Interview: thatgamecompany On Journey

TheSixthAxis has always been big fans of thatgamecompany, the Californian development studio that always produces stunning games.  Their latest, Journey, is ramping up for release and we spoke to Nick Clark, Lead Designer and Bryan Singh, Game Designer, about what makes them tick and what sets their games apart from the rest.

We started by asking Nick what the inspiration was for Journey.  “Our games often start with a question, or an idea for an experiment,” he said. “With flOw, we wanted to give players control over the game’s level of difficulty, to see if it changed their experience. In Flower, we made the environment the central character of the experience, instead of just the background, to try and create a new feelings within our players.”

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[drop]”With Journey,” he continued, “we asked ourselves: What is the typical experience of online play – and how can we change it?”

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We asked the guys how the concept of the singular online communication mechanic came about, and how determined they were to stick to it.  “We have had this style of communication in Journey since very early Flash prototyping, although it took us some time to determine that it was the best choice,” said Bryan. “Like most of the things that go into our games, we discussed and experimented with various permutations and complexities of the idea before settling – it was more of an organic process than a determination.”

We then started talking about the beta, which we’ve covered comprehensively here (and here, in video form), and what the team at thatgamecompany were doing with the feedback they were getting back from players.

“One of our engineers, Martin, created some very cool database code that tracks where players travel, where they run across other players, and how long they stay paired up,” Nick reveals. “Using this data, the designers can create heat maps of player activity and discover which areas players are most likely to see another journeyer. We can also look at play patterns and see if players are travelling in the directions we intend. The engineers are using the data to debug multiplayer code and fix issues that may result in unexpected disconnects between players.”

Will all this have a tangible effect on the final game, we ask?  “It is still unclear how much,” says Nick, “this is the first time we have done a beta like this.”

Bryan tells us that the beta is concerned with providing the studio primarily with quantitative information rather than bug reports. “We are using the numbers to understand how often people find each other as the playerbase ebbs and flows. As for qualitative information, we listen and react to things expressed online, but we get more straightforward feedback by watching players during internal playtests.”

But as the beta has developed, thatgamecompany has been quick to fix bugs and implement changes, most noticably the analog stick camera control.  “We are still experimenting with the camera controls,” says Nick. “Our theory is that the SIXAXIS camera control encourages a play style more suited to Journey. The SIXAXIS requires fluid, slow movements of the hand which naturally generate sweeping camera motions.  A tendency with the right analog stick is to jerk it left and right to twitch the camera exactly into place.”

It does look like the option for both will be present in the finished thing, though.  “We realise that many players are more comfortable with the right analog stick and we have been working to tune it so that it fits into the slower, calmer, more contemplative experience that we envision,” Nick tells us.

So what of the comparisons with Flower?  “We did not specifically set out to make a game like Flower,” says Bryan when asked about the similar controls and level structure, “but our sensibilities and fundamental values as a developer have stayed the same. Any similarities are because they both take from thatgamecompany, and not because Journey takes from Flower.”

[drop2]We go back to discussing the beta.  We’re keen to know whether the three areas seen will be present in the finished product, and if so how much of the game was shown.  “Journey is still in development,” replies Bryan, “so there will be changes and improvements, but the areas that we shared in the Journey Beta will indeed be part of the finished game. It is difficult to judge how much of the full game they represent because levels vary drastically in size, speed, and intensity. Based on playtime, I would approximate 15 to 30 percent.”

A figure that ties in with our report from February that suggested the game would take around 3 hours to complete.

We can’t help but mention those sad, melancholic cutscenes, and wonder whether there’ll be the same wonderful cresendo that ended Flower – it appears not.  “With Journey,” replies Bryan, “we are trying to express emotions different than the ones in Flower. The structural approach is similar, but the climax does not necessarily capture the same tone that Flower did.”  Let’s hope the story isn’t too downbeat, then, those last few seconds of Flower were incredibly uplifting.

But could we perhaps tease anything else out of the guys?  We ask about those otherworldly creatures that inhabit the beta’s third area.  “Yes definitely,” says Nick when we ask whether we can expect more in the final game. “We have carefully built up the introduction of these elements to foreshadow later encounters. One of our goals is for players to ascribe greater significance to these and other details in the environment upon repeat play-throughs of the game.”

And the clothing of the characters – how will that change in the full game and will we be able to spot anyone based purely on their costume marks? ” The character’s clothing is primarily representative of their growth and accomplishments,” says Nick, “as they move closer to the mountain; it is not intended to differentiate players. Each player does have a distinctive symbol on their chest. The goal here was to let you be able to recognise a new player versus one you have already seen before in a previous level. Still, the symbols are not unique enough that you could recognise a specific friend.”

And finally, we discuss trophies.  “We first want to make sure the core game is whole,” says Bryan, suggesting they’re not quite ready yet. “With adding trophies, we want to provide extra value to gamers while being very cautious about not distorting the original emotional qualities of the experience.”  Nick agrees.  “We may also try to encourage different styles of play with trophies,” he adds. “For example, we may reward taking your time and enjoying the scenery to encourage hardcore gamers to slow down!”

“Trophies can also be useful as hints for players,” he says in conclusion. “For example, a trophy for discovering ancient paintings may clue a player in that there are hidden items to be discovered.”

We thank Nick and Bryan for their time.  Journey’s still without a confirmed release date, but it’s expected later this year.

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13 Comments

  1. I enjoyed Flower but for some reason only played it for a short while. I think I’ll get back into it as work is pretty stressful at the moment and that might be a good way to unwind

  2. Ooh sweet, will definitely give this a read later on *pinned*.

  3. Lovely interview and great to see how their minds tick as well how that transforms into a game.

    Cheers, Al. I cannot wait for the full game to be released.

  4. Great interview, lovely to hear a bit about the development! I can’t wait for the full game :)

  5. Flower is the only game I’ve bothered to get all the trophies for, it made sense to some how. Really looking forward to this, watched the 15min youtube vid several times.

  6. What an excellent interview. Atm, imo Journey looks a tad bit boring but it may be one of those games which are boring to watch but turns out to be fun to play. It also looks very relaxing. I shall keep an eye on journey.

    • Agreed, fella. Flower would prompt most viewers to think “what the hell!”. However, to experience it… *wanders off into a happy dream world of beautiful music and not a care in the world* It’s truly something else.

  7. great interview. very intrigued to see how the story goes now. may have to take another dive into flower again soon

  8. Looking forward to drifting off on a magical journey….see what I did there? Ill get my coat….

  9. Really looking forward to this, hope the price is right.

    Played the beta through without ‘meeting’ anyone, and thought ‘this is quite cool’. Then played it again to show a friend and ‘met’ someone else in the gamespace. This just made the whole experience click – wonderful. Reminded me of ‘Ico’ – and that is always a good thing.

    I hope they keep the right stick camera, and especially the ‘invert y axis’ option. I see their point, that it makes it more like other games and less unique, but they shouldn’t let that worry them – this game is unique enough!

    As for trophies – In ‘Flower’, I’m still missing the one to fly through that level without being zapped. Trying to get that one definitely removed the calm and ambience that the creators so carefully crafted. Not another one like that, please!

  10. Amazing. I can’t wait for this game, and am probably more excited for this than for any other game this year.

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