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What's Next? Thatgamecompany on games' surge to maturity

What's Next? Thatgamecompany on games' surge to maturity Exclusive

September 5, 2013 | By Patrick Miller

[Ahead of November's GDC Next, GDC's Director of Online Community Patrick Miller reached out to many games industry luminaries to see where they think the future of video games is headed. This interview is the fourth installment of a multi-part series that will run up until shortly before the 'future of games' conference, which takes place in Los Angeles, CA from November 5-7, co-located with the App Developers Conference.]

Considering thatgamecompany's standout success with Flower, FlOw, and Journey, it's hard to think of a more forward-looking studio -- so, naturally, when I was tasked with seeking out people to speak with about the future of games, Sunni Pavlovic naturally came to mind.

The thatgamecompany studio manager is giving a talk at this November's GDC Next on "An Experimental Approach to Interactive Entertainment", so I asked her about how her work with TGC has informed her perspective on the future of the industry.

Patrick Miller: How do you see the role of the publisher, and the dev-publisher relationship, changing in the next 5-10 years? What do you do, or see other studios doing, that you think is admirable or particularly forward-looking?

Sunni Pavlovic: 5-10 years ago the up-and-coming shift in the industry was digital storefronts going mainstream. Thankfully, thatgamecompany owes its very existence to that trend. The ongoing improvement in middleware makes it possible for everyone to be both a consumer and a creator and we'll see an even greater proliferation of small teams making games.

What won't change is the general percentage of games that will be great boundary-pushing experiences. It will continue to grow easier to make a game, but making great things will never be easy. Of course, a static percentage of a greater overall number still means more great games for all.

With that, the biggest change we're already seeing is publishers more willing to talk to smaller development teams. It's been proven enough times that a smaller game crafted with love and attention can deliver a very polished and satisfying experience for a respectable-sized audience. Thank goodness for digital storefronts! For that reason we expect the Downloadable Game of the Year award category will vanish soon because it's just not as meaningful a distinction as it once was.

We're also seeing more developers taking on some aspects of the traditional publisher role by providing other devs with funding or business expertise. It's a model we've considered, too. In the process of recruiting, we're meeting student developers who have an affinity for the experiences we create but are already committed to their own game ideas.

Having this shared vision for games means everyone wins if more deeply engaging yet broadly accessible games get made. So, rather than asking students to abandon their passion projects to work with us, we figure maybe instead we can support their passion projects y sharing our resources and knowledge. We can't offer that kind of support with our existing resources. I hope in 5-10 years that sort of consideration will become more feasible...but there isn't much to say about this idea yet. It's more just an idea we've kicked around with potential for the future when our resources are more abundant. We still have to remain very much focused on our current game for now!

PM: Your talk at GDC Next is about thatgamecompany's experimental design approach. How do you build that kind of approach into the DNA of a studio? Which other studios do you see doing similarly inspiring work on their organizations?

SP: Our experimental approach was by design from the studio's beginning. We set out to deliver meaningful experiences that players need but aren't getting from games. Every design decision goes back to that goal of expressing care for players.

What people don't realize is that we don't actually know from the get-go what is going to be that great experience we want to give players. We probably make more mistakes than anyone. We had to remake Flower a dozen times to get that game right and Journey took an extra year of development before we felt it was ready to ship.

The key, then, is to be open to failure. Make mistakes fast and frequent. Embrace the chaos to let the best ideas bloom. We also have three important caveats for this strategy:

It always has to feel safe to fail. Individuals aren't going to reach for that standout idea if they don't feel safe enough to take that risk.

We can't go completely off the rails and lose sight of our goal. The studio still needs order to be stable and productive.

We must learn from our mistakes when we fail. This helps us continually grow better over time.

In the end, our process resembles something like this: make interesting stuff at a rapid pace. Throw out what doesn't fit the design goals. Iterate to make everything else better. Hire the kind of people who have good output and can function in this environment.

This environment isn't for everyone, or every studio. It's best suited for those independently driven to excel but not afraid to take risks and fail. And this certainly doesn't work on a large scale with huge overhead. Keeping the studio a modest size gives us more room for creative choices and longer development cycles.

PM: Thatgamecompany's hallmark emotionally evocative game design led to surprising critical and commercial success in Journey. I personally considered Journey to be an Important Game in large part because it managed to be emotional and artistic and entertaining and a well-designed game; lots of small dev teams have been doing work that pushes the artistic-expression side of video games as a medium, but not so many have managed to make that work quite so compelling to a mainstream audience like TGC did with Journey.

Given that: How do you think the mainstream game audience's expectations of a video game will change in the future? Will people be more receptive to games that make us feel more complicated emotions than simply "entertained"? If so, how do you think a studio or a publisher ought to prepare for that future?

SP: Expanding the perception of what video games can be requires pushing the traditional bounds that have defined the game experience. I already see a trend in that direction. If the industry can continue delivering these kind of experiences, I expect perceptions will also follow suit.

To flip the question would be to ask if mainstream audiences will reject games that make them feel more complicated emotions. That notion seems silly and reductive. People look for entertainment and experiences that reflect their feelings and needs. Games are entertainment, and entertainment comes in all forms.

I suspect maturing and growing the medium will mean creating entertainment with greater relevance to what we feel and experience as humans. People feel a diverse spectrum of emotions in their lives. It's a tougher sell to get games to gain traction with a larger mainstream audience if there aren't enough game experiences that resonate with that audience in the first place.

Let's also recognize that a game with broad thematic appeal also requires broad accessibility in its controls. In our studio a game with broad appeal but unintuitive controls is ultimately a design failure. The best way to uncover unintuitive controls and other design issues is to have playtests on a regular basis at all stages of development. Playtesters can be friends in the industry, family acquaintances, or students at the local university. Just getting real people to spend a few minutes in a game will help uncover valuable data about where that game is missing the mark.

As an example: We just had a pair of playtesters confirm that our current game's controls are skewing too hardcore. That takes us back to prototyping and adjusting our controls to make the play experience more intuitive. That might sound like an unnecessary step to some, but it's absolutely a necessary step in the context of our goal to create an immersive and inclusive player experience.

PM: What (and who) do you and your peers look to for inspiration? What influences currently inform the your work and those you admire?

SP: As far as inspiration and influences inside and outside the industry, our internal studio poll came up with a surprising range of responses. Within the industry, Team Ico, Valve, Double Fine, Nintendo EAD Software Development Group No. 2, Maxis, Wolfire, Mojang, Riot Games, and Chunsoft are just some of our peers within the industry whom we look up to and respect for their games and best practices. The indie game scene in general is eminently inspiring for us.

Here are a couple of the comments shared by my colleagues regarding inspirations outside of the industry:

"Walks! It's good to get the body moving. Endorphins from exercise give you just enough of that irrational hope to start ambitious projects that your sane sedentary mind would never embark on."

"Inigo Quilez, rendering engineer at Pixar and proprietor of Shadertoy is very inspirational to me. Time after time he combines good math with good creativity to make something beautiful. His website of snippets, ideas, and tutorials directly inspired several rendering algorithms used in Journey."

We're also big fans of Studio Ghibli, Pixar, and Disneyland, for the way they craft unique and memorable entertainment that is both outstanding and deeply accessible.

PM: It's interesting to me that you bring up the difficulty of controls when adjusting a game to be broadly accessible. Do you think the controller is simply too specialized a device (compared to, say, a touchscreen) to really attract as wide an audience as you want?

SP: The controls in Flower and Journey are more accessible for those who don't usually play games, so I wouldn't say a controller is inherently too specialized for mainstream audiences. But maybe that's cheating the question because we essentially had to reduce the specialization of the device in order to make it more accessible.

But that also goes back to our general approach. We look at our goals and we look at our constraints and we design for that. We're deliberately trying to not do things the way they've always been done. We ask ourselves: 'How can we look at this from a new perspective and deliver something meaningful?'

Touchscreens are an interesting matter. I would say touchscreens have the potential to be more intuitive, especially for young children, because conceptually there is a closer relationship between input and output. However, that doesn't necessarily mean it's easier to design for on the development side. There's probably a good reason why it's relatively rare to come across a mobile game or app that has a really good control scheme, and why heaps of praise deservedly go to those that do it well.

Registration is now open for GDC Next and the co-located ADC. The first 500 attendees who sign up can save over 30% on ADC, GDC Next, or a combined VIP Pass. For all the latest news on GDC Next, subscribe for updates via Facebook, Twitter, or RSS. Also, check out the previous 'What's Next' interviews with James Paul Gee, Raph Koster and Chris Pruett.

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