When visiting an emerging development scene, the concept of national identity is never far from the mind. This year's BIG Festival in Sao Paulo showcased dozens of games from indie developers from nearly every country in Latin America, each of them with the potential to bring something of their unique regional perspective to the international games industry. If it's reasonable to suggest that there is something distinctly British about Lionhead's Fable series, or distinctly Russian about Ice Pick Lodge's Pathologic, would we also encounter something distinctly Brazilian in the halls of BIG.
Yoan Fanise, co-founder and CEO of Digixart Entertainment and a former content director at Ubisoft, had been pondering the same thing. "It's interesting," he says when we meet, just in front of a cluster of booths that represent the BIG Festival's French delegation. "Maybe the French touch is in the story, the narrative. More specifically, with my studio, we want to tell you something deep if we can - to add a layer of something meaningful inside."
"The good thing is that Apple and Google, they are willing to help those games. If you are willing to stand out from the big crowd, if you take that risk, they will help you"
There is a resonance to Fanise's theory, a line that can be traced from Eric Chahi's Another World, through the games of Quantic Dream, right up to Dontnod's Life Is Strange. Valiant Hearts, the bittersweet World War I adventure game that Fanise directed for Ubisoft, can be placed in the same lineage, as can Digixart's debut game, Lost In Harmony. When GamesIndustry.biz last spoke to Fanise, he described Lost in Harmony as an attempt to prove that unique and meaningful games could find an audience on mobile - a platform that was saturated with content, sure, but saturated with, "the same type of game we've seen many, many times."
That was several months before Lost In Harmony launched, and he now confirms that the goal was always to, "try and reach people who have never played a game... a casual audience, and not necessarily gamers. So we went mobile, because everybody is on mobile. I knew mobile was hard to handle, to understand, to monetise, so I wanted to start with the big difficulty and to learn. And we learned a lot of things."
Of course, not everyone will agree with Fanise's assessment that the variety of experiences in mobile gaming is disappointingly narrow relative to the size and breadth of the audience. Nevertheless, it's still fair to say that Lost In Harmony, a visually splendid rhythm game with a nakedly emotional story, stands apart from the abundance of alternatives. That much was recognised by Apple and Google, both of which featured Lost In Harmony numerous times in recognition of the many ways it departed from convention.
"The good thing is that Apple and Google, they are willing to help those games," Fanise says. "If you are willing to stand out from the big crowd, if you take that risk, they will help you. That would be my advice to other indies: don't be afraid of the big crowd - 2,000 games per week, something like that - don't think about this. Put it aside, or you will be too scared.
"What I'm sure of is that the way we communicate [to players] on these games is to not mention this layer; to just surprise people. Specifically on mobile, with the casual audience, they don't care about that. They don't say, 'okay, I want to play a game about cancer.' We just let them play. They have to find and like the game as it is, and then there's something deeper inside."
Where Lost In Harmony also broke with convention was in its pricing. It launched on iOS at $3.99, and opted for what Fanise describes as a "basic" spin on the freemium model for the Android version. "We knew if we went premium on Android it would get hacked and we would make zero," he says, and so the Google Play version is free to start with a payment required if the player wants to see the end of the story. Fanise maintains that there was no other way to make Lost in Harmony function as a free to play game without compromising the design or the story, though he admits that the game's pace could have been a better fit with the "shorter" attention span among mobile gamers.
"With premium, it has a value, but now we have seen that premium is almost dead. Honestly, premium is like death"
"It's shorter than on console," he says. "On mobile, you have to hook them up more quickly. If the story comes in after ten minutes it's too late. You can see the drop in people... I now have to learn more how to monetise [mobile games], otherwise we cannot continue. We have to find a way to monetise better."
The question for Fanise - and, indeed, for many other designers who hold similar ideals about the potential of the medium - is how to do creative, daring work under the only business model that the most populous marketplace in the history of gaming will tolerate. Fanise admits that it is "very weird" to weigh up the "crazy amount of work" it takes to create this kind of game, and to then implement features that will allow it to make money with no upfront cost. "When you release it for free you have a weird feeling," he says. "With premium, it has a value, but now we have seen that premium is almost dead. Honestly, premium is like death."
Fanise presses the point one more time, as if to highlight it as the lesson he has learned on Lost In Harmony. "For us, we have now answered this question: premium is dead. That's a fact, so let's deal with it. Let's find a way to reimburse the cost of the game."
In that respect, Fanise says, a great deal more innovation is required in the mobile space: not just in design or genre, but in the way games can be monetised after being downloaded for free, because limitations in that area will naturally lead to limitations in the kinds of content available. "I understand there are business guys, they want to make money, and so they are looking at Candy Crush and Clash of Clans," he says. "But we are quite the opposite. If we can find a way to pay for the game, that's it. I don't care if it's free to play or whatever. If we finished it and we can afford to make another one? Awesome."
"I don't care if it's free to play or whatever. If we finished it and we can afford to make another one? Awesome"
Lost In Harmony has now been Greenlit on Steam, and though Digixart is working on a significant expansion that will also be available for its mobile versions, it's clear that Fanise has lost some of his former conviction that games of this kind are viable on mobile. The next game from Digixart will be "something way bigger," similar in scope to Valiant Hearts, and targeted at platforms like console and Steam. For mobile, the studio will focus on smaller experiences that can be made more quickly. "Like a laboratory of ideas," he says, citing the freewheeling imagination of Peter Molyneux as a key point of inspiration.
What it won't lose is that desire to, "tell you something deep if we can." Fanise mentions religion, slavery and various difficult periods throughout history as the kind of subject matter Digixart wants to explore, regardless of the platform. Apple's notoriously difficult content guidelines don't faze him, either.
"We're going to go there," he says. "With Lost In Harmony we started in a light way, and now we see, 'okay, this works.' We have the support, so now let's ramp up."
GamesIndustry.biz is a media partner for the BIG Business Forum. Our travel and accommodation costs were provided by the organiser.