It might seem a little strange that after solidifying the Telltale Games formula that has proven so wildly successful for the studio with The Walking Dead, Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman, the leads on that episodic game, would then decide to take off and form their own studio.
Everything Telltale has done since has followed the template that they established with that first season of The Walking Dead, taking the company to the kind of heights that allow them to form partnerships ranging from HBO to Gearbox Software, making Game of Thrones and Tales from the Borderlands, respectively.
Campo Santo is the new studio Vanaman and Rodkin have formed, post-Telltale. They've got an impressive roster, featuring alumni from Irrational, Double Fine, Klei Entertainment, and Lionhead. They even managed to bag Olly Moss, who has done artwork for major film companies like Lucasfilm, Sony, Studio Ghibli, and a whole host of others.
I talked to Vanaman about Firewatch, but also the decision to leave Telltale, what it's like to be developing a game under the weight of the team's collective experience, and how they went about securing their unique deal with Panic for funding.
What was the genesis of the idea for Firewatch after you finished the first season of The Walking Dead?
At that stage Jon Blow has announced The Witness, and I really wanted to play that game, so I thought "I want to make a game like that!" I mean, Firewatch is the complete opposite of The Witness, but I wanted to make something like Portal, something really mechanical, and then I had a list of places I want to go, that's pretty much it. And this is just one of the places I wanted to go. Jake [Rodkin] was into it, and we pitched it to Olly [Moss], and he was into it, and as people kept getting into that place we reached the point where we had to make it real.
Cable and Steve at Panic, who are the guys who are paying for the game, got into Firewatch when we had no idea what it really was. We told them: "This is where it's going to be, and this is the kind of story we're going to tell, what do you think?"
It's a pretty daunting prospect to start a new game company without even a concrete game to make, or anything to go on. How did you sell it to yourself?
"I knew in my heart that if I'd wanted to stay and work at a company for the rest of my life Telltale would be a great place to do that."
I just had the itch, and Jake had the itch. It's actually not that risky, if you think about it for long enough. The guys at Telltale liked us, and we didn't burn the place down. If it didn't work out, yeah we'd lose our savings accounts, but nobody was going to perish; we could always get another job. It just didn't feel that risky. I didn't know how hard it was going to be. I thought a lot about how hard it was going to be but I still didn't know it was going to be this hard. It's definitely less scary than you think it's going to be.
The Walking Dead had done well enough that I was getting calls from recruiters and things like that. Weird little opportunities where I could go out and contract on something for a short time, but I'd always reply that I was at Telltale and I was doing fine -- but I knew in my gut that it'd be great to build our own little place. It seems like now the opportunity is there, and it reached the point where not doing it was the bigger issue. I knew in my heart that if I'd wanted to stay and work at a company for the rest of my life Telltale would be a great place to do that. Anywhere where I'd have some creative control over what I'm doing.
But once you start to get the idea that you can it on your own it's difficult to shake it.
And how exactly did you go around securing funding? It's not that typical for an independent developer to gain investment before they've produced a game, unless it's through a typical publishing route.
You can do a lot of different things. We turned over every rock we could find. We looked at funding it ourselves, we looked at trying to put together something for the Indie Fund, because we like everyone over there. We looked at doing something really small scale and keeping it for iOS.
There were a few factors: what doors were open to us, and luckily there were a lot, which was great, so we started taking every meeting we could take. Publisher, whatever. Developers, whatever. Weird rich guy. Any meeting we could take, we would take. We were trying to find someone who shared our values and got excited about the same things. That was the main thing we did.
Secondly, we looked at, in a vacuum, what would our ideal game be, and who would we want to work with, what would be a good way to spend a couple of years? And then, what are the creative ideas that we have?
We kept smashing all those limiting factors together until we ended up with Firewatch at Panic. We went through a lot of ideas, like Olly had an idea that was far more 2D, and far more game-y. We really hammered on it for a while, and then I realized I didn't know what I was going to do on it, I didn't know what my value would be on that game apart from just running the company, so we moved away from that idea.
Then we looked at doing a 2D style adventure game-meets-Metroid situation. I knew what I was going to do on that, but it quickly got really expensive when we wanted it to be more than Metroid, because we wanted it to have lots of character interaction, and lots of dialog. So Firewatch is the most direct outcome of all these limiting factors. When we ask: What has everyone in this company made before, and what can we afford?
I think it's a really cool way to make a game, and it's a cool way to make anything. I don't believe in divine inspiration, instead noodling on something until you can figure out what it is. It's hard though; the thing I would tell anybody is that it's hard to find deals at our size with the amount of control that we wanted. We didn't take a deal with a traditional publisher.
So how much control do you have with this deal?
"The best product you're going to get from the people you're putting money into is the best product that they're capable of, so just get out of the way."
We have complete creative control, period. Those guys are incredible. The first email I sent to them was along the lines of: "Here's a playthrough. Here's some FRAPS of what we have so far. I hope you like it because you've paid for it!"
The thing about that sort of deal is that when you've decided, as an investor, that if you're going to put seven figures of money into a creative venture and you're not the one in charge, and by "in charge" I mean you're not the one actually on the forefront of decision making and creative output, then no matter what, even if you're a hyper-vigilant control freak, the best product you're going to get from the people you're putting money into is the best product that they're capable of.
You've already spent the money when you signed the deal, and if you believed in these people enough to sign the detail, then you've already paid for their best effort, so just get out of the way and let them get on with it! If you can do better then don't sign that deal, find someone who can do it better, or do it yourself. 'Cause you're just going to build an apparatus to try and control something, and honestly that should just come from the people making it. If I was going to make a publisher I'd have to hire a whole bunch of people just to liaise between me and all the people creating things.
So because of the "on paper" arrangement, I trust the guys paying for the game more than anybody. They have accounts to log into our team-chat, and they can just pop in and say "What's this, what are you doing?" Right now I could summon Cable Sasser to our teamchat and anybody who has access to that chat has access to everything that's happening in the company, in people's lives, and in the video game. Every single piece of the game has been cataloged inside of this. Even things like "Am I fighting with Jake right now?" Which is very rare, but still happens. They can pop in and see any of that.
And have they been popping in?
I talked to them for an hour today, and I fly up to Portland and see those guys, and work from the Panic offices sometimes. It's nice, I've asked them if they'd like source control access, so they can pull down whatever the latest is, but they replied that that seems like too much work, and we can just send them builds when they're ready. I mean, you would never give your publisher source control access, you know what I mean? What!?
But when you've established those boundaries, and that trust, so early, it makes the relationship so much better. I just don't worry. All I worry about is the game, and all they want me to worry about is the game. And I'm sure if you talked to a publisher they'd say the same thing, they just want their developers worrying about the game. But the thing is, if that's what they want, they have to fire so many people, they have to dismantle the whole apparatus that is telling developers that they're not trusted. Even though you don't, as a publisher, think that's what it's communicating.
One thing with Campo Santo is that it doesn't seem like you've needed to go out of your way to create buzz, as the team you have is so active and well regarded in their respective fields that people are paying attention regardless. How does that feel from a development perspective?
"Now if we do anything it needs to look ten times more expensive than it is."
From our perspective, it's all the more pressure, because it's the first game I've worked on where people are paying attention. No one was paying attention to The Walking Dead until the [first] episode came out. The TV show was in season one, Telltale had just shipped Jurrassic Park, which wasn't a success. No one was paying attention, and it felt so good.
So now if we do anything we feel like it needs to be of the highest quality, it needs to communicate crystal clearly an idea, and it needs to look ten times more expensive than it is. Our website, for example, couldn't just be thrown up. We spent a lot of time on that, there was a lot of thought going into it, and a lot of strife about building firewatchgame.com. Everything is pushed to this incredibly high standard, not just because we're lucky enough to have a little attention, but because of our experience level. We have this incredibly high bar. No one will criticize something that comes out of the company more than the ten of us.
And I really admire that. Supergiant has the same ethos, Valve has the same ethos. It's a certain way you're wired, but at the same time we don't have to generate buzz, but I have a mailing list, we have an active twitter account, we have an active blog. We're going to do a big event coming up at GDC. We have a press list, and we're going to do all the things that people should do, which is beg borrow and deal so that people pay attention to your game.
Just anything you can do. That's just part of the job, you have to do that stuff. There's no grand meritocracy. Things that represent the grand meritocracy are more often luck and opportunity struck. Minecraft is a great example. "If there's no meritocracy how come Minecraft was so successful?" Because it was good. And it happened at the right time. And it didn't get screwed between showing up on TIGSource and ending up on Xbox 360. That's just not the way it works. Especially if you're a content game, you really have to support it.
Firewatch seems like a pretty big departure from your previous games. What with it being first person and fairly-open and systemic. Does it feel like uncharted territory or just an expansion of what you've been doing before?
It feels pretty familiar if I'm honest. It's not as systemic as you think it is; it's not Far Cry 2. Systems drive as many things as we can find for them to drive. Systems can't drive Delilah's personality, but a system can sort out when she says what she says. What's funny is that it is a huge departure, looking at everything we've ever worked on, but it feels the same to me. I play Firewatch these days, as we polish the first chunk of the game up, and I'm writing the final chunk, and I'm really stoked about playing it. It feels like the way I felt playing a good adventure game, but I'm not stuck.
Chris Charla who works at Microsoft came up to us after our panel and said "Man, I got the same feeling watching you guys play this as I got from old Infocom games." And that's what I want. I want it to feel like playing Full Throttle, I want it to feel like playing a game like that, even though it's mechanically different. I want you to feel like you're there, like you're in the mansion in Maniac Mansion. That's all any of us have tried to do with our jobs. What does it feel like to be a ninja? What does it feel like to be in Rapture? What does it feel like to be in places? Jane worked on Brutal Legend, and while I have a lot of problems with that game, in terms of world-building, it's amazing. So yeah, it doesn't feel like that big of a departure.
And when it comes to your part of things, you're still writing dialog trees and people, and I imagine the choice to do it all without animation must have been pleasant.
That was a wise decision. We thought about that for a minute, yeah.
You and Nels are from Wyoming, so is there ever a feeling that you want to show the gaming industry a place and story that they haven't seen before?
I don't really think about it in the context of the rest of the industry. I don't know. I actually don't know, because this story isn't one that was burning inside of me. It was just that this is what happens to these people in this situation, obviously. That's the way it happened with The Walking Dead characters, too.
Is that still enjoyable to write, when the characters aren't 'bursting' out of you?
"I just don't believe in grand inspiration. I believe in letting something grow naturally and then letting it just be what it wants to be."
Again, I just don't believe in grand inspiration. I believe in letting something grow naturally and then letting it just be what it wants to be. Kenny [in The Walking Dead] as a character, I don't know who that guy is! I know exactly who that guy is, but that's not who that guy was. He was just this fisherman from Florida, he was a different guy, and a guy that I actually liked. And now I don't like Kenny. He ended up embodying some of the worst things about people. I don't think he's a bad guy, but he's a tragic character, and I don't like him, 'cause he makes me think about the worst parts of myself. And that wasn't on purpose, but fighting against that would have been very obvious, and would have made him look very erratic.
So Henry in Firewatch has just become this guy. He's a kind of a dick, but he's not. He's just going through some stuff, and I think he's going to be fun to get to know. I think people are going to adore Delilah. She's complicated and broken too, so when writing you just have to let it happen. Line by line characters are going to become who they're going to become, and you just have to let them figure out who they're going to be. I don't really go in thinking "Nobody's ever told this story in games before." I mean, nobody definitely has ever told this story in games before, but let's see if they're even going to like it.