Donut County Interview -- Ben Esposito Talks the Trials of Working Alone and Fighting Against Clones
Donut County Creator Ben Esposito talks about his journey involved with creating the game, how some aspects came to be, and what his favorite donut is.
Donut County is one of the year’s wackiest and most enjoyable releases. Even though it has a simple gameplay loop, it’s a game that oozes fun out of every corner and has a clear identity from beginning to end. It’s one of my personal favorite indie games of the year and has been something that I’ve gone back to play for a few minutes here and there even after finishing it awhile back.
We were able to chat with Donut County’s primary developer Ben Esposito a few weeks back during the launch week of the game to ask him about his feelings on finally wrapping up and releasing the project after having spent so many years working on it. We also touched on many of the other aspects of Donut County while also bringing up the recent situation where Esposito found that Donut County had been cloned and asked him what he though indie devs could do to combat this moving forward.
Logan: So Donut County is finally out! What’s it been like for you this week to finally see people playing your game that you’ve spent years working on and how are you feeling?
Ben Esposito: Its been intense. Its been a lot of different things at once. The whole development has been a lot of different things at once. A lot of anxiety, joy, excitement. This is all of it coming to a head. I was done with it like last month and I’ve just been waiting and anticipating it coming out. Now that it’s out I’m just like, “Huh. Is it out?” Nothing is different, it doesn’t feel any different. That’s on one hand but on the other, its just been trying to gauge what people think about the game. Getting perspective on what the general consensus and thoughts are. It’s hard because there’s such a diversity of reactions. It’s hard also to try not to look for the worst-of-the-worst so that I can feel bad for no reason. That’s just the Internet, I guess.
L: That’s something I do as well on our own site where for some reason I always latch on to the one negative comment rather than the dozens of positive ones.
BE: Yeah, there’s something human about it. Okay whatever, enough praise, now let me see the bad stuff! I’ve been trying to stay balanced and keep myself distracted with the good stuff.
L: I want to go back and ask you about the beginning of the project because this is something you’ve been working on for five years. You’ve also done most of Donut County relatively by yourself. What that process is like working on something for such a long period of time and doing it almost completely alone?
BE: It’s a one-of-a-kind experience that I don’t know whether I want to do again or not. That’s my takeaway from it. I think one of the reasons why I was able to stick with it is because, one, I felt really lucky that I was able to start working on it even at all. There were people who believed in it enough to say, “Yeah, you should go ahead and do this and we’ll give you a little bit of money to get started.” That was Indie Fund in 2013. They were really encouraging and I was like “Cool, I guess this is my time and I’ll see it through no matter what.”
Also at the beginning, I thought it was going to take one year — like a fool. [laughs] Like I guess everyone thinks when they start their game. Every single year, it was twelve months away for, like, five years straight. Whenever I realized that I had to push it back, I felt disappointed. I felt like “Am I ever going to finish this? Am I failing? Would someone smarter or more talented than me be done with it already?” There’s a lot of questions that run through your head when there’s no one else to just reassure you and say, “Dude, don’t worry about it.” That’s all I needed. Just someone to tell me it’ll be fine and don’t worry. That was probably the biggest challenge working alone.
That said, I have a lot of friends who are making indie games in Los Angeles who I get to work around because we have a coworking space in LA. There’s always people around and everyone is very supportive of each other and is going through the same stuff. That was one of the only reasons I was able to actually get through it.
L: So moving forward, you absolutely don’t envision yourself working in this manner anymore?
BE: I could never recommend someone go it alone. I also hope I would take that advice and work with people who I like working with who will be encouraging. I’m not the best at every single task.
I have stuff I like — making the art, making the sounds. I like it all but there’s only so much you can do alone to a high-quality bar. I didn’t realize it but I was becoming a perfectionist when I was working on it. I wanted it to be really polished and this is what you get. It takes five, six years and it looks like this.
L: Do you find yourself more proud that you’ve made Donut County pretty much solo compared to past games you’ve shipped with larger teams?
BE: It hasn’t hit me yet, to be honest. I think it will in like ten years. I’ll be like, “Wow, what the fuck? Did I really do that?” Right now, my head is too down on the ground trying to figure out how I should feel about this at all. I don’t know. I feel proud in a sense because when I do reflect on it, I realize this is not often done by people. I don’t feel it yet though. Hopefully, I will in the future.
L: One of the things that I love the most about Donut County and something that I didn’t even remember until I saw the credits roll, was that you based the whole game off of a Peter Molydeux tweet. When you first started moving forward with making Donut County, did you feel like you were crazy for creating something rooted in a parody Twitter account?
BE: [laughs] It was not supposed to be a game, really. I worked on it for two days, it was done and then I never looked at it again. That’s why I did the Game Jam. I picked the dumbest idea I could pick and I built that. Maybe I just got cursed because it was kind of cool. On the one hand, I was always kind of nervous about whether it could be a whole game and if people would understand what I was even trying to do. On the other hand, the fact that the origin story is so stupid, to me makes sense of all of it. This is the right origin story for a funny game.
L: Have you ever met or talked to the person behind that Twitter account?
BE: I haven’t met them in person but we’ve talked online a bunch. They’ve always been really, really supportive of the game which is awesome. I reached out to him before I was about to launch and I asked, “How could I credit you? Do you want your real name in the game?” He just said no and told me to put ‘Peter Molydeux’ in there.
L: From the getgo, you obviously had the main mechanic of the game down with sucking things up as a hole and growing bigger with each item you swallow, but when did you begin adding the story elements and characters to it?
BE: I didn’t really go into it intending to have any kind of serious story or characters but after working on it for maybe a year or so, I started to realize that the hole isn’t a character. The hole is just a hole — this anomaly that just kind of happens. Playing as a hole doesn’t really mean anything. The real character of the game is actually the stuff that you’re putting into the hole. The more specific and interesting human scale stuff that you put in, the more you believe the world and it feels consistent.
It’s also just kind of interesting and a little bit emotional to destroy all of someone’s stuff. I realized this game has to be about this place and all of the people that live there because they’re all going into a hole so clearly some shit is going on in this world. That was the origin of Donut County as a place and figuring out what the landmarks are. A lot of it is inspired by LA and the greater Los Angeles area so there are a lot of touchpoints there. It was mostly about making this consistent, but stupid, cartoon world that you systematically destroy.
L: Music and the entire soundtrack of Donut County is one thing that I really wanted to dive in and discuss with you. These levels are all so well-crafted but I think the accompanying track that you put with each level really brings the whole thing together. How did you curate the soundtrack and decide what to add to each level?
BE: To me, I totally agree with you. The music helped define the tone. It also helped set the right emotional tone and expectations of what you’re going to be doing in the levels. It kind of gives you permission to just chill. I’m going to do some fucked up things in this level but it’s actually going to be fine.
The origin story of the music is super funny. My friend Dan from college, we used to make music together. We were in a bunch of bands and we would just play for fun. There was a venue we were apart of where we’d do open mic nights and stuff together. I moved to LA and he moved to San Diego and we just wanted to keep in touch so we’d be sending each other music all the time. Just stuff we were working on.
I made the prototype for Donut County and I just had a bunch of his music so I just put it in without asking him and then sent it to him. He was like, “Whoa, this is cool. Do you want more music?” I told him to send me everything he had.
Literally, for five years, he just sent me every track he’s ever made. We just keep tweaking them and changing parts and moving them around to different levels. I think having so much time really let us hone in on what the sound would be and the different tracks to different levels. Naming at the end was super, super fun to see it all come together.
L: Is it crazy to him that he kind of ended up helping you make a video game? Assuming he’s not a developer himself, I’m sure that’s something he probably never expected to do.
BE: It was extremely unexpected. Sometimes we wouldn’t even talk to each other for eight months or something and I’d call him up and he would think I wasn’t going to use his music in the game anymore. I was like, “No dude, I’m just going to take six years to make this game.”
He’s not a professional musician or anything so I think part of the reason why it has a unique feel is that the way he’s producing music is pretty different than a lot of other game soundtracks. He really cares about having the recordings feel organic. Drum beats that are him slapping the table, snapping, hitting a box — stuff like that. I was really happy with how unique it turned out.
L: The one other thing I wanted to be sure that I asked you about was in regards to the Trashopedia and the descriptions for each of the items in it. What kind of mind frame did you have to be in to write those?
BE: [laughs] I love in games–like in RPGs–where there’s a menu that has item descriptions in it. I just love reading the really tedious bullshit descriptions. I love that kind of quality. In Katamari Damacy they had item descriptions that were kind of goofy as well. I just wanted to do something like that where at the end of every level you can just read a description of all the items. Then I put the numbers together and put in in a spreadsheet and realized I had to write 300 of these. I totally understand now the person who has to write those RPG item descriptions. [laughs]
The way I made it fun for myself was writing the descriptions from the raccoon perspective. That’s why I think it’s worth having in the game at all. It is a game about perspectives and it’s about the how the raccoon is driving the holes and don’t see people’s things as valuable. They don’t understand why you’d want your house to be not underground. It was a super fun exercise to define this guy’s personality by the way he describes these items. A lot of it was just coming up with running threads. Like, he thinks all rocks were delivered by aliens. He thinks every animal is evil — eagles are criminals, snakes are mean.
There are a couple of other throughlines in the Trashopedia that were really helpful for me in terms of figuring out who BK is. I also recycled tons of my old tweets into item descriptions. [laughs] There are probably, like, 50 tweets I tweaked and repurposed and put into that. I used to love just tweeting random crap on Twitter.
L: Switching gears somewhat drastically here, I wanted to make sure I touched on the copycat issue you had a while back where someone essentially ripped off the idea of the game and put it out on mobile devices before you launched Donut County. I know this is hard to gauge because we’re still so close to the release day, but do you think that clone has potentially damaged the sales of Donut County in the long run?
BE: I wish I knew. I wish I could A/B test it and have one universe where it did happen and one universe where it didn’t happen but I’m never really going to get the privilege of knowing. My feeling now is that it’s pretty different and that there’s a different expectation downloading a free game on the App Store. The reasons you might like Donut County are different than why you’d like that version of it or whatever versions are on Android now. In that regard, I think it’s fine. It probably didn’t hurt the game to any significant degree.
Also, Apple is very supportive of Donut County because they see what is going on on the App Store. That stuff is cool but I was really upset that there was someone else who just comes out with, “Hey! We made a wacky new game with a really cool idea where you play as a hole in the ground and it looks cute.” I don’t know what that did to the mindshare of Donut County online. It definitely hurt it in some way. I just wonder if me getting the story out about the fact that it was cloned offset that. I would hope that that’s what happened but we’ll never really know.
L: At the time your response on Twitter said that the solution to this is to just “never talk about your indie game.” While you obviously said this in jest, do you think there are any solutions to this problem?
BE: It’s a Catch-22, right? In my case, talking about Donut County early on is what gave me a lot of opportunities and it’s what ultimately led to the visibility that the game has and the visibility that I have as a developer. I really can’t recommend not talking about your game because then I’d just be some random guy who’s like, “Hey! I made a game! I spent so long on it please look at it!” On the other hand, yeah, it’s hard because indies, since we don’t have that many resources, we have to differentiate ourselves by coming up with novel but simple and constrained games which makes them so much easier to steal.
I feel like maybe if I had been more rigorous about finishing the game really fast I could’ve had my cake and eaten it too. The competitors would have come out later. But I really wanted to polish it and really wanted it to be squeaky clean in the end and so that was the cost. I think there’s a sweet spot of visibility but that’s just the Catch-22 of being indie.
L: In addition to the platforms that Donut County has launched on, do you have any desire to bring it elsewhere in the future?
BE: I’ve been focusing on the launch platforms with my entire body. Launching it on so much stuff has been really intense so I couldn’t have brought it to other consoles yet but I really would like to. Anything is possible. We’ll see in the next few months as I get my bearings. It’s something I really want to do. We’ll announce stuff when we can but there are no hard decisions anywhere yet.
L: So my final hard-hitting question for you: what’s your favorite donut?
BE: [laughs] Okay so I’ve gotten a little bit of flak for this because they don’t have holes but bear claws are by far my favorite. I love a big, chunky bear claw with some maple flavoring in it. Oh my god, it’s the greatest ever.
Donut County is available right now on PS4, PC, Mac, and iOS.