Die Gute Fabrik is an independent developer that has no problem with having an identity crisis.
The Denmark-based studio, owned by joint founders Douglas Wilson and Nils Deneken, is far from unproven, having critically-acclaimed puzzle-platformer Where is My Heart and folk game darling Johann Sebastian Joust already under its belt. Later this year, the studio will release a Mac, Windows PC and Linux port of the former title, while the latter is being bundled into the Sportsfriends package, which met a lofty $150,000 Kickstarter goal late last year.
Those two titles — just a portion of the team's full portfolio — have been well received, but couldn't be any more different; one, a highly mechanical and lovingly illustrated traditional video game, the other, a display-free, all-physical sporting event. Die Gute Fabrik hasn't pigeonholed itself as a specialist in a singular genre; and they're not looking to, either. That fact is clearly evidenced by the next project coming from the developer: the quiet, painterly adventure game Mutazione.
Mutazione, which was unveiled during Venus Patrol and MOCAtv's alternative E3 press conference Horizon after several years of teasing by Die Gute Fabrik, has been formulating in the back of Nils' mind since before he and Wilson even met at the very first IndieCade in 2008.
"I kind of conceived the project, and was working on it back then, when we were meeting at IndieCade," Deneken said. "That's actually a really long time! It was always in the back of my head, always developing that world, drawing backgrounds and shaping that world, and looking for people who would love to work on that with me."
He found that collaborator in Wilson, beginning a partnership that would shape both the studio they founded and all the games that they would create.
Wilson, Deneken and the rotating cast of collaborators who create games at Die Gute Fabrik trade leadership roles freely. Each of their major game releases were spearheaded by a different person; Johann Sebastian Joust is led up by Wilson, Mutazione by Deneken, Where is My Heart by collaborator Bernhard Schulenburg.
There's very little ego behind the process, Wilson and Deneken explained; the permanent and transient members of Die Gute Fabrik pick the projects they love, then work together to get them made.
"[Mutazione] really is Nils's project, it's his baby," Wilson said. "I see myself as wanting to help bring Nils's vision to life, which is really different from Joust. Nils was really there for the genesis of Joust — I think I've told this story before, but I'm not sure that game would even exist in its current form if Nils hadn't been there at this Game Jam, helping me explore the idea. But that game is very much, kind of, my game that Nils has supported along the way. It's the flip relationship on Mutazione."
Where is My Heart and Johann Sebastian Joust are two very different games with one common thread; they were inspired by their mechanics, rather than their aesthetic world design.
That much is obvious regarding Joust — a game with zero visuals in its current form — but slightly less evident for Schulenburg's Where is my Heart. The world of that game, lovingly pixelated by Deneken, is objectively beautiful. But it was Where is my Heart's core mechanic, a puzzle-platforming blend involving panels which players can swap to change the world around them, that inspired the game, Wilson explained.
For Mutazione, that inspiration came in reverse.
"I think that just shows the different interests," Wilson said. "Nils is kind of an illustrator and storyteller, right? I think that's where his creative impulse is coming from."
Before the evolving adventure game mechanics of Mutazione were put in place, the world of the game — a ruined, semi-post-apocalyptic swamp that's overtaken a once pristine holiday resort — was developed.
"I thought this holiday village would be the perfect setting for it; I always wanted to drop a bomb on these, like, holiday resorts," Deneken laughed. "It has everything: a beautiful valley, a swampy region with a beach close by. It's a beautiful place, that's also a little bit — I wouldn't call it morbid, but it has these traces of our civilization. There's a lot of depth to that, you have the possibility for a lot of stories to develop there. It's a place that tells a story."
Mutazione stars — or rather, co-stars — a human named Kay, who is transported to the game's titular world after a motorcycle crash. The means of her transportation are vague, layering another mystery on top of the world, as the player's not sure if they're in another age, another dimension or another reality altogether.
The world was cemented in Deneken's mind before any mechanics took shape, he explained.
"In my head back then, it was always kind of this exploratory platformer game, in that world I was inspired to create," Deneken said. "Since then, it's really developed and changed a lot. It got less and less challenge-based, I guess, and more and more in the direction of, I want this to be a world you can explore, and find its different possibilities without having to solve puzzles to progress. Or the other way, that it should not be too skill-based, that you don't have to control your character in this perfect way to succeed. It should be laid back, and relaxed."
The stories, lives and interactions of Mutazione's mutant cast will expand over time; not just with the passing of dialogue, but the passing of time.
The citizens of Mutazione won't challenge Kay in mortal or mental combat. They're major characters, each with their own stories. As Kay, the player will get to know these characters, interact with them, learn their stories, their motivations and their schedules. They're also a colorful cast of characters; they're all mutants who've been physically changed by the cataclysmic event that has thrown the holiday resort into disarray.
"But ... but friendly mutants," Wilson explained. "This is not Fallout."
That's not the only time that comparison came up during the interview. Deneken emphasized how important it is for him to create a world where players can build deep, meaningful connections with characters on their own terms. It's a shortcoming he observed when playing a game he otherwise loved: Bethesda's Fallout 3.
"Obviously it's a really gigantic world so you can't ask for all that much depth from the game, but you get this place, this really scrappy town called Megaton, and you have a house there," Deneken said. "But aside from some few shopkeepers, you can't actually interact with your neighbors. I found that really annoying. Sometimes one of those villagers would come to you as a player and would give you something, but it didn't have any background, and you didn't have any relation to those characters. They're really just puppets."
The stories, lives and interactions of Mutazione's mutant cast will expand over time; not just with the passing of dialogue, but the passing of time. The world will change based on the time of day and day of the week. Characters will be at different places depending on their schedules, and will impart new information and carry out new conversations based on where and when they are.
"I think the main kernel for me is super inspired by Majora's Mask," Wilson said. "This idea of how can you make a place feel like a living, breathing place? This idea in Majora's Mask that everyone had this schedule, and so forth — it's almost this kind of trick, because that game feels like it has more content than it really does. It's clever, right, because instead of needing to make five towns, you only have the resources for one town, so you do a lot more with that set of resources.
"That starts weaving into the way you converse with these characters, how you find them, what mood they're in at this place and time," Wilson added. "That, to me, I'd say is the core thing I'm hoping to add to the core adventure-ish template. To make the world seem a bit more alive."
On the complete opposite end of the game design spectrum is Johann Sebastian Joust; a title that has built a following out of not having a visual element. The game is not suspended in an illustrated world with a charming cast of characters; it manifests entirely in the physical space, its interactions occurring dynamically between real-life combatants.
Johann Sebastian Joust has gained a fair amount of celebrity among anyone who's ever played it. But it's never actually been fully released, existing and spreading only in various betas that have been distributed since the game first surfaced at the 2011 Nordic Game Jam.
Now, development on a retail version of Joust — to be released in the Sportsfriends bundle for PlayStation 3 and PC —is "picking up pretty fast," Wilson explained. Die Gute Fabrik has hired the contractors they needed to finalize the four games included in the package, leaving Wilson to polish Joust, his own contribution to the project.
To do so, however, Wilson had to answer one important question: How can he make his un-traditional folk game a traditional retail release?
"Part of the discussion is, it changes a lot, right," Wilson said. "When you go from just, like, an exhibition game or art piece or whatever you want to call it, to a commercial product. That's both for good and for bad. The tough thing is the expectations change, literally just by putting it on a different platform. It needs to be intelligible to people who aren't part of the scene, or who haven't seen it in exhibitions."
Johann Sebastian Joust is a game that requires its players to possess a feral awareness of their opponent's intentions, ensuring nobody's close enough to dive at their vulnerable controller, jostling it enough to remove them from the game. That sense of self-preservation and battlefield assessment is part and parcel of the game's magic.
Perhaps the biggest question Wilson had to answer while making the Sportsfriends port of Joust is how to preserve that magic while incorporating a screen into the mix.
"You can't really imagine, like, you turn on your PlayStation 3, select this game and then look at a black screen with music," Wilson said. "That's not what happens when you load a PlayStation. There's got to be some kind of smoother path to that.
"For me, visuals become a way of framing the experience," Wilson added. "The idea is not that you look at the screen while you play, but that it sets the tone."
Wilson reached out to game designer and artist Dominique "Dom2D" Ferland, who contributed art for the Sportsfriends Kickstarter project, to create visual assets for the game. Wilson said he's incredibly selective when it comes to collaborators on Die Gute Fabrik's games, but Dom's illustrations, which depict Baroque-era characters playing the game's soundtrack on musical instruments, were an instant hit.
Each character is based on one of the colors projected by the PlayStation Move controller's tip, providing players and spectators with a quick visual reference for who's still in the game. As the music shifts in tempo, so do the character's animations on screen. It provides data on the game's proceedings without busy, distracting user interfaces. It contributes more to the atmosphere of Joust than it takes away.
Die Gute Fabrik experimented with making the screen a more mechanical part of the retail release of Joust, but it never felt natural. The studio looked to one of it's older titles, BUTTON, for inspiration; in BUTTON, the screen simply displayed a real-life action players had to perform before pressing their controller's button to win the round. It's a game that required its players — perhaps complete strangers demoing the game at an exhibition — to roughhouse in a generally humorous manner. To break the ice, the game's visuals featured fittingly humorous graphics ("dumb, kind of stoner graphics," in Wilson's own words) drawn by Deneken.
The same philosophy applies to the Sportsfriends version of Joust. It is, in a way, Wilson's method of building a memorable world on top of the one we live in.
"It's the same reason I'm using JS Bach, and not just any old piece of music," Wilson said. "It kind of sets this, slightly sillier tone, and the baroque bullshit kind of makes you want to act like an old swordsman or something. I think it's all part of this subtle mood suggestion stuff, and just looking like, 'Ah, this is a product, it was worth my money to spend on it, it wasn't just slapped together."
DIE GUTE FABRIK'S FUTURE
Not five minutes into our teleconference interview, the Skype call between myself, Wilson and Deneken dropped.
It's an increasingly common and frustrating scenario for Wilson and Deneken, who, until recently, operated out of the latter's office in Copenhagen. After finishing up a Danish Ph.D. program, Wilson returned to the United States to work out of New York City.
"This is basically, we do this call every day," Wilson said. "You're getting a really good insider view on what it's like for us to work out of Skype."
Telecommuting is a new issue for Die Gute Fabrik's owners, but it's always been a trial for their development projects. The studio's collaborators are spread out across the world. Programmer George Buckingham is based out of London. Composer Alessandro Coronas lives in Sardinia, Italy.
The team is happy to work on their own schedules, Wilson explained, but he and Deneken still try to get as much face time with one another as is financially possible.
"We try to be clever; like, I'll wait for if I'm lucky enough that some exhibition wants to fly me out to Europe, I'll use that for free plane tickets to Europe, then we'll turn that into a work camp or something," Wilson said. "We're just kind of scrappily trying to do what we can. We gotta make it work, but I think we're slowly getting the hang of it."
Die Gute Fabrik's development strategy of disassociated projects and shifting personnel is not going to change, Wilson and Deneken said. The freedom they've achieved has allowed them to explore new ideas without shackling themselves to sequels or a specific genre. As long as they keep moving, they won't run out of ideas. It's that very playfulness with design that led to Joust's invention in the first place. It's what let them develop Tower no Tumble, a Crokinole-inspired Sifteo Cube game with ties to the Mutazione universe, earlier this year.
But wouldn't it be easier to establish themselves as masters of a specific genre? Wouldn't that help them build a clearer identity for themselves, possibly giving Die Gute Fabrik a bigger footprint in the industry?
"Yes," Wilson said, "but I don't know what the answer is. We were just kind of like, 'Fuck it, we're just gonna do the projects we want to do, and that we're excited about, and it'll either work out or it won't.' I don't understand what the alternative would be. Like, we come up with some strategy to be the motion control studio, or whatever.
"We were just kind of like, 'Fuck it, we're just gonna do the projects we want to do, and that we're excited about, and it'll either work out or it won't.'"
"It was a lot like that when I was with my Danish colleagues in Copenhagen Game Collective," Wilson added. "We were working on a lot of party games and stuff, and that was fun, and great for a few years. But at some point it was like, now I just want to make games with Nils and a few other people in our Die Gute Fabrik band, so to speak. Whatever that is, that's what it'll be. Will that be intelligible to other people? I don't know. We're just going to have to try our best."
Die Gute Fabrik's biggest priority isn't to answer that particular question, but another one: How can they make enough money to support the company's future endeavors?
"Our goal is to be self-sustaining," Deneken said. "That's our ultimate goal at the moment, just to get to that point where we can just have a game out, and that can finance our next project."
Mutazione's development is supported by a grant Die Gute Fabrik received from the Danish Film Institute all the way back in 2009. The team has to "burn on a low flame," Deneken explained, until it receives additional funding — while games like Where is My Heart were well-received, they didn't sell enough to fund the team's other efforts.
The hope is that Mutazione, Sportsfriends and the PC, Mac and Linux ports of Where is My Heart will bring them into a more financially stable future, Wilson explained; one where they don't have to change their freeform development philosophy.
"But it's difficult, it's definitely a struggle," Wilson said. "But we've gotta give it a good try. I super believe in Nils and his work, which is partially why it's this crazy, shifting cast of characters and collaborators. You're kind of piecing it together. We can barely afford to keep ourselves going. There's no staff of like, hiring a big studio of 20 people, or something."
"But that's kind of okay, that way, because we're all involved in production work," Deneken said. "That's really nice, we're not all just managing. I wouldn't actually want that, to have this big staff and run around, coordinating stuff. I just want to go in myself and do assets and stuff like that. We hope we can stay small, and release a successful project that can keep us going, and add up, and have a back catalog of games that will finance our work.
"Sure, here and there we could contract an animator, or even hire one on a regular basis," Deneken added. "But I'm not interested in growth, basically. I'm really not."