“It’s very rare that you get as truly indie as Campo was able to get to, and we’re going to walk away from that and into the unknown.”
Firewatch developer Campo Santo recently announced its entire team would be leaving life as an independent studio behind to join Valve. And while that move may seem surprising, it’s born from Campo having found itself in its own unexpected situation.
“We made the dream game. We made the game that wasn’t supposed to make all the money. We made a sad guy in the woods, psychological-slash-dramatic personal quest,” Campo Santo co-founder Sean Vanaman told IGN in a phone interview.
“Now we’re just trying to build a business and entertain folks who have been there since the beginning, like our fans and new fans.”
Trying to build that business up and continue to entertain players of course led to the studio developing its second game, In the Valley of Gods. But Vanaman and fellow co-founder Jake Rodkin had to think about more than just what the next project would be.
“This started from Jake and I both sitting down with ourselves and being like, ‘What do we want as human beings,’ and then ‘What do we want Campo Santo to achieve,’ and then ‘What do we want as game developers to achieve,” Vanaman explained.
That conversation led into the conversation of ‘That’s all really good. You guys should really consider doing that here under Valve.’
That conversation started internally, but grew into Vanaman and Rodkin having informal discussions with outside parties, including some Valve employees.
“[The conversation involved us explaining] ’This is what we’re thinking about our next game. We’ve got some problems we want to solve. This is the way we want to run the company,” Vanaman said. “That conversation led into the conversation of ‘That’s all really good. You guys should really consider doing that here under Valve.’”
Vanaman explained this idea came from their very first discussion.
“Then the long slow journey of thinking about what that meant and doing mutual due diligence,” he said. “Is this really a good fit for us? Is this a good fit for me? Is this a good fit for Jake? Is this a good fit for all the individuals who work at Campo Santo?
“One thing led to another and now we all work here.”
Of all the due diligence done, Vanaman never had a concern that becoming part of a larger corporation would swallow up the independence he, Rodkin, and the rest of their team established as Campo Santo.
“It’s very rare that you get as truly indie as Campo was able to get to, and we’re going to walk away from that and into the unknown. The trepidation was the unknown,” Vanaman said, elaborating more that any concerns were of practical life changes, not creative ones.
The thing that was going kill our game wasn’t an overlord. It’s never going to be that. That’s just not what exists here.
That included not having to worry about another creative force within Valve coming in to mess with their vision.
“The thing that was going kill our game wasn’t an overlord. It’s never going to be that. That’s just not what exists here,” Vanaman said.
Instead, being part of Valve so far has solely been an “additive” process, allowing the Campo team to operate while pulling from the Valve “mindshare” when needed.
Being left to their own devices, that means not much has changed practically about In the Valley of Gods’ development.
“It’s all [still] in Unity, and we use all the same tools, and we do everything the same,” Vanaman said.
“The game is still limited by the skillset of the idiots who worked at Campo Santo,” he joked.
This move also hasn’t changed other existing Campo Santo plans — the team’s Firewatch movie is still in development unabated by the deal with Valve. If anything, it’s freed up what the team can focus on.
And on the question of whether that applies to approaching Valve properties as a team making first-person adventures joining a company known for its many first-person games, there’s nothing to definitively announce — the Campo team is focused on In the Valley of Gods. But, at the very least, Vanaman and Rodkin would potentially be interested in working on existing Valve franchises.
“I think for both of us, only speaking for Jake and I…yes,” Vanaman said. “Jake and I met working on a…Wallace and Gromit game, and then we worked on a Sam & Max game, then we worked on a poker game with a bunch of IPs in it, including Valve IP,” Vanaman said. “We didn’t start Campo so we didn’t have to work on [existing] IP.
“I just know that I probably can’t imagine the next thing I’m working on, and that’s f*cking awesome.”
Jonathon Dornbush is an Associate Editor for IGN. Find him on Twitter @jmdornbush.