PSX: How Journey Turned Competition into Collaboration

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Journey isn’t like other multiplayer games. Instead of racking up killstreaks or competing for high scores, players simply walk toward a mountain, exploring their surroundings and collecting pieces of cloth. Occasionally, a stranger joins in. Players never learn each other’s names and can only communicate through song. They’ll explore together, but never physically interact. Players build bonds by sharing an experience – once the game’s over, that sense of connection remains, even though the participants will never see each other again.

It’s a strangely effective experience, and combined with the game’s simple mechanics, seems effortless. It wasn’t. At Sony’s PlayStation Experience on December 6 and 7, Journey producer Robin Hunicke described many of the problems developer Thatgamecompany faced while trying to craft a positive multiplayer experience. After all, most gamers are competitive by nature, and “If people have the opportunity to give each other negative feedback, they do it.”

Even before development started, Hunicke and Journey director Jenova Chen knew that they wanted to create a game that brought people together. Inspired by a piece of art Chen produced in grad school, they conceived a game based around a pilgrimage, with the aim of making something “that built a feeling of connection and togetherness because of [a shared]destination.”

But early versions of the game didn’t bring people together at all. The first version of Journey was a four-player, top-down adventure title developed in Flash, with crude graphics and a limited color palette. Users could only communicate by playing a single musical note, but that didn’t stop them from dividing into two-on-two or three-on-one teams. Inevitably, at least one player would get left behind.

Even worse, players would antagonize each other for no reason. They’d knock each other around and push other players into enemies or bottomless pits. It was aggressive and competitive – the exact opposite of Chen’s vision.

Still, while Hunicke considers the early prototype a failure, it did lead to one crucial breakthrough: developers could build a sense of community via aesthetics, rather than gameplay. One version of the prototype zoomed out the in-game camera when players were in groups, revealing more of the game world. According to Hunicke, “We were playing with the idea that information would become more transparent when you were with someone else.” Mechanically, nothing changed, but players stayed together anyway because they wanted to see more of the world.

The zooming feature didn’t last very long, but the thought process behind it did. Game development ran almost a year and a half behind schedule, and the team still had one big problem. In order to guide players through Journey’s sprawling desert, the team dropped scraps of fabric, or flags, to serve as “weenies” – a game developer term for collectible objects that attract players’ attention and encourage them to move forward.

“People were reporting in their playtests that they didn’t like competing with other people for flags,” Hunicke said. Gathering flags made a player’s scarf grow longer; collect enough flags and they could even fly. According to Hunicke, players would get jealous when their partners collected flags before them, and would race to collect them first. Instead of a collaborative adventure, Journey became a contest to see who could amass the longest scarf. Again, that’s not exactly what Hunicke and Chen had in mind.

Chen proposed a mechanical fix, limiting the number of flags players could collect. Hunicke said that helped reduce competition, but didn’t eliminate it entirely. Eventually, Hunicke stumbled on a more elegant solution: since each player was using a different display, developers simply didn’t sync the flags across multiple systems, allowing both players to collect the same objects.

The fix worked. Hunicke says that when the other player rushes ahead to collect flags on his or her own display, “It looks to me like you led me to treasure, and it looks to me like I got the treasure.” In this way, selfish behavior appears benevolent, and gamers’ competitive impulses transform into collaborative actions. It’s a subtle, purely aesthetic change, but one that perfectly supports the theme and atmosphere that Hunicke and Chen aimed to create.

Chen collaborated with art director Matt Nava, sound designer Steve Johnson, and composer Austin Wintory to bring the game’s unique environment to life. The development team’s hard work certainly paid off during the 2013 BAFTA Awards – Journey received top honors in the Game Design, Artistic Achievement, Audio Achievement, Original Music, and Online Multiplayer categories.

After Journey, Hunicke left Thatgamecompany for Tiny Speck, and recently started her own company, Funomena. While Hunicke can’t say much about the title, she mentioned that she recently had a similar “a-ha” moment while working on Keita Takahashi’s new game, Wattam. That’s exciting, she says, because after all, “Sometimes the worst thing in the game for the longest period of time… becomes the thing that makes the game what it is.”

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