describe the experience you get from playing Jenova Chen's games as
"serene" would be an understatement. Serenity is implied even from
their titles: Cloud and flOw.
games were created by Chen (AKA "Xinghan Chen") as part of his studies
while he was a student of the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His aim was
to elicit emotions beyond the medium's typical kill-or-be-killed and
win-or-lose game play mentality.
Cloud is inspired by the sensation of dreams where one is flying. In flOw, the player controls a flagellar creature in what could be described as an extremely Zen take on Geometry Wars; Chen based the game on psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's "Flow Theory," whose work explored ideas of what makes people truly happy. Cloud and flOw earned awards for Chen. flOw went
further: Sony picked it up to offer as a downloadable game on the
PlayStation Network, its new online service for the PS3.
Born in Shanghai, China, Chen currently works for EA Maxis, but he also has co-founded his own development studio, thatgamecompany.
While, for this interview, he wouldn't reveal what his next game might
be like, one can assume it will probably showcase another unique
Gamasutra: Share with us a little about your background in art and design.
Chen: I've loved drawing and doodling since I was a kid. However, under
my father's influence, I have trained for computer programming
competitions since I was 10. I was not enthusiastic about programming,
but early computer games lured my interests.
I got my bachelor degree in Computer Science & Engineering in
Shanghai Jiao Tong University, I ended up using most of my college time
self-teaching digital art and computer animation. Later on, I did a
minor in digital art and design at Dong Hua University. Because of my
unyielding interests towards video games, I was involved in one of the
earliest Chinese college student game-making groups and made three
Upon graduation, however, because
of my interests in engineering, art and design, I had a hard time
finding a job where I could do all of them in the Chinese video game
industry. I ended up coming to the U.S. to purse a graduate study in
the field of video game design at the Interactive Media Division of the
School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.
GS: From a developer's view, how would you describe China's video game industry compared to America's?
I haven't been there for nearly four years. Maybe it is better now.
Most Chinese gaming companies are focused heavily on outsourcing and
online games, since they are the only games that can't be pirated. And
most of the developers are publishers, too. Since the market in China
is so big, you find many "me too" games, yet they still manage to pull
I have heard words from executives
like "We don't need creative game designers. We need designers who can
make the same game as our competitor's." Overall, I think the market is
less mature compared with North America or Europe, and it is much more
difficult for a start-up to stand in a market where your idea will be
copied by many others.
GS: How did flOw come about?
I see two major directions our current industry should push toward.
First, expand the spectrum of emotions video games evoke. If someone
doesn't like visceral stimulation and dexterity-based game play, the
games they can choose from are very limited.
second, design games to be adaptive to different types of gamers. Many
times, people stop playing a game [not] because they don't have
interest in it. It's because most traditional games can't satisfy the
various tastes and expectations from different types of gamers.
A year ago, we made a game called Cloud to address the first direction. My graduation thesis [flOw]
focused on the second direction. In my thesis, I formed a series of
methodologies for game designers to enhance their game so that more and
different types of players can enjoy.
Originated as a practice and testbed for the "Active Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment" theory formulated in my thesis, flOw is
designed to attract a wider audience, allowing players with different
tastes to enjoy the experience in their own way. The game features an
abstract, aquatic world inviting players to learn, explore and survive.
GS: Regarding your Active Dynamic
Difficulty Adjustment theory: You are not simply referring to the
game's difficulty level changing in response to the skills of the
player, correct? Do you mean that the game itself adjusts accordingly
based on what elements within it interests the player as he or she
plays? Could you provide an example of what you mean, to help clarify?
Saying that "the game itself adjusts accordingly based on what elements
within it" goes against Flow [Theory]. Active DDA [Dynamic Difficulty
Adjustment] is a concept I brought up as a way to offer the player
total control over the play difficulty, and not in a way that might
break the game play flow. The adjustment of the difficulty is based on
the core game play mechanics.
If it's a racing
game, the driving itself should be the way for the player to customize
the difficulty. If it's an eating game, eating is the way to change the
difficulty. Thus, while players change their difficulty, it feels
embedded and subconscious. You can read more about this in my thesis.