Rebuilding the Reach
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
We've just released the REACH update for Sunless Skies, which brings many new delights to our little Victorian nightmare of the cosmos. I want to focus on the design thinking behind two major changes - the physical layout of the first region in the game, and a rework of survival mechanics.
As the central region of the High Wilderness, The Reach serves both as an introduction to the world of Sunless Skies and a kind of super-hub, with transit connections to the other three regions; Albion, Eleutheria and the Blue Kingdom. So it is both the area that players will see first and the one they are likely to spend the most time in.
Older versions of the Reach were built on a principle of physical openness - we wanted players to be able to get right in amongst the geography, so ports and landmarks were exploded and highly navigable, in direct contrast to the ports of Sunless Sea, which tended to be a dock sticking out from a large, only partially visible landmass.
However, some of our Early Access players found the resulting game space felt rather empty - dry rather than frightening. This impression was only strengthened by contrast with Eleutheria, a much more densely-packed and labyrinthine space.
Despite the openness, navigation in The Reach was unexpectedly problematic; discoveries and ports were easy to miss, even with a scout to provide direction, while giving players 360 degrees of directional freedom made choosing a path feel rather inconsequential.
Because one group of rocks or Bronzewood looks much like another, it was difficult for players to build up an internal geography of the space in their heads, and so their captains were spending too long flying through featureless fog in the general direction of an icon on their map.
In this new version, we’ve massively increased the ratio of collidable geography to free space. This sounds simplistic - “chuck some rocks in it, job done” - but it serves a number of design functions. It makes the world feel less empty, obviously, but it also gives us the ability to construct much more curated play spaces and plot the relative hazards of potential player routes - to engage in level design, essentially.
At any given time, your captain might have two or three paths to choose from, and as they begin to internalise the world, they’ll get to know which routes are risky but rewarding and which are slower or safer (not always the same thing: with fuel, supplies and terror a constant factor, journey time is as important a consideration as the hazards one might encounter on the way).
For instance, in the example above from the new Traitor’s Wood segment, a player starting at point H and aiming for the Regent’s Grave at point D has a choice of routes - the right hand path is a slow, scenic route taking in the dock at Summerset Camp and the Regent’s Tears waterfalls, (which will offset some of the terror you might otherwise accumulate). Go left, and you can get to the Grave in half the time, but it means sailing directly past an active pirate base.
An additional benefit to this approach is that the Reach now feels considerably more oppressive and claustrophobic. Our artist Tobias has been doing amazing work with parallax and deep backgrounds to give the region a sense of hemmed-in, vertiginous depth.
(It’s worth noting, by the way, that the Reach hub port, New Winchester, is currently unchanged. The reason for this is that the geography of New Winchester is tied directly to our new game introduction and tutorial section, which will be along in a later update.)
All this work has a knock-on effect on survival mechanics. We’ve made big changes to fuel and especially terror, but I want to go into the reasoning behind it first.
Our focus in survival design is anecdote generation. We’ve found over the years that our most enthusiastic reviews tend to be first-person accounts of disaster and mutiny brought on by a captain’s greed or hubris. We’ve never been particularly interested in empowering players, but we are interested in dragging them through vicariously horrifying experiences, with a slim shot at redemption. That’s what makes a memorable story.
To reinforce this, we’ve tuned our survival mechanics so that small setbacks tend to lead to larger ones, which in turn can lead to full scale disasters if left unchecked. Most of these situations have get-out clauses, but there is always a cost that may lead to more trouble down the line.
So for instance, where previously running out of fuel meant game over, captains are now faced with numerous painful but survivable escape routes. They may be forced to burn hard-won cargo, or more, um, exotic items to make it to port.
The difficulty here is balancing fairness against exposing the player to interesting content. A captain who effectively manages their stats may miss some deliciously horrible experiences. That’s fine, of course, there are many other things to do, but struggling against incipient disaster is a core part of the game experience, so much of our world design is about temptation - we’re constantly offering captains the choice to push their luck, to board that intriguing wreck even though their crew complement is low, or tackle that pirate even though half their hull is hanging off.
Onto Terror, then: the old system linked crew terror to a stat called Condition, which rolled over each time a Captain reached terror 100 and generated nightmares. We found this lacked bite; captains were effectively working to a terror meter of 500, which made choices that offered terror reduction less attractive.
For this release we’ve separated Condition from Terror and renamed it Nightmares, since that is literally what it tracks. Nightmares is a stat that affects your captain directly, Terror is more about the state of your crew. In the new build Terror now runs from 0 to 100 and hitting the limit has a good chance of killing your captain outright. Even if you do survive, the cost may be very high. Nightmares can be gained in various ways throughout the game, but will always increase if you survive a terror 100 event. Reaching Terror 100 with Nightmares at the maximum value of 4 will also auomatically kill you.
These are big changes, and as always we’re eager to hear what you make of them. I hope you enjoy exploring the new Reach, fighting off the nightmares and hungrily eyeing your crew.