Fire Place is the newest video-game from Ice Water Games, a studio you might remember for the plant-sim Viridi. This latest project of theirs is a fireplace simulator and draws heavily from its predecessor; at least in its spirit.
There are, however, several substantial differences between the two titles. I’ve had the pleasure to sit down with its game designer Badru and talk about the work that went into it.
First of all, when I say that the game is a fireplace sim, I’m not overstating things. I was placed in front of an unlit fireplace, and I could put balled up paper, logs and matches in to light it up. I could also move around the logs using a poker or tongs. The cam doesn’t move around much: Fire Place is a game about lighting up a fire and keeping it alive, pretty much like you’d do with a real one.
A Yule Log
Ice Water Games’ latest project originates from Yule Log, one of the studio’s earlier experiments. Back then, the players could only evoke logs to burn in an empty setting, with no music or sound effects. That, in turns, stemmed from the tradition of using videos of fireplaces to cheer up hearthless homes; a custom that started in 1966, when a TV show named Yule Log showing looping images of a crackling fireplace started being aired nonstop for hours.
“I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of yule log videos through the fall and winter seasons, especially when I’ve thrown small seasonal gatherings” says Ice Water Games’ Badru via e-mail. “But for me, video of fire is not mesmerizing in remotely the same way as watching the real thing. A large part of the fascination I have with watching fire is in the ordered chaos of it, the unpredictability but also the sort of strange logic and structure that’s there as well, the way it slowly evolves and becomes a different fire before your eyes. I think that fire, like water and clouds and plant life, has a beauty that mirrors that of intelligent life. A fire can be like another person in its semi-predictable but ultimately unfathomable way of being.”
“And of course, in the spirit of Viridi, part of the thing that makes having a real fire so charming, such a memorable experience, is that the fire needs you to take care of it, to keep it alive and happy through attentive gestures. And that’s something you can have in a simulation. The simulation in Fire Place isn’t nearly as beautiful and intricate and complex as the real thing, but it’s of the same category of beauty, I think, knowing that it’s simulated, whereas a video’s beauty is of a completely different kind.”
Simulation; Not Substitution
The beauty of Viridi’s plants or Fire Place’s fires is not, therefore, the realism of the simulation. They aren’t substitutes for the real thing: they want to be equally as beautiful even though they are still distinctively artificial in nature.
“They’re art” explains Badru. “This isn’t a perfect comparison, but think of representational systems in games as analogous to representational fiction in art. It would be transparently silly to ask a landscape painter if their painting was meant to be a substitute for the real mountain. I think for me, Fire Place is in that sort of position as a work of art. It’s a product of creative labor that’s clearly in the worship of something real and beautiful in the world, and is also different from that thing both essentially and in its relationship to people.”
Fire Place is a decidedly different experience from Viridi. There is the same will of creating something small and focused on a single idea, but where Viridi is a game about harmonizing to the slow, delicate rhythm of life of creatures I’m caring for, Fire Place is more akin to a power fantasy. The player can choose different environments, fireplaces (with contributions by guest developers like Pol Clarissou), and play around with the settings that control the simulation and the rendering of the fire (the basic settings are “smooth” simulation and “classic” rendering).
“Viridi was much more the result of a strong authorial vision” continues Badru. “Fire Place is more the result of creative playfulness and fascination. On Fire Place, a lot of work went into building a custom real-time simulation and rendering solution. It seemed a waste not to give that interesting toy to the player to mess around with.”
“I wouldn’t say it was intentional exactly, but playing with fire is far more naturally a power fantasy than raising plants. Fire can sometimes be like a living thing, but it is in no way a moral subject in the way a plant may be. Making a fire is more about you and your desires, building what you want, putting it out when you like. A fire is for you to watch and enjoy. A plant is not for you, although you might enjoy it.”
Monetizing The Fire
There is another important difference: Viridi is a free-to-play game with micro-transactions, while Fire Place is sold at a fixed price and has no in-game purchases, even though regular updates have been planned (including a new Halloween/fall-themed environment that has already come out).
“Viridi worked great as free-to-play! Millions of people have played it and most of them (say >99%) have spent no money at all to do so. For me, that’s already a huge win, and a thing I love about digital media: I don’t need to make money off of each person playing, because it doesn’t cost me anything to give someone else access to the work”.
“Moreover, I don’t feel nervous that anyone was used or abused by the free-to-play model, which was a cause of some anxiety going into it. It’s very difficult to spend more than ~$20 on Viridi, which considering it took roughly 4 people’s labor over the course of a year to make, seems totally fair and just.”
“And on the money side, Viridi has basically covered rent for the core team for years. It still has many people loving it and occasionally a fraction of those people throw us a dollar, and that adds up. Ultimately it’s been the most financially successful thing I’ve made.”
“So actually the free-to-play thing worked well. And I see Fire Place as not totally different. The demo is meant to be a fully satisfying version of the experience for free, and I expect most people won’t buy the full version. The full version is priced to be fair and to make it impossible to spend too much money. But the framing is different, and the potential for us to update feels better, and the overhead of store maintenance is lower.”
“On Fire Place, I knew I wanted to try to add a lot of content as time went on. With Viridi, adding content without screwing with the format of the game mostly means adding items to the shop, which comes with some emotional cost and some questions. If we added a background every month since launch, the $20 max spending tag I quoted earlier might be more like $200, and then I would be less comfortable about it.
For another thing, we did get some people saying that they would’ve preferred a single price tag unlocking all content, and why not believe them? If the result is similar, but the framing makes it feel more comfortable for players, that’s an obvious advantage. Additionally, managing the store back-end for a free to play title is not nearly as easy as selling a game with a price tag, and I really need to minimize the bureaucracy in my life.”
The Future of Ice Water Games: Tenderfoot Tactics
Ice Water Games is now working on Tenderfoot Tactics. “Our next project, currently called Tenderfoot Tactics, is a very different thing” says Michael Bell, composer for both Fire Place and this new project. “It has constant user interaction, and so for that one I am designing a truly dynamic score in which the music is arranged on the fly in response to user input: the actions of the player will in a way compose the music that accompanies the action.”