This interview with Hidden Fields is part of an interview series carried out by the Swiss Game Developers Association (SGDA) and was conducted by Philomena Schwab (Board Member of SGDA).
On 16 March 2021, solo-dev Michel Ziegler aka Hidden Fields launched his first game «Mundaun» on PS4/PS5 and Xbox One/SeriesS/X, with a release on Switch following shortly after. «Mundaun» is a lovingly hand-penciled horror tale set in a dark, secluded valley of the alps. The game is published by MWM Interactive.
Philomena Schwab: Congrats on your game’s successful release. Mundaun has received a lot of praise from press, players and influencers from all around the world. Is the game a financial success for you?
Michel Ziegler: Thank you! It was a financial success in the sense that I received a development budget from my publisher to pay external contributors and my own living costs. It has to be said however, that my monthly salary over the whole development time was very low.
P. Schwab: You launched the game on so many platforms! Which one did you sell most copies on so far?
M. Ziegler: So far, Mundaun sold best on Steam with over half of the units being sold there. Switch sales are not really comparable, since the game was only released there recently. Play Station is also going fairly well.
P. Schwab: Was porting your game difficult?
M. Ziegler: Yes, it took quite a lot of work, especially optimising for the older console generation. Mundaun has a lot of assets, so there were problems with shaders, particle effects, unoptimized asset code etc. Also, you can see very far in the game and the levels are fairly big, which was problematic. We even had to edit code in some plugins that we used. Porting to Switch took another extra two months to get everything to run smoothly. We worked with an external porting team, but I was also very involved in the process myself. We even got some extra freelancer programmers onto the team in the end to help with the workload.
P. Schwab: Do you think working with a publisher for your game was a good decision?
M.Ziegler: It’s hard to say because you never know how else things could have turned out. But it would have been impossible to even finish Mundaun without the external financial support from the publisher. So I think it was a good decision. Since I’m a solo-dev, it was a huge help to be able to let go of certain tasks, such as QA and marketing. Having to do all these things by myself would have further delayed Mundaun’s release. I also really appreciate the feedback I received from the publisher, who constantly played the game and raised many important points. It felt a lot like working in a team!
P. Schwab: Where did you find your publisher?
M. Ziegler: They contacted me at GDC 2019 when I was a part of the SwissGames Delegation.
P. Schwab: How important do you think it is to have a community around the game?
M. Ziegler: I have very supportive fans, some of which have a lot of followers themselves, and it really helped that they kept sharing the game on social media.
P. Schwab: How important was its genre for the game’s success?
M. Ziegler: The horror game genre is currently fairly popular. Though Mundaun is not a typical horror game, I think it still helped to interest streamers and players to check it out.
P. Schwab: What were your top three most important learnings on your path of releasing your first game?
1) The last phase of development is very time-consuming. Polishing, bug fixing and performance improvements take up a significant amount of a game’s production time. It’s true what they say about the last 30% being 70% of the work.
2) Creating a game as a solo-dev has pros and cons. It’s very motivating to see other people are also working on the game and its completion and quality is not just depending on you alone. But it can be hard to find the right people and managing them takes time. Also paying a team is super expensive which really changes your view on how many copies your game needs to sell in order to break even.
3) I learned so much going through this whole development cycle. It’s very exciting but also stressful if you invest so many resources in a project and don’t know if it will be successful.
P. Schwab: What would you tell your past-self about going into the games industry?
M. Ziegler: Making games can be very stressful and risky. Working multiple years on a project that is very dear to you, knowing that it will all come down to how well it will perform financially during launch week has been a tough experience. It’s a tough market, but at the same time it’s very rewarding to create something. Make sure to take care of yourself and don’t expect that releasing a game will be financially viable the first time around. In the end, don’t think too much, create what you love. But be realistic with your expectations.
P. Schwab: What are your plans for the future?
M. Ziegler: I’ll take a time-out to recover a bit from the long development period (7 years!). So now I need to try and realise that the project is finished. I’ll probably start working on a little side-project, just for fun.
P. Schwab: Anything else you’d like to say?
M. Ziegler: Mundaun is a game that got a huge deal of positive publicity around the world and was really well received by players. It’s a great, innovative, unique game that I think puts game development in Switzerland in a good light. With Mundaun I have proven – like other Swiss game studios before – that with enough determination it is possible to scrape by for one project but it’s really not sustainable in the long run without risking your health or livelihood. So often developers can only pay themselves a salary which is barely enough to survive, furthermore, it’s almost impossible to hire a team. But it shouldn’t be a personal sacrifice to get a project like this to the finish line. It’s definitely not a process I could afford to go through again. Creatives should be able to focus on their craft. Until now, Swiss game developers still need to invest a lot of their own personal money and time which is often impossible or very risky, especially for a first game. The budget of a game is roughly similar to a film, but the available funding in Switzerland doesn’t reflect that. Therefore, we need support structures in Switzerland that allow studios to sustain themselves while they develop first an idea, and then the actual game. Therefore, I insist that we need more funding opportunities in this country that would enable people like me to work with a team and the stability needed for the very complex endeavour of making games with a cultural impact, with a budget line comparable to film funding.