How Four Developers Made Their Bestselling Puzzle Game Overboard! in Just 100 Days

Making a game as quick as possible, with no expectations, helped the team stave off pandemic boredom.

As the world went into lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic, a small British video game studio called Inkle felt lost. They were “miserable,” co-founder and narrative designer Jon Ingold tells Fanbyte. As they put the finishing touches on a Nintendo Switch port of their 2019 adventure game Heaven’s Vault, the four-person team wanted to switch gears and try something new — something they could enjoy and not take too seriously. And so, they thought, why not build a game as fast as possible with no expectations, and see what happens?

“We didn’t really mean to do it,” Ingold says. “We were toying with the idea of making something quickly, and it just sort of came up as an idea.”

The result was Overboard!, a murder mystery game built in only 100 days. Despite its short and improvised development, the well-received title quickly became Inkle’s best selling game yet. Set in the 1930s, the visual novel and puzzle game hybrid places you in the shoes of a young woman who kills her husband on a cruise ship. You lie and weasel your way out of sticky situations, hoping to avoid suspicion. You relive the day over and over, until you find ways to get off scot free with no loose ends. Depending who you speak to, how long you idle in different areas, and what items you pick up, each 10-20 minute run can end up wildly different from the last. 

Considering most polished video games — indie, AAA, or otherwise — normally go through years of production, this development cycle is extremely tight in comparison. While short development cycles often translate into overwhelming stress to meet high-pressure deadlines, that wasn’t the case for Overboard!, Ingold says. As a tiny indie studio, everyone manages their own schedules, and the project had no deadline or necessary scope. The team viewed this development race as a creative exercise, somewhat removed from the regular pressures of commercial game design.

“We didn’t have a fixed end date,” Ingold says. “We didn’t say it was gonna be 100 days for the project. We said it was gonna be two months, which it wasn’t — it was longer. In a sense, it’s the best run project we’ve ever done, because we didn’t do any tasks that we threw away at all. And we were careful to do tasks only once we knew that they were the right thing to do.

To make a game as quickly as possible, though, Inkle took shortcuts. In many ways, Overboard! is a “frankenstein” of everything they have ever built.

“It was kind of punk,” Ingold says. “We were stealing old code from old projects, and we were stealing ideas that we had toyed with before. For the art style, we started off just taking the graphic design from 80 Days and copying it, because that was the cheapest thing to do. All the audio was sourced from a public domain. We started writing it, and I had a complete script from beginning to end in three weeks.”

Some technology Inkle previously built was implemented into Overboard!. For example, Inkle developed a “knowledge tracking system” for Heaven’s Vault that allows the game to remember every translation the player tries, including incorrect attempts, during a language mini-game. In Overboard!, this system allows characters to remember which items have been discovered, what’s been said in conversations, and what actions have been completed. 

“It’s quite sophisticated in that it can track things like a character believing that you found something in a certain place at a certain time, when actually, you didn’t,” Ingold says.

The timing-based puzzle design, where characters follow their own schedules and the player must learn their whereabouts to build alibis or kill people off in an allotted time, was also born from an older concept. A prototype had been built years ago for an unreleased Treasure Island game Ingold designed that “never worked,” and so he recycled ideas from there.

Many of the newer ideas came right out of playtesting sessions. Playtests were new for the team — their older game, 80 Days, hadn’t been playtested at all, and Ingold still gets emails from confused players who don’t understand that to begin the game, you have to click text on the screen. This prior feedback guided how quality assurance would be implemented for Overboard!, so that the concept of the game and the story would be clear from the start.

“We were actually doing QA and playtesting all the time during the development of the game, and the QA fed the writing right down to the script level,” Ingold says.

Playtests were run by senior designer Tom Kail, who asked a few friends to play the game during video-conference calls on Discord. From there, Kail realized the game needed two things: A speed-up button for dialogue and a replay button that resets a scene so players can try new options. 

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At this point, the game was in its infancy, and playtesters accessed a raw version of the game through an application called Inky, a program developed in-house by Inkle that makes the game playable in a rudimentary, text adventure form. There was little to no interface and no art.

An example from the program Inky, which lets writers transform interactive scripts into a playable format.

Soon, Kail began hosting weekly Zoom meetings for fun, in which he and some friends drew assets for the game in their free time.

“Some of them were good, and some of them were really not that good,” Ingold jokes. “But that’s what we were sending out to early pre-alpha testers.”

Because Inkle wanted to do everything so quick, part of QA had to be automated. Humans identified some bugs, and computers did the rest. Ingold used a program he had built for Over the Alps, an adventure game by Stave Studios, which automatically runs the game repeatedly (as much as 600,000 times) and logs each crash. 

“We call [the program] a pad basher, because in the old days, developers would use a PlayStation controller and a stick made out of Lego, and it would bash the buttons on the controller,” Ingold says. “That’s what they actually had in their offices [for QA].”

For post-launch problems, players can report bugs with the click of a button inside the game itself, which helps the team stay on top of problems. But there’s also the possibility of players encountering issues that aren’t just technical. Puzzles had to be engaging, but not obtuse.

A hint system was implemented early on, but it started off just as a funny gag. In Overboard!, to receive hints, the player consults God at the chapel on the ship. Ingold isn’t even sure if people use the hint system much — he just loved the concept from a script perspective.

“From a writing point of view, it’s really nice because normally Veronica is in charge all the time,” Ingold says. “With all of the characters, she’s one step ahead of them. So it was really nice to have a character who was completely, utterly ahead of Veronica all the time.”

So much of the development of Overboard! was improvised that random things the developers happened to be doing at any given moment were implemented into the final game. Ingold happened to be listening to radio documentaries about Agatha Christie, which became a big inspiration. He was also watching Veronica Mars and was inspired by a darkly humorous episode about death and life insurance. All in all, the creators just wanted to have fun. They wanted to see what they were capable of not just in a short time, but also with limited resources. Just like how the protagonist murders with no plan, the developers at Inkle created a game with little forethought. And, against all odds, they pulled it off.

“It kept with the spirit of the project,” Ingold says. “I think there was an element that just felt right. The whole game is this desperate, ‘how quickly can we fix this problem that I haven’t thought about properly?’ And, [as developers we thought], ‘how can we make this game really quickly without it being a problem?’ That kind of form and content fit together really nicely.”