The Funomena: When All You Can Make Are Games
It is difficult to predict what exactly Funomena has in store. They’re a team of developers with backgrounds creating games like The Sims, Journey, Noby Noby Boy, Katamari Damacy, Flower, and The Walking Dead - just to name a few. Things like "kittens", "monkeys", "Origami", and "sunshine" top the team's list of Favorites. They have a logo made of blocks in their office that they prefer to their print logo - and actually it would be better if you didn’t use their print logo at all, now that you mention it.
The Funomena ingredients include fair wages, a positive working environment, feeling first game design - and the final product? Currently, three unannounced games. There’s no screenshots that can be shared, no trailers, no press releases touting bulleted features and using “robust” and “immersive” the requisite number of times before the “# # #”.
That’s Funomena, and it’s a bit like a dinner prep conversation with my 2 year old where the patience-testing refrain is, “No, I’m afraid you can’t eat it yet”. Some things are just best experienced fully realized (like uncooked pasta).
Robin Hunicke, “We prefer to see the word built in the real world .“ That’s Funomena.
“We are working on 3 unannounced titles that span a variety of platforms from console to iOS to VR! We are really looking forward to announce these games, starting this fall. Until then, we encourage people to sign up for our mailing list - which they can find at www.funomena.com, to follow us on twitter (@funomena) and on facebook!” - Robin Hunicke, Co-Founder and CEO
Cat: What is the Funomena origin story?
Robin Hunicke, Co-Founder and CEO: Martin and I met in 2009, when I joined ThatGameCompany as the Executive Producer on Journey. We worked closely together throughout the project’s 3-year development cycle, and spent a lot of time discussing our values and dreams. After Journey shipped, we decided to start a company together here in San Francisco.
We knew that we wanted to build a studio where people earned a fair living wage & shared in the profits. We wanted to build a culture where respect and trust were core values. And we wanted to work with cool people, on projects that encouraged exploration, expression and empathy.
In the fall of 2012 we began gathering people to work on a small non-profit project in collaboration with the NSF and UC Davis. Then we began working on prototypes for a couple of commercial games and pitched them around to funders. Eventually, we had enough momentum to bring people on board full time… and Funomena was born!
Looking back, it’s amazing how many people reached out to help us along the way. We are so grateful for the help and support of friends, family and colleagues within the industry. Without them, Funomena would still be a daydream.
Cat: Who is Funomena?
Robin: At this exact moment in time, we are:
We currently have the pleasure of collaborating with Steve Mason, Eran Hilleli, Gabriele Bromin and Austin Wintory. We also have two awesome summer interns: John Oliver and Isaiah Reed. There are a few new Funomenauts coming to join us in the fall – but for now, that’s it! It's an amazing crew, and we are always on the lookout for new explorers.
Cat: The team has a “past projects” list that includes Journey, Flower, The Walking Dead, Katamari Damacy, to name a few. What is the common thread that brings you together and informs your current projects? What makes the list of “never again”?
Robin: The most common thread is our interest in making games that are different. We believe that games are a powerful medium of expression, and that they can express almost anything. “The potential depth of experience in playing games is very inspiring - and there are so many paths of engagement yet to discover,” says Eileen Hollinger. “I believe video games are still in a young stage as a medium, and it's an exciting time to be exploring the landscape.“
In terms of our “never again” list – we believe happy, healthy people make better games than tired, overworked, isolated people. So we are committed to building a company that respects people’s time and effort. That means working together as a team to minimize unnecessary stress and maximize transparency and trust in each other.
What’s more, we believe this feeds back into the games themselves. “Emotions can be contagious, and games are very good at initiating them,” says our design & code hero Charlie Hugenard. “The folks at Funomena strive to be loving, kind, and compassionate individuals, so they want to make games that make people feel good. When people are feeling good, they'll pass it on to the people around them, which ends up making the world a better place!”
Cat: Robin, you’ve spoken about “feeling first” game design. Can you talk a bit about that, what led you to this principle and what does it look like in practice?
Robin: Games are made of mechanics (rules) that create dynamics (behavior of the game) as the player interacts with the system. Over time, the dynamics produce an aesthetic experience (emotional outcome) within the player. Thinking about games using this approach (the MDA model) lets us evaluate them in terms of how games create feelings instead of what kind of rules or behaviors are in them. So instead of saying “Journey is a narrative puzzle game” we can say “Journey gives players feelings of fellowship with other travelers as they explore a beautiful, fantasy world and uncover its underlying narrative”.
In practice, we are always asking ourselves what we want the player to feel when they play. If we want them to feel a sense of whimsical fun, then we need to build in opportunities to discover new, silly behaviors in the game’s characters. If we want to give them the feeling of healing, then we need to expose them to crooked systems or characters that they can transform and re-shape into something better. Feeling first design helps us stay focused on the WHY of what we are building, which guides us to the right HOW.
Cat: How do you think the landscape of gaming has changed in recent years?
Robin: We have been thinking a lot about how new technologies are expanding the kinds of games we can make. For example, there are advances in sensing technology (like touch devices or 3D cameras), input devices (pedometers and EEG headsets) and display technologies (VR or AR displays) emerging now that can change how we create, evaluate and experience games. That means we can explore new ideas, reach new players – and empower new creators. Increasing the diversity of experiences and voices in our medium is very, very exciting to us.
Cat: What does being an independent developer mean to you?
Robin: For us, being independent means focusing on the things that we want to build as a collective, instead of trying to chase trends within the marketplace because we are owned by shareholders who demand profit over everything else. Because we are independent, we can push to explore the boundaries of game design, to make the things that surprise and delight us - and our players.
Cat: Why do you make games? How would you describe your game design philosophy?
Robin: As a group, we really do believe that making games gives you the opportunity to broaden the experience of others – and we take that pretty seriously. As an animator, Ryan finds this idea essential to his contribution.
“I want to give people an opportunity to explore imaginative worlds and see things that they can't experience elsewhere. I want to make people smile, laugh, and have fun… while challenging their imagination.”-Ryan Mohler, Animator
We also believe in leaving room for the player to interpret the game’s overall meaning.
“A good design should not force an idea down the player's throat. Instead it should introduce some ideas and allow each person to digest and conclude in their own way. Good design should also be intuitive and a pleasure to use. Overly contrived or clever designs can get in the way of the core meaning of the experience.” - Brad Fotsch, Sound Designer
Many of us have found release in playing and exploring games with others.
“Game worlds have given me a safe place to escape many times in my life, and in a richer way than books, films, and other non-interactive media. I make games hoping that other people can find solace in them.” Charlie Huguenard, Builder
In a way, we make games because it feels like we should. Keita says it best: “I make games because that is only thing that I can make.”
Day 27 | Funomena