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Sunless Sea developer opens international fund, mentorship for interactive fiction

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Failbetter dedicates thousands to grow a new breed of interactive fiction games

Failbetter Games, developers of survival exploration game Sunless Sea, announced late last month the launch of a funding initiative for small narrative game projects. Called Fundbetter, it seeks to extend Failbetter's existing incubation and internship programs on an international scale.

But the Fundbetter program is also an open call for commercial partnerships. It's an application process where indie developers with a great idea can rely on Failbetter, itself another indie developer, for both financial and creative resources. Polygon sat down with communications director Hannah Flynn as well as Harry Tuffs, one of the two indie devs inside Failbetter's existing in-house incubator, to learn more.

Sunless Sea isn't Failbetter's first game, but it is perhaps its most successful, having been both a commercial and a critical success. It's actually based on an earlier game, called Fallen London. The website describes it as a "browser-based, literary role-playing game."

fallen_london

The year is 1889. Three decades ago, London was stolen by bats. Dragged deep into the earth by the entity known as the Echo Bazaar. It lies now in the Neath, a cavern of impossible size, on the shores of the Unterzee, a giant saltwater lake. The sun is gone. The tumbling white clouds are gone. There will never be another strawberry. But Londoners can get used to anything. And it's quiet down here, with the devils and the darkness and Rubbery Men and the mushroom wine. Peaceful.

Well, it was until you arrived.

Flynn says that the world of Fallen London, and by extension Sunless Sea, is fueled by rich world-building and a narrative-first development mindset.

"Alexis Kennedy — our co-founder, chief narrative officer and creative lead is really about interactive fiction as a craft," Flynn told Polygon. "It’s something that we’ve been working around for six years as a studio of varying fortunes. We’ve been through a lot and we do consider ourselves to be lucky, and we do have I think amazingly talented writers. But it’s a really difficult space in which to make your name, so we’ve got a lot of friends and a lot of connections now and it just makes perfect sense to pay that forward."

With Fundbetter, Failbetter Games intends to provide commercial funding in the £2,000 to £20,000 range (around $28,000 on the high end). But the money isn't a gift. As a baseline, Failbetter expects to take 50 percent of the revenue of the project until they recoup their investment. Thereafter they'll receive 20 percent of the revenue of the game in perpetuity, as well as credit and branding on the game.

Along with that funding, Failbetter hopes to seed their team culture and best practices into the indie teams they work with. It's a relationship that developer Harry Tuffs says has worked out remarkably well for him.

In October of last year Tuffs successfully raised more than $17,000 for his project, an RPG called A House of Many Doors. As part of the Failbetter incubator, he's been working alongside the members of the Sunless Sea and Fallen London team for some time from his perch in Failbetter's London office.

"Sometimes I just kind of come in and I’ll work in the corner and go out for lunch with them and that’s sort of about it," Tuffs told Polygon. "Which I’m perfectly happy with, because I still get to be in this kind of warm, friendly environment and I’m on their Slack channel so I can just kind of speak to them online and share little jokes and stuff, which is lovely.

"Other times — whenever I want, really — I can have these really in-depth talks with Hannah about the best way to do marketing and all this really useful stuff. Or I can talk to Alexis Kennedy about the direction my game’s going in. I tend to be quite conscious as I don’t want to use up loads of Failbetter’s time, but they are incredibly friendly and don’t seem to mind no matter how much of their time I waste."

This kind of co-working environment has benefits for the team at Failbetter as well.

"From our side," Flynn said, "it’s kind of helpful and useful for us to bounce off our incubees. Talking to Harry about how to market his game reminds me of what I should be doing for my own game sometimes.

"Over the months they have built up a picture of what an operating studio is like, and we also have writer’s workshops which our incubees come to and all of the people who write Fallen London and Sunless Sea are invited. We usually have our internal writing team and five or six freelancers, we have people coming from outside and our incubees. And it’s this really fun kind of problem solving and idea sharing thing that happens for the writers particularly, which isn’t something you get in a lot of places."

"We want to pay our luck forward... to do well by doing good." - Fundbetter

This type of creative churn is important for the type of work that Failbetter does in the interactive fiction space. Through the Fundbetter program they're trying to grow the niche into being a bigger part of the gaming landscape.

"I think that people, even recently, are still deprioritizing games writing a little, so it’s great that it’s something that is at the center of what we’re doing," Flynn said. "What we want is for more kinds of variations on the theme of interactive fiction to become commercially viable. We’re putting our money where our mouth is in that we really love interactive fiction, and we want to see more things like it.

"It seems to just follow more for us that it has to be a commercially viable product, rather than [a project] which is incredibly worthy which people might not pick up. People tend to buy these things when they see them, but you might not pick up a free interactive fiction project. There’s just something that legitimizes these projects a bit when they’re commercial."

In the first two weeks that the program has been live Fundbetter has received more than 25 applications. Flynn says the program is ongoing, as is Failbetter's financial commitment. But how, exactly, they'll replicate the incubation program's success on an international scale is something they'll have to work out over time.

"We don’t know how it's going to happen yet," Flynn said. "That’s the exciting bit. But we didn’t want to limit ourselves to people in London, because you have to kind of have a certain amount of economic clout yourself to even live here, and we want everybody to know that if you’re in your bedroom in Canada somewhere and you’re snowed in that you could still make a game and get our advice and we’ll figure it out.

"We absolutely didn’t want to close things off and miss out on something amazing."