“Game designer, food explorer, friend seeker, life lover.”
Robin Hunicke, I am truly excited we could finally connect. Thanks for your time today!
“Hi, thanks for taking the time to chat with me [Smiles].”
Could you please tell me your current job title and where you work?
“I am the co-founder of Funomena, where I am the CEO, and I do design, production and… whatever else needs doing. We are located in downtown San Francisco, and have been in business since the fall of 2012.”
I’m excited to see the new products coming out of Funomena. Wattam looks awesome.
“Thank you! Making strange, wonderful and different games has been our goal since the beginning, and we’re really looking forward to getting things out to folks in the coming year!”
Starting your own game company must be exciting and scary, and you are CEO, can you describe what your typical work day is like?
“You know, it certainly has been an adventure! This is my first time starting a company so I’m learning a lot as we go. Martin Middleton, my co-founder, is a huge help because he has a very positive attitude even when we are facing a lot of unknowns. I certainly could not do it without him.”
“I usually check my email first thing, and then I peek at Twitter to see if anything interesting happened while I was asleep. Then, I commute and do exercise (if it isn’t raining), eating a late breakfast before heading into my office. I recently got a dog so that also involves some time walking, thinking, and imagining what the day will be like. It’s been incredibly focusing/relaxing to have her in my life and I’m amazed how long it took me to realize just how helpful having a companion animal is.”
“In a way, being a graduate student trained me to see all of life as an opportunity to learn and grow, and then to constantly be sharing/seeking as a way of enabling that process.”
“My main responsibility at Funomena involves fundraising and organization. So, during the day I do a lot of email, meetings and organizing. Sometimes phone calls, sometimes a Skype… but I am always connecting with people, providing information to people, or gathering information in order to help plan for future events. My secondary responsibility is design – whether that’s on one of the games or for the studio at large. This is about observing how things feel and making adjustments (or suggesting them) to our schedules, games or studio culture based on those perceptions. So I would say that overall, I’m mostly observing and then reflecting back what I see in that capacity. Then, I listen and see if what I’m feeling/thinking/perceiving is something we should act on.”
“When I’m in Santa Cruz teaching, I’m basically doing the same thing. I bring information to the students and connect with them about their projects – then I relay the things I think they need to improve upon or consider in order to make their projects/understanding more robust. In a way, I see my entire life as a cycle: 1) observing/learning which leads to 2) communicating/teaching which leads to 3) adapting/designing.”
Are you sure you have time to do this interview? Sounds like every moment of your day/week is filled!
“[Laughs] – well, I have thought a lot about this. I am not married, I have no kids, and I spend most of my time enjoying the things I do because they inspire and inform my practice in other aspects of my life. So yes, I have time to do interviews, reflect on my process and share some of it with you because I do not spend a lot of time in random gravity wells of activity (say – watching television or bar hopping). I do make a mean cocktail at home, though! [Smiles]”
There are many wonderful gravity wells to attract one’s attention. You also teach at UC Santa Cruz? How long have you been an instructor there?
“Yes, I began teaching there as an adjunct when I first moved back to the bay area in 2013. In 2014 I joined the university full-time as a professor to design and implement the new BA program in Art, Games & Playable Media – which is a sister program to the games BS which Michael Mateas founded there several years ago. This year (2015-16) is our first year offering classes and I’m also currently hiring my first colleague into the program. The deadline for applying for the job is actually very soon, March 28, 2016. It’s a very exciting time for us all.”
Awesome! Molding young minds. No one would hire you to teach without some sort of credentials. Can you list some of the previous titles you’ve worked on?
“My most recent game was Journey, which shipped for PS3 in 2012 and PS4 in 2015. Before that, I worked on the Boom Blox series for Nintendo Wii which was designed by Steven Spielberg. The Sims 2 and MySims were before that. I started making games professionally in 2005, after spending about 8 years studying for my Masters and PhD in Artificial Intelligence. It’s funny, in a way – because I left school to go work on games… and now I’m back to teach them. I guess I never really, truly left – as I’ve published and taught game design in various contexts (like the Game Design Workshop at GDC which we host for 2 days each year) since about 2001.”
Where did you grow up?
“I grew up in Saratoga Springs, NY – in the Adirondack mountains. I spent a lot of time riding my bike, building forts, and doing tomboy stuff with all my neighbors. My favorite toys were those huge GI Joe dolls that came with big jeeps – and had “real” hair on their heads. Super 70’s style [Smile].”
They don’t make toys like they used to.
“No, they sure don’t. I also had a 6 Million Dollar Man doll that was just so cool. He had secret panels where his circuitry showed through, a look-through eye… really neat. Also, we had some of the big Star Wars figs – I think maybe a Jawa and C3PO and R2. You could open up R2 and take things out of him, if I recall correctly.”
Lee Majors!! Everyone loved the bionic man. I also had the tall Boba Fett. What was your first introduction to video games as a child?
“My first game was Pitfall!. My neighbor had a Colecovision, and so I would go to her house and watch her play. When it was my turn, I would die pretty quickly… then have to wait a long time to have another turn. It was bittersweet.”
Hot seat play. Co-op play couldn’t come soon enough.
“Yes!! Later (like 7th grade) I got really into M.U.L.E. which another friend had – and playing against the machine and her at the same time in the auction phase was mind-blowing!!”
Video games came early in your life. When did you decide, “I want video game to be a career.”
“You know, it was a gradual realization. I started studying games and AI in grad school, shortly after the Playstation and Net Yaroze came out. I hadn’t spent a lot of time with consoles since maybe… SNES, so seeing the games that were out then (like Tomb Raider and XCom, or Parappa and Rez) really blew my mind. It was such a wide-open time, in terms of game design. You could go to the store and search through the bins and find really neat, strange games (like Incredible Crisis or Disaster Report, Dog’s Life or Mr. Mosquito)… so for a long while I was just playing and enjoying games as a hobby.”
“Over time, it became clear to me that games were a much easier environment for doing my research programming… robots were harder to make work consistently, and the ‘bots you could run on a Half Life map were so much easier to deal with! As I began working with game engines and becoming more familiar with the technology and people behind games, I realized that game developers were my people! They were a rare blend of interests: games, art, music, computer science, film, animation, toys, and social/cultural studies. I had always struggled to blend my different interests – but games just did it automatically. It was kind of amazing once I realized that there was a “career” you could have that gave you carte blanche to be interested in so many things [Smiles].”
“So yeah, I left my PhD program in 2005 just before graduating… because I just couldn’t stay away any longer. I took a job as an object designer on The Sims 2 and the rest is history!”
Where did you get your undergrad degree?
“I went to the University of Chicago – I was accepted early and I graduated after 3 years of classes. When I first got there, I spent a week looking through the catalogue. I decided that there was no way I could choose one thing to major in, and just as I began to despair, I realized I could create my own plan for major via the ‘General Studies’ curriculum.”
“So, I designed a major for myself that focused on Art, Film, Computer Science, Women’s Studies and Oral Narrative. For my undergraduate BA thesis, I wrote a hypertext story that covered my experiences as a young girl and woman, focusing on how my interpretation of past events changed as my understanding of my gender (and the role of that gender in society) also changed. So if you re-visited a passage from my childhood, the events might ‘read’ differently depending on the frame of reference I had (teenager or young woman).”
I watched a TED talk where they discussed the intersection of one’s interests can lead directly to a new career path. They gave an example of a couple who loved cartography and jewelry and made interesting jewelry pieces that married their love of both. You seem to share a similar path. You’ve found something that can use all of your interests in game development.
“It’s true. And while finding games was a bit of a gradual thing, my need to blend art/work/food/travel/friends/fun all into each other has been consistent throughout my life. In a way, being a graduate student trained me to see all of life as an opportunity to learn and grow, and then to constantly be sharing/seeking as a way of enabling that process. Building things, for me (whether that’s a video game, an artistic installation, a paper, a presentation or even a meal) is a natural response to the input that I seek from people, media, and the nature/city/world around me. I make things to process what I feel and experience, as a way of sharing my own lens with the rest of the world.”
Can you describe in more detail how you got your first game job? Was it as simple as applying? Did you apply to multiple places?
“Most of the things that I have done (going to graduate school, working on The Sims, going to TGC or even starting Funomena) have happened naturally because of my interests. For my first job: I was at an AI conference at Stanford, presenting my work – and Will Wright was also there presenting The Sims. After his talk, I began pestering him with questions and as I was doing so he said I sounded like a game designer. This of course was totally shocking to me – as my own perception of myself was more like… curious nerd. But that started a process where I suddenly saw that most of my game designer friends were… also curious nerds! It was a small comment – but it made a huge difference in how I began to think of my future.”
“Don’t network – be interesting. Don’t make connections – make friends. No one wants to spend time with someone that they know is trying to get a job recommendation or meeting out of them.”
“I decided that I’d start considering game jobs in addition to looking for a post-doc. I started telling friends who were in the industry that I was curious to see if anyone would hire me. And when I was in LA for E3, somehow I ended up doing a short interview with the lead producer of the Medal of Honor team down at EALA. It went pretty much how you would expect: they asked what experience I had, I nervously gushed about game design and then randomly pitched them a game idea I had to make an open world experience based on the comic book Street Angel which is about a homeless, ninja skateboard girl. It was, basically, a TOTAL FAIL!”
“But… it wasn’t! After seeing how passionate I was (and probably thinking I belonged with the other oddballs) they put me in touch with the Sims team. I knew that would be a better fit (I was a huge fan of the game), but I still wasn’t sure if anyone would be interested in hiring someone strange like me. I did the interview and it went well… better than I’d expected… but I also spared them the pitch. When they offered me an entry-level job as an object designer, I was thrilled. I still kind of can’t believe that they were willing to take a risk and give me a shot.”
I would pay good money to hear that pitch of “Street Angel”.
“OMG I’m sure I sounded like a complete idiot. So young and full of myself, and all my ideas [embarrassing].”
Hindsight is gloriously crystal clear. On the flip side, what professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
“I would say I’m most proud of keeping the Funomenauts afloat for 3 years. Making games takes a lot of effort, time, and money. I’ve been working very hard to make sure that both the Luna and Wattam team have the people, resources and freedom to make the choices they need to make. And I’m happy we haven’t cratered yet!! [Smiles].”
It is a wonderful accomplishment. I am truly excited to see how your company evolves.
“It will be even more amazing if we get to ship things and people buy them and … we continue to not crater! I joke, of course – but in a way I’m totally serious. It’s so difficult to see what a game should be when you begin working on it. There is so much uncertainty with every hire, with every deal, with every decision that each of us makes on the team. Being able to keep our tiny boat above the water, keep rowing and reach our little island is going to be amazing.”
What game has influenced you the most?
“[Laughs] Probably Katamari Damacy. When I first saw it at Tokyo Game Show and asked for people there to help us bring the game to Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC… well I knew it was special. But then Keita came and showed the game to us, and at the end of his presentation, blew me away.”
“He cut from the main demo to the end of the game, where he began rolling up all the countries on the earth. Then he paused to say that in a way, the game was about peace. That after September 11th, he had spent a lot of time feeling sad about how much time and energy we spend hurting one another. ‘We are all on the same ball’, he said. And that really stuck with me. Just the idea that you can make a game that’s so fun and silly – but it can come from such a genuine place of concern for the wellbeing of our planet and our people. I was deeply shaped by that moment. It still brings tears to my eyes to think about it.”
That is really powerful. Katamari… Flappy Bird… those games proved to me that we really don’t know what game design is. Or that our view of what game design could be was too restricted.
“No, we don’t!! Games are a form of artistic, social, emotional expression. They are a practice. Making games (whether you do it solo, with a tiny team or in a huge organization) takes so much creative abrasion, so much deep thought and feeling. And when you open yourself up to making things about the way you experience the world, suddenly you realize that the boundaries are… non-existent. Are there only so many subjects one can address in a film? A children’s book? A painting?”
“Games are no different. They are as broad as our dreams, as deep as our passions. I can’t wait to play the games we make in 30 years… or 100.”
The technology of the game industry is constantly changing and evolving. Are there any current trends that interest you?
“I am really into AR and VR right now. We are making a few things at the studio that explore these technologies, and I’m especially excited to be doing that. I’ve been working on these ideas since I first saw the prototype technology at Valve maybe… 3 years ago now? I was blown away then, and I’m even more excited now. I think these technologies enable a sense of presence and connection with others that you can only understand after using them.”
How do you stay up on the latest in industry news and trends? Any particular websites you follow? Twitter personalities? Etc.?
“I like to read The Guardian, and I also pick up the Economist or Fast Company or Harvard Business Review from time to time. I read a lot on Medium lately – just because that’s where people can post long form thoughts. But generally I just talk to people I know, and ask them what they are thinking about. I read a lot of books about communication, business and systems thinking. Just finished ‘Good Strategy/Bad Strategy’ which is great.”
As a teacher and someone who does hiring, I’m sure you get asked this many times, “What advice would you give someone trying to break into the game industry?”
“I just answered this question today, for a student who is trying to find the right internship. My advice is first and foremost, have a portfolio that reflects your strengths. If you wanna be a concept artist at Blizzard – you better have great concepts for the kinds of games they make (and might make) and be well versed in the artists who work there. If you wanna be a designer on the Sims or Civ, you had better have games in your portfolio that show you are strong in systems design. Know what you are good at, be curious about all aspects of it, and be able to show how that curiosity has led you to grow. Talking about it doesn’t really work.”
“The other thing I suggest is to get involved with your local IGDA or game making collective. Having peers to work with (especially if you want a job where you won’t be doing much art or programming) is great, and the rising tide floats all boats. Similarly, volunteering to be a Conference Associate at GDC if you can get there is also a great way to meet like minded people who are in your same situation.”
“The final piece of advice is this: Don’t network – be interesting. Don’t make connections – make friends. No one wants to spend time with someone that they know is trying to get a job recommendation or meeting out of them. Nobody goes to an industry event or mixer hoping to spend hours just talking about what they did at work. It’s the things we do outside of our ‘careers’ and the ways in which we live/explore/celebrate our lives that make us full people.”
“As we discussed, I’ve woven my loves (comics, film, art, food, travel) into one another so that at any moment, I’m just as likely to talk about an interesting book I’m reading or a person I met as I am to discuss the finer points of puzzle design in The Witness or environment design in Firewatch. A genuine expression of who you are is infinitely better than a list of favorite games, beefs about design flaws or gossip about industry veterans. What’s more – being well rounded, shows that you will be able to work with people from many walks of life, who have different perspectives. This is key, in any creative industry.”
Describe yourself in one sentence. What is your tagline?
“Game designer, food explorer, friend seeker, life lover.”
Thank you for your words today. Robin, it was a pleasure.
“Thank you – and thank you for what you do. It is appreciated, and valuable.”