Nicholas Laborde has lead a semi-charmed kind of life. He’s made friends with leading figures in the gaming industry, started his own business during college to make his first video game, and is currently raising funds for his indie studio Raconteur Games. Even with such successes at such a young age, he’s also suffered hardships, such as the loss of his grandfather last year. In mid-March, I spoke with Nicholas about video game development, mentors, his grandfather, and more.
What was the first video game you ever played?
My first video game was Super Mario World on the SNES! I would sneak onto my brother’s SNES when he left for school thirty minutes before me. For five days a week, I would be really, really bad at Mario, and it inspired me to one day want to tell stories using this fantastic medium.
What made you decide to go into video games?
My senior project in high school. I had to get a mentor within the industry to help me on a prototype of a game. I reached out to Randy Pitchford, CEO of Gearbox Software, and humbly asked him to be my mentor. He got back to me with the best rejection letter EVER. It seriously inspired me to work even harder. Anyway, he said that he couldn’t help due to his obligations and he wanted to make sure I was successful. He then referred me to the VP of Product Development at Gearbox, Aaron Thibault, who offered to be my mentor and let me job shadow him – and the rest was history. I met Aaron, Randy, and the Gearbox team and was utterly inspired by seeing 200+ people who loved going to work every day. I always thought I wanted to work in games, but Aaron and the team helped me KNOW I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.
What gave you the idea to channel your grandfather’s passing into a game?
When I lost my grandfather last year, I felt that at age twenty-two, I had just gotten to the age where I could properly and maturely appreciate my loved ones as an adult. When he passed away, it hit me like a train that I could no longer talk to him to get his advice, wisdom, and input… he was truly and irreversibly gone, and I had only just gotten to the point where I could maturely appreciate what he had to offer. Not that I didn’t before, but with age and maturity you see things differently than, say, a fifteen-year-old who never really realizes he’ll lose his grandparents. In my grieving, I wanted to make an experience that would allow others to connect with and appreciate their own loved ones while they still had time.
Can you give us some insights into your development process?
The development process took about eight, nine months. Within a few weeks after he passed away, I had a fire in my heart to create a something that would help others. We brought on our first international hire, Jess, who served as the environment artist and level designer. He made every single thing you see inside our world. We also brought on another programmer, Matt, who did all of the gameplay programming, underlying systems, and bug fixing. It was exciting to bring on new team members and get fresh perspective to mix in with our core team. Development was very smooth as we wanted to create a succinct, specific thing. Our CTO Sander helped us run a lot of our backend website processes and give advice to Matt. Finally, the music was done by the amazing Ari Fisher in the last few months of development. I wanted to create something you didn’t expect to hear: 1980s ambience.
As someone who toddled through the 80s, my memories of ambience back then include poofy hair, Bon Jovi, and lots of one hit wonders like Rick Astley, so could you clarify what you mean by 1980s ambience?
The 1980s were electric in sound and eclectic in feel. I wanted to make the opposite of that, because you don’t expect a 1980s musical piece to be…. soft and ambient, focused on the piano. You expect guitar and rock, not gentle piano and atmospheric ambience. I am proud of the entire game, but the music especially!
What are your major influences and how do they inform your work?
I have more people influences than media influences, if that is an acceptable way to answer this question. I am constantly influenced and inspired by two specific people: Aaron, my mentor, and Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox. I get to see Aaron once or twice per year when we’re in the same place, and I always learn so much from him, even six years later. I was at a GDC party a few weeks ago, and Aaron and I were introducing ourselves to people. Aaron said he worked “at a little company in Frisco called Gearbox, where we make games” and I chuckled to one of our new friends that he helped make “a little game called Borderlands.” Aaron coolly says that he tries not to make assumptions. A small thing, but that humility inspires me.
As for Phil Spencer, to make a long story short, he played our first game two years ago and gave me feedback AND let me use his quote in marketing materials. A really selfless and humble guy. I actually got to meet him for a couple of minutes at GDC and that was just so inspiring to meet someone at the “top” of our industry, who was so down-to-earth and humble. He has something in his twitter bio that inspires me, I have it written down: “Defined more by what I do than who I am.” And that just describes him so well – humble, gracious, and down-to-earth.
Those are some interesting influences to cite. Besides being major video game executives, do you think they have anything in common?
The common thread between Aaron and Phil is simple – they are both humble, and always learning. These are important qualities and I’m always trying to learn as much as I can from them, they are definitely big influences on me professionally and personally. Whenever someone comes to me for help, especially a stranger, I think of these two exceptionally busy people who made time for me, and that molded me into who I am, including starting a company and following my dreams, so I try to help everyone that I can.
What do you think of the current state of gaming?
I think gaming is at a crossroads. For the first time in a long time, AAA sales were not meeting expectations last fall. Simultaneously, indie games are getting bigger and more impressive. But at the same time, internally, a lot of people are shifting from indie to AAA; the money is starting to flow more towards indie games, ever so slightly, but the people making games are moving towards AAA. That’s probably for sustainability purposes, as the indie market is extraordinarily competitive and hard to make money in. It’s strange.
I think we’re at a time where the industry reinvents itself; I don’t remember who said it, but the rule of thumb is that the game industry reinvents itself every five years. We’re looking at a time where we’re not getting console successors, but updated consoles like the PS4 Pro and Xbox Scorpio. We now have a portable console, the Switch. Twitch streamers can determine if a game is successful. Millions of dollars spent on development with an all-star team could still mean a game flops, just because the market didn’t like it. We have to look at this carefully, and remember that this is a business — if the market doesn’t want it, it doesn’t matter how good it is or who makes it.
What’s the future for gaming?
The future of gaming is in the hands of indie developers and consumers, I feel. Those smaller companies that can take extraordinary risks are the ones that will keep the industry fresh and cause true innovation. At the same time, consumers will shape how we mold our business practices – if millions of PS4 Pros and Xbox Scorpios are sold, this tells console manufacturers that hey, we will pay for a PS4 v1.1 instead of a PS5. That’s a big shift. But if they sell poorly, it may make the Xbox/PlayStation folks rethink how they approach generations — I think that will have a huge impact on the future.
Lastly, services like Fig that give both consumers and investors a voice in what gets brought to life is incredibly important as well. In the end, I think it’s just going to be decided by customers – we should take them very seriously, now and always, because we wouldn’t be here without them.
What’s your favorite game?
One of my favorite games of all time is Medal of Honor: Airborne. It had this fantastic mechanic where you parachuted into the game level and could start anywhere, tackling objectives in any order. That is just so fun to me! I replay it yearly. I also am in love with the Uncharted series, with Uncharted 4 being my favorite of the bunch. Naughty Dog is a huge influence on me, and as a company where storytelling is literally in our name, I am consistently inspired by their ability to create an emotionally moving experience. Currently, I’m playing far too much Rainbow Six: Siege. The game manages to be so different every single time you play it, and combine that with the natural inclination to work together with other players, and it’s an incredibly satisfying multiplayer game.
What are you working on now?
Our next game is about a lost dog trying to return home. Stay tuned for more info in the coming months!