Just a month and a half after the announcement of Fez II, Polytron is canceling Fez II and Phil Fish is announcing his departure from game development altogether, following a couple of recent blow-ups on Twitter between the creator and various other personalities in the greater games industry.
Fish wrote on the Polytron website that “FEZ II is cancelled. I am done. I take the money and I run. This is as much as I can stomach. This isn’t the result of any one thing, but the end of a long, bloody campaign. You win.”
Is the Fez sequel really cancelled? It sure seems that way. Is Phil Fish completely out of game development? Again, it sure seems that way. With the game so early in development, it hardly seems like a publicity stunt. He probably really means it right now, but it’s hard to tell if Fish will stay out of game development for good. The play-by-plays of Fish’s arguments over the last few days aren’t really worth recounting, but it does highlight some of the pitfalls of independent game development.
This is by no means a condemnation of independent games; some of my favorite games over the last few years have been indie. The dangers those developers experience, though, are different from the dangers larger studios are subject to.
The biggest is that of the individual versus the collective.
When a game comes from a studio, it’s harder, though not impossible, to pick on individual people. Those individual people are often harder to get at and often less present on social media. They’re also part of something greater. Not better, just bigger and more connected. The creative minds behind games coming out of medium and large studios have people they are connected to, people that depend on them; they’re less likely to disappear. Even if they do, it’s possible for the game to go on without them, maybe.
If things like legal issues come up, there’s someone who handles that while the people who make the games make the games. All of these things serve to even out the pressures that come with game development. In another instance of this, Retro City Rampage developer Brian Provinciano told Wired this spring that at one point, Microsoft cancelled the Xbox Live Arcade release of his game because he spoke publicly about how he feels about the process. From his point of view it might seem like a big company punishing an indie developer, but from Microsoft’s perspective they’re protecting their brand and product. This is also likely a reason Microsoft has been hesitant to work with independent developers without a publisher in between to standardize the process.
For an indie developer, the pressure hits all in one place instead of being spread out across a group. Phil Fish isn’t exactly a model citizen when it comes to mature responses to outside criticism and harassment, but it’s hard to blame him when you look at the comments directed his way. Fish has since turned his Twitter account private, but comments on the news posts on Polytron’s website are still visible. I imagine there’s only so many times one can look at the insults hurled at them – “you are an embarrassment,” “I hope that you never come back,” “I am happy a hack such as you gave up on releasing your next abomination” – before wondering why you’re doing this in the first place.
Part of me thinks that backing of a studio of any size could’ve helped Fish without changing the vision of Fez and kept Fez II moving along.
There’s also this strange, unhealthy love of sick artists not just in video games but in the wider art world; this idea that artists need to be insane or addicted or otherwise impaired to create great art. It’s not to say that those artists can’t create great art (clearly, they can) or that their art is somehow lesser, but that more often than not those self-destructive tendencies interfere with their ability to complete projects that take more than one sitting.
Personality issues might be more of a problem in small independent games, but they’re not exclusive by any means. Just last year, Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios managed to, like Fish and Polytron, put out one extremely polished and well-received game, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, before things fell apart. Schilling relied heavily on the boundless optimism that brought him success in baseball without consulting reality more regularly to figure out if it was working or not. A combination of nepotism, extravagant over-spending, and dangerous optimism left the company bankrupt—with no notice to the employees—just months after their first game hit shelves. Schilling had the option to use his resources but chose not to do so; it was a relatively large studio acting like a one-man outfit and running on that one man’s ego.
It’s clear, again, that independent games can be some of the most interesting experiences. Games like Hotline Miami, Antichamber and Braid remind us regularly that interesting experiments are coming out of places we couldn’t have imagined ten years ago, but guys like Phil Fish remind us how many of these indie games never make it off the ground and how many crash and burn.