Q&A: Stephane D'Astous, Eidos Montreal - MCV

Q&A: Stephane D'Astous, Eidos Montreal

On Monday Eidos officially opened its new Montreal studio, welcoming Canadian business and industry trade press to tour the facility. Develop was on hand to talk to studio head Stephane D'Astous about the building of the new studio, its first project Deus Ex 3 and plans for the futureâ?¦
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You said in the press conference that the plan for Eidos Montreal was for major IP, new technology, smaller teams and a 24 month production cycle. How is that going to be implemented and how was that approach decided?

Well, on February 15th this year Eidos announced Montreal was the place it wanted to build its next studio. Since then we have been growing, and we're on track for the business plan - the plan is for 350 new jobs over the next three years. We have three phases of that expansion - one per year. Right now we have one full dev team in place. The second dev team should start early next summer and the third team should start in early summer 2009.

Part of that involves sticking to a 24 month production cycle. This is very important because to be able to attract good talent we need a good cycle - 24 months is really the normal games production cycle, but because of the commercial pressure that developers and publishers have many try to desperately crank up games within 12 or 15 months. We don't want to go that way - and we want people to know that - because we don't think it's a good decision in the long term, and it hurts the quality of the game and reputation of the company.

And as you announced today, the first game is a new installment in the Deus Ex series…

Deus Ex 3 is an incredible title to be working on, and will also help us attract talent. Real gamers, serious gamers. It's a big mandate we have received - and we take it very seriously. We have done our homework and we have done a lot of research into it. Our proof of concept was approve last month on our first try - I think we've impressed our colleagues back in the UK. We were so pleased that he vision we have for the game was shared and accepted by them. Now the challenge is to realise our conception into concrete code.

The Deus Ex series itself is quite highly regarded by both journalists and a number of developers, and given how the original creators have all gone on to work for Disney, EA and Midway how are you going to prove to the cynics that your new studio is worthy of the series, of the challenge?

All the developers working on Deus Ex 3 pretty much know the series inside and out - coming here, they were pretty aware of the opportunity and what they could do. We did our research to find out what worked well, what people enjoyed about it - especially the first game. The second was a success in the eyes of some, but had some ups and downs, so we've tried to identify what worked well in that game. Most importantly, we're extracting what worked well and can be applied now. In the five, six years since that series arrived technology has changed significantly and we have to be careful - we don't want to create more of the same. Instead we've identified the features that can be transposed well onto new technology that arrived several years later.

On the technology front - I understand you're using Eidos in-house technology, specifically the Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider [next-gen] engine, for the new game. Is that correct?

Yes, this is a very important factor for us. In former positions where i worked technology was always a grey zone, a question mark. I'm relieved that here at Eidos we have two great internal engines - one from IO Interactive and one from Crystal. We chose the Crystal engine because we plan to help develop this engine more and then share it back with the rest of the company, the other Eidos studios. Having that technology from the start gives us a great advantage and foundation for our coders - there are no doubts about the approach, and we have few uncertainties. We just want to all work together on improving the same technology as we develop our game.

Will having that fixed technology base also help keep the team sizes down?

Definitely. We have sent out several of our staff to Crystal Dynamics to learn about the engine, and the relationship we now have with that studio - and also IO Interactive - is really special and will help us a great deal. I couldn't say that at my previous employers. But IO Interactive, Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal see themselves as the major locomotives for Eidos to really generate and create great games. We're sharing - our teams are not in competition.

To me, IO Interactive have made a great game in Kane and Lynch - I think they've pushed the limits in terms of content, and a new IP like that is always risky - and Crystal Dynamics has done a great, great job with Lara Croft. So we're in the middle of them now, trying to learn and make our own great title.

I guess, when it comes to doubts over Eidos Montreal handling Deus Ex, it's worth bearing in mind how Crystal Dynamics reversed the fortunes of the Tomb Raider brand…

Indeed. And there are other titles that Eidos own which have great value to them but they haven't been given much attention recently. Montreal is being seen as a great spot to give new life to these franchises. Our first challenge is a major one in Deus Ex - but if the company doesn't do anything with these franchises people will eventually forget they existed.

So Eidos is in a situation where it cannot permit that to happen. We also cannot let ourselves take four years to develop a game, unlike some other Montreal projects - so that plays back into us building a game in a time frame that is reasonable to everyone.

Staffing the studios in Montreal is a hot issue, with some saying that the region steals talent from abroad, or that it has to take from the studios nearby. So how is Eidos Montreal approaching it's growth plan?

About 80 per cent of the staff is from Montreal or elsewhere in Quebec. The rest come from further out, though. Our lead animator is from Scotland, we have programmers from Romania, our narrative game designer is from the States, and we've got some other international talent set to move over here soon too.

Will Eidos Montreal always be working on revamping existing IP?

The first project, as we know, is Deus Ex and that's an existing IP. The next game we start next year is also a current property that Eidos owns. But the third will be an original product. So we have a good three step process that not only helps grow the studio but lead towards original IP. I'm really happy with the plan. We're ahead of schedule too.

What about the new QA team at this studio - how does that work?

We have to distinct groups here at Eidos Montreal, and one of those is the QA team. They will be QA for all of Eidos' games around the world. This team - currently at 25 people - are testing games by other internal Eidos studios and its third-party partners too. Any game on any console that Eidos puts out will be tested by the team here at Montreal.

You helped Babel grow its Montreal base and now are helping Eidos, so you seem to be a key person to ask on getting that right; what's the secret to setting up a games company in this city and succeeding?

You need to find the right core staff - that's everything, and that's why it's taken us time since the announcement in February to show what we're doing. And you have to share the same vision and passion with those people. That team must also have some trailblazers because people want security - and standing out can guarantee that. In Montreal the gaming industry is growing, and there is good talent, with the critical mass growing. Obviously there are other cities in the world which can be good for a studio to set up in, but for me Montreal gathers a number of factors together; we have great schools, a great middleware scene - Autodesk and Softimage are based here - and a good scene for animation and visual arts. The way to succeed is find the right point that takes advantage of all of those things.

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