How Life is Strange changed Dontnod

Christopher Dring
How Life is Strange changed Dontnod

Back in 2013, Capcom launched what it hoped would be a major new action series.

Remember Me was a unique, cyberpunk story-driven triple-A game from new French developer Dontnod – a studio set-up by former Criterion, EA and Ubisoft creators. The team had spent almost five years on the game, but its critical reception was mixed and it failed to hit commercial targets – something not helped by the fact it launched so late in the life of PS3 and 360.

Capcom never commissioned a sequel and Dontnod found itself in trouble.

After Remember Me, the financial situation at Dontnod was very difficult,” laments CEO Oskar Guilbert.

In the end, the game did OK because of the digital side of things - we had the PS Plus deal with Sony, so in terms of the number of players, it's more than two million, maybe three million. So we are happy, but it took a long time to get there and you know when you release a boxed game that if you are not successful in the first two to three weeks, it's going to be difficult.”

He continues: After that, we had to restructure the company and reinvent ourselves. Before, what we wanted to do was make big games with large teams and long production cycles... So we had to change that, do something smaller with smaller teams. We didn't want to do just a small game, we also wanted to bring something new to the market, and we did it pretty well with Life is Strange.”

Life is Strange was the saving grace for Dontnod. The episodic narrative-driven adventure game has won multiple awards and sold in huge numbers, thanks in part to the publishing efforts of Square Enix.

Yet it almost didn't happen. Dontnod was pitching a completely different project, which the Square Enix team just wasn't interested in. In a last ditch effort, Dontnod showed them Life is Strange.

It was funny, because we presented them a bigger game,” Guilbert recalls. Then we said: ‘`OK, we have this small project, maybe we will publish it ourselves, we don't know really. It's probably difficult to sell because it's two female protagonists and it's different, and some publishers are not so happy to sign games that are different'. Yet Square immediately loved the episodic model, the story we wanted to tell, the main characters, everything.”

The game's reception - both commercially and critically - and the impact that has had on Dontnod, couldn't be further from what happened post-Remember Me.

It has completely transformed Dontnod,” adds Guilbert.

Before Life is Strange, we had to walk out the door and try to find a publisher for our next project... Now, the situation is different. Now people call us and say: ‘do you have something new that we could sign, we'd like to work with you'. It's always difficult but it's definitely easier than how it was two years ago.”

Dontnod's next game is quite different to both Life is Strange and Remember Me. Vampyr is an action RPG set during the 1918 London Spanish Flu epidemic, and is scheduled for release next year.

It's very different but, for us, what is important is to have strong narrative and innovative gameplay,” Guilbert explains. We really wanted to do a game about vampires. For us, it was just something we love - we love this theme but we wanted also to create a human that conveys emotions. Say you are a vampire: how do you behave? What would happen to you? What emotions would you feel and would your human nature and your vampire nature fight each other? That was the idea of the game. For us the best genre for these settings, this kind of story and this kind of gameplay, was action. We're not attached to one genre - it's more that we want to link strongly the narrative and the gameplay.”

Focus Home Interactive is publishing Vampyr, which is the third publisher that Dontnod has worked with since its inception in 2008. Guilbert says that partnering with good publishers is important to the developer.

They have know-how that we don't have, and also marketing and distribution - it's not what we are a specialist in,” he says. And we also need one for the financial side. It's only now that the finances are better at Dontnod, and we are more comfortable, but we are not comfortable enough, I would say, to fund ourselves on some projects. But as a strategy, we want to control our IP more and more, and have a bigger role in its future.

Technically, yes, we could publish ourselves, but there are so many projects on Steam and if you want to have visibility, then you need a publisher for that.”

In July, another games developer – Hesaw – changed its name to Dontnod Eleven. Guilbert happens to hold a leadership role at both companies, although they are separate businesses. Dontnod Eleven also creates very different games, its first title is a competitive multiplayer game called Battlecrew Space Pirates.

However, Guilbert hopes that the differences between the two studios are something that can help both teams.

We want, in the future, to have a stronger collaboration between the two teams,” says Guilbert. You have people with the know-how about multiplayer on one side, and then you have a studio with know-how about story and episodic content on the other. But we don't plan to fuse the two, we really want to keep them separate.”

Indeed, Guilbert has no desire to return to operating one big studio making massive games. He says that five-year development cycles and massive triple-A projects are not in Dontnod's future.

He concludes: We really want to reduce the production cycle to two-and-a-half, maybe three years, because we're taking a lot of risk in terms of keeping the people motivated and keeping the publisher motivated. As for working in very large units... maybe one day we will do it, but really, if I have the choice, I prefer to keep it smaller, to keep it down to the size we have for Vampyr, or maybe a little bigger like Life is Strange. That's how I see things working out for us.”

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