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The Thatgamecompany Way

In this extensive interview, conducted shortly after the conclusion of GDC Europe last month in Cologne, Germany, thatgamecompany's Kellee Santiago charts the path the developer has taken so far, and explains the position it is in, with both respect to its ambitions and the very state of the medium itself.

With the strongly-anticipated Journey on the horizon, thatgamecompany has gone from being simply just another indie studio to torchbearer of the indie movement at large. Thanks to a three game contract with Sony, its position as the leader of the movement on the PlayStation Network is assured, while the developer is supported in its aspirations by a publishing organization the like of which few indies have access to.

That seems to have given founders Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago room to experiment and grow their development philosophy from the ground up. Rather than stifling creativity, it has allowed the team to devise new ways to talk about games with the platform holder and mega publisher, Santiago tells Gamasutra.

In this extensive interview, conducted shortly after the conclusion of GDC Europe last month in Cologne, Germany, Santiago charts the path the developer has taken so far, and explains the position it is in -- with both respect to its ambitions and the very state of the medium itself.

Both the industry and the gamers can be quite unforgiving for things that are said publicly.

Kellee Santiago: Yeah. That’s true.

But actually I haven’t seen thatgamecompany have too much of a problem with that. I could be wrong.

KS: I think we’re getting to that place now where people are watching out for that stuff more, like watching for us to say something that will be shocking or different than what we’re perceived as, maybe.

I think you might be getting into the danger zone that people get into. Where when no one knew who you were, you had a tremendous ability to surprise people. Now people expect something from you, because they know who you are.

KS: Right. Yeah, well yeah, definitely. I mean, after the initial announcement for Journey, especially, is when we really started feeling that, that we’d cultivated a fan base, I think especially through Flower, and people were making really supportive comments. You know, "Oh, thatgamecompany? Day one purchase!" Like, "Love you guys, we’ll get whatever you make," and that puts a lot of pressure on the team. So it’s really great, and then at the same time, it can feel really awful because yeah, now you have to live up to that.

Not to belittle Flow at all, but Flower was a statement.

KS: It was our first game as a studio from start to finish. We chose to do Flow, based on the Flash game, as our first project, because it did help alleviate some of the design pressure. It allowed us to focus more on execution. Flower was our first full title as a studio, and I think it does have more of the qualities... Yeah, it was very different than Flow. I think it surprised people, and I hope Journey surprises people as well.


Journey

In your keynote, you talked about using emotions, not features, as the cornerstone of your design. But from a process perspective, features are easy to iterate on. It seems to me that developing a process for getting to emotion is uncharted territory.

KS: Yeah. That doesn’t mean that games suddenly become featureless. Our games have features; every game has features. I think it’s choosing those features based on the final experience you want to make. Whether that be something that’s as abstract as an unattainable crush, or the experience of the living through the tension of World War II, in combat.

Even in a shooter scenario, choosing those features that are really going to support the experience, the final experience that the player has, as opposed to making a list of things based on the other games that were made in your genre and just trying to add to that -- like, "Let’s add this one more thing."

So it’s more of a holistic, experiential approach?

KS: Yeah, absolutely.

Is it through prototyping that you arrive at the parts of the game you think that approach your emotional goal?

KS: Yeah, definitely. Jonathan Blow kind of spoke to this in his talk as well, as far as having an idea of the experience, brainstorming features or aspects of the game that could feed into that experience, then prototyping and testing them. Whether you have a methodology like how we employ, and get strangers to come play, or it’s yourself, and you believe in your own gut sense about that design.

At a certain point, the features that support your intention for the design start becoming clear. And it was interesting to hear Jonathan talk about that, as well, because it’s definitely a sense that I have, in watching the development team at thatgamecompany. In that it is like you’re wandering lost for a while, and then your destination becomes clear at a certain point, and then it’s just a matter of focusing on those things that will get you to the destination, and making that happen.

You touched on the idea of testing. It sounds like it’s very integral to your methodology.

KS: Yeah, absolutely. And that's partially because we are exploring different emotions in game design. If you were to have this emotion of, "I want it to feel joyous but slightly sad," and you go to an artist, the artist can probably bang out some art in a couple days, some concept art that has those feelings. You go to a composer and you say that, and they can probably do it in half a day, write out a tune that has joyous but slightly sad.

You go to a game designer and say, "I want to feel game mechanics that are joyous and slightly sad," there’s no real defined process for it, other than making something and having other people play it, and finding out if that’s right or not. And it’s just a longer process, and it is because it is still so new, I think. Prototyping and playtesting is just so necessary to the craft right now.


I was really struck by some of the stuff you said on the panel last night about the route to go, rather than going towards Hollywood realism like Uncharted 3, would be to actually evoke emotions through gameplay. And that’s where there’s room to really do a lot of work, and without spending the expense as well. It sounds like that’s your philosophy.

KS: Yeah. I would say yeah. That’s kind of what I was saying.

Right now it sounds like it’s about just trying different things and seeing where you can go. It seems like it's wide open, from your perspective.

KS: Yeah, I think there is so much room for growth and discovery in designing interactive experiences, and video games being a very important subset of interactive experiences.

I think we’re drawn towards those crafts that we know, like acting, like cinematography. But yeah, from my perspective those are crafts that are still rooted in passive media. I don’t know that that’s where we’ll really get as much bang for our buck.

Evoking emotion through music, or through art, is established. The aesthetics of those media are established. Whereas maybe there isn’t an aesthetic of play.

KS: Yeah. I think that’s a great way to put it. I think there isn’t an established methodology for aesthetics of play.

By the same token, is there an established way to appreciate aesthetics of play, or identify aesthetics of play?

KS: No. I think we’re getting there, with works like Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop, and Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen’s book, Rules of Play. Yeah, I think we are. There is starting to be some vocabulary around game design, but also in how we talk about how we play.

I think there was a great microtalk at this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, which was on how we talk about playing, and I think that is an important component of the evolution of the medium -- if we can get beyond just using words like "cool" and "fun" to describe the experiences.

It’s clearly connecting with people, right? Like you said, players' reaction to Flower was, "now we’re going to buy whatever you make next." Clearly, you reached people.

KS: Yeah.

And thus that seems to me to suggest there is a hunger that’s not being served.

KS: Yeah. It’s interesting when people think that our games are for some weird subset of, I don’t know, experimental gamers. You know, we’ve been very successful on the PlayStation Network, and we’re talking about the PlayStation 3 audience. That’s like as pretty hardcore a gaming audience as you can get. And there is, I think, just an interest in content that’s different.

And then also what we see a lot, in the response we get from our players, is game content that you can share. Having something where you can have a friend over, who maybe doesn’t play games. You can show it to your wife or your child. We get emails like, "I’m so glad I can play Flower, because now I don’t have to wait until everyone goes to bed before I can have my gaming habit." So yeah, sharing games with other people seems to be a very important thing for players today.

That seemed to be a big part of the success of the Katamari series, too. I thought when that happened, that we’d see more games with people thinking that way.

KS: Yeah.

But we didn’t, that much.

KS: For me, I think it comes back down to that process, and not having a really established process for going about making games in general. Like, we know how to make the games that have been made so far, but expanding beyond those genres or those styles of play, because there’s not an established process, there’s perceived greater risk in financing those titles, publishing those titles, marketing those titles.

I think there are plenty of publishers who would say, "Yeah, we’d love to do a Katamari Damacy," but they actually really do mean, "We just want to do another Katamari Damacy." When it comes to selling them on the process that Keita [Takahashi] has in developing games, then people start backing out.

Well our industry, particularly the console industry is, founded on this idea that we give you X amount of money for 18 months, and you hit milestones that have a certain percentage of things that are complete. And if you’re trying to be experimental that doesn’t really seem congruent, right?

KS: Yeah.

What about with you guys? Do you have to hit milestones? Do you have to prove to Sony that you're completing that kind of stuff?

KS: We do. We’ve been working with them in trying to develop a better way to go about making the kind of games that we make, because we’re actually not the only Sony developer that does make experimental content. So I think they, as a publisher, are more open to that.

But certainly we have deliverables and milestones. We would have them anyway, because you still want to track your progress on your project. It’s just that maybe some of the vocabulary, the terminology we use around it, is different than what they may use on other projects.

But it’s been sort of one of the advantages in doing these first three games as a studio with a company like Sony Computer Entertainment, as we had the ability to experiment, and develop our own vocabulary, and yet understand the legacy and the traditions that are set in the industry today as well. So hopefully by doing that, we understand how to better navigate and influence the industry today.


It sounds like you’re having a direct influence on Sony. If you give them a way to evaluate development that isn’t based around the kind of games they’ve published since the PlayStation 1 was launched, you might be influencing them. I don’t know if you agree.

KS: Well, that would be really cool. I think one of the things a lot of developers seem to forget is that your financial partner is still your partner in development, and you don’t really just get to take money from them and then run away with it no matter what.

So we’ve really tried to stick true to that, and make it a true partnership in developing great products, which is certainly Sony’s goal as a company. So as long as we’re always aligned on that, then we’re able to find solutions that work for everyone. It doesn’t mean that it isn’t work, though. Yeah, it's work to find those solutions, but it’s worth it.

Well it’s worth it, I think, for the health of the ecosystem because we’re seeing a lot of triple-A games doubling down on the things that triple-A games do.

Budgets getting higher, games getting more focused on those narrow definitions, so as the middle sort of starts to bleed away, we’re going to have to see more things bubbling up on the network side that carry the industry creatively.

KS: I do hope, like Mark Cerny was talking about in his talk here, that there’s an opportunity to reevaluate our process of developing new triple-A titles. Because certainly... He kept comparing it to Hollywood blockbusters.

And I know from living in Los Angeles, and having a lot of friends in the entertainment industry, that part of the reason of those budgets are so huge is because they are also grounded in a very established process that’s hard to change, but one in which there are many, many inefficiencies. Those movies don’t have to cost as much as they cost, and it’d be nice if we could do better.

If we can do better on efficiency, then we don’t have to spend as much money. Then we can start to take more risks, right? Even with triple-A games?

KS: Yeah, exactly.

Do you look at the course of thatgamecompany and think, "Maybe someday we’ll develop something that costs 60 dollars and a stamp it onto a Blu-ray"?

KS: I don’t know. I mean, you never say never, because you never know where inspiration or technology is going to take us. But it seems like there’s so many new opportunities with alternative business models, in especially the free-to-play space being the most extreme of them. Well, there’s just a lot of possibilities out there, so I don’t know where it’s going to take us.

But you are establishing an audience on the PlayStation 3, too.

KS: Yeah, definitely. The PlayStation Network audience has been really great to us. I think, because as we were talking about earlier, they’re very, what I think of as "literate gamers." They play everything. They read about games. They talk about games in a very literate way, and are looking for that new experience.

That goes against the expectation the industry seems to have, that they’re actually looking for the same experience that they already had.

KS: Yeah. Yeah, it turns out gamers are not stupid, and I don’t think we should treat them like they are.

There’s obviously a certain comfort in that familiarity, but it can get a bit condescending when you go to E3 and you watch a press conference, and you see the same thing, after the same thing, after the same thing.

KS: Yeah, and certainly I think now, in the economic climate today, we’re even more, as gamers, considerate of the value for our dollar. So we want experiences that are going to be fresh and different, and there’s a lot of competition for those dollars right now, so the bar is higher.

One of the big differences between games and film, at least in the console space, that is kind of unfortunate, I guess, is that you can make an indie film that becomes a breakout hit and performs on the same level as a mainstream Hollywood film. But still, right now, there doesn’t seem to be a way to you know have parity and success between downloadable games and packaged titles. Do you agree?

KS: Well it kind of depends on the space that we’re talking about. Was it that Zynga has like 80 million players? Which is I think probably greater than a lot of console titles.

Yeah, if you talk about Facebook, if you talk about even Minecraft, you definitely get away from that. But in the console space, indie games don’t seem to get on the same level, even when they become successful. There still seems to be some sort of gulf.

KS: I think in the console space, there’s still a storefront. And I shouldn’t just say "console", because this applies to a lot of PC downloadable sites as well, and the App Store. There’s still that barrier to entry into finding and discovering content, because it’s so very feature-based. So you log in, and then you see the games that the platform holder has decided to select for you and so you still have some of that same problem with the shelf space as the disc titles do as well.

There’s still actually a surprisingly large proportion of people with Xbox 360s or PlayStation 3s that never log onto Xbox Live or PlayStation Network, and aren’t really cognizant of the fact that they are these alternative options for them.

KS: Yes, it’s a subset of a subset of people.

So in a weird way you’re targeting probably the most literate gamers, as you would put it.

KS: Yeah.

People would anticipate them to probably be the least receptive to something different, but it turns out they’re very receptive to something different.

KS: Yeah, exactly. That was a suspicion that Jenova [Chen] and I had founding the company, and I’m glad to find out that it’s true.


Something I thought was interesting from your presentation was the key phrases for the game.

KS: We all walk the path. Each journey is different.

What do they represent to your process, coming up with those phrases?

KS: Well, it’s a way of focusing the decision making, in deciding which features we’re going to keep, and which we’re going to get rid of, which mechanics we’re going to continue to iterate on, and which ones we’re going to get rid of.

For a game in which the focusing phrase is "Together we can move the mountain," that has a very grand, collaborative goal, and I think it elicits to me a very grand sense of everyone in the world working together, maybe. So those feed into certain decisions that we would make about the game.

So it’s interesting, because one of the things I didn’t mention during the talk, is that a phrase I also use during development is, "If we could talk about it, we wouldn’t have to make a game about it." So that vocabulary is both a way for us to focus our decisions, but it’s also a way for us to test our understanding of the decisions we’ve already made on the project.

Because a lot of it is coming from just a gut sense of what the idea is, of this experience, and what is the feeling of this experience that we’re trying to make. At the same time we’re still a team. We’re a small team, but we still have to communicate to other people what that feeling is, so it’s always refining what that vocabulary is that we’re using.

And you showed a slide of Jenova’s.

KS: Yeah, the emotional chart.

How did he develop that?

KS: This happened on Flower and Journey. He was considering the emotional arc of the experience from beginning to the end of the story of those games. So if you just drive straight through the experience, what are those feelings?

And then those set a tone for each level and a certain kind of pacing between the levels, and so that’s where it starts out, as sort of like a general arc, and then it starts sort of filling in the details. Here are the ideas for different levels that could happen, and then different mechanics, and then actually naming each level after maybe one or two core emotions that we want to elicit in that level.

And it’s a guide for the team as they work on the projects?

KS: Yeah.

It sounds you're finding the process as you go along, for how you make your own games.

KS: Yeah.

Changing from project to project.

KS: Yeah, it is definitely ever-evolving for us. That’s why we like having the opportunity to discuss it at GDC events, which are about developers exchanging ideas with each other. So that we can get feedback on our own process, and then we’re not just working in a vacuum. And at the same time, hopefully through that, develop better processes with an entire development community.

You recruited Robin Hunicke to work for the company, and she has a background in being a developer for a major publisher. You came straight from your university program into founding your company, so you didn’t have some of the same institutional knowledge.

KS: Yeah, exactly. That was one of the reasons we wanted Robin’s experience on the team, someone who, again, had experience in a very traditional development model within a large publisher, but at the same time has an eye for experimental game design and evolving process. And she’s really passionate about that subject, about, "How can we make games better?" And that’s always something we’re looking for at thatgamecompany, actually.

Hiring at thatgamecompany can be difficult because we’re just a small studio, so every single person has a huge impact on the whole studio, and the whole culture. So you have to be very careful about that.

And then where we’re at in our careers right now, and sort of our life as a studio, we’re looking for people who, either like Robin, have that established industry background but who are looking work at a studio where they can have a greater impact, or who are passionate about mixing things up. Or a lot of times, the people with those mentalities are other people who are right out of school like we were -- except we need them to be a lot more professional than we were when we started.

Something that I’m curious about is that Flower definitely has you know goals. One thing it shares with traditional games are goals and progression. Going back to Katamari, Keita Takahashi went on to Noby Noby Boy which doesn’t have goals and progression. Do you think that they’re essential to games?

KS: Goals and progression? Well, Noby Noby Boy does have goals and progression, they’re just not in the... So I think there’s room for movement in our understanding of goals and progression. I think, in order to create engaging experiences, which I do believe is fundamental to interactive design, there will always be some form I think of goals and progression involved in that. And we shouldn’t be afraid as artists to use that, just because it’s a traditional game design phrase.

I guess that’s kind of a balance you have to strike -- picking and choosing what you think is salient to what you want to make from what games have already. Choosing what you want to ignore, or where you want to push the boundaries, right?

KS: Yeah. I know we did a couple of talks on the Flower development process, that I think showed a lot of that. We had a lot of versions of Flower that were very gamey, when you hit different flowers, you would get different abilities, and it was about executing these abilities. And we ended up stripping all of that away, because it wasn’t serving the goal of the project that we had in mind.

And it’s all through testing?

KS: Testing, yeah. Having people come in and test, and realizing when they were getting stressed out and frustrated -- well, that’s not really the feeling of being in a field of flowers that we were going for. And also being unafraid to go there, and to let go of some of the traditions of the past.

We don’t want to make a boring experience, but again, I think, walking that line necessitates a lot of playtests. So that we’re neither being frustrating or too boring. But I’m sure people will disagree on both sides of that. And in the end, you end up having to make the call that feels right for you. You just have to sort of make that decision that feels right to you and be comfortable with the audience that you’re carving out by making those decisions.

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