Sometimes, online games can be a stage for unique shared experiences. Maybe it’s a special bonding moment you have with another player who helps you out in a tight spot, or a chance encounter in a virtual world that was particularly memorable. In these online spaces, where we can interact with others, we’re able to feel like we’re a part of something larger. That we’re in a community. With Gardens (opens in new tab), the newly established studio spearheaded by co-founding veteran developers Chris Bell, Stephen Bell, and Lexie Dostal, creating online games that provide a space for players to experience meaningful moments is the team’s core focus.
“We’re really interested in building online spaces that grow and evolve together with their community. That can bring players together to form lasting friendships and new, novel, and interesting shared experiences,” Chris explains. “I would love it if the game we are working on now encourages or inspires players to be considerate towards strangers, the other people they are crossing paths with, and the virtual world that they’re in, that they’re shaping and transforming together. If we can grow that mindfulness, I think that leads to a really positive and interesting player community that collectively feels like they are a part of something together.”
Authoring your own stories
With a focus on creating shared experiences, Gardens is hard at work on its debut game. While it’s currently untitled, it is set to draw inspiration from the team’s expansive repertoire of past work, as well as the team’s personal memories of online play. The studio may be new, but you’ll recognize the games its developers have contributed to over the years. Chris Bell worked on Journey, Sky: Light of the Children, and Way; Stephen Bell has credits on What Remains of Edith Finch and Blaseball; and Lexie Dostal is the co-creator of Dustforce. Gardens is packed with talent from across the AAA and indie spectrum, with other staff on its roster gaining experience on everything from Ashen to Spider-Man: Miles Morales to The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim.
While the studio’s first project is still in early development, the beautiful conceptual visuals from artist ma-ko showcase the kind of look and feel the team is going for. With a fantasy style that’s verdant and vibrant, the virtual world it’s creating is designed to grow and evolve alongside a community. As Stephen puts it, Gardens wants to build an online space where players can “foster their own myths and legends” and really feel like they’re an active part of a world.
“When you look at the team that we have, there’s a really high pedigree, and we’ve gotten to work on a lot of amazing titles. So there’s a lot of care that’s being put into what we are building and in the spaces we are building,” Stephen explains, “while simultaneously trying to make sure that we are maintaining space for the community so that it’s not just like a hermetically sealed, dead thing. So that it does have room for surprises and for the life that is injected by the actual players.”
“If you look back at Sky and Journey, and even back to Chris’s first game, Way, which I always say I think our upcoming project shares a lot of DNA with,” Stephen continues, “the real miracle in those games is the random strangers that you come across – this uncontrollable, surprising, sometimes force of chaos that is now in front of you, that you have to deal with. That’s the magic and mystery of another person, and that’s what’s interesting to us. That’s where we really find the fun of online games. So, our upcoming flagship title is building on a lot of the ideas that have been evolving over our previous games.”
“We’re particularly inspired by moments that we’ve shared online in other games. Particularly moments that we’ve shared with strangers,” Chris says. “As an example, one of Lexie’s favorite memories comes from playing World of Warcraft. He got himself into trouble, he had involved too many monsters and was basically on the brink of death, and then a passing stranger who had no real reason or material benefit to helping him swept in and saved him. And in that moment, they bonded and they would go on to adventure together for hours. That sticks with you.”
Chris also recalls a personal experience while playing Final Fantasy 11 Online. After venturing to a desolate area in the world that not many people would go to, Chris encountered another player who was there for the same reason – to watch the virtual rainfall. “So even something as small and simple like that is something that sticks with us and guides us,” Chris adds, teasing the impact these shared experiences have had on Gardens’ first work as a team. “How do we cultivate experiences like that for players? How do we generate those stories for players and create the context in which those stories will emerge?”
A place to grow
Growing a studio
“We all share and understand sort of different issues [and] have seen different issues within the workplace,” says Chris. “Whether it’s crunch, or whether it’s toxicity or abuse, we wanted to come together to grow a studio that did things differently, and that took care of its employees and its team members.”
With a desire to create ongoing experiences set in vibrant worlds that can grow and flourish alongside a community, it’s easy to see how the studio name ‘Gardens’ is partially inspired by the style of games the team wants to create. But the name also lends itself to the ethos of the growing studio. After being in the industry for a number of years, Stephen explains that many of the team have felt the effects of burnout and crunch “up close” at other studios in the past – the co-founders want to create a different environment.
“Gardens, like people, require care and space and resources and daylight in order to thrive. And so, that really shapes and informs our policies, our practices, and how we equitably compensate the team,” Chris adds. “We believe that developers shouldn’t be glued to their work, and that they do their best work when they’re rested and restored, and they’re able to live their lives and be fulfilled, and come back to work with new ideas and new energy to bring and give.”
Chris says that the studio leadership spent a lot of time considering how that ideal could manifest itself in reality, and settled on a number of initiatives designed to help realign work-life balance in favor of life. “When devising the studio, we thought about everything from making sure that people have the opportunity to live and work where they wish, that they’re well supported with competitive pay, and that they have healthy work hours – 35 hour work weeks is something that we practice.”
While it’s still early days for Gardens’ first project, the idea behind it certainly sounds as magical as the concept art. “We are making what we feel to be a pretty innovative, ongoing shared fantasy adventure,” says Stephen. “We do think that we are developing a pretty new and exciting and innovative art style, but we’re also creating multiplayer features, and just features about the world, that we’ve personally never seen before. And that’s what’s really exciting to us.”