Behind the Design: Sky: Children of the Light – Discover
The best works of art resonate in your mind and capture your heart. They lure you into exuberant and beautiful narratives and make you dream of their stories long after you leave. And they can take many forms. “A lot of people cry for a movie or a novel,” Jenova Chen tells us. “The first entertainment that made me cry was a game.”
A former film student, Chen never planned a career in game development: he wanted to tell captivating stories and touch people’s lives. But while he was in school, he soon found himself gravitating toward the interactive media. Together with co-founder Kellee Santiago, Chen created thatgamecompany to enhance the human connection by expanding the range of possible emotional experiences in video games.
“For the first 30 or 40 years, the games were more designed for the mainstream audience, the enthusiasts who accept new things,” Chen says. “But we’re really entering a new era … Everyone is playing.”
The first six years of operation of the studio resulted in Flow, Flower and Journey, three award-winning games for Sony’s Playstation console. His fourth game, Heaven: Children of light, is the first created exclusively for iPhone and iPad. While the art, controls, and story are new, the spirit of the game continues to align with its predecessors: it creates interactive art, designed for everyone.
We want to be the ultimate advocate of the human being who plays our games.
Jenova Chen, creative director of Sky: Children of the Light
“At its core, Cel “It’s a game of compassion and generosity,” says Chen, the game’s creative director. “It’s about connecting people and encouraging them to get along with each other.”
In Cel, players begin as a son of light, looking for fallen stars: the ancestral spirits of the kingdoms. Players fly through cloudy dream spaces, solving puzzles cooperatively and socializing in a charming world. Although it is possible to play solo, Cel shines when the other players work together. “Try to evoke the bright side of humanity over darkness or gray in an online game,” Chen says.
At first, it was clear Cel it would be an ambitious title for Chen and the creative team. This would be their first game for a mobile device, the first to be based on touch rather than console drivers, and their first attempt at an online multiplayer experience, one that celebrated the connection by conflict. Finally, the team worked for seven years before leading Cel in life, with over 70 people contributing to the game during their creative development.
Chen was drawn to mobile games Cel in part because of the accessibility of the iPhone and iPad. “When we design games, we should really think about accessibility and inclusion, to allow everyone to enjoy the game,” he says. Consoles are expensive, and families usually only have one piece of hardware and a few drivers in their home. Instead, almost everyone has a mobile device: it was the perfect platform for a multiplayer game open to everyone.
The transition from console to iPhone and iPad was a challenge for the entire studio. When the team started working Cel in 2012, they were limited by mobile hardware and screen sizes at the time, far removed from the powerful Playstation infrastructure that supported their previous titles.
“Today, the iPhone is really more powerful than the PlayStation we developed it for in the past,” says Chen. Cel works great with both it and the iPad. But to get there, the team had to iterate over several years of hardware and software upgrades. They were constantly perfecting the look and feel of the game, including the development of a custom metal engine for rendering. CelEthereal scenes, making sure the game works well and preserves the battery life of the device.
While the engineers worked on the technical challenges, the game designers set to work creating the right control mechanisms and interface. “There are many, many barriers and design principles [on mobile] which are quite foreign to console developers, “says Chen.
The main one of these was the touch screen: players had to traverse a three-dimensional space with no physical buttons, triggers or joysticks, and no on-screen controls that would block graphics or the game’s interface. “You’re trying to find the right combination of design and feedback that is actually better than a real driver,” Chen explains.
A player’s past game history was also an important factor in the design of the controls. While console games often require players to interact with a physical controller with both hands, this was not the case for casual gamers. “Players without a console driver experience would never put two hands on the screen at the same time,” Chen says.
After several years of experimentation, including, at one point, a fully functional flight simulator, the team landed on a simple set of family controls designed to appeal to everyone. For additional guidance, Chen and the team even provided subtle interface rings at each corner, which expand and contract to indicate range and speed control.
However, this was not the last of the changes to the driver. Following Sky’s initial release and player feedback, the team also added a two-handed mode to the game for those who wanted a more console-like feel. “This is the first time I’ve done a game where the control scheme wasn’t finite,” Chen says. But it also recognizes the beauty of creating a game on a live platform. “We’re actually making changes because the habit of how people use their phone is changing.”
It is this relationship between player and creator that Chen finds fascinating about games. As with any artistic medium, the creator has the power to help amplify feelings and guide people through a story: their ups and downs, their ups and downs, and their sudden stops. “For design and for entertainment, it’s about this change of acceleration,” Chen says. “This pulse is what touches us emotionally.”
The interactivity of a game, however, creates a unique challenge so that designers do not weigh too much on the framework: guiding, but not restricting. “The best design is a push, rather than a strap,” he says. “We want to make people who are experimenting [game] they feel in control … We’re not here to distract you. We are not here to force and intimidate you into doing anything. We want to let you do it [step]… and 100 percent have that experience. “
The designer is a powerful influence on what happens between the player who touches your interface and interacts with your game. With very small design changes, you can change how that person behaves, how they treat each other in your game. It’s your responsibility … how will these players interact with your app, with your game, on a daily basis?
Jenova Chen, creative director of Sky: Children of the Light
It is this balance and fervent commitment to storytelling and inclusion that makes it Cel a joy to play with and a winner of the Apple Design Award 2020. “Feeling like people appreciate the work we’ve done is the best reward, really,” says Chen. “Ultimately, we are serving others.”
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