GDC Europe 2011: Kellee Santiago, cofounder of Santa Monica-based developer thatgamecompany, talks about adjusting messaging based on how its games are being perceived.
Who was there: Kellee Santiago partnered with Jenova Chen to form thatgamecompany, a developer whose focus is "to make games that emphasize emotions." The company's previous games, Flow and Flower, were the result of this ethos, as is its upcoming PlayStation 3-exclusive Journey.
What they said: Santiago's short but well-attended GDC Europe session was pitched at other indie game developers and focused on what she has learned in the past five years. The main theme was the studio's aim to make new sorts of games and how it messages those games to stakeholders and the press.
"Making a game with a new message isn't really that hard," she claimed. "When you focus on creating a new message, you get a new genre," she continued, giving the example of Pam and Jim from the American TV show The Office and the theme of an unattainable crush. She then asked the audience to shout out words based on this theme, with responses such as "despair" and "hope." Santiago said that these emotions can be triggered by music and imagery, showing stills from movies such as Edward Scissorhands and Twilight. She added that thatgamecompany typically uses such reference materials to elicit emotional responses, following advice from the book The Visual Story by Bruce Block.
The most interesting part of the presentation focused on messaging, though, and how Santiago's small studio markets games to the press and public. She explained how the initial design brief for Journey was "Together we can move a mountain," but that this turned into "We all walk the path, each journey is different" during development. The words Santiago has used to describe the project have also changed over time. "Test your vocabulary. What are the words people are using to describe [your game]?" she asked, citing the importance of being able to change your perception of the project as a result.
This thinking extends to the press as well. "When showing the press [our game], what are the words the media is picking up on? We will adjust our messaging based on how the game is being perceived," she claimed, explaining how the developer plants key phrases during presentations to the press.
Quote: "When you make something new, there aren't any grown-ups around to tell you what to do," said Santiago, explaining how making unique games gives you less to draw on than those in established genres.
Takeaway: While thatgamecompany still strives to make games that emphasize emotions, it is also savvy to what it takes to market such unique propositions. It seeds key words and messages to the press, sees what sticks, and adjusts its strategy going forward.