“I was told I was mad for wanting to create a crystal environment on a mobile platform”
Simon Fellah is the creative director and co-founder of Fantastic, yes. When he started out with the project, he was constantly told he was mad when he said he wanted to create a crystal-based AAA environment on mobile platforms. Read more about how he achieved the impossible in this exclusive interview.
Simon shares his thoughts on what does it take to design beautiful and mysterious environments, talks about ideas taking shape, and what it feels like to see them come alive. Simon and David had a perfect combination of skills to make their dream become a reality. Simon is a painter, and his art was a beautiful basis for the concept art of a game that already had a potential market:
David (Simon’s brother and co-founder) and I have had this idea to make a sci-fi story for years. We both grew up with a love for science fiction. And over the years we’ve been dreaming about creating a comic book, a movie, and later on, a game. In 2016 we realized there was an opportunity to make a sci-fi, mobile puzzle game. There was nothing like it on the market and the opportunity was obviously there, with other successful 3D puzzle games leading the way.
What does it take to make game environments like this?
We had a lot of talks about how we wanted Returner 77 to look. The final product looks and feels somehow like the first ideas, but was changed by pragmatism and real-life – time, budget, performance on mobile – all those factors influenced how Returner 77 changed shape from the early ideation days. The beginning of creating a game is always extremely creative – you can do anything and everything, and then comes the time when you have to scale it down to reality. We had to find a way to build the environments that would work smoothly on a phone. We were told we were mad for wanting to create a crystal environment on a mobile platform simply because of performance reasons. We were told it wasn’t possible, but we worked hard on pushing the limits and now we have extremely beautiful crystals and the game really works well. But I have to say: it was not easy.
We’ve created a game that has the sound, visuals, and narrative of sci-fi dreams, and added the mystery of deep puzzles. We wanted the game to be compelling, and damn near impossible to put down.
Killing your darlings: How do you decide what ideas get cut out?
Deciding what goes into the game and what doesn’t is a matter of experience and testing. Every time we come up with a new idea we have to think about how to turn it into reality, and if we can’t get it exactly how we planned, we brainstorm, twist a little thing here and there, work around the problem, and test again, to make sure that the idea is just as good and interesting as initially planned.
Of course, I have my darlings (ideas I really want to see in the game) and each team member has his own. So, the really difficult part is realizing something cannot be done. I think it’s fair to say that only 20% of our ideas actually make it into the game. We’ve had so many ideas that would have been beautiful or intriguing but didn’t end up in the game. Not only because of resources, but also because of time limitations, or because the narrative has changed.
The team is what makes the vision come alive
The biggest challenge is that in big projects like Returner 77, you are very much dependent on the team. Being a painter is all about expressing the vision on your own while working with Returner 77 meant opening your vision to be shared, questioned and changed by other people. We really wanted all team members to be included, and make them feel that it’s not just two guys weird vision of a sci-fi story. It’s the team’s vision.
The feeling of people working together towards a common goal is the best part of designing a game. Seeing another person have a great idea because of what you just talked about or coming up with a great solution you would never think of on your own. And that feeling of ideas giving birth, and finding a way to turn them into a game.
Also, because we’re working as a team, we get to celebrate our successes and creations together. Everybody worked really hard making Returner 77. In the end, we reached our goal and we hope that everybody can look back and say it was a cool adventure. Super fun at times, rough at times, but definitely worth the effort. There is a big satisfaction being able to say ”I was part of that”, or “I came up with that puzzle”.
When your brother is your business partner
I think I have a common understanding with David, and we make a very good team. We have the same references, heard the same stories, and have a synchronized thinking because we simply grew up together. That gives us a clear understanding of what can we do, what are our limitations and strengths as a team.
It can be difficult to leave your ego at the door when working together, but it is about always keeping the final product in mind, and finding a way to reach that point together. It has been a good partnership, I don’t think there are many companies where two brothers are founders. We are like the Wachowski brothers – the directors, screenwriters, and producers of the Matrix trilogy.
Simon Fellah leads the game development team as the art director at Fantastic, yes and is the artistic inspiration behind the games. His concept art is where the first ideas of Returner 77 came from. He is an internationally known painter with his own studio in addition to leading the team. Follow his art on instagram @simonfellah to see more.