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The Making Of Fez, The Breaking Of Phil Fish

December 12, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[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?

Of course!

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]. Eeverybody 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.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Emyl Merzoud
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I love reading all interviews with Fish. He may not realize it but his story has probably already touched a lot of indie game devs wannabes, like myself. For me, Fish has really humanized the process of independent game development. He makes it more easy to relate to, just like Edmund McMillen does and Jonathan Blow too. However, somehow Fish goes even further. He is a lot more easy to relate to.

I know he mostly warns people to stay out of it, but at the same time his struggle and his triumph over his problems say the opposite of what his words do. I can't wait to start working on my own indie game. I've only worked in student projects and I still remember how much I hated the month before the deadline: working non-stop everyday, little sleep, bad diet... but then eventually you are finished. And you get to show with pride what you've done. And just that feeling. That makes it worth the trouble.

Furthermore I really can't wait to play Fez. The wait has been so long!

E McNeill
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I agree, stories like these are still inspiring. I already find myself idolizing Jonathan Blow, and since I'm drawn to interviews with Fish and Team Meat as well, I can't wait to see Indie Game: The Movie. They found such an interesting selection of people, and I'm sure it will inspire the next generation of developers.

Jan Kubiczek
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i just wanna see the game. especially since he referenced mario and zelda im interested in how much less violence can be in a game. ;-)

Michael Gribbin
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This is the best feature since the Super Meatboy post mortem. I'm just happy to hear that he made it through in one piece (even if a little worse for wear).

Following your passion is hard. Life is hard. As game devs, we're sort of prone to excessive escapism. I've run into an issue of great stress in life recently -- the kind that involves money and lawyers. I find that all I want to do is escape the problems and go work on indie games and pretend it's not happening around me. I'm lucky to have someone in my life who can pull me away from that behavior in the times when I need to be pulled back down to Earth. I couldn't survive at this point without her, and I hope she sticks with me while I build better structure of moderation in my game development obsessions.

I hope your future ventures involve moderation too, but I appreciate every ounce of sweat you put into Fez, and I can't wait to fork my money in your general direction. Take care, and remember, we can't make great games if we aren't alive to do it in the first place. :)

Robert Boyd
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Great article. Might I suggest changing the tagline from "Development of Fez took a heavy toll on its creator's life." to "Development of Fez took a heavy toll on its creator." As it is now, I thought he had died during the last stages of development or contracted an incurable disease from all the stress.

"All my friends who have shipped their big indie game all warn me of the most severe depression of my life coming."

I think that really depends on your personality type. I'm very laid back so I've never felt any sort of depression upon finishing a big project, just a lot of relief that I'm finally done and that people can finally play what I've been working on for so long. Also, happiness that I now finally have time to play all the great stuff that's been released while I was crunching. :)

Steven An
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Great read. I just hope that Fish is more the exception than the real to indie game dev almost killing him.. :P

Will Burgess
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Well if an article like this doesn't give you a kick in the ass to jump back in to a project, I don't know what else will. Thanks Fish for taking away everyone's right to complain about being in indie development.

Can't wait to play the game!

Dan Jones
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Yeah, I found this article weirdly motivating as well. I now feel compelled to convert my couple hours of free-time (read: game *playing* time) before work in the mornings into productive-time on personal projects.

I'm glad Mr. Fish is taking a breather to get his life in order. Hopefully the boatloads of cash he's about to make will help with that. (I know that even as strapped for cash as I currently am, I am ready and willing to trade money for Fez at the first opportunity.)

Nick Harris
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This charming game features in the upcoming film:

I plan to buy both Fez and this documentary which partly covers its development 'hell' as I have spent the last 20 years working on my independent game 'Universe' in a hobbyist capacity, doing extensive research and design into the new, high productivity, middleware environment that I require to even attempt to make something of such complexity and scale. In other words, developing a new programming language and UI in which all the content creation tools can be coded from scratch. The decades spent on this preparatory work indicates that I am guilty of "Yak Shaving":

However, in contrast to Phil Fish's experience my self funding and total lack of deadline has not only meant that I haven't been anxious and depressed about the progress of my project, but the continual fascination generated by following so many interesting lines of research and resolving innumerable design dilemmas to my satisfaction have been an antidote to boredom and helped me avoid inevitable clinical depression.

Knowing when I started what I know now (that my estimate for the R&D was off by an order of magnitude), would not put me off provided that my "past self" was also informed about how much I'd enjoyed the R&D phase of the project - a phase which is a matter of months from completion.

Early in the New Year I am due to start on the Implementation phase - again, with no silly self-imposed, anxiety-inducing deadlines - just slowly building the system up from its basic foundations, appreciating each milestone I pass and having the discipline to stick to the detailed specification that was written to anticipate all future extensions and thereby avoid unnecessary refactorings.

Best of luck to Phil Fish with his future work/life balance. Thanks for an especially interesting article.

Paul Tozour
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Thanks, Nick. Great blog post.

Thomas Guererri
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This is a beautiful and painful article. It is rare to run across something that makes one examine oneself and ones future with such a powerful lens.

Fish really puts it all out there. I would be an honor to bump into him one day and tell him he was an influence. I haven't played Fez yet and he's already influencing me!

When he talks about depression it is discouraging. However, if we can take this, accept it, and still find ourselves driven and willing to confront these demons -- then one can feel much better about their chosen path through life.

I can only hope that Fez keeps up with Braid, and that Fish can keep up with Blow - and that if he does - he lectures. Blow's lectures are my biggest influence easily.

Mike Smith
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I think there is a tendency in the indie scene to feel you need to go full boar on your projects, quit your job and work on your own game full time for it to be successful.

I've seen a lot of success with people who live balanced lives and work their indie game development into that life. Some of them eventually go indie full time, but not before securing the necessary financial backing. Some never go indie full time and still crank out awesome games.

It takes a lot of patience to do that, but a balanced life ends up being a lot less stressful.

Carlos Abril
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This interview has animated me. We have just finished our first game: Zack Zero, that we have presented to the IGF. Now the game is in QA and I can understand this guy.

We have finished it with no money, just two guys, completely burned out. I wake up and want to make some things but I don’t want to touch the code, even in a different branch. I want to finish the PC version but the waiting makes me being checking the email every five minutes. Even if I force myself to do not check it my brain will begin to think in everything else. In my personal opinion, what makes it worst is the lack of money. We tried to release the game this Xmas, and it has not been possible and then I start to think: “well if we release it in January, we will possibly begin to get money in March and then pay my bills from that month so my concern now is to get money to pay this month bills and let the bank waiting a couple of months”. But then you start to think: “what would happen if it can not be released in January? I will have a real problem” (well this is the same I was thinking in September about not being able to release in November so it seems that those things can finally being solved).

And I’m an experienced developer. I released my first game ~25 years ago and I have been the creator of the best selling franchise here in Spain, PCFutbol, with more than one million copies sold just in Spain (with versions like Premier Manager in UK, PCCalcio in Italy, …). And I have some experience in production. But this is my first console game and the lack of control you have in those situations where you have to wait for a couple of weeks, with a game fully tested but knowing that something can be found. Then if something is found fix it, make a depth testing hoping that nothing else will happen with a game that you have played hours and hours, with no resources to send it to a testing house (something that doesn’t help in the waiting), and then send it again and being waiting another couple of weeks is something terrible for people with no resources left and looking how the weeks are passing away.

Well, we have learnt a lot of things we have to do and things we don’t have to do. I know I’m going to see things different in a few months but I remember a couple of weeks ago where I told my father: “I know that this situation is going to finish sooner or later but I think that the ‘depression’ I have is because I don’t know if I want to make games anymore”.

Jane Castle
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I just saw your game! It looks awesome! Take a look at:

You did this game with only two people? This is both incredible and amazing what you have done between the two of you. Congratulations!

james sadler
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You will find in almost any field people killing themselves to make a success. I've known musicians, film makers, entrepreneurs, etc. that have devoted their lives to creating something. More so than not things don't work out and they have to end up going back to school or getting a "real job." Its great to see the support system Fish had along the way.

Emmanuel Henne
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Great interview, and pretty much sums up my life, too :) I gotta get into shape again.

Mohamed Almonajed
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Phil Fish is kind of a man who was kidnapped by Fez and his trying to back again to life after his amazing 5 years journey.

Phil,please!! can you put yourself together and stop complaining coz you're a great artist!!