iTête à iTête – Building from the ground up is the answer! – An interview with Alexandre Leboucher of Agharta Studio

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In the iDevice development community, ground-up production of high-profile games is still quite unusual. Well, joining me today is Alexandre Leboucher who feels very strongly that this is the ONLY way forward. And it may be worth taking his words seriously since he and his small team form Agharta Studio – the creators of the recent turn-based strategy blockbuster, Rogue Planet.

As usual, my questions and comments are in bold.

1. Alexandre, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and Agharta Studio?

The name is Alexandre Leboucher and I’m the game director and game designer of the games. We are a small company composed of 3 people:

  • Aurelien Kerbeci is the coder and CEO
  • Valerian Taramon is the artist
  • Farid Dridi as an independent who helped us a lot in the graphical department

We also have help from some other independents from time to time to speed up the process (our games are quite ambitious for a 3 people team!)

You can say that again :)

We all have years in video game industry in various dev companies. Most people think we have a large company and don’t trust us when we say we are only 3.

When and how did you decide to band together to form the studio?

We were working for a local gaming company on the latest Spyro game, and we felt the rush to make our own games. The iPhone was very appealing at the time and the AppStore was still very fresh. So we decided to form a studio and make the games we always wanted to create without restriction imposed by large publishers. And so we started working on 1112!

The platform was very appealing in term of gamedesign too, there are a lot of new way of interacting. So each of our games have only the iPhone in mind in term of ergonomics and control… we don’t try to mimic other gaming platform’s gameplay (no on-screen sticks or ports) but everything is perfectly adapted to the iPhone.

2. You are known for bringing the first ever episodic adventure game (1112) to the iDevice. Why did you choose that game to be your first shot at the platform?

Because, as I’ve stated earlier, the platform allows us to explore new way in term of interactivity. PC/Mac adventure game were not really reinventing themselves and were always based on the same old scheme. I have a personal vision of what an adventure game should be and the touch control and iPhone general possibilities allowed me to do just that. This genre is just the best fit for the iPhone IMHO.

3. The first instalment of the 1112 series earned rave reviews. Were you happy with the result? How did it do in sales?

Yeah, it was not a huge mainstream success but 40 000 sales were more than enough to start working on the next games ;)

We always could make smaller casual games to cash easy money, but fame and recognition for our work was always what we were looking for and It’s a big success in that area. Now our name is linked to “quality” (of course we have our detractor, Hopefully everyone is entitled to have one’s opinion :) )

4. The game features an original interface and unique controls. Do you feel they worked out? How do you envision the perfect GUI for an adventure game on the iPhone?

Yes, perfectly! The first episode has already a good UI, with a lot of ergonomics. But wait until you see GUI of episode 02! We learned a lot making Rogue Planet so we are able to do a lot more impressive and ergonomic UI design now!

5. Despite the promise of 1112 episode 2 to come soon, it has already been almost 9 months since the original release. You have already hinted that it is in the works. Was it the original planned schedule?

We thought we could make an episode every 4 months. But the amount of work per episode is insane compared to a small casual game (everything in the game is hand drawn and animated, and we are a 3 people team). Still, the main reason of being late was the decision to make another game in-between: Rogue Planet in order to assure enough cash to make further episodes.

6. Your latest blockbuster title is Rogue Planet, released under the patronage of Gameloft. Are you happy with the result?

Well I’m very happy working with Gameloft, they were not intrusive in the development of the game and very helpful. As for the sales it’s very early to tell!

7. Rogue Planet has quite a few original features (limited fuel/ammo, missiles, commanders) and a lot of simplifications (identical units for factions, no marine/aerial units). Why did you decide to go down this road?

Rogue planet was a HUGE task for 3 people. It already has 10 units per side, all of which have in-game and in-battle animations. Plus, aerial wouldn’t fit very well in the game. So we decided to focus on earth combat, adding tons of strategies not available in the original Advance Wars. (Like having to actually attack cities to change their side, bridge management, etc…)

8. Was it difficult to create a reasonable AI? Did you pay much attention to it, or was Rogue Planet originally focused more on multiplayer?

Well, the AI has several level of difficulty and will be enhanced at each update, but it was somehow a complex matter:) Just think – we spent 6 month developing Rogue Planet with 3 people… Advance Wars was a 2 year and twenty people thing. We have tons of plans to enhance everything in the game anyway. We’re also carefully listening to the players on forums, while still focusing on 1112 episode 02.

The hard thing about Rogue Planet is that part of the players are overwhelmed with the possibilities and have a hard time, some of them think it’s a perfect match with their skills and some hard core strategy gamers think it’s too easy. I don’t really know how to content everyone … yet ;)

9. The between-mission briefings obviously hint at your first project. Did you think about going further in that direction? For instance, adding some hidden items that could enhance commander skills?

Well, I’m more of a story teller than a strategist ;) And I’ve always wished to have more interactivities like that in strategy games so we included some in the game… it gives it a unique look and some kind of “story” reward between mission. As for real interactivity in between mission, I don’t know… it can be misleading and too much of a mixed bag. We planned at first to have more interactivity when launching commander’s power, but we didn’t have enough time.

10. If you went back to the start of the project, what would you’ve done differently?

I honestly didn’t think we would be able to make a game with this scope with such a limited team.  I envisioned a somewhat smaller game. There is place for amelioration of course, but at first we were thinking of making a small game and go back to 1112 a couple of months after we started.

11. What made you take the rather large leap from adventure gaming to strategy gaming?

I had this project in my mind for years, at first I thought of making it for XBLA and when we started to think about making a new game that would be more appealing to the mainstream audience I immediately wanted to make this one. And, of course, we all loved Advance War games, it’s was quite the challenge to create our own! With our distinctive view and visuals.

12. Was releasing a title in cooperation with a big developer rather than individually a stark contrast? Which method will you pursue in the future?

Not really a big difference, since they were very happy with the result;)

They didn’t ask for a lot of changes and when they did ask it was always for the best. Their marketing power is a lot better than ours, but for now it’s too early to tell if it really helped or not!

Do you think 1112 would’ve fared better if you have released it through Gameloft as well?

I’m not really sure. There is no way to know! I think there would have been a bit less “funny” contents;)

Still the AppStore is an entirely different story from what it was one year ago.  It was a lot easier to shine with a good quality game. Now everything is drown into the mass of thousands of useless apps:/

13. What are the main challenges in bringing adventure and strategy games to the iPhone?

I’d like to add “high level of quality and contents” to the question;)

It’s a big challenge since there is a lot of work involved and a lot longer dev time than simple port and casual games. There are a lot of risks in case of failure, but higher recognition in the industry in case of success.

14. What can you say about Apple’s approval process? Did you have any difficulties?

Not really:) one week for Ep01 and 2 weeks for Rogue Planet. Our games are bug free ;)

15. In any project there are lots of funny stories. Could share one or two of them from your projects?

Well for 1112: all the characters in game are actually friends of mine:)

OMG

There are hundreds of funnies everywhere especially with the keyboard feature. You can type any insult you want, or the names of some friends, or the names of the other characters… There are tons of funny reaction to those words. Of course few people really dug that far in the game hehe.

It must be really fun for your friends though :)

16. Did anything change for you with the introduction of the 3GS and iPod Touch 3G?

Our game loads and run blazing fast on a 3G, so it’s even better on 3GS;) Still I have a casual project for 3GS, but nothing is started yet. The 3GS have a really good potential in term of gameplay possibility (I’d like to use the compass). Well you’ll see something in the future about that ;)

17. How would you compare the iPhone to the other devices on the market?

WILD and huge ;)

It really needs to be tamed! I’d like to see some more exposure for AAA titles. I don’t really like the price policy as well. The run for €0.79 ($0.99) is killing the smaller devs. I’m eager to see how Apple will sort out the mess that is actually the AppStore!

Still the good thing is the ability for the smaller devs and indies (independent developers) to have a chance of success without risking too much. We’re back at the time of Amiga/Atari creativity once again!

How would you change the AppStore? Do you have any helpful hints to share?

I’d set a minimal price at 5$ (like WiiWare and XBLA) and having Apple sorting the game per quality themselves fixing the prices. I’m not sure it’s the solution thought, but surely it would be more profitable and encouraging devs to make better products and takes less risks

But don’t you think it would also make a substantial dent in the market?

The sales of WiiWare games and XBLA games are nearly comparable to the AppStore. But quality and prices are a lot more regulated. The problem would be the change of policies. But if it would have started that way it could have worked.

Personally I’m afraid it would not make the AppStore such a success if they started with the $4.99 min price tag. But I do like the idea of having Apple keep a closer eye on the quality/price ratio!

Then why is it a success on other platforms? (XBLA,Wii);)

The problem is that we are already used to the 0.99 store. Even 2.99 for the smaller games would be already a great step :)

If Apple would be the one who decide how much your game worth it would be a really good advancement.

I think the problem here is that the iPhone is a mobile device. And people are not used to paying much for mobile games. WiiWare and the XBLA are full blown consoles with AAA titles at 50$ or more.

Yes of course, but $10 for a game comparable to a DS/PSP game is not stealing IMHO. With the current store even the greatest title are $0.99 a few weeks / month after release. That’s extreme!

And to think that months and months of works are worth less than a cheap cheeseburger is a bit depressing ;)

I disagree. Most games that are discounted to $0.99 for more than a couple of days are mostly only worth as much. And really good titles are rarely sold for less than $4-5. As per my interview with the Palm Heroes Team, sales picked up after the price bumped up to $9.99 from $1.99. The price is really often perceived as a quality marker.

But yes a lot of games are not worth much… The Apple solution would be the best then!

Let me give a call to Steve;)

Of course the ratio is a lot more interesting, but you are risking losing all your exposition. Well it’s a really hard market to analyze…

I hope there is still some place for quality indies out there.

18. What can you say about the future of the iPhone as a platform for games?

It will be very successful if the devs try to think about the possibility of unique gameplay offered by the device instead of porting/ transposing old gameplay into their creations. (Yes I hate virtual joysticks;))

There is already nearly as much iPhones as NDS/PSP around so it’s already a gaming platform with credibility.

Do you think there are better options than virtual joysticks? I’ve had my hands on QUITE a lot of games (as you can imagine) and I haven’t yet seen a decent replacement for them in quite a number of genres.

Maybe we don’t have to make game requiring to use them!) Our games, or spider for example or Rolando… There are tons of possibilities!

How would you propose to make a game like Dungeon Hunter (i.e.) work without them?

Multitouch… point and click for movement, 2 fingers to pan (just quick thinking:))

But still it’s not really about how will I handle actual game without a joystick. I meant I wouldn’t make game requiring a joystick;)

If I did create a Dungeon Hunter game anyway, I would have added zoom-in/put, pause system, multitouch panning and ergonomic control like that. (Well it’s only quick thinking anyway, I don’t even really remember how the game really plays lol)

I agree that the developers often overlook the power of zoom in their attempt to make the game easier (more targeted at the casual player) by making it more action-oriented.

Well, devs are mostly trying to transpose what they already know instead of rethinking the gameplay/ergonomy from scratch. It’s understandable since you have to make game fast to survive on the iPhone platform!

Do you think there are concepts or genres that still don’t have a decent representation on the iDevice?

Yes. New concepts;)

Adventures game I would say. All the current adventure game are only PC ports, some of them rushed with poor control system. Western RPGs are underrepresented too, as well as  turn based RPGs. Well all the kind of games requiring long dev time in general;)

I see you’re an adventure/RPG fan (like myself :) )

hehe yes:)

Everything that have a good story I’m in ;)

Fan of : Xenogears, Ultima 7 part 1 and 2, Shenmue of course;) Weirdly, Shenmue was my closest inspiration for 1112 ;)

I have dissected quite a few of them lately. We even have the AppStore’s best RPG list on the site and thinking of adding an adventure one as well. I feel that the games, that have been brought to the platform lately (like BaSS Remastered, SoTMI and Secrets of the Lost Cavern). And even though ports from other systems, they are quality products which work well on the platform. If you were working on such projects, what would you do differently?

Well yes, they already have the resources so it’s not quite a feat. But still they are really old school and not very fresh in a gameplay POV and storytelling.

I would never remake another game! That is not mine! And if I was forced too, I would completely rethink everything to the core to have the most pleasant ergonomics possible.

19. What can you say about your future plans and upcoming releases?

Well, right now we are focusing on 1112 episode 02, then we’ll probably update episode 01 as well to reflect all the novelties form ep02 (GUI, multiplan, new control scheme…) while making regular update for Rogue Planet (Online multiplayer if possible, in app purchase campaign, AI amelioration etc…)

I hope I’ll have the time to make my 3GS casual too.

20. What do you think about Jailbreaking? Do you do it?

Never tried. The pricing and the variety of the apps is so low and diverse that I don’t even understand the need to jailbreak. Well maybe to customize one’s iPhone?

I unfortunately don’t have enough time to spend on other things than making games to keep our small company alive;)

21. What’s your take on piracy on the iDevice platform. Lately there has been a lot of hype about that.

I don’t really know about piracy people keep telling the piracy number are huge, but honestly how does it fare when compared to other easy to break platform (NDS). But still pirating $0.99 apps is really low.

Do you think sales would be significantly higher if there were no way to pirate apps?

Probably… Still most of the pirates are people who never buy games anyway. Some of them are “testing” games and buying them afterwards too… So it’s a bit hard to have a clear idea on what’s really going on!

22. Alexandre, thank you for your time. Could you say some final words for the TMA readers?

Well thanks for your time, we’ll do our best to finish 1112 episodes and Rogue Planet updates, stay tuned to our Facebook fan pages and Twitter for more info!

P.S. And I would like to remind everyone that I also have a Twitter account, where you’ll find the latest news and scoops on all thing iPhone and iPod Touch, as well as ramblings on Project Management.

You can read more TouchMyApps interviews here.

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