From BioShock Infinite to Gone Home: the story of The Fullbright Company
The Fullbright Company, from left to right: Johnnemann Nordhagen, Steve Gaynor and Karla Zimonja.
Nobody makes videogames in Portland, Oregon. Knowing Portland, that seems almost inexplicable: the popular stereotype of the liberal, artistic city is that it embraces any and all kinds of creative enterprise, from music and filmmaking to the weird and hyper-specific, like bagpipe-playing unicyclists and vegan tattoo parlours. But if you want to make videogames for a living, Portland is not the city for you.
So thought Steve Gaynor, who went to college there from 2004 to 2005. Gaynor wanted to work in game development, but there were no studios or publishers in Portland, nor did he have the experience to strike out on his own. After graduation, he moved south to the San Francisco Bay Area, a technology and videogame industry epicentre. The decision paid off. In 2008, he was among the first people hired by 2K Marin to design levels for the sequel to BioShock, the landmark shooter designed by Ken Levine and Boston-based Irrational Games, whose body of work Gaynor credits as a major inspiration. After BioShock 2, Gaynor was made lead designer of Minerva’s Den – a short, standalone BioShock game released as DLC.
On the strength of Minerva’s Den, Gaynor was offered a level design job with Irrational, where Levine was working on his own BioShock follow-up, the massively ambitious BioShock Infinite. At the end of 2010, Gaynor moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to join the team.
“Infinite was a really cool project,” Gaynor says, “and a really ambitious project, but it was also a big, giant, enormous production, that was just super huge – bigger than anybody could really wrap their head around. When you’re working on a project that big, and when you’re working with 150 other people…” He pauses.
“You can only really be responsible for the one little piece of the project you’ve been assigned. You can kind of care about the whole game, if you want to, but you only get to have any impact on the thing that is your little piece of the game. And coming from Minerva’s Den, where it was 12 full-time content developers on that project, and a much smaller scope of work – a project where everybody could be totally invested in every part of it, where you could see every bit of it together – going from that kind of intimate development experience to Infinite was… in a lot of ways a step backwards, in the ways that I cared about.”
“Infinite was… in a lot of ways a step backwards, in the ways that I cared about.” – The Fullbright Company’s Steve Gaynor.
With another year left in Infinite’s development, Gaynor left Irrational. Infinite was neither the project for him, he knew, nor was Cambridge the city. “It’s the biggest, most prestigious college town in the country,” Gaynor says of the home of Harvard and MIT, “but it’s still a college town. I’d spent enough of my life living in college towns, surrounded by college students.” There was only one place Gaynor really wanted to live. He’d lived in Portland before, his wife was from there, they had married there, and many of their friends and family lived in the area. “We knew it was where we wanted to end up, so we weren’t going to put it off any more,” he says. “We didn’t want to keep chasing jobs around the country. [We] wanted to be back in Portland.”
In the seven years since Gaynor had lived in Portland, the city hadn’t developed much more of a videogame industry. “There were a fair amount of working Portland game developers,” he says – mainly in outsourcing, educational and mobile development – “but it didn’t feel like there was a super-solid framework for the people who were doing that work here.
“If I wanted to keep making games, it would have to be something that I got started on my own – whether it was contracting stuff, which I did a very small amount of, or starting an indie studio.” He reached out to two of his Minerva’s Den teammates: programmer Johnnemann Nordhagen and artist and researcher Karla Zimonja. Both still working at 2K Marin, they agreed to move to Portland to found a new studio with Gaynor.
The Fullbright Company, as they named it, decided not to seek outside funding. This would keep the studio independent, and the business side relatively simple, but it also meant the team would be living off their savings until they released a game. To save money, they moved in together, renting a house in the northeast of the city and setting up office in the basement. “We’re really lucky to be in it,” Gaynor says, “because when you go out as four adults and want to rent a house together and none of you has a job, that’s hard.” The house they found, coincidentally, was owned by a game developer whose Portland studio had just closed. “When we showed up, we were like, ‘We want to start an indie game studio in your basement.’ I think that’s pretty much the only reason we [got the] house.”
Gone Home is set in The Fullbright Company’s home town.
Gaynor pitched a few ideas for a game that would reflect the team’s design strengths while being achievable within their financial constraints. “It didn’t take too long for us to get to the point of saying, ‘What if it was just you and no other people, no other characters, you in a single environment and you can explore and find stuff in the environment to reconstruct the story of what happened there, and that’s the whole game? That’s the core of the experience, that’s the entire experience, as opposed to it being the sideshow on top of the shooter game’.”
Fullbright’s debut would be Gone Home, a ‘story exploration’ videogame that casts players in the role of a young woman returning from a year abroad to her family’s home (in Portland, naturally). The house is abandoned and, through exploration, players piece together the reasons why. The story centres on the younger daughter and her sexual coming-of-age; thematically, it’s a far cry from BioShock’s stories of supermen who fight gene-splicing monsters by firing bees and crows from their hands.
With development on the game underway, Gaynor settled back into Portland life. “[Portland] has a very independent spirit – people are supported in doing the things they want to do here. People who are doing stuff here are connected to the community and are kind of iconoclastic, so it’s a really great environment for people who want to do something out of the ordinary. Part of that is because the cost of living is really low, compared with Seattle or San Francisco. In Seattle there’s Microsoft and in San Francisco there’s Apple and Google, and these companies can employ enormous numbers of people that they can pay enormous amounts of money, so the cost of living goes way up. But in Portland we don’t have any of that. Nobody has any money.” He laughs. “It’s nice.”
Being part of a small, independent team meant getting involved in more aspects of commercial game development than the team was used to. For example, with Gone Home’s mid-’90s Portland setting, it was important to the team to license appropriate music for the soundtrack – riot grrrl bands of the period like Bikini Kill and Heavens To Betsy. But without a legal department to assist them with rights and clearances – as they’d had on the BioShock series – Gaynor spent hours on the phone with labels and licensing agencies, trying to persuade them not only to work within the studio’s limited budget, but that the game itself was artistically worthwhile. The artists themselves had to be convinced of the latter, which is how Zimonja found herself making a personal entreaty to Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, touting Gone Home’s feminist themes, and sending Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker an alpha of the game for her evaluation.
Tucker, at least, signed off on the usage. To showcase Gone Home’s selection of licensed riot grrrl songs, Fullbright released a soundtrack trailer for the game. Soon after, the organiser of Grrrl Front Fest, a local riot grrrl festival, emailed Gaynor to say she’d seen the trailer, had heard that Fullbright was local, and wondered if the team wanted to show Gone Home at their festival. “We were like, yeah! We would totally show our game at this riot grrrl fest that’s sponsored by Planned Parenthood,” Gaynor says. “[A] totally weird place to show a videogame, generally.”
The day of the festival, Fullbright brought a computer to Grrrl Front Fest, which was held in a bar, and set up in the back room. “We had our game in the corner and people would be like, ‘What? What is this?’” says Karla Zimonja. “[But] we had a reasonable amount of people playing. We had a couple of the bands… five 17- or 18-year-old girls, they all crowded around the monitor, and one of them was driving and the others were yelling, ‘Go in there!’ ‘No! There’s going to be a ghost!’ and ordering her around and yelling; they were all so excited about it.”
The singer of one of the bands returned to Gone Home in between sets, and eventually played through the whole thing. “What we [had] wanted to do for a long time,” says Gaynor, “was find a local band that was making music… and have the music in the game as this fictional garage band. [That singer told us] ‘Yeah, I like this game!’ And we were like, ‘Can we [use] your music in it?’ ‘Yeah!’”
Although Portland might have lacked a specific game development infrastructure, there was an abundance of general creative infrastructure and support in place – and as development on Gone Home progressed, the team discovered ways to make that work for them.
Gaynor, Nordhagen and Zimonja in their Portland studio.
“There were other situations,” says Gaynor, “where we needed to get buttons made, and T-shirts made, and we went online, searched for ‘buttons’ and got some lapel pins made with [our] logo on them. They were fine, but it took a little while and the colours weren’t great, and we found out after handing them out that they fell apart easily. We were like, why the hell did we use some web service for that? There have to be so many people in Portland that would make buttons for us. And we could go to them and take the art to them, get a sample made and make sure that they were actually high quality.”
That, Gaynor says, was a turning point for The Fullbright Company. There was, of course, a person in Portland who would make badges for them: a local woman with a hefty zine collection who pressed them by hand. The team found a voice talent agency in the basement of a teashop. The game’s basic sound effects were recorded in a local furniture store. “That kind of stuff has really worked out for us: [working] with people that are here in town, that we can meet in person.” As Fullbright embraced its home city, it went international. Gone Home appeared at game shows in the UK and at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco; the latter appearance led to a lead story on The New York Times website. The studio hired its first new employee, 3D artist Kate Craig. And in August, 20 months after Gaynor returned to Portland, Gone Home was released.
“I’m really glad we’ve been able to make this,” Gaynor says. “It’s cool being part of a big commercial project that millions and millions and millions of people are going to play… [but] Gone Home was a thing that never would have existed if the three of us didn’t decide to make a change and commit to doing something on our own. I’m really proud of the fact that we brought something into existence that never would have happened if it weren’t for us.”
The Fullbright Company will remain in Portland. But just being in Portland, Gaynor hopes, is only the beginning of the story. “My biggest ambition is to establish a games industry in Portland. To establish a sustainable ecosystem of people that are making games and are self-sufficient at it. That’s the way that these things go, traditionally, if you look at game development scenes in different cities. If you look at Austin, Origin was there, and people were brought to Austin for Origin and then split off to found their own things. I hope I’ve gone out and gathered up enough that I can bring enough back here to get a fire started that will sustain itself in the long term.”
Zimonja tells a story about a friend of the team to whom they gave a Gone Home T-shirt. That friend was wearing the T-shirt in downtown Portland one day, when a stranger ran up to him and exclaimed, “Oh my god! Are you Steve?!”
“That wouldn’t happen anywhere else!” Zimonja says. “That’s preposterous.”