Robin Hunicke is currently facing two challenges at thatgamecompany: being the best producer she possibly can and working on thatgamecompany’s new experiment, Journey. Scheduled to talk during a panel, Hunicke shared her experiences with us on building Journey, working at thatgamecompany and what she thinks actually makes a good producer.
Journey received a lot of hype from its E3 unveiling. The game centers around the player having to travel to a far away mountain, gesturing the player to travel and explore.
“We’re trying to look at the relationship between the player and the environment. The way Jenova [Chen] often puts it, we’re trying to create a sense of awe towards the unknown. Fill a space that we feel has not been addressed as much in video games as it perhaps may have.”
According to Hunicke, Journey will be focused on making the player tiny and weak again, removing the powers we’ve acquired in our modern-day lives. Her team relates this empowerment to people having the ability to travel long distances, communicate over continents or access any kind of information through the Internet.
“When you have all that power, it’s easy to become concerned with executing that power and using it. We feel like there’s another way of thinking about the world and being in the world that is getting a little less attention. The feeling you have when you’re going on a hike and you’re away from all that power. You’re just walking alone in a beautiful landscape. Maybe you see another person. The feeling that you have when you see that other person in the distance, is very different from the feeling you have when you get on a train and see the person sitting across from you.”
Finding the right people
Production of Journey began right after shipping Flower; Hunicke joined thatgamecompany around the same period. She became the 8th member on the team. Having recently found a 10th, thatgamecompany is still looking for what they call a ‘feel engineer’.
“I’m also interested in hearing from people that are art directors and technical leads. So if you know someone who is excited about pushing the boundaries of interactive gameplay, you know where to send the resume. It’s actually quite hard for us to hire. Jenova spoke about this a little bit at E3, but we really try explore how to make things feel a certain way. He said this recently, in a chat we were having at work. When you say to your artist, “Make me a picture that looks sad,” you know they can do it in a heartbeat. When you say to a composer, “Make me some music that makes me feel sad,” they can do it in a heartbeat. But when we sit down and say, “Let’s make some gameplay that feels sad,” that’s a really hard problem. Interactive design in games is a new frontier. That’s the kind of person we’re looking for.”
With thatgamecompany so focused on creating feeling through gameplay, it became clear why Hunicke was the obvious choice to become the 8th member of the team. But has the talented producer ever cried because of a game?
“I’m not just saying this,” she admits. “I cried every time I finished Flower. I played Flower through at Gamecity, for an audience of about 150 people last year and by the time I finished, I had tears rolling down my cheeks. I just can’t see the end of that game and not feel an overwhelming sense of joy. I kind of crack up a little bit just talking about it.”
Getting that process right with Journey requires nothing other than the same magical formula thatgamecompany got right with Flower. “The challenge [thatgamecompany] games always face are the same. It’s difficult to make something that feels, really feel when you’re doing it. Moment to moment. Unique and new and fresh. That’s what we always struggle with. Right now, we’re introducing mechanics and looking at the way the single player experience feels versus the online experience. We’re asking ourselves every day, does this help with our thesis? Does this make the game feel better? It’s an ongoing process. There have definitely been moments during production where I have felt genuinely surprised by how good a very simple mechanic will feel. We try very hard not to add features or mechanics that distract you from the experience, in other words, too ‘gamey.’”
Producer with an impact
Since Hunicke was scheduled to talk about what makes a good producer, she had her own advice to share based on her personal experience as a producer. ”Listening makes a good producer,” she said. “I struggle with that all the time. It’s very easy to say what you think.”
Hunicke admits to experimenting with attempting not to say the words ‘I think’ before she speaks. She also acknowledges the need for a producer to contribute to the team’s morale as much as possible, even if it involves buying flowers or fruit from the local farmer’s market. “What I strive to do every day, is to leave the office having made a measurable impact on everyone’s work experience. That could be anything from organizing a meeting about a feature I think needs help to ordering a whiteboard and helping someone hang it up so their ideas can be expressed more freely than being scrawled on little pieces of paper. “
“Just try to make everyone’s experience positive and creative and without friction,” she suggests. “Obviously, one person can’t do that. A producer alone can’t make the working experience smooth and efficient and joyous, but one should try as best as they can. A lot of that is having conversations about areas where skills can be developed, how behaviors can be improved or just giving someone positive feedback about doing something really fantastic.”
“You need to be comfortable with not getting everything done,” she adds. “You need to be comfortable not having all the answers. It’s important to be able to be wrong and to ask for help. If you don’t know the answer, someone on your team does. Producers who ask and listen do better.”
Journey is currently in development by thatgamecompany and has been scheduled for release sometime in 2011.