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What went wrong during the making of  Journey
What went wrong during the making of Journey

August 15, 2012   |   By Cassandra Khaw

Comments 30 comments

More: Console/PC, Design, GDC Europe

"Hi. I'm Robin. I'm an extensionholic," Tiny Glitch Producer and former thatgamecompany employee Robin Hunicke admitted to her GDC Europe audience on Tuesday.

Aside from relating the rigorous three-year ordeal that led to the eventual publication of thatgamecompany's much-loved Journey, Hunicke also provided some relevant and almost startlingly frank takeaways from their experience building the game.

"We were addicted to 'just in time' extensions." Hunicke said. "The fact of the matter is we signed an unrealistic schedule believing, in our heart of hearts, it would probably be extended later, and we paid for that stress in the entire project."

"We were poor at extracting realistic individual estimations and people failed to confront the true costs of 'just in time' changes to the game. Managing a task list is a drag and if you're used to working on a team with 3 to 5 people, the amount of communication you need to do to keep designers and artists motivated and on the same page with you is really frustrating - it can feel like a straightjacket."

She went on to warn that, as teams grow in size, there is a clear and present danger of miscommunicating and getting off-course. "Always, always talk to each other. It doesn't matter if you're two hundred people or ten - the risk is always great."

Greed was another mistake. "We had eyes that were much bigger than our stomachs. While we were iterating, there were many ideas that we chucked. They just didn't seem right. Being attached to those features and ideas but being unwilling to expand the team or the process in ways that made them feasible in a realistic period of time was very costly to us."

"Not only did it wear down individual people on the team who felt the burden of being pressured to perform way more than they actually could, it eroded trust in the creative leadership of the game because it sounded crazy. The best way to avoid is to let some of your ideas, some of your best ideas, to not be implemented on THIS project."

According to Hunicke, another mistake had been the 'anxiety train'. "We were really hard on each other."

She explained that they had given in to internal, unexpressed anxieties. "When you work on high pressure projects, you're bound to get into situations where you are angry and frustrated at the people you work with and it's impossible to hide that but it's often really difficult to confront it and process it in a way that gets resolved."

Though hard to deal with, Hunicke observed that when such issues go unaddressed, they have a tendency to make appearances at inappropriate situations like design meetings where everyone is trying to be supportive of each other instead.

Lastly, Hunicke cited what she called the 'culture war' as their final hindrance. "There were definitely two distinct types of people on that project - people who really needed to work constantly to get a sense of progress, who felt the weight of each day, and people who needed ample time away from the stress and the pressures of the office so as to be able to relax and clear their mind to be able to feel creative about the work we're doing."

"You could argue that running this project to the extreme end, that the team was finally forced to deal with the misalignment in the culture, which eventually made it possible to have fresh starts for the people who founded the company.

"But it is hard for me not to imagine an alternate universe where, through improved communication, key contributors avoided or overcame personal grudges that slowed the production down and, instead, created an ample amount of trust and ownership among their peers."

Gamasutra is in Cologne, Germany this week covering GDC Europe. For more GDC Europe coverage, visit our official event page. (UBM TechWeb is parent to both Gamasutra and GDC events.)
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D Voinovski
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A former exec is bad-mouthing his/her former employer - is it really 'news'? It's human nature; it's called 'venting'. Well, in this case - in an elegant guise of a me-too speech at GDC Europe. One may call it learning if one still works at the same place and acknowledges mistakes as they come. Talking trash after you already me old-fashioned.

Anthony Taylor
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Notice how she keeps saying "We"? As in, she was part of it, too?

Or did you not bother to read?

John Bacon
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Looks like you're alone on this one, Voiny.

Ciro Continisio
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Yeah, it's not really fair to label this talk as 'somebody who is bad-mouthing his former employee'. In fact I don't think it was the point of the article to pass this idea.
I was at the talk and one of her former colleagues was two seats away, and she was laughing in a good mood at almost every remark of the speaker.

Jorge Molinari
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Agreed. If the speech was anything like this “article”, I can imagine the dumbfounded WTF faces of the attendees. Poor writing material IMO.

Kris Graft
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You both consider this trash talking? It's an inside look into one of the most interesting studios that was making some of the most interesting games in the industry. It's ridiculous to say that someone pulling back the veil on a not-so-perfect creative process is gratuitous "trash talking."

D Voinovski
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With all due respect - I'm not buying it. Anyone who ever flipped burgers at a fast-food joint or *insert literally any place here* had a similar experience. The only 'uniqueness' that story has is that is she's a visible person within this industry. That's all. Venting is human nature. And IMHO - venting about your former employer is just bad taste. It's just me though.

Steven An
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Was this venting? I really don't think it was. It was just someone sharing her experience on a very interesting, creatively risky project.

Just like relationships, some times things don't work out, and it's not really anyone's fault. But it's still hard, and thus it's worth sharing with others who may have gone through similar experiences.

Toby Grierson
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This sounds like bog standard post-mortem stuff to me.

Benjamin Quintero
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I agree, this article was just an informal Postmortem on some things that did not go perfectly. Notice that she includes herself in all of those mistakes by using "we" more often than "they". At no point was she thumping her chest about how the company's downfalls were a product of anyone but herself. This is a confessional more than trash talking.

If you'd like to see an example of trash talking here is something to contrast against:

Shay Pierce
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I think this is a case of people reading the headline a certain way and expecting this to be an "ugly" piece of her talking crap about thatgamecompany and why she left. I'm as surprised as Kris that this is being read as a trash-talking or complaining piece; but I didn't read the article with that expectation (that's not how I read the headline, and I know how out-of-character that would be for Robin to do), so that's probably what makes the difference.

Re-read the article... to me, Robin doesn't put blame on anyone else more than herself. She was talking about the mistakes made by the creative team and leadership; maybe readers are unaware that she was at the center of both? Her role was Executive Producer after all.

This is just a postmortem that happens to be by someone who's moved on to another job, which is actually pretty common among postmorts I've seen on Gamasutra. I see no bad blood here. I'd like to watch the whole talk though.

Dave Smith
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heh this is why no one is ever honest with these things.

Chris Bell
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To help give a more rounded recount of Robin's talk, here is an alternative recap from IGN's Mitch Dyer:

I also look forward to the talk itself appearing on the GDC Vault.

Aaron Casillas
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Most if not all creative project and endeavors are exactly like this, especially if the vision changes or is not super clear. Robin's experience is really no different that most places I've been at....

Especially the cultural differences between team members, the workaholic and the I- have- to- relax to- think- straight person, there's a balance there that the director has to find. Give the workaholic less responsibility and allow or force them to relax and find out what's causing the latter to have to take long walks to think. Otherwise the burden of the project falls on a small group or an individual and it could lead to some serious animosity.

Elizabeth Boylan
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It's definitely a clash between these two temperaments against the adversity of deadlines and a requirement to make money at some point.

Typically founders and visionaries are the workaholics, so it's not realistic that responsibility be removed from these roles. Forcing a workaholic to relax won't work either, but encouraging 'fun' team building outlets I think is the better way to build cohesion, thus communication and trust between these two worker profiles. And just awareness of the two, the workaholic needs to work to be fulfilled and how some people need a breather to be productive.

I think, the more tech we have, the more companies and teams need to encourage out door physical play or good old fashioned night life partying or better yet both. Games afterall are supposed to be fun.

Aaron Casillas
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@ Elizabeth, I'm a workaholic, but not because I love working, but because I love seeing a vision come into of the best things that EA ever did for me was force me to go on vacation...a red alert actually popped up on my producers screen stating that I was over my 200 hours of pto!

In my opinion, the bad rub occurs when the break/breather type slacks off or the perception is that they slack off, someone else has to pick up the slack. Personally, I found myself in that situation a couple times, but you do what has to be done to get the product out.

Your right about going out....also spreading responsiblity or seeing where the ball is being dropped should be managements duty to assign more resources to those events.

Steven An
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Yeah honestly I don't see this as a super negative article. It's just what happens sometimes. Not everyone gets along super well! It's nothing personal, just a fact of life. It is very difficult to find creative people who work well together all the time. So...yeah man, it's just how it is.

Terry Matthes
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The article walks a fine line, but she stays on the good side of it and I for one appreciate the real look into the creative workings of a large team. Robin is brave and honest for making this talk if nothing else.

Jonathan Jennings
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If anything i find this encouraging I consider journey to be one of the best games i pressed in recent memory and if an amazing team that put out an incredible title like that faces issues that we all face it encourages me to know that no development process is without its flaws .

Paul Taylor
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The only trash-talking I can see on this page is in the first two comments....
Just like everything else in this world, if you're not happy with it, go out and do it better!

Joseph Rios
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I agree with all the positive comments about this article, she was just sharing what it was like to be part of the team and the hardships endured. Didn't see any form of trash talking

David Phan
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"When you work on high pressure projects, you're bound to get into situations where you are angry and frustrated at the people you work with and it's impossible to hide that but it's often really difficult to confront it and process it in a way that gets resolved."


Bernard Yee
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Not well written, but I've known Robin for years - she cares deeply about her team and how they work together, and shares not to vent but to provide examples and lessons to other devs. Maybe the first few 'commenters' ought to think about lessons learnable from a team that built one of the best games of the year and in the process, clearly burned a few of the core team out.

Jonathan Ghazarian
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Did people even read the article? This was essentially a post mortem like any other, just more open. As for "trash talking a former employer" not once does she ever cast blame on anyone. It's also worth pointing out that at last year's gdc she and Kellee gave a very candid presentation while they were still working on Journey on issues their studio had run into. This was for the sake of trying to inform others of potential pitfalls, not to insult the people they worked with. It sounds like people looking for drama where it doesn't exist.

sean baity
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I love Robin's honesty and candor. Three years is a lot of time to put into a project and I feel her short post- mortem was accurate and informative. Listen to what she is saying and see if you can avoid the same problems on your own project. She is staying positive in a bad situation.

Jean-Michel Vilain
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What she points out matters a lot, everyone knows communication is key, yet it's so hard to get it right.

Jed Hubic
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I don't see much shit talking in this article, it seems she implies she was a part of the mistakes.

I'd like to hear more from the developers/programmers/designers on the front lines though about things that go wrong and the culture and stress. To me it's more interesting to hear from the people getting stressed and seeing the failures, who are the ones that actually have to work the real overtime and fall asleep at their desks from exhaustion.

You hear one higher level person pick apart a company, and you've heard them all to be honest.

Pres N
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Yeah, I'm not seeing where she's bad-mouthing her former employer. If nothing else, did you not remember that she was the producer for the game? As in, the person whose job was setting deadlines, keeping the project on task, and negotiating with Sony? Kind of hard to say she's blaming the company for a problem that by definition she was involved in trying to prevent.

Honestly, this sound like exactly what you would expect to happen when you take a 5-7 person team and balloon it to 18 people- you find out the hard way about scoping and predicting timelines. Flower was over time too, as was Flow.

Stewart Spilkin
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Sounds like she's just being honest and trying to learn from the experience. Producing is never easy, and large teams require some different methodologies. Trying to figure it out as you go, while industry standard, results in lots of pain and frustration, also industry standard. Reasonably accurate scheduling is usually a triangulation between your gut, your leads, and the person doing the work. Knowing the people you are working with and their tendencies helps, but to paraphrase; no schedule survives contact with the enemy.

Kellee Santiago
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It was definitely not her intention to "bad-mouth" TGC, and, very unfortunately, Cassandra decided to only focus on 25% of her talk - the 5 specific "wrongs." There were "rights," of course, and the first half of the talk was more of a timeline of the project.

I think the people who are pointing out the these 5 Wrongs are not unique are really nailing it on the head! One of the goals of the talk, as I understood from working with Robin on it, was to try and demonstrate that really we didn't have magic powers at TGC, and if you are interested in making games like Journey, it's totally within your capability! I wish I could say our problems were unique, but they were not - they just ended up being a particular Rubik's Cube we could not solve in time to keep the company going as it was.

Anyways, if you are interested, I hope you can check it out when it goes up in the Vault!


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