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Q&A: Jon Ingold on Sorcery! and crafting interactive fiction

'The end of the Sorcery! epic is our focus for the moment; it's a bittersweet feeling to be coming to the end of the series after nearly 1.5 million words.'

Konstantinos Dimopoulos, Blogger

January 25, 2016

8 Min Read

Jon Ingold is a co-founder of Inkle, which created the award winning 80 Days. He is currently preparing the launch of the PC version of their Sorcery! series, which had successfully adapted Steve Jackson's classic roleplay gamebooks to mobile devices. 

Ingold graciously agreed to answer some questions for us.

How does it feel to revive commercial interactive fiction?

Pretty damn good!

When we left Sony to found Inkle, we had the idea that mobile devices could make beautiful places to read interactive stories; that they could be much more mainstream, accessible and engaging experiences that people gave them credit for. It's taken us a few iterations to develop our style and tone - but it's been wonderful to get the reaction we've had.

With the imminent PC release of Sorcery! I really have to ask: why have you so far chosen to release your games on mobile platforms first?

It wasn't a business decision! In fact, we started Inkle with the question of 'what would make a great mobile-based interactive reading experience' because we thought that looked like an interesting problem, and we developed out from there.

Moving to PC was quite a gamble for us with 80 Days - We weren't as sure that people who'd enjoyed curling up on a sofa with an iPad would enjoy the same game on a computer.

Were you happy with the PC version of 80 Days?

We're very happy with it - Ben Nicholson from Cape Guy did an amazing job, re-engineering the whole game in Unity, which more or less does everything upside-down from Apple's XCode. And it was great to be able to go back to the game and have an excuse to add more content and routes.

Also, the release also led to the most amazing review we've ever had.

What should we expect from the Sorcery! ports in comparison to, say, the iOS versions? Besides being able to enjoy them on a big monitor with a mouse that is.

We've not done any content updates this time around - partly, we're right now finishing up writing Part 4, and don't want the ports to detract from that - and partly, the complexity in the Sorcery! series is already somewhere between mind-boggling and brain-melting. (There are, at last count, 695 individual variables carried over from Part 3 into Part 4 that affect the game - from inventory items, to choices, to character customization, to people you've met, and so forth...)

But we've done a fair bit of work to ensure the game plays well. You can play entirely with keystrokes, for instance: spell-casting from the keyboard is particularly satisfying! And we've done some shader work to ensure the game looks pin-sharp on high-res screens, so we can render the game maps in super high-detail.

Do you have a release timeline for Sorcery! in mind?

Parts 1 and 2 are coming in one combined package on February 2. After that, Part 3 should be along within a month or two, depending on how many problems the whole freeform time-blending mechanic gives us (spoilers!).

Part 4 is still being written - we're taking our time a bit to ensure we go out with a bang, so it's got every last idea stuffed into it somewhere - but it will be out sometime later this year, and we're aiming to release that across all our platforms at once.

How has the series evolved from the first Sorcery! to the latest one?

A lot! The first game was, almost, a straight Choose Your Own Adventure - there was the map, that let you plan your route and strategize more than in a gamebook, and the combat system which is strategic rather than dice-based - but otherwise, the scenes themselves were mostly short branching sequences that moved forwards and never looked back.

For the second game we added quite a few features, like interior maps to explore buildings, and the dice / conversation game Swindlestones. But the big change into the second book was that you could navigate Kharé quite freely, looping back on yourself, retreading ground and exploring. That's something that's not possible in a book format, and Sorcery! 2's development was when we really started to push the flexibility that our ink engine afforded us. The result was a big game with a lot of secrets, and that was what persuaded us 80 Days' concept of "the whole world" would be achievable.

And then for Part 3 we went a bit crazy - from Part 2's "open world-style" design to a full, actual open world. And for the series' conclusion in Part 4... well, free exploration is a given at this point, but we're mixing that together with another rather interesting mechanic and turning up the difficulty in an unusual way. I don't want to give anything away, but it's going to be exciting to see exactly how all the pieces fit on that game!

How close are you sticking to the books?

With the first game, we stuck quite closely to the book, expanding sequences in more detail, and adding a few alternative paths and solutions to problems. For the second, we added about half as much content again, to flesh out the city and make it a place you could explore fully, and get lost in.

People responded to that really well, so for Sorcery! 3 we decided to see how far we could push the game, and the engine.

In general, every incident from the book is in our game, and all the major plot elements that happen, or are mentioned in passing, are in our game, often fleshed out and given much more depth or significance. But there's also a huge amount of new material as well.

We take particular pleasure in twisting things fans of the series might remember, as well, so familiar encounters play out in unexpected ways.

Could you roughly describe the creative process of a Sorcery! game?

Each game starts on two fronts - firstly, reading through the book and sketching out a few of the stand-out scenes, and secondly, with lots of discussions among the team to try and get at what the flavor of the Part should be, what makes it special, and what will make it stand out. We wanted each episode to have its own flavor and style, and to express that in everything from the music to the new mechanics.

Usually, we go through three or four ideas for how the Part might work. For Part 3, for instance, we considered building a map made of floating islands that the player could swirl around to "mix up" the environment; and for Part 4 we considered allowing the player to cast all the spells at any time (but ultimately rejected it for being less interesting than having a limited choice - in games, constraints are almost always good!)

Then once we know what the tricks are going to be, we set about writing. That's a long process, and a very evolving one - little ideas will blossom along the way into major plotlines, while other things you thought were important might turn out to be brief mentions and no more.

When we have a first playable version, with beginning, middle and end, we send our sketch map to the cartographer, Mike Schley, who does his magic. And then we do a second writing pass, layering in more content for all the interesting features Mike has drawn in the gaps between what we specified. That second pass is vital for tying the visual layer and the story layer together.

Then we do a lot more testing, playing, and talking, to try and wring everything we can out of the game. We can always tell when a game is done: it's the point when you're so familiar with every aspect of it that all of the joy is dead to you. That's when we ship it; any earlier and it would be unfinished, and any later, and we'd start removing things we shouldn't.

And is everything coded using the Inkle tool?

The game is a mixture of an interactive script, written using our ink engine, and mechanics like the combat, dice and spellcasting built the old-fashioned way, in code. But the lines are sometimes blurry - for instance, the time-beacon mechanic in Part 3 allows players to mix the map between two different time-periods, and then the story script adapts itself on the fly to whatever the player has done.

Creating essentially open world interactive fiction games and being successful does sound like something nobody really expected a few years ago; yet you did it. Did you surprise yourselves?

.It's been a slow process of development, from games-like-books, to games-on-maps, to games-in-open-worlds. Each new project has felt just a little shy of impossible, but each has been building on what we've done before. We quite like solving difficult problems, but I suppose we've usually believed they can be solved.

That said, it still seems remarkable that Sorcery! 3 works; there's some really complex procedural writing going on under the hood in that one.

Being successful was a surprise. We thought what we made would be good; but we weren't sure anyone would notice!

What does the future hold?

The end of the Sorcery! epic is our focus for the moment; it's a bittersweet feeling to be coming to the end of the series after nearly 1.5 million words. But we're also into pre-production on our next project, which is the first to be built in our revamped scripting engine. That's going to be a really exciting project, but it's already proving to be something of a head-scratcher!

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