We talk to the Creative Director behind the imaginative Figment about the game, the indie dev scene, and the creativity of the European development scene.
Figment, a surreal and imaginative adventure through a very hand-drawn world, is on its way and it should represent a very different kind of game experience than has been seen on the Switch to this point. I was able to get some of the time of the game's Creative Director, Jonas Byrresen, to discuss the game, the indie marketplace, and the appreciation of games as culture.
To start things off: You're at a conference and someone comes up and is asking you to describe Figment to them. What would you give as an answer to that?
JB: The short on the floor version would go something like this: Figment is a isometric adventure game where the player must journey through the different areas of the mind, on a quest to help it overcome fear and trauma. It is a game that mixes exploration and puzzles, with a unique art style and music.
If I have more time, I would also add that that it is story driven game with many layers. A story about overcoming fear and how experiences shape our mind. The story has a broad appeal, but also has a detailed layer for the players who like to look for it.
Looking over your past games you've come up through the mobile-leaning path, paired with the PC space with Steam and Humble, gotten into consoles through Sony, and now seem to be working to stay in the PC/console space. This seems to be very common for indie developers, and conceptually it makes sense. What are your thoughts on the journey you've had along the way and to now also be targeting the Nintendo Switch?
JB: That does seem to be a normal road for many indie developers to have taken over the years. We actually launched our first game on both Steam and mobile very closely, but focused mostly on mobile. This was due to the nature and design of the game, that we felt would work very well on the platform, and with mobile gamers. I think this is why many indies have started on that platform. The mechanics and designs that fit on it, are often an easy and good place to start for a small indie team.
Though I would say that things are changing. Mobile is far from an easy market to make a success on for many reasons, so more and more indies just jump straight to PC, where audience is willing to pay and many look for new creative games.
For us it was a natural journey, mostly determined by the nature of the games we worked on, moving on the the platforms that we felt worked best. As the team expanded and we gained more experience, we wanted to do more advanced games. With deeper settings and narratives, while keeping our creativeness from the first game. This, for us, means focusing on PC and consoles, such as the Switch, and then potentially looking at mobile later on. I think it is best to always think of the game first, before the platform, deciding platform, and chose the one that fits the game best.
Along those same lines you've now seen at least 4 major marketplaces between the 2 mobile, Steam, and Sony. What do you see as the benefits and challenges of each of those and what are you hoping to get out of the Switch eShop marketplace by comparison? Do you think the odds of being seen, with the current library being smaller and there being less releases currently per week than elsewhere will help offset the much smaller current installed base?
JB: Console and PC have the the best attention around release, mostly due to the many of the games sites and YouTubers focusing on these platforms. Players and press on these platforms are constantly looking for next big thing, and they therefore often rewards both creativity and solid quality. Though it must be said that PC market is good deal more crowded than console, so marketing is a must to break through.
The mobile marketplace is not a good place to start for an indie company. It is dominated too much by the big guys in our experience. That being said, if one can get a break through, it does have a very long longevity compared to other platforms, with a constant flow of new players discovering your games over a long time. We also find it an interesting platform to port games to. Games that have had success on PC and console can often get attention on tablets.
Regarding the Switch, we of course see a good deal of potential in being on a platform with less games, but we also feel of our new game, Figment, will fit the platform and its audience well. For us it is a platform with sense of something new and adventures, with quality-minded users. Just what we want to aim for.
Looking at and, maybe moreso, listening to the music from the game I'm struck by how unafraid it all is to be what it is. A little strange, a little silly, and just utterly distinct. First, this is a major part of what I love about the indie game movement, so thank you. But second I can't make a blanket statement of truth but in general my impression is that it is the European development studios who are leading the charge with these very distinctive and daring games where the art styles, music, and even gameplay are concerned. Am I crazy?
JB: Not at all. It it something we have discussed before in both the office and with other devs at events. European games have a tendency to look at more varied themes when developing games and find inspiration in varied sources. Not saying other devs can’t do that around the world, but I think the tendency is there for sure. From our understanding, the primary reason for this is that you can get cultural funding for games from many places in Europe. Games are seen as both something commercial and something artistic, and games can get some funding with a good artistic and cultural angle. Figment is a game that have gotten cultural funding from both a Danish culture fund and the Nordic Game culture support. This system can allow for more experimentation when it comes to developing games.
In relations to this subject, I often have an easy time spotting other Scandinavian games, as they often have a special vibe to them, unique to our part of the world. Often a good deal of dark gallows humour, maybe some caricatures and deeper meaning ones you get past the surface. I think the point is that a devs culture often will shine through, and that can sometimes create a unique game experience if embraced properly. Would be interesting to see what kind of games could emerge if more parts of the world did cultural funding for games.
Aside from perhaps obvious inspirations like Escher or Dali on the visual front are there other influences? What about for music?
JB: Another major influence have been the Miyazaki movies. They often mix the common with the the supernatural to create something new, and this have inspired us a lot in creating our game world. Besides that, we have looked a good deal at different ideas for how the subconsciousness is structures to get more ideas for our game world.
Regarding the music, there have been several sources, some famous, such as Tom Waits, but mostly more outlier genres. Not something you normally hear on a standard radio station. This means music that is great at conveying some of the negative feeling that our enemies represent, but also types of music that could capture the unique and surreal moods in the game world. Luckily for us, our sound guy Niels, aka. Stöj Snak, is a massive talent when it comes to mixing up genres, does a lot of music himself and have a great network of local musicians for us to use. Having him at the centre of our audio design have been a great boon.
One piece of the modern game development process, at least it seems where indies are concerned, is to open up aspects of the design process through blog posts or social media. What are your thoughts on that, do you think this is just a piece of the indie puzzle and people are excited to share their work, or do you think studios feel obligated to do it and it is more of a necessary evil? Somewhere in-between?
JB: For us, sharing your progress and doing blogs posts, is something that is of use, both as a marketing tool, but it can also be good for the developers on a personal level.
First off, It is important to keep showing your game to the players out there, so they don’t forget you and are looking forward to your game. There are so many games out there, so it is a must to build a following and keep putting your name out there.
As a bonus, it can also help motivate the developers on the team. We often work to long periods on our games, so it can be helpful, almost therapeutic, to show and tell about your work. It can put into perspective how much progress you have had and how much you have learned. At the same time, nothing is more motivating than experiencing other people reacting positively to something you have worked on for a long time.
I will add though, that inexperienced devs should be aware of not spending more time on blog posts than actually making their game, as it does take time, and also to remember that most people don’t understand the timeframe of game development. Be smart and learn from what others have done.
As you all finish out your work on Figment, and hopefully are met with great success, do you have anyone looking at where you'll be heading next?
JB: Yes we do. We have already started working on future projects. Our company is very focused on the idea of utilizing our developers, so we can keep making more games and not sitting still. This means both new games and maybe also looking at where we can take Figment in the future, but I can’t say in more details at this point.
I wanted to thank Jonas for taking the time to answer my questions with some great details and Emilie for helping to coordinate the interview. Figment is planned for release on all major platforms, including the Switch, in the coming months!