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Journey: Robin Hunicke Talks Sand, Indie Games, and thatgamecompany

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Posted September 25, 2011 - By Kevin Kelly



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Robin Hunicke

Robin Hunicke is an ultimate nerd. She's getting a doctorate in artificial intelligence, she's worked with Will Wright and Steven Spielberg, works in the Experimental Game Workship at GDC, and is part of IndieCade. Oh, and she also happens to be an executive producer on thatgamecompany's upcoming PSN title Journey. I was lucky enough to get my hands sandy with the game at Fantastic Arcade in Austin, and Robin happened to be in town. We sat down and talked about the upcoming title, her background, and the current state of indie games. Have a look at the full interview after the break.

G4: What was your background before you came to TGC?

Robin Hunicke: I started off, in grad school, I was studying artificial intelligence and robotics, my undergraduate work was essentially in narrative and storytelling and the ways in which humans share information. Because I realized that all the cool stuff had already been discovered. And then as I moved into grad school, and I thought about whether machines could express thought and feelings, and I was actually at an AI conference at Stanford and I met Will Wright, and he was talking about this game he just made called The Sims and he said, "You know you should really think about game design, you sound like you have the same components." And back then, there weren't any schools for gaming, there weren't programs, so I started thinking, how can I become a game designer and why wasn't that an option in school? Cause that really was what I wanted to do, I just didn't know it.

So, through working on the curriculum, and eventually working on The Sims I was able to find a niche, which for a person like me - I didn't even own a game console until I was probably 12 because my parents just couldn't afford it - that's a pretty unique story. A lot of the people I know, they started programming when they were eight or nine, they had a very different background then I did. So what's encouraging to me is that I started off not knowing I wanted to be a game designer, and now I work at a company with people who've graduated from programs that have been around for maybe ten years. So in ten years we've come all that way, and that's really exciting.

What's your current role at TGC?

What I do now is kind of a hybrid of all the things I've been trained in. I was trained as a fine artist as a kid, and then I learned how to program, and then I was a lead designer for a while, and now I'm a producer. I feel like my job is to do whatever it takes, sometimes that means designing a level, or working on a specific thing with somebody, sometimes that means testing it and just trying to maintain the perspective of a player. And sometimes it means coming to things like this and making sure the fans get to see someone from TGC. I'm a really passionate advocate of the industry in general. The experimental gameplay workshop I help run, IndieCade, the game design workshop I teach at GDC with Marc LeBlanc and them. All these things I do I'm trying to just continue to broaden and diversify the industry by making people aware of the fact that it's such an awesome and creative place to be. So yeah, if I can facilitate that in anyway, that's great.

Robin Hunicke

Specifically about Journey, the look is sort of Japanese Anime-like. Has the game always looked like that, or did it go through a progression?

When we started out, Matt Nava, the lead artist, is just a fantastic pencil line artist. He can do sketches very quickly, He could draw you a dinosaur in like 20 seconds, and it'll look pristine. He's an incredible landscape artist, and has a really great eye for color. And when we first started the project, we spent a lot of time just letting him think about what these large landscapes would be like. And we're all really inspired by games that make you feel like you're small, like you're in a huge place. So we talked about how we could create that feeling of smallness, so a lot of the artwork comes from that place of wanting to create a historical look. So everything in Journey has a reason for being there, it's all architecturally sound, we might build a building then break it, rather than build a broken building.

Matt really believes that's part of what makes an environment holistic and I think that if you look at Miyazaki films, or the games of Team Ico, or Another World, which people often say they're reminded of when they play Journey, I think the theme that runs through all of these is the feeling of continuity is so strong, like it really feels the world should exist - that it's a real place. It's not gamey, it's not fantasy, it feels like it came completely from someone's mind. That I think has its roots in our understanding that the environment is so important to putting you in a different place. You can't have a different emotional experience if you aren't in a different place. And then just influences in terms of the actual look ranged from Turkish churches to Navajo stuff all the way through deserts.

 

Journey Gamescom 2011 Trailer »


 

I would say the single most influential thing we did as a team about what Journey should be was we took a team trip to the dunes outside of LA and just ran around the sand for a while. It was crazy awesome. And the lead programmer was totally obsessed with the way the sand would fall from the dunes when the wind would blow, how it would get on your clothes. From the very beginning of the project, John Edwards would say, we really need to get that feeling of grit, and expanse, the feeling that it's everywhere, the sand. And we all just got it - 'okay, we're going to do it.' It's a huge chunk of work, but let’s make it happen. I actually have a bunch of sand, and some bones and shells from the dunes in a jar on my desk. Just as a reminder that there is a real place in the world that was so inspiring to us.

What really nailed the look of the sand for me was the sparkle. That just made it seem real. 

It's everywhere. We have this really great book of close up pictures of sand that John's mom gave him for his birthday. Sand, when you look at it up real close is gorgeous. It's beautiful, especially beach sand. Little tiny, tiny pieces of shells that are worlds of themselves. And we'd love it if that was the level of depth that the world evokes.

If you're walking in the world, will you eventually hit a wall? Or does it come full circle? Is it barriered somehow?

Well, it depends on what direction you walk in. But in general, you should be walking towards the mountain, and that journey has its own beginning and ending, but if you walk to the sides, yeah - there are wind barriers that stop you from going too far out of a level. We've been talking about it, I don't know if it's final yet. We talked at one point about making it so you can walk forever. Eventually you could just stop and turn around.

Robin Hunicke

What's the development process like at thatgamecompany? Do you guys start a game, finish it, then say 'okay, what's next?' Or are there seeds germinating while the other game is going on?

I think that we're all very sensitive to the marketplace, and to culture in general. Everybody at TGC has their passion, whether it's film or comic books, fine art, or television - some of us are super into watching the newest and greatest Hollywood shows or this and that. And because of that there's a constant dialogue about what games are offering, what films are offering, what fictions, fantasies - the kinds of things people are into. So there's sort of a healthy dialogue about just in general the state of entertainment.

So in that way, we're always talking about what could be next. Not even just for us, just in general if a cool game comes out, we'll send a link around and talk about it. So on that level there's always a dialogue. But Journey specifically was a pretty huge undertaking for us. It has a bipedal character, there's cloth and sand, it's online, there's multiplayer. Its like, when we first started talking about it, we thought  "Sure, yeah you know," and then later we realized this is going to be a lot more work then we thought. But it's always that way with games.

How does your relationship with Sony work?

We're independent, but they're our publisher. So we signed a three-game deal with them, so flOw, Flower and Journey will be the three games of that deal. That was actually a fantastic relationship. They were really supportive of TGC growing into a company, we started in their offices and then we moved into our own offices eventually. There was a lot of scaffolding, a lot of help from producers, especially through Flower and flOw, just getting the process right. Because everybody that started the company had just graduated, so there wasn't a lot of experience there. So without Sony, I don't know that TGC would exist.

 

You have Journey ahead of you, but what happens after the three game deal? Do you sign another one? Do you go multiplatform?

We have no idea. The answer is that we're just so focused on getting Journey done. It took a lot longer than we thought to make it happen, and we're so close now that the temptation is to think "Oh it's almost done. Let's daydream about the next project," but for the most part we're really, really focused on making Journey happen. There will be an announcement about the date soon. We get notes on our Facebook page from our fans saying they're ready for it. It's pretty hard to ignore that stuff - you have to pay attention.

Robin Hunicke

 

Those three games, they sort of feel spiritually connected, is that just TGC's design philosophy or is that intentional?

I would say it's probably a combination of the intention to design things that create new feelings, and our experience - building on top of the engine, building on top of our knowledge and understanding of what works, and what doesn't work. Jenova and I talked about this just a little while ago, with respect to the ways in which the three games represent the journey of the team, so with Flow it was really about being able to take something that was a cool idea, on the PC, a simple, downloadable concept and turn it into something that would be engaging enough, and deep enough for really selling the Six-axis experience, understanding that feeling well enough and deeply and really getting it on the PS3.

And then with Flower it was about, "Well okay, we can do this feely stuff, but what about theme, what about finding our feelings when it comes to talking about narrative or characters or sort of ambiance of a world?" I think Journey is really about nailing that larger picture - connecting the understanding of the experience to the experience itself. That was a lot of work for us; we spent a lot of time.

Also, these three games aren't big having a sort of tutorial process. Are you guys big on immersing the player right away?

Absolutely. We experience games, each of us, in our spare time. And, one of the trends that we've noticed is there isn't a lot of space for contemplation. Instead, there there are a lot of things to do. I've actually be playing Tiny Tower recently, just to see what the experience is like, I was buying bucks, and spending a lot of points. And my first thought when I got up this morning was "I have to check my Tiny Tower." And it's telling you "Do this, do that, take this guy to this floor" and that's fun for a little while, but for a more engaging experience, something you want to spend a couple hours with, a more cinematic experience sort of like a contemplative film - that kind of pacing it's exhausting. So we really want to open that up and give you time to think about what you want to do and let you drive the experience. That is a core philosophy.

Robin Hunicke

What do you think about the current state of indie games? 

I was actually just working on my presentation, and sort of thinking how to set up what indie games are for people at Fantastic Fest who maybe don't play them as much, or understand the movement. The way I started thinking about was, I'm assuming that games are not just a waste of time, that they can mean more than just "Go here, do this, do that," and I'm assuming that people here understand that the advent of downloadable content and business models to support that means that there's just a huge explosion of ideas and a community of developers.

So what I personally think the indie movement as, is the natural result of freedom from more constrained processes to deliver content to the player. It doesn't really matter if that content comes from a person who's supported by a big publisher, internal to a big publisher, alone in there room. What matters is that the ideas, they're freed from having to fit into a specific production model, a freedom from a specific business model. With the Free-To-Play model, I probably wouldn't have even tried Tiny Tower if I had to spend five bucks on it, but now I'm playing it, and I've spent five bucks. Partly because I'm a game designer, but partly because I love The Sims, and SimTower and thought, "Why not check it out?"

Giving people the option to think about games as a service, to think about games as something they come back to every day more as a way of exercising a particular feeling, rather than just leveling up. That's the natural progression, so for me, Indie games are about letting the artist speak through whatever means necessary, whereas before, it could be difficult for people with a good idea to reach people. And that's becoming less and less the case.

Journey: Robin Hunicke Talks Sand, Indie Games, and thatgamecompany
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