[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]. 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.