Interview Series: Grant Roberts

From conception to completion, Never Alone has taken more than two and a half years to come together. Along for the ride were developers, artists, writers, and many others who helped grow Never Alone from an idea into a game that’s launching this November.

In this interview, we’ll speak with Grant Roberts, the Lead Game Designer for Never Alone. Grant has played a critical role in the development of the game, and his expertise and experience has helped guide the team as they push towards the November 18th launch.

unnamedGrant, thanks for taking the time to speak with us! Can you tell our readers a little more about yourself? Have you always been a gamer? How’d you end up pursuing a career in the gaming industry?

I was born and raised in Fairfax, Virginia, a few miles west of Washington, D.C. I’ve been playing games as long as I can remember, well before one of my first memories of my father standing me up on a milk crate so I could reach the Galaga controls at a 7-Eleven. I got my first computer for free in 1982, thanks to my mother receiving it as a gift for attending an all-day real estate event — she had no interest in buying into a timeshare, but a lot of interest in helping her son start programming. That computer (a Timex Sinclair 1000) had a staggering 2k of memory and used cassette tapes for storage.

So yeah, I’ve been doing this for a while. After all, back in those days, if you wanted to make games for a living, you had to know how to code. So I took classes in and out of school to learn how to program in BASIC, Logo, PASCAL, and many others… until I realized in college that my destiny was to be found elsewhere. A few years later, I was hired as an Editor at Next Generation Magazine. Two years after that, I got my foot in the game development door as a QA Engineer. Fifteen years after that, I’m leading the design team here at E-Line Media as we prepare to release Never Alone worldwide on November 18th.

​Sounds like you had an interesting path to where you are now! How exactly did you end up at E-Line working on Never Alone? 

No matter how many games you’ve shipped, and no matter how good the project is that you’re developing, game development is an unstable place. In my 15 years in the business, I’ve been a part of four studio closures and been caught in rounds of layoffs two other times. That happened again in 2013.

But when a guy I’d worked with in the past heard that I was a part of a wave of layoffs at my previous company, he recommended me to the studio head here at E-Line. After a series of interviews where we got to know each other, I started two weeks later. At the time, the design team was two level designers and me. The rest of the team wasn’t that much bigger — we were still a plucky indie studio no one had really heard of.

That changed about six months ago. A few press outlets started to take notice of Never Alone, and we had a great showing at E3 and other conferences — it certainly seems like the story of the game’s development and collaboration resonates with people in a way that’s all too rare in games. Today, I’m leading a design team of six, the team is almost two dozen people, and we’re being talked about all over the world.

Can you tell us a little more about what a “Lead Game Designer” does?

As the Lead Game Designer, a lot of what I do is making sure our other five designers (Vinny, MKG, Ian, Brandon, and Jonathan) have everything they need to be able to do their jobs well. I ensure the game feels consistent from start to finish while also making sure that players will have a compelling experience at every step along the way.

Since we’re a relatively small team here at E-Line, I also try to do whatever else needs doing on the design side. That has ranged from prototyping all our in-engine cinematics, to writing all the copy for help manuals, to charting out and adjusting the progression of mechanics over the course of the game. That all sounds pretty dry, but the fact is that being a designer is never dull — especially on a project as magical as this one.

Has the work done on Never Alone differed greatly from other teams that you’ve worked on in the past?

The biggest difference is obviously the frequent and incredibly rewarding collaboration that we’ve had with the Iñupiaq community. For instance, I have pages and pages full of notes that I furiously scribbled down after Ron Brower came to visit the studio and told stories about the past, present, and future of his people and himself.

This is also one of the most unpretentious teams I’ve ever worked with. If someone sees something that needs doing, they don’t wait for someone else to get it done — they roll up their sleeves and make it happen themselves. No one is above fixing bugs, moving office furniture, recording footage for trailers, or playtesting for hours straight.

But in some ways, this team is like all the others in the past that I’ve been lucky enough to join. You don’t survive for long in this business if you’re not (1) great at what you do, and (2) able to work together as a team, and this group has been no exception. It’s a privilege to come to the office and work alongside them every day.

What’s been the most difficult aspect of this project for you so far? What’s been the most rewarding?

The most difficult part of game development for me is having to leave what I know are good ideas out of the finished product. There have been dozens of concepts that we’ve had to put in a drawer or cut entirely because we wanted to keep a laser focus on the story we wanted to tell and the game we wanted to make. Hopefully, if Never Alone is successful, we may be able to bring some of them back someday!

The most rewarding aspect is easy — seeing and hearing feedback from members of the Alaska Native community before, during, and after they’ve played the game. One of the main goals we’ve had during this project is to make a game that they can be proud of, and call their own. From what they’ve told us, we’re on the right track.

Do you have any personal anecdotes you’d like to share that you’ve taken from your time working with and on Never Alone?

Well, like I mentioned earlier, that time sitting and listening to Ron for hours was a personal highlight for me. I was also fortunate enough to have a memorable dinner at Umi Sake House with James Nagaek and his wife Anna. James is one of the most gregarious people I’ve ever met, and his enthusiasm for everything about life is infectious. You’ll get to see a lot of James if you unlock the Cultural Insights where he appears — “The Heartbeat of the Community” is one of my favorite ones in the game. James is also the voice of the Iñupiaq storyteller you’ll hear over the course of the game.

The best conversations I’ve had with fans were at PAX Prime 2014. Our booth was visited by many hundreds of convention-goers, including some people with Native American heritage. Hearing them talk about how much the game means to them is better than any five-star review that we could ever get. Not that we’d turn down a five-star review! Heh.

See you in two weeks, everyone!

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