A game studio called Gardens has just announced that it's raised $31.3 million in new funding off the back of a playable prototype shown privately at GDC earlier this year, and the list of investors is full of games biz establishment bigwigs. Among them are Blizzard co-founder Mike Morhaime's company, former Sony Computer Entertainment America president Jack Tretton, Valorant co-creator Stephen Lim, and the Nintendo heirs.
So, big interest, but what's the game? All we've seen so far is concept art, but we do have some details. Gardens was co-founded by Chris Bell, one of the designers of Journey and the lead designer of What Remains of Edith Finch, and the studio describes its first game as an "online PvPvE fantasy adventure sandbox ARPG."
"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," says 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. 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."
The two biggest Gardens investors are Lightspeed Venture Partners, a global tech investment firm, and Krafton, the South Korean owner of PUBG. Maria Park, VP and head of corporate development at Krafton, described Gardens' behind-closed-doors demo as "innovative and, above all, joyful."
"The gorgeous fantasy wilderness is filled with other adventurers, magical creatures, and a charming landscape to explore," Park said. "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."
Journey, which released on Steam a few years ago after many years as a PlayStation exclusive, is one of the most celebrated games of all time, and it sounds like Gardens is conceptually similar: a tender, collaborative sort of game, at least when it's PvE.
But where Journey was for a lot of people a transcendent experience they had once and then put down, it sounds like Gardens is making something that's, without necessarily meaning this in a bad way, more attractive to investors—maybe the kind that doesn't end? According to the studio, investors are excited by the game's "combination of indie-like design innovation, creativity, and playfulness on the one hand, and global ambition and commercial focus on the other."
"Indie-like design" is a funny phrase—I guess we'll look at it and think, 'Why, it's as if this game weren't funded by a company called Lightspeed Venture Partners!'—but regardless of those LinkedIn power user backers, I'm curious. There's an enormous amount of unexplored territory in social game design (surely putting 100 people on an island full of guns isn't the last great innovation), and Bell's resume leads me to believe there could genuinely be something new and exciting to the project. The studio says that its developers also worked on Blaseball, Ultima Online, Outer Wilds, Tunic, Dustforce, and Ashen—that's a strong lineup, and the concept art we've seen so far looks great.
I don't expect to play this game soon, though. Gardens is publicizing its project in part for the same reason Blizzard started talking about its unnamed survival game a while ago: not because it's near release, but to attract future hires. Gardens has posted a few job listings on its official site, and hasn't yet provided a release window, or even a name, for its upcoming ARPG.