Robin Hunicke Wants to Change Video Games, But She Can’t Do It Alone
The Funomena co-founder and <i>Journey</i> producer explains how traditional labelling is out-dated, and why we need to highlight genuine innovation.
"As a developer, it's my job to evangelise the games that I think are different, that are doing new things. And when they come out, I want everyone I know to know about them. But it'd be really awesome if we could somehow give away space, or create platforms of promotion, that were just about innovation."
Robin Hunicke knows a thing or two about going against what the gaming public might perceive as the stylistic grain, the marketable middle-ground, sales-numbers safe spaces of play. Having worked on MySims and Boom Blox at Electronic Arts, the San Francisco-based game designer (and professor of game design, at the University of California, Santa Cruz) moved to thatgamecompany, where she produced Journey. Perhaps you heard of it, as it was kind of a big deal.
"With Woorld, this whole place could be a play space, the walls, the ceiling, the floor. And making such a game just transforms the way you think about design." – Robin Hunicke
Journey was a critical and commercial success that arrived without much in the way of how-it-works precedent, playing like nothing most that picked it up had seen before. A multiplayer game in which human-to-human interactions were all but stripped away. A short experience, coming in at under 90 minutes from start to finish, but with lasting, memory-making resonance. A story told only one way, yet left open to all manner of individual interpretation. Journey earned rave reviews and collected all manner of industry awards (dominating the 2013 Game Developers Choice Awards), and broke PlayStation Network sales records.
Today, Robin is overseeing the singular experiences rolling out of Funomena, a studio she established in early 2013 with former thatgamecompany colleague Martin Middleton. First came Terra, an educational, not-for-profit game designed to work with a Fitbit to generate energy to facilitate terraforming of an alien world. Later, Wattam, a collaboration with Katamari Damacy designer Keita Takahashi, described by the studio as "a delightfully, explosive, exploratory game". It looks like this. Luna, "a tactile, narrative puzzle game" that bridged the two projects, wasn't quite so wacky, but undeniably beautiful. And now comes Woorld, which sees Funomena move into augmented reality, mixing digital and physical play – again in the company of the peerless Takahashi. It will be pre-installed in the forthcoming Lenovo Phab2 Pro phone, working across other Google Tango devices.
"With Woorld, honestly, we were a little sceptical about the Tango technology to start with," Robin tells me, in a quiet moment during Brighton's Develop Conference – she's attending as one of its keynote speakers. "We didn't know if we could have fun with it. We went down to Google, and met with Johnny Lee, and looked at the camera, and the device that they had, and immediately we were like: wow.
"With Woorld, this whole place could be a play space, the walls, the ceiling, the floor. And making such a game just transforms the way you think about design. Because, normally, with VR experiences or console experiences, we have complete control over what's in the environment. The designers dictate things. But in an augmented reality experience, the world is just a really undesigned place. In your house, you'll have your tables and your chairs, maybe a cat running around, and designing for that kind of environment has been really eye opening, and so fun. It's been a very fast project, a quite lightweight experience in the sense that you can just get in there right away. But it's going to ship on every device, so it has to be that accessible."
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That Woorld is great to play, to share with friends, was something that became obvious to Robin and the team while they were making it, because they so often found themselves laughing in its company. "It really livened up the studio, because we were all playing it there, all the time," she recalls. "People would hear you laughing, and they'd come over, and they'd want to use the device, and see what you'd built. I would say that it brought a tonne of levity and joy into the design process itself, because it is in the space that you work and live in. It's been a totally new experience, developing this, but I'd do it again in a heartbeat."
Quite where Woorld fits in the wider gaming landscape, though, is hard to get a handle on. This is a new tool, a new toy, for new technology, coming through at a time when augmented reality is enjoying a spell of popularity courtesy of Pokémon Go; but without that kind of massive IP to drive its marketing, merely the wonderfully colourful and somewhat surreal visuals that Takahashi's fans have come to expect, it's not like the game is about to follow in said record-setter's monstrous footsteps. And Robin sees this problem of visibility, of public accessibility and appetite for something left of the expected, not just as a headache for Funomena, but everyone making games outside of the triple-A sphere.
"There are a lot of very different games out there, but as an industry we're not so good at presenting that in our marketing, and our PR, and the stories that we write. And that's what really carries this medium forward – how people perceive it. How many games get covered that are radically different from whatever else is around? How many of them are featured on the front of the online stores? How many are appearing in top ten lists? When your top ten lists are based on sales, and sales are influenced by marketing budgets, you're only rarely going to see a Papers, Please or That Dragon, Cancer, or Firewatch or even The Witness, right up there amongst the most popular games. And I think it's on us to change that.
"Wouldn't it be great if anyone could make the next Minecraft, or the next Journey, or the next Papers, Please? If independently made games keep growing in popularity, and we keep on expanding the marketplace – because there are a lot of people right now who don't play indie games at all – then that'd be amazing. Let's do that."
One way of doing that would be for distribution channels to place greater emphasis on highlighting experiences that are so far from the norm. "Why not have an innovation tab in online stores?" she asks, rhetorically. "Maybe the labels we're using are out of date. What are they, like, twenty, thirty years old?"
Those labels don't just mean "action", "adventure", "puzzle" or "sports"; Robin's talking about the language that flows through every way that the gaming industry presents itself, how it reflects and addresses issues that eat away at its insides.
"I think it's just about living the values that we want to live, and saying the things that we want to focus on, rather than reacting to older labels that may or may not be appropriate." – Robin Hunicke
"I've been to the White House on this initiative called Computer Science For All, and I try to volunteer for it whenever I can. That's full of fantastic people, and the last time I was there I met with the Chief Technology Officer of the United States, Megan Smith, and she was talking about Maria Klawe's work at Harvey Mudd, and she's been promoting an idea that when people come into the college, as programmers, they get divided into two groups: people who've already programmed a lot, and people who haven't at all.
"So you have experts, and beginners – two safe communities. It's not about gender, or race, or class – it's about how much experience you have. Then, in both of those groups, unconscious bias is being removed from the learning cycle. In this exercise, you will help the robot move rocks into a pile. That's one version. In this exercise, you will help the robot move the groceries from the kart into the boot of the car. The same exercise, essentially. Then in this exercise, you'll help the girls from Frozen move these snow bricks over here so they can build a castle. Same exact programming. Separate the frame from the exercise, separate the communities into beginner and expert, and they're at parity in six years.
"So let's do that across gaming – separate the gender and the cultural status of developers from their work, and from the way we write about it, and the financing, and the relationship of scale from our evaluation of its innovative qualities, and use better vocabulary. We do all that, and in ten years, we'll have moved very far away from the problems of having to discuss things like gender imbalance in the industry, and towards a situation where our values – the things that we value – are reflected in the things that we write, and the way that we give awards, and the way that we promote.
"I think it's just about living the values that we want to live, and saying the things that we want to focus on, rather than reacting to older labels that may or may not be appropriate. There's always going to be room for great art, and room for new experiences. And, if you invest in those experiences, the chances are that one in ten, or one in twenty, will deliver a really big return, on a level with a game like The Witness, or Journey. But it's impossible for one, small person to really know how we proceed."
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Impossible at an individual level, maybe, but Robin's words are essential food for thought for what could, or should, happen on a united front. During our time together I ask for her opinion on how to bring more women into the making and marketing of video games – but as she so neatly elucidates in her answer to me, I'm really speaking to the wrong person. And in many ways, video gaming is constantly asking the wrong questions to the wrong people.
Want to get more women into games? Go and speak to the guys that hold the keys to those positions, not the women knocking on the doors. Want to see more innovative, independent games being played alongside the big-budget shooters and sports sims? Consider why those cover-grabbing games are enjoying such heightened visibility, and if you need to add to their oxygen of hype at the expense of something genuinely new. We could all be better at supporting games-makers who want to progress this medium in all the right ways – through sharing, through inventing, through fun, rather than rinsing and repeating what's known to "work". Robin Hunicke is just one of many people wanting to encourage change in the way we work within and relate to video games, but it's exciting to imagine what'll happen when all of the voices around hers, singing equally inspiring songs, do band together.
Find out more about Funomena's projects at the company's website, here.
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