From the Classroom

Out of thin air: the team building the world of “Skylost”

USC Games student pulls from his experience hiking towards Franklin Lakes to develop a new game during the 2021-2022 academic year.

The group of students working on the "Skylost" game in a group photo.

It was a clear, blue January day along a winding, mountainous trail when Charlie Anderson was struck by inspiration. High up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, deep in the Sequoia National Park’s Mineral King Valley, Anderson and his girlfriend Amy Wu were hiking towards the Franklin Lakes – a pair of lakes where they planned to camp for the night before returning home the next day. As they followed the trail, it took them up through a valley with slopes covered in a gorgeous inferno of red, orange and yellow flowers, encircled by a crown of mountains reaching up to the skies. As Wu and Anderson hiked through this open, adventurous landscape, an idea hit Anderson like a bolt from the blue, an idea for a game. He imagined a world anchored in the firmament, imagined a skyborne archipelago threaded with sky-sailing pirates, imagined ways players could traverse and explore such lofty climes.

Anderson turned to share his new brainchild, “Hey, Amy. I have my next game idea…”

Franklin Lakes at sunset

Anderson is now working to turn that initial piece of sudden, incidental inspiration into a full-fledged game called “Skylost.” Anderson isn’t working solo though; he’s heading up a team staffed by 24 of his fellow USC students and is officially supported by the USC Games program as an Advanced Games Project -- or AGP for short.

Development on “Skylost” is currently running full-bore. Taking that original nugget of inspiration from the start of 2021 to this point has been a gradual process though. In fact, getting “Skylost” to this point is a tribute to the strength of its core concept. Naturally, Anderson had to believe in his idea. But to progress this far, members of USC Games faculty, professional game developers and the students who would go on to become his teammates also had to believe in it.

Back in the Sierras, Anderson immediately put finger to touch screen. He tapped the concept out into a notepad on his phone. Then he forgot about it for a bit. He and Wu finished up their hike and returned home to their daily lives. But Anderson kept the idea in the back of his head. It stayed there until word started going around in early February that USC Games would soon be accepting pitches for AGPs.

AGPs are a big deal inside USC Games; only eight or so are approved for production every academic year. A project anointed as an AGP becomes part of a class inside USC Games. Students who work on an AGP can earn capstone credit and USC faculty monitor and review development throughout the process. The resources and attention that come with AGP status don’t come easy though. For an idea to become an AGP, it has to pass a rigorous approval process, the first step of which is the pitch document. The pitch document is a substantial document, heavily detailing what the would-be game director aims to make and how they aim to make it.

Anderson wrote up his pitch, submitting his documents as the last days of February rolled around. In his documents, Anderson detailed his general concept, a plan for development, sales ideas, as well as a multitude of other details that any publisher worth their salt would want to know before giving a developer the go-ahead to start production.

Anderson outlined some ways in which players could traverse the world of “Skylost.” Anderson also asked artist Lucy Stevens, currently Art Lead at game developer Social Cipher, to create some concept art.

Concept art for "Skylost" including graphics of floating land surrounded by waterfalls.

Stevens agreed to create the concept art. Not just because she and Anderson are good friends, but also because she loved the idea behind the game and the thought of painting backgrounds and more for it.

For the concept art, Stevens was instructed to aim for a whimsical, “Breath of the Wild” inspired look, but she felt that Anderson was pretty relaxed about the constraints since the art was more for a proof of concept to interest people rather than to actually lock in a specific art style. In making the art, one of her key goals was to get Anderson’s basic ideas down on paper because she knew someone else would be handling the art if the pitch for “Skylost” was accepted. But although she knew the final art might look drastically different, she hopes her art managed to leave its mark on the project.

“I assumed Charlie [Anderson] would be able to pass a more honed vision on to the current artists,” Stevens said. “Though, I hope they were in some way inspired by the floaty islands and kooky pirates I got to draw.”

Stevens’ completed concept art was included with Anderson’s pitch and submitted to the committee along with the rest of the pitch documents.

Once Anderson submitted his pitch, the process was out of his hands and into those of Jim Huntley and the rest of the USC Games faculty.

Huntley is a Professor of the Practice of Cinematic Arts at USC, working under the auspices of the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media & Games Division. He also serves as the lead faculty for AGPs. As part of this role, Huntley is heavily involved in the process of greenlighting each year’s crop of AGPs.

Huntley says a proper project scope and a degree of innovation are key overall in what USC Games looks for in pitches. Innovation helps projects stand out among the pack, but a proper scope is essential to showing faculty that a project can be completed during the allotted time. After all, AGP teams only have the better part of a year to build their game, so if they don’t have a good sense of what they can get done in the time they have, they won’t finish in time.

Anderson’s concept documents passed muster, but after those initial outlines, the next step in the process was to submit a demo and a pitch. He sat down at his desk, powered-up his double-monitor setup and hopped into Unity to start designing a simple prototype.

As Anderson describes it, his prototype wasn’t anything fancy, just a little scene to serve as a proof of concept. “I literally just made a couple giant cubes that were my islands, put like a giant spire in the horizon, made a gliding system and a crafting system and an inventory system.”

Alongside the demo, Anderson had to organize his pitch documents into a presentation to be shown off to a panel, filled with professors and alumni from USC Games, as well as professional developers from Rockstar Studios and Microsoft.

So, Anderson worked away on his pitch presentation and demo. Part of preparing for the pitch was a lot of practice. Anderson would put on his long-sleeve brown button-up, leave his pajama pants on, hop into a Zoom meeting with Wu and make his pitch. Plus, in order to hedge on the side of safety from technical difficulties, Anderson recorded himself playing through the demo and planned to narrate as the video played.

Then, the final days of March rolled around, and with it came metaphorical high noon – pitch day.

“I was sweating profusely,” Anderson remembers. “There was a lot of anticipation because everyone was pitching… and I was dead last.”

Stuck in the Zoom waiting room as he waited for his turn to come, Anderson watched 8:30 a.m. turn into 9:30 a.m. When his time came, Anderson entered the Zoom meeting and immediately came face-to-face with a gallery of about 20 people all looking at him, waiting for him to pitch. Setting his terror to the side, Anderson presented his pitch, finishing within his allotted time. The panel thanked him and just like that, it was time to wait again.

Huntley remembers Anderson’s presentation as having a clear vision and a sense of confidence, but most importantly a reasonable scope. He felt Anderson’s visuals echoed those of “Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.” But Anderson didn’t invoke that comparison himself, which is a good thing. Huntley explained that massive games can take hundreds of professional developers and years of development time to make. So, invoking a big-name title in a pitch invokes a scale of development that no group of students can reasonably hope to achieve in less than a year.

As March ended and April strolled around, Anderson got the news that his project was greenlit. In a stroke of cosmic symmetry, the news came as Anderson was on a camping trip at Joshua Tree with Wu. Just like that, “Skylost” was no longer a solo endeavor. Anderson would be assembling and working alongside a team of fellow students to develop the core concept for “Skylost” into a full game.

Anderson then had to start reaching out to and recruiting people to become the “Skylost” team. He attended the two AGP recruitment events held late in the spring semester, pitching “Skylost” again, but this time to potential teammates. Anderson fielded emails from interested students, looked through portfolios of their work and interviewed them. He used the interviews to discuss the project with his potential teammates, but he also used the interviews to see what they wanted to get out of their time working on “Skylost.”

Ultimately though, one of the first people Anderson brought onto the project though was a fellow graduate student named Parwesh Rallapalli.

Rallapalli is Lead Designer on “Skylost,” and is working towards an M.S. in Computer Science with Specialization in Game Development. Rallapalli and Anderson had worked together before “Skylost.” During the Spring 2021 semester, they were paired up for the entire semester for a class in which they had to turn an initial idea to a finished digital product over the course of the class.

Rallapalli enjoyed his time with Anderson in that class. But this history slightly complicated the decision to join “Skylost.” Rallapalli knew what it was like to work with Anderson. So, Rallapalli took a look at all of the other AGPs. In the end though, Rallapalli found “Skylost” the most interesting and decided to join the team.

Rallapalli is particularly interested in systems-driven gameplay – a style of gameplay where players are given a set of tools and free reign to use them to interact with the game environment in all sorts of creative ways – and no other project had set forth that kind of direction in the way that Anderson’s had.

In May 2021, Rallapalli joined “Skylost” as part of the first group of people that Anderson brought on. To start, Rallapalli only had what had come as part of Anderson’s demo, which was actually a decent amount. The demo had a lot of extreme basics, including gray boxes representing areas, a simple glider, some basic movement, a touch of audio and a simple crafting system.

Moving into the summer and towards the “first-playable” milestone, Rallapalli turned his attention towards carving out what the basic mechanics of “Skylost” would be. A particular area of focus was a way of – quite literally – moving up in the world, to complement the downward movement of the glider the team already had.

Etching out a method of ascension felt essential. The glider “Skylost” already had felt pretty good to use. But gliding took players steadily downwards and there wasn’t really a way back up. So, the team set to work figuring out how to – quite literally – allow players to move up in the world.

As the “Skylost” team entered the summer break, more people were brought into the fold. By the end of July, Anderson estimates they had a small-but-mighty team of nine.

During that early summer period is when Yutong Liu joined the team as narrative lead. Liu is a graduate student in USC’s Film & Television Production program, and for her joining “Skylost” was a matter of speed. Liu reached out to two AGP directors and Charlie Anderson got back to her first.

Once on the project, Liu set her sights on the first big deliverable: a basic narrative walkthrough, due towards the end of the summer. As part of this, Liu had frequent meetings with Anderson and Rallapalli to brainstorm and sort out what the overall goals for “Skylost” were, and what kind of game they as a group wanted to make.

Using this information, Liu started to hash out a basic description of the game’s narrative arc, the ways in which players would experience the narrative, how players would be given information and the background of the game world. These meetings were essential to Liu’s work, because good narrative and good design should complement one another. Basically, Liu explained, players shouldn’t feel like they’re doing something just because the game says they need to in order to progress. Instead, players should feel like their actions come in pursuit of an overall goal, that their character has a reason for being able to complete the tasks in the game. For instance, when players craft a particular item in a game, it helps the experience if the in-game character has a reason not just to make that particular item, but to be able to make that specific item in the first place.

As Liu summed up, “As a game designer, we know there are just cold numbers in the machine. Well, as a player, we all feel like the game is not just cold numbers, right? It’s a connection of numbers and stories and music. It’s such good entertainment because it’s so much fun. It makes us want to see more. It makes us have profound experiences.”

Throughout the summer, Liu, Anderson and Rallapalli knocked around all sorts of different ideas about what kind of game “Skylost” should be. The end of summer came fast though and the team had to really start nailing down decisions. As Liu remembers it, “Eventually… it was like, ‘Oh, holy sh*t!’ We had to define: This is the game we want to do.”

Towards the end of summer, the team grew rapidly. By mid-September, the team had more than doubled to roughly 20 individuals, helped along by the start of the actual AGP class. With this late-summer expansion came “Skylost” Art Director Lyuying Guo.

Guo is an undergraduate student with the USC Roski School of Art & Design, working towards a B.A. in Art with a minor in Visual Narrative Art. Guo joined the “Skylost” team in August, right as the fall semester kicked off. Guo spoke with most of the Advanced Game Project directors, but the pitch for “Skylost” immediately grabbed her attention. Guo likes games based around exploration and adventure and “Skylost” was the only game she saw that echoed those traits

Once she joined “Skylost,” it took Guo a while to bring herself up to speed. For her first two weeks on the project, Guo dived into the concept art that had already been created prior to her arrival, as well as into the narrative and everything else already set for the game. After that, Guo set to work revising the concept art they had to fall more in line with the vision that she, Game Director Anderson and the other leads had for “Skylost.”

In terms of style, Guo says she likes to try out all sorts of different styles, since she’s still growing as an artist, but is into mystical themes of life. Using games as a reference point, Guo prefers the styles of games like “Journey” and “Sky: Children of the Light” – games with a fairy-tale sort of style that doesn’t tend too much towards cartoon. This tendency turned out to be fortuitous, since one of the inspirations for “Skylost” is actually “Sky: Children of the Light.”

As the fall semester has progressed, a few final individuals have been trickling in to fill needs as necessary. Anderson says his audio lead recently asked to bring on a composer – so through a partnership that USC Games has with the USC Thornton School of Music, “Skylost” was able to gain a team member hailing from a music program.

This, however, is where the story so far catches up to reality. There are still major milestones in production to surpass, but the eventual goal is to see “Skylost” showcased as part of the USC Games Expo alongside other completed AGPs. But the “Skylost” team is working away and making good progress. Moving into the back half of the fall semester, Huntley saw “Skylost” grow as the team fleshed out their islands, implemented some rough level design and added in hidden objects to find and collect.

“I was like ‘What game is this!? What just happened here?’” Huntley recalled. “It went from [grey boxes] and stuff to this lush, dense foliage. They’ve got to do some work on it still, but it suddenly came to life for me, which is cool to see.”