A Hollywood giant’s big bet

Annapurna wants to do for games what it’s done for movies.

If Annapurna Pictures has any interest in just doing the Hollywood blockbuster thing, it sure doesn’t show. While other major studios chase the next sequel to their proven franchises, the upstart movie house – founded in 2011 by Megan Ellison (the daughter of Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison) – consistently produces creative-driven, provocative films like Zero Dark Thirty, Her and Sausage Party, the controversial R-rated animated feature.

Annapurna’s smaller video game unit is equally disinterested in the status quo. The division, led by former Sony PlayStation and Warner Bros. alumni, isn’t likely to create interactive versions of Annapurna films like American Hustle or Detroit any time soon. Instead, it’s partnering with talented independent game-makers whose big ideas they feel are worth the risk.

“We’ve always been attracted to creative artists, and there are a lot of exciting creators in this space who are taking chances and challenging the preconceived notions of what games can be,” explains Nathan Gary, head of games at Annapurna Interactive. “It’s still a relatively new medium, so there is a lot of experimenting to be done with mechanics, subject matter and tone.”

Annapurna has assembled an all-star team of indie collaborators, many of whom are celebrities in their own right. Ken Wong, the lead designer of Monument Valley, has teamed up on an experimental new iOS game. The lead designer of PlayStation’s The Unfinished Swan, Ben Esposito, is underway with Donut County, a stylish physics puzzler with intuitive control. And Sam Barlow, who made the acclaimed Her Story, has the anticipated follow-up, Telling Lies. All of these premium games are coming to the App Store over the next year.

There’s another game, though, and it’s one of the most beloved indie titles ever created – Flower from creative director Jenova Chen and celebrated studio thatgamecompany. This beautiful, meditative experience is out now for iOS.

“Annapurna’s goals are similar,” explains Jenova. “We want to bring well-crafted, personally moving and emotionally interactive entertainment experiences to new demographics, and the Annapurna team is keen to invest in less traditional game titles. We’re excited to collaborate with them.”

The beloved game Flower offers a beautiful, meditative experience.

Esposito, who left a major development house to create Donut County, mirrors Jenova's enthusiasm.

“Annapurna has good taste,” he jokes. “It’s clear they value each creator’s voice and vision above all – and celebrate their idiosyncrasies.”

“It’s almost the antithesis of how things work in the bigger video-game companies. There, the brand trumps the creator,” adds Barlow, who was the lead designer of the acclaimed Wii game Silent Hill: Shattered Memories before he broke away to make games independently. After the success of Her Story, he didn’t need to collaborate with a publisher again, but Annapurna won him over.

Donut County is a stylish game about dropping things into holes.

“You couldn’t pick a better partner to continue to subvert how movies and games can work together. I was honest about how Telling Lies would be as risky and challenging as Her Story was back in 2014 and that didn’t raise any eyebrows,” he says. “Then, seeing the other people they're working with? It's like the video game Justice League and Avengers all in one.”

The stunning hand-drawn puzzler Gorogoa is coming soon.

“We look for creator-driven games that push the boundaries of story-telling,” explains Gary, who collaborates with Annapurna’s growing lineup of artists. "To us that means appealing to a wide spectrum of players, and hopefully even those who may not consider themselves gamers at all. People’s time is precious, so the games we’re focusing on place an emphasis on valuing that time and giving hand-crafted, meaningful experiences.”