Jenova Chen on Flower, Matsuura, and indie development

Q&A: Thatgamecompany founder talks about the coming of the independent game era, geeking out over Starcraft II, and how games are on their way to becoming accepted as a high art form.


Castle Crashers

BRIGHTON, UK--Jenova Chen has made a name for himself as a groundbreaking indie game designer, shipping innovative games for Windows and the PlayStation 3, including Cloud, flOw, and Flower. However, the founder of indie development studio Thatgamecompany is only getting started. At the Develop conference here in Brighton, Chen gave a talk titled "flOw and Flower: Games and Art," where he discussed his next project for Sony and his interest in Microsoft's Project Natal. In a later session, Chen traded his Flower with Masaya Matsuura's PaRappa the Rapper, and each played the other's game. GameSpot UK caught up with Chen after this session to discuss his approach to game making.

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GameSpot UK: How did you find the experience of sharing games with Matsuura-san?
Jenova Chen: I'm surprised by how young Matsuura-san is. I know his real age, but just to look at him, you know, creative people never get old and he's still so passionate about the stuff that he's working on. That makes me feel happy. I see myself probably becoming someone like him in the future, and still having a great time making and creating things.

GSUK: That's true, people like Shigeru Miyamoto seem to still have the joy and wonder of a child...
JC: (laughs) People outside the industry will say "wow that sounds like a fun job--you get to make video games," but the reality is that since you start making games you can't enjoy games that much anymore, unless you deliver a completely new and different experience. So I've become much more jaded towards the games today.

GSUK: When you play games, do you view them with more of a critical view now?
JC: Right. Especially on the artistic level, most of the games lose me right at the beginning. That's why the gems are so special when you find them, and games that communicate a message are probably the only things that really excite me these days. Or the old-school games like Street Fighter IV, Starcraft II, and Diablo III--I'd be super geeked out for the memory. But as a new game, it's very, very rare [for it]to excite me.

GS: Are you excited about Starcraft II then?
JC: (laughs) I'm trying to get a beta account right now. I have friends in Blizzard.

GS: Dennis Dyack spoke about video games as the eighth art form at Develop. Do you think video games can ever be accepted as a form of high art?
JC: It will become accepted if we all actually continue to innovate. If people like Matsuura-san and us continue working on it, and there are more people that can work on this. I think it's happening because of digital distribution, and the people coming out of the schools having great ideas wanting to do exactly what we did. I think this is the renaissance of video games. I've mentioned this before. You will see thousands and thousands of games made by small teams and individuals that have completely different voices.

Art only comes out of a mature medium. To mature you need to have a wide variety of genres that covers all the needs of people. Right now if you look at music or film, no matter where you are in life, whatever mood you're in, you have a type of music or film to watch. But games? Not the case. There are certain moods you can play games in and enjoy them, but other times no game will do the job. But if at any time, any age, any mood, any country, there's a game for you then that's the day that we won't call people a "gamer" anymore because everyone will play games and that's the time that we can say "you know, games are everywhere. It's a medium. We can look out and find some really high art within this medium."

GS: Flower's a beautiful, artistic game, but it's also very technically proficient. How did that come about?
JC: It's more because of the individuals in the team. Because we have a much higher standard of ourselves. The lead engineer on our team, John Edwards, and other engineers would say, "You know, this feature has been done by other games. Should we really do this?" Even if we do it we can't compete with them because we only have three engineers and we waste all this time and money just to make a B-level thing. That's not really the right thing.

So I felt it's a really good constraint to help improve the video game's design. Same thing goes with art. We only had one artist on Flower, so how are we supposed to make a game that looks impressive? Having limited resources is a really good inspiration for you to be creative. When you have a $100 million [budget] you can't do that anymore. You have to make sure the game will sell. You can do the same thing like other people but better. So it's a totally different kind of game.

GS: Are there any specific trends you've noticed in the downloadable content market?
JC: The trend is that games are going to diversify. Because all these young, passionate people, or old people who are tired of making big games...they want to do something special. They won't want to make some "me too" games if they spend the time actually doing a startup or working in their garage. They want to have something very, very unique. This is the independent game era, and I think the trend is that you're going to see a lot of very unique things. Is it going to be all about social networking or downloadable content? I don't think there will be a trend like that.

There could be a very successful game like Braid, but then there is Castle Crashers. They're both very different in terms of their artistic values, but they both sell. I think indie games are going to create a lot of friction with AAA games. Even though the publisher was planning to launch a small game between two large games, I think eventually people will still want to buy small games instead of big games.

GS: Thanks for your time.

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