One of the interesting sessions at this year's Festival of Games in Utrecht, the Netherlands, was given by thatgamecompany co-founder Kellee Santiago - the company behind PSN hits flOw and Flower.
While at the event we caught up with her to explore the unique company's origins, how the deal with Sony came about, why fresh ideas are important to the games business and if there's any planned headcount expansion for the developer.
Q: Most people will now be familiar with thatgamecompany with the success of flOw and Flower, but just explain how the company first came about.
Kellee Santiago: Well, Jenova Chen and I co-founded thatgamecompany after graduating from the University of Southern California's Interactive Media Masters programme, which is where we met. We'd worked on a number of projects over the course of three years there, but the one that really kicked off the company was the student project Cloud.
It was an opportunity for Jenova and the other students on the team to really execute on the philosophies we'd been learning on game design at USC - examining games as a communicative medium.
So starting with an emotion and attempting to design a game around that emotion, as opposed to starting with the mechanics, which is often how designers approach games - so it's a first-person shooter, or it's a real-time strategy. Instead we started with this idea of making a game that makes you feel like you're a kid daydreaming, and looking at the clouds - and trying to make a game from that approach.
When the game was completed, we were really happy with it, but we had no idea how people would respond to it - but it really seemed to resonate with people, both hardcore gamers, who continue to be our real advocates, and who spread it completely virally to a global audience. It was incredible.
That's where the spark of thatgamecompany came from - Jenova and I thought maybe there was something in this, and that was in the Fall of 2005 which coincided with the launch of Xbox Live Arcade, the increase of distribution through Steam, and of course (but unknown to us at that time) the impending introduction of PSN and WiiWare.
That was the second half that really completed the idea of starting the company - there was something in the content, but there was also a way to mitigate the financial risks of creating content that would still be viewed as experimental, and risky on the part of any financier or publisher.
The next step we took was to ask ourselves if people would pay for Cloud, because then it was free.. so it's all about baby steps in experimentation, digital distribution allowed us to take those initial baby steps.
Up until that point Jenova and I thought we'd do what was very common at the time, which was to go get jobs at larger studios, put in our three-to-five years, build contacts and save money so that we could do it later.
So we were going around pitching Cloud - but that was partly the pitch process, and partly taking the opportunity to have what were essentially job interviews... we thought it would be better than a straightforward interview, we'd get an extended period of time...
Meanwhile we're also doing real job interviews, because we had no idea if it was going to take off or not - but in that period Sony Santa Monica approached us about the three-game-deal, and doing three games for the PlayStation Network.
Q: When they came to you, how clued-up were you on the business side, and the intricacies of doing a deal with a massive company like Sony?
Kellee Santiago: For the pitching and negotiation we had the fortunate experience of having business classes at USC - it was taught by Bing Gordon, along with a number of guest speakers from EA, because they had just become involved with the Interactive Media programme at that time.
There was a grant under which Cloud was developed, and as part of that grant we went up to EA Redwood, gave them the pitch and got feedback on our presentation as a whole - from that class we had really great mentors, including the VP of EA Partners at that time.
Q: So there was the idea, there was the opportunity, and a level of experience based on the expertise you had access to - and it all came together. I guess that meeting with Sony would have been a lot less daunting for you guys than it would have been for some others?
Kellee Santiago: I think so - Jenova and I have always viewed thatgamecompany as an incredible opportunity and I think with that approach everything is less daunting. We weren't out to make a games company - we weren't really interested in just going into business for ourselves, and it's a real pain to do that...
So we always thought as long as we're going to do it, we'd take it as an opportunity to make the kind of games that we want. If we hadn't found a good partner, thatgamecompany just wouldn't have existed, at that time at least. We'd have gone to work at other studios and regrouped at another time when we thought interest would be greater.
Looking back it was a really great way to approach the situation, because it led us to finding really amenable partners at Sony Santa Monica, who initially were part-publisher and part-mentor to us - they really helped us to learn more about the shipping process of making games, and working with the publisher... and they also allowed us to discover a creative focus process that we use at thatgamecompany.
Q: It's pretty tough entering the market now - on open platforms like the iPhone, the challenge is visibility. Meanwhile, for the downloadable console platforms you really have to have good relationships... The timing of Sony needing to play catch-up to XBLA must have really yielded strong benefits?
Kellee Santiago: I remember after Jenova and I had our initial meeting with Sony, we hugged in the parking lot - you could just tell, we really resonated with each other. That's been something I've been so thankful to learn as a recent business owner - how much of a relationship with anyone in business exists outside of the contract.
You can negotiate all of the ownership and rights that you want, but there's an aspect of it that just can't be contracted - which is the relationship you have as business partners. I've been very thankful that we partnered and put our trust in the right people.
Q: Fast-forwarding a bit, as you've put out other titles - how have you grown the studio and developed the company in the past four years? What were the challenges?
Kellee Santiago: We initially shifted from Cloud to flOw as our first title on PS3, because flOw was more fleshed-out as a design, and an easier first project to tackle. There are so many challenges with just starting up a company and working with a publisher - and none of us had shipped a commercial title before.
So we wanted to mitigate some of those challenges, though it still turned out to be much more than we bargained for... We'd initially scoped a game twice as big, that would take half as long - but that was just our own naivete. Apparently our producer at that time at Sony always knew we were being over-ambitious, so he went easy on us.
That was one of the major hurdles - we had a team that was slightly smaller than Cloud. Myself, John Edwards (who we met through the independent games circuit), Nick Clarke (our lead designer, who'd worked on the Flash game flOw), and Jenova.
We were very green - the biggest challenge in growing from that small size to something that's still relatively small but three times that size now was just the modes and frequency of communication about our process, and discovering what sort of production process we needed to structure the creative process we wanted to have at the core of thatgamecompany.
It's something we're still iterating on.
Q: It's that kind of experience that can't really be taught - and part of the beauty of the games business is that no two companies seem to do it quite the same way. How did it feel when flOw started to really make an impact around the world?
Kellee Santiago: Well, we iterated and playtested and were very happy with the game that we shipped - but you're never sure if the world at large is going to be into your game. When flOw was fairly well reviewed and then became one of the top-downloaded games of 2007 that was incredible. The best word for it is that it was validating - it validated our process, our mission, all of the blood, sweat and tears that we put into the game.
Q: There's been a lot of support for the game - and there seems to be a general feeling that people are pleased that the industry is able to foster genuinely new concepts. But what are your thoughts on the progress of emotion in games? Lots of people have tried it, but it's been a bit hit-and-miss - at the moment you occupy a nice niche.
Kellee Santiago: We're probably one of the few game companies that say we want people to copy us, because we don't want what we do to be niche - we want it to be something that every publisher and developer is exploring, new ways to communicate through videogames.
Q: But do people really know how to do that kind of stuff? They know how to make shooters and driving games... I guess that's the beauty of pioneering.
Kellee Santiago: You're using a lot of flattering vocabulary - it's really wonderful. I guess part of it is the talent, and having a team of people who are dedicated to communicating a new emotion, to trying new things, to figuring out better ways to make games.
I think something that I hope to see grow in the upcoming years of our industry is the ability to spot that kind of talent, and recognise it.
The other component of this style of game development is that it's really hard - and continues to be really hard. Friends in the development community, when we're sometimes venting to each other, are surprised about the frustrations we're having on the team or with Sony... because flOw did so well, and Flower did even better, and people think we should be trusted.
But it doesn't stop being difficult to look into the face of your game that you're trying to make, when it's around the feeling of being in a giant field of flowers, and telling your publisher that you don't know what the game is going to be, what you're going to do in it - but that we'll figure it out.
Similarly on our own team, it's only been very recently that we've been able to really accept a certain level of anxiety as being a part of what we've signed up for - and being able to have some joy in that. To trust ourselves and each other that we'll get to the other side, and it'll be worth it.
Q: Are the kinds of games you're making easier to create with a smaller team? Will you look to grow the headcount?
Kellee Santiago: I don't anticipate that our team, in a single project, would grow much more than it is now. We have about 10-15 people if we were to bring some of the contractors in house. There's definitely an element of our process that's rooted in rapid iteration, and it's very difficult to do that with people outside of the office.
Right now that's been a real grounding aspect of our team size - we really rely on a lot of iteration and polishing which requires people in almost the same room with each other, and very tight communication loops.
Kellee Santiago is co-founder of thatgamecompany. Interview by Phil Elliott.