January 16, 2014 4:00 PM | Lena LeRay
Tyson Kubota has just released his first video game, Skydrift, for free on the iOS app store. Made in Unity, the game is a simple, freefall journey "from the heavens down to the earth's core". Skydrift could be likened to a serene, zen version of AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! in which all the player has to do is avoid colliding with things, making sure to collect orbs as they travel. Kubota has studied film making and works on the Criterion Collection's web site by day, but he's spent many a night over the last year learning to use Unity in the quest to make Skydrift. He's taken the time to talk to IndieGames about his experience making his first game and how his background skills helped him out.
Is this the first game you've made?
Yes. I started learning Unity in early 2012, and started developing Skydrift in earnest that summer. It was polished enough to go into beta in summer 2013, and I incorporated a lot of player feedback and friendly advice before launching on the App Store in January 2014.
What made you decide to try making a game?
In 2010, a friend made a penguin racing game, and he told me about Unity. When I saw what you could do with free and low-cost software, it was truly inspiring. After focusing on 2D animations and live-action film projects, I'd wanted to expand my horizons into making 3D experiences, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity. In a way, making a game is the best video game of all! It's like an infinitely engrossing RPG with an endless number of side quests -- The Neverending Story brought to digital life.
What was your inspiration for Skydrift?
I wanted firstly to make a game that emphasized the unique characteristics of an iPhone. That means something palm-sized with a touchscreen, yes, but you also have a rich array of other features, like the accelerometer and gyroscope. These inputs enable many new control possibilities. I really tried to avoid game concepts that would work better on a full-fledged console (so no virtual joystick or buttons).
I also had several game inspirations, especially the Souls series (Demon's Souls and Dark Souls). They have an ethereal tone that keeps you wanting more, with the prospect of new discoveries around each corner. I love how Dark Souls stitches its game areas into a coherent, seamless world, so I paid a little homage here in Skydrift: each level continues directly into the next. Pilotwings on SNES and N64 also came to mind, as well as Nights into Dreams on Saturn and the SNES game Aero the Acro-Bat, which has pseudo-3D skydiving sections. I heard about the game AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!: A Reckless Disregard for Gravity only after I was halfway done with Skydrift!
Which did you find more difficult, learning Unity or learning 3D modelling?
Meanwhile, 3D modeling was something I'd wanted to learn for years. I'd tried software like Maya and Blender in college, but the tools felt overwhelming. It wasn't until I discovered Modo that I felt able to push myself to make the whole game in detailed 3D -- not photo realistic, but with enough grit and feeling in the geometry to let me flesh out the visuals with color and lighting. Making a game was the best motivation to quickly get my modeling up to speed, so I'd say they were complementary skills!
What was your greatest challenge over the course of making Skydrift?
Things I thought would be fun turned out not to be. Designing the game in my head and on paper only took me so far -- it wasn't until I had something playable in my hands that I could start to refine the game mechanics. A lot of stuff, like explicit point systems and timers, melted away over the course of development until I was left with what I think works best and is most fun.
What went really well?
Unity was great to work with. I highly recommend it as an engine. My greatest pleasure was the moment when the various attributes -- the 3D models, the lighting, the scripted behaviors, the sound, and controls -- came together enough that I could see the core of the finished game.
How well did your existing skills from film and digital media translate into game design? Which were the most useful?
I studied film making in college, and drew all the time as a kid, so a background in 2D art definitely helped. I carry around a sketchbook for jotting down new concepts and roughing out level designs. I drew all my level components before modeling them, so I could visualize how they fit together and what the feeling would be each of each part. When it came time to make the trailer video for Skydrift, knowing the basics of camera movement helped, as I set up virtual tracking shots within Unity and cut the resulting frames together in Final Cut Pro. As a solo game maker, you end up having to do many things outside the realm of the game itself -- video editing, web design, social media marketing -- that it really pays off to have a broad skill set. Every little bit helps. I've been really gratified by the great response to Skydrift so far. Thanks to all the players!
Do you have a next game idea in mind?
Each game seems to inspire two or three more! I settled on Skydrift's core mechanic (tilt to move, collect orbs to stay alive, tap to speed up) after several months of prototyping, so much was thought up and left on the shelf. I would like to make a few smaller, more focused games next, almost like exercises -- ones that use randomness to vary the game experience, and emphasize skill and moment-to-moment play.
Do you have any plans to port Skydrift to other systems?
Yes! I tested it with the Oculus Rift dev kit this summer and the basic gameplay works great. The whole thing is controlled by the Rift's accelerometer and gyro -- it felt even better, almost dreamlike, to fluidly carve through space just by turning my head. I need to rethink the menus to work without touch feedback, but otherwise it's basically ready. I also would love to port Skydrift to the PS Vita, as soon as Unity's Vita integration goes live!
Is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers?
Skydrift is my first full game, but I've also made an Oculus Rift jam entry with some friends this summer, too. It's an experimental piece where your vision is taken from you and slowly restored. It's called The Seed, available for free download.