Vancouver-based indie developer Klei Entertainment scored a hit last year with the downloadable stealth action game Mark of the Ninja. The game received glowing reviews and quickly became Klei's biggest success to date, turning lead designer Nels Anderson into the latest indie success story in the process. Anderson then left the company to start up an indie studio of his own, Campo Santo Games, co-founded with Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin (two Telltale Games designers fresh off the similarly successful indie game based on The Walking Dead), as well as celebrated British artist Olly Moss.
Anderson will be talking about his approach to game design this Friday at the Gamercamp festival in Toronto, but he recently took time to talk with GamesIndustry International about the motivations behind Campo Santo, and how the studio can succeed in an increasingly competitive independent game scene. Right up front, Anderson said his decision to jump from Klei wasn't due to any sort of dissatisfaction with the studio, calling the studio the best place he'd ever worked (but not owned).
"If there's a time to do an insane thing, this is the time that was the least insane to do it."
"It was more that over the past couple of years, I've become increasingly curious about exactly what the means of creating a studio from the ground up are," Anderson said. "With Klei, that part of the process was already done...At this point in my life, I don't have the fiscal or familial obligations. I don't have a mortgage, or kids, or anything like that. So if there's a time to do an insane thing, this is the time that was the least insane to do it."
So far, the process has been illuminating for Anderson, but perhaps not as glamorous as he might have hoped. With the bulk of the company (Vanaman and Rodkin, and potentially a handful of others) based in San Francisco and Anderson still working out of Vancouver, the designer has had to familiarize himself with the tax implications of living in one country while being employed by a business in another.
"To anyone who's ever done a business thing, this is the most boring garbage in the world," Anderson said. "But having never done it or even talked to anyone about doing it, it's actually kind of interesting."
Paperwork aside, Anderson understands the big challenge for Campo Santo will be coordinating the work between team members split up around the world.
"It's just going to be us figuring out how to stay in sync, both with myself and Olly not being in the office all the time," Anderson said. "Making any game is not easy. I think we've removed some of the overhead that makes other games much harder to make, but that doesn't make the actual creation of the game easy."
"Making any game is not easy. I think we've removed some of the overhead that makes other games much harder to make, but that doesn't make the actual creation of the game easy."
While he acknowledged there's an advantage and efficiency to having everyone working in the same office every day, he added the "trade off with talent in our case is definitely worth it." He also found it comforting that he wasn't the only one working remotely. With Moss also not in the office, the process of finding ways to keep everyone on the same page is that much more crucial to Campo Santo's success. It also helps that other developers have used the model successfully in the past; Anderson pointed to Supergiant Games in particular as a Platonic ideal for Campo Santo to strive toward.
However well the group gels together from afar, Campo Santo will still have plenty of obstacles to overcome on its path to success. Actually making the game would seem to be a big one. And even though the indie scene seems to be exploding at the moment, with more creators and start-up studios releasing games each week, Anderson isn't especially concerned about the market getting saturated by the time Campo Santo's debut is ready.
"Ultimately, yes, there's a hypothetical ceiling of how many dollars the audience is willing to invest in games broadly," Anderson said. "But I think part of the strength of smaller, independent games is they can offer a breadth of experiences. If you have Big Giant Bombastic AAA Shooter 1 and Big Giant Bombastic AAA Shooter 2, you can see how those things are more directly competing. But because the experiences smaller independent games offer are tremendously diverse, it feels more like a rising tide lifts all boats."
Anderson suggests he might just be an optimistic person, but he doesn't think the current indie game boom is any sort of fad.
"It's been a part of games since they existed. It's just a few things have fueled the growth in the last half-decade," Anderson said. "Distribution and ease of creation fueled all of this, and I don't think either of those things are going to go away…That genie isn't going to go back in the bottle, which I think is great."
Campo Santo hasn't said much about their first project, but don't expect it to be a mobile game. Anderson said he wouldn't want to make a mobile game for a variety of reasons. He's concerned about the "potential grossness" of free-to-play business models, but also doesn't like his odds of selling enough $2 or $3 mobile games to bring in more money than he could get with a $15 or $20 game on Steam. Some indie developers have made compelling and successful mobile titles--Anderson name-checked Capybara Games' Sword and Sworcery and Simogo's Device6--but he said those were the exceptions and not the rule.
"Making something that's more specific and niche, which is really the strength of small, independent games, becomes much harder [on mobile]," Anderson said. "And then if you look at what's successful on those platforms, big brands drive that stuff in a way that doesn't matter at all on Steam or the console marketplaces."
"In terms of the way people buy, sell, and consume games, [Steambox is] not really going to change that much."
Speaking of consoles, Anderson acknowledged the public overtures Sony and Microsoft have been making to court indie developers, and said they're hitting the right talking points. However, it seems Anderson's optimistic personality is perhaps a little more guarded on this point.
"In general, the easier it is for people to get games to the point where others can buy them and play them, the better," Anderson said. "Ultimately what matters are the processes at those organizations that either facilitate or complicate people putting games on those services. And that's really all that matters. Sony's been far more vocal about that, but the proof is in the pudding and neither of those consoles are out yet, so we'll see."
Anderson was also slightly reserved when it comes to Valve's Steambox plans. As nice as it might be to play one's PC games through a TV, Anderson notes that's already possible. He does it himself using Steam's Big Picture mode and an HDMI cable long enough to reach his TV. The Steambox will make things easier for some people, but Anderson doesn't expect it to shake up the living room hierarchy.
"As soon as they pull that lever, it's not going to be like Sony and MS catch on fire and disappear," Anderson said. "But as a long term play, I think it's super smart. It's a thing I think is awesome and I'm glad it exists. But in terms of the way people buy, sell, and consume games, it's not really going to change that much."