Phil Fish reveals the trials and tribulations behind indie platformer Fez
Phil Fish is the lead designer of developer Polytron’s upcoming XBLA pixel art platformer, Fez – a game with a development history almost as twisted and Escher-like as its plane-warping gameplay. games™ sits down with Fish to catch up and learn more about the trials and tribulations of an indie creative trying to play with the big boys, while holding onto the spirit of innovation.
While nailing the aesthetic and conceptual gameplay overlap seemed, for the most part, a relatively painless process, working out exactly how the game would play was another matter. It was a decision that was turned over and over for a considerable length of time – longer, perhaps, than was first expected – and Fez underwent several iterations over an escalating development period that now spans four years. “It’s true that Fez evolved very organically,” Fish tells us. “We had this mechanic, this character, and this hat. We spent about two years playing with that, trying to figure out what worked, what didn’t. What kinds of levels to build and how to build them. The idea of an open world probably derived from the fun I was having exploring single levels. It was always about exploring 3D structures. We just extrapolated from that and made it about exploring a world instead. Today, Fez is very much in a kind of Metroidvania light. It’s about lots of little rooms connecting to lots of other little rooms. It’s about secret passages, warp gates and cheat codes.”
It became a truly ambitious leap in focus for a team that still comprised only two core members. And while such a long and unbridled experimental development procedure allowed Fish’s expanding vision to blossom, each publicly displayed iteration of Fez growing more charming and mechanically diverse, there was a cost. The freedom Polytron had allowed itself finally took its toll on the company coffers. “We’d completely run out of money, and the project was about to die,” says Fish, “When Trapdoor came along.”
The relatively unknown, Quebec-based developer-publisher recognised an opportunity, and swept in to rescue Polytron from a most uncertain future. Already having made a deal in early March 2011 to publish its upcoming action stealth title Warp through EA, Trapdoor had ready resources to spend on helping a stricken friend in need.
“They’re helping us out however they can,” says Fish. “Not just with money, but with business, planning, merch – you name it. It’s great for me, because finally I get to just work on the game all day without having to worry about the business side of things. I wish we’d hooked up with them sooner, and saved me a lot of trouble.”
Fez now seems, for the moment at least, safe. Officially signed with Microsoft for an exclusive XBLA release, eschewing the often more lucrative avenue of Steam on PC, Fish remains adamant about Polytron’s decision for the game’s fixed destination.
“Fez is a console game, not a PC game,” he states, emphatically. “It’s made to be played with a controller, on a couch, on a Saturday morning. To me, that matters; that’s part of the medium.” I get /so many/ comments shouting at me that I’m an idiot for not making a PC version. ‘You’d make so much more money! Can’t you see? Meatboy sold more on Steam!’ Good for them. But this matters more to me than sales or revenue. It’s a console game on a console. End of story.”
As for why Polytron decided on Xbox Live specifically, Fish won’t be drawn, directly. “It’s what made the most sense when we signed with them.” he says, before adding cryptically: “If we had to do everything again today, maybe we wouldn’t go down the same route, but it still makes a lot of sense today.”
An alternative route, however, would most certainly not have involved WiiWare. “I love Nintendo as a gamer, and loathe them as a developer,” states Fish.
WiiWare is beyond bad. Not just the weird timed demos, but the tiny file size limitation. How they won’t pay you a single cent until you sell a certain amount of copies, like what is happening to Gaijin Games and Lilt Line right now.” He continues: “The horrible interface, the lack of ownership management – if your Wii dies, there’s no way to tie your purchases to an account and re-download them… the whole thing is /horrible/. To me, it doesn’t even factor in as a legitimate distribution platform. They’re not even trying.”
Fish’s obvious distaste for Nintendo’s digital platform isn’t helped by an industry-wide feeling left in the wake of Nintendo of America CEO Reggie Fils-Aime’s recent comments, in which he declared the company’s disinterest in working with the “garage developer”.
“Reggie’s comments about indies and hobby developers was really unfortunate,” sighs Fish.
“What Nintendo doesn’t seem to realise is that indies and hobbyists aren’t just indies and hobbyists; we’re the next generation. Some of us won’t always stay in the garage. Some of us will grow to become the next Will Wright, the next Miyamoto. And when we do,” he adds, pointedly, “we’ll remember. Nintendo is turning its back to an entire generation of developers. It’s only going to hurt them in the long run.”
It’s a particular pity such an apparent rift is growing between Nintendo and Fish, because, with Super Hypercube, the intriguing side project he worked on with Kokomori (see Strange Diversions), already under his belt, it feels like the 3DS in particular could prove a fruitful platform to pursue some even wider concepts in the field of perspective-based gaming. While Fish remains unsure as to exactly what they could be, he’s at least firm for now on what would /not/ work on the new handheld.
“Now that I’ve played with a 3DS, I can say that Hypercube would /never/ work on it,” Fish confirms. “Hypercube is all about moving your body and changing your point of view. The head tracking is a lot more important than the 3D. In fact, the head tracking kind of creates its own depth effect. the 3DS’s 3D sweetspot is too small; you couldn’t move your head or the DS without constantly losing the 3D signal.”
“If I was to make a 3DS game, it would be something new,” he continues. “Fez wouldn’t work on 3DS either. I don’t know why people keep saying it would be great. The game is all 2D! The gameplay is strictly 2D! There would literally never be anything jumping out at you. Even the rotation is isometric, so no perspective there.” He summarises: “I’m having a lot of fun with my 3DS. I’m really into the AR stuff. Probably I’d use that. Move is completely insignificant, but Kinect shows real potential.”
When reflecting on his pioneering work with the likes of Super Hypercube, Fish begins to grow almost melancholy. “I actually really miss this experimental mentality,” he says. “I hope I get to spend more time experimenting with weird hardwares and hacks in the future, the same way we did with Super Hybercube. Fez is a big commercial project; failure isn’t really an option. But with more experimental work, failure is a huge part of it. It’s something you can afford. It wouldn’t have mattered if SHC didn’t work at all – at least we would have tried. But I don’t feel like I have that freedom with something like Fez. I want to go back to making smaller, weirder things.”
It’s a poignant way to end, but it’s been obvious throughout that Fish is a man constantly shouldering the difficult transition between being one of Fils-Aime’s ‘garage hobbyists’ to becoming a traditional game developer. Perhaps Fez has taken as long as it has to emerge in part due to its designer’s reluctance to focus entirely on it, occasionally throwing himself back into his experimental indie origins as respite from the shades of corporate responsibility gradually infringing on his creative flow. Still, with a publisher secured and the end in sight, Fez is now a vision apparently, conceptually and commercially skewed as it has been, finally complete.