The journey to a game’s release is always an arduous one, and release day can often be a stressful panicky time, especially in today’s age of near instant metrics. Do people like it? Is it selling? Does it even work?

‘I’m like a kid at Christmas!’ Joe Humfrey exclaims of 80 Days‘ first few hours on the App Store. Inkle co-founder Jon Ingold is similarly and surprisingly jitter free, the pair instead exuding the kind of exhausted exhilaration that would have come from managing a round the world trip in an 80 day span. Shorter in fact, as the game was hit with a last-minute week-long delay in order to maximise its impact and avoid a busy week.

‘It’s nice to finish the writing and leave the coding part to Jon and Joe, so now I can just be really happy about it being launch day,’ exudes writer Meg Jayanth, who Inkle collaborated with on the game, a steampunk retelling of Jules Verne’s classic novel. That’s not to say that a distinct line between development and writing existed throughout; Humfrey and Ingold have been around games for years at Sony and in Joe’s case, Rare as well in the late 00’s (‘I’ve worked on things for pretty much every motion control device you can imagine,’ he explains, through teeth so tightly clenched even Skype picks up the ruefulness), but have their own passions for fiction, and portions of in-game text are Jon’s. Conversely, Jayanth has a strong head for game design herself, and development involved a lot of back and forth discussion.

‘When we pitched the idea to Meg, we had an image of what an interactive steampunk game would be like, but what we got back was something completely different, and much better,’ Ingold enthuses, ‘and we then took that and came up with something that might not have been what we originally wanted to make, but is hopefully better. It’s amazing what you can do when you collaborate with talented people’.

Jayanth was similarly fond of the working environment. ‘We made some design decisions a fair way in that changed how the story was structured. Getting to be a part of that discussion is really great as a writer, and not something most (game) writers get to do, in indie or triple A’.

They may not be much to look at, but SOrcery's fights are fun enough to make you want to antagonise characters just to get into trouble.

Sorcery and it’s gorgeous presentation saw Inkle leap to prominence last year.

IMG_0074

Steampunk solved logistical and gameplay questions, but wasn’t used as a crutch to escape historical research.

Established in 2011, Inkle first grabbed the attention of the gaming world with its adaptation of Steve Jackson’s Sorcery game books for tablets and phones. With 80 Days, they were able to build an experience from the story up for the mobile format; a creatively freeing experience but with its own significant challenges.

‘When we got into Sorcery, we thought it was pretty complicated and difficult. There were a lot of decisions to make and arguments had. I think it’s fair to say 80 Days was about a million times harder,’ Ingold states to laughter.

‘In a way, we’re always trying to build on our previous stuff,’ Humfrey elaborates, ‘so when we got to Sorcery, we were using a lot of the same code as (Dave Morris penned 2012 interactive adaptation) Frankenstein. With 80 Days, even though it’s using a lot of the same tech, and the same engine, it really felt like it was more built from scratch, much more of a mammoth undertaking.’

‘Developing mechanics was something deceptively hard I think,’ Ingold agrees. ‘If you look at things like managing your time, or managing suitcase space, finding routes… That’s all in the original novel. You could come up with a design document for the game in about an hour, and we probably did. Making those elements actually work and have them be engaging is harder’.

Among tweaks introduced over time were the inclusion of an on-screen clock, as the original idea of managing time by the day wasn’t granular enough, and having routes to different cities unlock, and only become available through exploration and dialogue. While changes like these had an obvious positive effect on the game, they may have ruffled feathers along the way and caused a fight or two, as Ingold explains.

‘There was a massive change where originally when you first came into the city, you received all the (text) content for that city, because that’s how Sorcery worked. We had to sit down with Meg and say “we’re not trying to prevent people from seeing the text you’ve written, but we’re going to prevent people from seeing the text you’ve written”. That was a bit of a dark moment in our collaboration, but even though Meg is a writer, she’s also got a bit of game designer about her; the reasons for the change were compelling and it’s definitely a better game for it.’

Interactive fiction in general doesn’t seem entirely friendly to a writer’s ego, with the potential for so much to go unread by one time only players. Is that an issue? ‘From a writer’s perspective it’s more that there’s just a lot of freedom,’ Jayanth explains. ‘Instead of thinking about one journey through, I was thinking about the kind of world this was. The clockwork armies of Vienna had this huge impact on the cities around it. Regionally there are all these mini stories and they’re all kind of interconnected, so even though the player might not see those interconnections, they are there, and the world is rich enough that hopefully people have enough reason to go back in’.

‘One of the things to realise is that it’s very different from sitting down to write a short story,’ Ingold continues. ‘It’s more like you’re creating a machine, with all these little moving parts to it. Every time you’re writing a scene, you’re thinking of all these branches, and where the player will be able to go, and joining these threads up. It doesn’t matter in the slightest that someone might not see all of it because a lot of the content is an alternative to another piece of content; you’re not missing out if you don’t see something, or your experience isn’t necessarily better for seeing everything’.

We’re playing out fantastical elements in a historical way

How are those story threads mapped out? Many pieces of branching fiction constrict options so playthroughs converge at ‘pinch points’- key set piece scenes that everyone has to encounter before diverging again. Rigorously keeping track of threads in a flow chart is a method Ingold has contempt for, though, preferring a freedom illustrated by its web of possible routes visible on the in-game globe. ‘That globe is our flow chart. Within each city of the journey though, we don’t ever use them. I genuinely believe they’re a terrible way of writing interactive stories because they limit you massively’. A ‘public statement’ (as Humfrey puts it) of that is found in the structure of Inklewriter, a free web-based tool that’s a limited, accessible version of the engine powering the studio’s releases. ‘If you abandon flow charts, you will write better content. I firmly believe that’.

inklewriter

Jon and Joe are both pleased at Inklewriter’s adoption in schools as a tool in creative writing classes. it may evolve into a fully fledged product down the road.

Unfettered by flow charts and pinch points (‘we had a few at first, like on the east coast of Africa, but I very carefully went back and removed them’ Humfrey remarks), 80 Days’ journey feels much more free, but with agency comes practical questions. How, in the 19th century, could Passeportout and Fogg physically make the distance between some of the more out of the way locales? Steampunk was a practical answer, but while the presence of airships and submersible trains could easily have been the game’s magic button, license to completely transform Verne’s world, Jayanth was careful to respect contemporary events.

‘Theres a lot of history in the game. Some of it is very much of the time, and some of it’s kind of pulled from twenty or thirty years in the future. So there’s the Trans Siberian railway, which didn’t exist in 1872, but did exist in the 1890s; because our world is more technologically advanced, we’re able to pull some events forward a little bit. The history was important though, mainly because it’s just so interesting. We know what the Victorians were like, but we might have no idea of what 1872 was like in Jakarta. It was a time of great political change, and there were amazing things happening, amazing people all across the world’.

‘We tried to play out these fantastical elements in a kind of historical way. We had to think about how things would be different if these countries were more interlinked by rail and air, or more generally just what steampunk was outside of a British or American standpoint. Steampunk in the Sahara has to be really different because you can’t just chuck water into a machine and have it do things for you; water’s a much more precious resource than that’.

You can’t surprise or delight people with a system- that’s not what systems do.



It’s that kind of attention to detail that has won the game universal praise thus far, but whether that translates to sales in a metric focused and free to play dominated market is a different question. The Inkle guys are confident in making money on a premium model, but have issues with both the Apple and Google Play stores and their structures; in app purchase in particular, which provides headaches with content updates.

‘It was one of the pieces of feedback we got for Sorcery,’ Humfrey explains. ‘People were saying “we get why it’s in separate parts and that you have to charge for each, but why are the parts separate apps? Why aren’t they just handled with IAP?” The problem is, with in app updates, you can’t give promo codes to the press, you get very little publicity, you can’t buy part two without having bought part one… There really is no good reason to do content updates as in app purchase at all. We discussed an IAP model, but kept coming back to the point that in app purchase as means to exploit people who should know better is clearly very effective, but we’re just not going to make a game that works like that. I don’t think for a minute that free to play is the right model for mobile at all, but it’s not putting premium out of business. The problem is when developers think free to play is the only way to make money and try to make their game have a business model that doesn’t fit it’.

ledoliel

Aliceffekt’s Ledoliel, and Emily Short’s Blood & Laurels (below) are two approaches to procedural interactive fiction. The 80 Days team are interested, but believe more authored experiences are superior.


‘Things are slowly starting to change,’ Ingold contends. ‘When we started, 70p (100JPY, $0.99) was a daring price point, and now the three Pounds we go for now is sort of normal. But there is this divide of commenters saying “three pounds for this is really cheap” and then “they’re expecting to charge three pounds, that’s bloody theft!”‘


Ask a developer what they think the future of their chosen space is on the day their game is released, and you might get a snippy answer to a stupid question- ‘up until today, it was [80Days]!’ Humfrey laughs-but the three relent and did provide more insight into how interactive fiction might develop in the coming years.

‘I think the thing I’ve really enjoyed about what we’ve done so far is that we’ve started to focus a lot more on character, because it’s something we’re able to write now, and we can do dialogue in a good, strong way,’ Ingold states, to Humfrey’s agreement.

‘Before when you had dialogue between characters, it was handled in a dialogue tree, where you’re farming through options. We think it’s much more interesting as a player when you have the flow of a conversation. When you choose something to talk about, it eliminates a lot of options. In a real conversation you don’t work through a list of three topics and five sub topics, so we wanted something that feels a lot more real. I’d love to make something that focuses more on characterisation and explores your relationship with a core character on an emotional level’.

‘I’m totally trying to convince these guys to do a dating sim,’ Jayanth says to laughter, but only partly in jest. ‘I think it’d be a really fun thing to do, to talk to someone and have a relationship with them, whether that’s on a romantic level or not. It’d be nice to have something more than constantly feeding coins and gifts to someone in the hopes they’ll have sex with you in a game. That’s fun, but not exactly conducive to a rewarding relationship’.

As dialogue options get orders of magnitude larger, could that kind of romantic IF be handled in a procedural sense, in a souped up version of, say, Aliceffekt‘s Ledoliel?

‘Things like Emily Short’s latest, Blood and Laurels (running on Versu, Short and Richard Evans’ AI driven IF engine)is kind of going down more of a procedural, AI driven route,’ Jayanth ponders. ‘It’s really interesting, but you’re so technologically mediated at the moment that the uncanny valley is a very real danger. It’s so much easier to author all that, but I think it’s something that will get really interesting in the next few years’.

bloodlaurelsIngold is more sceptical. ‘I think you have two approaches. You either have a technological framework which an author feeds content into, but the technology does the mediation or you have something mediated by the author but supported by technology. Anything where technology is doing the mediating is going to be a simulation of generica. You can’t surprise or delight people with a system, because that’s not what systems do. I love Emily’s work, I think she’s great, but it will always be a text you have to read with the knowledge that it’s being mediated by a computer, because otherwise it doesn’t make sense. If you read it like a text that’s meant to be read, it’s like Eliza on the other side of a Turing test; it’ll always appear to be broken.’

‘That’s absolutely fine if it’s what you’re going for, but it’s really not what I’m interested in. I want to create elaborate traps to suspend people’s disbelief and then kick them in the teeth. I want procedural systems that make the player think they have more control so that they feel more responsible and guilty when things go wrong, because it’s really people and not machines that are wonderful and interesting and dark and weird. With 80 Days, we want you to sit in a room and have Meg talk to you, and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve made a Meg Jayanth simulator’.

 

The full 80 minute plus audio of our discussion can be grabbed below (or better yet, from our iTunes feed), and covers even more ground than could be squeezed in above. Huge thanks to Jon Ingold, Joe Humfrey and Meg Jayanth for taking the time to chat.

 

[Pocket Casts] | [iTunes] | [RSS] |

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