Hollywood and games are making friends again. You can see it at Hollywood companies such as Warner Bros., NBCU, Annapurna, and now Skydance Interactive.
Skydance debuted in 2010, and it’s founder is David Ellison, son of Oracle’s Larry Ellison. It has made movies such as True Grit, Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, G.I. Joe, Star Trek: Into Darkness, World War Z, and Terminator: Genisys.
It also acquired a game studio called The Workshop, and it now has 90 employees working on games. Every few years, the pendulum on games and Hollywood swings back and forth. In the past year, Disney retreated from making its own mobile games and returned to licensing its properties to outside game companies.
The first two games Skydance is showing are Archangel, a futuristic mech combat game in virtual reality; and PWND, a satirical 3-versus-3 multiplayer shooter game where the goal is to shoot and then embarrass your opponents.
The man behind these games is Peter Akemann, the CEO of game division Skydance Interactive and former president of The Workshop. I played both games at a recent preview event and talked to Akemann about both the nuances of the games and what it means to create an ambitious new game business.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How long have you been at it as Skydance?
Akemann: Skydance Interactive was formed just over a year ago, last April.
GamesBeat: But PWND had an existence before that?
Akemann: PWND was cooking for many years before that. I don’t even want to tell you how long. It was almost in the origin days of The Workshop itself, coming out of our initial period of invention and discovery. We had prototyped the rocket jumping. We got that working with some other things that didn’t pan out. But somewhere in there we came up with a wild-hair idea for the PWND mechanic. What if you had to teabag to score?
The novel thing has two parts. It’s the scoring by pwn, but also removing the scoring by kill. It’s knocking a pillar out of the foundation of every shooter in the world. Kill to score is not our game. That was the daring move that changed it. Then we realized how rocket jumping and pwning together. Pwning alone, we’ve seen other games try to do that, like Offensive Combat.
GamesBeat: It reminds me of Kill Confirmed in Call of Duty.
Akemann: Right. These are interesting things, nice bonus mechanics, but they’re not fundamental game mechanics. They can’t be. You move at a certain speed. Your weapons move at a certain speed. You have hit skins and the way the levels are designed. But for us, it’s exactly the ability to have a highly three-dimensional arena where, with rocket-jumping, you can have plenty of game space, but no point is really all that far from any other.
In two dimensions that’s not really possible. If you want a lot of space, things are far away. In three dimensions you have a lot more to work with. The rocket-jumping enables that three-dimensional closure, and it makes it possible for the pwn mechanics to be necessary. If I snipe some guy across a big, wide, two-dimensional plane and I gotta walk over there to score, forget it. PWND, however, boom, boom, rocket jump, I’m there in four seconds, three if I’m good, two and a half if I’m really good. It’s a good thing, because the timer is only three seconds. Can I close that pwn in time? Mastery of the movement, mastery of the arena, learning the lines where the rocket jumps are.
When we first created this, we did it for a console controller. We were targeting Xbox Live, to give you an idea of how long ago this was. But mechanics that could support that—we felt we had a whole shooter audience that had grown up with shooters being console experiences. Can we bring that high speed PC action to a console audience? That was the first thing that got it started.
Above: PWND is about shooting your friends and then “pwning” them, or making lewd gestures while standing over them.
Image Credit: Skydance
GamesBeat: It’s different from Halo controls. I have to relearn how to jump.
Akemann: It’s our adaptation. But we’d done console action gaming for a decade at that point. “We know something about this. We can crack this.” I was ignorant of how hard it is, but then you have to be, or you’d never try to do the impossible.
GamesBeat: If you leave something out, it seems like you’re forgetting—I was always forgetting to carry a body.
Akemann: You can carry, yeah. You don’t have to, but it can be a good tactical decision. If some guy’s in the wrong position, where he’s a bit exposed, that can make all the difference. You start the pwn where you’re sticking out from behind a wall and a sniper from across the arena is going to get you. But you drag him into the alley you get it done. But you slow the time down when you pick the person up. Everyone’s taking risks. Everything’s a tradeoff.
GamesBeat: It seems at least slightly offensive. Did you worry about that at all?
Akemann: Sure, of course we did. We wanted to provoke, but not offend? We had this crazy satirical humor to the thing from the outset. Given what we’re doing, it’s hard to avoid. But we’ve been sensitive about not making it a game that was offensive, that was openly vulgar. It’s puerile, but not overtly gross in a sexual way, or any other way for that matter. We didn’t want to turn people off. It’s a fine line, right? There’s getting people’s ire up, and then there’s just grossing them out to a point where they don’t want to be there. Certain other games, and I shouldn’t go with a litany of them, have crossed the line in ways that I think were to their detriment.
GamesBeat: So that was a design goal? Let’s not cross that line.
Akemann: Right. Let’s make a satirical game. We always felt that the game was kind of subversive, in the beginning. It’s knocking out death as the pillar, taking away one of the fundamental mechanics in video games. Killing stuff for points, right? We have that line about how death is temporary, but humiliation is forever. That echoed our vibe. It set the tone for an irreverent and satirical game. Irreverent on a certain level, anyway. On another level it takes itself very seriously. But the humor is unmistakable. That’s the line you have to ride if you’re going to go with satire.
GamesBeat: And trash-talking became a core value of the game.
Akemann: Trash-talking, we wanted to kind of make it okay. Yes, there’s a Jerry Springer Show mentality to the whole thing, without a doubt. But at the same time, it’s fun. It’s not toxic. We’ll see, when we get it into the real ecosystem. Any online system can become toxic. But by legitimizing the trash talk and making it a part of the fun, it can be just as fun to take a rocket launcher to the face – to take it as it is to dish it out. If you get pwnd five times and finally get back at that guy who’s been sticking it to you the whole match. Or if you’re saved by your buddy who’s a stronger player than you.
One of the great things about it is the way teams with members of varying skill can support each other. I know the emotion of it. When I’m getting pwnd by somebody and I see him take a rocket to the face half a second before he was going to win, I feel great! He gets what’s coming to him. There’s lots of turnover. Turnover is kind of a theme. A lot of payback throughout the game, all the way across. All those little emotional loops really work. They keep the game fun.
GamesBeat: How did you ultimately get to the 3-on-3 structure? Did you have bigger teams at any point?
Akemann: We never went very large, maybe because we were never a very big company? We never had enough guys to play something like 16-on-16. Once we had those mechanics early on, we found that it was so much about knowing all of what’s going on with the other team. The moment a player is down, I want to know where my friends are, where my enemies are. Are they engaged? Are they down? How quickly are they going to be able to get to me? With lots of other players you don’t know that. That tactical game is lost.
You could still have a great free-for-all time with a large number. If you play five on five it’s the jungle. Some guys just love it. They love the chaos. The core rocket jumping game is so fun. Pulling off any pwn at all in that environment feels like an achievement.
Above: PWND is about showing your dominance.
Image Credit: Skydance
GamesBeat: When you teamed with David Ellison, did you have both of these ideas? How far along were they?
Akemann: PWND had been cooking for some time. Archangel was born pretty much with the company, with Skydance Interactive. We had done some giant mech stuff before. We created a sort of steampunk mech game back in our early workshop days, called Ironclad. I didn’t call it steampunk at the time. I called it Victorian sci-fi. But it was this game about driving a three-story iron steam-powered battlemech in the 19th century, fending off the invaders from Mars, smashing the shit out of Victorian London.
So we had some mech on our brain before that, some original control schemes. We did a ton of motion control. We made Sorcery for PlayStation using the Move controller. It was the biggest game they did for Move. It probably showed up a little too late. We had a lot of ideas about control infrastructure, but Archangel itself was original, born right then.
GamesBeat: As you’re going into this, do you view yourselves more as triple-A or indie?
Akemann: Well, triple-A talks about a budget scale that nobody can yet justify on VR. I don’t want to make that claim myself. I’d rather somebody in the press say it, if they believe we’ve achieved that. But that would certainly be my goal, to be triple-A for VR, for what that is. That’s a budget level that is still possible for a new player to jump right in. If you’re jumping into console you’re talking about a mountain you have to climb. Here, it’s a great new territory.
It’s not just budgets. It’s that there’s an open field. VR is a brand new space. It’s only just now that real game companies are starting to take it seriously. By jumping ahead of that and being willing to bet big and bet confidently on this thing from the beginning, that’s given us a chance to be part of telling the next chapter of the gaming story. I couldn’t turn that down, as a developer.
I think we’re somewhere in between. PWND, obviously, we’re not one of the biggest budget shooter companies. We’re also a new company in terms of the gaming space. We’ll build our way up. We definitely come from a triple-A background. Everything we worked on as a workshop for years was of that nature. We’re bringing a triple-A sensibility and developers who know how to do that to this smaller space. I think we’ll build up our reputation. I expect to be there in a few years.
GamesBeat: Are you thinking about mobile at all, or is that outside of what you do?
Akemann: It’s not on our immediate radar. If the right idea comes in the door—we believe in VR. We’re obviously doing more than VR. The world is our oyster. We control our own destiny. If the right idea came in sideways we could definitely look at it. But it hasn’t been our core strength as developers, historically. It wouldn’t be the first place I’d look.
GamesBeat: Are you thinking about any movie IP?
Akemann: It was extremely important to us, at the outset especially, to establish that Skydance Interactive was going to be a source of original gaming content – to make the statement that Skydance views gaming as an authentic, viable commercial and creative medium in its own right. Not something ancillary to the film and TV business. It reboots the way a lot of people look at Hollywood and video games, what you expect when a movie studio comes in and decides to make games, where it’s obviously derivative.
Notice that our first two games are both original games, not tied to any properties. All that said, we’d be fools to ignore some of the great properties that Skydance is in. Many of them are tied to broad worlds with ample opportunities for making video games out of them. World War Z, Mission Impossible, Star Trek, Reacher, Terminator. I’d be a blind man if I didn’t see the opportunities in those things. I guarantee we’ll be making use of that in the future. But it was important that our opening statement was, “Games are a thing in their own right. They’ll stand alone. We’ll have IP generated from games. We might be making movies or TV from our game IP in the same way.”
GamesBeat: You’re about 90 people. Do you see that as your full-grown studio?
Akemann: We’re at a good size for our current target. We want to prove we can operate and succeed at this level. I don’t think we’re going to get a lot bigger. There will be some growth. A steady state is very hard to achieve in game development. Needs always fluctuate. But I think this is going to get us to a point where we can get a couple of games out each year. That’ll be a good cadence for us.
We established ourselves with our initial work that’s out there and we’ll grow over time. I’d love to grow into a titan. [laughs] But I think we want to get our legs first and make sure we’re successful with the hand that’s been dealt us. We’ll earn our right to do big things by doing little things well. Well, I wouldn’t call either of these little things, but maybe medium-sized.
GamesBeat: You have a few notable actors in Archangel. Is that thanks to connections through the rest of the company?
Akemann: Absolutely. We were able to partner with Digital Domain to build the VR interactive cinematics that bookend the story, as well as interleaved cinematic moments throughout. That was a great opportunity to add a human dimension to the game. You’re playing it from more than just a cockpit. You need a chance to connect with the people behind the story, and so we do that. At the beginning you’re outside of the mech. It has the sensibilities I was talking about – Skydance’s passion for world-building and storytelling, as well as their connections to be able to pull someone like DD in the door to partner with. We made sure we’re delivering a game that’s got that kind of rich, full-bodied, end-to-end treatment. If someone has a shot at going for triple-A VR, that’s what we’re aiming for. I feel like that’s something only Skydance could have, or would have, pulled off.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting to see confidence in the game industry, starting up a brand new thing and expecting it’ll do well.
Akemann: David himself is about as big a gamer as you can get. That certainly helps. He’s playing all the time. He’s very good. He understands it from a consumer level just fine. He skips cutscenes too, by the way. When they’re not any good, when they’re not tied to the action and moving things forward.
It’s an opportunity. VR was definitely an open door, believing that the VR market—obviously the big players aren’t there yet. It’s not really on their radar. It’s not the thing that gets the Activisions and EAs of the world into it, other than ancillary little test projects. As far as really investing in VR, that’s indie-land right now. We jumped in on it a year ago seriously. It was a bet that it was going to grow.
Now, it’s not going to grow fast. We all know the barriers that are there. The technological barriers are high. It’s all still first-gen products. The basic user experience is not commoditized at all yet. It’s going to take a longer time than we thought just to get the hardware out there. Even the way information spreads these days—it’s not something you can easily spread on the internet, what it is and what it’s worth. The software has to come in to justify it. A platform without compelling applications that you can only get there is never going to fly. It’s a chicken and egg problem. A lot has to go right.
But we’ve all put our hands on the controls. We’ve felt the magic of it. We can see that there is absolutely a viable, original, novel gaming landscape to be drawn there. It takes companies like ours that have the resources and the confidence to see far enough ahead and say, “Yeah, that’s going to go. This year? I don’t know. Two years from now? I don’t know. Five years from now? Yeah.” We’re willing to jump in and play that game. That’ll give us a unique position.
The Skydance Interactive story is a great story. It’s a great story for VR — VR needs this – and for the industry generally. I hope we can lead people to rethink how they see the landscape.
GamesBeat: Just as people see downward cycles, we need to see upward cycles as well. Disney retreats from games and then NBC Universal hires all of their people.
Akemann: Right. Games aren’t going away. It’s just easy to get it wrong sometimes. We have to prove we’ve got it right. I’m not going to go out there acting like we’ve already got it. We have to earn our stripes like anybody else. But I feel very confident that we have the right team in place at every level – development-wise, executive-wise – that’s going to give us a shot that few other people ever get. We’re going to make the most of it and I think we’re going to succeed.