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Gaming Interview

Jenova Chen ('flOw', 'Flower')

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Throughout this week DS talks to the developers behind some of the best indie games from the past few years. Our final interview is with the co-founder of thatgamecompany, Jenova Chen, developer of Cloud, and flOw and Flower on the PlayStation Network.

What was your prior experience or education in developing games?
"I studied Computer Science when I was in my undergrad, and minored in Digital Art & Design. Then I went to grad school at USC (University of Southern California) to study Interactive Media from the School of Cinematic Arts on 2003. I've made a dozen of video games and CG animations during my school years, and have done several internships in Ubisoft China and Electronic Arts Los Angeles."

You've opened your own studio, thatgamecompany, quite early on in your career. What are the aims and benefits of running your own studio?
"My business partner Kellee Santiago and I started thatgamecompany as a sort of last resort. Due to the unexpected success of our student experimental game Cloud, we realised that video games can communicate experiences beyond feelings such as aggression and competition. And these new kind of games could be appealing and entertaining to not only the gamers but many more. Any established media, such as literature, music or film, offers a wide variety of experiences touching emotions from the very primal to the deeply complex. No matter who the audience are or what kind of mood they are in, there will always be something right for them. Video games, as a fast growing new medium, is on its way to catching up.

"In order to speed up this process, we felt obligated to work on video games that expand the emotional spectrum of video games and push the boundary of what a video game can be. Among these new areas, we are particularly interested in making video games for mature gamers. Mature here doesn't mean sex and violence but rather about intellectual and emotional stimulation that a grown-up can enjoy. Unfortunately, through our job search back in 2006, we couldn't find a studio where the kind of games we wanted to see were in the making. Therefore, the only way left for us is to start up our own studio and go make them."

Your games have themes and mechanics of free-flowing movement, nature and non-violence. Why do you desire to make these types of games?
"It's mostly driven by constraints. I was not grown up in the US, nor in Japan. In order to create a video game that people around the globe can enjoy and relate to, I can't draw things deeply rooted in the local culture that I'm not familiar with. That's why we are not doing games about football or samurai. And if you start to think about what are the things that people from different culture can all enjoy and relate to, you will find ideas about flight, dream, life and peace aren't that hard to reach."

How did you come up with the concept of Flower, and how did it change over time?
"Flower is mainly inspired by my trip from China to the US. I grew up in Shanghai, a concrete metropolitan. In the entire 24 years, I rarely left the city. And when I came to California and saw the endless grass field and the windmill farms on the rolling hill next to the freeway, I was completely shocked by the view. The sense of being engulfed by nature is something sublime that I can't capture with photos or videos. As a game designer, I wanted to try to capture that feeling with an interactive experience, and that is how I started the concept of Flower."

One of the more surprising aspects of Flower was the urbanism narrative that ran through the latter half of the game. Was this a message you wanted to convey early on in the project?
"The parallel story between the nature and urban is there at the very beginning of the concept as soon as I started to sketch. I did a series of paintings purely with fields of grass and flowers. They felt great at the first glance. But over time, I start to feel there is something missing. There is this weird solitude in those paintings without the human elements. As someone who grew up entirely in the city, I desire nature but at the same time, I can't completely live in the nature. There are many sides of the urban life that I dislike but there are many sides I deeply in love with and attached to. So the story of a flower petal's journey towards the city and the story of a gray lifeless city becoming alive both happen in this game. It's an ideal dream where the nature and urban can join together in harmony."

What are your thoughts on the PlayStation Motion Wand? Do you think you'll develop a game specifically for the device?
"Many people are excited about the precision of the wand and the LED light. Having seen a couple of demos of it, I'm quite interested in the new features Sony supports for the PlayStation Eye. I still haven't tried the wand myself yet. Before we get our hands on it, I don't think we can decide whether we will make a game specifically for the device."

Finally, you have mainly produced downloadable titles. Do you think you'll develop a big budget, boxed retail product at some point?
"Not for now, maybe in the distant future. Downloadable titles allow us to try more risky concepts. If you are doing a AAA budget game, you have very little to risk. Plus big team size requires very good management. In addition, if we would do a boxed retail game now, we have to expand our team at least 3 or 4 times, I'm afraid that we might lose our very identity in such a rapid growth."

flOw and Flower are available now on PS3 via the PlayStation Network.

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