Skydance Interactive, the game division of film company Skydance Media, is diving into games today with two very different titles: the silly shooter PWND and the serious virtual reality mech combat game Archangel.
The two games represent a big investment by Skydance Media — started in 2010 by David Ellison, son of Oracle founder Larry Ellison — to break into video games at a time when the movie and TV businesses are slowing down. Skydance Media acquired a game studio called The Workshop, and it now has 90 employees working on games.
I played both games at a preview event and then interviewed Peter Akemann, CEO of Skydance Interactive.
PWND is high on the silly meter
PWND is a satirical 3-versus-3 multiplayer shooter game where the goal is to shoot and then embarrass your opponents. Not only do you have to shoot your opponent, you must also go to their body and stand over it and then make a lewd gesture for a few seconds. If you are shot while you are “teabagging,” you lose your kill credit.
It looks like the cartoon-style graphics of Team Fortress 2, and it plays fast like Quake. But the whole point is to appeal to the trash-talking culture of gaming.
The man behind these games is Peter Akemann, 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.
Asked about PWND’s origins at The Workshop, Akemann said, “PWND was cooking for many years before that (acquisition). 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?”
He added, “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.”
It reminds me of the Kill Confirmed mode in Call of Duty, where you have to shoot someone and then retrieve their dog tags in order to get a kill in multiplayer.
As to the teabagging, Akemann said, “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.”
The game emphasizes 3D play, since you can rocket jump upward and get a height advantage on your opponents. Once you get a kill, you can drag the body to an area where there is no action and then do your teabag. But that kind of deflates the point of grinding in a sexual way above your opponent’s body, since no one sees you do it.
“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,” Akemann said. “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.”
I played the PC game with an Xbox controller, and I got pounded by the players with a mouse and keyboard. The buttons were different from the Halo controls, which I am used to. This game is going to test whether gamers have a sense of humor.
Archangel is a cinematic, story-driven VR game
Archangel is almost the opposite of PWND. It is a story-driven Mech combat game where you get into a giant mechanical robot and use heavy firepower against your enemies. The story has cinematic cut scenes created by Digital Domain, and it has some pretty serious voice-acting talent as well.
“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,” Akemann said. “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.”
I started out in a futuristic city that has been destroyed. A bunch of sand dunes cover the city, and you lead a team that has to escape from the city in stealth. But the team runs into enemy patrols, both land-based and aerial. You have to use your hand controls to target the enemies and take them out with guns and rockets.
Since it takes place in VR, you can turn your head in any direction and shoot at enemies. But you can play it sitting down, and you rarely have to spin around 180 degrees. I enjoyed it. It was a serious combat game, though I can’t say the experience is that much better than playing on a console of PC game.
Since Skydance is new, it deliberately targeted VR as a potential market.
“It’s not just budgets. It’s that there’s an open field. VR is a brand-new space,” Akemann said. “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.”
He added, “With 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 The 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.”
Akemann said he knows that the VR market isn’t going to grow extremely fast at first.
“We all know the barriers that are there. The technological barriers are high,” he said. “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.”
He added, “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.”
And we’ll find out soon if gamers are willing to do that too with Skydance.