Road to the IGF: Galactic Cafe's The Stanley Parable

In this latest Road to the IGF interview, Wreden and Pugh discuss how they made The Stanley Parable, and what AAA companies like Valve could be doing to better highlight and nurture the modding community.
Two years after he released his original Source mod The Stanley Parable, developer Davey Wreden delighted once again with a full standalone release for Steam. The game, created alongside Source modder William Pugh and under the studio name Galactic Cafe, provides players with the question - do you take the left door as the narrator suggests, or veer off through the right door and ignore his desperate pleas? There's clearly something that's capturing imaginations with The Stanley Parable, as the game has been nominated for three IGF awards, including the Seumas McNally Grand Prize. In this latest Road to the IGF interview, Wreden and Pugh discuss how they made The Stanley Parable, and what AAA companies like Valve could be doing to better highlight and nurture the modding community.

What is your background in making games?

Davey Wreden: I had never made a game before when I simply picked up Source and started tooling around, learning what I could from documentation and forums. That led to the Stanley Parable mod, at which point I was able to connected with other more talented developers to actually flesh the game out a bit more. Like many other developers I'm entirely self taught! William Pugh: I'd done a lot of mapping for games like Team Fortress 2, but I'd never made a game before I started working with Davey. Whatever I didn't know how to do while working on the game I had to teach myself, so it's been a bit of an experience!

What development tools did you use to develop The Stanley Parable?

WP: We used Valve's Source engine, which is what they used to make Portal 2 and Half Life 2. DW: Hammer is the level editor, Audacity and Reaper for audio production, Photoshop for implementing jokes, Skype for staying in touch with people you've never met but on whom the entire project is dependent.

How long did you work on the game?

WP: For the full game I say 1 year part time and then 1 year full time. stanley 1.jpgDW: The original mod took 2 years and the remake took 2 years, so approximately one lifetime.

How did you come up with the concept?

DW: It was borne out of constraints, all I originally knew how to do was make empty hallways and play sounds. The design of the game simply stemmed from trying to do something interesting inside of those constraints. I knew that I could use sound files and that I liked Narrators, and the game simply sprung out of trying to see how much mileage out of just a narrator. I honestly didn't know how much there would be, I just kept going as long as I still had questions that I couldn't figure out the answers to.

We don't actually really see that many mods which eventually become fully-fledged games - why do you think that is? Could AAA studios be doing more to support the modding scene?

DW: I think it's less an issue of external support and more about the internal modding culture. It wasn't structurally difficult to bring the game to standalone, the most difficult part was executing on a single concept for 4 years. Unfortunately it's rare within the modding community to find people willing to commit their skills consistently over that long a period of time, even if they're incredibly skilled. Many of the people who worked on Stanley Parable had previously worked on mods and games that simply got abandoned, for whatever reason the momentum simply shrivels up or communication stops. This is why it was so important for me to make sure that the core team was regularly communicating, I was confident in everyone that we worked with that I would be able to actually get responses from them when I needed it. Certainly the situation is different for everyone, but for us I think strong internal communication and a commitment to finishing this thing no matter what was crucial to bridging the mod-standalone gap. WP: What he said... Oh yeah, and I also think that modding teams have a problem with getting too big - even with a small team (like ours) managing the workflow becomes a full time job in itself and that's just something a lot of people don't expect. As for AAA studios supporting the modding scene I think they've all been doing a terrible job of it recently. Even Valve who used to be brilliant at it have been getting it wrong in my opinion. Since all of their games now funnel people through a matchmaking system it's really hard for the bulk of their userbase to discover this whole island of content people are making and hosting on custom servers. They've also been really pushing their workshop integration with Dota and TF2, which ends up pressuring modders to make content that will get commercialised and integrated into the game, rather than content that's unexpected and fun to use. There was this big boss map in TF2 where a giant cat shot lasers and rockets and both teams had to work together to take it down, I worry that in trying to commercialise the modding scene you risk losing crazy stuff like that.

You're up for three IGF awards, including the grand prize. Were you surprised?

DW: Eh, the critical response has generally been good enough that I thought it was possible, but nothing is guaranteed. We also submitted last year and didn't get in, even though I totally expected to. My expectations came back to bite me, and I learned that these things don't have as big an impact, either positively or negatively, as I tend to anticipate they will. Awards are a tricky beast, and getting too invested in their outcome is a quick road to emotional devastation. WP: It's been strange since the game released, since we're getting all this feedback and response from something we stopped working on 3 months ago. When I see that we got nominated for another award it's hard to react in a way that's... I want to say appropriate? It's been surprisingly difficult for me to find how I feel about all of this - when the nominees were announced it was exciting because it meant I was getting a free pass to GDC, but as for the concept of something I made getting an award, that's still a very foreign feeling.

I was actually kind of surprised that you weren't up for the Nuovo Award, given just how different The Stanley Parable is. Did you ever think that the press and gamers in general would take to the game as they have?

WP: I think we always tried to make a game that we would get excited about, but we never had really any notion of how big it would get. The critical reception and the sales both turned out to be way more than either of us expected, so it definitely blew both of us off our feet. stanley 2.jpgDW: I think my previous answer kind of applies here too. Setting expectations will really ruin you if you let it get out of hand. We made the game we're proud of, and players/press/judges are welcome to receive and acclaim that work however they chose to.

How has the sale sold since it released last week? I'm guessing you also saw the grand-scale effects of the Steam holiday sales in motion?

DW: Sure, it's a well documented phenomenon at this point. I doubt I'm blowing anyone's mind by saying that being on the front page of the steam holiday sale does decent sales numbers. I'm told that there will be additional winters in the near-to-distant future, so for now my full-time job is just to anxiously anticipate the changing of seasons.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you particularly enjoyed?

DW: Well, Papers, Please! is one of my favorite games in years, but you know that already. Device 6 is mind blowing and I'm thrilled to see it acknowledged in every single category. I'm also delighted to see Mushroom 11 get a design nod, that game is fantastic and as soon as Itay starts showing it off more I think everyone will agree the nomination is well deserved. Man oh man, Gorogoa, Soundself, Jazzpunk, so many of these are very close to my heart, it's a pleasure to be alongside them. WP: Soundself! Soundself! Soundself! Soundself! Soundself! I also had a joy playing Papers, Please! and I can't wait to meet Lucas Pope.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

DW: Change is good. WP: Change is okay.

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