March 12, 2014 5:15 PM | Staff
Fize Size Games is a one-man-company, a man widely experienced as a game developer. He began with the popular graphic adventure Ben There, Than That! (2008), and later published the online competitive versus Steam game Gun Monkeys (2013). His story has some ups and downs, being his greatest achievement a Bafta Award in 2011 for Privates (2010). On the other hand he has been through difficult times, with a change of brand name for his company, or the thought decision of putting on hiatus an important project as The Swindle, still unfinished. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the winner of the Bafta Award 2011 in the category of Learning - Secondary. Mr. Dan Marshall! (cheers, applause).
Actually, the company has always just been me. People assume it's Ben and I, because we're both in the Dan and Ben Adventures, but actually I do all the actual work, and I roped Ben in to help out with some puzzle design and writing. But 99% of the work is one-man-band stuff, hiring in freelancers to do complicated bits of code I don't understand, music, or art.
So how many years have you been in business? Tell us a little about your history. I'm wondering if you came from the amateur graphic adventures scene or something like that. I'm interested in the moment where you decided to make a living from it.
I first started learning to code in about 2004, and released my first game (Gibbage) in 2006. I then made Ben There, Dan That!, which was, yeah, an amateur point and click in every sense of the word! But it took off, people really enjoyed it, so we did a sequel. This wasn't my job, though, I had a full-time job in TV production, making games was my hobby on the side. Eventually I struck up a deal with Channel 4 to make "Privates" for them, and jumped ship to making games full time. Time Gentlemen, Please! was finished, and selling nicely, so it all kind of came together nicely at the same time.
I believe that your cooperation with Channel 4 is very interesting. How did Channel 4 contact you with the idea?
The commissioning editor at Channel 4 played Ben There, Dan That! and wanted to talk about doing stuff together, it was as simple as that. They were making educational games either about Sex or Politics, so... you know. I'm never going to make a game about politics.
Why not to make a game about politics? "Never" is a bold word.
Hah, alright not never. But I tend to make funny games, and I guess for me there's a lot more mileage in Sex than Politics. Politics is a very dry subject, sex... uh, isn't.
How was the development process? How did it feel to collaborate with such an important company? Was there heavy differences between working solo, or working for others by contract?
Development was certainly very different to what I'd been used to - I had a team of people I was working with, professional programmer and artist. It actually kind of hurt; the stuff I could do was limited to design and writing and ticking boxes for lawyers. That's not necessarily what gets me excited about game development, I love seeing it all come together on the screen, having every pixel the way *I* wanted it. It was pretty tough going!
You have experienced several ways of pricing, from freeware to donationware, conventional pricing, Steam madness sales... Which system did actually fit the best for you and your sustainability?
Freeware didn't really work; you get a HUGE number of downloads with one or two generous people sending on cash, and generally it's very little. It's not enough to sustain a company - same with Pay What You Want, really. Generally people want to pay nothing, and do. Steam works great, because it brings in a constant trickle of cash, and then things go manic when there's a sale on.
Yes, and indeed there's a quote of yours in an interview that says "You can always move the price down, you can't really move it up."...
What I meant by not being able to put prices up is picking an appropriate start point. I think I priced TGP [Time Gentlemen, Please!] too low from the off; it was £2.99, and it's always been that price bar in the sales. It probably should have been £10 to start with, and moved down over time, but it was pretty much rock bottom right from the off.
Recently, Mr. Jason Rohrer has stated that sales are harming the industry, devs and fans alike. You know, yesterday I got the two pack adventure of Ben and Dan for only 40 cents. I felt kind of guilty. And maybe, Jason is right.
Sales are a great way of finding a new audience, there's something about a bargain that encourages people to commit. Every time I do a sale, I get a dozen emails from people telling me how much they loved the games, and how grateful they are.
I've really liked Gun Monkeys, but, I miss only one feature in Gun Monkeys. Why there's no more players per game? What about a deatmatch mode? A 2 vs 2 monkeys match would be awesome. Or 10 monkeys launching nukes!
That's the lot of an indie developer- you've got to keep the design realistic, or the game'll never get finished. I'm one man, alright so I have some help, but by-and-large it's just me. Gun Monkeys is designed around a 1-on-1 system. It's tight, and honed, and beautiful as it is. It's easy enough to say "oh, this'd work as 2vs2 or 4vs4" but you don't know that. The entire dynamic shifts. It'd be a whole load of extra dev time that I just couldn't justify for this release. It's something I always said I'd look into if the game really took off enough to justify the cost, but it kind of didn't so I'm hesitant to drop another 6 months dev time on it.
Tell us more about the development of Gun Monkeys. How does a one-man-company decide to make an online competitive game? It doesn't seem an easy task to accomplish.
Gun Monkeys is a remake of my first game, Gibbage. I knew the core tug-of-war gameplay worked really well, but when I released the original, everyone complained there was no online multiplayer. So, I wanted to remake it, and the result was Gun Monkeys. It worked out pretty well, I think. It's a fun game, simple to pick up, and funny, right? Really funny to play with a friend. I'm so pleased with it, even if it wasn't a runaway viral sensation.
Indieorama has talked before about the syndrome of the empty lobbies: it is difficult for an indie multiplayer co-op or competitive game to have enough players to support, being redundant, the player base. But you did find a system to mitigate that effect.
Gun Monkeys was designed to be played between friends, but that's not really what people wanted from it at launch. I probably should have stuck to my guns about what kind of game it was, but I buckled and tried to get the servers filled 24/7. It's never going to happen.
For a time, Gun Monkeys dished out free keys if there was no one on the server. It helped, a bit, but wasn't really an effective long-term solution. The only real long term solution to empty indie multiplayer servers is a shift in the mindset of players; people need to realise that this isn't Call of Duty, there aren't millions of people playing the game there are thousands. And if you want to play, you're going to have to arrange a game. It's not that complicated a problem - find other players (through the forums, or friends) and challenge them. Sadly, getting people to take that step was a big headache.
What tools are you using for your development?
I'm using Unity to make games, now. It's lovely, I'm really enjoying it. It makes lots of things very easy, which means I can just concentrate on the fun stuff of making games!
And for the art? Is it outsourced?
I did all the art. I tend to use Photoshop.
Tell us about the freelancers you hire for your games.
I tend to use the same guys where I can. Tim James helps me out a lot these days with code, where it gets too complicated for me. The boy is a genius.
Art I get people like Michael Firman to do bits and bobs for me; he's just astonishingly talented. It's nice to have people around you who can provide a much-needed leg up and are an inspiration.
Thanks a lot for your time Dan, just one last question to close: What indie games have impressed you recently?
I just got a PS Vita, so I'm playing a lot of games I missed out on first time. Mainly Spelunky and OlliOlli, I'm kind of getting into that "bastard hard, quick restart" kind of game that I've never really enjoyed so far. I think I get it, now. They're both brilliant.
[The original interview between Ruber Eaglenest and Dan Marshall is posted on Spanish site indie-o-rama, reprinted with permission]