Tacoma and the new world of making games

With a hit under their belts, the makers of Gone Home are setting up a different kind of studio.

On the face of it, Karla Zimonja and Steve Gaynor are living the indie developer dream. Since the 2013 release of Gone Home — a commercial hit and a critical darling — the owners of Fullbright have moved from a shared house setup into their own studio. They've nabbed console-exclusive funding from Microsoft and are now deep into development of their second game, Tacoma, which was recently featured on the cover of Game Informer.

Using the Microsoft and Gone Home money, they've hired a strong team of specialists — a programmer, an animator, level designers, an audio engineer — and can legitimately claim creative control over their output. They answer to no one but themselves.

For countless budding game makers, Fullbright represents a dearly desired wishlist, an ideal "where-I-want-to-be-in-five-years." Zimonja and Gaynor have a little money and they have a lot of freedom. They live in a place of their choosing.

But Fullbright is also a faintly subversive venture, an exploration into something new. Unlike most developers, its goal is not to grow, but to not grow. Its desire is to create a company that represents certain values about how the world ought to be ordered. It wants to make the games it wants to make, and absolutely nothing else.

Its offices are plain, situated in a post-industrial Portland back street. At ground level, working trucks take noisy delivery of produce. There's a faint smell of rotting perishables in the air.

Four stories up some narrow, rickety stairs, the small team works in a wooden-floored room that's about the size of a squash court. There are no foosball tables or bright yellow bean bags here, no meeting rooms named after Star Wars characters. The kitchenette is RV-style.

Fullbright people work quietly, pausing occasionally to receive or offer feedback. The company is made up of five women and three men: a highly unusual gender mix in game development. This, it turns out, is an important part of the company's identity, its output and its ambitions.

Enter Tacoma

Tacoma is due to come out in 2016 for Xbox One and PC. While Gone Home is set in a Victorian mansion in the 1990s, Tacoma takes place aboard a space station in the latter part of this century. There are broad similarities between the two games and some big differences.

Once again, players enter an unfamiliar place and seek to solve the mystery of previous events by examining clues and artifacts left behind. It's a first-person game, but there is neither shooting nor violence. Players move from room-to-room and follow a narrative path of their choosing.

While Gone Home seeks to recreate a familiar place, Tacoma is an environment of the imagination. What will a space station look like in 70 years time and what is the social context of the time?

KarlaKarla Zimonja

This being set in space, there are gravity-free sections. Puzzles which play on this dynamic. The rooms are more three-dimensional than in Gone Home, with players making light use of gravity to explore walls and ceilings.

Both Gone Home and Tacoma are mysteries about missing people. But while there are no humans present in Gone Home, Tacoma offers up avatars moving about the ship via in-game Augmented Reality recordings: colorful avatars that move about the space station, signifying the earlier movements of crew members.

Gone Home conjures a creepy feeling by cleverly offering up an empty house with suggestions of menace. Tacoma doesn't seek to repeat the trick. This time, we are dealing with a HAL-style AI called ODIN, who represents the character of the environment.

Fullbright's skill is in creating game spaces that are worth exploring. Instead of challenges and obstacles, smart writing and engaging environmental storytelling propel the player onwards.

The team's senior members learned a lot of their trade at Irrational Games, and have absorbed the best bits of world-building and suspense-creation, while leaving aside the common baggage of combat and power progression. These games are sometimes derisively described as "walking simulations" but they are more like novelesque video games, layering on character revelations with plot cliff-hangers while players point, click and discover.

Being small is best of all

Tacoma is a bigger, more complicated venture than Gone Home, but one thing stays the same. It's funded by Fullbright. Microsoft's money is not an investment, in the sense of ownership; it's a fee for exclusivity. Fullbright's obligations are mostly to do with timely delivery and provision of marketing materials. Microsoft has no creative influence on the game itself.

But while Gaynor and Zimonja have spent money on staffing up the team, they have kept the project at a reasonably small scale. It's all about maintaining independence.

"We don’t have to answer to a publisher," says Gaynor. "It’s our own money. If we think it’s a good idea and we send it to our friends and they think it’s cool, I guess it’s cool.

Steve GaynorSteve Gaynor

"The freedom of being able to say: there doesn’t have to be guns, there doesn’t have to be multiplayer, we don’t have to recoup a $10 million budget. Regardless of what the form ends up being, there are very few requirements here. We just need to make something we think will work.

"I don’t envy people like Neil Druckmann [of developer Naughty Dog] or Ken Levine [formerly of Irrational], where your job is to do something that you personally care about and believe in, and that is also going to make a giant publicly traded corporation tens of millions of dollars back. That’s tough. That’s a hard balancing act."

Both Gaynor and Zimonja worked together on BioShock games with Levine. Mostly, they were part of large-scale projects where they focused on intense tasks as part of a big team. For a while, they were drafted to work on the BioShock 2 DLC Minerva's Den, and were largely left to their own devices.

"We discovered on Minerva's Den how much better for our process it was to work on a small team," says Zimonja in a brief email interview (she was off work the day Polygon visited Fullbright). "So we set a limit of 10 or 12 people in the company."

"On Minerva’s Den, you could turn to the gameplay programmer and say, 'Hey, what if this weapon worked this other way?'" explains Gaynor. "The programmer would say, 'OK, I’ll try it.' 20 minutes later you’re like, 'OK, that doesn’t work, but what if we did this?'

"When you’re on a team of 100-plus people, it’s very much like, let’s have a meeting. I had an idea in that meeting. It got filtered through production who took it to all the other departments to find out if it’s feasible and whether they like it. Weeks later, the thing you thought might be a cool idea can finally go on screen. At that point there’s so much investment in it that you can’t throw it out if it sucks. It’s a much slower boat when you have more people."

Tacoma Fullbright

Life without guns

Gaynor says he learned a lot working with Ken Levine at Irrational and enjoyed the experience. And Tacoma echoes the look and feel of Levine's BioShock worlds. At their core, Fullbright games take the storytelling aspects that make Irrational games so beloved, and magnify them, while rejecting shooter mechanics and combat progression.

The company has also brought in various developers who have experience at other companies.

"Some games focus on combat so hard that it’s just about refining that control and challenge."

Tynan Wales is a level designer with 18 years of experience. "I’ve always loved immersive sims," he says. "But some games focus on combat so hard that it’s just about refining that control and challenge. Immersive sims try to be a little more broad. I think that’s where Steve came from with this idea. Let’s make a place that feels real and is as interactive as we can make it, as interactive as you would expect it to be. And then just let you find a story there, instead of focusing on aspects that may or may not be relevant to the story. Combat, stealth and so on.

"When you make a game that’s about combat or overcoming obstacles, you have to put enough time and polish into it to make that good. You will be measured on that, which takes time away from making the rest of the world as interesting or interactive as it could be."

Wales says he enjoys shooting games and he's enjoyed working on them, but the most valuable lessons he's learned are about context and narrative.

"I was taught [working on BioShock games] how to make spaces good for more than combat." he says. "They also have to be set-dressed to be an interesting space. Something happened here. Why did that happen? A person lived there. What were they doing there? How did they do their work? What is left behind of their presence?"

Following Katie

In Gone Home, the entire game was built around tracking the presence of a missing family. Protagonist Katie Greenbriar returns home from an extended trip abroad. Her family is not around. There is a storm outside.

As the player explores various rooms in the house, the personalities, problems and whereabouts of the family members emerge. We follow a love story about Kailin's sister.

The game won Polygon's 2013 Game of the Year award, due to its originality, the power of its writing and its smart use of room-dressing and messages. For many players, creeping around a house, alone, was also a scary experience.

Although (MINOR SPOILERS) Gone Home is not a horror game, it played on enough horror tricks to feel like one.

"Much of the atmosphere — that tension and the player’s expectations — arose from stuff that wasn’t initially intentional."

"Much of the atmosphere — that tension and the player’s expectations — arose from stuff that wasn’t initially intentional," says Gaynor. "If you look at the paper map of the house in Gone Home, it’s basically a BioShock level. There’s a hub with big winding corridors with rooms off it. The fact that it’s in an old sprawling Victorian manor came from the fact that the level needs to be shaped that way.

"Similarly, you can’t leave the house. Why not? It’s the middle of the night in a rainstorm. Why can’t you call the police? The phone lines are out because of the big storm. Now you’re in a dark old creaky Victorian mansion in the middle of the night in a rainstorm. Obviously, everything about that points toward a horror game."

Fullbright played with this idea and added spooky stuff to the house, like a TV left on static and a bath splashed with some red substance. But horror was never really the point of the game.

"Hopefully, over the course of the game, that stuff fades into the background and you continue to play," he adds. "Not because you’re just waiting for when the killer jumps out, but because you actually care about the characters and want to know what happened to them. But it is surprising for me to hear people say they were more scared in this game than any other they ever played."

At a time when people who play games sought to solidify their identity as "gamers," Gone Home also became a lightning rod for bad tempered online debates about the exact nature of video games. Its differences attracted hostility. Its positive reception in the media was not universally celebrated.

"We wanted to make a small game about a few characters and about getting to know them."

"We were surprised by how many people were more vehemently opposed, instead of just being like, 'It’s not my cup of tea'," says Gaynor. "They were more like, 'I hate it!' We thought, 'It’s just a little game; leave it alone.' It was weird.

"If a reviewer gives a Metal Gear game, no matter how good it actually is, a seven, a huge part of the audience is going to say, 'How dare you not give it a nine plus?' I feel like it’s the flip side of that. How dare this little three-hour indie game get the kinds of scores that are supposed to be reserved for Grand Theft Auto?"

Gone Home was a personal expression from its makers. The characters were based on people they knew and events they had experienced.

"We wanted to make a small game about a few characters and about getting to know them. The only reason to care about it is if it gives you a connection to those characters. We wanted to make something that seemed like it was worth giving a shit about, if you were going to play it. It came from a real place. That’s what people make a connection with."


Learning on the job

One of the team who joined Fullbright, partly on the basis of a connection with Gone Home, is Nina Freeman, an indie developer whose work includes How Do You Do It, Freshman Year and Cibele, all of which are biographical vignettes. When she finished grad school in New York, she joined the team as a level designer.

Gone Home, she says, was a big inspiration for her to move her own artistic focus toward games. "I was doing a lot of poetry before. I liked games and played them a lot, but I didn’t have any awareness of the indie scene, or games that weren’t huge triple-A titles.

"It’s interesting to think about the way that people interact with each other."

"After I played Gone Home, I was totally blown away. I thought, 'Oh, this is the kind of story I’m interested in'. Usually I’ll play games and not be totally into the writing or the characters they’re depicting, but Gone Home felt much more human-oriented, which is what I’m interested in, exploring human stories and ordinary lives."

Freeman met Gaynor and Zimonja at the Game Developers Conference; they admired each other's work and agreed to stay in touch. Now they're working together.

"I was doing game design on my own," she says. "I hadn’t worked at any game studio formally before this. I’d just done grad school, which was loosely about games. I did a lot of little vignette games before I started here. That was my thing. It still is, on the side.

"Even though the scope is so different from my smaller games, thinking about the characters isn’t so different. I’m not doing anything autobiographical in Tacoma — obviously it’s about these fictional characters — but I still get to think about them through my own life experiences.

"That’s something I like to do as a designer. It’s interesting to explore the stories of the individuals on Tacoma. It’s interesting to think about the way that people interact with each other. And just learning first-person 3D game level design. I didn’t know much about that coming into this. I had literally never made a 3D game before. It’s a lot of new stuff for me. It’s exciting to be exploring those new narrative, character-driven spaces."

People on a space station

In Tacoma, protagonist Amy Ferrier moves through the space station, picking up clues through audio and AR logs and find out what happened to the crew.

"We have people from disparate histories and life experiences that led them to this posting," says Zimonja. "They have to learn to depend on each other and see what relationships they can eke out, because otherwise it's pretty easy to lose it. There's a strong correlation between the space you're given and how sane you get to remain. If you get your own private space and are allowed to be away from other people sometimes, you don't flip out nearly as much. If they put you in a cramped space with people you can't get away from, then it gets problematic really quick." The characters are being animated by Noël Clark, whose previous work includes Microsoft Studios output like Ryse, Project Spark and Forza. Because the characters in Tacoma are essentially outlines, their personality has to come through their shape and the way they move.

"Even though they're in this foreign, imagined setting, they’re still people."

"We have six different characters that all need to read as different people," says Clark. "The way we’ve designed the skeletal representations of the characters is through different body shapes, which also hints at how they might move.

"The first person you see is Evie, the system administrator. She’s a powerful woman who carries herself in a strong way. Clive is really tall and thin. He’ll have longer strides. He’s kind of hunched over, whereas Evie has better posture. The actors that we hired for the voices, we’ve videotaped them as well. I’m using some of their mannerisms in the characters."

Tacoma is set in space in the future, but it's really a story about people and how we relate to one another.

"Even though they're in this foreign, imagined setting, they’re still people," says Gaynor. "I hope the game is interesting and you’re engaged with it as you play through it. But if you make that human connection to what’s going on on-screen, that can be worthwhile.

"The great value of really good fiction is you get to feel like you’ve been given access to new perspectives," he adds. "I get to know these people and I build empathy with them in a way that expands my personal experience."


Something different

One of Fullbright's stated goals is to maintain gender balance at the studio, according to Gaynor. "Practically speaking you can only do that on purpose," he says.

The benefits, he says, feed into the studio's overall creative goals. "The value of what we make is that it’s different. You’re going to play a game we make because it’s not like anything else you could be playing. Does that come from the perspective of the people at the studio being made up of something different than the normal makeup of a dev team? Or is that what attracts more women to reach out to us? More diverse teams lead to a more diverse audience. That’s cool."

"It’s good to be around people who genuinely care about it and aren’t just saying they care about it because it’s cool or something," says Freeman. "Sure, it's a big issue right now, but there’s a huge difference between actively addressing it and just sitting back and watching other people address it. We care about diversity in games and encouraging women and minorities. It’s something I would hope to see in any studio."

"We're small," says Zimonja. "It's easier to be 50 percent or more women when your company is eight people. A lot of bigger companies have hamstrung themselves in various and multiple ways, and so it's harder for them.

"It's really not that hard to hire women, especially if you're willing to bring on someone a little junior. It also probably helps that our games are fairly feminist. Our founders are 50/50, and founder effect is a pretty well-documented phenomenon too. Studio culture with a lot of women present is just not the same as without, and I know which I'd rather work in."


Keeping the power on

Small teams of one or two can afford autonomy, but that tends to slip away as team sizes grow and as the ambitions of company leaders grow ever grander.

The need to pay wages drives developers into the arms of publishers, whose priorities are always fiscal. Inevitably, this begins to corrode creative independence and cultural identity.

Gaynor says that, if anything, he wants Fullbright's next game to be smaller than Tacoma.

"Honestly, I don’t personally ever want to make another game that’s even as big as Tacoma. I don’t think Karla does either. I’d much rather see Tacoma be a success that is a step above what Gone Home was. And that allows us the freedom to keep making stuff for a long time. If some of it’s a little bit riskier and we don’t know if it’s going to do as well as the stuff we’ve done before, that’s OK. But we are able to make games with a team that we believe in here in Portland on our own terms for a long time." Babykayak