Fancy Fish Games is the developer of many titles such as </reality>, Deity Quest, Dragonfire, and most recently Stardander Revenant. Stardander Revenant was their submission for Spooktober 2021 and ended up placing second overall. We were able to sit down with Natalie Maletz to talk a bit about how she and her husband got into game development as well as the Stardander series.
Can you tell us a bit about yourselves and how you got into game development?
I’m Natalie Maletz – my husband David and I founded Fancy Fish Games together in 2012. Since then we have released five commercial games and nine free games (including Stardander Revenant). Being a game developer was David’s dream since middle school (when he began writing pen and paper RPGs). After I met David in college, we decided to try making a game together. I was majoring in English at the time and had always loved writing and making art. Our first few projects were great lessons in what not to do (team management? That’s a thing?) – but we’ve certainly learned a few tricks since then!
What inspired the creation of the Stardander series?
The theme and setting of Stardander is – needless to say – inspired by my great love of the Harry Potter universe. David still likes to tease me for believing Dumbledore was following us when a street lamp flickered off during our college days. However, I wanted to create a new magical universe with its own unique spin – one with an even deeper lore, history, and social challenges. We’ve been thinking about the Stardander universe now for about three years (maybe a bit more).
For overall game design, we were inspired by Magical Diary: Horse Hall (Hanako Games), Long Live the Queen (Hanako Games), and Sort the Court (a free web game from 2016 by Graeme Borland). For the battle system design, David was inspired by Monster Sanctuary (moi rai) and a tad from Faster than Light (Subset Games). There were things we loved about all of these games, but we hoped to design and tweak the systems and game flow based on our own tastes to create something new and exciting.
Did you have any other ideas for Spooktober? What made you settle on Stardander Revenant?
We knew as soon as we heard about Spooktober that the story would have to be set at Stardander School for Witches. We had many different ideas at first, but our most serious idea was one where the main character would sort of unintentionally invent trick-or-treating, within this universe where it is not yet a thing. We thought this would give us a good opportunity for humor as she went door-to-door getting interesting and amusing reactions from the different professors and students.
We hesitated a little with this idea since it would require more character art than we were comfortable with trying to create in a month, and the story didn’t seem strong. While brainstorming, David was reminiscing about a short story I wrote in college that was one of my favorite pieces of writing. This short story had two main characters that were based on the personalities of our two cats at the time (Dinah and Phoebe), who had a tense relationship. That’s when the idea for Stardander Revenant was born. Yes, Dianthus and Griselda’s personalities and interactions are based on our current two cats (Dinah and Gryffin) – and Phoebe is based on our cat named Phoebe who died last year. We miss you, Phoebe!
As soon as we started considering this idea we knew we had to try it. It had a strong theme of death, grief, and mourning, which we felt was Halloween-appropriate. And we are still waiting for our cats to end up like Dianthus and Griselda at the end of the game (no spoilers) – unfortunately for now we are still very much stuck in the “I don’t like you!” phase.
Stardander is a fairly complex game, with the RPG elements, battles, and different spells the player can learn depending on how they schedule out their classes. How were you able to manage to produce something as grand as Stardander Revenant in just a month’s time?
Thankfully, we were able to get permission (before the jam started) to reuse code from Stardander School for Witches for the battle and spell systems. This gave us the time we needed to build two lively new characters, create and polish their story, create all of the new art assets we needed, design the creatures you fight in battle, balance the battles, assemble, and test all in a month!
When we began, our goals were to have the first draft of the story script complete in the first 2 weeks, and all art and music assets complete by the end of the 3rd week, leaving a week at the end for assembly, testing and polish. I ended up power-writing the script all in the first week (kinda proud of that one – especially considering I’m also a parent). We pretty much hit the other deadlines on the head, except on September 29th (which happened to be my birthday). We thought we were pretty much done, but suddenly had a brilliant idea that we just had to implement at the last minute. We’d been struggling for a while to create a decent story “hook” at the beginning of the game – so that’s when we placed the current, perilous opening scene at the beginning of the game!
Tell me a bit about your upcoming title Stardander School for Witches. In this game, you play Professor Dare, a Fae cat who appeared in Stardander Revenant. How will this title differ from Stardander Revenant?
Stardander School for Witches, as I mentioned, has been percolating in the background for many years here at Fancy Fish Games. Yes, it’s been designed around Professor Dare’s work in recruiting, training, and managing witches at her school. Just like in Stardander Revenant, you will be able to choose classes (and thus spells) for your witches, guide them through battles, and help them solve the mysteries that crop up each year.
However, since creating Stardander Revenant we have actually made a fairly dramatic design change and decided to switch perspective characters for each year of the seven-year story arc. Each year will feature a different main character and their growth through personal challenges and interaction with the main storyline. You will still get to play as Professor Dare in the seventh and final year of the story – at the point when the drama and import of her story will hit hardest.
Stardander School For Witches will have a lot more content than Stardander Revenant – more stories, more characters, more enemies, more systems (potions and enchanting were present in Revenant but barely mentioned). You will also have the ability to walk around Stardander castle during free times, when you can choose to investigate mysteries, talk to students and professors, craft potions in the classroom, practice battles, eat with friends in the great hall, and study to increase the chance of passing your exams.
Each yearly story will also forward the overarching seven-year storyline, culminating in a dramatic finale. We’re very excited to finally share this game with the world – we hope folks will love it as much as we do!
Continuing on with that, are there any changes you’ll implement into Stardander School for Witches based on player feedback from Stardander Revenant?
Absolutely – a ton! As I mentioned, we have already made the major design change of having a new perspective character each year – this was based on how much players loved seeing the game from the student point of view in Revenant (while we love Dare’s story, she can be a little distant from the action especially in the early years). We’ve also changed the save/load system to be more intuitive, changed the dialogue box design and placement so as to never cover character’s faces, changed the window/tab system in-game to be more clear, have started working on more expressive character sprites, and made copious notes on what worked or didn’t work, art and story-wise, for application to Stardander in the future. Creating Stardander Revenant was incredibly informative and helpful to us!
Congratulations on winning second place! Has winning one of Spooktober’s top prizes impacted you? If so, in what ways?
Thank you! Winning second place has definitely given us a boost of confidence and validation that we needed. As any developer can tell you, it can be very disheartening to create something meaningful to you and then not be able to break through the noise of the internet to catch people’s attention. Stardander is also a complicated game as you mentioned, with a relatively unique battle system, so seeing that work well was heartening. We are so happy that the Spooktober judges saw something special in Stardander Revenant!
Looking towards the future, what can we expect from Fancy Fish Games outside of Stardander School for Witches?
We are actually developing two large games in parallel right now – Stardander School for Witches and Aground: Zero, which is a 3D successor to our well-received mining and crafting pixel game Aground. After these two – who knows! David currently has over 60 new game ideas outlined in a spreadsheet, one of which is a Stardander prequel focusing on Professor Dare’s human friend Lady Lia, a kind of sorceress known as a Shadow Trainer.
You can follow Fancy Fish Games on Twitter to keep up with development news on Stardander School for Witches and their other titles. Be sure to check out and wishlist Stardander: School for Witches and Aground: Zero on Steam. If you haven’t played Stardander Revenant yet, you can download it on Steam and itch.io.