'You can't really gamify compassion': Jenova Chen on building ethical free-to-play games
Image: Thatgamecompany

'You can't really gamify compassion': Jenova Chen on building ethical free-to-play games

Protocol Entertainment

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Entertainment, your guide to the business of the gaming and media industries. This Tuesday, we’re chatting with Thatgamecompany co-founder Jenova Chen about ethical game design on mobile, as well as taking a closer look at Epic’s new $2 billion funding round and its metaverse ambitions with The Lego Group.

Jenova Chen is hopeful about mobile gaming’s future

When Thatgamecompany, the renowned indie developer known for blissful and contemplative experiences made for the PlayStation platform, released its anticipated follow-up to the award-winning Journey, the studio’s diehard fans were not expecting a free-to-play mobile game.

But co-founder and designer Jenova Chen said the seven-year path to Sky: Children of the Light taught him and his company profound lessons on how to balance art with business. At the Game Developers Conference last month, Chen detailed what Thatgamecompany has learned in the almost two years since Sky’s release, and how the mobile gaming industry can find ways to push the medium forward while shedding its reputation for exploitative monetization.

Sky had a long, sometimes difficult development. Chen said he and the team behind Sky did not intend to make a free-to-play game. Instead, they wanted to make a premium mobile title. But four years in, they pivoted, adjusting to the realities of the mobile industry and shifting the game to a live service title with a steady stream of seasonal content.

  • “We made a game in the first four years, and then we took the next three years to meddle around with the monetization,” Chen told Protocol in an interview following GDC. “It took us seven years. It’s super risky. If this was done in a normal publisher-developer relationship, the project would be canceled.”
  • Sky is built around altruism and social connection. The game features a kind of virtual theme park where players can explore on their own, but the game encourages players to make friends, communicate and send gifts to progress and customize their characters.
  • Because of Sky’s unique mechanics, Chen said 22% of revenue from the game comes from gifts, and nearly half of all seasonal passes are purchased and gifted to other players. And since its release in 2019, Sky has been downloaded more than 160 million times, making it Thatgamecompany’s most popular game by an astounding margin.

Sky was designed to test alternatives to mobile monetization. Mobile gaming is far and away the largest segment in the global games industry and remains the fastest-growing, but it’s not always associated with high art, and still carries a reputation for aggressive, casino-style monetization.

  • “With Sky, when we tried to approach monetization, we were also thinking, ‘When do we feel better about ourselves when we make a payment?’” Chen said. He mentioned taking your family to Disneyland, a costly endeavor, but one many parents are proud of because “they’re doing it for the people they love.”
  • Thatgamecompany experimented with different approaches, like requiring all purchases to be gifts. It didn’t work, because it gave gifting and in-game purchasing a quid pro quo flavor Chen said undermined his team’s design goals. “You need to have yin and yang,” he said.
  • “You have to really play with human psychology. You can’t really gamify compassion, either,” Chen said. “We had these mechanics to force players to become friends to unlock items. Players felt disgusted. Gamification and relationships are very, very delicate.”

Chen hopes Sky can pave the way for artistic experiences on mobile. Journey was in many ways a watershed moment for indie games, helping establish Thatgamecompany as a provocative studio pushing the boundaries of what games can make us feel and how they communicate their themes. Chen hopes Sky will, over time, be lauded similarly, but for helping establish mobile gaming as more than just an addicting money-extraction mechanism.

  • Sky is, first and foremost, a commercial product, Chen admitted. So it is designed to make money, and in the context of mobile gaming, that does mean microtransactions for cosmetics and a complex in-game currency system. But Chen said he doesn’t think those elements are inherently exploitative, or that they tarnish the game’s artistic value.
  • Chen said one of Sky’s biggest achievements is in helping expand the gaming audience. He said Sky’s audience is 70% female, compared to 85% male for the studio’s past console games. And many of the messages he’s received since release are from non-gamers who say Sky helped them connect with a friend, family member or even total strangers.
  • “My hope is to push the boundary and expand to make more people love games,” Chen said. “Are we really ‘Toy Story’ for games? I think we have more work to do. I would love to see more companies join us in pushing this direction and make games more respected.”

Last month, ahead of Chen’s GDC session, Thatgamecompany raised $160 million in funding to support Sky’s continued development and to build the studio’s next game. Chen said he has aspirations to make the Sky follow-up a game that can meet the standard of a Pixar film: universally accessible to players of all ages, all around the world.

For now, though, he hopes Sky is an example the mobile market can point to as proof that art can be commercially successful and in turn help fund future projects. “What we’ve learned and what we’ve seen and proved could be a step people can use to jump onto bigger things in the future,” Chen said. “If this inspires any studios or companies or developers to make more successful artistic games, then I feel I’ve done our job.”

— Nick Statt

Activision Blizzard’s newest exec

The Call of Duty publisher is adding former Accenture executive Kristen Hines as its chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, the company announced on Monday, while it contends with a reputation in tatters and multiple ongoing lawsuits stemming from its sexist workplace culture. “Hines will play a crucial role in furthering Activision Blizzard’s commitment to increasing the percentage of women and non-binary people in its workforce by fifty percent over the next five years,” the company said in a statement.


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In other news

A win for QA testers at Activision Blizzard. The publisher announced last week it would convert nearly 1,100 temporary and contingent quality-assurance testers to full-time employees, which entitles them to bonuses and more benefits in addition to a pay bump to $20 per hour. Yet the company is excluding Raven Software members, who voted to form a union earlier this year.

Another win for Unreal Engine 5. Square Enix studio Crystal Dynamics is working on a new Tomb Raider game that will use Epic’s Unreal Engine platform instead of the studio’s custom, in-house Foundation engine.

China reopens its doors to gaming. Beijing gave the green light to 45 new video games, issuing publishing licenses for the first time since July following an extended government crackdown on the market over addiction concerns, Bloomberg reported on Monday. Gaming giants NetEase and Tencent were not among those approved.

Axie Infinity creator barrels ahead after hack. Play-to-earn leader Sky Mavis announced $150 million in new funding and the soft launch of its new spinoff, Axie Infinity: Origin, just one week after disclosing a disastrous hack that resulted in the theft of more than $600 million in crypto tokens.

Apple’s “Friday Night Baseball” stumbled out of the gate. The first baseball game to stream on Apple TV+ was plagued by outages, and some fans complained about the announcers. Turns out getting baseball season to actually start may have been the easy part.

Meta decided against using its own chips for upcoming smart glasses. The company was reportedly looking to launch the second version of its Ray-Ban smart glasses with custom chips, but instead opted to go with Qualcomm chips to avoid potential delays.

Sonos buys audio transducer maker Mayht for $100 million. The acquisition could help Sonos improve the sound of smaller speakers.

How Netflix tested its new two-thumbs-up feature. Netflix is known for doing tons of A/B tests. Here’s how those tests helped develop a new feature, and why surveys and interviews played an important part as well.

Epic and Lego’s kid-friendly metaverse

Arguably the most salient predictions about the potential and promise of the metaverse come from Fortnite creator Epic Games, and that makes the developer’s recent funding announcement and partnership with The Lego Group worth paying attention to.

Epic said last week it had partnered with the company behind Lego “to build an immersive, creatively inspiring and engaging digital experience for kids of all ages to enjoy together.” What this might look like is anyone’s guess, but having a universally beloved toy company and media empire on your side is yet more proof that winning the early metaverse race might hinge more on exclusive content than on technology like AR and VR.

And just yesterday, Epic announced a $2 billion funding round, half from existing investor Sony and the other half from The Lego Group parent Kirkbi. Sony clearly sees Epic, Fortnite and whatever future platform it creates as valuable assets to PlayStation; Fortnite has long been one of the most popular games on Sony’s consoles, and drives a substantial amount of revenue thanks to Sony’s 30% platform fees.

Kirkbi CEO Søren Thorup Sørensen said The Lego Group investment is about fueling “a long-term focus toward the future metaverse,” which the company believes “will impact the future world that we and our children will live in.” In addition to its close ties to Disney and Marvel, Epic has built one of the most formidable content partnerships in all of entertainment. All the more reason to believe the developer has more of the metaverse figured out than many of its competitors.


More than ever, employees value their everyday work-life experience. With TouchTunes Unlimited, your employees choose the music and create the office vibe together. Leverage the power of social music to build a fun workplace culture and open new possibilities for creative team-building interactions.

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Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to entertainment@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you Thursday.

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