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Sunless Sea’s dev couple on the choppy waters of working relationships

Cultist simulator trailer

While working together at Sunless Sea developers Failbetter, Lottie Bevan and Alexis Kennedy harboured a secret admiration of each other. Neither was willing to utter it out loud for fear of disrupting their professional dynamics – Bevan was a producer, and Kennedy was her manager. For either to make a move on the other felt like career suicide. But that changed when, one day, Kennedy didn’t want to share his food. 

Read more: how death influences Alexis Kennedy’s writing on Dragon Age 4 and other games

Failbetter has a healthy culture of socialising, you see, so Kennedy suggested the team go to watch the latest James Bond movie together. At first, everyone was up for it, but as the day went on most people dropped out. By the end of the day only Bevan and Kennedy were committed to 007.

“We ended up on this date that wasn’t a date,” Bevan remembers. “We fancied each other, but nothing had happened and we obviously hadn’t talked about it.

“That night, Alexis did two things that were very confusing. He got a hot dog and I got some popcorn, I offered him some of my popcorn, and he made this weird thing about not liking or being allergic to popcorn. Then he immediately fessed up to the fact that he panicked and didn’t want to offer me some of his hot dog in return, because that would be weird.”

Zubmariner release date

After the movie, Kennedy – having been unwilling to share his snack – brought up the topic of power dynamics in a work relationship. He spoke of how people need to be aware of status, and how that governs their interactions, which was something that had been playing in the back of his mind as he began to develop an attraction for Bevan.

“I wasn’t trying to make the point that there could never be anything between us, but I was obviously worrying about it constantly,” Kennedy explains. “Lottie took that as meaning ‘keep your distance’.”

It is little wonder, then, that Bevan affectionately refers to this day as ‘date zero’.

Bevan has worked in videogames since 2014, starting out as a content producer at a small studio called BeefJack. Though not the best experience of her career, it was a formative one – she learned essential skills, and it gave her a good gauge on how she wanted to be treated when working for future companies.

Sunless Sea launch trailer

“I’ve been a big Failbetter fan for ages,” Bevan says. “I played Fallen London, Sunless Sea is great. I speculatively applied to Failbetter. I said something in the email like, ‘You might as well respond to me because if you don’t I’m just going to keep emailing until you do’. I think that frightened them enough to get me an interview. It seemed to be a good culture fit. I remember talking proudly about Lovecraft and worldbuilding, which I realise, in hindsight, were the two worst things I could have possibly mentioned in my interview.”

A self-described “professional ponce,” Kennedy is not fond of having his works compared to Lovecraft. Sure, Fallen London’s main art has a massive tentacle wrapped around a gas lamp, but it’s gothic, ok? Kennedy also put together a very well written rant about the unimportance of worldbuilding on gamesindustry.biz. Oh dear.

Clearly, Bevan did say some of the right things in her interview, however. As well as being an English Literature graduate, she has a fondness for fantasy novel series Gormenghast, which got her a big checkmark. Mainly, though, it was her passion and clear intelligence that got her the gig.

Sunless Skies Albion

“For years we had needed a producer,” Kennedy recalls. “I had been effectively doing a producer’s job while I was there. I was desperately trying to offload some of the project management and troubleshooting work. I didn’t think Lottie had the experience at the time, but her cover letter was so good that we gave her the interview. After the interview, I was really impressed because she was obviously really fucking smart.

“I gradually became aware, over the subsequent months, that I was working with this clever, empathetic, talented, hard-working woman – that I was increasingly attracted to her. My overwhelming reaction was to be quite cross about it, because obviously I couldn’t make a pass at her. The potential for catastrophe if I were to make a pass at my recent junior hire was enormous. There was some tension, but I stayed well within boundaries.”

At the same time, Bevan was having similar feelings. It started with an admiration for Kennedy’s writing, then it was admiration of him as a boss, then she began to realise she was seeing him in a different way. These feelings stayed pent up until the Failbetter Halloween drinks. Seeing Kennedy dressed as Death was clearly too much to handle – the pair, emboldened by booze, made their feelings clear to each other. Kennedy immediately made the decision that his co-founder should be assigned as Bevan’s manager.

Sunless Sea

“I’m a big advocate for women in games, and there’s constantly stories about women being perceived as not belonging in the industry,” Bevan says. “The last thing I wanted to do was add fuel to that fire – the classic ‘sleeping your way to the top’ sort of thing. We were very aware that there was none of that at all, but we were conscious of how it could be perceived.

“It’s been difficult, some people weren’t very happy about it, but now we’re founding a company together and we’re all really happy. But there is a weirdness about dating at work that I don’t really understand. Even Failbetter, who peg themselves as this empathetic, liberal company, clearly didn’t know how to deal with it.”

“I understand why there is weirdness,” Kennedy adds. “I mean, even if I wasn’t your direct manager, any time I made a decision there was a possibility of bias. That’s why I wish we had been transparent with the whole company from the beginning, because sunlight is the best disinfectant. With all the revelations in the entertainment industry over the last year, it’s more and more important to be open about this stuff.”

Dragon Age 4

Kennedy left Failbetter in June 2016 to pursue other projects. Since then, he’s worked with BioWare on an unannounced game (cough, Dragon Age 4, cough), and he has also worked with Telltale – unfortunately, that project seems to have been cancelled given that the team he worked with were recently made redundant. Weather Factory, the company he co-founded with Bevan, was set up to make smaller narrative games, the first of which is called Cultist Simulator and is due out in May 2018.

“I had put considerable self control into not poaching her from Failbetter, because I really wanted to work with her again,” Kennedy says. “I had a consistently good experience, she was good at stuff and I trust her. I wanted a co-founder who was good at production and biz, so I could get on with writing and design. But we have worried that we live together and work together, and we live and work in the same space. However fond you are of a person, that’s quite the set of burdens in place. So we made sure we have our own time, and Lottie has her own space across the corridor from where I work, so we won’t see each other for a lot of the working day.”

When Failbetter was founded, Kennedy made the mistake of hiring people with similar skillsets to himself. With this partnership, their skills complement each other, along with a small team of freelancers for art and other bits. That means Kennedy can focus on writing and code, while Bevan keeps a handle on the business and marketing side.

A gray mage tower in a simple cartoon style.

“The plan is very much to keep things simple,” Kennedy explains. “The kind of games I make rely on writing, story, good 2D art, and interesting game design. We’re not going to compete on polish, even with double-A studios. We want to catch people’s attention and carve out a niche. It means we can experiment and change direction without worrying about running out of cash. I do sometimes miss running a studio with a culture of its own. I wouldn’t be amazed if three years from now I’m thinking about hiring a larger team. But, for now, we want to keep it small.”

The immediate future for the couple is all about the release of Cultist Simulator. Beyond that, Bevan has an interest in localisation – particularly in China – and Kennedy will be doing occasional writing work from June for an indie studio he admires. One of the next potential projects from Weather Factory could be a game that uses Cultist Simulator’s mechanics to generate noir stories – a storytelling genre the couple both adore. It seems like a lot to juggle, but Kennedy is very serious about deadlines, and now he now has Bevan there to keep him honest.

“Producers are great partners and terrifying partners, because it’s very hard to bullshit them,” Kennedy laughs. “It’s hard to bullshit producers at the best of times, but it’s almost impossible to bullshit one who knows all your secrets.”