For $13, the recently released Wii U game A Day At The Carnival doesn’t give you much. The mini-game collection takes place in a desolate wasteland, with nothing to be seen except gravel, sky, and oddly colored tents. Sound will only come from the Wii U controller’s speakers. Sometimes, its graphics don’t fit on the screen. If you decide to play skeeball, good luck figuring out how to aim. If you throw the ball, you can’t even see where it lands.
Who makes a game like this? The credits trace the game back to Thornbury Software, the founder of which is Robert Thornbury, a 59-year-old former factory worker in Winchester, Indiana who says he used to work 22-hour days between the factory and making games. A Day At The Carnival is what it is, he argues, because it is for kids.
“We did a poor job of communicating what audience these games were actually designed for,” Thornbury said when I chatted with him recently. “They’re obviously not like The Last of Us. We don’t have the budget or the software to do it. But what they are designed for, they hit the mark.”
It’s not inherently clear why targeting games to children would excuse some of the problems in A Day At The Carnival, but Robert Thornbury is clear that he’s probably not making games for me or you. While making another of his games, 2016’s Call of the West, he said he was approached by people he knew in Winchester. A lot of whom had grandchildren, and they wanted him to make games suitable for the whole family to enjoy.
“They wanted simplified graphics, simplified gameplay,” Thornbury said. “They wanted something to keep them busy, play video games, and feel like, ‘We beat a game!’”
You can, in fact, beat the skeeball and dart throwing games in A Day at the Carnival quite easily. As long as you aim in the general direction and press the throwing button, you’re sure to score some points.
He says that his neighbors have responded positively to his games.
“They loved it,” Thornbury said. “They were pretty happy with it.”
The game does have at least one fan there. On Nintendo’s social media service Miiverse, someone called AppleFun! excitedly shares their scores with other players. A checkmark on their post indicates they actually own the game.
However, on that same service, other users are much more negative. They’ve called it a “pile of trash” and “awful,” among other things.
Because of all the negative comments that he received about his game online, Thornbury attempted to change the description for the game on Nintendo’s website to establish that Carnival was geared towards children. The company has not changed the description. Thornbury says he thinks they won’t change it either because they like the controversy, or maybe because they are busy.
Some makers of bad games come off as greedy charlatans trying to make a quick buck, others like dreamers who can’t turn their ambitions into compelling reality. Thornbury seems different. When we spoke, he sounded earnest but overwhelmed, remarking that his company can’t compete with giants like Naughty Dog and Microsoft. His creations aren’t innovative, but focus on the desire to serve up some nostalgic pleasures by making games about archery and carnivals. When he talks about the games he has made or hopes to make, he sounds like a man who got the passion to program long ago, but has had little time to get the training to meet modern expectations. You can see it in the screenshots on Thornbury Software’s website or in A Day At The Carnival as it runs sluggishly on the Wii U: these are games that look like they were built for Windows 95.
Thornbury is unsure about exactly when he first learned to make games. But he says he remembers that that back when he was in school, he had to create a tic tac toe game, a chess game, and a checkers game. Thornbury says he developed his programming skills decades ago by working with DOS, and later with Windows. He launched Thornbury Software in 1992 after he wanted to market a checkers game that he wrote.
These days, he programs the games, while his business partner, Tannis Stants, does the artwork and animation. The company’s first major game was 2016’s The Call of the West, which is available as a PC game. It’s about a girl named Abby who decides to explore the Wild West. The next three games, A Day at the Carnival, Archery, and Shooting Range were designed to be “quick and dirty games” to be played on the now-defunct Playstation Mobile.
Thornbury says he appreciates the amount of work that goes into building games, and the reward that he gets from it. “It’s a lot more challenging than regular, dry programming is,” Thornbury says. “It’s a lot more gratifying to see something you’ve done come to life and you can actually play it.”
Until recently, he wasn’t primarily a game developer. Over the years, he’s had to work factory jobs to make ends meet. He assembled locks for Honda hoods at a Marujun plant. Last year, after Marujun was bought out, he began working at a TOA factory, where he welded Subaru frames together. Thornbury estimated he worked 40 hours a week at the factory, and another 50 hours at Thornbury Software.
“It was pretty tough,” he said. “I mean, basically my day was from four a.m. until two a.m. in the morning, seven days a week. I didn’t get much sleep...and here at Thornbury Software we got really far behind on our work schedule because I just simply wasn’t here to help out.”
Thornbury left his factory job a month ago. He says his company now employs six people and is profitable, though he declined to share any sales numbers.
“I know people have a lot of questions, why we’ve got so much going on, but... compared to Microsoft and Naughty Dog, we know we’re no match for bigger companies,” Thornbury admits. “But companies our size and ones that start out in the beginning, I think we do pretty good.”
While his post-factory work schedule is better, he hasn’t really stopped working. Typically, he starts his morning around seven o’clock and checks emails and Facebook. He said that he keeps a notebook of things he has to do around the office. On the day I interviewed him, Thornbury said he had six pages worth of things to do. This week, they have a brainstorming session for future games.
“We’ll brainstorm an idea and we’ll write ‘em down, and then one of us will write up a storyline for it,” Thornbury explained. “And then we’ll break down the story: okay, what scenes do we need to have in this storyline, where do we want them to start, where do we want to end up?”
Now that Thornbury’s back to working with the company full time, they have big plans. They are remaking Call of the West, seeking investor help, and plan to start using the Unreal Engine.
They’re also moving over to more grown-up games, and instead of doing a first-person shooter, they’re going to focus on third person shooters. Thornbury thinks that switching to content for older audiences will give them the ability to develop more complex storylines, and now that they have Unreal, they can make better graphics.
“We’re not going to have explicit sex and nudity and drug use that we see in all of the games. There’ll probably be more violence,” Thornbury said. “But you know people will understand that this is what happens in the real adult world.”
Thornbury hopes people think his games are fun, or at least play his games and find themselves craving other stuff to play.
“You know maybe it won’t necessarily be our games, but they’ll want to keep playing.”
You can check out the company’s full list of games here.