Case Study: Thatgamecompany, From Startup to Journey

TGC has a complete willingness to turn their backs on traditional ways of how to look at the world. “If you don’t achieve emotion or experience for your players then we, as an industry, aren’t trying hard enough” Fun and enjoyment may be subjective, but feelings and emotions are universal.

 

[Many thanks to Jenova Chen and the folks at thatgamecompany for donating their time and answering all our questions!]

flOw. Flower. Journey. What do these words have in common? Well, they’re awesome games; the kind that change your life and make you feel things. But not things like entertainment or boredom, I’m talking real things. The sort of feelings you couldn’t talk to your mates about without being called a nancy. The other thing they all have in common is that they were created by thatgamecompany.

Founded in 2006 by University of Southern California students Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen, thatgamecompany has become one of the most innovative game dev companies around. Beginning with their university project Cloud, TGC now boasts three award winning titles on the PSN. Most recently released was the instantly popular title Journey, a game I’m sure you’ve heard loads about already (and if you haven’t, then come on man…Click the link).

Cloud gained notoriety for its ground breaking gameplay and the heated argument it triggered within industry about whether video games can be considered art.

 

Securing Funding

 

“The easiest way to get noticed is to be different”

Games like Cloud don’t happen overnight. It took Santiago (who has since left to work on a new project) and Chen a lot of time, stress and very late nights in front of their computers. Oh, and money. Yeah, it took a lot of that too. Fortunately for them, their team and their game so impressed USC faculty that funding was never much of an issue. As Cloud was developing into such an amazing project, USC provided a grant of $20,000USD for them to play with. That grant was shortly followed up with a 3-game opportunity when they were approached by Sony and given a contract to sign.

Sony originally became interested in TGC when Michael Harrison, company president at the time, stumbled across Chen’s game flOw on the internet. “At the time he was really trying to take Sony in an innovative new direction” Chen states “and I guess he thought flOw would be a good title to prove that with the release of the PS3. At the time, Microsoft was the leader in things like that, and Sony wanted something to make them stand out from the crowd”. This all took place roughly four months before the PS3 was released, and with flOw being the stand-out title that it was, it was easy for Sony to see the potential TGC could bring the company. “The easiest way to get noticed is to be different” says Chen. “But you’ve got to have the skills to back it up.”

 

Building a Fan Following

 

Since releasing titles on the PSN, TGC has drawn most of their fan base from gamers longing for something different than the hack and slash action games that dominate the industry. However they have had loyal followers in their tread since Chen’s game flOw was released for flash. flOw was the first title to bring in any sort of profit, though after paying hosting fees to the website, the money added up to near nothing. And that game received about 100k downloads within the first fortnight! However, near nothing is better than nothing at all, and it was the crucial element to getting picked up by Sony.

 

Manufacturing Magic

 

Designing games like flOw, Flower and Journey require an intricate process that’s fairly new to the established game development craft. It’s not one you’ll stumble into after making one game either. And while TGC may have their development flow. Their methods weren’t always this polished.

Rather than begin development with a choice of tools, storyline or gameplay, TGC decides on a range of emotions they want their audience to experience. It’s this choice of feelings that have the most effect on the direction the game takes. For example, Flower was created to “explore how the developers could connect to their players on an emotional level”, . not, as claimed, to send a message about green energy or pollution. In a previous interview Chen, states that there were “aspects of the game removed” in order to put an end to that confusion. “The purpose is to explore the tension between urban bustle and natural serenity” he says, “not create controversy over environmental issues.”

This unique take on game development begs the question, why do they stay indie after all their success? Though we may wonder over this, it’s never been a question for TGC. Revelling in the small group dynamic (with only 12 people in their team), TGC believes that “moving away from being an independent developer would create too much pressure for sales”. Collaborating on every step of the process allows for thatgamecompany to “push the boundaries of interactive entertainment to all new levels of innovation and emotional experience.”

 

Screw Business as Usual

 

“TGC has a complete willingness to turn their backs on traditional ways of how to look at the world”. If they had followed the industry standard formula then Flower would have been a game about a petal that pulled out machine guns and killed evil cows destroying the world with methane gas. And though that actually does sound kind of awesome (I mean really, a petal with a machine gun? Hells yes.) it’s not original.

TGC believes “If you don’t achieve emotion or experience for your players then we, as an industry, aren’t trying hard enough” Fun and enjoyment may be subjective, but feelings and emotions are universal. So go. Feel. Create. Live. Laugh. Difference is good. Embrace it, get around it, and make sure your game is a part of it.

 

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About Jenn

I chose to write for indieBits because I wanted to get closer to the roots of the gaming industry. Maybe it's because I'm small, and roots are a level I can relate to, or maybe it's because I wanted to be able to get inside the head of game devs to see what makes them work. Whatever it is, I'm not leaving here until I've sucked up the knowledge of everything I can, and passed it on to you guys. So get used to me, because I'll be here a while.

Comments

  1. Nice piece! The topic definitely deserved a treatment after a tour-de-force like Journey was released.
    The only part of the story I don’t like is the “funding wasn’t much of a problem” angle… I don’t believe it! $20,000 and two people, fod how long? I’d say that’s a lot of 2-minute noodle dinners in low-rent accomodation! ;-)

  2. It’s cool hearing about developers like this beating their own path. Thanks Jenn.

  3. Thanks dear Jenn for supporting emotional basis that much. As a musician this point of view really touches me deeply. Also, I enjoyed your comment in about section. It is nice to see people adding up to the indie community and keeping the spirit.

  4. Redskies says:

    I’ve only ever played journey, After getting to the top for the first time and sitting there at the golden road with my companion we both jumped in unison and flew off into the crossing. What a beautiful experience Now I HAVE to try flower and flOw. It would wrong not to.

  5. loved it. So easy to read. I’ll be looking forward to reading more, Thanks Jenn!

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