Thatgamecomany’s Jenova Chen sees live games as the healthiest way to make games

Jenova Chen is best known for directing the 2012 video game, Journey. It might not have traditional multiplayer mechanics, but it was a traditional video game in that it had a beginning, middle, and end, and you paid for it once. Chen’s latest game, Sky: Children of the Light is a live-action game that has been running well for three years with consistent updates, the biggest of which is now live.

You’d think making and updating a game consistently for more than three years would create more work for a developer, but Chen has learned that he prefers it to the point that he can’t even see himself returning to the world. from premium, traditional game development. While chatting with Chen about the current state of Sky: Children of the Light, we also spoke to him about his preference for live-action game making.

Now Playing: Trailer for Sky: Children of Light

GameSpot: Would you rather continue to develop a game for many years after release and release frequent updates? Or do you prefer to do something closer to Journey – a one-off project that’s basically finished when released?

Jenova Chen: I thought about it. It took me a long time to convert from console, where you develop something and tweak, tweak, tweak over several iterations, release it, take a break for two to three months, then go straight to another one. I think the live service game – having gone through both prime cycles and live service cycles – the live service cycle is much better for work-life balance.

With premium titles, if you’re going to get started at Christmas, you need to prepare a year before that. You will crack, crack, crack, crack to release the game before Christmas for maximum sales. Almost all premium titles work like this, but with live play you get an update every month. You have major releases every three months. So if you find yourself in a situation where people say, “I have to find this stuff or it’s not perfect,” people will say, “Just put it on next month.” How many people are going to say, “It’s imperfect”? And by next month, there will also be a bunch of new players.

It reduces a lot of fights that we have, when working on premium games. We fight a lot towards the end. It’s like, “This has to go in.” This leads to many heated battles over what would make the game perfect. But with the live service, it’s kind of like, “Are you sure you really want to bring this in at the cost of breaking all the rhythm of the rest of the game? Could you put that in the next version?” So often we have much quieter conversations, because it’s not like it’s going in or not going in. It’s just a matter of when it comes in.

Journey was Thatgamecompany's last premium game.  It was released in 2012 on PlayStation 3.
Journey was Thatgamecompany’s last premium game. It was released in 2012 on PlayStation 3.

I would have assumed that a live game would take more work simply because of the pacing of the content that needs to be created.

Yeah. Imagine making a premium game is like a sprint and live service is a bit like a distance race. You can sprint, but if you sprint, you’re setting up the whole body to need rest. I’ve been watching how our operation is going, do you want to keep a good pace, rather than trying to sprint, stop, sprint, stop. You can just tire everyone out and they wear out very quickly. So, in a weird way, the live service is more important for managing burnout than premium titles. And because of that, we’ve seen a very, very big change in the culture of work ethic in the company.

So live service is your preferred style of development moving forward? Will you ever return to this high-end style of play?

I will say that I do not see myself going back. It’s a much better quality of life. And also, it is much safer. With live play we have a very large number of players and the income is very even, so you can predict how much you can invest to do something big. Where, when working on a premium game, you are at the mercy of your publisher or investors to pay your next bill, and you have to reach certain milestones to get their approval in order to get more money.

Sky: Children of the Light
Sky: Children of the Light

The relationship between publisher and developer can be very strained. One side has power with money, the other wants to push for quality, and the friction is always about that relationship. If you’re running a live game, it’s really a relationship between what the player likes and what you do. If you do something the player likes, you immediately get financial returns. You can see how you’re doing something that really immediately shines a light on players, and you can make quick adjustments. When you make a premium game, it’s a gamble. It’s like, “I hope someone likes this.” You haven’t heard back for a very long time.

When we were working on small indie games, we were mostly seven to ten people. We did Flower with seven people. Journey consisted of 12 people. When we launched Sky, we had about 25 on the developer side. It’s a very small team. But now to operate Sky, we probably have over 100 people now. It’s just a very different type of business model.

For more on Jenova Chen, you can read our interview with him on Sky: Children of the Light’s third anniversary. You can also read GameSpot’s Sky: Children of the Light review by following the links.

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