European games development has had a tough time in the past few months, particularly with the impact that the Activision Blizzard merger has had on the old Sierra projects and studios.
One company from France which has been instrumental in making the government sit up and take notice of the tax breaks situation is Darkworks, and GamesIndustry.biz recently talked to the managing director, Guillaume Gouraud, and the CEO, Antoine Villette, about their future plans to convert the studio into a company, the challenge of recruitment and the necessity for Europe to band together against other territories in the industry.
Q: How is your relationship with Ubisoft?
Antoine Villette: We are in a good relationship. It has been a long time we have been working with them and, as an external developer, we have been treated well. For Ubisoft, for original IP it is very aggressive. They are quite willing to take risks and they deserve some applause for that. They have as much original IP as they do sequels but I think that's fair.
Q: Do you think sequels are relied upon a bit too heavily?
Antoine Villette: Not really, it depends what you are doing with your sequel. I think sometimes people are quite fed up with sequels because it's always the same. They are conscious that you need to bring something new and take time to do it well to be able to maintain a franchise, like Square did with Final Fantasy.
With a sequel you can make a good game or you can make crap it's just a question of precision and perhaps trust in your franchise.
From a publisher's point of view it's not sure revenues. I think most publishers are now conscious that they must invest in sequels.
Q: You guys have recently celebrated your 10th anniversary as a studio, how have things changed in your company and where do you hope to be in another 10 years?
Guillaume Gouraud: Those are quite difficult questions because as a studio of our size we are still involved in day to day management, the same problems, things like that. At some we can say there are the same problems but on a different scale.
In reality it was a long change, a day-to-day process. When we stated we thought that one year together would be great.
I'm sure that if somebody who worked for us 1998 came back to work for us now it's not the same company but what we see now is that there are a lot of opportunities for independent developers. And we managed to stay alive until that time. We really think that we can start building something that will be here for the next ten years.
Antoine Villette: From a company point of view I think could say we're in early maturity, from entrepreneur point of view we are still pre-adolescent.
Q: Do you ever worry that you'll come to a point where the management of your company will stop you being involved in the actual game-making process?
Guillaume Gouraud: Personally, I think I can answer honestly that I think that, from a management point of view, for the moment we are structuring the company in a way that we can still get involved in the project development.
We are approaching people for bigger roles, so we have more freedom and time to do strategic things. We are entrepreneurs and it is more important that we build a company than a games studio.
We are changing the structure so we are not burdened by the scale, we are not afraid to grow, it's an opportunity. And when I spoke about projects it could be game projects, technical projects, all sorts of things.
Q: And, for the moment are you quite secure in being an independent and not being owned by a publisher?
Antoine Villette: Never say never... Darkworks is not achieved yet as a company as Guillaume said. We have to change to achieve this. Shifting from studio to company - that's the real achievement.
Q: Around the issue of tax breaks. Would you ever set up a business in the UK and how important are tax breaks to you as a company?
Guillaume Gouraud: If one day we decided to internationalise the company from France it would depend more on the talent than any real tax break incentive. But what's important for us is that it's a business, you have to make profit as a company, this is the goal. It's not to make money just to make money, but to make money for the next project. So, if you can get, like in France, a twenty per cent tax break that's twenty per cent more you can invest in a new project.
Once you have someone with equal level of developer, in a place like Canada you have the choice to do another job, you have the choice to move to another country or you have the choice to fight to convince your government to do the same. Obviously the UK has a lot of skills and will not disappear on the games industry map.
What I think is too bad is that the government isn't recognising games as an important cultural media. That's where I think the French government is very keen to say 'it's cultural' - and every time you say it's cultural in France people fight for that. I think UK, France and Germany are the main markets and it would be great if the three governments had the same approach on this.
Antoine Villette: This is important for us because, I don't know if you know, I was involved in this process in the French government. What is important is not the UK fighting against France, France against Germany, this is not the point. The point is that we, as Europe, are culturally and historically linked together. We are in a worldwide industry and so we have to go together. We are fighting competition as a cultural and economic territory with Canada, China, India.
Hey, wake up, this is a war. If we want to our children to have, at least, as good life as we have then we have to fight.
Q: You said you were trying to grow as a company. What is the recruitment landscape like in the industry?
Guillaume Gouraud: It's not an easy process, there's a lot of good talented people in France, but the challenge is attracting people from other countries to internationalise the company. There is still room to grow and we are quite attractive because we are offering work on a large project. We get a lot of calls from UK agencies to try and get our people.
Q: When someone applies to work with you, are games design degrees looked upon favourable or do you prefer something more traditional like computer science?
Antoine Villette: Honestly we look at it favourably. But this is only the first step, we have a test, we have meetings and things like that. HR will perhaps put the CV up but the real guy who makes the test doesn't care. It's true that we are recruiting more and more people with diplomas coming from specific games courses and it's true that it's more and more difficult or self-taught people. You need to work in the industry for ten years to compete with a guy who has a degree in four years.
Guillaume Gouraud: I think there is one institute in France where they take the notion that it's a team from the start and they do real team projects together, mixing all the jobs - but they don't deliver enough people. When you find a good academic institution the problem is then that they don't deliver enough for the market.
Guillaume Gouraud and Antoine Villette are the co-founders of Darkworks. Interview by James Lee.