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Interview: Kellee Santiago Talks Thatgamecompany's Road Ahead

Interview: Kellee Santiago Talks Thatgamecompany's Road Ahead Exclusive

July 1, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield

July 1, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Kellee Santiago is cofounder of Thatgamecompany, known for genre-shaking downloadable titles such as flOw and Flower, which both push the boundaries of games and their emotional resonance, but also give Sony something to point to in the way of artistry in the PSN space.

Thatgamecompany has been growing, slowly but surely, to where Santiago can now step out of the defacto-production role she often held on top of her studio running duties, so that she can now look externally, to see how TGC can potentially help other smaller indies, or expand the company's offerings in targeted ways.

We spoke with Santiago recently about changes within the company, the potential of a Flower expansion, PSP Go and Project Natal, as well as the viability of a TGC game based on an emotion like rage.

Thatgamecompany's Next Steps

Can you talk a little bit about what's next for you guys?

Kellee Santiago: I have to admit that it's probably going to be a little frustratingly vague just because we're in the middle of just solidifying the details on our current PSN project.

But I think the last three years we've spent building up this brand of Thatgamecompany and what it is. We hope what people are getting from us is Thatgamecompany is about providing meaningful experiences and unique experiences through video games.

And as I see us going forward and growing as a company in the future, I think what we'd like is to bring more titles under that brand. Whether that's us growing an internal team to handle multiple projects or by going with more of like a label structure where we have "Thatgamecompany presents," and we're able to help other teams that we see and other projects that we see that we really want to see come to light, that would fit under that brand as well.

Interesting. So, not exactly like a publisher, but like a liaison or something?

KS: Hmm, a liaison? Yeah, I think it would be kind of... That's partially what we've been doing in some ways, and I think just formalizing that as a business plan maybe.

How would you say you've been doing it already?

KS: I think we've become involved with a lot of the other indie developers. I mean, we're all more connected now than we've ever been before thanks to venues like the Independent Games Summit.

What we've also tried to do in addition -- I mean, I always say that we're one of the few companies that hopes that other people copy us, because we don't want to be this little niche random thing. This is where we want things to go. We want a lot of games to be made like ours.

What we've also been trying to do is when we see stuff that's awesome, or if people come to us asking for advice or connections or something, we always try and set them up. In these interviews, I think we try and drop a lot of projects, you know, names, and try to gain exposure for the indie dev scene as a whole.

Talking about the next project I didn't realize that you were necessarily tied to PSN. I just knew it was with Sony. It didn't connect for me that it was PSN specifically.

KS: Well, the goal has always been digital distribution.

New Platforms

What do you think about PSP Go then?

KS: The PSPgo... It's interesting. I just remember Jenova saying that when he was in Shanghai, he saw a lot more people having PSPs than DSes. I mean, this is totally anecdotally, but that they were very much like fashion accessories, and that they would watch media on it or something or browse the internet but not really play games. And I could see the PSP Go continuing that, like being that. I don't know as a game system... $250 is a lot of money.

That's true.

KS: [laughs] I thought that was expensive, but...they're also putting out a lot of major franchise games on PSP, so it will be interesting to see if that helps more people on PSP playing games, checking out the new stuff that's there as well. Fat Princess is going to go PSP.

It's definitely been a piracy vehicle previously, so it will be interesting to see how the PSPgo does in that regard. I also wanted to ask you what you thought of Project Natal -- it seems like a Jenova kind of thing.

KS: Yeah, well, I was going to say, it certainly falls under a lot of the... Or touched on the things that I know he's been interested in as far as that. Especially when you think about accessibility, removing the controller completely.

I guess one of the major criticisms that I've heard the last couple of days is people saying, "Well, how are they going to first-person shooters on it?" It's like, "Well, maybe they don't do a first-person shooter."

And maybe it's about making new games, allowing for different kinds of games. We don't have to think about games that already and how they're going to translate to that control. I think what it is is it allows for new designs to emerge.

My question is how much of it is real.

KS: Yeah.

The New Hire

So you have Robin Hunicke (previously a design lead at EA) now. How did that come about?

KS: It grew really organically. I mean, as you probably know, we got her fresh off of shipping Boom Blox Bash Party. So, I think as she was wrapping that project, she was thinking about her next steps. She's just one of those people we also like to bounce ideas off of, so we started talking about some of the ideas we had for our current project, and it just seemed like a really great match.

I think that with our experimental game design process, one of the issues that we've had in the past is tightening up the production of that and tracking it and developing a better process for it. And Robin just really has a passion for designing a team experience around creating these kinds of games that we saw as a huge value.

My question will be how many incredibly strong personalities can Thatgamecompany hold without exploding? I know that even as a small team, it's difficult to get everyone to push in the same direction.

KS: Well... [laughs] I mean, part of that is Jenova growing as a director, and I think he has. I think that also allowed for this to happen on this project. I mean, hopefully we want there to be lots of strong personalities at Thatgamecompany because we want to be a company that attracts the best and the top talent.

You can find a lot of people who are willing to do whatever you tell them, but when you want to continue to create unique games and unique designs, you need people who will also step up as leaders and also champion their ideas and bring new ideas.


Certainly. Jenova talked a bit about whether there would be a Flower update. Can you talk about that at all?

KS: Again, there's nothing to confirm or deny right now. We're unfortunately still so small that it's hard to divide our resources effectively. Flower was certainly designed as a complete experience.

One of the ethical challenges we face as a company is that we really strive to provide meaningful experience to the player. So, in the past, when we've thought about developing expansions or developing downloadable content, it becomes very difficult because we really, really want to make sure that it's very meaningful, that we're not just trying to get more money out of people that love our games.

So, that's added to this challenge of Flower being a complete experience as well. So, when we think of what to add and what would be meaningful. It's very difficult. At the same time, it's regrettable right now that we haven't been able to support those fans and those players in a better way because the outpouring of expression after that game and the emails we get have just been amazing. We would really like show them that we care about that.

BIt's quite difficult when of course you sort of want to go on and do your next thing but people still want more of what you've already got.

KS: Yeah, yeah. Hopefully, part of that is satiated by just our next project, and that will be another Thatgamecompany project, and I think the players of Flower and flOw will enjoy it.

Right. But how long is that going to take?

KS: Right. [laughs] Yeah. And also, when we think about the projects, I mean, right now, as I was saying, it's like our current project is requiring an all hands on deck sort of approach, so it makes it difficult to then try and manage downloadable content or an expansion. But it's something we're trying to improve.

I guess you could go with like external help like you did with the PSP version of flOw, but I don't know if that's appealing.

KS: Yeah. I think that's also something where now that we've gained Robin as a producer, that will allow me to focus more on that stuff, hopefully opening up the opportunity of doing exactly that.

And certainly the code for Flower is a lot better, so in that way, it will be easier than flOw was. [laughs] Yeah, poor Supervillain had like the worst time, and I just really, really give them mad props for dealing with that.

I guess that's what happens with indie teams' early projects. It's like, "Well..."

KS: "No one's ever going to look at this ever again." [laughs]

As long as it works.

KS: Exactly. As long as we ship it.

On Rage

Are you going for a specific feeling for the next project?

KS: Yes, but we can't talk about it right now. But we always start with emotions, and this is no exception.

Well fine! I assume that... I always wonder what would you all do with an emotion like rage, or something like that, which I know is really outside of what Jenova wants to do. But I've always found that curious.

KS: Well, part of our mission statement is to create games that communicate emotions that aren't currently available on the video game apartment. Rage is well-covered.


KS: But that's not to say it's out of the realm of a Thatgamecompany game because if one day, we've moved well beyond, I don't know, the emotions that are communicated today, which I can't see because I think there will always be an audience for this -- I mean, I'm so stoked for God of War 3. I think it would be really interesting, that's all I can say.

I think it would be interesting to start a game with, you know... Well, maybe God of War, you know, that's what they captured so well, with that like visceral rage, and then designed everything around that.

I'm really interested with this Six Days in Fallujah project that keeps getting picked up and dropped and dropped...

Well... Have you actually seen the gameplay?

KS: Nah, I don't know.

That's the thing. A a lot of indies are coming out to stress the importance of Konami, but having seen it, it didn't look very complex to me -- like just another male power fantasy video game.

KS: I wonder, because I know some of the guys at that development studio, and their heart is in the right place. So, I guess I was excited by... Well, maybe partnering with Konami, they would have been able to get it to a very meaningful place.

But yeah, you're right. Intention isn't everything. There has to be execution behind it.

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