It's been three years since Yoan Fanise left Ubisoft Montpellier to do his own thing after serving as one of the leads on the World War I narrative adventure game Valiant Hearts.
Memorably, he likened the experience of working on Valiant Hearts to being a "fake indie" working in the parking lot of a big monolithic company.
"A successful chain of restaurants allows some of its cooks to install a food truck on the parking lot, then asks them to go back inside;" Fanise told Gamasutra in 2015. "What would you do?"
What he did was cofound his own indie studio, DigiXart, in Montpellier with his partner Anne-Laure Fanise. In 2016 they released their debut project Lost In Harmony, a mobile rhythm game (with a Wyclef Jean guest spot) aimed at teaching players a bit about empathy.
Now, two years on, the studio has a new project in the works: 11-11: Memories Retold, another narrative adventure game about World War I.
What's interesting about this is who DigiXart is working with: the studio is partnering with a publisher, Bandai Namco Europe, for the first time. It's also teaming up with British animation studio Aardman (of Wallace & Gromit fame) to try and produce what Fanise calls a "3D painting" aesthetic.
While Aardman is no stranger to the game industry, it's rare to see the British art house working with a French indie dev. Fanise opened up a bit about how the project came to be, and what he's learned since going indie, in an email back-and-forth that we've reprinted (in edited form) below.
It's interesting to see that you're not going it alone this time. How did you end up connecting with Aardman at the G4C festival in Paris? And then how did you wind up working with Bandai Namco
Fanise: I was invited to give a talk about meaning in games at the demand of Jean-Michel Blottière, the president of Games For Change Europe. There was people from Aardman in the audience, and we discussed a lot after the conference. This was the seed of Memories Retold.
World War I is a strong heritage we have in common with British people, so we talked a lot about it. In the Commonwealth, every year on 11-11, people wear a poppy in memory of the fallen. This project is our little poppy for the gaming community.
I connected with Bandai Namco Europe later on at Nordic Games where I gave a talk; they were really excited about the project, even if it was just a piece of paper and a lot of enthusiasm at that moment. I'm really thankful to their whole staff for supporting us on this adventure, it is rare from a major publisher to invest in this kind of author's game where "Return On Investment" is not really the parameter to look at.
Why work with a publisher? What value do you think publishers hold for indies, in 2018?
I think big publishers understood that indies are bringing fresh and very innovative ideas, and for indie studios, the publishers bring a lot of important feedback; they allow you to raise quality and get a better game at the end. They have more perspective than what you have after months head deep into your project.
And finally they bring a level of visibility to your project. That is probably today the biggest issue, with the number of games released.
Why did you decide to partner with Aardman, rather than handle all artistic work internally?
When I visited Aardman studios in Bristol, I discovered the CGI and interactive department they have. It is an unknown department compared to their stop motion work for the public.
I expressed this idea of a 3D painting I had in mind for the project, something very artistic, strong, almost impressionist. They showed me a short movie they did for the Imperial War Museum with a painterly effect, it was a very interesting reference for the game; even if we knew compositing and post-production can pre-render a lot of things, we could start from there to build a very unique real-time rendering pipeline.
That way I could focus at DigixArt on the story and the gameplay and they could handle art and animation in Bristol.
Fair enough! Why, specifically, do you want to return to World War I as a setting for your game?
Maybe because It's a part of history that touches me personally. My great-grandfather fought in the trenches; he lost a leg and his brother there. This is only one family story among so many others, sadly.
I believe we have to revive this period of time to not forget, and to not repeat the same mistakes of history. I could tell a thousands stories from World War I, as it is concentrated evidence of the futility of war.
What did you learn from making Lost In Harmony, and what (if anything) can you apply from that experience to this new game?
Lost in Harmony, that was fully self funded and published, and it taught me 2 important things: The ambition you have is quickly limited by the budget you have, and telling a story that fosters empathy for your characters require iterations and very talented developers.
The second thing I learned is that marketing will eat a lot of your time; creating assets, trailers, artworks, and spreading the word on social channels is very time-consuming. I think I'm more useful within the dev team, gamepad in hands. So the decision was to find a publisher for the next title, so we did.