On its surface, Donut County looks simple — so simple, you’d likely never guess that it’s been more than six years since development on the game began.
The game’s premise is delightfully straightforward: All you have to do is move around a little hole in the ground. Some of the objects you find lying around will be small enough to nudge into the hole, and the more objects you consume, the bigger the hole becomes, gradually swallowing people and toppling buildings until there’s nothing left in the landscape.
And yet it’s taken four years since Donut County’s release trailer premiered for the game to see the light of day — and even before that, creator Ben Esposito had already been working on the nugget of Donut County for two years.
It hasn’t been an easy road, either. Though anticipation for the completed product has been building steadily since the game was first announced, Esposito has had to deal with copycats on top of constantly tweaking the game’s physics engine and figuring out just how much he could do on his own as an independent developer.
But despite all those twists and turns, the game is finally here, available on iPhone, iPad, Mac, PC, and PS4 in all its hole-y glory — and published by Annapurna Interactive (a subsidiary of the motion picture company Annapurna Pictures), no less. I spoke with Esposito ahead of the game’s release to figure out just how he brought Donut County to life.
Raccoons, tech, and gentrification are all entwined in Donut County’s DNA
In Donut County, the hole is used by a band of raccoons, via a mobile app, to essentially take over the county, i.e., as a means of gentrification. These raccoons — and their leader, the Trash King — grew out of Esposito’s concerns about gentrification and technology.
“Raccoons are these creatures that are extremely adaptable to a human environment, and they seem kind of harmless and cute, and then all of a sudden they run the place,” he explains.
Running with that concept, in 2013 he created Brooklyn Trash King — though in that game, the roles were reversed. The game’s description reads as such: “You play a hot shot tech nerd gentrifying Brooklyn who must grovel in the face of a king rodent in order to get funding for their shitty Kickstarter project.”
Meanwhile, the idea of controlling a hole in the ground came from a tweet from a Peter Molyneux parody account. (Molyneux is a game designer whose reputation in the video game community is near legendary.)
You play a hole, you must move around an environment making certain elements fall into correct targets at the right time.— petermolydeux (@PeterMolydeux) January 5, 2012
This premise would become reality in the first, failed iteration of Donut County: Kachina, which made waves when it was featured in GDC 2013’s Experimental Gameplay Workshop. It was named after the spirit being in Hopi culture but seemed to have nothing to do with Hopi culture besides the name and cribbing the look of kachina dolls. As a result, Kachina was met with criticism, and in a 2015 “Failure Workshop” (in which developers share stories of, yes, past failures), Esposito spoke about his missteps in development, both in the original Kachina concept and in the year that he spent trying to prove the criticisms wrong.
“Research does not equal lived experience,” he said during the talk. “It doesn’t pay to tell someone else’s story. In many different ways, it hurts them and it hurts you, because it’s not a genuine story.”
When it became clear to Esposito that he wasn’t going to succeed in trying to tell someone else’s story, he returned to the drawing board, and to that little hole in the ground.
“You know you’re destroying something and being bad,” he says of the game’s central mechanic. “That’s when I realized, ‘I need to flip this.’ I need this game to be about you being the bad guy, but being able to understand where he comes from because his perspective is so different. He’s wrong, but you kind of get it, and it’s a story of trying to change his mind.”
“When you play the game, you intuitively know that you’re being an asshole,” he adds, laughing. “That’s just part of the game.”
Thus, the raccoons returned.
“I really wanted you to take on the role or the perspective of the gentrifier of the place, and for you to be the one who’s playing this video game, or Uber-type app, that’s kind of destroying the environment around you so that you can get stupid prizes, and raccoons made a lot of sense in terms of them invading the place,” Esposito explains. “They were kind of inspired by my first LA apartment, where the place was definitely run by raccoons. It was intense. I mean, I love them, but it’s fucked up. They’re great to see videos of.”
The doughnut motif, though also born out of Esposito’s move to LA, is unique to Donut County, and serves as the connective tissue tying the whole game together.
Esposito’s entry into the world of video games coincided with his entry into the world of doughnuts
Ever since playing Sonic the Hedgehog as a kid, Esposito had wanted to make video games. But growing up in the New York suburbs, where jobs in video game development were in short supply, it never seemed like a practical ambition.
In college, he tinkered with game development on his own, and teamed up with friends to do “game jams,” where they’d spend a single day making a game from scratch as quickly as possible, but he thought of it as a hobby rather than something to pursue.
That all changed, improbably, during a job interview in another field. He was up for a job in web design, and got all the way through to the final round of interviews, which placed him in front of the company’s CEO. “I was talking to him and he told me, ‘It seems like you’re really interested in video games,’” Esposito recalls. “He said, ‘I’m gonna do you a favor and not hire you. You should try to pursue games, because it seems like that’s really what you want to do.’ And he was right.”
With that in mind, Esposito reached out to Giant Sparrow, the developers of a game called The Unfinished Swan, asking to be brought on as a designer. They flew him out to Los Angeles to meet, and he moved across the country shortly afterward to pursue video game development full time.
That move was kismet, not just because he was now doing work he was passionate about but because he was suddenly met with a very different city culture.
“I grew up in the suburbs in New York, where we had Dunkin’ Donuts,” he says. “That was the only form of doughnut until Krispy Kreme appeared. Coming to LA was such a shock because every corner has a mom and pop doughnut shop with a different kind of local flavor or a different character based on what neighborhood you’re in, and it hit me immediately as, ‘This is kind of the network of culture in LA.’ When you’re out on the street, these doughnut shops are these spheres of influence of the culture and the space. And to see those disappear and turn into Dunkin’ Donuts would be a huge shame.”
And in Donut County, disappear they do, as they’re swallowed up by a hole in the ground.
Making the game feel real meant separating it from reality
As development continued, Esposito came to a key realization. “I realized the hole is not the important part of this,” he says. “The place and the stuff you put into the hole is the real character of the game.”
The “game-ier” nature of early iterations of Donut County was actually fighting what Esposito wanted to achieve, which was to “make it about these personal and specific places for these characters.”
And so he changed his approach: He let the levels dictate the mechanics.
“I was like, ‘I know I want a Disneyland level,’ like Raccoon Lagoon is in the game, and I let that environment speak to the mechanics,” Esposito explains. “‘I want Splash Mountain and I want a Ferris wheel,’ and I have this water idea from earlier in the game, so what does that look like? I really tried to make each level feel really unique and feel specific, and so I let that just be a dialogue, and I didn’t worry too much about having the mechanic complexity carry an 80-hour game. I just let each level be its own thing.”
The result is a game that’s nothing if not intuitive — you can create popcorn if you swallow corn kernels after swallowing a campfire — which Esposito stresses in noting that he wanted the game to be something that could be played by a first-time gamer, or between a parent and child. But, of course, a lot of work went into making it so easy to play, including making sure that during development, there was never the need to add another button to the game.
Besides figuring out the story, the biggest challenge was making the way the hole interacts with the world feel believable.
“It was a really long process of figuring out how to shape the objects in this world so that they fall in the hole correctly,” Esposito says. “The thing I found pretty early that guided the way all the objects look is that I tried to not have any objects that are longer than they are wide or tall, so I tried to make every object a cube shape.”
There are some exceptions to the rule, such as a few stray wood planks, but even some objects that would seem like exceptions have been tailored to Donut County’s needs. The palm trees that dot the landscape, for instance, aren’t actually solid objects — they’re stacks of rings.
The other part of making the game feel just right is, naturally, the physics engine. As it turned out, replicating real physics wasn’t going to cut it. In real life, larger objects seem to fall more slowly than smaller objects because of the way the same amount of gravity is being applied to each. In the game, it just looked strange, and initial testers complained so much that Esposito finally relented.
“Giant objects get way more gravity applied to them, so it looks like they’re falling as fast as a tiny hammer,” he explains. “Stuff like that totally makes the game feel convincing, so I’m okay with those cheats.”
The game’s twee aesthetic, meanwhile, comes from Esposito’s background in illustration and 2D creation.
“I really wanted to figure out a way to translate it over, because I like 3D, but 3D’s really not cute, usually,” he says, before adding, “Everything takes a long time in 3D by yourself, so I was like, ‘Okay, how do I do something efficient, but something also that draws on that kind of tradition of illustration, and is all about cute shapes and colors and proportions and stuff?’”
That cuteness is also echoed in the game’s music, which was composed by Dan Koestner, a friend of Esposito’s. Early on, the two of them came to an agreement that because of how long Esposito knew he would be working on the game, Koestner, who does research and development in ocean optics, would compose in his spare time and send Esposito whatever he came up with.
“We kind of went back and forth and whittled it down, and this is the culmination of six-plus years of music that we figured out a feel and a vibe for together,” Esposito says. “It’s this kind of LA beat scene-inspired soundtrack. It’s super textured, and it’s all field recordings and stuff, mixed with this super-bright ukulele.”
Using the ukulele was its own challenge, as it served as a key to tapping into the visual aesthetic of the game, but it couldn’t be too tacky. (“Ukulele, to me, if I even say the word, I’m like, ‘Ugh,’” Esposito says with a laugh.) Hence the addition of a more electronic sound to better ground Donut County in the city it’s meant to evoke: “We wanted to do that kind of combination of super cute, but also speak a little bit to the texture of electronic production that was happening in LA in the 2000s.”
After years of development and trouble along the way, Donut County is finally ready to see the light
If the buzz around Donut County is anything to go by, the years that went into making the game are about to pay off. It even boasts something of a stamp of approval from Keita Takahashi, the creator of Katamari Damacy, the sleeper 2004 Playstation 2 hit that put you in charge of a ball that grows in size as you collect pretty much everything you roll it over.
“He saw it pretty early on,” Esposito recalls, when asked about the comparisons that Donut County has drawn to Katamari Damacy, given their similarly whimsical aesthetics and focus on scale. “He was like, ‘Ah, that’s okay.’ ... He’s not easy to impress, I’ll just put it that way.”
The good, however, has come hand in hand with the bad, manifesting in this case as copycat games.
“I’d known about clones before on the app store, but I really thought there’s no way someone could copy what was good about my game,” Esposito says, audibly still upset over the turn of events. “I got an email from a friend saying, ‘Hey, I think someone stole your game.’ ... I saw the Instagram ad they emailed to me, and I was like, ‘Holy crap. They’re selling my idea.’ They’re not doing it as well as I am, but it turns out it doesn’t really matter.”
Soon afterward, Esposito posted a statement to Twitter, noting that there were differences between the two games and that he planned to focus his energy on finishing Donut County.
hey all, i didn’t think it was possible but my upcoming game @donutcounty now has a cheap clone at the top of the app store lol. here’s more info.— ben esposito (@torahhorse) June 25, 2018
thanks to everyone who emailed me about this!! to get updates on the real deal sign up at https://t.co/b4cl57Pcgl pic.twitter.com/hjvUIrgJan
“If that had happened a year prior, that may have had a real impact on the whole project and my morale for sure,” he adds, “but I feel fortunate that I was so close to being done that it wouldn’t be so easy to give up.”
Given his means as an indie developer, he’s also chosen not to pursue any further action. As he notes, video game design isn’t protected. The only bummer is that he wishes he could have released Donut County first, but for the most part, it’s been “a process of letting go.”
Like the hole at the center of it, Donut County is something that’s grown and grown over the years. But where the hole destroys, Donut County is born out of a genuine sense of preservation and conscientiousness.
Even Esposito’s launch plans are a nod to the way doughnuts have become something of a personal symbol of community: When I ask if he has any plans to celebrate, he tells me that he’s collaborated with his favorite LA doughnut shop, Donut Friend, to make a custom doughnut for his launch party, folding Esposito, and his long-gestating creation, into the very doughnut culture he loves so much.