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Gardens CEO on the Studio's Upcoming Game & Tech They Use

CEO and Creative Director at Gardens Chris Bell has told us about the studio's upcoming sandbox RPG, discussed the tech they use to develop it, and shared some thoughts on the recent funding round, which brought the studio $31.3 million.

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80.lv: Could you introduce yourself and your team to our readers and tell us a little bit about the studio?

Chris Bell, CEO and Creative Director at Gardens: Gardens is founded by my brother Stephen (What Remains of Edith Finch, Blaseball), Lexie Dostal (Dustforce), and me (Journey, What Remains of Edith Finch, Sky: Children of the Light). Stephen and I have always collaborated on projects together, and Lexie and I have been friends for many years, having bonded over similar design philosophies and taste in online multiplayer games – games that put the player first and which feature embodied, tactile, playful controls and deep, interesting multiplayer systems with dramatic, meaningful consequences.

For years, the three of us spoke about the kind of games we wanted to make, and the sort of studio we envisioned working at together every day – one that could make ambitious online games in a sustainable and healthy way, somewhere we could imagine working 5, 10, even 30 years from now. Gardens is the culmination of that thinking.

Ma-ko, our incredible Concept Artist, was the first person we reached out to. Seeing his personal work, we knew it would be the perfect match for the kind of shared online adventure we’re developing. With Ma-ko’s art to help us tell our story, we were able to secure our Seed round. From there, we immediately began scouting for great developers to join our team, and have been fortunate to recruit a number of awesome developers from games like Ultima Online, Ashen, Spider-Man, Outer Wilds, and more.

From there, we developed the prototype that led to us securing our most recent round, as well as so many amazing partners – partners with deep ties to Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony, Blizzard, Riot, Tencent, and more. With this added support, and with this latest round of funding, we’re now empowered to hire more roles and to continue to grow the studio to see our vision come to life.

The Idea of a Game Company

80.lv: When you think of a game company, what comes first? Is it an idea for the game or is it technology and technological solution? How did it start in your case?

Chris Bell: For us, it is always about the game – what is it that we are actually building? We actually spent about 1.5-2 years just ideating and prototyping different game ideas before we felt ready to seek funding for the studio. The game we’re making today is very much a product of that collective prototyping.

That said, the game we’re developing does require some novel technology in order for the design to work, and so we’ve also been quick to prioritize developing that technology early on in development in order to prove out the experience.

Most importantly though, it’s about finding the fun. And it’s a big reason why we’ve been able to secure such a substantial raise and so many great and influential partners. By making a fun prototype, one that elicits real joy and surprise, we didn’t have to explain ourselves or go well out of our way to argue for what we’re creating. It was already inherent and obvious in the experience.

“Show, don’t tell” as they say. Or when it comes to games, “Play, don’t tell”.

GDC 2023

80.lv: Can you tell us a bit about the reactions you’ve had showcasing the prototype at GDC? What were the most interesting reactions you've had?

Chris Bell: GDC was a whirlwind – getting to witness players jump into the game and go on an adventure together was just incredible.  Watching players’ reactions was extremely validating. Getting to witness moments of genuine surprise and joy gives us a ton of motivation to continue developing our vision.

Sometimes it’s difficult to know if everything you’re working on will actually connect with players – if the thing you’re making really is fun. Fortunately, the response to the prototype was overwhelmingly positive, we heard people say it was the best demo they could remember playing, and others compared it favorably to the work of some of our biggest inspirations, names like Fumito Ueda, for example. We even had an acquisition offer in the first few days of fundraising.

Ultimately, everyone who played the prototype seemed to leave wanting to play more. So we’re confident we have something special on our hands.

The Game

80.lv: Could you tell us a little bit about the game itself and share some details regarding its gameplay and story?

Chris Bell: We’re calling it an Online PvPvE Fantasy Action-Adventure Sandbox RPG. While we aren’t revealing many of its secrets just yet, there’s plenty that we are saying, along with new art that we’re showing publicly that hints at the kind of game that it will be.

It’s very much a game inspired by our favorite memories of playing online adventure games and MMOs over the years, particularly memories shared with strangers.

We all have our stories. For example, I remember playing Final Fantasy XI Online and being in a desolate area of the world when it started to rain. Taking shelter, I came across another player already sitting there. After some time together I asked them why they were there, and they replied, "I come to watch the rain". The same reason I was there"

Lexie recalls World of Warcraft. Being out in the wild and attracting too many monsters — and then just as he’s about to die, he’s surrounded by glowing light  – a healer has crossed his path and saved his life, and then they go on to become friends and adventure together for hours.

We’re developing a game that aspires to foster these moments again and again by design. One where serendipity and interesting relationships form regularly, both cooperative and competitive ones.

The game builds upon multiplayer ideas and lessons from previous titles we’ve worked on, games like Journey, Sky, and even my student game Way while bringing players into a higher stakes environment where cooperation is key to success, yet betrayal is still possible. We’re building a foundation of cooperative mechanics that should dialogue with PvP and player conflict in interesting and subversive ways.

Overall, it’s a world where whatever kind of player you are, there’s a role for you to serve and a way for you to contribute and affect this larger world that the community is sharing in and experiencing together. We want this world to be a place to return to, one that grows and evolves for years to come. A place to socialize as much as a place to adventure together.

The Tech

80.lv: What kind of tech are you using to build it and what are the main key open positions that you currently have to work with this tech?

Chris Bell: The game is being developed in Unity, though we’re doing a lot to extend what’s possible with the engine, and are also working with other technologies to achieve our vision.

Ma-ko’s visual style is very striking. We wanted to translate his concept art into 3D spaces that we could run around and explore very early. That said, we knew that rendering linework, especially internal linework, was going to be a challenge. While many games have come up with line rendering techniques that work for their projects, none of them fit the bill for the style we wanted to create, especially in terms of stability and performance. Significant time was put towards developing a new rendering technique to faithfully recreate the style in 3D without restricting the art team.

Next, we’ve partnered with Coherence for our networking needs. Coherence helps empower small teams to make largescale online worlds. They’ve been great partners, quick to support us and implement any feature requests we may have.

As for which positions we’re currently hiring for, they include a Principal Unity Engineer, a Principal Netcode Engineer, and a Lead Tech Artist. We’ll be adding more open roles to the careers page in the coming weeks and months. We highly encourage interested developers to apply!

Thoughts on the Recent Funding Round

80.lv: Is 30 million sufficient enough in this day and age to fight for your own segment with the big guys? Is it sufficient for Gardens?

Chris Bell: This raise definitely helps – it will allow us to scale up the team to meet the ambition of the project, and it provides a sense of security for the studio during a time when you’re seeing a lot of studio closures and layoffs, which is definitely comforting. But this is a big, ambitious project, something that is meant to continue expanding and evolving and offering new adventures far into the future, so we will definitely be bringing in more capital to see the project through launch and beyond.

Chris Bell, CEO & Creative Director at Gardens

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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