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Living the Dream

Quantic Dream CEO Guillaume de Fondaumière on Heavy Rain and the French development landscape

At this year's Sony press conference in Leipzig one of the key presentations to take place was for Heavy Rain, a visually intricate horror title from French developer Quantic Dream, which makes extensive use of detailed motion capture.

To find out more about how the game is coming along, and to get a picture of the development landscape in France, spoke to Quantic Dream CEO Guillaume de Fondaumière in the build up to this year's Game Connection event, where the company will be exhibiting. We're coming up to Game Connection - what do you hope to get from the event?
Guillaume de Fondaumière

Well, I guess two things. The first thing is that it's always interesting to meet the industry, basically, and also the publishers - we shouldn't forget that Quantic Dream is a videogames developer first and foremost, so I'll be able to meet with all the people involved with acquisition of product. So it's going to be interesting to feel the pulse of the industry during the event - even if we don't really have something to sell at this stage.

On the other hand it's also going to give us the possibility to meet again, or for the first time, fellow game developers who would want to take advantage of our motion capture system - to be able to present to them our services, and look at their projects and see if we can work together. It's been an interesting few months for Quantic Dream, following the demonstration of Heavy Rain at the Sony press conference in Leipzig?
Guillaume de Fondaumière

Yes, we're very happy and excited. We're in the last half of the development of Heavy Rain, and it was important for us to be able to finally show some first scenes of the game to the journalists - and indirectly also to the audience.

We've been very happy with the response - you never know what to expect when you develop projects that are quite innovative and, I would say, out of the normal route for games. You never know, and I must say from what I read it seems that it's been unanimously regarded as something that's interesting - and people want to see more and play the game. So we're very happy about that. How important do you think it is for videogames to do something unique, something different?
Guillaume de Fondaumière

Well, I think that almost for the past fifteen years gamers have been pretty much - and this is a caricature of course - playing the same game, killing the same zombies down the same dark corridors. I think that gamers maybe feel a little bit bored these days and - we think, at least - are looking for something a little bit different, more emotional, something that has more depth and meaning.

The initial response we got, a least from some journalists who are to a certain degree core gamers, was that this is something that interests them. So we're excited to work on such an innovative title.

I think that when you look at the market in the past two years, for example some products that Nintendo has released recently, you see that there's a new audience hungry for videogames. Again, you need to create new experiences to be able to attract these new audiences.

Yesterday, 40 or 50 year-old couples might have bought Wii Fit to exercise a little bit - tomorrow maybe they want to play a thriller like Heavy Rain on their PlayStation 3?

I think it's important for the industry to reinvent itself today, also because we're facing huge competition from TV in particular - TV series' have become a hugely popular form of entertainment, so we have to raise the bar of our productions and create the next generation of entertainment. You mentioned the "E" word there - emotion. A lot of people are looking to try and involve gamers more in games, but very few arouse a genuine emotional response in gamers. How far is the industry from really being able to do that on the same level as film and TV?
Guillaume de Fondaumière

I think there are many ways to provoke emotions from an audience. Films are a good example, and certain games do this relatively well. Our approach is that to hook an audience you need to have a good story. I think this interactive narrative... we're only at the beginning of tapping into the whole potential of what this new form of storytelling can bring in terms of emotion and audience involvement into videogames.

The other thing is that audiences must truly immerse themselves, not only in the story but also in the characters. This is why we've put a great amount of focus in the creation of what we call virtual actors - basically 3D characters that are capable of expressing emotions, and thereby evoking emotions on the part of the audience.

I think today we have the technology to be able to do that - there's still a lot of work on the interactive narration, and hopefully Heavy Rain will demonstrate this, that we are at the stage where we do have a story which you can play, rather than just watch through cutscenes.

For the virtual actors we do have the technology to create hyper-realistic characters and to have them perform like real actors. We're really entering into new territory here, and we'll see what the response will be from audiences, but we're quite confident that this title will be the first milestone in this direction. There are big companies, like Ubisoft and Ninja Theory, which are looking at taking their games to other media. Does that prove that there's less distance between games and other entertainment forms?
Guillaume de Fondaumière

Oh yes, there is less distance. We're all working with similar technologies. I think that what's going to make the difference between the different titles is the way the story is treated - interactive story elements - and this is something that David Cage [founder of Quantic Dream] and his team have been working on for many years now. This is really going to make the difference.

If you only take a franchise and the characters, and even if you animate them in a realistic way, this is not enough. If you're still driving your story through cutscenes, you're not tapping the full potential of creating the emotional response from audiences as you could if you were really giving players the possibility to play the story - in particular give them the possibility to change the story through their actions.

I think this is really a totally different thing, and this is a unique thing that games can offer - to really give the audience the opportunity to have an impact on the story.

Today, David uses this analogy with porn movies quite often - he says that most games are basically like porn movies. There's action, and that's what most people come for, and then there's a story (basically a cutscene), and then there's action. This is the way a porn movie is structured, and this is the way most games are structured too nowadays.

What's we're trying to do is mix this together and make a new form of entertainment, which so far we're calling interactive cinema, or interactive drama... we didn't find a better word so far to suit it.

Again, we don't think it's the only solution to create the "E" word, as you say, but it's certainly one path into creating emotion for our audience. You've invested a lot in motion capture - how have you found the cost of the Heavy Rain project? Is motion capture cheaper in the long run than animation, for example?
Guillaume de Fondaumière

The thing is that you need to compare like for like. If you compare the cost of a game with twelve hours of key frame animation to a production of a similar game with a similar amount of animation but where motion capture has been extensively used to create those animations - there's simply no comparison, motion capture is by far the fastest and cheapest way to create those animations.

Of course, using motion capture you have to acquire or rent a system, and you have to have actors - pretty good actors really, because the technology is pretty good today, so you want to capture excellent performance.

But even if you sum all this up, all the technology, I think it's still much more relevant to create these animations using a motion capture system rather than in a classical way.

That's basically it - I don't think the cost of Heavy Rain is far apart from any other triple A title that's out there on the market. What's the development picture like in France at the moment?
Guillaume de Fondaumière

I think it's no secret that France was a booming videogames country in the late eighties and throughout the nineties, and then we faced some major difficulties I would say between 2000 and 2005.

I guess there were two reasons for that downturn - first of all we've been hit by the distortion of competition - primarily from Canada, from Montreal, which as you know is a French-speaking province. The fact that they created a tax credit worth almost 50 per cent, this has had a big impact in France, and a lot of our creators, developers and programmers went to Canada, so I think we lost more than half of the community to Montreal in those days.

The second thing is that we didn't develop the right titles - as simple as that. I think that our studios weren't matching the demand of the market, and it's taken us some time to get our things back together - and for certain studios to reach maturity.

Today I think that the landscape is very different from five or six years ago. First of all we've finally obtained a production tax credit of 20 per cent - it's still relatively low, lower than in Canada, but it helps to correct this distortion of competition that we've suffered from, and it helps studios recapitalise, helps us in financing our activities from this year on.

It's certainly going to have a very positive impact. My calculation is that approximately EUR 12-15 million is going to flow into the studios in the coming months thanks to this tax credit. It's not an awful lot of money, but it's still a welcome push, especially nowadays.

The second thing, as I said, is that some studios have matured and been able to create different titles, a number of which should be successful and significant, and come out into the market in the coming twelve months or so. There's this condition to the tax break of a game needing to be 'cultural' - do you think that's a useful term to use? How many games do you think fit under that label?
Guillaume de Fondaumière

I think all games are cultural. Unfortunately we weren't able, during our discussions with the European Commission to make them understand that all games are culture.

With 18 months of tough negotiations, we've been able to come to an agreement that a definition that unfortunately excludes 30-40 per cent of games that are produced.

But I prefer to see the glass half full, rather than half empty, and I think it's a step in the right direction. I think that this measure is going to prove beneficial to the French videogames sector, and I think that we have to continue, at the European level, to educate people as to what games are, why it's important to have a lively European videogames sector, and hopefully in the future we will be able to obtain from the European Union a far wider recognition of videogames as a form of cultural expression.

My aim is that all games be recognised as a form of cultural expression in the way that all movies are recognised as a form of cultural recognition. Isn't it going to be tough to persuade those people who didn't grow up with videogames, because it's not a part of their own culture?
Guillaume de Fondaumière

Of course, I think that the generation gap is an important factor, although when we started our discussions the culturally recognised games were the exception. Here I think today, if you take the definition that has been accepted by the European Commission, a good majority of games fall into this category.

In only 18 months - and I must say almost alone - we've been able to, if not change their minds, then at least alter their judgement. So I think that if all countries adopt a similar approach and go one-by-one to the EU, explain what the sector is, what their games are, why this is culture to them and culture in general, then I think it will help to change their minds. On a final note, how is the development for Heavy Rain coming along?
Guillaume de Fondaumière

Development is going as planned. We're currently recording all the dialogue for the game in our audio studio. No major worries, everything is going like planned. Any release date available as yet?
Guillaume de Fondaumière

I can't tell you more about that, but the game has been announced for 2009 - later, rather than earlier, but it's an end of summer, beginning of Autumn/Winter title.

Guillaume de Fondaumière is CEO of Quantic Dream. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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