Interview: Jenova Chen Outlines the Challenges of Life After Journey
Posted by Sammy Barker
Company is still in pre-production on next game
It’s hard to believe that it’s been over a year since PlayStation Network exclusive Journey launched to overwhelming critical acclaim. The spiritual adventure – which scooped our Game of the Year gong – fulfilled an exclusivity contract between developer thatgamecompany and platform holder Sony, leaving the studio free to spread its wings. But the transition to true independent outfit hasn’t been particularly smooth sailing for the award-winning team.
Chatting with Andy Robertson from Family Gamer TV, company co-founder and creative director Jenova Chen admitted that it’s only just started seeing royalties from last year’s smash hit. “We made the money back last year, and this year we’ve started to see the royalties come in,” he said in a candid interview. “It seems like the Journey sales are not going to slow, so I’m curious to see what happens in the next quarter.”
However, paying off the game’s development costs crippled the studio for a while, and with its partnership with Sony ceased, it had to take drastic measures to keep the company afloat. “When we finished Journey in January 2012, we hadn’t quite figured out where the money was coming from for the next game,” he explained. “So, basically, we had to let go of everybody, and nobody was hired officially, apart from the founders. Once we had some money, we hired a bunch of the people back, and right now we’re actually at 14 people, and still growing.”
The team is without Kellee Santiago, though – who’s keeping herself busy by fronting developer relations at Ouya among other things – but is making progress with its next project all the same, even if it’s still extremely early. “I think it’s actually been a year since we started work on the game, but we’re still in pre-production mode,” he continued. “But that’s always been the pattern of thatgamecompany – we spend 75 per cent of the time doing research and development, and a small portion of the time in actual production.”
Chen added that trial and error is essential to the ambitious indie’s approach, because it’s making games that have never been done before. “It feels like you’re just reaching out into the fog trying to find something,” he said, before noting that the team hopes to build upon its past achievements with its next project. “From our very first game Cloud, we discovered that emotion can be used as a way to innovate in games. And then we discovered that when you have emotion, you have new players who may not be very good at games. So when we created flOw, we tried to make something that would adapt to all skills, and allow newcomers to enjoy the experience at their own pace.
"From our very first game Cloud, we discovered that emotion can be used to innovate"
“Once we accomplished that, we felt ready to try something that’s very intuitive and adaptive in terms of its accessibility with a new emotion, and that was flower, which was very successful,” he added. “Then we wanted to do the same to people over the Internet, which is when we created Journey. But now that we’ve done it with strangers over the Internet, the next game will attempt to tackle the same thing with people that know each other.”
According to Chen, the impending title will represent a natural evolution for the company. “Our goal, as always, is to touch people, to design for everybody, and to bring people closer together, and really move them in a way,” he gushed. Sadly, he wouldn’t be drawn any further on specifics. “I’m not really happy with the graphics and basic control [of the new game] yet – it takes a long time to actually get it [to the level where we can show it].”
Fortunately, there is some new thatgamecompany content on the way, in the form of the PlayStation Vita port of flower. But could Journey also make the transition to Sony’s handheld? “I don’t know whether they can port Journey to the Vita because it’s pretty SPU saturated, but clearly there are people that are interested in the possibility of that," he said. "So far, though, I haven’t got confirmation of whether that’s possible.”
As for the future, it turns out that Chen’s quite interested in Microsoft’s solution to motion control. “A while back, someone was asking me what I was looking for, and I said that I wanted to have an input device that would capture the player’s facial expressions and gestures, so that they could actually go into a virtual world and see their emotions,” he explained. “I think that the Kinect 2.0 [bundled with the Xbox One] seems to be finally there. To me, though, there’s still questions [about its performance], but I’ll be watching.”
You can catch Family Gamer TV’s full and frank interview with Jenova Chen through the following links:
- Part 1 – Journey Retrospective
- Part 2 – Next Game
- Part 3 – Meaning and Violence
- Part 4 – Church of Games
- Part 5 – Xbox One Kinect
What are you hoping that the developer gets up to next? Are you itching for a Journey port on the Vita? Let us know in the comments section below.