thatgamecompany are taking these concepts and turning them into some of the most compelling games of our recent console era. Anyone who has played Cloud, flOw or Flower knows how much desire, focus and energy thatgamecompany manage to put into their simple game ideas. But how do they make it look so simple? Marconi decided to find out…
Marconi: First of all can you tell us who you are and what you do at thatgamecompany?
Kellee Santiago: Hi, I’m Kellee Santiago. I’m President and Co-Founder of thatgamecompany. I co-founded the studio with our Creative Director, Jenova Chen in 2006, after we met each other at the University of Southern California Interactive Media MFA program, at the School of Cinematic Arts. Now our studio is 10 people, and my work focuses on business development and strategic planning, marketing and public relations, and working with Sony, our publisher.
M: We ask the same question to everyone one we speak to here at Midlife Gamer, what your favourite biscuit (cookie) and beverage?
KS: I guess that would be Oreo double-stuff, although it’s not the most attractive cookie to eat! My favourite beverage currently is ginger ale – the real stuff, though.
M: Tell me a little more about thatgamecompany. What were the origins of the company and your main focuses and theories when creating games?
KS: The seed of the company was planted after the release of the USC student game project “Cloud,” on which Jenova was the lead. “Cloud” is free PC downloadable game that attempts to embody the lessons we were getting at USC – to begin your game design with an emotion or theme in mind, and then design towards that as your goal. We wanted to see what would happen if we applied this practice on a theme that isn’t commonly found in video game. Would people still be engaged? Are there limitations to what can be expressed in a video game?
For “Cloud” the idea was to give the player the feeling of remembering what it was like to be a child, staring up at the clouds and daydreaming. When the game was completed, the team felt satisfied with the experiment, but still had no idea how the public at large was going to react. But, it actually caught on. Within a few months the game had been downloaded 400,000 times, without any promotional work on our part. Jenova and I felt that the game had struck a chord. And it had shown us that there was an audience for these different kinds of games, and we decided to make a company that did just that.
M: Delivering an artistic experience seems to be on the top of your agenda when creating a new title, how do you balance this aspect of pushing boundaries and try new things, whilst ensuring that your title is appealing to a wide enough audience to be a commercial success?
KS: In a way, we think they are one in the same. There are many games, like Wii Sports and Rock Band, that have shown that the people who aren’t playing games aren’t doing so because “they aren’t gamers.” It’s because there aren’t any video games that they like. By making games with themes that anyone can relate to – like the serenity of a field of flowers, or being a rock star – we can appeal to a wider, untapped audience.
M: If you had been releasing games a decade ago, do you think they would have been so appreciated and accepted? Is the notion of what a console is used for changing?
KS: We couldn’t do what we do without digital distribution, which allows us to make games that priority quality over quantity and take them directly to market.
M: How crucial was Sony Computer Entertainment in the creation of thatgamecompany?
KS: Extremely so. Jenova and I were in the second graduating class from the USC program, which was one of only a handful of programs in the world. Publishers didn’t know what to do with us, because we didn’t have experience shipping commercial titles, which was standard at the time. Sony took a huge leap of faith in signing us up for three games. In addition, they were part mentors and part publisher, which is a very rare situation. They helped us figure out the in-and-outs of commercial game development, producing, negotiating, PR – all of these aspects to game development that you have to do well in order to run a successful business. We couldn’t be thatgamecompany without them.
M: You straddle the thin line with Sony between independent and first party. How much say does Sony have when you pitch new titles?
KS: In general, Sony is very supportive of their developers, and they have been extremely supportive with us. Although the idea of a game about being in a flower field raised a lot of eyebrows in meetings, those same people trusted us and allowed us to realize that vision.
M: Can you tell us a little more about your next title Journey. How far away are we from seeing the game and what can players expect from it?
KS: Journey is our first online experience for PSN, and we want to apply everything there that we’ve learned from Cloud, flOw, and Flower. The common themes in online experiences today are about empowerment and destruction, so we began with the idea of creating an online game that would generate a sense of awe and wonder – a feeling that we believe is sorely lacking from not only our gaming experiences, but our day-to-day lives.