Virtual reality is still a fledgling industry, and it’s hard to make money on the relatively small owner base of VR headsets. But that doesn’t bother Robin Hunicke, the CEO and cofounder of San Francisco-based indie game studio Funomena.
Hunicke, who is also director of the Art, Games, & Playable Media BA program at the University of California at Santa Cruz, gets excited about making games for emerging platforms. Her team has made experimental games such as Luna (a VR title for the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Windows Mixed Reality), Woorld (an augmented reality title for Google’s Tango technology, and Wattam, a zany game designed by Funomena’s Keita Takahashi for the game consoles.
It’s risky to go out so far on the leading edge, but Hunicke believes that it’s essential to creativity. And she believes that platform owners such as Oculus believe enough in creativity and diverse content, making it so that Funomena doesn’t take risks all on its own.
Hunicke gave a talk at the last week’s Oculus Connect 5 event about hiring a diverse staff and fostering creativity in game development, and I interviewed her afterward. She is, after all, one of the veterans of both VR and games. Hunicke and programmer Martin Middleton founded Funomena in 2012. Before that, she was at Thatgamecompany and worked on the award-winning Journey. And she was at EA’s Maxis studio, working on MySims and Boom Blox.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Was there a main point you wanted to make in your talk?
Robin Hunicke: We talked about developing for emerging platforms, and also the philosophy behind Funomena. Why we founded it and how we built the team we built. A lot of it was about the importance of inclusion and thinking about design as an inclusive process – not just on the team, but also engaging with a lot of different types of people on your team so you can engage with a lot of different types of players.
Luna is obviously really accessible, and one of the reasons it’s been winning so many awards is because it’s such a good introductory experience for VR. First-time VR users are put at ease by it. We think the reason that’s the case is because we have this broad and interested and curious team that comes from all different walks of life.
GamesBeat: You have a very deliberate process of building the team and getting good things out of it.
Hunicke: Yeah, it’s been deliberate. I started the company with Martin trying to think about what we could do to show that diversity isn’t just a word. It isn’t just an idea or a concept. It’s a process.
GamesBeat: Was it very different from thatgamecompany as far as the startup process?
Hunicke: At thatgamecompany Kellee and I were the only women. It’s nice to be in an environment now where there are a lot more women. My first job was The Sims, and that was 50-50. There were a lot of women on the Sims teams in all different capacities. But in design, for most of my career there, I was the only woman designer. Even in a very diverse environment, there were still places where there weren’t enough women.
I’m excited about how we’re able to build a culture that values a lot of different types of experiences. Not all our employees come from game development. Some of them come from other kinds of software. Some come from other walks of life, like science. We’ve hired people mostly because we feel that culturally they’ll be a fit, and they’re interested in communicating and being creative with other people. Problem-solving in a way that’s kind.
GamesBeat: You’re also making interesting choices around which platforms to support. Has VR been part of where you wanted to go for quite a while?
Hunicke: I’ve always wanted to develop for VR, but I also didn’t expect it to be a huge success. I didn’t think that we’d make a VR title and never have to make games again. I’ve always been building toward a future where more and more people will adopt devices that allow you to experience augmented reality or mixed reality or virtual reality. Those numbers will grow, but they’ll grow as the use cases for those devices also grow.
I’ve always been designing for these experiences with an eye toward the future, when we need the skills that we’re building now to develop for a really broad audience. Right now is the time to learn on the platforms. Not as many people are looking. It’s a good time to make experiments and try things and see what works with a smaller group of people, so when it all goes wide, we have best practices.
GamesBeat: What’s it like being so closely in touch with the university side of things?
Hunicke: It’s amazing. I learn more from my students than they learn from me, often. They’ve taught me so much about what it’s like to be a young person today, the kinds of concerns young people have, the needs they have.
When I was coming up, the world was a very different place. In some cases there were similar—politically, I think, it was a similarly trying time, when I was in high school and college. But financially, economically, my students have very different futures to look forward to, in particular with the environment. It’s essential for me to be connected to this younger group of people. They’re going to be the stewards of the earth moving forward. I think about that every day.
GamesBeat: Within VR you have some interesting choices. With Oculus, you have a good-better-best sort of scenario, with Oculus Go and Gear VR, the Quest, and then whatever comes on the PC side after Rift. When you look at that, it seems like it’s hard to choose which to get behind. What do you want to achieve, but also, what’s accessible?
Hunicke: When we’re designing, specifically when designing for an emerging platform, which is typically what we’re doing—we’re usually partnered with the hardware while it’s in flight, while it’s being designed. For example, when we worked on the Tango project with Google, the phone we were working on was in flight. We were working on a phone that was changing as we were building the app.
When we’re working that way, what you’re really trying to do is get to know the configuration, understand what the device is going to be good at doing, and really amplify that with your experience. It becomes, for us—if you think of Funomena in this capacity as like a design firm, or an ideo consultancy, we’re trying to make that thing look great. That means working around the edges of where it’s not great.
But what that teaches you as a developer, and what’s happened in our larger projects we do – say, when we make a game and release it for PlayStation – is we’re very sensitive to the boundaries of that hardware and think a lot about, okay, how can we showcase that hardware? It’s a lesson that you learn working on in-flight stuff that later, when you’re trying to target a specific device—you can say, “All right, this experience will sing on this device, and not because of the 6DOF, but because it has no wires. Let’s make people move around a lot.”
Whether you can port up or down to other things is a question you address when you need to. Luna we’ve ported to the Windows MR headset. The minimum spec for Windows MR, with one of their integrated laptops, is not a very close match to a Rift on a really built-out PC. But we were able to make the experience work there because we were able to tune the graphics and the way the game works to that platform. That comes from building the skill set we have as a developer.
GamesBeat: Do you feel it’s still a risky business?
Hunicke: Games is a risky business, yeah. Games, you can just put a picture of Tom Cruise right in there. [laughs] But it’s a passionate community of creative, fun, and interesting people. I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.
GamesBeat: It seems like, when you’re working with these partners, they’re at least taking some of that risk off of you. They have you develop for something that they want stuff developed for.
Hunicke: Right. It’s important—like I was saying in my talk, the collaborative aspect of working with someone on in-flight hardware is actually something I love. I love being able to work with a partner and we’re both talking about, “Okay, what does the SDK? How should it work?” I’m going to be speaking next week at the LeapCon in Los Angeles. We’ve been partnered with Magic Leap for a while now. I really enjoy those kinds of partnerships, where you’re working together and the hardware is coming together. It’s like you’re part of the team in a way.
GamesBeat: It’s more like dealing with a platform owner, as opposed to a publisher?
Hunicke: Yeah. The thing with a publisher is—it can feel that way too, depending on whether you’re working on hardware that’s already been released or not. If I were going to be working on a next-generation console title right now, I’d be collaborating with a partner really closely. It’s the same thing.
I love to be at that edge, because I love the way that relationship feels. It cuts away some of the more officious business-ey qualities that development can have. It becomes less about the contract and more about the relationship with the individual engineers and designers and marketing folks, the people in the pipeline at the organization trying to get this thing off the ground. It’s nice to feel like you’re part of a larger family in that way.
GamesBeat: VR itself seems like a more collaborative industry right now.
Hunicke: Yes. Actually, I gave a talk at DICE Europe, a roundtable, about VR, AR, and MR. A lot of the people that came, we ended up talking about this. This is a great time to be in the space, because the developers here are the ones that really love it. If you’re working in an experimental headset right now, if you’re working on an AR phone right now, you’re one of the people that loves the medium and really wants to see it grow.
A lot of the people that came in during the rush were more interested in the idea of the boom than the actual work that lies ahead. Right now there are a lot of great people in VR. It’s a great place to be for designers.
GamesBeat: Does Quest seem like a step up to you?
Hunicke: Getting rid of the cords is essential. It’s essential to the feeling of freedom in the space. I’m super thrilled about that.
GamesBeat: These things always come with trade-offs, but the lack of the PC processing power—do you think people will miss that? The people who get a kick out of that mobility might not care that you can’t run the highest-end graphics.
Hunicke: Look at the Nintendo Wii. Did people care that the Wii was whatever it was processor-wise compared to an Xbox 360 or a PlayStation 3? Did people really care? No. Nintendo doesn’t have this problem anymore. You can look at a success like Nintendo and ask, “How do they do it?” They make great games. They’re family-friendly. They have fantastic franchises. They build stuff that works. It’s not that hard to put together and it’s fun to play with.
GamesBeat: Do you think it’s good to think of this as something like the Wii or the Switch, in VR?
Hunicke: Yes, I do. One of the things that’s interesting to me right now is that we have seen VR pigeonholed as a hardcore market, because of the hardware factor. You need this big PC to run it, blah blah blah. That’s no longer the case, right? It’ll be really interesting to see if the marketing folks who are going to be pressing this next set of advertisements and commercials and all the things being developed and released over the next couple of years, with this next wave of headsets and experiences—whether they continue to lean on that crutch.
If they get past that crutch, I think there’s a huge audience waiting to be exposed to this stuff. The question is just, how do you do it? How do you bridge that gap? How do you get over the divide?
GamesBeat: Nintendo always manages to do it.
Hunicke: Somebody will do it, and when they do it, everyone else will say, “Oh, of course, that was what we needed to build. That was how we needed to say it.” But right now I don’t think anybody knows. I’m excited to see which team, of all the teams out there right now, is the one that gets the way to communicate it. “This is why you need this device. This is why it’s exciting.” Because the technology, once you’ve used it, sells itself.
We show Luna on the Rift all the time. We just recently showed it at the Smithsonian. We were part of their arcade this year. It’s amazing to be included at the Smithsonian. But the people who come to the Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. are regular folks. Everybody wanted to play it. We had a sign-up app and we were full up by 11:30 on day that went from 11 to 7. We had all the sign-ups we could handle. A lot of people were interested in trying it. It’s just that right now, getting them to plunk down the cash to have it in their own home—that’s the question. I’m really excited. It’s going to be an interesting couple of years.
GamesBeat: With this system they showed, it seems more like tennis is the thing, as opposed to Darth Vader.
Hunicke: [Laughs] I’d love it if there were the equivalents of Animal Crossing and Mario Kart and so on for this new headset. I’m looking forward to seeing the kind of curation Oculus is doing. They’re supportive of developers like Funomena and Tender Claws. We develop titles that can appeal broadly, that are interesting and unique. That helps expand the market.
I’m excited that they’re supporting us in that partnership. We can’t say very much about our partnership right now, other than that we have one. But I’m really excited to be developing for Oculus. You might have seen that we were on their partner slide when they announced the headset.
GamesBeat: Maybe one of the 50, then?
GamesBeat: When you’re designing one of these things, do you still want it to go to the PC and the Rift and the Go? Or do you think you want to focus on this thing in the middle?
Hunicke: We were having a meeting today discussing this, actually. What I would say is I always encourage the team to design to the platform first. My good friend Amir Rao, who runs Supergiant, has said this to me and I believe this is true: you should focus on the platform you’re developing for and make the best game you can for that, and then you can always port it later. You can always try new things later. But again, what sings on the platform is really important.
For Quest, we’ll definitely work to make the experience that we’re building as engaging as possible with that hardware. I think that means really leaning in to some cool new things. I can’t wait to talk more about it.
GamesBeat: It seems like you have no shortage of new platforms to consider.
Hunicke: This is what’s so strange to me. People are acting like VR is—look around! There’s so much great stuff happening.
GamesBeat: Like Apple, maybe?
Hunicke: I just ordered my new phone. I have an XS waiting for me at the office. I just got the notification. I can’t wait to try it. I’m super thrilled that people are slowly releasing the research they’ve been doing internally. I think there’s a lot of cool stuff going on. It’s about price points and form factors and applications and figuring out what the need is. But the tech is awesome.
I’m a nerd. I used to program the Sony AIBO. I’m a roboticist and an AI person by training. For me, this is like when I was in grad school and first went to see the Cave at the University of Illinois. I was blown away by that. I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be so cool if someday we had rooms like this?” And now you can have that through your phone, literally. It’s so crazy. It’s an excellent time for this stuff.
GamesBeat: On the cultural side of things, are you happy about the state of gamer culture?
Hunicke: Well, the state of culture in general—let’s look at the broadest possible thing. I say this all the time and I mean it every time I say it. The world is a better place when you’re a kinder person and you’re more considerate of other people, when you don’t personalize things, and when you understand that the reason people act out is because they’re unhappy. As long as people are unhappy and not focused on how to be happy, they’ll project that unhappiness out on everyone else. Every single unhappy tweet, every unhappy customer service call, every unhappy bad tip at a diner, every one of these people is unhappy, and the only person who can change that is them.
I work really hard to maintain a positive outlook and make time for myself to rest and spend time with people I love, because that’s what makes me happy. That’s what everyone should be doing. I think you have to make yourself happy first. Put your mask on first, then you put it on the person next to you. [laughs] If you really want to save the world, save yourself.