Published on August 14th, 2014 | by Patrick Garde0
Interview with Jon Ingold of inkle Studios
Recently, we had a chance to talk with Jon Ingold, Creative Director at inkle Studios, developer of highly acclaimed RPG series Sorcery!. We named the latest installment, Sorcery! 2, as one of the best Android RPGs, hence, we’d like to know more about the two-man studio. We discussed their background, how their name came about, how did they get into game development, games that inspired them, difference between iOS and Android platforms, free-to-play system and their future.
Can you tell us the history of inkle Studios?
Joseph and I met when we were working at Sony, making Playstation games. We were both getting tired of the console industry and, in particular, had this feeling games could tell much better stories than they were being allowed to.
So, we founded inkle with the idea of making games were the narrative came first: where the game systems were built to complement the story, rather than the other way around. We had this idea that good stories are hard, whereas game systems are only difficult.
We’ve been evolving our ideas ever since – our first apps were all text, all choices, no UI, no stats, but they felt a bit too linear (though they weren’t). For Sorcery!, we introduced the combat system – a mini-game of sorts, but not really a mini-game, because it still writes a story as you fight – but the biggest development in that game was the map. Suddenly, we were putting text into the game, rather than putting gameplay into the text.
For 80 Days we pushed that concept as far as we could. People describe it as a gamebook but it isn’t, really; when we call it anything, we say “self-narrating boardgame”. It’s not that, but it’s like that.
How did you come up with the name, inkle?
An inkle is a kind of loom for weaving narrow belts. It has a several strands running at once, but they’re constrained the weaving keeps going forwards. We thought that was an awesome metaphor for the design of our stories.
Before we stumbled on the word, we went through a lot of weaving-words. In fact, internally, our engine refers to chunks of story as “stitches” which are gathered up into “knots”! A lot of our early name ideas came straight out of the cliché “two words shoved together” start-up name generator: StoryWeave, LoomStory, TaleWeave, TaleSpin, NarrativeKnots…
The name inkle was finally suggested by my wife, whose mother is a weaver, and happened to be the name of one of her cats when she was growing up, and when we heard it, we loved it. It’s a dictionary word, so spellcheckers don’t fuss with it, but it’s unusual and distinctive. It looks a bit like ink, and a bit like Kindle, and a bit like Google. And best of all, it looks really nice in Baskerville, which is a font we like and wanted to use for our cards. Yes, that stuff matters!
Could you introduce the two-man team? How did you get into mobile game development?
So, we are me, Jon Ingold, and Joseph Humfrey. I started out in games writing independent parser-based interactive fiction, trying to create games with characters and stories, eventually getting a job at Sony as a narrative designer. I’m a writer, and a bit of a coder, and do most of the gameplay logic in the script and in the main codebase. I wrote about a third of 80 Days’ script and edited it.
Joseph worked at Rare and then Sony as a gameplay programmer, and has prototyped and developed for pretty much every console platform there is. But he also has a really strong art background; so along with building our core engine he’s also our technical artist, doing the dynamic color effects and camera systems that make the game look great as it moves around, and our graphic designer, doing icons and buttons. Joe drew all 220 item graphics for 80 Days.
We went into mobile because it seemed like a great area to start out in – it’s a platform where beautiful apps really shine out, and it’s a natural fit for games which revolve around reading and immersing yourself into a slower paced game. Also, when we founded two years ago, the iPad was new and kind of interesting as a space, and I like to think we’ve found some quite innovative ways to use it.
Does the location have a factor in developing mobile games? What are the advantages or disadvantages making games in the city of Cambridge in England?
To be honest, location doesn’t matter at all. On 80 Days we worked with several others – our writer was based in London, our lead illustrator in Europe, our second artist in the US, our composer … somewhere in the UK, I don’t even know where. We’re all connected by email, and by group chat, but we work wherever we happen to be.
That said, Cambridge is a city full of people like us; when I go to work in a coffee-shop it is a little forest of Macbooks, and half of them have iPhones plugged in, ready to be used as dev-kits!
Your studio is known for making indie games that are interactive and narrative in nature. Will we see you in the future continuing with this kind of games or are you open to shift into a new genre?
I think we’ll definitely be continuing in this line. Our interest has been and still is “making narrative work”. So I don’t think we’ll ever do a platformer, or a sidescrolling shooter. There are plenty of people making those games; no-one needs us to throw our version in. But what I think we can do that other people can’t, or aren’t doing, is create narratives where the players gets to do everything that happens.
Sorcery! has enjoyed thousands of downloads in the Play Store. We also named its sequel, Sorcery! 2 as one of the best Android RPG games. Did you expect to receive a positive response from gamers?
Towards the end of any project there’s a moment where you step back and think, oh, no, what have we done? I’ve never finished a game and felt it was definitely going to be a success; we always ensure the product is done, and as good as it can be, but we never know if it was a good idea because we’re too close to it by then. We felt that with Sorcery!, and twice as much with 80 Days, which wasn’t even based on an established IP.
But in both cases, I think we knew we were onto something special. When we took the first build of Sorcery! to PAX and showed journalists, it was really great to see people’s eyes lighting up the first time they panned across the map and the mountains popped out at them; or to see them heading off and having crazy adventures in a five minute demo.
We’ve always felt the text-based thing is a difficult sell: there are a lot of players who discard the game out of hand “because no pictures”. But on the other hand, it is not like people do not read – the internet is just full of words – and we’ve found a huge base of people who basically don’t care that they’re reading, because what’s happening, and the choices they get to make, and the adventures they’re having, are so much fun that there’s no problem.
I still think: I would rather be in control of every moment of an exciting text-based story – than watch another cut-scene in a game like Uncharted, however good the face-capture is.
Are there any games that served as an inspiration?
Quite a few – often games that tried and failed at something, because that can be the best way to learn. For Sorcery!, we played all the various gamebook iterations out there on the App Store; I’ve also played a lot of parser-based interactive fiction, which has a lot of great lessons in terms of pacing and timing of interactive narrative, and giving players the sense of real control that a gamebook often can’t supply.
But our inspirations are also wider-ranging than games, of course; the text sequences during combat, for instance, were drawn from researching David Gemmell novels; he’s a master of fight sequences that sound exciting without being too specific, and were a great resource for creating our procedural combat narration. The visuals were inspired by an old Jim Henson series called the Storyteller, amongst other things. And of course, the original gamebooks themselves.
The strongest inspiration for 80 Days, incidentally, was The Last Express, a Jordan “Prince of Persia” Mencher adventure game which runs in real-time and is horribly broken, and absolutely completely incredible. The writing and characterization is subtle and superb, and the way the game moves on without you is staggering. You can see both those things firing away at the heart of 80 Days.
What are the main difference in developing games for the iOS and Android platforms? Which one do you prefer?
iOS is a beautiful development environment; it’s slick, integrated, solid, and pretty well documented. It’s rare to hit a problem that hasn’t been solved by someone else, and solved properly. Android, on the other hand, is kind of a nightmare: we’re still getting bug reports from people playing Sorcery! on some obscure device that has a massive screen, but a crippled graphics card; or that has an OS that won’t let it move files around; or whatever crazy issue. And developing in the standard Java framework is pretty limited.
Our solution was to make the iOS codebase compile to Android; a very clever friend of ours did the porting, which involved reconstructing a lot of Apple’s rather nice UI codebase, so we could run the main Sorcery! code on Android devices. It took about 8 months, but the pay-off was the app looks and feels fantastic, and Sorcery! 2 took about a month.
There are plenty of freemium games in the Play Store. What’s your thought on free to play titles?
I despise free to play. It’s a system designed for terrible, boring games that hook you and suck you dry. A game, for me, has got to keep offering me new experiences; it has to surprise and delight me; it has to have a new trick up its sleeve on every level, around every corner. F2P is the total opposite of that. It captures the feeling of nicotine addiction or anorexia: just one more cigarette, just one pound lost, and everything will be fine, now just one more…
Games that are a free taster with an unlock of content I have no problem with, and I think we’d like to do that for our games — it’s fairer on consumers, and would, I think, lead to higher prices which is good for developers. But at the moment the label of “Has IAP” is too toxic for us to do it.
How did you come up with the $5 price tag for Sorcery!?
When we started out as a company that was pretty much the highest price you could imagine charging. Now, it seems to be pretty much the norm – perhaps slightly higher than the norm – for a quality game. We still see negative comments from players who seem to think $5 is an extortionate amount for something that took six months to create. (One commenter remarked: “You have to pay for Part 2? That’s theft!” — and we thought, no, getting a whole new game without paying for it, that is technically theft)
It’s crazy, though, when you compare app prices to the price of a game on Steam – Sorcery would be $15 there, I think – or even the prices of IAPs inside games – Kim Kardashian’s time-wasting app has $5 as its cheapest, most throwaway IAP pack, and no-one seems to blink.
You have released a new game in the App Store entitled 80 Days. Will we see this on Google Play soon?
Right now, we’re not sure. We want to make sure Android users get Sorcery! 3 on launch, and we don’t want the two to clash.
What’s next for inkle Studios?
We’ve got to do this game called Sorcery! 3… but after that, we’re still thinking, and throwing around ideas. A lot of them are silly, some are weird – but it’s always exciting to know that one of them will be the thing we pour the next six months into. But we don’t know which!
Did we miss something you’d like to tell our readers?
While they’re waiting for our next game, they might want to try out inklewriter, our free online branching story creator, writer.inklestudios.com.