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Interview: Jenova Chen and ThatGameCompany's Vision of the Future

Interview: Jenova Chen and ThatGameCompany's Vision of the Future Exclusive

May 27, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield

May 27, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Jenova Chen is the chief design mind behind ThatGameCompany's critically and academically lauded titles flOw and Flower, and a recent emigrant to Los Angeles from China not a half dozen years ago. Together with fellow USC Interactive Media graduate partner Kellee Santiago, he founded the company with the aim to create games with an emotional tone.

The company seems to have succeeded, as most experimental gameplay summits, academics researching "alternative" games, and notable designers feel obligated to mention the company's works.

During a demo of Flower at last year's E3, prior to the game's launch, I had an experience that encapsulates Chen's unique character (and I should preface this by saying he and I have known each other for several years).

He was demonstrating the game for various people, including myself, and described it this way: "You play as the dream of a flower. Hit any button to go, and see what happens."

Later, I was in the area again, and heard a Sony producer demonstrating the game. He described it this way: "Choose a different flower to choose your level. OK, now press X to accelerate. You have to collect all the flowers in order to advance, and unlock more flowers. Those blue ones make you speed up. Yeah, now follow that line over there and you get a secret bonus."

Both methods are valid in terms of describing and showcasing the game, and I can see the merits of each. But while one method describes the nuts and bolts of the game and its mechanics, the other shows a clear concern for the experience over the goal-oriented "winning" of the game.

That is the mindset of Jenova Chen, with whom my conversations usually evolve into a discussion of interaction and human dynamics -- this interview is no exception.

This time around, we discuss his 10 year plan for ThatGameCompany, the reception of Flower, Flower's "lost levels," the failings of current game-oriented online social platforms, and the future of game interactions in general.

Flower's Aftermath

Have critics and fans interacted with Flower, and reacted to it, in the way that you thought they would?

Jenova Chen: I think I was surprised how overall positive the response was. It was pretty clear people were just going to say, "The game is short. It's too girly. It's gay." And they all said it, but the majority of the critics have had mostly positive reviews about it, which is kind of different from the flOw
I think to me, Flower is a better game, but in the large picture, I think game critics have evolved a lot. The people who loved flOw, of course they love Flower, but a lot of people who didn't like flOw actually liked Flower, so that was pretty surprising. Nobody on the team thought the game would be doing that well.

Critically, you mean?

Yes. They all think it's going to be just like flOw. But overall, the reaction was very, very positive.

When I was playing it, it felt to me very much like the mechanics from flOw, but just taken to the next level.

Oh, so that's what you thought.

Yeah. Well, because the action is very similar, guiding a point around a map.

At GDC, we did a presentation during the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, which basically says, "So, from flOw to Flower, besides the graphics, you have no AI, like there was in flOw. What else did you guys do as designers?"

So, yeah, I can show you that it didn't start from flOw gameplay. It's a totally different thing, more like a game, but then we cut it down and down to a very simple form, it's almost just like the Snake game, which is flOw.

Yeah, exactly. I know there was a lot more that went into it though. You know, you have the wind that shows you which direction you should go, and the camera often points to the next flower node that you have to get to, and things like that.

The camera was kind of dumb, because it's like the God of War camera. It's like the most effective but kind of shameless way to tell the player what to do. We actually use it a lot, so we can see like... We went through a lot of effort trying to not use any cutscene camera, but just people aren't that, you know, smart.

Right. Well, you do have to guide players to some degree, right?


My co-worker was playing it at my house for the first time a few days ago, and he said he would've actually liked it better himself if there weren't anything he was "supposed" to do. That's kind of funny because I think a lot of people criticized flOw because there wasn't a specific goal.

The game was more like that [previously]. The game was designed to be an open world at the beginning. Then, people said, "What am I supposed to do after the first 20 minutes of straight awesomeness of enjoying the nature?" And then they all end up saying, "Oh, there's no purpose. I don't know where to go."

So, we kind of have to figure out a solution there. And we iterated it to more like a semi-open world and semi-linear structure. For example, let's say the first level or the wind level, you can fly all the way to the end if you want, but nothing's going to happen there.

You have to kind of trigger these flowers in sort of an order, and then we see players just wander off into the distance to the very end of the level, and there's nothing there. They were just all confused. So we actually had to kind of block them before they could move on to the next area. It's almost like we wanted to throw away the traditional game design, but we end up picking up all the pieces we threw away and putting them back because we know those are actually needed to deliver a good guided experience.

Yeah. Some of those conventions are there for a reason, because they help to guide people and help them figure out what's actually going on. I like the clear progression of the level structure, and how different uses for the same mechanic built on each other. The main issue I would have about the game being short is that I wanted to see it explored further -- I liked lighting up the dark pools or changing something from one way to another way by swirling around it.?

Well, why don't you just replay the game again? [laughs]

Well, I have, but I wanted further applications. I felt like sometimes that I could have as a player done some of those actions a couple more times and still have been happy to do it, rather than just doing it once, but with different contexts.

Yeah, we originally planned to have eight levels, and then we realized there was no time. And we cut it to six, then I added one back!

The credits level?

Yeah. Well, the credits level was planned from day one, because we did the credit stuff like flOw. It's obvious that's how we'd do it in Flower. The credits level used to be the night level, and then there was a desert level. We were thinking about -- this has nothing to down with downloadable content by the way, I don't think we have committed to anything about that -- a desert level, but eventually we just ran out of time.

It's not like totally saying, "You're going to have to ship this set day." I say it was not enough time because the team was losing interest in the game. It took us two years to make, you know. We just wanted to kind of finish the game, so we could reorient our interest onto a new game.

The directions I created for Flower, which is an emotional curve, are very solid. I can't even see a way to add a level anywhere. I don't even see how expansion packs are going to work, because the game isn't really about the different mechanics you can use to play with Flower -- there's not that many.

To us, you hit a flower to trigger something, that's the whole gameplay. We didn't want to make it like a very deep game. So, it's more about emotional experience from the beginning to the end.

You mean in terms of gameplay?

Yeah. We didn't even try that. Well, we did try but we failed because deep gameplay means you have meaningful choices, and you have challenge. And challenge is the biggest enemy in delivering the experience we wanted for Flower because we wanted the game to feel very relaxed, safe, and friendly.

And challenge, we could add all kinds of challenges to the game - but they'd all end up making the people say "Fuck" when they fail the challenge. I don't want the player to play Flower and say, "Fuck."

So what we realized is that the traditional way of increasing complexity of gameplay is not contributing to the final experience. So, that's why the gameplay is all very simple.

We tried one mechanic, which is painting the grass, which is different from all previous levels. Even that mechanic made a lot of players who played the game for the first time completely have no idea what to do. So we ended up actually showing them you need to do this with a tutorial.

Before that, we didn't have a demonstration. We were like, "They're smart enough. They can figure it out." No, they can't. So, yeah. It's very much about that we wanted to deliver this emotional rollercoaster ride, and we don't want people to fall off the ride halfway, so that's why we didn't increase the complexity.

I think if you were to have added stuff, it would have had to be in the middle. And terms of downloadable content, people would accept more levels just on their own as an added kind of experience, I think.


Especially if you change up the context a little bit and don't have it in like the same city, if you have it in a different environment. I mean, if you did do it in the desert or something and it's far away from the city, then you're in a different context.

Yeah, yeah, that's possible. We were talking about maybe we shouldn't make the open level we wanted at the beginning, but then it was like, "Well, making an open world for Flower or making the next game that revolutionizes video games? Which one do we want to work on?"

So, you're going to revolutionize video games next?

Uh huh.

Revolutionizing Games

How are you going to do that? You can't say?

I can't say it. It's only a few weeks into the project. I can't say anything about that. We haven't even gotten a deal with somebody yet.

You're going to go with Sony again, of course?

It's a contractual requirement. It's the last game that we have in the contract.

Yeah. You had three, right? [flOw, Flower, and the next game] Do you have any idea beyond that, when you're not in the contract?

I have a ten year plan of the game I want to make, but I have no idea in terms of what company we're going to work with in terms of business, so we're definitely going to try to figure out after that current game.

What is the sort of direction that you're going to take the new game, I guess in terms of emotional...

Okay. Well, there are a lot of things I want to see happen. Some of them belong to the next game, some of them belong to the game I want to make in ten years. Which one do you want to hear about?

Both, really.

I think I will tell you the ten-year plan because talking about the next game will reveal to many details. So, in ten years, I hope people are not playing games by holding something, so everybody can play games just by using their body. It's not Eyetoy that I'm talking about, but their body. And the kind of gameplay that I wanted to see... Well, first of all, gamers are maturing every year.

The percentage of adult gamers are increasing at a very rapid speed. I think the future game market is definitely a mature market. And for a mature audience, we expect to be stimulated on an intellectual level or on an emotional level. Intellectually, we want to play something that actually is relevant to your life. Just look at how Brain Age and Wii Fit are selling because they're relevant to adults' life, it actually improves something that at least they can believe in. Versus, you know, what's the point of doing a headshot in Counter-Strike?

Like what's the point of learning how to play as a football athlete better if you're not a football fan? But I do see there are things that can improve every adult's daily life. I think that's why people read newspapers, why they watch news, even though a lot of people say news is pointless. But a lot of people believe it has a connection to the real world, and it somehow benefits them.

Then on an emotional level, it's much easier to look at Hollywood. When it first started, the film industry, the films were pretty shallow, and they were very kind of primal almost. They were very focused on stimulation and simulation of reality.

And lately, once the people who watched films grew up to become filmmakers, they wanted to have something as powerful as the films they watched when they were 10 years old, but they didn't realize they're much older, so they actually had to add a lot more depth. So they have very specific feelings, rather than the simple, "Oh, it was a fun movie," or "It was exciting." They actually have a lot of nuance in them.

And I think games are going to be the same. I don't think every game will be a hardcore-fun game anymore. I was talking to someone, and I feel like death in a video game is the worst thing for adults gaming because in real life, who would find death having any relevance to their real life?

It's like if you want to train someone to learn something as a coach, you wouldn't kill them as a penalty. You want to, you know, give them something else so they can keep learning.

Although people like to fantasize about and experiment with death and the concepts around it, so there is that.

Yeah, there is that. Especially, that's pretty appealing to kids. You know, remember when you were a kid, you would try to jump from a very high place just to see what happens, you know?


Yeah, you want to know your limitations. So, I think in the future, games will have a huge variety with different kinds of emotional content, and they will usually have relevance to your life.

If games are played via body and movement, to me, that seems less like it would be an adult activity than a child activity because as adults grow older, they get much more self conscious about moving and about how they interact with their environment.

Exactly. I wasn't thinking about entire full body movement. I'm more thinking about their facial structures, their body language. I think besides intellectual and emotional, social is the biggest entertainment aspect that adults do. How many people gossip for fun?

Adults' Entertainment "Color Wheel"

Let's say this is the center of entertainment that all adults do. [places something down] And this is intellectual. This is emotional. And we have social. [arranged like a four-leaf clover] It's like the primary color wheel of all adults' entertainment.

So, on the emotional side, a pure entertainment would come from something like music. Very few people can sense intellectual things from music. They can sense a mood and a feeling. On a pure intellectual side, it's probably let's say a psychology book or a newspaper. But then you have the blend between intellectual and social which is like novels, TV, and movies.

They're very good at evoking emotion, meanwhile telling you something about life, knowledge, and science. And then you have this big pie of social here, right? You can combine social with emotional, like going to a concert. It's much different than just listening to music from your MP3 player.

You can also go with your friends to a football match. What do you really learn from that? Nothing really, you're just there to sense that emotion of excitement, and you drink with your friends, share that moment. And if you want to share the social with intellectual, you play boardgames together or go to your book club.

Or just having a conversation and sharing ideas and stuff.

Yeah. You and I are doing the social and intellectual content right now. But then I was thinking, "Well, is there any activity that has all three?" That's going to be the most appealing activity because certain people might not be into the social aspect.

And then the first thing that I thought about is Disneyland. So, with Disneyland, you go with your family, you have a fun time together, and you go through a very well-crafted area, almost like a virtual world. It's like a video game.

Meanwhile, the kids kind of learn a lot in terms of intellectual content, but not really for the parents. Then I was like, "Okay, that's more like an emotional experience, socially heavy, but intellectual a little bit. What if we have intellectually heavy? What is that?" Then I was thinking about going to a museum, like a science museum or a natural history museum.

And then I thought, "Well, what is more focusing on the social side." Then I think about church. In a church, you have very intellectual talks.

That depends on your perspective, but sure.

You have emotional experiences, like, everybody is singing together, you have certain feelings. And then most of the time, you just chat with your friends, socialize. And I was thinking, "Wow, these things are pretty popular." [laughs]

And I looked at video games again, and I was like, "All these experiences are totally possible to be communicated through video games. Why haven't people done that?" I think the medium of videogames has proven that it's very good at combining the intellectual with emotional as the gameplay experience, kind of like what they learned with film and novels, but in terms of the application of social aspects, it was very tacked on.

It's almost like almost all the online games you're playing now are classic gameplay mechanics duct-taped with some kind of online chatting system. The problem with that is that the social aspect was not designed as gameplay but purely as a tacked on tool.

When people engage in social conversations, 10% of the conversation is words, 40 percent is the tone of voice -- you know, I can say exactly the same thing, but you can read different context, and 50% is body language, which is how your eyes looking at them, how your head is looking at the other ones, how your facial expression and how your hands are used.

So, I was looking at online games right now. Most games like Team Fortress, you don't want to even look at your teammates because they block your bullets. Even in like an MMO game like World of Warcraft, this big screen, you don't look at other players because everybody has a poker face.

There's no facial communication. Rarely, there will be people who use the voice chat. Mostly, you're looking at a tiny little window through text, and that text is based on IRC chat, which is almost twelve years old. And this is how people socialize in video game land.

But it sort of sounds like you're talking about a virtual world type scenario, which to me is incredibly boring because like, why bring this...

Because there's no gameplay design in virtual worlds.

To me, why bring virtual into it at all, because I can just do these things in real life and hang out with my friends in real life, so why bring in the virtual aspect at all?

No. No, because in real life, if you want to hang out with me in a very cool bar set in space, there's no way you can do that.

That's true.

And it's possible, you and me meeting in a bar in space, but right now what we can do in the space bar is shoot each other in the head, alright? Why can't we have a good time to drink together and have an adventure? Right?


I think it's because the communication between people... The technology hasn't been solved, but I think... Actually, I can do it now, but I don't want to do it now.


Second is that video games are very good at evoking the primal feeling, because that's what people are spending all their money researching now.

Yeah, very brain stem-oriented.

Yeah, when we are in a bar, and we're like, "Shoot, 12 o'clock, this enemy," we shoot down the social side. We just kind of focus on the tasks. And when we say stuff, it's like, you know, "Medic!" You know, "I need a revive here. Let's go!"

This is the kind of conversation you would have. And as a result, when you express your emotions, it's like, "Fuck!" You know, "Holy shit!" It's kind of like the extreme emotions.

So, it's not really designed for adults. I mean, it would be very surreal for kids to be together, you know. That's what kids do, they pretend there's warfare, and they play with each other.

But for adults, we want to be able to engage in a deeper level of social intellectual conversation. Not necessarily conversation, it could just be facial communication. Imagine the future when these are all possible, okay? I and you can have this conversation here. You can totally understand me because you can read all my facial expressions and my hands. But I look like an orc, and you look like the alien, and we are a spaceship somewhere, right? What can we do? We can do pretty much anything people have tried in reality TV.

That requires a real mental shift because for me, I value sort of in-person relationships a lot higher than stuff over games. I mean, it's true that I do enjoy playing games with my friends, but I would much rather have them be a physical presence.

Yeah, because you and your friends have nearly only like 40 percent of communication happening in a game, and the game is not facilitating your communication at all.

And to me, I think that to deliver a virtual experience like Disneyland where you and your family can meet up across the globe and go to a very carefully crafted world designed to make you happy, is totally possible.

What you're talking is very much not a gamer oriented scenario. It's much more oriented toward non-gamer, like people that aren't already gamers, it seems to me. Because to me, the examples you mentioned like Disneyland and church, and going to a bar. Two out of the three things you mentioned, I don't like at all myself. And so you still have like this kind of polarizing element.

Well, it doesn't have to be Disneyland because I don't like it either, because I think I can make the world much more... Send you guys to Jurassic Park, alright? Send you guys to Jurassic Park, and you're a crew with friends. You're on your way.

No, I do... I definitely understand the concept of it. It's just for me, a game has a place as a game rather than other kinds of interactions, and it may be more of a conceptual thing.

Well, the thing I'm saying here is still a game, but the game allows you to engage with your friends with full scale. If they have fear, you can sense their fear, you can see it on their face. Right now, if you have fear on the microphone, you don't make any sound.


Right? Just that kind of level, so you can reach a much higher emotional bond with each other in the experience. That's only adds to the game. You can still use any existing game mechanics.

I mean, I get that, I just... Yeah, for me, games are still going to be more of a... It's taken a while for me to even want to play multiplayer online.

Have you played any multiplayer online?

I have, but only limited type. Any MMO has no interest for me.

Did you play StarCraft?

No. But I've played Call of Duty and stuff. The thing is I always go into those games knowing I'm going to lose because I'm not the kind of person who has the time investment to become proficient.

Socializing Gameplay

Right. So, that's why you want to our space. We are the Call of Duty land where it's not about competing with each other. It's like, "Here's your gun. And here's your buddies. You're going to survive. There might be another group of players or it could be AIs. It doesn't matter. You're not here to use your gun well. You're here to learn how to socialize with your group, how to build a trust, why would you want people to think you're a reliable person." I think those skills that you learn through a game will actually be meaningful in real life. If you can engage in a social conversation with someone in a game and you can come instantly into something, or you can appeal to them by the way you communicate, then you can also use that in real life. And I see that being something that adults would like to do. It's like, "Why do adults like to play poker?" Poker, the numbers themselves are pointless. But to me, deceit and bluffing, you know...

Yeah, the interaction.

... is much more enjoyable and actually useful in real life.

Though, using like the full body instead of... I don't want to be walking around my room, pantomiming a gun...

Right. It's not very useful to you. That's why I think allowing people to socialize in that full-scale world will allow us to unlock so many social gameplay mechanics that if you master will actually be useful in your life. So, I can give you a very simple example of how I want to design a game based on a social action.

Let's say, in a lot of the first-person shooter games, people can talk infinitely. As a result, they're like, "Well, I can say anything at any time. I don't really care about what I say," so dirty words start to come out. And then someone's talking about, "Oh, yesterday I met a girl," which totally breaks the illusion.

If you're going to be deciding social as a gameplay, well, with gameplay, one of the basic techniques is to come up with a resource. Let's say you guys are in a desert, and you guys only have one bottle of water, and your goal is to survive. It could be Dune, you know, the fantasy world.

But then, whoever needs to talk needs to drink the water. And you have to reach an agreement with your buddy which direction you want to go. Is it the left one or the right one? Then you wouldn't be saying, "Oh, let's go left. Or we can go right. What the fuck. Blah blah blah blah blah."

You will drink the water and really think about what you want to say, and say it being effective and being persuasive as effective as possible. And that way, by doing this kind of game a lot, you can express yourself very well.

Although that kind of game has the potential to end in a complete standstill with nobody able to talk anymore and no direction.

Yeah, but then...

But then I guess you start again.

Yeah, you start again. It's like Street Fighter, but you both lose.

Double K.O.

Yeah, and usually in the end, they will say, "Maybe we can do Rock Paper Scissors." That's another approach, right? So, to me, at least that is putting the people in a place where they think, "How am I going to convince this other real human" as mechanics, and he can practice. By playing with different players -- different people are different.

It's like why people play Counter-Strike so long, right? It's because every time you play it with different people, you learn something different from them. But Counter-Strike lost its appeal to me because I don't see the point in shooting heads. But I would see appeal in talking to another person, trying to understand who he is, what kind of things would convince him.

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