Robin Hunicke: 'I think of Funomena as a process, not a fixed entity'

GameDaily sat down with Funomena's co-founder to talk about emotions in games, diversity, and how co-ops could be a good studio structure for indies.

Studios in this fast-paced industry have to be nimble and adaptable if they want to survive. Having a vision is important, but the ability to operate fluidly rather than adhering to a very rigid approach can be the difference between keeping the lights on and paying your staff or facing closure. This mindset is what has allowed Luna and Wattam developer Funomena to succeed over the last seven years. 

GameDaily caught up with Funomena co-founder Robin Hunicke after her participation in The Strong National Museum of Play’s Women in Games event. We spoke at length with Hunicke a year ago when Funomena was reflecting on its mission statement and stressing the importance of making games sustainably while scaling appropriately. Hunicke is constantly thinking about her studio’s approach to development, and with Wattam (from Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi) shipping this holiday, it was the perfect time to discuss how Funomena manages to tackle multiple projects while still respecting employees’ day-to-day lives.

“I really like the idea of building a company that is a little bit more about serving and helping people change and find their right path, than trying to keep everybody on lock down,” Hunicke emphasized. 

“Funomena actually has several teams that work on different types of games and Keita's team was about seven people, seven to 10 depending on the time of the development cycle. We have teams working on [Oculus] Quest games, teams working on other titles that are not announced. And the design of the company is really around building a safe and inclusive place for people to express themselves in a creative endeavor that they like. And we really do try to let those teams drive themselves. One of the hardest things about working on a collaborative team, is building an environment of trust. We really value that and I think we really have tried to focus the studio on creating and retaining people who create an opportunity for people to share their true selves at work.”

As it turns out, this philosophy was a perfect fit for Takahashi, who had coincidentally been looking to move to the United States. Hunicke said that this has afforded him the opportunity to converse with more creatives from the U.S. and around the world. 

“Over the course of working on Wattam, [Takahashi] has been able to have a child in the United States. He's got a green card and visas and stuff and been able to sort of expand his horizons by being able to sort of participate in the creative community here in the U.S., which is really amazing,” she said. “And we have employees who've come from Venezuela, Puerto Rico. We have people that have grown up in different countries and then moved over here to go to college and eventually ended up in Funomena. We have people that have come to Funomena, gone off to other companies and come back. We have people that are doing sort of private consulting and also working for us, we have people in Brazil that worked for us, people that work in LA. So we've really tried to build a model that's extremely diverse.”

Funomena isn’t quite a revolving door, but the key is that for every project, Hunicke, and co-founder Martin Middleton, decide what the team needs to look like. “So the answer is, it is what it needs to be for the project when it needs to be that, and then it moves on,” Hunicke said.

“I think of Funomena as a process, not as a fixed entity. And that's very helpful because you've got to make mistakes in order to learn. And so not everything you do is going to work out, but also you really need to be flexible because the industry changes so rapidly. When we started the business, if you told me I was going to build a business that was seven years old, had runway and was building VR and AR experiences as well as PlayStation and Xbox titles, I would've said, ‘That sounds bizarre to me. Why would you do all those things?’ But as it turns out, we have been able to attract the right kinds of talent, for the right kinds of projects, at the right time. And that is much more a collaborative or collective. Some people will stay for a very long time and some people come in and go out.”

The idea of a collective is somewhat similar to the co-op structure that The Glory Society advocates for. Given the games industry’s ongoing struggle with crunch and layoffs, there’s real merit in the idea that a studio should be operated democratically in all aspects. Giving one or a handful of executives absolute power, means the majority of staff at a studio are at their mercy. And without unionization, that puts some developers in a very tough spot.

Hunicke pointed to her own experience as a professor at UC Santa Cruz as an example of how a co-op could be helpful to some, but also very challenging.

“It's a democratized faculty driven governance system. And so it's a model for how, at many levels of the organization, a decision is made collaboratively by faculty who volunteer to serve on committees. And there are two things that are true about those kinds of environments. One, everyone does have a say if they put the time and energy into it. And two, it takes a lot of time and energy to get things done. And so, one of the biggest challenges for collaborative game developers -- and there are some that have developed over the years, predominantly outside of the U.S. -- is it's hard for them to make decisions quickly,” Hunicke explained.

“You really have to be able to build in the runway or the business model, to run the business more slowly. But let's say for, whatever reason, you made a game, like Minecraft, and did really well, it made millions and millions and millions of dollars, until you were a millionaire and many, many times over and now you had this giant franchise and instead of selling it to Microsoft, you decided to build a collaborative. You're going to distribute the value to the company, to everyone that worked on it, which would eventually be quite a lot of people. But you were going to give everybody a say. You would have the runway to do it and then it would really just become a process of understanding shared governance. And shared governance is not easy. If you look at the history of the collaborative, of the kibbutz, of truly socialist governments, it's very difficult to get everybody in and to do the work and have everyone contribute and feel satisfied with every decision.”

Hunicke advised that for developers going down this road, it’s imperative to build a culture where people understand that things might take time or might not be perfect all the time. 

“It's a very large philosophical difference between a market driven capitalist society where everyone's looking at the bottom line,” she continued. “And so I think that the best way to succeed at a truly collaborative, completely flat organization, is to keep it relatively small, to work with people that you know you get along with and respect, because there has to be trust. And then to make sure that you have the time to go slow. Because if you try to rush decisions in a collaborative environment, it almost always leaves someone out in the cold. And that's just group dynamics. That's group psychology.”

Hunicke believes that this system could work for the small indies, the prototypical two-person or three-person setup. She’s also been thinking a lot about more decentralized studios and allowing more people to work from home (which Funomena supports). Giving people the freedom to get up and go gardening or exercise or take care of their kids makes them happier and more productive. And that, in turn, should fuel their creativity. 

Much like Jenova Chen and her former studio, Thatgamecompany, Hunicke encourages a different creative mindset, one that’s more tied to a person’s emotions. Developers always consider if their game is fun, but how often do they think about how their game makes someone feel?

“I think that the biggest limitation when you're making a video game, at the very beginning, is your imagination,” Hunicke said.. “It's also the biggest danger. But you can imagine too much or you can imagine very, very little. And I think that the challenge, especially for young people when they're starting to make games, is that they lean on what they've already played. And I really try to encourage them to think about things they haven't played yet, imagine worlds they haven't seen yet, imagine futures they would want to live in and then try to build those futures into their games. 

“Instead of thinking about games as what you've already seen, think about them as potential dreams that you could be having and think about the feelings that those dreams could give you, and really designed for the feeling. Journey was designed to give people a sense of awe and wonder towards the unknown, and also a sense of genuine human connection with a stranger online. Luna, which is the last game that we shipped out of that out of Funomena, is about giving people the chance to understand that only by letting go of trauma, can you become whole again.”

If done right, game mechanics can elicit emotions from players even without an explicit narrative. 

“There are ways in which you can understand narratives in games from the feelings of the mechanics that are in them, if you look at something like Gorogoa… or even something like the Untitled Goose game,” Hunicke remarked. “It's fun to play a mischievous goose because it gives you a chance to wreak havoc without being violent. And in a world where violence is everywhere, a funny way of wreaking havoc, feels safe and fun. And the feeling is joyful, even though you're being a jerk. And so really thinking about feeling-first games is a way of thinking about the kind of customer experiences you want to create or that you would want to have.”

Wattam ships this December for PS4 and PC
Wattam ships this December for PS4 and PC

Given the current state of the world and society, and seemingly endless online toxicity, it’s even more important for developers to think of how their players might be feeling, Hunicke said.

“I'm not really into very stressful experiences that demand me to pay a lot of attention or act very quickly because I do that all day,” she added. “And especially in these news cycles. You really have to think about where people are in terms of their internal setting.”

Part of making games sustainably comes down to the act of simply making good business deals as a studio. Funomena has previously announced that the PC version of Wattam will be exclusive to the Epic Games Store. Epic has been in the position of defending itself against angry consumers who don’t think it’s fair for the store to snag these exclusives, but as far as most developers are concerned, Epic is offering a good deal, especially considering the 88/12 revenue split and guaranteed minimums. And when you’re trying to do things the smart way, why wouldn’t you take the best deal for your game and your team?

“I really think that every developer has the right to make the decisions about where their games go. And a lot of those decisions are going to be motivated by whether or not they can continue to operate their studio,” Hunicke stated bluntly. “So if you want the games and you want to pay for the games, it's probably good for the developers. And they'll probably say yes. That's true, no matter who's paying the checks. If it's Apple Arcade, then it's Apple Arcade. If it's Stadia, then it's Stadia. If it's Epic, it's Epic. If it's Steam, so far they haven't been doing it, but if they got in, then maybe they get some exclusives. Microsoft and Sony have done this for years, and it's always good for developers when they can get cash to make sure that they can make another game. It's very simple to me.

“If you can put yourselves in the shoes of a person that's running a studio, that's employees with health care, and children they need to feed and houses they need to pay for, and cars they need to pay for, and parents they need to take care of, and all the things that happen when you have employees. I think it makes it a little bit easier to understand why people take the money.”

Hunicke is proof positive of how game studios can lead by example when women are given equal opportunities. The unfortunate reality, however, is that society continues to undervalue women, and when it comes to much needed venture capital to launch new game studios, women only receive under three percent of all funding, according to Second Avenue Learning’s Victoria Van Voorhis, who spoke at 2018’s Women in Games event at The Strong.

“Capital needs to invest in women led studios and games that appeal to women,” Hunicke stressed. “And also women need to be paid an equal wage. Women are paid 70 cents on the dollar in the U.S. alone, and in many countries, it's much worse. Women need to be paid an equal wage. That's where we start… It's discriminatory and it's wrong. And then once you get past that, people who are investing, should be trying to invest in diverse founders and creators, so that they can expand their marketplace, because that's exactly what that does. And it's proven, when you look at female founders especially, that women who get the investment make more money over time than men. It's just true. And the numbers are there, women make more money. Their products appeal to more people because they include the 50% of the market that many men forget.”

Hunicke, who also works in an advisory capacity with Magic Leap, is excited about the impact of technologies like AR/VR, and she is optimistic that something like AR can be used on a practical level to reduce energy consumption and combat climate change. In The Strong Museum of Play, for example, there are numerous screens and projectors used for exhibits that run constantly. These could one day be replaced with AR glasses visitors wear.

“It's unfair to ask [young people] to solve the problem, when they didn't create it. And I think it's incredibly important for governments and universities and cities and companies that make the technologies of the future, to pay attention to youth,” Hunicke said. “They are smarter and more aware than many of the people they're complaining about, because they don't have any reason to lie to themselves. And looking at the future right now, a lot of my students are extremely concerned. It's like we were saying on the panel, they're worried about making the wrong move, because it seems the number of moves is getting narrower and narrower and I think this is a very, very important thing for adults my age and older to recognize and understand.

“Let's not have a future where we have to use VR glasses to see what the world used to look like when you could play outside.”

Funomena has yet to announce its next major project, and while Hunicke didn’t want to give away the details, she has said that it’s a game that will leverage AI more heavily (Hunicke is ABD on a PhD in AI). 

“I actually think just even as simple a thing as expanding on the matchmaking that we did in Journey, and really looking at what it means to match players together and understanding how players develop affinities towards one another, and why they play together, which takes a lot of learning, [AI will be helpful],” she teased. “So I hope to really build a community of play that is safe and inclusive.”

The dedication and passion that Hunicke has for game development and shepherding the next generation of talent is infectious. If the industry can come together to create more studios led by women like Hunicke, the industry’s future will be in very good hands.

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Editor-at-large

James has been covering the games industry since the early 2000s and was most recently the editor of GamesIndustry.biz. He loves Zelda, Metroidvania-style games, action adventure and single-player narratives. He's also the proud father of twin boys and is obsessed with good coffee and Yankees baseball. You can reach him @bright_pixels on Twitter or you can email him at james.brightman@gamedaily.biz.

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