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Road to the IGF: Cardboard Computer's Kentucky Route Zero

As part of Gamasutra's Road to the IGF series, Elliott discusses the inspiration for Kentucky Route Zero, and why he's glad that the game's Kickstarter came before the big crowd-funding boom.

Mike Rose, Blogger

January 29, 2013

5 Min Read

Not to blow my own trumpet, but I had predicted that Cardboard Computer's Jake Elliott was destined for great things way back in 2010, when he released wonderful games like Hummingbird Mind and A House in California. And indeed, when a trailer for Kentucky Route Zero was released at the start of 2011, it was obvious that it was going to be yet another very special from the designer. A collaboration with developer Tamas Kemenczy, Kentucky Route Zero has now picked up four nominations at this year's IGF awards, including the Seumas McNally Grand Prize. The adventure game follows a trucker called Conway who is looking to make a delivery, but ends up on a story-driven wild goose chase filled with gorgeous visuals. As part of Gamasutra's Road to the IGF series, Elliott discusses the inspiration for Kentucky Route Zero, and why he's glad that the game's Kickstarter came before the big crowd-funding boom.

What is your background in making games?

I made and released a bunch of games on my own over the last four or five years, starting with some puzzley platform games but quickly moving toward this kind of slow-paced, text-driven stuff, like Ruins from 2011. Tamas and I have known each other for a long time, and worked on a lot of software art, performance and installation type projects. We've probably been collaborating since about 2006? But we knew each other for a while before that, in school. So a few years ago, we started trying to work out how to make games together. We tried a few different projects but KRZ is the one that caught.

What development tools are you using to develop Kentucky Route Zero?

We're using the Unity engine, Blender for modeling and animation, and doing a lot of the sound design in Ableton Live. The dialog is written in this weird shorthand we've sort of evolved over the course of the project, and then parsed into the game with a few scripts. There's so much workflow apparatus we've built and pieced together just to make this game; it'll be interesting to see how much of it is usable elsewhere later and how much of it is really just specialized to KRZ.

How long have you worked on the game?

It's been about two and a half years now since we started concepting and sketching.

How did you come up with the concept?

We both spend a lot of time in Kentucky, visiting family or just on sixty-five passing through. And we love Bourbon and Bluegrass and Slint, etc., etc. And adventure games kind of started there: Will Crowther exploring Mammoth Cave with his daughters. A few years ago, Tamas & I collaborated with our friend jonCates on another game project about Mammoth Cave, called "Sidequest". So that's been rattling around in our brains.

You've been around for a while now, getting great acclaim for each title that you release. Did it feel like it was just a matter of time before your work was so widely appreciated?

Ha, thanks! This is a really special project to both of us, and for me it's clear this collaboration with Tamas is really in a lot of ways a different kind of thing than the work I was doing on my own. We're both thrilled with the reception, and frankly surprised by it.

You originally ran a Kickstarter at the start of 2011, and raised $8,583. Do you wish now that you'd held off for the Kickstarter boom, and ridden the crowdfunding wave of 2012?

It was a good experience for us when we did it, and I feel more comfortable with that scale than the idea of doing something in like the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. The money we raised had really specific uses, for the license for our engine and the ability to pay the band up front. It's been good for us to have a core of about 200 people who supported us there, staying in touch with them as the project grows and getting feedback and support.

You've gone with an episodic release schedule for the game, which I believe was inspired in part by the way in which Telltale goes about its business. For yourself, what do you see as the benefits of doing this?

It helps us organize the work a lot better, for one thing. And this game is a lot larger in scale than stuff we've done before, so it's helpful that we can approach it in more reasonably-sized chunks. It was a very freeing decision actually; we felt a lot more confident and free to experiment when we decided to do the episodic release. kentucky route zero.jpg

You're up for four IGF awards. What do you think it is that has gelled so well with the judges? How have you managed to be nominated not only for art and audio, but for narrative as well? It seems like you've essentially perfected all bases.

We're stunned, still. I mean it helps that this is a collaboration not only with Tamas and I but also with Ben Babbitt, the composer. That helps the breadth of what we've been able to play close attention to in the game, I mean -- having people with different backgrounds and skills to bring to bear.

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

Yeah these are some of my favorite games. Dys4ia and Cart Life, especially -- so personal and confident, and just really effecting. I got to play a bit of Gone Home; really excited to see more of where that's going.

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

I'm blown away by how much its grown in the last year or two; not in scale but in diversity of input. So many people making startling and powerful work now, many of whom I think finally found a way in via Twine. So I'm really excited to see where that goes next.

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