Gaming

Thatgamecompany’s Jenova Chen Sees Sky: Children Of The Light As More Virtual Theme Park Than Video Game

Sky: Children of the Light, thatgamecompany’s follow-up to Journey, released three years ago for iOS devices before making its way to other platforms and the developer is celebrating by holding the biggest event the game has ever experienced. There are special birthday themed events, new areas to explore, performances from the thatgamecompany band, and more.

To mark the occasion, we spoke with Jenova Chen, thatgamecompany’s co-founder and the director of Flow and Flower, as well as Journey and Sky: Children of the Light. We talked with Chen about potential regrets in launching exclusively on iOS, whether the game will make its way to more platforms, why Twitch is crucial to the success of modern games, and the potential of future collaborations, like the one it recently did with The Little Prince, based on the classic children’s book and the 2015 film adaptation.

Now Playing: Sky: Children Of Light – iPhone X Gameplay

Is this the biggest event that Sky has put together?

Yes. Unfortunately, we had COVID, so when we first launched the game back in 2019, I met quite a few groups of fans in Japan while I was visiting there. It was a very recharging experience to meet the people who really, really enjoy your game and hear their stories. And then COVID happened and we never get to meet anyone in real life for a couple years. This is the first time we are doing an anniversary where we actually also have a physical gathering. That happened yesterday.

We are also setting up a virtual music festival within the game, so people can come to our office on-game. It’s kind of breaking the fourth wall. We have a one-to-one office built within the game, so players can come to our office space and see the employee hanging out and celebrating the anniversary. It’s a very meta thing, now that the game is more of a service rather than just a console premium title where you play it, and that’s it. We’re now having a more of an ongoing relationship with our player community.

Sky allows players to used all kinds of instruments.Sky allows players to used all kinds of instruments.

Can you explain the birthday performance by the thatgamecompany band?

Music is a big part of the self-expression in Sky. We have almost all the instruments you can imagine, from classics to electric, and the player can use these instruments. This is not like Guitar Hero, where you’re just trying to hit things on time. You have a real instrument, so you can perform in the virtual space. And so, we developed our system to enhance people to fully express themself, but at the same time, we also can allow player characters, like our staff members, to actually perform music for the player.

We have about 10 different performances, each from one of our designers. My performance is pretty simple. I just play the guitar and say thank you, but some of our designers’ performances are pretty crazy, where he would turn everybody in the rooftop concert into tiny little people, so they can all get on the stage, the size of a mouse, and then they can dance together. We have some funny performances.

It’s very much like the variety show. Each person gets to say something to the players and do their own tricks, whether it’s magic or humor. It’s very much like a potluck of our employees if they have anything to say and to show the players. Gratefulness is the theme of this little music festival on the rooftop, and that’s just for this birthday event. But we have lots of cool stuff we’re working on that we will reveal very soon to the players that’s coming to Sky.

I played Sky right when it came out, finished it, and I enjoyed it, but I haven’t checked in since that initial playthrough. What does this anniversary event look like for a player like me? What’s the big incentive to return?

It’s funny because we are all console players. Once you see the credits roll, you think the game is over, and what happens with Sky is we make content every month. Every month, we have new events. Every quarter, we have new story. Sky is like a theme park–like Disneyland. So when you first played back in 2019, we probably only had a third of the park. When we launched the game, we had maybe 20 levels. Now, we have 61 levels. So every quarter, we tell a new story, we expand the game place.

Initially, you could only run and fly. Now, you can dive into the deep ocean. There was one season dedicated to swimming, and then we had one season dedicated to platforming challenges. It was called the Season of Prophecy, where you played more traditional, very hardcore platforming games. And then we had a season where we collaborated with the Little Prince IP. We brought the entire novel into the land, so you get to interact with the Little Prince, befriend him, hold his hands, take him to places, and hear him talking about those philosophical ideas, and eventually see him through to return to the stars.

We’ve done 14 different seasons since the game launch, so just the season content alone is twice the size of the original game and we try to make things different. Sky is not like an RPG game, where if you are away for two years and you come back, you’re like, “Oh, your friends are at level 90 and you are only level 30. There’s no point in playing.” Sky is more like a real park. So you can come back, check it out, and see what happened–see what has changed in Sky.

And it’s also year round. In the spring, we have cherry blossoms. Around the time where real cherry blossom happen, we will also have trees growing and flowers blooming in various parts of Sky. And in the winter, our home space will become snow covered. And now we have a summer coming, in which we have some of the characters setting up summer camp in one of the locations. You can go there and fish and cook some marshmallows. It’s really not designed to be narrative content consumption. It’s more designed to be a space that is always changing.

thatgamecompany recently held its first in-person event for fans of the game. thatgamecompany recently held its first in-person event for fans of the game.

Where are people are playing Sky? And on what platform are they playing?

We have, right now… our daily active users is about eight million. Most of them are on mobile, and a lot of them are from Asia. China, Japan, Taiwan, and the US are the top four countries. And we have Switch right now as the only console. Switch is probably less than 10% because of the vast number of mobile players.

Do you see Sky coming to Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5?

We’re certainly interested in bringing it to every platform. Because the game was really made on a console engine. And it looks amazing in 4K at 60fps.

I personally wanted to play Sky on a console when it launched. Do you ever wish it came out on a console at launch? Was it the right call to make it a mobile exclusive at launch?

Looking back, I think the best launch strategy would have been to launch on all platforms at the same time. You can see what happened with Genshin Impact, which really is a mobile game in Asia, but they were able to launch on PC and console at the same time. And so, it was really maximizing all the press releases at the same time. When we tried to do mobile, we did things the wrong way. We launched on iOS first, which is a very niche market for mobile gaming when it comes to number of users. And it doesn’t really go viral, because imagine if you go to a class and maybe one kid out of five has an iOS device. And so, even if they like the game and they introduce it to their friends, their friends can’t play it.

We didn’t see major user growth until the Android version launched. What happened is, when we first launched the game on iOS, Japan was the only country to grow very, very quickly because our game is about 70% women. In Japan, I think over 86% of women use iOS devices. So, they tell their friends and they all get the game. It went viral very quickly. In 2019, we had already identified Japan as our number one market.

But then, once we launched on Android, China just massively grew in terms of players, because of word of mouth. And with the launch of Switch, we saw more Japanese players and European players start to come because of the platform. What I learned is, in the United States, at least so far, almost everything that goes viral comes from Twitch, whether it’s Valheim, or PUBG, or even Among Us. It didn’t become viral until someone was playing on Twitch. And so, we felt like Sky really went viral in Asia because of the accessibility. But in the Europe and the US, we can’t really rely on it going viral until we have a PC build.

The Switch version is probably the easiest way to stream it right now.

Yeah. So there’s more platforms we need to work on. Sky is really a social space. I really see it as a park operation rather than just content telling a story. It’s quite exciting, because with the amount of people who are coming to this virtual realm every day, we are planning to do things that nobody has ever done in history. You probably will hear about that later this year.

Can you share any examples of that?

I’m sure we will get back to you once we are ready to announce it.

Sky: Children of the Light launched in 2019 on iOS. It is now also available on Android and Switch.Sky: Children of the Light launched in 2019 on iOS. It is now also available on Android and Switch.

What is thatskystory?

We found our inspiration from Journey. When Journey came out, the fan community was really, really blossoming and a lot of people shared their story of what the game has done to them. I had people writing to me about someone who had fallen into a frozen lake when they were 14, and when he was brought up by the ambulance, he was medically dead for two minutes, and then the nurse was able to bring him back He saw what it’s like at the end of that tunnel, and he was brought back. So a lot of people ask him about what he saw when he was dead. He said he looked at a lot of literature, music, and movies, all about the depiction of near death experiences, and he told me that the experience he had at the end of Journey was the closest to what he saw when he was dead. And that’s just something I never would have expected. It’s an amazing story. And there’s other players who have lost their parents and were in a lot of pain and grief, and somehow, they felt the other players they met was their parents, and it was able to take them out of the grief.

We had so many very dramatic, extreme stories that players decided to start a website called That Journey Story. We started to see all kinds of stories shared by the players. And Sky, as the sister to Journey, had a similar healing effect. So we see a lot of people sharing their stories about what happened in Sky. And this time, even more stories are about what happened between them and the other players in the world of Sky. We just thought it’s such an inspirational story from the players that it would be kind of a crime to not share these stories with other people. And that’s why we felt like we had enough interesting stories that we wanted just to share with other players.

Do you see Sky doing other collaborations in the future with other IPs like you did with The Little Prince?

Yes. The strange thing I find in most of the mobile games is people talking about predatory monetization. We spend a long time trying to find ways where the monetization will feel family-friendly, like if I’m taking my kids to play this game together, I wouldn’t be bothered by the techniques they’re using. And so, we spend a lot of time researching business models and trying different ways. Our focus is to make the payment to be something the parents can be proud of rather than feel taken advantage of. A lot of the spending is actually giving. In our game, there’s many purchases you can make to share with others, and those are the more popular ones.

So, over the three years of operation, I started to realize the business is really a theme park business. Half of the revenue goes for content, like the tickets. Half of the revenue goes to social lubricants, like if I have a birthday celebration, I will buy some birthday hats, and I would take my friends to the most beautiful place, and maybe we’ll share t-shirts. Social spending.

And the other part I learned from looking at the theme park business model is they would collaborate with IPs to create new reasons why you want to return to the park. Disneyland, for example–they are very specific about the values they believe in: courage and hope. They would pick the IP that fits with the ethos of the park.

For us, Sky is a game about human connections. The Little Prince, to me, is about human connection, as well. Particularly, the game was inspired by some of The Little Prince’s concepts, like if you have passed away, you become a star. And in the Sky universe, you connect with other players through the stars. So that just felt like the perfect match of our ethos, so we brought The Little Prince in.

But I could say there are many other IPs that I think are the original inspiration for the game that we can potentially collaborate in the future. But we are trying to make sure it’s not becoming just a showcase of other IPs. We are still developing the story of Sky, so we will choose our collaborations very carefully.

Follow the link to read GameSpot’s Sky: Children of the Light review.