Ubisoft's Eric Chahi
The Project Dust and Another World creator on GDC Europe and creating original games
In 1991 a game was released for the Commodore Amiga that set the computer games world alight, and demonstrated the potential for games to be as immersive and involving as films: Another World.
That game's achievements seem all the more impressive today because it was the work of one person - Eric Chahi - whose latest project with Ubisoft, Project Dust, is set for release on XBLA and PSN. Here he talks about why he's looking forward to speaking at this year's GDC Europe in Cologne, and why the challenge of creating original content is still as tough today as it was 20 years ago.
Q: You're speaking at GDC Europe - what attracts you to the event?
Eric Chahi: Well, it's an event that's really focused on development, and it's a good place to share things with other people. Plus it's very different from other conventions - such as E3 or Gamescom, where it's more about the games themselves.
I'm a game creator, and it's the first time I'll be at GDC as a speaker, and it's going to be an important moment for me to talk about what we're doing right now.
Q: And what kind of things - without spoilers - will you be talking about there?
Eric Chahi: Well, first of all Project Dust is a game where simulation plays a very important part - and players interact with that simulation. The talk is about how to create a high performance simulation on today's computers - that's why Ronan Bel will be there too, it's a dual presentation. I'm a game designer and Ronan is an expert programmer.
So we'll be talking about the technology, how we creating the simulation and the relationship between technology and game design. Because we can talk about technology or game design - but it's not often that people talk about the exchange between the two, and how technology really inspires game design... or how, from a game design point of view, we had to manage a dynamic system, because Dust is made up of a dynamic system, with emergent activity talking place in the world.
It's a different approach to game design, because it's not fully predictable.
Q: Why is it important for designers, creators and developers to get together at events like GDC Europe to share their experiences?
Eric Chahi: It's important because it's a way to open our minds - to see solutions to problems that we didn't think of. It's a source of inspiration, because when we play a game we only see the results. At GDC we understand more about the methods of game creation.
Q: You use the word "inspiration" - as the person responsible for Another World in 1991, you helped a lot of people to see just how immersive games could be. Although you've been involved in other projects since, what kind of response have you had since Project Dust was announced?
Eric Chahi: When you read some of the comments online, people seem to be really pleased to see that I'm back with a new game - but I have to say that while Another World was a game I made on my own, Project Dust is very different, because there's a team of 17 very talented people involved.
In the creation process of the game, getting across my vision and making something original with soul and passion... that's the work of the whole team, not just me. When I'm working with the team, it's important that they share the vision - but I just want to say that while it's an honour to have people remember me for Another World and all that, I don't want it to overshadow the work that the others are doing.
Q: I guess that's one of the things that's changed hugely in the past 10 years - it's just not possible for a single person to create a benchmark game alone today, is it?
Eric Chahi: That's true - but on the other hand it's still possible to create a game on your own. That game might not have the best graphics or production values, but I wouldn't be surprised if a game made by one person that had a really strong concept could be a landmark.
Q: You're working in a team of 17 people - even that's considered small by some standards...
Eric Chahi: Yes, it's really small - but it's a good thing too, because it means a less expensive project. When a project is cheaper there's more freedom to create something original - and when it's a game with a team of maybe 200-300 people, it's so huge and costs so much money that publishing an original concept or idea is a big risk. There's a need to make sure there's profit, to recoup that high budget.
Q: So what's the history of Project Dust?
Eric Chahi: It was a long process - the project started just over two years ago at Ubisoft, in terms of when the team started work. But the concept dates back to 2004, when I wanted to create a new game, although it wasn't Project Dust back then. I'd had lots of ideas that were gestating, which gradually became clearer.
Once I had a sharper vision on how the game universe would look I presented the concept to Ubisoft - that was in 2006, but it took time to really convince people. When they were finally on board we then had to find the right time to do it... it took time.
Q: It's a game for XBLA and PSN - what are the benefits of those platforms?
Eric Chahi: Freedom, freedom and freedom. There's no distribution or retail to worry about - no manufacture or production costs, so it's less risky for a publisher to sign an original game. I think it's the perfect platform for this kind of game that's not really mainstream.
At retail games are more expensive, whereas on XBLA and PSN they're cheaper, so you can reach more people.
Q: Is marketing a game on those platforms a challenge, though? I guess the involvement of Ubisoft will help a lot there.
Eric Chahi: Yes - they're already very involved with it a lot. Our producer is already pushing, there's a good synergy.
Q: It can be a big challenge - you either need the backing of a big publisher, or you need to have a strong relationship with the platform holder...
Eric Chahi: Yes - and it's a challenge for Ubisoft too, because it's different. Communicating on an original project is always challenging.
Q: So if you had advice for aspiring game creators now, what would it be?
Eric Chahi: I think that my advice would be to create a game that demonstrates your abilities, or production capacity. If you want to make a game alone, you need to focus on the concept - it needn't involve sophisticated graphics. If there's more of you, maybe you could be a bit more ambitious - but no too much, because games always take more energy than you initially expect...
Also - have an open mind to inspiration from other fields, other interests, and not just games. If you try and make a game only by referring to other games, you limit your potential - you're in a closed loop.
Eric Chahi is creative director at Ubisoft. Interview by Phil Elliott.