December 13, 2011 5:00 AM | Tim W.
[This is the story of how the five-year development cycle behind the upcoming, IGF Award-winning Xbox Live Arcade title Fez took away the health and life of creator Phil Fish, and the lessons he learned from the protracted, difficult experience.]
Five years in the making, indie platformer game Fez from Polytron is finished and set for release in the New Year. While playing on gamers' sense of nostalgia with its pixel graphic style and numerous nods to Nintendo's 16-bit classics, it's a game that also blazes trails with a unique perspective-shifting control scheme.
As the game enters certification with Microsoft, developer Phil Fish's role is shifting from that of creative vision-holder to evangelist. Gamasutra's Simon Parkin caught up with Fish at the recent GameCity event in Nottingham, England, where the designer was manning a dimly lit Fez lounge in which attendees were invited to sit back on a comfy sofa and lose themselves in his creation.
In a candid interview, Fish opened up about the toll the game's development has taken on his life, offering advice to other indie devs who might find themselves in a similar situation.
The Fez lounge is lovely. How did this come about?
Phil Fish: Iain [Simons, director of GameCity] approached me and he said: "Do you want to do something a little bit different?" I told him I don't think Fez demos well in short bursts, in a standing up, noisy environment, which is what we've been doing at PAX and things like that.
I told him it'd be nice if we had a kind of living room type arrangement, put a good sound system where people can sit down and play the game for a longer period of time comfortably. Because the game is a bit of a slow burner, you know, it's all about the atmosphere and getting sucked in and lost into that world.
So that doesn't work at all in five minutes. And then he said: "We have this lounge!", and he sent me a picture and I saw the chair and I was like "Sold!" It's been the best demo we've ever done. It's also the first time we showed the entire game, so I'm getting a lot of good play-testing notes.
Yeah, you're sitting at the back like an arch-villain with a cat on your lap, watching. It's a great way to play a game. It feels a bit like sitting in your front room, and you get a proper 20 minutes to sit and digest the experience.
PF: One group of friends played for like two hours; they played a quarter of the game. I never personally sat down and watched somebody play for that long before. And it's working! People are not getting stuck, they're figuring out what to do.
I had this class of kids come in yesterday morning, 12 to 15 year olds. First thing in the morning I was scared shitless. I thought these kids are going to tear me apart; they are not going to like this game, they are not going to get this game. They are not going to get like the nostalgia aspect of it, because they're too young, and I was certain that they'd be saying things like, "There's no guns in this game?! What the fuck this is?" But no, they were like entranced by it, and they kept saying like, "This is amazing! I need an Xbox now."
That must be such a relief.
PF: Yes, because I was still stressed when I saw them walk in, and then they really got into it and I was like, [sigh of relief] "Man, fuck, it's working!" It's a huge relief, because the game only came together as a game in the last couple of months.
For years, all we had were just like these different parts that didn't connect, and we didn't even have that big, open world that you could play for an hour or two; like it's all these little segments that didn't communicate, and only recently did all the pieces fall into place.
And then we added music and the polish and it's like: "Woah, woah! Fuck, this is an actual game now that we can let people play for a while." Because, you know, we were operating for years on the assumption that it was going to work somehow.
And it was kind of really scary for years, because we didn't even have a way of testing it ourselves, if it would work. And just recently we started sending out these builds for our friends and colleagues and just getting like amazing feedback. You know [Independent Games Festivial Chairman] Brandon Boyer?
PF: Brandon Boyer is in love with Fez. He started to send us like, every day, pages of feedback, like of his entire adventure through Fez. At first I thought he was just bullshitting us; it was so hyperbolic. I was all: "Come on, Brandon, you're just saying that because we're friends." He was like: "No, no, if I was just being nice, I would say, like, 'Keep it up!'"
But it was just a glowing review of Fez, basically, and if there's one guy who's opinion matters to me it's Brandon Boyer. I did something good! And [Braid developer] Jonathan Blow loves it. There's another guy that's hard to please. He's also been sending us tons of feedback.
It's funny, because Blow will only send you feedback about the things he doesn't like. It's only negative, and it always sounds a little bit insulting because, you know, he's kind of a hard-ass. He sent us like this page of feedback that was all nitpicking, except for this single line in the middle that just said: "Cool ending." I was like: "Wow! You beat it? You played it till the end, and you thought it was cool? Amazing!"
So just recently, it started to sink in that we made a game that works. We have achieved what we wanted to do and it was like [sigh of relief]. Everybody who knows me that has seen me recently, they all tell me: "Phil, you look so much more calmer than the last time I saw you a year ago; you're almost a different person." Yeah, I feel completely different; I am not in complete terror/panic mode 24/7. I'm starting to be like: "I did it." It feels really good.
So what happens now?
PF: I'm becoming more and more useless, and it's kind of scary actually. All my friends who have shipped their big indie game all warn me of the most severe depression of my life coming.
The post-natal depression?
PF: Yeah, the first day that I wake up and the game is locked, and I'm not allowed to do anything, is terrifying. Which is scary, because I've actually been pretty depressed the last couple of years. [laughs] It was kind of hard making this game. And I'm super looking forward to release, like I want it to be out and I want to move on and do something else with my life.
But everybody tells me: "No, you're not going to be happy. It's not going to be like, [sigh of relief] Done! It's going to be like, What do I do now?" I have been in this intense routine for five years of Fez, all day, everyday. And then [snaps fingers] one day it's going to be: No more Fez! It's done! What do you do with yourself at that point? I don't know.
Are you going to take a holiday?
PF: Well, we're already working on another game. We had this game that we made a while ago called Super Hypercube. It's like a head-tracking puzzle game that was also stereoscopic. It used the Wiimote, head-tracking, which was kind of messy, so nobody ever played that game. But it was a proven concept that worked that we wanted to push further and we never did. That was like four years ago.
Then when Kinect came along we saw it would be a perfect fit, so we got that working. It was a finalist at IndieCade a couple weeks ago, and Microsoft seemed interested, and we might actually do something. So I already have something else that's starting to get interesting.
Fez has been in development for so long. How did funding the game for such a prolonged period of time work?
PF: The first thing we had when we got started was a big loan from a government fund. So there's an agency that funds you in three parts for: prototyping, production, and post-production.
So we applied for a prototyping loan. That's like weeks of paperwork, and it's really messy. And it's a lottery basically and months later you get a letter that says, "You've been approved! Here's a bunch of money!" It's a conditionally repayable loan. If the game's a failure and never comes out, we owe them nothing, but if it comes out and makes money we have to pay them back full; it's a great deal. Not as great as free money, but the next best thing.
It's like the record industry.
PF: Yeah. Back when I started, we got our first office finally, because working from home was driving all of us just insane. And for reasons we still don't quite understand, the agency dropped us for that second amount of funding. And when that happens, you're not working on a game at all at that point, because finding money becomes your only priority.
Because it's not a problem you can just put in the back of your mind and keep working. It's like, "Well, I need to pay the rent in two weeks; what the fuck do I do?" So there was like a horrible three-month period that I always had to borrow a lot of money from friends, and family, and things like that just to stay afloat. And then have you heard of the Indie Fund?
PF: We were the prototype to the Indie Fund. Those guys funded us for about a year and a half before the whole thing just kind of fell apart. They had a lot of tension internally on their side, because, like, there were 17 of them, and then the seven of them left and did the real Indie Fund. Our business guy at Polytron ended up leaving us, and they were just panicked about that. And the whole thing, yeah, it lost attention, just kind of exploded, lost our funding. And so the second time we lose our funding is like a month or two of just panic and nothing.
And then finally this company in Montreal, another studio called Trapdoor, with 15 employees or so -- a lot more serious than we are -- came to us. It's the guy who used to run Gameloft in Montreal. After eight years or so he got really sick of making just clones and terrible iPhone games, and started his own company.
So these guys came along and they said: "Hey, you need some help? You lost your business guy? You need some money? You need some support. You need people helping you out. Here's what we can offer you: We'll bankroll you; we'll pay you like a salary as if you were working for us. We'll give you access to our accountants, our lawyers, all of that; we'll take you to conventions, we'll pay for your flight, all these things. And in exchange we'll take a cut of the revenue, but Polytron owns the IP."
And that's been almost a year now, and it's been really, really nice. They're helping us out in a lot of ways. Like, they assigned one of their producers to us at one point to just help us keep on schedule, because I'm incapable of scheduling and I'm just really disorganized and messy.
Well, you've got a lot on your plate.
PF: Yeah, I'm just not good at being organized, and being focused, so the producer really helps. Like, after the second time we lost our funding and there was the whole divorce with my business partner, and all sorts of horrible things going in my life, I was seriously considering just giving up. Actually it became like this weird like suicide fantasy that I was going to cancel Fez out of spite, like, "You're NEVER gonna get it! Fuck you all!"
And like I was just in such a horrible place for a while that like yeah, it really did seem like the game was actually not going to happen. It felt like every force in the world was conspiring to make sure that it was never coming out, and I was getting so burnt out and so depressed that when Trapdoor came along they saved the project. I don't think there would be a Fez if they didn't help us out.
So now a year on, and you're about to send it off to cert, what's the dream? what happens next? You want to sell a load of copies, obviously...
PF: Well, yeah, hopefully it does well. And beyond that, I seriously have no clue. So now I own Polytron 100 percent, I can do whatever I want with it, and I don't know what I want to do with it. Do I want to just stay really small, and keep collaborating on weird little small-scale things with my friends? Or do I want to hire a couple of people, do I want to become thatgamecompany?
A part of me wants to do that, because most of my game ideas are ambitious, and I need a bunch of people to help me out. At the same time I don't know if I'm ready for that, because it's a huge commitment.
If I just started a company and have a bunch of people that depend on you for salaries and all that, I would need a business plan. I would need a partner that I could trust that would run the company while I make the game. I really don't know; I really don't know what's going to happen.
You've been working on Fez for a number of years now, and that's been your sole focus. So your personal identity is really tied up in that one game.
So when that game ceases to be your baby... I mean it's still your baby, but...
PF: But it's out in the world, so it's not mine anymore. It's everybody's game.
So at that point I can imagine you thinking "Who am I now?"
PF: Exactly. I'm starting to feel that already. I am going to have to completely redefine myself at that point, because I feel like most of the skills that I've acquired making Fez only apply to Fez. You know, the way the pixel art works in that game only works like that in that game. I'm not going to be able to take what I learned from that and put it in another game, unless I end up making something very similar to Fez, which is not the case.
It's kind of like Jonathan Blow with Braid, and then going on to The Witness. I remember talking to him at a similar point to the one you are at, actually. It was just a few days before Braid launched, and he was saying it's important not to jump from a small indie game to a really big, open world 3D game, but that's exactly where he went with it. So I guess there is that creative thing of, "Okay, I've done that. Now I need to do something creatively distinct."
PF: Yeah. Well, I mean I've been having game ideas for years, but I couldn't act on them. So I have this big pile of ideas, I just need to decide which one I'm going to use. But I know that whatever I'm doing next is going to be purely game-based, not content driven at all; it's going to be Geometry Wars, it's going to be Asteroids. Like a screen, something moves, you get points, and there isn't worlds and worlds of different art styles and details and objects that I have to make.
Because you're burnt out with that style of game?
PF: I'm burnt out, period. Like literally I've been in burn out for years now. Like I'm always a little bit sick, I'm always a little bit depressed, I've lost interest in everything, and I'm always tired. It's horrible! It really sucks!
Yay, indie game development!
PF: [laughs] You know, I'm in very poor health these days; I'm completely out of shape. I feel like I'm going to have to basically kind of rebuild my life, because everything has just gone to shit. Other than Fez, I've had to neglect every aspect of my life to get this game done.
Like, I haven't paid my bills in months, I haven't done dishes in months, I'm just like messy. I'm a terrible friend. I don't see my friends ever because I'm always busy. And when Fez comes out, regardless of what I end up working on next it's going to be like, "All right, but first, who are you? What are you going to do about everything that's wrong with you?" Like begin to rebuild some kind of social life, or something like that.
Is there another way? Does it have to be the way that you've done it? Obviously you've got this amazing product, but everything else, you're quite negative about. Does it have to be that way?
PF: I hope not; I think it's just me. I'm just kind of a messy person to begin with. Like, our programmer is balanced, healthy, he's got his shit together. He does not panic and have meltdowns ever. And I am just like constantly freaking out -- and my anxiety and neuroses and all that. But we're the odd couple; we're completely different. Like, he's managing everything perfectly well, and he's happy with his life, he's living with his girlfriend, and his apartment is not a complete mess. I know friends that manage well; I think it's just me.
I was not ready for this, or just too much bullshit happened. Not just with Fez, but just my life in general. Yeah, at some point it was just like, "Okay, I can't do anything else but work on Fez." Like I'm so deep into it that it's the only thing my brain is good at right now, is just making these levels, making that art, and everything else just kind of fell by the wayside.
So what do you think you're going to take away from this project? If you could like sum it, boil it down to a single lesson, what's positive that you got from the last few years?
PF: I don't know. I feel a lot of pride that we actually did it. It took everything. That was really, really hard. We had every reason to just give up, and so many obstacles to overcome. It took five years, but we did it. I made my game, and the final product is really close to the original vision that I had, and I more or less accomplished what I wanted.
And I realized it, but I feel like I don't really realize it yet. Like today, I was just looking at people play it and I was like, "I made all of this!" Holy shit! That's quite an achievement. I'm trying really hard to be positive. Because good things are happening to me and the game right now, and I'm lucky to be doing what I'm doing, and I'm lucky to have all these things happen to me.
But at the same time, I'm so burnt out and tired, and I just want to get it over with and have a life again. I don't know. Honestly, I'm trying to be positive. If you would've asked me a year ago, "What's your advice for people who want to get into indie games?" it would've been "Don't."
Just don't do it. It's not worth it. It's going to ruin your life, it's going to fucking kill you, it's going to take away your health and your happiness, and it's going to cost you every meaningful relationship that you have in your life. Your girlfriend's going to leave you, your friends just become distant, and it's not worth it. Don't do it. Just get a real job and make games on the side as a hobby thing.
But now, I still feel like that a little bit, but it's starting to actually pay off now. But I don't know. Is it actually worth it? It's hard to say now. I'm starting to feel a little bit of gratification for the work I've put into this.
I need to ask you again in 12 months. What are you hoping that your players are going to take from Fez?
PF: I hope it kind of opens people's eyes to the fact that you can make that kind of game, and make it good. You don't need combat, conflict, threat, opposition. That you can make a game that is strictly about walking around and exploring and that kind of peaceful vibe. I mean, it's not like it's the first game ever to do that, but I don't know -- maybe it can set a new standard.
Because I felt that in making games we have very few points of reference. I mean, obviously, we had Mario and the Zelda and all that. Before it became peaceful and Zen, there were enemies in there, there was danger, and you had to avoid certain things. And I wondered: "Can you make a game without any of that, and still make it interesting?"
In fact, when I was playing today I came to a rabbit and I was about to walk up to him, then I thought, "Do I need to jump on his head?" And I felt slight relief when I saw I didn't have to. A realization that it's that kind of game...
PF: A lot of people had that reaction. I think it's funny, because the critters look so innocent. They're not threatening at all, and most of them will run away from you when you get close to them, or they fly away. I think it's kind of funny that it's so deeply ingrained in people's heads -- anything that moves, you have to kill it.
PF: I'm really glad it seems to be working, because it was a big question mark: can you make a good game that has none of those standards? Because people have known about Fez for a long time now, but most of what people know is just that it does this spatial movement thing, and every other aspect of the game is a mystery, because we kept it that way.
And the reaction we get a lot of the time is just surprise. And people are like "Really?! Really, no enemies at all?! Nothing?" And hopefully it's going to work out, and people see that yeah, we can make a game like that.
One thing I'm trying to do with Fez is have people use that story of a 2D creature trying to make sense of the third dimension to think of themselves as a 3D being living in higher spatial dimensions. You can extrapolate from it, and make it easier to think about the nature of the universe and reality and all these trippy things.
Because, I don't know if it's really obvious, but that's kind of what the game is about. Like the later you get into it, the more it's about reality and perception, things like that. It gets kind of heavy towards the end, and kind of sad. The whole world is falling apart, that universe is collapsing around you, things like that. Yeah, I hope it makes people think a little bit about the world that they live in...
A world in which you don't have to kill everything that moves...
PF: Yeah, also.
This is a good lesson for people.
PF: I don't know; I just hope people enjoy it. Actually, one of my big dreams for Fez is that if like five, 10 years from now, some young game design dude is going to come up to me and say Fez was a big part of their childhood, or a big influence, or something like that. That would be an amazing feeling, because working in the industry, I got the chance to meet a lot of the people that made the games that I grew up with and I just idolized.
It's such a thrill when you meet somebody that had an impact on you; that would be a huge reward for me, if somebody walked up to me and said that one day. I feel like I will have left my mark on the medium, which is an honor. I can feel really lucky to be doing what I'm doing. I complain a lot, and it's hard and it's really difficult, but I am damn lucky to be doing exactly what I want. Not a lot of people get to say that. Especially in the game industry.