David Cage: From the brink

David Cage: From the brink

By Rob Crossley

September 28th 2011 at 2:30PM

For the first time, the Quantic Dream founder reveals how he saved his studio from disaster

In 1997, a panicky Frenchman was spotted dashing through the London Underground, darting across its CCTV security network, “sweating profusely” as he recalls, carrying with him an oversized black rucksack.

It was David Cage. Over a decade later he would return to London, in his best suit, to sweep up armfuls of gold-plated awards for what is considered his magnum opus; Heavy Rain.

But captured in spider-eyed stare of the Underground CCTV system, the Paris-born developer must have – even in a pre-9/11 age – raised suspicion.

Commuters spying on the sweat-soaked Frenchman had nothing to fear. Had the police searched Cage’s rucksack they would have discovered he was carrying an intolerably heavy PC tower and game script the size of a phone book; not exactly harmless, but not a nail bomb either.

Cage himself, as one could tell from his appearance, had much on his mind. His studio, Quantic Dream, was days away from closure.

Held in his enormous beige PC case was a dust-caked processor fan, a CD ROM tray, and a hard drive filled with Quantic Dream’s last hope for survival. Cage was heading for Eidos, though he didn’t have a meeting scheduled, with his future in games ready to be decided in a matter of hours.

In the interview below, Cage explains how Quantic Dream was born from a considerable personal financial risk and, just a few months later, found itself on the precipice of collapse. For the first time, he talks though his extraordinary trip to England’s capital that turned fortunes around.

Three games and three engines later, Quantic is in fair shape, but Cage still has concerns for the industry, creatively and commercially. Later in the interview he discusses his divisive philosophy on where the medium should go.

At what stage in your life did game development become an ambition?
I really have a musical background – I studied the piano for years when I was a kid. When I was about fourteen I got into the music business. I ran a private sound studio in Paris, composing music for other people.

I was just composing all day, and I entered a period in my life when I was done with music, in a way. I had done it for about fifteen years non-stop, creating music for record artists, music for commercials, music for artists, music for video games. It got to the stage when I felt like I was done with music. I felt like I had done everything I wanted to. I had nothing else to say.

I was working for other music companies in my studio all day long. And I just got tired of it. I had a passion for writing, and I had a love for videogames, so I decided; I was going to write the game I’ve always wanted to play.

So, about in 1994, in my spare time I started writing The Nomad Soul. Every night I would come back home and just write a script for the game on paper. Just a concept and story; not a line of code. I did that in a very naive way, I had no big plan for it at all. I was just passionate about the idea and thought, okay, let’s see if I can do it. I wrote a 200 page document.

Luckily I had got into the recording business just as CD-ROM took off, where studios realised they had enough space to put recorded music into games. That got me a few contacts, and one day, I sent them my script. The feedback was good, but they all said my idea for the game was technically impossible.

I hate when someone tells me something is impossible. I can’t stand that. I never have. I thought, okay, let’s do it and see if it is impossible.

Five of my friends I had hired, and paid. I wanted this to run like a real company; you come in on time, you do your work, you go home, you have a salary. Yes we were friends, but the thing I had to make clear was, at the office, I was the boss.

I had enough money to pay them for six months. After that, we either have something, or I go back to make music.

We had nothing on the first day, no technology, no tools, nothing. I had two sound booths. I used one during the day for my day job, because I still needed to make money for this thing to work, and we filled the other one with a few desks and computers.

For six months there were six of us working within these four walls. A boiling, soundproof office. No windows. Our goal was to build an engine and create a prototype of the game to prove it can be done. To this day I don’t know how we did it in that time, it seemed impossible.

By the last week of the six months, we still hadn’t signed this game to a publisher. I had run out of money. We were nervous, certainly, and it was a shame because we saw this engine and prototype and we knew we really had something. I thought the demo was quite impressive.

So in the last week I went to London and made a couple of calls. I phoned Eidos. I said, hey, I’ve got this demo, do you want to see it? They invited me over.

Bear in mind though that I was carrying around a giant PC around London, and through the subway. You can imagine how much of a mess I must have looked. When I met the Eidos guys, I was sweating profusely.

But I plugged the PC in, showed them the demo, and they seemed interested. One of them asked me if I had the design document, and I pulled out this massive 200 page book that landed on the table with a thud. Woah, they said, seems to be heavy.

Eidos at the time were so rock ‘n roll. They’d just arrived on the scene and were the Tomb Raider guys. They said, okay, we want to sign tomorrow.

I was stunned. I said, er, no, I can’t sign tomorrow because I have to get back to Paris today.

No, they said, we’ll put you up in a hotel.

But the contract is in English, I said, I’ll need to translate it.

No, no problem, they said. We’ll get it translated for you now, it’ll be here tomorrow – all in French.

Okay.

When I walked out their office, still sweating, there was a limo waiting for me. It took me to a five-star hotel. That night, they took me to a football match. It was like I had stepped into Disney Land. Before I went to bed, I suddenly got nervous. The more I thought about it, the more nervous I became. I started getting worried that they were hurrying me through this because they wanted me to sign a bad deal. All of it seemed too good to be true.

The next morning I went through the contract, as promised all typed up in French. I spent the whole morning reading through it, and there were just a couple of things I wanted to change. No problem, they said, we’ll make those changes now. By noon, the contract was signed.

So I hurried back to France and the team at the train station was waiting for me to arrive. This was all before the age of mobile phones so, honestly, they didn’t have a clue what I was going to say.

The feeling I had as I approached the station I’ll never forget. I walked out of the train with a very sad face [laughs] … a very sad face… [laughs hard] I couldn’t resist, and it was really hard to look sad because the whole journey back I had a massive smile on my face. I had to really concentrate to look upset.

When I got off the train I walked up to the team, and they were so anxious – I could see they were – so I said, here’s the contract to develop our first game. They all went crazy.

We were a game developer for real.

You must not have a bad word to say about Eidos.
Eidos were amazing at the time. They were a real rock and roll publisher. They were doing the crazy stuff at a really interesting moment in our industry. They gave us money for the project and said, okay, all we want you to do is start in a month.

Obviously it was amazing what I had, but really I was nervous that we had to start in a month – we only just got our name.

Quantic Dream; why did you pick that name?
Well we wanted a name really just to put a logo on the design documents and look a bit more professional. We ended up thinking Quantic Dream isn’t that bad.

What does it mean?
Ah it was a play on the phrase ‘quantum physics’, which in itself is really interesting because the more you study it the more you can’t explain. So our name was a mixture of science and magic.

So, back to the story, your first game was The Nomad Soul.
Yes, and Fahrenheit was the direct consequence of Nomad Soul. Nomad was GTA in a sci-fi world, but in there you would probably find many elements we use in later games. There is ethical ambiguity, there is a love story, you couldn’t die - in a sense. So all this we’ve kept playing with.

Did it sell?
It sold… nah I wouldn’t say so. The US always have problems with my games, to be honest. Nomad Soul was the first to have issues over there. We were asked to change the name over there, so it was called ‘Omikron: The Nomad Soul’, but there was still no confidence that it would sell well in the States, so it wasn’t supported.

That was the same with Fahrenheit, right? It was called Indigo Prophecy in the states.
Fucking stupid name.

Why the need for these name changes?
The games I make don’t include a gun. Very often, American marketing departments have a problem with this. They have this image of their market being gun-loving red-necks. It’s completely wrong.

We had huge arguments with Atari in New York about Fahrenheit. We told them they were making a huge mistake not supporting the game – they will see the reviews and they will like what they see.

They should have put marketing dollars on the table, and I told them that, but they didn’t want to listen to us. When the reviews came in they were even better in the US than they were in Europe, but by the time they realised, it was too late. Fahrenheit sold well in the US, we made money out of it, but it was a slice of the potential, because of this lack of trust.

The problem is that we are in a very conservative industry. Each time you come to marketing departments with very simple concepts, like “the hero has ten weapons and goes through twenty levels, and there’s a snow level and a jungle level and a sand level and a whatever level and it’s gonna be so great because I can display more explosions on screen than any other game and…” then they have it. The marketing departments go, “oh that’s really interesting”.

When you come to them about a game based on a story. Or, a game based on child abduction, they think ‘my god’. It’s very difficult for them to commit to anything that’s remotely different.

The only way to solve this is to keep at it; game after game, get more trust. Show them how successful you are, and hope that eventually they, and the whole industry, will turn around.

Is that why you’ve raised your profile? Is that what ‘David Cage The Brand’ is all about?
Yeah, actually. David Cage the brand, as you call it, is about not having to make sequels. It’s about creating a brand that is the name of the creator, not Heavy Rain 1, 2, 3, 4, 10, 12.

You’ve heard this a million times; You could make a lot of money with Heavy Rain 2. You are well aware of this.
Yep.

But you don’t care.
Let me be stupid for one second; I’m not in this business to make money. I wrote Heavy Rain because I was excited about it, because there was something to say. Yeah I could make Heavy Rain 2, but I’ve said what I’ve had to say about it. That’s the strength of Quantic Dream, to have the capacity to create new ideas, to make something that breaks ground.

I don’t know what to say. I guess I don’t have a long-term strategy for my career. It’s certainly not to make as much money as possible though. I see myself as an author, really. I just trust my instinct. I think fans of what I do want me to do that too.

I’m an old game creator. I’m 42 this year. There are so many old game designers who have passion when they are young and they get a bit a bit older and the passion falls away. They get a family, and suddenly they think ‘okay I need to make as much money as I can for my family – this is what matters.’ I’ve not reached that stage yet.

I still think I’m doing something important. That may sound naïve in this industry, but I still think I’m here to be creative. I just have a company because I need that structure to develop my ideas.

At what point in your life did Heavy Rain become an idea?
It was really after Fahrenheit, I got the feeling we touched on something, but I was too shy with the medium to do anything with it. I was really upset with myself, because I didn’t have enough courage with the project.

I realised I was writing a game where nothing ever happens. There were relationships between characters, and a love story, but it didn’t feel like a video game. I felt I needed something spectacular to end it, I needed to go out with an explosion, with flying characters, I needed the world to be saved.

So you did The Matrix.
Yeah, yeah, and after Fahrenheit I realised this big dramatic turn wasn’t needed. I thought the medium was ready for something more subtle, more complicated. The best scenes in Fahrenheit are when nothing spectacular happens. Afterwards I had more trust in the medium and thought, okay, let’s try something more personal, something that isn’t a video games story.

It’s interesting you say video games story, because most tend to revolve around the basic idea of being the last person to save mankind.
A developer once told me, being a hero in a videogame is about being a mass-murderer. I mean, how many people do you need to kill in a videogame to save the world and be the good guy? It’s absurd.

Heavy Rain pushed the medium forward in terms of narrative, but I think its biggest achievement was being a new IP, from an independent studio, exclusive to one platform, and sell millions. These days, that’s quite remarkable.
It’s the combination of things why that happened. I think a prime reason is, because Heavy Rain the studio existed for 14 years. It isn’t something a start-up company could have achieved, because you wouldn’t have the trust between your people.

Secondly, Fahrenheit was the prototype to Heavy Rain. All the key concepts in Fahrenheit were actually in Heavy Rain – it’s just that Heavy Rain had better graphics, better story, better everything. It’s always easier making something a second time round.

I think Fahrenheit was a major factor in Sony signing Heavy Rain. If we’d have just come out of the blue with the game, they’d probably say no.

The media hype for Heavy Rain, I recall, was significant.
That’s the third thing. We spent two years talking to press at trade shows, and I think they played a major part in the game’s commercial success. They’re the ones who created the hype and expectation for the game. I think that people were excited by what I was promising; a game where the heroes have no weapons, where you don’t kill anybody, where your choices have real consequences.

I felt people understood what I was going for. I think people weren’t sure about how it would play, but the concept sounded interesting. I actually think a lot of people tried out the game to see if I was lying. But all the same I knew people were saying ‘this is something new, this is something different, at least this is going to be something else’.

But y’know, the success was there for Heavy Rain, but at the same time, look at the biggest games of today and it’s always the Call Of Dutys, the GTAs, it’s always the games where you have a gun. It’s always the sequels. Yes, people want something different, but not too different. And not too often.

You’re the writer of these games, so I imagine you have your own literary influences.
I have a classics background, I read Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle, many French writers. I love Ancient Greek plays, but really I love everything to do with art in general. I don’t think I can ever really pinpoint my influences; they come from everywhere.

I still find it strange that you’ve chosen the games to express yourself. I think with other mediums the authors have little constraint on what they can say. With games, surely the creators are thinking, well, do I have the technology and money to say anything at all?
[Laughs] Yes that makes sense. That’s my problem with the industry; that with Heavy Rain I wrote something personal, I wrote something about my relationship with my son. I realise how strange this is to the games industry.

If I had the same mission as a writer or a film director, people would say, fine, that’s what you people do.

What gets me upset is when people say videogames should just be fun. Fun? What does that even mean? Isn’t a book fun? Isn’t a movie fun? Aren’t you happy you enjoyed it? I’m delighted that Heavy Rain is in no way ‘fun’ in the classic game sense.

Game development is restricted by the limits of its own craft though. Heavy Rain would not be considered a wild narrative if it was a novel.
No, you’re right. I do wonder sometimes, is Heavy Rain good because I’m the first one to do it, or is it actually good?

The movie industry has been doing its thing for a century. The challenge from their perspective is to create an original story, which – going back to your earlier question – is why movies often tell interesting and original stories.

Games don’t have this kind of challenge, but there is so much potential. No one has done a tragedy yet, no one has done a comedy, no one has done a musical. Nothing’ been made apart from prap-prap-prap shoot-shoot-shoot prap-prap-prap-prap-prap.

I’m sure, nevertheless, you think Modern Warfare is a great game.
Oh yeah. Yes absolutely.

I’ve always got the impression that you probably still play the likes of Motorstorm, and Doom, and Mario.
Yes, yeah I do. That’s fine, I have nothing against any individual game. These people have a lot of talent. I certainly couldn’t make what they do. The problem is that everyone’s doing the same thing. This is the industry; racing, shooting, jumping.

And farming.
And farming. My thoughts are, what about adults, what about all the people who don’t play because they have no interest in shooting other people. We’re pushing the whole market into a niche.

We’ve opened the market in a massive way just by thinking a little bit about how we can reach new audiences. It’s something we should really think a lot harder about.

When I talk to people at games conferences, I always hear someone say video games are mainstream. You know what, you’re not mainstream, you’re a niche. You’re a very small niche. You are nothing. Look at Farmville. Look at Wii Fit. They’re both closer to being mainstream.

Look at Avatar. Look at any movie. Look at any TV show on prime time. That’s mainstream. Something’s mainstream if my parents and grandparents understand what I’m referring to.

Could you write a wild, abstract, intelligent story with a video game? I don’t believe anyone has, though there’s a new one every week in literature and cinema.
It’s a double-edged issue. Because nothing has been done in videogames, so any narrative-led idea you have is in a sense still pioneering. It’s horrible.

The first person to make an interactive comedy – one that’s actually good – will be the inventor of that genre.

Duty Calls was a game that was a parody of a game. It was downloaded over a million times.
[Laughs] Sure, and I think there’s a lot to do in this area. It’s an empty land. Whatever you do in that space you’re going to be a pioneer.

Being a journalist for Develop – I’m going to ask you about tax breaks now.
Tax breaks tax breaks tax breaks! [Laughs] No I’m fine with that, I have to have a left brain and a right brain.

Actually I was going to ask you about that. Bret-Easton Ellis doesn’t have a company to run. Ian Curtis didn’t have spreadsheets to ponder over.
Yes I couldn’t do this without Guillaume de Fondaumiere. He’s my rock.

So, tax breaks. I imagine you benefited from the 20 per cent tax break on production costs.
Yes. It was a significant help. It wasn’t a ‘benefit’, it was used to do a better job. Simple as that. If there were no tax breaks… well the project would probably still go ahead, but a lot less money would be spent on it. If you miss a milestone, it’s only the money that keeps your project away from death.

To tell the truth, without tax breaks I’m pretty certain we’d be in Canada right now.

Seriously?
Seriously. The problem is that we face tough competition from around the world. We’re in tough competition with American developers, Canadian developers, Japanese developers. When a game arrives, people just compare the titles, people just look at if it works or not. They don’t look to see if our studio is fighting with the same weapons as a Canadian studio.

Life is easy in Canada. You’ve got all the money in the world. You can recruit like mad over there. You’ll have tax breaks and more tax breaks and nearly 40 per cent tax breaks on every project that you do. It’s crazy. French tax breaks are great help, but no where near as generous as in some parts of Canada.

Honestly, the French games industry couldn’t compete without tax breaks. And I look at the UK and think it’s all quite depressing. But I actually think France isn’t doing well either. I mean, how many triple-A studios do we have in France? Very few. That’s because the right investments couldn’t be made at the right time.

At the end of PS2, instead of investing in the next generation of consoles, a lot of studios decided instead to work on DS games. Then the DS started not doing so well for developers. Then there was the Wii, which too started to go downhill. Then they moved to mobile. There will of course be people making money on iPhone and iPad. But there will be very few winners. Many will try and quietly fail.

So at the end of the PS2, people didn’t invest in next gen and this is why France is in the state it’s in. There are few big studios now. We have amazing graduates, amazingly talented new people, and if you want to set up in France I think you’ll do great.

But after the PS2 there was a lack of maturity and business sense. People didn’t see the changes that were happening. These days a lot of French developers work abroad, in the US, in San Francisco, in Montreal.

That was a problem at Quantic Dream for awhile. People got trained up here and they moved to Canada and the US. We put a stop to that by paying people better, and still working on triple-A.

But Quantic Dream has no industrial tissue around it. We won’t quit, of course not, but we’d love to compete with a big French studio.

Obviously today you’re still independent. If Sony approached and asked you to join their WorldWide Studios group – perhaps as their literary arm – would you be tempted?
Of course I would. Of course. I really like Sony, honestly I do. They’ve made some bets with developers like Fumito Ueda and Media Molecule. I kind of feel loyal to them.

You wouldn’t mind the idea of more of your money going to Sony? You earned it.
Of course, of course, but the industry now is in a position where studios need constant support. It’s not like we need help, but we want to compete.

So what’s next? I imagine you’re sticking to PS3 – what with your engine and your ties.
Yeah we signed another deal with Sony. Hopefully we’re building something exciting, something different. Hopefully it will build on the foundations of Heavy Rain, but go forward in a very, very, different way.

A war FPS?
No! [Laughs] We were actually asked to contribute to a huge FPS IP, bringing what we know about storytelling to the genre. That was very exciting. We couldn’t make it in the end. But it doesn’t matter. We have a new story to tell. Now I want to show that what can be done with Heavy Rain can be done with completely different stories. I want to show what we’ve done isn’t one game, it’s a genre.