GDC 2013: Designing Journey

Journey feature
Journey feature

Jenova Chen’s talk at the 2013 Game Developer’s Conference opened to thunderous, prolonged applause. The night before, his game Journey swept the Game Developers Choice Awards with six wins, including Game of the Year. These join a long and impressive list of accolades that includes five BAFTAs, eight D.I.C.E. awards, three VGAs, and numerous others (including our Aggie Award for Best Console Adventure).

An hour later, near the end of his talk about Journey’s grueling three-year development, Chen admitted, “Before the award season I still questioned whether it was worth it.”

The team that made Journey.

Journey is the third game from Chen’s studio thatgamecompany, whose other releases include flOw and flower (all PlayStation 3 exclusives funded by Sony). Chen started his talk by explaining that he sees the entertainment industry as a means to fulfill human desires—you eat food when you’re hungry and drink water when you’re thirsty, and when you’re craving a specific emotion, that’s when you turn to entertainment. But most games focus on the same few emotions. “When we started thatgamecompany, we wanted to push the boundaries of what kind of emotion games can communicate to players. We thought if there’s a variety of feelings available in gaming, it will make gaming a more healthy medium, and it will help people feel something new,” Chen said.

He first had the idea for Journey in 2006, when he’d been playing World of WarCraft for about three years (initially as an alpha tester) and was starting to get sick of it. Busy with school, he had almost no social life, so being online with real people playing WoW made him feel less lonely. But he wanted to have an emotional exchange with other players, and most other players were more interested in talking about strategy or loot than forging a friendship. Chen imagined a game with no enemies to kill, where people could forget competition and focus on the fact that we’re all human. He believed that not even gender or age should get in the way of building a personal bond: “When I feel a connection to someone in WoW and then learn it’s a 12 year old boy, it’s such a disappointment.”

The more Chen played WoW, the more he realized that he had no real bond with other players: “It just reminded me I was a lonely person. It was kind of sad. I wished there was a different kind of game out there that could give me that connection.”

With WoW as his reference point, he envisioned an MMO where everyone would be on a path searching for something. He imagined a scenario where one person was standing on a bridge looking at a waterfall and another would stop to think about why the other player was looking there, with the act of pausing next to someone making that moment meaningful for both of them. Another early vision was of a group of people approaching a dust cloud with monsters lurking beyond; players would need to hold hands to make their way through the dust, with each person in the chain protecting the one behind them.

The opportunity to make Journey didn’t arise until 2009, after thatgamecompany had finished flower and felt ready to tackle online gameplay. Chen was excited to figure out how to induce a new emotion between two strangers online, but he wasn’t entirely sure what that emotion should be. He looked at popular co-op games, which mainly involved team fights or team survival, but kept hearing from players of those games how much they hated other online players. He wanted Journey to make players trust each other, not hate each other.

As seen in these early concepts, Chen originally envisioned a game where a team of players would help each other along a quest.

He started to formulate Journey’s story of lone travelers crossing a desert to reach a distant mountain after speaking to astronauts about the experience of going into space. “Apparently the ones who go to the moon come back and become very religious. There’s something very spiritual about it,” Chen explained. “I met the guy who drove the first moon buggy and he said, ‘On the moon there’s nothing. There’s no sound because there’s no air, it’s quiet. The earth is so small it’s like your thumbnail, you can cover it up … and you can’t help but think, why? Why are we here, what’s the purpose of the universe?’ They’re faced with a lot of unknowns.”

"We wanted to make a game that makes you feel somewhat lonely and small, but [where] you have a sense of awe toward the mystery behind this game world,” Chen said, mentioning Myst as an inspiration.

Chen knew from studying psychology that a sense of awe is often directly tied to religion. This revelation inspired him to think about how we live our lives today. He concluded that although we’re highly empowered by technology—we can move fast in cars and airplanes, can live above the clouds in skyscrapers, and can use cell phones to talk to anybody at any time—we’re also trapped by this empowerment. (Checking your email while on the toilet, for example.) In games, such empowerment is often represented by a character who carries a gun or a sword, and when a game provides you with a weapon, using that weapon becomes the biggest priority. And in online games, players usually think more about getting items and becoming more powerful than they do about helping others. So when Chen thought about designing a social experience that would connect people, he decided he’d need to reverse the power relationship between the player and the world. Journey’s world could not be noisy. There could be no guns. And there shouldn’t be too many people, because when there are only two people around, the guy in the distance becomes a lot more interesting.

Using music by composer Austin Wintory to set the mood, thatgamecompany began the design process. (Wintory was ultimately nominated for a Grammy for Journey’s music.) During a four-month prototype stage, they tested many gameplay styles that worked okay in 2D mock-ups, but didn’t translate well to 3D. Some gameplay ideas had to be abandoned, such as two players combining their strength to push a rock out of the path or using individual special abilities in tandem, because Sony requested inclusion of a single-player mode. As their ideas for how players would explore the world solidified, they focused on “graphics as gameplay,” conceptualizing visuals to make the journey itself more fun. (Examples include the sand trail that appears behind you as you walk, dunes and landmarks that provide a sense of movement, and the ability to surf in the sand.)

Inspiration for Journey’s sand path and dunes.

They wanted to make the multiplayer simple enough that even non-gamers could figure it out, and to avoid real-world distractions such as usernames and voice chat that would take players out of the game world. So they created a system where anonymous players would be paired automatically, with usernames only shown at the end of the journey. Thinking real-world friends would be annoyed by the inability to chat with each other, they decided not to support friend invites and instead created a “seamless lobby system” that kept co-op pairing entirely behind the scenes. To avoid groups developing an “us versus them” mentality that could leave some players feeling left out, they limited co-op to two players to focus on one-on-one collaboration. And to provide a balance between ability and challenge, they left it up to players whether they wanted to stay with a partner or walk away and find someone else better suited to their playing style. “When you have the choice to leave, the co-op is more real and sincere, and it’s possible to have a stronger collaboration,” Chen explained.

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Caliburn Caliburn
Apr 5, 2013

Lovely summary. Jenova Chen gave essentially the same talk at DICE 2013, and Variety magazine made the coverage of it freely available on their YouTube channel, so if anyone would like to watch the talk it is here:

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