The inkle blog
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...
One and a half million words.
Thirty-five thousand choices.
The mood in the inkle office today is one of celebration, and sadness.
The Sorcery! series is now complete.
If you've enjoyed the adventure with us, here are a few people you might want to thank outside of the core inkle team:
Eddie Sharam - character artist. Eddie's done all the humans, monsters and re-animated furniture that appears in the series; sometimes drawing from John Blanche's crazy original illustrations, and sometimes using a little craziness of his own.
Laurence Chapman - composer. We now have original themes for Parts 2, 3 and 4, recorded by live orchestra, and we think they're incredible.
Emily Morganti - publicist. When we started work on part one we had three press emails in a spreadsheet and were planning to stand in a corner of PAX with a banner. Coverage is the oxygen of development and yet most developers have no idea how to do it. Emily sorted us right out.
Iain Merrick - coder. Iain started out in the Sorcery! team doing the audio design for the first part (the infamous walrus laugh that plays in the villages of the Shamutanti Hills was his idea). Since then he became rather more full-time, handling the cross-platform magic that takes iOS code and generates the Android and desktop builds.
Graham Robertson - writer. Graham wrote a lot of the core content for Part 4, adapting the original material, and adding a lot of strange new ideas of his own. Graham likes cats, ghosts, and hungry Goblins - you'll know when you stumble on some of his work.
Mike Schley - cartographer. Mike's maps and building drawings are the heart and soul of the Sorcery! experience. We've loved his work from the moment we first saw and it, and the most exciting moments during development have always been the delivery of a new piece of art.
And last but certainly not least, Steve Jackson himself. After creating the Fighting Fantasy series with fellow dungeon-master Ian Livingstone, Steve wrote the Sorcery!(/sorcery/) series as a standalone set of four books, with an innovative magic system, and aimed at slightly older readers.
Set in a previously unexplored corner of the FF world, they told their own story, and each book has its own tricks and devices. Speaking personally, I can still remember the feeling of being lost in the pages; and the thrill of casting the right spell at the right time (because in those days, you were supposed to learn the spellbook by heart!)
Steve created a vibrant, rich, nasty-but-nice world filled with potential; and then gave us the freedom we needed to play with it.
Then there are our testers. Fifty people played the adventure prior to launch, and of them, five were simply extraordinary. Kathryn, Felicity, John, Nikki and Jules - you guys have been amazing.
A long journey
The first Sorcery! game saw us taking our first steps as a company as not just technical developers, but gameplay and content designers as well: now, four years later, we're a BAFTA-nominated studio, working on our own game-worlds.
Where the first game saw us pushing our ink compilation script to breaking point; we're now fully migrated over to ink, and are enjoying seeing studios all around the world using the system as well.
The reaction to the series has been overwhelming to say the least - from the glowing reviews of Part 1 that appeared on mainstream gaming sites like IGN and Kotaku, through the wonderful Yogscast rendition of the first two games, to the antics at our preview party in London last week - it's been a real thrill to be seeing people getting excited about the series.
So what's left?
We've one more piece of business to do in the world of Sorcery! - a final update to the series, coming shortly. We'll have more information on that later, but if you've finished Sorcery! 4 already you'll know what we have in store.
And, of course, there is one last thing...
But for now - sit back, relax, and get ready, for death awaits you in the Fortress of Sorcerers...
We're hugely sorry to announce this, but Sorcery! 4's launch date has had to change. The epic finale to the series will now be going live on Steam, iOS and Android on September 22nd - one week later than originally planned.
After such a long journey - four games over four years, and nearly one and a half million words of content - we want to be sure the release is as good as it can be.
In particular, this means that Thursday's live playthrough event at Loading Bar in London won't be a launch party so much as a preview party. But come down all the same - because we'll be giving out Steam codes for the game, which unlock immediately.
Once again, we hope you'll forgive us the delay. To help soften the blow, we've put the first three Sorcery! games on sale on the App Store for their cheapest price ever - just $1 each. So if you're missing any instalments, now's the time to pick them up.
It's been too long since we posted any concrete news about Sorcery! 4, the final part of the narrative epic that's been keeping us busy since 2013.
It's finished... again
Writing on the game has now finished, again. That means we've done our first pass, fleshing out all the rooms, encounters, characters, secrets, jokes, puzzles, hidden endings. And we've also done our second pass, playing through everything, smoothing it, checking for logic and story consistency, and getting the pacing as slick as we can.
We're now embarking on the long process of beta-testing - gathering feedback from early players, and hunting down all the strange nooks and crannies of the story-flow. A lot of the details can and will still change at this point - good ideas are never thrown away, even close to release - but if we had to put down our pens tomorrow, we could, and the game would work.
There are multiple endings, but more importantly, multiple states for multiple endings. But there is also an ultimate ending of sorts, better than the others.
But that's not all!
Even with the writing completed, there's still lots for us to do. There's new audio to gather, and new art to get into the game, and a pile of new code to write as well.
For the first time, we'll be integrated 3D models into the map. These models are still being hand-painted by our cartographer/illustrator Mike Schley, and we've got to make sure they play nicely with the in-game camera. We've also got an epilogue sequence to build, that will suitably reward players who have made the journey all the way from Analand to Mampang and returned with the Crown of Kings intact.
One thing we have got finalised is Laurence Chapman's new theme - as recorded by live orchestra.
Concluding part and new adventure, all in one
One of the things that's made this part a real writing challenge is ensuring that it provides a complete experience for people picking up the Sorcery! series for the first time, while also providing the epic conclusion that returning players deserve. Over the last three games we've seeded a lot of characters and story points, as well as giving the player a lot of choices to carry with them.
(A Sorcery! 3 game loaded into Part 4 brings with it over nine hundred individual story-flags, ranging from whether or not you destroyed a city, to how many gold pieces you have in your pocket, and whether or not you know the name of the witch in the Shamutanti woods.)
Thankfully, we've got a few tricks up our sleeve for bringing new players up to speed...
All platforms, all at once
For the first time, we're planning to launch the game on the App Store, Amazon Store, Play Store, Steam, Humble and Green Man Gaming all on the same day. You can buy the game on any platform to continue your adventure - cloud saves work from one device to another. (Just remember to write them down somewhere!)
And while Mike's latest map looks glorious spread across a desktop monitor or an iPad Pro, we're working hard to ensure the mobile experience is still just as tight and playable as its ever been.
So what's the date?
Later this year. Apologies, we don't want to commit to a date until we know we can hit it!
But we can't wait to open the gates and let you into Mampang - it's weird, terrible place, full of ancient, decaying magic, foul mutants, crosses and double-crosses, and secrets. This is our toughest, most intricate - and we hope, most rewarding - Sorcery! adventure yet.
On this week's inklecast we ask a question that's close to our hearts: when is the game part of your story game too much game for your story?
In all our projects, we try to marry the gameplay and the narrative elements so tightly together that neither could be removed - but is there an argument for the cutscene-and-play model? Have a listen and tell us what you think.