Comic-Con 2011: Journey (and friends) Panel Recap

I’ve been following Journey for a little while now and my excitement for a panel dedicated to the game was high. So I was surprised to find, as the panel began, that there were actually three other games to be discussed as well. I was apprehensive about loaning time to Sideway: New York, Payday: The Heist, and Papa & Yo – games I only knew bits and pieces about. But once the discussion got underway I realized that each of these was viable titles and they were all made by people of varying ideologies and processes.

Journey

Co-Founders Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen (President and Creative  Director respectively) of Thatgamecompany led the panel with a discussion about the company’s beginnings, the foundation of their ideas, and the process of creation.

Kellee began with a theatre background in New York but her interests slowly led her to creating original works of interactive art. While working toward a MFA in Interactive Media, Kellee, on a whim, took a course on the history of game design. Largely enchanted, but not completely sold, Kellee visited GDC (the Game Developer’s Conference) and got hooked after meeting professional developers.

Continuing her education at USC, Kellee met Jenova. Together they created a few small online games, and were surprised at the reaction. For the first times in their lives, they received fan mail. This validation of their work inspired the pair to continue creating new and innovative projects. A joint business class also taught them that a game company can be created with almost no upstart, so long as there was a good idea and a great deal of passion.

Passion quickly became the key word for the rest of the panel as all of the small companies explained their origins. For Kellee and Jenova, their passion has led them to three titles now for Thatgamecompany, the first two being Flow and Flower. The inspiration this time was to search for the history of a world – the guiding purpose buried beneath the surface. This was also their first attempt at implementing an online component.

Surely you’ve already ready my Journey hands-on article, but for those just joint us, Journey incorporates a psuedo-cooperative element into its gameplay. If two players are venturing through the same patch of desert at the same time, it is possible for the game to connect them together, allowing them to continue their journeys for as long as they don’t get too greatly separated. However, there is no written, verbal, or facial communication between players and all interaction exists within the game’s mechanics.

Jenova explains that the game originally began as an MMO concept. “I played a lot of WoW (World of Warcraft), but I was getting tired of talking to people.” He went on to discuss some of wide range of inspirations, showing us several pieces of beautiful concept art that he himself painted. Shadow of the Colossus is the immediate comparison and Jenova recognized this right away. Showing us one picture of a very Colossus-esque flying monster, Jenova spoke to the difficulty in maintaining a strong narrative for each player if they all are defeating a boss. “If everybody’s the hero, nobody’s the hero.”

This led the design away from heroics and instead toward weakness and the feeling of being greatly outsized. The goal of a superhero (not necessarily in the comic book definition) is to obtain more power so he can execute more power. Jenova didn’t want to distract players with fighting abilities and weapons, but instead to concentrate their attention on the connection between characters, especially when jointly surmounting a mutual threat.

Jenova shared another piece of concept art that showed multiple cloaked figures holding hands as they navigated a foggy mountain-side path. Commenting on the painting, “[I liked] imagining the feeling of holding hands and relying on someone I don’t know. And holding the hand of someone behind me that’s relying on me”. This was perhaps the most evocative piece shown and led to what I felt (with my hands-on) to be the emotional heart of Journey.

Returning to their ideals with Journey, and as an entire company, Kellee made a simple but poignant comment, “There’s no such thing as a ‘gamer’ or ‘non-gamer’. ‘Non-gamers’ just haven’t played something they like”. This clearly is a driving idea behind Thatgamecompany’s philosophy of design as evidenced by Flow and Flower. She went on to make the comparison that with movies, wherever you’re from, there’s always something for you. But with games there are a lot of areas and emotions that have not been addressed. The question then arose whether or not another violent game would add anything to the landscape of gaming. “[We're] avoiding action heavy, violent games. We’re not good at that, and it’s not contributing.”

Papa & Yo

Sharing their view of virtual contribution was Vander Caballero, the Creative Director of Minority Games, presenting some information on a very unusual, and early-in-development game.

The project is a very personal one for Vander. Based on his childhood relationship with his alcoholic father, the player assumes the role of a small boy interacting with a large pink animal reminiscent of a bipedal rhino. The boy can climb on the creature, give him hugs, and even tickle the furry beast. Their relationship is caring and playful. But once a yellow frog is discovered and consumed the monster goes crazy and chases after the boy, trying to kill him.

How all of this plays out in an interactive space was not clear, as only early stills were shown, but it is clear that the heart of the game rests in this change of relationship that represents the fragile nature of Vander’s connection with his father.

Vander explains that he had always wanted to tell this story but could not find the right medium. So, just like that, he decided to learn computer programming. It was a long process for Vander but one he is ultimately very proud of. “I felt like I was writing a book.” Apparently Vander has been given opportunities to work on larger video game titles, but wanted to work on games he that told more intimate stories without the need for violence.

Like Thatgamecompany, Vander has an eye on contributing to the variety of the industry, rather than just making another racer or shooter. He too believed that the project must be focused on the passion of the artist, rather than the desire for money.

Payday: The Heist

Whomever arranged this panel knew what the hell they were doing because after Journey and Papa & Yo, the opinions about game motivations and processes shifted in interestingly conflicting ways.

Ulf Andersson, Overkill Studio’s Game Director for Payday likes shooters and he likes co-op – plain and simple. While he expressed an understanding for the issues that Kellee, Jenova, and Vander discussed in regards to game content and the industry’s capacity, Ulf explained that he wants to make games he wants to play. “I love playing shooters.”

But why co-op? “It’s hard for me to get into developing a single player game. I know the story every time… We set out to do a very easy to develop co-op game. In terms of development control, not technically.” And that’s one of the biggest drives behind Payday. Though the few levels might be the same, what the objectives will be, how the A.I. will respond, to what level will situations play out, and how will you work with your squadmates differ for each and every play through.

Ulf discussed the origins of Payday and explained that for Overkill, the style and mechanics of the game come first, then the theme is built around that. He compared this to other artistic mediums that he practices, particularly oil paintings, in which the focus is on the thematic aesthetics are chosen first and then the expression actions are derived.

But apparently even the style of game took quite a bit of time to discover. Overkill originally began playing with ideas for an iPhone game but quickly got bored. Progress then began on another shooter that eventually transitioned into Payday once Ulf found his major inspiration. Can you think of a single game where you get to play a role in a bank heist? GTA IV came close, but it really just has players running away from the heist, not committing it. Ulf soon realized that the technical challenges of such a game are likely what scared most developers away, but for him it was an inspirational challenge.

Coming from a studio career, Ulf knows about the competition of the crowded shooter market. Each year it’s a comparison between games of value changes like bullet velocities and melee physics. “It’s very hard to sell tweaked values”. This is why you need something to set you apart. But why leave the AAA arena all together? “As a creative person, I don’t enjoy meetings too much. That’s one of our weaknesses right now, we don’t have any meetings.” But more seriously, Ulf expressed a great deal of appreciation for being able to be in charge of his product, to “know someone won’t mess it up while you’re sleeping”. “It’s a good climate right now to start your own company”.

Sidway: New York

Remember the key word from earlier in the article: passion? Notice how it didn’t get used with Payday? Don’t get the wrong idea, Ulf and Overkill have a ton of passion for their project, it just wasn’t the word they needed to use to describe their project. They know what they wanted to create and they set out to do it. Well we’re about to get even further away from that word with the final game of the Journey panel.

Mike Burns, the CEO and Chief Creative of Fuel Industries, as well a Creative Director of Fuel Entertainment (a wing of Industries) knows business. Beginning as an online advertising agency Mike has spent a lot of time with branding and learned the mechanics of franchising. But while Fuel had the opportunity to do so some white label development, they were always bound by client goals.

Mike didn’t like being unable to fully invest in their projects and “create something incredible”. Not to mention Fuel never owned any of their IP’s. So they broke away and began focusing on their own game, but always with franchising in mind.

Sideway: New York was designed to be a franchise from the start. There is a television show in the works and given the specific regional naming, there is plenty of room to continue the series in new locations (as may be evident to those that finish the game *hint*hint*). Mike knows his business and he knows that he and his team want to make money.

But don’t go writing strongly-worded emails just yet. The core structure of Sideway – involving a 2D character moving along the surfaces of 3D buildings in some truly awe-inspiring physics action/puzzles – began as a pet project of one of the R&D folks at Fuel. Apparently the company allows for employees to use their facilities to develop their own projects, on their own time. One of these employees was a programmer who, along side a 3D artist, created a video of their game mechanic during their off-time. This video was then used to pitch and sell the game to a publisher.

The story and franchising then came next, with the clear goal in mind of more potential revenue streams. Mike collaborated with artists from the urban toy industry to help create a unique art style that would tie well in to popular culture. Everything was business focused and planned so they could decide themselves when to release. “Passion only goes so far. You put a lot at risk – in the end you have to make cash.”

I really wish Mike had looked Vander in the eyes while he made that last quote. But to be fair, everyone was very congenial and friendly, despite some of their largely contrasting views of the game industry. Ultimately, four very different, yet equally viable, games are set to be released and if you weren’t sure which to pick, maybe understanding the mind set of those behind them can help a bit.

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