SkySaga: Infinite Isles
SkySaga: Infinite Isles sees Radiant Worlds constructing not just a deceptively familiar free-to-play take on Minecraft, but a metaphor for its own transcendence of Blitz Games Studios, the 23-year-old UK independent that closed its doors in September 2013 and gave the studio birth. A clear debt to Mojang’s rampant success aside, the game’s sunny archipelago of voxel-based islands is a fine opening beat for a team that’s making a fresh start. Its focus on procedural generation and item crafting, meanwhile, chimes with talk of a freer, more exploratory development culture than was practical under Blitz’s regimen of externally owned IPs.
Speaking to us during a tour of Radiant’s offices, located within spitting distance of its predecessor’s HQ in Leamington Spa, old hands enthuse about the change of direction – among them Andrew and Philip Oliver, the twins who created Dizzy The Egg in the ’80s. “All the brands we’ve worked with, across all those games, it was typically about one year per project on average,” says Philip. “Well, you’ve seen what we’ve done in one year, but [with SkySaga] we’ll keep on going.”
Design director Benjamin Fisher is also relieved by the shift away from the short cycles on work-for-hire projects. “At Blitz, you’d be working on a SpongeBob game for six months, from a blank page to the finished game,” he says. “It was just: ‘Get it done; make sure it’s on brand.’ Here, we’re spending time and effort to grow a collaborative culture. I send round an email every week or two, and I just harvest everybody’s suggestions.”
The team is reluctant to say too much about Blitz, though dark allusions are dropped regarding the fallout from events at various publishers (it’s suggested THQ’s bankruptcy was the fatal blow), and Radiant Worlds is also determined to avoid discussing Minecraft too explicitly. But the story is more complex than Blitz’s ailments or Mojang loans anyway.
SkySaga predates its present developer – Philip Oliver drew up the concept in 2011, and development began in summer 2013 with Korean publisher Smilegate’s input. And while it’s hard to imagine Blitz working on a game such as this, given its fondness for licensed fare, SkySaga builds on its 23-year portfolio in ways the cuboid vistas don’t quite express.
It’s a question, partly, of the character design, which sees opulent hunks of face, fist and boot joined together by invisible string and able to be outfitted with thousands of different pieces of user-made clothing and armour. Chiselled and lustrous, they’re the product of an art team that has spent time around cartoon merchandise. Mostly, though, it’s a question of time. Where Minecraft is
a sandbox ready to swallow up every hour you throw at it, SkySaga is structured to feel more like a chapter-based campaign. Fisher cites Joseph Campbell’s 1949 text on narratology, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, as another inspiration. “Every myth, every story builds from the same shape. You need something that you can’t get in your home, so you push out into the unknown. You have that moment of greatest reward that’s also the moment of greatest threat. You overcome that threat and obtain a new skill. You return home with a story to tell, you improve your home, and then you continue around that loop.”
SkySaga players begin on a home island, a persistent slab of floating rock that’s yours to break down, build up, excavate and beautify as desired. It’s here, untroubled by wildlife and with the aid of furnaces and worktables, that you’ll hammer together the majority of the weapons, tools and equipment you need to roam farther afield. This includes keystones, which are plugged into a portal at the island’s heart to unlock the way to other islands, with rarer breeds of keystone corresponding to the more hazardous wintry or desert islands that play host to the most exotic raw materials. Fisher’s hope is that doughty players will club together to plunder these challenging environs – co-op support is omnipresent, with options to check guest player meddling on home islands – and flog the items they make to others for in-game gold. The game’s microtransaction model has yet to be nailed down, meanwhile, but is supposedly limited to cosmetic items and progression boosters.
The worlds you venture to are procedurally generated and tested for coherency on a server in advance, so that they’re ready to go once summoned; all you’re doing is downloading the file. Each is built to suit broad criteria, such as the number of interiors, and support an estimated 40 minutes of play, spanning a main quest – perhaps a trip to a castle, though no two castles will be laid out or furnished alike – plus smaller attractions such as villages and caves. You can spend longer in the field if you want, and given that adventure islands vanish after the first visit, it’s best to suck the most lucrative specimens dry. But the menagerie of wolves, bears, skeletons and bioluminescent, bug-eyed critters grow more ferocious as day sinks into night, and you can only make your exit via a portal. This gentle pressure to seek an exit helps sessions build to a natural crescendo. “You’ve got to look at how people play,” says Philip. “They play in sessions. There’s no point in making something that’s going to be an endless thing, because at some point you have to put it down.”
All of this is, of course, as much the result of attention to user behaviour in and around
Minecraft as it is another articulation of Blitz’s former strengths. The sharp split between home and wilderness environments is aimed, Fisher adds, at frontier types who want to build a nest without worrying about its place within a continually unfolding world. “In Minecraft and other open-world games, if you’ve established a home, you get more and
Fisher’s hope is that doughty players will club together to plunder challenging environs
more reluctant to explore away from that. You either start again, and junk all the work you’ve done, or you begin to almost resent the game.”
SkySaga’s development up to and after launch will draw heavily on the patterns of its community, with technical alphas underway. The feedback will inform everything from interface tweaks to celebrating the players or groups who uncover the most coveted items by writing their feats into the game’s as-yetundivulged background fiction. It’s a welltrodden approach, but as with so much of
SkySaga, there’s a dash of spice: the developer won’t advertise new items and features, which means that player discoveries might really feel like discoveries.
Such a process of give-and-take could be key to the game’s future, as players tug it away from influences that, while rethought, can be hard to see past. SkySaga can’t be reduced to what it borrows from Minecraft, or what it gleans from the wreckage of Blitz, but in the absence of conspicuous innovation, it risks being lost in the shadow of both.
Philip and Andrew Oliver, creators of Dizzy. Philip came up with the concept for SkySaga back in 2011
There’s an ecosystem of sorts – wolves will prey on sheep, for example. You’ll also be able to cross-breed animals to create oddities