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Interview: Nick Clark on Game and Player

Interview: Nick Clark

Gary Armstrong  //  May 15, 2009

Talking with thatgamecompany's designer.


hatgamecompany's Nick Clark (designer, Flower) talks to Game and Player, looking back at the experience of creating one of the PS3's most critically acclaimed releases to date, and discussing the industry on a wider scale.

Thanks for taking the time to interview with Game and Player. Firstly, can you give the readers a little information about how you got into the industry?

I knew I wanted to make games as a career from an early age. Expanding upon an interest in programming, I attended the University of Southern California pursuing a degree in computer science. There I met Jenova Chen and teamed up with him to create his thesis project flOw. A few months after the PC version of flOw was finished, thatgamecompany was founded and I was asked to join and create flOw for the PS3. It was a large commitment, as I had to quit an Electronic Arts internship and take a semester off of school, but it was well worth it in the end.

What influenced you as a designer?

I've always been a very hardcore competitive player. Starcraft, Counter-Strike, Quake 3, Defense of the Ancients, and Magic: The Gathering are some of my favorite games — I've logged tens of thousands of hours amongst them. My favorite games possess an indirect but complementary influence on my design decisions.Upon reflection, I think that these games possess an indirect but complementary influence on my design decisions. After a night of perfecting my three Hatchery Mutalisk build in Starcraft, I'm ready to go in to work and focus on creating an entirely new experience. They've also taught me what makes a more traditional game fun, so I am able to incorporate some aspects of that into our designs where appropriate. Even so, most of my inspiration comes from a desire to create something new and to present it in a way that a player will have never experienced before.

You must be pleased with the response to Flower. Was it a surprise?

It was. Around the office we were trying to guess how the mainstream game journalists would review our game and had a running bet on what our final score would be — everyone undershot by at least five or ten points! Good reviews are nice but reading e-mails from fans detailing how the game moved them is really the most gratifying form of praise. As the project was finishing up, we knew we had created something special but none of us predicted the magnitude of praise we have received.

Was Flower a hard game to sell to Sony? Did they understand what you were trying to do immediately or did it take some time for them to grasp the idea?

From the beginning Sony appreciated the abstract concept of what we were trying to accomplish, even though we couldn't fully explain how that concept would manifest itself into a playable game. They were a great publisher to work with, as they understood how experimental and risky the project was and were always accommodating when we asked for more time or resources.

How did you reconcile the initial creative vision of Flower — a relatively abstract one — with final gameplay mechanics, and maintain the original intentions of the project while creating a playable and enjoyable product?

Great question — it wasn't an easy process! In fact, it was an epic struggle that lasted the entire development process. We didn't arrive upon our final game-play mechanics until about two thirds of the way through the project and were still tweaking various aspects of them up until the day we shipped!

Play-testers' reactions guided Flower's design process and informed us of what was working and what wasn't.We attacked the problem from two main angles — lots of iteration, and lots of play testing. On the iteration side, we spent many months creating rapid game-play prototypes exploring how a player can interact with flowers. Prototypes were expanded upon or abandoned based on a few criteria: does this have the potential to be fun and engaging for an extended period of time, and more importantly, does this help convey the feelings we are trying to deliver? Plus, there is the thatgamecompany style to consider — we generally don't do anything that requires complicated controls or extended tutorials.

Play-testing is fairly self-explanatory: we did it frequently! During development, we brought in groups of casual gamers, non-gamers, hardcore gamers, and everyone in between to play Flower. Their reactions guided the design process and informed us of what was working and what wasn't. After finishing a play-test we would gather the players and conduct a question and answer session where we asked them to talk about their understanding of the themes and ideas presented in the game. The very first session we held was rather pitiful — all of the players were confused and no one was impressed by anything! As development progressed these QA sessions became increasingly lively with players excited about what they had experienced and sharing with us their thoughts and musings on the messages they took away from the experience. These feedback sessions were critical in measuring our progress towards delivering satisfying game-play that helped communicate the thesis behind the project.

Were there any concessions in this process for Flower?

Initially our concept for the game was much more ambitious. Our goal was to give players a rather abstract feeling of sharing love, but we soon realized that we weren't quite experienced enough to pull that off. So, we scoped back on the concept and re-envisioned it as achieving a harmony between yourself and your surroundings. In terms of the story arc, we had a more elaborate set of levels planned to deliver nuanced feelings along the player's journey — if I remember correctly, we initially had dozens of levels in mind but ended up cutting down to just six. In the end, the game was much stronger because we were able to successfully narrow the scope into something achievable and focus only on the most important aspects of the game.

Many have used the parallel of artwork and paintings when describing Flower. Prior to the game-reaching players, was the focus on creating a game first and artwork second?

Our focus was always on creating a great game experience. We could have created the most beautiful work of art ever, but if no one is able to play through it, what's the point? Similarly, we could have a great message to share but if players become bored or frustrated while working their way through the game, the message itself becomes tarnished and lost. We wanted to make sure that Flower was a satisfying gaming experience so the artistic aspects would leave an impact on players.

Making Flower as mechanically accessible as possible really let the artistry shine.Accessibility was our number one priority throughout the development process. During our play-test sessions we watched closely to make sure that everyone, regardless of skill or background, was able to progress through each level without getting stuck and without any outside help. Fighting against this was the need to ensure that the levels weren't too easy and that they kept the player's interest. I don't think we nailed it 100% but I believe our work on making the game as mechanically accessible as possible really let the artistry shine.

If anything, what would you consider the limitations of Flower, and what have you learned from the experience for future productions?

Flower is a very linear experience. This enabled us to tell our story and ensure that the player was taken though key moments and experiences that built into the emotional arc we planned. However, many players have commented that they wanted more open-ended levels to explore, perhaps without goals or puzzles. During development, we wanted to incorporate more free-roaming elements into the design but those ended up being cut as we really buckled down to finish the core game experience. For future productions we hope to create the same powerful, short experiences but perhaps in a less restrictive fashion.

Flower has a definite story arc and feeling of character without giving the player specific information. What design choices do you feel helped to achieve this?

From the very beginning we knew we wanted the game to reveal itself predominantly through the firsthand experiences of the player playing the game. To achieve this goal, we tried our best to encapsulate the spirit of each level within the level itself rather than leaving it out to a cutscene or tutorial.

For example, in Level Three we wanted the player to bring motion back into the world. We accomplished this feeling by surrounding the player with elements that reinforce the concept. Windmills, narrow canyons, and stormy clouds compose the environment. For game design we focused on kinetic mechanics: players are given a speed boost each time they collect a group of pink flowers. Flowers are arranged in straight lines to let players build speed. Once inside the narrow canyon, players are constantly pushed forward at ever-higher speeds with an inability to stop.

To further highlight the awareness of motion, we take it away from the player at the end of the level. After exiting the canyon, the game slows down and the exhilarating sensation of speed is removed, letting the player take a breath and contemplate what they have seen thus far.

Each level had its own series of decisions to immerse the player and strengthen the story arc through gameplay. On a larger scale, we chose the themes and objectives of each level based on the overall arc we wanted to achieve. We made sure that each level was unique and highlighted a different aspect of the story while maintaining an intuitive gameplay progression from one level to the next. To summarize, it wasn't a few specific design choices that let us achieve this, but rather it was the core methodology we used to approach the design.

Much has been said of the goal for Flower — to create an emotional game. How successful do you feel the game was in this goal?

I think we did a good job. We accomplished most of what we set out to do, and I am more satisfied with the end result of Flower than I was with flOw.

flOw is a decent game but it never hit the high notes that we were able to reach with Flower. With flOw, we had a single fairly simple idea and were able to execute on it and create a finished product that is satisfying to play — for me, that feels pretty good. With Flower, we had several complex ideas and were able to successfully combine them into an even more satisfying experience — as an accomplishment, that feels even better! Of course, the scope of the two projects was very different, but it does highlight how much we were able to improve over the course of a project.

What emotions do you think the game elicits in players, or would want to see as a response?

I want to create games that I believe are meaningful and so my goal as a designer on a project is to ensure that the game conveys the thesis we have crafted to the player. However, as with any work of art, everyone is free to interpret the piece in their own way. As long as they aren't bored, frustrated, or apathetic after playing the game, I'm happy.

TGC has a very unique outlook on video games. How has the response been from fellow developers? Have you ever had any raised eyebrows when discussing your work?

I recently gave a short presentation on the prototyping process for Flower at this year's Game Developer's Conference and was quite surprised how different our development process is from the norm. Most of the presenters approached game design as a search for fun, unique, or quirky gameplay mechanics and then create a game structure around those mechanics. Our approach is the opposite — first we develop a structure and thematic concept for the experience and afterward we create game mechanics to fit. That being said, I don't think we raise any eyebrows and the response from fellow developers has been positive.

How do you feel about the prospect of non-format-specific gaming? Is it a preferable environment for smaller developers to survive?

I'm not very excited about it, though I think it depends on what types of games you're trying to create. The largest hurdle to overcome is the wildly different modes of input for each device. Look at the PC, Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, DS, PSP, and the iPhone — those are seven different environments with seven very different control devices.

Look at the PC, Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, DS, PSP, and the iPhone — those are seven different environments with seven very different control devices.As I mentioned earlier, we spent a long time polishing the control scheme and making sure not only that it is accessible but that it enhances the very concept of our game. Part of the reason we designed Flower as a visceral flying experience was because we knew were developing for the SIXAXIS controller. If we started out creating Flower for the Wii or the 360 we would have ended up with a very different design for the game.

It is definitely possible to design games that are format-agnostic and are fun regardless of the input device, but those aren't the kind of games we are currently creating. Even so, the best games on each system will usually be the ones that spent the most time integrating that system's controller with the game-play in the most intuitive way possible. There aren't any free lunches with non-format specific gaming.

Would TGC ever consider creating a traditional, more "core"-oriented genre title that still employed the company's mission statement?

Our goal is to expand the meaning of what is considered "traditional" in games. If we're successful, the kinds of games we're creating won't seem so out of the ordinary in the future. When you boot up your console, you have access to Call of Duty, LittleBigPlanet, and Flower all side-by-side, and that's the way it should be. There's room for everything — we just want to broaden that selection.

Flower seemed to embody the spirit of TGC, a definitive expression of a goal if you will. Is there more to be seen along the same lines?

Flower proved to us that we weren't crazy and that there is plenty of undefined gaming territory left to explore. We're currently working on our next project and already have a brand new interpretation on what it means to create an emotional game. Hopefully it will turn out even better!

And to finish, where would you personally like to see video games in 5 years time, and what part can you play in that progress?

Five years is so soon! This is a little selfish, but I would like to see a revival in the PC gaming market. I've always been a big PC gamer and the disappearance of quality titles is disheartening. As for what role I can play, I'm not sure — about all I can do is to keep supporting developers by buying their games!

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