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4:58pm on Tuesday, 6th January, 2015:

Infinite Isles


I've spent several hours a day since before Christmas playing SkySaga: Infinite Isles. I don't normally play MMOs that are in alpha on the grounds that if people want my opinion on their work then they should pay me for it, but the developer (Radiant Worlds) rose from the ashes of Blitz — a company which did much to advance the cause of the UK games industry over the decades of its existence — so I made an exception. I bumped into Philip Oliver (one of its founders) at a conference and he encouraged me to give SkySaga a shot, so I did. Here's my assessment.

OK, so it's Minecraft. Actually,as it's in alpha, it's not even that: there's a lot of functionality yet to be added. The construction interface is slicker and easier than Minecraft's, but anyone who has played Minecraft is going to recognise it: there are voxels, voxels everywhere.

In that case, why would anyone play it? Why wouldn't they just take a look, admire the aesthetic, then go back to Minecraft?

To be honest, I don't think Radiant Worlds would care if they did. SkySaga may at its heart have the same mine-and-build mechanic as Minecraft, but it's not for people who play Minecraft. It's for people who did play Minecraft but got fed up because it didn't have any game to it. SkySaga does have game to it. Minecraft is merely its training ground.

One of the things I've been saying for a while at casual games conferences is that the more that a person plays casual games, the more they're going to want to play more sophisticated games as a result. Therefore, developers shouldn't have been developing games for Farmville players, but for the players that they would become in three, five years time. SkySaga is like this for Minecraft players. All those millions of people who are playing Minecraft right now are eventually going to move on, but where are they going to move on to? Well, at a guess, somewhere specifically designed to pick them up — somewhere such as SkySaga.

In terms of look, SkySaga is utterly charming. The avatars are quirky (their limbs are implied rather than shown), the creatures are cute, the animations delightful. It's a look that will appeal to a wide range of people. Here's a half-size screenshot of my character, Polly:

You start off on an island floating in the sky (they look a bit like in WoW's Nagrand). This anti-gravitational theme helps explain some Minecraft staples such as why you can chop a section out of the trunk of a tree and the rest of it doesn't fall down. The starting spot I got for the two starts I made (it's alpha, they have total reboots) was awkward and had me having to build stuff from the get-go just so I could move around. Quests popped up, to give a choice of direction in what to do and what to do next, so at the end of it you were nicely tutored without feeling unduly hand-held.

So far, so Minecraft. Where SkySaga suddenly takes a different turn is in its portal system. You make special stones you slot into your portal and it opens up an entrance to a new world. It literally is new world: it's procedurally generated on the fly, so every time you enter you wind up somewhere different. There are two types of stone at the moment: green ones take you to worlds with forests and castles and villages and mines and bandits and wolves; white ones take you to worlds with snow and ice and chasms and fortresses and mines and more bandits and more wolves. I'm guessing that there'll be other types coming along later.

This portal system makes all the difference. It adds a game dynamic that is missing from Minecraft, making it into more of an MMO. Oh, I should mention that sometimes the worlds you wind up in have other people there, too. OK, so at the moment there isn't really enough content in them for more than one person, but it is still in alpha. Indeed, content is where the game is short overall at the moment: most of the basic functionality is there are working fine, it just needs more of what it already has. More creatures, more objects to make, more functionality for those objects, more world, more premades to slot into the world (it may be procedurally generated but it has some ready-made structures it slots into them and it needs more). I'm excited not so much by what SkySaga is, but by what it has the potential to become.

As it's an alpha, there are some things it needs to sort out, obviously. For example, there's no interface customisation at the moment, and having to use the mouse to turn round to hit whatever it is that's attacked you from behind is very awkward. I want the A and D keys to rotate me, not strafe-move me. Also, the more armour you have then the slower you hit, which is fine in theory but in practice if you're in armour you get pounded before you can do any damage. I wound up taking off all my armour, even the basic cloth armour I started with, and fighting with two swords: hardly anything could touch me, because every hit gives a short interrupt. I could take down three knights in armour at the same time and not be scratched (except if one was behind me, grrr...).

Unlike Minecraft, SkySaga has a skill-based level system for crafting. There are some grindy things you can do to level up slowly (such as mining ore, which over time increases your mining skill), plus some quests that you can do to speed it up a bit. This is a reasonable achiever-friendly time sink, although at the moment it needs balancing better. The architecture skill, for example, I found very hard to level up using the quests (at one point I had three of them, all asking me to place ice voxels on my home island). However, it was trivially easy to level it up using the grinding method, which involved "decorating your home island with snow". White worlds have so much snow that this is ridiculously easy.

Yes, you can put 99 cubic metres of snow in one slot of your backpack. It doesn't melt and it takes up the same amount of space as a single leaf. You can put a two-voxel chest inside a 1-voxel chest, but not if the former has anything inside it (because then you can't pick it up, even if all it has in it is a sheet of paper). MMO container physics continue to make no sense whatsoever. I did like the fact that when you get killed all your stuff is left where you died so if you decide to resurrect then you have to run back to get it; that's a bit more old school.

Exploit: you can build walls but NPC enemies can't knock them down; the toughest enemies are too wide to go through a one-metre gap; you can shoot a bow and arrow through a one-metre gap. There is a nice feature by which enemies will run away when on low health in order to try aggro their friends into attacking you, but as they wait until their health is so low that a single arrow to the back will kill them it's not perhaps as efficacious as it might be.

There's one mechanic that irritated me: temperature. If you hang around outside in the snowy worlds, you get cold and have to get to shelter. In practice, this means you have to bash a hole in a nearby mountainside and hole up there doing nothing until you warm up. Lighting a fire has no discernable effect. That was rather tedious at times. Also tedious was having to wait to make things, but at least I could build several workbenches or whatever and make a bunch of things at the same time.

Hmm, I'm in danger of simply paraphrasing my 6 pages of notes here. Maybe I'll just summarise:

Lastly, there's the most important point: what is this game trying to say?

Hmm. You can make what you want. You're beholden to no-one. It's not easy to gather your resources, but it's fun. It takes what went before it to a new level.

So, it's pretty much Radiant Worlds' autobiography, then.

Although it's still all potential, I have a good feeling about SkySaga. I'll be interested to see what they do with it. Alpha sign-ups are still available if you want to try it out (they're released in batches), or you could just wait a few months before it goes into open beta.

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Copyright © 2015 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).