Think managing a bunch of hungry, breeding animals in Fish Tycoon is difficult? Try managing a studio full of game designers.
Much like the hero of their smash game, Last Day of Work’s CEO and lead designer Arthur Humphrey soon found himself with too many mouths to feed and not enough to show for it. The result was a mass downsizing of the operation, and a future casual gaming smash placed squarely on one man’s shoulders.
It started out simply enough. The team had already written a plant-breeding sim and they were looking for a way to build off of that model for their next title.
“That game was fun, but people love to have fish in their computers, there’s so many screensavers and things like that,” Humphrey said. “It’s just a fundamentally fun thing.”
The first question was the most obvious, but the most crucial, in Humphrey’s mind: Could they make the fish look decent? Because if that didn’t work, there was no point in continuing.
Luckily, within a week of getting excited about the concept, they had a working fish model going. The team then had to create a structure for the game. They had already decided it would be in the “tycoon genre” and that word was enough to put some limitations on the design.
“If it has the word ‘tycoon’ in it, it gives it a little head-start, but to really justify using that in the title, we needed an economic structure,” Humphrey said. “So you sell the fish, you take the money, you buy supplies, you buy more fish, it’s the tycoon model.”
Although it’s a simple premise, there was plenty of work to be done. This was LDW’s first foray into desktop gaming (they had worked on handheld platforms before this) and they wanted everything done right.
To that end, they decided to beef up the operation, renting out office space and had loaded up their staff with engineers and artists.
“We thought ‘Ok, we’re going to take this seriously, this is our desktop game and we’re going to do this right,'” Humphrey said.
A bigger staff seemed to be the right play, but Humphrey soon realized that, in his own words, it was a mess.
“Managing the people took all of my time,” Humphrey said. “And some of the people didn’t work out very well for us. Everything was falling apart.”
The lead designer takes his share of the blame too, saying that he was so critical on the development that it slowed the entire process down. The recently expanded ship that was LDW was taking on water, and fast. Humphrey had to save the project the only way he knew how: By letting his entire office staff go.
What was once the domain of a team full of developers was back in the hands of one man, who had no recourse but to complete his game, about half-done at this point, on his own.
“This was a plane crashing that you pull up 10 feet above the ground.”
There was a basic game already in place, but, as with most titles, that translated to only 50 percent completion. The rest of the work would come in the polishing, which was the Herculean task Humphrey took on.
Meanwhile, LDW was also faced with the challenge of finding a publisher who believed in Fish Tycoon as much as they did.
“It was so different from what was out there, probably the safe thing would have been a match three with a twist and this was a completely different kind of game,” Humphrey said. “It was in real time and it didn’t go anywhere in the first fifteen minutes, which was a big shock to people.”
LDW finally got a publisher on board. Appropriately, it was Big Fish Games and they began advising Humphrey in his polishing work, though he was still the one actually grinding it out.
If it’s an indication of how troubled the structure of the larger LDW was, Humphrey said that the game progressed at the same speed when he was on his own as when he had to keep a team of three organized. It’s was no joy ride though. He was pulling down 60-hour work weeks and living off of the money from the handheld (Palm and Pocket PC) versions of their games, which didn’t leave a lot of spare change.
“No, we’re talking Ramen,” he said with a laugh.
Finally, both LDW and Big Fish agreed that the game was ready, and they released it to swim free. Surprisingly though, there weren’t one or two in the casual game ocean waiting to swallow Fish Tycoon… there was a whole school. It was so successful, in fact, that Big Fish immediately wanted all of the distribution rights.
“By that point, we were so exhausted trying to pitch the game, trying to convince anyone, we were like ‘Hell yeah, have it, take it,'” Humphrey said.
It may be different from a lot of casual games, but Fish Tycoon has proven the value of that difference many times over.
A sequel to the game is inevitable, Humphrey has already started to consider new features like additional fish customization and how to implement more of a community aspect into further iterations.
LDW has begun to grow again too as they’ve released more titles, but they’re more cautious, more business savvy than before.
No matter what the future holds for the company, Humphrey will always have a special place in his heart for Fish Tycoon, the semi-one-man-show that surprised its publisher and even its creator with its strength.
And in a way, Fish Tycoon will always have a place for Humphrey as well. As a sort of in-joke, the design for the game’s shop owner was based on him, but it was decision that was more appropriate as the design process went forward. They are both lone guys, one starting an empire with a few fish, the other, with a single fish design.
But now, after all of the awards and sales, it would seem that both of the tycoons have nailed their dreams … hook, line and sinker.