Imaginary Friends Games: Developer Interview

Imaginary Friends Games Cover Image

“What we’re going to do is keep the peace. That’s our job. We’re not going to be heroes, we’re just going to be … normal.” – Terry Pratchett

Who are Imaginary Friends Games?

Imaginary Friends Games was co-founded in 2019 by Fay & Martyn Maillardet, a married couple with over 40 years combined experience as game designers, voice actors, quality assurance technicians, technical testers, writers/editors, marketers, analysts, corporate strategists, team leaders, and business development professionals at places such as Nintendo, Sony and Codemasters helping to make other people’s games great. They then founded Imaginary Friends Games, pursuing their dream of making small and heartfelt video games and creating experiences that make people smile, make people think, and make people feel.

Games by Imaginary Friends Games

Shindig – Review here

Shindig - Key Art

Released: 2nd September 2021
Price: £5.79
Platforms: Windows
Available on:
Engine: Unity

Shindig is a wholesome point-and-click adventure about travelling to a new island and helping to throw a party for the residents. Players must explore the locale, complete quests and chat with a range of fun characters in this upbeat and positive game.

Festive Finds: Happy Holiday Calendar – Review here

Festive Finds - Menu

Released: 29th November 2021
Price: $1.00 or more
Platforms: Windows
Available on:
Engine: Unity

Festive Finds: Happy Holiday Calendar is a delightfully jolly game. Much like a traditional advent calendar, it features a festive house with 24 windows to open every day leading up to Christmas, with each one containing a new spot-the-difference puzzle to complete!

Imaginary Friends Games Interview

Martyn and Faye MAILLARDET
Martyn and Faye Maillardet of Imaginary Friends Games.

What made you decide to start developing games as a couple and has your relationship impacted the process at all, either positively or negatively?

Both: For folks who don’t know us, we’ve been together over 20 years, and in and around the games industry in various roles about that long – often in the same company, but in different departments.

Martyn: We’ve always found it easy to separate our professional from our personal relationship, and work together really well – because the principles that guide our relationship on a personal level are so applicable professionally. It’s all about mutual respect, and valuing our different talents and viewpoints. At home we play games together and talk about them for hours, so we’ve had countless conversations of “I’ve always wanted to make a game like…” or “If I was making a game like this one, I’d do it like this instead”.

Fay: We’re the couple our friends joke are the fairytale ending “coupliest couple” – and I think that’s because we just get on well. We don’t always agree, far from it, but on top of loving each other, we actually really like each other. After working at places like Sony, Codemasters and Nintendo for so long, we wanted to work on something that wasn’t their art, but was our art, and making games together was the obvious next step. Now I get to work with my best friend every day, we each bring something different to the table, and I think how we respect each other comes through in what we make.

Where did the initial inspiration for Shindig come from?

Both: When we set up Imaginary Friends Games our mission statement was simple: to make games at, and value, human-scale development. We’d worked as cogs in the machine at a huge, global, games industry scale before, touching titles and writing broadcasts seen by millions of people. Now our aim was to make games together, just the two of us, at a human scale.

And that informed the design of our debut title, too – what about a game where you’re not saving the world? No fancy-pants powers, just helping someone out. Taking things down to human-scale heroism, to match our human-scale production powers.

We were walking in the woods one day, listening to the birds and dreaming (like we do) and one of us suggested – what about a game where you help to throw a little party? Be a hero like a parent or a friend is. From that came the idea of this gentle picturebook adventure, where we’d subvert some of the tropes of games to make something kind and compassionate like Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood or Sesame Street, but for adults. With a lot of overthinking (like we do) and discussion, Shindig grew from there.

Was Shindig always intended to be such a wholesome and inclusive game and how much of this needed to be thought about and planned versus what came naturally to you?

Both: Well, it came naturally to us to want to make a kind and inclusive game, but it also came naturally to us to intricately plan how to most effectively craft that kind of experience for our players.

Making anything complex from scratch means every aspect needs to be planned and thought through, and games are especially complex beasts. Just like a mystery novelist has to design the mystery and work back from there to create a fun, suspenseful experience, with a game like Shindig, we knew what kind of game we wanted to make, but when you’re putting together puzzle design, characters, sound, choice architecture, dialogue, music, colour palette, art style, themes, social commentary, and emotional design to create a game experience for your players, you have to plan carefully to ensure that your aims and the final work are in alignment, and authentic. Otherwise, it’s easy to leave things out or scope incorrectly, or you end up with something that isn’t what you initially intended. Games naturally morph through the creative process anyway, so keeping those bright lines is important for simply keeping on track. It’s natural and intentional all at the same time!

As always, an awful lot of thought goes into creating anything that looks kind of simplistic on the surface, and we recently put up a video about the Emotional Design of Shindig on our YouTube if anyone wants to hear more about that!

Shindig features a plethora of varied and interesting characters, do you have a favourite?

Martyn: It’s really hard to pick any kind of favourite, because all of these characters kind of live with and in us on the daily. Some of them are parts of the family, like our cats Astrid and Cosmos, others are characters that we created years ago and have popped up in running jokes since, and some are more recent additions.

Fay: We create characters everywhere and anthropomorphise everything to make each other laugh, and some of those characters are in Shindig. It’s really hard to choose between them because they’re these avatars of universal human experiences that we’ve refined down to certain characteristics, or facets of each of our own personalities – so my favourite would be different on any given day, depending on the weather in my head!

What was your favourite aspect of the development process?

Martyn: So in general, seeing it all come to life. Getting the assets from Fay (who handled all the sound and vision parts) and putting them into the game, which was the part I handled.

Fay: For me, seeing something go from words on a page, and a separate set of animations or sound files, to becoming an actual character on-screen, talking and expressing emotion. It’s really special to see it all working together.

Martyn: There were little touches one of us put in to surprise the other. Like when Fay disappeared into our wardrobe to record the radio loop, we’d written it together so I knew the dialogue, but what I didn’t know is that Fay was making little jingles and musical accompaniments to most of them. So when I put them into the game, the pizza song has an Italian opera piece and kazoos, and the aromatherapy workshop has this wild discordant flute!

Fay: Making each other laugh out loud when we put these unexpected things in makes the dev process kind of magical, and gives you hope that players might find it as funny, too.

Shindig is a wonderful gaming experience (one of my favourite games of 2021) but it doesn’t seem to be getting the attention it deserves. What would you say is the reason for this?

Both: Thank you, that’s very kind of you, and it’s a tough one to answer! Shindig received some great reviews, and comparisons to Ted Lasso and Wes Anderson films, but flew under the radar for a lot of people. We’d say it’s lots of reasons at once, a few of which might be…

Shindig was our debut title. For your first game you’re kind of an untested quantity, and people don’t know what level of quality to expect, what your values are, whether you can even write or not! It’s natural to have a slower start when you’re just establishing who you are to your players, and what they can expect from your games.

But, we think part of it is this very human instinct to judge a book by its cover, and a lot of people assume Shindig is ‘just’ a game for kids from the aesthetic. Shindig’s designed to be welcoming to all ages, but generally, if things are dark and edgy they’re assumed to be more intricate, complex, and clever than things that are bright and hopeful – so with our picturebook style, folk might not expect it to be witty, smart, or thoughtful, or any of the other things players have said about Shindig.

Also, these days it’s really hard to even get looked at by the mainstream games press when you’re a small indie dev. Journalists are under intense time pressure to create content that gets clicks, and sadly that means there’s less room for articles about unknown devs or esoteric little games like ours. Everyone has to publish their hot take on the game of the moment, so it’s a rarity now to see things like Kotaku highlighting something like Frog Detective and catapulting an (at the time unknown) indie to newsworthy status. We contacted adver-marketing entities like Wholesome Games months before (and after) launch, we sent out hundreds of codes to journalists and influencers, but ‘coverage isn’t guaranteed’ really means that. We put a lot of work in, to little avail. The mainstream games press is working so hard to cover a handful of big games that they can only spare attention to sources they already trust, and need to maintain working relationships with.

On top of this, the label ‘indie’ has undergone a seismic shift of late, and now – at least in the mainstream – seems to refer more to a type of publisher than a developer. Larger teams with more resources and support can often create more ambitious projects, and are more likely to be considered for coverage than tiny teams making evening-sized adventures. At least, that’s what we’re telling ourselves!

That’s why voices like Indie Hive are so vital in celebrating the diversity of the indie landscape, and in spotlighting games from smaller indie devs. We see you, and we appreciate you!

What has been the biggest challenge whilst developing and publishing Shindig?

Martyn: Elevators and speech bubbles. (laughs)

Fay: Over the development the biggest challenge was how everything takes longer and is more difficult than you might think, by factors of ten! Taking something from ideation through to actualisation is a monumental task. We were learning practical skills as we went because we wanted the entire game just to have been made by the two of us, and we also have really high standards, and basically no budget, so…we kind of shot ourselves in the foot by caring so much. In terms of publishing, I’d say the post-launch depression when you release your game after working on it for two years, but because of how games coverage works, it’s so quickly irrelevant when it’s only been out for about a week!

Martyn: So, in conclusion, elevators and speech bubbles. (both laugh)

What are some of your favourite indie games?

Both: Too many to name! We loved Night in The Woods, A Short Hike, Return of the Obra Dinn, Her Story, Hades and Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime.

Martyn: Plus Forget-Me-Not, Minit, Superflight and Downwell for me. I’m also a big fan of the arcade tributes made by Locomalito and the weird worlds of The Catamites!

Fay: I’ve played far too much Flinthook in my time. I thought Give Me Strength was really clever, and I loved Bastion with such a passion I covered ‘Setting Sail, Coming Home’ on YouTube.

I thoroughly enjoyed Shindig and Festive Finds, the Advent calendar you published last December, do you have plans to create anything else together?

Martyn: We have hundreds of ideas for games we’d like to make, and it’s a list that grows daily – but given Shindig hasn’t been a financial success, we need to concentrate on the creative consultancy side of Imaginary Friends Games, and be a bit strategic about our next titles.

Fay: We’ve already defined which three larger projects we’d like to make, but they’re going to take a fair few years to bring to fruition. In the meantime we’re going to focus on smaller gaming experiences which’ll likely be very different from what we’ve made so far. It’s really exciting to develop something in a completely new style, but that still adheres to all of the values Imaginary Friends Games is built on.

The music from Shindig is fantastically upbeat and has been stuck in my head for the last seven months – are you proud of yourselves?!  “bakey, bakey bake …now we’re cooking on gas!

Martyn: I only wrote one of the songs on the soundtrack, so I’m proud of Fay!

Fay: Thank you – and also, sorry! Joking aside, I am a little proud though: I’m not musically trained, and there’s a direct line from teaching myself ukulele a few years ago, through putting up covers and songs I wrote on YouTube, then learning sound mixing and mastering for Shindig to compose a soundtrack people seem to enjoy. When you finally give yourself permission to create, you don’t expect to make something anyone else will like, so it’s a lovely surprise when people say the songs are catchy.

Thank you so much for having us!

Imaginary Friends Games Logo

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