In spite of that, you didn’t waste time in starting your own company, Vector Cell, the following year. What was your original creative vision for this project?
I made an adventure game back at Delphine that never came out, because of the company’s bankruptcy. It was quite a nice project and, when I started Vector Cell, I had the idea of using it. I approached different companies and one of them, called Lexis Numérique, was interested. We combined our energy to create the game. Finally, the game was released under the name Amy (2012).
Unfortunately for you, it did not work very well…
I have not played it myself, but from what I’ve read, people mostly complained about its frustrating difficulty. What’s your take on this?
I really don’t know, it is difficult. Sometimes it is really difficult to explain why things work or not. I think it was a really good, small game and it was available for just 10 euros…
It was also a survival horror adventure…
Yes, and there are some really good ideas in it. I think the problem with it was that it was overly hyped, because at that time, there were no survival horrors coming out. It seemed like that genre had temporarily disappeared, so people had a lot of expectations for this.
I guess players were just hungry for a new Resident Evil game [laughs]…
Yeah, I even saw that in some reviews; people comparing it to Resident Evil. That was silly, because we did not have that budget. The game was bigger than the usual indie game, but it was not as big as a triple-A game. It really did not fit into any of those categories. We knew it had its flaws, that it was not perfect. But in the end, it is just a relatively small game you can play for the price of a hamburger. But yeah, it was a great disappointment for us that it did not succeed.
Also the criticism itself… Sometimes you just create something that does not succeed, but I got a lot of hate from certain people. It was difficult to explain that we had put all of our money into it, as well as two years of development, and it just failed. We won’t make any excuses for that [laughs].
In hindsight, how would you critically summarize the game’s main pros and cons?
I think people found it very difficult and frustrating, because of the save system. It uses checkpoints, but they are quite far from each other. So when you die, you have retry hard. I think that people of this generation are not the same as those who played Flashback; the difficulty of the game was quite important for them. But it also had some really good ideas, and there are still people who like the game despite its flaws. It has an interesting story, for example, in which you have to protect a little girl. We really worked hard to create the relationship between the player and this character.
The issue of difficulty is quite an interesting one, especially nowadays. Because quite a lot of modern hardcore and difficult games such as Dark Souls, or a lot of indie titles based on the old-school Rogue-like concept, are revered exactly for their hard, and often almost masochistic, gameplay.
Yeah, times are changing. Perhaps if we had released the game now, it would be much more acceptable.
2012 was exactly the time when the indie scene was experiencing a huge comeback. Thanks to crowdfunding, ’90s-style gameplay was back in fashion. So it seems you just barely missed the train [laughs].
Maybe you are right and it really came out too soon! [laughs]
Talking of the ’90s, the French games of the decade were considered by many critics and players as the epitome of distinctive creativity. The French signature was quite easily distinguishable, usually driven by very specific and vibrant art direction. Games developed by Delphine, Infogrames, Cryo, Kalisto, Adeline, Titus, Silmarils or early Ubisoft usually held a steady place in the top-ten charts. Most of them, however, did not survive the dot.com bubble of the early 2000s.
Nowadays, you can count the number of really successful French studios on one hand. Off the top of my head, Arkane and Quantic Dream, and perhaps Dontnod or Eugene as more specific indie scene titles. What do you think happened to the former glory of the French scene?
It is a difficult question… but probably because here in France we have this giant called Ubisoft. They kind of eat everything and every independent developer I know wants to work for them. They even open their own schools [laughs].
What is interesting to note is that there is another large publisher operating in France: Focus Home Interactive. Most notably, it provides a platform for studios like Cyanide, Spiders, Frogwares or the Belgian RPG gods from Larian. Apart from the latter, most of their games can be described qualitatively as above average at best. What do you think is stopping those studios from achieving their ambitions? Is it the money? Or perhaps there are not many quality developers left after Ubisoft’s sweep?
It is mostly a question of budget. Most of the money is obviously put into big titles like Assassin’s Creed and the other franchises of Ubisoft. Other publishers in France just want to make money, but don’t want to take the risk. So they prefer to work on existing licenses – even if those licenses are only known in France. We had a lot of talented people, but most of them left France for Canada, where they can express themselves much more. A lot of young programmers and artists just want to start their careers at Ubisoft, because having a regular income provides them with great financial security.
What insight do you have into the actual French independent scene?
It used to grow, but that is increasingly difficult. I see a lot of small French indie developers starving, because it is hard for them to show their production. Even when you turn to the mobile market, there is a lot of competition. So they need to invest in an army of marketers to push their games through. Indeed, there are few successful developers, but in general it is quite a tough period for us right now.
As I mentioned before, a number of indie studios would turn to crowdfunding, which also helps to market the game. Is this option popular in France among indie developers?
Some do, but not too many. Nowadays it’s quite problematic, because there is often a lot of promises that are unfortunately not delivered in the end. I know some developers who tried crowdfunding, but eventually had to sell their work to a publisher – just because it was not enough.