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Exploring Humanity In Doki-Doki Universe

by Jeff Marchiafava on May 07, 2013 at 08:30 AM

Founded by ToeJam & Earl creator Greg Johnson, HumaNature Studios aims to create games that appeal to a broad audience, and give players fun and creative ways to interact with one another. The studio's first game, tentatively titled Doki-Doki Universe, also offers up insight into your own personality based on how you interact with the game's humorous cartoon worlds and characters.

In Doki-Doki Universe, you play the role of a robot whose model line is on the verge of being discontinued for its lack of humanity. In order to avoid this grim fate, you travel to a variety of unique planets and learn about their oddball inhabitants by speaking and interacting with them. How you interact with them is entirely up to you – you can help solve their problems, participate in games and competitions, or antagonize them to your heart's content. These interactions are handled via a growing library of items you find and collect, each of which has its own unique characteristics similar to Scribblenauts.

Along the way, an extraterrestrial named Alien Jeff evaluates your progress towards understanding humanity and provides feedback on your personality. When we commiserate with an undead character named Zombee who doesn't like being dead, Alien Jeff tells us how sensitive we are. Other planets offer humorous personality quizzes, which our extraterrestrial friend also weighs in on when you view the results. As you explore and answer questions, you'll earn more objects that you can customize your own homeworld with.

Doki-Doki Universe's massive library of objects is also featured in the game's communication system, which lets you send messages to your friends both within the game and via mobile apps and Facebook. The communication system scans your writing and replaces certain words with appropriately related artwork, which then play as a custom animation when your friend opens the message. Along with Doki-Doki Universe's open-ended gameplay, the communication system showcases HumaNature's humorous and charming art style.

Doki-Doki Universe will launch as a free-to-play game on PlayStation 3, Vita, and PlayStation 4 later this year. To learn more about the game, we spoke HumaNature's founder, Greg Johnson, who was refreshingly honest in describing the inspirations and goals for his unique indie project.

The website for HumaNature Studios says your studio is interested in "building games that appeal to non-gamer types and women." What made you want to pursue those audiences?

I don't exactly pursue those audiences. I just design games that I personally like and want to play. As it happens, I like cheerful, feel-good games that focus on emotional connection, creativity, and cooperation. I'm not so big on dark, violent games, or intense competition. I hate to generalize, as there are, thankfully, all kinds out there, but in general, female gamers and non-hardcore gamers are the group of people that happen to like my games. I am also lucky enough to work with a great group of people that share this sensibility.

Your website also features the same adorable art style as Doki-Doki Universe. Are you working on other games, or do you see Doki-Doki Universe as a platform for a variety of experiences?

Thanks, I'm glad you find that adorable. That style was originally done by a talented artist that used to work for me, named I-wei Huang, and more recently by the equally talented Steph Laberis. And yes, even with this first release it's a lot more than just a single game. Sony likes to call it an "ecosystem." I think we'll be building on it for years. It's sort of why we call it a Universe. Well, that and the fact that there are all these cute planets. 

Are you launching Doki-Doki Universe as a complete experience, or do you plan to continually update the game with new content?

Oh it's definitely a complete experience; several, in fact. There is the Personality Quiz aspect to it, which you can enjoy all by itself as you fly around in the Universe in the free version of the game. You can also visit your friends' home planets and see their personality reports. Then, there is Doki-Doki Mail on the various PlayStation platforms and on assorted mobile devices and tablets etc., which you also get for free. This is stand-alone for mobile users, but will also be integrated into the game. Then of course there is the Universe game itself, which has a ton of diverse simulation and interactive story content in it. We do plan to offer new content down the road, and expand the Universe. Hopefully Sony will want to make cute Doki-Doki merchandise available as well. Everyone in our office already has Doki-Doki mugs, T-shirts, and thermoses.

The personality quizzes are a unique addition to Doki-Doki Universe. What spurred the decision to provide players with this kind of personal feedback while they play the game?

This actually started when my beautiful wife, who is from Japan, showed me a book called Kokology. Kokoro means "heart" in Japanese. Kokology books put readers in hypothetical situations and then ask them to make a choice, then they tell you what that choice meant. For example: "You chose to rest under the tree. The tree represents your parents, so this means...etc." I thought it would be fun to build something like that into our game and give players who don't care so much about "winning" another reason to play. I've always loved things like the Meyers Briggs test (I'm an ENFP) and Enneagram tests. Even though our personality quizzes look very light and cute, we do a lot of calculation under the hood to compute your personality type. Try it, and see if you think it's accurate. I bet it will surprise you.

The messaging system is also another important and unique aspect of Doki-Doki Universe. Whose idea was it, and what is the goal of the messaging system?

Well, I have to give credit to my wife again, or maybe it's to Japan. She came back from a trip to Japan talking about the dynamic mobile messaging on Japanese cell phones, and I thought it sounded totally great. Then I realized we could create our own contextual version of that and put that into our game, and it would give players a fun, expressive way to connect with each other. As a free, useful mobile app, it would also offer lots of great exposure, and hopefully bring curious people to the full PlayStation game. 

We were surprised to learn that Doki-Doki Universe is going to be free. What is HumaNature's monetization plan for the game? Will there be microtransactions?

Isn't that interesting? This was Sony's idea, and I think it's great. It's a bit of a departure from the usual console mindset, and you gotta hand it to Sony for trying something new. We give away the cute galaxy that you can fly around in as a free digital download. This includes the personality test on all the asteroids, and the messaging system, and some other neat stuff. You just can't land on the planets. On mobile it's just the animated messaging. These are complete, standalone experiences, not really a demo of the game, but built within the same Universe. Then, later, if people love it, they can buy the digital download of the entire game, for a pretty low price as I understand it. Sony really wants to get this out to a lot of people. Down the road we'll have new planets and new content available. It's genius! Well, okay. At least it's kinda clever.

Doki-Doki Universe will be releasing on all of Sony's platforms. Why did you choose to work with Sony? And how did you get in contact with them?

A really good, old friend of mine named Evan Wells runs a studio you've probably heard of, called Naughty Dog. Evan worked for me straight out of college, level designing on an old game of mine called ToeJam and Earl 2 [You can read Wells' recollection of working with Johnson in our article, My First Game: Evan Wells Ed.]. Evan introduced me to the folks at Sony and we immediately hit it off. I've been building games as an independent developer for a bit over 30 years now, and I can quite honestly say that this group at Sony is the nicest bunch of publishers I've had the pleasure of working with. They have been very supportive and they give us tons of freedom to make the product that we want to make.

What has it been like working with Foster City Studio? What feedback/support have they provided you?

Ah, well I sort of just answered that, but I can also say that Sony has a strong interest in indie-style innovation. The Foster City Group, run by Connie Booth, has a particular interest in story and emotional expression. They also have a genuine interest in creating products that appeal to a broader audience. Both of those things make us a really good fit for them, and vice versa. It's pretty darn rare these days to be given the chance to make a major original title. I am nothing if not appreciative. I just hope we can get this thing delivered on time. Doing genuine innovation on a schedule is no easy feat.

Is there anything else our readers should know about Doki-Doki Universe?

Hmmm. Don't expect a serious or traditional action game. If you like sweet and quirky, slightly Japanese-y things, or perhaps if you're into interactive story or self-discovery, you may find our game interesting. That and well....maybe keep an open mind. We're trying something new and there are always risks. I'm sure we'll get some things right and other parts will probably be a bit rough. In any event, we hope it will be charming and intriguing enough to make you smile and want to return to the little Universe we've created, and maybe even share it with others.

For more on Sony's involvement with indie game developers, check out our previews of Hohokum and Counterspy.