Jenova Chen is the creator behind the multi award-winning student game Cloud and flOw, co-founder of thatgamecompany and the creative director of Flower and Journey. You can read his thesis about flow in games over here.
Posts Tagged ‘jenova chen
GMZzz: You guys started collaborating in college, the result being the still awesome Cloud. Do you remember that first moment when you realized you should start working together? What triggered that?
Kellee Santiago: When Jenova and I were working on our pitch for “Cloud” to take to Electronic Arts, which was the company that sponsored the grant that allowed us to make that game in school. We were working long hours together on top of our school work, and working on the pitch forced us into many conversations about what kind of games we wanted to make. We realized that we had very similar ambitions, and also we worked really well together. There are few people in the world you can start a business with – you need a strong relationship built on trust and understanding.
GMZzz: So in the dynamics of thatgamecompany team, what’s Jenova’s role and what’s Kellee’s role?
Kellee Santiago: Jenova is the Creative Director – he comes to the team with the initial spark of inspiration for a game, and then sees it through completion. He’s very hands-on, designing and executing in game as well as owning the “Big Picture” and leading collaborations on the team. I’m President, which involves setting a course for the future of the company that ensures we can continue being successful making the kind of games we want to make, and making sure that each step we’re making along the way takes us in that direction.
GMZzz: Your breakthrough game was clearly flOw. That game really put your name up there but it also helped Sony’s PS3 to stand out as a platform for genuinely original titles. I’m just curious how much did Sony help you out? Did they see the potential in your game and backed you up, or did they react only after the game’s fame started picking up steam?
Kellee Santiago: Well, first of all, thank you for the complimentary introduction. Sony offered us a three game deal to developed downloadable titles on the back of our student game, “Cloud”, and Jenova’s thesis Flash game, “flOw.” We chose to take “flOw” to the PS3 because we knew we were going to be facing many challenges making our first commercial console title, so we wanted to mitigate some of our stress by use the Flash game as a launch pad for the game design, as opposed to starting from scratch. As part of the deal with Sony, they housed us in their Santa Monica offices, alongside the God of War team. Through this period, they were really part mentors and part publisher. They really supported us and helped us in every aspect of shipping our first title.
GMZzz: Do you think the success of flOw helped other independent studios get their crazy little games up on PSN? Or was it just a logical evolution, one that was required by a market fed up with the same generic games?
Kellee Santiago: I think it was a bit of both. When we were talking with publishers before graduating, many of them just didn’t know what to do with us. The very idea of studying video game making in school was so new, that they weren’t sure if we were going to be able to execute on a professional, commercial level. I think flOw and Cloud, along with other student projects such as the Portal team’s “Narbacular Drop” helped to put students of game design on the radar of publishers. I also think the people at Sony Santa Monica who structure this 3-game incubation deal helped to set a precedent for students taking their work into independent development, and of course the PSN audience has helped to encourage them and other studios to continue this kind of work by voting with their dollars for experimental titles like “flOw” and “Flower.”
GMZzz: What can you tell us about Journey? It seems a very personal project, yet completely different from the previous games. What did you set out to do with this new game?
Kellee Santiago: Journey was inspired by Jenova’s feeling that we lack a sense of awe in modern society. We are so very powerful in our day-to-day lives now – we can fly, we can work in buildings that reach above the clouds, we can connect with just about anyone, anywhere at anytime! Could we design a game to bring back a sense of smallness and wonder to players?
GMZzz: How does Journey differ from your previous games? Just the fact that it’s an online game seems like a radical change from what kind of experiences your previous games offered.
Kellee Santiago: You’re absolutely right. Online is a frontier we’ve yet to explore, so we knew from the beginning that we wanted this third project to explore the online connections.
GMZzz: Do you fear that players might not “get” what you’re trying to do with your games or might have different reactions from those that you intended? How do you prepare for that?
Kellee Santiago: We don’t fear it, but we certainly wonder about it. We playtest quite a lot throughout development – an average of one playtest every two weeks from the very beginning through the end. However, you never really know how people are going to react to the concept of the game until it’s out there for everyone to play. We try our best to get each game to a point where we’re satisfied with what we’ve accomplished, and then we sit back and see if it worked.
GMZzz: Wouldn’t it be better for you to just start working on a futuristic shooter, with lots of gore, menacing aliens, a macho lead and sell millions of copies? How does that sound?
Kellee Santiago: Haha better in what way? I think it would be fun to see what kind of violent game we could make, but the truth is there are many other studios making those games and they have many more resources available to them than us. We try and make games that can’t be compared to anything else, so no one will notice how little we have to work with.
GMZzz: What does it take to make it out on your own in such a competitive industry? Is there something from your experience that you’d like to let other aspiring, young studios know?
Kellee Santiago: Make games that express your own voice, your own passions. I get so frustrated when I see new studios or young game makers mimicking games that have already been made. It’s a good way to get started and to learn about the process, but it’s a terrible way to begin a new studio or career. Because just like with us, there are other teams with more money, people, and practice than you. Make something unique, that cannot be compared. In games right now, it’s really not that hard – there’s so much that hasn’t been done.
GMZzz: Where do you get the inspiration for you games?
Kellee Santiago: Where does inspiration come from? Our lives, art, architecture, nature, psychology… anywhere! Everyone at thatgamecompany is very passionate about game making, so even when we’re not doing it, chances are we’re thinking about it.
GMZzz: How do you usually decide to start a project or not? How does that whole creative process work? I’m curious if you guys follow the same rules as the bigger development houses.
Kellee Santiago: I don’t know that we do follow the same rules, because we begin with an emotion. So we start with a very large range of possibilities of games that could elicit that emotion. We kick around the emotion, try and hone in on the specifics of it, which happens through conversation, prototypes (Flash or Processing usually), art, and music.
GMZzz: Are there other studios that you really admire?
Kellee Santiago: Naughty Dog, which is just a couple of blocks from us, has incredibly passionate and extremely talented game makers. We hope we can get to the day where we’re recruiting talent like theirs! I also really admire Eskil Steenberg, Jason Rohrer, and Jonathan Blow – individual game makers who have carved out their own path in the industry. Finally, I have to mention Tale of Tales – their dedication to their craft and expression in their games inspires me and they always challenge me to be true to who we are as game makers.
You can check out more about thatgamecompany at their official website.