Sometimes video game developers make games. And sometimes they don’t. In 2017, Campo Santo, the studio that made Firewatch, announced that it was working on a new game, In the Valley of Gods. And Visceral Games, a studio that had been working on a single-player Star Wars game led by Amy Hennig, announced that it was closing. The Star Wars game was canceled.
Polygon asked Sean Vanaman, a founder of Campo Santo and the lead writer of Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One, and Amy Hennig, the director and writer of the first three Uncharted games, to meet in person to discuss the present and future of video game storytelling. They met in the Campo Santo studio in San Francisco and talked about how their teams have used trailers to guide their creative process, why some games get canceled, and the differences between making an indie drama and a AAA blockbuster.
Sean Vanaman: Hi, I’m Sean Vanaman.
Amy Hennig: And I’m Amy Hennig.
Sean Vanaman: And we’ve never met in real life.
Amy Hennig: Well, we just did, downstairs.
Sean Vanaman: Well, yes. Five minutes ago is not never. And I’ve obviously known your work for a long time. We’re going to talk about video game development in the year 2017.
Amy Hennig: Can we talk about 2018 instead?
Sean Vanaman: I can tell you what the past six hours of video game development have been like for me, because that’s as long as I’ve done it in 2018.
Amy Hennig: I’m glad you are feeling as fuzzy-headed about things after the holidays as I am, because I feel like, “God, is it that easy to forget how to do what we do?”
Sean Vanaman: I turned off my computer for two weeks, and then turned it back on, and I had no idea where to begin.
Amy Hennig: You just come back and watch the trailer for In the Valley of Gods, and figure out what you were making? The fact is, most early trailers are — I don’t want to say “fake,” but when you’re that early in development, it’s almost an animatic of your intentions, right?
Sean Vanaman: We build trailers to set the tone for the rest of development. I like to cook, but I’m not a very great cook. If I’m looking through a new recipe book, I don’t like to cook anything that doesn’t have a photograph of what the final thing is supposed to look like.
Amy Hennig: You want to know what you’re shooting for.
Sean Vanaman: We have a recipe. We have all the ingredients written down. We sort of know what we’re doing, but making that trailer is getting that full-page photograph of the meal, and going, “That’s the shit, right there.”
Amy Hennig: It is amazing, by the way, that trailer.
Sean Vanaman: Thanks. I wish we could just sell trailers. “That’ll be $19.99.”
Amy Hennig: Now you just have to deliver on it.
Sean Vanaman: It was so fun to work on. When we worked on Firewatch, none of the group had worked together, ever, and I definitely felt a lot of personal pressure. “OK, I made all these people quit their jobs. All of them took pay cuts at least by half, and I gotta really drive this thing confidently, and pretend like it’s not going to be a disaster.”
Amy Hennig: Did you guys have a similar trailer for Firewatch?
Sean Vanaman: Yeah. The first minute of it was just a slow zoom on Delilah’s tower, and Henry and Delilah talking about some spooky stuff. None of that was in the game.
Amy Hennig: Right, that’s often the case. But I think the pressure of having one of those reveal deadlines can galvanize the team. It gives you the confidence to go, “Well, we know what we’re doing, after all,” as well as the terror of realizing that you have to deliver on that promise. Do you feel like the core idea is clearer to you now?
Sean Vanaman: The mechanic is pretty clear. A lot of the early things that we are working on for this game are just, how do you use this film camera, and how does it drive the action? How can you explore a world with a film camera, uncover its surface?
Amy Hennig: How many people are on the team?
Sean Vanaman: We have 11 devs. The whole company is 13.
Amy Hennig: That’s amazing to me. It’s such a different world.
Sean Vanaman: How big was the team on Unnamed Star Wars Title?
Amy Hennig: When Visceral was 100 percent on the game, it was maybe 80 people. We still were finishing up Battlefield Hardline and the DLC before that. The goal was ultimately to double that number.
Sean Vanaman: That is almost a Naughty Dog-size team.
Amy Hennig: It has to be, to make a game of that scope and fidelity.
Sean Vanaman: I’ve never done that. I don’t know what that’s like. That’s scary. The Walking Dead team at its peak was maybe 75.
Amy Hennig: I wonder how much team size is dictated by the expectations of a big franchise IP, or is it more because we’re shooting for photorealism rather than a stylized look? Is it graphical fidelity and level of detail that makes the difference?
Sean Vanaman: With Star Wars especially, you can’t — I get to decide how many characters are going to be in In the Valley of Gods. It’s more than two, but if we decided that we can make a great game with an arbitrary single-digit number of characters, and it fit with the story and the theme that we were going for, and what the gameplay was like, we can just decide that. But if you were to do that with something like Star Wars, you would be making something very avant-garde for the license.
Amy Hennig: I was thinking about this while playing Hellblade, which is amazing and beautiful. And then I thought, “Well, wait a second. They only have to make one character, and we had to do like 20 of those at the same level of fidelity, with as many as 10 of them on screen at a time, running in frame rate.” You spend so much of your time just trying to fight the technology as opposed to solving your core design problems, in other words, figuring out what it is you’re trying to make.
Sean Vanaman: Most of this year was me struggling with scope. It felt like I spent six months just smashing my face against my desk trying to get the character count down. And then we just decided to stop doing that, and just said, “We’re going to let this game be the size it needs to be, while being smart about scope in these other ways.” Then that got really exciting, and we found some core design tenets that allow us to tell something that’s going to feel really sweeping and adventurous, but still not have to double the team size.
Amy Hennig: I think we’re in an inflection point right now. Obviously what happened with our Star Wars project didn’t come out of the blue. A lot of too-dramatic articles were written about it — the death of linear story games and all that kind of stuff — but look, there is a real problem: this line we’ve been running up to for a lot of years, which is the rising cost of development, and the desires, or the demands even, of players in terms of hours of gameplay, fidelity, production values, additional modes, all these things. Those pressures end up very real internally. If it costs you, say, $100 million or more to make a game, how are you making that money back, and making a profit?
And the $60 price point can’t change, right? There’s a lot of negative press around monetization, loot boxes, games as a service, etc., but these things are trending now in the industry, especially for larger publishers, as an answer to the problem of rising development costs. Budgets keep going up, the bar keeps getting raised, and it starts making less and less sense to make these games.
There is also this trend now that, as much as people protest and say, “Why are you canceling a linear, story-based game? This is the kind of game we want,” people aren’t necessarily buying them. They’re watching somebody else play them online.
Sean Vanaman: We sold a couple million copies of Firewatch, so I’m sort of like, “Whatever.” But at the same time, you can sell a couple million copies of a Tomb Raider, and people are like, “Oh, OK,” internally.
Amy Hennig: Oh, no. That would be considered a failure.
Sean Vanaman: Yeah, and they’re like, “Well, should we really keep making games like this?”
Amy Hennig: Either you make something with lower fidelity, or —
Sean Vanaman: Nintendo is kicking everyone’s ass that way, right?
Amy Hennig: Right.
Sean Vanaman: Look at the console. The game you were developing wouldn’t have been able to run on the Nintendo Switch, and when you see games with incredibly high fidelity being ported to it, it’s a nightmare. NBA 2K18 had to have a huge patch to even be playable. It’s now the fastest-selling console of all time in America. And Mario and Zelda just did crazy, crazy, crazy numbers.
Amy Hennig: End-of-the-year game awards, it’s all Zelda and Mario, right?
Sean Vanaman: I’ve never worked in triple-A. But when I would interview at triple-A, I felt like the resource allocation was out of whack. When I think about working on a game, at least when we started working on Firewatch, the only thing constraining us was time and money, which are the same thing. I try to not make a lot of assumptions. I just sort of say, “What do we think is good? What do we think leverages our skills the best? What do we think we can really take a big bite out of in terms of our individual abilities?” And we start there.
I don’t know how I would work at a place where a bunch of boxes are already checked for me, where it’s like, “Oh, it’s gotta have this level of fidelity. It’s gotta be this long. It’s gotta have this. It’s gotta have this. And it’s gotta be this type of combat.” I think a lot of the bill is getting charged in those inherited assumptions.
Amy Hennig: Right. And look, faith is a big aspect of game design. Not only faith in yourself, which is hard to sustain sometimes, but mutual faith, extended among the team. Now you make that team how many people, 100? 200? 300? And you’re spending $100 million or more.
Faith doesn’t fit in a spreadsheet, but it is an absolutely critical element of what we do. At Naughty Dog, most of the games we worked on looked like they weren’t going to come together until maybe two or three months before we finished them.
Sean Vanaman: I walked through Naughty Dog, we’ll call it three months before Lost Legacy came out, and I was like, “What? This is what a level looks like right now?”
Amy Hennig: Right?
Sean Vanaman: I was looking at a level that someone was working on. I was like, “Are you kidding me?” It made me feel so good about myself. “We’re not the only ones.”
Amy Hennig: I look at the development process of Uncharted, the whole series, as well as The Last of Us. None of those games would’ve survived a more stringent process or more scrutiny.
A lot of folks didn’t understand what we were doing with Uncharted at the time. People asked, “Why are we supposed to care about a guy in a T-shirt and jeans? We need mascot characters, like Kratos.” And I just had to repeat: “You’re going to have to trust me. You’re going to have to trust me. You’re going to have to trust me.”
Meanwhile, inside you’re thinking, “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.” How do you hang on to that inner voice that is giving you the confidence to just kind of go with your gut, when everything around you is saying: “Don’t trust your gut. Don’t trust your gut. We don’t know if we trust your gut”?
And look, sometimes we go with our gut, and it’s a massive failure. And other times it ends up being a $2 billion franchise.
I guess as a small developer, when you’re just answering to yourselves, that ability to sustain faith is easier than it is in an organization where there’s more process, pressure and structure. When you’re worried about check boxes, spreadsheets and risk mitigation.
Sean Vanaman: For us, the silver bullet is just hiring. That’s why the big team really scares me, because it’s really hard to find good people, and we just are really, really, really stringent in hiring.
Amy Hennig: It’s like casting a show. If you just inherited a cast as opposed to carefully auditioning, then God knows where you’d wind up. It’s the same thing with a team.
Sean Vanaman: I think about creative direction as purely a hiring decision. I always feel like trust comes along with really stringent hiring practices.
Amy Hennig: How many of these people did you know before you started working together?
Sean Vanaman: Almost none now. Chris Remo, known him a long time. Obviously, Jake Rodkin and I started the company. We met Jane Ng through a friend. But Claire Hummel, who’s our art director on In the Valley, I just cold-called her on the internet, because I liked her Hamilton fan art.
Amy Hennig: This kind of gets back to why it’s nice to do something like a finished trailer, because it lets you take your foot off the gas a little bit; you can relax and say: “OK, we don’t need to panic about our ability to do this. We just proved that we can. Now we just need to make the rest of it.”
With stories particularly, I mean, my God, what a lot of trust that requires of your team to believe, “This is going to be good. It’s all going to make sense,” because it’s not like the story comes out whole. It evolves like the rest of the game.
Sean Vanaman: I sometimes worry that people put too much trust in the story and writing stuff on my plate, because I never feel pressure from the team that it’s not going to come together, almost the opposite. We started a game last summer, based on a cool mechanic idea. And I had a setting that I thought was cool. We just had a bunch of pieces.
And we started this game. We worked on it for six months. We built a prototype. Within hours of having a prototype review, I went: “I think we should kill this. I think we should cancel this right now.”
Amy Hennig: Were you the only one feeling that way?
Sean Vanaman: I thought I was at the time. “Oh, God. How am I gonna do this? This is gonna be my first test. I don’t think we can make this.”
I made my case to a couple people. And what I heard back was, “Yeah, I was really concerned about the story and how that was going to work with this mechanic. But I just assumed you knew what you were doing.” I was like, “What?”
Amy Hennig: That’s scary. You want to be challenged, right?
Sean Vanaman: “I just assumed that you knew what was going on.” I was like, “I don’t, so —”
Amy Hennig: Yeah, please don’t do that.
Sean Vanaman: What did you play in 2017 that you liked?
Amy Hennig: My favorite would be a tie between The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and What Remains of Edith Finch. I probably would lean toward Edith Finch as my favorite. I like them both for completely different reasons, obviously.
And then, I loved West of Loathing. I could not put it down. It was as addictive for me as Zelda. When I fired it up I thought, “OK, well I’m immediately charmed.” How would you describe it? It is an incredibly fluid and charmingly animated stick-figure side-scroller —
Sean Vanaman: It’s an RPG adventure.
Amy Hennig: Yeah, it’s a point-and-click, turn-based RPG, stick-figure Western, and it’s hilarious.
Sean Vanaman: I recently replayed Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, because I have the SNES Classic, and I enjoyed West of Loathing more than that. If you like an adventure RPG that is tonally perfect, then you should buy this game for $11, or whatever it is.
Amy Hennig: It’s the most polished stick-figure Western —
Sean Vanaman: On the market. I challenge you to find a more polished stick-figure Western adventure. It’s very good.
Amy Hennig: What else? Gorogoa.
Sean Vanaman: Very good. Very, very, very good. I played that on the Switch.
Amy Hennig: I just played it on the iPad. I have no idea what it means, but I loved it. It’s sort of like thumbing through a tarot deck, or like dream images. And I hadn’t played puzzles like that before.
Sean Vanaman: There’s a game called Framed, but it’s very different.
Amy Hennig: Yeah, Framed was good, but it didn’t capture me as much as this did. What else did you play?
Sean Vanaman: I really liked Resident Evil 7. I have an arbitrary endpoint of that game, where I just stopped playing it after you escape the house. I loved it.
I don’t play a lot of games. I’m not very exhaustive. I really like to watch movies, and I like to read. But at the same time, I still play Dota 2.
I got into PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds big-time. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, to me, felt like I got to have a really exciting road trip with people for hours a night, where we would all land in one spot, find ourselves a car and go on a little journey together, and some crazy shit would happen. It reminded me of being in high school, where my buddy would be like, “Want to go drive around?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I sure do.” And most times, it ends, you go home and there’s no fanfare. But then there are sublime events that unfold in unexpected ways, and it’s joyous. It’s so, so joyous.
I played Breath of the Wild, and I probably just need to go back to it on a long flight or something, because so much about connecting with a video game is it being at the right time for me. It feels like I went on a date with a really awesome person, who I thought was really attractive, and I was like, “I’m not really ready for this right now.”
Amy Hennig: People said that about Skyrim, too. I just don’t know how people dedicate that much time.
Sean Vanaman: If right now, a guy comes running in the studio and says, “Zelda or Mario, or I’m gonna blow your brains out,” I’d be like, “It’s Mario!”
Amy Hennig: Mario was great. And it’s so interesting to be able to play those two games side by side, because they’re such different flavors.
Sean Vanaman: They’re so different. You could imagine a different publisher making those two games, and having them start to feel very similar. I can think of multiple publishers where the two franchises have just slowly started to become the same type of thing.
Amy Hennig: And of course, there’s a huge nostalgia factor with those games, too. Certainly for someone my age. I think I’ve got 20 years on you probably.
Sean Vanaman: I looked at your Wikipedia. You do, exactly.
Amy Hennig: What else is on there? I haven’t read it.
Sean Vanaman: I didn’t know you were a designer and artist on Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City.
Amy Hennig: Yes, that was my first game as a designer.
Sean Vanaman: I also didn’t know you worked on the Legacy of Kain series. There was some really cool narrative stuff that you guys did in those games.
Amy Hennig: Thank you. I still say that the first Soul Reaver is probably the game, design-wise, that I’m the most proud of.
Sean Vanaman: It was awesome. So good.
Amy Hennig: We were able to start from a blank slate. It’s different than making Star Wars or even Uncharted, which was inspired by Indiana Jones, because there a lot of the template is already created for you.
Sean Vanaman: Man, working on the Michael Jordan game, though. I mean, it was a platformer where you threw frozen basketballs. I would kill to work on an NBA franchise game.
Amy Hennig: He was on the Birmingham Barons at that point — he was playing baseball. In the middle of our production, Michael Jordan’s father was murdered, and he retired from basketball to become a minor-league baseball player. And we were sitting there going, “Um, we’re still making this basketball platformer.”
Sean Vanaman: The story of the game is that an all-star charity event is coming up, and Scottie Pippen, I guess, is the head of it. He and a bunch of other NBA all-stars are abducted by a guy named Max Cranium. I loved it.
Amy Hennig: Thank you. It reviewed pretty well. Jordan’s kids loved it. I have a basketball signed by him saying, “To Amy, Great game.”
Sean Vanaman: That’s amazing.
Amy Hennig: Which is awesome, because it sounds like we played basketball.
Sean Vanaman: It sounds like you went hard in the paint against Michael Jordan. That’s incredible.
We were talking about getting older in the game industry.
Amy Hennig: Yeah, getting old in the game industry, but you can’t talk about it. You’re just a young dude.
Sean Vanaman: I’m 33.
Amy Hennig: Right, I’m 53. So I can.
Sean Vanaman: When you were 30, I was 10.
Amy Hennig: I hadn’t even joined Crystal Dynamics yet, I don’t think.
Sean Vanaman: Neither had I.
Amy Hennig: You’re just in the beginnings of your career.
Sean Vanaman: Yeah, probably. I don’t know, man. How long? I don’t know. I still think I could maybe be a race car driver.
Amy Hennig: It’s a weird thing to be this old. And I hate saying the word “old,” because I don’t feel old, but it’s all relative.
Sean Vanaman: I never think of you as old, as someone who I know in the gaming industry from afar.
Amy Hennig: Until you saw me walk in, and then went, “Holy shit.”
Sean Vanaman: I was like, “Oh my god. Somebody sent Amy Hennig’s mom over here.”
Amy Hennig: Get her a chair.
Sean Vanaman: You’re 53? It’s a rare perspective.
Amy Hennig: Yeah. And being a woman too. But I don’t talk about that very much, just because I feel like it’s kind of like stepping into a minefield a little bit. But to be a 53-year-old woman director in the game industry, it’s pretty rare.
Sean Vanaman: Maybe the only one?
Amy Hennig: I’m not sure. I wouldn’t want to guess and feel like I’m forgetting someone. But it’s a very small club, for sure. And look, for anyone my age, male or female, in the game industry, it’s a tough business. It wears you down. It’s a grind. But it’s a good grind. I mean, God — world’s tiniest violin, right? Most people would kill —
Sean Vanaman: It can also be a grind that eats you alive, and you’re gone.
Amy Hennig: Sure, but at least it’s a creative industry. You’re doing what you love.
But the point is that it’s a lot of work. I’ve spent most of my career at publishers, or bigger developers. You go from job, to job, to job. It’s different from other creative industries where you’re an independent contractor, and maybe have some downtime between projects to let your field lie fallow for a bit.
There’s not a lot of time to just cool down, travel, do something else, not think about work. And so I see a lot of people that get to my age — at a certain point they just kind of go, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” If you look at my contemporaries, a lot of people have started smaller studios. They’re not doing the triple-A thing anymore. And like we said earlier, I think we’re at an inflection point where the types of games that we’re making are going to change, just because of what’s supportable.
My favorite games tend to be like Ueda’s games: Ico, Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian. Things like Journey and Firewatch. I’m really excited about In the Valley of Gods. I want to play something that I can experience completely, share the author’s vision and finish. I want to put it on my shelf and treasure the experience the same way you do with a great movie or a great book. I want to be able to absorb the entire thing, and take some meaning away from it.
To be honest, most of us in triple-A look to the indie scene for inspiration, because you guys are so much more unfettered than we are.
Sean Vanaman: It’s the two-million-copies failure that is the worst thing, right?
Amy Hennig: In my experience, we’ve got to sell at least five right out the door, and then eight or nine down the line. And that would still be modest.
Sean Vanaman: That’s madness. Wow, that’s so cool. Sorry, that’s just so many copies.
Amy Hennig: Otherwise the cost of development makes zero sense. You can’t let it distract you, but with every single game, you’re kind of all-in — if this doesn’t fly, if people don’t want this, if this doesn’t end up being fun, we’re done. Now, granted I think a studio like Naughty Dog has enough of a reputation at this point that Sony would continue to support them, regardless. But it always felt like every single one of those bets could sink the studio.
Sean Vanaman: Another thing about being small, talking about grind of the industry, is that people travel, and we moved to a new office, and people got married. I feel like I traveled around the world three times. I think in the indie space we’re really lucky. If we can find success, we do get to have some sort of life.
Amy Hennig: If you’ve got a 100- or 200-person team, you’d better have something else for them to do, or else you’re burning money every month that you have downtime. Thank God for DLC; it helps fill those gaps.
We were talking about age, and I think the weird thing about getting to this point is that you kind of realize, “Well, there’s more road behind me than there is ahead.” You wouldn’t understand that yet, but —
Sean Vanaman: No. But I am in a spot where I go, “How much road is that way, and how much road do I want there to be that way?” I started making games in 2005.
Amy Hennig: Yeah, how many lives do you want to have? That’s the problem. See, I can be a ghost-rattling-its-chains object lesson for you.
Sean Vanaman: “Turn back!”
Amy Hennig: “Don’t! Turn back! Don’t waste the next 20 years!” I’ll be your Marley’s ghost.
It used to be, we’d make a game every two years, or even less, a year, right?
Sean Vanaman: Right.
Amy Hennig: So I’ve worked on probably 15 games or something like that, over 28 years. Not all of them got published. But now I look at it and go, “Well, if a game takes three, four, five years to make, and I’m 53, how many at-bats do I have left?” And you don’t want to waste those.
I haven’t had something published since 2011, and it’s killing me. I worked on Uncharted 4 for two and a half years, and then I worked on the Star Wars game for three and a half years. A lot of the work, thankfully, lived on in U4, and we’ll see what happens with the Star Wars thing. But you think, “OK, wait a second. It was that easy to burn six years and not publish anything.” So I look at it and go, “OK, well how many bullets” — I keep using different metaphors — “how many bullets do I have left in the chamber?” I want to make sure that I make the right choices.
Sean Vanaman: On Firewatch, we were really trying to prove something to ourselves. Man, it would’ve bummed me out so hard if that game just came out sideways, and it was like, “Well, couldn’t do it without a license like The Walking Dead. That’s a shame. Shouldn’t have left this. Shouldn’t have done that.” I just wanted to know that I could do it.
Amy Hennig: When things go sideways, you kind of have to rewind to when you initially said yes to that experience. And you go, “Well, knowing everything that I know now, would I go back to that moment and make a different decision?” And if the answer is no — because you wouldn’t want to unravel all the good things that happened, the people that you met and the things that you learned — then you just have to make peace with it.
But I’ve talked to friends about this, younger colleagues, and in some ways I feel like they take these setbacks harder than I do at this point in my career. They remind me, “Well, that’s fine for you, because you’ve got Uncharted.”
It’s funny — it doesn’t seem like it now, 10 years later, but Uncharted wasn’t an easy sell. Getting that game made was really hard.
Sean Vanaman: Oh, of course.
Amy Hennig: At the time, people weren’t really making nuanced design choices in games.
Sean Vanaman: People were making, basically, World War II shooters and horror games.
Amy Hennig: It was all dark, dark, dark. I was like, whoa, really? Can we not express joy, use humor and color? Do we have to take ourselves so seriously?
Sean Vanaman: There’s a moment in Uncharted 2 where you jump in the pool, and he’s just goofing off in the pool. That was the quintessential Uncharted moment. “Oh, this game wants to be joyous.” There’s a lot of that in In the Valley of Gods.
Amy Hennig: That’s exciting to hear.
Sean Vanaman: I mean, it’s definitely your work — you will notice it.
Amy Hennig: There were people internally who didn’t like the humor in the game. They didn’t necessarily like the characters or think the scenes were funny. And again, you just kind of have to shrug and go, “You’ll have to trust me.”
Sean Vanaman: “Well, when you’re in charge you can do it the other way.”
Amy Hennig: I talk to students and young developers sometimes, and they’re always sort of amazed to find out that everybody has imposter syndrome.
Sean Vanaman: I still feel like I’m ripping everyone off.
Amy Hennig: You look back at your own work and go, “I’m not even sure how I did that.”
Sean Vanaman: Exactly.
Amy Hennig: So even though you have this underlying sense of faith and tell yourself, “Well, I’ve been here lots of times, and I’ve always figured out a way to solve these problems, so I’ve got to relax and assume that I will figure it out again,” in the moment you’re like, “I don’t know how I did that before. I don’t know what I’m doing.” And everybody feels that way. It’s something I haven’t heard creative people talk about that much until recently. I always hear this sigh of relief when I bring it up. Everyone feels lost all the time.
Sean Vanaman: When I’m at my keyboard, I have to trick myself into thinking that I’m a genius.
Amy Hennig: How long does that take you?
Sean Vanaman: It just depends. Usually an hour of the day.
Amy Hennig: Usually it’s, like, 3 in the morning. I finally am so tired I stop criticizing myself.
Sean Vanaman: I used to be that way. I was that way on The Walking Dead big-time. And then here, I’m pretty good. I get pretty punchy and pretty sharp between, like, 3 and end of day.
Amy Hennig: See, that’s nap time.
Sean Vanaman: Nap time is normally like 1:30 to 3. 4 to 7 is probably when I’m doing really good work.
Amy Hennig: It’s hard to drown out all the negative voices in your head.
Sean Vanaman: Yeah, but when you’re there, that’s the spot.
Amy Hennig: That’s the reward.
Sean Vanaman: That’s really where I think I am meant to live. Everything else, the other eight hours of the day, is just running the company, and trying to be a good game developer, and a good co-worker, and fill the needs of the game in the studio.
Amy Hennig: I have huge expectations for your game.
Sean Vanaman: Oh, please, just pile them on.
Amy Hennig: It’s all I’m waiting for now. It’s all I have to look forward to.
Sean Vanaman: Where do you see yourself going? What excites you? What scares you?
Amy Hennig: I’ve been making the same type of game, more or less, for a long time, so it’s sort of become my wheelhouse. And I think that in the triple-A space, it’s a harder sell than it’s ever been. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
I am intrigued by what it would feel like to work with a studio of 15 or 20 people. That would be changing things up in a big way for me, where I’m not trying to make games with 200-plus people — but then what does that mean? Do you change your expectations about graphical fidelity, or do you make something shorter and more focused, like Hellblade?
Also, I wonder what’s next for the industry, because there are other players in the mix now. It used to just be Sony and Microsoft and Nintendo. But you’ve got other giants entering the fray like Netflix and Amazon, who want to get into this business and have money to spend. So I think it’s going to be interesting to see where this collision — we’ve talked about it for years and years — this collision between traditional linear media and interactive media, but without the intimidating obstacle of a 15-plus-button game controller, takes us.
Sean Vanaman: I think about this a lot. I think it’s going to be an elegant, simple idea.
Amy Hennig: And I haven’t seen one yet.
Sean Vanaman: No, I think everything gets kind of pretty gimmicky pretty fast.
Amy Hennig: Did you play Soderbergh’s Mosaic?
Sean Vanaman: No, but I have it on that iPhone sitting on the table right in front of you. It’s on there. And I have it on my Apple TV. I should probably play it on Apple TV.
Amy Hennig: Yeah, I would. I would just play it on a bigger screen. I don’t know why I say “play it.” It’s not a game. They’re exploring this idea of branching narrative, but it’s more about multiple viewpoints, as opposed to a choose-your-own-adventure approach. It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure it would catch on in the mainstream, because it’s so marginally interactive.
What is the experience that’s going to come through Netflix for people, on their Roku or whatever? Is there an evolution of linear media that’s more interactive, and leverages the experience of people like you and me — who know how to tell stories in an interactive way — but where we shave off some of the complexity of it for the huge audience out there that’s not currently being served at all?
Because you’ve got traditional gamers, and then you’ve got this whole swath of people who are either very, very casual gamers or who don’t play games at all. Is there a more accessible interactive experience we can create for them? I think that is the big, million-dollar question right now.
Sean Vanaman: When folks who don’t play games have Firewatch played for them by a person that they care for, it’s usually a pretty good experience. We do start to think about, “How does this game feel when you’re in the room of it being played?” Or how does it feel if you’re watching someone play it on Twitch? We make UI choices based on stuff like that. There’s a selector on the dialogue in Firewatch. There doesn’t need to be. You don’t need a little highlight to indicate which choice you’re on. You could just number them, or put them on A, B, X, Y, right?
Amy Hennig: But then there would be no telegraphing for the person watching.
Sean Vanaman: You don’t get to see the person thinking about, “Which one of these do I pick?”
Amy Hennig: I never thought about that.
Sean Vanaman: All of the choices we make are based on that stuff.
Amy Hennig: Sometimes I feel like such a dinosaur. There’s all these things to consider that didn’t used to exist. There was no Twitch streaming, no YouTubers. We just made these little self-contained games that we put out into the world in brick-and-mortar stores. And they’d sell, or they wouldn’t.
I don’t completely get the streaming phenomenon. Anecdotally, we’re seeing, for the kind of games that you and I make, that a lot of people don’t want to play them. They just want to watch them being played.
But if we just said, “Ok, then, let’s just make a show. Let’s make a Firewatch show,” it might not sell, because what would be missing was the performance, and the element of the unknown that comes from player agency. That’s what makes us tune in. It’s the same reason we watch sports and reality shows. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out.
Sean Vanaman: And also, what happens when you discover something as a group? There’s 100 people in chat, and the person who’s playing Firewatch turns a corner and finds something spectacular. It’s that feeling of all finding it together that I think people really love.
Amy Hennig: But the people we expect to go buy our games — if we create a $60, somewhat linear, story-driven experience — it feels like a lot of them are opting to watch somebody else play it now.
Sean Vanaman: I disagree. I think the audience base is so massive that it’s OK. We gave out thousands — 3,500, 4,500 — of copies of Firewatch to streamers and YouTubers. It’s going to get streamed regardless. And we are very much of the opinion that there are just so many potential customers, like tens, and tens, and tens and tens of millions of potential customers, that the best thing we can do for the game is get as many people to believe that it’s great and entertaining as possible.
The hardest thing to do in this business, full-stop, is to get someone to know about your game. It’s harder than making it. It’s harder than shipping it. It’s harder than fixing bugs. I could literally go onto my Twitter feed right now — which is, whatever, 25,000 people who have self-selected to follow me personally — and be like, “Hey, guys. Two years ago I made Firewatch. You should buy it,” and someone will respond, “Oh, cool. What’s this? This looks awesome!” And I’m like, “Are you kidding me? What?” We’re pretty bullish on streaming in that regard.
Amy Hennig: I think this may be a big divide between mainstream triple-A and the indie, self-published route. When you’re spending millions on a story-based game that may not be perceived to have long-term value beyond that one playthrough, the question is, “Well, why would anybody buy this if they can just watch somebody play it?”
Sean Vanaman: Right, but why would anybody buy this when they can just steal it? It’s the same thing. I just feel like there’s no data behind those arguments. It’s a very easy argument for publishers to hide behind when they can go and say, “We should be making Overwatch instead.” Hey, man, do that. No problem, man. There is a large, large underserved market, and we’re happy about that. I’m really glad that you guys aren’t making a Firewatch competitor.
Amy Hennig: The other hot-button issue is whether games should be a medium for players to tell their own stories, and if we should ideally be developing systems to simulate stories rather than telling traditional, authored stories.
Sean Vanaman: Oh, go ahead. Keep doing it.
Amy Hennig: These are the conversations in the industry.
Sean Vanaman: That’s why I don’t work at a publisher. The thing that I think you keep saying, which I think is correct, is that, at a publisher, they do all have to be blockbusters. And that’s unfortunate, but I’m still bullish on the industry as a whole. And I mean, look at the stuff that’s in the grand prize for IGF this year.
And for most players — for your “PlayStation VIPs” is, I think, what you would call them internally — folks who buy eight to 14 games a year, $60 titles, will purchase DLC for at least three of those titles, play one or two ongoing service-based shooters or whatever, Gorogoa is just not on their radar, and doesn’t need to be.
There was a large chunk of my life where I came home, I turned on my Xbox 360, and I played Gears of War with my buddies until I was too tired to play more, and I woke up the next day and I went to my shitty job. And that was a beautiful era of my life. But also I was miserable, and those evenings were the one dangling joy at the end of a boring day. I wasn’t coming home being like, “What’s the greatest new mind-expanding indie game for me to play?” It’s just different. But the point is, there’s such a healthy market. There are so many people that you don’t have to get too hung up on what is or isn’t a game, or what is or isn’t whatever. Bennett Foddy just made a game where you live in a little cannonball, with an ax.
Amy Hennig: I suck so bad at that game. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
Sean Vanaman: And he’s like, “Well, I just made a bunch of money.”
Amy Hennig: That’s right.
Sean Vanaman: Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy.
Amy Hennig: It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever played.
Sean Vanaman: Anyway, I think the state of the union is strong, and I’m excited. My game’s not coming out in 2018, so ask me again in 2019.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.