Journey producer: Start with feelings, not mechanics

Robin Hunicke believes the game industry can create better games if it gets in touch with its feelings.

Today at GamesBeat 2013, Funomena co-founder and former Journey producer Robin Hunicke sat down in a fireside chat about creating a feeling-focused development team. Hunicke explained that most developers start by defining game mechanics first and then focusing on the game's dynamic interaction with the player, before finally dealing with the game's aesthetics. Instead Hunicke believes that developers should begin by thinking about how they want a player to feel.

"Instead of thinking of your game from the mechanics first, think about the aesthetics first," she said on stage. "Think of the feelings that you want to bring to the players. I believe if you start with the aesthetics and move backwards towards the mechanics through the dynamics, you can create successful games."

Later on in the talk, she noted that you can reach a feeling using a wide range of mechanics including free-to-play, single-player, or online gaming. Certain mechanics do not preclude inciting specific feelings within players. Hunicke pointed to Minecraft as one game that successfully deals with aesthetics. She said that Mojang's game is great about creating a feeling of discovery.

"Every bit of Minecraft is built to make you feel that feeling or share that feeling with others," she added.

Hunicke said that part of building a feelings-first development team is making sure that all developers are speaking their minds. She said it's important for developers to be honest when something doesn't feel right, but many devs tend to stick to their own roles within a studio. Artists, composers, and designers can all approach a feeling in different ways. It's imperative that developers confront their feelings on a game constantly during the development, because all developers are players of a game in the long run. If you're trying to create a feeling within players and something doesn't feel right, you need to know that early on in development.

Hunicke also tackled the idea of reaching out to new demographics with the proliferation of mobile and social markets. She said developers need to step outside of themselves at times to see what doesn't work. Once you can see what isn't reaching players, you also have to be ready to cut those features despite personal attachments. Hunicke also spoke about showing an iPad prototype she was working on to children. She said that depending on the age range, interactions change and it's a good idea to just sit and watch how players are interacting with your title. She said studio should be doing this early in the process.

"If you wait until you've got the game six months down the line, you're putting more barriers in front of your ability to reach a demographic," she said.

Hunicke called the moment of sitting down on a couch together "powerful" and said that's what Funomena designs for. When asked about what she feels can be the most addicting thing for players, she pointed to the feeling of "achievement".

"If you wait until you've got the game six months down the line, you're putting more barriers in front of your ability to reach a demographic"

"Love, passion, and thrills are really addictive. We can put these things into our games, but what matters is why. Is it worth it for the feeling that [players] get?" she asked.

Hunicke said that she'll continue to work on games with "passionate creatives" who want to do more with players. She said the team at Funomena is concerned that developers are relying on basic interactions like combat to reach players. She explained that developers should strive to "reward creativity, romance, and dialog with other players." Hunicke believes games can be centered around the philosophy of helping the person next to you.

"I feel like we are very adaptive. That's a process of becoming more than what you were, but a lot of games are about removing challenges in front of the player," she cautioned.

Finally, Hunicke closed with a simple question to the audience.

"How many of you think you can create a game that makes someone feel a new feeling?" she asked. "Well, go do it."

Latest comments (11)

Mihai Cozma Indie Games Developer 5 years ago
Very interesting advice, I will certainly take it into consideration in my current project, although I prefer to go back and forth between the "feelings" part and the game mechanics part, especially on more complex projects.
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James Prendergast Research Chemist 5 years ago
Think of the feelings that you want to bring to the players. I believe if you start with the aesthetics and move backwards towards the mechanics through the dynamics, you can create successful games."

I think this is an equally valid approach to the opposite: Start with the mechanics and then build the aesthetics. Ultimately, you often get mechanics ideas that will be "saved for later" and incorporated into other ideas or games... or even as a game. Similarly, starting with the characters/story might also be considered a valid approach.

I think the important thing is to have a strong design and vision as well as the support (read: Team) to back it up. It's important that all aspects of your game fit together well - regardless of how you start the design process.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Prendergast on 30th October 2013 9:41am

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Yiannis Koumoutzelis Founder & Creative Director, Neriad Games5 years ago
That sounds a lot like me. Making games is about creating experiences, and game mechanics are merely tools. At least that applies for the kind of games I want to make.
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Show all comments (11)
Hear hear - chase the players brain first and fingers second.
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Gabriel Islas Associate Interface Scripter, Electronic Arts5 years ago
I agree wholeheartedly with this psychological endeavor. Very nice article.
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Keldon Alleyne Strategic keyboard basher, Avasopht Ltd5 years ago
@Gabriel: yes, it's why every iteration of Zelda is able to capture the audiences so fluently. It perfectly produces the intended experience Miyamoto was aiming to project, and it is the key to the magic behind the franchise.
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@Keldon IIRC Miyamoto also started Mario from the same place - he wanted to make a game that had the feeling a child has playing in a garden or field, exploration and discovery mixed with jumping about the place etc.
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Neil Sorens Creative Director, Zen Studios5 years ago
This advice only works if reviewers understand exactly what you're trying to do. Otherwise, they'll criticize your game for not neatly fitting into an established genre or style of mechanics that they do understand. And then, if you're an indie, your game will vanish into obscurity. For us , Castlestorm was based around the childhood memory of building LEGO cities with my brother and then bombing them to smithereens. And reviewers mostly got it. KickBeat was based around the satisfying feeling of power and angry energy that punching things to loud beats gives you. Reviewers didn't get it, wondering why we put in angry, loud, heavily rhythmic music instead of top 40 pop or generic techno like all the good music games do. Basically, they wanted us to sell out our vision for the game to make it more widely acceptable. Then they probably went and talked about how games are art two seconds later with no sense of the irony.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Neil Sorens on 30th October 2013 6:53pm

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Morgan Amelia Bromage Animation Artist 5 years ago
Beautifully spoken from one of my role models in game development. Let's hope her words carry on to some other developers and spark some more amazing games like Journey. If anything, Journey is just entirely a great feeling epic and I admit, it's actually helped me during a very difficult time in my life thanks to the joy it brings in those few hours.
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Roberto Bruno Curious Person 5 years ago
Can't really say I share this philosophy.
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Rafael Rodrigues Executive Producer, Aquiris Game Experience5 years ago
This is one more a way to think about the creative process of game making. It's neat and cool, but it icould almost be as ideological as idealized. The process will greatly depend on the objectives for each project, and we often have to answer to investors and publishers to keep doing what we love. And that means having to follow the most "safe" and traditional ways.

Don't get me wrong, I love Journey. But how often are you really able to create a game you can only explain its result when it is already done?
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