How serendipity, restlessness and trust formed an independent game studio.
There's this house in Northeast Portland. A green Cape Cod, with moss on the roof and a hammock in the backyard. The kind of place where you want to raise a family, maybe retire to, if the Pacific Northwest is your thing.
If you're attentive, you'll see the cats, Delicious and Adventurous, peering through a window as a guy with dreadlocks, held in place by a folded bandana, leaves on his bike. Later, you might see the rest of the residents returning from the local Hollywood Theater, famous for its atmosphere, pizza and beer.
Some know this as the Fullbright House. The residents call themselves The Fullbright Company.
Steve Gaynor, Karla Zimonja, Johnnemann Nordhagen and Kate Craig are no strangers to game development. As individuals, they've worked on titles such as BioShock 2, BioShock Infinite and The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. One of them even has experience making social games.
They're making a new house. One not made of Sheetrock and timber, but code and polygons. This is Gone Home, a game devoid of violence or superpowers, in which you explore a house, searching for your lost family members in a personal story without much context beyond that. If all goes well, this title will put The Fullbright Company, and the Portland game scene, on the map.
But in the end, that really doesn't matter. The four have poured so much of themselves into Gone Home, and received so much in return, that the trip has become more important than the destination. And somewhere along the way, they all became a family.
The company ladder
Top to bottom: Steve Gaynor, Johnnemann
Nordhagen, Karla Zimonja, Kate Craig
To look at him today, at the helm of his own independent game studio, you wouldn't know that Steve Gaynor was once the quintessential wandering college student, going through the motions, taking a bit longer to progress toward graduation than some of his Portland State professors might have preferred.
"I really didn't know what I was aiming towards," Gaynor says. "And I sort of had this realization like, 'Clearly what I'm thinking about the most [is] games, over any other form of expression or entertainment.' Even though I was drawing comics, studying sculpture and learning about the fine art world."
Gaynor found that level design was a great way to break into game development, because of easy access to design tools. His first levels, made entirely in his free time, were for F.E.A.R., the first-person shooter.
Gaynor moved to San Francisco in 2006, and worked as a tester for Sony. Soon, though, his knowledge of the F.E.A.R. level editor landed him a job at TimeGate Studios, the Houston-based developer in charge of the F.E.A.R. expansion Perseus Mandate.
"It was a great experience," he says. "It was a very old-school experience. It was a small number of guys ordering Chinese food in every night. It was very low pressure and I got to learn a lot without being super scared, which is a good starting point as a professional."
A year later, at the 2008 Game Developers Conference, Gaynor followed a friend to an appointment with 2K Marin. There he met Jordan Thomas, the creative director of BioShock 2. The encounter encouraged Gaynor to apply for a job, despite his apprehension.
"It's a mistake I think a lot of people make," he says. "Don't assume other people won't be interested. If you don't apply, no one can get back to you in the first place."
Gone was the indecisive, unsure Gaynor, replaced by someone more confident. He took a leap, hoping to reach the opposite ledge. 2K Marin did get back to Gaynor. The job was his.
And, as luck would have it, he would soon meet Karla Zimonja and Johnnemann Nordhagen.
Back at the Fullbright House, the day is drawing to a close. The charcoals on the grill are smoldering. Kate Craig, Fullbright's 3D artist, who works remotely from Vancouver, is in town for the weekend, and the rest of the team is enjoying her company. Tonight, they'll hang out around the fire pit, drink beers and head over to the swing set at the nearby park.
You would think they'd get sick of one another. Or at least want more time apart. But The Fullbright Company members can't seem to hang out enough. They recently visited Enchanted Forest, a nearby amusement park. They watch Star Trek and My So-Called Life together. Chances are, if you see one of them, another is close by.
"We were at GDC, and I compared it to being in a band," Craig says. "It's closer-knit than the other studios I've worked at. If you don't have much money, you have to do things like share hotel rooms, share flights and sleep in their basement, with cats lying on you."
Gaynor, Zimonja and Nordhagen have seen the other side of the fence, the side with large teams and international studios, where you're consigned to a role for the duration of a project. Craig's experiences with social games are similar.
But that's not why they all left. Despite the horror stories that so often accompany game development experiences, Gaynor and his team weren't pushed away, but pulled. They were attracted to the artistic liberty and self-management of a small game studio. They have the freedom to ride their bikes when work becomes too much, to have not only a co-worker beside them, but a friend as well.
"This has been an amazing thing," Nordhagen says. "I can't imagine living my life any other way now. Which is why I hope this game does well, so I don't have to go get another job."
"Maybe it's foolhardy of me, but I was never worried about living with them," Zimonja says. "I forget to go outside sometimes, and not sit in front of the computer all day. So it's good to have someone to say, 'Let's go do this.' And it's been working well for the entire development process. We've become this weird little family."
To hear Gaynor talk about his team now, more than a year after it formed, you'd be forgiven for assuming he was never afraid. His confidence belies the fact that it could have fallen apart at any time. Their funds, and personal cash flow, could have vanished. They could have collapsed under the weight of their new responsibilities. They could have hated each other.
"I'm really glad we get along well enough to live together, without driving each other super crazy," Gaynor says. "It's great to have this ambient ability just to hang out with people, and enjoy them ... to have this group of people you can rely on."
Trust me, I have a plan
"My favorite game developers would seriously piss off the Sorting Hat [in Harry Potter]," says Jordan Thomas, five years after his chance meeting with Gaynor at GDC, "and these three embody that. They have a deep hunger to diversify ... to draw, code, write something unsolicited in the margins of their job description that reminds you, 'Yeah, so, I can do more?' They just can't help it.
"They each defy classification in a way that pleasantly surprises you, over and over again."
At this point, Thomas has worked with the trio on BioShock 2 and its single-player expansion, Minerva's Den, on which Gaynor was the lead designer in 2010. Just beneath Gaynor was Zimonja — his story partner, and the team's 2D artist.
After getting her foot in the door as a researcher at 2K, Zimonja was able to branch out. Take on more responsibility. Her proven mettle landed her a position on the development team for Minerva's Den, where she fell in love with the small-team atmosphere Gaynor grew so fond of in Houston.
Zimonja is no leader. She'll be the first to tell you that. But she functions well as a right hand, supplementing someone else's talents with her own expertise.
"I'm a better editor than I am a writer," she says. "I work better when there's something to work with. I always see different things than Steve does, so it's good for us both to be there. It's a good collaboration."
When Gaynor left 2K Marin in 2011 to join Irrational Games, the team making BioShock Infinite, Zimonja remained behind. She began work on The Bureau: XCOM Declassified.
Gaynor and Zimonja knew they wanted to work together again, but how they would do that was easier said than done. Gaynor and his wife, Rachel Jacks, lived in Boston; Zimonja was still in San Francisco. After a while, as they so often can, things stopped clicking.
"My wife and I just realized that being somewhere strictly for a job, and being on a really big, high-profile project, were not really what we were interested in when we got there," Gaynor says.
Jacks' family was from Oregon, so she knew the Portland area well. It was also Gaynor's "adopted home," as he calls it, after his college love affair with the city. The choice was, in a lot of ways, simple.
"We had both wanted to move back to Portland for a long time, even when we lived in San Francisco," Jacks says. "We were both giddy about moving back here when we decided to go for it."
Gaynor wanted to make a personal game, one with an intimate narrative, but also within the means of a small team. One they could make with the money from their own pockets, and one they could make well.
The seeds of The Fullbright Company had been planted. Now, all Gaynor needed was help to make them grow. After a few emails and phone calls, Zimonja was all but packing her bags.
"I had been doing the exact same thing, every day, for too long," she says. "Even now, I miss everyone at 2K. It was just time to do something else. I was at a point where I was like, 'Sure, I can move a whole bunch of states away.' It was a good time for a change."
But neither Zimonja nor Gaynor knew how to program very well. They needed someone versatile, someone who could take on the workload of several programmers. They wanted someone familiar.
Enter: Nordhagen. The one with the dreadlocks.
"One day, I was thinking about what I wanted to do after Irrational," Gaynor says. "And I saw a tweet from Johnnemann. It was just sort of existentially introspective. I read it and I was like, 'Johnnemann might be considering the possibility of what else he could be doing.'"
Nordhagen's constant smile finally becomes a laugh.
"I remember that," he says. "A categorical imperative. Basically, if you're ever doing anything merely as a means to an end, you're doing a disservice to yourself.
"Working in triple-A development had kind of turned into a means to an end — getting a paycheck and feeding myself, instead of something that inspired me purely for its own sake. Working on an indie title, that's all there is. The game. And that's an end in and of itself, which is great."
So, Gaynor began chatting with Nordhagen about the possibility of coming to Portland, along with Zimonja, to form The Fullbright Company.
A whole new world
Jacks is managing her Etsy account. She sells jewelry, clothing and pillows with designs inspired by the stars. On the other side of the basement wall, her husband, Zimonja and Nordhagen are hard at work on Gone Home.
"I'm constantly listening to talk about the game," Jacks says. "I have a kind of weird inside-but-outside perspective on the whole thing."
Every once in a while, Gaynor or Zimonja will ask Jacks' opinion on a product or logo. ("Protex," the tampon brand you may or may not stumble across in Gone Home — that name was Jacks' idea.)
"When he worked on BioShock 2, Steven went off to the office all day, and I didn't really know what exactly went on there," Jacks says. "I now have a much better idea of how a game is made, and I'm really impressed by all the work that goes into it."
Jacks isn't the only one learning new things. Gaynor knew from the beginning that every member of the team would need to branch out and take on more responsibility, as the specialization inherent to a bigger studio with hundreds of members wouldn't work here.
"We needed people that had a broad skill set," Gaynor says. "In an indie studio that's small, everyone's going to be doing a lot of jobs. We all knew that we could work together, because of Minerva's Den, and we all had similar desires, as far as the kind of game we wanted to make."
On prior projects, Gaynor was a level designer. Now, he's in charge of music licensing, writing, recording sound, even publicity and marketing.
Zimonja helps direct voice acting in Gone Home, researches the title's 1990s setting and handles the 2D art.
Nordhagen is in charge of programming throughout the entire project, a far cry from the specialization of BioShock 2.
And as far as 3D art goes, well, no one had any clue where they'd get that at first.
They had enough of a budget to hire contractors for the 3D work, or even buy samples online, and edit them as they saw fit. For whatever reason, they avoided this route. The decision paid off.
One of Gaynor's favorite comic and video game fan artists, Emily Carroll, was in Portland one weekend in May 2012. The two decided to grab lunch, and Carroll's wife Kate Craig happened to be there.
"We got to talking about what she did, and Kate said, 'Oh, I make 3D art for video games,'" Gaynor says.
At this point, Gaynor doesn't even seem fazed at the turn of events. The entirety of development on Gone Home has been one fortunate event after another.
"It's sort of intimidating when you've never met Steve Gaynor before," Craig says. "When they first talked to me, I was like, 'Oh my gosh, these BioShock dudes are talking to me?' They've worked on Minerva's Den and impressive stuff, and I haven't done any of that just yet. I feel really lucky to work with these dudes."
After working part time with Craig for a few weeks, while she continued working on the social game Margaritaville, Gaynor offered her a full-time gig.
"She's been insanely important, and it was super serendipitous," Gaynor says. "Kate was just the perfect match for what we needed. She's right on the exact wavelength of artistic outlook that fits with Gone Home."
With that, The Fullbright Company was complete. The four adapted to their new roles in a small team. For 15 months, they leaned on one another, supported one another. They learned how to work together and, more importantly, how to live together.
Just as he did when he applied to 2K Marin, Gaynor took a leap of faith with The Fullbright Company and Gone Home. There was no guarantee of success, and he couldn't promise Zimonja, Nordhagen or Craig that it wouldn't be a disaster.
But maybe that's why they all cherish the payoff even more. For The Fullbright Company, Gone Home is more than a game. It's 15 months worth of poise and daring, of the team members' faith in one another.
"I am ... merely a curious explorer, who has become entwined in this family tale ... These people matter and deserve to be remembered."
This excerpt, from writer Michael Gakuran's blog series, describes the thrill of Haikyo. Literally translated, this Japanese word means "ruins." It's also a term for urban exploration, the act of investigating abandoned buildings and houses.
The blog series, detailing the exploration of the forgotten Royal House in Japan, inspired Gaynor to create a title based around the idea — finding a story through voyeurism and exploration. In Gone Home, you explore the house on Arbor Hill, trying to discern the whereabouts of your family, all the while getting to know them on a personal level through diaries and bedside notes.
If The Fullbright Company vanished today, without explanation, you could still get to know the team. You could read their emails, grocery lists, birthday cards and journals. It would take some digging, but eventually you would find it.
You'd find a story that matters and — like that of the Royal House in Japan or the house on Arbor Hill — a story that deserves to be remembered.
Images: The Fullbright Company
Editing: Matt Leone, Russ Pitts
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan