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The Rabbit Hole That Is Life After Fez

Phil Fish isn't giving interviews, but at a recent conference, the designer talks about Fez's bumpy release, the troubles of stardom, his public disagreements with business partners, and more.

Since Fez was released via Xbox Live Arcade on April 13, designer and source of fiery headlines Phil Fish has gone underground. Fish has not given an interview to the press since Fez debuted to mostly stellar reviews, a community obsessed with cracking its secrets, and a series of unfortunate technical snafus.

Fish really is turning down interviews. Believe me, I’ve asked.

He did, however, recently speak at the Gamelab conference in Barcelona, Spain in late June. To my surprise, almost nobody noticed. At least, not beyond reports Fish is working on two new games. In his seemingly off-the-cuff talk, Fish finally talked about his reaction to Fez’s release, and the multiples moments of fallout that have ensued.

Fish has remained quiet about the reaction to Fez and its controversies since the game's release.

Fez’s five years of development are now a blur Fish described as “one solid block of fuck,” a half decade of frustrated sweat, blood, tears and scrutiny that he’s seemingly happy to leave behind. Thousands of man hours later, Fez has been released.

“When you see those videos of triathletes that are finishing a race, but they’re a meter away from the finish line, and their body just shuts down and they shit their pants and vomit and they need that space blanket that they use on the shuttle to warm their bodies because their bodies are just shutting down?” he said. “That’s how it felt like.”

Despite warning the crowd he wouldn’t talk about the development of Fez very much, Fish couldn’t help himself. His musings largely centered around his interactions with fans, Indie Game: The Movie, Microsoft, and figuring out how to market a game that’s mostly been in his head.

Fish said the last year of development was a never ending carrot on a stick for all parties involved. Polytron signed its original agreement with Microsoft (which does not own the Fez intellectual property, Polytron does) four years ago, but in 2011, the end finally seemed in sight. Fish and his programming partner Renaud Bédard kept telling Microsoft the game was just a month away, but that month kept repeating over and over again.

“That was pretty frustrating, and obviously there was a lot of anticipation and people were getting really impatient and we were getting nervous about taking too long and maybe people weren’t going to be interested in Fez anymore,” he said. “But, eventually, we pulled it off and that was weird because one moment you wake up and you have nothing to do anymore. You go from doing the same stuff all day, every day, for five years, and one day, you’re not allowed to touch it anymore.”

The immediate reaction to Fez was curiosity, and, perhaps, a tinge of disappointment. Had we really waited five years for yet another clever 3D platformer, one without particularly great platforming? The true genius of Fez laid in wait, beyond the first playthrough. It was fascinating to watch Jeff, the first of us to play the game, go from scratching his head at the game’s surprising simplicity to rabidly obsessed with the cryptological endgame on the other side.

Fish knew part of Fez wasn’t being conveyed as it was being shown to players and press.

“Everybody knew that it did the rotating thing and you jumped around and all that, but I felt we weren’t really communicating the feel of the game,” he said. “We wanted to showcase the ambiance and music and how it feels to spend time in that world.”

The result was Fez’s fantastic “long screen shots,” which doubled as trailers. In hindsight, even those never truly outlined the game’s true depths and doublespeak, a secret that Fish kept under his, er, fez. In his talk, Fish didn’t discuss the mysteries within Fez and what they might mean. Just recently, a group released an iOS app to quickly translate Fez’s in-game language, a joyous, if maddening, hurdle for early players.

By sheer coincidence, Fez’s release lined up with acclaimed documentary (and potential HBO series) Indie Game: The Movie moving through the festival circuit. The movie would later become a lightning rod of its own in relationship with Fez. Before that, it was promotion that money just can’t buy.

“The movie was supposed to come out like a year ago, it took way longer, and the game took way longer, we just really didn’t think they were going to align like that,” he said. “But then they did.”

Same with his Microsoft deal, agreeing to be part of Indie Game: The Movie happened years ago, back when Fish figured it would be a documentary about the independent gaming scene, a feature full of talking heads. The finished product ended up closely following the stressful development of Fez and Super Meat Boy, with Jonathan Blow’s Braid acting as a guiding post for a successful indie. Even my fiancee was tearing up by the end.

I wonder how many people have watched Indie Game: The Movie, never realizing Fez is out.

The moment everyone remembers is Fish’s emotional blowup at PAX East, in which Fish is hoping to resolve a dispute with former business partner and Fez developer Jason DeGroot (who was not originally mentioned in the movie, but more on that later). The movie portrays Fish’s multiple meltdowns, a combination of stress over his obviously strained relationship with DeGroot and showing Fez to the public for the first time. Everything culminated in this trip to Boston.

“It was like a five-day panic attack, and I was freaking out the whole time,” he said. “I was mic’d and I had a camera pointed at me the entire time, and every time that they saw that I was about to fucking lose it, they were like “Okay, Phil, we need to talk to you now, you know why it’s important that we capture these moments.” No, leave me alone, I’m really not in a good mood. Then we kind of had to do it. I’m not going to screw up their movie. I said I’m going to be part of it.”

Fish admitted the movie has done more good than bad for both him and independent games, even if Indie Game: The Movie has, in his mind, given people a skewed perspective of him.

“I met a whole bunch of people last night,” he said, “and we went out and we partied and they were all like ‘Hey, it’s really nice to see that you’re not always super depressed!’ That was just one really dark period in my life that is now immortalized for everyone to see.”

Fish described Fez as a financial success, though not one that will make him rich, ala Minecraft. He’s currently working on two projects, one of which he’d previously been hacking away at during the creation of Fez (this is probably Super HyperCube, though he didn't say) and another based on an idea he’s had in his head for years.

It doesn’t sound like he’ll immediately work with Microsoft again, though. Fish doesn’t regret signing with it originally, back when Microsoft was leading the digital charge with XBLA. These days, Fish seems more excited about the possibilities afforded by Steam. Several issues seem to have compounded Fish’s disillusionment with Microsoft.

Super Hypercube was (is?) a puzzle game designed for the Wii remote, moved to Kinect, then put on hold.

Like everyone else, Polytron had no control over the release date and price of Fez. It could “influence” the decision, not make it. While it mostly got what it wanted (April 13, lower price point), there was always the chance that Microsoft could have done whatever it wanted. This has been a common criticism of Microsoft’s XBLA program, including the decision to have slots that are, essentially, privately bought and sold between publishers.

Two, a number of issues post-release prompted Polytron to work on a patch. Releasing a patch on XBLA costs $40,000, according to Fish (Double Fine’s Tim Schafer has separately mentioned this figure). Microsoft gave Polytron a pass on the first patch, but when the patch was approved by Microsoft certification, released to the masses and caused a small number of users to lose their saved progress, Microsoft pulled the patch.

A follow-up patch will now cost Polytron $40,000. That patch is not yet released.

“It’s this whole certification process that Microsoft has, which is in place to ensure there’s a certain level of quality in the games,” he said. “They don’t want games to be constantly patched all the time, and I understand the reasoning for that, but god damnit, it takes forever, it costs a fortune--you have to pay them for it--and it doesn’t work.”

Nonetheless, Fish was ultimately happy with Microsoft’s treatment of what mattered most, the game.

“They understood that it was a personal project,” he said. “They were completely hands-off all through development, they never tried to change anything or steer the game in one direction or the other. They let us make the game that we wanted to make, and for that I’m super grateful.”

He’s less grateful for some of the headlines just before and following the game’s release. Controversy follows Fish like a loyal dog, an ingrained perception Fish blames on the media and himself.

“It’s been pretty hard dealing with all of the million bullshit controversies I always find myself involved with because I have a big, dumb mouth, and I don’t have a filter,” he said.

At the Game Developers Conference, Fish criticized the current state of Japanese game development, which sent some of the audience, and then the Internet, into a tizzy. I still haven't been able to obtain a full transcript, though at one point I was in discussions to interview the developer who asked the fabled question to Fish. It didn't happen.

Former Fez producer Jason DeGroot on an episode of The 1UP Show from February 2008.

Separately, some viewers of Indie Game: The Movie wondered why Fish’s business partner, whom Fish verbally rants about several times, was never named or given a chance to tell his side. He's a narrative ghost. That partner is Jason DeGroot, sometimes referred to as Game Boy Jason. He’s a producer behind Sound Shapes, and worked alongside Fish on Fez for a long stretch. In fact, he helped found Polytron, and his separation from the company and Fez was Fish’s emotional arc in Indie Game: The Movie.

For the recent home release of Indie Game: The Movie, the filmmakers added a note to the end credits:

“Phil Fish's ex-business partner asked not to participate in this film."

My own sources close to DeGroot said that was an inaccurate characterization: he was never asked. The filmmakers eventually admitted the wording was incorrect, and issued an updated version of the film with this phrasing:

"Phil Fish's ex-business partner was not asked to participate in this film."

Fish alluded to his issues with DeGroot when asked about his biggest lesson from the last few years.

“Never, ever, ever, ever start a company, a corporation, a project, any kind of thing where there’s ownership involved, don’t start it 50/50,” he said. “Because if you disagree, that’s it. [...] We didn’t know what we were doing, so we didn’t have a shotgun clause in our contract--basically, that says ‘oh, if you don’t do this agreement, one of us has authority over certain areas.’ We didn’t have anything like that, and we came to a pretty big disagreement, and then that was it. A disagreement that stayed a disagreement for a long time, and it was stalling the game.”

"We" most likely means DeGroot.

Of course, he couldn’t resist a parting shot about how you pick a partner, either.

“Make sure they’re not assholes,” he said.

During the Q&A, someone inevitably asked if Fez would escape Xbox 360 exclusivity, and while Fish would not explicitly say yes, he didn’t try very hard to say no, either.

“Maybe?” he said. “We are looking at porting the game to other platforms, but there’s nothing concrete about it, so we won’t say which ones, just to be a tease. But, of course, I want the game to be on everything, I don’t want to be stuck on Xbox Live Arcade. I spent five years of my life working on this, I want everybody to play it.”

In other words, look for Fez on Steam in the near future.

You can watch the entirety of Fish's talk from Gamelab for yourself on YouTube.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
170 Comments
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Posted by noibn

Well, that was a quick turnaround!!! Didn't he say not so long ago that the game was ONLY meant to be played on a couch with a controller, and basically "F#@k Steam!" when asked about a PC port??? Hey, I'm not complaining (because I want it on Steam)... it's just sad that it took this long for him to realize that XBLA was the wrong choice from the start. Steam is a haven for indie developers and the game should have been developed to release there from the start. They sure as hell don't charge $40,000 to patch a game, either, that's for sure. I'm pretty sure there is no cost at all, aside from a review, and you can patch your games as much s you want to (just one of the many up-sides to working with Valve). Anyways, I'm just glad to hear that he may have had a change of heart and hope it does get released soon on other platforms.

Posted by patrickklepek

@noibn said:

Well, that was a quick turnaround!!! Didn't he say not so long ago that the game was ONLY meant to be played on a couch with a controller, and basically "F#@k Steam!" when asked about a PC port??? Hey, I'm not complaining (because I want it on Steam)... it's just sad that it took this long for him to realize that XBLA was the wrong choice from the start. Steam is a haven for indie developers and the game should have been developed to release there from the start. They sure as hell don't charge $40,000 to patch a game, either, that's for sure. I'm pretty sure there is no cost at all, aside from a review, and you can patch your games as much s you want to (just one of the many up-sides to working with Valve). Anyways, I'm just glad to hear that he may have had a change of heart and hope it does get released soon on other platforms.

Every developer has to pretend they're pro-Xbox while under exclusivity. I'm shocked that people are still surprised about this.

Staff
Posted by Airickson

@patrickklepek said:

@noibn said:

Well, that was a quick turnaround!!! Didn't he say not so long ago that the game was ONLY meant to be played on a couch with a controller, and basically "F#@k Steam!" when asked about a PC port??? Hey, I'm not complaining (because I want it on Steam)... it's just sad that it took this long for him to realize that XBLA was the wrong choice from the start. Steam is a haven for indie developers and the game should have been developed to release there from the start. They sure as hell don't charge $40,000 to patch a game, either, that's for sure. I'm pretty sure there is no cost at all, aside from a review, and you can patch your games as much s you want to (just one of the many up-sides to working with Valve). Anyways, I'm just glad to hear that he may have had a change of heart and hope it does get released soon on other platforms.

Every developer has to pretend they're pro-Xbox while under exclusivity. I'm shocked that people are still surprised about this.

Exactly -- don't bite the hand that feeds, right?

Posted by alanm26v5

Hearing a "Maybe?" is great news. I got to play through Fez on someone else's Xbox as I don't have one anymore, and it was probably my game of the year so far, despite some technical issues. I wasn't worried by timed exclusivity as much as I was worried the company would fall apart.

Posted by C418

@deadward: It's kind of shit that their process does not find the obvious bugs after two months of testing and then force you to pay 40k for the thing they should have found.

Posted by Chumm

Can CBS afford a copy editor?

Posted by Hailinel
@C418

@deadward: It's kind of shit that their process does not find the obvious bugs after two months of testing and then force you to pay 40k for the thing they should have found.

What gives you the impression that they do two months of testing?
Online
Posted by Sooty

@Giantstalker said:

Ugh. Indie games.

I am not a fan of the trend of indie game developers and their games being a breeding ground for pretentiousness, elitism and hipster douchebaggery. Getting pretty old already.

Edited by MarkDarkness

Back then I didn't really enjoy Patrick's writing, but in his recent pieces on indie games I have been building a lot more respect for him. It's great to have someone to champion the indie scene here at the greatest videogaming site of all time.

Posted by Kosikutioner

@Phished0ne said:

I just think the scope of the movie was WAY too broad. But that is just an issue i have with it, it was a great movie, and i really enjoyed it. But i think you could've made a WAY better movie if you focused a more intense beam on one developer than following 3. Although i do understand the idea behind getting people in different stages of their career. But Ultimately i think Fez has the best story, I really think that it should have been "Fez:The Movie". I mean, why not? its not like they had to have some crazy broad appeal to the masses. The only people that want to watch the movie already know about it and knew at least a bit about the games involved.

I don't disagree with that! I think it was pretty good, I'm glad it appeals to those without crazy in depth gaming interests (as most here in the comments probably do!). It let's me show the movie to friends of mine who aren't me, and it kinda shows a very interesting, very appealing side of the industry.

I am really liking the Double Fine Adventure episodes, Sidequests and forum posts. They go waaaaayyyy in depth about their process making games. Especially the forum posts. If you aren't a backer, you can preorder and become a 'slacker backer' with access to all those things. You might like it! I think it might be the 'intense beam' on one dev you are looking for.

Posted by jillsandwich

"Make sure they're not assholes"

Damn Phil Fish, why you gotta be a dick?

Posted by Hailinel

@Sooty said:

@Giantstalker said:

Ugh. Indie games.

I am not a fan of the trend of indie game developers and their games being a breeding ground for pretentiousness, elitism and hipster douchebaggery. Getting pretty old already.

It's unfortunate that the indie game scene seems to desire to model itself after the worst aspects of the indie movie scene. Pretentious "artistes" that feel they're superior to the established industry despite said industry being filled with hearts and minds that are just as creative, driven, and talented as the best indie devs, if not more so.

Online
Edited by kkotd

He's one of those guys you can't quite get your head around... In certain situations, he's a very nice guy and he seems genuine, but there are also alot of situations that the guy seems like a zealous prick as well. There's certainly a possibility that his partner was an asshole, but there's an equal chance that he himself was the one that started being the egotistical asshat as well. Like he said, he doesn't have a filter at all and sadly, that can make you out to be a dick sometimes. While I don't support people censoring themselves, I do think that there's a certain appreciation for people who can keep their professionalism on the floor and their obscenities in their private time, or atleast use them in an entertaining or constructive sense.

Posted by bluefish

I'm sure I am missing something big with Fez, but after a playthrough I really don't understand what all the 'next level' hullabaloo is about.

And for as... mixed bag as Phish seems to be as a person, I'm really glad he's making games and I really hope to see more from him as the years go on.

Posted by gbrading

I want to play Fez if it ever comes to PC, but damn, between this and now the Fez 360 patch not being patched, Phil Fish can't do much else to make himself seem more dislikeable. I get the feeling that the reason everyone fell out with Fish is that he simply isn't a very nice guy to work with.

Edited by Cirdain

From http://polytroncorporation.com/were-not-going-to-patch-the-patch - JULY 18TH 2012

We’re bringing the first FEZ patch online.

It’s the same patch.

We’re not going to patch the patch.

Why not? Because microsoft would charge us tens of thousands of dollars to re-certify the game.

And because as it turns out, the save file delete bug only happens to less than a percent of players. It’s a shitty numbers game to be playing for sure, but as a small independent, paying so much money for patches makes NO SENSE AT ALL. especially when you consider the alternative. Had FEZ been released on steam instead of XBLA, the game would have been fixed two weeks after release, at no cost to us. And if there was an issue with that patch, we could have fixed that right away too!

We believe the save file corruption issue mostly happened to players who had completed, or almost completed the game. If you hadn’t already seen most of what FEZ had to offer, your save file is probably safe. It doesn’t happen if you start a new game.

We believe the current patch is safe for an overwhelming majority of players.

The patch fixes almost everything that’s been wrong with the game since launch. The framerate issues, the loading, the skips, the death loops, everything! All that stuff is fixed! And right now, nobody can get to it since the patch was pulled. For 99% of people, it makes FEZ a better game.

To the less-than-1% who are getting screwed, we sincerely apologize. We know this hurts you the most, because you’re the ones who put the most times into the game. And this breaks our hearts. We hope you dont think back on your time spent in FEZ as a total waste.

Microsoft gave us a choice: either pay a ton of money to re-certify the game and issue a new patch (which for all we know could introduce new issues, for which we’d need yet another costly patch), or simply put the patch back online. They looked into it, and the issue happens so rarely that they still consider the patch to be “good enough”.

It wasn’t an easy decision, but in the end, paying such a large sum of money to jump through so many hoops just doesn’t make any sense. We already owe microsoft a LOT of money for the privilege of being on their platform. People often mistakenly believe that we got paid by Microsoft for being exclusive to their platform. Nothing could be further from the truth. WE pay THEM.

So we’re going to go ahead and put Title Update back online, and for a vast majority of people it’s going to make FEZ a better game.

Thank you for your understanding and continuing support.

Sincerely,

The Polytron Team

Steam! Steam! Steam!!!!!

Posted by Zenogiasu

I never picked up Fez, but it was interesting to see the final phases of its development, and all of the stress that Fish was under. He might not seem like that fun of a guy to be around, but it's tough not to empathize with the guy. He just spent five years on a pretty big gamble that could have given way at any moment. Again, he kinda seems like an asshole (not all that uncommon among popular game designers, it seems), but you can tell he's passionate about his craft. Kudos to him for making Fez such a success.

Posted by Corvak

I love Fez.

I agree, that Microsoft is running XBLA into the ground through it's own greed. I can't say whether not releasing the patch is a good or bad decision without knowing how much net profit Fez made.

But Phil Fish is still an egotistical loudmouth.

Posted by WilliamRLBaker

http://www.trueachievements.com/n9824/fez-patch-back-online-with-no-save-fix-coming.htm

""Polytron and their investor, Trapdoor, made the decision not to work on an additional title update for FEZ. Microsoft Studios chose to support this decision based on the belief that Polytron/Trapdoor were in the best position to determine what the acceptable quality level is for their game.

While we do not disclose the cost of Title Updates, we did offer to work with Trapdoor to make sure that wasn’t a blocking issue.

We remain huge fans of Fez.""

Odd that they would refuse If Microsoft offered to make sure price of a second patch wasn't a blocking issue.

So what we have is a whiny Fish and Polytron that signed a contract didn't deliver on that contract in a timely manner *come on really? it took 4 years to make fez? that game at most needed 2* then when it was released the game was quite broken, the patch released was broken as well mind you 1 million dollars + was made on this game yet polytron doesn't have the money to pay for the patch and when Microsoft offers to waive the second patch fee or lessen it they refuse?

By the way it costs money to release patches on psn look up Tim Schafers thoughts on it.

It would seem to me that this is all fish and polytron not Microsoft.