There’s a moment in the 2012 film, “Indie Game: The Movie,” when one of the directors asks Phil Fish, founder of Polytron Corporation, what he would do if he couldn’t finish making his then upcoming game, Fez.
"I would kill myself," Fish replies. "That’s like my incentive to finish — it is then I get to not kill myself."
Fez was a game born in the public spotlight. It won awards four years before its release. The aforementioned documentary heavily featured its development. And the game and its often-vocal developer became the target of hate and ridicule from press and fans alike. In 2013, Fish took to his Twitter account and Polytron’s website to announce the cancellation of Fez 2, citing it as the end of a "long, bloody campaign." He hasn’t taken part in any interviews since to talk about the experience.
So, with so many people pining for a game, how does public attention weigh on a developer's mind? Polygon recently set out to understand how different developers work under such pressures and what their opinions are about the natures of hype. Talking to developers that have been private, divisive and public facing, we wanted to learn what it’s like working with all eyes on you.
Yu Suzuki has a lot on his plate right now.
Standing backstage at Sony’s E3 2015 press conference, Suzuki worried his game, Shenmue 3, wouldn’t stack up. Sony brought nothing short of video game juggernauts to the show, announcing both the long-awaited return of The Last Guardian and a big budget remake of Final Fantasy 7.
Suzuki and his development team knew they had a vocal fan base that had been asking for Shenmue 3 for years. But there was no way to know if Kickstarter, the platform they chose in an attempt to crowdfund the game, (or at least part of it), would go over well with press or fans. Then the music began, the petals fell and the public watched the trailer announcing Shenmue 3. Suzuki recalls the "huge reaction" of people seeing the trailer, screaming and shouting.
"If you have time to worry, you have time to work."
Suzuki tells Polygon he’s been thinking about how to make Shenmue 3 for 10 years. "Shenmue 3 was always with me," he says. Returning to Ryo and the Shenmue universe hasn’t been difficult, he says, because he hasn’t left.
Asked about the anxieties that come with working on such a sought-after sequel, though, Suzuki gives two answers: first a negative, then a positive. The more the expectations or worries stack up, the more they disturb his "creative heart," he says. "That is the biggest negative part of such a pressure," he says. And to Suzuki, creativity is the most important factor in game development.
But, alternatively, he sees the pressure to deliver as an opportunity given to him by fans of his work. "I feel like this is destiny," Suzuki continues. He explains he is pleased with the opportunity to challenge himself with Shenmue 3.
And there are multiple things challenging Suzuki. He’s not only the creative lead on Shenmue 3, but also the president of Ys Net. He’s trying to develop one of the most sought after sequels in recent memory, as well as manage his company. There are a lot of voices in his ear.
Asked whether or not Suzuki worries fans may expect more than he can deliver with Shenmue 3, he begins laughing, saying, "To be honest, don’t expect too much ... don’t give me too much pressure. That would be, you know, better as I can make a better game, because I can be more creative."
But it’s been nearly 20 years since the last Shenmue game, Shenmue 2, released in 2001. Both Suzuki and fans of his games are almost two decades older than they were when they last spent time with Ryo. Their lives may be drastically different, their tastes may be drastically different or, with so much time removed, they may remember the game with a rose tint.
How does Suzuki plan to bring back these memories? It seems his answer is natural progression.
The first step is maintaining Shenmue’s time in place. Shenmue 3 picks up the day after Shenmue 2 ended. Suzuki sees this as a way to naturally continue the series’ story.
The "main thing," as Suzuki refers to it, is continuing the life of Shenmue’s characters. In Shenmue 3, players can make phone calls to characters in the previous games to catch up on their lives. He hopes the ability hear characters’ voices, or possibly even see them in the game, will trigger memories for players of the older games.
"Because of those elements, the fans [will naturally and easily] accept Shenmue 3," Suzuki says. "I’m confident about it."
"I am worried about [fans expecting more than I can give]," he continues, but he says that doesn’t matter. "After the success [of the Kickstarter campaign], we have a commitment to deliver this game."
"If you have time to worry, you have time to work," he says.
Dennis Wedin and Jonatan Söderström, founders of Dennaton Games, do their best to mute the voices in their ears.
"We don't really want to pander to our fans that much," Söderström tells Polygon. "We want to make the games we want to play more than we want to make the games people want to play."
Dennaton’s 2012 release, Hotline Miami, was the game Wedin and Söderström wanted to play, and, as it turns out, a whole lot of other people wanted to play it as well. It sold over 100,000 copies in its first week and built a large fan base for the two.
"We sacrificed the release date because we came up with new stuff all the time that we wanted to have in the game."
"I don’t think there’s anything you can do when the hype is too big; it just means that some people are going to be disappointed in your game," Söderström says. Despite trying not to let hype affect them, they acknowledge that they may have announced Hotline Miami 2 too soon, leaving people in the dark and allowing them to build preconceived notions of what their game would be.
"I think maybe for us, teasing the game so early [built] the hype for too long," Wedin says. The game was originally planned as DLC but quickly grew into a full-fledged sequel. The added scope came with an uphill battle. "The biggest pressure was that it turned out [to be] a lot bigger and a lot more work," Wedin says, "It was [a lot of pressure] because we’re just two people and everything was just so much to handle." That uphill battle was also a slippery slope.
"There was, like, two years of people waiting for the game," he adds. He explains people would email the two or contact them via Twitter, asking them questions they had no answers to, such as when the release date for Hotline Miami 2 — or at least a release month — would be.
"That was kind of rough."
"So it eventually became something that was not possible to create. Because [fans] can discuss it for so long and have [their own] ideas," Wedin says. Though he’s quick to point out he, too, is guilty of building his own notions of what a game will be prior to its release. According to Wedin, "that happens."
"We sacrificed the release date because we came up with new stuff all the time that we wanted to have in the game ... We felt like, 'we're not going to cut anything that's good,'" Söderström says.
But the Dennaton duo’s continuous work hasn’t been without its toll. Wedin explains, after wrapping development on the first Hotline Miami, the two immediately jumped into its sequel. "We haven’t really had a vacation since we started working on Hotline Miami 1," Wedin says. "So I think now we’re both kind of tired."
"I guess, like, now at this point when we’re pretty much done with the level editor, I feel a little bit burnt out," Söderström echoes. "Like, not depressed or anything. But, like, it’s really hard to come up with new ideas." What was once creative work, has now become "regular work," he says.
"What are people going to think about this other side of my personality that I’ve really been hiding?" Tim Schafer, founder of Double Fine Productions, recalls wondering about its 2009 game, Brütal Legend — a game he says was terrifying to announce.
Brütal Legend was unlike like other games he worked on. Compared to the "high-brow, classy" style of the 1998 LucasArts’ game Grim Fandango or the "childlike and whimsical" nature of the studio’s first game, Psychonauts, Brütal Legend was a stark contrast. It was "badass and loud and full of devil’s horns." But the response to the announcement turned out great, he says.
Fans did get hung up on one thing, though: It was a third-person action game that featured real-time strategy elements — an inclusion not everyone was excited about.
"Sometimes you want it to be an event ... the hype is like the foreshadowing for the entertainment."
"I made this assumption that people would be delighted by the fact that the game became more complicated than they expected," he continues. "But some people just don’t really like that feeling of ‘I thought this was going to happen, and it didn’t.’"
Asked if he ever worries fans may expect more than he or Double Fine can deliver, Schafer says he believes the issue comes when giving players something they didn’t expect. "Like, if they have an idea that [a game] is going to be one thing, but it’s actually going to be something else," Schafer says, "I think [that’s] the scarier thing."
Schafer is sitting in his office located in San Francisco, Calif., joined by Greg Rice, Double Fine’s vice president of business.
"I think it’s a challenge for lot of people," Rice adds. "I think you see it a lot, not necessarily in our games, but in the industry and even in other industries, like film, where hype and anticipation can kind of ruin the reviews of a game or the reception just because people aren’t prepared for what it really is." Rice brings up No Man’s Sky, a game boasting the ability to travel to 18 quintillion planets and how its developer, Hello Games, has to compete with what people think its game is prior to its release.
Schafer, though, comes to the defense of hype.
He recalls his experience seeing "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," buying his ticket, buzzing with excitement and wondering how the film could ever live up to fans’ expectations. And, as he tells it, that’s kind of the point.
"Sometimes you want it to be an event — you want the game you’re playing to be an event ... the hype is like the foreshadowing for the entertainment," Schafer says.
"For all the games that we self-publish, it’s a hard balance," Rice continues, "because you want to be building hype and building anticipation for your games so that people will come out and eventually pay for it and buy it."
Rice points to Double Fine’s 2014 crowdfunded release, Broken Age, explaining that, with "90,000 voices that want to be heard about what they think the game’s going to be," a lot of different people have different expectations. Because of that, Double Fine attempted to be transparent with its development process with the successful behind-the-scenes documentary series, "Double Fine Adventure."
Broken Age was a unique game for Double Fine, as it was the first point-and-click adventure game it released as a studio, despite it having been founded by Schafer, a pioneer of the genre. "In some ways there’s a little bit of an unwinnable battle there," Schafer says, explaining a person’s nostalgia for a game or genre is contingent on the memories of their experiences — and it’s not something that can necessarily be recreated, at least not accurately.
"It’s not like you can go back in time and listen to your favorite band’s first album again the same way," Schafer says. "You can never have that exact same experience because you’re not that same person anymore."
There’s also a certain weight that comes along with simply having a big name, like Tim Schafer, associated with a game. While the name attracts attention, it also brings baggage associated with it. "You can never get free of what people think that means, good and bad," he says. "There’s a reason a lot of people, like me, fantasize about, like, ‘oh, what if I could just have an alter ego, a secret identity and release games under that?’"
Double Fine’s next big title is Psychonauts 2, the sequel to the studio’s first game, Psychonauts, or "the flagship of the company," as Schafer puts it. He explains fans’ positive reaction to the announcement has been very motivational. He knows he’s working on something people are anticipating, and he speaks about the game with confidence. "When it comes to [fans’] expectations and how we’re going to meet them," he says, "I feel like we have it covered." He adds he thinks there’s an equal amount of excitement from the game’s fans and those working on the sequel.
At this point, time will tell whether the paths Psychonauts 2 or Shenmue 3 take to their respective releases will be smooth or rocky; whether they’ll hit their release dates or be smacked with delays. Shafer says delays can put people on both sides of the fence. "You’ll get feedback when you announce something like that [where] people will be like ‘Come on, come on!" he says, "which is good, right? You want people to be excited in time for the game to come out. And you also get someone being like, ‘Look, I just want you to make it good. Just have it come out when it comes out." Which, he says, is the only choice you have sometimes.
"In the end, you can’t make something that’s bad and people say, ‘Hey that’s bad.’ And you go, like, ‘Yeah, I know, but the fans made me do it. You’re not going to feel good about that."
"It’s only late until it ships. But if it sucks, it sucks forever," Schafer concludes, attempting to re-quote Shigeru Miyamoto’s "A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad."
"I don’t think he said it exactly that way," Schafer jokes.