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Using emotion to drive social play in Sky: Children of the Light

Thatgamecompany 'feel engineer' John Hughes explains how emotion drives the social play at the core of Sky: Children of the Light. 

Journey developer thatgamecompany has almost become synonymous with the word 'emotion.' Almost every title in the studio's oeuvre has succeeded in making players feel something -- whether it's a twinge of sadness for an ancient civilization buried in dust or the spark of joy when you spot another cloak-clad wanderer chirping away in the distance. 

Speaking at GDC Summer, one of the studio's 'feel engineers,' John Hughes, offered some insight into how that propensity for 'feeling' helped refine the social play that drives its latest release, Sky: Children of the Light

Like Journey before it, Sky allows players to interact and forge connections with strangers. Although players can complete the main story arc themselves, Sky leans heavily on social mechanics, pushing its airborne wanderers to connect with each other.

Getting players to actually connect, however, wasn't straightforward. Initially, the development team found that giving players clear goals and putting them into a relatively linear structure actually dissuaded them from forming relationships. The more compelling the goal in front of players, the more likely they were to completely ignore each other. 

"Multiplayer gameplay that inspires social play should provide a careful balance of open-ended and goal oriented play," explains Hughes. "We switched to more of a tree structure and created alternate paths and added secrets and activities. These acted as ice breakers for deeper relationships to form. Anything in the world that slows players down can create the boredom necessary to inspire creative usage of the mechanics they've gained access to."

One of those mechanics was 'hand holding.' The feature allows players to link hands and guide each other, and ultimately serves to encourage unique shared experiences within the game world. 

"We knew that some of the best experiences you can have in Sky are off the main path, being guided by an other player or just stumbling around together. To reinforce this, we introduced hand holding between players, which has proven to be one of the most iconic features of Sky. One player can give control to another, and then be guided around the world. A really attentive guide will create experience for other players."

Hughes explains how those exemplary guides will create experiences for other players, leading them to hidden locations and collectibles. Those moments, where one player decides to place their trust in another and is rewarded, create intimate connections.

"We define social play as 'any activity performed near other players, which encourages simulating the thoughts and feelings of others,'" continues Hughes, outlining how the mere act of guiding another player to a hidden vista qualifies as social play. "Basically, we're talking about empathy."

To help players solidify those nascent bonds, thatgamecompany added a gifting mechanic that allows players to reward their newfound friends. On a surface level, it's a way of saying 'thank you.' But it's also a mechanic that elicits a genuine emotional response for both the giver and receiver.

The studio also implemented 'social rituals' that provide a sense of growth and investment, adding to the sense that those friendships and experiences within Sky are genuine. "At first when you interact with a new player in Sky their identity is hidden and you can only see their silhouette. To reveal the other player you touch your candle flames together, and once they're revealed you can perform other actions and see their outfit," continues Hughes. 

As those in-game relationships grow, new abilities are also unlocked. It's a looping system that reminds players that the more they invest in a friendship, the more both parties will get out of it, which in turn mitigates the potential toxicity that can some from "short, low investment interactions." 

That said, Hughes notes that its important for some interactions to fall short. As in life, not everyone players meet will stick around for the long haul, and that okay. It means those relationships that do blossom feel organic. 

"This is important because as soon as you start thinking someone is doing something with you because the designer has forced them to, even if the designer hasn't, you lose a bit of trust in the other player that they're being genuine," he adds. "You need the lows to really appreciate the highs."

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