Based out of Colorado, Serenity Forge is an indie developer-turned-publisher. The company developers its own games but also publishers the indie games of other studios, including the recent Four Sided Fantasy, a puzzle-platformer centered around screen-wrap and locking the game camera in order to overcome environmental challenges.
Founder and CEO of Serenity Forge, Zhenghua Yang, or Z, as he prefers to be called, was onsite at IndieCade 2016 at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in order to help promote the recent launch of Four Sided Fantasy.
I talked with him about Serenity Forge and the state of indie development and publishing today.
Can you tell me a little about yourself and Serenity Forge?
My name is Z. I’m the founder of Serenity Forge, which is a value-driven video game developer and publisher from Colorado. Right now we’re at IndieCade showing Four Sided Fantasy, which is our recently published game. It’s a puzzle-platformer inspired by games like Braid and Portal.
What are the central mechanics of Four Sided Fantasy?
Imagine a game like Mario, a game where you can run around in a 2D setting, but whenever you get stuck trying to get to the other side of the screen, you can press the shoulder button on the controller and lock the screen. Then you can exit the screen on one end and come out the other side, kind of like in Pac-Man in a lot of ways.
What city in Colorado are you based in?
We’re in Boulder.
Is there a big indie scene there?
To be honest, we have a pretty small community there. We’re one of the largest game dev companies in Colorado. And we’re only nine people. It’s not that big. But that’s also a good thing. It motivates us to reach a more international audience and extend our online presence. Because we don’t have a huge network of support out there.
Stepping away from specific games, what are the benefits and challenges of being an indie developer in today’s landscape?
The benefits are probably easier to talk about than the challenges, for me, simply because we were lucky enough to make it all work, unlike 80 or 90 percent of people working hard towards their goals.
As far as the benefits, you have a lot of creative control and freedom. There is no limit to what you can do as an indie developer-publisher. You’re starting your own business. You can do anything you want.
Some problems might be the fact that if you don’t know what you want, you’re not going to do much with your time. One of the things you have to think about as an indie game developer is that you’re told your whole life – by your parents, your teachers, your professors, your boss – everyone is telling you about decisions other people have made. But once you have to make that decision yourself, you don’t necessarily make the right decision sometimes. A lot of people don’t have that kind of mindset when they go into indie game development. They hurt themselves. And they blame society or they blame gamers. It’s always someone else’s fault. And that negative loop actually drives the industry downward.
Serenity Forge is part of this new breed of small, indie-focused publishers, like Curve Digital or Devolver. What do you think makes these publishers different than the traditional, big corporate publishers that indies ran away from 10 years ago?
One of my favorite authors is named Seth Godin. Seth Godin has a philosophy that says if you’re not catering your product to a niche audience, then you don’t have an audience in today’s world. That’s the focus for indie game publishers.
As a triple-A publisher, you’re always looking at business operations or financial returns. They could publish any game in the world. They have so much money. Most of the games that you’re looking at here probably wouldn’t change their balance sheets. It would be decimal points to them. However, they only have enough resources where they have to prioritize the top five games that they believe will make the most amount of money out of a list of 100. And that’s how they approach things. There are still 95 percent of the games out there that would be very financially successful and are not in the big publisher’s purview. So there’s opportunity there for us from a business standpoint.
From an indie standpoint, Serenity Forge as a game publisher focuses on creating meaningful, value-driven, artistic experiences for our gamers. To us, finance has never been a goal. It’s always a tool to achieve a goal. Our games are generally educational in some regards – but that’s not really the right term. Maybe more inspirational. From a personal standpoint, that’s how we approach publishing.
What do you think of the state of indie games today? In the last few years, we’ve had a lot of discussion about the “indiepocalypse” and that, unfortunately, success only happens for a select few. Is the indie games industry sustainable?
It’s really hard for anybody to categorize indie games nowadays. The best way to say a game is an indie game is if it looks like it didn’t cost a lot of money to make. That’s really the best way to describe what indie games are. If you look at games like Ori and the Blind Forest or Unravel, EA’s “indie game” that they had — they are large budget games that play really well and they’re 2D, but they are hard to pass off as indie games.
Or even Grow Home or Child of Light from Ubisoft.
Yes. So, how do indie games really fit into our industry right now? Indie games are where innovation comes from. And it’s always been like that. I wouldn’t say that’s a new thing. Activision was two people in the beginning. EA was the same way. Nintendo wasn’t even a game developer 100 years ago.
The indie space is constantly changing but it’s where innovation happens. The indie game developers of today might be the conglomerates of the future, depending on where they want to take their business. I look at it more as, as the industry and the medium mature, it’s a constant ball that’s rolling where the large giants maybe eventually will go away and the current small ones will eventually become large giants. It’s the wheel turning.
Tim Wu describes this as “the cycle.”
The cycle. Yeah.
Real quick, sell us on Four Sided Fantasy.
It’s a new Braid-like puzzle-platformer that challenges the way you approach a 2D sidescroller. In the game you get to use very interesting mechanics to get to where you need to be. And later on in the game, you get to play with background and foreground interactions and split-screen interactions, and play around with the limits of the screen.
It’s out now on Steam and PS4.
[Check out our interview with Four Side Fantasy lead developer Logan Fieth]
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