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thatgamecompany's Kellee Santiago

The co-founder of the flOw developer on the firm's origins and the importance of new ideas

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. 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. 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.

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Phil Elliott