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Shadows and Drugs: Our Chat With Compulsion Games’s Guillaume Provost

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Compulsion Games is a studio known for their unconventional indie titles Contrast and We Happy Few. Based in Montreal, Canada, the studio was founded in 2009 by Guillaume Provost, an industry veteran. Goomba Stomp had the chance to talk with Provost at his studio about his career, early access and the company’s next game.

GS: How did you start out in the industry?

GP: I started in ’97 started out trying to start my own game studio. I went up to Lac Saint-Jean to try and start a game studio and then I ended up—it’s a bit of a crazy story, we were a bunch of kids who didn’t really know what they were doing; it didn’t work out. I ended up landing my first game job in Toronto at a company called Pseudo Interactive we made racing games for the original Xbox. I was a programmer. That’s where I started.

I moved to Toronto because I liked a girl there, that’s the original story. I started as a programmer and worked there for 7 years. The company went from about 8 people when I joined to about 80 people. We did a bunch of titles. We did Cel Damage for the hardware launch of the Xbox for Microsoft. We made a set of racing combat games called Full Auto. So I went from programmer to lead programmer, then producer, then I was managing the whole team. We wanted to go live in Europe, so I started looking around and I got the job at Arkane and moved to produce one of the Half-Life episodes. We were working on it for Valve at the time. We lost that project pretty quickly because Valve changed strategy. I stayed there for a little bit under a year. Then I set up shop by myself in France and eventually moved back to Montreal to start my studio.

GS: You worked on Half-Life 2 Episode 3?

GP: We were actually working on the fourth one. I can’t say more than that. We were working on a Half-Life episode called Return to Ravenholm. It’s public news now, but we had to keep it secret for several years. It leaked in the press a couple years back so I feel comfortable talking about it now.

At Arkane, we worked on Half-Life for a little bit, Half-Life 2 Episode 4, and then Valve, for reasons I can’t talk about, decided to make a strategic move internally on the franchise at that time, and we worked on a game called ‘The Crossing,’ which I was responsible for pitching in Europe while Raphael (Colantonio), the studio head, was supposed to pitch it in America. It was a multiplayer, single player game concept that we never ended up signing. I left the company right after we signed on to work on LMNO which was a Steven Spielberg project with EA, which also never shipped. So I have no titles that shipped while I was at Arkane. It was a tumultuous period for the company.

This was before they worked on BioShock 2, and then they worked on Dishonored after I had left.

GS: Why did you want to start your own studio?

GP: I’ve been working for independent studios my whole life. Actually, the whole story is I was in France, I considered opening a studio there at first, but as a Canadian expatriate living in France it was quite complex to get it going. I originally got a call from a Taiwanese game company that was interested in starting a studio in Montreal and had a lot of money to start the studio. They approached me, we did an interview, I went there and stayed for a bit to work in the trenches down in Taiwan. Then we signed some contracts and they said, “Hey, we have $4 million for you to start a studio in Montreal.” I said, “Yes, lets go, go, go, sign all the paperwork.” Then I got all my stuff packed, and containers locked and ready to go, and we ran right into the housing financial crisis in 2008. And so the money disappeared overnight. So I kind of said fuck it, and I moved and started the studio with no money instead, and it was my studio. So that’s the not-so-glamorous story of me moving to Montreal to start a studio.

Originally, this was in 2009 when I started the studio, I had spent some time working with Valve, and kind of looking at what was trendy back then. To give you a little background, in those years, I wasn’t really clear on the fact that you could actually run a studio on making digitally downloadable games. Like, it was really still in the era where everyone was making boxes, packing those boxes, and sending them to Wal-Mart to sell. So I was looking around me, and Braid came out that year, and Castle Crashers, so there were these few Xbox Live Arcade games that I felt could support a small team. I was a big fan of Portal at the time because I had worked with Valve when they’d shipped the Orange Box, and so I was trying to think through the different mechanics we use like my strengths. That’s how I came up with the original mechanic of you being able to move in 3D, and moving in and out of shadows, developing the whole gameplay gimmick and working around that. I had originally envisioned the project to be pretty small, like a 2 to 3 person team, because that’s what I thought the market would support. I didn’t think that I could make a bigger game without going to the retail shelves, which was really the domain of 60 people plus teams at the time. Showing up with very little money, I also knew that it would take sometime to actually accumulate that much money to be able to start a team. We didn’t have the tools that we have today, the Canadian Media Fund, and the other large sources of capital to start studios.

GS: What were the early days of the studio like?

GP: The first 2 years of the studio, I developed the concept on paper, and I hired Whitney (Clayton), our art director, who’s the first employee of the company, but then we did a lot of contract work. I call it brain prostitution, just to start a little bit of a war chest to start our own project, so that took about 2 years, 2009 to 2011. We mostly did work for hire for larger studios, so we went to work with the guys on Darksiders at THQ, we worked with the folks at Bedlam on a Dungeons and Dragons game, and then I patiently accumulated some money so that we could self-fund our first game. Then, in 2011, we had accumulated enough money, and the Canadian Media Fund came onboard at that time. That gave us the war chest that we needed to start production on Contrast.

GS: Many indie games are made by very small teams and most are smaller 2D experiences. Why did you set out to make such an ambitious game for your first project?

GP: We did make it with a pretty small team. The final size of the team for Contrast was around 7 people. So it wasn’t a big team that made it. I’ve always been someone who had ambitions, but Whitney and I also wanted the game to have a certain look and feel to it. I think that what it comes down to is that, originally, I had just felt like, okay, you know what? I’ll make a really small game and I’m really going to centralize everything on the mechanic itself and bet big on the fact that people are going to like it. As with all great things in the industry, all great ideas come to multiple people at once. At the time of development, there were two other games that were in development that popped up with very similar mechanics. One of them was Tower of Shadows, I think was the name, it was a Wii game. There was a second one called Shadow Physics, which had been picked up by Microsoft. Both had similar mechanics. Of course when you start this project and you think you got this amazing new idea, you got Microsoft and some big company in Japan picking up similar mechanics, it’s a bit frightening. I reacted to it by saying I’m not going to change my idea or my concept. I’ll develop it further and basically put different onion peels to it that make it a unique project that stands on more than just one leg.

I think that’s how Contrast developed into what it was. It had an interesting story, an interesting setting, an interesting mechanic and when you marry those together you don’t really need to worry about copying another game at that point or feeling like other people will think that you copied another game. In the end, it turned out that Shadow Physics never shipped, Tower of Shadows didn’t make a huge splash either. I don’t know that I had a reason to be really worried in the first place, but I think it’s a philosophy we’ve put forth to all our game concepts. We want to develop a sufficiently well rounded, coherent game experience that we don’t have to worry about having direct competition with somebody else. I mean there’s always going to be some comparisons. We Happy Few gets compared to BioShock on a regular basis and I’m okay with that, but I don’t think that anyone thinks we are copying it. We have enough different elements in our game that creates that unique experience, that it’s our voice not someone else’s voice. That’s how Contrast became bigger than I had initially anticipated it was going to be.

GS: Was launching with the PS4 part of your plan from the start?

GP: I don’t think we ever normally plan on a very specific platform from the get-go. We really try to concentrate on making a game that’s strong, and as we get closer to the ship timeline, we figure out whether there are opportunities for us to benefit from working with one of the partners. So in this case we had been working pretty closely with Sony. Both Matt (Robinson), the technical director, and I have extensive experience shipping on hardware on time. So we approached both Microsoft and Sony and said, “Hey, we’re making this game, we’re getting close to shipping, we might be interested in supporting the hardware launches if you’re interested.” Sony said no, and Microsoft said no, until we got pretty close to the spring of 2013, which is the year that we shipped. At one point we showed a demo to the folks at Sony and they said, “Yeah, lets get you devkits and see if this works.” We jumped on that internally, we treated it seriously, and we got them a working version of the game for the E3 show floor, for that summer’s E3. I think that was the piece that really clinched it. They were able to see that we could turn it around really quickly and get it to work on their hardware.

Things moved really quickly from there because they felt confident that the game would be ready on time. That’s the hardest thing when you are launching a platform, you get a lot of commitments but not everybody makes the day one launch because it requires being capable of working with hardware that’s not quite finished and a number of other development issues on both the hardware side and the software side. And then they made an offer that was very good for us. This is the thing, we shipped, I think it was on November 13th, the day of the hardware launch. We actually shipped on 4 platforms at the same time. We shipped on the Xbox 360, the PS3, the PS4 and PC at the same time. The PS4 version was part of a PS Plus deal we had with Sony at the time. The big calculation I had in my head was my goal for the first game of the company was not automatically for us to become millionaires, I wanted to make something I felt proud of and I wanted to establish the reputation of the company. Knowing that Sony was going to put us in every PlayStation 4 booth in America, selling the PlayStation 4 and that people would see our game while they were considering whether to buy a new console was really the big move I wanted to make to say, hey, we’re small but we punch above our weight and we’re part of this exciting new experience that you’ll get if you buy into the PlayStation 4. Those kinds of deals rarely happen well in advance unless you are a very established developer like a Bungie. Really they’re going to look at the game when it’s almost finished and say, “This is good enough, we want it on our platform.”

GS: What changed for you after the release of Contrast?

GP: I think we made some healthy profits on Contrast; not enough to make us millionaires, but enough to keep the company going and allow us to grow. So that has really helped tremendously in stabilizing the company. It also made my life easier, because I spent a lot less time chasing after money on this project than on the last project. I feel like that’s going to be even more the case on the next project. We’ve also got real reinforcement from the fans and the people who have been interested in the game since we showed it for the first time. The first time we showed the game, We Happy Few, was at PAX East. We got a way more enthusiastic response, not that the people weren’t enthusiastic about Contrast, but they were like, “Oh that’s great, its an artsy-cool game.” When we showed We Happy Few for the first time people were like, “Oh my God, I need this now.” That was the first reaction, the second reaction was that it looks like BioShock, which is a bit scary for us because BioShock is a quarter of a billion dollar game made by a team that was quite a bit larger than we have here. So it told me two things: it told me that the game was going to be popular and that people were expecting a bigger game than the one we were making. Those are the two big trends that allowed us to grow and go out a do the Kickstarter campaign, that went super well. Then we signed a deal with Microsoft. We had constant reinforcement that whatever we were doing was going to work, but only if we delivered on the promise that the fans saw in the game. The fans that we met said that they were really interested in the world and that they wanted to dive into it a little bit more. They wanted to know the history of that world and the history of the characters that they were playing. Those are the key points of what people were most excited for, and that takes a larger team and more money, so I went and took that information and got more money.

GS: From the start, it seems that the fans’ reactions really guided We Happy Few.

GP: It caused me to focus more on certain areas of the game that I sensed that the fans really wanted to hear about and that we here were really excited to work on. If I had gone to PAX and gotten a muted response, we might have spent less time on the project, get it in, put it out, and move on to a new project earlier than we did.

GS: Was ‘early access’ always part of the plan with We Happy Few?

GP: It was mostly always part of the plan. When we went to PAX originally, we started giving a couple of keys away. Then we gave more keys away through our Kisckstarter campaign. The process of working with the community, because we share newsletters with the community every week and are very active about telling them what we’re going to do, worked well both for us internally as a team and for people who were following the game. So, we were going to do it anyways with our Kickstarter backers, so we figured it had been a year since our Kickstrater, we went out on early acess and we figured it was a great time for us to just expand the pool to a much larger audience. It keeps us honest, to make sure that we’re going to ship a good game. Yes, we made some money off of it, I don’t know that that was the prime purpose of it. The purpose was, what we’re doing right now is working, let’s do it on a larger scale.

GS: What are some of the benefits of being ‘early access’?

GP: It forces us to regularly ship working versions of the game so we don’t make it to the end of the game and try to fix everything all at once and end up with a clusterfuck that doesn’t quite work. We’ve kept ourselves honest in a way. We also get a lot of feedback from a wide variety of people: gender, age, interests, and geographic locations, about how they feel about the game. I feel that is super important in terms of really understanding what’s working, and what doesn’t work. We have a pretty strong vision internally for the art style, atmosphere, and story we want to tell. I think it’s pretentious to think you are going to get everything right. The community, especially at the size it’s at right now, has really helped us by saying, “Hey, this is really just not working.” They don’t always find the right solutions, but they definitely paint the problems for what they are. I think that’s the key element of assuring that we’re addressing the issues in the game before we get to the final version.

It’s shaped a lot of the gameplay loops that we have and tightened them up. It’s shaped where we put our efforts and focus in the development team. I think those are the two big things that its shaped.

GS: What are some of the downsides to being early access?

GP: Maintaining constant communication with a large number of people makes it harder for us to bunker down and focus on development, and the requirement for us to ship every two months keeps us honest on one side but there are also some inefficiencies that come from it. There are some things we have to finish earlier than we would normally finish it within the development cycle because we need to package it and send it to people to play it. A simple example would be: you make a quest in the game world, you got a robo-voice going, you have to actually go out and cast an actor and record that actor and place the lines before you ship it out to the community for the first time. If it turns out that that quest wasn’t so great after all, you end up ditching that quest and obviously wasting a little bit of money in the process. I think that’s ultimately a fair trade for the engagement that we’re getting with the people.

You know, as much as we like to make a lot of noise, we don’t compete with several hundred thousand angry or excited people. It forces us to plan more carefully what we talk about, when we talk about it, and how we talk about it. There are 27 people here and they get validation every week from thousands of players that are excited about the work they do every week and that’s worth a lot in terms of morale, culture, and pride.

GS: When working on an ‘early access’ game, how do you know when you are done? Do you have a set plan, do you have a date at which point you consider the game done, or is it just sort of nebulous?

GP: If it was just nebulous we’d probably just run out of money. I would say it’s all three in the sense that when we go out in early access we had a good idea of how much money we had at that time but it was more of a wait and see like, okay, how is the community going to react to what were shipping them? That helped us to frame a plan of what we wanted to retake and redo, because it wasn’t good enough. Then there’s a whole bunch of stuff that we had very specific ideas about. What we wanted to put in the story for example. The way I see things is we had a plan before moving to early access of exactly what we were going to work on, and what the set of features and story elements we wanted to put in the game were, and we had a date for finishing that set of features, but we allowed ourselves, after three months, to look at that feedback from the community and change some of those plans in order to make sure that we are addressing the concerns of the community while still building the story we wanted to build. So we have a plan, we have a date, we’re not ready to announce it yet, but we have a date and a budget. But we also allowed those plans and dates to be affected by the results from the community. I think that because we’re very transparent every week about what we are working on, we’ve garnered some good faith with the community. I’m pretty excited about where were going. I’m hoping it’ll be as good as I think it’s going to be in my head. It certainly seems to be heading that way.

GS: Is everyone working on We Happy Few, or have some moved on to your next project?

GP: Absolutely everybody is working on We Happy Few. We’ve had a few discussions internally about what are we good at as a studio and I think that will definitely influence what our next project will be. At this stage, there’s absolutely no one working on anything else than We Happy Few and I honestly don’t see that changing in the next 2 to 3 months.

GS: To backtrack, what were some of the main influences for We Happy Few?

GP: I’m not the only one who comes up with ideas on the team. When we came off of Contrast there were a couple of elements that we considered. Contrast was a game we were very proud of, but because it was a game that was linear in nature and very story oriented, and the main gameplay loop revolved around puzzles, adding hours of extras content or doing DLC or making the game longer was almost as difficult as generating the first hour of gameplay. We had a lot of discussion about how we, as a smaller team, could leverage our strengths to try and create better value and keep punching above our weight. That’s where ideas like procedural world generation came into play and we started to tackle other ways of how we could make our production more efficient. I really wanted to make a dystopia because I was a big fan of the genre in general. I had a lot of discussions with Whitney about, “Hey, what are you going to draw?” Or, “This is what I’m thinking, this is the universe I’m thinking.” Whitney was the person who came on board with the idea of setting the game in 1960’s England because it’s the point in history where the English stopped looking back towards World War II and started looking forward. There was a wave of optimism during that time. There was a bit of form-fitting function, it went well with the society we were trying to create. It takes us a couple of months to figure out how we’re going to build a world, but it’s done through brainstorming where we set the pillars of what we are trying to do. So when we started it was: let’s do a procedurally generated world, let’s build a world that has panache and style. A lot of the procedurally generated worlds we had seen were copy-paste that same grey building over a dirt road and call that a different world. We wanted to create something that had a bit more style. That’s proven to be an ongoing process, it’s complicated to marry the two. Whitney wanted to work in a time period, with architecture, and fashion, in an era that was interesting to her.

We draw a lot of inspiration from books, movies, and sometimes games. I think we take more the inspiration for mechanics and gameplay from games and a little less of contextual story elements from it. When we settled on a time period, we watched English movies—A Clockwork Orange was a big inspiration—but the number of shows that were British from that era were also inspirations. Shows like The Prisoner, the drug called Soma in Brave New World, is one of the elements we looked at for drugs and joy. The whole concept of using drugs to escape a reality and be in denial of the reality people are really in.

GS: Do you avoid drawing on games for narrative inspiration in order to remain more original in the medium?

GP: I think it’s just the creative language that we speak with when were talking about different aspects of game experience we’ve created. It does make it a richer experience if we draw on different mediums for inspiration, but I think there’s more variety in theater and movies to look into for visual expression for a sense of place.

GS: What have you learned from We Happy Few that you will be taking into your next project?

GP: A lot. I have a pretty good idea of where I want us to concentrate our efforts on our next project. I mean, I don’t know if it’ll be a zombie musical on the moon or medieval game. In terms of context, I don’t even want to dive into it just yet because then we’ll all get excited about this new context and place we want to develop and its not the right time for us to do that. The things that I’ve discovered we’re good at, because we’re 27 today—we were 5 when we started this project—our strengths today are not very different from what they were back then but they have changed as a function of new team members coming on board. Yes, there are things we could do a lot better. In terms of world building, we can be creating worlds with more characters. In Contrast, for example, there’s really only you, Didi, and shadows on the walls. Now we’re trying to populate our world with different people and I think we’ve learned a lot of important lessons about AI, character animations and how to create a larger sense of population, more of a dense sense of place. We definitely want to carry that forward to the next game. On every project we’re going to make our fair share of mistakes; so far we’ve been doing all right on this one, we’ve maybe bit off a little more content than we can chew, which we did a course correction on right after we started early access. But I’m confident that the end product will be good.

GS: Do you still consider yourselves ‘indie’?

I think that when Microsoft puts you on the E3 stage, you don’t carry much of an indie label anymore, whatever the reality of that is or not in the eyes of the public. I don’t really care whether people give us an indie label or not.

It’s a matter of perspective, I’ve worked for indie studios for 20 years, but 8 years ago you couldn’t be an indie studio unless you were 60 people. That was the smallest indie you could be. Do I consider myself indie? I consider myself independent, because that’s what we are. There’s no crazy ‘VC Capitol Fund’ in our backyard telling us that smurfs are yellow, not blue. Everything gets decided here, by the people doing the work. To me, we do our own projects, on our own concepts, on our own terms, and we find our own financing for it. So that is what makes us independent. Being indie is really not an important consideration for me. It’s whether people like the games we make, it’s whether they’re excited to see what we’re doing next. I mean, we’re about as indie as Double Fine, we’re about the same size. So if Double Fine is indie, we’re indie. It’s not a label that’s important to us.

[This piece was lightly edited for length and clarity.]

Justinas Staskevicius is a freelance writer based in Montreal, Canada. His stories about antifascists, eSports and benefit concerts have graced publications including Goomba Stomp, GigSoup and CULT MTL

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