Arryn Flynn is enamored with the idea of a sense of place. His Improbable studio in Edmonton, Inflexion, attests that it’s devoted to “creating places,” and by extension communities and spaces that feel meaningful to those who inhabit them. It’s a goal that carries some significant weight coming from a studio staffed and led by the creators of Mass Effect’s Normandy and Dragon Age’s Skyhold.
Flynn says it was this desire that served as the ultimate seed for Nightingale: Inflexion’s upcoming survival crafting game set in a Victorian fantasy world.
“[There’s] this notion that a place is something that has human meaning in it, it’s a construct for us mentally and physically, that we invest ourselves in, we put ourselves out there to be socially connected to other people,” CEO Aaryn Flynn tells IGN. “And taking something as high level and almost abstract as that, and saying, ‘How could we build places as game developers? What could we do there?'”
Initially conceived as an online game where huge numbers of players could come together in the same space, Flynn says that over time it became apparent that this was not the right path. The team was able to overcome the technical challenges with the support of its parent, Improbable, but an MMO-scale game with the goals Inflexion had for Nightingale wasn’t as enjoyable as it could be. So they scaled it back to a more intimate, cooperative experience to be played with friends.
“We have some friends on the New World team for Amazon,” Flynn says. “And they very much went the opposite way, right? The story that gets told there, I’ve at least heard it, is they started off as a tight, survival-inspired game. And then they brought in the Amazon technology to make it an MMO. And credit to them, I enjoyed New World a lot.
“We went the opposite way. We had aspirations to build that huge MMO-style game, and then realized that’s not what our team is truly passionate about.”
Nightingale has been in development for three years now, and Flynn says during that time it evolved organically into the survival and crafting genre as a natural result of wanting to make a shared world space that players could impact, while being impacted by the world. It takes place in the “Fae Realms,” strange magical worlds previously connected by portals that have suddenly collapsed, leaving the player stranded. As they try to find their way home to the human bastion of Nightingale, they’ll have interactions with magical wildlife, build bases, craft new tools and gear, solve puzzles, and work together with friends to survive in the unfamiliar environment.
In some ways, it’s a bit of departure from the story-heavy games that the BioWare folks on the team are used to creating, but in other ways it’s just an avenue for a new type of storytelling. Flynn acknowledges that Nightingale won’t quite have the “narrative spine” of a Baldur’s Gate or a Mass Effect game, but will instead focus much more than other games in the survival genre on world-building. He wants players to feel like they are citizens of the world, in a universe that already has a story for players to uncover if they so choose.
“We think we can take a lot of lessons learned from Mass Effect and Dragon Age, and even Anthem, and say, ‘How can we build a world that has survival crafting gameplay in it, but still provides that tremendous umbrella of lore and rich conceits, that make it just a compelling place to be in that space?'” Flynn says.
Another element that Nightingale is borrowing from its BioWare roots is the notion of player choice. Flynn says player choice is a critical component of Nightingale, and Inflexion is learning lessons from BioWare’s games. It wants to ensure that Nightingale isn’t full of “false choices”, or different choices that just ultimately lead to the same conclusion for all players.
“I think one thing that great RPGs, and these survival sandbox games should have in common is this notion of autonomy. That players feel like [they] get to do what [they] want in this world. And we can only offer so much; there are always going to be invisible walls and things like that. But the more we can, as developers, offer autonomy and real meaningful chances to impact and change the world of the game, and see those choices reflected back in compelling ways, the better a job we’ve done.”
One way that’s manifesting, he continues, is in the size and depth of the world of Nightingale. Though he can’t commit to sharing a specific physical size for the world of Nightingale, he notes that it needs to be “pretty big” in order for players to see the choices they’re making reflected in it properly, both in geographic size and content depth. Flynn tells me that Inflexion will continue to support Nightingale post-launch, hearkening back to the DLC content of the BioWare days but now with the technology to update more quickly and consistently as a live service game of sorts. He adds that Inflexion is open to feedback from players on potentially adding elements such as PvP or more story-heavy elements down the line.
As Flynn and I speak, I point out to him that much of what he describes Nightingale to me strikes me as a very optimistic piece of work, from the cooperative and trusting focus of its online play to its colorful, magical world. He agrees, noting that while Nightingale is a survival game, it’s not intended for players to constantly be on the edge – they’re meant to feel free to explore and adventure and build, too. Part of why Nightingale won’t have PvP at launch is so players aren’t constantly looking over their shoulders.
“I talked to a friend at another studio, and he said that all the games they build are ultimately based on hope…That really resonated with me,” Flynn says. “I think there’s just so much to be said in today’s day and age, about wanting hope in all of our things…We want players to overcome challenges, we want to give them reasons to have gameplay, to puzzle through things. But yeah, to be optimistic about things. You’re going to get back to Nightingale. Just stay true to yourself, keep working at it, keep thinking about it, and keep working with others, and you’ll get there.”
Flynn goes further to tell me that the optimism is reflected in the studio culture he wants to cultivate as well at Inflexion. He believes that the games industry is currently at an inflection point (hence the studio name) and is actively becoming more positive, progressive, diverse and more open for all people. While he doesn’t want to diminish existing problems, he does want Inflexion to actively participate in making the industry a better place.
Some ways he says he’s trying to do that internally include implementing more diverse hiring practices (something he admits Inflexion has room to improve on and is actively working toward), as well as an “eight great hours” policy to push back against crunch. He says that if someone feels crunch is necessary, it’s on the studio to step in and get its people what they need in the way of technology, fixing communication barriers, or other support to ensure it doesn’t happen. “We don’t mandate it, we don’t plan for it, we don’t do that.”
At the end of all this optimism is for Inflexion to become a studio where people want to work, making a game — or rather a place, a world of Nightingale — where players want to be. Flynn says it’s no more complex than that.
“A former colleague of mine, Michael Laidlaw, who was the creative director on Dragon Age: Inquisition had a great phrase he used to use that always resonated with me,” Flynn concludes. “When it came to things like marketing the games and stuff, he used to say, ‘I just wish we’d have a marketing campaign that was, “Here’s our game. I hope you like it.”‘ And that’s really what it comes down to.
“We can put our game out there, we can hear from our players, both the good and the bad of what they like and don’t like about our game. I think we’d all love a chance to improve what they don’t like, and do more of what they do like, but that’s the rhythm of it. And just so long as there’s a community of players who are digging it, and saying, ‘Hey, this is really enjoyable. Thanks so much for making this,’ that’s all we want.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.