Kheops Studio - Benoît Hozjan interview
Ask any adventure fan what the name "Kheops" means to them. If all that comes to mind is a pyramid-building pharaoh, they probably just don't realize that it's also the name responsible for the recent games that made Jules Verne, the Renaissance and cracking safes fun again.
When Return to Mysterious Island came out a couple of years ago, it impressed players by spinning something new and remarkably fresh out of a familiar formula and a point-and-click interface. Since then, the small French team of developers behind it have released several more games, all of them warmly received. So why isn't Kheops Studio a household name among adventure fans?
Kheops' story is an interesting one. The dozen people who make up the team were all Cryo employees, until DreamCatcher bought the company and then decided not to continue any in-house development. The game they were working on at the time, The Egyptian Prophecy, seemed destined for cancellation, but they decided to form their own company and finish it instead.
With its limited staff, Kheops has chosen to focus on design and integration. Their tools allow them to build a game's story, world and puzzles, to create the artistic style, and then outsource the graphics (created by a company called Mzone), music and voice work, before putting it all together and making sure the game receives the amount of polish it deserves. In some cases, even the design is done by another company, as was the case with ECHO and The Secrets of Da Vinci, which were designed by the two-person Totm Studio (also former Cryo people).
Still only three years old, Kheops already has seven games to its credit and is now putting the finishing touches on its new game, Destination: Treasure Island. Despite such a hectic schedule and the pressure of the upcoming release, the team recently took some time to welcome me to their office, and their CEO, Benoît Hozjan, answered my questions about what constitutes the Kheops touch, and what the future holds for them.
The Egyptian Prophecy
Crystal Key 2
Return to Mysterious Island
I'm really glad to meet you, especially since we don't know all that much about Kheops Studio. Despite having made several very good games, you don't seem to get as much exposure as some other companies or designers.
We have a growing fan-base, but it's true that we keep somewhat low-profile. We try not to build too much expectation around our games and risk disappointing players in the end. I'm also not in favour of having a single "star" representing the studio. Even though the game designer obviously plays an important part, we're a team first and foremost, where everyone tries to do his best. And at both ends of the development process, we all give ideas to him to shape the game or finalise the gameplay -- and he really appreciates that collective brainstorming and feedback. It's also more motivating for everyone to feel like an integral part in the success of a product, rather than just an underling working under a big name. And I think that translates in the amount of polish our games receive.
But still, tell me a bit more about you. What sort of games do you play?
When I was working for Cryo, I was in the tech department, and while I had played some of the classics, I didn't play many adventure games then -- I was more of a console gamer. Of course, this has changed since Kheops Studio was founded, and I've had the chance to discover many different things. Developers are not the biggest gamers (once they start developing), but we all try to play the adventures that are currently released, or at least the demos, to see what is being done elsewhere.
You have to work with rather limited budgets. How does that translate in the development process?
Having to work with limited budgets is a constraint, but we try to treat it as a stimulating challenge. After all, do you need a high budget to have good ideas? To use a film analogy, we're not a Hollywood company, but rather the sort of indie studio you'd see at Sundance festival, with movies relying on creativity rather than special effects. Still, budgets affect many things. For instance, we have to make a game within 8 or 9 months, from original design to going gold, with two or three games in different state of advancement being developed at the same time.
Most people are pleased with your games once they've played them, but some are not willing to try them, possibly because of the bad image of node-based games. As former Cryo employees, you must know that it's a company that didn't end its life with a very good image.
I think that when the first node-based Cryo games (Versailles, Egypt 1156 B.C.) came out, they made a good impression. But I'm not sure there were only high-quality projects afterwards, and that may have given a bad reputation to that type of game. Even now, both gamers and reviewers tend to be prejudiced against these, and it's difficult to fight against that. Yet Return to Mysterious Island surprised many people, and its success owes much to word of mouth.
At the moment, the gaming industry is very much focused on real-time 3D, being able to move freely, but it should not be forgotten that there is more than one sort of audience. I'm a Quake fan personally, but I wouldn't make my parents play it. Many people consider point-and-click dated, but it's a control scheme that has a much easier learning curve, and allows players to immediately focus on the game, rather than having to master the controls first.
We know many people among our friends and family who don't know much about video games, but when we made them play our games, they got into them in a matter of minutes, and absolutely didn't mind not being able to explore behind every tree -- and didn't know the difference between real-time and pre-rendered 3D.
So we're not trying to go for the latest technology. We're doing point-and-click and nodes, and we're trying to do it well, to push the envelope in terms of graphics, story and overall experience. We just want people to give our games a chance and not judge them on technological criteria.
Since the experience is what matters, what are your principles on gameplay?
We really don't want to frustrate the player. For instance, we're very careful to put items in sight to avoid pixel hunting. When we get to the end of development, and try to adjust the game's difficulty, we tend to lean toward making puzzles slightly easier. And we also refuse to artificially increase the length of our games -- by relying on backtracking, for instance. I prefer players to find our games short but good, rather than getting bored before the end.
The highly non-linear nature of your games also affects the perceived length, doesn't it?
Definitely. In Return to Mysterious Island, there were different ways of doing almost everything and several optional parts, and so that made the game appear twice as short as if it had been completely linear. So we changed our design philosophy a bit. In VOYAGE, the game was very open and many puzzles could be solved in the order the player chose, but... by the end of the game, everything had to be done. This enables us to leave much freedom to the players, and yet be sure that they'll see all we've worked on.
I must confess that the complexity this introduced caught us slightly off-guard. This type of development means having to keep track of lots of conditions, and makes bugs with the game logic more likely to appear.
I guess players appreciate that freedom.
Actually, not all of them do. There are people who enjoy freedom, who don't want to receive help or to feel like they have to stick to a single path. But there are also many players who like more direction. This is especially true of people who play with a walkthrough close at hand, consult it as soon as they get stuck, and want to follow a list of steps; we know those people felt slightly lost in VOYAGE. We have to try to please both types of players, and that's why we're experimenting with a slightly different style in Destination: Treasure Island.
The Secrets of Da Vinci
Doesn't that non-linearity also entail more static plots? And yet you have some experience in plot-driven games, since your designer, Alexis Lang, worked on Salammbô.
It's true that when we work in a very open world, the game is less plot-driven. But we don't have a single model that must be applied every time. It all depends on the game and settings, and you'll see that Destination: Treasure Island differs from Return to Mysterious Island or VOYAGE in that regard.
The first full-fledged Kheops game was Return to Mysterious Island. How was this project chosen? The appeal of the 2005 Jules Verne celebrations?
The reason why we did RTMI is that DreamCatcher had been pleased with Mystery of the Nautilus and were looking for people interested in making another game based on Jules Verne's books. So at first it wasn't at all because we were expecting a lot of publicity around Verne for the 100th anniversary of his death. Actually, DreamCatcher didn't know about that, and we're the ones who told them. But it's certain that the anniversary prompted us to make VOYAGE on the heels of RTMI.
Beyond that, Verne's stories lend themselves well to adventure games -- as do Stevenson's and Poe's that we used in Destination: Treasure Island. And it really makes us happy if playing the game can prompt people to read the book. We know of a person who had played Return to Mysterious Island, had really enjoyed it, and decided to buy the book afterwards -- and wrote to us saying he appreciated our work even more now that he saw how we had worked from it. Those who constantly put down computer games would do well to reflect on such examples. It's silly to oppose different media; they can complement one another.
So you'll go on working from books?
Certainly, but don't think that it's because it's easier; I feel it's as much work to use an existing world as start from scratch. We have to use books in the public domain, but then there's no special rule as to what we'll work with. It depends on what we're interested in, and on whether the story can lend itself to the sort of game we want to do and to the budget we have. Around the World in 80 Days, for instance, is not something we would have done.
Because there are too many locations?
Exactly, that would have been too expensive. We try to work with stories that can be set within a limited space, with natural barriers such as islands, a Moon crater, or a house. That way, rather than letting the player feel the budget constraints by constantly bumping into invisible walls, the limited space becomes a natural feature of the game, which is ultimately less frustrating.
Whenever discussions arise as to whether our games are vast enough, Alexis is quick to point out that you can watch a play set in a single location, and that doesn't make its plot less good. So we don't feel that having a limited number of locations is a problem, as long as they're used well. And we'd rather decide from the beginning that we'll have to work within a limited space, rather than create as many locations as we feel like and then have to end the game halfway through the intended story because we've run out of money.
Destination: Treasure Island
Speaking of your Jules Verne games, what was the meaning of VOYAGE's concluding cinematic? Just an Easter egg, or more?
We thought it was a nice little reference to have VOYAGE end just like Return to Mysterious Island started. And it also left the door open for a sequel we had thought about, starring Michel Ardan and Captain Nemo. I'm very fond of Ardan; he is a rather original character, both in terms of appearance and personality, and I believe we remained true to the book. But from a marketing point of view, he's not very interesting -- less than, say, blander-but-cuter Mina. So I don't think that sequel will ever happen.
You said there was no opportunism involved in making those two games. Can you really say the same of The Secrets of Da Vinci?
When we started work on that game, the buzz around The Da Vinci Code was just starting in France; as a matter of fact, the designers of Totm hadn't read the book when they decided to make the game. What happened is just that they went to Amboise and visited the Clos Lucé [the manor where Leonardo spent his last years, which is now a museum], and thought that could be made into good game material (just like they had the idea for ECHO after going to Lascaux on holiday).
Obviously, there was some opportunism involved in the way the game was marketed, but not overly so. Most reviews noted that, despite what the outward impression may be, the game was not a rip-off and stood on its own, and that is was all the better if the release of the movie could attract more people to it.
The same sort of thing happened for Destination: Treasure Island. We were looking for new ideas, and the art director bought the book for his nephew, and thought that it might make a good game. And then, a month after work had begun, we learnt that the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels were being filmed and that our game would be released between films #2 and #3.
If those circumstances can help sell our games, we're not going to complain. But we don't choose our projects based on what will be featured in the news at the time of the release. I guess we're just getting quite good at feeling the Zeitgeist or else we're just very lucky.
And after all those games, you did something rather different with Safecracker.
Safecracker was a game DreamCatcher asked us to do. We've mostly made adventure games so far, but Safecracker was what we call a "puzzle game", focusing mostly on puzzles rather than exploration and story. We wanted to clearly distinguish between these two types of games, by using two different logos, as they're not aimed at exactly the same audience. Safecracker was well received, so we're likely to make another puzzle game in the future.
Left to right: Franck Letiec (Art Director), Wilfried Hinault (Lead Programmer), Stéphane Petit (co-founder & Technical Director), Alexis Lang (Lead Game Designer), Benoît Hozjan (co-founder & Managing Director).
Throughout the discussion, you've frequently referred to how your games were received. Is feedback really important to you?
We're really interested in getting feedback (through an on-going survey on our website, reviews, etc.), and we act upon it. We know, for instance, that we made a mistake at the beginning of VOYAGE, where you had to adjust the atmosphere inside the space capsule within a limited time. It's not that we'll not use timed sequences or skill-based challenges again in the future -- we'll keep having a few when the story and pacing demand it -- but that particular instance didn't work out well, because we didn't make what had to be done clear enough, and some people got killed repeatedly and gave up. So that's the sort of mistake we try not to make anymore.
We know that not all our puzzles are perfectly innovative, even though we always strive to make good ones. But with our tight development schedule, we just sometimes don't manage to come up with anything better at a given time -- especially for puzzles that don't easily lend themselves to tweaking and the only other choice we have is leaving them out.
Well, I'll add some feedback of my own. As a fan of the old Sierra games, I find it slightly frustrating that there's a score, but with no idea what maximum score to aim for. Why is that?
That's a design choice. We know the maximum scores it's possible to reach in our games, but we've always refused to reveal them. A silly reason is that it allows us to cover our own backs, since we've found out afterwards that there are bugs in Return to Mysterious Island and VOYAGE that make it possible to raise your score as much as you want. A better reason is that we've had a blast watching people competing in forums to get the highest score, and exchanging tips. We love seeing our games generate this sort of interest, and it probably wouldn't happen if we gave away the maximum score.
Another reason is that, for Return to Mysterious Island, we had considered holding a score-based contest (which eventually didn't happen). Actually, we had envisioned two contests. One was about getting the highest score, and the other about finishing the game with the lowest possible score; when you think about it, that can make for a rather original and interesting way of playing.
There are also people who've asked us to give the maximum score as a way of monitoring how far they are in the game. We've taken note of the idea, but we're not certain that the score is the best way to track progress, especially in a non-linear game, where it's possible to get many points for just picking up items while not having done much of the game.
But whether, and how, this gets implemented will depend on what fits well with the style of a given game. Having a score was well-adapted to Return to Mysterious Island or VOYAGE, but we felt it was unnecessary in Destination: Treasure Island, so there's none there.
Hard at work in the office of Kheops Studio
I know you can't tell much about your future projects, but are there a couple of tidbits you'd be willing to share?
Here's one: we're going to open a store on our website (hopefully by the end of the month), where people will be able to buy both boxed and downloadable versions of our games. For the moment, we have Nobilis's agreement for The Secrets of Da Vinci and Destination: Treasure Island. Discussions are still ongoing with DreamCatcher concerning our other games.
And you're still set on node-based games?
For the moment we've only done those, but we've now extended our tools to be able to use a third-person perspective. As a matter of fact, we've done work on a third-person game; we have a technical prototype ready, as well as a story. But third-person games are slightly more expensive to make, and we're still looking for a publisher willing to take the risk to invest in that project. We'd really like to make that game, to be able to show that we can be trusted to do something different, and so we might consider funding it ourselves, but that would mean having to develop it little by little over a longer period of time.
We're not especially interested in using real-time 3D. Our audience, adventure game players, are not obsessed with technology, being more concerned with the quality of the story and the visual appeal of the graphics. Still, we might go for real-time 3D one day, but then that would probably be with a different audience in mind. And provided we have the necessary funding.
And so, once again, we return to that question of budget...
We know that adventure games don't sell as well as other genres, and publishers are less inclined to take risks. Especially since sales have rather decreased compared to what they were half a decade ago -- probably not because there are fewer players, but because there are far more adventure games on the market now and also more platforms.
So we have to work with limited budgets (even more limited than some other adventure studios), and can't use real-time 3D or, say, make our games much longer. But we try to make the most of what we have, and to offer better value-for-money than many other games with higher budgets and price tags. What matters is that we can look our customers in the eye; they know we haven't cheated them.
I'd like to thank Benoît and the entire Kheops Studio team for the great day I spent with them. With their ongoing commitment to excellence and ambitious plans for the future, there's much to look forward to as they continue to establish themselves as one of the most prominent developers in the genre today.