Phil Fish: A Postmortem


I don’t know what to make of Phil Fish.

I’ve been aware of the man for maybe two years now. I barely knew anything of FEZ until it was practically released, so I missed out on a lot of the typical Phil Fish stories that pockmarked its tumultuous development. Like a lot of people, I was mostly introduced to him through the mountain of press surrounding Indie Game: The Movie, a film ostensibly about delays that was in limbo itself for a while. When placed alongside the softspoken, thoughtful Jonathan Blow and the easygoing Edmund McMillen, many people found Fish’s behaviour neurotic, paranoid, and alienating, especially in the segments at PAX. It’s not a perfect snapshot of Fish’s personality, but it will probably remain the most personal glimpse we’ll ever see. His recently protected Twitter account was always coated in a thick layer of Internet sarcasm, and his ascerbic tweets did little to change the minds of those who had decided long ago that he was just a pretentious hipster asshole.

A few days ago, Fish and Blow ranted on Twitter about how they hate it when journalists ask them to comment on industry rumours. Marcus Beer ripped the two to shreds during a particularly harsh segment of Annoyed Gamer, then Fish got into a very public Twitter shouting match with Beer that culminated in Fish locking his Twitter account, cancelling the recently-announced FEZ II, and seceding from the game industry.

While I don’t believe for a second that Fish is actually leaving the industry for good, his farewell note was right about one thing: this explosive incident was a long time coming. Fish seems to think that a lot of the hate directed toward him the past few years is unfounded, and that people are attacking him for no reason other than that it’s cool to hate him. His detractors claim he’s a rude and provocative asshole, much more so than most of his game-design peers. I think that both sides are correct to a certain degree, but the extremely emotional lilt to this war means reconciliation is likely impossible. Phil Fish will continue to bait the haters, and they will respond in kind ad infinitum.

The original argument that led to Fish’s retreat from the industry was an escalating series of overreactions. Fish overreacted after being asked to comment on an industry rumour about indie games on Xbox One, which, since he’s a successful indie developer who has worked with Microsoft in the past, it would’ve made sense to ask for his opinion on things. I understand his argument that it puts him in a difficult position to comment on rumours, especially if they don’t turn out to be true, but if that’s the case, just quietly decline comment. No need to moan about it on Twitter. It’s possible that he was worried about it turning from an Xbox One article into a “Phil Fish Said” article, which there admittedly have been a lot of lately, but he’s just so damn quotable. He got pissed at Polygon for reaching out to “industry analyst” and documented misogynist Kevin Dent for comment last week, so this time, they humoured Fish and reached out to him for comment instead, and surprise, he explodes. Polygon et al. reached out to him and Blow for comment because they’re two of the most recognized names in indie development right now, and regardless of whether they believe it themselves, their input is valuable to people. I’ve watched the Annoyed Gamer segment, and I certainly don’t condone Beer’s tasteless name-calling either, which was an overreaction in itself. I doubt Beer originally had any sort of agenda against Fish and Blow, other than knowing that lambasting them on air would probably guarantee a large viewership and incur little blowback because lots of people hate them, but he probably felt something on a personal level when Fish told him to “kill himself.” Fish overreacted to Beer’s overreaction to Fish’s original overreaction, and the Internet just eviscerated the loudest complainer, which was Fish.

I have to disagree with the general opinion that Indie Game: The Movie made Fish look like an asshole. I saw a guy who was very absorbed in his work, who knew that he had a hit game on his hands years before indie games would become “cool” (in retrospect, FEZ‘s long development cycle probably helped it in the long run by allowing the game to be released during a time that was more indie-friendly). I sympathized with his very real fears of seeing years of hard work undone by a soured relationship with a spiteful ex-teammate. However, I could also see that he had a flair for the dramatic, as he too-easily informed the camera crew that he’d kill himself if FEZ was never released, along with his bold claim that he would make his ex-partner “a millionaire” if he would just sign the damn papers. These are probably not things most working professionals (indie or not) would say if they knew these comments would be featured in a movie that hundreds of thousands of people would watch, but Fish seems to lack that sort of filter. Still, while these comments were overly dramatic, they were hardly representative of the kind of Internet demon troll persona that people have created around Fish has become since the film was released.

I gave Fish a bit of leeway regarding Indie Game: The Movie and his infamous “Japanese Games Generally Suck” interview because of who his audience was at the time. His immediate audience in Indie Game was the camera crew, who would not have cautioned him against making these statements (if anything, they were probably double-checking to make sure they got the shot). His extended audience would be anyone who bought the movie, a large number of which were probably people who had an unfavourable opinion of him, but because of the medium, they were unable to immediately deliver any rage-filled feedback. The “Japan” panel was another case where the Internet hive mind wasn’t Fish’s immediate audience; it was all the developers and journalists gathered at the panel. He wasn’t saying these particular things to incite any rage among the gaming populace. In Indie Game, he was trying to provide dramatic soundbites, and in the “Japan” interview, he was probably trying to be funny off the cuff, which is almost impossible and he shouldn’t have tried it in the first place, but hey. It’s possible, however unlikely, that he has a hard time judging how far his words will reach when it’s just a few journalists or filmmakers in the room.

Fish’s behaviour on Twitter, however, is less excusable. It’s a direct line to his haters, and he milks it for all it’s worth. I have to admit I found it entertaining at first, and sometimes, his proclamations on what’s wrong with the industry today very nearly echo my own. But recently, not a day goes by where I don’t see him post some sort of inflammatory remark designed to drive the Internet into a frenzy, whether it’s about his game, someone else’s game, the latest industry controversy, or whatever. I saw him tearing apart Minecraft the other day, to which Notch sadly replied, “Just found out that the guy who made one of my favourite games hates my game.” For a guy who hates navigating the shitstorm of irrational abuse surrounding his own game, Fish has no problem slinging it toward other people’s creative work. When Polygon incurred his wrath for reaching out to Dent for comment last week, Fish made his case like a child, ragetweeting at Polygon’s account for hours (which, being a news feed, doesn’t reply to people) until Phil Kollar politely (and smartly) asked him to share his concerns via email. Fish (rudely, of course) insisted on keeping things as public as possible, because if Kollar is shown publicly taking the bait, then Fish wins. “I wonder what Phil Fish’s thoughts on Kevin Dent and Polygon are,” Dan Ryckert quipped.

The worst tweets, by far, are the ones where he directly attacks the gaming public. If you’re a game developer and you rely on gamers to make your living, then calling them “the fucking worst” and “fucking ingrates” and telling them to “suck my dick, choke on it” is probably cause for hiring either a therapist or a PR team. Fish knows exactly what kind of reaction he’s going to get when he hits send on these tweets, but he’ll inevitably complain about the reaction anyway. This breeds yet another cascade of furious tweets in his direction, which he’ll also reply to, and so on. I’ve seen people I know send him angry messages on Twitter, and surprisingly, he responds to every one, which makes he think that he actually reads every single negative tweet addressed to him, and he’s already admitted to reading comments on gaming sites. If this is true, then I can only imagine how unhealthy it must be for his psyche. What he needs to do is stop reading comments and @replies, because when he’s the topic at hand, the comments are likely emotional, irrationally furious, and utterly unconstructive. Replying to the hate is getting him nowhere, and it’s making him look worse in the process.

Right now, the original argument has sort of evolved into a question of whether it’s necessary for developers (or really, any kind of celebrity with an online presence) to absorb all the hate the Internet constantly throws at them. It doesn’t matter if you’re an indie developer with no ties to a publisher; if you’re going to interact with the public, for the sake of your business (and Polytron is a business, despite having few employees), you should generally strive to appear professional. These include matters where it’s necessary to deflect criticism. As you become more famous, you’ll have to face more and more of this criticism, as unfounded as it may seem at times. Try Googling “Reggie Fils-Aime is a”; the first two autofill results end with “douche” and “idiot,” and this is big, lovable Reggie we’re talking about. Ideally, anonymous people on the Internet would think twice before spouting hateful rhetoric, but I don’t think the Internet is going to budge on that point. It is what it is these days, and unfortunately, it’s probably never going to change for the better. Sadly, the onus must remain on Internet celebrities to weather the online hatestorm, which in my opinion requires skin a layer or two thicker than what celebrities are traditionally used to developing. Before Twitter, only the press had a direct line to celebrities, and the rest of the world had to witness the exchange passively and from a distance. Unthinkably, Twitter has provided a direct line between celebrities and literally everyone else on the planet, which has sort of broken down the barriers that would’ve once insulated Fish from his very vocal detractors. Still, I creepily observe Twitter exchanges between hundreds of other developers and journalists every day, and the vast majority of them manage to remain civil and professional enough that Fish definitely seems like the odd man out. Blow gets just as much hate as Fish does (most of which is unfounded, in my opinion; I think a lot of people are intimidated by Blow’s intelligence and try to pass it off as pretentiousness), but his responses are always calm, measured, and careful.

For the record, I liked FEZ a bunch. It’s one of those games where the prime mechanic is so deceptively simple that you sort of slap your forehead and wonder why no one else has thought of it yet (I had the same feeling during Braid). I didn’t expect the announcement of FEZ II, mostly because I expected Fish to move on to his next idea, like Blow and McMillen have, instead of continuing to fine-tune his first idea, but I wasn’t about to complain about more FEZ either. So when Fish cancelled the project, I admit I was disappointed. My personal opinion of the man seems to waver between “dedicated, if emotionally sensitive developer” and “caustic Internet troll,” but somewhere in between those two personalities is a guy who was making a cool video game that I would’ve purchased, and now he’s apparently no longer doing that. In this scenario, everybody loses.


The Fez Patch Saga

I decided to let the story of Fez‘s game-breaking patch-to-a-patch grow a bit before I commented on it, and I’m glad I did, since the story has undergone some dramatic developments in the past week. But now it’s time to reap the delicious, bountiful harvest.

The expectations for Fez have been outrageously high ever since its announcement in 2007, and it has remained in the public eye for the past five years thanks to its well-publicized development troubles and a number of abrasive comments from its creator, Phil Fish. We see shades of Fish’s personality in everything from his tweets, to official Polytron press releases, to media interviews, to his appearance in Indie Game: The Movie, and it’s all remarkably consistent. He’s a guy who wants desperately to succeed but takes it fairly hard when he fails, and despite the wads of cash he’s undoubtedly made since Fez was released, he’s hit a few minor post-release patch issues that have earned him a beating in the press.

The problem with making a successful or popular game is that people have increased expectations. Gamers are an incredibly entitled bunch, and in order to be a strong developer, the best way to deal with it is to suck it up and soldier on. Bioware tried responding to fan outrage with their Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut DLC, but popular opinion was still only mixed at best; it’s simply impossible to please the mob completely. Industry vets like Reggie Fils-Aime and Randy Pitchford are able to deal with the tons of expectations and criticisms hurled against their products on a daily basis by calmly sticking to their guns; hell, Pitchford had Duke Nukem Forever to apologize for, and he and Gearbox are still some of the most beloved developers around.

Therein lies Fish’s problem; he’s an ordinary Canadian twentysomething with all the insecurities and anxieties typical of someone of that description. I saw them everywhere at university, and none of them were trying to ship a highly anticipated XBLA game on top of their usual daily stresses. He’s a normal, emotional human being thrust into a situation that’s extraordinary even among his game industry peers: people want to play his first game so badly that they get angry whenever another deadline passes without the product being in their hands. With Polytron being a tiny three-man operation, Fish probably doesn’t have any media training, which is why he sometimes says things people don’t like. He doesn’t have the benefit of Pitchford’s years of industry experience to know how to properly deal with fan entitlement, and he lacks the almost superhuman immunity to criticism typical of most high-profile players in this industry.

The $40,000 XBLA re-certification is prohibitively expensive for an indie developer (if it does cost that much; Fish strikes me as a bit of an exaggerator, and Microsoft refuses to reveal the price tag for re-certification), so Polytron was faced with a choice: re-upload an old patch that fixed the bugs for all but a few players, or pony up the cash and pray that, for $40,000, they can eliminate the few remaining issues with a new patch. Fish made the decision that I, as an impulsive adult in my twenties, would have made: he put the old patch back up, knowing that a few paying customers would be unable to play the game but saving his company $40,000. Offering refunds (is that even possible on XBLA?) should be an obvious next step. I don’t know what Polytron’s financial situation is like, but even with all the Fez profits, $40,000 is a serious hit to take, and I can see why Fish, as someone just becoming accustomed to real success, might balk at that number.

On the other hand, can Fish really afford to be an impulsive twentysomething when paying fans are concerned? This isn’t a case of fan satisfaction, as with the Bioware fiasco; this is a case of a glitch actually preventing people from playing the game to completion. Bioware wasn’t obligated to fix Mass Effect 3′s ending, but Fish might be obligated to fix Fez‘s stability issues. It’s one thing to make an unsatisfying yet fully functional game, but leaving a broken game unfixed is a whole other ballgame. The argument Polytron makes (and they seem to admit that even they’re not fully satisfied with this argument) is that Fez is mostly fixed without the new patch, with only a tiny fraction of players still running into game-save issues. So they’ve still managed to satisfy the vast majority of players without breaking the bank…but given the high standards of the industry, even among indies, should they have spent the money and tried to eliminate the issue 100%?

I think the hefty price tag for re-certification is less about gouging developers and more about discouraging them from having to patch their games in the first place. It forces developers to raise their QA standards to the point where they dare not push a game out the door unless it’s virtually bug-free, or else they pay the price down the road. It lets people make the argument that none of this would have been an issue if Fish had coded the game properly the first time, but the re-certification issue is still a bum deal for financially insecure indie developers, and combined with the near-total lack of advertising for indies on the Xbox Live Marketplace, it could be why we’ve seen nearly every good XBLA game ported to Steam in recent years.

Speaking of Steam, much of these issues stem from the time frame of Fez’s development cycle. In 2007, XBLA certainly looked like the place for indie games, with Castle Crashers tearing up the charts; The Behemoth proved there was a market there, and suddenly guys like Jonathan Blow and Phil Fish began prepping their own games for the platform. But a later year, Audiosurf would launch exclusively on Steam, proving that the PC was a viable alternative for indie devs; the years that followed would see an exponential growth in both Steam’s userbase as well as its indie catalogue. It attracted indie developers because it gave them front-page advertising, better sales figures, and an simple patching process. Meanwhile, Fish was still developing for XBLA, but a better market had developed elsewhere while he was taking his sweet time. Had Phil Fish begun development on Fez within the last two or three years, he would have undoubtedly been less eager to jump at Microsoft exclusivity and would’ve been more likely to focus on a Steam version. I just hope Fez‘s XBLA exclusivity runs out soon so I can actually play the damn thing on Steam.