French indie MMO Dofus began when some web developers got together to make a game. With its charming graphical style and free to play area (a small percentage of the full game), Dofus has gained favor with players and critics, propelling the company from a small indie to a larger player.
Ankama was formed in 2001 by Camille Chafer, Emmanuel Darras, and Anthony Roux, and has since grown stealthily to 400 employees, including a new studio in Japan, focusing on animation and manga extensions of the company's properties. The original game was done entirely in Flash, well before it became a popular platform for games.
As the company rolls out Dofus 2.0 and a new game called Wakfu, we spoke with CTO Camille Chafer and international marketing manager Cedric Gerard about Ankama's past and future, including the new animation studio, the ups and downs of working in Flash, and player/subscriber numbers.
How did Dofus come about as an indie MMO? Most people wouldnít attempt such a thing.
Camille Chafer: Ironically, Dofus was not supposed to be a MMO in the first place, back in 2003.
We wanted it to be a turn-based fighting game, PvP only. We were inspired by Final Fantasy Tactics, and wanted to build a similar online game where players would be facing real players, with a massive ranking ladder.
At the beginning it was a very simple project, which we were working on at night and during the weekend. We wanted to have fun, and were not really concerned about commercial aspects. After a while we thought of adding new functionalities, like moving around a town instead of simply chatting in a room. After that, we thought of adding pets in the town, working on summoning AI so they could be fought againstÖ
Then we realized we actually were making an MMO, we were just lacking the professions and an experience system. Since a community had already gathered around Dofus and those guys were quite supportive, we thought of making Dofus into a real MMO.
To be honest, if we had thought of making an MMO in the first place, I think we would have dropped it. Itís probably because we had a slow evolution and kept adding new objectives to the project that we succeeded.
Later on we started developing Dofus-Arena which is PvP only. It is now much more advanced than the first version of Dofus but has retained the original idea of a PVP centered tactical game.
Did anyone on the team have prior experience running servers and such, or did that have to be learned on the go?
CC: We were a web agency, nobody had experience in video games development. We had good developers and talented graphic artists, but no one had game production experience, not to mention MMO development experience!
Learning was a slow process, we made mistakes, we had to go back and start again sometimes. But we were driven by our interest in releasing a game that would be fun, and which we wanted to play.
There was no publisher or producer watching our backs, and we could spend nights working or reworking some parts of the game. We were creating a game for ourselves and for the people talking with us on the forums, so we were not counting hours, and slowly learning.
What are the up and downsides to using flash as a development platform for an MMO?
CC: Flash was not meant to be used for game development in the first place. It may still be partly true today, but five years ago when we first started, it was very true.
There are lots of confines you have to adapt to - for example, Actionscript is an interpreted language, much slower than C++ which is commonly used in MMO development. We had no control over the use of hardware resources, network capacities were limited and only text could be sent. Binary was to be avoided at all costs (it seems to be ok now). There was no thread handling, and you could not use 3D gfx cards.
But Flash had a very strong point: the graphic engine. You could display an image, rotate it, shape it, resize it, make it transparent ... all of that was very easy.
Integrating animations and images made by graphic artists was a piece of cake, since everything could be done just with Flash. A Flash game could also be played on any computer as long as it was equipped with Flash Player.
Sometimes confines can be advantageous for a project, and we think that was the case for Dofus, they made the game original and what it is today.
So why is Dofus a turn-based game? I wish I could say it was all due to Final Fantasy Tactics, but to be honest, itís also because Flash had trouble displaying too many animations at once!
How easy is it to push updates?
Cedric Gerard: For a long time, Dofus updates were pushed zip archives that were put up on the website. Players had to unpack it in the Dofus folder in order to erase the old files. It was efficient, but a bit tedious from a playerís point of view. They had to visit the website, download a file, uncompress it, and sometimes could screw the install and not be able to play again.
Last year, we launched an online updater which detects patches and updates the game automatically. Makes things much easier for everyone.
We waited a long time to launch this tool, because it had a downside; the fact that we now had an executable file meant that players would not be able to play just by loading an html page. But players seem to be quite ok with it, it makes it easier and they like it much better now.
The company has grown a lot since its inception Ė can you explain the origins of Ankama Animation, and how the whole cross-media angle came about?
CG: Anthony Roux, our creative director and co-founder, is a very passionate creator and wanted to expand the universe of Dofus using various media. The idea was always to tell a different part of the story, i.e. to explore the life a specific character, or a different part of the universe, meaning that the story is not told again in a different way, but the universe actually expands with each new media.
The animation is a way to explore the universe and characters of Wakfu and Dofus, but also to experience new angles of interaction between a game and an animation. We can unveil a secret place, or recipe, item, riddle, weakpoint of a monster in the animation, and have players using those clues to give them an advantage in the game.
How many people does Ankama now employ?
CG: Ankama now has about 400 people in various locations. The main office is located in Lille, North of France, with over 320 employees. We have one office in Lyon (South of France) with 10 people doing mobile development, one in Paris with 30 people working in Media and Animation, and we recently opened a Studio in Tokyo, with 40 people in charge of developing new animation and manga projects, also acting as our distribution and promotion platform for expanding business in all of Asia.
Wakfu uses a pay-to-play model, like Dofus. Have you considered the free-to-play model? Why is it not right for your games?
CG: Wakfu is still in beta stage, and therefore has no official business model, but it will indeed very likely be like Dofus.
Actually we use an hybrid model for Dofus. There is a free zone which is about 10% of the game, which players can always have access to, with no time limit. If they want to leave that zone and explore further, they have to purchase a subscription of 6.9 USD / 5 EUR a month.
Most "free to play" games attract players because they heavily market themselves as being free, while they expect players to spend a lot of money in order to progress to advanced levels. ARPU on those games are insanely high, but players have a shorter lifetime as well.
Dofus is very community-driven, and players have a long lifetime, because they enjoy the world and the freedom they experience. Sometimes they revert to free mode when going on holiday, then come back and purchase another subscription. But they always get the full experience and what they paid for, and we are always quite transparent about that.
Can you break down what percentages of your users are from which areas of the world? Iíve heard itís most popular in Europe.
CG: We are indeed more important in Europe, where 70% of our community is. 15% is in North America, and 15% in South America. We are launching in Asia, starting with Japan, in 2010.
With Dofus 2.0, to what extent is the game a revamp, and to what extent is it brand new?
CG: Dofus 2.0 is a complete rewrite of the original server code, client code, and graphic engine from the original Dofus. After 5 years of existence, we felt like it was time to give the game a fresh look. The interface system and tutorial have also been completely redesigned.
Later on, players will also have the option of developing and exchanging add-ons and mods for the game, and it will be a lot more customizable.
In terms of content, everything remains the same for now, but it will be a lot easier for us to generate new content starting early 2010. Players will keep their characters and achievements, experience and progress from Dofus.
Do you have any new subscription numbers for Dofus or Wakfu?
CG: In terms of total subscribers, we are over 3 million. At the moment we have over 500,000 active subscribers, with a total of 3 million active players in a given month. As for total registered players [meaning all who have ever touched the game], we've reached 25 million.