Interview with Kellee Santiago, former CEO of Thatgamecompany

Interview with Kellee Santiago, former CEO of Thatgamecompany, responsible for Journey, Flow and Flower. This interview serves as an appendix for "Game Development in Latin America

Kellee Santiago, former CEO of Thatgamecompany [Source]


Q: Can you please state your name, where are you from and your current profession?

A: My name is Kellee Santiago, I am currently talking to you from San Francisco, California and I’m a publishing producer on the Daydream Team at Google. 


Q: Where were you born?

A: Caracas, Venezuela.


Q: What do you consider some of your biggest accomplishments as a developer?

A: Hmm...That’s a big question to answer. My biggest accomplishment as a developer, I think, has been to forge a space for developers in games that express emotions not typically associated with traditional video games, or commercially successful video games. And I did that by starting my own studio, Thatgamecompany, which specifically focuses on that area, in creating titles for the Playstation 3, which is a pretty hardcore console system, and yet commercially successful titles that were...expressing different emotions than what people think when they think of Playstation.

And then [helped] by also investing both personally and financially into independent game developers and try to create spaces in which they can learn from each other and thrive, such as being a co-organizer of the Game Developers Conference Independent Games Summit as well as being on the chair of the Indie Cape Festival

One more thing is that one of those games, Playstation Flower, was among the first two games entered into the permanent collection at the Smithsonian American Art and History Museum.


Q: What made you pursue game development in the United States? What was your background before that?

A: I was born in Caracas, Venezuela; my father is from Cuba. I grew up in largest part in Richmond, Virginia -- which is where my mother is from. My father worked in software so I was born in Caracas because he did a lot of work in managing software companies based in Central and South America.

I say that to set up the stage that we always had a computer in our house so I had it from early on, [I] was very comfortable with computers. I personally gravitated towards the arts, and that led me to get my Bachelor in Theatres at New York University. I lived in New York for a couple of years, working in theatre both as a performer but also as a manager and a producer. I found out more and more works integrating interactive and digital media elements and I would kind of become the de facto person in charge of that stuff because I was very comfortable with computers and interactivity and digital media specifically. So I thought I would sort of focus my career in that area which is what brought me to the University of Southern California’s MFA interactive media program.

It was there that I was really awaken to the possibility of games as a form of creative expression. I played video games all my life but never thought about making them until that time, and I think it was because the program was housed in the School of Cinematic Arts and it really had an eye towards games as an expressive and storytelling medium. It also  was the first time I got to go to the Game Developers Conference and just really felt that through these different places (being born in one place, having family from another, living from the suburbs, not quite feeling connected to any one place), it was really the first time I felt that I had found my real thrive and my home. Then I just started trying to work in as many game projects as possible to try and break into the industry.


Q: Where did you start?

A: Well I did a couple of internships, one at Warner Brothers Interactive and I also worked at a motion capture studio. When I was interviewing -- when Jenova and I co-founded Thatgamecompany, we were graduating from grad school and going indie was not really a thing people did. It was just sort of starting so we were talking with companies about getting funding to do digital distributed projects but we were also interviewing for jobs as well. I was looking at continuing motion capture because I couldn't really find the right place to make the kind of games I wanted to make within the industry so I think it was sort of like I was going to do it under my own terms or not.

Then Sony came and gave us the three game deal to develop under Playstation Network.


Q: I was going to ask in what ways do you think being Venezuelan influenced you as a game developer, but you just mentioned you didn’t spend much time there.

A: Yeah I mean, I traveled there quite a bit.

I think there is not nearly enough cultural influence from hardly any country besides North America and Western Europe in our gaming culture. I think we are seeing more from Eastern Europe, but it's tough. One of the ways in which I hope to further impact game development in what I do is by fostering spaces in which games that express more culturally narrative elements or take inspiration from other cultures can succeed. I think when people start in games they make games based on what they loved as a kid and so that's kind of what I see happening in a lot of the independent communities in Central and South America as well, but of course those games were all created by westerners. I am just looking forward to see the next evolution of that basically in like seeing games from a specific perspective more from their own cultural background.

I guess the short answer is that I don't see much influence from Venezuela, I would like to see a lot more.


Q: Do you think having a Cuban father influenced your work?

A: I think both my background, and Jenova’s background (from China) coming together really influenced our work in a way we wanted, to make our games really globally accessible. We didn’t want to alienate anyone from that experience and I think people could empathize with that sensibility so that it feels very organic in our projects. Our games don't have a “It’s a small world after all” kind of feeling. They are really trying to actively go after people of different cultures, but they are all designed in a way that they are very inviting and I think they are successful at that.


Journey (2012) [Source]


Q: What are some of the biggest difficulties you have experienced as a game developer?

A: I’m a member of a minority in two dimensions: Both female and Latina. Whenever you are a minority in any culture you are playing it on “Hard Mode”. In a way there is both more expected of you and less assumed of you.

My experience of that is that I have been perceived as the token minority in a given situation. Whereas participating in a women in games event, or Latinos/Hispanics in games events, you know, both sides. People will think that I somehow threw that, contrary to making my way into the industry, and it took a lot of work for me to not believe that story about myself.


Q: How did you overcome these obstacles?

A: I found a great support network and coach that really helped to do that. Both of those things really happened thanks to the TED Fellows program. It’s funny because in a way my initial feeling towards the game industry was really feeling like this part of myself that was both passionate about arts, sciences, math, psychology and sociology. I never fit in within any specific career path. Then going into that game developers conference felt like “Wow I finally fit in”, but then I guess going farther into that community we are talking about the ways in which I don't fit in: That I'm Latina, that I’m a woman and so the TED Fellows became like another community of outsiders in which I felt supported in commonality between us.


Q: What are your recommendations for people in a situation similar to yours?

A: My recommendations… huh… I recommend to take the time to find and build a support network -- whether that's a group of peers to talk regularly about your goal or projects you are working on (like a writing group kind of deal) or hiring a coach or relying on a mentor from school -- any one of those things. It takes some extra work but it's really critical, in any situation we can feel like we are alone in the troubles you may be going through with, but the truth is you are really not.


Q: What do you see in the future of game development in Latin America?

A: I think the immediate future I see is fostering more local networks and communities. I keep going back to that.

There are already some incredible conferences and festivals. I think getting any one of them to be like a world-class-must-go-to where North Americans or Western Europeans feel like they “have to be there”, would really be fantastic for the region because it’s so expensive to get to the San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference, or the E3 in LA -- it’s all too expensive to travel.

And even without doing an event that attracts internationals, establishing more of the “ecosystem” within the region would be really helpful. There are different limitations on technology and the fees are really high, so creating games in the way that Japan and Korea and China have done [could help]. If we can create game economies that exist within Central and South America, [that are] created by people of that region and played by people of the region, I think that’s the next step.


Q: What are some of your plans for the future?

A: Right now I’m working in producing externally developed games and apps for virtual and augmented reality hardware at Google. I’m here for the same reason that I came to partner with Sony and found Thatgamecompany, which is that at that time digital distribution was this new space that would had these opportunity to really shape the way people thought about games, and at the same time participate in a technology that was inevitable to me. And I feel the same way about VR and AR, they are inevitable technologies that are happening. They are coming our way. There are some scary scenarios in which I’m placed in, and I want to work at being in this place at this time to hopefully shape the future of these media in a positive way.


Daydream VR [Source]


Q: That’s all I got. Anything you want to add?

A: Mmm...There’s so much media, so many games right now that it is harder to succeed outside of these new platforms. There are so many games and they are harder [to make] not in an unreasonable way but it takes more time, more craft. You can't just have a clever idea, you need to execute it pretty well. When I played Inside, a platformer with a twist [which is] a pretty dead genre commercially, but it was very successful and I think it's because you can see the level of polish in that game, and I think a lot of people haven't seen that in 6, 7 years. So yeah, it’s good, it’s getting me really good.

Craft is really important, which means you have to invest a lot more in your project, and that’s hard as it becomes riskier.


Q: It’s funny because both of the people I interviewed before mentioned that their biggest difficulty overall is getting to the market and standing out from all the games that come out all the time, so it’s really interesting that you also mention that. 

A: Well, we are doing some talks all the upcoming Independent Game Summit on alternative hardware which seems like an interesting offshoot to this independent game community, because the cost of making hardware is going down so much. That might be the new frontier for independent game development, which I think is always like this concentric circle when it comes to emerging markets.

That could be a problem to address this pirating issue [referring to Latin America]. You could inspire Brazilians to buy Brazilian hardware, and keep it lit inside a really closed environment. That's the new way of presenting new unique and interesting ideas, new hardware.


Q: Thank you very much for your time.

A: No problem. Thanks for being patient with me.


Q: Sure! It was a pleasure to have this interview with you.

A: Alright, best of luck.

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