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thatgamecompany's Jenova Chen on Sky: Children of the Light, Journey, and playing as families

It’s not a stretch to say that Journey was one of the more influential games of the last decade.

The 2012 adventure game starred a silent protagonist adventuring through a desert surrounding, accompanied at points by an unnamed, mute second player who could jump in and play from anywhere around the planet. Journey is famed for its use of simple social interaction between players who don’t even know one another, and has since become a landmark indie game.

Almost a decade later, developer thatgamecompany is focused on Sky: Children of the Light, a game that very much follows in Journey’s footsteps. Scores of players jump into wonderful worlds together to solve puzzles, using simple gestures to communicate with one another, and thatgamecompany has just released Sky on the Nintendo Switch, as of late last month in June.

To commemorate the launch of Sky on the new platform, we caught up with thatgamecompany co-founder and director, Jenova Chen.

VG247: What prompted you to bring Sky over to the Nintendo Switch, and what has the porting process been like to Nintendo’s console?

Jenova Chen: When we make Sky: Children of the Light, we wanted to make a game that would allow gamers to play with their families. When I say family I’m thinking about children, I’m thinking about husband and wife, and potentially even grandparents. We want to see a game that a family can jump into and play together, and that is really the number one wish after we launched Journey on the PlayStation. Many gamers were saying “this game is the first type of game that their daughter or wife has played and finished,” and that’s why we wanted to make sure that all our future games were on all the platforms that a family usually own.

What we first did was try and port it to the most difficult platform which is mobile, cause the hardware is so much more restrictive, and the screen is much smaller. We feel like if we can touch someone on the tiny phone screen, then when we bring it to console and PC, that would be still preserving its quality. And so after we finished our mobile version we launched it back in July 2019, which took a year for us to port to Android, we feel like the very first console should really be Nintendo Switch, cause out of all the platforms it is the most family friendly platform. And what we started to see was, within the existing mobile community, was over 70% of players playing the game were women. And on console Switch has the most healthy female players demographic.

VG247: Do you think there’s currently a significant gap in the video game space for games that the entire family can play together?

Jenova Chen: Yeah so that was almost nine years ago when we launched Journey, but a lot of the feedback was “I can’t find many games that I can play with my child or my wife.” During that time I’ve done a lot of research, cause at the time I don’t have kids but now I do, and I’ve spent a lot of time talking to parents, a lot of them are in my age so we spent a lot of time playing games growing up, and we all have kids now.

The situation is there are plenty of games for adults to connect and unwind after work and reconnect with your old classmates and your co-workers. There are a lot of games that are designed for children to play together and socialise together, but there are few games that are designed for, you know, for me to participate and that’s children friendly and I find the game relevant and entertaining to me as an adult. The older I go, the more picky I become, and a lot of the games I used to play I felt like were so fun and I feel like today it’s not as meaningful as it was before.

I’ve been playing plenty of World War Two games, growing up as a hardcore gamer, but if you wanted me to go back and play another World War Two game I feel like I’ve been there, done that. And so these days I tend to find more amazing things within the indie genre, and that’s why we’ve been making artistic games, because I think those games can touch adults and make it relevant and not a waste of time when I’m playing games.

Sky: Children of the Light

VG247: You mentioned porting Sky to the most difficult platform first. Do you see this new Switch port as just the beginning for Sky, as in would you be looking to bring Sky to PlayStation and Xbox platforms in the future?

Jenova Chen: Yeah, I mean our goal is to make the game available on all platforms. I mean ever since 2012 when we first started the project, we know the future is going to be platform agnostic. And if you really look at the very successful games today they are almost all cross-platform, I’m a believer into the future it’s just like television. When television first came out people were like “which cable channel’s going to dominate the U.S.?” and ultimate[ly] everybody watches TV.

So really from a content creator perspective we really feel like the more important thing is the channels on the TV. You’ve got a channel for the hardcore young male audience, you’ve got a channel for casual you know, maybe middle-aged woman as majority like casual games channel. But there’s many other channels that are not quite existing yet. There’s always the ESPN equivalent, which I think is like EA games and sports games. But where’s the Disney Channel? Where’s the sitcom channel?

So for games I feel like it’s gonna be ubiquitous. I mean gaming platforms are already nearly ubiquitous, it’s really just at this point how can we create the right content that is relevant to different age and gender demographics. So we can say video games are for all instead of just a tiny portion of society.

VG247: Just sticking with the consoles for a second, obviously last year we had the huge launches of PlayStation and Xbox consoles. As an indie developer, do you think either the PS5 or Xbox Series X are going to fundamentally change game development within the next few years?

Jenova Chen: I mean if you ask me I think there’s plenty of exciting technology that comes out, I would say more groundbreaking than the console itself. Cloud streaming is becoming mature, VR is finally becoming standalone consumer quality, and there’s AR looming at the corner. I personally think that as a developer right now, we’ve got to be very prepared for the expansion of format in the future. But for what we’ve been building with Sky, we’ve seen a very interesting point, like how I mentioned I’ve seen 70% women playing the game, and so for us we’ve reached a number of players beyond what the console platform can ever reach, cause mobile is really kind of a frontier with players that have never played a console game in the past.

Personally I think that is also a great frontier. There are plenty of mobile players out there in the world who have never touched a console, and how can we educate them about all the heritage from gaming culture in the past 34 years, because they’ve kind of missed all that. And also how can we potentially convert them into more avid gamers, you know that’s for me I’m ready to call myself a video game evangelist because I want more people to love games, and so for me the hardware having faster chips, maybe having AI chips you know, those things are a lot less exciting than ways we can reach new players, at least that’s what I’m mostly excited about.

VG247: You mentioned cloud streaming there. Do you view Xbox’s cloud gaming initiative as a way to push mobile players to perhaps enter the console space?

Jenova Chen: That is something that I don’t think I can comment [on], but using you know at home I have like Switch, a PC, and I also have my mobile phone. Lately I have been playing a lot of interesting games using Backbone, it’s kind of a Switch-looking controller that can attach to your phone, and that will kind of convert it into a console-like experience. So to me that’s very magical, cause everybody kind of has a phone these days and you just tack these controllers on. To me this is just another step towards that future where everything is agnostic and we’re platform agnostic.

VG247: We previously talked about Journey, with the game approaching its 10-year anniversary next year in 2022, how do you look back on that game in particular, and what do you feel like you accomplished with it?

Jenova Chen: Every year at the anniversary there’s a lot of players who loved Journey [who] would come out and play and there’s so many people and new people online. I mean today Journey is not only on the PlayStation, it’s also on the PC now, it’s on both Epic store and Steam, and it’s on the iOS platform, and we’re really trying to keep Journey still relevant, because with video games and collecting art pieces, technology has been a challenge. Originally the game was developed on the PS3 and if we never upgrade the game you wouldn’t be able to play it, and so we’re just very happy that we’ve been trying to keep the game still playable. Also, as a spiritual successor to Journey, Sky is still blossoming, and a lot of people that played Journey would check out Sky and vice versa. To me, every single game is like a child, and so I love them both.

VG247: You mentioned upgrades there, do you think you perhaps would upgrade Journey for the anniversary next year?

Jenova Chen: That I wouldn’t know, because Journey is Sony’s IP. But I’m pretty sure that Sky will still be up and running and there’s a lot of exciting things coming next year.

Sky: Children of the Light is out now on iOS, Android, and Nintendo Switch. See what else is coming soon on our video game release dates page.

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