Thursday, March 15, 2012

Q&A session with Jenova Chen of Journey from CAAM’s Play Salon


Journey just came out this week, and there has been nothing but praise for the game. I, of course, loved it and I’m sure all those other people that journeyed with me loved it too. Thatgamecompany’s games are always able to come up with game experiences that have never been done before.

After GDC, I was fortunate enough to attend a Q&A session with Jenova Chen and other game designers in San Francisco at an event called The Play Salon held by the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM). Here, I’ve transcribed the event, specifically what Jenova Chen said in light of Journey’s release. With the game finished, Chen was ready to answer questions about game design with what he learned during the development of Journey as well as all of his other games. Many of the questions asked were fairly unclear, but Chen was able to answer them clearly and concisely. That said, I replaced the questions with simple subject lines and paraphrases. 

There are a lot of insightful thoughts on design and fans of thatgamecompany’s works should have a lot of fun reading about them. I was always curious about how thatgamecompany is always able to communicate the game mechanics and objectives without beating the player over the head with tutorials and guides. Guiding a player through the vast desert was no small task, and Chen and his team at thatgamecompany really mastered the level design in the game. Some other interesting insights include his method of game design, his take on the current innovation of games, and his perception of the different platforms from console to mobile and PC.

The Play Salon also included an hour of brainstorming for a game with the game design panelists. It was a lot of fun, and I would certainly be there the next time they do an event like this. Great job CAAM on organizing an event that really tapped into the complexities of game design, something we don’t appreciate enough.

Without further adieu, here is the Q&A session with Jenova Chen.


An Introduction of thatgamecompany’s games.

Jenova Chen:
[flOw was] our first game. It’s actually quite simple because it was our first commercial game ever. It is about this underwater aquatic creature you control. You can eat and consume other creatures to grow and evolve… You can tell the soundtrack is quite different. Most of the other video games you can see play rock and roll music. The game is actually trying to make you feel better, relaxed and almost enter a zen-like meditative state. The game is designed based off of the psychology theory called flow, which is about… getting a person completely involved and engaged in the game play. We were just trying to make a game where not just the game players, players who have a lot of experience playing games, but also people who have never touched a game in the past should be able to enjoy. 

The second game we worked on is called Flower… The game begins in the wild, but as you play more you slowly get into civilization and eventually bring the nature and beauty into the city. Game is technology with art. We spent lots of technology to bring you the grass field. There are over 200,000 grass blades simulated…

The 3rd one, Journey, comes out next week… This is a multiplayer game, but also not a multiplayer game. You see other people as you play. This game is called Journey. To put it shortly, it’s kind of like a pilgrimage... Players will set out on an adventure to go out into the distance. They will not know too much about who they are and where they are going but on their way to the mountains they would run into other players from anywhere around the world, but you would not know who they are. It’s purely an interaction between two human beings. You don’t know who they are, their gender, or what their name is. You would be sharing your journey with them towards the end. It’s somewhat of a spiritual game. 

Those are games we make with Sony. It has been already 6 years. When we make each game, we want to bring some new emotional experience as we see games as entertainment but also an art form. When it comes to making an artistic medium mature, I look at the medium from an emotional perspective. If we talk about film here, films have a wide variety of genres. No matter how old you are, what gender you are, what continent you are in, there’s always a particular film genre you want to watch. The range of emotions is so wide and so deep. That’s why I think it’s a very mature medium, but when it comes to games, there are a lot of emotions that is not covered. We can find the equivalent of a Hollywood summer blockbuster action film in video games and there are quite a lot of them. We can find some thrillers some horror that happens in games, but the more subtle nuanced emotions—games are not very good at that. For example the peaceful feeling, you rarely see a game about that. Journey is an online game. Because most people play so competitively online, people are very mean to each other *audience laughter,* so we want to see if it was possible to evoke a true emotional interaction type of bonding between the player. It’s more like friendship rather than a competitive emotion in the game. We are very much like an experimental game studio and all we’re doing is trying to bring something new to the medium and hopefully bring more players to enjoy this medium.


On the genres of your games.

Jenova Chen:
Lots of people ask me do you really don’t like violent things or do you really hate competition. I’m actually a very avid violent game competitor. That’s the only game I can play. I think it’s somehow because of the competitiveness, even when we design games, while we make games; I like to wait while waiting for a match or upgrading battle equipment. So since [other designers] have been [making] very awesome action games, I wouldn’t be trying to do that. I would not be very valuable creating another action game. So, I actually headed to the opposite end and try to create something there, becoming more valuable. We always say things that are rare are more valuable. That’s why we pick these games to work on, not because I’m a super emo kid or something.


What kind of movies would you make? Movies like director Terrence Malick films?

Jenova Chen:
Yeah, people keep talking about Terrence Malick. They’re like your games are like Terrence Malick. I haven’t seen a Terrence Malick movie until recently I saw The Tree of Life.

I feel like I’m more likely to make something that is heartwarming and universal. Of course, I grew up in China—where games, the console games market, are more [popular in] America, Europe and Japan. Which I really don’t have any cultural roots. I wanted to make a cowboy game, but I really don’t know about cowboys. I wanted to make a [soccer] game; it’s very hard. I was always inspired by Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli. Even though they make very Japanese anime, somehow it was very popular all over the world. I think it’s because the themes they explore, the message they communicate in those movies is a universal thing: peace, nature, childhood, sense of freedom. I think that’s the kind of direction I’m going for. What kind of movies that would be? I guess Studio Ghibli movies.


On the subject of games becoming easier to make and game genres.

Jenova Chen:
In the film industry, there was an independent film movement where the camera and film and showing films in theaters became a lot cheaper. The budget of a film reduced by a lot, so it’s very [possible] to have film students or film lovers… make something new. I think it’s also happening to the games industry today. It’s actually really cheap to make a game... I remember in 2004, I was studying at school and I was trying to submit a game to the independent games festival and that year there were about 30-40 submissions, but this year there’s over 600 submissions. You can see because of the technology change there are more people making very unique games. Some of them became very very popular. I think that’s the way how game genres can expand. When an independent developer hit a big success, a lot of people start to make similar things and it evolves into a genre. I think we are in a very exciting time in the history of video games. This is the moment where innovation is happening.


If I have never played a game before, what would be the first game you’d recommend?

Jenova Chen:
You know, actually I think Flower might be easy.


On the subject of the definition of games.

Jenova Chen:
It is hard to define games. Some people say how life is a game. Games have existed for thousands of years. Any kind of play is a game. Today, when we talk about games, we are really referencing video games, which are games that belong on a computer digitally simulated systems. We can play poker, but we usually don’t think of that as a video game. Poker is a game, but you use the traditional physical medium. I think digital media is redefining everything. What is film? It’s motion picture but with a different name… I kind of have this weird confusion watching the football players on the HD TV. I always thought it looks like a video game because it does not look like anything real and the people there who are doing those things are not doing anything practical. All the rules and the points and the skills are completely virtual… with little words on a green field. I just felt that is a game just not on a computer. For me, what is a game? It’s not a difficult thing. It’s actually easier to think about what I do is that I have these things I want to say or messages or particular feelings that I want others to experience. So I have this medium, in the past I wanted to be a film maker, so that involves cinematography, writing, acting, and all these film stuff. For games, all of a sudden you have this interactive system provided by these digital devices. Suddenly it becomes more interesting. I imagine games designers in the old days [when they] have to make chess, they have to make all these things. In the end, it’s more like art. You want to make someone else experience something. We just use tools to do that.


What is your process of making games?

Jenova Chen:
Different designers have a different process. For me, it’s all about the feeling I want to create. It can be very broad… It can be very personal. I want to make a game that reminds me of when I was 12 years old… that feeling of safety and [relaxation]—I guess the nostalgia. That would be the basic foundation. I would look for things, visual, music, activities that actually bring you back to that feeling. When players do this thing it would create similar results. You pick a feeling first, and then you try a bunch of stuff. The look, the sound and everything—just combine them in different ways and find what actually makes it tick.


Journey communicates where players are supposed to go without using tutorials or guides. How do you approach communicating your mechanics and objectives to your players?

Jenova Chen:
Games are a multimedia. That’s a very old word, who still talks about multimedia? Film is also a multimedia. It has sound, music, visual, animation, and all those things. When we design games, we look at media that has existed for hundreds of thousands of years and learn from them. Particular for what you’re saying, why are the player lost? Where are they supposed to go? It’s very much about landscape design, you know, landscape architecture. We would look into theme park designs like how Disneyland would be designing all their structures so that subconsciously these things are luring [people]. In Disney, people call it the big weenie. If you go to Orange County’s Disneyland, the big weenie is the Matterhorn. From very far away, you see it there; you kind of walk towards it. Subconsciously, people actually do that. If you put someone in a desert they don’t really know where to go, but if you leave a trail, people would naturally follow it. It has a lot to do with psychology.

Regarding particular navigation design, somehow I really enjoy IKEA. A lot of people tell me they get lost in IKEA, but I thought it was a very well designed experience. Every time I go there shopping, I lose track of time. I was just in the zone, shopping. Of course, it’s designed to try to make me buy more, but I thought it was almost like a well designed game space.


With mobile games becoming more popular, have you noticed any constraints or benefits from the different gaming platforms?

Jenova Chen:
I remember when YouTube first came out; David Lynch was making a YouTube video talking about how YouTube can’t carry what he makes. What he makes has to be on the big screen… I believe that’s true because play is a very interesting thing. Just yesterday, I was talking to my friend about iPhone games. He [makes iPhone apps]. He told me that after he worked on his phone for so long, he has eyesight problems because every day he has to look at his phone like this *bringing his cell phone closer to his face*. When you think about some of the ways you interact with [devices], everything has a certain posture. Let’s say we have an iPad and I would tend to play it like this*pantomimes using an iPad*. And this automatically puts me into a different mood. Versus this*sits back on the couch, pretending to have a game controller*. This is a very different feeling. Different devices with a different interface would help people engage with those media. So far, console games are very much a couch experience versus PC and desktop is this kind of experience *leans forward with his hands curled on an imaginary keyboard*. You can pretty much tell people who play this kind of game have this kind of stereotype. For me, I tend to play iPhone games in the toilet and usually not too long. You’ll definitely have games you’d want to play.


On gamification, the use of game design techniques in everyday life.

Jenova Chen:
I really hate that word. I really hate gamification. It’s like somehow we’re discovering this gold mine, but it has been there. It’s called psychology. You can use psychology to improve customer experience. You can use psychology to incentivize purchase. What is gamification? It is nothing. It’s like people have never used psychology or anthropology to improving the situation.

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