Home   >   News

GDC: Jenova Chen details the hard lessons pivoting from PC/console to mobile

thatgamecompany’s Chen discusses his design philosophy from Journey to Sky: Children of the Light
GDC: Jenova Chen details the hard lessons pivoting from PC/console to mobile

thatgamecompany was founded in 2006, and developed three titles in its first six years – Flow, Flower, and Journey. But since 2012, the studio has developed and released only one title – Sky: Children of the Light.

Despite the game’s success, there remained some trepidation from Jenova Chen, thatgamecompany founder and creative director: “Even now, sometimes I wonder if we made the right decision to spend 10 years developing Sky.”

Much of this apprehension was due to the significant change Sky represented to the studio: being the team’s first mobile-first release. Initial projections estimated three years to completion, but it ended up taking seven.

In this period, shifts in the mobile market necessitated changing the direction of the game. Originally, it was going to be a premium, rather than freemium, title. Similarly, while all of Chen’s previous games were linear narratives, Sky is positioned as a social theme park, and required a steady stream of content.

“This wais the most troubled, difficult development cycle we’ve been through.”

However, there was an “unexpected market reaction”. Previous thatgamecompany titles found most of its audience in North America and Europe but with Sky, it is in Asia. Similarly, while 85 per cent of players of Flow, Flower, and Journey were male, 70 per cent of Sky players are women.

The change has been successful: Journey has four million downloads, but Sky has steadily increased to 160 million downloads. Chen said: “After over a decade with Sky, it feels like we’ve finally reached our goal.”

Money by altruism

Chen stated: "Most mobile games are F2P, and nickel-and-dime players to earn money. They use emotions such as greed, envy, and pride to monetise, which completely went against what we want our players to feel.

"So early on, we wanted a huge amount of monetisation to come from altruism – it's a little naïve a view, and we tried to blunt-force it initially by not allowing players to pay anything for themselves." This changed when more consideration about how to encourage true altruism – rather than trading – between players, and create a balance between self-interest and generosity.

"In Sky, 40 per cent of season passes and 22 per cent of event sales are gifted between players."

Culture shift

Chen also noted the change in the public consciousness towards the games industry. “Whenever meeting new people, and they ask what I do, I tell them I make games and gauge their reaction. It used to be the case that people felt they were childish and violent, but there has been a change in response.

“Nowadays, people know that the game industry makes a lot of money, that it can be predatory in the way it charges people, and that people in the industry work really long hours.”