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Skybox Labs: Development and co-development in broad vistas

Shyang Kong shares the history of the co-development studio, and why it's now developing its own title, Stela

Even though the studio has existed since 2011, the upcoming cinematic platformer Stela is the first time Skybox Labs has truly stepped into the spotlight with one of its own creations.

Until fairly recently, Skybox was primarily a co-development studio. The company was founded by Shyang Kong, Derek MacNeil and Steven Silvester, industry veterans with more than a decade of experience each. They were colleagues at EA Vancouver, all in senior positions, and decided it was time to try something new in the midst of larger industry upheaval.

"Especially in the years 2008 to 2013, a lot of traditional studios were shutting down," Kong tells GamesIndustry.biz in our interview at GDC 2019. "Mobile was the hot trend. I remember talking to people and saying, 'I'm thinking of starting up this game studio,' and they'd be like, 'Are you crazy? Do you not know that mobile is the big thing?' Everyone was making money on mobile and gamification. Why would anyone do a traditional game development studio?

"We felt like we needed to build a studio that could ride those waves no matter where they went"

"But one thing clicked for us -- if everyone's going mobile and there are a lot of studios shutting down, maybe there's an opportunity to pick up some good talent. We could have just focused on mobile and staffed up with mobile talent, but also we've been in the industry long enough to know there are ups and downs. There are different trends that come, new technology comes into play, consumer interests and tastes change. We felt like we needed to build a studio that could ride those waves no matter where they went."

Skybox Studios began with a team of eight, staffing up over the years to (now) more than 150 employees. As they grew and hired, Kong says they stuck to the idea that it wanted to keep hiring for a wide variety of skill sets, so it could easily move and change with the market. The tactic has served Skybox well over the years as a co-development studio on numerous projects.

"We started with a very small prototyping project for Microsoft, just a three-month engagement. The prototype never saw the light of day, but they liked how we worked. They liked our approach; they liked our collaboration. The three-month project rolled into a six-month, and then a year, and they just really liked working with us and sent more stuff our way.

Skybox Labs' Stela isn't the first game the co-development studio has created all on its own, but it's receiving attention its predecessor, TASTEE: Lethal Tactics, did not

Skybox Labs' Stela isn't the first game the co-development studio has created all on its own, but it's receiving attention its predecessor, TASTEE: Lethal Tactics, did not

"At the same time we started to get other projects from EA, GungHo, DeNA, and it just started to pick up from there. But it's always been a lot of either true work-for-hire small projects or maybe some support for bigger internal teams. We were a little bit early to use the term 'co-development,' but you hear a lot of it now."

It has also been a boon for hiring. Kong says that every year from 2016 on, Skybox Labs has had new hires in the double digits, and very few employees have left the studio.

"Over the course of the studio's lifespan, we've typically had at least three to five projects going at the same time. We've been able to work on almost every platform, and we've done a lot of work on VR and AR. All that variety is great for our staff, because they can learn and get exposure to all these different technologies and challenges and genres of games. That in itself we found to be a nice recruiting point: people can come to Skybox, and maybe for one game they work on AR or VR, and for the next one maybe they're on to a shooter project, next one's a world-building one."

"People can come to Skybox, and maybe for one game they work on AR or VR, and for the next one maybe they're on to a shooter project, next one's a world-building one"

Kong attributes the studio's success not only to the flexibility of its personnel, but also to the AAA and corporate background he and his fellow founders brought with them.

"We come from what we call corporate game development," he says. "Myself and the two founders worked at EA for many years. I've been in the industry for over 20. We know the ins and outs of game development, especially within a corporate environment. I think a lot of the companies we work with have appreciated how we understood the things they were facing. Sometimes we were able to anticipate what they might need, in terms of prioritizing certain work or features.

"We have great staff and have great people on our teams, and that's 90% of the task. But I think everyone very much enjoyed working with us because we weren't someone who said, 'It's a start-up, we've never been in this environment before.' We knew what they were faced with."

Skybox Labs' portfolio features some formidable clients, most notably the relationship with its first client, Microsoft. The studio was an official co-developer on Halo Infinite, and following that success was able to work on the Bedrock update for Minecraft on Nintendo Switch.

But now, Skybox is starting to work on games that are all its own. Stela isn't the first solo development project the studio has done, though it is the first to gain wider visibility. In 2016, Skybox released TASTEE: Lethal Tactics, a turn-based tactics game, on Steam. Kong says it didn't do as well as the studio had hoped, but that they were happy to take it as a lesson in simply being on Steam and self-publishing -- though he wouldn't say whether or not Steam would end up being the storefront of choice for the studio's next release, and was tight-lipped on the current storefront scuffle between Steam and Epic.

Stela is reminiscent of Limbo and Inside, but Kong sees it as part of a tradition of cinematic platformers that he and the game's other developers love

Stela is reminiscent of Limbo and Inside, but Kong sees it as part of a tradition of cinematic platformers that he and the game's other developers love

But that brings us to Stela, an atmospheric, cinematic platformer planned for launch on Xbox One and PC later this year. The game tells the story of a young woman exploring and struggling to survive in a dying world, though both the trailer and the game itself are sparse on specific story details. That air of mystery is deliberate; Kong says Skybox wants Stela to be as minimalist as possible.

Aside from directional controls, the game only has two other buttons: jump, and interact. There is no dialogue or text, and the game is short, too -- only about three hours long. Kong attributes these choices to a desire to follow the trend of other cinematic platformers, which he says have been traditionally "sparse" and lacked explicit storytelling. Ultimately, he wants people guessing at what the game's ending means.

"I love when I see a film and it's beautifully shot. So one of our core pillars was having a real emphasis on cinematography"

Kong refers to Stela as a "creative outlet" for a studio accustomed to working on other people's projects, but the broad array of development and gaming experiences the team has brought to the studio has helped inspire the game's look and feel. Two of its more obvious visual inspirations are Playdead's Inside and Limbo, though Kong cites Ico as a huge contributor in how Stela's visuals make use of size and scale. He also expresses a passion for cinematography in general.

"I love when I see a film and it's beautifully shot. So when we were making this game, one of our core pillars was having a real emphasis on cinematography. Traditionally in games of this genre, characters are quite small; they're usually child-like size. Our main character has an adult frame, so that allows us to pull the camera back further and take in these wide vistas.

"In games like Ico or Shadow of the Colossus, they use a similar sense of scale; so do movies like Lawrence of Arabia, where they have those beautiful vista shots. Having that in the game and being able to use that depth in our 3D world means that puzzles can use the full foreground and background. You can have this experience where you're solving these large-scale environmental or object-based puzzles in a beautiful setting, or these large-scale threats and creatures, and you can soak it all in instead of just pushing the camera in close on a smaller character. It was important for us to hit that cinematic frame and use the depth of the world for this game."

Our conversation took place just a day after Google announced Stadia, and though the immediate implications of such a service on Skybox's work are still to be determined, Kong says he's delighted by the concept.

"There are only so many things that have happened in our industry that you can say, 'That's a game changer.' This whole technology of game streaming from the cloud could be one of them. And not just in terms of PC and console type games, but I can imagine it will also lift the boats for mobile as well.

"It would be remarkable to be able to just pick up any device and play the games you love to play no matter what they are. Accessibility and portability are words we've only been applying to phone in the past. But now? Even if I forgot my phone at home, if I went to my friend's place, he has a computer, it probably has a browser and we can hop on there and play. That's amazing."

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