Steve Gaynor, Amir Rao and Greg Kasavin share similar backstories. All three worked on big budget games for massive publishers—Gaynor on Bioshock 2 for 2K, Rao and Kasavin on Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 for Electronic Arts—before opening their own small studios. Rao cofounded Supergiant Games, where he was later joined by Kasavin. Supergiant’s first release, Bastion, was a critical and commercial hit, and topped Paste’s list of the best games of 2011. Gaynor is a cofounder of the Fullbright Company, whose first game Gone Home was named by Paste as the best game of 2013. Both games seamlessly weave well-written, emotionally powerful narratives into traditional game structures.
Gaynor recently talked to Rao and Kasavin about Bastion and Supergiant’s upcoming game Transistor for the Tone Control podcast. In this excerpt the three designers talk about the early days of their studios and the significance of design documents.
Birth of a Studio
Steve Gaynor: So, through circumstance, both of you guys ended up back in the Bay Area.
Amir Rao: Yeah, we moved out into my Dad’s house. My girlfriend lived in San Francisco and we had been doing long distance from New York to LA and then New York to San Francisco and then I moved to San Jose and she moved into the house. Changed her job and her life and became a person who lived there and took care of us and made sure all the things generally worked.
Gaynor: Man, that was awesome of her.
Rao: Yeah, I don’t know that she knew that was going to happen, when she moved in it just sort of evolved that way. She was a useful playtester and morale builder.
Gaynor: So, when you moved into that house it was you and Gavin [Simon, Supergiant co-founder]. Was that the starting point?
Rao: That was the starting point, yeah. And Gavin’s cat, Cosmos.
Gaynor: So, is this like your dad owned the house but it was unoccupied?
Rao: Yeah, he owned the house and he left to Europe to work for the UN for a bit, and he said we could have it.
Greg Kasavin: It was the house you grew up in, right?
Rao: Yeah, it’s the house I grew up in and played D&D in and stuff.
Gaynor: We had a similar very beginning of at The Fullbright Company. Rachel and I, when I left Irrational, we just did it because we wanted to be back in Portland. Boston and the project just wasn’t right for me, so I was like, I’m going to stop chasing jobs around the country, we’re just going to go to the place we know we want to end up and figure it out. And Rachel’s parents are out of the country for half the year, so they let us stay in their house while we were out of town. And actually when Carla and Johnnemann moved up they lived in that house for two or three months while we were finding the house we ended up making the rest of the game in. The beginnings of Gone Home were made in Rachel’s parents’ living room. We pushed the dining room table against the wall and set up two computer stations on it.
Rao: The thing I always think about when people ask me “how do I start a company, or how do I start whatever?” A really good thing that was told to me by our former executive producer of Command & Conquer, Mike Verdu, is “you’ve got to find some of those advantages,” those unfair advantages that you have over someone else. They don’t have to be that you’re super well connected in the industry and you know the publishing head at [Electronic Arts Partners]. We didn’t have all that stuff. But, we had a dad who was willing to give us a house and Darren [Korb, Supergiant’s audio director and composer]’s dad was a dentist, so any dental work was going to be free. You cobble enough of these things together and it starts becoming a plan.
Kasavin: And it even heavily informed the design of the game. It’s based around “here are things Darren can do,” well let us put them in the game.
Rao: Darren lived with Logan [Cunningham, voiceover artist in Bastion and Transistor], who was the voice actor. It’s like these connections and what you have.
Gaynor: Something that I’ve said to people is that you have to always be looking for the opportunities. A lot of it is luck, but also there are ways to guarantee you will encounter more potential opportunities than not. And be looking for them, because if you are keeping yourself away from where more interesting things could happen you’re not going to have as many of those opportunities where you could say “oh, maybe I could work with this person or we could use that,” because you’re not encountering it. So, you guys wanted to start your own company and you had the designer and programmer basically.
Rao: Yeah, that’s it.
Gaynor: And you’re the designer and Gavin is the programmer.
Rao: Yeah, I was doing all of the content design at the time before Greg came in.
Gaynor: Did the idea for the game come before the company?
Rao: All we had when we started Bastion was the idea of an action RPG in which you build a world yourself. What that was going to mean was something that kind of came later. The thing we often say is a lot of the stuff that was cool about Bastion came a lot later—we just started building a prototype where you had a hammer and I modeled the guy in Blender and we scanned the enemies out of D&D books and we stole art from Nintendo games and just put it together until it was something. And we’ve shown this prototype before. It was really fun. We showed it at PAX East like a year after the game came out. It was just interesting to show people.
Gaynor: I saw it in your talk at IndieCade. Greg had shown some screenshots of Bastion when there were beholders.
Rao: Yeah, so some of those guys became exact enemies in Bastion, some of them are like 1:1 and some of them are not. There is a guy in there called the Mudman and he was awesome in the first week of development. He became the scumbag. He was goopy and he dropped stuff and he was big and slow and dumb. Stuff like that was great and showed the promise of what we were doing but the really special stuff came when we found people to do those additional things—the style of the game, the style of the music, the writing, additional design elements, Logan’s voice. Those are things that kind of evolved. We had no documentation when we started, and we as a studio culture have very little documentation as we go.
Gaynor: I think Gone Home has had one design document. And it was because Johnnemann and I were not in the same place yet, so I wrote a Google Doc that was like “here’s all the features I think we’ll need to make the game we want to make.” There’s documentation for the game—it’s like two notebooks of mine that I wrote notes to myself in that I could refer back to. We actually looked at the design document like a month before we shipped and were like “Ehhh, yeah, that’s the game we made.” It was simple enough, but yeah I think you’re right. Especially at this kind of scale, the question is “who is the document for?” If it doesn’t have an audience, then why are you
Rao: Yeah, for us it’s not that we don’t generate a ton of words about the game. We do always have a task list type thing that we write in a lot, about “this is the thing we’re trying to make, this is a small piece of the thing we’re trying to make.” But yeah, there isn’t like a vision document thing because it just isn’t appropriate for the way we sort of make stuff.
Kasavin: It’s just bogus. Especially in those early days when you don’t even have an artist on the project. If you make your ambition for the thing too well defined it’s just not even true. The core assumptions of the game, nothing is too small, coming from making real-time strategy games, just having a dude run around where you have direct control and he attacks when you press a button is not to be taken for granted. So, what does your crazy ambition for the story even matter if you can’t get that part right? Until some of those building blocks are in place nothing else really matters because the whole thing might change. I think there were certain principles that were probably more intuitive from past influences and whatever—the sense of completeness for the game was always a thing there from the first moment. That’s part of the point about not designing it too much on paper, because let’s just see where that early idea leads.
Rao: And what a game needs at any given moment is usually super clear to the people making it, and it’s hard to predict that as you walk out. Like today, Greg and I and Gavin, lots of people, lots of conversations here, we are always trying to fulfill the most immediate need of the game. It’s just that, to us that is sort of how we follow the string to being done with it.
Gaynor: I think that’s really valuable to note as well. When you guys started, it was just a designer and a programmer and you know art and sound effects and music were going to be important. You could phrase this in a goofy way, but what made you think you could make a game? What made you think “okay, we have two people and we know what we can make with that and we’ll start making something and figure out the rest?”
Rao: I think we always knew we were going to need more people. Like we were talking to Greg from the moment that we wanted to start a company and it was just a matter of time until hopefully we could actually make something like that work. Same with Andrew [Wang, Supergiant’s systems engineer), same with basically everyone except for Jen [Zee, Supergiant’s artist.]. We were talking to artists early on, but we never really found a fit until we found Jen. We worked with other people, and different circumstances it didn’t work out and it did with Jen. So, we always knew we had this need and we always kind of had a sense of who those people were going to be, it was just a question of could this game support it? Could we bring them on full time? Like you’re saying, it’s the opportunities and the timing and you never know when it’s going to work out and for us it just sort of did and it all kind of happened at the right times. So we got very lucky with that. It was really interesting, a thing I found out way after Bastion shipped, like six months after Bastion shipped, my mom and Anna, who saw early versions of the game, thought the same thing. They weren’t telling us at the time, but they were like “wow, we thought it was terrible. We had no idea you guys knew what you were doing and that it was going to become a game.” Because games, especially games with just an artist and programmer, look really ugly for a really long period of time. A thing I like about our culture here too is that our gameplay stuff, even early on, looks really ugly and we keep it ugly for a while until it’s something. Because there is a way in which art can trick you about the quality of a game interaction. So we try to do everything with temp stuff first before we evolve it into something new. So, it was sort of like, we always kind of knew it was going to need more and we were pretty focused on the thing we were making and making it better and better and better. It was a sort of ignorance that helped a lot in the early time.
Kasavin: Again, it’s deferring on having those resources until you really need them. Because you don’t need a ton of music when you’re prototyping the base interaction.
Rao: Yeah, you can get five tracks and it’s all going into the same stupid prototype level.
Kasavin: Like there was never an animator of Bastion so animation requests were pretty ad hoc, like “okay, now the Blenderman’s time has come,” and let’s try to produce a higher level of fidelity that’s closer to a shipping game.
Gaynor: You just put into my head the idea of the Blenderman, like Slenderman..
Kasavin: Like Slenderman, but Blenderman. He puts you in his head and combines lime and tequila.
Gaynor: And your soul.
Kasavin: Make it happen.
Gaynor: Well, yeah. Some things, in retrospect seem weird and dumb and quasi-insane. Like we started Gone Home with a programmer, a designer/writer and a 2D artist and we were making a first-person 3D game. And we were like, naively, “well, we can contract people and make stuff piecemeal or buy assets off the internet.” And then we managed to find Kate [Craig], who is our 3D artist full-time. But, it was a really, really good thing that we did that because if we were like “oh, we have three out of the four people we need and we can’t start working on this until we have this one last really important person,” we might have just never made the game. Because it’s like you’re waiting and waiting, we have to convince someone to be doing this art before our game ever exists and it just never happens. I think you shouldn’t be reckless and stupid but on some level you have to have the faith that “okay, we start this without a full compliment and we will work to fix that while we are in process.”
Kasavin: It’s also if you’re really committed to making the most of what you have. If that’s something that’s exciting to you, like finding “look, there’s a frickin’ D&D book, I’ve got my monsters right here.” Rather than that give you a dejected feeling, it’s exciting, it’s progress. Then, when you reach those moments when you’re like “okay, I really need this now,” hopefully you have some assuredness that that’s honest. Because it’s so easy, again if you design a game on paper you’re going to design some crazy MMO and it’s the best game ever on paper and it’s going need all these resources. But, like, that’s never going to happen.
Next: Rao and Kasavin discuss the pitching process, the creation of Bastion and why the narrator is crucial to the game.