Alone in the Wyoming wilderness, a summer job as a fire lookout takes a sinister tone as players start to experience strange encounters, with a supervisor on the other end of a walkie-talkie as their only human connection.
This is the intriguing premise of Firewatch, the debut game from new studio Campo Santo, and one that has garnered press and consumer attention from around the world. But co-founder Sean Vanaman says this title actually started as “more of an idea than a fully-fledged concept”.
“I pitched my co-founder Jake Rodkin on a game set up against the backdrop of Wyoming and the iconic image of the tower,” he tells Develop. “That was just something I’d carried with me having grown up in Wyoming. From that tiny seed we found the right people and started turning it into an experience that reflected our values as designers and game developers.
“The relationship between the protagonists will, hopefully, be unlike anything in any other first-person adventure. We’ve worked hard to make it feel natural, to have it grow, branch, develop and feel ‘real’. We want players to believe the people in the story are real, with a real connection, and I don’t think a lot of games do that very often.”
To create such a unique game, Campo Santo needed a game engine that was flexible and accessible, opting for indie favourite Unity.
“We are a new studio,” says Rodkin. “We came together to create Campo Santo to build Firewatch and at our size – ten people – and our budget – not huge – Unity was the only thing that made sense. We were never going to use a tech that contractually meant we’d give up profits.”
The team were even lucky enough to gain access to the beta version of Unity 5.
Drawing on their experience with the previous edition, both Rodkin and Vanaman note that Unity 5 immediately displayed massive improvements to performance and upgrades to the UI tools and animation software Mecanim helped speed things up. However, Vanaman argues that no single feature can be considered as the hallmark of Unity 5.
“It’s the medium-to-small stuff – the improvements that are almost invisible from the outside, but invaluable in practice – that are helping everyone work more quickly or overcome issues far more easily than expected,” he says.
“The new deferred rendering pipeline is letting us do all the things we were doing in Unity 4 but with fewer draw calls, so our graphics programmer has more room to work as we finalise the look of trees, skies, and other stylised elements in our game.”
With work on Firewatch coming along nicely, the Campo Santo team encourage other devs to explore Unity 5.
Rodkin says: “You aren’t limited by what you can get out of the engine if you’re working with folks who pride themselves on their ability to solve problems and ingenuity. We have lots of limiting factors in our work every day and the engine is hardly ever one of them.”