Raphael Colantonio, the outspoken and charismatic CEO and creative director of Arkane Studios, was recently in Montreal for the Montreal International Game Summit, where he presented the session “Building a Small Independent Studio in a Big Publisher World” (subtitled “Lifting the Mountain”). Based in Lyon, France, Arkane Studios recently opened a studio in Austin, Texas, and most recently completed Dark Messiah of Might and Magic for Ubisoft, to critical acclaim.
Gamasutra talked to Raphael before his session about his start in the industry, the difference between working in France and in the US, and the passion that drives him and the company on.
Gamasutra: How did you get your start in the industry?
Raphael Colantonio: It was an accident. I finished my studies and I was doing military service, which is mandatory in France, and for some reason I entered a contest to answer some questions about Ultima from a magazine. The winner had a chance to test Ultima 8, or something. I was a big fan of Ulitma, so I did the contest, not thinking I would win anything, and I was contacted by EA, who offered me a job! Not just to test the game, but an actual job as a customer service representative. I was the 8th employee of EA in France and I set up their IT and their customer support.
GS: So you’ve always been a gamer?
RC: Absolutely. I was always just a real big fan of games. Working in games was a dream; for some people it would be like working in the movies, it feels like an impossible thing.
GS: And it’s always been RPGs that have been your favourite?
RC: Yeah, I was a big fan of the Ultima series.
GS: Ultima VII is probably one of my favourite games of all time, that feeling of a living world it had. Is that something you want from your games?
RC: Up to certain points. I think with Arx Fatalis that was something we wanted to do, we wanted to bring back some of the values of those games. Ultima VII is probably one of my all time favourite games, Ultima Underworld too, and by doing Arx Fatalis we wanted to express ourselves and do our own kind of a next-gen Ultima game, adding our own ideas, such as gestures for magic. Because since those games, most new RPGs make me wonder if I’m still an RPG fan!
GS: Do you think recent titles are more limited?
RC: Yeah, maybe they’re limited by the tech, or maybe they’re limited by the customers (the gamers) but it’s true I feel there was a very deep amount of interactivity back then that we don’t have anymore. I think Arx Fatalis was our real attempt to make something as meaningful as Ultima Underworld.
But it’s not like that’s still our constant objective; we did that, it was a hard game to do, we finished it and we’re proud, but the current market has an importance to us as well, and our passion and objectives is really to do intense first person simulations. We try to always reach for innovation. That’s why with Dark Messiah we had first person melee combat in mind. It was important for us to do that well.
GS: What did you learn from the experience of working on Arx Fatalis?
RC: We learned so much! Every time you do a game you learn so much. We learned that bugs are a really big issue for some people; in particular in the North American market they are very, very intolerant of bugs. We learned that the games that we think are going to be successful aren’t necessarily going to be that successful or marketable. Even though Arx Fatalis might have a very vocal community of fans, the sales were nothing compared to a GTA. The difference is the fans of GTA aren’t loud about it, they just buy it and enjoy it!
But it was a very important thing for us to do Arx Fatalis; it was very much an artistic need to say to the press and the gamers, “this is the kind of game we like, and this is the kind of thing we can do.” But now we’ve given a sense of that, we want to work to make that in a more marketable form that will appeal to a broader audience.
We also learned a lot about the rules of the industry; the publisher/developer relationship and the realities of that.
GS: You’ve worked with Dreamcatcher, JoWooD and Ubisoft; what differences did you feel between the publishers?
RC: It’s really a matter of the type of publisher and size. Ubisoft is a monster amongst even the biggest publishers, they way they think and their objectives and their attitude is totally different to JoWooD. It’s a trade off. There are better things with small companies and better things with big companies.
GS: With the big company (Ubisoft) you worked on their IP [on Dark Messiah of Might and Magic]; did you find that restrictive?
RC: It was restrictive, because we had to work with the limits that were given by them, even though they were willing to let it be revived and reshaped. We took part in that. They’re building a global franchise with Heroes of Might and Magic and the game, so they were really involved in the process.
GS: You also worked with Valve on this game, but with the previous game it was your own engine. What changed?
RC: Overall middleware is a big plus. It’s way better than doing our own engine. Of course, whenever you work with your own engine you can tweak it, and make the custom things that you want for your own needs, and while working in middleware it’s a way longer learning curve, every time you do something, like a custom feature, there’s a good chance you’re going to break another one, as you don’t know the engine as well as you would if it was your own. However, the Source engine is very flexible, and the Valve guys have been very keen on helping us whenever we need it.
GS: So how is it to be an independent developer in France?
RC: It is very difficult. I think it’s hard enough to do it here, but in France we’ve had a fairly bad record as a country for the past ten years, with few good games released by the French. So we’ve had a bad image, plus the economic context and the distance from the real activity in the videogames industry makes it very difficult, of course.
Dark Messiah of Might & Magic
GS: So is that what convinced you to start the studio in Austin?
RC: It’s this word that I use all of the time, “passion.” It’s just, you don’t really think in terms of “let’s make some money,” when you start your own studio; what kind of business plan is getting together four guys to make their own engine for an RPG, none of us having done an RPG, and also in a context where RPGs and the PC market are declining? What kind of a business plan is that? It’s only passion that would drive that kind of craziness.
You work on the game and it takes about two or three years of your life, maybe longer, and at the end you’re three years older! You look back on your life and you think “what have I done with those three years?” It’s like being divorced. I really wanted to be working on things that I feel proud of, that I really wanted to do, so I felt emotionally attached to them.
A lot of the games that I loved in the past were created in Austin, from Origin with the Ultimas, Ion Storm did Deus Ex there, a game I really liked too, so when I went there for the first time I was really like, “wow.” I really thought the place was amazing, and that one day, if we needed to expand, it would be there. I didn’t even have a company when I was thinking that!
When Arkane was ready to expand because there was a business reason behind it, the first place I thought of was Austin. There are other reasons of course. We want to explore online gaming, and Austin is strong for that. Cost of labor in Austin is slightly cheaper than it would be in say, California or Washington. So those are good reasons. But the overall reason for us to move to the US in general is because we want to, in terms of production, we want to utilise great talent from both sides of the ocean. There are really great things about Europe and really great things about the US. We don’t want to work on different games in each territory; we want to keep working on the same games leveraging the good aspects of each country.
It also makes sense for purely business reasons; we’re closer to the real action, so we can pick up the phone and talk to EA or Activision or whoever and be in the same time zone or near it.
GS: How big are the two studios, and how do you structure them to work together?
RC: For now in France it’s about 35 people, we’ve skimmed a little bit as we went up to 45 for Dark Messiah. In the US we mostly use contractors and people who come in and out, so it’s close to 10, maybe. It’s really only the beginning in the US, and won’t take off until we sign our next game.
Most of the work is still done in France; I’d say the content is mostly done there. The game direction and the mechanics are being done in Austin. That’s how we split the two loads. The French studio also does the level design and the AI behaviour and all those things, so it’s not like they’re just working on the characters and textures; they really assemble the game. In Austin we get all the player related stuff done, the game structure.
GS: How does hiring differ between the two countries?
RC: It’s so different. You know in France, the economic context, and the social structures are in such a certain way that the French guy wants a job for life. He’s looking for security, he’s looking for a nice environment where he has friends, and that’s what matters. So people don’t really leave your company as easily as they would do in the US. At the same time they’re harder to fetch from other companies. They’re very loyal; they just want a job for life, that’s what matters to them.
If you compare to the US, it’s like a jungle. People are really in a constant race. They’re trying to get a better job all the time. Once they’ve done this game, they move on to try and get a lead position at that company, etc. etc. They’re very competitive, and they’re in a hurry. So there’s quite a lot of opportunity that we’ve passed on with people who only want a job now, and we can’t provide them a job now, so they just move on to another company, as the market is so fast and so rich there that as much as there a lot of people to pick up it’s very easy to make a wrong decision. It’s been a novelty for me to deal with that.
I’d say also American people really know how to sell themselves compared to European people. In Europe people are like “Well, you know, I’m kind of crap, but if you give me a job maybe it will work out”, but in the US people are like “If you don’t pick me out you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.” So you’ve got a whole bunch of guys and you don’t really know who’s good and who’s not.
GS: You mentioned an interest in MMORPGs earlier, but your previous RPGS were both offline. Was, say, the impact of World of Warcraft something you took into consideration?
RC: When we did Arx Fatalis, we didn’t care a thing about the rest of the world, we didn’t know the market rules and we didn’t care; didn’t want to know them. Now, the success of online games and multiplayer games in general is strongly affecting our business strategy. And you know, the thing for us, the rule is, that as long as we manage to match our creative ambitions and our creative needs within the market, we can do it. We’re now mature enough that we want to do that. It’s very important even to our creativity that it actually sells, not that it’s just a piece of art. Not just the online space is influencing us, though; the consoles too. I think the next step for us is to not only do great things; but to actually create great things that sell.
GS: So what is it that separates Arkane Studios from the rest of the pack?
RC: Well, every studio has got its own identity. But the thing that is uniquely ours is that we just don’t fear death. We’re going to risk it every time. We just want to go for what seems to be the craziest challenge to do (as long as it makes financial sense, of course). Dark Messiah was first person melee combat, and no one really believed in it, it was really hard to find a publisher for it. “First person melee combat! That will never work! Ha ha!” And it actually works! That was our focus and it worked. And our next game is going to be a crazy thing that will fascinate people, but it’s going to be a hard challenge.
I think that’s what drives us. To really go for creative challenges. I think that’s the need for us, important to our survival.