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Journey beta preview: Feeling small

During a PlayStation press event last week, I spoke with thatgamecompany executive producer Robin Hunicke, who told me that the team was "really really satisfied" with the feedback on the recently wrapped up Journey beta. "So many people wrote us to say that meeting a stranger online was a satisfying experience," Hunicke said. "It was exactly the kind of feedback we wanted." If that sounds as counterintuitive to you as it did to me, Hunicke explains just how thatgamecompany managed to make meeting strangers online (ick!) a not-awful experience.

Over the course of the two-week beta, 10,000 players – 5,000 in the US and 5,000 in Europe, according to thatgamecompany co-founder Kellee Santiago – helped the small dev test its networking code. The beta was a good source of positive reinforcement; the game's ideas worked. Not bad for the studio's first multiplayer game. The networking code, on the other hand, had a single bug. "But it was a really big bug," Hunicke said, laughing. It presented itself immediately and was patched just as quickly. For the next two weeks, the team gathered feedback and enjoyed hearing players write in, sharing experiences that matched the game's goals.

Gallery: Journey (E3) | 8 Photos

"With Journey, we wanted to create an alternate online experience," Hunicke explained. An alternate to what, you ask? Well ... just about everything. She relayed an anecdote about how studio co-founder Jenovah Chen was looking forward to Left 4 Dead, hoping to discover an online experience that really rewarded teamwork. While L4D certainly rewards some teamwork, Chen was disappointed to find that, like in most cooperative games, there was still the ability to grief your teammates (ever locked the safe house door on someone?).

Similar co-op griefing can be found in everything from New Super Mario Bros. Wii to Rayman Origins to Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One. "We love all those games," Hunicke insisted. Early on in development, Journey had player collision, and as soon as players learned that they could push objects and each other, they would push each other simply to get that feedback instead of working with each other to finish the level. "They would test it," she said. "I can push this. I can push you." The solution: remove collision between players.

The multiplayer experience in Journey is anonymous; in your journeys, you'll find a maximum of one other player in your world (or are you in theirs?) and together, using only non-verbal communication, you'll work towards the end of the level. With no voice component (meaning no verbal assault) and no feedback for negative behavior (like pushing), Journey strips the interaction between players down to the barest elements. "We wanted to create an experience where players are able to do good things," Hunicke explained.

Interaction between players is simple: they can call out to each other, to grab the other player's attention. Calling out while next to another player will refill their jump meter, represented by a long, flowing scarf. Calling out is a simple visual ping performed with O while holding O near your partner recharges.

In my playthrough, after failing to reach the top of a cliff by buddy jumping – alternately charging my partner's jump ability and jumping while s/he did the same – said partner tried to alert me that my method wasn't the easiest route (we almost made it!). S/he called out several times and I followed him/her to a nearby rock formation that had a swarm of floating scarfs all around it. Holding down the call-out button absorbed all the scarves, filled my ability to jump, raised me into the air, and from there I was a short jump away from a scarf-meter extension, without any assistance. It was a much easier route and I imagined the other player thinking, "What an idiot."

"That's all in your head," Hunicke said. "You've got to stop being so hard on yourself!" Indeed, while my online peers in most multiplayer games have no problem, socially or technologically, having their voices heard (kiss your mother with that mouth?) the silence and anonymity of Journey's experience meant that any personality I ascribed to my partner was a combination of his/her behavior and my own internal narrative. So in this example, I played the bumbling writer paired up with the expert player, a sort of rag-tag buddy cop duo.

I had played the first three chapters in the game and, over the course of roughly 20 to 30 minutes, I understood much of the game's mechanics and structure with no dialog, no on-screen tutorial, and really no overt pedantry at all. Like thatgamecompany's previous games, the team is looking to communicate a feeling more than anything else. "We wanted you to have a sense of smallness, powerlessness," Hunicke explained. "To be a part of something bigger, you need to feel small." And I did.

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