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How Bioshock 2 spawned Faster Than Light, Gone Home and Eldritch

Monday, 31st March 2014 11:05 GMT By Josiah Renaudin

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Eldrich, Minor Key’s debut project, was a first-person action game taking inspirations from popular roguelikes and American writer H. P. Lovecraft. That blend of classic game mechanics and early 20th-century literature was enough to spark interest in a small crowd of paying customers, and that’s really all that Pittman ever expected. His ambitions were diffident, and luckily for his bank account, all of them were met.

“I set very modest goals for Eldritch. My first goal was simply to recoup the money I had spent making the game – about seven months of living in the expensive SF Bay Area. Anything less would be an absolute failure,” he explained. “My next goal was to make enough beyond that that I could afford to make another game without necessarily having to resort to crowdfunding or early access. I was very fortunate to hit both of these goals within a couple of months of the game’s release. Of course, I hope it will continue to sell, and I hope many more people enjoy it and spread the word; but if it never sells another copy, I will still consider it a success.

“The critical and community responses to Eldritch were about on target with my expectations, too. With my limited time and resources, I had to focus on gameplay above all else, and the rough edges in the visuals and sound design were noted, of course. But the average response has been very positive, and I believe my decision to go deep on the core gameplay has paid off.”

Pittman didn’t push hundreds of thousands of copies of his Lovecraftian adventure, but he found an appreciation and love for development absent at 2K Games. What he did miss, however, was the support of a well-staffed team. All the jobs he had taken for granted at a big studio – such as public relations and marketing – were left for his small team to handle.

With very little experience in promoting a brand, Pittman struggled to get noticed. There are hundreds of indie games attempting to make an impact on the industry each and every year, and while Eldritch got a few nods from major publications, the title has yet to break out beyond its niche.

Still, Pittman has no desire to slink back into another AAA studio.

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“Focus on something you’re passionate about so you’ll be able to maintain the energy required to complete it” – Steve Gaynor, Fullbright Company.

“It’s an ongoing risk, but it’s worth it,” he explained. “I sacrificed the certainty of a paycheck twice a month for professional autonomy, and it was absolutely the right decision for me.”

Not every 2K developer was surrounded by dozens of co-workers on a daily basis. One of the longest-tenured BioShock 2 devs was afforded the opportunity to work within a small team early on, but the transition to a 100-person operation showed him just how badly he wanted to go independent. Steve Gaynor, a designer of some of the earliest BioShock 2 levels and lead writer of the critically heralded Minerva’s Den DLC, thrived when surrounded by a handful of concurring creators. Things changed, though, when he went to Irrational Games.

“After doing Minerva’s Den, I went to Irrational for a year and was a senior level designer on Infinite. So I went from that 12-person team back to being one person in a 100-person team,” he said. “I wanted to get back to that small, focused team feeling we had, so I moved with my wife back to Portland and then started trying to figure out how to start up my own production with a couple of my former 2K Marin co-workers.”

What Gaynor founded was The Fullbright Company, a malleable group that focuses on small, narrative-driven experiences. Their first project was Gone Home, which grabbed dozens of game-of-the-year nods as well as the ire of a vocal segment of the gaming community for not really being a “game.”

Still, the interactive experience sold more than 250,000 copies on PC, and Sony has even extended a helping hand to bring the project to the PlayStation 4. Fullbright has been a success, but Gaynor still sees the viability of both large and small-scale development.

“The real advantages of a small team are agility and ownership. Agility as in you can make decisions quickly and without a long approval process, ownership as in you can feel connected to the entirety of the project as opposed to being one small part of a very big machine,” he explained.

“The upside of a big studio is you get to work with so many different, incredibly talented people, and see them do big, amazing things every day. But I’ll take the satisfaction of fully contributing to a small project with a small team any day.”

So all you need to do is leave your AAA job, recruit a few smart friends, and start developing a critical hit, right? Unfortunately, the process of actually shipping a functioning game isn’t an easy one, which is something that Gaynor learned throughout the development of Gone Home.

“I’d say the most important thing I learned in AAA was how to actually ship a game,” Gaynor said. “I think there are two things that are incredibly important… well, three I guess. You need to find a game to build that fits into the center of a Venn diagram between: ‘Things I Want to Make,’ ‘Things People Will Want to Play,’ and ‘Things I’m Capable of Shipping.’

“It’s a long, hard, uncertain road, but if you’re lucky you can end up doing things you’re really, deeply proud of” – Steve Gaynor, Fullbright Company.

“The judgment to do that takes experience – but focus on something you’re passionate about so you’ll be able to maintain the energy required to complete it; something you’d be excited to play as a player who encountered it for the first time; and something you are very sure you can actually build and complete and polish with the resources you have.”

Davis, Ma, Pittman, and Gaynor prove that there’s no single, easy-to-read blueprint for reaching indie success – at least, not one that any of them cared to use. How a development team decides to create and release a product – whether it’s through crowdfunding or personal finances – depends on the personality of the people fuelling the work, as well as the particular monetary goals of the game being made.

However, even after shipping something that’s universally loved, the pressures of this line of work never fade. Resting on your laurels within a small operation isn’t an option, as you’re only as good – and sustainable – as the newest game you ship.

“It’s worked out so far,” Gaynor stated. “It’s a long, hard, uncertain road, but if you’re lucky you can end up doing things you’re really, deeply proud of and that people make a real connection with, and that is worth more than anything, I think.”

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  1. TheWulf

    That was actually really interesting and insightful. Thank you! I always figured at the big, faceless places of infinite dragons suits there would be a feeling of constantly stifled creativity, invention, and innovation. And, of course, the choke-chain keeping you in line would be the reliability of your payday.

    You don’t want to speak up or be clever because that carries risk of demotion or, worse, being fired. So you just sort of bury your inner desires, ambitions, and urges and sink into the molasses of the homogeneity. It’s just a job, and free-thinking is something you do in your own, spare time. I imagine that for anyone with an iota of self-awareness and vision, which novel people undoubtedly do have, that’s suffocating. You can just feel it draining the life from you as you grind the days away.

    For someone who doesn’t innately have an understanding of novelty (this is a genetic thing, I’m pretty sure), the grind can be fun, and this is why you get workaholics and some people who love environments like that. They come home and they play games which they can grind away in further, and the assumption is made that because they like that, everyone must like that, or they’re just attacking them personally. Those kinds of people don’t actually have any real insight, it would be as impossible for them as it would be for a dog to speak English. Insight, innovation, invention, novelty, creativity…

    Those things aren’t Universal. They aren’t in each and every person. There are divides within humanity. On the upper end of it, you have polymaths, on the lower end you have the lowest common denominator who just endlessly consume and consume and consume without ever thinking, dreaming, or questioning. All they want is more familiarity, more of the same thing to consume. More brands, more stuff, more things, more vapidity.

    Things make them happy.

    So there is a divide, there, where I feel like humanity has a number of subgenera rather than just races, where people are so physically different that they function on entirely different levels. This is why you notably have the divide between herd humans and pack humans, herd humans preferring the crowd, and pack humans preferring to interact in tight, creative, insightful social groups. What happens when you put a pack animal in a herd is that they slowly go crazy, because the creative juices that need to flow, the back-and-forth insight, it just isn’t there. They have no air to breath. They asphyxiate.

    So this is something that you can’t observe humanity and miss.

    Those who’re herd animals are just going to sink into the homogeneity and be happy, there. Their identity will exist through the herd, through the brands, through the things, the cheevos, the bragging points, the idle chatter. This isn’t to say that the herd are idiots, they’re not, they’re just a different kind of hive-like intelligence, their intelligence is more crowd-sourced. in some cases, it can lead to greater intellectual intelligence than the pack has.

    However, the herd commonly has no creative intelligence, so there are no dreams, but there’s also no soul-sickness, there’s no existential paranoia that keeps you awake late at night, but there’s no individuality. It’s very much a pros and cons thing. I’m not a herd animal, being a pack animal is all I know, and I go crazy if I’m not around people who’re insightful — if I’m in a crowd of people yammering about pointless real life things, I will slowly just… break.

    And people are beginning to realise how true this is. For their own health, they’re creating their own little packs, and working as those packs as opposed to part of the herd-like homogeneity. And this allows them to have all the insightful, meaningful discussions and freely flowing creative juices they could desire. It also means that they are free to revel in invention, because where the herd is quite violently opposed to invention because it’s not familiar to the herd as a whole, the pack loves invention, embraces it.

    It took me a long time to understand Kay’s line in Men in Black about the person versus the herd.

    It’s weird to find insight in a cheesy sci-fi, though oddly it’s there every now and then. But I digress. Fact is is that human herds and human packs are made up of physically different people that aren’t really compatible. However, human packs have been integrated into human herds via The System, kept in line with pay cheques and financial stability. However, with the birth of the Internet and things like Kickstarter, crowd funding, and so on?

    Well, the pack can be free.

    This means things will only get more and more interesting. And I really think we should support the packs as best we can, because they need it. The herd-like and identity-less mega corporations will always have money from the rest of the herd. The pack, however, relies on other people like them.

    And if we foster this, we’ll see more creativity, more cleverness, more ingenuity, less familiarity, less soulless grind, less pop-culture.

    I can’t speak for you, but I want that.

    #1 4 months ago