Go With the fl0w: Jenova Chen on Console Independence

By Howard Wen

To 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.

Both 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 emotional experience.

Gamasutra: Share with us a little about your background in art and design.

Jenova 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.

Though 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 computer games.

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?

JC: 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 big audiences.

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?

JC: 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.

And 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.


fl0w

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?

JC: 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.


GS: How did flOw go from its humble origins as an experimental PC game thesis to a downloadable title for the PS3?

JC: The deal we had was earned through over a dozen pitches, with hundreds of hours of networking and negotiations. Our move towards the commercial field is to further push the two directions I pointed out in the previous question, having more people play and helping them have a much clearer picture of what the future of video games would be and hopefully, through our works, influence other game makers too.

The result of Sony as publisher and the PS3 as platform is not taken for granted by us. We really appreciate the trust Sony gave us and the spirit of taking risks and supporting experimental games to push our industry forward.

GS: How has the process been re-developing and porting flOw to the PS3? Have you even been hands-on with this at all?

JC: Due to my contract with EA Maxis, I am not involved in the remake of the PS3 version.


fl0w

GS: Generally, what do you think of the PS3?

JC: While the Wii seems to be totally winning, it has a very different market compared to the PS3's.

I consider the Wii a family console that brings many new social experiences. The PS3 is more of a Hi-Fi geek console with technology that allows designers to create much deeper, emotional experiences.

GS: flOw has been compared to Geometry Wars -- not necessarily its game play but speculation that flOw could do for the PS3's PlayStation Network what Geometry Wars did for the Xbox 360's Xbox Live Arcade. What are your thoughts about this? And have you played Geometry Wars?

JC: Yes, I have played Geometry Wars. I really enjoyed it. And what it has achieved on Xbox Live Arcade is amazing and encouraging. It's extremely flattering that people would even consider comparing flOw PS3 to Geometry Wars.

However, flOw is focused on delivering an experience gamers have never played before. It is a mesmerizing non-interrupted experience, which is very different from the "try-and-die" cycles in arcade games like Tetris and Geometry Wars. flOw is an experiment; it's a totally different type of game play. We hope that many different types of players will enjoy it, but we won't know for sure until it's released.

GS: Are you a frequent/avid game player yourself? What have you been playing lately? What are your all-time favorites?

JC: I still play more than three hours of video games every day, even during the busiest periods in my life. Most games I play these days are multiplayer games. I am still playing World of Warcraft. Recently, I also played Company of Heroes, Final Fantasy XII, Tekken 5 (PSP), Wii Sports and Zelda (Wii).

My favorite all-time games are Final Fantasy VII, Shadow of the Colossus, Katamari Damacy and Blizzard's Starcraft, Warcraft and Diablo franchises.

GS: What kind of games does your company hope to produce? Are you planning to develop downloadable games for the Xbox 360 or Wii?

JC: As I mentioned, games that evoke different and deeper emotions, which allow people to enjoy them in their own ways. Regarding their scope, we prefer making games with small but passionate teams in a development cycle that is under one year. Downloadable games are a great fit.

Currently, we are in a three-game deal with Sony. Beyond that, there is really nothing to let us not think about possibilities on other consoles

GS: Do you have other game ideas in the works? Can you reveal some details about them?

JC: There are many ideas I collected while I was still in school. We are definitely not short of them. But most of them are like "huh?" so I won't tell you anything now.

GS: Do you have other plans for flOw -- either a sequel, more features, or expanding upon its design concept for another game?

JC: The design methodology in the flOw thesis will definitely be used for our new games. Regarding sequels, nothing's on paper yet.

GS: Your new company is certainly in an enviable position, having its first game featured on a next-generation game console. I wonder, has this affected the way you look upon game development, and in the kind of other games you plan to make?

JC: The next gen brings us many challenges, not only with new technology we have to learn, but also content with new depth. How we generate deep content with a small scope is the challenge for us.

I think what David Jaffe has mentioned before about online downloadable games fits us very well: While [big] budget games are like operas, we are trying to create pop songs that are fresh and deep.

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