Co-founder, Executive Producer
Co-founder, Creative Director
[Editor's note: This interview was originally posted on March 13th 2013 as part of our MWC13 coverage]
Fueled at the Ubisoft headquarters, French game creators Audrey Leprince and Emeric Thoa decided to go solo two years ago to start their own independent studio with the goal of “bringing the console experience to smartphones and tablets”. Based in Montpellier and Lyon, The Game Bakers went from working with a team that gathered hundreds of people around the world -usually handling blockbuster budgets and years-long shipping deadlines- to a much smaller one that swings among the five or ten members. Enough folk to create a tactic RPG like Squids in just nine nine months tops and, still, keeping the essence and ‘grandeur’ of a big studio’s game, not to mention the success. This little fable about a group of intrepid and adorable squid explorers has already charmed 1.5 millions users in both iOS and Android, but The Game Bakers are now looking at the bigger picture backed-up by a loyal fan base: they are building a true cross-media franchise that began with the release of a a Squids comic book for iPad, continued with a Squids sequel game (Squids Wild West, premium for iOS and Android) and will expand even more in 2015, with a proper TV series for kids. And, in the meantime, The Game Bakers don’t stop producing new games like the upcoming Combo Crew, a casual beat’em up that they demo’ed at the MWC13 and are planning to put in the market in late April.
AppsZoom: You both guys come from a giant like Ubisoft. How do you get out of there and start your own indie company?
Audrey Leprince (AL): With a big smile! We were very happy because we were a bit tired of working with 300 people teams and 20 million dollars budgets and crossing the five continents. In four years we would ship only one game. Now we can make our own games and we can ship them in six to nine months. And take our own creative decisions and really listen to our players. It is not the marketing team who gets the feedback and never tell you!
Emeric Thoa (ET): It’s good to be in control and be able to make games faster and with a smaller team. We work with 5 to 10 people. There are animators, musicians, creatives… We are based in France and have and studio in Quebec, but our team is international though, we also have people working in Japan. Sometimes is difficult to communicate with everyone but we are used to it since we were in Ubisoft.
AZ: The Game Bakers should have had something to lean on at the start like everyone in this world. What was it?
AL: The French government provided some subventions for game creation. So for Squids, half of the production budget was covered with that and, for the rest, we had to use our own money and look for ‘love money’ from friends. If you want to grow more, you may have to search for other alternatives.
AZ: Squids Wild West is being launched this same week for Android devices as a premium game, with new environments, new characters and the same gameplay that rocked so well for the first part, but what is the deal with Combo Crew?
AL: Although Squids is a tactical RPG we really wanted to have the accessibility that you find in mobile games, so it was purely tactics and drawing, not touching menus like in Final Fantasy. This is the philosophy that we are bringing to Combo Crew, which is a beat’em up, but we really also wanted to make it super accessible, with super intuitive controls that make the most of the device. There’s no gamepad at all.
ET: Yes, that is the whole point of the design. And we also wanted to bring back the feeling of playing with a friend, so that when you fail you can ask a friend to come and help you in the fight.
AZ: Only one mate?
ET: Actually three different game modes, one where you just play solo trying to beat scores and earn medals but you can’t call anybody. The other two are co-operative modes. One it is the Combo Crew mode where you are alone and you fight and fight and you can call as many friends as you want to help you. And then it is the one where it’s just only two players taking turns to fight and if you fail the other can help you to win the level and pass to the next one. It’s really co-operative. Also, the more you play, the more money you earn to buy new moves for your character. And the controls are totally casual. Right, right, left, left, up, down… It is not about mastering a complete control scheme, it is about choosing your play style and managing to increase your combos. This is really the depth of the game, with a very well-known design motto, but at the same time easy to learn and master. A beat’em up is only funny when you can improve yourself.
AZ: You have just talked about money, so is there an in-app purchase?
ET: Yes. Actually there are items you can buy through a virtual transaction to be stronger. There is a category called ‘Comfort’ that is an in-app purchase. Combo Crew is designed to be free but, at the moment, first, we don’t have any experience with freemium at the moment and, second, I don’t really like the way freemium games are right now because either they are fail, not profitable, or they are a mid-success but they frustrate the players through in-app purchase. The thing I don’t like about freemium us when it’s peeling at frustration. I really want to solve that equation of keepings the game fun, giving the game for free and making it profitable. It is not a matter of becoming super rich, but just making the next game. How do I get the money to be able to make a new title with a game that is free? It should say: “OK, if you pay, you will have more fun” not “If you don’t pay, you will be frustrated”. But, right now, I’m not sure about that. Our plan is releasing Combo Crew as a premium game first. We want our community of players give us feedback and help us to improve the game for a few months and then these players will be rewarded with a specials scene and characters. I want them to tell a lot about the game. Only after that we will make the game free.
AL: It will be premium and then freemium on iOS and Android when we find a way to balance it.
ET: At the moment it is just really an alpha version. We aim to finish it and polish it so it can be released by the end of April.
AZ: How many levels will Combo Crew have?
ET: We plan to have at least 100 levels. It is going to be very interesting to replay them, mainly because you have your own score. You have your gold medals but you can also replay the level because your friend can beat your score.
AZ: Talking about the scores, how will you implement them? Globally? Locally?
ET: Even better than that. You will be able to see your own friends scores because I don’t want to know that is a guy in Japan that made million points when I just made 5000. I just want to know what my friend did because it is closer to me. Still, you will be able to see a global leaderboard in a different menu. In game, though, you can only see your friends’ score.
AZ: You’re offering a multiplatform, multidevice experience, what is your take on HTML5 to solve the problem of game optimization?
ET: Some games can’t be done in HTML5 for sure. It is not powerful enough, I think. What we want to do is to bring the console experience to smartphones and tablets and that means in terms of technology that some phones won’t take it and also that it is a bit longer to produce. It is really our choice. We are still aiming for gamers.
AZ: Who is the creative mind of the two?
ET: For Squids for instance, for the character’s concept we worked a lot together. For Combo Crew, it was me who was behind the world design and product management and Audrey is more focused on the company’s strategy and the crossmedia stuff. I’m now now into the game production.
AZ: Speaking of the devil, can you tell us about this Squids world you are building beyond mobile games?
AL: When we started with Squids we wanted to do a game with a big universe, great heroes and stories. We wanted to tell our version of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. We always had these universe in mind, with much more kingdoms and sequels. And then we launched Squids which was a nice success and then Squids Wild West. And because we had some many players that loved the game, the characters, the universe and went really into it, we decided to push it a little further and we launched the comic book only for iPad. The next step is the TV series, which is a big dream. It is a co-production between France and Quebec. We are still looking for the TV channels to sell it globally, country by country and it’s gonna be 12 minutes-long 52 episodes for the first season. The target it is a little bit younger though, for kids between 6 and 8 years old and we hope it goes to air in 2015.
AZ: Are you still behind the creative aspect of the TV production?
AL: We work with studios, we already know how to do that and so we have a partnership with Titof which is a very big French animation studio. We work with experts and we still very involved in the content but we count on professional writers to develop the stories, just like we did with the comic book. But, yes, ultimately it is still on us.
ET: It’s great to work with people that are experts so we can spend our time creating new games.