SkySaga: In­fi­nite Isles


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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

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