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Virginia Territory: Variable State's indie debut

We last spoke to Variable State developer Jonathan Burroughs two years ago, before the indie studio had even announced its first title Virginia. Much has changed since then, the game was revealed to the world and the studio found outside funding to continue its work. We caught up with Burroughs to find what the team has been learning along the way.

"Almost two and a half years on, looking back on the path we've taken to reach this point, I've become increasingly aware that game development isn't the perfect meritocracy I see some luminaries expound. I think if you're an entrepreneur and you're successful, it's comforting to reflect on the inevitable effort and sacrifice you'll have put into your business to keep it ticking along, and to relate the exhaustion you feel with your successes and say one is cause and one is effect. I can see the temptation in that," he tells GamesIndustry.biz

"But what's apparent to me is that game development is a very exclusive club. It has a high cost of entry in terms of materials and time - computers and software licenses and rent and food are expensive. And games take years to finish. Terry [Kenny, Variable State's co-director] and me wouldn't be in this situation without having received redundancy from our previous jobs, without our partners being prepared to be the breadwinners in our households while we indulge in the risk of making a very uncommercial video game. We're lucky enough to have equipment and software and relatively secure rent situations. And we've been very fortunate to receive some proper financial backing for the game, but backing probably only achieved because we could both quote 10 years studio experience."

He recognises that he and his colleagues benefit from certain privileges, privileges not open to others, and that we need to find ways for people from different backgrounds who may not be able to take time off from a salaried job to create an indie game to enter the space.

"I'd love to see more government arts grants for games targeted at developers outside of big cities. I'd like to see big publishers take a leaf out of the book of film distributors and nurture small indie projects funded by their blockbuster successes. And the motivation doesn't have to be purely altruistic, although I wish it were. Broadening the talent base making games will inevitably create new commercial opportunities as new markets are opened, as new genres and new game ideas emerge, which would be inconceivable otherwise."

He particularly mentions the recent closures of Lionhead and Evolution, and the trend in the UK towards development by smaller start-ups and collectives of freelancers.

"I think it's a double-edged sword. On one hand, it produces an explosion of opportunity. In games, where you previously had one large studio with a large team working on a single game, now you have five smaller studios working on five games. And that fuels innovation and makes the medium more diverse.

"But at the same time, lives are affected by these changes. People fall through the cracks. And employees with ties to an area, with families to support, mortgages to pay, they aren't necessarily in positions to embrace a start-up way of working. And while the UK games industry is without institutions like unions to protect worker rights and soften the impact of redundancies, studio closures and layoffs will be that much more harmful."

With outside funding both the ambition for Virginia and the number of Variable State employees has grown.

"It meant that the game could be bigger which was excellent. There have been a version of the story that existed that would have been very paired back, it was very lean and perhaps a little bit frustrating actually and in hindsight had that been the version of the game that we'd gone I don't think it would have been as satisfying. Now the version of the story that we've ended up with certainly feels like the complete story and feels like it's got all the dimensions that we wanted it to have. The main benefit I'd say is that the increase in budget has allowed us to work with so many more people and people who are specialize."

Some of those people include Lyndon Holland, Virginia's composer, Pink Kong Studios, an animation studio set up by Aoife Doyle and Niamh Herrity in Dublin, animator Abby Roebuck, artist Matt DiVito, programmer Kieran Keegan, Kuju alumnus Matt Wilde and by 3D artist Stevie "@StevieB64" Brown.

The team are still hoping to release this year, even as it grows in scope and ambition.

"Variable State is now in its third year. Hopefully we'll be in a position to release Virginia in 2016. We're already beginning work on a second, very different project, which we should be able to start talking about soon. And we have story outlines written for future Virginia titles. Virginia itself is a completely self-contained story; I wouldn't want to leave anybody with the impression we're setting up sequels or purposefully leaving plot threads hanging, I think that'd be a crass thing to do. But like the Fargo TV series, like True Detective, Virginia has the potential to encompass a whole family of stories, with similar themes and ideas, told in the same way, which are each original and self-contained, but collectively complement one another and form a kind of anthology.

"We have ideas for a second story with a new set of characters, set in the State of Virginia, but in another time period and dealing with different subject matter. And ideas for more besides. If there's an audience for Virginia and people enjoy it for its peculiarities, there are certainly more strange stories we'd like to tell."

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