Quantum Astrophysicists Guild in more togethery times.
Quantum Astrophysicists Guild in more togethery times. QAG

Fun has changed.

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“I’ve seen more of a trend toward the wholesome side of things,” says Ty Taylor, president of the Seattle-based game publisher Quantum Astrophysicists Guild. For the last few years, QAG has been helping indie developers publish cute modest games with chill vibes; their latest, Cozy Grove, has the player restoring life to a comfy island populated by friendly ghost-bears.

“The world got harder in 2020,” Taylor says. “People don’t need that in their games as much as they used to ... They want something cozy and wholesome.”

He pauses, then laughs sheepishly, “I’ve still been playing shooters though.”

Game companies like QAG and Cozy Grove’s developer Spry Fox (also Seattle-based) are in the business of making people feel good at a time when good feelings are in short supply. So, after spending the last year trying to relieve everyone else’s stress while operating under constantly stressful conditions, how are they holding up — and what lessons have they learned?

The various pivotings that 2020 called for were a mixed success, Taylor says. “We’re so fortunate that we can go remote and it’s fine. We’re not a retail shop,” he says. The team consists of seven people in Seattle, and one in Chicago who’s planning to move here as soon as things are … you know, different. Switching to remote work was doable, but not optimal.

“Everything’s so much more fluid when you’re in an office in person,” Taylor says. They’ve done their best to stay connected with periodic check-ins throughout the workday; some of his colleagues at other companies tried to replicate an in-person vibe by having everyone on the team screen-share with everyone else, which sounds like a nightmare.

Maintaining a casual, collaborative atmosphere is vital to QAG’s work. Since their first release in 2012, an Escheresque puzzle game called The Bridge, the company has worked with various developers to release games that have a general feel-good vibe: Space Otter Charlie, where cute prettily-animated otters follow humans into space; Breakpoint and #Funtime, 4/20-appropriate shooters full of bright glowing shapes; and Roundguard, an adorable dungeon-crawler. One of their next big releases is Sail Forth, a procedural sailing game that looks a bit like the boaty bits of Windwaker.

When the quarantine began, Taylor was moments away from signing an 18-month lease on office space, and was able to avoid what would probably have been a disastrous deal. (They’re hoping to find space in Madison Valley once they can return to an office.) Now the team’s hard at work on a new project: Rather than just helping other developers release indie titles, they’re producing their own game called Freshly Frosted, a factory-builder where chaotic conveyor belts fling donuts in every direction.

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Their most recent release, Cozy Grove by Spry Fox, is a real pleasure — a sort of watercolor Animal Crossing, but modest in scope. I’ve been playing 15 or so minutes every morning before I get to work, shaking pears out of trees and digging twigs out of the ground while chilling to the gentle music. Looking forward to it helps me get out of bed.

Blake Dove, who manages marketing and communications at QAG, has been putting in over an hour a day on Cozy Grove since before its release, which frankly seems excessive to me, but he prefers more of a grind. During quarantimes, he’s been playing a lot of old-school shooters like Doom, Quake, and Unreal Tournament. Apocalyptic games, sure, but as comforting to him as games about tending a campfire are to me.

“That was my very first set of games,” he says. “I really want to play comfortably at home. … I’m returning to my childhood.”