Going 'real indie': Valiant Hearts director launches new studio

"It is like I built my own food truck, instead of renting one," say long-time Ubisoft developer Yoan Fanise of his decision to quit AAA and start Digixart with studio co-founder Anne-Laure Fanise.

When long-time Ubisoft Montpellier employee Yoan Fanise (Valiant Hearts, Beyond Good & Evil) became a free agent last month, I asked him what the future looks like for someone who's been ensconced in AAA development for 14 years.

"Why not go real indie after have been called 'fake indie' during my 2 years on Valiant Hearts?" Fanise responded, after noting that co-directing Valiant Hearts felt like running a "gastronomic food truck" in the parking lot of the giant restaurant that is Ubisoft proper. "We’ll see in the near future."

That future was nearer than I expected, as Fanise has now gone ahead and started his own studio, Digixart, in Montpellier with co-founder Anne-Laure Fanise.

So far, the pair (pictured) have rounded up a handful of developers and some space in a Montpellier office building bristling with solar panels; "It is like I built my own food truck, instead of renting one," Fanise tells me.

Though he won't tell me how he came up with the money to launch Digixart ("that's confidential info, sorry"), Fanise did share some of his goals for the new studio and his reasons for going indie in a recent email exchange; what follows is an edited version of that conversation.

Tell me more about your new venture. Why leave Ubisoft after all this time?

Fanise: Things evolved very quickly after the BAFTA award win. The choice was tricky, between joining some of the best studios in the world far away, or staying here [in Montpellier] and creating a whole new studio from scratch.

And I think the challenge of the second one was so high and adventurous that it was worth the try. I don't see myself starting a company when I get old, so let’s give it a chance now!

The studio is named Digixart, because I received a prize on Valiant Hearts called the "tenth art," and I liked the idea of videogames becoming an art in itself. So I combined digit X for Roman ten and "art"...that makes Digixart.

Oh? I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “tenth art.”

It was an award from a group of developers called the "tenth art" that we received for Valiant Hearts last year. It gave me the idea for a part of the name of the company, but I still think it sounds pretentious so it has to come with the funny logo and video:

We are located in Montpellier, south of France, in a very nice solar panel-powered building. This region is the ideal position as there’s lots around here: many indie devs, the Mediterranean Sea and 300 days of sunshine weather that all North Europe and Canada should be jealous of. Lets transform Mont-real into Mont-pellier!

We are starting Digixart with 6 developers and some contractors and we will grow as the production of the first game progresses. We are a mix of senior people from the industry and young talented programmers; their knowledge of a great engine like Unity is gold. Many ex-colleagues from Ubisoft want to join me in this adventure but I don't have the budget to get them all...yet.

So why launch your own studio? What do you hope to accomplish that you couldn’t at Ubisoft?

First of all the total creative freedom it allows; there are so many ideas I want to try, ideas that the market might not see as "in fashion" or trendy. Some with deeper meaning, moving experiences, a lot of themes that have not been treated in videogames yet.

And secondly, to lighten the "mass." Like in physics, mass is an important parameter in game development -- the more your company has a heavy mass, the more energy you need to move it, and the slower it reacts.

So starting from scratch resets mass back to something close to zero: no more jiras, long meetings, just pure prototyping and talks with gamepad in hand. That sense of rapidity is unbelievably powerful; it makes you even more productive and creative.

I know that growing the company to gain a bigger production capacity will come with the challenge of not getting too “heavy”, but that's not yet a problem.

Fair enough. Now that you've left Ubisoft and tools like UbiArt behind, what tools will you use? Which platforms draw your interest?

I took time to compare them a lot and I was seduced by Unity 5. Some features like Everyplay and cloud building make a significant difference.

I'm open to all platforms as long as it allows people to access the game easily. I like the tactile sensation as much as the precision of the gamepads, but I don't care much about this; the feelings I hope to generate go beyond this aspect.

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