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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.
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.