Dan Vogt co-founded Australian game company Halfbrick Studios, best known for its smash hit game Fruit Ninja. He has since gone on to work independently, including as a mentor to new designers.
ACMI curator Jim Fishwick sat down with Dan to discuss the strange beginnings and big ambitions of his latest game, Skyward Journey.
Jim Fishwick: Tell me about Skyward Journey. What is it?
Dan Vogt: You should start with something easier! Skyward Journey’s a calming, relaxing game about drawing wind gusts that some little birds jump on. You learn to interact with them and how to guide them, but you don’t control them. There’s a little thematic angle about how they’re lost and you’re guiding them home.
Really though, the whole game is a Trojan horse for an emotional payload, where I’m encouraging players to reflect on their regrets by presenting regrets that other people have offered anonymously to me throughout the development of the game. It sounds quite depressing, but the intention of it was to encourage people to investigate that relationship that they have to their regrets, and to encourage positive choices based on that.
It’s influenced by research by Bronnie Ware, who interviewed several thousand patients in palliative care about the regrets of their life. There were five common regrets that kept coming up, which she collated and turned into a book. Each of those five resonated with me on different levels. And I think this was a common thing at the time. People would read these and go "holy moly, I’m going to die with that regret, I should adjust my life accordingly, because that one’s already true".
So part of my goal is to surprise people with this revelation, in a unique way that only games can. I wanted to challenge them with these regrets and encourage them with positive messages to adjust how they live, or see if there’s any room there for them to avoid those regrets in the future.
JF: Was that your intention starting out? Because in addition to the message about regrets, the game mechanics are quite unique, and have a certain meditative quality to them. I find it very calming to play, seeing the birds in the wind, seeing the characters become happier. What was the starting point?
DV: It’s actually a collision of three things. First was the Bronnie Ware article I mentioned. Then second was a website I used to go to called PostSecret, where people would submit secrets about themselves. I would read it and just wonder what was going on within that person’s world. It was fascinating. PostSecret pretty directly influenced the inclusion of regrets at the end of your flight.
The third thing was the game mechanic. I’d actually come up with the idea of drawing paths for the birds – although they were originally little triangles – years ago. I was teaching some students how to start designing a game by using a game mechanic that you don’t really know what it will lend itself to, and then expanding on that. What happens if there’s a threat? What happens if there’s things that give you more birds?
I’d explored the mechanic for the sake of teaching that process, but then not developed it any further, because I found it didn’t lend itself to traditional games. It was harder to build the traditional game challenges around this idea of shepherding birds, because if you lose any to a threat it feels terrible! It’s heartbreaking. So I put it aside, but I had friends who had seen it who kept asking “When are you going to make the bird game?”.
It was a collision of those three things. But also, when I’m putting stuff on the App Store and Google Play they can reach millions of people, and I knew the game would be free so I wanted it to also have value. I wanted to surprise people. I think Trojan-horse-ing people is becoming one of my trademarks, actually. I didn’t really realise it at the time, but now that I’m think about it, it’s the thing that I’m trying to do. To surprise people with some emotional depth, or some experience they didn’t expect. Because I personally really enjoy it when things do that to me.
JF: You want to Trojan horse people. Is there an expectation that free mobile games won’t give players that sort of message?
DV: Free mobile games are a horrible place right now. No-one expects emotional depth or meaning from a free mobile game experience. And it’s one of the things I’ve found very difficult from the era that I learned to make games in, where we would charge a price up front. Now you have people on these infinite treadmill experiences that they never finish. They just leave. I found that really hollow. There are all these games that you play for a while, but you don’t get closure in terms of what the game’s really about.
One of things I wanted to do with my previous game Data Wing was offer mobile gamers a meatier story experience that resolves, that actually offers that closure. The game only takes roughly 90 minutes to play, but I’m still getting people asking for more levels, or more features for the game. Which I find really gratifying, because it means I did exactly what I set out to do, which was start with an unassuming little thing, have it evolve and grow and have them perceive all this other stuff that they didn’t realise was going to be there, then have it wrap up neatly at the end and give them closure.
It’s storytelling. Most mobile games give you a setting, they work hard to bring you into that world, and then they hope you hang around for an infinite amount of time and keep dropping money, and that’s the business. I grew up finishing games. I grew up going “wow, that’s cool, maybe I’ll play it again some day.” My favourite game experiences are ones that resolved.
JF: It sounds like there’s a double benefit for creating a short finite experience. One, that you get one story and that it provides the player with closure. Two, it’s easier as a solo developer, that you’re not necessarily constantly creating more content and updates.
DV: Oh, absolutely, oh my god yes. Games-as-a-service, it’s called nowadays, where you continue to update a game and track analytics. And that’s a craft, there’s a lot of skill there, but I didn’t find it particularly compelling to work like that. I’m setting out to give people an authored experience, rather than trying to keep them engaged for 50 or 100 hours. I’d much rather they walked away having had the same emotional experience, and maybe someone took 90 minutes and maybe someone took 30 minutes to get it, but the takeaway is the same.
And that’s an interesting thing, even with Skyward Journey the range of experiences that people went away with. It’s quite open-ended. Some people find it depressing, some think it’s affirming. There are reviews where people talk about how they use that game to self-medicate for stress. They’ll feel an anxiety attack coming on, then they play that game for ten minutes, and they would otherwise take a Xanax, but now they’re playing a game to control their body’s response to stress, which is incredible.
JF: Do you see a broader trend towards games that set out to improve a player’s life in this sort of way?
DV: More broadly, there’s a question around what games can be, what apps can be, and what our relationship to them is and should be. Both of the major mobile providers have now supported apps to manage the time you spend in certain apps, and to more rigidly manage parental controls, which I think is an acknowledgement that we’re investigating that relationship that we have with our entertainment or our apps. Which I think is healthy.
JF: The Center for Humane Technology have been doing some really interesting work on this issue. They argue that because the main capital on the internet is human attention, not people themselves, we’ve created an extractive attention economy, resulting in what the CHT calls "human downgrading", where people’s physical, emotional, or mental wellbeing is less important than the attention, and therefore money, that they can provide companies.
DV: That sounds about right. All of that stuff is pretty dark. At a high level, people who know what they’re doing are optimising everything to get your eyeballs, all of your privacy information, all your location data. It’s all a bit of a dark future.
JF: It’s all very stressful; I need to calm down. I should play a bit of Skyward Journey.
DV: It’ll calm you right down!
Skyward Journey and Data Wing are available on iOS and Android. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.