In 2011, before the fall of Blitz Games Studios, co-founder Philip Oliver came up with a concept.
For years, his studio had focused on licensed titles but the creative team ached to build a brand new IP, a unique franchise that could stand apart from everything else on the market.
But it was only when Blitz closed and Philip opened a new studio with brother Andrew Oliver and friend Richard Smithies – the Leamington-based Radiant Worlds – that he and his team could truly begin work on this vision. Even the studio’s name, he tells us, is a hint to the game he’s been longing to work on.
SkySaga: Infinite Isles is an online game for PC. It’s produced in partnership with Korean games giant Smilegate, a publisher that was searching for a sandbox game with a global appeal – exactly what Oliver had devised in 2011.
And yes, it looks very much like Minecraft.
But, as the Radiant Worlds team demonstrated to us, there are some very crucial differences.
SkySaga players all start off with their own home island, a floating platform in an seemingly endless skybox that they can expand with blocks of terrain and construction materials gathered by mining both their own island and the game’s other worlds – the Infinite Isles of the title. So far, so Mojang.
However, SkySaga’s selling point can be found in these other worlds: each one is randomly generated every time players step through the portal on their home island. Not only does this give you an infinite number of virtual quarries from which you can gather materials for expanding and building upon your home island, they also lend themselves to adventures and quests.
"We started brainstorming what it was that makes really cool levels, and how we could write that into code in rules that make maps that feel handcrafted but aren’t."
Philip Oliver, Radiant Worlds
Each randomly generated isle contains, somewhere, a dungeon to raid. Or a castle to storm. Or both. It provides an unspoken objective for RPG fans who tire of grinding for materials and seek to explore new worlds.
“The problem with a lot of sandbox games is that you can do anything – but then what do you do?” said Philip Oliver. “We’ve actually tried to deal with that, give little hinters and pointers in the world, and challenges that suggest things to players. But they don’t have to do it.
“The experience of people in this studio is incredible. When we first set up with 50 people, most people have been with us more than 10 years. A lot of our time together had been making console games, and we realised that those titles had certain elements that people like, that directed them through games.
“So we started brainstorming what it was that makes really cool levels, and how we could write that into code in rules that make maps that feel handcrafted but aren’t.”
The result is the Adventure Director, Radiant Worlds’ new technology and the secret to SkySaga’s infinite RPG playgrounds. More than just a map generator, this tech populates the random worlds with those dungeons and castles. Some are purely procedurally generated, others are cobbled together from modules defined by the development team, but all merge seamlessly to form a unique world, complete with those hints Oliver mentions.
Explore the foothills of a mountain and you’ll find randomly generated caves. Some may contain monsters, others treasure. But one, highlighted by glowing rocks around the cave mouth, might be the ‘main’ dungeon of this particular instance, hinting at the best treasure and the portal home.
No two worlds or adventures will be the same. Dungeons are always in different places, containing different loot. Even smaller areas, such as villages, will be unique. One house might have a basement containing treasure chests, while another might not.
Design director Ben Fisher even recalls one world where the watchtower – constructed from dev-defined modules – had actually generated in a way that burrowed four or five storeys underground, rather than reaching towards the sky.
You’ll be able to read more about the Adventure Director in the next issue of Develop.
Minecraft has absolutely had an influence but we’ve taken it in a different direction. There’s an emphasis on adventuring, and an emphasis on community.
Ben Fisher, Radiant Worlds
EAST MEETS WEST
When Smilegate approached Radiant Worlds, one of the crucial pillars of the proposed partnership was a game with a global appeal. Smilegate’s current success revolves almost exclusively around Korean online FPS CrossFire, but the Eastern firm hopes to conquer the West with future releases, such as SkySaga.
Similarly, Radiant Worlds was keen to launch a game that stands as much chance of drawing in thousands of players in the East as it does in more local markets.
Central to this, as well as the gameplay, was the art style. Using a voxel-style to ensure the game looks accessible, the art team came up with a variety of characters and races that fit in with the nature of SkySaga’s structure. They also came up with eight character archetypes that visually represent each of the game’s classes: adventurer, architect, crafter, explorer, farmer, gladiator, miner and trader.
Of SkySaga’s final design, Andrew Oliver says: “Looking at the art style, I was so impressed. Ian and his team worked hard to give it a nice global appeal. I personally think it looks a bit Nintendoish – but hey, Nintendo has that global appeal. It’s also a style that doesn’t say this is just for kids – you’ll find so many adults respect Nintendo games.
“We also wanted to end up with a whole range of characters that look unique and can all be customised but also belong in the same universe. Hopefully people will look at our characters and think, ‘Yeah, those guys are from SkySaga’.
Of course, the nature of its voxel-based design will draw yet more inevitable comparisons to Minecraft. And that’s no bad thing, the team says – Minecraft is, after all, a world-conquering game. But Radiant Worlds has drawn inspiration from more titles than just Mojang’s masterpiece.
“There are a lot of games that have influenced SkySaga,” design director Ben Fisher explained. “Minecraft is obviously one, but I’ve got a list of ten or 15 other games that we also used as points of reference. So you could call it Minecraft meets Animal Crossing meets Wind Waker, with little garnishings of Destiny in there – plus random points of reference like Toejam & Earl, Spelunky, and so on.
“Minecraft has absolutely had an influence but we’ve taken it in a different direction. There’s an emphasis on adventuring, and an emphasis on community.”
Smithies said: “There’s also emphasis on accessibility. It needs to be very easy to pick up and play, so you can get the maximum amount of people into your game world.”
We never want to have a situation where someone doesn’t enjoy the game because we ask for money from them. We want everything to be open and available to them.
Philip Oliver, Radiant Worlds
THE FUTURE OF SKYSAGA
SkySaga: Infinite Isles will be entering into Alpha testing very soon, a UK-focused initiative that will test how the community comes together. If a player is adventuring in a randomly generated world, others have the chance to join them – akin to Destiny’s seamless matchmaking – and the Radiant Worlds teams is intrigued to see how those interactions will pan out. Will consumers co-operate, or race for loot?
There are also other social interactions they plan to test – from simple mechanics such as the ability to share screenshots and vote on your favourites during loading screens, to the option to set up a chest on your home island from which other players can buy items you have found or crafted.
Thought is also being given to how the game can be monetised going forward – although this is not a priority, according to Philip Oliver.
“It’s an interesting situation,” he said. “All the other sandbox games in this area have come from indies that have need Kickstarter or crowdfunding of some description. We’ve got a very unique scenario where we have Smilegate behind us, so it’s all well-funded, we’re okay thanks.
“But then they’re a commercial organisation at the end of the day, so yes, they want a route to monetisation eventually. But the No.1 goal is too make the game a success.”
As and when microtransactions are introduced, Radiant Worlds stressed that both it and partner Smilegate will be aiming for “responsible monetisation”.
“We never want to have a situation where someone doesn’t enjoy the game because we ask for money from them. We want everything to be open and available to them," said Philip Oliver. "The only time that things will be offered is to enhance the experience a bit more, to reduce grind, maybe add something.
“At the moment, everyone only has one home island. Well, suppose they’ve made something gothic and then decide they want a space station – then they could buy another home island.
“We want to be very careful with all of this, and to make sure everyone’s having fun, and that no one’s put off by it. We also want to be best in class at responsible monetisation: never conning someone, catching them out and then giving them something that they don’t think was worth it. We want to be a shining example of how monetisation can and should work.”
This engine and technology will easily last for five-plus years. But the franchise will outlive me. Why shouldn’t it?
Philip Oliver, Radiant Worlds
Fellow co-founder Richard Smithies says the studio’s plans for monetisation – and its regimental 13+ age limit – reflect the major developments in the free-to-play space over the past few years.
“Legislation is rightfully homing in on the wrongful exploitation and misuse of data for [young children],” he said. “We’re hoping to turn that on its face, effectively. This won’t be until next year, but what we’re going to do is have a whole system, a separate game for under 13s. It will be the same executable but for under 13s, with certain features locked and a parental controls where they can control what their child does.”
Fisher adds: “Since the game has a strong creative and sharing component to it, if we’re too mercenary with the monetisation it undermines that creativity and we absolutely want to avoid that. We want to use monetisation to enhancing that sharing and creativity so it’s a delicate balancing act.”
SkySaga: Infinite Isles is not just the first title to come out of Radiant Worlds; it’s the beginning of a long-term adventure for the Oliver twins and their team. The game’s future is discussed in years, not months, and there are even hopes to expand on the franchise beyond this initial title – much in the same way Skylanders and Minecraft have.
“When this game launches, we can improve on it and keep doing so,” says Philip Oliver. “We can go for years with Infinite Isles. The interesting thing is the build we have now is 14 months’ work. Minecraft has had five years. Can you imagine where our game will be in five years?
“This engine and technology will easily last for five-plus years. But the franchise will outlive me. Why shouldn’t it?”