(This is an interview conducted on the Game Dev Unchained podcast)
When the folks over at thatgamecompany start moving on a new project hoping to follow up the success of their previous games Journey and Flower, there was only one person they trusted to help head up development, Eric Koch. Eric’s career started out in QA testing, but later transitioned into design and then production as well before joining up at the good folks at TGC. We we honored to spend a good part of two hours talking with him about the magic of games and what exactly they do to create works of interactive art that leave an impression on their audience time after time.
thatgamecompany is a game studio dedicated to creating timeless interactive entertainment that inspires human connection worldwide.
Founded in 2006, thatgamecompany is committed to developing broadly accessible, artistic, emotional and enriching experiences, including award-winning titles flOw, Flower, and Journey. Their work has exhibited in galleries and exhibitions across the globe, including the induction into Smithsonian’s permanent collection. Their hope is to expand the range of emotional experiences possible in video games, so that it can be enjoyed and loved by people of all ages, cultures and backgrounds. They are artists, designers, engineers, musicians, creators, all unified to make an impact and positive change with our games. Their team is made up of a mix of diverse talent, cultures, leadership and experience.
When asked about his involvement in the initial start of thatgamecompany…
I was fortunately at Sony when they brought in thatgamecompany, they brought Genova in fresh out of USC to start thatgamecompany. Sony was looking to push the boundary of games. I remember when we created the budget and the return on investment was no return. They just wanted to break even, nobody’s ever done that before and I give Sony a lot of credit for pushing the boundaries and pushing / excellerating what indie games could do. And when you go into this opportunity where you don’t know where it’s going to end up, as long as we saw progress we kept moving forward, kept giving them the opportunity to keep growing the project. Then when TGC broke off, after their three game deal was done, they started to recreate the foundation that Sony had given them in trying to create something that had never been done before. Sony was kind of a meld, a perfect bridge for me to go from a big budget publisher to indie.
When someone jumps from big games to smaller games, there’s surely a certain fear that comes to mind, especially if I were to do something like that, Brandon expressed…
That’s exactly the word that I was going to bring up. It's fearless, you know? People who are getting into indie game development from what I’ve found typically aren't focused on making a lot of money they’re focused on getting a creative vision out and letting their voice be heard and that can be really scary. It’s possible that you can show somebody, hey this is my vision, and people aren't going to get it or aren't going to fall into that bucket that you were hoping that they would But that’s not important, what’s important is to be fearless, to go deep inside yourself and bring out everything that you can and lay it out all on the table for people to see and let them decide, because the beautiful part is usually if you can get something out, learn the process when you go through it again, you’re going to do it better next time. So i'm a big never give up kind of guy.
So what about the creative vision at thatgamecompany, it seems like the intent is to leave an impact on your player or audience. What’s it like going into game design with that purpose in mind, but still trying to make sure you achieve financial success?
I think that’s a difficult path no matter, whether you’re first starting out or it’s your fourth game. You hit a real touchstone for our studio, is that having an emotional impact, a positive emotional impact for the player is the centerpiece of everything that Genova strives for and everything that the studio strives for. Whether trying to reach financial success I can tell you, I was the producer for Sony on Flower and Journey and there was a number of times where genova was making decisions where we thought, man that’s going to alienate players or people aren’t going to get this. Genova did not want to use analog sticks he only wanted to use the motion controls. This caused waves through everybody, “of course you have to give them both options, why would you want to alienate players?”. Genova and I went back and forth on this, and I asked him why do you want to use the motion controllers and not the sticks? He placed the controller in my hand, not holding it the traditional way but placing on my open hands, and said now move around and watch yourself fly, feel yourself fly. At that moment finally, I was like wow this is a totally different experience. “This is what I want the player to experience, if they use the analog sticks they’re going to miss out on this feeling of truly being the wind”. I instantly was like, wow I got a lot to learn from this guy.
It really seems like Genova and the devs at thatgamecompany have something special in their DNA especially if you look at the company’s portfolio. And we’re talking before you even go there. But regardless, they selected you to join the team, what was it that you were going to bring the table that their company was interested in blending with their unique culture and identity that you were going to help create or improve?
I’d say mainly structure and knowing what the finish line looks like. That’s something I’ve been sent to a number of studios throughout my career that were kind of trying to find their way through to the end and I’m able to help come in and nudge and guide and show what the finish line looks like. As well I think, well this was already here but a level of compassion and understanding of what it’s like to give of yourself creatively on a daily basis and how much energy that takes from you and I’m here to try to help support and recharge these people and keep them hopefully in a place where they feel like they’re being impactful at the studio.
As time has gone on, the projects at TGC have become more ambitious or at least requiring more staff to complete. And I’d also like to note, being independent in this day an age is getting harder and harder to maintain for a lot of companies yet you all seem to be growing? How is the process of selecting the perfect employees going for you all now after your successes. I would imagine there are a lot of people interested in working there but maybe that’s a gift and a curse somehow?
We’ve grown by a third, maybe a little more since I’ve been here. Those growth spurts are difficult for any studio. I’ve seen a number of studios get built. My mentor Shannon Studstill, who’s the head of Sony Santa Monica God of War team, showed me and kind of walked me through what it’s like to build a team and how to grow a team and what things are important in team growth which is certainly not just creativity but taste, making sure the people coming in have the right taste to fit into the studio. We interview extremely talented people, but the only people that end up working are people who have a similar mindset. I’m very involved in the hiring as well at the studio.
We spent some time lamenting over the “fast follow” trends or quick copy business model in game development (specifically referencing Flappy Bird and it’s many clones) and then started to steer the interview towards literal copies of games (now referencing illegal pirating). We asked specifically if and how has pirating created any unwanted issues or problems for an independent developer like thatgamecompany and how do they deal with it.
Fortunately for thatgamecompany, all the previous games that have been released have Sony, and they have an army of Lawyers… The next part though, Sky which we are independently releasing, I don't think really anyone can copy. I feel like we’re in a very unique position. I’m not an expert in this field and don't think I can answer this question with any kind of expertise, but one of the first things you do when you start a company is get a good attorney. That’s my best advice is that you, you need an attorney. If you want to start a company and wish to generate money, you need an attorney and expect to spend money on defending your IP and your revenue.