2014 didn't start off on a great note for Dontnod. The Parisian developer entered judicial reorganization to streamline its operations, and had to publically dispute reports of a bankruptcy. However, the company has emerged from that rough patch with a new direction, this week announcing a publishing deal with Square Enix to launch its first foray into episodic gaming, the console and PC title Life is Strange. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, Dontnod CEO Oskar Guilbert said the company may have downsized its headcount, but not its ambition.
"In terms of content and gameplay innovation, I would say we can use the term AAA, but for digital," Guilbert said. "It's different. It doesn't mean we didn't scale the company, but we optimized and we adapted a bit for this kind of game... It's a shorter production period. The development period is really reduced, and the team for this project is smaller. We adapted the company to this new model to be able to be competitive and optimize for this new game."
"We adapted the company to this new model to be able to be competitive and optimize for this new game."
Episodic gaming is by no means new to the industry, but it's had a pretty spotty track record. Valve's flirtation with episodic content ended after two Half-Life 2 episodes released further apart than Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed sequels. The gap between the only two installments in Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was even longer. Looking back a bit further, SiN Episodes hadn't even earned the pluralization in its title before the plug was pulled. It wasn't until 2012 when longtime episodic advocate Telltale Games released The Walking Dead Season One that the format really had a blockbuster hit to call its own. Guilbert is mindful that Telltale's biggest success didn't happen overnight (it had more than a dozen episodic efforts prior to The Walking Dead), but he's taken a few lessons from their experience.
"Our game is different, so it's difficult to compare it, really, except the choices you have to make in our game are also very powerful," Guilbert said. "There is no good or bad solution in Telltale Games, but all the choices have strong meaning. So that's what we learned from their games, content-wise. On the business side, we're working a lot on it with Square Enix. And we see the episodic model as an advantage because in this new digital market, the lifespan of a product is much longer when you can release episodes every month or every two months."
Guilbert said episodic gaming is a regenerative model, where each release in a series boosts the sales of prior episodes as people become aware of the game again, or want to catch up with the story. Even so, Dontnod is trying to make each episode of Life is Strange an appropriate point of entry for people new to the series.
One hurdle to clear with Life is Strange is that both Dontnod and Square Enix are relatively inexperienced when it comes to episodic gaming. For Dontnod, Guilbert said the biggest challenge is simply adjusting from the way it used to do things.
"To produce content, package it, and put it on the market with a rhythm is very different from what we had before," Guilbert said. "To release a game in three years is different than releasing a game every [set number of weeks or months]. On the other hand, it's also very rewarding for the team to see their work on the market quickly."
There's also the problem of how the ever-present prospect of delays in game development could impact a title that needs to hit a series of release dates in perfect cadence.
"You have to be organized to be 100% sure that when you release the first one, that you will also be able to release the last one on the designated date," Guilbert said. "So that's a challenge. But we are confident we will do it."
Despite the restructuring and Dontnod's embracing of episodic delivery, the studio isn't ruling out a return to retail boxed products like its debut game, Remember Me. (Guilbert said the studio has at least one other project in the works, though he wouldn't give any further details about it.)
"It will depend a lot on publishers," Guilbert said. "We are still open to all kinds of opportunities, so we're not done with retail games. But we go with the evolution of the market, and today the evolution of the market is definitely more and more digital."