Sky: Children of the Light Q&A

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Jul 7, 2019
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Welcome to Sky, a social adventure experience that hopes to bring families and loved ones together. Sky is created by the award-winning studio thatgamecompany, best known for Journey, Flower and flOw.



Q&A with Senior Game Designer, Chris Bell

As part of our behind-the-scenes preview, we have begun hosting a Fan Q&A series with some of our team members behind Sky: Light Awaits. This month, we catch up with Senior Game Designer, Chris Bell, to answer a handful of your questions.

1) Which games have been the most influential on you and the design of Sky?
Chris: Ideas for Sky come from many places. Generally we don’t start by thinking about what other games have done, but instead work backwards from a specific feeling we’re trying to get our players to have — thinking of the many experiences and scenarios that could produce that feeling and prototyping the ones that excite us most.

That said, other games come up in these conversations all the time during development. We’ve referenced ‘The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’ for its landmarking, emergence, and character. ‘Ico’ and ‘Shadow of thocieties functioned before the emergence of the Dark Corruption, and how they’ve been affected by it since.e Colossus’ for their emotional mechanics and evocative world building. ‘The Witness’ for its clarity of environmental design and its natural and nonverbal communication of important information. MMOs like ‘World of Warcraft’ or ‘Destiny’. Our own previous work like ‘Journey’ or ‘Flower’. ‘Animal Crossing’ and other successful casual games.

We also pay a lot of attention to theme park design (particularly Disneyland) and real-world folk games and activities like tag, hide-and-seek, and drum circles, or playful social apps and toys like Dinahmoe’s ‘Plink’ (a collaborative online music-maker).

2) Did you have any difficulties designing the sceneries in Sky? Did you have any ideas that didn’t make the final cut?
Chris: The game is continually evolving, with parts being cut, changed, and resurrected all of the time. As such, our hard drives are filled with all sorts of levels, ideas, and mechanics that do not exist in the current game.

As we build, the game grows in style and personality, and a story begins to emerge. With this new clarity, sometimes it’s worth returning to these old ideas to see if they make sense now that more of the game is understood, or when the story changes. For example, the game’s world structure has changed many times throughout development. While early versions of the game were built in a more linear structure like ‘Journey’, the latest version is much more open-world, with the “Aviary” serving as the central hub connecting the multiple regions and landmarks.

3) With the Aviary being the social heart of Sky, how did you decide on the design and parameters to create an immersive social interaction space for players.

Chris: As you mentioned, the “Aviary” is meant to be the central meeting and departure place for players — a perch high above the clouds for players to gaze into the broader world together, deciding where they’ll go next. Players should be able to trust that whenever they return to the “Aviary”, they’ll run into other players there whom they can trade stories, exchange gifts, and go on adventures with.

With a central view into the broader world, the “Aviary” is our best place to showcase to players that Sky alive. Expect to be able to look out into the horizon to witness when a special phenomenon is happening in your favorite region, or to look to the skies above the Aviary for a nightly fireworks ritual.

All said, the “Aviary” continues to evolve. We have many ideas for how to make the “Aviary” come alive, and we’re excited to create more opportunities for players to socialize and play in its ruins.

4) Will there be any more NPCs?
Chris: Absolutely. Building your connection and relationships with the spirits and players of Sky is at the center of what Sky is about. As the world of Sky continues to expand, so too will the number of spirits that dwell in its various lands. The spirits are our best way of communicating to the player what life in Sky was like for the characters that lived here.
Aiding and building relationships with these spirits can grant you a window into their lives and potentially lead to various opportunities take part in their culture, partaking in their various rituals and games.

5) While following the adventures of our Descendants there’s obviously a history behind each level of the game. As hinted by the cutscenes and spirits of the emotes. Is there a lore in the game? And will we be expecting a journey after Eden? Since there are more shrine for stages found at home that are still inactive.

Chris: While we don’t want to give too much away, I can say that each region of Sky features a distinct view into a particular Sky society’s culture, leisure, industry, and way of life. Each region hides stories about how these s
Looking long-term, our goal is for each region to feature distinct activities that you can partake in — games and rituals unique to that region of the world. Likewise, each region should have its own problems with the corruption that will need addressing in ways unique to each region.

Going forward, we’ll continue to expand the regions of Sky so you can experience more of the spirits’ stories, rituals, and culture together.

Q&A with VP of Production, Eric Koch

What are some of the qualities and skills that TGC look at most when choosing game developers?
Eric: Passion for what they want to do in their careers is paramount to everything else. Almost every applicant has impressive skills but we have to see some fire inside them that is driving them to create something that has never been done before. I think the second most important aspect and probably the one that has meant we passed on the most candidates, is “taste”. Everyone has their own taste but does that taste fit into our world in a way that the individual can flourish while adding to the overall artistic direction of the experience we are trying to create?

How has your role changed over the course of your career?
Eric: I started out as a QA tester, so yes, I’ve seen many angles of the game creation process. I have been a producer for both publishers and developers as well as a game designer on everything from Game Boy Advance to AAA console. Now that I’m running a studio it’s like all the skills I’ve learned over the course of the past 20+ years have culminated into this position. Like I was made to do this job. I’m very blessed!

What do you look for when hiring a concept artist? Portfolio content/quality, experience, personality, etc?? What is most important and what would prompt you to hire one applicant over another?

Eric: This is really a question for Yui and Jenova but what I hear them talk about is “vision” and “taste”. “Taste” we’ve already covered but what they mean by “vision” is, can the candidate create an image that tells an entire story? This is usually represented in the portfolio of work that they share with us in the meeting, we can usually and very quickly grasp their sensibilities based on their past work. Since we work extremely hard to do storytelling without Voice Over and very little text, it’s important that all the art that goes into the game has a meaning and that meaning is easily conveyed to the player. This is something TGC is known for and it’s a painstaking process to get it right. So the person has to have a strong vision of what kind of story and emotional state they are trying to convey with every piece of work they create.

How does a TGC designer differ from other studios? What skills are important to this role at the studio?

Eric: To start, a TGC designer is typically more technically-skilled than the average level designer. They have to R&D (research and design) lots of different mechanics, so having coding skills is critical. They have to work with a variety of systems (from backend technology to gameplay) and know how to work with artists and animators to implement their work as well. I’d also say that a TGC designer is very in touch with the emotional impact of what they are creating. I would never say that designers from other studio’s aren’t connected to their audience in this way, but it is an essential skill here at TGC.

For someone who has no coding experience but is knowledgeable about how computers and hardware work, how would someone kickstart their career in game development without going to school?

Eric: Learn UNITY. It is the best way for creative people who aren’t engineers to get their ideas prototyped which is the first step in getting your game made (especially if you want other to help or require funding). Check out this book as an example to get started, and good luck!

Q&A with Community Developer, Robert Hornbek

Q: Which games inspired you to start making games?
Robert: The first video game we owned while growing up was “Sonic the Hedgehog” for SEGA Genesis. This game and its sequels — 2, 3, and “Sonic & Knuckles” — are arguably some of the most influential games on my life and career. Since then I have played countless games that remind me of the power that they have to tell stories, convey emotion, and challenge your mind in unique ways.

Around 2010 I was introduced to modern board games by a coworker, and while up until that point I had only known the likes of Monopoly and Battleship, this opened a whole other world of games for me. Today board games have become a huge part of my life, in how I connect with friends, and has become another avenue for inspiration.

Q: Is there a pathway from doing what I’m doing - *celebrating* the art - to, one day, joining a team (thatgamecompany - it’s my dream) and helping *create* said art?

Robert: There are two things I impart on everyone I meet who is interested in entering the video game industry; whether it is at thatgamecompany or otherwise.

The first thing is that there is no single path to anywhere, and often trying to follow in the footsteps of others can make matters more challenging for you. That said, while you continue to learn from others’ experiences, you should be forging your own path of success, and know it might not play out the same way for you as it has for others.
The second thing is to never stop doing what you love doing. If that is designing levels, programming systems, or creating art, keep doing it in your free time. This comes from the fact that you will start in your dream job, or anything near it. So as long as you are continuing to hone your skills, and build a portfolio of applicable work, you will have more proof of your abilities.

As for getting into thatgamecompany, or other art driven companies, I suggest you focus on learning how to develop and communicate the abstract ideas art suggests, into tangible and actionable goals. Considering this is a collaborative — team oriented — industry, communication is a pillar of success.

Lastly, always be on the lookout for available and new positions, including at thatgamecompany, because you never know when an opportunity might appear for you.

Q: I’m an inspiring community manager that’s looking to get into the industry. What are some best practices in searching for a possible foot into the indie game scene?

Robert: It is always a plus to present that you have been moderating an existing community, and show a deep understanding of what they value. Keep in mind, running a single quality community is often better than running multiple weaker ones, so focus on building something you are passionate about with a strong foundation. This does not need to be a new community, so try applying for a moderator position in an existing one.

You may also need to demonstrate your ability to manage crises in a community. Be it conflict between the users and the company, between users themselves, or perhaps even conflict with you directly. This will help show your ability to solve problems and stabilize the tone in the community. There are a lot of great articles and talks about this kind of thing, so I would suggest looking them up.

Community management initiatives are tied to revenue and growth for the company. So showing your ability to inspire and drive your community members to act upon these initiatives, shows a lot of value. Sometimes it might be as simple as creating a survey to collect information, while other times it might be the promotion of a new or existing product or service. This also includes your ability to grow a community, happily and healthily.

While you are part of building communities, you should be looking for community management and related position to begin getting more applied industry experience. This includes game master roles (GMs), customer support, and any other occupations that will help you strengthen your skills in that field.

Q: What’s your favorite thing to see post/discuss?
Robert: In the tabletop role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons, the Dungeon Master is tasked with creating a world, characters, and events for their players to experience — much like a video game developer. As someone who takes on this role often, I have learned that some of the best moments in a game is when I do not have to say or do anything at all. The players are so invested in the experience they are having that they begin discussing and sharing it among themselves. Sure, this does not last forever, but that is why I always have something else to get them excited about.

That said, most of my favorite things to see posted in our Sky communities are stories about members doing things together, and when posts grow into heartfelt and enriching conversations. Of course things like fan art and personal stories about experiences in Sky are always loved, but this is often because these posts tend to lead to more community interaction and engagement.

Q: The idea of “crunch” in game studios has recently been in news lately, with other companies seeming to take pride in what is a very damaging practice on employees. What special efforts does thatgamecompany make to avoid crunch, if it does so, and enrich employees’ lives?

Robert: With all the news about what has been happening, and the ongoing reputation that the industry has; many companies are reflecting on what they could be doing better, including us. Considering the ambition of Sky, we need to be thoughtful about how we manage our work/life balance.

We are building Sky to be an ever expanding online experience, and as a result we have been working on creating a sustainable development schedule that will allow us to finish and continue to maintain Sky for the foreseeable future. Launch will not be the end of this project, but just the beginning of an ever-evolving online product. That means our team need to be in the best possible shape when that time comes.

As we move towards deadline and the pressure builds to deliver a product worthy of the TGC name, we are all committing to work hard without ever putting expectations on each other that would compromise our health and well-being.
We have also been making improvements like offering employees a stipend for gym memberships and wellness programs, encouraging those who are ill to remain home, and holding core hours that allow for individuals to be a little more flexible with their time.

Ultimately our industry needs to stop glorifying overwork if it is to retain its best talent and continue to grow. That means respecting work-life balance, working with realistic timelines, and caring for your team like they are your family.

Q&A with Adam Lederer, Gameplay Engineer & Designer

Where did the original idea of Sky come from?
Adam: When I interviewed to join TGC right at the beginning of Sky, my gameplay test had this prompt: “Build an interactive experience of flight that reminds the player of when they were a young child.” There was a lot we didn’t yet know about Sky then, but the inspiration was flight dreams and the innocence and wonder of childhood. But those themes arose from a deeper goal.

We wanted to build on our previous multiplayer concepts to create a nourishing social experience available to anyone with a phone. Most phones are already filled with social apps - but social media and many games are so often double-edged, creating competition and self-consciousness. When we considered ways to create an environment where people can feel comfortable being their natural selves (often more vulnerable, caring, and silly than we normally let ourselves be), we were drawn towards the spontaneity of childhood play.

What was the inspiration behind creating universal interactions such as hug, hold hands or high-fiving as some of the ways to communicate with each other?

Adam: Holding hands came very early in the project, directly from the theme of childhood nostalgia. On some level it’s an homage to Ico, but we also thought it was surprising that so many games about people don’t even allow characters to physically connect with each other in gameplay (non-violently). We also immediately loved that hand-holding allowed players who were tentative (or less active) to fully participate. Hug/high-five came as part of a direct effort to list all of the important actions we’d want to do with others that didn’t emerge from the “natural” verbs of the game.

Customization is part of Sky, why was this important to the role of player interactions and building friendships?
Adam: Striking up a friendship while jumping around with four identical people is pretty difficult. Inability to distinguish each other was an issue in our internal playtesting for an embarrassingly long time.

Customization is also a pretty important reward in a game where we don’t want too wide a gap in abilities/mobility between new and experienced players. We did debate as to whether it was on-message for more experienced players to be able to show off over new players - we even talked about automatically looking more humble as you gained experience (shaved head, muted colors, etc.)! But ultimately aspiration is necessary for Sky, because without desires, there is less opportunity for players to help each other.

Why have there been numerous changes in the player controls and friendship in beta?
Adam: Valuing the feel of weight + momentum + nuance in movement controls is a huge part of our studio DNA, but Sky presented so many new challenges. Touchscreen controls weren’t a wild west even in 2012, but we didn’t make it easy on ourselves - we wanted console-quality control of a spritely flying avatar that’s fine enough for platforming and nuanced social interactions, in free-look 3D, and accessible to non-gamers. Trying to “have it all” with the controls has been a long process of many radically different approaches, but of course in reality, design is compromise - another long process.

At first beta release, I was fervently resisting enabling the virtual joystick since I feel it can never be as natural as a physical joystick with tactile feedback, and I wanted us to focus on controls that used the nuance of touch as a strength. I owe much of my sanity supply to those of you in the community who spared some kind words for those “weird” early flicking and stepping controls! But equally as much love to those of you who expressed your frustration/fatigue - you were invaluable in helping us map out the boundaries. The past year has seen some wonderful collaboration on control improvements (thanks Sam and Jon!) - I don’t expect we’ll ever stop refining, and I hope the community will continue to be open and detailed with their feedback.

Will there be more emotes and ways to build friendship when the game officially launches?
Adam: Emote expansions are part of the set of updates we’re planning through the Adventure Pass events. Our goal for emotes and friendship abilities is that we never want players to feel like they’re floundering to express something. We love seeing players use emotes creatively, and a little softening ambiguity is part of the charm of non-verbal communication - but less welcome is the panic of struggling to convey something while the moment steadily passes. Player requests have been our guide to emotes/social actions since the beginning, so please help guide our future plans!
 

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