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The developer of Journey bucks the trend of "predatory" monetisation

Thatgamecompany's Jenova Chen shuns conflict-driven microtransactions for social gifting in Sky: Children of the Light

Thatgamecompany has changed. Once a poster child for artistic indie games like Journey and Flower, it has evolved into another mobile live services company -- but its vision and ambitions remain the same.

The studio's transformation has been driven by Sky: Children of the Light, a free-to-play title much like Journey that launched last year and is soon heading to Android and Switch. The game sees players working together to restore spirits and solve mysteries.

Unlike the shorter titles Thatgamecompany is known for, Sky has been expanded with seasonal events that give players more opportunities to collaborate and explore. The need to constantly update the game has been a new experience for the developer, but its success so far has even enabled the opening of a new office to recruit more staff.

Jenova Chen, Thatgamecompany

Co-founder Jenova Chen tells shifting to a model of ongoing development has been a big change.

"On console, once we shipped a game, we'd be like 'Oh, let's take a vacation, take three months off,'" he says. "[With Sky] we just never had that chance to release the stress, building a console-quality game and continuing to support it."

He continues: "I've certainly started to understand why a live ops company is bigger than an indie studio. You have to have more than the usual crew just so you can rotate them to create content without burning ourselves out."

Despite the changes to how Thatgamecompany operates, the fundamental ambitions are largely the same: The studio still wants to build "human experiences" that touch its players, much in the way its earlier titles accomplished. But the wider context around this vision has also changed.

"Fifteen years ago, when I first started the studio, most people were complaining how video games were violent, there was a lot of shooting, kids were turning into mass murderers because of games -- which was so not true, but there was that impression," he says.

"Today when you tell people you make games, they just say, 'Oh, I hear you're making a lot of money, how much money do you make?' as if they're talking to a casino owner. I was hoping when we tell people we make games, it's the equivalent of when someone says they make film, television, poetry, write novels. There's a sense of respect because they know in those mediums we're dealing with humanity and telling stories to inspire people. That's what I want to see [in games]."

"When you tell people you make games, they react as if they're talking to a casino owner. [It should be] the equivalent of when someone who makes films or write novels"

As such, Thatgamecompany spent two years in the middle of development prototyping business models for Sky, which was originally designed as a premium title. The studio soon realised there was no way they could make a profit and sustain the business by charging for a game in the free-to-play dominated mobile market. This meant seeking an alternative, but Chen was all too aware of the growing scrutiny around monetisation in games.

"The most successful models are very predatory and aggressive," he says. "The other type of gacha monetisation is very much like gambling... Parents don't want to see their kids throwing dice and pulling gachas, they don't want to see people fighting each other."

He began to examine the emotions -- always at the heart of Thatgamecompany's work -- involved in the free-to-play titles he himself was playing. In strategy games, for example, he realised he was spending money because he was afraid of other players stealing his resources, or out of revenge after they had done so.

"The more I played these games, the more I felt like the developer was like an arms dealer," he says. "They're selling weapons for whoever wants to pay to win. The conflict is what drives spending. That's definitely something I don't want to associate with.

"When we bring our player into Sky, we're aiming for the experience a Pixar movie would bring. We want to change the way society views games, and create an emotional experience that touches not just the player, but also hopefully their spouse and their children."

Chen also looked at the emotions behind the premium model, where players pay "based on excitement, and trust in the creator." Certainly, Thatgamecompany's reputation might convince some mobile users to part with their cash. But in freemium, he realised, players aren't really paying the developer -- they're paying for social value.

Sky: Children of the Light is built around forging friendships, both during adventures and in a social space

"Almost all free-to-play games are around that," he says. "If you think about League of Legends, Dota 2, what you're buying is a special skin. It's like if you're into sports -- it's free to watch the sport, but to show support for your team, you buy a jersey or some kind of social currency to demonstrate that this is valuable to you."

Sky was originally designed "as a rollercoaster ride" like Journey, taking players through defined emotional bears. But to survive in free-to-play, a game needs a social community, and to get that community spending, there needs to be social value. Thatgamecompany began to think of Sky as less of a rollercoaster, more of a theme park.

"Conflict is what drives spending [in free-to-play]. That's definitely something I don't want to associate with."

"Once you have a park, it can be a place people go to just to hang out and relax -- they're not there to play the same game every single day," he says. "Everyone understands if we just continue to produce content, like a premium game, the player will always consume it faster than you're making it. So we shifted our strategy to focus on how we could build a park where people who love this type of game can find a social space. How we can break the ice between players and create what I call 'intimate connections.' What keeps the players around is the other players, not the game."

While connections in most other games centre around action and competition, Thatgamecompany has always focused on more positive interactions -- something that continued with Sky.

When Journey was being developed, Zynga and the rise of social games was the talk of the industry but Chen was less impressed by the connections enabled by games such as FarmVille. Players could send each other gifts or express themselves through artwork made with arranged crops, but beyond this there were very few direct interactions with other players. Equally, in typical power fantasy games, two players who feel powerful are unlikely to want to collaborate, Chen says. Instead, it becomes a competition to show who is the most powerful or skilled.

With Journey, and by extension Sky, Chen identified that the emotion that makes humans more open to socialising is in fact trust and vulnerability. In shooters, for example, there is no emotional need for other players because each one can theoretically take care of themselves. In Journey, playing vulnerable characters facing the unknown encouraged people to stick together -- a concept taken further by the studio's current title.

"When we feel small and we run into another human being, we want to collaborate, we want to protect each other because we're the minority," says Chen. "The world of Sky is vast and new, and [players] are very small, and they don't understand everything. Under such an atmosphere, players are more likely to want to team up and make friends, so they can rely on each other to explore the new world."

Journey demonstrated how powerless players will band together to help each other through the challenges that lie ahead

This feeds into the game's monetisation design. Just as the game was built around encouraging players to interact and cooperate with each other, so too were the economics designed around exchanging gifts with each other rather than spending on yourself.

"We spent a long time working on an economy where giving and altruistic gifting is the driver of the spending," Chen explains. "We removed a lot of abilities that players could purchase for themselves, so they have to purchase them for other people, but that backfired on us. When everything is about giving, people start to do quid pro quo and sometimes when you gift something to someone and that person doesn't return the favour, you get angry because you're expecting it to return.

"Without selfish choices, sometimes the player will question whether your altruistic action is sincere. We want players to feel sincere toward each other"

"Eventually after many months of testing, we reintroduced some selfish purchases, like you can buy yourself a hat. Before, the cosmetics in games had to come from someone else, but now we've reached a balance. Without selfish choices, sometimes the player will question whether your altruistic action is sincere. We want players to feel sincere toward each other, so after we introduced some selfish purchase options, players were much more positive about receiving gifts and requests for forming friendships."

Sky is the first title the studio has built for scratch from mobile, and the first major step towards reaching a broader audience with its positive message. Journey, for all its acclaim, never reached the ten million people its spiritual successor has already accomplished on iOS. And with Android and Switch versions on the way, this is only likely to expand. Mobile, then, was perhaps the inevitable next chapter for Thatgamecompany.

"If we want to change society's view [on games], having more eyeballs will create a bigger impact," says Chen. "Compared to mobile, there's no way any single console platform could match the numbers."

He continues: "We want society to respect the games industry. When mobile games started to take over, we suddenly had a lot more players -- multiple billions of them, while console players are probably in the hundreds of millions. When our goal is to change players' impression of what games can be, we have to step into the mobile industry. There is currently no way to do business in the premium model there, so it's not like we have a choice.

Sky has already reached ten million players on iOS, but Thatgamecompany wants to reach an even bigger audience across other platforms

"Nine out of ten players on mobile have never played a console game, they have no idea what [Hideo] Kojima's next game is going to be because they don't know what his previous games are. They have no trust in the developer, so why would they pay $60 up front on something while the market is filled with free games? We have to follow certain standards when we enter a different field. I was always secretly hoping that one day the free-to-play model would switch back."

Yet while Thatgamecompany has been essentially forced into the free-to-play model by the need to reach a larger audience, Chen has embraced the challenge of live operations and accepted that his team may not work on a premium game again.

"We're continuously supporting and changing -- much like a theme park, you're upgrading facilities, getting rid of problems," he says. "There are so many international players in our game that certain players cannot communicate, so we're looking into supporting these players with translations. This type of thing would never happen in a premium game model.

"The other thing that's nice about live operations is you can immediately listen into your players and make a change in the next week, sometimes the next day, to instantly address problems. That just never happened when you're focused for two years on building a title where no one will have any idea what it is until it's shipped. I really appreciate those quick iterations as a designer.

"As of right now, I think we'll stick with live operations because there's so much you can learn that you wouldn't be able to learn at all if it was a premium game."

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