Sunless Sea doubles “most optimistic” sales estimates – but updates aren’t behind spikes

Sunless Sea

Regular players of Failbetter Games’ soggy Cthu-like, Sunless Sea, know you don’t often need to plan for the best-case scenario. The depths will claim you first. But at the end of February, just three weeks after the game was finished, Sunless Sea’s sales were more than double the studio’s “most optimistic” estimates.

“We’re delighted, and deeply grateful to everyone who made this possible,” wrote Failbetter analyst Adam Myers. “We can continue releasing free updates. And we can keep on making the games we want to make, with stories that get into your dreams.”

But there’s disquieting stuff in their stats, too: not least the discovery that major updates to Steam Early Access games don’t drive sales like you might expect.

Myers pushed past the tentacles to explore Sunless Sea’s aggregate sales figures in a Failbetter blog post this weekend. He pointed to their initial sales estimates – between 5,000 and 50,000 copies – and the 100,000 they eventually sold by February 25th.

Failbetter shifted 50,017 of those copies during Early Access – but a further 54,210 were sold in the first 31 days after full release. They attribute a spike just prior to launch mainly to TotalBiscuit.

What failed to multiply sales in the same way were the two large updates Failbetter released in Steam Early Access. Emerald, their first major patch, caused only a 30% sales increase over the previous week – despite a smattering of press coverage and advertising. Steel, the update that added real-time combat to Sunless Sea, contributed just 200 extra sales.

“There were other major releases which I haven’t labelled, because their effects are hard to see on the graph,” said Myers. “They all added major features, large amounts of content, or both.

“The lesson we’ve taken from this is that major updates aren’t particularly good for at driving sales. In future, we’re unlikely to publicise updates outside our existing community.”

Erk: a sorry precedent for other Early Access developers. Of course, they can always look to good old Steam sales – a daily deal saw Sunless Sea ride a massive sales surge in October – and the whims of the elements.

“We’re still not sure why there was a bump in sales from 5th – 7th July,” said Myers. “There was no corresponding increase in traffic, and we didn’t get much coverage from the gaming press on those days.”

A fittingly Lovecraftian mystery. Failbetter have successfully navigated the depths, and Sunless Sea wisdom dictates they should now find a poetic end for their vessel. But hopefully they’ll channel their loot into a legacy of new games instead. Where would you like to see them sail next?