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Gardens, a new independent game studio, has raised $31.3 million in funding so it can make a fantasy action role-playing game.
That’s a lot of money for a company that got off the ground in the summer of 2021 and has only 12 people. But the investors were impressed with the playable demo that the team showed off in March at the Game Developers Conference, said Chris Bell, CEO of Gardens, in an interview with GamesBeat. He started the company with his brother Stephen Bell and CTO Lexie Dostal.
Lightspeed Venture Partners and Krafton led the round, with participation from Dreamhaven, TIRTA, Rendered VC, Transcend Fund, Funplus and more. As far as game startups go, relatively few have raised such funding, particularly in a difficult economy. I can think of Believer, ProbablyMonsters, and Theorycraft. It’s a very small group, and they have a focus on craftsmanship at the center.
“We’re raising enough to kind of meet the vision for the project. This is an ambitious project we want it to be,” Stephen Bell said in an interview. “We wanted to be able to accomplish everything that we want to try. We wanted to provide runway and sustainability to the studio. I think it’s no secret you’re seeing a lot of studio closures. We have a responsibility to our team to make sure that we’re taking care of them. We’re going to be aggressively scaling up. We’re a small team, and we are actively hiring.”
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Marquee team and investors
The studio has also added several high-profile industry veterans to its advisory team, including former Microsoft chairman John W. Thompson, former Sony Computer Entertainment America CEO Jack Tretton, former Tencent president Ben Feder and Yamauchi No.10 of the Nintendo family.
Other investors include Oculus cofounder Nate Mitchell, Valorant co-creator Stephen “Slim” Lim, Guild Wars co-creator Jeff Strain, World of Warcraft exec Seth Sivak, ex-TikTok COO V. Pappas, Bandai Namco CTO Julien Merceron and Atlantic Records CEO Craig Kallman.
“I think the game we’re making is about bringing different talent together to make magic,” said Chris Bell. “The syndicate that we put together is an echo of that. It’s been very, very validating, and exciting to bring in some amazing partners to help us grow the vision for Gardens.”
The team includes industry veterans from such acclaimed games as Sky: Children of the Light, Journey, What Remains of Edith Finch, Blaseball, Ultima Online, Outer Wilds, Tunic, Dustforce, and Ashen, and films such as The Hobbit and The Adventures of Tintin.
“It’s a game inspired by our favorite memories playing online RPGs, MMOs, and fantasy action-adventure games over the years, memories of crossing paths with strangers,” said Chris Bell. “The game builds upon multiplayer ideas and lessons from previous titles I helped design like Journey, Sky, and even my student game Way, while bringing players into a higher stakes, shapeshifting fantasy wilderness where cooperation is key, yet betrayal is still possible.”
Chris Bell added, “We’re including novel cooperative gameplay that rewards players who help each other, which can encourage friendship and dialogue with PvP and conflict in interesting and subversive ways. We’re growing the world we want to play in every day, a world designed to offer new experiences every time you play, growing and evolving for years to come. Thanks to our amazing new partners and this latest round of funding, we can continue crafting the best game possible while growing and supporting our incredible team.”
When the founders got together in 2021, they started prototyping.
“We did some prototypes, kicking around ideas, and then once we figured that out, we formed Gardens and hit the ground running,” Chris Bell said. “We spent about 11 months prototyping, adding some fairly novel features that made us stand out.”
That, in turn, helped them hire more people and raise money.
Hints about the game
Gardens’ upcoming game will be an ever-evolving online player-versus-player-versus-environment (PvPvE) fantasy adventure sandbox ARPG. The company hasn’t shown too much of the game publicly yet, but it has a unique animated art style that is different from other fantasy games.
The game is inspired by the team’s favorite memories playing online RPGs, massively multiplayer online games, and fantasy action-adventure games over the years. The game builds upon multiplayer ideas and lessons from previous titles and is set in a shapeshifting fantasy wilderness where cooperation is key, yet betrayal is still possible.
The game will include novel cooperative gameplay that rewards players who help each other, encouraging friendship and dialogue with PvP and conflict in interesting and subversive ways.
“One memory I have from playing [Final Fantasy XI Online] was adventuring through this particularly desolate area of the world when it started to rain. It was an area that most people didn’t venture to mostly because there wasn’t much of a mechanical incentive to be there,” Chris Bell said. “It was pretty barren. And so it started to rain. I went to find a cave to sit and watch the rain. I came across another player already sitting there and some time passed as we were sitting next to each other. I asked them why they had come. They said I came to watch the rain, which was the same reason I was there.”
Stephen Bell said, “We’re thinking about how do we create a game that fosters those moments by design and looks for what it is that brings players joy and excitement. How do we build a world that fosters those kinds of moments again and again.”
Moritz Baier-Lentz, partner and head of gaming at Lightspeed Venture Partners, played the prototype of the game. He said in an interview with GamesBeat that he told his firm that it was the best series A prototype that he had ever seen while reviewing pitches for venture funding. The company said it heard similar things from other financial and strategic investors, platforms and publishers.
“It was a combination of seeing something really brash with an easy-to-see bold triple-A vision,” Baier-Lentz said. “But it was married with this magical and enchanting, not just art style, but also design.”
The term sheet was signed in a very short time. Baier-Lentz said the game was refreshingly different and very design forward.
“This is more like 50% proven out and 50% something new,” he said. It’s very rare to “look at something that has only seen a year of development that is actually captivating to the extent that you want to keep playing,” Baier-Lentz said. “It was really just magic and already fun to explore. It’s rare to find something actually this refreshing and novel. Still, it isn’t just an indie developer project, but something that’s clearly set up to be a live-ops triple-A forever game.”
The game emphasizes tactile interactions between players as they collaborate to navigate the world, solve puzzles, and awaken dormant magic. Investors noted that there is no comparison for Gardens’ combination of indie-like design innovation, creativity, and playfulness on the one hand, and global ambition and commercial focus on the other.
To support development efforts and match the scope of the game, Gardens plans to scale up its team significantly this year. The company is currently seeking game designers, engineers, and artists.
“It’s both inspiring and validating to see so much excitement around our vision for this game and studio, especially from these incredibly accomplished investors and partners,” Dostal said. “Folks with deep ties to Blizzard, Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony, PUBG, Riot Games, Tencent, and more are all coming together around Gardens; we couldn’t be more excited for the party we’ve assembled and the next chapter of our adventure together.”
More investor views
Investors noted that there is no comparison for Gardens’ combination of indie-like design innovation, creativity, and playfulness on the one hand, and global ambition and commercial focus on the other.
“Gardens’ demo is innovative and, above all, joyful. The gorgeous fantasy wilderness is filled with other adventurers, magical creatures, and a charming landscape to explore,” said Maria Park, head of corporate
development at Krafton, who is joining Gardens’ board of directors, in a statement. “The multiplayer co-op elements emphasize tactile interactions between players as they collaborate to navigate the world, solve puzzles and awaken dormant magic, like riding atop a friend’s shoulders to fetch fruit from a tree, leaping across a chasm into the arms of a stranger, tugging armor off a giant monster together, or joining forces to cast a magic spell. It’s amazing to see what the team has accomplished in such a short time. We see a ton of potential for this ambitious project and can’t wait for players to one day experience it for themselves.”
An intriguing art style
The stylistic art is 3D and it will be part of a 3D online world. Stephen Bell said the concept art felt magical and the team it feels like something no one has done before. It reminds me of Annapurna’s If Then and Sable. It involves a new way of rendering, reminiscent of non-photorealistic rendering.
“Hopefully, players will find it magical and captivating,” Dostal said. “We put some significant time and research into coming up with a new method of rendering linework in a 3D environment.”
“We want this to be a world where, no matter what kind of player you are, you can jump into this world and spend time here and want to return and feel like you have something to offer and something to contribute,” Chris Bell said. “Whether you’re a competitive player who takes a sword to every problem. Or if you want to be more like a pacifist player or someone who’s just more about adventuring and exploring.”
Chris Bell said the title will be multiplayer first. It’s ever evolving in a PvP sandbox.
Stephen Bell acknowledged the company name might seem a bit misleading. But he noted you’ll be exploring lush and overgrown lands, and the game will create spaces that bring players together for interesting moments.
“Watching people play and experience real joy and surprise was just a total thrill,” Stephen Bell said. “It was very refreshing when you’re deep in development and you’re wondering if this is working. It’s been fun.”
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