Lead Producer Robin Hunicke: Don’t Stop Believin’

In art (and games) as in life, it’s not about the destination, but the expedition. Robin Hunicke, lead producer at thatgamecompany, talks about her unconventional Journey.

As game concepts go, it’s about as minimalist as you’re ever likely to find: You wake up in the middle of a desert. You see a mountain in the distance, and you begin moving toward it, encountering people along the way who may (or may not) be able to help you on your way.

Robin Hunicke can totally relate. It’s not often you end up as lead producer on a game that mirrors your own life experience, but Hunicke finds herself in that unusual and interesting position. She’s working on Journey, the upcoming PlayStation 3 game from San Francisco-based thatgamecompany. Like Flower, the TGC Zen masterpiece based around collecting floating petals that helped redefine gamers’ sense of narrative, in-game goals and feedback, Journey is unlike just about anything you’ve seen or played. The tactile experience of walking through shifting sands provides the narrative backdrop to a story whose ending (or purpose) isn’t at all clear.

Hunicke can relate to that, too. She wasn’t supposed to be a game designer. She was supposed to pursue an arts scholarship. And then she was supposed to be a computer programmer. And then an academic. But instead of taking the obvious path, Hunicke ended up heading to the University of Chicago, where she ended up taking, of all things, a computer science class to fulfill a humanities requirement.

It’s a choice that put her on the front edge of academic game research—she holds a position at Northwestern, where her work lands at the intersection of how game design incorporates actions and consequences —and also put her behind the development scenes of big-ticket game franchises like The Sims, MySims and Boom Blox. Just like the robed nomad in Journey, at every turn her path has led her into contact with individuals who’ve inspired and refined her vision of who she is. Game luminaries like Warren Spector, Henry Jenkins, Will Wright and her current co-worker/colleague Jenova Chen have each, in their turn, influenced her thinking about big-picture gaming concepts like narrative form and AI system design.

Now, more than a decade into a career that’s explored multiple sides of the game development prism, it’s like Hunicke has finally reached the mountain.

All she has to do is keep climbing.

Get In Media: Your research has focused on the notion that fate and consequences can have a profound impact on narrative flow. Tell me how you decided to pursue that, and how it led you to video games.
Robin Hunicke: My undergraduate work culminated in the idea that we have a way to study narrative, the way people tell stories, as a way of learning about our culture and society—but also promoting this idea that all stories are the same, they all come from the same place. The idea that people are the same was the fundamental underpinning of my approach to life … we are all coming from the same place, regardless of the culture we’re from.

So my academic advisor at Northwestern suggested that I should come to this conference in Connecticut where these people were studying narrative intelligence—Michael Mattias and number of influential researchers in the field of AI and computer sciences were discussing how to tell stories in an interactive context like computer gaming. I met those people, but I also met another person who was going to another conference in New York later in the week. So I went to this other conference and it was boring— not at all as exciting as the narrative conference. But it happened that there was a group of people gathering just down the street, and my friend said, “Let’s just go there. [NYU professor] Eric Zimmerman is having a conference called Replay— it’s about video games.” That’s where I met Bernie Yee and Doug Church [Looking Glass Studios/Eidos], guys that were working in the games industry, who were, as it turned out, interested in exactly the same things I was. Through those relationships, I was invited to the 2000 Game Developers Conference. 
GIM: You’ve said that GDC was one of those “a-ha” moments people are always talking about.
RH: All of the random events of my life suddenly seemed to make sense. I was interested in gaming. I was working in simulations. I had this background as an artist and had become a scientist. Here were people that were all polymath, talented, interested in video games—which were for the most part trivialized in my educational background and in the social environments in which I walked. Here were people who were just like me, doing the same thing, only better. [I thought], this is it.
GIM: Eventually, you ended up at Electronic Arts. How’d that end up happening?
RH: I started to think about applying for a job as a game developer. I had no experience: I was 30 at the time and I had never had a job in my life. I’d been a waitress, but I’d never really had a “job-job” where you have a boss and get reviewed and there’s a salary. In 2005, I was recruited out of school to go work at the Sims division. I interviewed around EA. I did some horrible interviews with the Medal of Honor team—the worst I ever did. I tried to convince them to make a game about Street Angel, a comic I was into at the time. At the end of the interview, the guy was like, “I don’t think you’re a fit for MOH.”

‘The best decision in my career was taking the lowest entry-level job I could take.’

Eventually, I ended up at The Sims, which really seemed like the place for me. I became an object designer. I worked on the Sims 2 expansion pack Open for Business. When people ask me, “What was the best decision in your career?” I tell them it was going to the Sims division and taking the lowest entry-level job I could take. Of all the jobs I was offered, the best thing was to take this job with clear boundaries, a clear goal in mind and a short goal in mind. Five months later, there was a product on the shelf that I had contributed to in a significant way.
GIM: What did that experience teach you about what you wanted to do next?
RH: What I found was that I was very hungry to do design. I wanted to do original design, not just work on objects for a system that had already been designed. I was granted my wish—I became the lead designer of MySims, the first Sims game for the Wii. The franchise has moved millions of units—which is great. But I’ll be totally honest—I was not ready for that job. I thought I was, and I wasn’t. And it was probably the lowest point of my career. From an exterior perspective, it was everything I had ever wanted and I was really able to see the world and travel and meet Sims fans and do focus groups in Japan, help the character designer get her amazing designs promoted. I was able to avert some disasters in the design. But for the most part, I felt like my contributions seemed very small, because I wasn’t prepared for a leadership role. I’d never had any training. The structure wasn’t in place at EA to take a grad student with good ideas and turn her into a strong, confident leader. The one thing I’m really proud of is that the core mechanic of building things and giving them away stayed through the entire game. I still think that’s great.
GIM: I’m sensing this recurring theme in your life where fate intervenes to create connections that end up moving you forward—not unlike the subject of your research. Did your next chapter follow that pattern?
RH: It sort of did. I had a long break after working on EA’s Boom Blox and Boom Blox Bash Party, and I went on a trip to Bhutan where I climbed over a giant mountain, 16,000 feet—which for me, an aspiring mountain climber, was pretty insane. I trained hard, but I wasn’t ready. When I got over the mountain and started walking down back to my life, I realized I needed to make a change. I pretty much exploded my life—I broke up with my boyfriend, I moved out of our apartment, I got a new roommate, I started thinking about how I would transition my career. At the time I was getting together with Kellee Santiago (co-founder of thatgamecompany) and she started to say, “Maybe you should come work with us.” TGC’s Jenova Chen got in touch and said, “I have this idea I want to show you; I think you’re going to want to work on it.” And he revealed Journey to me. And I saw it and knew it was the next game for me—it’s a game where you go over a mountain. Once again, the universe is providing the force to move in the right direction.

GIM: How are the games you find yourself working on now different than the ones you worked on when you first broke into the industry?
RH: I felt like the early part of my career was spent trying to create systems that created this meaning—reactive systems, AI that would expose this narrative. The thing I’ve realized in working on Journey is that it’s unlike the games I worked on before, which all had editors and all had a system of reactions—Boom Blox and Bash Party were super physics simulations. MySims and The Sims are super people simulators you can interact and build with. Journey is not a simulation game. It doesn’t have simulation at that level, where you see agents changing or you see the behavior of things changing. But it has a simulation system at the lowest possible level—in the environment, in the wind, in the sand, in the way fabric moves. I have realized being here that you can also create that same sense of consequence on the lowest level possible just by giving people the dynamic feedback of a really juicy environment.

I’m also realizing that for a long time, my work has focused on games that were mechanically innovative. Mechanical experiments, games that tried to recreate systems that the player could play with and see physically changing and visually moving in front of them. I’ve pulled a little bit away from that and am trying to think through this other side of the relationship—the soft side, the “feel” side, or “juiciness” as we call it here—that kind of granularity in the feedback. And how that can be experimental as well. In my research, I was pretty dogmatic for a long time: If it wasn’t a smart AI system the player could shape explicitly through action, basically boss around and then see the consequences, it couldn’t have meaning. Now I feel that there’s another way to go about it. I imagine I’ll move back toward the center: There’s a lot to learn in terms of what dynamics has to offer to a player. It doesn’t just have to come explicitly from game mechanics. I definitely feel very open to learning about that right now.
GIM: Are there other titles, other publishers that you think are tracking with this type of approach as well?
RH: The current landscape is rife with possibilities. If you manage the Sims franchise and can create a Facebook game that takes the experience of The Sims and makes it available to people in a format where their friends can comment and interact digitally, you’ve got what you wanted to create in The Sims Online for free. I don’t know if the larger publishers will take advantage in a way that energizes their communities or whether, as we’ve seen with a lot of the Zynga games, people are going to get their lunch eaten.
GIM: They have made a pretty impressive splash in the casual space.
RH: Zynga is very successful at implementing things that are core to games like Harvest Moon and The Sims in Farmville and Frontierville. You look at those games and it’s the same mechanics, the same concepts, but they’re implemented in way that’s a little bit more simple, a little bit more accessible, and a lot more open in terms of exploring how you game with other people. That’s a huge win for the player. I recently read an online article that rated Zynga’s valuation above EA’s, something like $5.51 billion. Zynga’s not publicly traded, so there was a big debate on the thread—is it fair to say they create more value than EA? That’s a very interesting discussion. I had to sit back and think—does this mean that community, that access to all those people, is that what we value, is that what games are going to be about in the future? Or are we going to find this other renaissance of games that are both activated in the social space but also create the same kind of choice paradigms that Deus Ex or Thief or System Shock has?

Which is better? I couldn’t tell you, but as a gamer, as a person who’s passionately come from a community of people who have spent their lives trying to create meaningful simulations that create consequence and choice and feeling in their players, I would really like to see the latter. I would love to see the experts in building big-box retail games learn from others and make something dynamic that goes beyond the norm in terms of reaching players.
GIM: Are there games out there right now that do that particularly well?
RH: I think games like Braid and what’s coming with The Witness, these are the efforts I want to see. Even with something like Limbo, when you play it, it’s a pretty punishing thought-former—the mechanics themselves aren’t very advanced, but the environment, the ambience they’ve created is amazing. I’m looking for their third or fourth game. I can’t wait to play that.   Get In Media


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