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Funomena: A holistic guide to VR development

CEO Robin Hunicke on finding common ground between business and creativity, and embracing the "new language" of VR with Luna

Let's begin with an understatement: the virtual reality market is challenging.

Pioneering companies have faltered when their revenue projections proved optimistic next to the actual growth of the market. More traditional developers have entered and then left the space, despite having other revenue streams, money in the bank, and the full support of platform holders.

VR is tough, and it is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. For many developers, the response to such conditions will be to play it safe; to add another wave shooter or horror-themed walking simulator to VR's already brimming coffers. Funomena, however, has never been a studio to follow the market over the creative instincts of its team, and that's very much the case with its first VR game: Luna, an interactive fairytale about regret, reparation and learning from your mistakes, which seems custom-built for the technology despite starting out as a mouse-controlled PC title.

"I think of Funomena as more of a people incubator. People stay with us for between two to five years, they learn skills, then they go on"

"Seeing the game in VR for the first time, in November two years ago, everyone on the team was just blown away," CEO Robin Hunicke told me when we met at Casual Connect USA this year. "The 2D game was a beautiful PC title with a lovely story; The VR version is what the world looks like in our minds."

In this edited transcript of our conversation, Hunicke describes Funomena's approach to both the business and art of game development (hint: it's the same thing), the potential mass appeal of virtual reality experiences, and the imminent boom in demand for VR and AR designers.

For the last few years the narrative around indie game developers has largely focused on difficulty, and survival in the face of extreme conditions. The strategy at Funomena, though, appears to be to stay bold and creative and ambitious. In such a crowded market, does taking risks actually make the most business sense?

RH: I mean, it's impossible to say, because you never know if something's going to sell or not. But if you operate on the assumption that happy people, who are positive and future forward, make better decisions when faced with uncertainty, because they believe that their decisions can lead to new opportunities, then yeah - focusing on being as creative and positive as possible day to day leads to more opportunity.

Not because it's the secret, or that it manifests your future; it's because you make decisions that naturally lead to other opportunities if you're open to ideas that you otherwise might not be. I've had people approach me to work with them, and I think that the general idea that, y'know, 'we're really busy, we have a lot on our plate...' Some of our best deals have come at times when I've felt kind of overwhelmed, and I wasn't really sure if I had the mental bandwidth or the creative bandwidth to step up; to talk with my team, to make a decision about it, and even just taking the meeting sometimes.

But if you have a positive attitude about it you can have that conversation: 'Actually, what you need is this, and that's not nearly as much work as you think it is. It'll be cheaper for you, and more fun for us.' It can lead to that place where you both have your needs met, without buying into the narrative that it will be difficult. That can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Funomena isn't a huge studio, but it's a multi-project studio. You had three projects in development less than a year ago, which isn't something that every independent developer would take on. Is that an outcome of this way of thinking about your work?

RH: Yeah, just have the conversation. In many cases, what drives us is whether it's going to be a fun thing to do... The idea of building an AR project for a phone; you think maybe the tech doesn't work that well, or blah, blah, blah. But you just go check it out, and you do and it's really magical, and the people are really nice, and Keita [Takahashi, creative director] gets super inspired. You end up on this adventure, and working on a tiny, little game like that - where you're using the game to put mushrooms on the table, or art on the ceiling, or poos on people's heads and stuff - it creates a vibe in the office itself that is so positive and uplifting.

That's refreshing to hear. Most studio owners I talk to describe multi-project work in the context of spreading risk. This is almost the opposite instinct.

RH: [Laughs] I think of Funomena as more of a people incubator. People come in, they stay with us for between two to five years, they learn some skills, and then they're going to go on. That's kinda because the economy right now demands that young people see themselves as almost like a product - one job has to lead to the next job. What skills am I learning? How am I gonna grow?

In our panel [at Casual Connect USA, hosted by Ed Fries], Ed pointed out that I was finding a new opening [in a difficult market] by thinking about it in that way. But I hadn't really considered that, honestly. I may be spreading risk, but I don't approach it that way.

"I think about space, and the way people will work inside of the company, in the same way that I think about our games"

On the people incubator idea, Funomena is based in San Francisco, which is...

RH: Which is very expensive.

Yes, and more so seemingly every time I visit the city. But it also has to be perhaps the centre for people who function in the economy in that way. That approach is in harmony with your surroundings.

RH: You have to be in harmony with your surroundings. If we were based out of Utah, or Indiana, or the middle of New Orleans, the whole company would have a very different vibe. I think about that a lot. I teach out of Santa Cruz, and I love Santa Cruz; it's super chill, there's a lot of kids coming out of the program, but if we had an office in Santa Cruz the vibe of the company would be so different than in San Francisco

We're just looking for a new building right now, and I think we've found one. But we were looking at places and a lot of them are really slick and expensive, and I thought to myself, 'I guess we could afford this, but do I want to? Do I want to put everybody in a space with a slick, Silicon Valley startup vibe, or do I want to find the next version of the place we have now?'

Our place has a lot of Wabi-sabi, as they say; it's a little bit crooked. If you put a ball in my office it'll roll all the way down to Keita's desk [Laughs].

The Fullbright Company started out of 2K Marin, but they set up in what I seem to remember was a wood-clad house in Portland, and the game that came out of that was Gone Home.

RH: Yeah, exactly. I was joking the other day that my fallback careers are hairdresser or interior designer. I love working with space. Finding a new office is stressful because you've gotta move, but it's actually been one of the more fun things for me as CEO. I get to imagine this new space: the light, the exposed beams, where the plants will be, finishing the floors, I'm thinking about all of that stuff. Just think about how much nicer it is to come into a place that has a little bit more space, and a cooler vibe. It's not fancy, but it's creative and open. Right now, we're in a creative space, but we're kinda stretched to the limit inside of it.

I think about space, and the way people will work inside of the company, in the same way that I think about our games. To me, that's all very similar.

Luna is 'more like a dessert than a hamburger,' Hunicke says, 'but everyone likes dessert'

That sensibility must translate well to VR. The use of space, light sources and so on are all part of development in general, but VR makes it all so much more real and immediate.

RH: So, so true. Even just the idea of being tethered to a machine that can show you a different world but you can't step too far away from it - even just that, right there, it's such an interesting dynamic between wanting to be in this other place and knowing that it has boundaries outside of itself. Even if we get rid of the cord, which eventually we will, are we really going to walk around with the whole world disappeared from you, trusting that a machine will guide you?

I'm not sure that is what I want. Right now I'm more interested in interacting with the details of the environment. It's almost the inverse of the way the games industry tends to think about scale, and getting bigger all the time. I like to pick up objects and study them, throw them, move them around. Luna seems to be about exploring that instinct.

RH: It totally is. The theme of the game is that we don't always see it when we make a mistake, and you can't always go back and fix it a lot of the time. You just have to muddle through, and if you're creative - I guess in the same way as we talked about before, with my attitude towards the company - if you approach it from the perspective of rebuilding the world, putting it back together and soldiering on, as opposed to, 'Well this is impossible. I'll never be able to figure it out. Why did I do that?' You can get stuck with that kind of thinking.

"People are reaching out for spirituality in that way, but we're still in Dungeons & Dragons fighting mode with a lot of our game titles"

From that, when we actually started making the title, we could just get lost in the physical nature of building these bespoke gardening worlds. The first things we made for it were bushes, flowers, and then a tree. Scott Anderson made the tree sculptable, so that you could reach in and bend it and stretch it and shrink it, so it was like a little playmobil toy... He worked with the sound designer to give them all musical tones. They became these little, magical toy pieces, and as we kept developing the game, every level we added, the artist or one of the programmers would have a different idea about how to make that special.

A lot of VR I tried in the years following the emergence of Oculus Rift was about intensity of some kind, like the goal was to overwhelm the user. But the first experience that really made me excited was Oculus Playroom, which was interactive in a way that sounds similar to Luna.

RH: I feel that VR is an experience where you sell one engagement at a time... One of the things about Luna that I thought a lot about was what would make people feel safe, but also make them curious to try it as a different kind of thing. And you can communicate this: taking your hand, grabbing something from the palette and putting it into the world, and then leaning in to see it and watching it grow. You can communicate that with a capture; even if it's a 2D video, you can still understand it.

It's funny, because I was initially excited about Skyrim VR, but as time has passed I'm no longer that excited about the combat or the magic. Mainly, I just want to go into people's houses, open drawers, move their stuff, throw their books on the ground.

RH: [Laughs] I've actually been working on my next game for almost two years now. I'm always thinking one game ahead and it takes me about five years to fully understand what I want to make. If I don't start early I can fall way behind.

So I've been designing something for a long time, and Skyrim is actually a huge influence on that design for exactly the same reason. I love the idea of being in a world where I can do magical things, but I don't want to do it by shooting people. I think a lot of magic in games is just bullets coming out of your hands and blowing something up. I've been obsessing, basically, about this idea of romance, and being in a magical world where it feels like mystical things can happen, spiritual things can happen.

That's a very popular idea in culture right now. People are reaching out for spirituality in that way, but we're still in Dungeons & Dragons fighting mode with a lot of our game titles.

Hunicke is now working on an idea that breaks with the tradition of depicting magic as similar to ballistic combat

You have a magic wand and all it can do is shoot flames.

RH: Shoot flames, yes! When what people really want is to manifest change, or make a golem come to life. I love the idea of Skyrim, but I think we focus on, not the wrong aspects, but the aspects of it that are less appealing to me the longer I spend playing a game. They're not that energising, and they start to feel more like a grind.

Does VR have the potential to help us move away from that? Because, with Luna, you're bringing a fairytale to a market where a lot of the more popular games are wave-based shooters. It's kinda like bringing flowers to a gunfight.

RH: [Laughs] I'm gonna put that on the release trailer.

Please do. But do you think about whether the early adopter market will support the direction you want to go?

RH: Again, to get back to that very first point, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. My attitude about Luna, and the fact that it is a chill, relaxing, beautiful fairytale experience that anybody can play - the market just hasn't seen that yet. It's not that they don't want to enjoy it. Lots of people who played Half-Life 2 played Dear Esther or Gone Home, right? People who enjoy the simulation aspects of a Garry's Mod or even a Minecraft, they're not necessarily looking at it the surface of it - 'Because I like the one with this art look, I won't like the one with this art look'.

"I think there's going to be a huge explosion of design opportunities in this space... It's a new language"

I think when you look at VR, if you think about it not from the perspective of the mechanics of the games, but of the experiential quality that you get from VR, right now the experiential qualities that we've been boosting and exploring have been fairly traditional. And they're great, but as you move away from that traditional experience it's still great for the VR enthusiast.

From my perspective, it's an opportunity to excite them about a different way of experiencing VR, and giving them a tool to evangelise the experience to other people who might be put off by the more intense, war-like, complex or challenging experiences that we typically offer. More like a dessert than a hamburger. But everybody likes dessert.

Does VR have the potential to reach a new kind of gamer, as the emergence of mobile did?

RH: VR can be something about the world, and the story of that world, and the intentionality of the characters, and less about you having to put energy in and unlocking each new space.

We actually use the metaphor or energy in the game. When you first get in there there's this abstract sculpture, which you can put a lot of energy into - you can move it around to unleash all of the little puzzles. And the puzzles [in Luna] are not difficult. They're more like knitting or untangling a necklace that got caught up in your drawer than they are mind-bending. It's similar to Monument Valley; those puzzles weren't hard, they just made you look at things slightly differently. It's a pleasurable experience, right, for your brain to try and transform a shape in your mind.

Luna's puzzles are similar to Monument Valley in terms of their difficulty

When you put that energy in, and you release the puzzles, and then you solve the puzzles, that energy goes back into the terrarium and it turns into a more fully formed version of it that you can then start to plant things in. And as you're planting music starts to emerge and it becomes more and more alive, vibrating with that energy. We really have thought about the player as a force. We want them to feel that they have a lot of power, but it's a very delicate power.

One of the things about Tilt Brush and games like Luna - experiences that give you power to create as opposed to destroy - is that you have to give [the player] some scaffolding. When I think about what we meant [with Luna], it's that it's an ambassador for VR; it's letting people come in and put this nervous energy into the space first, and then it's a more careful energy, and then in the last part - when you're actually healing the animals, and helping the pieces of the moon rise to the sky, and pushing the narrative forward - that's the most delicate and immediate contact that you have. That's the most energetic part of the level.

That seems like very careful pacing. How do people respond to that?

"It would be absurd to think that Apple isn't knee-deep in a very accessible form-factor for this kind of augmentation"

RH: Going from the beginning to the end of each level is about a 40-minute experience, if you take your time. You can speed run it if you want, but most people just don't... There's a lot of potential for VR to be more open-handed and more welcoming, and I want people to see that Luna is our best attempt to do that for people that would never think to call themselves gamers.

I would suggest that there aren't many of those people in the addressable VR market right now, but bringing them will be just as important as the traditional gamers in terms of building up the market.

RH: We're going to see a lot more [companies] getting into this space with hardware that is cheaper and more intuitive. If you think about it right now, the fact that there's just two [high-end VR] offerings in this space doesn't really make a lot of sense... And it doesn't have to just be VR; it can be mixed reality and augmented reality.

When you look at Magic Leap, when you look at Microsoft, and you look at the other OEMs that really work on the hardware side, there's a huge amount of interest right now in communicating the value of this experience to the broad market... It's easy to say 'Who cares about shooters?', and you can have that conversation about VR, but pull back a little bit and think about walking around being lost in the city when you have glasses form-factor AR on your face.

Maybe we can have that in five years; people are designing for it right now. You can do it already with clunkier hardware, but the design problem is the same. As a designer I think there's going to be a huge explosion of design opportunities in this space, which is why I'm so interested. It's a new language.

I saw a talk at Casual Connect USA this year called 'Beyond Headsets', which was about the emergence of bodysuits and haptics and one-to-one input in VR. It made me think that the moment you just have a glove, and you don't have to hold a controller, that's the moment that VR becomes a purely accessible experience to everyone.

RH: Or two rings and a watch and a pair of glasses... It just ends up being about miniaturisation of the technology, and the the batteries being really good, and then the optics on the lenses. And people all over the world are working very hard right now to find the solution that can be mass produced for everybody.

It would be absurd to think that Apple isn't knee-deep in a very accessible form-factor for this kind of augmentation. It's becoming reality.

GamesIndustry.biz attended Casual Connect USA with assistance from the event organiser.

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Matthew Handrahan


Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.