February 21, 2008

Winning Flow

USC Alumni Win A Game Developers Choice Award

By Nikita Sunilkumar

Two USC alumni won a Game Developers Choice Award for Best Downloadable Game on Wednesday Feburary 20 - for a game that involves no shooting, no earning points and no winner.

2006 graduates of the School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media Division masters program Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago won for "flOw," a game in which the player manipulates a small sea creature as it explores a serene aquatic environment.

The creature must eat smaller organisms and avoid its predators in order to grow and progress to the next level, Santiago said.

At the Wednesday night Game Developer's Choice Awards, flOw's popularity among gamers also earned it two other nominations for Best Debut and Innovation.

"It's one of the top honors in the industry," said Interactive Media Division Associate Professor Tracy Fullerton.

In 2006, Chen and Santiago founded thatgamecompany, a video game development team that employs at least four other USC
Chen and Santiago founded thatgamecompany in 2006.
alumni. They produced flOw for Sony's PlayStation Network, and soon after its launch it became the most downloaded game in the Play Station 3 network, Santiago said.

Chen developed the concept behind flOw for his master's thesis on Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's flow theory of psychology and its applications to video games, said Santiago, president of thatgamecompany.

The theory, which explains how humans become immersed in and focused on certain activities over time, inspired Chen to create flOw's predecessor, Cloud, which was featured at the Game Developer's Conference in 2006.

Chen, the creative director of thatgamecompany, said he then created flOw as a downloadable Flash game and posted it online. Within a week, the game was downloaded more than 100,000 times - 3.5 million times to date.

Unlike most strategy or violence-based video games, however, flOw has no points structure and no win/lose scenario.

"flOw explores the emotional aspect of playing video games," Santiago said. "We think of it as a Zen-like experience. It's very accessible and interesting, which is why it appeals to a wider range of players."

Fullerton, who was both a professor and advisor to the graduate team, said the success of the online version of flOw prompted Chen, Santiago and others in the initial development group to seek a commercial publisher.

In 2006, the students signed a three-game deal with Sony to develop flOw and similar downloadable games for the PS3 Network.

"We had an amazing, incredible reception from Sony. We're lucky to work with them," Santiago said.

"Video game development is a very collaborative process," Fullerton said. "It was a natural transition for the members of the original team to go start a company together."

The team chose to develop flOw for PS3 first because of its simple design, said Nicholas Clark, the core designer of thatgamecompany and a USC Viterbi School of Engineering alumnus.

Rewriting the game to be compatible with PS3 technology was a challenge, though, Clark said, since all of them only had experience with PC programming.

The team, however, was able to successfully update flOw and integrate PS3's advanced features into the game, such as the motion-sensitive SIXAXIS controller to make the game more physically intuitive, Clark said.

It has won multiple honors within the industry, including the Interactive Achievement Award for Best Downloadable Game and a Video Game Award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Santiago said.

The team also won the Student Innovator Showcase and Competition, hosted in October 2007 by the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation, said USC Stevens Marketing Coordinator Dana Rygwelski.