It’s now six months from Sky: Children of the Light’s formal launch on iOS, and with five million players having played the title to date, alongside an Android version due very shortly and console releases planned, that’s just the beginning of Sky’s reach. So we sit down with co-founder and creative director Jenova Chen in a London hotel to talk about the game’s impact to date and where it’s headed.
The title took an incredible seven years to come to fruition. That’s a development cycle more in line with a troubled triple-A console title than an indie game or mobile title, of which Sky is undoubtedly both in some respects. The reason it took so long was that the studio shifted tack following a warning from Apple itself some three years into the game’s development. “We spent the first three years making an emotional storytelling game, kind of like Journey. But then Apple comes and tells us that people stopped buying games on the app store completely, saying ‘you’re not going to make your money back. Please change your game to free to play, that’s where people are spending money’ This is why the game took seven years.”
PENNIES FROM HEAVEN
If you know thatgamecompany’s work – beautiful, emotionally-impactful, pared-down experiences in sumptuous yet minimal worlds – then it’s hard to see how it could possibly integrate free-to-play monetisation. But Chen was undaunted. “I spent the first year studying every successful free-to-play game. I’m a game designer, I design games to create feelings. And every monetisation system is itself an interactive gameplay system. And they’re designed to give you a feeling when you spend money. If your goal is to make money out of people, you will go for their weakness, their fundamental desires. I sometimes think that with many PvP games, the game developer is essentially playing the role of arms dealer. And I’m thinking is that really what I want to do to make games? I was trying to create something that could make more people respect games.”
He namechecks Toy Story for lifting computer-generated imagery out of being a mere technical demo and into an emotionally-impacting storytelling medium. “I had to find a monetisation [strategy] that would live up to the heart of a Pixar movie. We had to reinvent monetisation, so that it does not ruin the emotional experience. In the game, we’re trying to evoke positive behaviour, to show players’ humanity towards each other in this world. So when it comes to monetising we want people to feel positive towards the spending… I create emotional experiences. I didn’t really expect to jump into services. In order to keep the business going, we’re now an emotional service!”
In practice, Sky’s monetisation comes primarily through a season pass, which gives access to additional activities, though the free-to-play title is generous in its content even without it. In addition, its key in-game currencies of candles and hearts are encouraged to be gifted from player to player. The $10 season pass is trumped in value by a $15 pass for three players: the game is literally half-price if you have others to play it with. Chen wants those others to be your closest friends and family, gamers or not.
SPREADING YOUR WINGS
Mobile games reaching a demographically broader audience than console titles is nothing new, but there remain a limited number of successful titles that have equal reach across both gender and age divides. Sky is a fully-formed 3D world with exploration-centric, MMO-lite gameplay and a constantly expanding set of activities for players to undertake. It’s not typical match-three mobile fare, and it comes from a developer used to creating titles for a console-owning audience. But Chen was dead set on reaching as many people as possible with thatgamecompany’s first mobile title.
“I have yet to see an emotional game that was able to engage both children and adults, men and women… so that it’s cross generation. That’s what I have been trying to build. And I wanted to build it on a platform that they could actually access in order to play together,” Chen tells us. “That’s why we we made it on iPhone first. But our game runs on iPad, on PC, it will run on console in the future. Android [should come] within a month. In the future, it’s going to cross all platforms. And whether you have PlayStation or Switch we will support crossplay. It’s difficult to say what this game is. Ultimately, I built it for gamers who want to show their friends a game that they can play together. I hope that Sky will be their choice.”
And Chen is full of stories about the broad range of players who enjoy Sky. From an old lady who played the game with friends who helped her navigate the world, to a man who spent much of his final months helping others in the game before succumbing to cancer, to a pair of sisters, part of a feedback group, who said who they played the game together, in their own beds, for an hour every night before going to sleep.
A WHITER SHADE OF PALE
Thatgamecompany’s previous titles all have something very meditative about them. They are beautiful games, which touch upon the sublime, in which you can easily lose yourself and get away from reality. And that even goes for Journey with its intentionally minimalist cooperative multiplayer. Expanding that title’s sense of working together into something far more complex was always going to be Sky’s main challenge. To create a multiplayer world that celebrates togetherness and understanding, rather than competition and conflict.
“So many games, such as battle royale titles, don’t necessarily take interactions from society, they instead capture a different reality, a reality where only one person can survive. That starts to push the people in this virtual space to behave a certain way. And then you evoke survival instincts, those dark instincts that all of us have. My interest is in creating a virtual space, through the design of the world, where we evoke the part of humanity that we’re proud of. Where we can be genuine, can be vulnerable, can connect, can trust each other. Can I create a virtual space that evokes that?”
“It’s almost too easy for video games to go to the dark place. Because we’ve done so many games on that side.” And even games where players are working together can often fail to generate the most desirable outcomes. “Part of the reason I created the world of Sky, which is an extension of Journey, is that I played a lot of MMO games when I was younger. I was really there looking for relationships because I was lonely. But it’s difficult for me to form [those] in a classic MMO game where all people focus on is waiting for the raid to start, or telling me to do my job in the team, or arguing over the loot afterwards. And then everyone is gone.”
While some obviously built strong bonds in such games. It’s often true that the social elements around such games often happen before and after the core gameplay experience, in forums or over team chat, rather than in the game world itself. “When I created Journey, I wanted to create a social game where people won’t be judged based on their skin, labels and age. And so when we extended it into an MMO space with Sky, we wanted to bring the whole family. The family identity is super crucial for me. I want a space where even parents would appear to be children. And I think the reason we picked the children is because it doesn’t come with sexuality. You’re not judged by way of gender. And everyone is a child at heart.”
Characters can interact in many different ways, with further actions unlocked as two characters spend more time together. They can take each other’s hands to guide them through the world, whether running or flying, they can gesture to each other, and even piggyback on each other. Bond enough and you can eventually open up in-game chat. “It’s basically if you’re at that level, you’re then willing to allow another person’s reality into your reality. You have to do a lot of investment into the relationship first.”
There are lots of cosmetic items to earn from activities in order to differentiate characters, but Chen has avoided creating a monetised arms race for rare items. “Very quickly, we realised that players gathered towards the rarest combinations, so it’s still difficult to tell which one is your friend! To that point, we needed names. But we still don’t want to bring reality into the game. That’s why we ask you to choose the names of those you meet.”
One thing that’s recognisable from previous titles is thatgamecompany’s visual stylings. Sky looks divine, quite literally, as your cherubic character flies through a world comprised largely of clouds. “I’m very drawn towards the sublime when it comes to personal style – I’m not HR Giger, looking for the darkness! Whether it was Flow, Flower or Journey the aesthetics tend to be more on the romantic side,” Chen tells us. “I like to capture the beauty of truth, use abstractions to catch something that is usually hidden in the noise,” which gives Sky a visually clean style which hasn’t aged at all despite the title’s many years in development. It’s quite unlike anything else that we’ve seen, with the very obvious exception of the studio’s own titles, of course.
“We want our game to be timeless in a way. I’m looking back at Flower which is 10 years ago and it’s still a beautiful game. We don’t want them to be just following a trend.”
Chen tells us how he sits between eastern and western traditions, culturally speaking: “I grew up in Asia, I was fed up, growing up with Japanese manga and American Hollywood movies. And then I come to America. I realise cool American kids don’t watch those movies, they watch David Lynch, the cool stuff that I didn’t know. Then I spent most of my graduate school trying to watch all the things that I didn’t see. So I had a sense of both what western people like and a sense of what eastern people like.”
“And so, as we create visuals, I wanted to have something that nobody had seen, but yet still feels familiar. And so the majority of the architecture from Journey had Middle Eastern influences. Because that still felt exotic. For Sky most of the architecture we took was from Burma, Bhutan and Tibet, which is exotic to Chinese and Japanese people.” He notes that it engenders a sense of high spaces, of altitude. “We want to bring something fresh in terms of aesthetics. The game is also fresh in terms of technology, we render our clouds in a way nobody else does.”
Rather than using, say, Unity, the game is built on the studio’s own engine technology, created during its early days working largely on Playstation hardware. Visually it looks to have paid off, though the lengthy development time, and with the Android version still to come with the varied hardware support that entails, the choice may well have had its cost.
Whatever the reasons behind Sky’s epic development time, it certainly had an impact on the team, many of whom moved on before the seeing the project to launch. “Many of the developers could not sustain it, so after around five years, we had to change quite a lot of the staff,” Chen admits. “We are a very international studio. We have people from Israel, the UK, the Netherlands, Mexico, Ecuador, Japan, Korea… So when we create things we want to be global, we want to be respecting every culture, even religions – we don’t want to accidentally make this into a religious game.”
For most developers the idea of accidentally making a religious game would be unlikely (as opposed to one that simply offends on a religious level), but there’s a deep sense of spirituality that runs through thatgamecompany’s work, so it has to be more careful than most that it doesn’t step on any real-world toes. Instead Chen hopes that the game can bring people together, bridging language barriers, gender, age and even political divides: “Since we launched in July, we’ve actually seen a lot of Korean and Japanese players form relationships playing the game – while at the same time, in the real world [the countries] are actually in conflict. That was an eye opening experience. The [real] world at large is a system that induces certain behaviours in people, but every virtual world is a society as well and through how you design that world, you can make people treat each other in a different manner.”
And if those behaviours can be channeled to support our best selves then that’s among the loftiest ambitions we’ve heard from a game designer – and one that Sky looks to be backing up within its playing community. It’s something Chen hopes will motivate other designers: “I want more people to focus on making games for a broader audience with an emotional intensity that can touch people.”
And Chen himself isn’t sitting back to enjoy his latest success: “We have pre-production for a new game but Sky is a live game and we have at least a couple years of content planned for it… we have plenty of cool ideas that we didn’t have time to add to the game.”