Pathfinding: How family legacies in architecture influenced the world of Sable
Sable creators Gregorios Kythreotis and Daniel Fineberg discuss how they founded Shedworks and the journey to releasing their first console game.
Happy new year! I’m excited to expand Pathfinding this year to include stories of individuals beyond Microsoft and Xbox. To kick off 2023 we will meet several individuals that contributed to Sable, a unique, non-linear open world game. Today we are talking with Gregorios Kythreotis, Creative Director, and Daniel Fineberg, Technical Director. They are also co-founders of the studio that created Sable, Shedworks.
What led to your partnership and the founding of your studio, Shedworks?
Greg: We were family friends – our dads went to university together – but we hadn’t seen each other in a long time. Dan’s dad had been talking to mine shortly after we graduated in 2014, and since we were both interested in making games, they encouraged us to get together.
Daniel: At the time we didn’t have any experience in games, or really any skills, so we started Shedworks as a way to teach ourselves.
Greg: I remember describing it as an internship we created for ourselves to get some experience.
Daniel: We thought we would make a few small games and build a portfolio and then get real jobs – we just never got real jobs.
Greg: We worked in my parents’ shed for 5 years before getting a studio space, and that’s where the name of the company came from.
If your background wasn’t in games, what did you study in university?
Greg: I have a bachelor’s degree in architecture from University College London. My dad is an architect and Daniel’s dad is an architect, so I’ve always had that connection. My architecture background informs my approach to design and world building. It’s a big part of my research and helps me find the references we use in the project.
How does that translate into a make-believe world? Do you start with something in the real world and then change it to make it different, or do you try to make things as realistic as possible?
Greg: We want to make fantastical worlds and use architectural techniques to create certain feelings at certain moments. If there is a feeling of awe or majesty that we want to evoke we would use things in the environment to create those moments, but we contrast those against a more lived-in feeling from the real world.
Daniel: Like more mundane architecture. Our objective from the start was to build a world that felt like people really lived in it. Sable isn’t a superhero, she’s just a person who lives here. We wanted the settlements to give the impression of people living there and going about their everyday lives.
Greg: Right. I don’t really start by looking at a particular place for inspiration, but I think about the environment and look at as many places as I can with that environment. For example, when we were making the desert world, I thought about how a desert climate should inform the build environment. Where would people live in the desert? How would they live? From there I looked at real world deserts to answer those questions. I looked at Arcosanti, Arizona in the U.S. and Marrakesh, Morocco and other hot weather, isolated, nomadic areas. An example of something I learned was that sandstorms are a problem in the desert, and there are different ways of building homes to withstand them. We used an approach informed by old vernacular architecture. We created a castle town with outside walls that are quite high and alleyways between buildings that are narrow, which creates a protected area inside the walls that can withstand a sandstorm. That was all informed by real world architecture.
Daniel, it sounds like architecture is all around you – did you study that as well?
Daniel: No, I didn’t, I wanted to avoid that <laughs>. My grandad and uncle are also architects, but I knew pretty early on I wanted to do something different. When we were kids and went on holiday, I remember spending a lot of time looking at churches and old buildings and waiting for my dad to take photos of hand rails and all the intricate structure details. I just wasn’t as keen about it. I studied comparative literature and have a degree from the University of Kent.
Do you lead more of the story telling aspects for the game then?
Daniel: I think it definitely helped inform how we approach the story. It was especially helpful in the early stages when we were building out the world and trying to figure out how do we join up the themes of the overall story to the themes of the gameplay? We wanted the player to have the freedom to do whatever they want and feel like they’re telling their own story and experiencing it through the world, but we wanted that to connect to the character and her personal growth.
Greg: I also think you bring more of an editorial eye to the overall process. I bring Daniel an idea and he asks all kinds of questions and by the time we’re done discussing it, the idea is much more fully formed. His background gives a different perspective and then we build up the idea together.
Daniel: Yes, and we share the responsibility for storytelling and creating the fictional world history and characters together, and we had an incredible writing team. While my literature background is useful for editorial work, when was finishing university, I didn’t feel like I had an employable set of skills, so I started teaching myself programming. Now that’s my main role on the team.
It sounds like a lot of your game creation skills are self-taught. What learning resources did you use?
Greg: Online training and Lynda.com
Daniel: I had a really good book about making your first unity game. It was a step-by-step introduction to unity. It was quite thick, an actual paper book, and you just had to follow along. That was where I started, and then I also watched YouTube videos. Unity has their own tutorial series and quite a few good educational resources on their website. Once I got to a certain level I could get contract work and then I learned a lot just by doing the work and from the more senior people on my team.
When did your work on Sable become your main focus?
Greg: Our vision was always to make a console game.
Daniel: We started out making mobile games because they were smaller projects and publishing was simple and accessible, but it didn’t feel like a natural fit for us. It was a good place to start, but we always knew that we wanted to create bigger, more story-driven games.
Greg: We also realized that making mobile games wasn’t necessarily easier or smaller like we originally thought. With all the different screen sizes and associated UI and performance work you can have a lot of technical debt and challenges even in a mobile game.
Daniel: It’s also really hard to make money on mobile games because they’re mostly free to play, and to make money on advertisements in your game you need millions of people to play. It’s hard to compete with the big mobile game companies.
Greg: About three years after starting Shedworks, I remember looking at how many mobile games we had made and thinking what have we done? We’ve made so many games and there isn’t a single building in any of them. I studied architecture, how has this happened? I couldn’t let it happen again.
Daniel: At that time, I was just finishing up a contract job for a game on the Nintendo Switch. That was my first console game, and after I had been through the entire release process for a console game, I felt ready to start making our own.
Greg: We got the original idea for Sable in 2016 and it had been in the back of our minds for about a year.
Daniel: We wanted to make an open world game that was a bit smaller and more accessible, but the real kernel of the idea for Sable came from the joy of exploration. The feeling of possibility when you’re staring out at the horizon of the desert, and you think “I could go anywhere.”
Greg: The looseness of the design was a production consideration as much as a design philosophy. We were a small team and knew we needed flexibility in our production process so that if we changed the story or cut part of the game later it wouldn’t collapse the entire game. This approach also gives the player control over where they choose to take the story. We think of the desert like an ocean and the locations in the game like islands where we distribute content that lives independently on that island. If we remove an island, that’s ok, the rest of the islands continue to exist, and players can still navigate between them.
Daniel: Right, so in 2017 we decided we had enough money saved up to focus on Sable full time.
Greg: I remember thinking: this is it. We knew from the beginning that Sable was going to be a turning point – either we would succeed, or we would go and work for other people after it failed. But we said let’s just do it and see what happens.
Daniel: We spent a couple months polishing the prototype and when we started posting GIFs to Twitter they blew up. The game gained the attention of several publishers, and we decided to go with Raw Fury. With their funding we were able to bring on some collaborators and we’ve been working for Shedworks full-time since then.
Check out Sable today at the Xbox store: Buy Sable | Xbox.