Thatgamecompany: An experimental Journey

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About a year ago, on his Chicago Sun-Times blog, Roger Ebert famously reached the conclusion that by their very nature, games could never be considered art. He probably had no idea how strong of a reaction his blog post would garner. Before this pronouncement, people like Clive Barker had criticized him for making similar assumptions about a medium he know very little about. What sparked his interest in the topic, this time around, was a video of a lecture by thatgamecompany’s president, Kellee Santiago, about video games as art.

Xinghan "Jenova" Chen and Kellee Santiago founded thatgamecompany on May 15, 2006. They had already worked together on student project called Cloud at the University Southern California's Interactive Media MFA program. Working on small experimental projects was to be the company’s main focus as they wanted to design and create games that could appeal to both hardcore and casual players.

You might think that a publishing deal with a large international publisher and platform holder like Sony would do more to hinder that process than help foster it. I asked Kellee Santiago about the collaboration with Sony and how it benefits a small independent studio to work with a large publisher. I also asked about some of the complications that arise from running a small game studio. What is the development process like when trying to create something very unique and different?


Santiago indicated that while there are certainly limitations, the pros outweigh the cons. She describes how the relationship has evolved over time, “When we started, we were just four people and knew nothing about how to ship a game. I think at that phase the mentorship aspect of our relationship was predominant. They helped us at some of the lowest levels of production, like taking us through the process of building a schedule and how to track progress. But as we've gotten more experience, we've grown as people and developers. The collaboration is more even now, and we both are learning from this process.”

Thatgamecompany has full creative control over its projects, but the realities of financing and time are always important to consider. You can’t work on a project forever, but as long as you incorporate these factors into the process early on, the end result doesn't suffer for it.

The collaboration with Sony has made it possible for TGC to focus more on the creative process and keeping the company small. It was also essential to get the company up and running. They started out with only four people. Over time, the company has expanded to keep pace with the size of their projects. Ten people are currently working on their next game, Journey.

We are still discovering better ways of making artistically crafted games, but certainly in our first couple of projects it was all new, and there was much to learn. To simultaneously be figuring out the ins-and-outs of commercial development on a console platform on our own would have been possibly a futile undertaking. I believe this is why there aren't more studios like ours. Hopefully now, even though a new studio might not get the advantages we did by partnering with such a collaborative publisher, thatgamecompany is able to help by handing on our lessons learned.

With a unique game like Flower it is most certainly important to start playtesting early in the process, experimenting with gameplay to see what appeals to a wide audience. According to Santiago, they playtest every one to two weeks from the very beginning until the game is finished.

Coding starts pretty much immediately, but in engines with lower overhead, such as Flash or Processing. We find it helpful to conceptualize gameplay ideas in an interactive medium so we can play it and have others play it and comment on it. This prepares us for starting work on the console, as console development requires much more code management so the iterative process is slowed.

At E3 2010, thatgamecompany announced Journey, which is scheduled to release in 2011. In Journey, the player takes control of a person or a being that looks almost like it’s made out of cloth and embarks on a journey across a desert. Over the landscape towers a glowing mountain that seems to be the obvious destination. The player traverses a world dotted with points of interest like ruins and graveyards where there will likely be puzzles to solve and hints of what the world is all about. The sand itself is a major component of the environment, but besides merely looking nice, it seems to behave like water, forming waves a player might be able to surf. One of the methods of communication is writing in the sand. It's possible to convey a message to other players or even express one's artistic nature by drawing giant male genitalia in the dust.

Journey has an online component which seems to be of unusual nature. Player will run into each other on their travels and can cooperate or go their separate ways. It may turn out be useful to have a companion by your side when dealing with this desolate place. It’s not possible for players to communicate through traditional means like speech or text so people will have to find other ways to trade information.

[...] The distinctly new aspect of Journey is that it’s online, so you can encounter other players, which we’ve never tackled before.

I asked Santiago if video games would ever achieve the same artistic status as film or music “I think they have," she says. "What are we going to do with that is the better question. “ Santiago offered Roger Ebert a copy of Flower, so he could experience the form of culture that he so adamantly believes can never be art, but he never took her upon the offer. Later he apologized on his blog, stating that it’s not his place to judge a form of entertainment he has no desire to experience.

Journey is a game I’m personally very excited for, and it will be interesting to see how thatgamecompany tackles the online component. FlOw and Flower are both available on the PlayStation Store for those interested. If people want to know more about the design process at thatgamecompany, check out this panel video from IndieCade 2010 in which Jenova Chen explains how they experiment with gameplay in the early stages of development.

This article was posted in November 2010 and is translated from Icelandic. You can find the original here.

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