PopCap vets form collaborative game development team Fixer Studios [Interview]

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By Brandy Shaul Comment

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Inspired by the indie game-jam spirit, a group of industry veterans have come together to form a new mobile development team called Fixer Studios. Spearheaded by former PopCap Games manager Avery Alix, the “collaborative cloud” development team is made of a volunteer workforce, where members can join and scale the scope of their work based on their individual availability, previous experience and desire.

The team is comprised of around 30 members, but that number changes based on the availability of team members. The company is self-funded, and as members join or leave the group, the rest of the team reassesses current tasks to keep development on track.

Fixer Studios’ first game, Sinister Dexter, is the spiritual successor to the pen-and-paper game Spellbinder, created by Dr. Richard Bartle over 30 years ago. The game sees wizards engaging in turn-based battles, as players can activate recipes from their spellbooks using hand gestures for each spell.

As players complete battles, they’ll earn experience points and will unlock new characters, equipment and customization options to make their wizards stronger. Sinister Dexter is expected to launch on iOS and Android devices in late Spring 2014.

We had a chance to chat with Avery Alix [pictured], Director of Fixer Studios, about the company’s goals, and what players can expect from its first game.

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Inside Mobile Apps: What inspired the formation of Fixer Studios, with its focus on a volunteer, ever-changing workforce, as opposed to the formation of a traditional game development studio?

Avery Alix: Well, the truth is that we formed organically to best support our first passion project. The fifth person to join our team was taking the autumn off to spend more time with his children and thought contributing to Sinister Dexter would be a pleasant side project if we could work flexibly with his schedule.

We jumped at the chance to work with an art director who has more than a decade of industry experience, and even at about twenty hours a week he still managed to drive Sinister Dexter’s art style and produce a lot of great illustrations. We pivoted to our current structure once we realized that flexibility was the key to attracting top talent we couldn’t get to sign up otherwise.

IMA: Every member of Fixer Studios is encouraged to participate in all facets of app development, correct? How do you feel that improves the final product that reaches the market?

AA: Foremost, I think Fixer Studios is an enthusiasm-driven machine. By being completely transparent and collaborative in decision making, every team member has reason to feel very connected to the project and empowered to make sure they’re proud of it.

Further, there are lots of examples of multi-talented folks on the team making great contributions outside of their core skill set. As a team member, if you have the enthusiasm, time and talent to deliver any kind of task, then we say go for it!

For example, our business lead is a professional marketer in the games industry, and after forty (or sixty) hours a week at the day job he was looking for a good reason to occasionally practice his other passion – music. So, not only is he helping the business team, he’s also composed Sinister Dexter’s score.

IMA: With so many ideas, from so many different creators, how does Fixer Studios avoid the potential chaos and conflicts of there being “too many cooks in the kitchen?”

AA: Honestly, the talented individuals of the team can take more credit for that than our organizational structure can. First, our open and respectful communication works well within our team to resolve any outright disagreements quickly and to the benefit of the project. Also, leads like Eric Olson have strong management experience from other gigs, and work with their teams to ensure that everyone feels efficient and productive.

We’ve got a lot of work to do bringing a hardcore game to a market that is traditionally more casual. That means that we’ve identified challenges that need lots of perspectives, and by contrast we find quick consensus where it makes the most sense to have a single contributor simply knock a task out alone. There’s enough work to go around, so the leads don’t have too much trouble managing duplication.

IMA: Can you tell us a bit more about Sinister Dexter? Being a spiritual successor to a pen-and-paper game, how many of the original gameplay elements have been carried over to this mobile experience?

AA: We’re working hard to ensure that Sinister Dexter honors the design philosophy and spirit of Spellbinder well. The truth is that Spellbinder is a great game that’s had its already tight balance further refined by passionate community members for more than three decades. By staying close to proven mechanics and balance we reduce our chance of undoing all that hard work already invested by the community.

That said, even a great game design has a few places that can be improved, and we’re working with Dr. Richard Bartle, the game’s original creator, to address those fixes. As a preview, the core dueling mechanics remain unchanged, though some problematic spells have been tuned. Also, we’ve shared our rules tweaks with a select handful of champion-level players in the community, and are in close communication with them to gather feedback. We also plan to run a closed beta and iterate upon these tweaks to ensure the best dueling experience we can deliver.

IMA: What was the experience of working with Dr. Bartle like for the team?

AA: Our interaction with Dr. Bartle has been really rewarding for the team here at Fixer Studios. As a group that’s working on Sinister Dexter for the love of the project, having his full support and enthusiasm has buoyed our spirits as well as helped tune game mechanics.

As a designer and scholar, he has a deep level of understanding for player motivations that inspire us to make a game we hope players will find treats them with the utmost respect. Also, it’s been a lot of fun learning the context for a game some of us have played for more than a decade.

For instance, we asked Dr. Bartle why a particular spell was called “Time Stop” when its effects more skewed or warped time than stopping it. His answer was that Rocky Horror Picture Show had just been released in 1975, and at the time he was hesitant to “Do the Time Warp” again. All in all, we couldn’t be happier with our partnership with Dr. Bartle, and if you have the chance to collaborate with him, we strongly encourage it.

IMA: Are there any other games currently in development at Fixer Studios?

AA: Nope, currently we’re a one-project team. Once Sinister Dexter is launched and has a good update cadence going, we’ll sit down (even virtually) as a team and discuss what we’d like to do next.

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