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Empathy: 'The super-tool that helps you in game development'
Empathy: 'The super-tool that helps you in game development'
February 5, 2014 | By Christian Nutt

"I'm here today to talk to you about caring," Robin Hunicke -- developer on The Sims franchise, Glitch, and the wildly successful Journey -- told the audience at the D.I.C.E. Summit today.

She called empathy "the super-tool that helps you in game development."

"We spent a lot of time on Journey thinking about the people who were going to play our game, and the experience they were going to have. We wanted it to be genuine and authentic."

She said that the team at Thatgamecompany "wanted it to provide real value" to players. And so they did: The game won tons of awards, critical and financial success, and importantly to Hunicke, many fans who were deeply touched by the game.

"What does [real value] mean? Caring about the people who will experience your game. Instead of thinking them as eyeballs and downloads and installs, or even a walking wallet, you're thinking of that person -- that customer -- as people. People like you. Maybe even your friends and family."

Hunicke said that "in this act, we are only limited by our imagination -- our ability to imagine those people as people we genuinely care about."

And there's good reason to do so: "Games made by people who care about people are the ones that people talk about," said Hunicke. "They're the ones that go viral," she said, with "huge success out of scale of their marketing budgets or their teams." Her examples? Broken Age, Gone Home, and League of Legends.

Lately, Hunicke has been collaborating with Keita Takahashi, the creator of the Katamari Damacy franchise, on a new game -- which has taught her much, she said. "This game is about people, people of all shapes and sizes learning to connect with each other to make the world a better place." This is important, she said, because "it's about when you learn to care about people and see them as people like you that you have a better time in life. You are less concerned about the things we think as grown-up, and relate to the world more like a child."

Building games with empathy for the audience, she said, means that "you can reach people who aren't like you. And you can evangelize to them without talking about features or a specific genre." Said Hunicke, "You should appeal to something deeper than the level of mechanics: feelings."

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Marvin Papin
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I totally agree and would like too add that "empathy" goes hand in hand with humbleness and knowing what means suffering hard (in various forms). That how you detach yourself from the game and thinking not what you would like but what would most people like to do, play, feel... If you grow with those capacity you're much more sensible to problem resolution, anticipation and just if a feature or a game will work.

But I deeply think you cannot learn that conventionally.

Tanya X Short
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I agree that empathy is hugely important, and to me sounds like a different way to describe classic game design. Game design is all about imagining (and enriching) the player experience. But then again, traditional marketing and advertisement design is also about empathy, to the extent that it's about evoking certain emotions.

However, I think it's dangerous to tell devs that if they just cared more about the player, they would be more successful -- and maybe it's the summary here that makes it read this way, rather than the talk itself, I wasn't there.

It's impossible to know how much of someone's heart was put in to something. Those broken little weirdo games on or kongregate or indiedb or Xbox live arcade may have years of sweat, blood, and tears poured into them, obsessing about the player experience, and it'd be hard to tell... if you want to diagnose the problem of ugly art or too many bugs or what-have-you as "not a high enough player empathy skill", that's fine, but that doesn't mean they don't care.

Andrew Sturgeon
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I'm empathetic of her haircut

Andrew Sturgeon
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Soooo much empathy in Flappy Birds & GTA...

Laura Marshall
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I like this article a lot. She has a point about, "the games that make you 'feel' things, are the ones that people talk about." And that's what you want in this industry. I can't say I have personally played Journey, although I have heard a lot about it, I have played Flower, which is from the same people. It's a very soothing game and visually stimulating. Very different from other games out there. I am starting to get into game development and planning on taking a psychology class to get games to do this to people.

Susannah Skerl
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Andrew, you picked a great week to comment on women in the game industry and their haircuts...

In my experience, studios with a powerful brand do often reflect it in their team dynamics and internal culture. For many GTA players, there is a male power fantasy aspect they seek out, replete with gangster trappings, crass vocabulary and indifference to authority. Rockstar's corporate culture and the Houser's signature style in running their company shouldn't come as a shock if you've played their games.
While they may know their audience, I wonder if they 'care' about them..?

Eric Harris
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Thank you for helping me understand why I do not care for the GTA franchise. I briefly played GTA III, and I was impressed with the detail in the open world format. I liked the freedom to drive different vehicles, and the cars were different from each other. I also enjoyed the chase element from the police response. I think it made the world feel alive and showed that there were consequences for your actions. Ultimately, the things you mentioned made me despise the game. Oh and the violence. I don't care to see buckets of blood come out of people.