Published on May 30th, 2013 | by Zach (beezn) Beason1
Gone Home, An Interview With Steve Gaynor
It’s 1995 and you’ve just come back home from college. No one is there, your parents and your little sister are just gone. Where they went and why they seemed to be packing the house to move are what you’ll have to piece together from notes, pictures, and music clues that you find around the house. Welcome to Gone Home.
Gone Home is the first game created by The Fullbright Company, a four person team based out of a house in Portland, Oregon. Founded by Steve Gaynor, Johnnemann Nordhagen, Karla Zimonja in 2012 and later bringing in Kate Craig. They have set out to make a game that takes the world building mechanic of finding items that explain the back story in most games (think voxophones in BioShock Infinite) and make that the core of the game.
We were able to sit down to speak with Steve Gaynor and talk with him about the game and how games are best made.
Geek Link Radio: What was the origin point that started you towards making Gone Home?
Steve Gaynor: The beginning of the company and the beginning of the game were tied really closely together. I started the company with two other people who I used to work with down in California at 2K Marin. I worked with them on BioShock 2 and then I went to Boston for a year to work on BioShock Infinite, and it wasn’t really the project for me. Also, my wife and I weren’t super excited about living in Boston, so we decided to move back here to Portland. It’s where she’s from and I used to live here before I got in the games industry. Because Portland doesn’t have an established games industry, I knew that if I wanted to keep making games I would have to start from the ground up.
“Making Gone Home was really about how can we make a game that’s about story, exploration, atmosphere, and being in this immersive environment without it being impossible to build.”
I reached out to a couple of people I knew in California and they agreed to move up here to start the company. Coming from working in groups of 80 to 100 people the 3 of us had to think about what you could actually make. We knew we wanted to make something in the realm of the kinds of games we had made before, atmospheric first-person exploration games with a story in them. Gone Home was really an answer to the question of how do we make something like that with the people that we had. What makes us really excited about it is that the parts of projects that we’ve already worked on, that are the most inspiring to us, were stuff that’s usually kind of the sideshow. The part that comes after you shoot guys, gather loot, or complete quest objectives. Then along the side you find audio diaries or environmental storytelling that builds the story of where you are as you explore. We took the 10% of the experience that other games have and made it the core of Gone Home. The game is finding that story in the world. That isn’t something that we could have done in any other kind of development environment other than us doing our own thing.
GLR: Were you influenced by any other games in particular?
Gaynor: We all come from a Looking Glass background of System Shock, Theif, and BioShock. These games are much more about an immersive first-person environment and fully simulated physics. Both System Shock games are the closest inspiration for us because they are about exploring this non-linear space and finding distributed story throughout the scenes. For us it’s really subtractive from that, no weapons, no enemies, but our level fidelity will be better. With the smaller levels that we have in Gone Home we want to put a lot of care into our environments. In terms of structure and game play I think those are our biggest influences.
When it comes to the story of Gone Home, we focused a lot on the films, books, and tv of the setting, with it being set in the 90′s we re-watched the TV series My So-Called Life which is big inspiration for us, it’s from this character’s point of view and it’s very down to earth. The show makes it interesting to see the drama in the minutia in these characters lives. It’s interesting for us to be drawing from sources that are much more internal and tied to a relatable everyday experience that anybody that has grown up might have had versus the kind of context that the games that we were inspired by usually have in sci-fi or fantasy. It’s about making an everyday person’s story discoverable and making that interesting.
GLR: How did your experience working at Irrational Games prepare you to build your own studio?
Gaynor: It was a big inspiration for me to work with guys that made games that I really loved. There were people at Irrational that had worked on System Shock I, and II, and Thief. Working with people who had been directly involved in making those very seminal experiences and have continued to do so in the present, bringing those ideas into BioShock and BioShock Infinite was an experience that I was really grateful for because I learned a ton of things from them. Those guys have a lot of things figured out. The way they think about stuff is really interesting to watch, be in meetings with, interact with, and learn from.
Ken Levine left Looking Glass and started Irrational when he was 29 and I left Irrational to found the Fullbright Company when I was 29. I just feel that being around somebody that started their own thing and had taken it to such amazing places was an inspiration for me to try to do my own thing as well. In a lot of cases there’s only so much that you can do by trying to climb the ranks within an established organization. So part of the reason I left was because I felt it was time for me to do something that was completely my own thing and not anybody else’s. I am really glad to have worked on Infinite and have contributed stuff that was valuable, to have put my time to something that I think was worthwhile. But my time working on it made me realize that the kind of game that I want to make isn’t one that does take 150 people or more to make, or all the incredibly complex production issues to deal with. It made me want to focus on a game that did one thing and hopefully did it well.
GLR: Do you feel that a smaller more focused team has a better chance to make a better game than larger big budget team?
Gaynor: Quality is a really big word, there are production values that you really can’t achieve without a lot of money and a lot of people. Just as far as effects, characters, fidelity, and what you can put on-screen. There’s only so much you can do with a small number of people and not much money. On the other side of it I do feel that with a really big team with a lot of marketing expectations behind it, and that it needs to recoup a certain amount of money it is very difficult for it to do something that is focused and personal. However, one creative person may want to make one very specific thing and that may sell 10 million copies on Xbox or Steam, but I think that the place where those two desires line up is rare.
“I do think that smaller projects allow greater focus because you can say ‘I only want to make this game to look as big or is expensive looking or sell as many copies as it needs to in order to support the idea that mandated its creation in the first place.’”
I’d bet that with Gears of War that the final result was pretty much what Cliff Bleszinski wanted to make because he was really enthusiastic about making that kind of game and because it’s the type of game that could sell millions upon millions of copies. And that’s great, but the other side is that there are a ton of indie game concepts that are by their nature small and personal. You couldn’t even imagine how you would spend another 100 million dollars making them into a triple-A version of themselves. At that point you just change what the game is. I think that the balancing act is very hard and that the genre expectations are really hard too. Say you wanted to make a game that was personal and meaningful that connects with people and also has to fit into these specific genre expectations. For example, it’s a 3rd person shooter with a campaign that’s at least 8 hours long and has multiplayer, in the end those things will just be fighting each other for your attention as a creator.
I do think that smaller projects allow greater focus because you can say “I only want to make this game to look as big or is expensive looking or sell as many copies as it needs to in order to support the idea that mandated its creation in the first place.” But I definitely don’t think it’s impossible to have a big expensive triple-A game get really personal feelings from the creator across to the audience really effectively, I just think that it’s really hard to strike that balance in a way that the core of what the game is that appeals to a mass audience doesn’t reduce the human aspect that you’re trying to convey. Journey had something like 20 people who worked on it and I don’t know if it would have been the same if it had to be $60 and in a box with 150 people on the team. Journey was a game where the resources put behind it were commensurate with the idea that they wanted to get across. But once you try to put out a major release and put boxes on the shelves at Wal-Mart you don’t have the freedom to say that the game can be as small as the idea needs it to be, your game’s going to be big. It’s hard to find that balance of that idea that still connects with people but is big enough not to get smothered by the production.
GLR: Have you decided on a release date yet for Gone Home?
Gaynor: It’s going to be later this year, we don’t have an exact release date yet. We are just too far out to want to set a date. We would really like to be out before all of those big $60 games and new consoles and stuff just so we can actually get some people’s attention, but definitely before the end of this year.
GLR: Will Gone Home just be a PC release?
Gaynor: Windows, Mac and Linux. Because we’re using the Unity engine for Gone Home we can build for any of the platforms and we will be selling it through Steam. Once we have that version out we may start looking at putting it out on other platforms.
Thank you Steve for talking with us. You can follow his twitter feed here.