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French studio Mekensleep faced the challenges of developing an original DS title with a small team, and Gamasutra spoke to creative director Oliver Lejade about the unique issues the team faced from conception, to media reception, to distribution of _So

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

August 15, 2008

13 Min Read

Small French game design studio Mekensleep developed an original DS title with a small team, and Soul Bubbles' story is unique in many ways. Gamasutra has already focused on comments about the DS market being "killed by lack of originality". In this extended transcript, the studio's creative director Oliver Lejade also discusses the challenges that come with the oft-cited goal of "making the game we wanted to make," from conception, to media reception, to distribution. In Mekensleep's case, this journey was complicated by the casual-hardcore player divide and the extra hurdle original titles sometimes face in the burgeoning DS market - and Lejade was happy to explain the trials and tribulations of ploughing one's on furrow. How long did you work on Soul Bubbles? Olivier Lejade: A little bit over three years. How were you able to afford to do that? OL: My previous company was a VC funded business, and when the VCs tried to wrestle control of the company, I basically fought back, and wrestled money out of them. So that was where I found the money to fund Mekensleep, and do the game we wanted to make. How many people on the team? OL: It went from between two, to up to -- how much were we at peak production? 12? Yeah, 12, I think. And over those three years, what kind of process did you use in creating your games? I hear it was a somewhat iterative process, experimenting with things? OL: It was a very iterative process. We started out with a prototype, basically, which had been made by Omar [Cornut, lead programmer], and at that time it was a very simple tech where you could basically blow on soap bubbles; but the bubbles didn't collide with each other. And from there, we started -- just him and me at the time -- iterating interesting stuff to do on the very low level -- pure interaction, stylus interaction things. And that's where we started looking into cutting the bubbles, rejoining them, drawing the bubbles... And so we did that for something like six to eight months, I think. And also at that point we were looking at videos of magicians doing magic tricks with smoke -- blowing smoke into bubbles -- and we thought that was cool, that was interesting... We had no gameplay at that point yet; we just had a cool, interactive toy. And we decided to try to introduce the smoke inside the prototype, and we did that, but the prototype was PC-only at that point, so we could have lots of particles to do the smoke. Of course, when we moved on to the DS, we couldn't do smoke the same way anymore, we couldn't have as many. So then, we started thinking "What could we be moving around that would be less consuming than smoke?" And that's where the spirits came into play. We basically reduced, very severely, the number of particles; which is good, also, on a gameplay point of view. When we were prototyping with smoke, the smoke tended to scatter all around the level, and it was hard to pick up. It was too hard. Since we wanted to make an easy game, it was better to have fewer particles, and that's where spirits started to emerge. So, to come back to your initial question, the development process was very, very iterative. From the start to the end, we were still iterating very, very late into development. I think, actually, the very last month, we were still squeezing in little features here and there. The game seems like it's got a lot in it, and I wonder if it could potentially be too much. It was marketed somewhat toward a more casual audience, but it actually seems a bit more hardcore, in terms of the range of options. OL: I understand, but I think when you play it, you'll find out that the actual experience is very different, in the sense that the core gameplay, which is to bring the spheres from the start to the end of the level, you get that fairly easily. After the first world you basically have got that, and even a casual gamer has gotten it. So, to keep the player interested until the end of the game, we had to diversify the experience. And the way the mechanics are being introduced, world by world, and changing -- we're always turning around that central idea of bringing in the spirits. But we're introducing little gameplay variations here and there, and I think it's done in a way that doesn't make it overwhelming to the player. The rhythm and the accessibility curve is soft enough that it's not too much challenge for casual gamers. From what we've seen from the initial reaction of players, I think we hit it right. Because the criticism we've had is more on the other side -- players saying it's too easy, rather than players saying it's too hard, too overwhelming, or whatever. Specifically, here in France, how much difference do critical opinion and reviews make to whether or not you get a sequel, since this is your first original IP? OL: I don't really know yet. I anticipate it has marginal impact compared to actual sales. Do you feel that people really got what you were trying to do? OL: I think the players -- mostly, the players did. I'm not sure the reviewers all did. The two main criticisms we've had from the reviewers are that the game is too easy, and too short. They both seem a little unfair to me -- and there's disagreement in the team, around that specific point -- but the "too easy" point I disagree with because that's specifically how we wanted it to be. And I don't think it's that easy. It's as easy as you want it to be. I think, actually, casual gamers are not going to have an easy time. That's not what we found in tests; data says that it's not easy for casual gamers. But experienced gamers are not going to have a lot of trouble, if -- and that's an important "if" -- if they do the main line, and don't go after all the Calabashes [hidden treasures] where difficulty is hidden. It was an actual design decision to make the main path to the exit fairly easy, so that the casual gamers could progress through the game until the end, but push difficulty to the edges of the level, to where the Calabashes are hidden. So if you're looking for difficulty, if you go there, you'll find it. The problem is, I think a lot of reviewers did not go looking for it. And, also, some of them complained that we give tips; there are little stone monoliths, and if you hit them there's a tip that comes down and basically explains to you what you're supposed to do. And the reason we introduced that is, we found that casual gamers sometimes were completely stumped, and did not know what to do, and that's where we had a fall-off point, a drop-out. To help them overcome that, we put in those little stone tips. The thing is, it's an act of the player -- you don't have to click on them. So if you find it easy, or if you think you can find it out by yourself, you can just go at the problem and actually just try to solve the problem by yourself. Nobody forces you to hit the monolith to ask for the tip, and a bunch of reviewers have complained about those tips -- but then, it's their choice as a player to hit the tip, and nobody was putting a gun to their head for them to do it, so... The difference between the reviewer and the target audience is quite wide, potentially, because this is found with any game that is remotely casual. Reviewers are not casual gamers; which can be a problem. OL: But that's not the worst part! Because we've tried to basically bridge between casual gamers and hardcore gamers, and the interesting fact is that even though they did that, even though they found it so-called "too easy," they still enjoyed the game very much. And that's what they say. I'm talking about the most critical reviews, right? They say that they like the game a lot, but they marked it down two to three points sometimes, just because of they found the game to be too easy. And I think that's a problem. Because if the only thing you have to say about a game is that -- you're saying, "Well I had a really good time, but it was too short, or it was a little too easy," I don't think that is a big enough criticism to mark down a game the way they do it. How do you feel the environment for smaller, independent developers in France is doing right now? OL: I think it's better than it's been in a long time. To what do you attribute that? OL: First and foremost? Actual recognition from the state, that gaming is a valid cultural form, and that in turn has helped in financing games, which has helped us have more freedom. That's the first part of the equation, that makes it better than it's ever been; and the other part is, I think, that it's going to get even better, because online distribution, I think is going to tilt things into the direction of small creative teams more than it's been before. I'm not saying that it's going to be totally in favor of those teams, but up to now it was mostly in favor of big teams, established teams, doing sequels of whatever previous success they've had, or licenses; but now it's going to be a little bit more balanced. Do you feel that consoles are a place for that, or will there be much more PC downloading? OL: I think the platform doesn't matter that much, as long as it's online. It's all distribution channels, and you basically have to see consoles as closed distribution channels, and the thing is to try to avoid being trapped in closed distribution channels. Like, you wouldn't want -- except if you had something that's really worth it, as a counter-balance, but otherwise you'd want it to be on as many distribution channels as you can. I wanted to ask you -- do you think there was a disconnect between the front of the box and the actual game design? OL: Well, let's just put it this way: I negotiated total creative control of the game with Eidos, so we have that contractually, but that did not extend to marketing decisions. Where do you think the developer's responsibility ends and the publisher's begins, in terms of educating the consumer about the game? OL: That's a tough one. I mean, if you want to get more sales, do you feel that you can or should be doing more promotions yourself somehow? OL: I definitely wish we were more used by our publisher, since we're willing, and I feel that they think they don't need us so much, to do the promotion. And that's kind of... Well, they do use us, but not as much as I think they should, or as I think is possible. So yeah, I definitely think we could be more involved. The question is, it's not really our job, either... So it's hard to balance. How do you think the market is now for DS titles? OL: I think it's being killed by lack of originality. Most publishers are pushing crappy clones, quickly made for little money, and that's having a detrimental effect on the public, because the public doesn't know what to choose, doesn't find any good titles, so it tends to go to established, known titles and games -- Nintendo games, basically. The problem is, that's not just the publisher's fault. I think distribution is largely responsible for that, because they have, basically, selection companies to decide which game they're going to put in front of their-- You're talking about retailers? OL: Yeah. Large retailers, mostly. They have selection companies that decide what they're buying, and how many quantities they're taking from the publishers, and how they're exposing it on the racks. So the problem is, these committees, they have the publishers come in and present their games, and there are lots of publishers coming in, who have a lot of games to present, and when the publisher comes in and says -- basically a publisher has about five minutes per game, to explain what the game is about. So when you're selling a license? It's easy. You say, "Oh, well, we're making this game that's Spider-Man 3, it's going to be blah-blah-blah," they know what Spider-Man is, they know they're going to be signing X quantity of it, mechanically. So that's fine. You're saying, "Oh, this is a game about little girls, pink ponies, and you know that little girls are going to buy this," it's X number of units are going to go, it's an easy sell. But when you come in with an original game, that they don't have any clear reference to the gameplay of something that has been done recently, that has no license, then it's a very hard sell. And if you have only five minutes? I can't explain Soul Bubbles in five minutes. It's not doable -- and I made the game. Realistically, it would have to be played, anyway. OL: Right. So what happens is, the committee says, "Ah, this game, I don't understand, I don't know what it is... Uh, no." Or, in the best case, "Just give me a few units, and that's it." So this comes back to the marketing team, and the publisher, who then forms this image that it cannot sell that type of game; which goes down to the buying arm of the publisher, who doesn't want to buy these types of games anymore, because they don't know how many they'll be able to sell. And even if they do like the game, they know that they're going to have a selling problem to the distribution. So I think distribution is largely responsible for what's happening right now. And it's not just -- it's very obvious on the DS, but it's true for all distribution. Do you think download may potentially help with this problem, because then you don't have shelves? OL: Yeah. And another important distinction is that those virtual distributors are not going to be run the same way as the actual physical distribution, and not by the same people. We'll see. But right now, at least Steam, or PSN, or WiiWare, or whatever, or the web, basically. It's not run by Kmart, or -- it's not the same people. So, maybe there's hope.

About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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