Following up on their deck-building, roguelite hit, Monster Train, developer Shiny Shoe set their sights on making another roguelite; this time with a focus on turn-based mechanics and the ability to play with friends. Inkbound became available via Steam Early Access this past May and already showed a lot of promise. This past week it received its first free major update, "The Starship of Terrors," that added a bunch of new features and improved a number of things based on community feedback. We spoke with founder and CEO Mark Cooke about this update, along with inspirations for Inkbound and the challenges of balancing classes for solo and co-op play.
Co-Optimus: Before we get into the nitty-gritty details of things, could you let our audience know a little bit about you and Inkbound?
Mark Cooke: Hi, my name is Mark Cooke, I’m the founder and CEO of Shiny Shoe, the creators of Inkbound and Monster Train. Before starting Shiny Shoe I worked at a few other game developers in the US and Japan, going all the way back to an internship at LucasArts in 1996.
Inkbound is a co-op roguelike that blends turn-based tactical combat with the dense, interesting decision making of roguelikes. When we started the project we aimed to take some of the successful design elements from Monster Train in a new direction, combining a new type of tactical gameplay with online co-op.
Co-Optimus: Something that struck me right away with Inkbound was its story and lore. You arrive right in the midst of a kind of crisis within the game and get introduced to all these characters with their own backstories that unfold more and more as you go on runs and complete quests. What was the genesis of all this? Was there anything from other media that helped to inspire it?
Mark: Although roguelikes are not typically known as story-focused games we’ve always had the ambition of trying to elevate our titles via engaging story and lore that fits in naturally with gameplay. Prime inspirations for the lore of Inkbound are Alice in Wonderland and The Pagemaster.
Co-Optimus: For each of the (currently) six aspects you can play in the game, did the idea/lore for an archetype come first with mechanics to fit after, or the other way around? Will you tie future aspects in with more world lore, or will there be some that are tossed in for fun or as a secret?
Mark: It has been a combination of both approaches. In our most recent update, The Starship of Terrors, we decided on the idea/lore first. We really wanted to expand the promise of Inkbound’s library setting, where books are portals to other worlds, by adding a book that felt totally different compared to the books we had available at the initial Early Access launch. For that reason, we went for a sci-fi theme, and then designed the mechanics for the Star Captain aspect from there.
Other times we’ve come up with mechanics first. For example, when we made the Weaver aspect we started with the idea of connecting threads to enemies as a gameplay mechanic, and then designed the lore/visuals of the aspect.
Co-Optimus: While the game is still in Early Access, it received its first big update recently in the form of "The Starship of Terrors." Alongside a new zone, new enemies, and a new playable aspect, what else was included in this update?
Mark: We added a few other major roguelike fan-favorite features and a variety of quality of life improvements. Two of the big new features are Daily Challenges and what we call the Victory Board. Our Daily Challenges mix up gameplay every day with different gameplay-shifting mutators and have competitive leaderboards with new scoring rules. Because we support between 1 and 4 players, there are actually four separate challenges each day for each party size, and each challenge has its own separate leaderboard to compare performance fairly across party sizes.
The Victory Board feature is essentially a large checklist of objectives, ranging from simple to very challenging to complete. Completion of Victory Board objectives leads to unlocking a variety of cosmetics you can equip on your character. We plan to update the available challenges periodically to keep refreshing the game with new fun things to do.
Finally, on the quality of life side, we added two major features. First, online co-op runs can now be saved and restored. All players can quit the run then come back and resume it later; previously we only supported this for solo runs. This is great if you are playing with a friend/family group and have some interruption, like going out to dinner, and want to come home and finish the run after. Second, for solo players, we added the ability to play offline with some feature restrictions. This is useful for times when you don’t have a stable internet connection.
There’s even more packed into this massive update, I encourage folks who are interested in the full list to check out our huge blog post that covers all the changes.
Co-Optimus: What's been your favorite new feature that's been added? Is there anything you all wanted to add to the game for this update but just couldn't?
Mark: For me it’s Daily Challenges - I like having fresh, unique challenges that refresh every day with competitive leaderboards. It keeps me coming back and focusing hard on trying to play optimally to get a high score.
Co-Optimus: Shifting to the co-op side of things, the new Star Captain aspect feels more co- op focused in some of its abilities compared to the other aspects, but still plays extremely well solo. How do you approach balancing all of the different aspects when you have to manage solo vs co-op runs? Are there certain abilities from other aspects you're considering tuning at some point to try and shift them in a more co-op direction, or does the new Trinket Cabinet help with some of that?
Mark: A: It is challenging to balance the game for both solo and co-op play, I’m not going to lie. It’s something we are still iterating on to figure out how to best handle it. We want to add fun co-op focused abilities to encourage multiplayer theory-crafting but those abilities can end up feeling underpowered in solo play. In addition to using our own intuition along with internal and external playtesting, we also look at anonymous gameplay analytics segmented by party size to help guide balance decisions.
The Trinket Cabinet is a new feature in The Starship of Terrors which allows the player to unlock and equip Trinkets, passive benefits that persist across the entire run. Each Trinket is designed to benefit a specific playstyle and yes, some of the new Trinkets are co-op focused. It’s a way for us to offer some optional co-op specific power for players who want to focus on collaboration.
Co-Optimus: Aside from Inkbound, what's been your favorite co-op game to play so far this year?
Mark: As a father with young children I don’t get as much gaming time as I would like these days, and I have a huge backlog I’m trying to catch up on. A lot of my gaming time is spent with my kids. One of our favorite games we’ve played together co-op this year is A Hat in Time. That game is about 6 years old now, but it was new to us in 2023!
Our thanks to Mark and the whole team at Shiny Shoe for taking the time to speak with us. Inkbound is available now via Steam Early Access and supports four player online co-op. It is on sale for 20% off until September 4. You can check out our impressions of the game and "The Starship of Terrors" update here.