Make games for your players, not sales

Funomena's Robin Hunicke wants the rest of the industry to follow indies' lead when it comes to treatment of players

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."

Latest comments (9)

Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 5 years ago
Actually, make games for yourself first.

That's the way to make the best, most successful stuff. For example, Lucas and Speilberg famously said this about Raiders of the Lost Ark.
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Andrzej Wroblewski Localization Generalist, Albion Localisations5 years ago
Some game designers suffer from the "bad step-mother" syndrome, which is like an urge to make bad jokes about controversial things. Kind of rises the crossbar and few can live up to the challenge.
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Jeffrey Kesselman Professor - Game Development, Daniel Webster College5 years ago
The Gamevertisement is the natural outgrowth of the pure micro transaction based model. When squeezing blood from a stone you need to squeeze hard, and sometimes even that isn't enough. (ref see Zynga's actually number when they release them for their IPO. They were making about dollar per user per year.)

The players thankfully are learning that TANSTAAFL. Maybe this will bring economic sanity back to the game industry, An honest price for honest entertainment is the *right* formula.
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Benjamin Crause Supervisor Central Support, Nintendo of Europe5 years ago
While I love that approach its rather unrealistic. At least for big companies. Those are too much tied to their investors and don't want to take any risks. Thankfully Indies have taken this spot now and they have the ability and freedom to create content and games beyond the norm. Don't get me wrong: I love some Triple-A games and over hyped short lived stars but I feel like there is more.
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Keldon Alleyne Strategic keyboard basher, Avasopht Ltd5 years ago
@Benjamin: it's not terribly complex to manage many small projects like a stock portfolio. Some will hit and some will miss, but by spreading wide one can make use of the high risk / high reward of experimental projects. It's really a matter of risk management.
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Pin Wang CEO & Co-Founder, Substantial Games5 years ago
Love the way Robin Hunicke always challenges the status quo in the games industry.

However, the article frames her statements as if focusing on players comes at a cost to sales- which I strongly disagree with. All companies inherently understand that they make sales by adding value to the customer.

The problem in the game industry is we don't yet have a solid framework for understanding how games really add value for a player beyond basic entertainment value. For this reason many games of this era are built to be consumed, to waste time, or- lets face it- farm players for cash. We all know games can be much more than this.

Companies like Riot Games who are "player first" are already paving the way and building businesses that will last for a very long time. That means more money and stable growth over years and years. I'd challenge other developers to also face these challenges head-on.

How can we move away from short-term monetization towards long-term value? Away from content consumption towards recurring service? Away from the constant fear of marketing "hits" towards building brands that players can trust?

Or even more simply: how can we add real value for our customers (then sell them that value)?

Edited 4 times. Last edit by Pin Wang on 4th March 2014 5:07pm

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I agree with Tim, I would think you have to make stuff that you, yourself, find enjoyable. I couldnt imagine doing it any other way, because really how can you design and create a game and honestly believe others will like it, if you dont even like it yourself?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 5th March 2014 11:22pm

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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany5 years ago
"Make games for your players" is something that worked for a good number of companies like Rockstar and Blizzard and for sure is working nicely for companies trying to resurrect their franchises (Stainless with "Carmageddon", for example).

You must be careful though; Blizzard now has a community far too spoiled in which you see a high degree of self entitlement, Rockstar did it better in this regard putting the line between "you are the fans and this is OUR work"

After that is is a good and great idea to try to reach more audiences. But you need to be careful there since not every product/service will be good for that. See for example what EA did with "Dead Space 3": when they tried to make it more accessible they scared the most loyal franchise fans by giving then an easier action game with little scares, less gore and micro-transactions. On the other hand, those "new audiences" they wanted to reach only saw the second sequel of a horror game they never played because they were not interested in it to begin with.

So yes, I say think on the players but also think if what you are about to do is going to pay the bills (obviously). We have far too many professionals in this industry that only think in "numbers", "income" and "Flapy Bird" clones.
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Adam Jordan Community Management/Moderation 5 years ago
The problem lies within Public Owned and Private Owned companies.

Public owned companies like EA HAVE to provide some kind of profit and somewhat squeeze the wallet dry at any cost in order to appease and provide for their investors and the stock market, otherwise...well we all saw the sinking ship of THQ recently and while I think EA won't sink as fast, if they turn too sharply on their ways, they could do so. Of course that isn't an excuse for them doing it and I wished that mentality would change, especially when you hear studios being shuttered because of poor sales of the games they made because they were far too rushed etc.

On the flipside, Indies and privately held companies such as Valve have no such worries, they deal with only one or two people when it comes to money worries and can cater more towards fans and/or take more riskier methods.

Overall, I am always the first to throw out to people that the community should always be put first. Of course don't lap up everything they say like "GIVE ME FREE STUFF" or "Nerf this because it kills me too much" but your first port of call and somewhat "alarm service" is your community...if something is wrong or a little off, they will be the first to tell you.

However, while those big companies have investors and public owners to cater for, the community will always come second because the sad truth is, those big companies will see that if their investors disappear, then their company disappears, rather than seeing that if their community disappears, their company disappears

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Adam Jordan on 7th March 2014 1:55am

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