Friday, February 1, 2013

Interview: The Game Atelier: "The PlayStation Vita has been good to us"

Fabien Demeulenaere
The Game Atelier is one of those indie developers that punches well above its weight. Starting out with the PlayStation Minis and iOS environments, the company has since become a full-fledged PlayStation Vita developer with some gorgeous HD titles, like SunFlowers and Flying Hamster. It even publishes games now.

Digitally Downloaded's Chris Ingram had the good fortune to sit down and chat with the driving force behind the budding company; Fabien Demeulenaere, Producer, and David Bellanco, Lead Developer. He spoke at length about the team's confidence in the PlayStation Vita, the challenges in supporting the emerging platforms such as the Ouya, and the emerging opportunities in moving from a dedicated developer, to act as a digital games publisher as well.

Digitally Downloaded (DD): What are the big opportunities you see for 2013?
Fabien Demeulenaere (FD): 2013 already started with a lots of work at Game Atelier: first of all we are happy to announce that we will be publishing three great titles developed by three totally different indie developers on to iOS. And that’s already huge for the publishing part of Game Atelier. And then, we have a fourth free-to-play game fully developed in-house coming at the end of Q1.

David Bellanco
DD: You're one of the biggest indie supporters of the PlayStation Vita. How have you found the experience of working on the platform?
FD: Sony has helped us a lot, ever since we released Flying Hamster on PSP back in 2010. They lent us some early dev kits of the PS Vita way before it was released in stores and we were definitely seduced by this nice piece of hardware. So working on it was pretty cool as it is technically powerful and it was quite easy to port our home-made framework onto it. The SDK lets you build and test games very quickly so the debugging process is really efficient. Porting Flying Hamster HD and developing SunFlowers was therefore pretty simple.

DD: Why did you decide to invest so heavily on a platform that is underperforming in the market? Are your game sales meeting your expectations?
FD: We could not forecast the sales of the PlayStation Vita when we developed SunFlowers because it was not out at that time. However sales show that there are many players eager to get more games on this handheld, so we can not complain at all. This is pretty sad because as players ourselves, we wish that more developers will make good titles on it.

DD: As someone with development experience on the platform - why do you think the PlayStation Vita is underperforming? What do you think needs to happen to turn things around for the struggling handheld?
FD: From a development perspective there’s absolutely nothing to complain about with the Vita; it has a wonderful display OLED screen, it is powerful, it is full of features and we can feel that Sony did not forget any aspect when they designed it.

From a user perspective, we are the kind of people who think that a good device is a device with the best games in every category. The PS Vita has already shown that it has the best potential for that - Gravity Rush is a wonderful title for instance - but many players are still expecting a great adventure game, a great racing game, a great soccer game and so on... and not just a simple reiteration that have been already released before on another console. And finally we think that the PS Vita pricing might be a little high, many people are simply waiting for a price drop.

David Bellanco (DB): The PS Vita also needs its Monster Hunter in Japan to sell!

SunFlowers HD (Vita)
DD: With more and more new game platforms being announced - such as Ouya and the Steam console - how do you decide which platforms to dedicate development resources to?
FD: Ouya sound definitely a great platform but we are a bit worried that only 100,000 units will be produced for the moment. They are definitely not playing on the same grounds than Sony, where four million units sold worldwide is treated like a “failure” to many people.

And for the Steam console, we are just keeping an eye on it for the moment.

As we work with our own framework that can let us port our titles to any device, we have the freedom to choose whatever platforms we want without losing so much time. But when it comes to the target platform for one of our games, we first ask ourselves: does this project really fit with the hardware features? Then we try to sort the pros and cons between the audience expectation and the popularity of the device, and this will still remain a very complicated and sensitive process as more new devices hit the market.

DD: The big surprise at CES this year was Nvidia’s Project Shield. What are your thoughts on the upcoming project?
DB: Nvidia’s Project Shield seems to be a nice piece of hardware. It is powerful and versatile with its Android OS and the application that allows players to stream a game from their PCs. But like the Ouya, we have to wonder if the device will have a user-base big enough for us to spend time and money on it. Since it runs on Android, we will support it, at least, the day we release our games on Google Play. To make a Tegra 4/Shield specific game is not something we plan on right now, but we try to keep an eye on it and see how everything evolves. So like the Ouya, it’s on the “perhaps later” list.

DD: Android consoles seem to be a thing of the future, but the common worry that continues to circle around is that it is not ‘secure’ enough to be a major player in the gaming industry. What are your thoughts on this?
DB: There are a lot of Android consoles... but before thinking of the security issues, we think that for them to be interesting enough, there should be some kind of standardization; there are too many different devices and that means potentially too many tweaks to implement. In other words is the device's ‘A’ input layout compatible with the device ‘B’ one? Too many consoles alienate small developers since there is too much to be done to support all of them. But since we haven't looked into it deep enough, it is still a question in the air for us right now; we will look into it more closely when we wander into the Android development world.

As for the secure part, a safer environment appeals to a much wider audience. A more strict installation process for validated only applications can be the key for such devices to be a major player. But the console success is defined by the games running on it. If the good games are there, the players will be there too.

Flying Hamster HD (Vita)
DD: You've started to publish some other developers’ games now. What inspired you to make that business decision?
FD: The two first games we published at Game Atelier was Gauge, a crazy psychedelic game from the indie developer Etienne Perin, and Super Tiny Leap, a hardcore-casual jumper from the indie crew One Life Remains. We knew both of them for a long time and we were happy to help them publishing their titles because we simply love their work.

Last year after we released those games alongside with SunFlowers, other developers came to us with their various projects, looking for a publisher support. As we are a very small team, we could not carry all of them and had to choose between the best proposed projects. We wish we could accept all of those great games and we are a bit sad not to have enough time and resources to take care of everyone.

DD: You’re now working on both mobile and dedicated gaming platforms. As someone who has experience with both of these platforms – will they continue being their own separate entities, or do you think they will converge together in the future?
FD: The future of handheld game consoles is probably changing to something different from what we have been used to. We still have faith that 1st party manufacturers like Nintendo or Sony will surprise us in the future, and they have to if they want to keep competing against phones and tablets.
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