Co-Founder & Creative Director of thatgamecompany
Hey Jenova. Before we begin, please introduce the readers to thatgamecompany.
We are a company that tries to push the envelope of what video games can communicate. Our mission statement is to create timeless interactive entertainment that will promote positive change to the human psyche worldwide.
I wanted to start off by talking about your design process. In previous interviews and talks, you emphasized designing with emotion in mind, which is a very unique approach.
When people think about games they start thinking about stuff they play as a child, like chess, or playground games. They don't really think about games as entertainment, but more like an activity. In the case of early computer games, people think about them more like software; you buy this software to simulate chess, tennis, or driving. But if you are in the entertainment business it's all about knowing what type of feeling, age, and gender you're targeting with the experience.
I started work on a game called Cloud, which was an experiment. We were trying to make a game that is opposite of everything that is out there in the market, and people reacted strongly. We thought, what did we do right that made people want to talk about it so much? It was not the technology or the visuals, it was that the game felt different, so people liked to talk about it. That allowed me to look at games through the perspective of feeling.
I realized that the evolution of the video games industry is very similar to the evolution of the film industry in terms of what kind of emotional experiences it provides. When film first started people didn't really know what they could do with their mechanics. It took them 20 to 30 years to figure out they could move the camera around. Eventually they realized film can be cut together in different ways rather than just using what was shot, which allowed it to become a different form of art through cinematography and editing.
Games cover a lot of feelings that film cover as well, but they are mostly targeted toward men - particularly younger men. What is the most popular type of film for young men? Well, there are comic book films, horror films, action adventure films, and sci-fi, which pretty much represents the entire video game landscape. What do female audiences like? Romance, romantic comedy, family films, musicals. There isn't a single video game out there about these emotions. Maybe Dance Central and Guitar Hero are like musicals, which is probably why female players like these games too. Then there's this middle area, which men and female viewers both like, such as comedy, drama, indie art films, fantasy films, documentaries, and movie classics. Those are the films that video game players might still find interesting, but what I notice is that when genres are translated to games, they are always more action oriented.
Is there any drama? In bigger games like Grand Theft Auto or Assassin's Creed, the character goes through a dramatic arc, but it's an action adventure drama. There isn't anything that's pure. Action is generally unappealing to girls, which is why I think we're stuck in an industry where the majority of the people are men. So when I start making games, that's why I think about the feeling we want to evoke. Our goal is to make games that appeal to everyone, so we're trying to figure out what kind of emotion we should go for so more people will play our games.
You talk a lot about film's influence in your work, which I understand since we both went to USC's film school. However, there's a great debate in game design right now regarding how much we can take from film before we start to merely emulate it. When you study film, what aspects do you focus on, and how do you ensure your games still provide something very different in their interactive elements?
A lot of people study film techniques to apply to games literally, asking how a cutscene can evoke a feeling, but I always feel those are duct taped on and not part of the game. Because film is established and mature, it has provided quite a few nuanced emotions that you can't find in video games to reference. There's a lot of inspiration you can draw from the film industry but also a lot of techniques that are relevant to video games, like how they utilize all the different mediums to evoke feelings.
Film is a multimedia experience that creates an emotional experience, and video games are also a multimedia experience. Film makers make sure all the elements (acting, sound, cinematography, music) work together, but often when game makers apply them, they only focus on the aspect of the medium that is related to film, not the gameplay.
Thatgamecompany recently went fully independent. Everyone seems to define indie in a different way; there's the artistic sense and then there is the financial sense. What does it mean to you?
I always thought these two sides can't really work together, because finance is about money, and art is about expression. They don't work together when you have different priorities, but very occasionally you get a success at both, like a Pixar film. But it's hard. The fine art world probably wouldn't consider Pixar films as fine art. I think we're talking about commercial art.
When you just focus on art, you're more likely to succeed, because you have only one goal and it's very directed. When you start to think about how to make money, it can cloud your judgment and make the work less coherent.
That is going to be a challenge for us as well, but it's inevitable that we had to go this way because staying as a first party developer for Sony, even with a successful game like Journey, would not allow us to grow the company and maintain what we want the company to be. In the end, whether you are recognized by the world or rewarded financially has a lot to do with how many people you are influencing and how many people you are helping. Going indie is a way for us to reach out to more people.
This is kind of counterintuitive, because indie is supposed to mean fewer platforms and smaller budgets, but actually we can target more platforms, have larger budgets, and have more reach.
The game industry is going through a dramatic shift in how we sell content with new models like free to play and new platforms like microconsoles. Are you disturbed by the trend or excited by it?
Overall I am a pro creation person. The more people that have a chance to create things and have their voices heard, the better the world is. I think these microconsoles with lower barriers to make games are great for the market, but they also create more competition. All the sudden you have one hundred times more games on a console - how do you stand out? I think that's actually a good problem. Not everybody that wants to make a game deserves to be a commercial success. When more people are involved, people are forced to innovate harder, and try to make something that's actually really valuable.
Free to play is not a business model. It's a marketing model. You don't have money to market, so you give out a sample of your game for free. They do that in supermarkets. There's nothing new here, but when everybody gives out their stuff for free, if you don't, you're behind. Free to play is the climate today, but I think in the future things might change.
Free to play is often compared to the shareware of the 90s, but there's a fundamental difference between the two. With shareware you are providing a sample of the product and expanding on it with a one time purchase, but free to play uses micro transactions that can be purchased indefinitely.
The sample in the supermarket is the traditional shareware method. The digital revolution not only changed the way we distribute content but it also changed the way we charge people. Now, since someone is handling the distribution channel, they can cut down the cost to make it really flexible. In my opinion, this is a more advanced business mechanic, but unfortunately this is where a lot of people get too greedy and don't even hide the fact that they want to rip you off. Just look at all the Facebook games. How many people really like the fact that Facebook games send out spam?
However, the ability to pay anytime you want and however much you want is enabling people. It's enabling kids who might not have the money to buy the whole game but could buy an item in the game, or someone who wants to play the game completely free of charge by putting enough time into it. Or, if you don't have time or money, you can rely on friends to help you play the game. In a larger scope, this is a good thing and the reason a lot of free to play companies are making a lot of money. But some of them are using gambling, which is another dark area that will probably soon be regulated. If you want to make a lot of money quickly, gambling is appealing until it is regulated, but if you want to make games you can stand up and feel proud of, you need to make good content, you need to touch people, and you need to make them feel good and willing to spend money for you.
Do you think it is possible to make a game as emotionally resonant as Journey while still using the free to play staple of allowing the customer to pay for additional things whenever they want?
It's difficult to tell. Journey had a demo version with an okay conversion rate. The problem with Journey as an example is that it's impossible to pop up a purchase interface within PSN, so we never designed it with that idea in mind. If we did not start a game with micro transactions in mind, it would not feel coherent when the purchase shows up. But if you design a new game and payment is something natural that you design to be part of the experience, then I think it would work.
One of the things that I admire about thatgamecompany's games is their focus. Is it difficult to maintain that focus through each project? Do you ever have ideas that you want to work on but can't because you still have another year or so left on the current project?
I don't really have that problem. When we start a project we pick a project that we believe will be the most interesting and influential project, so I've never had an experience where halfway through the project I have a better idea.
We choose to make games that don't exist, so the whole time we're thinking, what the hell is this game? Every day we try to figure out what is this game going to be, so maybe if we have a good game idea on what to do next we just turn our game into that game.
When Hayao Miyazaki is working on a film, he's writing while the film is being made. For Princess Mononoke, the ending was unknown, and he was writing it like three months before they aired the film. It's pretty crazy to think about, because with animation, once it's drawn it can't be changed. So that's why they take 3-4 years to make a film.
It's the same with Pixar. When they start a project they don't know exactly what it's going to be, but they figure it out after changing the story multiple times.
I don't believe anything good can be done within one or two years. Look at the film industry. Just the script sometimes takes five years to write.
Your approach sort of goes against conventional wisdom. A lot of people in the industry suggest creating a roadmap with the whole project planned out before you even begin. How did you first find that this approach worked?
I feel the world is filled with two types of people: there are builders, and there are explorers. The builders like to follow conventions, and they can get very efficient cranking out the things they know. The explorers just can't. They don't like doing the same routine every day. They like to try new things and find new places. Somehow the world balances out pretty well.
The conventional wisdom is given to you by builders, and I'm here telling you what the explorers are supposed to do.
Do you feel any sense of added pressure now that more independent studios are finding success? When thatgamecompany first emerged, you were one of the few in this space, but now we have all sorts of studios like The Fullbright Company coming out with interesting, engaging work.
You will see more companies like we are. We're a small studio, around 10 guys, and there should be more indie companies that are just around 10 people. The only way these guys can succeed is by trying something that a bigger team can't. That's just the way the market works out. You can get really successful with something and want to keep building on it, but you don't innovate because you want to improve its efficiency, and eventually you will just die. The new guys are small but one of them will eventually get a hit, which then turns into a genre, like Minecraft or Angry Birds. How many games now have three stars and seasonal level packs?
The not so successful indie games still remain indie games. In a way, indie means not successful. If a guy makes an indie game and it becomes super popular, the indies don't usually consider him indie. It's no longer risky since it makes so much money. Doom was an indie game. Who still considers id an indie game company?
I want to talk a little about design you find inspiring that is not game design, say application design or furniture design, anything that you find engaging that you can take with you in your work.
I think design inspiration comes from anthropology. You observe your life and try to find ways to make it better. I remember listening to an anthropologist talk at USC about a subway station in Paris that is next to an airport. When you enter the subway station, there's these three metal bars that rotate as you enter. They have the same thing at the airport.
He saw people at the airport move past the bars by raising huge pieces of luggage over them. Everybody had to struggle to get through the bars. How are you supposed to get through if you are weak or short? He called the station to complain and eventually it was fixed, but if no one realized it could be better it would always suck.
With design you need to have the compassion and intellect to identify problems that can be improved, within certain constraints. Human beings have an insatiable desire toward a better and better life.
Are there any apps that you find inspirational?
Someone was showing me the new compass app in iOS 7, which has a leveling tool with a gamey element. The leveling tool has two spheres that you are supposed to match. Once you match them, they become green, which feels satisfying. It's simple feedback that creates engagement. I never thought leveling could be this cool.
The iOS 7 interface is very interesting but it also has flaws. For example, if you tap on a folder it zooms in, which is awesome, but the two finger gesture that allows you to zoom in and zoom out across the OS doesn't work on the home screen. A designer searches for coherence so that the device feels like it was made by one author.
To close out this interview, can you talk about USC's impact on you?
School is where a lot of my best memories are, because you're working without real pressure. You can do a bad job and nobody is going to find out. At the time, it was a more optimistic environment because everything was possible. Being in the game program for the first several years, nobody knew what the game program was supposed to be, which let us be in control of what we were learning there. That's not possible within established programs.
Some people are saying the USC film school can't make the next George Lucas or Robert Zemeckis anymore because those guys were there when the school was still young. There were still rules to be broken. I think the fact that the school can have rules defined by students gives them more ownership, and they invest in it more.
I just hope that the Interactive Media program doesn't grow into something too mechanical. Right now the facility is just too nice. I was joking with Tracy Fullerton that if you graduate from this program right now, no matter what company you go to it will be a big disappointment.
We need to stay scrappy. That's what I liked about school. We were very scrappy and just made things happen.
My whole style is for the explorers. Explorers should be in a very raw environment rather than a place that is filled with rules and traditions. That's what excites them.