The British are the masters of the lawn, really. According to a recent article in The Guardian, British lawn experts are headhunted around the world to provide the very silkiest of surfaces for sports such as football, golf and tennis. Surfaces that thanks to the latest techniques and technology have fundamentally changed the sport played upon them. After all, you try playing Guardiola-style passing on your local rec ground and you’ll see pretty poor results, skill notwithstanding.
And speaking of the development of games, that’s another thing the British do rather well too, creating a smooth and calming surface for their own creative efforts or for their clients. So it all makes sense that a traditionally work-for-hire studio, Skyhook Games, is today launching its first standalone title, Lawn Mowing Simulator, published by Curve Digital.
The studio is best known to date for its collaborations with Dovetail Games on Train Simulator content, so it has some serious nous when it comes to simulating things. But it’s also worked across many more titles in its seven year history. We talked to Skyhook’s MD David Harper on its big launch day about its approach to smoothing the way forward with a two-pronged strategy.
A lawn mowing simulator could only come from the UK, the home of the greatest lawns, what do you think is the appeal of (virtual) lawn management?
I think it’s a bit of escapism and a sense of Zen, this has certainly been the feedback we’ve received. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a garden or a lawn, let alone one big enough to ride a mower over. So we provide a UK setting for players to experience that.
When we released the demo, we had a lot of comments from players saying how much they liked the serenity of the game and we also had players telling us that it helped them through personal struggles during lockdown. Which was incredible to think something we had created could help people in that way.
There’s a lot to learn in the game from mastering controls to completing tasks, so it provides a sense of achievement and it also appeals to people’s innate sense of liking to see something tidied up, leaving something in a better state than how they found it.
How is development processing, how long have you been working on the title, how has it changed since you conceived it, do you own a ride-on mower yourself?
We started full development in January 2020, following producing demos, play tests and pitching to publishers for maybe a year before that. Currently we’re in final tests and polish phase now heading for release later this summer on PC and Xbox Series S/X.
The game is very similar to how we originally imagined it to be honest, with one big change being how we handle time within contracts. We originally counted time down in contracts and failed you if you didn’t complete the level in the allotted time. This meant the game felt more stressful than we were happy with, so we changed it to score the player on how long they took instead, however long that was.
I don’t have enough grass in my garden to need a ride-on mower, but we were lucky enough to have driving test days with all the manufacturers in the game. Getting hands on experience and training form the manufacturers was amazing to really understand the vehicles and to record the audio first-hand too to make sure the mowers sound authentic.
You’ve worked on diverse projects from authentic trains to fantastical fighting cars, safe to say Skyhook hasn’t got a particular niche?
The skyhook team is formed of people who have worked on a wide range of games and styles in their careers, many having been in the industry for 25+ years. We have certainly worked on a lot of vehicle projects and love them, but the experience in the team means we are also equally happy tackling props, environments and characters in whatever style comes through the door.
On the service side we have formed great relationships with the clients we provide work for with a lot of repeat business. We have been lucky enough to work with one client since we formed back in 2014, and hope to continue so for many years to come.
We aim to be an extension to a clients’ teams, not just a company to fire assets to, and treat every project as though it was one of our own. I think that it is this attitude that keeps bringing people back for repeat business, whatever the project.
With your own IP and co-dev work, how do you practically balance the two sides of the business?
It’s part of the fabric of our business, both sides are equal and if you approach with that mindset, then balancing becomes part of our scheduling, which as you know is a big part of development. So, there is very little difference to be honest. We treat all work with the same attitude. The work is scoped out, planned and worked through in stages against a production timeline. The only one possible exception is that being a service company, some clients come to us when they want something yesterday, so we have to react very quickly – but we love a challenge though.
As we scaled up and took on more work for hire, it became important to bring in a dedicated production team to ensure that we continued to hit deadlines and keep our clients experience as smooth as possible.
We strive to offer a +1 service and go above and beyond the expectations of the client. We like to be seen as an extension of the client’s team and treat all work with the same respect we would show our own, offering different ways to tackle the work more efficiently were possible.
Why did you set out on this dual business model? Would you stop the service provision side if your game makes it big?
When we started Skyhook we made the conscious decision to give service work and IP creation equal footing and split our time between both activities. Some weeks would be mainly work for hire, others working on our own content. What also worked for us was using additional contractors to work on our IPs while we did the service work. Tradespeople have been doing it for years. They rarely work on their own houses, but pay another builder, plumber, etc to do it while they themselves are doing a job somewhere else. So long as you are paying the other person less than you are earning you are winning..! When Skyhook was only 2 people, myself and my business partner Jon Greenwell we would often use some of the money we were earning from paid jobs to employ contractors to work at the same time on our projects.
It was our intention from day one to create our own IP alongside the service side of the studio. Having been in the industry for around 20 years at that point we were very aware of the financial requirements that come with running a studio and we wanted to make sure we could build something as robust as possible as in my experience people really thrive when they don’t have to worry about that part of their work.
So stability in order to encourage creativity was a key driver for us. We have no plans to ever stop the service side of the business, it’s great fun, great experience and most importantly we get to work with some of the most incredibly talented teams and studios out there. We get so much out of working with the likes of Dovetail Games and I’m not talking about financially, but actually the meeting of minds and the creative hub we form around their needs. I like to think it’s a mutually beneficial relationship which we see growing from strength to strength.
So much outsourcing is done overseas now (although co-dev work seems somewhat resilient to that) does that concern you?
Skyhook was originally founded to try to stem the tide of outsourcing work going overseas. We could see that there were talented freelance artists in the UK looking for work, companies looking for work to be done, so we stepped in to try to marry the two together. As time has progressed, we now also have a database of the best freelance talent from around the world to draw on across many disciplines.
The original reason companies were sending work overseas was purely from a cost perspective to tap into lower cost labour markets. More recently however it is often more about scalability and finding large enough teams to tackle the head counts AAA demands. We are not set up to compete with the overseas teams providing this kind of resource, so we don’t try.
What we have found that there is a market for European companies wanting an experienced team in their time zone who they can easily communicate with to get their project done. That’s where we fit in.
We are currently in a buoyant market for work with the newest gen consoles, VR and mobile all demanding content. There are service providers equipped to step in at different levels across this, so we have not been hit too much from overseas competitors.
The biggest worry really is the skills shortage in this county. The reason many of the overseas countries can compete on scale is that they are investing in the training of students coming through the system. While there are many games courses in the UK now producing students looking to get into the games industry, many are ill equipped to do so. We need a fundamental change in how games are perceived in this country and the infrastructure putting in place to bring highly employable graduates into the workplace. Until then, it will be very difficult for the UK to compete with the large overseas service providers on scale.
You said: “We want our first game to be a critical success first, commercial success second – it’s important we are creating great games” Why do you feel that way?
The original business plan is still very much in place after 7 years. We continue to enjoy both the service and IP sides of the business and have growth plans for both. Being regarded as a studio that produces high quality games and content is the most important measurement for long-term success. We have a pragmatic approach to the commercial side of the business which we feel helps us to safeguard our future to some degree. We want to put Skyhook on the map for quality and how we work, so that is our primary focus.