When people talk about their favorite PlayStation exclusives, the free-to-play game The Tomorrow Children doesn’t usually rank among them, buried under an avalanche of sad dad simulators and cinematic action-adventures. But it remains arguably one of the most interesting and unusual projects Sony Interactive Entertainment published this generation, combining the resource collection of a game like Minecraft with the social mechanics of Death Stranding, and wrapping it all up in a visual style reminiscent of Czech puppet theatre.
But before you all go rushing off to try and check it out for yourselves, you should know that it’s no longer available. On November 1st, 2017, Q-Games and SIE Japan Studio shut down the game’s servers for the good, rendering it unplayable. This was especially surprising at the time, as it had only been available for a year, having been released in early access on September 6th, 2016.
With the anniversary of the game’s original release date having justed passed and talk of the next console cycle ramping up, I contacted Q-Games studio head and The Tomorrow Children’s creative director Dylan Cuthbert to talk about the project’s origins and the reasons for its untimely demise.
The tale of how The Tomorrow Children came to be starts with Mark Cerny, the lead system architect on the PlayStation 4 and noted Knack evangelist. It was his idea to encourage Q-Games to pitch something to Sony using non-standard technology, i.e. something that isn’t your typical lighting system or polygon rendering used on 3D games. The team embraced this challenge, with Cuthbert forming an idea for a project codenamed “Dream World,” in which players would adventure across malleable islands finding doors that transported them to other locations, similar to the film Monsters Inc.
“The initial pitch went down quite well as Sony tends to like slightly outlandish ideas and novel technology,” Cuthbert recalls. “Halfway through though, the original more fantastical direction we were going in was looking to take a lot more content creation than either Sony or Q-Games really wanted to get into, so the game almost got canned.”
In an effort to save the project, Cuthbert took another swing at its design, borrowing more heavily from Eastern European and Soviet art, as well as the Marxist economic systems of the 1960s. The gameplay shifted from a typical adventure and exploration format to a stronger emphasis on base-building and resource collection. Cuthbert also added the Izverg, a giant flying creature that could be killed to harvest more materials.
“I showed Shu Yoshida [then President of Sony’s Worldwide studios] and Allan Becker [then SIE Japan Studio head] a demo of this new system and asked to switch the game in this new direction, and they agreed to it on the spot,” Cuthbert says. “I think it was the mining of a fallen Izverg that impressed them.”
One of the main aspects that set the game apart was its visuals. There wasn’t anything else that looked quite like it. From its unique art direction to its ground-breaking use of a 3D technique called Voxel Cone Tracing to light the environment, The Tomorrow Children didn’t resemble anything that players had seen before.
As Cuthbert explains, “The technology was very important for the project and we were very excited about creating something that looked very different to other games. Our engine used an idea called Voxel Cone Tracing that no-one had got working as a real-time solution at that time. We did, and discovered we could use it to give us all kinds of features, such as three bounces of light so you could see light bouncing in from the entrance of a tunnel.
“The important thing also was that it was dynamic,” he continues. “Because our landscape could be destroyed or created by the player, and so our lighting had to bounce around in real-time even if everything was moved down.”
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The Greater Good
In The Tomorrow Children, players took control of a projection of a little girl, with the primary goal of rebuilding towns and repopulating the post-apocalyptic landscape. To do this, they needed to farm resources and materials from abstract islands that appeared to construct buildings, such as apartments and power stations. Players also needed to collect Matryoshka dolls to populate their towns with the tiny inhabitants inside, and construct weapons and defenses to defend the town from roaming Kaiju-style beasts.
It was this idea of collaboration that was one of the project’s most unique qualities. Although players occupied the same space, they had few means of interacting with each other, besides a collection of emotes or small minigames within the environment. The enjoyment therefore came from leveraging these small gestures to communicate with other players in your town as well as realizing that your individual progress was contributing to a greater collective goal.
“The [idea] was to create a feeling of comradery between the players, but without too much peer pressure,” Cuthbert explains. “So instead of players being constantly visible and in each other’s faces, we decided that the players would only appear when they do things, and when they were running around or just keeping to themselves, they were invisible and unobtrusive. For the most part this kept the play non-toxic and friendly I think, and this was really important for us.”
That’s not to say there weren’t still griefers attempting to spoil the fun, with two popular exploits being to use the Eagle Corp Disassembler to disassemble town structures that players had worked hard to create, and exploiting the Snub system (a way of punishing griefers) to liberally jail other players. But these were both addressed as time went on, with the Disassembler being made available only to players who had achieved bourgeoise status within the town, meaning they had their own residence; and Snubs having to be earned through Toil (currency earned through work).
End of The World
When everything came together inside The Tomorrow Children, the results were magic. Among some of the team’s favourite memories were seeing players get together to say goodbye to each other after a long play session or working together in-game to achieve their shared community goals.
For many players, The Tomorrow Children was a unique experience they’d never had from playing a video game before. But sadly, this experience wouldn’t last long. While it could be argued that the somewhat mixed reception from critics had something to do with the project’s lack of longevity, Cuthbert claims it was the cost of servers that was the deciding factor in shutting the project down.
“We didn’t manage to get the free-to-play paradigm to work on PS4, but we really needed it to work in order to run the servers which were quite expensive,” Cuthbert tells me. “In the end the cost of the servers was out-pacing the income, so Sony decided to close it down.”
“I personally feel we could have turned around the income issue if we had been allowed to continue and really flesh out the game,” he adds. “We had many things in the pipeline such as giant robots and new characters. So it was frustrating to have such a decision made, and so quickly, especially as the game is now unplayable and lost to time.”
Today, The Tomorrow Children is often forgotten. However, it remains one of Sony’s most fascinating experiments. Not only was it a technical marvel in its time, but it represented a wealth of interesting ideas — not to mention unrealized potential. Cuthbert says that the team had hoped to get more into the backstory of the game’s world as time went on, revealing new details to the player slowly through updates and new characters. Q-Games have been reluctant to specify much further than that, keeping the details close in case the opportunity ever arrives to revive the project. Here’s hoping that opportunity arrives soon.