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November 26, 2015

Expanding horizons

By challenging the market norm, two Adelaide game developers and their indie game Expand are turning heads on a global scale.

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  • Words: Tom Phillips
  • Pictures: Brendan Homan

Five years ago Expand was nothing more than a small weekend project for game developer Chris Johnson.

After evolving into a many-year collaboration with award-winning composer Chris Larkin, the game – launched in September this year – has piqued the interest of high profile gaming sites like IGN, Kotaku and Game Informer, and won multiple accolades at gaming conventions including Pax Australia 2014, Zurich Games Festival and TGS.


Keep an eye out for Expand – the game and soundtrack – on Windows, Mac and Linux.

Thousands of games are released each year through mediums like PC Marketplace Steam, while thousands more never make it to publication. In the world of game development, time and money can disappear quickly while trying to market and sell, and success is never guaranteed. So Chris and Chris took a different approach with Expand – they never worried about the market, and instead put full faith in their taste and vision.

The resulting game is a meditative and visually striking puzzle game, with an evocative and cinematic score. It’s a unique experience in a sea of remakes, homages and copies, and it grew from a simple idea and clear vision.

“The problem with things nowadays is that they play to a fantasy of the market of what people want,” says Chris J. “But the things I like are clearly from one person with a very clear idea, and it’s uncompromising. And I think that’s really important. The best thing anyone can offer is themselves. Otherwise you’re totally replaceable.”

At an early stage of development Chris saw the initial levels of the game, the winding labyrinth and how they would play out.  From there it was about crafting the experience.

“The best thing anyone can offer is themselves.” – Chris Johnson

Chris L recalls playing an early build of Expand at a local Indie showcase. This was the first time the two met.

“I was really affected by it. It had some temp music in there. Some simple piano music. And I remember thinking that I wanted to take this further and this was a project that I would love to work on,” he says.

Chris J remembers that first meeting too.

“You have a lot of people who are into games that want to help out. And unfortunately most of the time they can’t. But with Chris [Larkin], he mentioned some of the problems with the build and how he would address them. And immediately you knew there was some thinking behind this,” he says. 

The two began catching up for coffee, getting to know each other over a few months. Chris J referred to this phase as “cultivating taste” and getting on the same page when it came to the vision and philosophy.

Audience and demographic was never discussed, but game play and user experience was always paramount.

“I run a play testing event at AIE (Academy of Interactive Entertainment) every three months. And there are monthly gatherings at the Goodwood Hotel (ARGGGH – Adelaide’s Really Good Gathering of Game Developers). Every month we’d take the game there and get people to play it. Not so much to get their opinions, but to watch how they play it. To make sure what I’m trying to do is getting across,” says Chris J.   

“The scene is big enough that there is a community, but small enough to not get caught with heavy influence or in politics.”

To reach a global audience the pair was active in submitting to International Game Shows – a costly but rewarding process. As Chris J says, “you never know who you’re going to meet”.

Expand was selected for the Indie Showcase at PAX 2014. This was the opportunity to give the game a massive international push. At previous shows the two Chrises had used an iPad to take contact details from those interested, but this time they had only remembered to bring along a stack of Post-it notes. Sticking with the philosophy of the project, Chris and Chris rolled with the situation. People were asked to put their email on the back, and a one word review for the experience on the front, then the notes were stuck onto the booth to create a mural. As a result, Kotaku – a gaming focused website averaging 13.4 million unique views each month – published an article on this process and the game itself. The team stuck by their vision, and were rewarded with a huge boost in reach from something that was an accident, but a happy one.

Since then Expand has been building momentum with a stream of coverage from other major outlets. A mixture of anxiety and relief led up to the September 30 release – but already Chris and Chris have achieved so much. Whatever the next project, the eyes of the world are now on them.

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