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From Issue #30 November 21, 2013

Strong Foundation

How the game Gone Home was built.

By Chris Higgins Twitter icon 

It was a dark and stormy night in Oregon. I launched the game Gone Home, only to discover that the game was set on an even darker and stormier night in Oregon. As thunder crashed in my headphones and rain trickled down both real and virtual windows, I was pulled into a videogame with tremendous emotional weight. There were no guns, no puzzles, no vampires — just plenty of mysteries.

Gone Home begins on the front porch of a Victorian house in the middle of nowhere. You play as Kaitlin Greenbriar, a college student returning to her family’s home after a long trip abroad. But you’ve never seen this house before; your family moved there while you were away. The family itself is conspicuously absent — the house is abandoned — and the first thing you see is a note on the front door from your sister Sam, urging you not to try to find her. So of course you start looking.

It is 1995, and the house is filled with notes, letters, ticket stubs, and other ephemera that help you piece together the story. The objects themselves are playfully designed, including faux Super Nintendo-style cartridges and a series of pitch-perfect mid ’90s magazines. My favorite is Fresh, styled after Sassy. Its cover features headlines like “The Male Gaze…And How To Subvert It” and “90210: Does Anybody Still Care?”1

As I played through the game, I felt an intense mixture of nostalgia for the time and empathy for the family. During the year the game is set in, I became a high school senior, just like Sam in the game. After exploring Sam’s room, going through the drawers in her father’s home office, and exploring the deepest secrets of this fictional family, I had to ask: Who made this? And how could a game based solely on snooping through people’s stuff be so engrossing? I tracked down two of the game’s creators to find out.

The Oregon Trail

Steve Gaynor was ready for a change. Despite a job as senior level designer at Irrational Games in Boston, a large and top-of-the-market developer, he was no longer satisfied with being a cog in other people’s machines. He was ready to go independent. “I thought if I could get a small team together, we could make something really cool that would be much more worthwhile in the long run,” he says. He and his wife picked Portland, Oregon, a city with few local gaming jobs but where he could make a mark of his own.

Gaynor recruited two friends, Johnnemann Nordhagen and Karla Zimonja, who had worked with him from 2008 to 2010 at the Bay Area game-development studio 2K Marin. They joined Gaynor in Portland, where the trio formed the Fullbright Company in April 2012. They added a fourth member, Kate Craig, after meeting her at the Stumptown Comics Fest.

Their tiny team proceeded to create Gone Home over roughly 16 months. They worked out of the basement of a rented Portland house while living upstairs in its three bedrooms. Gaynor says that moving to Portland “was absolutely essential for us, primarily on a financial level, because we wanted to make the game entirely on our own terms.” The game was funded from their savings.

Gaynor says that they knew their self-investment could fund as much as 18 months of development in Portland, but that it would have covered just four or five months in the Bay Area. Portland also provided easy access to voiceover talent, and the game includes music licensed from Oregon and Washington bands.

Gone Home grew from its team’s specialties: one 3D artist (Craig), one level designer and writer (Gaynor), one engineer (Nordhagen), and one 2D artist and story partner (Zimonja). Given their skills and previous collaboration creating BioShock 2: Minerva’s Den, the team set Gone Home entirely within an abandoned house; its “levels” are the floors of the house. Gaynor explains, “Very early on, we said, ‘We can make a whole game that is nothing but environmental storytelling.’ The game is about people not being there, and that’s part of our constraint up front.” Zimonja puts it bluntly: “It’s a snooping simulator.”

Gaynor wrote a system design document in early 2012 describing what the game engine had to do, and passed that to Nordhagen, the game’s programmer. “Ninety percent of that design document matches the finished game,” Gaynor says. And that’s fortunate, because if the game’s core design had changed more, it would have blown the budget. Experience making big-budget games gave the team confidence in what they could accomplish with limited resources.

But constraints aside, the group was liberated by its independence. They set out to make the game they wanted to make, rather than the game that a mainstream game publisher would fund. Zimonja explains, “I’ve worked at companies that perpetually have something going that is supposedly just a moneymaker. They’re like, ‘Someday we’ll get to the game that we’ve always wanted to make.’ And they never get there. It’s not real.” For the Fullbright team, Gone Home was the game they always wanted to make — and they went all in.

On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.

Steve Gaynor.

The freaky Lagrange point

I am with Zimonja and Gaynor an hour after he’s told the world that Gone Home sold more than 50,000 copies in its first month on the market.2 This is phenomenally good news, and a high sales figure for an indie game. Gone Home retails for $19.99, and thus the game’s gross sales hit roughly a million dollars in that first month. (Gaynor won’t confirm the million-dollar figure, but admits I can “do the math” to figure it out on my own.)

But that putative million dollars has a number of catches. Gross isn’t net, as distributors take a substantial cut of all sales. And Zimonja and Gaynor remain broke at the moment, waiting on those distributors to cut the first checks for their share. Zimonja says, “We’re at this freaky Lagrange point between the game and what happens next.”

The team’s savings have dried up, and they hover in an awkward space, trapped between current financial realities and the fact that their efforts will pay off in a matter of weeks. “We’re all running up our credit cards. It’s really hard to pay rent with credit cards,” Zimonja says.

Zimonja says that in June and July, the months just before release, her diet was almost exclusively canned tuna fish. She only stopped when she feared she was suffering from mercury poisoning, and couldn’t sleep. Several team members suffered from insomnia leading up to launch, partly because of financial stress.

The news is good, but the wait is hard. “We will have made x times more than the salaries we would have been making at our old jobs…from our first paycheck,” Gaynor says, declining to solve for x. But the results of that equation haven’t been deposited yet.

Fullbright mode

The Fullbright Company team members are all serious gamers. Their discussions are filled with references to games, and Gaynor even sports a game-inspired tattoo of the number “0451” on his right arm. He explains that it’s a passcode that was used in System Shock as a reference to Fahrenheit 451. That code is now famous to serious gamers, and it shows up in various games, including Gone Home.

Even the name of their company is a reference to games, though I’d never know it. Gaynor explains, “‘Fullbright’ is a piece of level design jargon. Fullbright Mode in a level editor is where you turn all the shadows off, so all of the surfaces are at 100 percent brightness. It’s so you can edit the level without having things obscured by the lighting.” This is oddly appropriate given the game the Fullbright Company made, in which the player constantly has to turn lights on while exploring the house, though even with all the lights on it’s downright dark.

Each team member had a set of assigned responsibilities, though being a small group, those lines often blurred. Gaynor designed the levels and placed the objects within them, developed the story, and wrote the dialogue; but he also designed some small household items. Zimonja was the 2D artist, designing the mid ’90s-style objects scattered throughout the house, but she also developed the story with Gaynor and acted as script supervisor when voice actors recorded the game’s dialogue.

Nordhagen coded the game using the Unity game engine, adding critical functions like the ability to precisely “put back” objects that the player has picked up.3 He recently tweeted that the game included 196,000 lines of code, “only” 14,000 of which were written from scratch.

Craig worked remotely from her home in Vancouver, BC, building 3D models of period-appropriate furniture; she also added visual flourishes, creating a plant motif that’s visible throughout the game.

Excellence in narrative

The schedule for making Gone Home was based partly on external deadlines and ultimately on the team’s budget. The first milestone was the Independent Games Festival (IGF) in October 2012. IGF is a key step on the path to success for indie game developers. Judges give awards to the most promising indie games, and those games are later featured at the Game Developers Conference (GDC). Past IGF winners have included Braid, Fez, Minecraft, and other indie success stories.4

The Fullbright team needed a playable version of Gone Home for IGF, and they had just six months. What’s more, the game had to be complete enough to be representative of the final product. It had to include professional voice acting, a healthy chunk of the story, and all the core game mechanics. The game would be downloaded by judges and played independently, without anyone from the Fullbright team present. What the team delivered for IGF was a version of the game including much of the ground floor of the house and part of the upstairs, which is roughly the first hour of gameplay.

Gaynor recalls, “Our first milestone was IGF. [We knew] the game was going out into the wild in whatever form we put it out there. If people put their hands on it and don’t get it or don’t like it, then that’s bad for us. That was a really strong metric to measure against.” The team organized around that goal, prioritizing their work in order to deliver a functional, fully realized hour of gameplay.

In January 2013, IGF organizers announced that Gone Home was a finalist in a newly created category, Excellence in Narrative. (The game also received honorable mentions in the Audio and Grand Prize categories.) Although the game didn’t win its category, that spot as a finalist brought two huge benefits: the ability to sell the finished game on Steam, and the opportunity to show the work-in-progress in person at GDC in March 2013.

Gaynor likens the work between the IGF version and the finished game to the writing process for a TV show or serialized novel. Because the first hour of the game was complete for IGF, the rest of the game built on that, and the team didn’t change much of what they had already shown.

Gaynor says that at the point they made the IGF version, “We didn’t know what the rest of the story was past that point or what the rest of the areas were going to be. I mean, we knew there was going to be a basement and a kitchen and an attic because it’s a house, but we hadn’t sketched what those spaces were going to be or how you would go through them, or what the story points were. So for the second half of development, our biggest constraint was the first half of the game.”

When GDC arrived, both Gaynor and Nordhagen spoke on gaming topics at the conference, in addition to demoing Gone Home with the rest of the team on the show floor. The team’s experience at GDC led to extensive press coverage, including a mention in the New York Times and the top spot on Paste magazine’s 10 Best Games at GDC 2013. Five months later, Gone Home launched to rave reviews.

A new home

When I visit the Fullbright Company’s basement two months after the game ships, it’s partly abandoned. Nordhagen’s computer is gone, as he’s on an extended vacation. Zimonja’s workstation is there but gathers dust, as she’s on the road too. A huge X-Files poster graces the wall, but much of the space is now devoted to the Etsy business of Gaynor’s wife, Rachel Jacks, which involves astrophotography printed on bags, shirts, and the like. As a friendly cat brushes by, Jacks shows me her “Pillars of Creation” merchandise and I make a mental note to buy something for my wife. The DIY spirit is strong in that basement.5

Two months after Gone Home’s release, Gaynor and Jacks are preparing to go on vacation themselves. Gaynor has spent months speaking with the press, and the team has updated the game with a new commentary mode, embedding a DVD-style director’s commentary throughout the game, triggered by clicking tiny rotating Fullbright Company logos in the game. He also confirms that the first round of checks have arrived, so the financial pressure is finally relieved.

Gaynor reflects on the Gone Home experience. “You still have to be one of the few games in a year that really breaks through. Enough has to come out of one project that you can live comfortably for an extended period of time and be able to pay to make another one,” he says. “It’s not like everybody who gives it a shot is going to end up in a super comfortable place, but we always aimed for being one of the notable indie games of the year.” Judging by the game’s positive reviews from critics, they succeeded.

Gaynor’s goals for what comes next are straightforward: “Some travel. I haven’t had the luxury of being able to visit my friends over the last couple of years. I want to buy a house in town — nothing super extravagant. But owning a house would be great.”

It’s fitting that the proceeds from building the virtual house that is Gone Home will help Gaynor and his wife buy their first home — but one in which a floor is just a floor, not another level to play through.

Gaynor photo by author. Game images courtesy Fullbright.


  1. The game’s designers bought period copies of Sassy, OMNI, Seventeen, and even a Sears catalogue as reference materials when designing objects for the game. 

  2. The game shipped on August 15, 2013. The sales announcement came on September 11. 

  3. During testing, players wanted to replace objects they had picked up in their original locations. But each “put-back” location had to be coded individually. This left many small items without an explicit home. When Gaynor’s wife, Rachel, played through the kitchen, she took the ice cream out of the freezer and couldn’t get it to go back in. She insisted that the ice cream, of all things, needed a put-back location, so Nordhagen added one. Zimonja says, “It’s true. You feel really shitty when you leave the ice cream out.” 

  4. Indie Game: The Movie tracks the development of two games: Fez and Super Meat Boy. It’s a terrifying glimpse into the vagaries of going it alone, but also the rewards. 

  5. The end credits of Gone Home thank 16 cats by name, though I only spotted two in the Fullbright house. An Easter egg in the game helps explain the rest. 

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