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Interview with Thatgamecompany's Jenova Chen

An interview with thatgamecompany's Jenova Chen that took an unexpected turn and became a rather in-depth look into capitalism, the past, and the gaming market.

Crossposted from TK-Nation. TK-Nation's a South-East Asian gaming site that plays home to news about quality underdogs from the gaming world, indie cosplay and video game collectibles. 

Contrary to popular expectations, not all incarnations of Jenova are evil. In fact, our guest for this interview is Jenova Chen, the Creative Director of thatgamecompany, one of the few game development agencies out there hellbent on proving that there is life outside of kill death ratios. 

TK-Nation: Back before indie game development became borderline-mainstream, what was the industry like? Were there forums to help you out, communities that discussed gaming development and so forth?

Jenova Chen: There's always the Game Development Conference which is more of a mix between mainstream, indie and students. And to be precise, the indie community has existed long before the recent moments; it's just that it was difficult to distribute and monetize games in the past because of the high entry level for package good sales. 

Huh, I suppose that digital distribution platforms and advancements in online payment systems pretty much helped the industry to boom?

Yes. Otherwise, you'd have to charge $60 for a copy of your game in order to make some amount of profit after the retailers and storage service charges had their ways with you.

Oh geez, that's pretty rough. But it sounds like things were an even riskier endeavour back then. Why did you and your partner decide to venture into the indie game development business? With talents like yours, why not work for a bigger corporation? 

Well, yes. That's why a lot of indie games were more private, existing amongst friends or on indie blogs only. Now that it's easier to get a game out and turn a commercial profit, there's a lot more people doing this. We decided to venture into own thing because we want to make the game we want to make. Working for others won't get the games in our minds created. If you're a movie director, participating in a film production won't satisfy you at all. If you're a writer, writing for someone else might be an okay job but if you're a creator, you want to create your own world and stories.

That's very true. Moving on in the space time continuum, the industry's grown substantially since the release of Cloud. With every other person out there to make it big, you can't move without bumping into another hopeful. What is your perception of the game development community now compared to, say, 5 years ago? 

It hasn't changed much. The indie community is filled with people who want to make something difference. The only big difference is probably the proportion of students in the industry; there's a lot more students these days because education about video games is booming. There are a lot more people these days undertaking the study of video games as a serious academic pursuit. As a result, the quality of games from people of a certain age is probably higher now than it was 5 years ago. 

I don't think it's the same in South-East Asia just yet. For the most part, gaming and the design of games are often viewed as hobbies rather than a serious vocation. I heard that you were requested to visit SEA to give talks on game design before? What is your perception of the industry in this area?

Yeah. The (video game) education in this area is about 3-5 years behind USA or Europe. However, I think it'd catch up quickly. I find it interesting that so many game schools are opening up in China but there's not enough instructors to go around. 

That's kinda weird, yes. Still, who knows? Maybe the governments will begin hiring famous game developers themselves one day? What advice would give people intending to roam into the world of indie games development? Without sufficient education, it's probably difficult to even start. Are there any websites/forums/groups that you think would serve as a good stepping stone for someone in an region like mine?

My first advice would be to get education. Go abroad if you can. If you can't get a decent education in this field, try to make games with a community. Find people who share the same passion to work together. Find people who share a passion TO work together. The best way to learn about game development is to actually create games. In terms of gaming sites, I often point people to for information about schools. For industry news, you could As for the indie community, and are good places to go. 

Does thatgamecompany use their own engine or, like a lot of people out there, utilize third-party services? With all the technology that's available today, is there anything you have done differently with the games you've produced? 

We use our own engine with some additional middleware. In my opinion, a specific game is often created with a specific technology. If you're innovating a game, it's very likely you'll be innovating some new technology as well - that's why we prefer creating our own. And no, I don't think we'd have done anything differently .

It's nice to know that certain things won't change. Having said that, we've got a bit of a controversial question for you. Like I mentioned earlier, it seems like everyone and their cousin is getting into games development these days. Do you think people are still out to do it for the love of their ideas or have things degenerated into a state of capitalism? What do you see in the future of indie gaming?

If you were part of the scene in the past, you were there for the love of it. Now, especially with the rise of social networking games, it's a lot harder to tell. However, capitalism is actually good. It creates a sense of competitive in the creative market, forcing us to be more creative and to expand to newer markets. It'd also force people to create more artistic games as opposed to 'me too' games.

That's a really interesting perspective! But what about the future of games? As outsiders, we're not privy to what's going on. Press releases and second-hand information are never the same as working in the industry itself. Where do you think indie gaming is going and do you think that it'd be able to match up to hard-hitting blockbuster developers one day?

It won't. If you're a successful indie like Valve, people wil consider you a mainstream: high budget, high profit. Every successful indie has the opportunity to become a big fish. Just look at the film industry and the music industry. Indie will always have its place and so will blockbusters. Many famous film directors started out as indie directors. Their successes eventually brought them the opportunity to make high-budget films. 

I guess it's not how everyone sees it then; two different industries fighting against one another. Indie eventually becomes mainstream, depending on how popular it gets.

Correct. Look at Zynga. They used to be indie but now they're mainstream. (Editor's Note - Mainstream? I thought people said they were evil!) Mainstream basically means less risk so they can use a higher initial investment to increase their production budget and marketing budget. Consequentially, that means they have the oportunity to sell a lot.

Do you see thatgamecompany becoming mainstream one day?

In the future, yes. Right now, no.

There's an enormous focus on violent games in the market nowadays - the stuff thatgamecompany produces is a lot dreamier and more like a fairy tale for the modern day. Judging by what you say, does that mean you guys see non-violent gaming making a comeback?

Right now, a majority of the players in the market are still males between age twenty and age thirty. What we want to do is bring everyone to play high quality games. Once the market is evenly distributed amongst all demographics, non-violent gaming will be as big as violent gaming.

In your opinion, what is the next upcoming market sector? We have male players in their 20-30s right now. What's next? 

Social networking games have already carried over to the 30-40 female groups. Male to female ratio in gaming is already, in truth, almost equal. It's just not people are not playing on the same platform. The unexplored markets left are the 20-30 female as well as males above age 35+. 

Neat! Do you think thatgamecompany is going to launch facebook Flow one day? I'd totally Like that.

I don't know but we will see.

And that's a wrap! Thanks for the interview, Mr Chen!

For more information about Jenova Chen's company itself, you can visit thatgamecompany's website 

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