What’s the next logical step after a wild success like The Walking Dead or Mark of the Ninja? Start again from scratch
At last year’s Game Developers Conference, Jake Rodkin, Sean Vanaman, and Nels Anderson ended up at the same party. Rodkin and Vanaman were coming down from an incredible year: Telltale’s The Walking Dead, a project they led, had surpassed expectations with 8.5M episodes sold and numerous Game of the Year honors.
Anderson, a game designer with Canadian studio Klei Entertainment, was in a similar position after shipping the acclaimed stealth side-scroller Mark of the Ninja the previous autumn.
“I’ve known Sean and Jake for years,” says Anderson. “We would get together in San Francisco, and offhandedly at a party Jake was like, ‘[Sean and I] are thinking about maybe leaving Telltale. You want to come make a weird first-person game?’”
Anderson wasn’t job-hunting, but the proposition got his attention. “[Starting a studio] is one side of the process of making games that I’d never experienced—what does it look like, and what are the advantages and the challenges and interesting problems to solve, when it comes to creating something truly from nothing,” he says.
“But also, I don’t think I would have left Klei just to work with any random people. [Sean and Jake are] talented people I’ve known for a long time, who have some very interesting, super cool ideas, and whose interests overlap with but also complement the stuff that I am interested in and am good at. It was like, even if the rocket ship explodes on the launch pad, this is one of those things that I’d much rather regret having done than having not done.”
After The Walking Dead’s runaway success, the decision to strike out on their own “wasn’t a light bulb moment or anything,” says Vanaman, who had been writing and designing episodic games for Telltale since 2008—and when they brought it up at GDC, they weren’t even sure they wanted to.
“We were excited about a lot of the stuff that was in the creative development of Season Two, but I was probably looking at five years of my life on The Walking Dead. If I think that I really only have twenty years to work on stuff with other people, then that was going to be too much of a percentage.”
“It was just an easy opportunity,” adds Rodkin, who started on Telltale’s web team in 2006 and eventually moved into game design. “Going through all the stages of game development at Telltale up to leading a project that is then very successful—why risk screwing that up when you can instead see it as an opportunity to go and do something totally different?”
If he’d stayed at Telltale, “It felt like I would effectively be doing the same thing over and over. Now I know nothing and I can learn everything from scratch again.”
A few weeks earlier, while in the U.K. for the BAFTAs (where The Walking Dead had seven nominations and two wins), Rodkin and Vanaman had met up in a South London pub with Olly Moss, a freelance graphic designer in the film/entertainment industry.
A mutual appreciation for each other’s work had sparked a friendship over the internet, but this was their first time meeting in person. “It’s a cliché to say it, but it’s amazing how well we all instantly clicked creatively. We spent the weekend batting about game ideas in a sort of pie-in-the-sky way. The types of games they wanted to make were the types of games I wanted to play,” Moss recalls of the meeting.
“I’m a huge gamer. I’ve always wanted to contribute to a game, but every time the opportunity arose it was always on some tertiary product—a poster or a print for the online store. I wanted to help make an actual game! And then my chance came, and it was with the best people I could imagine. It was a no-brainer.”
With Anderson and Moss on board, Rodkin and Vanaman quietly left Telltale over the summer. “We’re a group of people who are leaving the companies where we worked to make our own game, and right now you can say that about a humongous percentage of the games industry. It’s interesting to me that everyone is going about it in a very different way,” says Rodkin.
“Some people are doing Kickstarters, some people are doing early alpha funding, some people are going through places like Indie Fund, some people are starting off with a game jam and burning all of their money away.”
In forming Campo Santo, the four took a fairly traditional route: they prepared to court publishers, knowing they’d probably have to give up some ownership and control in exchange for cash. “We [gave] ourselves about three months to get a full pitch put together, to get money put together. If that didn’t happen we were going to have to start looking for work,” Rodkin says.
Around this time his friends Cabel Sasser and Steven Frank, co-owners of the Mac software developer Panic, visited San Francisco. “I was flipping through some really rough sketches [from Olly] on my iPhone, because I’ve known them for almost fifteen years and I was excited to show them the cool stuff we were starting to work on. They kept wanting me to flip back to one particular game pitch. And then they went back to Portland and I got an instant message saying, ‘Hey, what if we paid for that game to exist?’”
Even though Rodkin hadn’t meant to ask them for money, he jumped on the offer. “So much stuff came together in a month. We had a bunch of sketches from Olly, we had a rough concept for a game, Panic was immediately interested, and we were like, ‘Oh, great, that’s a load off everyone’s life. We can actually do this.’”