The $20 billion video game industry is littered with independent developers attempting to make their mark. But the co-founder and president of thatgamecompany, Kellee Santiago, stands tall above the competition.
Never mind that Santiago is 5'5" in her socks and heads a team of just 12 people. She's proven thatgamecompany is more than worthy of taking on the lumbering corporate gaming giants by bringing to market Flower and flOw. Both achieved commercial success and critical acclaim with nary a weapon or zombie corpse warlord in sight. Flower was ranked in Sony's top ten Playstation games for the past two years. Santiago says it's all about flow—the concept, not the game developed by thatgamecompany's Jenova Chen—which is based on a psychological theory of engagement that's gaining traction in design circles.
Too many games copy a popular genre or some other component, says Santiago. But to be truly successful, "You must constantly engage a wide variety of gamers." That means reaching even those who don't usually play.
Santiago believes that there's no such thing as a non-gamer. "It's just a person who hasn't found a game they like yet." And no developer is going to tap this market with techno bells and whistles and digital means of destruction. "When I was at the USC School of Cinematic Arts media program, we were taught a process that focuses on starting with the emotion as opposed to the mechanics."
To make their games even more accessible, Santiago and Chen simplified the content and streamlined the controls. The stripped-down experience effectively eliminates the sweaty adrenaline rush that immediately ensues when taking hold of the game controller. "Nothing is after you, and there's no time limit. We invite players into the experience rather than punishing them."
That invitation will soon extend to multiple online players courtesy of thatgamecompany's next effort, Journey. Like its siblings, Journey will challenge the traditional conflict-laden game model. There are no competitive teams or empowering shoot 'em ups. "In the desert environment of Journey, you may encounter another person, a stranger, playing. You can decide what to do. You can race [each other], journey together, or walk away. But it'll be a seamless experience within the world we've created."
Imagine a game that actually allows players to de-stress and work together in a serene, alternative reality. After we learn to play well with others in online games, could political and cultural agendas be far behind?
Santiago's confident that cloud computing will push ideas like these and similar concepts from other independent game developers to the front of the industry. "There is a wide spectrum of emotions that haven't really been approached in gaming. I'm excited by the possibilities of this as a communicative medium," she says.