In her D.I.C.E. Summit talk earlier this month, Funomena co-founder Robin Hunicke implored the audience of industry insiders to treat their customers like people and not just eyeballs, downloads, installs, or walking wallets. While that was the approach she and her former colleagues at indie studio ThatGameCompany focused on in making Journey, Hunicke told GamesIndustry International afterward that it's a philosophy that should work just as well for developers of all shapes and sizes.
"I know a lot of indies are successful because they make games their fans love and they love their fans," Hunicke said. "I wanted to put the point on it that it's already working for us, and I feel like, in this environment, people here have tools at their disposal--budgets, marketing staff and so forth--that if they took this philosophy forward, it could just explode the potential of our medium."
"When you're in a meeting and someone says, 'This feature is selling' or 'this game did X,' just think to yourself, 'Is this about the player?'"
Hunicke said that potential lies in the size of the gaming audience. When she first got into the game industry, she wasn't convinced it was a good fit for her because the types of games that people knew about, the kind heavily advertised, all fell into a handful of narrowly defined genres. Even now, Hunicke says the reaction she gets at parties when she tells strangers what she does for a living is subdued.
"They go, 'Oh, really?' And then they glass over because their exposure to video games is usually ads on television or the side of a bus for games that would never appeal to them."
Hunicke ran down a short roster of gaming stand-bys, from the knife-wielding psycho in a mask to the guy with electricity or flames coming out of his hands to the angry guy punching another guy to (for a touch of diversity) the really fast car.
"For them, video games is that," Hunicke said. "That's what it means. And I think if we took the time to reach beyond that to that person, and say, put on the side of the bus an image associated with a video game that was really appealing to them, then that would mean everybody was playing games the same way everyone reads books or listens to music. That's what I want."
To get there, Hunicke said everyone can do their part to move the art form forward. She especially encouraged those who want to see those sorts of games to try making them themselves, even if it's just a few hours a week tooling away in their spare time. And for those who are already in the industry, there's a simple approach that could advance the situation regardless of what their current projects are.
"When you're in a meeting and someone says, 'This feature is selling' or 'this game did X,' just think to yourself, 'Is this about the player? Is this about the person on the other side of the download?' Just make that a value that you carry with you in every conversation," Hunicke said. "And if that's something you bring to the table, it begins to be part of the conversation and other people will pick up on it."
That gets back to a way of thinking about the players as complete people, not just more resources to be exploited or shifted around for peak efficiency.
"If you want your customers to treat you like a person, talk to them like a person," Hunicke said. "If you want your customers to evangelize your game to other people they know that are not necessarily in your immediate reach, let them know. Make it a community. It's a thing we have to do in any community because we rely on each other."
"The biggest challenge for any team is open communication and transparency. It is so hard to really approach every day as an opportunity to do something successful..."
That approach has helped the indie community grow for years. And even though there are discoverability problems for indies trying to get their games noticed, Hunicke said they're nowhere close to exhausting the potential gaming audience. She also feels the opportunity for games in the mainstream audience is so vast that there's little chance of the indie community coming apart at the seams as creators compete for consumers' attention.
"To me, that's like saying I want these three drops of water in the ocean and this guy also wants water from the ocean," Hunicke said. "Are we enemies? Absolutely not. For indies, I think there's only upside. There's only blue ocean forward."
The more pressing concern for indie developers is a bit more internal to each studio, and it's one Hunicke said they share with all game developers, no matter their size.
"The biggest challenge for any team is open communication and transparency," Hunicke said. "It is so hard to really approach every day as an opportunity to do something successful, to have the conversation about what's not working and turn it into a conversation about what will work."
Hunicke said games are broken, and broken, and broken, and broken, and then they're fixed just before they ship. And it's during that long stretch of being broken when the going gets slow and doubt creeps in about whether or not the game will come together and be any good at all.
"That peak moment of uncertainty and effort is the thing that everybody needs to get through," Hunicke said. "And getting through that comes from building a communication channel between the developers on your team, people in your organization, the marketing group, the music group, the licensing group... You need to have those relationships in place so that when you get to that peak, nobody freaks out."