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"I'm really interested in getting away from the box of space marines"

Funomena's Robin Hunicke on experimental design and pushing the boundaries of gaming

While sometimes it feels like the industry is caught in the loop of creating the same shooters, RPGs and racing games over and over, the indie movement in recent years has clearly led to many creative designers drawing outside the lines. One veteran at the forefront of this experimental design movement is Robin Hunicke, co-founder at Funomena and formerly a designer on The Sims and producer on Journey.

At the recent DICE Summit, sat down with Hunicke to discuss how developers can push experimental designs and the challenge of getting suits to greenlight a unique or weird concept.

Designers can put all their heart and soul into a game, but if the idea just isn't interesting to players, it's going to be a tough sell. Games are art, but developers must contend with the business side as well.

"The challenge for us is how to take our crazy, interesting, bizarre ideas and then turn them into something that makes sense in a marketing campaign or a pitch or that kind of thing. I think especially when we're thinking about new ideas we really ask ourselves 'what do we want to play, what do we want to experience, what's the thing that we haven't seen?' and then the challenge is getting other people to see what we see," Hunicke explained.

"If anything, it's sort of that we're a square peg. As a studio, and as individuals, everyone at the company is very creative and interested in pushing boundaries and making games that are really new and different, and that's really what kind of binds us all together when we come from such different backgrounds. So for us, it's about taking that unique inspiration and turning it into something that becomes accessible and becomes an object that other people [desire]."

"Looking at what we felt was the joy of expressing ourselves through play or creating stuff with systems, building and destroying - those kinds of things that are so fun when you're a kid are still fun now, but you just have to make space in your life to do it"

If you're not self-publishing, there's no guarantee that your weird title will actually land a deal, but as evidenced by Katamari Damacy (Keita Takahashi is a close friend of Hunicke and is now working with her on Wattam), really creative ideas can indeed succeed.

"I certainly believe that the universe needs more weird games, and more strange, fun, unexpected and joyful experiences, and so I take the perspective that if it needs to be made, it will be made. If it is alive enough in our minds and we're passionate enough about it, we'll find the right person to help us get there," she said. "And so far we've been really lucky that we have found those people. We were able to partner both with Sony Santa Monica and with Intel, and in both cases they're really behind the products; they're interested in reaching new audiences, they're interested in helping us achieve that vision. I think it's because we believe so strongly that it should happen."

If you're an aspiring developer or new to the industry but struggling to come up with a fresh idea, Hunicke (who also teaches at UCSC's Games and Playable Media program) suggests perhaps drawing upon childhood experiences for inspiration.

"We all draw a lot of inspiration from childhood, from the times before we were all busy and staring at our phones. Looking at what we felt was the joy of expressing ourselves through play or creating stuff with systems, building and destroying - those kinds of things that are so fun when you're a kid are still fun now, but you just have to make space in your life to do it," she remarked. "So that's our challenge, to take those inspirations and turn them into games that someone will want to spend time with. People are really busy these days, so we try to be very respectful of their time and provide them an experience that's going to be worth sitting down for."

Keita Takahashi's influence on Hunicke has definitely been noticeable and the two friends have pushed one another in their careers: "His number one question is always 'Why? Why should it be like that?' So I try to promote a lot of questions and ideas, 'what if we did this or this or this?' Generally what Keita does is he peels off that first layer of ideas and goes a level deeper and then a level deeper - he really wants to know, 'why should there be a UI like that? Why should we have this control scheme? Why should we put that mechanic or behavior in the game? Is there a really good reason to do it? Is it truly interesting? Or are we just doing it because it's easy?'

"I think when you get to play Wattam, or when you play Luna, you'll get to see that both concepts while very different in their manifestation and their style have that same singularity where we've asked why and we've only put in the things that we feel are really going to contribute to the experience overall."

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During her time at thatgamecompany, Hunicke applied this thinking to the award-winning Journey. "We would look at the prototypes that were coming through and I would say 'is this really in line with the feeling, does this create a feeling of closeness between strangers, is there a reason this needs to be in the game?' And I think that approach of culling away your first and second and third idea is so deeply ingrained now in my process, and in Keita's, that it's what contributes to the games feeling like a coherent whole.

Anyone who's played through Journey knows what an emotional experience the game provides - and, uniquely, without any verbal or written narrative. For Hunicke, the industry could push much beyond that, however. Indie efforts like This War of Mine or That Dragon, Cancer have shown that the medium of games can tackle serious topics with aplomb. It may not pursue such topics with the regularity of the film industry, but the winds of change are gaining strength.

"I think it's always going to be a process, trying to take this medium that we are familiar with working in and pushing it to do new things. Again, asking why, asking how - how do we get to this feeling of loss and aloneness that comes with watching a child get sick and die? That's a really difficult question from a design perspective, but there's so much area there to explore," she continued.

" I'm really interested in getting away from the box of space marines and simulations and moving into the space of empathy and creating the ability to experience other people's lives or other ways of seeing time and space"

"With Luna, we ask ourselves what it means to really grow. You know growing up isn't just about triumph; it's about overcoming obstacles and overcoming obstacles isn't just about revenge. It's about learning to incorporate the changes in your life into the person you become. And you become stronger because of adversity, but the adversity is experienced as pain, it's experienced as transformation. When you look at those kinds of themes and you ask yourself 'How do I communicate that in game, and still have it feel open to a lot of interpretations? How do I communicate it without gendering every experience within it? How do I communicate it without making it trivialized? How do I give it the gravity that it needs to have as a topic, but also make it playful and experiential, and give the person the desire to push through?'"

As interactive experiences, games can actually bring people closer to an experience than other passive media. It's a distinct advantage that game creators have yet to fully harness. "You can interact with this medium and this material in a way that's hopefully going to touch a core part of your being rather than just observing it from the perspective of a film goer or reading it in a book. Being able to interact with the narrative itself and push it along and shape it is I think really transformative in and of itself," Hunicke noted.

And with the advent of virtual and augmented realities, developers now have the technology at their disposal to foster even more emotional connections, she added. Hunicke recently partnered with Oculus to work with their story studio and is eager to advance the art form.

"What draws me to the story studio and their goals within Oculus is that they do want to push the medium forward and see what we can do in that space between game and narrative, between game and film," she said. "I think we're at a flashpoint in history where we can determine the future of this very immersive medium - how positive it's going to be, how moving it's going to be, what kinds of experiences it creates, and I'm really interested in getting away from the box of space marines and simulations and moving into the space of empathy and creating the ability to experience other people's lives or other ways of seeing time and space."

Of course, designing for VR and AR are very different tasks; one technology utilizes the environment a player is in while the other blocks it out completely. Hunicke believes that ultimately designers may be able to incorporate elements of both.

"I like both ends of that spectrum; maybe there are experiences that blend both worlds where there are moments where you have to be really focused and be completely contained and then you can take it with you out into the world. I think playing with that boundary is also really interesting and I'm looking forward to seeing how the technologies advance."

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James Brightman avatar
James Brightman: James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.
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