The Mak­ing Of…

How a pi­o­neer­ing team broke all the rules to tell a new kind of ad­ven­ture story

EDGE - - GAMES SECTIONS - BY BEN MAXWELL De­vel­oper Campo Santo Pub­lisher Panic Inc For­mat PC, PS4 Ori­gin US Re­lease 2016

How a pi­o­neer­ing team broke all the rules to rede­fine the ad­ven­ture game with the beau­ti­ful Fire­watch

Back in 1999, Ca­bel Sasser and Steven Frank, founders of Port­land-based Mac soft­ware de­vel­oper Panic Inc, de­cided they could do a much bet­ter job of de­sign­ing the Mac’s in­ter­face than Ap­ple had man­aged thus far. As part of their grand vi­sion, the pair cre­ated Au­dion, a tool for play­ing CDs and MP3s that was orig­i­nally in­tended to be just one com­po­nent of a suite of fo­cused apps, but which ended up be­ing re­leased in stand­alone form. The app took off and at­tracted de­vel­op­ers keen to cus­tomise it, one go­ing on to cre­ate skins that caught the at­ten­tion of the Panic team. Af­ter reach­ing out, Sasser dis­cov­ered that he and this ac­com­plished de­signer shared other com­mon in­ter­ests – in­clud­ing an ob­ses­sion with Lu­casArts ad­ven­ture games – and through in­fre­quent con­tact watched as his ca­reer de­vel­oped. Four­teen years later, Sasser found him­self lis­ten­ing to a videogame pitch from the guy whose Au­dion skins had trig­gered their friend­ship. The man was Jake Rod­kin, and the game was Fire­watch.

Rod­kin made the pitch with writer and long­time friend Sean Vana­man, who he’d worked with on The Walk­ing Dead: Sea­son

One dur­ing their time at Tell­tale Games. Now do­ing con­tract work to tide them­selves over, the pair had founded in­die stu­dio Campo Santo and were look­ing for some­one to fund their first project. “Sean and I worked on Tales Of

Mon­key Is­land and then on some smaller projects like the Puz­zle Agent games and Poker Night team to­gether, and all of that led into The

Walk­ing Dead,” Rod­kin tells us. “But some time prior to that, when Sean and I were liv­ing to­gether, we kicked around a lot of ideas. One of the things we had talked about was the idea of a fire look­out tower, and we also re­ally wanted to do some­thing in first­per­son.”

It was a vi­sion born as much from nos­tal­gia (Vana­man grew up in Wy­oming, where

Fire­watch is set) as a de­sire to in­no­vate. “When we fin­ished up The Walk­ing Dead: Sea­son

One, I was a creative di­rec­tor and Sean was head of the writ­ing depart­ment,” Rod­kin ex­plains. “That was an amaz­ing place to be – I was ini­tially hired as a com­mu­nity man­ager, and I spent eight years slowly sneak­ing my way into game de­sign meet­ings. Dur­ing those years I had the op­por­tu­nity to learn all these new things and I got to this point where the next log­i­cal step was prob­a­bly The Walk­ing Dead: Sea­son Two and po­ten­tially Three. I felt like I was hit­ting the end of the road for be­ing able to learn a bunch of new stuff in that par­tic­u­lar place, and I think Sean was feel­ing the same way, so we de­cided to try go­ing out on our own. And once again, we found out we knew noth­ing.”

Rod­kin and Vana­man had had meet­ings with other pub­lish­ers be­fore pre­sent­ing their ideas to Panic, but didn’t yet have a clear pic­ture of what the game would be. They had a hand­ful of po­ten­tial ideas, but de­cided to go for broke and present the most am­bi­tious, and ex­pen­sive, con­cept first. “Ba­si­cally, they just pitched it as an ad­ven­ture game in a fire­watch tower,” Sasser re­calls. “But that was all I needed. I could im­me­di­ately pic­ture what that world would feel like, and I’ve al­ways wanted to go to one of those tow­ers. I’d known Jake for a re­ally long time, of course, and I knew these guys could make games – it in­stantly added up.”

While pri­mar­ily an app de­vel­oper, Panic had a his­tory of ex­per­i­ment­ing in other ar­eas (in­clud­ing, at one point, cre­at­ing Kata­mari

Da­macy T-shirts) and had been in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing the world of game devel­op­ment for some time. But Sasser and Frank didn’t want to tackle the daunt­ing task of build­ing a game stu­dio from scratch with no pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence in the in­dus­try, and so Campo Santo rep­re­sented the per­fect op­por­tu­nity. And, con­versely, this un­usual part­ner­ship meant that Rod­kin and Vana­man’s neb­u­lous idea was given the room it needed to breathe. “It was per­haps a one-of-akind re­la­tion­ship,” Rod­kin tells us. “When we were in the con­tract and ne­go­ti­a­tion stage – a term I use ridicu­lously loosely be­cause it lasted ap­prox­i­mately four hours – Ca­bel and Steve said, ‘Well, if the spirit of this is that we have no creative con­trol, we should write that into the deal.’ Well, we said yes, ob­vi­ously, and it meant we ended up shar­ing ev­ery­thing be­cause there was no worry the guys fund­ing it had some ul­te­rior mo­tive. It was very trust­ing, but it worked out well. For ex­am­ple, when we fin­ished our first playable build, the first thing we did was fly out to Port­land and have Ca­bel and Steve playtest the game. That’s the sort of thing you would

never do nor­mally – you’d playtest the hell out of it be­fore show­ing it to the peo­ple who are fund­ing it. But in­stead we were like, ‘Hey, guys, we’ve got a fully playable game – what do you think?’ And that was ac­tu­ally one of the most help­ful playtest ses­sions we had.”

But long be­fore Campo Santo reached that point, there were the small mat­ters of cre­at­ing a team and fig­ur­ing out what the game would ac­tu­ally be. Dur­ing on­line con­ver­sa­tions and week­ends spent to­gether, Rod­kin and Frank had talked about work­ing on a project with peo­ple such as for­mer Dou­ble Fine lead artist Jane Ng,

Mark Of The Ninja lead de­signer Nels An­der­son, and BioShock 2 progam­mer Will Arm­strong, but now they had the fi­nan­cial back­ing to make it a re­al­ity. And Rod­kin had been “In­ter­net friends” with artist and graphic de­signer Olly Moss since Moss posted a com­pli­men­tary tweet about Sam & Max: Sea­son

3, on which Rod­kin had worked. “[Moss] half jok­ingly said, ‘Do you know any­thing about mak­ing videogames?’ to me, and just hours be­fore, Sean and I were talk­ing about who would be a good fit for an artist on the project. It was very for­tu­itous, I guess.”

Skele­ton crew as­sem­bled, Campo Santo moved into its San Fran­cisco of­fice in Jan­uary 2014 and set about work­ing out what a game about a look­out tower would ac­tu­ally look like. “The six of us had this thing that was a mir­ror in­ver­sion of Dou­ble Fine’s Am­ne­sia Fort­night,” An­der­son ex­plains. “We called it Re­al­ity

“BA­SI­CALLY, THEY JUST PITCHED IT AS AN AD­VEN­TURE GAME IN A FIRE­WATCH TOWER. BUT THAT WAS ALL I NEEDED”

Fort­night, and we just scrib­bled shit on a white­board. We de­cided to stop wor­ry­ing about the story part of it and fig­ure out what it’s ac­tu­ally like to be able to walk around and be able to push a ra­dio but­ton and have a con­ver­sa­tion. We just de­cided to make the thing – we knew it would be bad, but we learned a lot. And then it was like, ‘OK, well, we think based on this ab­so­lute hot trash that we can prob­a­bly turn this into a real videogame with a lot of work.’”

But even af­ter the team, which was grow­ing in num­bers, cre­ated what An­der­son re­luc­tantly de­scribes as a ver­ti­cal slice of the game, things weren’t much clearer. “We still didn’t re­alise what the game was at all,” ad­mits de­signer and com­poser Chris Remo, whose other sound­tracks in­clude those of Gone Home and Thirty Flights Of

Lov­ing. “But I don’t think we re­alised how much we didn’t know what it was. We had to solve so many de­sign prob­lems – such as, what do you ac­tu­ally do when you’re walk­ing around? How do you talk to Delilah about any­thing that isn’t a [pri­mary] con­ver­sa­tion? And how do we get the player to go to the place they’re sup­posed to go? Just the fun­da­men­tal, ‘what’s the game?’”

As a re­sult, the team started at the be­gin­ning, lit­er­ally. “We worked on day one first, and the end of the game last,” An­der­son laughs. “That’s su­per-un­usual in game devel­op­ment, and it means there’s def­i­nitely some pretty rick­ety shit un­der the hood early on. We had some time to go back and re­vise stuff, but not an in­fi­nite amount, so there are still a few things that prob­a­bly no­body who plays the game no­tices, but for me it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s set up in the old way.’”

Campo Santo’s left­field ap­proach to the un­usual project, cou­pled with a lack of any real prece­dents to ref­er­ence, re­sulted in a dis­tinc­tive, grown-up-feel­ing game. Fire­watch man­ages to ri­val the cin­e­matic drama to which videogames so of­ten as­pire with­out ever com­pro­mis­ing the in­ter­ac­tiv­ity that sets them apart from other medi­ums. “We forced our­selves to solve prob­lems with­out fall­ing back on the best-prac­tice game de­sign an­swer,” Remo ex­plains. “In a lot of cases we ei­ther in­ten­tion­ally or un­in­ten­tion­ally just didn’t pay at­ten­tion to that, and I think the re­sult was to solve all of these prob­lems from an al­most naive per­spec­tive. There are so few crunchy sys­temic un­der­pin­nings to this game, other than the con­ver­sa­tion sys­tem, and I think that took us off the hook from a lot of videogamey de­sign de­ci­sions that might have pre­vented the game from feel­ing like it does.”

That con­ver­sa­tion sys­tem is Fire­watch’s crown­ing achieve­ment, a me­chanic that al­lows for un­com­monly nat­u­ral­is­tic dis­cus­sions. It’s also re­spon­sive, adapt­ing to a huge range of fac­tors to en­sure that ev­ery­thing flows con­vinc­ingly. It can use trig­ger vol­umes to check where the player is in the world, it knows what you’re hold­ing in your hand and how many times you’ve picked up a

cer­tain ob­ject, it keeps track of ev­ery­thing you’ve done and said, and it even knows where you’re look­ing at any given time. It’s a level of sur­veil­lance GLaDOS would kill for. “A lot of play­ers didn’t un­der­stand how much ac­tual videogame is go­ing on un­der the sur­face,” Remo says. “In some ways it’s a tes­ta­ment to Sean’s writ­ing that that’s the case, be­cause the in­ter­ac­tive con­ver­sa­tions feel so nat­u­ral it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily oc­cur to you how sys­tem­i­cally com­plex they are un­der­neath. But I would strongly sus­pect the com­plex­ity of our in­ter­ac­tive di­a­logue would stack up favourably against any much more me­chan­i­cal RPG in the past ten or 20 years. It’s so in­ter­wo­ven and com­plex it just sort of washed over a lot of play­ers. And that was also by de­sign, be­cause we in­ten­tion­ally didn’t signpost these things.”

Be­fore Fire­watch found its fo­cus, the project was tak­ing a more tra­di­tional shape, in­spired by Metroid­va­nia games and the open world of Far Cry 2, which had fans through­out the team. In build­ing the world, Campo Santo took in­spi­ra­tion from the way Metroid Prime’s maps were con­structed (“Their de­sign was a lit­tle cheesier than we thought,” Rod­kin ad­mits), and en­vi­ron­men­tal gat­ing was more pro­nounced. The team even briefly con­sid­ered a tim­ing-based combo sys­tem for Henry’s mantling, but a lack of re­sources and time de­railed these early am­bi­tions. But this fo­cused ef­forts on the game’s con­ver­sa­tion sys­tem, en­vi­ron­ment and the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Henry and Delilah in­stead, and what re­mains of those ear­lier ideas sim­ply re­in­forces your sense of pres­ence in the game world. “It was all built by hand and then just revved on a bunch be­tween me, Olly and Jane over most of the pro­duc­tion of the game,” Rod­kin says. “Then it was some­how mag­i­cally set-dressed with only 20 trees and eight rocks – Jane is a ma­chine. The Jane Ng build­ing block re­use tech­nique al­lows you to put to­gether a con­vinc­ing large space by ba­si­cally pulling dupes of a few rocks then scal­ing and ro­tat­ing them.” Artis­tic smoke and mir­rors or oth­er­wise,

Fire­watch’s Wy­oming en­vi­ron­ment feels like a nat­u­ral space, re­in­forc­ing the con­vinc­ing na­ture of the game’s world – a facet bol­stered by

Fire­watch’s out­right re­fusal to stray into whimsy or bombast. “The orig­i­nal in­ten­tion was we never re­ally col­lapse the pos­si­bil­ity space of whether or not this was a crazy con­spir­acy,” Remo re­veals. “But I pushed hard for the end­ing to be re­ally muted. I thought it was re­ally im­por­tant that the am­bi­gu­ity of the end­ing, and there­fore what you re­flected on, shouldn’t be about what hap­pened, but about what it means to be hu­man and deal with loss, re­spon­si­bil­ity and grief.”

An­der­son: “If the end­ing was, ‘Oh, what if there was some crazy gov­ern­ment pro­gramme?’ ?’ then that ends up be­ing what the game was all about. And if you look at all the things the char­ac­ters dealt with, there are some de­lib­er­ate e themes. We didn’t want to over­power that.”

It may con­clude in an un­der­stated way, but that makes it no less pow­er­ful. And now that

Fire­watch is out in the wild, the team can turn their at­ten­tion to the next project and an­oth­err bur­geon­ing re­la­tion­ship. “It’s a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent ent now,” Sasser muses. “But it was a re­ally spe­cial cial ex­pe­ri­ence for us, and I think that even though gh [Campo Santo] prob­a­bly don’t need as much h money as they did last time, there’s still stuff that hat we can con­trib­ute. I re­ally want to do it again.” in.”

“For sure,” Rod­kin says. “And if you guys ever make another MP3 player, let me know.” .”

Fire­watch is “a very nar­ra­tive game pre­dom­i­nantly made by peo­ple who re­ally like me­chan­i­cal games,” Remo says

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