Jenova Chen of thatgamecompany (flOw, Flower) is our guest this week, and his journey from Shanghai child to superstar developer was a perfect storm of determination, skill, and a whole lot of luck. You'll hear that story and many more in our jam-packed interview. And yes, he explains his Final Fantastic first name. With Chi Kong Lui, Brad Gallaway, Mike Bracken, and Tim Spaeth.
Tim Spaeth: Welcome one, welcome all to the GameCritics.com podcast. It's episode 21. I'm your host, Tim Spaeth. Joining me this week are Chi Kong Lui—
Chi Kong Lui Hey, Tim. How's it going, guys?
Tim Spaeth: —and Mister Brad Gallaway.
Brad Gallaway: Hey, everybody.
Tim Spaeth: And Mike Bracken.
Mike Bracken: Good evening, everyone.
Tim Spaeth: Very excited to welcome our guest this week. It's Jenova Chen. He is the designer of the award-winning games flOw and Flower among many othes. He's the co-founder of thatgamecompany. Jenova Chen, welcome to the GameCritics.com podcast.
Jenova Chen: Thank you very much for having me. And thank you very much for the dramatic introduction. [Laughter]
Tim Spaeth: It's— It's, I wanna talk about your name and we were debating the pronunciation—
Jenova Chen: Uh-huh.
Tim Spaeth: &madsh;do we want to call you "JeNOva?" Do we wanna call you "JENova?" and I'm not even sure which one I said, but that is a name that you chose based on Final Fantasy VII, right?
Jenova Chen: Yes. Uh, well, I preferred when—the first way you pronounced…uh, JeNOva.
Tim Spaeth: JeNOva.
Jenova Chen: Uh, but, yeah, I mean, I think most people would think it's pretty dumb to choose this name.
Jenova Chen: You know, I saw some people online who would say, "Oh, my God, his parents are probably awesome!" right?
Jenova Chen: [Unknown] No, I just picked it. So—
Tim Spaeth: And so, was it something about that game in particular that caused you to choose that?
Jenova Chen: Well, you know, it's more like…when I first came to the United States about six years ago, I was very, very, you know, proud of my Chinese name, which is Xinghan, which means "The Milky Way." Which is very cool.
Chi Kong Lui: How do you say it in Chinese?
Jenova Chen: Xinghan.
Chi Kong Lui: Okay, sorry.
Jenova Chen: Yeah, so, it's very hard to pronounce for Westerners, right, and it's also hard to write it, because it starts with an "X," you know, and so people are always like: "Is this Zing-han, or something?" you know.
Jenova Chen: Uh, so, at first I was like, yeah, every time I would correct everybody's pronounciation and have them read my name through multiple times hopeful they'd remember my name. But after about one semester, and my writing professor still don't know what my name is—
Jenova Chen: You know, I think, "Well, I just need to pick something that people can remember. Something short, something unique, right? 'Cause my last name is Chen, which is one of the biggest last names in China, probably in the world, so if you are Jackie Chen or Jason Chen, you're probably going to have "firstname.lastname@example.org" or something like that.
Jenova Chen: I just think, "Well, why don't I just pick something short and unique?" and, uh, Jenova is this character and it's also my Starcraft account while I was still in high school, you know, playing games. And it's been my user account for a long time. I just decided to pick that, and also, I Googled Jenova: there's nobody except a dog at the time somewhere [unknown].
Jenova Chen: Um, so yeah, I mean I picked that name, and partially, yes, I do really enjoy Final Fantasy VII and my best gaming buddy in high school and I talk about the game all the time. And he named himself Cloud, and I was like, "No way! You picked the best character!" and I don't want to be Sephiroth, 'cause I don't even known how to pronounce his name. [Unknown]
Mike Bracken: Well, there are like ten million Sephiroth guys online, too, so.
Jenova Chen: Right. Right. [Laughter] So, I think, "Well, you know, since Sephiroth are both children from Jenova, pick something you know, bigger and more badass is probably gonna win over my friend, and then I said, "All right, I'm gonna be Jenova." And then there'll be…people challenge me and say, "Hey, Jenova is a female." But if you do read the story of Final Fantasy, Jenova is a genderless creature, right? So that's kind of my way to justify this name, anyway.
Tim Spaeth: So my…my question for you is this, then: When you're traveling in gaming circles or attending conferences or talking to other designers, how many times have you had to answer the "Are you named after Jenova from Final Fantasy VII?" question? You must have told that—
Jenova Chen: Almost every time, yes.
Tim Spaeth: You must have told that story, like, 200 times would be my guess.
Jenova Chen: Yeah, but every time there would be something different in the details, you know.
Tim Spaeth: So, Jenova, you said you're a lifelong gamer.
Jenova Chen: Yes.
Tim Spaeth: And at what point—
Jenova Chen: Uh.
Tim Spaeth: Go ahead, I'm sorry.
Jenova Chen: At what point, right? I think it was when I was seven? It's not really lifelong, 'cause, yeah, before seven there's not even computers in China yet. I think I…at seven, my dad would bring me to this—uh, I don't even know how to translate this. Basically, they have, like, a special place for children to go to study. And one of the classes they offer is a computer class, so, I get my hands on AppleII computers at age seven. You know, I officially started at ten, but at the time I went there, and I was working at these, you know, like monocolor green display of AppleII computers. And the first thing I saw was some kind of platforming game. I don't even know what the name of that game is. But I started gaming from there, pretty much.
Tim Spaeth: And then at what point along the path do you decide that you might like to actually try your hand at designing these games?
Jenova Chen: Um, actually quite early. I think it was maybe eleven? 'Cause I'm not really interested in programming, but my dad forces me to do so.
Jenova Chen: 'Cause he's in the computer science field. And you know, at the time I was really into drawing. You know, I like to draw stuff. To my parents, you know, they just felt if you learn drawing, eventually you're just gonna be a beggar. You're gonna be a homeless people, handing stuff on the street.
Brad Gallaway: My mom and dad said the same thing to me. I guess that's the same all over the world.
Jenova Chen: Yeah, and then I was pretty much dragged out of the drawing class to this computer class. I might be crying, I can't remember, but this time I went to this class, I saw the game. I don't have any complaining, or…because every time we go to the class, before the class starts, all the kids there are playing games. That's pretty much why I want to go to the class. And so, very soon we start to learn, like, BASIC and Pascal, you know, all these program languages. And as kids, we started trading games. That time it was on floppy disks, so we kind of like, exchanged disks and [would] bring it home to play games. And we would talk about: "Hey, you know, maybe we can make a game." So at the time we would play this game, made by Koei. You guys probably know Koei making Dynasty Warriors.
Mike Bracken: Yes.
Brad Gallaway: Chi's their number one fan. Yeah.
Jenova Chen: But at the time Koei's most popular franchise was the Three Kingdoms strategy games. And so we were playing it, but it's all in Japanese or in English. We were like, "Well, at least we can make our own version of a Chinese version," right? So we talk about how we want to make this game. At the time, we were totally….we have basically no knowledge about developing softwares. We know how to write code. So I was in charge of the graphics for the game.
At the time, you know, if you know programming like BASIC or Pascal, there's not that much graphics interface. If you wanna draw something, you have to basically draw points and lines. So I spent about two weeks every day besides going to school at home drawing the Chinese map—you know, the map of China—by drawing lines and axes. And I finally finished my line drawing in code. All code&there's no Photoshop at the time. And I was very proud and brought it to the class to show my friends, but then it turns out, the disk which I stored my map is somehow damaged. If you remember five inch floppy disks, they get damaged all the time, right? And that's pretty much the moment where I decided, "Screw it. I just want to play games." And I haven't made any games since then until I start my college, acutally.
Tim Spaeth: Was it in college that you met your current partner at thatgamecompany?
Jenova Chen: No, that was grad school. College…yeah, I went to college in China in Shanghai which is my hometown. It was quite interesting because at the time I never thought about, you know, turning game development into my career. It's just…again, you know, my parents is like: "You should play less games and do something meaningful. Do something real," right? "Game's gonna take you nowhere." Yeah, and so I was into college and I was very interested in the digital arts, 'cause I'm getting bored with programming 'cause I started at ten, went into college at 18. It's kind of like 8 years programming…it's kinda getting old on me, and I always liked to draw, so in college, I actually get a lot of time to do digital arts…you know, like CG, 3D animation, you know, Pixar's movies have a lot of influence on me.
So I was all into, like, making animations. But then I run into this guy in a computer game club, and he is in the art department in my university. And all he wants to do is coding. So he spent all his time writing programs in our art department, and he says, "I really want to make games, but I need artists to help me making these models and assets." I say, "Well, sure, I will help you out. We play all these games from America, from Japan, but why isn't there any game made in Mainland? That's just ridiculous. It's not like we're dumb or something. Why can't we just do that?" So we actually spent a lot of time…I remember there was so much passion, like, three of us would stay during the summer vacation in school, we don't even go home. We just stay in one dorm, and we just keep working. But back then, Shanghai is really hot. It's probably 95 or something every day, and you have four computers [unknown] expending out heat, so we would basically gather all the fans we have, and we'd just work together, and it's so hot so we only wear underwear.
Jenova Chen: So basically, it's three naked guys in one dorm for the entire summer, and we just sleep on the floor working on our first video game. And somehow after that we just get addicted to it. It's just a sense of accomplishment, and the pride. No one in China was doing that. Not even just in college or even just independent game makers. We never heard of this. So, we just keep doing it. We made about three games by the time I graduate. But at the time I was mostly enjoying making the art of the game. I really hadn't thought too much about how the game design's going to be. It's more like: "We really like Diablo. Let's make a game like Diablo." Or "We really like Zelda. Let's make a game like Zelda. It's more like mimicking. It's kinda like when you first start learning drawing, you just kind of follow other people's drawing. But by the time I graduate, I was kind of like: "Our game, the attack is pretty good—as good as the American games, and the art is good too. But the game is crap to play. It's not a good game."
Chi Kong Lui: Did those games get published commercially at all?
Jenova Chen: No, we just released it as like freeware online so people can download it.
Chi Kong Lui: Uh-huh. Okay.
Jenova Chen: It's like, the fact Chinese people can make video games is already an accomplishment. We don't even think about money. [Laughter] So that's basically where I was at. But I always just thought, "Oh, I wanna be able to make digital art that can touch and move people, 'cause all the great CG movies and animations I'm seeing. So when I went to USC for my grad school, I was actually thinking about applying toward the animation department in cinema school at USC, but they were like, "Hey, you have all these years of engineer background, all these awards in programming. Why don't you go to our new program called Interactive Media?" So to me, at the time I thought it was like: "The probably think my art is not good enough, so they wanna kick me out." And then they say, "Well, if you are in that department, you can still take all the classes in the animation department." I was like, "Okay, yeah, this is a reasonable compromise. I would go there at USC." But just because of this incident, now I'm here. I'm making video games. It's quite interesting just how life turns out. Even though I never really thought about becoming a game maker, but everything I did in the past does add up to what I do today. It's just a very interesting thing to look at…how life is formed.
Tim Spaeth: Sure.
Brad Gallaway: Hey, Jenova, can I ask you a question real quick? So, considering that you've had this long history, and I think that you are pretty well-known in the States. At least in our critical circles—I mean, I think everyone has either heard of or played Flow and Flower. You know, you're kind of a famous guy. So what do your mom and dad think about that? You know, they told you to not do games, and not do art and that kind of thing, and they wanted you to do something else, I'm sure something more lucrative. Now that you're…you know, I think you're pretty successful as far as game developers go. What do your mom and dad think?
Jenova Chen: [Laughter] Well, so they don't know what game is. My parents, they don't even watch movies.
Jenova Chen: So there's a huge gap for them to understand what I'm doing. But, you know, whenever their son gets onto the newspaper or something on the website, they like to see it, you know. And so they spend most of their time 'cause they're both retired, I think they Google me all the time these days.
Jenova Chen: Yeah, it's…to them, what their son is really doing seems…doesn't really matter, as long as their son seems to be happy and seems to be successful, I think they're happy with that. But, yeah, pretty much because of that, my dad can't win me over on reasoning anymore.
Tim Spaeth: Which I think is probably ultimately every parent's dream, for their children to surpass them in some way. So I'm sure he's very proud. So the games you are best known for, I think most people know flOw and Flower. Prior to that you released Cloud. Talk to us about…well, I guess, you know, your games could be described as certainly experimental games designed to evoke emotion. At least, that's how I would perceive them. But how would you describe your general design philosophy?
Jenova Chen: I think….first of all, I think I am a very, very lucky guy. Because I have known so many people who are more talented than me and who work even harder than me, but they were not at the position where I got, where I get to make a game commercially, to release them on a commercial console. And to me, I felt this luck comes with great responsibility. We went to this Interactive Media grad school program at USC, where all day our professor told us that: "You are here not just because you wanna get a job once you graduate. You are here to push the boundary of this art form, of this medium. To push it forward." And after three years of studies, they pretty much made us feel like we are the specialists in this field, and I just feel like, if I am working in this industry, I should be fulfilling what our professor expected us…It's to try and push the boundary of interactive art into what we consider as a better future. So, when we start to get this challenge…when Kellee and I started the company, we got this business deal with Sony. What are we gonna do? We think about all kinds of games we can make, but we wanted to do something that can push the boundary of games in [the] public's impressions, or in the critics' impressions what games can be—what games can communicate as an art form. And so, when we pick the content for our games, we always think about: "Is there anything new here? Is there anything that people haven't seen here? Is there something we believe that will be beneficial for this medium to have?" So recently you probably have heard my talks about emotions. Like how we feel…the type of emotional experiences a video game offers are very, kind of, I would say limited into small areas, where if you look at other mediums—you know, mature mediums like film or literature or music—the genres are usually divided by feelings, and they have a wider variety of feelings. And we really think video games…you know, for entertainment…Almost all entertainment are about fulfilling people's emotional need. When you're sad, you want something to cheer you up; when you are very exhausted you want something to calm you down and relax you. When you're bored you want to have excitement When you are kind of let down, you want a sense of accomplishment, and I think games were very good at creating a sense of accomplishment and excitement. Power fantasy is what a game is very good at, and the majority of the game market was looking for, most of them were teenagers and early twenties. And people who are young, they like to have powers, but they do not necessarily like to have responsibilities.
Jenova Chen: But I think as the audience are growing, you know, 'cause I remember when I first entered the US I went to a GDC at 2004, and people were talking about how the average game player's about 25, but recently I heard the average game player's age is about 35. If you are 35, you definitely have passed the line where power fantasy is the only thing you want. And I think that because of that, emotions that will appeal to a more mature audience would be something necessary to add to this medium. Otherwise, if games only appeal to the young generations, it wouldn't become, I would say, a mature art form where everybody would embrace it. Am I clear?
Brad Gallaway: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I was just thinking about what you're saying, and I was thinking: "Wow, that's really insightful and that's something you don't really hear many developers talking about." I'm sorry, I think we're just all kind of collectively stunned a little bit there, I don't know about you guys but…[Laughter]
Mike Bracken: Yeah.
Chi Kong Lui: I wanted to ask: Now that you've established this positioning, how did that whole deal with Sony come about to allow you to put yourself in that position to make the kind of games that you're making right now, actually?
Jenova Chen: [Laughter] Uh, well…
Chi Kong Lui: I mean, I know you said luck had a big factor. That I understand, but can you talk more specifically about that?
Jenova Chen: Yes. So, yeah. I think luck is still pretty much the major reason of it.[Chi Kong Lui: laughs] I mean, the fact that I went to USC is another one. So, before I entered the third year of my grad school program at USC, I was still thinking about, oh, you know: "I'm gonna graduate soon. Where am I gonna find a job?" or "Can I find a job?" I was looking around at the different big studios and I was thinking, "Well, who am I gonna work for?" But then, in the third year we had a class called "The Business of Interactive Media." At the time it was taught by Bing Gordon, who at the time was the CEO of EA. And he basically walked us through what is needed to start a business in video games. You need to find publishers, you need to find investors, lawyers and all these things.
Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter] It would be a guy from Electronic Arts to teach that class, right?
Jenova Chen: [Laughter] Right. And then, a very important thing I learned from that class is just that you can…First of all, you need to know how to pitch an idea to other people. How to sell an idea so that they are excited and they want to give you money to do it. Secondly, you don't need to have money to start a business, which was my preconceived notion, that is, you know, you have to work for five to ten years, save up enough money, have enough experience to start a company. But after that class, it's kinda like an eye-opening experience, and they actually asked us to pitch fictional ideas and make presentations for your game ideas in the class and then they will have publisher investors come in to actually rate your presentation.
And at the time, I was getting a number one in the class, which kind of boosted my ego, that I believed maybe if I do pitch a game, some people will actually believe in it. So my classmate Kellee and I were in the same class, so near graduation, I was talking to her, I was saying: "You know…" 'cause she and I worked on Cloud and we really kind of feel like Cloud has inspired us so much, we wanted to have more players know and experience this kind of experience. So we're thinking: "Is it possible for us to pitch Cloud to a publisher?" And we both think that's almost impossible, because there was no example established in the past where some student coming out of school would pitch a multimillion dollar project and get funding to start a company. It's like a…if you asked me today, I would say that's totally impossible. But at the time, we were so na&iumalt;ve that we decided actually, "You know, we should try it."
So we pitched to so many people, and it's just pretty lucky that we get to pitch it at 2006, because that's the year where Sony and Nintendo was launching their console at November. And they both have digital distribution, and they both are dying for content on these new distribution platforms. So, if we would pitch it a year before or a year after, I don't think we would have any chance. And also, John Hyde, who was the head of Sony external development, he's a USC alumni. I guess that helps a little bit.
Jenova Chen: How much, I don't know, but it's certainly something that, you know, if you graduate from USC you would know. It's like a USC mafia.
Jenova Chen: But, so, yeah. Because of all this luck and of course there's the timing and the people. You know, like, we pitched to all the major publishers—you know, Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft—all the third [party] publishers, even overseas publishers. And in the end we find Sony and it was like…the chances were so low, but we actually found it. It's hard to explain how we made it. Yeah.
Brad Gallaway: Wow. That sounds like a pretty incredible string of circumstances. You must really be, you know, lucky. I mean, of course you're skilled and all that, but it does sound like a very fortunate circumstance.
Jenova Chen: Yeah, you know, because we went to, like, independent game festivals all the time. And we know there were very talented student teams before us and after us. It's just they are not graduating that year, and, you know, we were the lucky ones. It's very much…It's kind of like Chairman Mao used to say. He said: "You know, I didn't make the history of China. It's the history of China made me." You know, if I don't exist, someone else would be sitting on this chair saying this to you. And I think the timing creates people. And I think this change from, you know, only retail games to digital distribution will make a lot of new developers…you know, a new, totally different life.
Chi Kong Lui: Sure. Maybe you can talk a little bit about what's it like working with Sony, because it's such an interesting position. Because at the end of Flower, when I went through the credits, right, you know, it kept going and going [Laughter]. I was like "Wow!" because I'm thinking, you know, independent studios are made up of like two or three guys, and this credit just kept going and going, right?
Jenova Chen: Well, I don't know if you can tell how many of them are actually from thatgamecompany. It's pretty much the first [pit?] that's us, and after that pit the second pit is the actual Sony people we work on a daily basis. Then after that, you have all the kind of bureaucracy built on top of it—
Jenova Chen:—and then, Sony Overseas and, you know, people from Sony Japan who playtested the game, people from Europe who translated the game…I mean, all these people. Yeah, that's how big the list is.
Chi Kong Lui: So what's it like on a day to day basis working with Sony, then?
Jenova Chen: I think…Again, it's really lucky because at the time, we were working with Shanghai, and, basically they started their new group for the PlayStation Network. It was a very small group, only three of them, only George [unknown], and Rusty, and we basically kind of, you know, at the very beginning, on flOw, we were just basically sitting next to their desk, you know, kind of like incubation. We were using their office and equipment to make flOw. It was kind of stresaful, because, you know [laughter] they are just watching over you to see what you're doing every day. But then, you know, as the team starts to get bigger, then we get our own office. It was quite small, but, you know, at the time we get to make video games. You know, what else can beat this? So, we were all very, very happy. And during the time we were making Flower, that's actually when I really get to interact with Sony, 'cause during flOw time, I was still on Spore, so I didn't get to work on it. But when I was working on Flower, I had my first-hand experience with Sony. I think it's quite lucky, because we pitched Flower and when we pitched Flower we said: "We want to make a video game to give you a sense of spreading love. A sense of being immersed in the nature." You know, it's kinda like they don't even know what you're talking about.
Jenova Chen: And if you're good at knowing how to make God of War or the Killzone games, you don't necessarily know how to make this Flower game. I mean, we don't know either, right? So it's kinda like, we're just looking at each other: "So, well, I guess you guys know what you're doing. Make sure it's a good game," right?
Tim Spaeth: And if you can get anything to explode while you're spreading love—
Jenova Chen: Yes.
Tim Spaeth Fit it in there. Fit it in there, yeah.
Jenova Chen: Yeah. Just, anyway, like, I think, first of all, their designer, George [unknown] from the publisher's side, is very open-minded. So, it's kind of like, rather than feel like they're overwatching or whether you're doing a good job. It's more like we're, kind of, trying to explore something we don't know about. And the relationship between me and him is never like, you know, like, he's my mentor or something. It's more like, we are peer designers who are curious about things we don't know. And we're kind of giving each other ideas about what that could be.
And basically, the only time where Sony really told us to do something was when we released flOw. We would try experimenting with their tilt-sensitive controllers, and there are concerns from the marketing saying "Well, you know, if you don't support the stick control, the gamers will complain." And the fact is, the gamer does complain. But at the time, we would really kind of, you know, insist that we would need to force it to be tilt sensitive, because the game…if you played it with the stick, it was very easy, and if you play with tilt, it's a little bit challenging. But if we tweak the game for the stick, then tilt would be almost impossible to play. If we tweak it for the tilt and you play with the stick, it would be too boring, 'cause it's so easy. So, at the time, they got…you know, we don't agree with what the publishers say, so they get David Jaffe come in to play our game, and David Jaffe agreed with us.
Jenova Chen: At the time, he was still on God of War, right, so, he's like the senior creative director coming to give us advice. So we won that fight, and pretty much from that point on, getting Flower to be motion-control only is no problem.
Brad Gallaway: Jenova, can I ask you…your games, you know, you kind of describe this uphill battle with the people at Sony, and fortunately, you won. And I think your games are great so far, but I wanted to ask: How do you feel your games have been received? Because I think it's pretty common knowledge that they're pretty unconventional. They're pretty outside the normal parameters of what most people expect game design to be. So how do you feel that your games are received, and do you feel successful with both flOw and Flower?
Jenova Chen: So, I can say I look at the reviews in, like, two perspectives. So first it would be from, like, my own perspective as a creator. I don't really care about the reviews as a creator. I care about what people write to me. And since back then when I was making Cloud, there are people writing e-mail to me that says: "I don't usually do this, but I've played your game and I cried for your game. It's such a beautiful thing, and I really wish you can keep doing what you're doing." That's like the most rewarding thing I've ever had in my life, and the reason I'm making games is pretty much because of that.
And so for flOw and Flower, I mean, especially Flower I get e-mails from people who are, you know, nine years old or sixty years old, telling me—especially the older people, like, you know, 55 or something—telling me how the game really, really touched them. It was just amazing because, you know, I didn't expect my game can reach people who are in that, you know, age, and I never really thought I would be able to communicate something that, you know, older people can actually understand. So to me, it's just like I'm really spoiled with these fan mails [laughter] and, uh, yeah, I just really enjoy what I'm doing and I hope, you know, I don't disappoint these people who send e-mail to me, ask me to make more games just like that.
But then there's the critics' reviews, which, you know, from my second perspective, looking at the feedback I actually care about is, you know, as, you know, a game company founder and someone who actually cares about this industry, you know, and the future of video games, I was pretty pleased because, you know, if you look at the reviews between flOw and Flower, it's about two years apart. And when I was working on flOw the review was quite mixed when it was first released. You know, flOw was one of the first downloadable titles. There's a lot of reviews that say: "This game is just way too short!"
Jenova Chen: But, you know, like, after two years I don't think that…there would be people literally saying, you know: "Why don't I just play"—what's the one video game? Oh. What's that big game when the PS3 first launched?
Tim Spaeth: Resistance?
Brad Gallaway: Resistance.
Jenova Chen: Resistance, yeah. "Why would I buy this crappy game over Resistance? You know, they were comparing our game to a disc game, and saying we don't have enough content. And if you look at the Metacritics on flOw, you have very high scores, but you also have very low scores. At the time, we were kind of frustrated to see these low scores, but, you know, but we kind of…you know, it's kind of new, nobody really are familiar with this. But then, two years later when we released Flower, I mean, the game is probably shorter than flOw. But I think people generally would say, you know: "Even though the game is short, it's still a great experience."
And I think, you know, it's just like, how much people get used to downloadble games and also I think a deeper experience from Flower which is kind of different than flOw is being able to make up for the shortness of the game. I mean, to me, people say: "It's short, but it's great" is a great sign for me, because I don't believe in making a 40 hours game for adults, 'cause I just don't think they have as much time to waste on this thing if it's not deep enough, you know? And, like, for me, I think if we can…if a game like Flower gets appreciated which it did, it's a great sign for not only, like, the gamers but also, I think, the critics. It's a sign that we are getting mature, you know, and that we…or our tastes are getting mature, and we care about things differently than how we cared about things five or ten years ago.
Mike Bracken: I actually had a question here, if I can jump in for a second. Now that you've had this success with Flower and Sony and everything, do you…are they still going to allow you to basically make the kind of games you want to make, even though something like Flower is not like a Killzone, or do you ever worry that they're going to come to you at some point and say: "Well, that's nice that you made Flower and we love that you do this stuff, but we want you to make this big commercial traditional game" and would you be interested in doing that if they did?
Jenova Chen: Uh, well, they would never do that, because we are too small to do a big commercial game.
Mike Bracken: But even if they were trying to, like, put you in with another, you know, a bigger team or something like that? Would you…would you still be interested, or are you going to stay kind of where you are, do you think?
Jenova Chen: Mmm. Interesting. I mean, we are not part of Sony, so they can't really say: "Okay, can you work with our internal team?" or something. But I see your point. You know, it's like…I don't know. I mean, our goal at thatgamecompany is to, you know, like, push the boundary of the games. And almost if there's no risk, there's no boundary-pushing, right? [Laughter] I mean—
Mike Bracken: Right.
Jenova Chen: I mean, our game is going to be risky, and for a businessperson, putting a triple-A budget on a risky concept is just never a good idea. But thanks to digital distribution, the budget of these games can be a lot smaller. And so the amount of risky content you can put in there to experiment with is a lot higher. And I think right now the team members at thatgamecompany are all very interested in risky things. They want to try something unknown so they can feel like they're learning. And I think we wouldn't go [grow?] too fast, 'cause if we go [grow?] too fast, then we have to sacrifice the experimental risks to commercial stability. 'Cause you can't just afford 20 or 30 people to, you know, do something you don't know about. That's just not a good business model.
Chi Kong Lui: So financially, are things working out for you right now, that you should be able to continue what you guys are doing?
Jenova Chen: [Laughter] Uh, well it depends, right? So there are very successful indie developers like the guy who made Braid or the World of Goo. Their financial was quite successful so that they don't have to rely on external investment to make their next game. But we are not in that situation. We still need investment to make our next game. So we are very much in the same situation we were when we graduated from school. We have good ideas, but we don't have money. We are looking for people who share…who believe in the idea to invest us to pull it off. The only difference is we have better reputation than we had before. People often ask, "What company? thatgamecompany? What company?" Anyway…
Chi Kong Lui: Who's on first, right?
Tim Spaeth: Well, if it wouldn't be a conflict of interest, we would gladly donate the millions of dollars we make from doing this podcast to your next game.
Tim Spaeth: And speaking of your next game, can you talk at all about what you're working on now?
Jenova Chen: Oh, no, I can't.
Chi Kong Lui: Nice try, Tim. Nice try.
Jenova Chen: Yeah, the problem is, I wanted to talk about it, but we are not at that legal stage where we can even talk about projects yet, you know? It's pretty early in the project.
Tim Spaeth: I understand. I had to try. I had to try.
Chi Kong Lui: It's all about the secrets. All about the secrets.
Tim Spaeth: [Laughter] I wanna circle back for a second, and I think the guys have a few more questions for you as well, but I just wanna circle back. You worked on Spore?
Jenova Chen: Yes. Yes.
Tim Spaeth: Were you an employee of Maxis or were you working on a contract basis? What was that relationship?
Jenova Chen: Okay. So, you know, that…that's how [laughter]. Life is interesting this way. Well, basically when I graduated, because I'm not an American citizen, I have to find a job otherwise I have to go back to China. And we don't know if our pitch of Cloud would ever get people agreed. So when I graduate, we start pitching the project on 2006 March. So during that time we were pitching, but most companies turned us down, right? Publishers say: "Well, we like your concept, but we don't know how to market this thing." Or: "No, our customers are first-person shooter gamers. We don't think your game will work on our platform."
Anyway, so I was talking to Kellee. We said: "Well, should we give up, you know, at this point? Or should we continue trying?" And I said: "We should continue trying, but I can't wait, 'cause I need to get a job, otherwise I have to leave this country." So at the time, the teacher who was in the Business of Interactive Media class, Bing Gordon, the CEO of EA who was, you know, talking to me, says: "You know, Will Wright is really interested in your flOw game" 'cause I released flOw before I graduated, and it kind of gets his attention. And I think it was Will Wright or maybe it was Chris Hacker who sent me an e-mail for a job interview. So I did go to interview with Maxis on Spore. 'Cause at the time, Spore is like, if you're a designer, that's pretty much the only project you wish you could be working on.
Tim Spaeth: Oh, sure. Yeah.
Jenova Chen: Yeah, so at the time I said yeah. I think they pay me a very good price and a salary for someone who's just come out of school and there was no problem. You know, I get to work with Will Wright, you know, the most brilliant guy [laughter]. I just said, "Well, sure." You know, then I go to work, and a couple months after I started working, the deal we had with Sony is actually realized, you know. So, I was like,"Uh, what should I do now?" [laughter], right? But, you know, the contract, you know, you need to work there for at least a year. So that's basically what I did, you know. We signed a contract with Sony—with Maxis, basically saying: "While I'm still the cofounder of the company, I'm here working on a Maxis project. And during this time, I should never work on anything that thatgamecompany is working on."
Tim Spaeth: Mmm.
Jenova Chen: So that's the EA policy. So, yeah, basically, yeah, I just never worked on Flow while people were there. You know, thatgamecompany was working on Flow, but I was working on Spore at Maxis. Yeah, that's basically the story. And near the end of the Flow project, that's also kind of like when the project I was working on, which is the DS version of Spore, I was working with an external developer called Amaze Entertainment and then they were bought by Foundation 9. But at the time I was working with them—hey're based in Seattle—on the Spore game. At that time, it's pretty much like my designs were completely given to the local team at Seattle. It was a good time to leave. So I left EA, Maxis, and went back to thatgamecompany to basically start working on, you know, the next game, which was Flower.
Brad Gallaway: Jenova, I did want to tell you that on a personal level that I've greatly enjoyed your games. I really, really enjoyed flOw and I really thought Flower was excellent, so I'm really glad that you had all of the lucky breaks that you had, and I'm glad that you're around. Listening and talking with you over this hour has been immensely satisfying, and I'm really glad that you agreed to come on the show. So thanks for your games, thanks for spending time with us. It's been great for me.
Jenova Chen: Well, thank you very much, Brad. [Laughter] And as a critic saying this to me, it means a lot more than the fans.
Brad Gallaway: [Laughter] And I gave you good scores, too, just so you know. I gave you high scores, so… [Laughter]
Jenova Chen: Thank you very much. Thank you very much.
Chi Kong Lui: I was just gonna echo what Brad said as well, yeah. You know, I kinda…as you were talking, I was just saying: "Thank God for you guys," basically. [Laughter] That you guys are out there doing what you're doing ba—you know.
Brad Gallaway: Absolutely.
Mike Bracken: I would echo that as well, and I have not played flOw, unfortunately, but I did play Flower. I don't own a PS3 but I went to play it at a friend's house last weekend 'cause I knew we were doing this, so I finally got to sit down with it. And I have to be honest, before I had actually played Flower I was one of those people that thought: "Well, I'm not sure if I really get what this game is about."
But once you actually sit down and spend time with it, the idea of the motion controls is just beautifully implemented and the style of the game is just overwhelming in its simplicity, but yet, there's so much, like, artistic…I don't know, aesthetic design to it, stuff that's happening. It's just really satisfying in a way that so few games are, and it's such a…such a simple game at the same time. So, when I'd asked you earlier about the, you know: "Would you do a big game or a mainstream game or anything like that?" I would totally be interested in seeing what you would do with something like a, you know, like a Killzone or something like that.
Mike Bracken: But, at the same time, I almost hope you just keep doing what you're doing, 'cause I think it's something that, you know, gaming needs.
Jenova Chen: Yeah. Too bad we're running out of time. Otherwise I would be very interested in talking about, you know, how the challenge of doing a bigger project, you know, versus a small project would be. I mean, it's like creative direction is a lot harder when you have a lot more people to communicate [with]. Um, but yeah. I mean, [laughter] we'll see. I'm certainly interested in big proj—
Chi Kong Lui: Okay, give us the short answer: Do you think it's possible? [laughter]
Jenova Chen: Not in the recent years. Maybe in the future, you know, 'cause I think, you know, when we make games, we always think about: "What is the value we're creating here?" 'cause we don't want to waste people's money and their time. You spend 60 bucks and you spend 8 hours on something that was made by a group of people, that's a lot of responsibility, you know. The more people play your game, the more time wasted in their life where they can be productive. So you'd better make something—
Brad Gallaway: I think you're the first developer we've ever heard say that, and it's very true. Thank you.
Jenova Chen: So we were thinking about: "How can we create valuable things?" Of course, different people have values. Um, but, you know, like, we as a group, as thatgamecompany, we have our own values. Not just my values, but the whole team's values. And we are very glad that you guys, you know, all enjoyed the Flower game. That's a sign, you know, to prove that, you know, what we value has common…is a common voice that a lot of people share, and I certainly will continue to create, you know, this kind of value for you guys. And that's, like, the biggest challenge for us, is not Sony. It's not money, but whether we can make something valuable.
Chi Kong Lui: Um-hm. I see. Keep up the good fight, man. Keep up the good fight.
Brad Gallaway: Absolutely, please do.
Jenova Chen: All right.
Tim Spaeth: Jenova, we have on this show long been champions of the independent developer and the downloadable space, so we hope that when you do announce your next game as it approaches release, that you'll come back on and talk about it with us.
Jenova Chen: Sure. Definitely.
Tim Spaeth: Fantastic. Uh, Jenova, if people want to follow you or thatgamecompany online, where can they do it? Do you have a…I know there's a website. Do you have a Twitter? Go ahead and—
Jenova Chen: Yes. There's a website which you can find a newsletter and our Facebook page for thatgamecompany. But if you want to follow Twitter, you can follow my Twitter, which is JenovaChen. There's no "JenovaChen1968" or something, just JenovaChen.
Jenova Chen: So it's very easy to find me, yeah.
Brad Gallaway: Excellent. Excellent.
Tim Spaeth: Fantastic. Well, Jenova Chen, thanks for joining us, and, uh, we'll talk to you soon.
Jenova Chen: All right. Have a good day.
Brad Gallaway: All right.
Mike Bracken: Thank you.
Brad Gallaway: Thank you very much, Jenova.
Tim Spaeth: And that will do it for this week's GameCritics.com podcast. As always, three ways to listen: the iTunes music store, the Zune marketplace, or stream it directly off the GameCritics.com website. That's also where you can leave your feedback, your suggestions, your hopes, your dreams. So on behalf of Chi Kong Lui, Brad Gallaway and Mike Bracken, I'm Tim Spaeth. Good night and bonne chance.
But then a friend introduced her to the seedy underworld of the Mario brothers and she spent her saved-up birthday and Christmas money to buy a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Her mom didn't like the Nintendo at first, but The Legend of Zelda changed her mind. (When Tera got Zelda II: The Adventure of Link one Christmas, she suspected it was as much for her mother as for her).
Though she graduated from Agnes Scott College in 2002 and recently learned how to find the movie theater restroom by herself, Tera still loves video games. Far from being a brain-rotting waste of time, they've helped her practice spatial skills and discover new passions. Her love of games like Kid Icarus and The Battle of Olympus led to a degree in Classical Languages and Literatures. She thinks games have a place in discussions on disability and other cultural issues, and is excited to work with the like-minded staff at GameCritics.com.