Small developers struggle to compete in a $20 billion video game industry dominated by behemoths such as Electronic Arts and Activision. But one of them,thatgamecompany, has found both commercial success and critical acclaim by making games that don't play the way anything else on the market does.
Thatgamecompany debuted in 2006 with Flow, a game in which gossamer microbes grow and evolve by consuming rival organisms. Next came the 2009 game called Flower, which challenges players to collect flower petals by using wind gusts and flying through a vibrant audio-visual landscape of fields and wind turbines.
"Why make a game that's going to compete with an EA or Epic-style game, when they have so many more people and more time and money to accomplish their projects?" says Kellee Santiago, president of thatgamecompany. "There's no way we can compete."
Santiago and her company's co-founder, Jenova Chen, established their creative goals early on as interactive-media graduates of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. They already had collaborated on an award-winning game called Cloud, and that helped their startup company approach Sony Entertainment as a possible publisher for their games.
Sony eventually agreed to a deal where thatgamecompany would create three downloadable titles for the PlayStation Network, an online multiplayer and distribution service for the PlayStation 3 game console and the PlayStation Portable handheld consoles.
But even with Sony's support, thatgamecompany had to sort out the challenges of creating its first polished commercial products through a small development team.
Holding to a vision
Much of thatgamecompany's early success came from staying true to its broader vision of making games that evoke different emotions, Santiago said. That provided guideposts for the developers even as they became immersed in the minute details of hammering out an actual video game.
And it helped narrow down the decision to create Flow, from hundreds of possibilities, as the debut game.
The developers also drew upon their gut instinct as gamers when they decided to make emotion-centered game experiences, rather than games guided by navigating level obstacles or killing enemies.
"I love market research and I love getting that quantifiable understanding of how people are consuming media or playing games or how they're finding games, but market research will rarely tell you what people don't know or how they'll respond to something they haven't seen," Santiago said.
Even with their advance market research, company executives were caught off guard by how gamers and critics embraced the company's follow-up to Flow.
In Flower, players start out controlling a single flower petal by tilting their six-axis motion-sensing game controller in different directions. They can swoop across sun-dappled, grassy landscapes to collect a growing swarm of petals by touching closed flowers, and eventually whole swatches of virtual landscape can be triggered to come to life.
Behind the success
With Flower, the company expanded internally and discovered communication problems.
"We grew from four to seven people, which may seem insignificant in the big picture," Santiago said. "But once we got past four people, it became impossible for us to just read each other's minds."
Thatgamecompany had always depended upon an intensely cooperative process for making its games. Open discussion and debate allowed the small team to "leverage limited resources," according to Santiago.
Some new members of the team ended up being very talented people who preferred doing things alone, she said, and that just didn't work in thatgamecompany's creative process. Now Santiago hopes to be more diligent about getting those issues out into the open sooner, and avoiding frustration for future projects.
"It's easy to focus on just what needs to get done, and especially when you're small there's a lot to get done," Santiago explained. "You can easily gloss over the need to have an important conversation with a team member, or resolve an important conflict ."
The lessons may serve the company well as it develops its third official game, one that seeks to create a shared online experience shaped by individual players. It's called Journey.
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Jeremy Hsu is a staff writer at BusinessNewsDaily's sister site, Live Science.