Steve Gaynor took a gamble last year. Leaving the company that makes BioShock, one of the most popular blockbuster series, is a big decision. So is co-founding a studio with just a handful of people.
He’s not the first triple-A developer to go indie, but his is a unique case: Gone Home is completely nonviolent and emotionally resonating. A girl returns home after a year only to discover that her family is gone, and players must explore the house to piece together their stories. That’s a little different from BioShock's decapitations and blood splatters. Here, the game designer talks about making Gone Home and the indie game creative process.
After Gaynor left Bioshock maker Irrational Games, his team at new studio The Fullbright Company worked off of their savings. Limited resources forced them to use their assets wisely and form a clear picture of what they wanted to make.
“I would definitely rather have a situation where [we know] here’s what we have to work with and these are our constraints, how many people we have, the technology we have, the amount of time we have, et cetera, et cetera,” he tells Co.Create. “Because if you just have a big, giant blank canvas, and you can theoretically do anything, then it’ll take you a long time to figure out what your constraints are.”
He says, “I’d prefer to be in that situation early. We know what the boundaries are. We need to do something great with it.”
Making small changes to Gone Home was easy enough, but bigger alterations could have destabilized it. Gaynor said playtesters were dissatisfied because they couldn’t return household objects like trophies where they found them, so Fullbright added a “put back” feature. They were just “throwing physics objects around,” he said. They weren’t “a person in this house.”
He said, “It was all small stuff like that because for Gone Home, if we wanted to add a really big feature, [like], ‘Okay, there is going to be a character that you meet.’ That's a massive change. You go from zero characters to any characters ... Anything that we added outside of the original blueprint would have been hugely out of scope.”
Fullbright’s members had to assume roles that they wouldn’t at a triple-A studio, where hundreds of people handle specific tasks, including public relations. “The biggest thing is just remembering that everything that needs to get done for the game needs to be done by one of the four people on the team,” says Gaynor. “If one of us isn't doing it, it's not going to get done.”
Fixing small problems, like bugs, becomes simpler, and they have more control over the product overall. “The success or failure of the thing that we made was totally on us, and we couldn't blame it on somebody else and be like, ‘Oh, why didn't the marketing department do a better job?’ Because we are the marketing department.”
Gone Home’s intimate story is a result of design decisions. The smaller focus means fewer distracting elements that fill larger, more complex games. “We're not going to have any combat, we're not going to have any puzzles,” says Gaynor. “We can just make this about people that are relatable to you. That could be a family that you know personally or that lived down the street or that you might meet in real life and not have to put it through the lens of 'and they're zombies.'”
Just because Gaynor left a triple-A player, it doesn’t mean he left his experience and knowledge behind. “Working in triple-A made us very conservative … in ways that I hope made us efficient and allowed us to get things done without going down blind alleys and wasting time that we really didn't have,” he says.
Indie development allows for more flexibility—no crunch time, no office hours—but the size of a team should depend on the needs of a game. “Triple-A was the result of just a scaling up and up and up of small teams to bigger teams to bigger teams,” said Gaynor. “And so if anything, indie and triple-A have a similarity in as much as indie is almost like turning the clock back on what triple-A turned into and getting back to what developing those games used to be.”
Gaynor warned of the dangers of confusing the two. Thinking too ambitiously in indie can lead to a “death spiral,” where you’re working “just to keep the lights on. “Think about how much you can do with how little,” he said. “Think about how small you can be and still make something you're excited about.” For Gaynor, that’s Gone Home.