Publishers are "the most valuable piece of the puzzle" right now
We Are Fuzzy's Maxx Burman offers a not-so-fuzzy view of indie development in 2017 as he readies his first project, Sleep Tight
There was a time when you could ask people in the games industry what the hardest part of the job was and be reasonably assured the answer would come back as some version of "making a great game." From indies to AAA executives, the answer was usually the same. These days we hear a bit more variety in response to the question, as evidenced by Maxx Burman, co-founder of upstart indie studio We Are Fuzzy, in a recent discussion with GamesIndustry.biz.
Burman is working on his first game, Sleep Tight, a twin-stick shooter/tower defense hybrid where players revisit childhood days spent building pillow forts to survive nightly attacks from the creatures under the bed. It's his first journey into game development proper after nearly a decade as a matte painter and art director for a variety of projects, from bleach and toothpaste ads to House of Cards and Westworld. In games, he's worked with the renowned Blur Studio on cinematics for Far Cry 5, Halo Wars 2, and Titanfall 2. While that background has given him some advantages, the jump into development sounded straight forward enough without them.
"It started with me picking up Unreal Engine 4, which just came out as I [began] making the game," Burman said. "So it was a lot of just reading the documentation, the wiki pages, the forums, some of the YouTube videos and all of that. I just sat down with determination to make a game and learned what I needed to."
He added, "Honestly, the tools are there, so I don't think making the game is as much of a challenge. It's more about getting people to play the game, and getting the game out there. Before it was the challenge of just making a game on your own, and I think now the challenge is getting people to play a game you made."
"Honestly, the tools are there, so I don't think making the game is as much of a challenge. It's more about getting people to play the game, and getting the game out there"
Traditionally, that challenge would fall to the publisher. But a publisher is something We Are Fuzzy doesn't have. Burman said he and co-founder Banks Boutté talked to a number of publishers about Sleep Tight, but didn't like the amount of leverage they had.
"They know how valuable they are, and they really are the most valuable piece of the puzzle right now," Burman said. "The challenge is getting people to play your game and marketing it and all of that. Because of that, they really do hold the power. And we thought, would we rather give away the majority of our ownership to a publisher, or do we think we could build a publishing team and a marketing team and find the right people to do these things for us?
"It becomes a question of do you want to do it yourself, or do you want to bring in someone who specializes in that and can do it very well and has a proven track record? Do you need them? No. Are they an amazing tool? Completely. Can you build that tool for yourself? That's what we believe and why we went down this road."
Burman said We Are Fuzzy put together an internal team that could fulfill the functions of a publishing company, figuring out what they needed and then pursuing people to hire specifically for those roles. However, when it came to marketing, the studio still opted to outsource, enlisting Stride PR to handle those duties.
Of course, publishers and marketers can only work with what the developers give them, and Burman wanted Sleep Tight to stand out from the crowd for more than just its promotion.
"Making this game, one of the constant things that's been going on in the media has been 8-bit fatigue," Burman said. "Most indie games are going after this retro style, and from the beginning we wanted to go the opposite route and focus on a beautiful, polished looking game with visuals that suck you in and a gameplay loop that's addicting and keeps you playing...
"There's the nostalgia of the types of games you played when you were a kid, but we wanted to go back to the nostalgia of what it feels like to be a kid, to play make-believe with Super Soakers or dart guns. And that carries across to every part of the game, the little details in the levels and the music itself. It's not '80s retro music. It's not synthesizers. It's percussion and bells and the sounds that make you have that emotion of being a kid, just having that playtime and imaginary battles you'd go through, without relying on trying to make games look like what they looked like in the late '80s and early '90s."
This is one area where Burman's past work experience helped. To really "hit the nostalgia bone," Burman wanted Sleep Tight to take place in a "Pixar-like universe," but that level of polish would require specialized talent to be dedicated to every part of the game's creation. Fortunately, his visual effects career helped him cultivate a wider network of talented artists who specialize in fields that may not be his strength, allowing him to turn to contractors like a character designer from Disney and a UI specialist from Ubisoft.
"You just never miss a deadline. That's the number one rule in visual effects. I think there's a little more leeway when you're developing a game because it is your own product"
Access to artistic talent, overlap in the 3D software used for film and game development, and familiarity with some fundamental artistic principles all helped ease Burman's transition from visual effects to game development, but the biggest benefit his part work experience had for his current role may have been the approach to project management.
"Working in trailers and in films, I realized you need to stay incredibly organized and try to work efficiently," Burman said. "It doesn't matter how good an artist you are. If you're trying to do a project as big as a game, or a cutscene, or a trailer, you just need to work efficiently and work organized.
"You just never miss a deadline. That's the number one rule in visual effects. I think there's a little more leeway when you're developing a game because it is your own product. When you're working as a visual effects artist or studio, you have a client to answer to who really isn't going to accept anything other than a product on the deadline."
While gaming is likewise largely driven by deadlines, the abundance of delays to anticipated titles is tough to ignore. And having had a bit of experience with both at this point, Burman understands why.
"Both have a lot of moving parts," he agreed. "But making games has way more moving parts, so it's a lot harder to keep on track."
As of this writing, Sleep Tight is on track for release on the Nintendo Switch and PC in the first quarter of 2018.