This week, we’ve caught up for a chat with Nick Clark, the creative designer for thatgamecompany, the team who brought us such masterpieces as fl0w, Flower and the upcoming and heavily anticipated Journey. We’ve posed some questions to him about himself, the developer and some teasers for Journey!
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do for thatgamecompany?
I’m a designer and programmer at thatgamecompany. Because we’re a small team, most of us at the studio have to wear multiple hats. My responsibilities include gameplay mechanic design, gameplay systems implementation, level design, level scripting, and tools programming! Whew.
How did you get involved with the company to begin with?
I met Jenova Chen while attending the University of Southern California and worked with him to design and program his thesis project, flOw. Sony expressed interest in a PS3 version of flOw and I was brought on as a founding member of thatgamecompany to make it happen. At the time, I still had a year left in school and had to drop out for a while to finish the project. I did eventually return and complete my degree, but to be honest, the amount of learning during those 7 months of flOw PS3 production far eclipsed my entire college experience!
Did you always want to work as a designer or did you have any other ambitions?
Growing up, my dream job was always to be a concept artist. I was very inspired by Blizzard games and the art by Chris Metzen and Samwise Didier. Who wouldn’t want to draw awesome monsters all day?! I was actually very focused on drawing up through high school. I think I broke my art teacher’s heart when I told her I had decided to pursue a degree in Computer Science.
What game has been your favourite to work on and why?
Well, I’ve only worked on three so far and each has been a very unique experience. flOw was just an insane crunch for 7 months straight, but it was with a tiny team and it was my first game, so it holds a special place for me. Flower was a much more mature, stable development process but creatively it was far more challenging. We had a lot of arguments internally about the design and direction for the game. Journey has been much like Flower except with a team almost twice as big, which has presented its own challenges. The sheer amount of content and detail in Journey far eclipses anything we’ve done before, which was also a new learning experience.
On average, how long does it take the team to fully create a game?
flOw was around 10 months if you include the prototype on the PC. Flower was 2 years. Journey will be 3 years. I think you can see a pattern emerging…
The games produced by thatgamecompany are all extremely innovative, where do you get your inspiration from?
Journey in particular was our way to challenge the traditional multiplayer experience. We envisioned a multiplayer game with no lobbies, pings, hosting, competition, stress, griefing, and so on. We wanted players to connect with each other on a level not afforded by most multiplayer games currently available. So, part of our inspiration comes from looking at what kinds of experiences are currently available to players and challenging ourselves to create something entirely new and different.
Aside from games, we also take cues from other mediums such as literature. Many of our earliest discussions on Journey revolved around Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and the importance of various fundamental elements within those types of narratives. Our earliest diagrams for the experential arc of Journey were based upon a monomyth structure. However, as we work on the game and it begins to take shape, we listen to the game itself more than anything. The finished product bears little resemblence with our earliest plans, but the inspiration behind many of the final elements remains visible.
Growing up, what was your favourite console and game? Would you still play it now?
Favorite console was and is the PC. Favorite game is a tough one. The most influential for me was probably Warcraft 2 — that was the game that motivated me to become a game developer. It had a perfect blend of fun gameplay, beautiful art, humor, and polish. In terms of hours spent playing, it’d be a toss-up between Starcraft, Diablo 2, Quake 2, and Counter-Strike. I’d gladly play any of those games again!
Have people always being open to the company’s ideas, seeing as they think quite far outside the box?
Oh definitely, I think there’s a large segment of gamers that appreciates that we’re trying to create something unique with mechanics and themes that aren’t necessarily mainstream. One of our guiding principles is to respect the player’s time and intelligence, so who wouldn’t want to set aside a few hours to play through a very different kind of game?
Flower was received extremely well by pretty much everyone, did you expect that kind of response when it was in creation?
It wasn’t until the last six months of development that the game really came together and we could sense that the finished product would be special. There were plenty of “What are we doing?” moments before then where we were fairly lost and confused about how to proceed. For most of development, it was far from clear what we would actually end up with. Even so, I think all of us were pleasantly surprised that everyone enjoyed the game as much as we hoped.
Flower tells a rather emotional story, was it difficult to portray that emotion purely through gameplay and short cutscenes?
Oh yes, that was one of the main challenges in creating Flower. We tried and failed many times with mechanics that were fun and engaging but conveyed the absolute wrong feelings for the player. We spent over a year just churning through ideas until we really understood what mechanics we liked and how to use them to the best effect. It wasn’t until the final month of development that playtesters were consistently understanding our intent after playing through the game. Up until that point we were constantly adjusting and revising the gameplay and level designs to steer the players closer toward the emotional arc we envisioned.
Could you tell us about Journey, such as the story and gameplay elements?
Play it! That’s the best I can do. One of our goals when creating Journey was to leave the narrative a little vague and up to the player’s own interpretation. We of course have our own understanding of what happens in Journey, but each player may arrive at a different conclusion, and that’s great. Ideally the game will be an experience that prompts players to reflect on their own journey through life; all of their happy moments, sad moments, struggles, triumphs, and all of the people they’ve formed relationships with along the way. If players contemplate those subjects after playing Journey, I think we will have been successful.
In Journey, the player is able to walk alongside other players online, is there any advantage to doing so and if not, why did the team decide to implement it?
Yes, you can ‘charge-up’ the other player by being near them. Two players traversing together can progress much more quickly and reach areas not easily accessible when playing solo. Beyond this, there is no explicit reward or punishment for travelling with other players or leaving them alone. It’s up to you to decide whether to engage with another stranger or simply acknowledge them and part ways.
The art style is quite unique, where did this initially come from?
From our art director Matt Nava! This is what he says inspired him: Native American symbols and patterns, Islamic, Greek and Egyptian architecture, and the Pismo Beach dunes.
Do you expect it to be as critically acclaimed as thatgamecompany’s previous titles?
In my opinion it’s our best game yet, but I’m a little biased! But, to be honset I have no idea. Of course I’m very proud of what we’ve created and I hope it is well received!
We’re all waiting on the edge of our seats for it to be released, can we expect an official release date any time soon?
Sorry but I don’t think I’m at liberty to say… soon, though… very soon.
Finally, how do you see gaming progressing in the near future and does thatgamecompany have any exciting plans to join it?
I think that “social games” will actually start to become social, rather than single-player games with links to your friends’ single-player games. The processing power in tablets and other mobile devices will continue to grow at an extremely fast pace, so there will be new developments in that space. Very soon you will have the power of a PS3 in your pocket device. Bandwidth is improving at a dismal rate which makes me skeptical of streaming-centric games and services. The resurgence of “small” games on the iOS and Android platforms is exciting and I think we’ll see increasingly more teams take creative risks with these titles.
Well there we have it! A big thank you to Nick Clark and all the others at thatgamecompany – we can’t wait to play Journey when it’s released later this year!