Kent Hudson's novel approach
"My greatest hope is that the game will mean something special to the audience" says creator of The Novelist
Kent Hudson is a busy man. A few weeks after announcing his upcoming game, The Novelist, he's fighting an inbox full of interview requests, juggling publicity duties and keeping an eye on the game's Steam Greenlight campaign. In short, his work/life balance is under strain. Which is ironic, given the nature of his first indie game with his new studio Orthogonal Games.
Perhaps the interest shouldn't be a huge shock, Hudson's past work on Deus Ex: Invisible War and BioShock 2 at 2K Marin is enough to arouse interest, but then The Novelist isn't anything like BioShock 2. In fact, it's not anything like, well, anything. It's a story set around a writer, Dan, his family and his attempts to finish his book. The player takes the role of a ghost, influencing decisions and watching how that affects Dan's wife and son.
It's based on an idea that Hudson has had for sometime, but, he tells GamesIndustry International, only really came together in June. Here he explains why this was the game he wanted to make, how it's made him think differently about his own work/life balance, and what the biggest shocks have been since leaving the AAA world.
Q: It's so different from anything else out there, is that a comfort or a source of anxiety for you?
Kent Hudson: That's an interesting question! I may be oversimplifying here, but I'd say that my opinion on that shifted pretty dramatically when I announced the game.
Before I announced, I'd gotten very little feedback on the game. Only a handful of friends and family had even played it, and even though they thought it was interesting and seemed engaged with it, it was still a small sample size. They were primarily game developers, so I didn't know if they were just interested in the game from a dev perspective or if it would connect with a wider audience. So as I built up toward the announcement my anxiety level was insane; the weekend before I announced I was an absolute wreck, because I had no clue what the response would be.
But once I announced the game and the response was so positive, the anxiety faded. I've always believed in the game, but it was such a personal experience to build it in isolation for 15 months that I had a huge sense of relief when the public response wasn't, "Well, that looks stupid." I always approached this game with the mindset that it could very well be my only opportunity to ever make a game with complete creative freedom, so my goal was never to make the game for a specific audience or try to monetise it in accordance with the latest trends; that way lies madness. So I'm definitely happy to see that there's a market, and a sense of appreciation, for games that are a little out-there conceptually.
"It could very well be my only opportunity to ever make a game with complete creative freedom"
Q: Given what we know about long working hours in the development industry, is this very much a personal project for you?
Kent Hudson: Yes, and not just because I identify with some of the challenges Dan faces as a creative professional trying to make something that matters. I've made it a point on this project to work sane hours, and I've very rarely done overtime. Part of that is a simple quality of life adjustment, and part of it is the fact that until I started working independently I didn't realise how little time you spend actually working when you're part of a big team.
If you're a lead or manager within a company, you spend a ton of time in meetings, and even if you're an individual contributor you get pulled in a lot of different directions. So if you're at your desk for eight hours in a day you might only spend four or five hours actually working on things that will end up on the screen.
When I switched to working alone, I learned just how draining it is to actually work for eight straight hours without interruption. There was a voice in my head saying, "You have everything riding on this, why aren't you putting in ten hours every single day?!" ... but at the end of each eight-hour day I was spent and had nothing left in the tank. It hit me that if you're doing something difficult and working on it without interruption for eight hours you can get a surprising amount of work done in a day, but it also takes a lot out of you. So I had this weird paradox of feeling an odd guilt for "only" working eight hours each day while simultaneously knowing how much work I'd gotten done and recognising how mentally exhausted I was.
So all in all it's been a very interesting experience, and it's caused me to reassess my thoughts on efficiency and work ethic.
Q: Does that make it harder or easier to work on and promote?
Kent Hudson: It's a little of both. Making something I believe in absolutely helps me work on it and share it with people, because it's so personal and it's something I know front to back. But at the same time, that personal identification can also lead to a lot of anxiety. When you're part of a big organisation, nothing is ever entirely your fault; the accountability is so distributed that it's easy to deflect blame or point to a million different reasons why something didn't work out.
When you're working alone, on the other hand, there's no one to blame but yourself. If the game ends up bombing, it will be completely my fault. I'll be failing in a very public way with nowhere to hide. That level of total accountability adds a lot of stress to the process; I never realised beforehand just how vulnerable you are when you take your personal work and share it with the world.
So while the chance to work on something I'm passionate about has been amazing, it comes at a cost I hadn't really anticipated, and that makes it a real challenge sometimes.
Q: What has been the biggest shock since going it alone?
Kent Hudson: I'd probably say the biggest shock was how isolating it can be to work on a game by yourself. In a large company you're constantly surrounded by other people doing interesting work, and if you're fortunate enough to work with great people it can be a constant source of inspiration. So going from that to sitting at a desk at home day after day after day working on something with almost no human contact can be extremely difficult.
I've had to make more of a conscious effort to remain connected to people by doing things like having regular video chats with other friends in the industry, doing occasional consulting jobs, and working in a shared office space three days a week. It's all been a learning process, though I've found that the burden of isolation is much smaller since the announcement; now that people know about it and are (thankfully) expressing interest and support, it definitely feels less lonely.
Q: What's the funding situation? Was Kickstarter ever something you considered?
Kent Hudson: The game has been funded through a combination of savings and my wife's belief and support. A few years before I quit my AAA job, my wife and I started seeing a financial advisor for tips on how to save money more efficiently. We made some changes and started building up an account for when one or both of us wanted to strike out on our own. At the time I was still perfectly happy with my job, so it was really more of a contingency fund than part of a dedicated plan to step into the indie world.
But a few years passed and I slowly realised that I was going to have to go indie if I wanted to find creatively fulfilling work. When that realisation hit, I was suddenly very glad we'd put so much effort into saving money. It wasn't nearly enough money for both of us to live on without income (San Francisco is ludicrously expensive), but we realised that if we cut out a bunch of optional expenses my wife's salary would keep the savings from running out long enough to finish a game.
As for Kickstarter, I never really considered it because I didn't need to crowdfund the game financially, but also because it's really not in my nature to talk about my work early on. The Novelist started out as a drastically different game than what it is now, so if I'd tried to Kickstart it early on I would have been selling people on a very different idea (one that I now know I couldn't have delivered). I had to work on the game and pretty much build the whole thing before I knew enough about it to even explain or announce it, at which point the home stretch was close enough that Kickstarting it didn't make sense.
It also takes a lot of effort to do good publicity and press work, and early on I knew that I had to focus on figuring out the game. So in my case, it just made more sense to put my head down and work on the game for a while before announcing (though I never intended to go 15 months before getting to that point!).
"I'm not looking to get rich and retire; I would have made a very different game if that was my goal"
Q: What has the Steam Greenlight reaction been like?
Kent Hudson: It's been amazing. Everyone says not to read the comments on the internet, but the comments on the Greenlight page have been super supportive since day one. I've had fun engaging with people, answering questions, and reading what aspects of the game people are excited about.
As far as actually getting onto Steam via Greenlight, that's still a black box as far as I can tell. My understanding is that some group within Valve looks at lots of different data points (number of votes, press coverage, etc) and decides what to put on Steam, so as a developer I don't have a direct way to engage with Valve about The Novelist or influence the outcome.
That said, it's also a relief, in a weird way, to have the game's fate in someone else's hands (at least as it pertains to getting on Steam). There's no way that having a ton of "Yes" votes on Greenlight can be a bad thing, so I've really just focused on making the best game I can and showcasing it in a positive light. The voting trajectory on Greenlight has been really strong so far, judging from the analytics that Valve supplies, so I'm hopeful that the support will be sustained and I'll be able to sell the game on Steam by the time it releases.
But I've also worked with the guys from the Humble Store and am already selling the game through the official website as a preorder, so the fate of the game doesn't hinge on Steam distribution. I would of course love to sell the game in as many places as possible, but I try not to worry about things I can't control.
Q: Would a game like this have been possible ten or even five years ago in terms of publishing etc?
Kent Hudson: I'm not a retail expert, but my gut says no. Budget games existed back when game distribution was largely tied to brick and mortar stores, but they were more "like a AAA game, but worse" than "a small, unique game that does interesting things within a limited scope."
The advent of publisher-free, retail-free distribution platforms like the Humble Store and Steam have really leveled the playing field and democratised the process. The costs to make and distribute a game are virtually nil; you can make an entire game with a Unity Basic license, doing all the art in free, open-source programs, for $0. Living expenses are of course still a factor, but those exist no matter what you're doing.
With so many other barriers out of the way, game quality has become a differentiating factor, which is all any creator can ask for. It's refreshing to know that if you do something interesting you have numerous avenues for finding success.
Q: What are your hopes for The Novelist? Other than making millions, obviously.
Kent Hudson: My greatest hope is that the game will mean something special to the audience and make enough money to fund another game. I'm not looking to get rich and retire; I would have made a very different game if that was my goal. I just want to stay in control of my own destiny and get the opportunity to keep working on things that I believe in.
Creatively, I hope that the game is meaningful in some way to everyone that plays it. I've done a lot of things from a design perspective to remove my own biases from the game so that players can have personal experiences and learn something about themselves as they play. The game doesn't have a message or make a value judgment; it simply puts the player in charge and lets them make the decisions.
So what I really hope is that people can use the game as a tool to better understand their own values and tell a story that means something personal to them.