Most of the time the teams from Pocket Gamer, AppSpy, and our pals from across the pond 148Apps, are content to constrain our creativity to criticism (and alliteration). But recently a group of us from those sites got the itch to make a little game of our own, and that's how B-SIDES was born.
You can play the game on whatever browser you're using to read this, even on mobile. Just head on over to the game's page on textadventures.co.uk to give it a try.
Our collection was made using two applications, each for separate tasks.
The team needed to plan out our stories for B-SIDES, including how the game flow would work, and also convey that information to the person putting the stories together (which was yours truly). As the authors all worked remotely, we needed to use a program that was collaborative and shareable, so we decided to use draw.io.
Above is a screenshot of the kind of flow charts you can create in draw.io, complete with details of how the text should read, the decisions you can make in the game, and what the results of those decisions are.
It was super easy to use draw.io, and being able to share the documents we created with others, while working on a standard platform, meant moving that data into the game engine was a breeze.
When the stories had been written, and the flow charts designed, it was time to put them all into the game engine, which in our case was the utterly fantastic inklewriter.
I've used a couple of game creation tools for small projects of my own before, but few come close to inklewriter in terms of simplicity, especially in relation to the high quality of output that can be achieved.
Using the application is as straightforward as can be and requires zero programming experience to produce a game.
The editor caters for the enthusiastic amateur on every level. Creating a diverging path in a story is a case of adding a decision for the player to make, and then linking that decision to a piece of story.
Want to go in a new direction? Add a decision and write on from there. Want to join back on to another part of a tale? Just select the text you want to link back to. This stuff is the bread and butter of interactive fiction, and with inklewriter, it's easy as can be.
There are options to add images and logic to your stories, though B-SIDES admittedly doesn't use these features all that much. The documentation that comes with inklewriter is also just about the nicest documentation I've seen for this kind of software, with step-by-step instructions to do pretty much anything you'd want to.
The engine is also free to use, anything you make is yours to keep, and stories created can be shared on the web for your pals to try out.
Now, with simplicity for the enthusiast crowd comes inklewriter's one downside, and that's that it really isn't a tool to make a commercial product.
You can export games to play on web, which is what we decided to do. You can also export as an eBook to be published on Kindle.
In addition, it's possible to convert your work into a proper standalone app for the various app stores, like inkle's own Future Voices, but the process for converting inklewriter games into apps is currently a tad tricky.
At the moment the easiest workaround involves exporting the adventure as a web page by choosing to Save Page As in a browser, then taking the file that's created and editing the CSS manually, and chucking this through PhoneGap to make a standalone app. It's do-able, but not ideal, and since you can play our game on a mobile through a browser, and we weren't that interested in charging people for B-SIDES, we didn't think it worth attempting this for our experiment in game design.
Of course, inklewriter was never really designed for commercial use, so it's difficult to get too upset about this aspect. inklewriter isn't for people that want to make a bunch of money on gamebooks, it's for those that fancy giving the process a crack themselves, just to see if they can do it.
Overall I really enjoyed putting B-SIDES together, and found the whole process very revealing about the hard work that goes into making video games. It's easy to think of gamebooks as "easy" games to make, but they take careful planning, creative writing talent, and the dedication to see the project through to the end.
While I'm finishing up this article I just want to quickly thank Jen, Glen, Rob, Harry, and Matt for their contributions to the project, and Jon Ingold of inkle for answering a couple of questions of mine along the way.