Inkle, the interactive fiction specialists behind 80 Days and Sorcery, has released its text engine for free. Co-founder Joseph Humfrey tells Will Freeman what developers can expect from Ink

Why Inkle is sharing the tech behind 80 Days and Sorcery

This is not the first time Inkle has shared the proprietary technology from your games, is it?
No. We do have a tiny bit of experience of attempting to be a service company. That wasn’t planned, but it happened. We did Inkle Writer previously, which was our online system for writing interactive stories. It was designed for amateurs, and it was kind of designed as a tool that anyone could use so that they could get a taste for what it’s like to write interactive stories.

Then the guys at Stoic who made used that tool for the first Banner Saga. And they’re also using it for Banner Saga 2. We were trying to make a business opportunity out of Inkle Writer, and because Stoic did their Kickstarter and got a huge amount of funding for it, we managed to get a deal with them. But we realised soon after that this kind of thing wasn’t really what we wanted to be doing. We became this company that had to support others, rather than just making our own games.

So we’ve had some experience in providing tools to other people, and even before Inkle Writer, right from day one, we’d been developing our own text engine internally. 

So the Ink text engine grew from that offering?
That text engine has been the foundation or the bedrock of all our games so far, including Sorcery and 80 Days. After 80 Days, we decided to take a step back and really solidify that piece of technology. Up until that point it was kind of hacky and wasn’t really designed to be released open-source.

Ink was really originally based on co-founder Jon Ingold’s desire to write in a format that he found really comfortable. He had the advantage that he’s primarily a games designer and writer, but he also has technical skills. He did a mathematics degree at Cambridge but he’s not the best software engineer, so he built this compiler for the last version of the scripting language. He found it a dream to write in, and yet it wasn’t really written in the best way for a wider audience. It was so hooked in to our own engine and workflow that it just wasn’t something we could release into the wild. 

But you wanted to?
We did. We found it a little frustrating that we couldn’t release it, really. The Banner Saga guys were out there using Inkle Writer, which we knew was so inherently limited. That was designed for little short experiments in writing, and hobbyist projects. It’s still a great tool; Inkle Writer is primarily used by schools these days, and it’s great for kids to learn about writing.

After 80 Days, when we starting to talk abut our next project, and were starting to move towards Unity, we wanted to rebuild our own tool, and make it really streamlined, knowing the side effect could be that we got to release it to the wider world, and – we hope – there’d be interest in it, perhaps from a company like Stoic who would be using Unity. Of course, there are quite a few companies who use Unity. 

It seems fair to say there’s been a lot of interest.
The reaction to us going open-source on the Friday [before GDC] was absolutely phenomenal. There was way more interest than we expected. It was like we’d released a game.

After 80 Days, we decided to take a step back and really solidify that piece of technology. Up until that point it was kind of hacky and wasn’t really designed to be released open-source.

How does Ink fit into a studio’s pipeline and engine? Is it an isolated engine, something of a plug-in, strict middleware or something else entirely? 
Ink is almost like a middleware. Most writing tools like Twine, Inform 7 – which is the old school original pure text IF tool – or even Inkle Writer are all designed as systems that go right from the writing through to the final result. They have a user interface paradigm which is consistent between every game made using that particular tool. They are all HTML, they all look roughly the same way, even if things can be re-skinned in various ways.

Ink, though, is the only solution that we can think of that was actually designed as a writing system from the ground up to be built into a wider game engine. So the presentation layer can look however a developer wants it to, whether that is a pure text-based game, or a completely visual game.

In fact, when we were redesigning the language and streamlining it, that’s what we had in mind, because we’re going towards graphical-based games in Unity. While 80 Days was kind of text-based, and primarily a reading experience – even though it had graphics and it had that board game feel to it – the main reading sections, which were built using Ink, gives it all a text flow.

But for our next big project, we’re going to go for a more visual look. 

But why go the open-source route with Ink?
The one thing I guess we’re not going to be able to do is spend a lot of time working on providing support. But that’s part of why we went open-source; that although you can maintain the project, and help with the bug-fixes, a lot of the stuff that needs doing people can do for themselves.

So from a business point of view, we don’t want to get side-tracked by this. We’ll be maintaining it for our own uses, and fixing bugs and stuff.

But what is great about open-source is the collective effort. In less than a week other people had fixed bugs, and contributed to the documentation. We’ve got people telling us they’ve got plans for adding a JavaScript port, so people can stories on the web.

That’s all so exciting for us, because one of the more tangible effects of going open-source – and one that we were sort of hoping for – is that somebody would make a JavaScript version of the runtime engine, because although we have the C# version that goes into Unity, for our own testing purposes, it’s useful to have a JavaScript framework so that we can create little prototypes using HTML and JavaScript. We’ve always done that in the past. 

And with it being free, it’s not a money-making project, directly at least?
No. We’re not [making any money directly]. We really are just thinking from the Google point of view, or something like that. We believe there are lots of intangible benefits that come out of open-source. 

And we don’t even know what they might be, but we’re already getting a taste or flavour of what might come out of this, whether it’s porting to other platforms and such, or my own personal dream; that one day we’ll hire a writer who has Ink experience on her CV. That would be amazing. The idea that we don’t have to train someone up, and that they already know how to use our tools they work with us? That would be just brilliant.

You can find out more at originally published in Develop: March 2016 issue.

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