An Interview with ThatGameCompany: Flower

In our interview with ThatGameCompany we look into their latest release Flower, covering everything from the inspirations behind the game, whether they might branch out into full retail games and how many flowers are actually in Flower.

We caught up with ThatGameCompany’s co-founder and president Kellee Santiago to talk everything Flower, including questions provided by the ever gracious posters of the Beyond3D technical forums.

Patrick asks: Where did you get the inspiration for Flower?

Kellee: The idea for “Flower” grew organically (no pun intended) from a number of inspirations. One was to try and capture the feeling of being in a large flower field; to capture both the sense of beauty when you see them all, but also the visceral feeling of being up close to an individual flower. If you do a Google image search for “flower” you discover photographs from people all over the world, all fascinated with this aspect of nature.

Technically, it was an exciting challenge. What would happen if we took this aspect of video games that is normally an afterthought on the edge of the world – the bushes and grass – and put it right in front, and make the entire game about it?

What I really like about “Flower,” though, is that it feels like a very personal expression of Jenova’s. The story and the themes that are expressed in the game really evolved from what I see as his current interpretation of the world around him, and the game invites the player to participate in that space. It has an intimate feel to it.

Deep asks: If the floating petals idea came from a glitch, what kind of game were you creating before that glitch occurred?

Kellee: When we first thought of lying in a field of flowers, we went to daydreaming. This line of thinking led to prototypes involving moving around a field by just focusing on objects. Like how you focus on an object far away in real life, and it’s like your consciousness is on that object, not on anything right around you. I think it’s still a pretty interesting idea, but we weren’t able to figure out a “Flower” game based on that.

Patsu asks: Vasco Road in Northern California features wind turbines in a similar setting to Flower. Was that an inspiration for the third level’s design?

Kellee: Ah, so you know of it! Actually, the inspiration was from driving up the 5 from LA to San Francisco. Also, you can find huge wind farms on your way out to Joshua Tree from Los Angeles. There’s something about the California landscape, with rolling hills, huge mountains, and these farms with windmills as far as you can see. We never get over it

Patrick asks: We were very impressed with the game’s graphics. How have you
used the PlayStation 3 in ways you couldn’t with your first game flOw?

Kellee: Definitely! We learned SO much on flOw, especially about SPUs! The grass system really leverages the PS3 to render 200,000 blades of grass simultaneously, and give the player this sense of blowing wind through them. Thank you for the kudos!

Patrick asks: Tell us more about rendering the blades of grass using the Cell’s SPUs.

Kellee: An artist friend of ours came to us, really hoping that we could tell him some clever trick that we used to make it look like we had so many blades of grass. He was reluctant to believe that really, John Edwards just made it happen on the SPU’s.

And it really would be impossible to make it look the same on any other system. But, it’s one of the pros with knowing your game is exclusive to a specific system – you can really design everything towards that one platform.

Arwin asks: The game looks like a poster-child for SPU usage, especially when considering one of the earliest presentations for the PlayStation 3 included leaves blowing in the wind. Is there a direct link between the two?

Kellee: Wow, thank you! Currently, we here at TGC are really being blown away by Killzone 2, so that’s great to hear! There isn’t a direct link between those PS3 tech demos, although we definitely used them when we were pitching the concept to Sony. =)

Patrick asks: What was the biggest problem in developing Flower? The technology, the concept, or refining the controls? How did you solve the problem?

Kellee: Hm…this is a tough one. It definitely took a while to finalize the gameplay experience. Developing Flower was not a straight forward experience. We initially began with an extremely vague and difficult subject. It took us more than a dozen prototypes to settle on the gameplay.

We went through so many different versions of stories and characters, and we ended up not using any of them. Because we are innovating on the experience, the process is very much like walking in the mist. Our destination is very exciting; however, the path leading to it is not clear. Nobody’s left any foot prints for us to follow. There is quite a bit of trial and error. But once someone sees the light-tower in the distance, we hack through bushes and jump over ditches to reach there. It’s hard and painful, but the final view is worth the effort.


Patrick asks: What’s changed since flOw? This is your first PlayStation 3 title from concept to product, so has this resulted in more freedom?

Kellee: This is our first PS3 game developed from concept to final game on the PS3. There’s not much difference in freedom, though, between the two games. Sony really is amazingly supportive of their developers. When we first pitched “flOw” to them, we actually opened our presentation with a lengthy section on the kind of games we wanted to make, and why we thought they were important to make.

When I look back, it seems so funny! But because of that, Sony knew what they were getting into. And they wanted to. They’ve been great partners.

Patsu asks: Why is the last second flower so sad? Is there an Easter Egg or a hidden item to make it look more happy?

Kellee: Unfortunately, that flower will always look somewhat sadder than the rest. But the level itself is too.

Deep asks: Is it tough to develop a game that uses SIXAXIS exclusively?

Kellee: One of our main goals at ThatGameCompany is to create games that are accessible to a wide variety of people, both in content and in playability. For Flower, using the SIXAXIS controller to fly around and having every button do the same thing so players could choose for themselves (or switch it up) was an easy choice for us.

People who wouldn’t normally get near a PS3 controller suddenly relax when you tell them all you have to do is tilt it to move. Again, we learned a lot from flOw, and the use of the motion control in Flower is really fantastic and much more natural than even flOw was.

Patrick asks: Can you see ThatGameCompany creating a game that uses more button actions?

Kellee: Yes, but again, it would still have to be easy to understand.

Patrick asks: Might ThatGameCompany branch out to full retail titles? Or is the team exclusively developing downloadable games?

Kellee: I think the audiences are all moving towards downloading their games anyway. As we grow, we might want to make a game that is on the same scale as a retail title, but probably by then they won’t be selling them in stores any more. So it will still be downloadable =)

Patrick asks: If you could create a £40 game, what kind of game would it be?

Kellee: Hmm, that’s not really how we think. We start from an emotion, or an idea we want to communicate, and then we design a game that does that. That really wouldn’t change depending on the price point.

Patrick asks: Are you pleased with Flower’s critical reception?

Kellee: Yes! Very. It’s been so great. We really couldn’t ask for more. Some people have been extremely moved by it, others have found it very entertaining, and other have found it somewhat controversial. The fact that people are talking about it is fantastic.

Patrick asks: Do you think you’ve finally made critics and gamers understand what ThatGameCompany is about?

Kellee: You’ll have to tell me after our next couple of games! I am glad that we’re not “the flOw team” any more. I think audiences are definitely getting a better sense of who we are as a studio, and the kinds of games they can expect from us. We hope to make “ThatGameCompany” a very reliable name in games.

Patrick asks: What’s it like working so closely to Sony?

Kellee: It’s fantastic. Sony has really committed to this idea of making PSN a place for unique downloadable content you just couldn’t find anywhere else. PixelJunk Eden, Linger In Shadows, and Everyday Shooter are just a few examples of how Sony has really gone above and beyond in publishing some pretty awesomely unique titles.

They really support the developer’s vision, not just in the game itself, but in what we say about it, and how it’s promoted. I would say that we are spoiled, but really, it’s just how it should be! And they get this.

Patsu asks: When will Jenova Chen be talking to Hayao Miyazaki about making a Studio Ghibli game? ThatGameCompany’s creations are very similar in essence to Miyazaki’s work. Camp outside his office if they have to, ThatGameCompany might be one of the few teams Miyazaki would allow to touch his work.

Kellee: Jenova says he will have to learn Japanese first. =)

Scott asks: How many flowers are in flower?

Kellee: Around 4,000.

Deep asks: Do you think you’ve succeeded in creating an emotional game?

It’s funny question. I know what you mean, and yes, I think we have. But the truth is, ALL games are emotional. I hope that through our games we get players to pay attention to the emotions they are getting from games. I really like violent games, but it worries me when people are playing them and not realising what it is they are getting from that experience.

Patrick asks: Finally, can you describe Flower in five words.

Kellee: Private garden in your PS3.

Our thanks go to Kellee, Jenovah, the entire ThatGameCompany team and Sony Computer Entertainment UK.

You can read my review of Flower after this link.