Something I thought was interesting from your presentation was the key phrases for the game.
KS: We all walk the path. Each journey is different.
What do they represent to your process, coming up with those phrases?
KS: Well, it’s a way of focusing the decision making, in deciding which features we’re going to keep, and which we’re going to get rid of, which mechanics we’re going to continue to iterate on, and which ones we’re going to get rid of.
For a game in which the focusing phrase is "Together we can move the mountain," that has a very grand, collaborative goal, and I think it elicits to me a very grand sense of everyone in the world working together, maybe. So those feed into certain decisions that we would make about the game.
So it’s interesting, because one of the things I didn’t mention during the talk, is that a phrase I also use during development is, "If we could talk about it, we wouldn’t have to make a game about it." So that vocabulary is both a way for us to focus our decisions, but it’s also a way for us to test our understanding of the decisions we’ve already made on the project.
Because a lot of it is coming from just a gut sense of what the idea is, of this experience, and what is the feeling of this experience that we’re trying to make. At the same time we’re still a team. We’re a small team, but we still have to communicate to other people what that feeling is, so it’s always refining what that vocabulary is that we’re using.
And you showed a slide of Jenova’s.
KS: Yeah, the emotional chart.
How did he develop that?
KS: This happened on Flower and Journey. He was considering the emotional arc of the experience from beginning to the end of the story of those games. So if you just drive straight through the experience, what are those feelings?
And then those set a tone for each level and a certain kind of pacing between the levels, and so that’s where it starts out, as sort of like a general arc, and then it starts sort of filling in the details. Here are the ideas for different levels that could happen, and then different mechanics, and then actually naming each level after maybe one or two core emotions that we want to elicit in that level.
And it’s a guide for the team as they work on the projects?
It sounds you're finding the process as you go along, for how you make your own games.
Changing from project to project.
KS: Yeah, it is definitely ever-evolving for us. That’s why we like having the opportunity to discuss it at GDC events, which are about developers exchanging ideas with each other. So that we can get feedback on our own process, and then we’re not just working in a vacuum. And at the same time, hopefully through that, develop better processes with an entire development community.
You recruited Robin Hunicke to work for the company, and she has a background in being a developer for a major publisher. You came straight from your university program into founding your company, so you didn’t have some of the same institutional knowledge.
KS: Yeah, exactly. That was one of the reasons we wanted Robin’s experience on the team, someone who, again, had experience in a very traditional development model within a large publisher, but at the same time has an eye for experimental game design and evolving process. And she’s really passionate about that subject, about, "How can we make games better?" And that’s always something we’re looking for at thatgamecompany, actually.
Hiring at thatgamecompany can be difficult because we’re just a small studio, so every single person has a huge impact on the whole studio, and the whole culture. So you have to be very careful about that.
And then where we’re at in our careers right now, and sort of our life as a studio, we’re looking for people who, either like Robin, have that established industry background but who are looking work at a studio where they can have a greater impact, or who are passionate about mixing things up. Or a lot of times, the people with those mentalities are other people who are right out of school like we were -- except we need them to be a lot more professional than we were when we started.
Something that I’m curious about is that Flower definitely has you know goals. One thing it shares with traditional games are goals and progression. Going back to Katamari, Keita Takahashi went on to Noby Noby Boy which doesn’t have goals and progression. Do you think that they’re essential to games?
KS: Goals and progression? Well, Noby Noby Boy does have goals and progression, they’re just not in the... So I think there’s room for movement in our understanding of goals and progression. I think, in order to create engaging experiences, which I do believe is fundamental to interactive design, there will always be some form I think of goals and progression involved in that. And we shouldn’t be afraid as artists to use that, just because it’s a traditional game design phrase.
I guess that’s kind of a balance you have to strike -- picking and choosing what you think is salient to what you want to make from what games have already. Choosing what you want to ignore, or where you want to push the boundaries, right?
KS: Yeah. I know we did a couple of talks on the Flower development process, that I think showed a lot of that. We had a lot of versions of Flower that were very gamey, when you hit different flowers, you would get different abilities, and it was about executing these abilities. And we ended up stripping all of that away, because it wasn’t serving the goal of the project that we had in mind.
And it’s all through testing?
KS: Testing, yeah. Having people come in and test, and realizing when they were getting stressed out and frustrated -- well, that’s not really the feeling of being in a field of flowers that we were going for. And also being unafraid to go there, and to let go of some of the traditions of the past.
We don’t want to make a boring experience, but again, I think, walking that line necessitates a lot of playtests. So that we’re neither being frustrating or too boring. But I’m sure people will disagree on both sides of that. And in the end, you end up having to make the call that feels right for you. You just have to sort of make that decision that feels right to you and be comfortable with the audience that you’re carving out by making those decisions.