When you want to watch a movie with someone, you usually ask them what kind of film they’re in the mood to see. If you want to play a game with someone, first you may have to ask them if they’re even a gamer at all. That was a major point that Jenova Chen, a cofounder of Thatgamecompany, made during his day-one talk at our digital GamesBeat Summit 2020.
His studio has become famous for its tranquil, mood-inspiring games like Flower and Journey. Thatgamecompany’s latest project, Sky: Children of Light, is a multiplayer game for Android and iOS. It has a similar feel to something like Journey, but it has an extra focus on social aspects.
But that posed a problem. Thatgamecompany became successful because of the serene quality of its games. If you play online, you know that the experience is often anything but. With Journey, the studio got around this by removing any kind of chat function. Characters couldn’t really communicate with each other through any means aside from using game mechanics — for example, maybe you’d jump in place to get another player’s attention.
That worked for Journey, which was a relatively linear and simple experience. It also limited you to seeing only one other player at any time. But Sky is a bigger, more complicated experience with more players.
Chen noted that the Thatgamecompany team wants to make high-quality games, but they want to connect people through positive emotional experiences. That means attracting a larger audience, not just core gamers. One way the studio has done that is by displaying its projects at galleries and museums, which attracts people who wouldn’t normally try a gaming experience. It’s also important to make games accessible. Thatgamecompany’s Flower, for example, used motion controls on the PlayStation 3. This made it easier for people who weren’t used to game controllers to enjoy.
But with Sky, the studio wanted to have an accessible experience that could bring people together. Chen noted that many people use games to make connections and combat loneliness. He noted, for example, his own experience in World of Warcraft, which he spent three years playing.
“The problem with World of Warcraft is that it is a dungeon-and-looting game,” Chen said. Sometimes, Chen would want to socialize, but others were busy fighting bosses. Worse, as a new immigrant, sometimes other players would judge Chen because of his English. It made him desire an online game that was more about sharing emotions with others. He also wanted an experience where players wouldn’t be judged for things like their gender, race, or social status.
Some of these ideas came to fruition through Journey. As noted above, the game made it impossible to know anything specific about the person you were playing with, but you were still able to form a connection with them. Part of that was accomplished through scale. Players are in a large world with sweeping landscapes, making them feel more dependent on the other players.
But Sky was going to be something different. Yes, it would have more players. But it was also going to be a free-to-play mobile game. And that meant that monetization was going to be a factor. Most free-to-play games have players spend money to fulfill emotions like greed, pride, or envy. For Sky, the trick was to have players open their wallets for more altruistic reasons, like showing compassion or humility. For example, players can buy gifts and send them to other players, which encourages kindness and generosity.
Family and community
“Sky, at its core, is a game about humanity, community, and wonder,” Chen noted. He took a page from Walt Disney’s philosophy when he created Disneyland. The goal is to make everyone feel like a child, putting everyone on even footing. You’re supposed to find fallen stars. And to do that, you have to collaborate with other players.
Up to eight people can journey together in Sky. And although in Journey, you would likely never see a player more than once, Sky is making it possible for the creation of longer friendships. As you interact more with a specific player, you can unlock more social functions to use with them, even chat. This means that you have to develop some kind of wordless relationship with someone in the game before you can begin messaging them, which often leads to kinder interactions.
He also notices that many families play the game together, often a mom playing with her daughter. The community can also feel like a kind of family. Even the emotional experience of death is having an emotional impact through the game: Chen noted that when one player died, his sister took over his account. Sky is giving people a way to connect with each other to help them through even the grief of losing a loved one. Meanwhile, if you played something like Call of Duty, you may be more likely to have a stranger call you names.
As with Thatgamecompany’s past projects, Sky is an emotional experience. But it’s bringing people together unlike any other game that the studio has created before.