Tiny French studio Arkedo began making Nintendo DS titles (Nervous Brickdown, Big Bang Mini), but really started to get noticed when it released a series of game experiments to Xbox Live Indie Games. That's a marketplace that doesn't generally lead to mainstream success, but often showcases the talents of up and coming developers. After a few entries, the company's next game, Hell Yeah!, was picked up by Sega for release on Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and PC.
In this interview, the studio's co-founder Camille Guermonprez discusses his take on the industry as he embarks on the formation of his own indie publisher Nice Guys. While he's working with Sega for the release of Hell Yeah!, he hopes to build "the publisher that we've been looking for for 10 years and didn't find" in Paris.
In addition to the industry talk, he outlines his thoughts on the advantages of being indie in a "sea of brown", why he thinks this year's E3 was "a little bit out of focus with reality", and how he feels that game development has to be a dictatorship and not a democracy.
I know that, as a studio, it took you awhile before you were actually able to sign a game, right? It's a struggle for independent developers.
Camille Guermonprez: It is. I was lucky enough to start Arkedo as my second studio with a bit of a budget, and the general idea was to be able to fund a whole game before we show it to a publisher -- in order to make the company as much close to 100 percent production as possible, and not business development and back-and-forth with many people having many ideas.
We are a small studio; we are making a very specific kind of game for a very specific kind of gamers. Let's call it the "bright yellow" crowd. I know Edge called it that way -- people who like that very specific color.
The problem we have when we have to meet a publisher when the game is not done, is they give their opinion. Some of them are good. But my issue is that, as many people as you put around the table giving their color, in the end you've got brown. I can't be small and brown; it's not possible.
I've got to make sure that reality is out of the studio for as long as the great guys... I mean, I'm the boss because I'm the least talented guy on the team. It's the only position available. Those guys, my job is to keep reality outside and make them do their stuff only in terms of production, and providing an interesting environment to do that.
Arkedo Series 03: PIXEL! - Developed in collaboration with Pastagames.
When you did the Arkedo Series, was that to get attention, or was that to experiment? What was the point?
CG: There were two points for the Pixel experiment, and the Arkedo Series in general. The first one was to prove to ourselves that we could fill up a bigger screen. Do you know [the idea of] the level of incompetence? We were always hoping not to reach that level of incompetence.
We started on mobile games in 1999 when it was just a few lines of black and white pixels. Then we had the Nintendo DS with its bigger screen, and then the Wii; and, before going to XBLA and bigger screens like that, we wanted to know if the kind of graphics we do could fill up the screen.
We always want to have only one guy doing the design. It's always the same guy: Aurélien Regard. He's the author; he's the real boss of the company. I'm just trying to make what he does possible.
So we tried, and the experiment that we did was picking up two guys from the team randomly -- not randomly, but not the same every time -- and give them 30 days to make a game and see what happens, and if the game is bad, shame on them. That was the first goal.
The second goal also was, if it was successful, to stop and say, "Okay. Now we know we have learned the tool; we have learned a few steps. We are learning to walk. Let's try to jog a little bit." That was also a way to say that we now want to go to bigger screens, and we are open for discussion about that.
Do you feel like you need publishers? Is it specifically because of the platforms, or is it because of getting noticed in a crowded space?
CG: I think we are in a very weird time right now, a very interesting time. It has never been cheaper to create games. There has never been such a great indie scene. The means of distribution make it possible for people to do that, and, at the same time, you always have the problem of the market. Look at the Apple store and the problem of marketing.
At the beginning of a cycle, production is important, but I stop doing a project when I need to put more money into marketing than into production because, for me, it's not interesting. I want to put all of the money into production.
So it's an interesting time for a title like this, which is multiplatform. We need it to have the backing of a strong publisher like Sega, and we're really happy that they like the game, because I've been trying to work with them for the past six years as Arkedo. At the same time, the next game that we are making right now, we are going to self-publish.
And I am starting a new publisher specialized with indie guys called Nice Guys, where we will be able to do experimentation and prototyping, and trying to provide many of the services that we were looking for, for the last 10 years.
Basically, I'm usually cooking in my secret studio in Arkedo for other friends from the industry and trying to make teams; I say, "Okay, you should meet that guy. He's really good in that technology." I'm trying to do that, but on a larger scale right now.
It's a difficult time, but at the same time I love what's happening right now. There's never been as many indie hits as right now. Look at the colors of Hell Yeah! as compared to all the other ones, and look at all the indie guys as compared to all the brown.
The indies just look for the brightness, and for the colors, and for the people having fun. I'm not saying that you're not having fun in a large team doing some war things, but I believe something is happening right now with people trying to take some risks. There's no more glass ceiling.
How do you feel being a little splash of yellow in a sea of brown around you, as you look around the E3 show floor?
CG: I love it! It's the best place to be for little splashes of yellow. I think we are allowed to make games that don't take too seriously, and that won't teach you how to torture after having told you how to kill a man with a headshot, and after having told you how to kill anyone. There are other ways to have fun.
I'm not saying this is bad -- even though, for my children, I'm going to have to fight to protect my children from my own industry, which kind of sucks. But this is taken apart, as a father.
There's something interesting happening right now, and it's even better for the indies that people have a tendency to have bigger and bigger projects or less and less risk: "Let's try and do the same thing that happened just a few months ago, because there are such huge things at stake in terms of finance." Many people making decisions on those higher levels probably haven't played the game.
So I'm really happy about all of these things happening right now. Traditional publishers still have great things to do, but I think that there's room for little guys who can try and do some stuff. The indie bundles are doing great! The people who buy them are really happy about that.
Let me give you an example: When we were making boxes for the DS, we sold a game for 30 bucks, and we got two out of them. The Arkedo series, we sold for three bucks, and we got two. We got the same amount of money, and if we were able to charge the customer 10 times less. What the hell? Then let's do just that!
But can you make money selling those little indie games to people -- enough to keep a studio going?
CG: For me, it's two different things. The company I'm starting is a new company, and Arkedo stays and is very well, and we hopefully will keep being on a roll. My job is to keep Arkedo alive for 15 years and see what happens. I'm so glad about the talented people I've picked up. It's been 12 years that I've picked them up. It's working, it's coherent, and people love to fight against each other in terms of creation. It's based on pride and pleasure, and I just cook for them and have them happy. That's quite great.
It's another thing, indie guys. I believe that, right now, big publishers' job for the last 10 years was to have their map of the 50-plus [staff] studios and know where they are, what they are working on, and what their big thing is. Now, we are talking about a map not for 50-plus people, but less than five people. Many great things happening in the last few years have come from teams of less than five people, and they are completely lost about that.
I want to try to experiment and do my little crazy things that I've been doing for 10 or 12 years in Paris, but give it a broader appeal. So I will of course be cooking, but the idea is to get prototypes really quickly in two months. IP stays for the indies, of course. Thank God! I mean, I've been fighting for this for 10 years. Now, when I'm doing my company, I won't do the opposite. We're trying to make the publisher that we've been looking for for 10 years and didn't find. There's lots of opportunities, I guess, right now.
Do you think it's going to be difficult to work with the console companies, and as a publisher, do you think it's even important with the rise of Steam?
CG: Oh. (Laughs) I'm not yet a publisher. I'm trying to. I'm upcoming.
Well, you're working on it.
CG: I think the relationship with Steam is very important and very nice. I have no idea what the attitude of the major console manufacturers will be in the next, let's say, even two years.
I mean, Microsoft should be given regards for what they did with XNA. XNA was a very, very, very intelligently well-done framework for making quick games and putting them on the Indie Games channel -- which has its own issues with visibility, and basically bad vibrators. With the older games that were on Indie, lots of them were vibrators -- using the pad to vibrate.
CG: I'm not kidding! To sort them out by success -- not the opinion of the player but the number downloads -- you get vibrator apps. I swear to God. So there's a bit of a shame about that kind of stuff. But they should be thanked for the XNA, because it's just like you were trying to start to build a house and you just go into interior design immediately. That's awesome!
To give you an example of how scalable this tool is, Hell Yeah! was done in XNA, because we started it as Arkedo Series Number 5, and then we wanted to add some depth and then wanted to really have some fun, and we put a lot of energy into making a vertical slice two years ago.
Microsoft seems to be backing away from XNA.
CG: I have absolutely no idea. Do you have information about that?
They say it's not going to work with Windows 8 [EDITOR'S NOTE: Here's some recent discussion on the subject.]
CG: That's the rumor? Is it true? I'm not sure. It's a question we have. Oh well, you know? We have our own tools, and we can do many things; but it would be a shame because it's a very fine piece of software.
That was the first thing to market from Microsoft, and I think they did a great job about that. Maybe they didn't put in the coal in the thing in order to keep the machine rolling, and stuff like that. Someday, someone forgot to put some coal in the oven, I guess.
That's a shame, but I can understand that these are corporate strategies and we are a very, very tiny aspect of the general problem. The console right now is not even primarily sold as a gaming machine. It's a global entertainment machine.
Yeah, especially Xbox.
CG: Especially Xbox. So imagine when you're indie and you're already down in terms of visibility, the more it's difficult to be there. But I have hopes that those kinds of things will change. What makes me happy is that there's a whole world going on outside of this, with the PC industry and the PC guys, and they are having tremendous fun -- and they're sustainable. So there's something new coming up.
Of course, Arkedo made DS games before.
CG: Yes, we started with them.
Now, Nintendo's doing better and better at finally getting download spaces available. 3DS is much better as a downloadable game platform. The Wii U will most likely have the same ability to have downloadable games. Do you look at Nintendo as a viable target?
CG: We're always looking. We like to start with the console, or the gaming environment, and go from here. If you remember Nervous Brickdown, that was a game we made and wanted to use the specificities of the DS: using both screens and being able to blow on the microphone to push the ball a little back. It was a ball-breaker.
The same goes for Big Bang Mini. It was a game that you would only be able to do on the DS, because you had to flick the stuff. So there are many, many new ways of interacting which are fun. We even had those crazy ideas about 2-Finger Heroes, when we thought that you could detect the fingers in Kinect, and we would have made a brawler with your friend on the couch, with your fingers.
What's always interesting for us is: "Okay, what have we got? What kind of new concept can we make out of this? Let's try, let's prototype, and let's do what we can." What I love right now is that it's completely open. There's a pretty obvious way for PC, and stuff like that, but, even for the new kind of consoles, there's plenty of things to do.
Hopefully the fact that we are now published by a major publisher -- and hopefully the game will work a little bit -- it will allow us to try new things, because of what we did before. We're always trying to go one step further, but on firm ground. We're trying to make Hell Yeah! some firm ground, not be ashamed of it, possibly have people like it, and then afterward we'll see where we'll go next.
In the meantime we'll just rest a bit; we'll close the studio for 30 days, for everyone to relax. Then, afterwards, a little game, two teams; we'll split the team in two so they can fight against each other, and direct to Steam.
How many people?
CG: Oh, we're about eight now. But it's a bit too much; we'll be a little less. More than eight people, you need a boss, you need different rooms, and you need to have people make compromises between each other, and I don't believe in compromise and democracy in game design.
It's a complete dictatorship; there's one boss of the game. In this case, it's Aurélien Regard. He's my partner. He had the general idea of the game, he wrote the whole game design, and he drew every single pixel you see in the game. It was all done by one guy in 18 months, and I should probably count in hours and not in months. Basically, that's his thing, his way to go.
So we will keep on doing that. It's amazing what you can do. Let's make a game in two days! The energy you see, and the kind of things that go out, cannot be found in a corporate situation with meetings and stuff like that.
You need to have the people scream, to have the guts to try something and be famous, because that's a strong drive. People do that for fun. They always want to be recognized for their craftsmanship, and that's something that you should not be ashamed of. We are really proud of what we did now. It's faulty in many ways, and we will try and make it better, and we will try and get better. We have been doing that for 12 years, for some of us.
And in the end, for us, it's the most important thing: learning new stuff, getting better, trying stuff, meeting people, and making experiments. That's what it's all about. It's so difficult to be an indie that you must have fun among your peers. You must be able to help each other and do stuff together, and it's working quite all right right now, this philosophy.
Did you talk to a lot of different publishers about this game?
CG: Oh, yeah. There's a little thing -- a very intelligent concept, by the way -- called Game Connection. It's usually at the same time as GDC, or a few days before, and it's basically all the developers meeting all the publishers, just like a blind date.
They match before, and then afterwards they have 30-minute slots. In three days, you know if your game is going to be sold, because you're going to have 30-minute slots with the whole industry.
That's what happened to Hell Yeah! We made a vertical slice and went to the Game Connection in Lyon. And then in three days, I knew that I had seven major publishers who were interested in going one step forward, and, out of those seven, one was saying "I want it now, and I will do whatever it takes to get it."
That was Sega. And they accepted immediately that we keep the IP. They accepted not to call us for eight months so that we could completely be doing our game, and afterwards we could try to make it compatible with the market and listen to them -- but first let us do our thing. So we were really happy about that. That's how it happened. There were other big publishers that were interested in it. It was quite eye-opening because it's a love-it or hate-it concept.
Like you said, you can't see what's going to happen in two years. You're trying to start a publisher. Do you think things are just going to keep this rapid pace of change? E3 is still about giant games. Do you think that will change?
CG: This show is a little bit out of focus with reality, I think. There's never been so many indie successes, and people are still trying to do the same old thing with more money and more boobs. Well, boobs are awesome, I personally think, but that doesn't make a game.
I think there are new things happening somewhere else, but we don't have the right prism on the industry, right here. It's normal. But if you go to PAX, I think you have a better vision of what the usual gaming community is about. It's not only video games; it's also tabletop and board games. You have such a big indie scene at PAX, and I think it's closer to the real market than E3.
I don't know. It's always interesting to see what the guys are doing right now with a huge budget and very talented teams. Of course they can buy the biggest talent. But what I think is interesting is that you now are starting to have very talented indie guys. It's guerilla.
When you're small, you move faster; so, when the situation is changing, you'd better be some kind of high-running little lemur than a big dinosaur, because you're going to get a tree on your head otherwise. If you're a fast thing, then the tree -- you don't care, because you can move quickly.
I have absolutely no idea where in two years we're going to be, but I can tell you already that we're going to be very small, very happy with what we're doing, and we're always going to try to find new things. With our energy, we'll be able to move fast. And I think all indies are like that, hopefully, because it's such a risk to be an indie.
You're risking your own life like that: your financial life and sometimes also your personal life, because you're taking so much time doing that. It's a big passion. There must be something worth it. Some people want money as the prime result of that; other people want fame, or being recognized by their peers.
I'm more of the second kind of guy, because I used to be rich, back in the day. I was happy enough to be rich back in the day, thanks to my first studio. I put all of my money into Arkedo. It's a bit risky also, even in that case, because, if one of my games doesn't work, then I cannot invest in the next one, because I already have invested it. It has to be at least the level of investment to back again. But I love it like it is!