May 5, 2012 6:00 PM | John Polson
A trio of former 2K Marin colleagues are starting a new, Portland-based independent studio where they hope to focus on what they loved most about their old work -- the story-driven game experience.
Designer, speaker and blogger Steve Gaynor recently revealed he'd left Irrational Games to found The Fullbright Company with friends Johnnemann Nordhagen, a programmer, and Karla Zimonja, a "jack of all trades" who collaborated with Gaynor on "story stuff" as they worked together at 2K Marin on the acclaimed Minerva's Den DLC for BioShock 2.
"We were all kind of a team on the story and look of that project," Gaynor tells Gamasutra.
Although it was "super exciting" to have worked at Irrational and to have contributed to a project like BioShock Infinite, Gaynor says part of the decision to make a move now comes down to simple homesickness.
As longtime West-Coasters, he and his wife just weren't taking to life in Boston as well as they'd hoped. And given that Gaynor and his two colleagues wanted to recapture the small-team feel they'd had with Minerva's Den, it seemed like there was an opportunity there.
Gaynor's beloved Portland isn't exactly a hotbed for variegated game development: "Nobody's doing the kind of stuff in games that I want to be doing in Portland, and we were going to have to start up our own thing."
Both Nordhagen and Zimonja agreed to come to Portland to start the company together with Gaynor. "We have a lot of resources in town," he says of the low cost of living in the city.
"I had always wished that there was more game development in Portland, and I kind of feel like I left for six years and I went out and built enough of a career that I could bring some of the kind of dev I was into back to Portland with me," he reflects.
For the time being the trio's project is fully self-funded, so frugal development is key; there are no plans to significantly expand the core team, but the company hopes to collaborate with contractors. Additional funding might be an option in the future as the needs of the project change.
But Gaynor says the team had gotten started on pre-production just as soon as the concept was struck, so by the time his colleagues arrived in Portland, they were ready to go into production mode.
"The critical path is fully playable and the first half of the story is locked in," he explains. "Basically, the ideas are up on screen and we can test against whether they still seem like good ideas or not."
Although Gaynor says his team will announce more details on the game itself shortly, the scope of the project is fairly clear.
"I think that theres an incredible amount of value in tempering ambition and idealism with pragmatism," he says. The team wanted to be as small and fully-independent as possible, free to focus on the elements in which it found strength.
"We had to think about both what interest us conceptually and what would be achievable by three people without outside help," Gaynor says.
Naturally the team has a background in first-person exploration games. "A lot of people leave AAA and they make a 2D game, or an iOS game, and we don't have any expertise in that, and I don't think we would be truly passionate about making that kind of game," he says.
The intersection of expertise with available resources yields a reasonable result: An environmental storytelling game, where in the absence of combat and AI, that exploration element becomes primary.
"Since we aren't going to have monsters or weapons... we are going to invest fully in the player's ability to deeply interrogate the environment in a way that is normally not the focus of other games," says Gaynor. "There's this scale of being able to investigate the environment which is not fully represented in other games."
Gaynor says one of the most exciting elements of this venture is the freedom to explore a "fictional context" that few other games can support. "Almost all games are some version of fantasy, sci-fi or military... I think that's generally because the core mechanics of the game require there to be a bunch of enemies to do combat against," he notes.
"So saying we aren't going to have any combat... allows us to explore a kind of familiar, relatable personal story in a locale that you can actually visit in your daily life and discover what's interesting and intriguing and different about the specifics of a location that doesn't have any kind of fantastical elements to it at all," he continues.
Going from an AAA team to a small hands-on group is a big transition, but Gaynor suggests that only after that kind of experience is it assuring to strike out so boldly.
"If anything, it has prepared us better than anything else could to start a small enterprise like this," says Gaynor. "I've talked with John and Karla plenty of times about how glad I am... how good it is to know we're using some version of best practices."
[This interview originally appeared on Gamasutra, written by Leigh Alexander.]