Fezes are cool: An afternoon with Phil Fish

Amidst the gridlocked, city-wide pandemonium that is SXSW Interactive, I was able to rescue Fez's lead designer and artist Phil Fish from a pack of ravenous, business-card waving fans long enough for an interview. We set up at the quiet end of the Palmer Events Center's glass-lined second floor, standing at a chest high, sidewalk cafe-esque table overlooking Zilker Park. It had been raining for two days straight, but that morning the clouds had parted and festival attendees were treated to one of the few gorgeous spring afternoons Texas will get this year.

Fez has missed its most recently announced release window of Q1 2012, but the fact that the game is undergoing Microsoft certification means that it'll be out relatively soon. "We almost made it to Q1," Fish said. "We entered certification like two weeks ago, but we actually just failed it, which is kinda standard. Pretty much everybody fails their first cert."

Microsoft has a two-month window in which it can release Fez once it has gone gold, and Fish wants to make sure it happens as quickly as possible. "We're trying to put pressure on them to release it as soon as possible because the zeitgeist is really good right now, with the movie starting to get a lot of play and the award. And, also, it's been five years. I don't want to wait another two months after that."

That (understandable) impatience to have his labor of love see the light of day may prevent Fez from being a featured title during 2012's Summer of Arcade promotion on Xbox Live. "They actually offered us to talk about that a little while back," he said, adding that games are selected for Summer of Arcade via committee, through a process that's "really, really complicated." He and his team decided to submit Fez for consideration, as there is apparently no obligation in simply having your game looked at. If selected, however, he's likely to pass:

"If they actually select it and are like 'Hey, wanna wait an extra three months to release it on Summer of Arcade?' I don't think I'd go for it. I don't want to wait eight weeks or three months, even if in theory Summer of Arcade makes you sell so many more units. Or at least, that's what they keep telling us, but year after year it does worse and worse. I think the first Summer of Arcade was the best one, and it's just been in decline ever since."

Fish thinks that Fez will do well enough on its own merit, as its the first downloadable game of its kind to have such a hyped, lengthy development period -- a fact that he seems to be consistently reminded of. "I just want it to be out, you know? It's just been so long."

Fish was attending SXSW Interactive in order to lend his presence to a panel examining the similarities between indie game development and indie film making: Indie Games, Indie Film - Deja Vu. The panel was hosted by Lisanne Pajot, a director whose film Indie Game: The Movie was an official selection at the SXSW Film Festival, and also happened to feature Fish and his adventures in developing Fez.

"It's kind of incredible that the two things are happening at the same time, though. For a long time we didn't think that it was going to happen. It didn't look like they were going to coincide that well, and on a marketing point of view, you can't buy this kind of publicity. You cannot plan for this; we're so lucky to have this high-profile movie coming out more or less the same time as the game. It's perfect, almost."

Indie Game: The Movie made use of the Kickstarter fundraising platform to supplement its production; an exercise in community involvement which Fish described as very different from what he and his team experienced while making Fez. "The way they really reached out to the community I think is admirable, because we were a black box. The whole time, Fez was absolutely not transparent at all. We couldn't release a demo because it's an XBLA game and it's not even an option. So all we had were screenshots and videos every now and then, and we have this weird relationship with our audience in that a lot of them just hate us at this point. It's like this weird animosity, whereas on their side of things it felt mostly like support and people being happy to help them out.

"I was kinda jealous of that," he added. "I wish we'd had that instead of the constant downpour of negativity the whole entire development." It was at this point in our conversation that I realized just how much Fish cares about Fez, and how emotionally invested he is in the project.

"People keep telling me to grow a thicker skin, but I don't have a thick skin. Things get to me so, people personally attacking me online, that was depressing, and then I was watching them have people giving them money ahead of time and being so excited.

"They have 8,000 people that are super emotionally invested and financially invested in this project that they wanted to see succeed. To have all these people supporting them, whereas for us it wasn't support as much as people yelling at us. I mean, obviously we had people that were nice to us, but it wasn't the same kind of grass-roots type thing."

That "grass-roots type thing" may be the kind of support Fish is hoping for with his next project, which is being heavily considered as candidate for a successful Kickstarter campaign. Despite the negativity, however, Fish is still pleased with how Fez turned out, and how close the finished product is to the original idea.

"It's kind of the thing I'm most proud about. Obviously I'm super proud that I finished it at all, that seemed impossible for a long time, but when we actually finished it and the dust settled, it was like 'Man, this is incredibly close to the original vision of the game that we had five years ago.' It would have been really easy to go into all these other directions, obviously it's not exactly the same thing, but no, I love the game, I'm super happy with it."

One of Fish's friends approached us cautiously, not wanting to interrupt the interview but also needing to alert Fish to his group's impending lunch arrangements. As our time was short, I skipped to my last question, which happened to be about Fez's IGF grand-prize win that happened a few days beforehand.

"Having won it four years ago, and then that whole controversy of us reentering, I was surprised we got nominated at all when we got nominated. I thought the judges were going to go like 'No, even if it was legal for you to reenter, you won before, get out of here,' and then to go and actually win the grand prize anyway? I love the game, but I can't really trust myself on it. It's such a nice reaffirmation that we did a good job, all these people think that it's the best game this year. I was holding back tears on the stage, but immediately after I just completely broke down; it was super, super emotional and overwhelming."

This article was originally published on Joystiq.