The Crying Game
Tuesday, 17th July 2007 at 11:17 am
After announcing an exclusive deal with Sony to produce a new, unnamed PS3 title, Develop spoke to Paris-based Quantic Dream’s CEOs David Cage and Guillaume de Fondaumière (pictured) to find out more about their approach to games and life as a French games studio…
Firstly, what are you able to tell us about the new game?
David Cage: Our next project will continue to explore the direction we initiated with Fahrenheit. We discovered with Fahrenheit that an emotional experience based on storytelling could be as appealing as more traditional game forms. We also saw with the incredible reactions to The Casting [an E3 2006 tech demo] that people were eager to discover new forms of interactivity.
With this next project, we want to build on what we learnt, continue to improve the grammar of our narrative language, while offering a very unique type of experience. We continue to experiment, explore new ideas, push the envelope as far as we can and always try to surprise the player. It is again very ambitious, unique and challenging at all levels.
The Casting was as much about emotion as it was technology – is securing that kind of emotional investment from the player/view what defines ‘next-gen’ for you?
DC: Definitely. What else could ‘next-gen’ mean? More polys? Advanced shaders? Physics? What use are they for, if we just use this technology to create the same games as those over the past ten years?
Time has come for interactive experiences to propose more than fun and adrenaline. We need to offer a wide panel of emotions, and not just fear, anger, frustration, but love, hate, empathy, sadness. We should also start to bring depth and meaning by creating experiences deeply relating to a player’s inner self. Our industry is now ready to reach a more grown-up and wider audience. We will continue to produce games for teenagers, but not all people want to shoot and drive. It is now time for our media to reach maturity. We need to become more ambitious, more creative; we need to dare to explore new directions and to take risks. I am convinced that great rewards will be found following that route.
You drew inspiration from TV dramas, horror, and noir for Fahrenheit – what kind of source material is influencing your next project?
DC: Our next project is probably more personal. I continue to explore schizophrenia – what it means to be different persons – but the game will also be about love, fear, and how both can interfere. It will really be about moral choices, and the difficulty of knowing the difference between the good and the bad.In a previous interview, you said The Casting represented a step away from the Uncanny Valley. Will developers always have to battle with issues of verisimilitude or are we close to creating a game that is as emotional and involving as any movie?
DC: The Casting showed that the day was close where a virtual actor could express and share with the audience complex emotions. It was a short test done in three months starting from scratch, including the script writing and the development of the engine on PS3, but most of all it was about understanding from an artistic point of view what creating an emotional experience will mean in the future. On this point we learnt much more than what we expected. Thinking about a video game as an emotional experience has a massive impact on every single aspect of the development, from the writing and the interface, to the technology and tools. Quantic Dream has invested in this particular approach for ten years; we now have a very clear vision of how emotions can be triggered.
Quantic Dream has also been active in blurring the lines between story and gameplay and movies and interaction, as we saw in Fahrenheit – is that still a mandate for you? And is it something you will be pushing forward with your next project?
DC: I believe that the future of video games is to create complex emotions for a more mature and wider audience. There are many ways of creating complex emotions: Rez, Katamari Damacy, Ico or Final Fantasy are just some examples amongst many possibilities.
The direction I want to explore is to tell interactive stories, where the player through his actions can affect the way the story is told. I am interested in emotions, in emergent storytelling, in how the player can project himself in different characters and contexts, how we can make him laugh, cry, scream, feel empathy.
I am interested in storytelling because this is my personal sensibility, but also because I believe that this is a fascinating direction for this media in order to discover new forms of narration.
It is difficult, because there is no established format, technique or interface. It is challenging because we need to learn how to create this type of experience and to invent this new language, but it is definitely today the most exciting place to be when you want to be creative and to innovate.
The studio has been open for almost 10 years but only released two games – most independents can’t afford to take that long over a production. What’s your secret to making games you care about and have put plenty of effort into, but also stay in business?
DC: When setting up a company, I think you have to be clear about what type of company you try to create and what your goals are. Then every single decision you make should be consistent with the direction you choose.
I started Quantic Dream to be a pioneer in the field of emotion and storytelling, with the idea of contributing to make this media a mainstream entertainment form with high creative expectations.
We developed our own technology and tools, because we believed that the format we wanted to create would require unique and dedicated features. We bought a mocap studio because we thought that creating believable virtual actors would be of paramount importance, and that this knowledge would have to be discovered and controlled. We invested time and energy in discovering writing techniques and new types of interfaces suitable for interactive storytelling, because we wanted to create a format that would be really unique.
We structured the company in order to have the time and money to do these things properly, with the hope that these decisions would bear their fruits at some point.
I would say we are at present halfway down the road: Fahrenheit has been a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate what we believed in and it’s been incredibly received by both the gaming community and the industry. The Casting demo raised the industry’s attention; everyone in our business talks now about emotion as the next big thing, something we said and invested in for the past ten years.
Having said that, we have been incredibly lucky to always find people to invest in our ideas, but also to collaborate on exciting R&D projects and earn revenues from our mocap suite to keep us alive between two projects. Our main luxury was probably to have exclusively worked over the past ten years on our own concepts without having to make compromises ‘to eat’, which is also a sign in my mind that we have been on the right track all this time.
Is that why you signed with Sony?
Guillaume de Fondaumière: We are particularly proud to be expressing our vision in partnership with Sony Worldwide Studios. It is not only a great opportunity for us to be exclusive to the Playstation 3, to focus our efforts on one console that can truly deliver on our vision, but also to be working with people who entirely share our passion and ambition.
Having a mocap service is an interesting way to offset the long-term development business with a short-term contract one working for other companies. Was that the intention when you started offering motion capture to third parties?
GDF: The only way to reach the level of quality we were targeting with mocap and to produce the massive volumes of data required by our format for a reasonable cost was to own a system. It gave us time to work on R&D, try different solutions, and most of all, to integrate mocap in our pipeline properly, which very few studios in the world can do. Very quickly, the expertise we obtained interested other companies, and we started working for movies, commercials or games, which in turn contributed to our R&D by supporting our financial effort.
Quantic Dream has recently acquired the latest Vicon system, which will help further increase the level of quality and the productivity of the studio. This hardware associated with the experience we have now gives a real competitive advantage to the company to create emotional experiences based on virtual actors. We continue to invest massively in technologies and tools, as well as improving writing and directing techniques.
Do you think that’s a useful business model for other games studios going forward?
GDF: I am not sure one can really talk about a ‘business model’. Having an internal mocap studio was a strategic decision that was taken considering the very specific nature of our own productions. It is only a good solution if a given studio has a development strategy requiring mocap and the financial and human means to support it in the long run.
Has having a wide range of clients in that field from film, TV and advertising helped shape your game productions in any way?
GDF: As a video game developer, we have to find solutions to the particular constraints of real-time and research techniques and tools that are specific to our needs. Producing high-end animations for different media does contribute to the team’s overall experience as we must be aware of the latest technologies and uses in other fields, in particular motion pictures. In that sense, it helps shape our game productions because these collaborations contribute to blurring the line between films and games.
What are your thoughts on how tax credits have effected the French games industry?
GDF: Twenty years ago, Japan, the United States, Great Britain and France were producing most of the games that were sold worldwide.
Since the late ‘90s, the growing importance of video games as a cultural form of expression targeted towards the younger generations as well as its decisive contribution to research in a variety of technical and scientific fields has drawn the attention of other countries and they have invested massively to shape a local industry, sometimes from scratch.
Today, tax incentives and other direct or indirect subsidies are commonplace in most parts of Asia, in Australia, in Canada and in a number of states in the US. We know today that these initiatives are successful in shaping local markets but also attracting major publishers and some of the best talents.
Montreal has had a major impact on the French development scene and this will now certainly spread to other countries, in particular the UK, if the gap between the production costs in Europe and other parts of the world continue to widen.
We saw the problem coming five years ago in France. When our Government finally understood in 2005 how grave the situation was, we had lost almost 60 per cent of our workforce. I hope other Governments, in particular in the UK and Germany, will react swiftly now and help us present our case to the European Commission.
We have been negotiating with the EU since 18 months to obtain a 20 per cent tax credit in France – that is half of what Montreal offers! – but France alone can obviously not convince the Commission. If we don’t react swiftly, Europe as a whole will be hit by the brain and studio drain and there won’t be a vibrant European development scene anymore. This is a serious problem and we must stop hiding behind our ‘glorious past’.
And lastly, as president of APOM Guillaume, how would you say the French development sector has changed over the last few years?
GDF: I think the major difficulties we have faced in the past five years have had a major impact on our studios, both positive and negative.
More than 60 per cent of the workforce today is employed either directly or indirectly by Ubisoft. Most of the time, these studios work on a work-for-hire basis and not on original properties. This to me is a real problem as we all know the value of a company is drawn from its capacity to create, produce and retain interest in original IPs.
On the positive side, I see some very promising new studios emerge on a variety of segments, for instance on community based games for the internet, casual and serious games for PC and console or mobile phone games. We still do have a tremendous pool of individual talents in a number of fields. I also believe that the hard times we had to go through has had a very positive impact on our overall capacity to create true production value. French studios have become much more productive, organised and focused than they were five years ago.
I think it is the right time for international publishers to come back to France and establish some long term partnerships.
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