In a relatively quiet, upstairs nook of the rain-soaked Palmer Events Center in Austin, TX, thatgamecompany co-founder Jenova Chen and I sat down to discuss Journey, his company's future and his thoughts on free-to-play business models, among other things.
For Chen, 2012 was an auspicious year. Journey was a critical smash hit, earning top honors at DICE and a five-award sweep at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts game awards, among other illustrious achievements. Beyond its success with the press, however, Journey's release represented an even larger milestone for Chen and thatgamecompany: The developer's three-game exclusivity agreement with Sony had come to an end.
"Sony owns all the rights to the games, and they also make the majority of the profit off the games," Chen said. Under Sony's umbrella, thatgamecompany developed fl0w, Flower and Journey, all of which were released as downloadable titles on the PlayStation Network. As we learned at DICE, Journey's protracted development eventually bankrupted the studio, and as it turns out, its subsequent success hasn't done a tremendous amount to reverse that situation.
"We were at a spot where, if we couldn't figure out the next game, or find the next deal, then at the end of Journey we'd run out of money," Chen said. "When the game makes money, the money first goes back to pay back the money they've invested. So, that's going to take a while – Journey cost multiple millions of dollars to make. Once that money is recouped, then we will get royalties."
Chen believes Journey has broken even, and that thatgamecompany will finally start seeing revenue from the game during Sony's next round of payouts. "But for almost a year," he added, "we are not going to be relying on the money from Journey to keep the company going." For now, Chen and associates are footing the development bill on their next game with funds from venture capital firm Benchmark Capital, which dropped $5.5 million last summer to help thatgamecompany build its first multi-platform game.
While the names on the checks have changed, thatgamecompany's creative process remains unaltered. "When Sony funded us, because the type of game we make is completely new and different, there isn't a lot of creative oversight," Chen said. "How can they say they are a specialist in making Flower games? They are not, they are just as new to these games as we are, so creatively I always have complete control of the product."
"When we switched to a venture capital, we raised the money because we pitched the project; we sold them on the vision. They believe it, they want to support us to make that happen. So, creatively I've never gotten any input from the venture capital. It's actually very similar, we are always ourselves, and no one is really messing around with us. With Sony, it was the same thing."
The "vision" of thatgamecompany's next project remains tightly under wraps for the moment, though Chen did mention that touch interfaces and free-to-play models are both ideas that he has been entertaining, even though he himself is largely not a fan of freemium business models.
"I think these days, most of the free-to-play models are based on frustration, or based on anger or jealousy," Chen said. "In the free-to-play industry, the most money making games are often coming from making people fighting against each other, and really hating each other, and wanting to revenge, so they spend more money to dominate."
"My opinion is that, it's fine because people do like competition, Call of Duty is huge, but if that's the only game, if that's the only kind of game out there, it's not very healthy because everybody just felt hyper-competitive and stressed out."
Chen approaches game design from the "different end of the spectrum," he said. "I would rather see a game where you play to feel happier, and to make other people like you, and the make the people you care about happy. That's something I've never seen in a [free-to-play] game. If we do actually end up going to free-to-play, we will make sure that you don't pay because you are not happy, you pay because you are happy."
As he said, whether thatgamecompany's next game will be free-to-play is far from set in stone. Ultimately, it all depends on which retail model best helps deliver the game's intended emotional impact, which remains Chen's ultimate goal as a game designer.
"When we approach games, we're always emotional-focused, so if a free-to-play business model works against the emotion, we won't use it. If it actually works well with the emotion, or if we can come up with a new way to do monetization that's different and that's unique for the game, I would go for that."
Likewise, the aforementioned inclusion of touch-based controls is equally as dependent on how well such an interface would serve the game's overall purpose, whatever that may be. "We believe that entertainment is about emotion, and it's all about making people feel something. Rather than say 'Hey, there's this new technology,' like touchscreens, 'let's make a touch-genre.'"
Chen is certain, however, that signing a second exclusivity deal with another hardware manufacturer is not a likely occurrence in his company's future. "Well, exclusivity is a problem, right? Because we as a company are inspired to make something that helps people and makes some positive change for people who play it," Chen said. "I want to make sure, if we do make our next game, and if we put our heart and soul into it, people need to be able to play it."