The inkle blog
Welcome to the first post of 2018, which is going to be a huge year for us. The reason is, of course, this:
The summit is in sight...
Heaven's Vault has now been in development for over two years; and when it comes out it will be squarely three. That's as long as it took to make the entire Sorcery! series (if you take out the year we spent on 80 Days.) The result? We're thrilled - and terrified - to be nearing the end.
It's too soon to preview or dissect the game, but when we compare what we have to what we hoped we'd have, we're pretty excited. The game is an original story; with lots of incredible interactive dialogue; with interesting and rich characters; and it is beautiful.
It's that beauty that's taken so long to capture: Heaven's Vault is our first truly 3D game, and we've had to find our way around designing, creating, and lighting the varied moons of the Nebula. There are farming villages, rocky deserts, forests, ruined castles, forgotten mines, market-places and cold palaces.
To help us bring all this to life we hired two ex-Guerilla artists last year, Laura Dilloway and Piran Tremithick, who are our lead environment and lead technical artists respectively. Between them they've defined everything from the way the clouds move, to the edges of the stones underfoot and the grain on every piece of wood...
... now we must climb!
All that's left now is the climb, and it's going to be long. There's a lot of world still to realise, and to help us with that we've started the new year with a new hire - the excellent Sarah Hefford, a level designer turned artist with a flair for texturing, props and colour.
Sarah's an experienced game artist who's worked on several triple-A titles: mostly recent Killzone: Mercenary and RIGS, both of which were developed at Guerilla's now-defunct Cambridge studio; so she's been diving straight in and getting assets straight into the game.
She also marks the point where the art department officially outnumber the rest of us, five to three.
The most recent steps...
Our most recent target has been aimed at getting "coverage" - the game can now more or less be played from beginning to end, in very rough form. It means we can see how the story all hangs together and if we need to make changes, we still can - but it also means it's not ready to be shown.
Still: there are a few screenshots out there on the Heaven's Vault page, and we'll be releasing more soon (we promise!) alongside news about our launch platforms.
... it's going to be quite a view!
That's where Heaven's Vault stands right now. We hope you're excited for the game, and are looking forward to seeing what an inkle adventure game can be. We're hoping Heaven's Vault will do for Broken Sword what Sorcery! did for, well, Sorcery!
To stay up-to-date, do follow us on Twitter, subscribe on YouTube for our latest trailers and to our dev-blog if you're more technically-minded. You can also hear our very own Joseph Humfrey discussing inkle's design and storytelling philosophy on the Art & Craft podcast.
Last weekend was the return of Adventure X, London's indie adventure game festival, which has been going from strength to strength over the last five years.
While there, we checked out a lot of great games (including two ink titles, the excellent iPhone game Bury Me, My Love and gorgeous Kickstarter-in-progress Du Lac and Fey) - and we presented a talk detailing the journey so far of Heaven's Vault from concept to design.
The archaeology of an archaeological game
That talk is now up on YouTube so you can see it for yourself - no spoilers, some screenshots, and a lot of detail behind our thinking. What's good about adventure games? Why aren't archaeology stories ever about archaeology? Does The Last Express have any flaws? Why don't English people wear swords? When's the darned game going to ship?
Find out the answers to all that and more right here, and let us know what you think in the comments.
We announced on Twitter recently that inklewriter is now entering a status of "permanent beta". We wanted to clarify here what that means for users, and for the stories you've made using the system.
A little history
Inklewriter was one of our first releases - a neat idea for a simple-to-use, web-based drafting environment for choice-based stories. Our original intention was to use it to run an annual competition for stories from new writers (which we did, with our Future Voices app, but we never ran a follow-up).
Since going live, we've had hundreds of thousands of stories created by hundreds of thousands of users; we've won awards from school and library associations; and hopefully we've helped kickstart a few interactive writers careers. We've used inklewriter internally for sketching out plotlines and prototypes, and for obtaining writing samples from potential new writers (including 80 Days' Meg Jayanth). It was used by bestselling author Kelly Armstrong to write content for the Cainsville Files app we made with Penguin, and by Stoic Studios for the in-game dialogues in the Banner Saga games.
So what's happening?
Inklewriter is mostly stable, but has never been entirely stable - and with browers changing all the time, it's real work to fix the issues that arise. Inklewriter is, and always has been, entirely free, and with our games getting ever bigger and more ambitious, we simply don't have the time to investigate and resolve inklewriter issues.
Unofficially, we've moved away from developing inklewriter for a long time. Our decision to publically shelve it has been prompted by an increasing frequency of persistent bug-reports: in particular two large, known issues that we will not be fixing.
The known issues
The first issue is that shared stories can no longer be read over unsecured connections: that means that "https" links work, but "http" links don't. In practice that also means you can't read stories unless you're logged into inklewriter, so stories can no longer be easily shared.
The second issue we've seen is writers losing stories due to save errors. This seems to be due to drops in the network connection, possibly when too many connections come in from the same source (such as a school classroom). The issue is unpredictable, and we don't know of any work-arounds that ensure work is never lost. Obviously, if this happens to you, it's pretty bad.
The server is staying online, for now
Inklewriter will remain online for the next year. You'll still be able to make accounts, write stories, and read them. However, as browser requirements change, some features might disappear or break, under strange conditions, with very little notice. So you should probably think twice before creating anything permanent using inklewriter.
Does this affect ink and inky?
No. Ink is a completely different technology stack - it's something we've used on every project we've made, and we still use it every day. In fact, part of moving away from inklewriter is to encourage people to shift over to ink: it's more powerful, more useful, and it's stable and going to be supported for some time to come.
Can I rescue my story?
Yes. If you visit the share link of your story, you can use your browser's "Save Page As" (in the File menu) to save off a copy of the playable web page - with all the story data included. That page is entirely standalone, and so will be playable by anyone (avoiding the https issue mentioned above) - and it'll continue to be playable even if inklewriter does eventually go offline. You can also easily edit and alter the layout and presentation of the page, if you know your way around HTML and CSS.
Can I rescue my data?
Yes. You can capture the raw .json file that stores your story, but to use it elsewhere you'll need to write code to parse and run it. (The format is pretty straight-forward, however.)
Any other questions?
If you've got a question about this, please drop us a line via the comments below, and we'll do our best to get back to you.
Finally, apologies if this is disappointing to you! Speaking personally, we love the inklewriter flow and wish we could keep it spritely and alive.
One of the most exciting connections we've made since the release of 80 Days is with the British Library in London, who - despite being busy archiving every published book in the UK ever - have found the time to run the occasional workshop exploring interactive fiction.
The most recent event for us was Off the Page; a day of talks on the subject. As part of that, Meg Jayanth and I sat down to chat about our experiences writing the game. The conversation wheels around, from mechanical camels to hidden secrets, to diversity and avoiding misplaced nostalgia - much as the game does.
They've also just finished a week long course for writers, which hopefully will be repeated.
And on into the future...
We've even had a few serious discussions on how to archive 80 Days for posterity. The British Library already routinely archives all published books, but archiving digital material - especially for transient, ever-changing platforms like the iPad - is particularly difficult.
It's unlikely any version of the game locked in a cupboard now will work in 300 years time. But - and we've been asked this - would a researcher be able to rebuild the game from its script and data files?
We've been quiet on the blog for a month or two, as we work away on Heaven's Vault. Since the demo level we took to GDC in March, the game has really taken off, with lots of different elements finally locking together.
We're writing things up on the dev blog in snack-sized chunks as we go, but not everything gets up there, so here's a quick round-up of what's happened recently!
- We've converted the game fully over to free movement. The GDC demo was built using a hotspot-based "click to walk" system - but we're now moving El around using direct control. That's thrown up plenty of problems! But it's also provided us with a lot of ways to make the game world and dialogue more responsive, with the characters reacting in real-time as the player enters areas of interest, and moves from place to place.
- Our technical artist, Piran, has been solving all the problems that come from 3D games with scope - from lighting that looks sharp even on phones, to loading a vast open world with soft blurry clouds.
- Tom K has been working on the flight of Aliya's ship, the Nightingale, whisking us along rivers and chugging through the dead spaces in between. We're authoring our space through a mixture of hand-constructed features and procedural generation tuned to create interesting curves, which we use to fill out the world efficiently. Using procedural techniques allows us to iterate on the large-scale layout of the map without having to rebuild the nitty gritty from scratch every time.
- We've closed in on the look and feel of the Nebula itself. We're not ready to show it yet - but we think we've got something pretty unusual and visually striking. Best of all, the various elements plays into the backstory of the world at the same time as solving gameplay problems. More obvious designs traded off one side of the game against the other. Clearly this idea needed us to discard the more obvious ones first! A clue: it was eating Easter Eggs that provided the spark.
- We've got some more characters into the game! Our first demo was a deserted moon - we wanted to ensure exploration and cameras were resolved first - but now we've started work on Iox, the home of the university, which is a busier place. Dialogue sequences are starting to flow, and NPCs are walking around, and talking, and generally causing trouble for Aliya.
- Laura, our new Environment Lead, undertook a full survey of the three-thousand year history of the Nebula, defining the architectural styles of each age - and every bit of every age. Want to know what 'late early Empire Iox' looks like? We have a page for that (and everything in between).
- We've had a few more... surprising... ideas about how to lay out the story flow, taking the game into a slightly more graphic novel space. It's either madness or genius, but we can't yet tell.
We're hoping to share a few more screenshots and visuals in the next few months, but until then, you can keep abreast of what's we're doing by following Tumblr, Twitter or Facebook.
We're thrilled to announce two new members joining the inkle team full-time today.
First up is Anastasia Wyatt, a 2d illustrator who graduated in Game Art and Design just last year.
Annie's been working with us as a contractor for the last few months, drawing Aliya and Six from every conceivable angle as they squeeze through gaps, lift skulls, fall over, and do everything else they need to do in Heaven's Vault.
She's also been designing the rest of the cast of the game, and providing us with concept art from props in the world, most notably Aliya's ship, the Nightingale, which Annie elevated from "very strange idea indeed" to "beautiful, functional sailing vessel". Right now she's drawing stone gods.
It's always exciting to discover talent, and seeing Annie's artwork front and centre in our coverage on Eurogamer, Rock Paper Shotgun, and in print in Edge magazine, has been really exciting for all of us, and we can't wait to share more of her characters.
Laura Dilloway is joining us as a senior artist, and she'll be leading the environment team. (Two people is a team, right?)
Laura's extremely experienced, with 10+ years experience working at Sony's Cambridge studio, most recently on Little Big Planet PSP, Killzone and RIGS.
She's been responsible for individual assets, environments and level design, and she'll be using that experience - as well as an entirely coincidental interest in archaeology - to bridge the gap between the written script that forms the core of Heaven's Vault, and the beautiful, strange spaces that Aliya will be exploring.
Laura and Annie brings inkle's full-time team - after five and a half years - to six-and-a-half people, and for the first time pushes the art department to over fifty percent. (Our next hire will be a goddamn writer I swear.) You can find out more about us here.
As we move from "shh don't say anything" into "hey we're making a game!" on Heaven's Vault, we thought it'd be nice to start talking about it a bit more.
Which is why we're starting a dev blog - a series of a short little posts about how we're developing, researching, building, writing, designing and arting up the world of the Nebula. (Spoiler-free, of course.)
Our first post, a little about our recent trip to GDC, is up right now.
Stay in touch!
So if you want to keep up with what's happening with Heaven's Vault, please give us a follow! But if you prefer your news infrequent and definitive, you can also sign up to the mailing list below, and we'll let you know when it's actually ready.
Today, we're thrilled to announce our next big title.
What is Heaven's Vault?
Heaven's Vault is a character-driven graphic novel crossed with an open-world adventure game...
... and it's our most ambitious, beautiful and complex game to date.
Our greatest adventure yet!
Initial work on Heaven's Vault began almost immediately after the completion of 80 Days, with a long period of prototyping, as we tried to ask the question: "What does an inkle story look like when you can see it?"
Over three years the team has trebled in size. We've produced over twenty prototypes, ranging from tiny gameplay concepts to whole playable levels. We've been through rounds of concepting to develop our protagonist, our supporting cast, and their world.
And now we're ready to tell you about it.
Meet Aliya Elasra, an archaeologist who studies the lost places and forgotten history of the strange Nebula where she lives.
With her reluctant robot assistant, Six, she will piece together a complex past - and discover a secret that will change the future.
Inspiration and influences
The game draws on a wide range of influences:
- Stargate and Indiana Jones, as well as the novels of Raymond Chandler and Gene Wolfe
- the work of Dr Monica Hanna in protecting Egypt's antiquities
- the graphic novels of Möebius and Hergé
- Islamic art, architecture and calligraphy
- the animation and real-time storytelling of The Last Express
- the character art of The Banner Saga
- the open worlds of Shadow of the Colossus, Firewatch and The Witcher 3
- the puzzle-solving of The Witness
- the translation puzzle of Infocom's classic game Infidel
The art style
We've developed a unique art style, integrating stylish, hand-drawn 2D characters into full 3D environments. The aim is to make every frame look like it could have come straight from a graphic novel.
We rebuilt our ink engine from the ground-up for this project, integrating powerful new features - and open-sourcing it to the developer community along the way.
The game itself is built in Unity and we'll be releasing on multiple platforms - including, for the first time, console.
The journey ahead!
The prototypes are now complete. We know what we're making, and how. But there's still a lot to do and the game won't be ready for some time.
If you want to stay updated on the game's progress, bookmark the tumblr page below, where we'll be posting dev updates. We've also created a brand new Twitter account and Facebook page depending on which flavour of social media takes your fancy. Or, for just the big announcements, sign up for the newsletter.
That surprise is free, and out now. New Game Plus mode awaits!
A merciless world awaits..
Ever since we launched the original instalment of Sorcery!, one feature has come to define the gameplay in the eyes of casual players and fans.
Not the 3D map; not the lunatic spellcasting; but the rewind feature. The ability to go back anywhere, anywhen, and try things a different way. Some people said they found the game too easy this way - others complained bitterly when things were not so straightforward in Part 4.
For us, we've always known that this was just one way to play the series. And from today, you can try the tougher challenge of a cruel world for yourself, as one of the features in New Game Plus.
New adventures in familiar lands!
To start a New Game Plus adventure, simply ensure you have the latest updates for the games on whichever platform you're using - Android, iOS or Steam - then enter a completed cloud save from Part 4 into Part 1 to unlock the new content.
You'll find a new difficulty setting - merciless - as well as tougher enemies, a few early, powerful spell objects, and of course, a couple of new secrets for the fans - including a visit to a much-neglected secret area...
... oh, and this:
Ready your sword and spellbook
If you've finished your Sorcery! adventure and you want to try exploring things a different way, or playing as a different character, then we hope you enjoy your New Game Plus update. It's totally free.
And if you're missing any of the adventure, we've just released a four-part App Store bundle to celebrate!
New adventures await...
New Game Plus is our last significant update for Sorcery!. As we've discussed a few times on the inklecast, we're leaving the wilds of Kakhabad behind for a brand new world of our own devising.
This new game is bigger, stranger and more beautiful than anything we've attempted before. We hope to bring it to the light to show you all soon. Until then, Season's Greetings from all of us at inkle and thanks for travelling with us.
Two weeks ago, we completed a four year journey across a land of magic, traps and monsters. Since then, we've been enjoying watching players assail the Fortress of Mampang and die - over, and over and over again. Some have prevailed. Some have found secrets. A few unlucky one have found bugs (sorry about that! We're fixing them!) And some of our reviews have been pretty glowing.
We wrote up a long retrospective on the design of the series for the game industry site Gamasutra, but while it goes in some detail on the design processes - and the problems - it didn't touch on the personal side of things; why we made the series the way we did, and how it evolved over time.
Over four years there are a lot of stories, so we decided to put together on last Sorcery!-themed inklecast, so we could tell a few. Here it is: our final thoughts on Sorcery!
And check out next week's inklecast for a few hints on where we're planning to go next...