Every one of us is built to chase our dreams, but only a precious few possess the skill and guile required to make them a reality. Late last year, a brand new indie studio out of Seattle was formed with a singular goal, to do just that.
Winterborn Games was founded by veteran developers with over a decade of experience in the industry, including a spell at renowned Call of Duty developer, Infinity Ward. Winterborn’s debut game is still a mystery, but we do know it is a tactical RPG based on a tabletop game created by one of its founders when he was only 15 years old.
OnlySP was lucky enough to snag an interview with studio head, and aforementioned table-top RPG-mastermind, Kent Gambill, and community manager Trevor Osz. Over the course of the interview, Kent and Trevor walk us through the struggles of setting up a studio from scratch, and maintaining that knife-edge balance between the table-top game’s dark humor, moments of levity and the seriousness of the setting.
Please note that this interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
OnlySP: Congratulations on announcing the new studio! Based on your experience so far, what has been the most difficult thing about setting up an independent studio?
Kent Gambill: For me, it was the legal side of things. None of us had experience owning a business, so setting up the LLC and all that was new for us. I had to learn a lot about that, trademarks, filing taxes for the business, etc. I think these are things a lot of devs don’t worry about until later down the line, but I was concerned I was going to do something wrong legally and it would [come] back to cause problems.
Trevor Osz: Kent and I were literally sitting in his parents’ basement as Kent read the legal papers out loud and we attempted to translate everything from legal speak to layman’s terms. It took way longer than I’d like to admit and I would consider us both smart guys.
OnlySP: What’s been the most surprisingly easy thing?
Gambill: Since we develop remotely, I expected us to have a lot of issues with communication or being able to work on things in a timely manner. Luckily, with all the collaboration tools and remote capabilities of most technologies, it hasn’t been nearly as big a problem as anticipated.
Osz: I was hoping that we would work well as a team but it’s hard to know before you do it. Most of us knew each other and were friends but had never actually worked together before forming the studio and the two are very different. But we’ve had no issues whatsoever. There are no egos and we all just want to make the best game possible. I feel like we all are receptive to ideas and work the best bouncing ideas off each other.
OnlySP: What comes first when you are building a new studio? Does the game idea drive the team’s constitution, or does the team assembled dictate the nature of the game?
Gambill: Depends on the situation, but for us, the game idea was there before the team was created. Several of our team members did play the original tabletop game, so we looked for the team that would have the skillset to match. The only piece we were missing was an artist and I had worked with Moudy (Hamo) at Infinity Ward, and we meshed well so it was the perfect fit.
Osz: I agree with Kent. I also want to say that while the game gave us the initial drive, everyone on the team has added a different perspective when we nailed down what we wanted the game to be. It’s truly been a collaboration from the start and every person has made the game better in one way or another.
OnlySP: The headline “Ex-Infinity Ward Vets Form New Studio” is an eyecatcher, but how do your experiences at Infinity Ward inform your design ideology, if at all, and is that background relevant to your first project, a table-top RPG?
Gambill: From a design standpoint, it doesn’t impact it too much as the game types are drastically different. From a programming standpoint, everything I learned at Infinity Ward has helped. Every piece of programming you learn expands your technical skillset, and I spent a lot of time at Infinity Ward attacking big problems from different angles. This made me able to adapt to the situation and more capable of finding solutions.
OnlySP: What preconceptions do you think gamers have based on your background, and what would you like to set straight about the nature of this first project?
Gambill: I think the major preconception is that my experience lies solely in the AAA space, or that I only have knowledge of first-person shooters. I’m actually leaning more on my background as a fan of tabletop games and tactical RPGs for the design process. My background as a programmer is really providing the ability to see my design ideas come to life, rather than shaping the ideas in the first place.
OnlySP: What kinds of games and other media have influenced the mechanics and narrative of this first game?
Gambill: Tactical roleplaying games play a huge role in our core gameplay. I’ve been playing about every type of tactical RPG my entire life, so I have a huge log of all those games in my head about what I like and don’t like about certain games that influence how I want to make my own. I’ve always been a fan of high fantasy from many books, movies, and even anime. All of these have helped inform my ideas about worlds with humans, elves, dragons, and monsters which informed the tabletop game. Now we’ll have the opportunity to show our unique twist on those things.
OnlySP: In what ways does a table-top game change when it is being adapted from a board game played by a few friends around a table to a video game played and shared by tens or hundreds of thousands of players? What elements do you want to keep, and what needs to change?
Gambill: It’s about adapting the mechanics to something that makes sense and being flexible. For example, the tabletop uses dice heavily for everything that is front-facing where most of this will happen behind the scenes in a video game.
We can also make the game a bit more complex as we are able to have a lot of processes happen behind the scenes where a tabletop player may get bored if the game is too complex. We also want to balance the serious, often dark tone of the adventure with the ridiculous humor that would happen from time to time when a group of friends is playing together. So, it’s about finding a good balance between serious moments and moments of levity.
As far as changes, we’ve had to change around a few things that just don’t work in a video game or for a wider audience. Some of the very free-form puzzles had to be changed or removed since it isn’t technically possible to have players do literally anything, (which) you can allow in a tabletop setting. And referring to the humor thing, we had to remove a few inside-joke characters and situations that just wouldn’t make sense.
Osz: Figuring out the balance between the serious tone and comedy was something we discussed a lot. In Kent’s table-top game, there are a lot of ridiculous moments that just happen between a group of friends playing at the table. We wanted to have some of that, but we don’t want to take away from the story that we want to tell. I think, as a team, we have figured out the balance well and have a story that’s engaging and fun.
OnlySP: How has the table-top game changed and evolved since you first began designing it over a decade ago?
Gambill: The original version got simplified the longer we played it. We started with stricter rules like other table-top RPG’s at the time. We changed the focus to the fun parts of the game over the years, such as the roleplaying and the story. We also focused more on the idea of chance by using dice rolls and threw out the parts of the game that just (weren’t) all that fun to play.
OnlySP: This generation has seen an explosion of creativity and success across the indie landscape. What are your thoughts on what needs to change and what needs to stay the same as we head into the next generation?
Gambill: I generally think we are headed in the right direction for indie games right now. Most platforms have made it easier for developers to self-publish on their platforms. One of the biggest issues for this generation has been discoverability, and I hope that the next generation of platforms will do a better job of letting you sort through the types of games that you’re interested in playing.
Osz: Yeah, I would agree with Kent on this one. When getting your game out there, discoverability can be the biggest challenge. There are so many games released every week and so many are great, but just get lost because the storefronts weren’t designed to have that many releases constantly. I know there are plenty of games I would have never heard about had someone not played (them) and recommended (them).
OnlySP: Development on Winterborn’s first title is still early, but when can we expect to hear something substantial from you?
Osz: This part is hard to pin down. Obviously, we are hard at work on the game and we see a lot of things that we think are cool on a weekly basis. We don’t want to show stuff too early because we want to make a good first impression, but we’re excited to show more. The current plan is to have more information later this year. With that, we appreciate the guys at OnlySP for getting a hold of us and will let you know when we have more to show.
Gambill: Thank you guys for taking the time to talk to us about Winterborn!