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Go With the fl0w: Jenova Chen on Console Independence
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Go With the fl0w: Jenova Chen on Console Independence

January 22, 2007 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

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.


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.

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