'Donut County' Creator Explains the Challenges Facing Indie Game Developers

Donut County Ben Esposito Inset - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Annapurna Interactive (2)
Ben Esposito is one of gaming's rising stars and his new title has already inspired clones weeks before its release, but that's not the only hurdle creators like him face.

Imitation may be the most sincere form of flattery, but cloning a game before it's set for release goes well beyond the realm of honeyed words and loving homage.

Ben Esposito — an indie game developer who has worked with Annapurna Interactive on the award-winning 2017 title What Remains of Edith Finch and a number of other incredibly unique, critically acclaimed indies over the past few years — found himself the victim of cloning in June when a copy of his upcoming game, Donut County, appeared on the App Store, months before his own game was set to release.

The news dealt Esposito a heavy blow. "It stings a little after five-plus years of convincing people a game about a hole in the ground is a good idea," he said in a statement. "I can't do anything about them stealing my thunder, really. I'm going to focus my energy into finishing Donut County."

The clone, called Hole.io, shot to the top of the App Store, proving that Esposito was, indeed, on to something with his idea. While he may have been undercut, Esposito continued undeterred and set his own title for release Aug. 28 for the PlayStation 4, Steam, GOG, and the iOS and Mac App Store.

Donut County, a puzzle platformer in which players control a hole that gets progressively larger as they swallow more objects, was one of the highlights of this year's E3 convention. In addition to offering unique, addictive gameplay, it also sports an endearing art style, lots of humor and a deeper message below the colorful characters and wacky adventuring.

Esposito caught up with Heat Vision to talk about his struggles making the game, his many restructures for the title and the state of indie games and their creators today.

Where did the idea for Donut County from?

It started as a joke. I did the Game Jam where we made a bunch of joke games based on a parody Twitter account of [Fable creator] Peter Molyneux. He’s well known for promising life-changing video game experiences that maybe don’t always live up to that expectation. The account was tweeting out impossible to make game ideas that were visionary and amazing and things that would just make you cry, so we did a Game Jam based around making those games. I picked the one where you play as a hole in the ground, because how the hell do you do that? [Laughs] So, I built it and realized there was something really interesting and satisfying and weird about this and I knew I wanted to pursue it further and see it through to the end. I didn’t realize how long that would take.

It is an abstract idea, but I think you pulled it off. How do you take such a nebulous, strange idea and translate it into satisfying gameplay?

Luckily, it’s a concept that’s pretty concrete in terms of how to start building it. It was not hard to get the hole up and running, but I think the challenge that made me interested was that it’s a game about getting a very tactile feel and even though its very abstract, it has a very human appeal because when we’re children we need to play with physical objects to learn the rules of how the world works. I compare Donut County to playing with blocks and trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

The game has been compared to Katamari. Were you inspired by that game or any others?

Katamari was one of the things on my mind when I started working on it. I ran into a wall very quickly with the game where it’s fun to put stuff into the hole but there’s no progression or challenge to it. That’s where I drew from Katamari’s scale-ordering gameplay because that’s so satisfying to start really small and get really big and pick your path through all the objects and unlock new scales of objects you can collect. That’s where I came up with the idea that you start super small and get bigger. Also, I love Katamari, so I knew I was going in the right direction in terms of the way the game would feel if I was using that as inspiration. The other major inspiration for the game was a game called Windosill by Vector Park. It absolutely blew my mind. It’s this kind of phsyics-y puzzle game but the rules are always shifting and every level has a different gimmick or idea behind it.

Another huge aspect of this game is the story and characters, which may be a bit of a surprise for a game where you play as a hole. Was having such a quirky cast of characters always the plan or did that evolve in the process of making Donut County?

It definitely evolved. One of the lessons I learned early on was that when you’re playing a game about being a hole in the ground, the hole itself isn’t really the interesting part. The interesting part is the stuff you put inside of it. I knew I wanted to make a weird but really consistent and character-full world that you’re throwing into the hole, because if you don’t care about the objects, the game doesn’t really matter. The whole structure of the story and characters is made to make the destruction of this place feel meaningful and matter to the characters.

The main character is a mischievous raccoon who is responsible for Donut County’s destruction. How early on did you decide to center the story around that character?

That was a real evolution because the main character of the story changed a few times. It started where you played as Mira, who is the raccoon’s best friend and it was about her participation in this hole-ification of Donut County. One of the problems I ran into was that you’d play the game and halfway through you’d realize how evil you were being by creating this hole and throwing everyone into this hole in the ground. I realized I had to flip the way the story was told and I introduced the raccoon as the main character because everyone can kind of relate to him, but you also know that he’s an idiot and everyone in the game knows he’s an idiot. Players know he’s wrong the whole time, but you love him anyway. I wanted to tell the story backwards, where he had already done all the damage and the game was really about convincing him that what he did was wrong.

Your résumé is very eclectic. When you start on a new project, are you concerned with making something completely new and unique?

I think that there are connections between a lot of the games I’ve done, but they don’t have an intentional aesthetic connection. What I really like about games is that you can play with genre expectations and break them, subvert them. I love the facade of it all and I think it’s really fun to play with the presentation of each project and present them as their own distinct universe. I really wanted Donut County to be very disarmingly cute but had this very rich character to it and this story that is slightly metaphorical. To me, that’s really connected to some of the other stuff I’ve done.

You’ve worked with Annapurna Interactive on a few games. They seem to let you branch out. How’s your relationship with them?

It’s been really great. When I started talking to them I didn’t realize what their mission was exactly. I know they wanted to make really interesting, unique stuff, but it wasn’t until working with them for six months or so that [I realized] their whole goal is to make work that is made by visionary creators. That’s their whole thing. They care about the vision of the person making it, and that trumps everything else. I didn’t believe it at first, but after a while I realized, oh, yeah. I’m really running the show here. Even if I end up making a really weird decision where we’re not sure how people are going to react, they’re all about doing that. I think that’s been a real breath of fresh air because when you’re funded by a big publisher or something they end up getting in the way. Annapurna has been the complete opposite.

Recently, a clone of your game was released on iOS. You released a statement about it, but I’m curious how you feel about this type of thing in the gaming industry as a whole. Is it something that you have to constantly be aware of as a developer, that someone may steal your idea?

I think it is the reality of making a small game and being an independent developer. I’ve been thinking about this a little bit more and I think this situation put it in more perspective. The industry is quite large and there’s lots of different ways to run your business in terms of making content. The people cloning games are on one end of a spectrum and I’m on the other end. The content doesn’t matter as much to them, they just want the novel idea and they’ll Hoover it up from anywhere, and me on the other side of the coin has very little resources and tons of interesting ideas and lots of time to come up with ideas. The reality is that we’re an idea farm and that’s part of the cost of being an independent developer. We are the explorers who are finding new, interesting ideas and there are people who are always going to use us as a crutch and use the ideas from the farm and plug them in and make money off of them.

That being said, have you ever thought of moving away from indie games?

I’ve always been in this indie world and I really like it because I get to solve problems that are really interesting to me and make work that I think is really fresh. I don’t want to be dictated by the same business restraints that a company that clones game might deal with. I do want to branch out more after this project because I found that working by myself is not the easiest thing to do, but I do think I will still be making games in this space because this is my art practice. It’s a business, but I get to do what I love and I really want to explore, so I’m going to keep exploring for as long as I can.