On the success of Sky, a mobile game that has been downloaded more than 160 million times and it has nearly seven million daily active players, the company has been able to raise a huge funding round from marquee investors TPG and Sequoia. It is also adding Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull as a principal adviser on creative culture and strategic growth.
The funding for Thatgamecompany comes on the eve of the 10th anniversary of Journey, a captivating game that won numerous Game of the Year awards as it tracked an emotional journey to the top of a mountain. Jenova Chen, CEO of Thatgamecompany, said the company aim is to advance its mission to foster human connect through play.
While the funding round is big, Chen said the Santa Monica, California-based studio will support its community and create new experiences while staying true to its independent values.
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“To be honest, it took me a lot of time to actually adjust to this,” Chen said. “Because deep down, we are still pretty small. And earlier last year we were less than 40 people. And until now, we are almost 100. My day to day life has changed quite a lot. But this is all for good reason. And Sky has been growing really healthily. And it was able to support all this growth and attract investors as well.”
He said the company remains true to its focus of creating emotional games for the whole world.
“Thatgamecompany is a driving force for the advancement of games’ deeper emotional impact” said Pixar’s Catmull, in a statement. “I’m honored that Jenova and the studio have asked me to share my learnings on building an enduring creative culture befitting its ambition to provide enriching and accessible interactive experiences for a worldwide audience.”
The funding will allow Thatgamecompany to grow its development team and organization infrastructure. Right now, it takes more than 100 developers to keep Sky going and work on other projects, Chen said.
Since it was built as a game-as-as-service, Sky has a growing community of players and people who come back often — particularly the veteran players who come back to show new players how to engage with the world.
“Jenova and his team have a track record of developing innovative games that not only entertain players, but allow them to build inclusive communities where they feel supported and valued,” said Arun Agarwal, managing director at TPG, in a statement. “The ability to come together and create lasting bonds through games like Sky transcend other experiences in gaming, and we’re proud to have the opportunity to partner with a visionary leader like Jenova to support thatgamecompany’s next stage of growth.”
TPG is investing in the company through its TPG Tech Adjacencies fund, an investment vehicle focused on flexible capital solutions for the technology industry.
“Our mission is to elevate games as a legitimate form of art,” said Chen. “We want to see a game that emotionally appeals to people of all ages, identities and backgrounds within a single experience. Animated feature films have had genre-defining moments with Snow White and Toy Story, and we will continue working toward this moment in the gaming world. With the advisory support from legendary Ed Catmull, and the financial backing from TPG and Sequoia, we are going to double down on thatgamecompany’s pursuit and continue to push the boundaries between art, human connection and video games.”
Sky is available on mobile devices and the Nintendo Switch, and it has been honored with multiple accolades including Apple’s iPhone Game of the Year and Apple Design Award, Google Play’s Best of 2020 Award, SXSW’s Mobile Game of the Year, Game Developers Choice Awards’ Audience Award, Webby Awards’ Best Visual Design, and others.
A long history driven by artistic tradition
Thatgamecompany was started in 2006 by University of Southern California students Chen and Kellee Santiago. Its first game was a remake of Chen’s first game, Flow, on the PlayStation 3. It debuted in 2007.
The company’s second game, Flower, was made with a small team (of around six to nine people) and it debuted on the PS 3’s PlayStation Store in 2009. (My kids enjoyed playing that game over and over).
In 2012, the company shipped Journey, its third and final game on the PlayStation platform. It was the final game in a three-game deal with Sony. The title was expected to take a year but it expanded to three years, and Robin Hunicke was the producer and the team grew to about 14. Journey was a huge success, but the longer development took its toll. Santiago left, as did designer Chris Bell and Hunicke. The company ran out of money and it had to wait until revenue from Journey came in to pay its bills.
Then Chen met with Mitch Lasky, a venture capitalist at Benchmark, and raised money that enabled the company to move beyond its Sony years. The team aimed at reaching more people beyond the PlayStation platform and released Sky: Children of the Light, as a mobile multiplayer adventure game with built-in social experiences. Sky debuted in 2019.
“When we first launched the game, we don’t know if the game was going to survive,” he said. “People told their friends through word of mouth. Without that support, we wouldn’t have been able to grow the team and grow the experience.”
Chen said he valued the advice of Lasky, the longest-serving board member, who offered parental guidance and a financial background.
As for seeking funding, Chen said he wanted to grow the company to its full potential. The company is generating good revenue, but it needs the additional capital to grow its infrastructure and technology, and perhaps even do acquisitions.
“Our audience is outgrowing the company,” Chen said. “Across the world, we have different needs to fill. And we are also busy working on our next game, which is more like a theme park and is the most ambitious game I have built.”
The next stage
With the new funding round, Chen said the company is ready for its next stage.
“We want to make content that is emotionally resonating with a much wider group of people,” Chen said. “We are hoping to build a game like a Disney or Pixar movie, where husbands and can play with wives and parents can play with children. The PlayStation just doesn’t seem to have that reach where everybody will have a PlayStation to play together. So we picked mobile, which is a quite a big risk. And it has proven to be very risky.”
He noted that the company had to reboot the game three years of development, switching Sky from a premium title to a free-to-play game. That added extra years to the development, but it turned out to be the right decision.
Sky is a family title with a wide variety of players. In fact, Chen said close to 70% of active players are women, which is something he said he never imagined. There is very little violence in the game, and that has made it more widely appealing.
Chen said the main reason the game continues to grow is that it can be extended.
“On the console, we do our storytelling and we usually leave after the story is over,” he said. “But what we found through Journey is that when you make a game where the gameplay is about helping others, it creates this kind of cyclical cycle where, if a veteran player helped a newbie, and the newbie eventually become a veteran player, and they want to go help other newbies. They still remember this amazing experience, as through this type of altruistic mechanic, many friendship were formed.”
Just like with massively multiplayer online games with player guilds, the fans stay in social groups for a long time.
“With Sky, we originally wanted to build a rollercoaster ride with emotional storytelling, and it really has evolved into a kind of theme park,” Chen said.
Chen noted that, after four years, about 50% of the Season Pass sales were gifted from one player to another, and over 22% of the revenue of other merchandise is also gifted.
“It makes me feel very good if I an buy a gift for a friend,” chen said.
Chen noted it is particularly important to protect players in connected worlds, since there is so much toxicity out there. That is why the company limits communication within its games, and designs systems where players can help each other and form strong bonds.
Growing a theme park
I asked what Chen meant by creating a Sky theme park.
“Disney World is a collective of theme parks that are next to each other, and with a lot of infrastructure. He noted that Sky attracts a similar kind of audience, with both older and younger players from all walks of life.
“I really feel like there isn’t that equivalent of a kind of Disneyland experience or a Pixar movie experience in the game industry even today, chen said. “I haven’t really played a game with my wife from the beginning to finish. I haven’t really found a good game to do that. Not to mention I have kids now. How do we how do we have that experience? That’s kind of my aspiration. Sky is certainly an attempt but we want to do better to make these types of experiences. Hopefully, Sky and our future games will all be you know, kind of part of the theme parks in the future, like in a connected metaverse.”
By the end of the year, Chen hopes to grow to more than 150 people, with many of them supporting Sky as a theme park, and more to build the next game. He said Catmull was instrumental to the culture of Pixar and he hopes to have a collaborative and creative culture, even as the company grows. Chen said the company is looking to hire world-class talent.
Chen said the company will reveal more of its plans in the future for any work beyond Sky or titles that live up to its ambition of doing Pixar-like content.
“In making content as good a Pixar, it’s more about how we could expand the emotional accessibility of games to more people,” said Chen. “Seeing video games to take over movies and become the greatest art in entertainment has been my long time dream. When I was younger, I thought it was just we would show the academic people that we can win Oscars, we can put video games in galleries to prove games are worthy. And over time, I realized even even after video games are part of the museum, it does not change the society’s view. And then we thought, well, maybe we just need to have a bigger market cap, or make more money.”
He added, “Video games make a lot more money than the movies industry. But still people don’t respect games. I think the only thing that I thought was there isn’t emotional content that could make people really respect and feel a sense of humanity together. I mean, we have games for adults, we have games for children, we have games for men, and we have games for women. But we don’t have a game that could touch all of them. And I think that’s the last piece missing.”
Even after the makers of animated movies produced titles like Snow White, they were still referred to as cartoonists, Chen said. The respect is the last thing to come, he said.
I joked that we’ll one day see Thatgamecompany+ as an extension of the the theme park.
Chen laughed and said, “Disney is a lot bigger. We would say that Pixar is probably what we hope to become, mostly focused on building great content and telling amazing stories.”
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