Joining Campo Santo with Sean, Jake and Olly was simultaneously the hardest and easiest decision I’ve ever made. I had been at Klei for over two and half years. I was the lead designer on Mark of the Ninja, which was critically well received, commercially successful and I personally was tremendously proud of it. If you’ve paid attention to video games at all, you realize all three of those things lining up is probably the least likely of all video game fates. And unlike some studios which achieve those things by paving the way with the shattered bodies of their developers, I really liked everyone I worked with at Klei and we worked in largely sane conditions.
But there’s always an “and yet …” When Jake mentioned to me at GDC that he and Sean were thinking of starting up their own studio and (I’m pretty sure, nearly 100% jokingly) asked if I wanted to join up and make a weird video game together, I said “We should talk more.” Then he introduced the giant Englishman standing behind me at the bar as Olly (as in Moss), who was also probably on board for this mad voyage.
We chatted more after GDC and I considered exactly what this would mean. When I thought about where the next 3-5 years at Klei would take me, the answer was a little bit scary, because it was an answer I could predict. Klei does absolutely excellent work and everyone there is absolutely fantastic, but as a studio, at this point it’s established. They’ve found their groove, so to speak. So it’s possible to imagine what the next 3-5 years there would be like, and without doubt, they’d be great. But basically all major decisions in my life (most, but not all, I would say have worked out quite well and none of which I regret) were made largely by doing the thing I couldn’t predict. I’ll take the mystery box whenever given the choice, I guess.
As I discussed things over with my wife, talking about who was involved and what we wanted to accomplish, I realized this definitely felt like the right thing to do, even if it wasn’t the safest by any means. And once again cementing the fact that I’ve married the best damn lady around, she said that I should do whatever made me happiest and we would find a way to work the rest out. And so, without knowing exactly where this will all lead, I told Sean, Jake and Olly and that I was in.
Of course, while exactly where we’re going to end up with Campo Santo is a mystery, the other people on the expedition are anything but unknown. I met Jake through Steve Gaynor - co-founder of The Fullbright Company and designer of Gone Home - years ago and was introduced to Idle Thumbs around episode 3, I think. I met Sean a few years later after he was on a panel with Tim Schafer and Rihanna Pratchett, talking about comedy in games. Sean mentioned off-handedly that was he “just some guy from Wyoming.” I introduced myself afterward, as he’d just ruptured my self-attributed identity of being the only person in the games industry born and raised Wyoming. Fortunately, Sean clarified that he was born in Ireland and moved to Wyoming when he was a kid. (I later discovered Richard Hoffmeier, creator of Cart Life, was born in Wyoming, but primarily grew up in Montana, so that also only partially counts.)
I met Olly the most recent of all (he has never lived in or even vaguely near Wyoming), but it almost goes without saying that his work precedes him. Already the number of friends I’ve had that said, “Wait, you are working with *the* Olly Moss? I’ve got one of his prints on my desk/wall.” is both hilarious and amazing, especially because getting to know Olly, he’s the most down-to-earth, humble guy. His kind of talent can be toxic when possessed by someone who would give in to arrogance and entitlement. Olly is anything but.
And needless to say, Sean and Jake’s work on the The Walking Dead speaks for itself. What’s weird and funny is having listened to Idle Thumbs for years now, I’ve literally heard Jake and Sean talk about their thoughts on games and design for hundreds of hours.
So, what’s my dish in the Campo Santo banquet? I know I can’t channel empathy the way Sean does that lets him write such real, tangible, honest characters. I know I don’t have Jake’s eye for design and polish that transform something mundane into something joyous to use. And I know for damn sure I can’t create new and interesting places and people visually the way Olly can.
But I love systems and interacting with them. I like to think I know how to create dynamics that convey meaning beyond just being something “fun” to play around with. I like to think I can create mechanics that allow players to be expressive, that grant them the ability to create organic, novel experiences that are unique to them, rather than just creating a theme park where everyone sees and does the exact same things. I think there’s an overlap between the things we’re all interested in and good at that’s fertile ground for some very interesting games.
Most importantly I think that there is a *lot* none of us know. That’s what’s exciting! Part of the appeal of this endeavor is figuring out how to make this work. How to create a studio from the ground up, cultivating it and seeing what rich fruit it bears (to continue this weird agrarian analogy). But of all the things I could be doing right now, I cannot imagine anything better than this studio with these people. And there are a few more spots on the roster we’re still filling that excite me even further!
Will this be a 24 hour punch and pie party? Certainly not. Are there times I’m going to get cabin fever in the Great White North, feeling isolated from the rest of the team and what they’re doing? Without question. Are some of our assumptions going to prove to be bunk and we’re going to need to rethink parts of our game? Absolutely. As Sean said in his first post, games hate to be made. But these people are the people I want to stand beside as we force this game through the rift from intangibility into existence.
Deciding to found and then actually CREATE a video game studio has felt like a mix of buying a winning lottery ticket and taking a brash detour that results in a near miss with a pedestrian. Impulse followed by action followed by sitting in your car hyperventilating. The outcome is thrilling at best and disastrous at worst.
There are so many reasons to NOT make games; but in the interest of focus, here are two.
Firstly, games hate to be made. They really would rather not be made and once they catch wind that they might be in the process of being made they break, stall, and use all of their static inertia to produce something that’s really not fun to work on, let alone play.
Secondly, the video game business — the thing that ostensibly allows a band of quixotic programmers, artists and designers to try to wrangle the stubborn monster mentioned in my previous point — is insane. It doesn’t have a very clear understanding of its (readily apparent) nature of risk-taking the way most risk-taking lines of business do. Beyond the risk, and the way it shapes the industry ecosystem, there are very few business oriented end-games that appeal to the types of people who like making interactive experiences. Sell the company? But we’re just now successful enough to make what we want! Create a hit franchise with multi-million-dollar sequels? Come on, can’t we make something new? The Venn diagram of why businesspeople start businesses and why developers choose to make games has a strange middle, indeed.
So why are we doing this? To be honest, it’s because we think we’ve found the right group of people to make the first reason not just worth enduring but actually thrilling. As we talk to our friends and industry colleagues about “doing something indie” with us, there’s a shared pragmatism informed by years in the industry that melds with the lingering youthful enthusiasm that got us into games to begin with. Some of us want to tell stories, some of us want to build systems, and some of us want to create beautiful looking worlds, but we all want to make something. The stultifying difficulty of making a good game is instantly tempered and then squashed.
Furthermore, we believe we’ve found the right partner to make the second reason — the insanity of the game business — moot (or at least insane in a new and unexpected way).
Our first game is being both backed by and made in collaboration with the stupendous, stupidly-successful Mac utility software-cum-design studio slash app/t-shirt/engineering company Panic Inc. from Portland, Oregon. Jake will probably get into it more in a forthcoming post, but, essentially, a long-standing friendship between Jake and Panic founders Cabel and Steve, along with a mutual admiration for not just what stuff we make but HOW we make stuff, lead us to the realization that we all had to work together.
It’s an unlikely partnership that means we get to conceive of, make, and distribute a video game the way we want to and the way we know how, with no pre-prescribed set of rules or formula for how it’s done.
So off we go. Check back often and see what we’re up to. Follow us on twitter, perhaps. If you know Jake and me from the Idle Thumbs Podcast then you already know we’ll have a hard time not talking about how things are going. We’re lucky enough to set off with the artists and programmers and designers we’ve fawned over and been friends with for years but we’re also striking out with you; someone, presumably on the internet, who has enough interest to pay attention to an announcement like this and has enough excitement to pay attention to what comes next. We will work very hard to not disappoint.
Did we win the lottery? (It feels like it) Are we about to hit an old lady with our car? (I hope not). The shock is the same either way.