June 20, 2011

SCA Family Stories: Jenova Chen

IMD Grad talks to SCA about the world of Indie Games

The world of independent video games is constantly changing and, like all of the art forms taught at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, is a place of great opportunity for SCA students.

Jenova Chen '06

SCA Family stories recently sat down with IMD graduate and rising star in the indie game world, Jenova Chen ’06. Chen, the game designer of Flow, Flower, Cloud and Journey and the creative director of thatgamecompany, recently discussed success in indie game design, how video games are developing as an art form and how sometimes it’s important to work a “reckless” amount of hours to achieve your dreams.

Can you tell us a little bit about what the life of a creative director at a video game company is like? In the game industry, the roles are not very well defined yet. Creative director is one way to call it. Some studios call it game director, others call it executive producer, but the role I have at thatgamecompany is very similar to a film director’s role. I am in charge of the vision and the consistency of the game from the beginning to the end. I want to make sure the game has a singular voice that the audience can hear from the work. Like most of the young directors, I like to be hands on. I work on a majority of the parts of the game, programming the basic game system logic, level design (which is similar to compositing or editing where you put every element together to make a scene), visual effects and some animation and modeling.

Do you prefer the term “Independent Game Producer” or is there something more accurate? In the film industry, the producer usually is not directly responsible for the creative quality. They are more in charge of the logistics, hiring and finance. These are incredibly important but they are not necessarily what my focus is on. Maybe “Independent Game Director / Designer” is more appropriate.

You’ve had success that most game developers/ designers would kill for with Cloud, Flow, Journey and Flower. Is there a secret to your success? I think the education from USC’s film school gave me an extra edge compared to other game designers in the field. The study of the traditional medium and story telling gave me a vision of how video games as a new multimedia should evolve, and the vision really sets us apart from the crowd.

And for the rest, it’s simply time. Malcolm Gladwell came up the “10,000 hour rule” in his book Outliers: The Story of Success after interviewing with a wide variety of successful people. You simply won’t succeed if you haven’t spent 10,000 hours practicing what you do. I spent a tremendous time learning and making video games since college. And since I started working on the games you mentioned above, I worked even more reckless hours. In many people’s standards, I have little life outside studying how to make better games, developing games and playing games. Success does come at great cost.

Jenova Chen (second from right) as an IMD student with
IMD Chair Scott Fisher (far right) and Tracy Fullerton, the
incoming chair of IMD (third from left)

How, specifically, did graduating from the Interactive Media Division at SCA form your point-of-view as a game developer? From my study at the film school and IMD, I realized that video game is a medium similar to film. The majority of the elements involved in the media of film and interactive are the same.

When you want to have a good story well told, you have to make sure all elements work together following the narrative arc. Video gaming is very similar, you want to have the art direction, animation, lighting, sound, music and game mechanics all work together to immerse the audience and convey a sense or a meaning. The film production and writing classes helped me tremendously to become a better game director.

By working on team projects at the IMD, we created the student game Cloud which is a monumental project in my career, with the guidance from our advisor Tracy Fullerton. Its unexpected success inspired me to look at the evolution of the video games from the perspective of entertainment. Like film and music, entertainment media offer people emotional supplements. They are the food industry for feelings. No matter what mood you are in, you can find a particular genre of music to listen to. No matter how old you are there is always a movie genre that you like. However the video game industry is very young, they have a lot of games that make you feel action, thrill, but very limited experiences if you are asking for more. And to mature a medium such as video games, you need to expand the emotional spectrum of the games in order to make it something embraced by all rather than a niche group of people who are called as "gamers" by the rest.

What do you see as the future of interactive media and games? I believe it will become the 9th Art. It will become ubiquitous with a full spectrum of emotional experiences beloved by all of us. It will become part of our daily life, not only for entertainment, but also for communication, fine art and education.

Jenova Chen (second from left) leads a meeting at

What do you wish someone would have told you when you were just beginning your career? If you have a passion for something, follow it and don’t bother what others think about it. Passion helps a person to keep trying when others give up. It leads to excellence. And the society values excellence in almost anything. Also, whatever you do, stay focused!

What’s next for you? We want to further expand the audience of video games through our creations. We want to bring what we've done on the Playstation 3 to a bigger platform and have more people have access to them.