Three years ago, French developer Dontnod Entertainment was thrust into the limelight by an episodic adventure about teenage friendship, the art of photography and time travel.
Life Is Strange far surpassed the performance of its only previous title, sci-fi action game Remember Me, and transformed the studio's approach to development. After the acclaim it received as the series gained momentum, the company went relatively quiet as it focused on new projects.
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In 2018, Dontnod is back in full force. Life Is Strange 2 is due to begin in September and a free prequel episode was released last month in the form of The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. But perhaps the studio's biggest news in June was the release of the chart-topping Vampyr - a much more traditional project compared to Life Is Strange, but still bearing that Dontnod narrative flavour.
In what is set to be a pivotal year for the Paris-based company, we spoke to CEO Oskar Guilbert at E3 2018 to find out how the team has been spurred on by Vampyr's accomplishments.
"We were always confident in the success of this game from the beginning, but being No.1 in the UK was really incredible," he tells GamesIndustry.biz. "We are really, really happy - it's the first time Focus [Home Interactive, publisher] reached this position, so I'm more than happy about that. We're also doing really well in other countries."
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Vampyr, as the name suggests, centres around the popular fictional bloodsuckers but Dontnod's focus on story gives it an added gravitas. Players take on the role of a doctor-turned-vampire who must balance his desire to save people and cause them no harm versus his newfound need to sustain himself by taking life.
While the project took Dontnod away from the short, episodic format it honed with Life Is Strange and back to a longer, more traditional form of game, Guilbert is pleased that his team were still able to keep the adventure relatively compact.
"We wanted to do a project for between €10 and €15 million because we believe that's where we can do the best work - Life Is Strange is a good example"
"It's exactly the size of project that we want to do," he says. "We announced it when we did our IPO, we wanted to do a project for between €10 million and €15 million because we believe that's where we can do the best work - Life Is Strange is a good example. That was a huge success, a phenomenon. So this is the size of projects we are really happy with, and we've really adapted to that size to produce the kind of games we're doing."
The IPO took place back in May, and saw the studio become a publicly listed company via French stock market regulator Autorité des marchés financiers. It was, in Guilbert's words, "extremely successful" and generated €20.1 million - and the developer has big plans for these funds.
"The results were over our expectations," he says. "We couldn't dream about more. We'll be able to improve and optimise our production pipelines. For example, we're thinking about creating an internal motion capture studio.
"Secondly, we'll be able to co-fund projects and co-produce more games. This is something we've already started with Focus and Vampyr, and want to develop further. Last but not least, we used 25 per cent of the money raised to look for another studio we can have a partnership with and create another production pipeline. That's means more games from Dontnod, more presence in the market and it's really good for the profitability of the company."
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While it searches for a new studio, the creative force of Dontnod is currently split across four teams. One focused on Vampyr, while another is dedicated to Life Is Strange. A third is developing Twin Mirror, the new IP being published by Bandai Namco, while the fourth is working on an unannounced project.
"We are creating universes for each game: Life is Strange, Vampyr, Twin Mirror. It's natural to think about movies, TV series, comic books for each of the IPs we create"
Even with the amount of money raised, Guilbert has no intention of expanding too quickly, nor does he foresee the studio shifting towards 100-hour experiences. Instead, it will continue to focus on relatively short adventures of the type with which Dontnod has made its name.
"What's important is the quality, not the quantity," he explains. "That's what we really think, that we should give a high-quality experience to the player. Even Vampyr is between 15 and 30 hours of gameplay, it's not a particularly big world - what we call a semi-open world - but for us it's really important to focus on the narrative and the emotions we provoke.
"Another good example is The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit - it's a really heartwarming, touching experiment. To us, these kind of things are more important: the way we convey emotions, the way we tell the story, and we think that we can do it extremely well in different genres."
'Heartwarming' is certainly a fitting term for the Life Is Strange 2 prequel. The game focuses on a young boy with an active imagination and a father, who it is hinted may be an alcoholic. Both are coming to terms with the death of the boy's mother in their own way, and discovering how this bleeds into his superhero fantasy is a highlight of the game. Guilbert tells us when he first played it, "I was really moved."
It's a prime example of why the studio has become so popular among consumers. Life Is Strange perfectly demonstrated the team's skill with telling a more emotional, less action-heavy storyline - and that there was demand for such an experience.
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"It was always important to have strong narrative but also innovation. If you don't innovate in terms of gameplay or in terms of tech, people could become tired of playing the same games"
"It's a recipe we've been working on for a really long time, since we created the studio," Guilbert says. "It was always important to have strong narrative but also innovation. If you don't innovate in terms of gameplay or in terms of tech, people could become tired of playing the same games. So for us it's always important with each game to renew the experience.
"In Remember Me, for example, we had the memory remix mechanic that would have a butterfly effect on the scene. That's something we developed on a different scale in Life Is Strange - you don't do it with memories, but you do it with the real world when you go back and forth in time. That's a new experience for the player. In Vampyr, there were new gameplay features with the semi-open world and NPCs that allow you to really modify the environment if you choose to kill them and see the consequences.
"What is really key from one game to the other is to have a very good story - and that's hard to do - but it's also important to have gameplay innovation as well."
It's a challenge, of course, to ensure the gameplay fits the narrative. Both Life Is Strange and Captain Spirit suit the calm, Telltale-like structure of an adventure game, where players explore at their own pace.
Remember Me, however, was clearly designed to be an action game that could compete with more established franchises and, for some, was left wanting. While the memory remixes, for example, were pivotal moments, reaching them often involved repetitive combat - mostly against mutant zombie things for the first few hours, which felt at odds with the high-tech sci-fi setting.
"The relationships with all our publishers is really good but if something [goes wrong], we always have other projects and partners to continue to work with"
"This is something we've really improved in Vampyr," Guilbert assures. "It's an evolution, we really try to learn from one game to another - and I agree, there were weaknesses in Remember Me."
To ensure Dontnod titles marry gameplay with narrative in the optimum way, every team has the same combination of skills from conception. Each project begins with one designer, one writer and one art director, supported by a producer or engineer. In this way, everyone is on the same page about what they want to accomplish and how they'll achieve this.
"The three creative guys have to work together to ensure that the story is linked to the gameplay," Guilbert explains. "This was very much the case with Vampyr with the NPCs, the narrative and the evolution of that London area. It's really important from a creative point of view that different people focused on different parts of the game work together from the beginning."
While most of the attention surrounding Dontnod is focused on Life Is Strange 2, there is curiosity about it's next original property: Twin Mirror. Interestingly, the studio does not own the IP for this game, with the rights instead sitting with publisher Bandai Namco. Did Guilbert not wish to hold onto this franchise?
"No, it's the way we have different types of contracts," he explains. "For example, with Vampyr we worked on a co-production model. With Life Is Strange, it's more of a classic type of contract where the publisher finances all the production and then distributes royalties to the developer. It depends.
"For us, what's important is to have a good deal in terms of royalties or revenues. Of course, I can't give you the numbers because it's all confidential. Also - and I can't tell which contract this is - but there's the right of first refusal which could be part of this contract. [So we look at] the deeper terms, not just whether we own the IP."
It's certainly a property that Bandai Namco is excited about, with digital and marketing VP Hervé Hoerdt telling us at E3 2018 that the publisher hopes to build a movie around it - which Guilbert tells us Dontnod would want to be involved in - as well as explore the possibilities for the brand in other industries.
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But then this is very much in keeping with how Dontnod views its creations. While the company remains first and foremost a games developer, it's open to exploring its fiction in other forms - typified by the recently announced Life Is Strange series from Titan Comics.
"We are creating universes for each game: Life is Strange, Vampyr, Twin Mirror," the CEO says. "Obviously for us, it's natural to think about movies, TV series, comic books for each of the IPs we create."
Life Is Strange 2 will mark the first time Dontnod has worked with a publisher for a second time. Remember Me was a Capcom project, Vampyr was with Focus Home Interactive, and Twin Mirrror with Bandai Namco. For Guilbert, this is deliberate and an important part of securing the future of his studio.
"We don't want to put all of our eggs in the same basket," he says. "We have extremely good relations with all publishers, we're very transparent with them. Of course, we keep confidentiality between the projects but Square Enix knows we're working with Bandai Namco, and Focus knows about the other projects as well.
"For me, it's a good thing because we can improve our pipelines, move forward and be more efficient. Having multiple partners is good for the continuity of the studio - today, the relationships with all our publishers are really good but if something [goes wrong], we always have other projects and partners to continue to work with."