Donut County’s Ben Esposito talks diversity, game development, and elaborate Enya references

Feature article

Indie game developer Ben Esposito is most well known for his work on critically acclaimed What Remains of Edith Finch and The Unfinished SwanThe passionate developer will also soon be widely known for his solo project, Donut County. We took a look at the cooky, criminal, comedy adventure about holes swallowing your friends and hometown a few weeks ago, which can be found here.

Ben Esposito is popular in the American indie-developer scene. He initially found traction with the pitch of the Donut County game jam prototype, The Pits, poking fun at video game pitches by the infamously cryptic Peter Molyneux. Additionally, he is a prominent part of the Glitch City LA collective, a diverse group of game creators who are passionate about sharing their love for development.

We were lucky enough to ask Ben a handful of questions regarding indie games, diversity, gender, and Donut County.

Starting the game six years ago, how did you find the motivation to keep on pursuing its development?

“It was difficult, haha. Especially because early on, I didn’t realize how long the process would take. I thought I was making a game in 12 months. Every time I’d reflect on my progress, the end felt like it was slipping farther away.”

“Getting involved with the independent game scene in Los Angeles really helped me stay motivated to finish the game. Working around other creators who are all at various stages of the projects and careers gave me some much needed perspective. It also helped keep me accountable. After all, I became ‘the guy who’s making Donut County’.”

Glitch City is clearly a welcoming group for independents. What are your thoughts around gender diversity in LA indie development?

“Unfortunately, indie game development at the professional level usually reflects the diversity of the wider industry. Gender diversity has improved in the LA indie community over the last few years, especially in our Glitch City LA scene. Part of that is a result of an increase in women in leadership and event organization roles. In addition, we always hope Glitch City is a welcoming place for indies, but part of that means being very intentional about accepting new members. We have an ever-evolving membership process with a sensitivity to preserving the safety of the folks in the space and the diversity of the community. It’s really slow, but it has helped the community grow a lot!”

Solo development is clearly a difficult yet passion driven job. What has been the most challenging aspect?

“The biggest challenge I faced with working on a game alone was decision fatigue. I thought I wanted to make all the big decisions and have all the cool ideas, but as I got deeper into the process I became exhausted with having to decide on every single detail. Sometimes I was desperate for someone to help make arbitrary decisions, like whether to make a book red or blue!”

How did you overcome it?

“To be honest, I stumbled through it, but I did learn a few things. When working alone, you don’t have the benefit of having multiple perspectives at once, so it can be hard to come to a thoughtful decision. However, you can get a new perspective on your work if you give yourself some time and space away from it. I found that breaking up the decision making process into a few stages that happened over a few days to a few weeks really helped. At first, I’d define the problem and come up with some options. Then I’d sit on it for a day or two, and come back to the problem as if I were new to it.”

“For particularly tricky decisions, I often relied on outside perspectives. Mainly friends and other developers. I’d always try to offer some feedback in return!”

Donut County features not only cooky animals, but characters of diversity too. Do you feel writing for diverse characters in the current climate is acceptably performed?

“I don’t think indie games are all that different than the rest of the industry in terms of content. Writing in video games is subject to a lot of constraints, so I understand why bad writing happens. However, there are some indies exploring genres and formats that put a focus on writing characters. I’ve been really impressed with the rise of Visual Novels in the indie space. Games like Butterfly Soup by Brianna Lei give me a lot of hope.”

Working with Giant Sparrow on critically acclaimed games must have been an amazing experience. What was your biggest take away from working with the studio?

“At Giant Sparrow, I learned how to be tolerant of uncertainty. Game development is so complex and multidisciplinary that you can never know for certain where things are going. You might not even know what it is you’re building towards. It’s really uncomfortable to not know what to do next or how to make the project better, but on the other side of that uncertainty is an epiphany. Sometimes you need to sit with that discomfort and wade out into the water with the faith that you’ll find the answers.”

What do you specifically think about when designing diversity and inclusion for your games?

“I don’t think there is such thing as ‘perfect’ diversity or inclusion in a piece of art. If I aimed for it, I’d necessarily fail. Art is as much about what you don’t include as what you do, so I don’t try to do diversity math. I think the best characters come from the grain of reality. They gotta have that grit, and you can only understand that from getting to know real people. So I always write characters that are inspired by people I know. I’d never tell them, though. It’s not always flattering!”

Finally, Donut County is clearly wacky and out of this world. What part of the game (a line, character, certain level) is your personal favourite?

“Two characters in Donut County only exist as an elaborate Enya reference. Nobody has pointed it out yet, but I don’t really care if people notice it. I’m a big Enya fan. It’s just for me, LOL.”

Thank you Ben for the absolutely amazing and thorough responses. Prepare yourself to be gobbled up by Donut County, available now on SteamPlayStation 4, and iOS.