This is the story of a man named Stanley.
Stanley was the star of a 2011 Half-Life 2 mod called The Stanley Parable. Walking through office spaces under the direction of a charming British voice actor, Stanley expertly provided comedic commentary of, and deconstructed, video game narrative structures and tropes. When Stanley had his Parable remastered and re-released in 2013, he made his two full-time creators a lot of money, and the industry acclaim to do something with it.
The story of Stanley is in reality the story of a man named William Pugh, and how he turned a game about walking through office doors into a sustainable indie development studio.
“It was easier to do it than to not do it,” Pugh tells me, a month before the release of the studio’s latest project: a virtual museum space, populated with artwork and installations created by members of the team’s community Discord.
“Otherwise, what do you do with your time? It’s not unusual for someone to release a big thing and then spend the next five years making prototypes for nothing that ever gets released.”
Both Pugh and fellow Stanley co-creator Davey Wreden have spent the following years separately creating experimental (and free) games. Both have made their own spiritual successors to the Stanley formula — Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide driving hard into the metatextual side of narrative storytelling, while Pugh’s Dr Langeskov, The Tiger, and the Terribly Cursed Emerald carried on with comedy.
But Wreden has largely kept small and solo, occasionally collaborating to release quick-fire RPG-Maker crime dramas about Keanu Reeves. Pugh, on the other hand, took the success of Stanley to bring new talent on board with a new studio — Crows Crows Crows.
“I’ve invested a lot in the studio,” said Pugh. “We’ve got an office in Berlin now and we’re between about 8 and 10 people. And yeah, that’s primarily been Stanley Parable. There’s been some money from Accounting, but the majority of that was Stanley.”
That money has let the team at Crows Crows Crows release strange experiments for free – narrative games like Dr Langeskov; elaborate Twine stories like The Temple of No; and the bizarrely creepy mobile title EAT.
These are all games of the sort you’d expect from one-person developers working on itch.io, but with a level of polish those creators can rarely afford. Still, the money from The Stanley Parable won't sustain the studio forever.
“The answer to ‘how do we make a change there’ is The Stanley Parable 2, which we are--," Pugh breaks off, laughing. “I’m kidding, but it’s not so far from the truth. It’s narrative games. We’ve learnt a lot about making characters with Accounting, exploration games with Dr Langeskov and this community museum that we’re doing.”
Crows Crows Crows finally started charging with Accounting+ on Playstation 4. A VR comedy collaboration between Pugh, artist Dominik Johann and Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland spawned from a weekend game jam in Los Angeles, this game drops players into a variety of aggressively strange rooms, with puzzles that act as set-ups for the next punchline.
“It started off as a kinda jam game that didn’t feel right charging money for," says Pugh. "It was buggy, it didn’t always work on people’s devices. We made it usable, understandable, rebuilding what was already there. We started with maybe five levels, and now we’ve got 14-15. It’s cool looking at all of them because they all got built at a different time, so it’s kinda added this growth-y, slimy feel as you go through levels that were added at different points.”
Accounting is now coming back to PC in its second major re-release. There’s an established history of Crows Crows Crows re-releasing and revisiting past titles, and I asked if there was more to it than just squeezing more money out of their titles.
“It’s a growing process, like any game I’ve built before,” explains Pugh. “Like The Stanley Parable started as a mod – you look at what you’ve got and reimagine parts of that. We had Langeskov, that started as a game jam for a charity thing and then that turned into the game we released on Steam with a new voice actor. We had The Temple of No, a Twine game which we updated with fire. We added fire to it [which] really re-imagined that experience and flipped it on its head.”
“Pricing it was a hard call to make – but most VR games now, in terms of a similar kind of experience, you see them going for two times, three times as much.”
Crows Crows Crows is taking that knowledge to work on its biggest project yet – reticent to give details, Pugh promises “something that’ll be Firewatch-ish.” But whatever it is, he isn’t keen on revisiting virtual reality anytime soon.
“It’s been an amazing experience, but we want to be making PC games. Games that anybody can play.” Pugh and I spoke in September, back when Telltale Games was a studio with a future and before Kotaku investigated working conditions at Rockstar Games. Regardless, topics like crunch and working conditions are always on the table.
Indie studios like Crows Crows Crows, working on a smaller scale without HR teams or seemingly-limitless resources, are often hit harder by overwork. That’s something Pugh recognises in his past, and something he's keen on avoiding now.
“Building Stanley... it’s a fucking kickass game. Everyone loves it, it’s brilliant of course, obviously, everyone is still saying that every day, even now. But the process to build it maybe wasn’t exactly... healthy?”
“My aspirations for Crows – if you asked me three years ago, it would be to make the best and the funniest games. Make things that captivate and excite people. I love to see what people can make when you give them the opportunity to get really good at their craft. Let them make something that can captivate you, make your eyes go all starry and make you go ‘Oooooh!’ shaking your hands up and down.”
“But if you look at me now – that’s still our goal, but now I’m interested in: how do you make a studio that can do this, that is also a place that allows you to do this in a very healthy way.“
That’s not just an ethical position. As Crows Crows Crows continues to take on more and more work, Pugh hopes that prioritising well-being will make the studio a space that talented developers and artists will want to be a part of.
“We’ve had a lot of high-quality people show interest in joining, but how do you keep those people?
“The longer the company runs the better the games will be, as long as that other requirement is met of it being a good environment that works for people, that is healthy, that prioritises mental health, good timekeeping, no crunch.
“You just keep going and keep learning. You wanna build a place that not only retains the – I think it’s fair to say – world-class talent, but from the perspective of running it, how do you make it a place that people want to come to?
“And actually, to be honest, despite the amount of work that there is right now, my weekends are still my own. Even like as last year, I was working weekends – now, we’ve decided on principles, we’re acting on them. It’s still tough, it’s still hard, but it’s improving.”
After all, it's easy to forget that Pugh was 19 when The Stanley Parable launched. He’s grown up alongside Crows Crows Crows, and alongside an ever-expanding independent games scene. It’s a learning experience as well as a business, and by no means a one-man effort.
“I’m the hopefully semi-attractive face of the operation, but it’s the team that makes it. There are no better people to work with than Dominik Johann, Alicia Contestabile, Tom Schley, Jan Str, Joe Finegold, Jakob, Thryn Henderson, Mikey Cox, everyone. There are a lot of people who are building this thing together. If there’s a worthy use for the money from The Stanley Parable, this is certainly a contender.”