Game designers are a unique breed in the realm of adventure game development. Their visions often lead them to work for different studios throughout their careers, garnering experiences that frequently inspire them to reorganize their original visions. Some game designers eventually take the bold step and go off on their own to create their own game companies, in order to immerse themselves into their original creations. These intrepid developers want to create innovative games that match their own visions, even when these games are being developed for multiple platforms.
French game developer Franck Sitbon is a game designer that has taken this career path less traveled by others, having worked in the past as a 3D artist for major game companies such as Cryo Interactive Entertainment, DreamCatcher Interactive, and White Birds Productions. He now works at Este Bueno Studio, a game development company founded by him in 2011 with a mission to create educational and cultural games. Mysteries of Notre Dame de Paris is the first game published by his company.
We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview Franck Sitbon. In the interview, Sitbon speaks of his career as a game artist, his past collaboration with famed game designer Benoît Sokal, his decision to form his own game development company, his current game projects, and what lies in the future for him and his company.
Check out our exclusive gallery of previously unpublished Amiga art and production art from Mysteries of Notre Dame de Paris as well our rare gallery of concept and production art sent to us by Sitbon himself!
- What inspired you to become a game artist and designer? What educational background influenced you to choose a career in the game industry?
- First of all, I was a big fan of computer games, and I spent most of my time drawing from my early ages. The first step was the purchase of an Amiga (I was 15-16 year old), which was a combination of PC and console (none of them existed for a large audience at that time). You could play but also draw, do coding, and make music — it was the most creative tool of that time. When I became interested in my profession 20 years ago, there were no studies to become a 2D/3D artist. There was no way for my parents to allow me to study art. It was common to see artists chalk drawing the Mona Lisa on the sidewalk for a few bucks. Instead, I studied science and programming. At the same time, I was spending my evenings and weekends drawing on my Amiga with Deluxe Paint. Games such as Another World, Dune (Cryo), Cruise for a corpse, and Monkey Island were great sources of inspiration and a great lesson in pixel art at that time. I also found time to play and replay these games. A real geek!When I was 23, I was hospitalized because of a medical emergency, and I almost died. It got me thinking, so I decided to stop my studies to devote myself to what I really liked to do (art and games). For a year I learned to use 3D Studio 2 that had just been released. It was a revelation and a real challenge — at that time, no web, no YouTube, no tutorials; nothing of those existed. I didn’t know anything about animation. I bought the « Muybridge’s Complete Human and Animal Locomotion » which I used as reference. I learned everything by myself, and when I started working for Cryo, I knew as much as the artists who were already there for a couple of years (it was the beginnings of Cryo).
- Why did you decide to form your own game development studio Este Bueno Studio and to become an independent game developer?
- You had previously worked in Cryo Interactive Entertainment, DreamCatcher Interactive, and White Birds Productions. How different was your experience working in these companies?
- Working at Cryo was a unique experience. All of the people who worked there will tell you the same. We had great artistic and technical freedom. There was a great atmosphere. Many of us were saddened by Cryo’s later demise.DreamCatcher was a continuity. They acquired Cryo and maintained the teams and timetables to finish up the company’s ongoing projects. We thought that we would continue working there. We were working hard despite of the unnecessary pressure. Moreover, Cryo was known for its dreamlike graphics games. It was all a waste. Once the projects were completed, we were all fired during a very difficult time –- the crisis in 2002-2003 after 9/11, the burst of the dotcom bubble, and the capsizing of Cryo. It was a rather dark period for graphic artists. No game companies were hiring for a couple of years.Working at White Birds reminded me of my first days in Cryo. You know you worked in a small studio when it’s almost family like atmosphere. Supervising graphic teams was a rewarding experience. Besides, games concepts which I suggested to White Birds became the starting point of Este Bueno. Indeed, if there had not been the country’s bank crisis, I would be still working there.
- What were your memories of working as a 3D artist at Cryo Interactive Entertainment?
- We were pioneers. We created all the methodologies used by 3D artists nowadays. We often diverted from the primary functions of 3D Studio to create any effects that the software could not do. It was something of a hack, but the lack of software features of that time drove us in creative ways in every sense of the term. I’m not sure that many artists nowadays are able to model in wireframe, without any extrusion and division tools – back then, you had to create each vertex, then connect each triangle, and finally start a render to see the shading result (meshes were not filled in the editor), notwithstanding crashes and power outages. Cryo grew very fast. Every day there were new artists, but the power line could not support as many computers. I don’t have to tell you to imagine the nervous breakdown when even the backup was corrupted after a power cut! We had to make multiple backups every 10 minutes! (Even now, I’m a backup maniac). Those were the good times!
- How was your experience working with Benoît Sokal? What game projects did you work on with him at White Birds Productions?
- Working with a great artist such as Benoît Sokal was a very rewarding experience. He’s very open. He knew exactly where he wanted to go. He had a huge artistic and technical experience: he could write a story, draw characters, model them in 3D, and as if that was not enough, also do the postproduction. You feel very small (despite my 10 years of experience in Cryo)! I worked with him on Sinking Island — I was charged to turn his sketches into 3D mockups for artists, to prepare all the technical methodology, and to do the follow-up and pre-validation. Sometimes, Benoît and I did the corrections ourselves. There, I had to be able to put myself in his mind to see what was wrong or not in the modeling of a character or background and ask for the right corrections. Needless to say, the beginnings were not easy, especially when facing the master! But in the end, we (Victor Druillet, the Lead Designer, and I, the Lead Artist) did well, and the result was rather convincing.I also started working on a new Jack Norm adventure (the hero in Sinking Island), but with the end of White Birds the game never emerged. In any case, I would really like to work again with Benoît — you can be sure that you are not going to get bored and that you’ll produce a very good game!
- You were working in Cryo Interactive Entertainment and in White Birds Production during the companies’ last days before they were shut down for financial reasons. What were your (both good and bad) memories of your last days working there?
- In the last days of Cryo, the situation was different, since the company was being bought by DreamCatcher and the majority of staff were retained. But the situation was more dramatic when Dreamcatcher fired the internal production teams. It was just before the summer holidays. A few of the female staff were pregnant at the time. Some were crying; others were revolted. We were young, but we did not really expect that it happened at our age. We were made promises during Cryo’s final days: production would be maintained, and we would create amazing games.For White Birds, we knew the situation was bad, and the boss had us prepared. It also happened suddenly, just before Christmas — a deadbeat publisher and French banks that refused to lend any money (because of the country’s bank crisis), despite of all the talent of the White Birds teams and Benoit Sokal. As a pillar of the company, I did not expect to be among the firsts to go. Still, it allowed me to create Este Bueno Studio — a blessing in disguise. The disappearance of White Birds saddens me as much as Cryo. I hope that Benoît will continue to amaze us with new wonderful games!
- In between, you worked as a freelance artist on a number of game projects. Which adventure games were among these projects?
- The situation was so difficult in 2002-2003. Nobody could find a job. Part of the Atlantis 3 team was assembled in freelance to produce Atlantis 4 for DreamCatcher. The team spent some time in production, then it was over. The team was really motivated, and we gave the best of ourselves, although we were underpaid. It’s always a disappointment to chain productions and being dangled for a stable job. We always feel that the team experience was not used for new games. We got along well with each other, and despite of the Atlantis 4’s small budget, we overcame the challenge and produced once again a beautiful game.
- What research did you do for the Mysteries of Notre Dame de Paris?
- When I started working on Mysteries of Notre Dame de Paris, I knew nothing about the Cathedral. I had a tour of it a few years ago, and I knew it was the most visited monument in France. I also knew that I wanted to develop an interactive tour as a new genre. Have you ever visited a monument and ask yourself what is this or that statue? I wanted to create an application that uses the latest games technology adapted for a large audience application.So I researched for each of the statues which decorate the facade of Notre Dame de Paris. Who is it? What is its history? What is its legend? I started my research on the Internet. I read books. I went to the site to take hundreds of photos. (I actually screwed up the zoom of my camera in the rain. But what do you expect? It rains almost all the time in Paris.) These photos allowed me to create the 3D Cathedral but also to discover clues that you cannot much see there. The smaller relief often has a history and a hidden meaning of its own. I felt like reading the Da Vinci Code!Then I had to summarize all this. I did not want to bore people with lines and lines of text. So I decided to record everything in audio and added quizzes. I wanted to create something about learning and to be sure that, by the end, people who has loved and finished our app could go in Paris to visit the cathedral and would not require for a guide.
- How different was developing games for the mobile platform than for the PC platform?
- I would say that it depends on the company and the technology. When I worked at Cryo, the company was made up of fifteen people by team, perhaps more, working for a year and a half. We spent half of our time in modeling and the other half in rendering. We had to render 6 images per warp, plus all the animated sprites (fire, water, birds). If the player could pick up an object, this object needed to be rendered from each warp so that it would be visible. It could be exponential. As an example, for the Bagdad level in Atlantis 3, there were 99 warps! I let you imagine the number of images and sprites rendered and the time I spent on them. I think this HD CG methodology is no more compatible with game development — too long, too expensive. Finally, you would have better result and interactions with real-time 3D. Just see how beautiful games such as Alan Wake, Tomb Raider, or Uncharted are.At White Birds, we were small teams, and we outsourced a portion of graphic production. The development time varied between 6 months and one year. The third person games with still CG backgrounds were faster and cheaper to develop.Mobile development should not exceed 3 months. It must be said that companies should sell a lot of $0.99 games to be profitable, or should develop in China, as some large companies do for mobile development. Not good for our teams here!
At Este Bueno, I work alone for now, but I do not despair in finding financial ways to create teams and especially even more amazing applications. Go take a quick look on AppsCube Explorer and see how it is possible to imagine the AppStore in 3D!
- What is the target audience for the Mysteries of Notre Dame de Paris? To what extent is this game an « edutainment » title? What can adventure game fans expect from playing this game?
- Mysteries of Notre Dame de Paris should not be thought as a classic adventure game. Otherwise, you may be disappointed. But the audience is the same. Actually it’s an historical tool about the cathedral of Paris.When people talk about educational games, they often think about children’s games. I wanted to do a large audience application that can be used as a reference documentation tool that is really different from a classic photopedia. People who are between 35 and 45 years old are used to FPS, so I think that this technology is well suited for a guided tour. Women are more receptive to this type of product! Even though it is often said that women have no sense of 3D, my application belies the statistics!On the other hand, my 8-year-old nephew loved to play Mysteries of Notre Dame de Paris and really enjoyed the quizzes. Even if his favorite game is Pokémon! My application shows interest in the educational context. Children today are so used to receive lots of information from anywhere and at the same time (social, SMS, chat, web, TV) that they have difficulty focusing on a single book which provides a single flow of information. In Mysteries of Notre Dame de Paris, the information is deliberately divided. It helps to aerate the stream and launch the right information based on the place where you click, like in a classic adventure game. If there were such tools in schools, perhaps children would become more interested in history.
Mysteries of Notre Dame de Paris is mainly designed for adults. I do not think that the word « education » is appropriate. Somehow this word is pejorative. I can’t say I’m going to educate someone who is 40 years old! I think this is a new way of documentation through games.
- How do you describe the current state of the adventure game genre? What lies in the future for the genre on the mobile platform?
- I do not know if my answer will please to your audience, but I think that classic adventure game is dead (at least adventure games as it was known in 90s, despite the revival with iPad), not by the interest of such games, but because it has not taken the technological way as the other games and adapt to a young audience. Ask yourself the question: How many under-20-year-old people are playing point ‘n click nowadays? At this age, I was dreaming in front of Monkey Island. Imagine what could be Atlantis if it was created today with the Unreal engine or Unity 3D! Imagine the visual slap, the freedom of movements, the interactions, and the real-time puzzles that could be created. Most games are confined in an old technology with varying degrees of success (such as still screens, warps — nothing has changed since Atlantis and Monkey Island 20 years ago). I am not even talking about hidden object games in which their interest always leaves me perplexed and that are not real adventure games for me. Quote me one game released in 2011 with the story and the interest that could be put on the same level as Maupiti Island, Day of the Tentacle, Phantasmagoria, Gabriel Knight, Blade Runner, or Syberia.For me only a few have evolved to adapt to a new generation — Zack and Wiki on the Wii, Heavy Rain on PS3, and Portal.As for mobile, I think I am opening a door with Mysteries of Notre Dame de Paris, and I hope other publishers will produce adventure games with real-time 3D engines.
I know that I’m hard with the genre — but after all, didn’t Benoît Sokal teach me to demand highly from myself?
- What is your plan, if any, to develop the Mysteries of Notre Dame de Paris beyond the iOS platform (such as for the PC platform)? What other game projects from Este Bueno Studio are you currently planning? What is your vision for Este Bueno Studio?
- Mysteries of Notre Dame de Paris has been developed with the Unity 3D game engine. The application is compatible with PC, Mac, and even the web. There are just a few ergonomic adjustments and find a distributor, and it could be available quickly. However, I think this type of tool takes its full potential on tablets. What a walk to visit Notre Dame de Paris in your sofa!AppsCube Explorer has also just been released. It’s a tool that allow you to visit the AppStore in 3D and to buy applications, games, TV series, and music, all in a world of cubes! It’s available for free on the iPhone and iPad.Lastly, we are in discussion with Pierre Estève, the composer of the music from the Atlantis game series, to co-produce new games. We have lots of ideas! So see you in a few months…