Stories That Stick With You: Paper Unicorn’s Nathaniel West on Transmission, a Failed Kickstarter, and Good Stories Well Told
[mks_dropcap style=”square” size=”52″ bg_color=”#dd9933″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]P[/mks_dropcap]opular crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and GoFundMe have surged in popularity in recent years, allowing for all sorts of movies, games, and products to find their way into markets across the globe. But what happens to the projects that don’t meet their funding goals? Nathaniel West, founder of game developer Paper Unicorn, shared with me recently some insight into this very subject.
Back in 2016, I backed a game on Kickstarter called Transmission, a hand painted, sci-fi exploration game that West wanted to bring to life. As the Kickstarter neared completion, it was clear the game wouldn’t reach it’s goal. As the deadline for funding came and went, the project raised a little over $32,000 of an $84,000 goal.
I did my do-diligence and left a comment on the Kickstarter page about how I was sad to see the game fail to reach its funding goal, but was eager to continue supporting the game down whatever future paths it might take. But as of the end of 2016, Paper Unicorn had gone all but silent on social media and on their website. I assumed the worst, that the game had fallen into the endless abyss of development hell.
But earlier this year, Transmission came back onto my radar amidst the successful funding of another indie game I backed on Kickstarter called Narita Boy. On a whim, I decided to go back through the list of games I had previously backed and was reminded of Transmission. I went and found that there was a info email address listed on their website, so I decided to reach out to the developers just to see what there was to see.
I was more than a little thrilled to receive a response just a handful of days later from West indicating that not only was Transmission not dead, but it was in a much better place than it had been before the Kickstarter. A week later I sat down with him to talk more in depth about the process of developing Transmission, and how Paper Unicorn moved on from their failed Kickstarter.
THE ROAD TO TRANSMISSION
“There wasn’t ever a specific point where I said, oh, I’m going to be a game developer,” says West. “I don’t really even think of myself as a game developer at all, even though I guess technically I am. I just kind of started off doing this as a hobby and it slowly evolved and morphed into a bigger and grander thing than I ever expected. When a project develops like that it doesn’t ever feel like there’s a sudden change. It just feels like you’re still doing a project for fun.”
There was a definite humility toward the craft of game design that surrounded everything West told me about his work on Transmission. Not only will this be the inaugural title for Paper Unicorn, but it will be the first game he’s ever developed. West came into game development from a background in amusement park and feature film conceptual art. It was this blend of art and movies that ultimately set him on the path to make Transmission.
“I went to Art Center College of Design, which is here in Pasadena, and I majored in illustration. There were a handful of us who wanted to do entertainment design so we started focusing on doing the kind of stuff that you’d see in Star Wars arts books and all that. Today, Art Center actually has a program to do that, but when I was there we kind of had to piecemeal our classes and cater our assignments and beg teachers to do things certain ways so we could get the portfolio we wanted.
“When I graduated, I ended up working in theme parks and doing themed entertainment, but I still wanted to work in feature films. It took four or five years of knocking on doors to get into feature films because apparently the artists had a union too. It was one of those things where you have to be in the union to get work on films but you have to get work on films to get into the union. But it was a good experience once it happened. I worked with a lot of great designers and directors over the years.
“I worked for two years on a development project with Steven Spielberg. I worked on Inception and Interstellar with Christopher Nolan. I worked on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Iron Man 2, there was a Spider-Man that I worked on. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 was the most recent thing. But, basically I ended up feeling like I wanted to do something for myself myself. I think that, for most people, working on assignments sometimes isn’t the most fulfilling thing. You don’t wake up every day saying, hey, I really want to work on this exact subject matter today. And even if you do enjoy it you still might not feel like it some of the time.”
But the story that would eventually become Transmission needed to percolate in West’s mind for another year before it was ready to be put down on paper.
“The basic story had actually been gelling for a quite a while – it had been in my mind for a year or so before I started any work on it. I really wanted to do a project of my own that was just my own, and so I had a couple weeks off between projects and I decided to start writing what was actually a screenplay at the time. I had the whole outline for a movie, but I’m not really a writer per say – writing dialogue and all that – so I didn’t feel like writing a screenplay was in my wheelhouse. I thought that being able to do it as a video game would allow me to continue with the loose story idea but also be able to produce all the actual artwork for it and be able to go through the design process as something of a one man art department.
“Once I had a whole plan for the story within the standard three act structure, I began designing character sheets, mostly just to hammer out what this astronaut protagonist would look like. Soon I pulled in a couple people in to do some 3D work because I wanted to model up the project and kind of just experiment here and there. Then it kind of just evolved and took on a life of its own.
“It was very much a part-time kind of hobby thing at first, but then I brought in Chris Page, who’s the programmer now, and he got things up and running. We worked pretty minimally here and there, just to kind of kind of dabble in seeing how a prototype would work. But then he eventually came on board more full-time and we brought in even more animators and 3D people to keep generating assets.”
FROM MIND TO DESKTOP
The transition from screenplay to game didn’t entirely mean a break from the world of film. Inspired by science-fiction films of all eras, West began hammering out the story details of Transmission, including bits and pieces here and there from his favorites.
He and I rambled for a long time about the filmic inspirations of Transmission, because there were a lot to talk about, even more than were mentioned on Transmission‘s Kickstarter page. From Soviet-era sci-fi to more modern introspective thought pieces, Transmission borrows thematic elements from a plethora of new and old classics.
“I’ve always had a love for classic science fiction. 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner are these kind of pivotal films for me. The name “Paper Unicorns” is totally an homage to Blade Runner. The story is so inspiring. It’s great science fiction. That film is just such a great example of depth in terms of the grittiness and the realism that you feel when you look at those sets on screen. It just looks so convincingly real.
“I like science-fiction that makes you think about things. Science-fiction just to be slick and cool isn’t really ideal to me. Movies like Blade Runner or Alien were very pivotal for me in terms of design. Everything in those movies felt real and felt functional. It didn’t feel like anything existed in those worlds just to look pretty or cool. Things would be ugly, but they were really cool looking. There’s a novelty in its ugliness and its lack of design. On the Nostromo there are a lot of normal utilitarian items and hardware things, stuff that wasn’t there to look nice, but looked like it was there to do a job.”
West aims to bring this level of realism to everything within the world of Transmission. But function and utility aren’t the only things he’s taking away from his list of sci-fi favorites.
“2001 is inspiring story-wise, but it’s also very abstract, which I like. For most people that doesn’t fly, but I like open ended stories. I think Solaris, Blade Runner, 2001 – not only do they look cool, but they also have this open ended kind of story. They make you think about things beyond the movie. Maybe you’ll question the movie a little bit more. Arrival is actually a more recent movie that I want to add to the list of inspirations for Transmission. Not everything gets wrapped up perfectly. I like that.
“I like stories where there isn’t necessarily a happy ending, but one that might make you sit back and go, wait, what just happened? Or, I need to think on this. It might just leave you with this weird feeling or impact where you think about it and go talk about it with other people. You start to talk about this movie and someone goes, oh did you notice that thing? There was that clue there. And you get to do that kind of thing with stories like that that have so much depth. They leave things unresolved sometimes. I think that’s really cool.”
Additionally, West said Transmission will take cues from Ex Machina, Her, and Gattaca. A variety of games lent inspirations to Transmission as well. Classic point-and-clicks and puzzle games were the heavy hitters on this list.
“I grew up on point-and-click adventures for the PC. The Dig was really awesome. The Secret of Monkey Island, Ico, Journey, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past were pivotal games for me. I really enjoy games where you get to explore. I think it kind of goes back to that absence of hand holding in those games. I like allowing the player to choose their path. I love the idea of just getting lost and maybe discovering something really cool along the way. I think that’s really exciting. That’s part of the adventure.
“By nature there’s a little danger. There’s sense of the unknown. Things could go wrong, and that’s what adventure really is. You’re in a situation where things could turn out well, or they might not turn out so hot. You don’t know what to expect every time. And that’s what’s really cool about games that are about exploration, where you’re not being forced to go down a certain linear path. You feel like you’re in more control of the story, as opposed to it feeling like the developer is in control. It feels more real in that sense.
“Transmission won’t get wrapped up like an episode of Scooby-Doo. It’s not that at all. We’re doing some things that are very similar to film with regards to non-linear story structure. We’re not holding hands with the player and telling you every aspect of a character’s history. It’s about feeling and letting the player look for subtle clues throughout the environment to piece together what happened and hopefully talk to other players outside the game and have conversations about what certain things mean and what the story is.
“And we know there’s a fine line of leaving the story open ended enough that people can have that discussion, but not have it be so open ended and so abstract that people just don’t understand anything. There’s a balance there that’s constantly evolving as we get further along in development. You can just suddenly move from one spot to the next and figure out “where am I now” and “when is this” and “what is going on.” So, in a way you can kind of move around between moments in time, in that kind of non-linear way you might see in a movie.”
PITFALLS OF A SUMMER KICKSTARTER
On June 7, 2016, Paper Unicorn launched the Kickstarter for Transmission. The long summer months are notoriously difficult for any kind of fund-raising efforts. Though they had reached 25% of their funding goal less than ten days later, things began to slow down more than was expected. But that didn’t mean that progress wasn’t happening in the background.
“While the Kickstarter was live, we had a lot of publishers, different potential investors, and game developers contact us behind the scenes,” says West. “Real professional game developers got in touch with me to offer advice and offer support. One of the great bits of wisdom I got at the time was that adults usually don’t have the time to play 100+ hour games. They just don’t have the time. So what we’re trying to do is create a 4-6 hour experience – something that can be played in 2-3 evenings. I also got some great motivation from the team at Playdead, which was really cool.
“But all these publishers and investors wanted a demo, and all we had was a very loose gathering of imagery and backgrounds assembled for the trailer. At that time we didn’t have a full fledged vertical slice of the game. So it really became kind of a, “well, we made a trailer, and we made an idea for an audience, but we have to go back to the drawing board.” We knew we were going to have to analyze the game to determine how we were going to make it if we couldn’t raise the money we were hoping for.
“We decided to cut back on the scope of the project. We found the pieces in the game that didn’t matter – like more isn’t always more – and we decided there was too much action involved. Action increased the scope tremendously, and Transmission isn’t about action. The action is there to keep you engaged, but this game is one hundred percent about tone, feeling, and telling a story.
“We definitely moved Transmission from more of an action game to more or an exploratory puzzle game. Now it’ll never go full 90s point-and-click like I grew up with and have these crazy abstract puzzles that you won’t be able to figure it out. The puzzles are about enjoyment and keeping the player engaged during the exploration process. It’s not about getting the player to a point where they can’t figure out what to do next.”
On June 27th, with 10 days to go on their campaign, Nathaniel posted an update to the Kickstarter page on hinting at these initial changes in scope. It didn’t seem to phase the backers though, as positive feedback kept pouring in – even if the money never did.
“As the Kickstarter went on, we got a lot of positive feedback from people saying things like, this is great, or we’re excited, but in the end we didn’t raise the amount of money we were hoping to. In hindsight, we had been warned that June is a very difficult month for fundraising. We noted there were some other Kickstarters at the same time that were really running into walls in terms of funding. It wasn’t just us. Everyone kind of stalled out with E3 rolling around in the middle of June. So the Kickstarter didn’t work out.”
FINDING FRESH FOOTING
July 7, 2016 was the last day of Transmission‘s Kickstarter. The initial goal of a December 2017 release needed to be pushed back, and the overall development strategy was heavily reevaluated in light of Paper Unicorn’s interactions with interested publishing entities and investors.
“After the Kickstarter, we went back to drawing board to get our vertical slice ready for potential publishers. Originally, we were doing everything as 2D sprites. We were outputting all of our character animations as 2D. We had 2D sprite backgrounds and whatnot, and we were doing everything in this kind of purist 2D method. But we had received some feedback from people saying the animation transitions felt too rough.
“By that point, the sprites had been giving us enough of a headache that we decided to switch all our characters to 3D, which meant we were confronted with the choice of retrofitting the system we had already written or building a new system from scratch. At the end of the day, sometimes it’s easier to just completely start fresh than try to hack together something that’s already written, so we spent the next three or four months rewriting code to handle all the 3D elements. It just made sense to do it right and clean it up perfectly now that we knew what we were doing. We wrote the code clean and pure so that it wouldn’t be messy and have things that were commented out or deleted accidentally.
“And now here we are. We have the core team of me and Chris, and now we have David Housden doing music, Chris Randall doing sound design, and Tim Borrelli doing animations. We have various other people doing things like UI and 3D assets, things like that. There’s about 7 or 8 people that dip in here and there depending on the week.
“Going through this process and creating a vertical slice of the video game… it’s basically like making the full video game. Once you create that, you just have to add more of the same thing you already added. So it did get easier.
“We’re really pushing right now for this vertical slice to sell to publishers to see if we can raise the funding we need to get this completed in the next 18-24 months so we can get it out there and start working on the next one – if we have the energy.”
This last remark drew a chuckle from both me and Nathaniel.
THE ARTIST TURNED DEVELOPER
I found it interesting that Nathaniel hadn’t really had any previous experience in video game development before hurtling headlong into the development of Transmission. I’ve never had the opportunity to design a game myself, so I thought Nathaniel might have some unique insight into game development given the relative freshness of his experience in that world, especially in terms of obstacles that the layperson might not know about.
“Game development is nothing but obstacles. It’s nothing but things that seem like the simplest task that end up being the hardest challenges. There are things that you think, oh this should take a day, and it takes a week. It’s a constant struggle of finding things that seem inconsequential that are so hard to figure out.
“I didn’t realize how much really goes into game development, and I think the general public doesn’t really understand it either. I thought this was going to be like, oh yeah, I’ll put a prototype together and do a Kickstarter in three months – whatever. But it’s so hard and so expensive. It requires so many people of really high skill levels.
“Just from the planning of game mechanics and story, and are so many little things that you may think are the subtlest most minuscule aspects of the game, but they have to be completely fleshed out and thought through. It’s very challenging. The obstacles never seem to stop. It’s one after another.
“We’ve gone through a lot, but thankfully we’ve reached a point where things have gotten a lot easier for us. We’ve got all of our big huge systems put into place, so a lot of bugs and obstacles have been worked out. But the default is to always expect pure hell on a day to day basis. You have to be prepared for things to not go smoothly.
“I’m really selling game development,” he said with a chuckle, “But it’s like any project – you’re kind of figuring it out as you go. You have to put in the work and deal with a lot of failure, figuring out what not to do, mistakes, and challenges. But you still enjoy doing it every day. Even though it’s really challenging, you feel really fulfilled in overcoming those obstacles and reaching success – just to be able to say, I overcame all that. Here we are. We did it. So, even though I painted a picture of game development being pure hell, there’s a lot of reward and it feels really gratifying when you get through all those failures and you see something work. But I can say right now, going from someone who didn’t know video games to the guy I am today… if I started a new project right now, it wouldn’t be easy, but I’d be way ahead of the learning curve right off the bat.”
Our conversation ended with West’s final positive impression of the development process.
“I recommend everyone try game development at some point in their lives. It’s really fun once you get past all the challenging parts. But that’s like anything. You’ll never be an expert at something on day one. You’re going to have to fail a lot to be an expert. And I still wouldn’t consider myself an expert by any means, but I know that I now have a handle on what it takes to make a game.”