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The Insider Scoop On Indie Game Development: An Interview With thatgamecompany's Kellee Santiago

Kellee Santiago has seen it all. She’s a veteran producer of much-decorated indie titles, has founded her own studio, and is a respected advocate for indie games and gaming. On the other side of the publishing coin, she’s also a member of Indie Fund, a collective that’s successfully inverting funding models for small developers, and facilitating great, innovative work in the process.

After growing up on video games, Santiago attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts as a theater student, where her work focused on incorporating digital media into original works, which sounds to me like a very slippery slope right back into games. Shortly after, she was out in LA at USC, linked up with designer Jenova Chen, and produced the award-winning Cloud. In 2006, the pair founded thatgamecompany, where Santiago produced the studio’s first two titles, flOw and Flower (both PS3 downloads). Both games set calm, almost ambient gameplay in gorgeous, swirling worlds, creating an emotional space and feeling that’s uncommon in video games.

The two titles have been enormously well-received by critics and casuals alike, and thatgamepcompany’s third release, Journey (also PS3 download), proved no exception. Released earlier this year, the game opens with a robed player, a desert, and a distant, beckoning mountain. Another (live) player may cross your path occasionally, with no communication supported beyond a one-button, one-note song. You may help, hinder, or entirely ignore each other. The game and gameplay are haunting and beautiful, and echo the quiet contemplation of flOw and Flower.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to ask Santiago a few questions about her games, Indie Fund, and what it’s like out there for an indie developer.

Thatgamecompany’s games are known for their quiet, continuous gameplay. How does developing a thatgamecompany game differ from what we might find familiar?
Because of the experimental nature of our games, the design and development phases overlap greatly. [With Journey] we spent about 75% of our total development cycle in a stage that most AAA studios would consider “pre-production.” We playtested at least every two weeks, and were open to making changes to fundamental systems like control and character behavior until we got things right. There was still a “funnel” shape to the concept process in that, over time, the range of ideas that could make it into the game got narrower and narrower. I call this the constraint of the time-space continuum, which not even the most ambitious designer can break, no matter how much they really want to!

Screenshot from Journey

What were the core design goals of Journey, and how did the design evolve in response to the frequent playtesting?
In Journey, as in all of our games, we aimed to create experiences that invited the players to discover the themes at their own pace, or maybe not discover them at all, and just have a good time playing in this world we created. I would say most of our early prototypes usually began as really clunky, overly obtuse, “let’s hit the player of the head with this idea” kind of mechanics. Once we got those out of our system, we’d then reduce it as much as possible to the simplest representation of the idea, so that it no longer felt like we were telling them how to feel, so much as they were discovering these ideas, or at least, the majority of our playtesters were discovering them. In the end, this approach means not everybody will “get” everything, but you have to be okay with that. In some instances, we weren’t able to figure out how to explore an idea without it feeling didactic, and so we would ditch those ideas altogether. In that way, I guess “allowing the player to discover” was a guiding rule for us.

Going the other direction, what have you learned from your time with Indie Fund?
Indie Fund has been a really great experience, because it’s allowed me to really see the publisher’s and investor’s perspectives. Don’t get me wrong—there’s still plenty broken with how they go about making and funding games, but I have been able to see why they came to some of those conclusions. It’s been a bit scary at times to try, with our own money, to flip that system on its head. We threw away monthly milestones, or any milestones at all in some cases. We changed our deal terms and made them publicly known. These are things you just don’t typically do, but so far, we are finding that there’s no really good reason why not.

Screenshot from Minecraft

What about the gaming industry do you think makes it possible for indie titles like Minecraft to explode overnight?
I think gaming culture, by definition, is a participatory culture. Game fans are the best possible fans, because when they love a game, they display it through active participation and advocacy in their communities. With Minecraft, you have an online game that people love, and the creator, Notch, is such a genuine and positive person who actively engages with his players. Combined with the egalitarian nature of digital distribution, in which you don’t need to have special connections to store owners or networks to promote your game, the culture allows for simply great games to stand out and get the attention they deserve. Of course, you have to first make that great game, which is really the hard part, anyways.

Screenshot from Cloud

That said, what do you think are the greatest challenges that face an indie developer?
This is a hard question, because I think there is very little in the way of a talented developer to become successful. Indie developers are an extremely connected and supportive community, and distributing your game is as easy as making a website. But, if I have to say something, I’d say the extreme success stories, like Super Meatboy, Minecraft, Braid, and World of Goo can make it difficult for new developers to understand the realities of independent game development and to build sustainable practices that will allow them to make games they love for their entire lives. They might burn themselves out by chasing their own “Cinderella story,” as opposed to thinking about how they can just make a decent living. On the flip side, they might think it’s so impossible to make that happen, they sell themselves short. You don’t hear much from the middle-class independent game developers, and that’s unfortunate.

So for the aspiring “middle-class” independent game developer—any advice?
If you’re a new developer, I highly recommend connecting with other independent developers at local game jams, conferences, and online. There are so many first-time mistakes that you can avoid by learning from others, but also, having that group of people who can relate to your problems, give you feedback on your game, and bounce ideas with provides a really great foundation on which to becoming a successful independent developer.

Santiago and Jenova Chen accepting an award at Spike TV’s Video Game Awards 2009

Finally, if you could design a board game that taught kids about gaming, what components would you be sure to include?
I think the great gift of games, and something that is important to teach kids (and everyone!) is that a game is meant to be engaging for its participants. Otherwise, it just doesn’t work. A mechanic with a game, I could imagine, would be that at certain junctions in the games, each player has to present a new rule, or change a rule within the game. Games, especially for kids, are about learning to engage with one another, even when it’s competitive. As Bernie DeKoven articulated it to me once, even a competitive game requires a collaboration from its players to perform at equal levels, in order to make it a good game. Unlike a movie, a record, or a book, if a game isn’t interesting to you, then you have the power to change it into something that is interesting to you. The understanding that you are not a passive bystander in life, but are an active participant, that is something everyone should know!

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