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Valiant Hearts dev wants "games with something to say"

Yoan Fanise's new indie studio Digixart Entertainment aims to make "artisanal" games that talk about serious subjects in a subtle way

"I think the human aspect is really important. I don't see ourselves like an industry. We always talk about 'industry' because video games is an industry, but this word doesn't sound like the way we make games. I don't know how to make them in an industrial way. It's more like an artisanal way, made with your hands."

That's Yoan Fanise, talking to GamesIndustry.biz earlier this week about the announcement of his new independent studio, Digixart Entertainment. It might be a surprising sentiment from Fanise, who spent most of the last 15 years watching the bar of AAA development constantly raised at Ubisoft, starting with Beyond Good & Evil and up through Assassin's Creed III.

"We can talk about religion, about pollution, about death. We can talk about serious subjects in our games in a subtle way, without any judgment but with some emotion inside."

However, his last project with the publisher was different. Fanise capped off his tenure at Ubisoft as content director for Valiant Hearts: The Great War, a World War I adventure game developed with a smaller team and distributed digitally. Fanise described it as a specific, personal, and artistic project. It was also a recipient of numerous year-end awards, including a BAFTA for Best Original IP.

"It's like you're going back to your roots as a developer," Fanise said of making Valient Hearts. "On huge AAA games, there are so many layers and coordination, but it's necessary for that kind of game. And sometimes you lose your soul, in a way. But going back to a smaller game like this is like coming to the core of what your job is, so it's very exciting."

Along with Child of Light, Valiant Hearts was held up as an example of a new approach for Ubisoft, a way to scratch the creative itch of top talent and keep them from burning out from working on nothing but annualized AAA franchises. These games could be more reflective of their individual interests and tastes, riskier projects with smaller teams and budgets. In theory, giving top talent such projects could be seen as an employee retention tactic. In Fanise's case, it gave him a taste of what indie development must be like, and made him yearn for the real thing. But even if Valiant Hearts ultimately inspired Fanise to leave the publisher, he hopes Ubisoft sticks with the plan.

"I really hope they continue to do small-scale games, and I think they will. They have to do that if they want to refresh people and keep creativity inside the teams. It's very important," Fanise said, adding, "[AAA publishers] should all try to make more small-scale games like this because it's so refreshing when you're a developer and worked on large-scale AAA before."

Fanise had been kicking around the idea of going indie for a few years, but he waited to make the leap in part because he wanted to have a properly fleshed out idea for a first project. That game is too early to be announced, Fanise said, but his aspirations for the studio suggest something that would not be entirely out of place in the same conversation with Valiant Hearts.

"We want to talk about subjects that are meaningful for us, for humans in general," Fanise said. "We can talk about religion, about pollution, about death. We can talk about serious subjects in our games in a subtle way, without any judgment but with some emotion inside."

"I think we're seeing there's a new generation of video games that have something to say, and people are really enjoying them. I think we're at the beginning of something."

Digixart's games will feature simple stories with simple characters that make players empathize with people in other situations, according to Fanise.

"Being indie is about trying new things, trying to break the rules of video games, and trying to make video games grow, in a way," Fanise said. "With games like Never Alone, Valiant Hearts, and some others, I think we're seeing there's a new generation of video games that have something to say, and people are really enjoying them. I think we're at the beginning of something."

It's an interesting moment in the history of the industry to be setting up a new studio. Between a multitude of platforms, plenty of self-publishing options, distributed development, digital distribution and a handful of engine-makers competing tooth-and-nail to offer power and affordability, the barriers to entry are appealingly low. At the same time, the number of competing developers is skyrocketing. Fanise acknowledged the trends, but downplayed them when asked if they added up to make this a particularly good or bad time for him to be starting a studio.

"I didn't think about that because if you stopped to think about the number of games that are released every year, it could maybe discourage you or make you worried about it," Fanise said. "I just want to make the best game I can imagine. I'm pretty optimistic about that. I have faith it will work because of what happened last year with Valiant Hearts. It was not supposed to be a big success, it was a very small game. I was very surprised that we won all those awards and that the game has now been played by more than 2 million people."

Just as there are plenty of people who want to play that sort of game, Fanise said there are lots of developers who want to make it as well. In fact, Fanise is still coming to grips with the challenge of how fast he wants to grow the company. Right now the Digixart team has 10 members, but it will need more. At the same time, Fanise is wary of growing larger than 20 people because he feels teams beyond that size require additional layers of coordination and management, and that costs the studio in terms of agility.

"The more mass you have, the more energy you need to turn or move it. If you go back to something light, you're able to move quickly, make a lot of iterations, etc."

"It's like mass in physics," Fanise said. "The more mass you have, the more energy you need to turn or move it. If you go back to something light, you're able to move quickly, make a lot of iterations, etc."

When it comes time to grow, Digixart's Montpellier location should have at least one compelling enticement for prospective employees. The local weather and development scene convinced Fanise to set up shop there over Singapore and Montreal, even though setting up a new business in France requires a "crazy" amount of administrative hassles and those other places offer more government assistance. That said, he thinks Digixart can get by without the help.

"I'm not so scared about funding. If we do great stuff, it will be there," Fanise said. "And I think there are a lot of people around the world that would like for one time in their life to maybe work in the south of France, so I think we can attract some very nice talent."

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