Game Changer: Kellee Santiago

The co-founder of thatgamecompany made waves when her studio gained commercial success and critical acclaim developing games seeking to emotionally engage players. In her current roles with OUYA and Indie Fund, she's making way for new developers to make their marks too.

 

In March of 2012, Kellee Santiago and her team at thatgamecompany launched Journey, a PlayStation 3 game that scooped up eight Academy of Interactive Arts and Science awards including Game of the Year. Two months later, she announced she was leaving the company.

Since co-founding thatgamecompany seven years ago along with fellow University of Southern California alum Jenova Chen, Santiago and crew have launched three games—flOw, Flower, and Journey—all of which aim to create emotionally rich gaming experiences and all have landed both critical praise as well as a boatload of design awards. Which is why it came as a shock when Santiago announced her departure just as thatgamecompany appears positioned to take on even bigger projects. Now she’s helping other indie developers get their innovations to the marketplace.

As head of developer relations for OUYA, a console initially funded by an $8.5 million Kickstarter campaign and launched this past June, Santiago curates content, recruits new developers, and represents the voices of current developers to the corporate team. Outside of her work with OUYA, she’s also helping to ease the economic burden for independent game creators. Santiago, along with the creators of games like Braid and World of Goo, is a partner with Indie Fund, an angel investment group that provides backing for independent game projects.

Get In Media: Both gamers and critics really connected with thatgamecompany’s products. What do you think separates the games you did there from what’s on the traditional market?

Kellee Santiago: I think, fundamentally, there was this concept of choosing themes in our games that anyone could relate to. Themes like looking for a connection with another person or feeling alone in the city and contrasting that with a feeling of acceptance in nature and the dissonance between those two things, trying to find harmony and balance in our lives. Using those as our starting point is a pretty different process from a lot of video game development. I always believe that when you put yourself really into your work, that connects audiences to you.

I think we can see in movies today, there’s a trend to move away from that, this idea of what is it that people in general like and sort of softening the personal aspects or touches. But I actually think that just the opposite is true. The more personal you make your work, then the more it resonates with a wide group of people because it speaks to some aspect of their personality that other works haven’t or that they didn’t even know necessarily they had. That’s just the kind of work that I like as well, especially in Flower and Journey. They came from very personal viewpoints and perspectives of people that worked on those games.

GIM: Why did you leave thatgamecompany?

KS: We developed flOw, Flower, and then Journey was the third game under [a three-game deal with Sony]. It’s funny to look back on because we expected three games would take us about three years, but what happened was each game became more ambitious and bigger than the last one. FlOw took about a year. Flower took two years and then Journey took three years, so by the end of that process, it had been six years and we had grown and changed as people and as game makers.

When we were finishing up Journey, we were having all these conversations about what we wanted to do next. There were no limits. There was no deal set up, so it was like, “Ok, where do we want to go?” The more we had these conversations, the more it became apparent that we had just grown in different ways. It felt like the best way forward was really for us to separate. I feel so lucky that through that we got to do these games and of course the reception to Journey, that era of thatgamecompany kind of ended on such a high note. There are plenty of examples of companies breaking up or teams having a falling out of whatever and you don’t have a game like Journey at the end of it. I think it speaks to the fact that it was really, in a way, it was the right time for us to take our own steps.

Simultaneously to all of that, in 2010 I co-founded an angel investment fund called IndieFund with a number of other independent developers whose goal is to help independent developers get and stay financially independent. There are gaps, especially with digital distribution, where you have these small teams or a team of one that needed a relatively small amount of money to make their game commercially successful. The only way they could get that money was through deals that were really made for much larger amounts, so it would require them to give up some control. There’s no set-in-stone model for the business in games and I became really interested in how different business models can impact what gets made and how it gets made and empowering different types of people to make games. That’s kind of what led me to my current position as head of developer relations at OUYA.

GIM: With OUYA, a lot of people are asking why focus on creating a brand new console as opposed to developing in the mobile or online space?

KS: Because there are still a lot of people that really enjoy the entertainment experience of the living room, whether that’s being able to sit down and get immersed into an experience on your television or because you really like playing with other people or with your family. And those are experiences that really can’t happen on small screens or on our computers.

GIM: OUYA has had such harsh criticism. Did those criticisms cause any apprehension for you in terms of moving into your current job?

KS: [laughs] It seems like it’s grown even in the last month, which is frustrating. It’s been really interesting to be on the other side. I think in both cases, at thatgamecompany and at OUYA, I’ve been a part of teams taking really big risks with the goal of improving video game development and the industry as a whole. At thatgamecompany, we were doing it on the content side. At OUYA, we’re doing it on the business development side, but the goals are really the same, which is to create spaces for more voices and therefore greater audiences in video games. And yet, for whatever reason, thatgamecompany towards the end of Journey, we hit a tilting point where we were getting too popular, so there was some anti-thatgamecompany sentiment. For the most part, people really were very kind. By people, I mean sort of the Internet gaming population and the media. They were pretty easy on us. Our interviews were usually written up in flattering ways and OUYA has been a lot of the opposite. Not across the board, but it’s been just interesting for me to be on the other side of it. For whatever reason, for OUYA, a lot of our quotes are taken out of context or shown in the worst possible light and I haven’t yet figured out why that is or how do you end up on one side of the coin or the other when you’re doing something that’s different and experimental and you’re pushing boundaries?

GIM: Why is it so hard for indie developers to get funding and manage that financial end of developing a game?

KS: It’s a couple things. One thing is that the games industry as a whole is still very much a “show me, prove yourself” culture, unfortunately. If you don’t already have a portfolio of games that you’ve finished, even if they’re not successful, it’s hard for people to trust that you’re going to be able to see your vision and your idea to completion, because it is true that game development is a very iterative process. People kind of want to see that you’ve been through that process where you’ve been against those moments that you realize your original idea is terrible. You’re playtesting it and people find it horribly boring or frustrating or confusing and then you figure out how to get through that and change the concept or throw in a new mechanic in order to improve the experience. So that’s one aspect of it, which means there’s still this unavoidable period of time that you’re kind of working on games for free until you prove yourself.

The second thing is that the financing options are still pretty limited. For the most part, they’re not from people that really want to take a whole lot of risks if you’re interested in making a game that doesn’t lie in an existing genre. Even thatgamecompany, when we finished Journey, we struggled with trying to secure financing for our next game because it was just as different and experimental as all of our other games. That was something that definitely shook me and furthered my passion for trying to create new business models in game development. Because if thatgamecompany was having problems and we had proven ourselves multiple times, what hope is there for new voices in game development to find success?

RELATED: Robin Hunicke, lead producer at thatgamecompany, talks about her unconventional Journey

GIM: You’ve credited the University of Southern California’s Masters in Interactive Media program as first getting you interested in games. What skills did you feel like your college prepared you with in terms of your work with thatgamecompany and what skills did you wish you had moving into that world?

KS: Definitely the process of prototyping in rapid iteration, which was so critical to everything, to game development, but also our production process. I think what USC really prepared both Jenova and I with was a strong vocabulary and confidence in presenting and talking about our projects, which helped us in both getting the three-game deal with Sony, but also it helped us a lot in managing our own PR and marketing. Being able to talk about our ideas and feel confident in that process really is very important to any independent developer.

Something that they did not prepare us for, and I know this has changed since, was collaboration—how to manage a team, how to collaborate between disciplines, and really manage those communications. Those skills are just so, so important unless you’re working by yourself, but even the most independent developers, at some point they collaborate with others. 

GIM: Do you have any tips for young developers who may not know how to talk about their work without sounding like a commercial?

KS: Part of it is really the ability to tell a good story. Watch any storyteller. There are TED Talks you can sort by storytelling. In general, that’s the best way to get a sort of perspective on the different ways you can communicate your ideas without necessarily looking at the template of how to do a video game pitch. Ultimately, whomever you’re talking to, that’s what they’re interested in. They want to be engaged with you and that is what makes them interested in the game that you’re working on. 

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