separate from the main overworld map made it actually playable for me. I'm severely physically disabled, and can't use a physical keyboard. As it is, controlling the ship with nothing but an on-screen keyboard is... tricky. Trying to manage combat as well without some method of mouse control will kill my ability to play a game I purchased for the fact that I could play it independently. Look, I'm a realist. I understand one disheartened disabled guy won't do a darn thing to influence your design decisions. Although if I could, I guess I would ask for a way to control navigation AND combat with the mouse (as well as, not instead of the keyboard). Options = accessibility, it's that simple. Though I'm just one guy, there are probably a lot more disabled gamers out there than you might imagine. A whole demographic of consumer who is used to being the minority, and thus ignored. Why bother speaking up about something no one else has a problem with, right? Well, I guess this is me speaking up. Adding gameplay/control options adds accessibility, which in turn will logically add sales. Also, I won't feel ripped off.:p /rant

Adam Aug 18, 3:25am

Sounds good, I felt like the combat was very abstract, I didn't feel connected to the ship and it was more about spamming lighting then firing before the other guy.

Lashkar Aug 18, 2:26am

I will be happy to see combat that doesn't look like a 90s RPG.

AlexnChaos Aug 18, 2:19am

Well, this is kinda disappointing, I for one don't WANT a combat system, that's as you have described it, I like what you had now, and would have been happy with something similar, but improved *what can I say, I liked the card game, and thought it fit nicely with the game* guess, if this plays as I fear it will that's another game for the play once a month list rather then playing every day /shrug what you get for buying pre-release I guess, such is life

Chargone Aug 17, 11:51pm

Well, that's depressing. Another game where memorizing patterns and spamming them as fast as you can makes you win and actually thinking and planning is punished (pretty much every real time combat system ever, by their very nature).

Damian Aug 17, 10:31pm

Hmm well this is interesting... I didn't mind too much of the turn based combat, but it did change the pace of the game. If Sunless Sea was meant to emphasize the terror management (which could use some polishing to make it less overwhelming) and navigation of the dark sea, real time combat would make more sense than the traditional card game. I would be delighted to see how the end result turns out. I will be looking forward to this upcoming update. PS: There are a decent amount of pirate themed flash games with real time naval combat on the internet, be it good or bad. Maybe your team could take a look at some and see what works and what doesn't with Sunless Sea.

John Evans Aug 17, 10:07pm

Well, damn. I guess I need to start playing again so I can enjoy the card-based system as long as possible.

Geo-The-Brave Aug 17, 8:52pm

Maybe make it so you can choose in the options menu, if you want a card based combat system you can have it or if you want a real time combat system then you can have it.

Ryos Aug 17, 8:46pm

I know this is going to make me unpopular, but i LIKED the card based combat, it let me think over my moves, and have ONE moment on the sea where my crews fear was not going through the roof.

nameless Aug 17, 6:45pm

My suggestion is to keep is simple to pick up, hard to master. Just one or two mechanics, because you can't really do something in a month. But make it good! Recycle assets, reuse code, reuse it all. Cut it down to the bare essentials.

Xaphedo Aug 17, 5:33pm

Are you sure? Have you carefully considered how much the addition of animations would impact on your development time? Good real-time combat to me means weighty, satisfying and smooth animations that make two models or sprite really feel like they're interacting and responding to each others' actions. It's almost like an elegant performance, may it be slow and tense (i.e. Shadow of the Colossus, Demon/Dark Souls, Mark of the Ninja) or frenetic and overwhelming (i.e. Samurai Gunn, Devil May Cry, any game of Vlambeer's). Maybe you'll achieve such a goal, maybe you've got an alternate solution, maybe I'm seeing it completely wrong. Whatever the case, you got all my support! Stee-ahem-steam away FB, show us what you've made of!!

James Flattery Aug 17, 4:58pm

I am incredibly impressed with Failbettrr for making this decision! I look forward to playing around with the new system.

DvS-Diablo Aug 17, 4:36pm

Oh, wow. This is a very unexpected turn of events. I suppose I'm the minority but I'll say that I did like the turn based combat. That aside it'll be very interesting change for real-time combat. Good luck and keep up the great work. :D

Xman6012 Aug 17, 4:08pm

Good decision Captain! Your fans wanted the change. Contemplate this on the tree of woe.

Danjuro Aug 17, 3:01pm

I was delighted by this message. A first victory!

Purpur Tentacle Aug 17, 2:12pm

Respect, thats a big change... cant wait to test the new system...:)

an Aug 17, 2:09pm