[Gamasutra sits down for a wide-ranging interview with ThatGameCompany's Kellee Santiago alongside the studio's newest hire, Electronic Arts veteran Robin Hunicke (Boom Blox) on the indie space, the studio philosophy and more.]
After several years at Electronic Arts Los Angeles, Robin Hunicke has moved on to flOw and Flower house ThatGameCompany, a small studio founded by USC alumni Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen.
In her time as a designer at EA, Hunicke saw three titles ship, most recently Boom Blox, and she's now working on an unannounced title with the team at the Los Angeles-area studio.
Gamasutra caught up with Hunicke and Santiago to learn what prompted the new collaboration and what fuels their vision of their studio, games and the evolution of the industry.
ThatGameCompany is right on the line between independent and not -- you get autonomy, but you also get funding, incubation services, office space, the works. Do you think we are going to see more structures like yours?
Kellee Santiago: I think there are some movements in publishers -- but especially in independent... or VC [-funded studios] -- towards a more project-oriented funding structure like you see in film.
Instead of the software company model where you would buy a piece of the company and maybe rights to the IP, there is some motion away from that, and at the start it will depend on whether those initial projects are successful or not.
So I'm really hoping that those investments go well and we do move towards that model, as it does permit a lot more creative freedom in a company. As with our arrangement with Sony, a big part of that was we got really lucky with the timing and people at Sony Santa Monica wanted to invest in a studio or a couple studios to let them loose on the Playstation Network and experiment with what you could do with digital distribution.
So that's how our deal came about, and you can see that with games like Everyday Shooter and Linger In Shadows. It really worked out for us that we found a publisher who was also somewhat creatively aligned with our goals, and I think that's important because no matter what you put in a contract, it ultimately comes down to the people you're working with day to day.
Robin Hunicke: I think Sony has been exceptionally supportive of ThatGameCompany. It was partly timing, but I have to Kellee some credit for convincing them and negotiating this deal. It's not just luck -- she's extremely passionate about the company and the projects, and it shows in the results that she has been able to generate for us. Sony believes in us because Kellee believes in us.
Was this part of the motivation for moving from EA to TGC?
RH: Absolutely. I knew Jenova and Kellee from when they were students at USC; I've always loved their work. I followed it, I actually tried to recruit Kellee once but she was like "no thanks, I've got my own thing."
You know, TGC games have that sort of fresh and intimate feeling. They're really handcrafted -- you can't help but love them when you play them. That's something that I think any developer notices immediately. It was clear to me that they are extremely concerned about the player experience -- and that's not something that's just lip-service, it's something that they think about every day.
Also accessibility -- that's something I've been really passionate about over the years. I worked on lot of games that were aimed at kids and families, and I wanted to go someplace where I could take that focus to the next level. So when she told me there was an opportunity to produce the next game, I just had to go for it.
So you're acting as producer rather than game designer?
RH: That's right. But at TGC we all contribute to the game design, and that is not just lip service. Everyone has an opportunity to contribute creatively to the project. The reason I enjoy my job is because I get to do what I'm great at, which is production and design.
How many people are you employing?
KS: Ten of us. We started on flOw with four people, and Flower with seven, and now we're at ten.
And your ranks swell during production, with contractors?
KS: At a certain point on Flower, we were at ten people for the last two months of production or so.
Just for the record, Flower and flOw made money, right?
KS: Yes, I can say that.
And by a decent margin, which is a relative term that gives you some leeway in saying "yes"?
KS: Sony did release their top 10 downloads for 2009 and Flower was number 9.
Three quarters of the development time involved was just prototyping -- just getting the feeling right, and the last fraction involved producing the actual game content?
KS: Yes, but to clarify -- we threw a lot of stuff away during prototyping, but we also kept a lot. It says something about our process that Flower took two years to develop, but we were in production for only six months of that. we had 18 months of our prototyping phase. That's more time prototyping than other development models would use, but I think Robin can speak to that.
RH: I think that one of the things the team does is work on what inspires them, and in Flower's case they followed it in several different directions. It was a dialogue with the publisher to try and figure out what this game was going to be, and that took 18 months.
That dialogue might take nine months on one project and 18 months on another. Flower was super-ambitious; it was a really out-of-the-box concept, and it took a lot of time to dialogue on how to get there.
Do you think a major problem with the game industry is that that kind of gameplay experimentation is prohibited by the cost and management models?
RH: I don't think it's a problem. A lot of successful, amazing games are made by picking a target, going for it and hitting that target. It's not uncommon for something amazing like Call of Duty 4 to come out; I mean, they know exactly where they're going when they start that project, and they nail it.
For us, trying to do stuff that's out-of-the-box, we've found a successful way to prototype and dialogue with our publisher. We're really glad we could establish that relationship with Sony and get these games out there, so it's not a problem - it's an opportunity.
You've proposed a solution here. Do you think there's a way for that to be widely adapted and made both feasible and scalable?
KS: Scalable is something that we hope to answer one day, as a company. We want to keep pushing the boundaries, and part of the exploration is developing a process for larger-scale experimentation.
Before you said "scalable," I was going to say that what's been really advantageous for us in the digital distribution space is that we're allowed to make games that are smaller than what you purchase on a disc. You have room for a $2 game, a $5 game, a $10 game, a $15 game, so you have room to think about what kind of product you're going to make, and the time involved in actually producing it can be relatively short. But I'm not sure if that could translate to a large disc-based title.
RH: Or to multiple projects at one time.
There's a size dimension and then there's this horizontal dimension of how many different niche titles can be fielded.
RH: Honestly, it's up to the marketplace. We have seen the maturing of the gaming market. We really believe that our players have rich lives, and that games are part of that rich life.
One of our core values is that their time should be respected. We want the time that people spend with ThatGameCompany games to be something they value and feel is appreciated by us. As that market matures, we have to continue to create content for them that can be enjoyed on their terms, in their time, in their lives.
The marketplace will support as much valuable, entertaining and supportive content as it can. It's up for developers to create that. It's a challenge for us to continue to find ways to thrill and create wonder and give new, fresh feelings, and if we can't do that there's no guarantee that the customer will respond. We have to respect them through our work.
How has the global economic downturn constrained the market's scope?
KS: Neither of us is an economist, so we can't really speak to that, but there's a demonstrable trend in people spending time online, for more people playing together and purchasing content online. We definitely see audiences moving towards digitally-distributed content, and also a desire to play with people in other places in the world.
Is that going to be console-centric or PC-centric? is that going to be in the study or the living room?
KS: That, I don't know.
RH: We know for sure that it's proliferating, so the general trend will be more opportunities to reach people in a variety of locations.
KS: There's also mobile in the mix now, especially with the tablet PCs, we're going to see developers exploring the opportunities in that space as well. That sort of motion towards online is part of what we're seeing as presenting new revenue opportunities through alternative payment and business models. I'm very much looking forward to GDC and hearing what people are doing playing around with these models.
How do you think the freeware side of things, typified by [indie designer] Cactus, for example, is going to affect commercial game development?
RH: I really liked the game Cactus submitted [video link] to Gamma 4, which is amazing and really fun, and also really mind-bending. Cactus is amazing, and experiments that developers like that are doing can be showcased in events like Gamma, which takes the potential for commercial success and plays with it, makes art out of it, pushes it in new directions and exposes it to new audiences.
When you play his one-button game, it's almost like you're at a rave. It's hard to categorize; that's just amazing. We'll definitely see more events like Gamma and IndieCade, showcasing these kinds of games, and I would hope the market would respond to that and publishers would want to engage that. Its about "does the developer want it" and do they have the will to take it there? If they want to just keep releasing these experiments for free, hey, I'll play 'em.
Being inside the walled garden of a console-download marketplace, you're still on the side of the line where you're making a product to sell. Freeware developers might make one game at a time, but it's looked at as a service to the community or their fans or their own muse. Do you think that can evolve, over the web, to a sort of touring band model instead of a sell-the-album model? Will we see as much innovation on the business model as the content side?
KS: I certainly hope so. I was going to comment on your delineation between being on the console versus us being in the wild -- I don't think that's what defines us as a business. Jenova and I created a business because we want to be doing this for the rest of our lives. Figuring out ways to make it profitable allows us to do that; that's why we have a business around it. I think it's absolutely possible to do that without selling out and compromising on your creative goals.
RH: You can also reach more people if you have a distribution platform that's successful. We want to be able to reach as many people as possible and give them that experience, and it helps if you have someone distributing your game. But if you can make that happen and that's all you want, then great.
KS: I think our goals are common to other developers, all our goals is to keep doing this and that will lead to more experimentation on the business model end. I think the creative experimentation and the business experimentation go hand in hand.
What do you think of LA as a "scene"? Is there a good community for game development or is everyone stuck in traffic on the freeway?
KS: No, we're definitely a community. I have to say I wasn't planning on staying in Los Angeles after graduating, but it's come to feel like such a home to us. We're in close proximity in Santa Monica to a bunch of developers that we have community with.
My general friends network has a lot of developers, as LA has the highest concentration of developers in the entire world, and it's also the entertainment capital of the world. There are a lot of people in other aspects of entertainment to meet and collaborate and share war stories with.
I'm in a group called "Nerd Poker" here, where we play online. XBLA and Playstation Network are seen as the "new poker" -- which was the "new golf". It's people in music and film and games getting together, and seeing that all our mediums are evolving for one reason or another -- so it's great to be able to tap onto each other for information and resources.
RH: It's not just gamers; you can hang out with people in film, with people doing really amazing street art, the weather is always gorgeous so you can go to the beach, grab lunch, hang out with somebody.
We're around the corner not just from Naughty Dog but also MTV, and there's a huge Yahoo! center where there are a bunch of entertainment businesses, where people have lunch, so it's very easy just by happenstance to be one or two jumps away from someone working on something amazing. Kellee and I are blessed with a lot of interesting friends, because LA is a really interesting city.
KS: Despite the fact that California has some of the highest business taxes, it still happens to be filled with entrepreneurs, so that's good.
Robin, you're earning a PhD, and Kellee, you have a MA in Interactive Media. Can you speak to how the perceived value of those kind of advanced degrees has improved, and what doors they opened for you? For people considering pursuing such degrees, do you think that will give them an edge in their career?
RH: If it weren't for the research I did on AI and gaming, I wouldn't have become a game developer. When I started at Northwestern University, I had no idea that I was going to become a developer, and at that time education programs were just getting started.
When I volunteered at the first IGDA Education Summit, people from the ETC were handing out announcement fliers for their program, and the USC people were there just getting ready to start their program. That was only ten years ago, and if you think about it, ThatGameCompany is primarily comprised of people who have graduated from these programs, and look at the impact that has had to our industry.
The most creative independent games that are being developed out there, they have ties to these programs. That impact is what generates the respect for the programs. It comes from the results.
And your company is one of the early beachheads of that?
KS: When we were going around pitching to publishers in 2006, one of the common responses was "we really love what you're doing and we love your ideas, but you've never worked in the professional game industry and what are we supposed to do with that?" Now you can see a huge shift in that.
The attention put on the IGF and the Student Showcase there, we're seeing a lot more students going and starting their own studios. It's amazing how that happened so quickly.
RH: Yeah, it really is.
Let's talk a little bit about gender -- this is kind of too obvious, but it does deserve some words. There's traditionally been a very extreme skew in the gender ratios. Looking at GDC attendance since when I started going, and looking at some studios I've seen, I get the impression that the ratio is becoming closer to even. Do you think a shift has taken place, and how has the industry been influenced?
KS: Hmmm, the "women in the workplace" issue, there are just so many contributing factors its really hard to narrow it down to just one. It's not just about diversity in the workforce, it's about wanting diversity of thought within your team.
You can achieve that by hiring a wide range of types of people, or by hiring different personalities. One of the common impressions people have of ThatGameCompany is that we're all female, we're all Asian, and we're all on drugs.
RH: None of which are true.
KS: None of which are true, it's just that the team we've assembled takes influences from a wide variety of places, and there is such a diverse range of thought on the team. I'm seeing more conscious effort in other companies of growing out the teams in an organic way.
RH: The other thing is, to relate it to your last question, the development of educational programs that focus on interactive entertainment and gaming allow the industry to reach out to new people. 10 years ago it wouldn't be common for a young woman or a foreign student to be able to express their interests in gaming through a degree program, or even a class.
Now that trail has been blazed, and the opportunity is there for a lot of people. Lots of programs have started as one or two classes, and now they're in full enrollment, they're looking for professors. I get tons of e-mails from people looking to hire professors.
We've been able to broaden the scope of our recruiting efforts as an industry by exposing more people to the wonder that is video game production. It's not easy work but it's fascinating work, and it's challenging. No two days are alike, and who wouldn't want to work in that industry. We kept it a secret for a while but now the secret is out. Hopefully that means we'll get more diverse people in the work force, and as Kellee said, more diverse games.
It's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy because the more diffuse the barriers to entry become, and the more diverse the people involved become, generally the better the quality of the workplace.
There's a spectrum between the dark cubicle factory with the long-haired guys who've got the anime figurines, and an bright art gallery where people have Van Gogh on the wall.
RH: Hey dude, I've got a lot of anime statues, so...
That's an exception. Evangelion, that's its own thing.
RH: See, that's what they say...
KS: That's acceptable.
RH: They actually all come from the same place. I've got some classic '60s anime on my desk. It's a pretty anime desk right now.
Are you all still in the Sony BMG office?
KS: No we're actually in our own office now.
I bet the rent is a monster.
KS: We had the good fortune of having the economy crash right before we moved, so we managed to find a decent bargain.
You get these cycles, it all kind of balances out over time.
KS: Right, yeah we just kind of lucked out in that regard.
Can you two speak to how your craft of game design has evolved since ThatGameCompany began?
KS: With ThatGameCompany, the main thing, for me, has been figuring out how to make a better process for guiding teams through all the different possible directions that we could take a game. There's a really fine line between everyone's idea of what they want the game to be tearing the project apart and people being willing to compromise and bring it all together. What we are about as a company is that process, that way of negotiating and navigating through that space.
RH: For me, what it comes down to is being really honest with the people you're working with and being ready to fail. Being open to feedback is the most important thing and the most difficult thing for a game designer.
When I started, I used to take it as criticism, but what I've learned is there's no solution in that. You've got to want feedback, and don't be biased by your own ideas of what the prototype is supposed to mean. The truth is in the player. If you open your mind and you open your heart, you're going to make much better games.
The game is just a nexus for the manifestation of love.
RH: Right! That's what you've got to be open to, exactly.