In Sky: Children of the Light, the latest game from thatgamecompany, player etiquette is already forming naturally amidst its closed beta community.
"It's etiquette to hug when you first see each other in the game, and etiquette to hug when you sign out," says Jennie Kong, story writer and overseer studio communications. To hug, both players have to tap the hug action on the screen. "It's consensual. And that's a big thing with us, the DNA of thatgamecompany and the ethics of it is that we're not trying to force anybody to do anything."
The social adventure game Sky has been in development at thatgamecompany, the developers behind Flow, Flower, and Journey, for six long years. It was only officially revealed two years ago at Apple's annual iPhone-centered keynote. It's a lot more ambitious than the seamless multiplayer found in Journey. Instead, in Sky you create your own flowy-caped character, explore ancient ruins, help long dead spirits reach some sense of peace, work with others to solve puzzles, and maybe learn more about the world you're in too. Oh, and you can befriend other players you stumble upon, each with their own social trees of unlockable gestures and other content.
Sky is nearing its release now too: on July 11, it will be available on iOS for iPhones and iPads, with support back to iOS 9.0. It's a free-to-start game, with a paid "Adventure Pass," which is the first in a future of seasonal events and other updates that will be paid.
"The core game is free-to-start, and then the Adventure Pass, what it does is it kind of enhances the rate of candles [a currency in the game] they offer you, and similar things that you won't get in the core game," says Kong. Other content includes cosmetics like new hairstyles, or even music sheets, which are melodies that you can tap along to with the equipped instrument you carry on your back.
Kong and executive producer Eileen Hollinger describe Sky to me as a "casual MMO," which is not a combination I've ever heard before. MMOs, by their very nature, are maybe the opposite of casual. They require diligence and dedication; they operate closer to a hobby in itself than a video game. You don't play Final Fantasy 14 when you feel like it; Final Fantasy 14 is something you have to maintain.
Sky is trying to do the opposite of maintaining, though its world is looking to be just as vast as you'd imagine for an MMO. It's set in a cloudy sky kingdom, and your party can go up to eight players. (For the sake of this demo, it was just two of us, but we ran into many players from the closed beta along the way.) When you enter a new level, you're immediately thrust into a social area where you can customize your look (from hair to the color of your cloak), and then it's off you go to explore, fly, and solve puzzles. You can play it solo, but why would you want to?
"We've been in development for six years. Of the six years, about a year and a half of that was in a closed beta community," says Kong. "The game went through heavy reiteration. We rigorously tested what the multiplayer experience could be like, and what the positive emotional experience could be like. Thematically, this is a game about compassion and altruism; friendship. And you can't retro engineer that kind of thing. It's got to exist within the people, it's got to exist in the world. So we had to just like continuously reiterate the rest, to see how people in this kind of environment are willing to help each other."
Even just in casual interactions with strangers, I found them reacting warmly to me fumbling around on an iPad, even though they had no idea that here I was, in a loud booth at E3 2019, playing this for the very first time. They held their arms open for a hug, hoping I'd reciprocate, even though I'd yet to learn the etiquette of this bright colored world.
Other players aren't the only other people you come into contact with in Sky. Each time you meet an NPC, or a spirit, you learn of their back story. They then offer up some sort of gift if you meet their quest or interaction's requirements. One we run into, I'm told, offered the wisdom of "expression of being sleepy." In layman terms, it unlocks a yawning emote. Another mohawked NPC gave away a mohawk hairstyle. Scrolling through the customization options, from interactions with other players like hugs and high fives to solitary gestures like dropping dead in a dramatic fashion was a little daunting. At least in the MMO-side of things, Sky is nailing the breadth of content to collect.
Sky is the first mobile game developed by thatgamecompany internally. Its first three games were once PlayStation platform exclusives, but have since been ported to other platforms like PC. Sky will eventually leave its Apple exclusivity, but for launch next month, that will be the only place to download it.
"I think that it was really important to the team to develop for mobile first," says Hollinger on the challenges the studio faced with the new platform. "We're going to go to all the other platforms as well, but dealing with the constraints on mobile was important. [...] We really pushed the limits of the devices in every realm. And in some ways also though, it did allow us a lot of positive benefits to it too. Like allowing us to do the beta, there's a lot of playtesting that's really easy that you can do on mobile."
Sky really does push the limits. Playing on an iPad, I was astounded by how fluffy its clouds looked and how smooth it plays for being a big game bent on exploration and flying around. In my demo's sequence, you have to hitch a ride on giant manta rays that are swimming through the sky. I looked around, and saw other beta players hanging around on the islands down below. They could definitely see my orange-caped, pigtailed character surfing on a mammal-surfboard. For a mobile game, the scope of Sky's multiplayer already seems promising.
While I'm not sure of how engaging Sky will be in the long term when it comes to action and new discoveries, the depth of its customization and the beauty of its worlds do have me intrigued. With thatgamecompany's steep pedigree making a new kind of live service game, I'm eager to see how the world of Sky and its players evolve over time. Maybe even new etiquette will arise when more players join when Sky debuts for iOS on July 11. It's currently in closed beta, but after its official launch it will also come to Android, macOS, tvOS, PC, and miscellaneous consoles eventually.