Who Was There: Thatgamecompany founders Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago (Journey), Minority cofounder Vander Caballero (Papo & Yo), Mike Burns from Fueled Entertainment (Sideway), and Ulf Andersson from Overkill Software (Payday: The Heist).
What They Talked About:One of the first panels to kick off Comic-Con 2011 was about creating meaningful indie titles in a climate where shooters sell and everyone else talks about social gaming. What the panelists had in common other than the fact that they were independent was that their publisher was Sony. The games that they are working on are all extremely different, but they all approached their projects with specific goals in mind.
Thatgamecompany's upcoming title Journey is its first online game, focusing on the player's purpose in the sandy universe and discovering the world's history. Papo & Yo is about Caballero's love/fear relationship with his father, who struggled with alcoholism. Burns explained that Fueled actually comes from a background of online advertising, so their approach is a more business-oriented one, focusing on creating an IP for a target audience. Andersson from Overkill just happens to enjoy the ever-popular shooter genre, but after coming from a large company that likes to hold too many meetings, his approach is fewer meetings and doing what he wants to do.
After the initial introduction, the developers talked about how they started their own studios. Santiago and Chen come from a background in film, having studied the medium at the University of Southern California. Santiago was originally in theater, but after taking a course on the history of game design and going to the Game Developers Conference, she started working in games. Chen's student project, "Cloud," was an unexpected hit on the Internet, and he explained that after receiving so much fan mail it was like a calling to go into game design and continue creating. He also highlighted the fact that you can start a game company without anything, but as long as you have a good idea and passion, you can convince people to give you money.
For Caballero, he worked at EA initially and acknowledged the perks in working for a corporate giant, such as large teams and good pay, but he added developers there can't create the games they like. Having come from Colombia where violence hits a bit too close to home, he didn't want to spend his days creating violent games and instead wanted to focus on storytelling by making it a deeply personal experience--a painful one, but also liberating.
Burns focused more on the business side of creating games. At the end of the day, a game has to sell if the studio hopes to continue to make more. Passion can get a developer only so far, he said. His focus was figuring out what kind of audience he wanted to target and then developing an IP for that audience in hopes of branching out the property later on. He stressed how important it was to have a viable business model and that there needs to be an audience to consume it.
Andersson has been working on games since he was 14 and has spent time working for bigger game developers. He joked about being in meetings and having smaller meetings within those meetings to the point where he said that everything "turns to s*** pretty fast." He lamented that even though developers work on bigger IPs and even good IPs, they still can't really do what they want to do and make it great within five months.
"Doing your own stuff and owning your own IP is your way to go," Andersson said. "The market today is really good with that."
He also doesn't lose sleep at night knowing that he's in control of his own project.
Burns touched upon (multiple times) how Sony has been an incredibly supportive publisher that lets indie developers stick to their original ideas. Not all publishers provide the same courtesy.
The panel later touched on Journey, and the audience was shown early paintings by Chen, who initially wanted to make a massively multiplayer online game without the verbal communication. They acknowledged that an MMO from That Game Company is likely never going to happen, but Journey takes some of those nonverbal communication ideas and puts them into practice.
Takeaway: All it takes to start a company is to have a good idea and know how to pitch it.