Studios are putting more and more emphasis on a game’s story. The developers of The Station, a collection of friends who have been working in the industry for a while, came together to deliver their story by weaving a game around their narrative. As a result they’ve created an experience that allows players to truly bear witness to the story and make up their own minds about what takes place within. Creative director Kevin Harwood talks us through the team’s formation, remote working and how it ‘playtested’ the story to ensure players will be connected to the characters and world.
Can you go into detail on how the team formed? Did you leave jobs to work on this game or is this a side project while you work 9-5s?
The North American game dev community is really small despite the size of the industry. Within a three to four year period one can end up cycling onto projects to give you exposure to a huge portion of the top talent. It was just circumstance that I kept working alongside the people who had led the development of some of the most influential games for me like Bioshock, Destiny, Deus Ex and Prototype. These folks live and breathe games and are some of the most friendly people I’ve ever met. For a good number of us, we wanted to return to working on story-driven experiences as this is why we got into the industry in the first place.
The majority of us are, I’m not sure the correct word for it, ‘late-career’ or ‘established’? We have worked in the industry for some time and most of us are in a position where we can pursue projects of passion. Yes, this is a 9-5, but with none of the connotations.
You mention being long time friends – did you work together before or is this the first time?
Well, I can speak from my perspective. I worked with Dave Fracchia, the executive producer on an unannounced MMO project prior to working on The Station. I had also worked with Les Nelken (design director) and Duncan Watt (audio director) on another MMO project – I apparently like to work on MMOs or something – and was in love with the work they produced. These guys don’t just work, they live what they produce and it’s no surprise their credit list and work history is as extensive as it is – they set the benchmark for the industry.
After the project was complete, I approached Dave about the story and it wasn’t just that we loved the premise – we seriously enjoyed each other! We pitched it to Duncan and Les a few weeks later. They loved it and we immediately started work.
I met John Costello, our art director, in the early stages when we were looking at art references. I came across his work and was stunned. The man is an absolute beast of an artist – his passion and work ethic is pure electricity.
Groups come and go, but when you really find a team that you can make magic with, you become unbelievably close. When a work meeting goes for one hour but the call lasts for three because we’re crying with laughter at memes and jokes you’ve got something golden.
What have you learnt at your previous roles that you are bringing to development of The Station?
My absolute love is working with small creative teams. I’ve worked with game teams all over North America and you quickly see that the good leaders hire generals for their army and trust them without limit. I’ve seen that teams flourish when you enable them to perform and get out of the way. Agree on the goal, then get out of the way.
This might sound a bit insane, but about a year in advance of starting the project, I sought project management professional training because I wanted to make sure I could lead the development with an industry skillset. It ended up having a massive impact on how every aspect of production was planned and approached. Outside of the professional training, I’ve pursued mentor relationships all my adult life and it’s these incredibly individuals who have shaped and taught me – I honestly can’t thank them enough for their impact.
Can you talk around the focus on storytelling in the game? What are you trying to emulate and what holes in the market are you trying to fill with The Station? What new storytelling methods are you employing?
Our method was to start with a premise and a story that we loved and wanted to show. It wasn’t about designing mechanics and building a sense of purpose around them – it was about story. With an understanding of what the mood, tone, atmosphere and style of story we were telling we developed everything (art, audio, mechanics, tech frameworks, and so on) around enhancing the way in which players experienced the story and not the other way around.
I’m obsessed with not just creating a good story, but developing the atmosphere and composition that provides the immersion for players to step into the world that we build. Our work on The Station was not just the production of a game, but a test of new development frameworks so that we can continue developing more ambitious games at a higher standard of quality.
This might be a bit of a departure from the story-telling genre meta, but our goal is to ‘show’ the story and not simply ‘tell’ it. The player is a witness to the events and experiences rather than an audience being told what to think.
I’d like to learn more about the dozen re-writes for the game. Over what period of time was that? When did you start writing in relation to developing the game?
The project really started taking shape in mid-2014 when Dave Fracchia and I got together to discuss the premise and narrative of the story. We both have the perspective that ‘story is king’ and we didn’t want make a good story, but a great one – we wouldn’t leave it alone until we had chills from the intrigue. We had our first script by the end of 2014, but – and I’m not joking – we were still debating the story while the voice actors were in the booth. This probably won’t sink in until one plays the title, but we both felt that a story shouldn’t be one-dimensional. At the very heart of any mystery is a question – but The Station offers numerous answers that relies on the player to make sense of.
How has your focus testing improved the narrative of The Station? What are your methods when it comes to focus testing story?
I’m so glad you asked this question! Outside of just the writers and creative team, our entire team lived and breathed the story we were building. When changes and expansions to the story were proposed, it was to the entire team since they were just listeners, but citizens in the world we were creating. After getting to a place where we all felt a deep love for the story, we began running focus groups and tests at some of the academic institutions we’re very close with. We didn’t stop iterating and testing until players felt a personal connection to not just the characters, but the themes they were immersed in.
The team ran side-by-side script readings, A/B tests with scoring and Dungeons & Dragons style roleplaying sessions. It was the variation between telling the story in a personal format compared to a technical heavy focus that really brought us to the final place.
The Station’s creative director Kevin Harwood swears by a digital office: “Remote work is unbelievable! We honestly don’t even notice the difference compared to the traditional studio setup – we instead all have our own individual studios.”
Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly of a remote office, according to Harwood.
Pros of remote work:
O Incredibly cheap with so much overhead removed. This project would have been two to three times more expensive if we had pursued the traditional mode.
O Build and dedicate specific space for your work. My office is covered with screens, speakers, a drum kit, consoles and controllers so that everything required to jump into the project each day is available.
O Live somewhere that balances you in contrast to your work. This line of work is hyper stimulation heavy, so I enjoy living in a small retirement town where just by living here I bring the average age by 20 years. It’s therapeutic to read at a coffee shop where no one would even understand what I do for work. I urge people to find a balance and not extremes on either side.
Cons of remote work:
O You need to be mature socially and understand how to communicate effectively. I can’t point, gesticulate or mimic what we want on screen so the number of times I was drawing in Microsoft Paint or was on WebCam imitating the concepts were what compensated for this setup.
O Get an strong work/life balance. I’m grateful because I had a small army of mentors speaking into my life to make sure I didn’t fall into the common traps. At the end of the day, get out of your work space and disconnect from the project. Make sure you have some form of exercise to exhaust you each day. Ensure you cultivate relationships with friends and family so you can recharge. This one was huge for me – I’m the level of extroversion therapists worry about.
O Work addiction is a serious and real threat that you should respect. Crunch time is a given that your life will sink, but in the regular production cycles you need to build routines and schedules so you don’t finish a 12 hour day and keep staring at your computer screen lifelessly.