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GDC 2012: How  Journey  was designed to facilitate friendship
GDC 2012: How Journey was designed to facilitate friendship

March 6, 2012   |   By Brandon Sheffield

Comments 3 comments

More: Indie, GDC, Audio, Design

How do you design a game for friendship, when the players are interacting over the internet? Can you do this without even letting them speak, or see each others' faces? This is a question Journey sought to tackle, and was paramount in ThatGameCompany designer Chris Bell's mind when he joined the team about halfway through the project. It hit home to him because he had already spent the better part of a year developing his own game about friendship across the wires; Way.

"What I'm interested in personally is that spontaneous bond between strangers," he says, which is very well facilitated by online play. Online multiplayer can emphasize shared goals, freedom of choice, anonymity, vulnerability, and communication, he says. The trick is to "get people to empathize before their prejudices allow them to draw lines between each other."

One way this happened in recent times was the somewhat unfortunate Chat
Roulette. "Players are behind the screen without any rules to guide their behavior," he says, thus unfortunate players claimed the space for themselves, and ruined it for the rest.

Behind the wall of a player avatar, behavior can get even more interesting. Bell related a story of playing his first MMO when he was 16. It was Final Fantasy XI. "I saw a mountain, I ran to it, I found another person, and we killed monsters, and then we died," he said. But he was then prompted with the ability to respawn back in town, or wait for someone to come revive him before the time went down. His companion stayed with him until they were revived by a roaming white mage, and this profoundly affected him. What could make one player care for another that they'd never met? Bell couldn't thank his savior directly because of a language gap - the mage spoke Japanese - but he used in-game motions to try to communicate his gratitude.

Unfortunately, most of the game did not facilitate that sort of interaction, because the game's systems encouraged team play supported by strong communication via text, which meant that teams were generally segregated by language. "As a player, I felt alienated, unwanted, disconnected. Because that was my experience," he said. "A single rule can pollute an entire system."

Not promising all the answers, Bell hoped to recreate that feeling he had when he was 16. "How do you design for that? For the large majority of players, it's safe to say they didn't have this kind of experience."

In Journey for example, you communicate with only one other player that's randomly assigned to you, through musical calls, motions, and only when players are near each other. Following the story arc becomes more engaging "because you engage in these experiences with another player, there's the potential to go through a wide range of emotions with them," he says.

Text introduces all sorts of unwanted verbs that designers can't control, Bell notes. "Personally, I prefer that players communicate through non-verbal actions." In Journey one major method is the "call" button. You can give it a lot of character with the length and frequency of your calls. The game offers players benefits and reciprocity through being able to give each other the expendable resource of flight, and only through communication can they find each other.

Journey focuses on establishing a connection. Upon completion there's an invitation to grow bonds beyond the game, which Bell chose to save as an experience for players to have on their own. "Should we be teaching players to value how they communicate?" he posed, concluding that "our medium is play, a language that reaches across cultures."

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Jeremy Parsons
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This reminds me of Dark Souls (not to mention Demon's Souls), partly because I JUST logged out of it for the night. I love the idea of limited means of interactions between players, because, in my experience, it has led to more cooperative play than other typical designs. The shared goal, and in Dark Souls' case, the constant threat of danger seems to help bond the players together, regardless of their inability to actually communicate directly.

It's pretty amazing how quickly you pick up on body language with the absence of words. Using a handful of emotes, people can express everything they need to within the confines of the game. You probably wouldn't be able to live a real world life with such limits, but it's enough to progress from start to finish in a video game.

I was PvP'ing in Dark Souls earlier, where the host was indicating he wanted us to fight 1v1 against invaders to have the fights be fair (since there were 3 of us on the host's side, including the host), all by pointing to a player and cheering for "you're next" or pointing to the ground for "stand down for this fight." Others have taken up expressing frustration by trying to use an item when it's unavailable, which produces a kind of shaking shrug response from the character, or making antsy motions in the direction of progress and then not pressing on, to indicate they want to move forward but want you to go first because they're having trouble with the area.

I even ended up sending one of the players a message over the PSN, to let him know about an item he might want to get. His response was all in Japanese, and as far as I know could have said "sorry, I don't speak English." We had a successful hour-long session of playing together prior to that, which would have been incredibly difficult if we had to communicate through text or voice. I don't know if he understood or was acknowledging a failed attempt to tell him something, but he bowed to me in-game after replying to my message. It made me happy, because players seem to be so overwhelmingly nice when they're forced to communicate only through gestures, even in a game as violent as Dark Souls. Even the vast majority of players invading to kill you will bow before fighting. It's something you don't experience often in online games these days.

I hope more games opt to go the route of not allowing the players to use words when words aren't necessary. I haven't played the release version of Journey yet (it's definitely on my list to get), but I did participate in the beta, and it seemed like it could foster the same kind of experience, where ultimately players are more apt to help rather than ignore or be jerks.

Carlo Delallana
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I played a lot of Journey last night with another player. Because our communication was limited I found myself trying to stay as close to the other player as possible. I waited when there was a distance between us. I frantically searched around when we got separated. When 2 objectives presented themselves we immediately split up to tackle them separately. We waited to be together before activating the runes that allowed us to lengthen the sash our characters wore. All the while I was wondering who this person was and how we can be so much in synch with each other without the benefit of a more complex communication system like voice chat.

It's an amazing experience so far.

Paul Bauman
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Journey actually reminded me of several positive, though liminally verbal experiences I had with Japanese players in FFXI. If that was his inspiration I hope he knows he did a wonderful job.


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