Tied Together in Ethereal Cooperative Puzzler, Rite of Ilk
Think back to some of your best gaming memories. Granted, lots of great games are experienced solo, but most of us can latch onto a time where having friends along for the ride made everything sweeter. The twin-stick glory of Smash TV, Atlas and Peabody’s fully-fledged campaign in Portal 2, and even split-screen multiplayer in Call of Duty: Black Ops are just a few favorites which rose to new heights with some good company.
Cooperation is what elevated these already brilliant games to be something more, creating collaborative, lasting experiences that forge friendships, spawn in-jokes, and cause uproarious arguments in equal measure. It’s this that Rite of Ilk – the debut title from Turtleneck Studios – hopes to tap into. A co-op puzzler in which two children journey out into an alien world, Rite of Ilk forces players to communicate and cooperate effectively by binding its characters together with rope – the central mechanic that most of the game’s puzzles is based around. Getting to this point hasn’t been easy, but Turtleneck Studios haven’t reached the end of their tether just yet.
“I’ve always been a creative person,” says Alanay Çekiç, co-founder and creative director at Turtleneck Studios. “Early on you draw — everyone draws — but you draw a bit more than the average person, and you soon roll into stuff like web design. Then I started getting interested in Photoshop after that – I was, like, 14.
“Soon I started getting interested in more interactive stuff like Adobe Flash. I also used a bit of editing software to try and get into that — and before you know it, more dynamic 3-D starts to appeal to you.”
After interning with a local developer in the Netherlands, Çekiç went on to study at the Utrecht School of the Arts (HKU), as well as working on Killzone: Shadow Fall and Horizon Zero Dawn with Guerrilla Games, before starting out on his own.
“After graduation we started Turtleneck Studios with a bunch of classmates,” Çekiç says. “We’d already tried it out in school, where you can do these projects where you get your own little office space and classroom to work in – we really wanted that. At first they said no, but we’re headstrong. We kept going, and eventually they said yes. We built a prototype called Bound, that became Rite of Ilk — our own little baby — and that’s how we were born.”
With more and more universities like the HKU offering game design courses, the Netherlands is quickly becoming a hotbed for indie development. Success in this market is not a foregone conclusion, however, and unproven developers can find it very difficult to establish themselves.
“I think [the Dutch indie scene] is very nice,” explains Çekiç, “but at the same time very punishing.”
“I think the biggest struggle that people don’t realize is that the financial aspect is killer. When you start a studio with no game to your name, graduates don’t get enough interest, friction, or a good enough deal simply because they don’t have enough titles to their name. Then you have to do part-time jobs or work-for-hire, and you can’t focus 100% on your own game. I know a lot of classmates of mine that also tried, but just died out.
“It’s very nice to have so many people aspiring to something, but that only goes so far — it’s very difficult to keep it standing. If someone can keep going for more than a year, I’ll applaud them. But if you can’t, at least you tried.”
The Turtleneck team felt that they could carve out a niche for themselves by adopting the then recently released Unreal Engine 4, and using their industry experience to create a game that was graphically eye-catching as well as mechanically satisfying.
“At an early phase of our development Unreal Engine 4 had just come out,” Çekiç says. “We’d already said before that we’re not going to use Unity, we need something else. Because we wanted to create something that becomes like a weapon for us. Something that makes us stand out. When Unreal Engine 4 came out, we were like, ‘The doorbell’s ringing, we’ve got to do this.’ We saw it as a sign to keep going.
“We also wanted to make our game very appealing. Of course we have really good concept artists that worked at Guerrilla Games, although for a short period. We wanted to use our talents to make things design-wise very nice and alive. I think because of that we got more friction, but it wasn’t easy either — it came after a year.”
To supplement Rite of Ilk’s visual design, Turtleneck are trying to enrich their game’s world with a layered backstory and involving narrative, and believe that, while co-op is the best way to play Rite of Ilk, they want as many people to jump in as possible.
“Rite of Ilk is a cooperative exploration game played by two people, potentially on a single screen,” explains Çekiç. “We’re considering, and that’s not something I can give too much info about, but we are considering more than just a local co-op mode.
“For example online, or single-player.
“Our game is very heavy on story, although that might not be as visible yet from the teaser. The protagonists are two children, a girl, Tarh and a boy, Mokh. They have to venture out into the world and make amends — a rite for their ilk. They do that by traveling through the world, where they’ll put themselves in danger. It’s a bit spoiler heavy, but basically, they’re making amends by going through a ritual.”
He continues, “We have a very involved journey, because we want to make sure the game revolves around these two kids and that they interact with one another. The way that they interact with the world will be vastly different. Mokh might be interested in a certain object or aspect of a creature he finds, while Tarh might not like that at all and not like his attitude towards it. We want their personalities to really stand out.
“We want the player to be able to dictate what their own role is. The gameplay abilities are the same, but the way they interact, the involvement, and the emotional journey are completely different. If you’re playing with someone who’s a better player, they’ll automatically take a more aggressive or fast-moving approach, but a slower approach is welcome as well. We didn’t want to hinder players.”
Turtleneck were keen to imbibe the same spirit of cooperation throughout all aspects of Rite of Ilk’s development, so while each member of the team has their own responsibilities, collaboration is common.
“We’re making a co-op game,” says Çekiç, “and that’s something that’s infiltrated our company culture. We always work in pairs to create better things, and it also affects how we work with iterative processes. We looked at some of the gameplay elements that we had in our prototype and thought about what sort of story would fit the vibe and feel we wanted. That was all together with everyone else.
“I did the story, so I grabbed the things people liked and went completely nuts. Then I had a draft version, which was pretty rough around the edges, so I gave it to literally everyone — even interns — to read and got a bunch of feedback.
“After that I decided to do a presentation to talk about things they might have missed, didn’t understand, or weren’t explained properly, which meant we could talk about those problems again.
“It’s been a back-and-forth process and everyone’s part of the story. I feel that really worked in our favor, because we have a very cool, creative story which truly fits our game.”
But as the creative side of Rite of Ilk progressed, the business realities of game development proved to be more difficult. Co-op puzzling doesn’t have a reputation as a blockbuster genre, and Turtleneck were initially reluctant to include anything other than local co-op, which made financial backing for their project hard to come by.
“We started with local co-op, because we still think that’s the best way to play our game,” Çekiç explains. “But as time went on, we started pitching our game to publishers — bigger companies, smaller companies, marketeers, business managers, whoever. The biggest feedback we got was, ‘I love this game, but why is it only local co-op?’ Every time we had to defend ourselves, and although we had strong reasoning, in terms of business and selling it, there’s just a bigger reach if you can play online, or in multiple ways.
“That doesn’t mean that we’re going to change our philosophy, because we still think that our game is a cooperative game — and that needs to be played by two people, that’s not going to change — but the way you play can be enhanced. That’s why we’re considering, prototyping, and play-testing a lot of things, while asking ourselves, ‘can we bring this philosophy to life in a different way?’ That’s something we’re still working with, and looking at the financial aspect to see how much longer it’ll take us to make. But we’re definitely going to do something on top of local co-op.”
“[Publishers] want a safer bet,” he goes on to say, “and they have reason to. You have to look at the numbers.
“You always think of your work as unique, but they look at it as just another game. They have to. They have to look at what sets your game apart, and what has sold in the past, even if they’re very different. If there’s another local co-op game out there, that’s the only comparison they have, even if it’s a party game or something else that has zero relevance to ours, other than it’s played together.
“It’s a bit shitty, but at the same time, if we can have more people play our game by adding a different mode, then we’re all for it. We want as many people to play our game as possible.”
That perseverance has paid off for Turtleneck — literally — when they received Epic Games’ Unreal Dev Grant.
“Right after we finished school, we had a prototype and sent it to Epic,” says Çekiç. “We didn’t hear for a while, then they got back to us and said, ‘We can’t do it, there’re some things missing.’
“Some time passed. We completely polished the game to be way better than back then. And then we went to GDC – in March . Everything looked so much better. We had the teaser trailer up and everything, and we met up with some people from Epic. We had a laptop with us and said, ‘Hey guys, if you’ve got some time, play our game.’
“They remembered our game from what we’d sent in earlier, and thought it looked way better this time, so we talked here and there, not just about our game, but about Unreal Engine — things we thought could be better, things we thought were awesome. Time passed, we sent [Rite of Ilk] in again, and heard back, ‘You’re progression is really cool. You’re good developers and we want to reward you for that.’”
While much of this time was spent fine-tuning Rite of Ilk’s core mechanics, world-building was also key, and the Turtleneck team took inspiration from real-world cultures to create their fantasy setting.
“We looked at a lot of African and South American tribes for the children themselves,” Çekiç says, “and in terms of architecture, we looked into a lot of both Eastern and Western cultures. We wanted to get that vibe when you look at Tibetan buildings from the 1800s. You see stone buildings which are marketplace-esque, and have a lot of colorful cloth and a very present and lived-in vibe. A lot of things are mixtures of that with our own twist.
“We wanted to make everything about the characters feel very tribal, but the world they explore is more medieval.
“It’s not just one big world with one design. You have richer people and poorer people with different types of housing; they’re bigger or smaller, or have different interiors, use different materials. We have a whole document which defines what kinds of materials are used in different parts of the world, so there’s a lot of back-end story there.”
Turtleneck want Rite of Ilk to be an exploratory experience, supplementing their core puzzles with branching paths and secrets, which they hope will make for a more rounded and replayable journey.
“You’re tied together by a rope,” says Çekiç, “so there’s always going to be an element where you have to work together. The rope itself is also a big part of the gameplay. There are puzzles that you do, but also when you’re exploring; if one character falls the other one hangs on, so there’s always little things, even in platforming, where you’ll need each other.
“You begin the game thinking the rope’s a limitation, but as you explore you start to figure out that you need it — and each other — to advance.”
“We have a lot of unique game mechanics,” he continues. “The only one shown in the teaser is with light poles that come out of the ground which you connect with the rope. But there’re a lot more creative things that you can do — things you can pull, swing from. You can pull the other player. Yuri, our designer, really thought outside of the box.
“Rite of Ilk isn’t as linear as something like Brothers [:A Tale of Two Sons], it has paths you can choose from. If you want to go from A to B, one path might be narrow, so you have the option to go to C, and you always have to choose which one you want to do. With an exploration game, it’s really important to pick your moment-to-moment.
“There’s a lot of world-building, and a lot of the characters are about how they react to the world. We don’t want it to be boring, but we want to give people the time to explore so they can figure things out about the world, about their character, and about where they’re going. But if you want to hurry it up and not explore as much, that’s a possibility because of the different routes.”
Designing Rite of Ilk to be played by two people presents its own gameplay challenges also — two minds working together can breeze through brain-teasers meant for one, but as the proverb says, too many cooks can spoil the broth.
“Puzzles are difficult,” Çekiç explains, “because we wanted to make sure that our game could be played by a child and their grandparent, or someone with their partner. There are always going to be differences in skill level. That’s a difficult challenge, so what we did with the multiple paths, for example, is that one is always simpler and more straight-forward than the other, then one gives you more to explore, or more rewards.
“When you’re making a single-player game, you’re trying to work out, ‘what is this person thinking?’ But with two people you have to consider as well how they’re going to communicate with each other, because you want them to. You want them to have discussions like, ‘no, we have to do this! No, we have to do that! You should do this.’ That’s what really drives our game and makes our game awesome — to have people discuss things. So you have to consider that additionally to how does one person think.
“It is difficult. We’ve seen in play-tests for example, when players are walking around, and to us it’s super obvious that you have to go straight, connect your rope to one thing, then you’re done. But with this, one player’s walking towards it, and the other guy’s like, ‘no! We have to go right!’ So instead of actually communicating and fixing it, they completely missed it and were stuck for five or ten minutes. We just totally wanted to scream. It’s frustrating, but at the same time you want it to go wrong there so you can fix it.”
Above all, Turtleneck Studios want Rite of Ilk to be given a chance, and are fighting to see it given one.
“Our game is a lot more intricate than people think,” says Çekiç. “The gameplay isn’t just walking around and finding stuff; it’s an exploration game, but there’s definitely tension and excitement throughout the game. We already have a lot of it ready. I can’t talk too much about it, but the boss battles are going to be sick.”