Steve Gaynor didn't expect Gone Home to get the reaction it did. Speaking with GamesIndustry International at the D.I.C.E. Summit in Las Vegas last week, the Fullbright Company co-founder expressed surprise at the laurels and the lumps it has received.
On the positive side, there were the hundreds of grateful e-mails the team received from people explaining what it is in their own lives that made Gone Home connect with them so meaningfully, something Gaynor said stood out the most for him about the game's reception. And then there was a slew of year-end honors, including Game of the Year nods from Polygon and Killscreen, and appearances in Best of 2013 round-ups from USA Today and Entertainment Weekly.
"We thought we made a good game," Gaynor said. "We were happy with it, but we weren't saying, 'We're totally going to be in awards town at the end of the year!' So that was great to see."
"That's a reality in the online download market now. Not that many people, relatively speaking, are going to pay full price."
And then there was the backlash. (Currently the most popular user-provided tags for the game on Steam are "Not a game," "Walking simulator," and "Bad.") Gaynor said he knew some people simply wouldn't be into Gone Home, but didn't expect its detractors to be quite so vocal.
"People are very enthusiastic about their opinions sometimes," Gaynor said. "It has been surprising on that end of it, but I think it's just another way for people to put themselves in camps, you know? It's not just 'I like this' or 'I don't like this,' but I'm kind of aligning myself with this group that identifies as being really into these kinds of games and totally not being into those kinds of games, which I think is another big aspect. When it's not just an individual saying 'Here's how I feel about it'--you're part of this really big community or conversation, comment thread or what have you--it drives people to become more polarized in how they express themselves."
As for what complaints Gaynor sees brought up most often with Gone Home, it's not the game's lack of violence, prominent female characters, or positive portrayal of gay characters. The big gripes instead seem to be that the game isn't long enough to justify its price point.
"It's short," Gaynor admitted. "It's like two or three hours depending on how much you explore it, and $20. And some people were like, that's not worth the money. And by all means, right? We priced the game planning for Steam sales. We have a price that we think objectively is a fair price point if it's an experience you find valuable. But for people who are on the fence, a couple months after release it was $10. And in the holiday sale for a while, it was like $5. That's a reality in the online download market now. Not that many people, relatively speaking, are going to pay full price."
"I think Steam is an incredibly positive thing, probably the most important thing that's happened to indie games in the last 10 years. And the tradeoff of having access to that audience is you have to think about how to interact with a sales platform."
As odd as it may sound for one distribution channel's seasonal promotion to dictate something so crucial as a game's price, Gaynor said it's a fact of life for indie developers now, so they need to plan around it.
"It's a chicken-and-egg thing where the reason you have to be thinking about Steam sales before you set your price because if you get on Steam and you do start selling the game, it's just a known issue that like 75 percent of your sales or more is going to come from Steam, and especially the Steam sale stuff," Gaynor said. "That's where all the volume is... In 10 years, maybe Steam sales won't be the thing you have to be thinking about. Five, six, seven years ago, apps weren't a thing. Now if you're going to be making something for mobile, you have to go, how will this be sold on iTunes? How do we promote and price it for that? I think Steam is an incredibly positive thing, probably the most important thing that's happened to indie games in the last 10 years. And the tradeoff of having access to that audience is you have to think about how to interact with a sales platform."
Access to the audience has always been a big concern for indie developers, but Gaynor expects problems like visibility to become even more pronounced.
"We're interestingly at a point where in the last five years, there have been a lot of indie games that broke through, and there's this first really big wave of these breakthrough indie titles like Limbo, Bastion, and Braid," Gaynor said. "And in the next couple years, people now working on their first indie game are going to be stepping into an arena where a bunch of those first indie breakthrough game developers are releasing their follow-ups."
"We're not looking to diverge, take a 180 and make a space MMO or something. And luckily, we also don't have an audience that's clamoring for a Fullbright space MMO."
While Gaynor said titles like Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, and Papers, Please are all fortunate to have come out last year instead of next year, he didn't discount the ability of new developers to cut through the noise of not just the AAA market but also more established indies.
"It just means first-time indies are going to have to be more agile, more surprising, and do things we haven't seen before to get attention, not just from Red Dead Redemption 2 or something, but also from the next big indie game that people are already rubbing their hands together for," Gaynor said.
Fans of Gone Home are likely interested to see where The Fullbright Company goes next, and while Gaynor understands there are expectations from the audience, he doesn't think they differ much from what the studio wants to do anyway.
"We've taken the first step down a path that we're interested in exploring further," Gaynor said. "Lucky for us, we're not looking to diverge, take a 180 and make a space MMO or something. And luckily, we also don't have an audience that's clamoring for a Fullbright space MMO. The good thing is we don't feel limited by the expectations. We're going to continue exploring from Gone Home as a foundation and see how the next game can be not just more Gone Home in a different building or whatever, but to take that as a starting point and ask what's the big interesting thing we can add or change to make the next game its own unique experience that also builds on what we've already made."