Dotemu is best known for its re-releases, revivals and remakes, like last year's hit Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap or the mobile versions of Jordan Mechner classics like Karateka and The Last Express. But this year it's trying something new, in every sense of the phrase.
Dotemu today announced The Arcade Crew, its new indie publishing label for original games, and its first project, Blazing Chrome from Curitiba, Brazil-based developer JoyMasher. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz recently, Dotemu CEO Cyrille Imbert said the move was something the company had considered for a while, but was made possible by a recent string of successes (specifically Wonder Boy, Ys Origin, and WindJammers).
"We feel we have enough experience," Imbert said, "and are strong enough to start helping other studios not only for remakes or sequels, but for new [games], but games with a retro touch, either in graphics, gameplay, references, or all together."
While the games Dotemu and The Arcade Crew release may ultimately seem similar, Imbert said they felt there was a need to create the separate label to distinguish between the two businesses. Everything Dotemu releases will continue to be licensed properties from existing IP (even when the game itself is new, like the company's recent sequel to the Buster Bros. arcade games, Pang Adventures). And everything The Arcade Crew releases will be original, even if the name might suggest adaptations of coin-op classics.
"We can afford to have a selective portfolio. We don't need to fill a publishing schedule. We have our own projects and have been doing that for a long time"
"The actual 'arcade' side of The Arcade Crew is not about the machine itself, but more about the spirit of the arcade," Imbert said. "We want to publish games that have this feeling of instant fun, something that reminds you of the old days, simple games. They're not simple in the concept or the way they're executed, but it's not something complicated or strange with totally new concepts. We want to publish games that could have been released in the past in arcades, but with the indie feeling."
There's no shortage of indie publishers out there, but Imbert said The Arcade Crew will compete with them on more than just a friendliness for retro projects.
"We're not only an indie publisher; we're a developer ourselves," Imbert said. "And that has a lot of impact on the way we see the Arcade Crew. We can afford to have a selective portfolio. We don't need to fill a publishing schedule. We have our own projects and have been doing that for a long time."
The plan is for Dotemu to focus on just a couple of games a year in order to provide the best support it can for the titles it does publish. From QA testing to art, animation, programming, and cross-platform porting support, Dotemu wants to be hands-on with The Arcade Crew projects.
"We really want to have an integrated involvement in the whole process of finishing a game," Imbert said. "A lot of publishers are only publishers; they don't really know what it is to really develop a game... We're going to try to just let the studios work on where they really have added value, which is creating their game and realizing their project. All the other things where they don't have added value, we can support that because we know exactly how it goes."
Even though The Arcade Crew is looking to scratch a retro itch, Imbert knows that market evolves like any other. Dotemu's own experience with Wonder Boy shows that; the game's clearest selling point is that it gave the original game a facelift, swapping out its pixel art exterior for hand-drawn visuals from French developer Lizardcube.
"Pixel art has been used a lot in the indie scene because it's easier to work on," Imbert explained. "It goes faster; it's better for iteration, for animation. For a lot of reasons it makes sense, especially when you have a low budget. Doing hand-drawn animation like was done on Wonder Boy is very difficult. It's a totally different deal."
In the past, hand-drawn art of that sort was impossible due to technical limitations, he noted, but now it's more a matter of budgetary constraints, knowledge, and practice. But as the market has seen no shortage of pixel art revivals in recent years, even some skilled practitioners in the style are hungry for something new, as Dotemu discovered recently when working on an unannounced sequel for an established retro IP.
"Sometimes it just makes sense that certain games are pixel art... Sometimes you can tell on some games that it was just pixel art by default because it's cool or feels kind of retro"
"The artist working on the sequel we're doing internally doesn't want to do pixel art anymore," Imbert said. "He's done a lot of pixel art in his life and now he's kind of bored with it, and felt he was capable of proposing something else."
That's not to say pixel art is passé. After all, it's the chosen aesthetic of The Arcade Crew's first announced title. The key for Imbert is that pixel art makes sense for a project like Blazing Chrome, which is very intentionally paying homage to the run-and-gun action of pixel art classics like Contra and Metal Slug.
"Sometimes it just makes sense that certain games are pixel art," Imbert said. "There's been a thought process behind it. What is the game going to look like? Why should we do pixel art, and how? Because there are a lot of different styles of pixel art, of course. But as long as it fits with the game genre, the game universe, the game itself, it makes sense. Sometimes you can tell on some games that it was just pixel art by default because it's cool or feels kind of retro... The way we're going to select games for The Arcade Crew, it doesn't matter how it looks. It matters how you justify that. It matters why it looks like that. What was the artistic process behind it?"
The Arcade Crew plans to push Blazing Chrome (and subsequent titles) at all major game shows around the world, starting with next week's GDC (at the MIX indie gaming showcase) and continuing on at PAX, E3, and Gamescom.