That Game Company director of online experience Tim Nixon began his session about events in Sky: Children of the Light at the Game Developers Conference Free-to-Play Summit Monday by acknowledging that he was preaching to the choir to some extent.
"We're at the Free-to-Play Summit, so I'm sure a lot of you already believe in the power of events to drive revenue, monetization, and engagement in your game," Nixon said. "But what I'd like to talk about today is making the case that they can be much more than that. Events can be a place to experiment, to play, and to express the core values of your game and your company."
That Game Company's core value is to center everything the studio does in player emotion, and Nixon said the studio has carried that over to the way it handles in-game events.
"We've found that focusing on the way the play feels has led to a much more memorable experience for them and their friends," Nixon says. "And from there, the merchandising components in our free-to-play economy flow much more naturally, and they lead to actually our best monetizing events."
That Game Company has run more than 40 events since the game's launch, and Nixon traced the evolution of how the company approaches emotion in Sky's regular events.
"[Some of our events] were really great, but... if you didn't have money to spend, you were still excluded and it felt like it wasn't for you"
Generally speaking, Nixon said free-to-play events are "very material-focused," with players staying glued to the game in order to get a new character, or playable card, or licensed goodie of some sort in the short while it's available.
Sky's first events weren't much different, with limited time items for sale like a Santa hat for Christmas or a pumpkin head for Halloween. Nixon said they sold "brilliantly," but the team didn't feel good about how having a bunch of players running around with Santa hats broke the immersion of the narrative world the team had crafted.
They tried to move away from that approach, but still relied on it for charitable events, raising money for a variety of organizations during the early stages of the pandemic.
"They were really great, but the issue there is it was still a material thing," Nixon said. "And if you didn't have money to spend in the game, you still were excluded and it felt like it wasn't for you."
After that, they played around with social items like a lantern that would help light the way for other characters, but "ultimately it was still focusing on this one item and the haves and have nots, people who could afford it and those who couldn't."
Nixon said the team at That Game Company also started pushing back on this revenue-driven approach to events, asking for a rethink of events in a way that felt more like it belonged in Sky.
So the studio put together a small team to work on more Sky-like events, and they came up with three guiding principles for the events.
First, they had to lead with emotion, how an experience would make them feel inside.
Second, they had to be inclusive; activities had to be for everybody regardless of whether they had a surplus of time or money to spend in the game.
Finally, when items are doled out during the events, they had to serve as mementos of special experiences players had in the game.
"Events can be a place to experiment, to play, and to express the core values of your game and your company"
Nixon recounted four separate events to illustrate how the team applied that framework to events, starting with the Days of Bloom, an event inspired by cherry blossom festivals.
The developers created a new area in the game's home space where a tree would bloom over the course of a couple weeks, and when the petals came out the tree would shed currency to attract players to sit around the tree and socialize around the beautiful bloom of the cherry blossoms. After the event was over, the barren tree was left in the space with no functionality for another week.
"We wanted to make sure we really nailed that feeling, the transitory beauty of nature and the fragility of this tree and this moment," Nixon said.
The tree was supposed to give players permission to take a break from their play loop for a while to just sit and chat with other players for a little while.
At first, the tree didn't really do anything, it was just there as a hint that something was coming. When the event started properly, the tree bloomed, and it advanced toward an event finale for two days of what Nixon called "generous spectacle" with tons of currency and light falling off the tree.
"We just made a bit of an error in that you didn't have to do anything to collect the light," he said.
So players would turn their phones on, set them down and walk away, leading to the tree being surrounded by sleeping players. Nixon said it was "kind of nice, but not really the social experience we were looking for."
As for the in-app purchase, That Game Company released a tea set to match the festival, letting players set down the set in front of them, at which point another player could sit down opposite them and strike up a conversation.
"That was by far our most successful IAP in the game up to that date," Nixon said.
The second event Nixon covered was the Days of Feast, a winter holiday event. Considering the game's international userbase, Nixon said a large contingent of players don't celebrate Christmas.
The developers then thought about more universally relatable concepts, like the sense of belonging, a feeling of "being inside when it's cold out, surrounded by your elders."
So they brought back a character from a previous season – the grandmother character from the Season of Belonging – and created a place where she would invite players in so they could sit by a fire with her, where she would be knitting the items that players could collect during the event.
After they had sat with the grandmother for a while, they could go outside and ice skate around a central part of the game's home area. It involved just enough of a subtle interaction from players that it sidestepped the problems with players going idle like they had during the cherry blossom festival.
The third big event Nixon discussed was Days of Mischief, a Halloween-inspired event that included a dedicated event space full of tricks with a cauldron shooting out spells that would randomly change players' size or fire them across the room. It "really captured the total chaos of Halloween," Nixon said.
It didn't quite fit as well with the narrative cohesion of the rest of Sky, so the developers placed the area a bit off the beaten path.
"It worked really well and players did love it… for two days," Nixon said.
It took an enormous effort to build, but a lot of the activities it offered were really only fun to try a few times, and weren't things players would want to make part of their daily play pattern.
Nixon said it was demotivating, but it got the team thinking about designing activities that would be fun to do thousands of times instead of just once or twice.
"When you create an emotionally resonant experience, merchandising is super easy... [Players] want something to memorialize the experience that they had"
Looking for inspiration on that, the team took a trip to Disneyland to hang out and get an idea of why the theme park works so well for so many. Nixon said the feeling of Disneyland as a living place – he gave the example of a pirate band starting to play music on the street with no warning – helps to make it a fun place to be, even if you're not going on rides.
He also talked about the shopping experiences at Disney and how often they're narratively coherent with the worlds they exist in. In the Star Wars-themed Galaxy's Edge area, he said there's no clear boundary between where the theme park area ends and the shopping bazaar begins.
Inspiration taken, the team put together the Days of Music, a year-long musical push that built up to a concert event featuring Aurora.
The team created Harmony Hall, a sort of music home base for the game and its many playable instruments. It was the place for players to go practice each day, or to enjoy other people practicing.
"It's the sense of wonder and possibility, and a little bit of chaos, like when you go into a music shop as a kid or a music room at elementary school and it's just a racket. If you go into Harmony Hall in Sky, it's just a real racket."
The key to the space was to offer players things they could get better at and practice at, so they introduced musical quests where players were challenged to play certain songs, and could return each day to try to play them better and earn more currency for more skilled play.
The space was also littered with instruments players could try for free, but the merchandising component followed easily by having premium items players could pick up like in a music store.
"When we put emotion first, the merchandising component flowed very naturally," Nixon said.
He said the merchandising was similarly natural with the climactic Aurora concert, as players could buy copies of the music from the concert or cosmetic items to dress up like Aurora in the equivalent of a merch booth at the show.
"What we found from this again is when you create an emotionally resonant experience, the merchandising component is super easy," Nixon said. "Not just in terms of how you create it or where you place it, but you don't feel like you're needing to force anything on the players because they want to remember it. They want to get something to memorialize the experience that they had."