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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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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.