4cr Interviews: ThatGameCompany
Originality in the video game industry tends to come in fits and starts. Any new or amazing advancement is shortly followed by a flurry of imitations and subtle refinements. Of course there is nothing wrong with that, and there is nothing dishonorable about working well within the bounds of the industry’s known factors. As sequels become more prevalent, it increasingly falls to indie and boutique developers to challenge the status quo and produce new and exciting interactions to elevate gaming beyond its acronym heavy RTS, FPS, and RPG roots.
That Game Company is one of those developers who have made a name for themselves as a source of original, artistic content. Their previous Playstation titles, flOw and Flower were universally well received by fans and critics alike. Their newest game, Journey is due out in 2011 and is TGC’s first foray into online gaming. Like their previous efforts, they are not only looking to enter the genre, but to redefine what people consider an online game.
I had a chance to talk to creative director Jenova Chen, and Producer, Robin Hunicke about what sets That Game Company apart, and how their unique approach to game design impacted the development of Journey.
Dave Beaudoin: One of the things you touched on at the Meaningful Play conference was simple gameplay. I’ve noticed it on some of the games you’ve worked on in the past and how you really stick to a simple gameplay mechanic. What do you see as the specific benefit of that over more complex gameplay?
Robin Hunicke: Jenova and I had given that talk together and then we both went off and gave it separately. The crux of that talk is that we were trying to create something accessible. Specifically with Journey, but in general we really value accessibility. Simpler ideas are easier for people to adjust to if they haven’t played a lot of games.
Jenova Chen: Complexity is very difficult. When we create a game, you can bring a lot of features together and say, this is a complex game,”and a lot of people do that. They say, oh we support this, we support that, but we wanted to create a game to communicate. To make something that has a voice it requires that everything works together. At that time, complexity is a hugely difficult challenge. When you have five different people working on five different creature elements it’s very hard to design. Simplicity helps us to make our game’s voice clean and easy to interpret. In terms of communication it is important to make things simple, to keep things obvious.
DB: Do you see a similarity between what you’re doing and the roots of the video game industry? Going back to Pac-Man and Asteroids and some of the early arcade stuff in terms of simplicity.
RH: Well it’s an interesting question because the audience back then didn’t understand what video games were so you had to take the approach of making it very clear and simple, like Jenova said, so people could understand what they could do in a space and learn the rules of that world in a way that invited them to be a part of it. I guess that you could say that we’re engaged in a similar kind of pursuit. Its not necessarily always to bring in new players, it is also in service of the emotional goals of the games. I think there is something to that, returning to the idea that you have to take time to introduce things to people, that they won’t just come to the play experience loaded up with expectations. We always try to examine our expectations about gameplay and when we watch other people play, it’s very informative. It lets us know when we’re not living up to that promise of accessibility, and, as Jenova said, making the message very simple and easy to understand. So that’s an interesting way to put it, and I’ve never thought of it, but I could say yeah.
JC: My opinion is that comparing the old days to today, I think that one thing that is interesting is that you would think that today’s game is more complex. I’ve felt that the amount of work that the game developer has to put into it, was as complex back then as it is today. We have greater tools, we have more games to reference to today, but in the old days, they spent so much time just working with the technology. Just trying to get a black and white screen to work with the games or 256 colors to display “true” color, so it’s like complexity is moralizing to the technology evolution. While today people spend more time thinking about the design, the control, the experience, the cinematic quality, because the technological complexity has been overcome in the past. So what you see is that we spend a lot of time figuring out game design, you know, interactivity that hasn’t been done before, so that’s where we spend a lot of our time. I think, in the future, once that’s figured out then people will spend more time working on the meaning of the game. I think we’re in the middle of this movement in the medium.
DB: Do you actively think about masking the complexity of what you do when you’re designing a game? So if you have something cool that you want to happen but you don’t want all the underlying factors to show up to the player is that something you’re actively thinking about or is that something you examine at a specific time in the development.
JC: Well, one thing we do, is that we don’t focus on gameplay. We focus on the experience, the feel, and we invent gameplay to facilitate and help the feeling. And then, when we come up with gameplay we ask ourselves, “Is this too gamey?”
RH: Yeah, it’s common for us to have a prototype, that feels really cool at first blush. [For example] when we started on Journey we had some platforming puzzles that we put together that felt really cool. You felt really clever when you figured out exactly how to accomplish these little platforming puzzles and when we thought of a game that would be built mostly of those little platforming puzzles we realized that would be just like so many other games we already enjoy, and it would be a very cerebral experience. It would be you, sort of having that Mario 64 moment, where you look around and think, okay, where do I go next? Not in the sense of where do I go next on this epic, awe-inspiring journey, but where do I go next to get the next glittery piece of thing or the next shiny sound. Those moments are the moments where we go, “Eh, maybe this isn’t really a fit.” It’s not that it isn’t fun, and that it isn’t engaging, it’s that it doesn’t support the feeling, as Jenova said.
DB: So, speaking of feelings, With Journey, what is the feeling that you are going for?
JC: Well, I think you really have to play the game to tell. The director can tell you I created Schindler’s List to make you feel empathy, or sympathy. Those words do not describe the experience. If I can describe the experience with words, then why are we even making the game? People like to ask us, and we would like to tell you, “Oh, we would like to make a sense of awe.” But what kind of awe is that? The words just don’t describe the detail.
RH: At the same time, we do talk about the inspirations for Journey. It’s about trying to get those inspirations into a form that inspires others and I think that is where, when you say, we are trying to create a sense of connection between two people, or we’re trying to create a sense of awe, a lot of times, afterwards, people will come up to us and say, “Well, what does that really mean, that seems pretty vague?” We get a lot of commentary about the release press, the little blurbs we write up for P.R. saying they’re kind of vague. As Jenova points out, they are kind of vague, because words don’t really help us in that way. So it’s not that we don’t have aspirations, but maybe that it’s a little bit like cheating to tell you as well.
DB: That approach is really cool, I wish more games companies took that approach.
DB: When I play a game I tend to not read manuals, I like games that don’t tell you how to do things. That was one of the things I really liked about the Myst and Riven games was that you were just dropped into this world and you have to figure it out, and that’s part of the game. So I really appreciate the approach you take to doing that kind of stuff.
RH: We always do learn a lot about how TGC is perceived, and how other people feel about the things our games create. So it’s always good to hear it.
DB: In terms of the perception of TGC, when I’ve talked with some of the other writers at 4colorrebellion, one of the things that comes up is that you are perceived as a very art centric sort of company. How much of that position in the industry is intentional on your part and what are the factors that you are able to take advantage of because of your position as a more independent, art centric sort of company?
RH: Well the first thing that comes to my mind, is that when I first came to TGC, almost two years ago now, the thing that struck me the most is that almost everyone here, with the exception of a couple of people, is a programmer, including myself. So we all are very passionate about code, and creating code that makes beautiful things. It’s interesting when people perceive us as artistic, because it really does come from our super talented programming staff and also the design staff, which is programming oriented. Our artists, who are also designers, some of them are learning to program. So it’s an interesting perception because it’s true, and yet what fuels that truth is a love of programming and the things that computers can do, which I find really interesting. Jenova can talk more about the foundations of the company and how that focus on artistic gameplay has sort of led us to where we are.
JC: It’s kind of interesting because I never really, growing up, thought about becoming an artist. But we randomly came into this field where we are considered artistic. You know, coming from an engineering background and looking at, and analyzing, what happened, we realized that it actually is artistic, though we didn’t have the intent to be artists. We started a company really, just because we believe that every media grows in similar patterns. [For example] if you look at the history of film, how it has developed over time and what kind of content was initially created and how that content start to expand, then finally film became a medium that was embraced by everyone.
We had a lot of love for video games, and video games are still in their childhood. If you look at most video games, they feel the same, and this is not very healthy for a medium. The basic concept we have is that entertainment is for satisfying our audience’s emotional needs, and those need cover a wide spectrum. It’s not just one type of feeling, not everybody just wants to laugh. There’s sadness, there’s death, there’s all kinds of feelings. If you want to see a nostalgic film, there’s a nostalgic film out there. If you want to see a sad film, there’s a sad film out there. If you want to see a documentary, it’s all there. If you think about music. If you want to have happy music, it’s there. If you want to have music that reminds you of your childhood, it’s there. But games only cover a very narrow and small emotional spectrum. there’s a lot of action, there’s lots of excitement, thrill, and horror. These feelings are more primal, they are more interesting to the younger generation. As we grow older, how many action films do you watch a year? We want you to have an experience that is more than just a power fantasy.
RH: More nuanced.
JC: Things that are more valuable to adults. A lot of my friends who grew up with me, who played games together, they stopped playing games. Whenever I would recommend a game to them, they would say, I just don’t have time to play it, it’s not worth my investment. When you were young and you were in school or were restrained by society and family, you wanted to have the fantasy that you had power and that you could do all sorts of things that adults told you not to do. And back then, games provided those feelings. But now that I’m older, I have the power and power is not interesting, power comes with responsibility. So to me, the power fantasy is not fun for me, because I don’t need that. And what do adults need, in terms of emotion? We could spend another hour just talking about that but to just give you a sense that I’ve felt that video games are being abandoned by people my age is [the fact] that a lot of them have stopped playing games. And I really don’t want to see something we grew up in love with, something that defines this generation, being left over, saying, “Oh, it’s just a kid’s thing.”
RH: It’s especially difficult for people who have families and you think about why women aren’t as excited about buying a PS3 or a 360 and getting online and shooting other people or whatever, the demands of having a normal grown up life where you have commitments and responsibilities for other people are quite high, and it’s fine that you get away from that. If you pick up a women’s magazine and look at the advertising, or turn on a television channel that’s aimed at a female market for example, and you look at the kinds of things that are being advertised to those women. It’s, relax, get away, take some time for yourself, enjoy yourself, eat something delicious, take a bath, take a vacation with your significant other, take your family to Disneyland. The fantasies that people have about relaxation, often do not involve sitting on their couch, competing with other people in a highly competitive, stressful, environment with a lot of noise and explosions. Those are not going appeal to that sort of a player.
Jenova and I, and everyone here at TGC feel that everyone is a gamer now. It’s getting to the point where if you walk up to someone and ask, “Are you a gamer,” it’s almost sort of absurd. A lot of people play video games, or games on facebook. Card games, board games, they’re everywhere, and yet the perception of what our products can offer as an industry is often really skewed towards this one particular type of experience. So if we can help keep people in the fold, and let them express themselves and relax and enjoy themselves with the medium we’re keeping the medium alive in a way that otherwise it might not be. It’s very important to us to continue to create experiences that anyone, after a long day at work might want to pick up and enjoy.
JC: Just to give you an example why I’m worried about this. Japanese manga is very popular in Asia and around the globe. It’s basically a comic, but in Japan, its a national art form. Manga has expanded into other mediums, but that is where it all started. But here, the comics industry is very different. The majority of American comics are superhero comics and superhero comics are basically a power fantasy, its geared toward a particular group of people who are actually quite similar to your video game crowd. You don’t see people here treat comics as a national art form. You don’t see a lot of old people or women reading comics and I can see easily how video games trend toward that vision, because it’s a vicious cycle. The market for this particular age group and this particular gender is very large, and every businessman wants to maximize their profit in the market and aren’t really expanding. I don’t want to see video games become like that. I would wish a girlfriend or a mom would, you know, respect what I do. So that’s why we started the company, our sole purpose is to help speed up this process of expanding and exploring the possibilities of games.
We wanted to make a commercial game first, to show the market that there are other kinds of experiences. Like Flower for example, a relaxing experience is possible to communicate through a video game. Also to show players, and other developers, so they know that they can actually do something like that. When we first started making games like this, we had nothing to reference. We spent a whole year just exploring what kind of game it could possibly be. Now that the game is out people can reference it and say, that game is relaxing, because they are doing that. It is kind of to create the vocabulary. The last thing, is that we wanted to create a game that is successful in terms of the business, so that more businessmen can invest into this field and start to find more and more other projects that create games that create a different feel. We want to create a movement, really.
RH: One of the reasons I became involved in the experimental gameplay workshop almost ten years ago, was the same thing. The reason I began working on the IGDA curriculum guide for schools that teach game development, was that when I was younger, there were no opportunities for people like me who felt like games could express more than they were. I didn’t even think i could become a game developer. So things like the curriculum and the experimental gameplay workshop, which are also part of this movement, try to show developers and people in the field, businesses, consumers, everyone, that there is more opportunity there that is just waiting to be taken.
We are always, always reading web pages, keeping up on industry press. Jenova is constantly looking out there for other people like us. We really try to find people that are like us and reach out to them and say, hey, we really liked your game, we thought it was fantastic. It’s really important for us to help create a community, even if it isn’t in the game itself. As a person who was a huge fan of Flower before coming to TGC, I feel that it’s present in the games themselves, this focus on creating a community and a movement, it’s evident beyond the experiences themselves. It’s a truly genuine feeling that we have. We always encourage people that find Flower interesting to reach out and say, ”Hi.” Hearing from them helps us and confirms that there is this market out there and it’s super, super encouraging.
DB: When I think of TGC, and I think of some of the other companies that fit into that same space, I think of the stuff that Team Ico does. It’s a completely different experience but it seems rooted in the same basic idea.
DB: That seems like an obvious one, but do you have any examples of other inspirational things, not specifically related to gameplay mechanics, or to a specific game, but just in general?
RH: I personally am a huge fan of comics. I collect a lot of independent comic books and find that really really well drawn personal narrative comics, stuff like Chris Ware’s work or John Pham’s work, are really inspirational to me personally because they continue to create and recreate the form and push the form in really interesting directions. When I travel, the first thing I do is go to a local comic store. I enjoy seeing independent, small comics, hand printed, silk screened comics that kids make in their bedrooms. That comes from a long history with independent comics and punk rock music and ‘zines and things like that, so for myself personally those things are really inspirational. And obviously colleagues like John Blow, who really push the meaning of even very basic, simple types of mechanics and try to take them in whole new directions. That’s always really inspiring to me personally.
JC: I would bring up Quantic Dream, they often mention us and I want to mention them because they are also trying very hard to bring something very fresh and new into the gaming industry. They are doing this at a much bigger scale, but I think their intentions are similar.
DB: Do you do a lot of your prototyping in Flash?
JC: Not necessarily, we prototype in whatever medium is possible. When we prototyped Flower we used XNA, which is kind of funny because we developed a PS3 game with an XBox controller. Then for Journey, we tried Flash because we wanted to try online components. We didn’t have any tech available, and Flash is the easiest to try something online.
RH: We’re lazy! Whatever gets it done in the time that we can really evaluate the feeling, that’s our most important goal. It doesn’t even have to be super smooth, just so long as we can see if the feeling is there.
We’ll post the second half of our interview later this week, in which we discuss the evolution of That Game Company, game mechanic development, and what it means to be an small studio riding the wave of digital distribution.