'This is the indie developer narrative no one talks about': In conversation with Variable State

'This is the indie developer narrative no one talks about': In conversation with Variable State
Matthew Jarvis

By Matthew Jarvis

June 6th 2016 at 11:40AM

In 2014, a studio staffed by a pair of Rockstar, Rare and EA alumni burst onto the scene with Virginia, an interactive drama inspired by cult TV shows. Then, just as quickly, it vanished. Jonathan Burroughs re-emerges to discuss Variable State’s media blackout, growing ambitions for its debut and the importance of your collaborators cooking their own eggs

What have you been up to since Virginia was first unveiled back in mid-2014?

Virginia, full time. I can imagine most people must think we've died a death or completely dropped off everyone's radars. We have been exceptionally quiet, but we've just been working non-stop since March of 2014 in one form or another, certainly building on what we showed at EGX at the end of that year.

We've had an incredible run of good luck, really. We managed to secure a source of financing for the game, and that's allowed it to expand beyond even our original aspirations for it. Hopefully it will b something delightful and strange when we finally get to put it people's hands.

You say you secured investment – were you self-financing the game beforehand?

That was it exactly. The background to it is a completely typical story – especially in the current climate of big studios like Lionhead shutting down, I imagine there must a great many people unfortunately in the same situation that me and Terry Kenny, the co-director, found ourselves at the start of 2014.

We had been made redundant from the company we'd been working at before. We were very lucky to have some money as a result of that, and both very lucky to have very understanding partners.

This seems like the kind of thing it seems so rare for people to talk about, but I feel this must be the common narrative for indie game developers, particularly these days – how it would be impossible without those kinds of securities. I was lucky enough to have sort of the equipment I need already. I had a good computer, a flat I was renting with my girlfriend; she was incredibly understand when I came to her and said, 'No, I'm not going to go out and look for a new job, I'd quite like to work with my friend' – who'd just moved back to Ireland, as well, to make things all the more complicated – 'and we'd like to have a go at making a game ourselves.' She would've been well within her rights, I think, to say, 'No, there's two of us, there's bills to pay, you can't be irresponsible.'

She's been incredibly supportive and Terry's partner's been incredibly supportive of him. That's given us this amazing opportunity to make this game. That's really how it got started.

Terry's based in Dublin and you're based in London. What has your experience of working remotely been like?

It's worked remarkably well. I certainly think it was awkward and took some time to get into. Now that I reflect back on how it began, finding a rhythm to our working days and trying to impose some structure we definitely found difficult at first – as I imagine a lot of people find when they've been working in studios for ten years each.

Obviously working in an office in any environment comes with certain bureaucracy and all the expectations you'll be there at your desk at a certain time and what have you. To suddenly be out of that, there's probably a natural inclination to be: 'Oh, we're free. We'll clock in whenever we fancy.' We found that didn't work for us and tried to bring a lot of that structure back in. So now we have things like a 9am orientation meeting where we'll discuss the tasks of the day and things like that, and that's become invaluable. But we've overall found it incredibly easy, actually. It's been really straightforward.

There have been a lot of tools that have helped with collaboration. We used Jira for a time as our project management, we used Trello for a time, we've got a Perforce server set up for our source control – that makes things very easy.

Me and Terry are very fortunate to be of similar dispositions and temperaments; we were inclined to enjoy working this way. Working from home affords us the time to be alone with our thoughts and to really focused on a particular task. We have certainly found that, in the past couple of years, at its high our team's been around ten people, all of us working remotely. We really did expand the team.

Certainly, it's not been for everybody – that's completely fine, and we've had to make allowances for that and try and help people out where we can. In the future, we'd definitely like to entertain things like people using shared working spaces and things like that where they've really missed being in a social environment and everything that goes with that – having the opportunity to bounce ideas off of someone sat next to you. I know some people we've worked with have found that difficult. So it's been good for me and Terry, but I don't want to make it seem like that's a great strength of ours, because to some extent it probably comes from us being socially awkward or a bit misanthropic and things like that.

I completely understand why some people really value being in a social environment. That's something we still need to figure out. On future projects, we'll try and make more of an effort to make accommodations for people who want to work with us but need the benefits that come with being set in a studio.

"Working in an office in any environment comes with certain bureaucracy and expectations. To suddenly be out of that, there's a natural inclination to be: 'Oh, we're free. We'll clock in whenever we fancy.' We found that didn't work for us and tried to bring a lot of that structure back in."

Jonathan Burroughs, Variable State

You mentioned the death of Lionhead. We also saw Evolution announce its closure earlier this year, before being bailed out by Codemasters. It's not been a good year for British developers. What effect could the closure of such flagship UK studios have on the local indie sector?

I guess there's two sides to this. If one wanted to be a bit callous and almost Darwinian about it, you might take the view that this is a great thing because it means these moments where studios fall apart, they cause kind of explosions of creativity. What previously was one company that could only turn out a certain number of games suddenly has now exploded into five smaller companies which all have their own ideas and opportunities to create new works. But within that narrative there are all the people who fall through the cracks.

Something I've found that has bothered me in moving to working from home and working in this start-up model is all of the things that I've lost that were kind of securities in working at a big company. Even things that maybe seemed as an employee frustrating or unhelpful, such as the bureaucratic side of things. That you had the protections of, say, being an employee and all the benefits that come with that – it's easier to get a mortgage or rent a place if you're a full-time employee, but suddenly you become a freelance contractor and all of those securities have gone away. It makes your life much harder.

Not having the protection of a HR department – so I would like to believe that me and Terry are good employers and we treat people who work with us very well, but we don't have a HR department in our company because we're brand new and we're a very young company. We don't have the financial backing to make that a reality, but I worry that we don't have someone to hold us to account in how we manage our business. If we were behaving irresponsibility, we could notionally treat our employees very poorly or exert unfair pressures on them and things like that.

When you get big companies that are well established, that have all of these protections for their employees, that are fully engaged with things like the working time directive and other employee/employer rights, a compromise is coming as a result. I get the impression you're seeing that across all industries at the moment, that we're seeing more and more people becoming self-employed. You see a lot of stuff in the news about zero-hours contracts and short-term working. I worry we're seeing a gradual erosion in employee rights and that's happening in games, as well. That bothers me as an employer now – that I'm not able to, because I don't have the money at the moment, do things quite as I'd want to. Hopefully we'll be able to get to that point where we can be a proper employer and give people those protections again.

As part of your start-up nature, you also don't have a dedicated marketing department. Virginia saw an explosion of press coverage when it was first revealed in 2014, but since that time you've put your heads down to actually make the game and vanished off the map somewhat. How did you go about balancing your development duties with maintaining interest in Virginia?

Oh, I think it's been a complete disaster. I don't think we've done a very good job of it. I think in part that's because of the type of game we chose to make. We very deliberately wanted to make a story-driven game, a game that put the emphasis on content over mechanics. But hand in hand with that, it makes it very hard to talk about the game as an on-going thing without spoiling. A lot of the delight of Virginia will come from people playing it for the first time and experiencing the story and the surprises you'd get from reading a book or watching a film. The way the narrative reveals itself and the way that makes you feel will be where the delight comes from.

What you see amongst a lot of indie developers, of course, is this sort of 'open development' model where they're always tweeting work-in-progress screenshots, they're always talking about what's going on. We've got the combined problem of both not wanting to spoil anything or give anything away, and we're very shy people, as well. We find it quite hard to find a voice to talk about ourselves on social media or to do things like blog posts. Hence why we've had this year of almost complete radio silence.

It was kind of safe in the first year when we were just figuring out what the game was right up to EGX. We were able to talk about it because we were figuring out for ourselves, there was nothing to spoil. From that point on, we were like: 'Oh right, let's make the proper full version of this, let's finish the story.' From that point on we've been very guarded and careful about what we can say. We found that personally difficult. Even if we had had a different kind of game, I wonder...

This sounds really naive and everyone must go through this – I'm not calling ours a special case, at all – but just the balancing of being the game's full-time designer and writer and also being the game's project manager and being in charge of a small business and make the time for all those things. I don't resent it – I'm a control freak to some degree, I really enjoy being aware of everything that's going on, but it eats into your time when you're doing the accounts or trying to arrange a contract for a freelancer who's coming on-board the team and all the daily business side of things. I can see why people have those things taken care of in a dedicated role.

I must say, I now have the hugest respect for all the project managers I've worked with on previous projects. I think I must've been the most irritating employee. I really should go and apologise to all of them, because it's not just the dry side of things – the making sure the cash flows there at the end of every month and the business is ticking over – you really care about how you're presenting to the people you're working with and whether you're being fair and consistent. Are they having a good time? Every one of them is a different personality with different priorities and different ways of expressing themselves. I find that the thing that keeps me up at night. It's one thing to make everyone's having a good time and I'm treating everybody fairly.

It sounds naive to say it out loud, because one of the expectations of a good employer is that they treat their employees well, but I didn't realise how much it would affect me to be an employer and to have these people who I'm notionally responsible for and want to do right by. That's been the thing that's taken up my thought space more than I expected. I'm glad it has. Balancing that with being the game designer has certainly been a challenge – an interesting, good challenge.

It seems quite fitting that Variable State vanished in thin air only to emerge years later, given the influence of recent resurrected cult TV shows Twin Peaks and The X-Files on Virginia. The revivals of both shows two decades after their original broadcasts were announced after the game had been unveiled – do you think their return will help the game's reception?

Oh, I hope so. That would be lovely. All of us on the team are personally excited. If people are as excited about the return of those TV shows as we are for our game, that would be lovely.

What we have found very useful as a kind of shorthand is to explain the game by drawing parallels with things like Twin Peaks. Maybe in our demo there was a risk of the game feeling like it is a pastiche of those things. Where we are now, a year and a half later, the game has found its own identity and I don't think you would pay it and immediately think it's a direct homage to David Lynch or The X-Files. I'm very pleased with that. I hope that it has an identity of its own. I believe it does, and I'm glad it does.

But obviously there are commonalities; we still have a main character who's an FBI agent and there are other similarities if people choose to look for them. It would be lovely if it was beneficial in some way, I guess.

Virginia seems to follow in the footsteps of other indie titles focused on storytelling over traditional gameplay mechanics, such as Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, Firewatch and Gone Home. Do you feel there's more of an audience for such games today?

I guess it's just part and parcel of a general broadening of what video games encompass now, new genres emerging and allowing for a game that does very specific or different to find an audience and for people to be just interested in something novel.

It's very encouraging and exciting to see how well Firewatch and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture did – those are marvellous games. If people talk about Virginia in the same breath as those, that would be very flattering, because they're both very effective. Both those games push the medium forwards or outwards in interesting ways and will inspire other novel and strange games to come.

That's the most exciting thing – that you can make something peculiar and personal that isn't obviously satisfying a purely commercial goal. Games that are reflections of their creators and that are pursing a very artistic ambition, but are still able to find a market and people will pay to experience those games and will allow those creators to keep on making games. That's the most encouraging thing I take away from those. That there's an opportunity there to make new and unconventional things and people will reward you for it.

"Firewatch and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture push the medium forwards in interesting ways and will inspire other novel and strange games to come. That's the most exciting thing – that you can make something peculiar and personal that isn't obviously satisfying a purely commercial goal."

Jonathan Burroughs, Variable State

Did securing investment affect the structure and technical foundation of Virginia?

Certainly, the scope of the game and the eventual... I'm trying to find the right word for it really. It certainly had an effect. Mostly in terms of allowing us to bring on more collaborators, to have more people contributing to it who've brought their own talents to the game.

In 2014, there were really only three of us – myself doing all of the design and programming, Lyndon Holland doing the music and sound design, and Terry doing all the character animation, 3D modelling and rigging.

Since then, we've brought on bought Matt Wilde who's our full-time technical artist, and he's done a wonderful job of the game's art style. We've got Stevie Brown, who's doing our 3D art. Kieran Keegan, who previously worked on Kitty Powers: Matchmaker, is our full-time programmer. I'm so glad we were able to work with Kieran, because I thought Matchmaker was a delightful game, and he's wonderful.

The thing I'm ever so grateful for, and this is going to sound like me gushing but it's absolutely the case that the people I work with every day are some of the most delightful and easy to work with people that I've worked with in the entire time I've worked in games. That's not to say I've worked with nightmarish people ever, it just seems to be the case with the games industry – or any creative industry – that people who are interested in that medium and artistic things or what have you come to that industry. So you'll often find yourself working with like-minded people, but particularly on this game – perhaps because the people we're working with were drawn to the game having heard about it in the press first – they have all been really passionate and incredibly easy to collaborate with. That's been a big benefit: the increase in funding has allowed us to work with more people, and that's definitely had an impact on the game.

Another thing we're very fortunate to do, it also allowed us to expand on the musical side of things, which is very important to the game. Lyndon's just come back from the Smecky studio in Prague, which, bizarrely, is where David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti did the scores for Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. That's where we've recorded the live score for the game, so that wouldn't have been possible without the support we've had. Hopefully that will add a real quality to the game.

I did see a picture of Lyndon recording the sound of cooking an egg...

It's absolutely incredible. He had never done any sound design work before. He's a composer and musician by background, so he was actually quite apprehensive when we told him: 'Oh, Lyndon, we need this side added to the game as well, are you able to do this?'

He's launched into it with real dedication and passion. He's always bringing things home to create sounds from. I don't think he's used library sounds much at all, an awful lot of the foley is completely original. It's incredibly impressive.

That can-do attitude – running ahead of the schedule, people doing things before they're asked to and anticipating that and working with people who make the right decisions about those things instinctively – that's been an incredible benefit to the game.

When you're working on a big project, so much effort has to go into keeping everybody on the same path, making sure that the vision is always sort of reaffirmed and everyone knows what they're working towards. When you're on a small team, that's just so much easier. Particularly when you're a small team of like-minded people, that's just almost effortless. That's incredible useful.

The first previews of Virginia highlighted its distinctive, low-poly, flat visuals. Has growing the team and receiving investment changed the visual ambition of the game?

What we've done is certainly lean into that even more, which is quite an abstract way of describing it. It's like trying to sing about architecture. I'm trying to think of a way of describing the changes that have gone on visually without just showing you a picture. It's still low-poly and stylised and there's a layer of abstraction there. But we've been able to add a quality to that and be more true to that.

There's interesting things with shaders and the lighting treatment that we've been able to achieve, thanks to Matt Wilde's contributions – our full-time VFX and technical artist – he's really upped the quality of that. It's a hard thing to describe in the abstract, but I hope that people see, when we have an opportunity to start putting out final artworks. The last time we revealed a screenshot of the game must've been about a year and a half ago. The game gone through quite a change since then in terms of look. I hope people appreciate that. It has improved in quality.

Regarding the tone, I remember one of the developers at Campo Santo who wryly commented when Firewatch came out how he had spent three years essentially working on a cartoon. There is kind of a look of that to our game, but notionally it's kind of a serious story. It's not a dark story, a young person could play our game and there's nothing particular unsettling in it.

This is a really high bar to compare ourselves to, and I'm not comparing ourselves to this at all, it'd be incredibly flatting if someone else made this comparison, but I suppose when you look at something like a Studio Ghibli film and how that's an animated film and is notionally a film aimed at children but often those stories are very grown-up in nature and can be enjoyed by children and adults alike, we sit in a similar place – at least in terms of intent. The game has quite a gentle, light-hearted art style but thematically there's something that can be enjoyed by a range of age groups. 

With Virginia taking influence from 1990s TV serials, did you ever consider adopting an episodic release model for the game?

We definitely did consider it, but very much in the early days of the project when it was up in the air what it could be, where we've ended up... In the future I would be fascinated to do a project like that if we could do it.

When you have a TV series running for a season, there's the regularity of when the episodes turn up and there's the anticipation of knowing when the next episode's coming out. I guess that's very difficult for games because of how long it takes to put together an episode of a TV programme as opposed to something like the Telltale games. You have quite a few weeks between each episode.

There's something very satisfying about Game of Thrones – the wait through a week until you can get to see the next episode and how that anticipation and excitement builds. I'd love to do something like that with a game. That would almost require making a full game up front and then splitting it up and choosing how you released it.

What I would Virginia to be, though, is perhaps something more like the new Fargo TV series. Because genre in games perhaps means something like in TV or film, and it's not just the setting or the themes or the story scenario; it's also things like the camera angle you choose or whether it's real-time or turn-based – what the mechanics are in the game.

Whilst the Virginia that we are going to be finishing and releasing this year is a self-contained story and there will be no threads – well, I won't say that, but it's not set up to a sequel – and it'll have an emotional payoff and should feel satisfying in its own right, we could and I would love to make further Virginias that were the same approach in terms of games design but were vehicles for other stories, and were even complementary in their themes and storytelling. We certainly have ideas for a couple more we would love to explore if we could. I suppose that all banks on whether people are interested enough in what we've done with the first one. That's an interesting avenue to explore.

What's next for Variable State and Virginia from now until release?

We're kind of finishing Virginia, is the easiest way to describe the phase we're in. We have a second game that's start to crystallise so as Virginia ramps down we can start thinking about that a bit more and hopefully there'll be things to say about that very soon

I hope just carrying on working as we've been working now. Small teams, working with people whose company we enjoy and whose ideas excite us and we get on well with. That's the critical thing: if we can, keeping things small. That completely takes away the burden.

Small teams, working on things we're personally invested in, on weird, unusual games that you wouldn't otherwise perhaps get made. That's what we want to carry on doing, as long as people will let us.

"Small teams, working on things we're personally invested in, on weird, unusual games that you wouldn't otherwise perhaps get made. That's what we want to carry on doing, as long as people will let us."

Jonathan Burroughs, Variable State