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"So, how do you really want to set apart what you’re doing with Tacoma from what you did with Gone Home?"
That's the kind of question that made Fullbright cofounder Steve Gaynor realize the studio's next game might be in trouble.
In a Skype chat from his home in Oregon last week, Gaynor explained that when the team at Fullbright began showing their space station exploration game Tacoma to members of the press in 2015, he would often hear some variant of the question: how is this going to be different from your other work? From the award-winning, genre-defining, Fullbright debut Gone Home?
"The fact that you’re asking that question..." Gaynor says, pausing and leaning back in his chair, trying to find the right words to explain why he isn't confident about the idea of making "Gone Home on a space station."
"The point of this thing is you should play it and be like, 'Wow. Okay, I can see how this really stands on its own and it’s interesting,'" he concludes. "Gone Home on a space station is not...that's not necessarily bad, but it's not what we're trying to do."
That's part of the reason why the game is coming out this week, rather than late last year; Gaynor explains that unexpected reactions from both the press and fellow game devs pushed Fullbright to hit pause and rethink the situation. Ultimately, the studio decided to spend more time and money retooling Tacoma.
"At this point where the industry is, 'it’s nice' is not going to put you over the top."
"If we’re basically like 'no, this is like a vertical slice, this is like how it’s supposed to ship, just more of it,' and people aren’t connecting to it the way that we need them to, then we have to think what can we do differently and how can we push more on what the game is," says Gaynor. "To get it to a place that we think and hope people will say, “Oh, wow, this really stands on its own.'"
It's a deceptively simple quandary: how do you know when your game is good enough? How can you decipher the meaning of what your early playtesters, whether they be members of the public, the press, or the game dev community, are saying?
Game makers of all stripes have to deal with it, but it can be especially hard for indies who are tight on funding yet, amid the ever-rising tide of game releases across all marketplaces, can't afford to release a game that doesn't stand out.
Fullbright's solution was to delay the game and take a hard look at what was missing. At that point, Tacoma had gravity but Tacoma Station really didn't; players were meant to poke around the station and learn more about its former inhabitants by rifling through their stuff, but the stuff was floating around and easy to miss.
Floating space junk sort of flew in the face of what Gaynor sees as the core of what Tacoma is trying to deliver ("environmental storytelling you can really connect with") so Fullbright redesigned the station to include "gravitized sections" that give players an opportunity to rifle through the bits and bobs of life on Tacoma Station with their feet firmly on the ground.
Given that Tacoma is sold as a "sci-fi narrative adventure", the Tacoma team also took a long look at how to make the game's augmented-reality recordings of life on the station more meaningful; they're one of the main narrative tool in Tacoma's toolbox, but in 2015 Gaynor says they were mostly "isolated little scenes."
"There's some hints as to how that’s cool, but we need to expand on that," is how he remembers the discussion going. "And what if we had rewind and fast forward? And our programmer just blocked that in on like a weekend. And it was like, oh being able to move through these things is actually really cool and that means if we could make them bigger, support that, that could be a whole thing."
Devs often speak regretfully about adding new features late in a game's development, bemoaning the very real risks of feature creep and overscoping, so it seems important to call out when it actually seems to work out. Gaynor believes that, in Tacoma's case, taking the time to make these additions expanded and deepened the scope of stories Tacoma tells, ultimately making it a better game than what was being demoed in 2015. But Fullbright paid a cost for that extra 12+ months of development time.
"The running a business part of things...it’s not the fun part," Gaynor says, with a pained look. "But I’m glad that we invested in figuring out how to make the game take longer because I think we’re happy with where it ended up, and it would’ve been a very different game if we hadn’t been able to do it."
Of course, Fullbright has the financial advantage of an award-winning multi-platform game in its catalog (it's the whole catalog, really). It also faces something of a disadvantage in having to release its sophomore game into a game industry that's much more diverse, vibrant, and competitive than when Gone Home hit in 2013.
"At this point where the industry is, 'it’s nice' is not going to put you over the top," Gaynor adds. "So investing in getting to that place where people play your thing and are like, 'holy shit, I want to play more of this. Wow this thing that you guys are making really has something about it,' that is super important. I think it always has been, it’s just like there are more people trying to get to that now than there used to be."
This is part of the reason Tacoma is shipping today on Xbox One as well as PC -- Gaynor believes having a console company (any console company) promoting your game in its marketing (Tacoma has been at the last E3s in some fashion, most recently as part of Microsoft's big press briefing) and on its storefront helps raise popular awareness of your game, even among people who don't own that console.
He also recommends devs consider simultaneously developing their games for a console because it forces you to deal with the challenges of going multi-platform early in production, rather than after you've shipped your game.
"I think there’s something that’s really valuable about having to ship the game on a console at all for launch if you plan to go onto console ever," he explains. "Because it’s really easy to develop your game exclusively for PC and ship it and then it’s done, and then there are like fundamental challenges with putting it onto a console that if you have to do them all after the fact can be their own challenge."
Gaynor is speaking from experience, given that Gone Home wound up coming to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in early 2016 -- nearly three years after its initial release.
"There are things that just...memory requirements, a lot of rendering stuff is different on console," says Gaynor. "We were shipping on PC we were like, 'we’ll just load the whole game into memory on start. Okay. Done!' And when you have to say, 'what if we can’t do that anymore?' That...can be some surgery."
Let's rewind. One of the biggest design changes between The Tacoma That Was and the Tacoma people are playing today is the rewind feature implemented into the game's recorded scenes. When the player chooses to play back a scene recorded by Tacoma Station's monitoring systems, they can pause and rewind as they move through the station to see different parts of the scene play out.
This gives the devs more tools to tell stories, because they can set up recorded scenes with meanings that deepen and change as players move to see what, say, one character was doing in the kitchen while two others were arguing around the table. This rewind mechanic, so central to the game's design was prototyped in a weekend and inspired by the interactive theater production Sleep No More.
Produced and staged in New York City by the British theater company Punchdrunk, Sleep No More is something Gaynor recommends to fellow game makers with an interest in interactive storytelling. During a given hour-long performance actors stage the same show in an enclosed performance space three times, allowing audience members (who are wearing masks and free to move through the space alongside the actors) time to watch a scene in a given room, then watch what's happening simultaneously in another location as the same scene plays again.
"Our goal is to motivate you as the player to be an active observer."
"We wanted to apply that in a digital sense and say, if we have these six characters and two of them are here and two of them are here and one of them is here and they’re all having their own timelines within these chunks of time, then instead of having to just watch it all the way though and loop it and then move somewhere else and loop it again, we could just say, If you can rewind and fast forward and pause, you can say, 'wait a second, I think that if I’m here right now, then that thing I saw earlier, must have been happening at the exact same time,'" Gaynor adds, making vague circular gestures with his fists as though rewinding giant spools of tape.
"I can just pause time and walk over there and see if those two things were happening at the same time. And kind of have that core experience of making those connections over of the time and space of the scene but in a direct way that this being a digital thing enables. Even though it’s inspired by a similar but very different physical thing. So that’s where the inspiration came from to be like, 'What if there was a bunch of characters surrounding you and you could move through the timeline of that?'"
It's a really interesting example of what devs can do to give players of a first-person game more ways to pick apart or put together narratives, without relying on traditional first-person game mechanics like shooting or smashing things.
Looking back over the timeline of Fullbright's own work in the space, Gaynor sees Tacoma as an evolved version of what the studio set out to do with Gone Home. If Gone Home is BioShock pared down to its most core narrative elements -- looking at things in the environment and listening to audio logs -- Tacoma is what it looks like when those elements are the core focus of a studio's time and attention. When you add more of what's important, rather than subtracting what isn't.
"I think that we were subtractive in Gone Home...primarily we were just saying, if you have an environment that’s rich with things to find and the game is about finding it, that can be the entire experience," says Gaynor.
It worked out quite well, but the game was lonely; players could only picture what Sam Greenbriar (the protagonist's sister and the primary focus of the game's narrative) was like from the messages she left behind. With Tacoma, Fullbright wanted to try and make players feel closer to the characters, more involved in telling the story.
"For what we do, if you are a passive observer, it really doesn’t work, and so our goal is to motivate you as the player to be an active observer," Gaynor says. To illustrate the point, he offers devs a paraphrased version of what Campo Santo (Firewatch) cofounder Sean Vanaman said after playing a recent build of Tacoma.
"He said something like 'in most games, the more that’s going on in the story, the less the player is doing, because a lot going on in the story so you sit there and watch,'" recalls Gaynor.
"'But in Tacoma, the more that is going on in the story, the more I’m doing as a player because I want to say, wait, what was going on with them? And pause, and rewind, and move and kind of be more involved, the more story stuff was going on.' Which I thought was a really cool observation, and maybe hope that other people will connect with it that way."