There were so many great UK-made games at Gamescom this year, but it fell to the staff of MCV to pick the winner of the UK Game of the Show award, which is organised by Ukie and presented to the best unpublished game on the show floor.
We saw dozens of brilliant titles, and it only reinforced the fact that the UK continues to be a creative powerhouse in the worldwide games industry, from its big studios right down to small indies – and it was at that latter end of the market that we found our winner: Lost Words from Sketchbook Games.
It’s a visually striking title that uses words in a playful yet poignant way by literally building its levels on top of its story – a tale penned by none other than Rhianna Pratchett. To find out more, we catch up with CEO and creative director Mark Backler, who explains the origins of the game and how the fledgling studio’s hoping to bring it to market.
In Backler’s own words, Lost Words is “an atmospheric puzzle game that’s set in the pages of a diary where players use words to solve different puzzles.” He’s cautious of using the word ‘platformer’, however, as this would bring a certain level of expectation from future players.
“It’s about a young girl called Izzy, who’s aspiring to be a writer, and her gran is helping mentor her,” he explains. “Izzy goes through different issues in the real world, and uses the fantasy world to help her cope with them.”
It’s the game’s strong female presence that’s one of its many charms for us, but when Backler tells us about the game’s development history, it’s clear Lost Words has quite a diary of its own: “It started at the Ludum game jam in 2013, when the theme was minimalism,” he explains. “I was then working on-and-off in my spare time for a couple of years after that, and I’ve been working on it two years full-time.”
His first full-time year was spent developing the prototype and securing funding from numerous sources, including the Wellcome Trust, Creative England, and the UK Games Fund. “We’ve also raised SEIS investment through Games Co. London and Goldfinch [Entertainment]. We could carry on with what we’ve been doing with different small sources, but each time there are different constraints and it takes time. It’s a full-time job looking for funding, and I’d like to focus on the game.”
Sketchbook is now looking for a publisher to support the game right through to launch: “We’re looking for some finishing funding,” says Backler. “We’ve got some grants and investments, but we want to get enough money to finish the game to the level of quality that it deserves. Our aim [at Gamescom] was to follow up with publishers that we’d met before and meet new publishers and show them the game, so having the booth has been cool as they can drop by.”
Backler is looking for a single partner to release all versions of Lost Words, including Steam and console. He says he “would love to do a physical release,” but the decision would depend on what the publisher thinks. On pricing, he’s taken a lot of advice and thinks “maybe £15 or $20 for PC or console.”
After that, he plans to release it on mobile platforms: “We don’t necessarily need publishing support for mobile,” he says. “The thing seems to be if you can get it featured, and releasing it on the other platforms will help market it for mobile.” He adds that he “met Johnny Minkley [from Apple], who came to play the game, so it’s cool to make those contacts.”
There’s still a lot of work to be done, though, with Backler telling us Sketchbook is aiming to finish development in late 2018, with a launch window planned for sometime in March 2019.
SKETCHING OUT A TEAM
Backler is the creator of Lost Words and the founder of Sketchbook Games, but he’s not the only one responsible for the game’s development. “There are nine people in total,” Backler tells us, “and there were three of us full-time. At the moment, however, it’s just me full-time. We’re working with artists, but they’re just doing a few days a week.”
Backler expands on his role a little further: “I was a scripter at EA and Lionhead, but then I moved into games design. I’m not the best coder. To begin with, I was doing the coding and then I was using Playmaker because we’re using Unity, so a plug-in like that to do visual scripting was handy.”
Thankfully, Backler has now taken on some help to aid Lost Words’ development: “We have a part-time producer to help out as well, as I found it tricky to do all the production as well as everything else [by myself]. As we scaled up with more people, it was hard to do work at the same time as managing people.”
Sketchbook has also secured the services of writer Rhianna Pratchett on the project. “She’s written the whole script for the game and we discussed different areas of it with her. She’s also had input in the design and some of the mechanics,” Backler tells us.
For Pratchett, it’s the interplay between the script and the gameplay that makes Lost Words so intriguing: “In Lost Words, we use the script and character journey as direct inspiration for the gameplay mechanics,” she tells us. “They are always intrinsically linked. In some cases, this is very literal, with words becoming the puzzles or forming some of the platforming sequences. In other instances, it’s about setting the visual mood and utilising environmental narrative through elements like doodles and mementos.”
We wonder whether story leads gameplay or vice-versa? “It’s kind of a mix,” Backler explains. “If there’s a puzzle [Rhianna] thought would work well, she’d suggest that, but then we had other puzzles that we’d already come up with that had no story attached, so then we would see if she could fit those in.
“You have to massage the story and the gameplay in together in order to make it work. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions, whether it’s changing the story to fit the gameplay, or cutring some gameplay we thought was really cool but just doesn’t fit in.”
The game switches between the pages of the diary and a full-blown fantasy world, and Backler says his team has been working hard to make each world feel like a natural extension of the other.
“We’re trying to do things to tie the two sections in as much as possible,” he says. “It was a criticism we had levelled at us early on – that they looked like they were from completely separate games – so we tried to make sure that the story elements and the visual are tying in the mechanics and making sure we use the words in both sections in similar ways.
We’re looking for some finishing funding. We’ve got some grants and investments, but we want to get enough money to finish the game to the level of quality that it deserves.
Mark Backler, Sketchbook Games
“For example, in the diary you may have one puzzle where you’re opening something with the word ‘open’ and then, when you transition into the fantasy world, we’ll try and have something that’s related to that as well.”
Backler was very upbeat about being part of Ukie’s Gamescom stand and winning the award: “It’s great. We’ve met so many awesome people, and the fact we’re looking for publishers, and the fact we’re sat here surrounded by publishers, and many of them were there when the award is given out is helpful.”
We love what we’ve seen of Lost Words so far, and we’re sure it will do well, so we’ll be following its progress to release carefully over the next 18 months.