Journey dev on making online a happier place

DICE 2013: Jenova Chen on pushing ThatGameCompany to bankruptcy to hit the right emotional notes

When Jenova Chen first thought of making Journey in 2006, he had a simple goal in mind. Speaking at the DICE Summit today, Chen explained that the critically acclaimed PlayStation 3 game was inspired in a roundabout way from his years playing World of Warcraft.

At the time, Chen was frustrated by massively multiplayer online games. He described himself as a nerdy guy who didn't like leaving the house to socialize, but still wanted to have a connection with other people. But in World of Warcraft, the other players he met had no interest in making friends or sharing their feelings with other players. As a result, the social element of the game only made him feel more lonely.

"Some people went unpaid during the last half-year of development, and ThatGameCompany was actually bankrupt by the time Journey launched"

So he dreamed of a utopian online world that would become Journey. In that world, every character wore robes, and they couldn't identify each other as a man or a woman, a child or an adult. There was no difference in levels or the gear they wore. They were just another human being, and the game was about the relationships and connections between them. Without money to develop the utopia, Chen put the idea on the back burner while ThatGameCompany developed flOw and Flower.

He returned to the idea in 2009, figuring it was time to tackle the problem he had identified in online games. He knew he wanted to create a more emotional connection between players, something that was otherwise missing in the industry.

Looking at the common emotions saturating the market, Chen said what he heard the most was that online gamers were mean and unwelcoming. He knew he didn't want his game to reflect that; he wanted Journey to instead evoke a sense of awe. Where most other multiplayer games were about power and exercising it on other people, Chen wanted his game to make players take notice of each other. He wanted players to need each other, but not in the way that other cooperative multiplayer games make them team up to take down powerful bosses. Under that scenario, players still wind up viewing each other as tools, as means to an end.

Instead, Chen wanted the interactions between players to be about an exchange of emotions and feelings rather than an exchange of blows. Most modern games he said were too busy, and too noisy to allow players to simply focus on one another. So Journey had to be a more quiet, simple experience.

To simplify the experience, the developers eliminated all signs of heads-up display from the game screen. They ditched the idea of a lobby screen and had the game handle "matchmaking" automatically behind the scenes. They also hid player names, fearing aggressive monikers and pop culture references in user names would pull people out of the experience. Then they disabled voice chat, because Chen said most players don't actually want to know who's on the other end of the game screen. Journey, he said, was more powerful when the only thing you knew about your companion was that it was another human being.

Originally, Journey was conceived as a four-player game, with a "the more, the merrier" approach. However, in development it became apparent that players would create subgroups, either pairing off (bad) or grouping three together and leaving one alone (even worse). The potential for creating a sense of alienation instead of the sense of awe Chen sought was too great, so multiplayer was trimmed down to just two.

Sony suggested allowing for players to invite people on their friends lists because it would help make the game more viral, but Chen nixed that idea as well, as it would call attention to the lack of voice chat and could lead to frustration. Some of these ideas might have hurt sales, but Chen thought they would hurt the experience more, and he was adamant about protecting the emotion he was trying to create.

Chen was so insistent on realizing his vision for Journey that he kept it in development an extra year over schedule. While he said it could have shipped on time, it wouldn't have been as effective; it wouldn't have provided players with the catharsis he had hoped for. So Chen went back to Sony to get an extension, and the company struggled across the finish line for those final 12 months. Chen said some people went unpaid during the last half-year of development, and ThatGameCompany was actually bankrupt by the time Journey launched.

Chen said it was worth it, and showed an e-mail from a fan he received last month as evidence of why.

"Your game practically changed my life," Chen read from the e-mail. "It was the most fun I had with him since he'd been diagnosed. My father passed in the spring of 2012, only a few months after his diagnosis. Weeks after his death, I could finally return myself to play video games. I tried to play Journey, and I could barely get past the title screen without breaking down into tears. In my own experience with Journey, it was about him and his journey to the ultimate end, and I believe we encountered your game at the most perfect time. I want to thank you for the game that changed my life, the game who's beauty brings tears to my eyes. Journey is quite possibly the best game I've ever played. I continue to play it, always remembering the joy it brought and continues to bring. I'm Sophia, I'm 15, and your game changed my life for the better."

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Latest comments (7)

David Radd Senior Editor, IndustryGamers5 years ago
The pay thing is perhaps part of the reason people departed - not necessarily that they weren't compensated but because it's stressful to know how close your company is to the edge, dependent on the success of one product. That said, all the credit to Jenova for pushing for his vision - I think the awards at DICE prove he touched a lot of people with his game in a way games rarely do.
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Kingman Cheng Illustrator and Animator 5 years ago
Journey was a fantastic game, it's a shame that some had to depart and the issues with money as well. I hope those who have left have found new opportunities and they can be proud they put together what I think is one of the finest games I've ever played.
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Chris Payne Managing Director & Founder, Quantum Soup Studios5 years ago
Journey is a masterpiece of design, and all the better for it's minimalism. It was the LACK of voice chat, and the experience that might create, that initially caught my interest. Everyone who worked on it should be very proud.
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Show all comments (7)
Kingman Cheng Illustrator and Animator 5 years ago
@Chris, I actually quite enjoyed the lack of voice chat. I had to admit initially I was a bit lost because I thought the other character I saw was an NPC so I just kept running away. It wasn't until later I figured I was actually being really rude because it was someone real on the other side. To me it was all part of the discovery and experience but I'm just speaking for myself. :)
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises5 years ago
I want to try Journey but I'm scared it will be like flOw. Really interesting at first, doesn't really go anywhere or lead to anything, and then you're finished the game.
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Cameron Lourenco Studying Business Managemant, Conestoga College5 years ago
Honestly, at $15, there's no reason to be scared of trying Journey. It's not about violence, it's the entire game is a metaphor for the Journey of life. You start out just discovering things, then things change. You run into dangerous obstacles. Your settings change drastically. People come into your life and they leave. Either you lose them in the game world or they go on a different path, or they just don't follow you. You reach the end and it's like the end of life, metaphorical imagery displayed everywhere. The fact that there is no communication via voice chat makes you focus on just the experience, and take in the atmosphere.
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David Radd Senior Editor, IndustryGamers5 years ago
I want to try Journey but I'm scared it will be like flOw. Really interesting at first, doesn't really go anywhere or lead to anything, and then you're finished the game.
That's understandable, but I can say it has something more of a goal with Journey that flOw, which was more like a concept than a typical game experience. It's not especially long, but it has a definite beginning, middle and end. It's much more about the experience than any sort of gameplay skill, but I imagine you already gathered that.
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