How a Canadian team built a game and a family from scratch.
In 2011, the 14th Annual Independent Games Festival awards show began by introducing the teams nominated for Best Student Game, not by name but by school. There were teams from Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. The winner came from the University of Montreal in Canada.
Their project, called Fract, was a first-person game about exploring a mysterious, empty neon world. That world was, in reality, a music synthesizer. Players were tasked with putting the device together, interacting with buttons and levers to coax some sense out of audio puzzles. Even with the game's incomplete state, players were hooked.
Richard Flanagan was 28 when he walked onstage to accept the award. He moved slowly and carefully up the stairs to the podium. He had never been around so many game developers in his life.
"Thank you to everyone here," he said, his voice cracking with nervous energy. He didn't mention that the presenter got his name wrong. "I took a bit of a chance. I decided that I wanted to go back to school. I wanted to learn about game design."
"I need to thank my family and friends that supported me — at this age, at this level of my career. This is just incredible. Thank you so much!"
In the audience that night were the teams behind Minecraft and Octodad, behind Nidhogg and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. This was Flanagan's moment of validation. These were his peers now, and their applause was for him.
And yet at that very moment there was someone in the audience whom he had just let down. Someone he inadvertently slighted. Someone who loved him and supported him more than anyone — his fiancée, Quynh Nguyen. He never thanked her in that speech.
"There was probably yelling," Flanagan remembers. "I think she — rightly — felt left out."
Later that night offstage, he told Nguyen that he would rather have never started working on the game than to have hurt her with his speech.
"I was willing to say, 'OK, let's go home. Let's do something else. ... This isn't about me. This is about us.'" Tears well up as he recalls that evening, that long plane ride back home. It's not something he's comfortable talking about in detail, even today.
But in the end he couldn't bring himself to cancel the project. That day in San Francisco he realized that the game was as much Nguyen's as it was his. The reason the game existed in the first place was because their relationship existed. And in building one, they had helped build the other.
Days start early at Phosfiend Systems, also known as Flanagan and Nguyen's home in Montreal. They have to get their 2-year-old daughter, Zoe, dressed and fed. More often than not it's a quick breakfast together, and then all three are out the door.
Nguyen has a day job, so Flanagan usually drops off their daughter at daycare. Then it's back home where he meets their programmer, Henk Boom, to start the day's work. Even though their game has been out for a few weeks, there's still plenty of work to be done patching bugs.
Sometime after 5 p.m. Nguyen comes back, along with Zoe. All three adults fuss over the baby while making dinner. That's when they have their production meetings, checking in with one another about the progress they've made and setting goals for the next day.
There are plates of chicken next to spreadsheets, baby food alongside calendars. Nguyen keeps everyone on task.
"Every little slot of time is filled," she says. "We've recently been looking back. How did we do so little with so much time before we were parents? Now we have to be, 'Oh! I have this one minute while the tea is steeping. I'm going to do this and this at the same time.'"
Every family has a bedtime routine. At Phosfiend it's been integrated into the work day. Flanagan holds Zoe while Nguyen brushes her teeth. They draw a bath, read a story. They get back to work.
"Everything together," Nguyen says.
"With military precision," Flanagan continues. "Every night."
But it wasn't always this organized. Their lives, and their game, used to be in chaos.
"How did we do so little with so much time before we were parents?"
Just after the IGF award for Best Student Game in 2011, after the fight that almost ended the project, the plan for the game was much bigger than it is now — four times bigger.
Flanagan envisioned four broken worlds; one of synthesizers, another devoted to drum machines, another for turntables and one for samplers. He planned to release each world episodically, giving players time to fix each one on its own and whetting their appetite for the next. Then, when all four worlds had been repaired, they would combine. The game would fundamentally change, adding another layer of complexity.
"It was a symphony," Nguyen says, rolling her eyes. "A symphony with many pieces."
Nguyen took on the role of producer, helping establish a timeline and trying to keep the project on track. Flanagan designed the gameplay, hiring Boom to do the programming.
They knew the project was too big, so they carved off the synthesizer world, set the goal of completing it and started in. If they moved quickly enough they could be on to the drum machine world in less than a year. But instead of meeting their goal they succeeded only in making more work for themselves.
The complexity of the synthesizer world expanded, and the depth of the puzzles and the gameplay got deeper. Development dragged on.
A more experienced game maker could easily see that the concept outsized the small team. Looking back, Flanagan admits it was his own ignorance that made the early years of development on the game, now called Fract OSC, so long and hard. The same naiveté that allowed him to dream up such a unique idea in the first place also made him obsessed with completing it.
"We were working unsustainably," he says. "There was no end in sight. There wasn't even a plan. We didn't even know what the fucking game was at that point."
"I’m a pretty impatient person," Nguyen says. "I was already kind of working on the assumption that we were doing this in six to 12 months. This has to get done. We have to make decisions. Richard felt a lot of pressure of having to go from [caring for] the seed of an idea, working on it by himself and letting it percolate for months — years — until he was ready."
Nguyen was the one who convinced Flanagan to cut the game back. Together they narrowed it to be just about synthesizers. What had originally been one of many milestones became the finish line.
"We didn't even know what the fucking game was at that point."
Gallery: The making of Fract
"In the beginning I didn’t understand that reining [the game] in was valuable," Flanagan says. "Reining it in is something we should have all been doing. And I should have been motivated to do it myself as well, because when you have a smaller box you can fill it with more awesome shit."
Meanwhile, their lives moved along a different timeline. They got married. Nguyen, trained as a fashion designer, made all the dresses for the bridal party including her own. A year later she was pregnant with Zoe. Everything was moving so fast.
There was a point in 2012 where they thought they could finish the game before their daughter was born, so they worked even harder. They realize now how crazy that was.
By the end of her first trimester Nguyen was burnt out. Telling the story now she looks away from her husband, not able to meet his eyes. She admits that she quit the project, that she just walked away.
"I felt unappreciated," she says. "I felt frustrated, because I'm a very goal-oriented person and I didn't feel like we were going anywhere. I didn't feel like there was enough of a clear direction."
"To be perfectly honest, I was frustrated too," Flanagan says, leaning forward in his chair. "I think in my mind that day that you decided to walk away, my response was probably, 'Good fucking riddance.'"
Nguyen, sitting next to him, looks shocked at first, but eventually starts to nod in agreement.
"I felt just like you did," Flanagan says, "like you didn't appreciate my role, didn't appreciate how much work being the creative person is."
For a second time Flanagan says he considered shuttering the project, cutting his losses and getting a real job. Boom did just that, leaving for nearly a year to work fulll-time at another studio in Montreal.
But no matter how consumed Flanagan was with his creative vision, the journey of Fract has always been the journey of a family working toward a better understanding of each other, a journey that has made both the game and their love stronger.
Synthesis and structure
Just how the couple ended up working on Fract's synthesizer together is, like the game, more than a little complicated.
Flanagan's father, a chemistry researcher at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, was a serious classical music collector. His mother was an avid crafter. Their family was always making things.
"My parents were kind of hippies," Flanagan says. "We would just make things out of garbage, out of junk. ... My dad, he’s a woodworker. He’s a tinker. He makes all kinds of stuff. He made us instruments. He made us xylophones. He made wooden tongue drums [and] percussive instruments. ... [He would] just stretch a piece of string across whatever ... There was always music in that space, but also there was this element of tinkering and building [things] yourself.
"I guess I just got used to that."
His parents were always laissez faire about the direction of his life. They didn't say much when he dropped out of school at 17 to start a graphic design company. They didn't say much when it fizzled. The same went for Flanagan's various ska and metal bands.
When he met Nguyen in 2004, Flanagan was working as a contractor at a printing company making signage. She was a research assistant at McGill University in Montreal. Separately, neither was getting what they wanted out of life. With her support he built up the strength to leave his job and go back to school.
They lived in separate parts of Canada for a few years while they each earned a degree, Flanagan in graphic design and Nguyen in fashion. When they finally moved in together in Montreal, it was Nguyen who encouraged Flanagan to apply to creative jobs. With her help he became a key member of a tiny advertising agency. He had found his niche working on campaigns for museums and French-Canadian cultural institutions.
"I don’t want to write off guys," Nguyen says. "I’ve had a lot of boyfriends [who] have this thing that they want to do. But getting the motivation to actually do it? It can be a bit harder. I think ... some people could just use a little push."
But Nguyen had pushed Flanagan into a career that began to consume him.
"I couldn't turn it off," Flanagan says. "The work came home a lot. I was exhausted mentally, and emotionally, because I was pouring so much of myself into this work.
"That was my first really good job, and I think I didn't understand how to keep the work balanced yet. ... It was draining. There wasn't enough of me left. I would come home and it was hard on Quynh."
Flanagan was lost again. He needed to get out. Nguyen once more took the wheel and helped push him toward another kind of creative work: making games.
Their first consoles were a Nintendo Wii and a PlayStation 3. They began devouring games together. Super Mario Galaxy and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune opened Flanagan's eyes to what modern gaming had become. It excited parts of his creative mind that had been dedicated to design work for over a decade. He became fascinated with interaction and game mechanics.
Nguyen printed out the application to the University of Montreal and practically forced Flanagan to fill it out. She had found him a one-year, post-graduate program in game design. By the end of that year he had learned enough to make an early prototype of Fract. Nguyen would be his sounding board for those early ideas, a role that would grow into a true partner in the game's design.
One of the first songs the couple put into the game was one that Flanagan had written for her.
When they released the prototype in 2011, it received far more attention than either expected. People from the broader indie game community began to reach out, people like Independent Games Festival Chairman Brandon Boyer and Fez Designer Phil Fish.
"I didn't understand the reach," Flanagan says. "I didn't understand the visibility [the IGF nomination] would cause."
He went into the game-development program wanting to learn enough to get a little job at a big publisher in Montreal. But now, thanks to the popularity of Fract, he and Nguyen had a chance to go the independent route instead, to make a game and a company on their own.
Just weeks before the awards in San Francisco, the phone rang. On the other end was an established, Canadian-based game studio. They wanted Flanagan to be a full-time game designer. Suddenly the couple was faced with a decision.
It was during that trip to San Francisco in 2011, amidst the swirl of emotions following the award speech that neglected to mention Nguyen, that they made the decision to go all in. They would make a game. They would get married. They would build a family and a business and a tiny, glowing world inside a computer.
Nguyen once more took the wheel and helped push him toward another kind of creative work: making games.
The end of the beginning
Phosfiend released Fract on April 22. Right now the team is furiously banging out patches, responding to customer service issues and generally trying to keep interest in the game from fading. The star of a new indie game burns brightest for just a small window of time, maybe a few months at most. Even though the game is out, the pace of their work has yet to slow. But the end is in sight.
Throughout the journey, the couple has learned how to communicate better. Flanagan says that he's more open now about his doubts and his fears. Nguyen says she's less harsh in her criticism. When one is withdrawn or depressed they have the skills to help the other work through those emotions. They say that knowing each other's cues is what makes their partnership so strong.
Flanagan and Nguyen are happy with the game. They're excited to see it finally in people's hands. But they're also very, very tired.
"I just want to be us," Flanagan says. "More life. Less work."
Nguyen wants to make clothes again. She even has a design in mind for a Fract-inspired cosplay dress. Flanagan has begun to work with leather, and daydreams about making watch straps.
"I just want to be us. More life. Less work."
More than anything, they want to spend more time with their daughter Zoe.
"In the immediate sense," Nguyen says, "she's really been able to have us both be present in her life growing up, to be involved in these things we do. The hope is that [Fract] can help build a future. I don't think we would be doing this if we didn't have a hope that this will build something greater, that we can continue to work for ourselves."
With luck Zoe will grow up surrounded by a successful indie game company. But she will also have parents who support her, who have learned to work together. And one day maybe Zoe will make something just as special.
"If we could that's what I'd want our lives to be," Flanagan says. "Just makin' stuff."
"Together," Nguyen adds.