When Arkane Studios founder Raphael Colantonio departed the company in 2017, his only publicly-stated goals were to "spend some time with my son and reflect on what is important to me and my future."
Two years later, he's returning to the industry in full force confident that making games is still one of those important things. Today, he and fellow Arkane veteran Julien Roby have announced WolfEye Studios, a small, distributed company that's currently working on a new title that it will announce at The Game Awards in December.
For both Colantonio and Roby, the idea for WolfEye Studios came to them during separate periods of soul searching after their respective departures from development around the same time. While Colantonio tells me he found his inspiration in relaxation and boredom after leaving Arkane, for Roby it took leaving a studio he was passionate about (Arkane) for new experiences at places like 2K to make him pine for the kinds of games he really wanted to make.
"We like games that respond to player actions, where the world reacts to what you are doing, and the experience is owned by the player"
"A lot of people asked me, 'Why would you leave [Arkane]? It's heaven!'" Colantonio says. "And it kind of was. In my case, I needed a break. It had been 18 years in the same room, and I needed to define myself. There was a bit of an identity thing going on. Who am I without Arkane? That was a very important step to my growth."
Roby adds, "With WolfEye, we really wanted to get back to the core ideas we both like in games, both as players and as designers. We like games that respond to player actions, where the world reacts to what you are doing, and the experience is owned by the player. It was what we wanted to get back to rather than being constantly distracted by the complexity of doing games which are technically more involved, and little by little your focus in development moves away from the actual experience toward technicalities which in the end don't change the experience much."
Concern with the industry's relentless pursuit of graphical and technical improvements is high on the list of things motivating Colantonio and Roby to strike out on their own. While they are quick to assure me that they aren't phoning it in and making a bad-looking game, they also emphasize that they think bigger, better graphics have become over time the go-to answer for large companies that want to make the next big game. Not so with WolfEye.
"I notice both as a developer and a gamer, I think it's been two or three generations of games now, I've been playing the same game," Colantonio says. "The only difference is that it's more beautiful, higher resolution, more shaders, but really the game is the same.
"I notice both as a developer and a gamer, I think it's been two or three generations of games now, I've been playing the same game"
"I remember this funny moment where we were doing Dishonored, and I asked my lead programmer how many characters I could have in combat. And he answered something between five and six. I thought well, okay. It makes sense. The AI is what it is, and we had characters with 10,000 polys or whatever they were. Fast forward four or five years, we're doing Prey. It's a new engine, new technology, new hardware. I'm back with my lead programmer, same question. How many characters can we have? Maybe five or six. The only difference between one generation to the next was that the budget had doubled, and because the budget was doubled, it goes into more people, instead of taking three months to make a character it takes six months now, there's more optimization that is required, more of everything, every detail, making sure the eyes are perfect and the sun shines the right way.
"But the more you go into that kind of development, the less flexibility you have to make changes. And in a world where making games is all about innovation, R&D, and trying things, that heaviness of graphics and production prevents flexibility, coming back on ideas, trying something else. Because everything is so expensive, the team is unhappy because you're changing direction.
"That's not to say we don't like visuals. We're huge fans of great art direction, compelling worlds, interesting stories, but there's a distinction to be made between art direction and graphics. We all remember games with very powerful art direction. We don't remember any game with powerful graphics, unless it had both."
I point out that Colantonio and Roby's game is being announced right on the cusp of a new console generation, when things like graphical improvements and high-powered hardware will be on the forefront of audiences' minds. Though they won't say anything yet about whether or not this new title will be available on any console or console generation in particular, they reassure me they still have a vested interest in what technology is doing.
Improved CPU, for instance, can allow for developers to implement gameplay systems that weren't possible before. Colantonio mentions physics engines specifically, noting that developers can often be afraid to play with physics if it's not likely to work properly. And better consoles frequently mean not just more development tools or options, but also more accessible ones for budding creators.
"We all remember games with very powerful art direction. We don't remember any game with powerful graphics, unless it had both"
Roby adds, "There's a limit to which you can increase the budget for games every generation, because if the market doesn't grow as fast as the budget grows, you get into the problem of a game costing $200 million to make and the market can't support it. Beyond that, we focus more on what matters to us and what we want to do for a game, which is trying new ideas, trying new concepts, rather than spending hours trying to fix a shader.
"I don't want us to appear as being against technology, because I think technology is also interesting in ways that allow developers to do things faster than we would have done years ago, like the engines on the market to develop games nowadays are very powerful and empower content creators to do stuff they wouldn't have been able to do without a very expensive program."
One important element of WolfEye's strategy is its small, flexible, remote team. The studio is currently all distributed, and Colantonio and Roby want it to stay that way for the foreseeable future.
"When we work with people, we work with them because we respect them and we really like their contributions to the project, their skills, their background, and so on," Roby says. "When you trust someone, you just think they're adult enough to manage their hours and so on, so you don't need to have them in your space and manage them. It's about empowering people and telling them, 'We know you can do this job and we don't need to be on your back all the time.' And people are better at work when they're happy in their life. So if you provide a context in which they can be happy, they'll produce more work even if they actually work less hours."
That hope also extends to keeping the studio small. At the moment WolfEye consists of under 20 employees, which the pair say gives them the flexibility to take leaps that aren't possible with bigger teams -- despite conventional wisdom dictating a need for larger teams to make larger games.
"Our goal is not to grow the company too big, because we like the fact that when we talk about something on Monday, on Wednesday you already have the thing in the game because it's easy to broadcast information to the team," Roby says. "Everybody feels involved in the project. When you have a team of 200 people, it often ends up with people being at the very end of the information chain and they don't understand why they are doing what they're doing and they don't feel they have any impact on the project.
"A small [studio] doesn't mean making small games. We can make big games that focus on the right areas"
Colantonio adds, "With ten people, you can do the equivalent of what would have taken 50 people. That's where I think numbers of people aren't super relevant as far as, 'How big is your game?' At the end of the day, I don't think it's sustainable the way things have been going with teams of 800 people. It's great training for young developers who join those teams, but it's not beneficial in the long run and I don't know the commercial viability of that, and it probably pushes the industry toward making games that are very low-risk. They're super impressive, big Hollywood blockbusters, but without much substance. That's my fear of going big.
"...A small [studio] doesn't mean making small games. We can make big games that focus on the right areas."
For now, Colantonio and Roby are understandably tight-lipped on any information surrounding the studio's first game. What they will say is that while no one should expect a new Dishonored game from them, fans of Arkane games will probably like what they make in the same way a Quentin Tarantino fan will probably like whatever his next movie is regardless of particulars.
"I want the new generations to have a chance to experience some of the ways I was touched as a kid by games," Colantonio says. "Every generation is touched by a different game. Sometimes I meet someone who will speak of Arx Fatalis the same way I speak about Ultima. That's how the world is evolving; every two or three generations you recycle art. That's why the 80s are back now. The men and women in power now were kids in the 80s, so now they make movies that are reminiscent of the 80s.
"That's what I'd like to do as a creative. I like to touch someone with my game, which is a very honest game. It's not trying to make the most money and run with the cash. It's trying to make a truthful game to my passion."