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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."

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Mike Williams avatar

Mike Williams

Reviews Editor, USgamer

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.