Man, have I got something special for you guys this week. This is probably the most successful game development company I’ve interviewed to date, and they’re easily one of the top 3 interviews I’ve done as well. As some of you know, The Game Bakers are an indie development company located in Montpellier, France. And they’ve had huge success in both the mobile games market as well as on console. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to interview one of the founders, Emeric Thoa. We talked about everything; from his early career with Ubisoft, to the transition to mobile games, to how to stand out in a saturated gaming market. I promise you if you haven’t played anything by The Game Bakers before this interview, you’re going to be chomping at the bit by the end of it to try their stuff out.
So, as usual:
This is me.
This is Emeric.
This is a GIF of the most dangerous goat gang in Lima, Peru. They call themselves 2(Al)Pac.
Alright Emeric, so we start every interview with the same question: how did you get into gaming as a hobby? What was your first game/console?
Our first console at home was a Sega Master System. It was actually a birthday gift for my older sister, which was a very weird gift as she doesn’t like to play any kind of games very much. But we liked to play it together, like, hot-seating WonderBoy or Alex Kidd. I was hooked immediately and became a Sega fan.
Love the Master System. Such a great and overlooked library of games. So what pushed you to pursue a career in game development?
As a kid, I always dreamt of working on video games. But as I grew older and became a student, I left computer science for web design and usability. My studies really led me to be a UX expert for the web, but I went to do the last year of study and there was this “UX for video games” master-thing and I thought “looks nice, UX and video games”. I did the year and got an internship in Ubisoft as a UX guy, then became a game designer and game director. I don’t really feel I decided anything, but once I was working on games, I couldn’t go back.
That’s pretty fucking awesome! Not gonna lie, I don’t have a fucking clue what UX is but man getting on at Ubisoft must have been awesome. What were those early years like? What tips would you give to someone who just made the decision to start making games?
It’s always fun to learn. So, the early years were intense in learning and very fun. Very tough as well. The first game I shipped was a AAA with a new in-house engine for the launch of a new console generation. Very challenging, but also very rewarding, especially as the game was a big success. As for tips, I’d say first, make games. Try to make as many games as you can, even if they are board games with paper and coins. If you want to go into “game dev schools”, really think about it twice especially if they are paid programs. There’s very little you can learn there that you can’t learn by yourself from the internet. They are just a context for you to do homework, but if you have the guts to learn by yourself, it’s probably the best. And finally, if you are a junior and you have to do an internship or a first job, choose a game that’s in production not a game in conception. Conception (early days of a game project) is very abstract, and there’s very little to learn as you never know if what you’re doing is good or bad. In production, you have better feedback of what you are doing, it’s more satisfying as it’s more concrete, and when your contract ends, the game will ship (or soon) and it’ll be in your resume.
Awesome advice and it totally makes sense. I’m sure that makes it difficult to get hired when your entire internship is spent on a game that never reached its realization. So how did The Game Bakers come to be? Give me the full journey, from the first steps to the first game.
So Audrey and I met in Ubisoft. Mobile gaming was booming around 2010 and we decided to quit and try making smaller games with fewer peoples and faster schedules. We started by making a test app to set up our process (remote work, tools, tech, contracts…). We raised some love money, got a bit of funding from the government, and spent a year making Squids, a mobile game released in 2011 that beat Angry Birds on #1 spot in the App Store for two weeks. To make this game we gathered a small team from our networks, after our ten years of working in the industry. It was thrilling, and I’m still very proud of that game which is still available on Switch, iOS and PC.
That’s awesome! I’m kinda shocked that I never played it because I was a HUGE mobile gamer around that time. Had to do something to get through boring ass engineering classes in college lol. So when did you feel like your studio “made it”? Or do you still not think you’ve “made it” yet?
I do feel that we’ve “made it”, but only just recently. It wasn’t when we were #1 on the App Store, nor for the next game in 2012, Squids Wild West. Nor for the game after that, Combo Crew, which was a featured App of the Week by Apple. Not even for the launch of Furi in 2016. It was in 2018, 8 years after we started the company. We’re currently making Haven with a 20 people team, entirely self-funded from the money of Furi. At that very moment, we became a profitable small size game studio like the ones I admired: Capybara, Supergiant. But even now, everything can go wrong. We are a one-project studio. Every project is like an “all-in” at a poker table. If the game flops, it’s over.
Wow, what a mindset. I feel like so many indie companies would have said “we made it” after that first success, but you guys have had a ton of success in the last 8 years and still pushed forward. That’s what separates the great studios from the average. And yea, every game is “all in”, but I think that’s what makes your games so good! You clearly have a style to your games that stands out and as long as you keep building on that I think you guys are gonna go far in the industry.
So let’s talk about Furi. How did that game come to be? Brainstorming sessions?
I had the broad idea and desire to make a game like that for 10 years at least. When it was time to decide what to make next, I pitched a bunch of ideas to Audrey, and that’s the one that stuck out the most. We knew we wanted to go back to console/PC games and that this game would need to stand out. We needed a strong character design, art direction, story, music, etc. So we took a work-for-hire project to “gain some time” working on the concept of Furi.
Ok, so take me through the development path. How did you build the team to take on this concept?
We looked for character designers and started working with Takashi. We defined the main concepts, the story plot, the main ideas for bosses and characters and Takashi did some sketches – always astonishing ones. Then, we started making a fake video of gameplay footage. This helps in shaping the art direction but also the gameplay: animation movesets, camera, signs and feedbacks. When we had something rough, we got in touch with Carpenter Brut who did the music for that 1:30 video. Once we had the video, we could look for funding, and everything was simpler with Okazaki and Carpenter Brut on board.
So you had the concept and created a video to further support and market that concept. Very interesting. Not sure I’ve heard of many games that followed that path but it totally makes sense. What roadblocks did your team have to overcome during development?
The biggest challenges were to assemble the team and to scale up to 25 people, with many working remotely from 13 different countries across 4 continents. But design-wise, it was very straightforward. For once in my life, the project was not a design mess!
I cannot imagine managing a team that big and that broad. Holy fuck that’s insane. So how ecstatic were you when it became a massive hit?
It was actually initially very disappointing. I was super proud of the game, and I thought it would become a “Hellblade” kind of success. But it didn’t. The sales initially were very low, compared to my expectations. But, over time it kept selling well. It sold as much the second year as the first one, which usually never happens. So, now, I compare Furi to 2001: Space Odyssey, because that movie did a very slow start in few theaters but then became a massive success over months/years of exploitation. (and also I’m joking, nothing can compare with 2001).
One of the big things that stands out in the game to me is the soundtrack. That may be mostly because I love the synthy 80’s cyberpunk mood you set in the game, but I know I’m not alone. Many people have pointed out how awesome it is. Was that intentional off the bat? How did it come to be and how did you find your composer?
Haha yes, it was intentional. This kind of soundtrack doesn’t happen without a loooooot of efforts and dedication to make it happen. We knew we wanted a very strong soundtrack with several composers. We identified the style of music that would go best with the game and like I said, once Carpenter Brut did the fake trailer music, everything was easier. The visuals were cool, the gameplay prototypes were punchy, dynamic, and visual. Musicians came on board quite easily. But we did work with 14 out of the 7 who made music for the game. It didn’t always work, and it was a lot of work to communicate the content, the mood, and the structure of each boss with musicians working remotely who don’t necessarily know how video games work, especially with a game that’s not finished. But that was an incredible adventure to make the music for this game.
Very cool. So what lessons did you learn from specifically from Furi over your first couple of titles?
Surprise people. Stand out. Always try to make something that stands out. Don’t try to please, try to surprise. That’s really the one lesson I learned over 15 years in the game industry.
“Don’t try to please, try to surprise” should be etched into the lobby of every single game developers studio. That’s phenomenal advice.
So your next game, Haven, is being released in 2020. It looks like there’s a heavy emphasis on relationships between partners. How did you come up with the idea? Is it a game more focused on the message of the story or the gameplay? What’s been different in the development of this game vs the development of Furi?
Yes, Haven is a game about two lovers in an established relationship, but it’s first and foremost an adventure game; the thrilling story of a couple fighting to stay together. Romeo & Juliet in space. But when you dig a little, yes the game is about that love; the love of an established couple, the love of people who can be themselves with the person they love. The trust, the ability to show someone your weaknesses because you know your bond is tough enough. This is not something that is often covered by media in general. Movies, books, TV shows often tell the story of two people falling in love. In video games, this is already very rare. But telling the story of a couple who’s already together? That’s is a first in video games, as far as I know. Like I said, our goal is to surprise; to create a new experience. The game is more story-driven than Furi, but it’s a good blend of JRPG storytelling and gameplay. I often sum it up by saying it’s a mix of Journey and Persona. The pillars are Exploration-Combat-Story, but with that fresh twist of playing a couple in love.
Man, you’ve sold me on that idea already. I can’t wait to play it next year. Hopefully, we can talk again before it’s released and we can dive even deeper into Haven‘s development process. But for now, I think I’ve taken enough of your time. Ready to wrap this all up with some rapid-fire questions?
Let’s do it!
Alright, favorite game of all time?
Woah what a random JRPG. Haha, favorite game this year?
Tie between Gris, Sayonara Wild Hearts and Resident Evil 2 remake.
Ok well, I usually make people pick just one…but I understand the conundrum because all 3 were fantastic. Most underrated game of all time?
Most overrated game of all time?
Woah wow. Ok then. Game you refuse to play (for whatever reason)?
Haha realistic war games and shooters.
Typical indie developer response lol. What about one fact about The Game Bakers (or Furi or Haven) that no one else knows?
Well, some people know it but not many. Furi is written with an “i” because it’s the Japanese pronunciation of the word “Free”, because it’s a game about freedom.
Yea I had no idea why it was spelled that way until now lol. I thought you guys were just trying to be edgy but it makes sense! Lastly, do you think Fortnite is a good game?
No idea, I’m too much into Japanese solo games to have tried it. I’m playing Persona 3 on Vita at the moment.
Let me help you out: don’t waste your time lol. Thank you so much again for your time and I hope to speak with you again soon! Good luck with the development of Haven too! Can’t wait to see it!
Alright, everyone, I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. So, if you haven’t played any of the above-mentioned games, you can find their mobile titles by searching “The Game Bakers” on the iOS and Android stores. And Furi is available on all platforms (PC, PlayStation, Xbox, Switch). It is well worth the buy. Finally, if you don’t follow The Game Bakers on Twitter you can do so here and follow along with the development of Haven! See you next week!