With discoverability in the gaming market becoming increasingly difficult by the day, we've decided to shine a light on the many amazing and incredibly interesting indie developers out there.
So welcome to the Indie Spotlight, where each week a developer tells us about their life and work, and the challenges facing indie developers in the modern mobile and handheld market.
This week, we spoke to Studio Fizbin's
- game director Marius Winter,
- co-creator and art direction Nicholas Maierhöfer,
- freelance game and narrative designer Brenden Gibbons,
- COO and executive producer Tobias Frisch
- lead programmer Kathrin Radtke
about the development of Say No! More, a point-and-click adventure that looks to tackle the issues of work culture.
PocketGamer.biz: How did you get started as an indie games developer?
Tobias Frisch: The whole idea of Studio Fizbin started with our three founders - Marike, Sebastian and Pepe - developing their original idea of the Point and Click adventure, The Inner World.
They just wanted to tell their story and make that game without thinking of any further plans. But soon they realised that there’s much more potential as they started to hire some more people to help in the fields of business/management as well as game design.
When The Inner World was completed, we started to set up a strategy of doing contract work for games to finance our next own ideas combined, with the various funding possibilities in Germany.
This led to The Inner World 2 - The Last Windmonk at first. Today we aim for the development of a couple of original IP ideas at the same time to have more shots in the games market.
What is a typical day in your life as an indie?
Tobias Frisch: That strongly depends on your position within our studio (we have 25 team members), Obviously, the majority of the team is working on one or more actual game projects as designers, artists, programmers, testers etcetera.
I love that more and more people are getting the possibility to have their games played by potentially hundreds of thousands of people.Kathrin Radtke
Other team members are looking for new contract game work or are pitching new ideas for financing partners and funding institutions.
Jobs like mine are looking daily to keep everything running smoothly. This involves talking to team members, overlooking all project planning and budgeting, tax and law-related tasks or overlooking monthly cash flow.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far as an indie?
Tobias Frisch: The biggest challenge was, and still is, life as a project-based company.
With only two games in a special games niche like Point and Click Adventures, there’s not enough revenue stream to pay the bills and salaries for the people needed to develop new games.
So we must rely solely on development budgets and income from contract work, which hopefully is done in time so we have still some margin left.
We’ve been to the point of almost shutting down several times in the last 10 years but somehow managed to always get back up again. With three new games to be released in 2021, we might be able to stay up a while longer now.
How do you define ‘success’?
Brenden Gibbons: Sustainability. It’s about being able to plan for the next five, 10 years while still working on my own terms and with everyone working and being paid for fairly.
What is your opinion of the games market for indies right now?
Brenden Gibbons: It’s a pretty big market and a little saturated, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The barrier to making games is continually becoming lower and that’s bringing a whole set of new voices and ideas.
It does mean that it can be hard to be found and “break out” even with a unique game, but discovery issues are at the core UI/UX issues of the marketplace and much of it can be alleviated through proper marketing strategies.
Kathrin Radtke: I love that more and more people are getting the possibility to have their games played by potentially hundreds of thousands of people. There are so many inspiring indie games that deserve attention.
But of course, that makes it harder to stand out. Especially on mobile, I don't think our main competitors are other indies but the hundreds of clones of the big free to play games.
Mobile games have to be insanely cheap so people are willing to buy them. For indies that will sell only a small to medium amount of copies this really is a problem.
Could you tell us about Say No More, and why it felt right for mobile and Nintendo Switch?
Marius Winter: I think it’s perfect for mobile platforms for two reasons. First: the controls are very simple. While it’s technically not a one-button game, you can get very far in the game by just using the button to shout "No!". So it’s a perfect No-saying-warmup on the way to the office.
The other reason is that the topic of the game: the fear of saying "No!" is universally known. Pretty much everyone can relate to it, including people who don’t see themselves playing video games. Mobile is a great platform to reach everyone.
Nicholas Maierhöfer: Due to its low poly and pixel art nature, the art style is a perfect fit for smaller screens too. The look is defined through simple shapes and bold colours, free from visual clutter. It could have been a nice Nintendo DS game as is!
The subject of Say No More surrounding work ethics and company practices is a sensitive subject, how did you address this? Was personally experienced pulled from?
Marius Winter: We have mixed experiences, luckily most of us had great internships where nobody stole our lunch boxes. Others, like our writer Brenden Gibbons, for example, experienced the exploitive side of the industry, where overtime was normal.
If we want four day work weeks with the same pay, that’s within our grasp - we can unionise and bargain together.Brendan Gibbons
Brenden Gibbons: Yes, I’m closely tied to multiple game industry unions and it’s no secret that the industry can be deeply exploitative.
Let’s break down the oft-mentioned 100-hour weeks. That means 14 hours of work every day for the whole week. 09:00 to 23:00, with no lunch break.
If you sleep for eight hours, that leaves you two hours left in the day to... eat, have a shower, stare longingly at a photo of your loved ones before you go back to work on making sure that the horses testicles shrink when it’s cold out. Now do that for months with no knowledge of when it’ll stop.
Some bosses like to pretend that work has always been like this, but we had to fight for the two day weekend, we had to fight for 8-hour workdays. If we want four day work weeks with the same pay, that’s within our grasp - we can unionise and bargain together.
We have an absurd, rotting relationship with work as a society and I wanted to dig deep at that as a source of satire and humour.
Overall, my job was really to balance the tone between something absurd, funny and emotional that strikes deep at the heart of the issue in both personal and professional contexts.
How is the studio coping under the current Covid-19 pandemic?
Marius Winter: It’s exhausting, really. We are a really fun group and we love to hang out, but after a year of socialising via video call, it’s getting eerie. However, since Studio Fizbin was a two-office studio from the start, at least we were familiar with working with some co-workers via video call.
Kathrin Radtke: On the one hand, working from home is going surprisingly well. I personally don't feel less productive even though I was very afraid of it at first and thought I could never do that.
On the other hand, with no real possibility to see something other than work (because the work is at home) it was and still is kind of draining.
If you had an unlimited budget, what game would you most like to make?
Tobias Frisch: I don’t think we would do other or different games. We’ve been lucky enough to make the games we wanted to make so far.
I think we would do more content and take some more time to polish them or bring them to even more platforms.
Marius Winter: I am with Tobias, that generally more money to do a little bit more polishing and porting would be fantastic. Other than that, I think we can continue making our dream games.
What advice would you give other developers on ‘making it’ as an indie?
Marius Winter: If possible, show your prototype around a lot. When there is no pandemic going on, visiting festivals and events are the best places to get into dialogue with people and experiencing their reaction to your idea.
Kathrin Radtke: I would advise them to really take care of their own physical and mental health and make that a priority.
Tobias Frisch: If you have an idea, go for it. That is the most important piece of advice, don’t hesitate to try. Maybe wait a few years and gather some experience in other game companies first, but try it at some point in your life.
Maybe it’s for one game, maybe you plan for a longer studio life, maybe you plan with some kind of an exit strategy. Just don’t plan with potential success.