By the time our Skype call connects and Matt Smith says hello, it's already January 15th at the Friend & Foe offices in Tokyo. After nearly five years of development and public promises, his studio's first original game, Vane, is out across Europe and Asia. It'll go live in the US in about six hours.
"[I'm] excited, really excited, exhausted, and kind of nervous as well," Smith said. "I think those are the main three things, but it's just -- the thing is, it's kind of hard also to turn away from it. I've got other things I should probably turn my life back to, but there's this draw to continually check Twitter, even though there's nothing interesting, nothing we need to look at there, and we can probably afford to leave it alone for a couple of days -- and probably should, just to recharge our batteries. So I'm really nervous and I really want to make sure everything goes well, so I'm sort of obsessively tracking things and checking things."
Launch day is an anxious time for any independent developer, but Smith has an extra reason to sweat. Vane caught players' attention early in its development cycle, when it was announced in 2014 as a project from former AAA and The Last Guardian developers. Its initial trailer evoked the expansive, introspective atmosphere imbued in Fumito Ueda's legendary Ico and Shadow of the Colossus games, and fans' expectations were high.
However, the main creative force behind Vane, Rui Guerreiro, left Friend & Foe just six months after the game's announcement. Guerreiro was one of two former Last Guardian developers on the team, and he was the person who conceived of and built the initial Vane prototype. He created it as more of an experiment than an actual game, but Friend & Foe put a dedicated team on the project, and it transformed into a new beast altogether. In early 2015, Guerreiro left the studio to work on Mare, a VR project with his signature Ico-inspired visuals.
"Personally, I don't think it's that close to those games," Smith said about Vane. "I think it shares a certain aesthetic and a certain sense of style, but not all the aesthetic or all the style. And the gameplay itself is kind of our own thing, for better or worse."
The remaining Friend & Foe developers have been quietly working on Vane for the past four years. It's an adventure game starring a child with the ability to transform into a bird -- players traverse arid, abandoned lands and solve a series of puzzles to eventually discover the child's destiny. It looks like a fantasy game, but it has a clear sci-fi bent.
"We were working until late last night finishing up a patch."
Friend & Foe was purposefully vague in describing Vane before its launch. It wanted players to discover the game for themselves and find their own meaning in its journey. Now that Vane has been live for a few hours in the States, there's already at least one complete walkthrough on YouTube and a handful of streams live on Twitch at any given time. Reviews are rolling in, and they sing a cohesive song -- Vane is gorgeous, but its controls are clunky.
Smith didn't know any of this when we talked. Launch day was still technically hours away, and the possibilities for how it would play out were infinite. He was keeping busy.
"We were working until late last night finishing up a patch, and then there's all the sort of PR stuff that the Plan of Attack guys [an indie PR label] are helping out with," Smith said. "You have to try to make sure codes are within everybody's hands, and you have to make sure that you've prepared all of your social media and that everything you wanted to be ready is ready, and that's a lot more than just a game a lot of the time."
Launching a game nowadays is wildly different than just five years ago. Patches are no longer an expensive or multi-week approval process, and players generally expect updates after the game is live, usually on day one. This changes launch day -- it's no longer a moment to breathe for developers. It's more like the game's first global beta test, and players will expect any broken bits to be fixed quickly.
"As a creator, you kind of need some closure."
"It's certainly not what I'm necessarily used to, and I'm not sure that it's necessarily a good thing," Smith said. "I think, as a creator, you kind of need some closure. It's really nice when you get this period where you have to stop and let things take their course. It's just that, right now, it's really easy to try to continue to hold onto this game and continue to try to steer it exactly where we want it to go. And really, at this point, it should be having a life of its own."
The constant and immediate feedback loop from social media -- players presenting problems, gushing about certain aspects or asking for updates -- is helpful, but it can also be all-consuming, Smith said. The availability of developers and patches has shifted what it means to launch a game.
"When a patch costs a lot of money and we had to go through a lengthy approval process, you would make sure that all your ducks are in a row before submitting a patch, maybe do a lot of testing on it," Smith said. "You would be really, really careful. There's a temptation to be less careful now that you can just roll out another patch in response to something that users are encountering."
Vane is available on PlayStation 4 right now, and people are already playing (and beating) it. It's not designed to be a particularly tough or rigorous game, but it is meant to help players -- and developers -- slow down, just a little bit.
"One of the big things we wanted to back away from is this constant engagement that games offer players, and just present the world as it is instead of stressing so much about, 'Is the player engaged right now? Are their eyes looking at the right place on the screen?'" Smith said. "One of the reasons we made the game the way it is is that we wanted to strip some of that stuff away and let the game world be really close to the player, instead of being viewed through this prism of a UI or of a set of tutorial instructions or various hints that guide you."