The creative process behind Artifice Studio's games Sang-Froid and Conflicks.
February 1993. My friend Vincent and I are bouncing around on the lumpy seats of the school bus that takes us home one cold Canadian winter afternoon. We're in the middle of an intense conversation that neither the bumps on the road, the faint odors of lunch leftovers, nor the deafening chatter can distract us from. We're talking about the same thing we do every day after school, video games, and the subject is inexhaustible! Falcon 3, Ultima Underworld, Dune, Wing Commander, were all games that offered new game experiences. To us, it seemed like the creative possibilities were literally unlimited and we even had the hare-brained idea that if we worked really hard and if we were very lucky, maybe we could even create video games one day…
October 2015. The dream took shape. Vincent and I cofounded Artifice Studio and we now make our own video games (Sang-Froid in 2013 and Conflicks in 2015). As those kids on the bus, we never would have anticipated that we'd be creating these games almost twenty-two years later. While it's expected that a lot of things have changed (mostly for the better), we sometimes feel a certain nostalgia for the creative freedom that the games had in the old days. Of course, the creation of video games is now much more accessible with the rise of third party game engines and with the help of digital distribution. Though the concept of genre is now so deeply ingrained in our minds that it's more and more difficult to go beyond certain conventions that both players and journalists expect to be followed.
This phenomenon can no doubt be attributed to the greater maturity of the medium. A similar standardization has often occurred with maturation in other forms of art, from cinema to graphic novels. Nonetheless, Vincent and I always enjoy returning metaphorically to the bus of our childhood to create video games in which the experience is more important than conventions related to the concept of genre. These game experiences are often related to things we have observed or encountered ourselves.
Here's an example.
While on vacation, Vincent had rented a small house in the jungle in Thailand. Every time he returned in the evening after a day at the beach, he had to leave the main road and walk a good ten minutes on a dark, dusty path guarded by six half-wild dogs. If it had been me, I would have certainly preferred to contact the travel agency and ask to be immediately relocated, but Vincent instead resolved to face his fears evening after evening. Some nights, the dogs blocked the path, barking at him, which was rather intimidating, especially at two o'clock in the morning with only moonlight to show his way… Other times, they were asleep and Vincent had to walk by quietly so as not to wake them up. And other times, the dogs would spot Vincent from a distance and start howling before barking. You can imagine how scary it must have been to walk alone in the forest at night, hearing the howling coming from several directions, and to feel that beasts crouching in the shadows were slowly creeping up on you! However, Vincent's way of handling the situation was quite simple: walk as if nothing was the matter and, above all, don't show fear…
Here is Vince playing badminton next to his house in Thailand. You will have to take our word for the wild dogs though…
Rest assured, Vincent came back from his vacation safe and sound. What's more, his travel experience guided us throughout the creative process of Sang-Froid. Even though it's classified as a hybrid between a "Tower Defense" game, a role-playing game and a third-person action game, we never intended to create Sang-Froid according to these concepts of genre. Instead we set ourselves the objective of creating a game that would make the player experience the emotions felt by a person walking alone in a forest at night, surrounded by threatening creatures. We therefore implemented all the game mechanics we needed to arouse those emotions. In a few instances, we adapted mechanics that already existed in other games. Other times, we had to create mechanics from scratch, such as the "Fear Factor." This mechanic, evaluating the capacity of a person or a creature to intimidate others, permits the player to delay the attacks of his or her enemies by carrying out various actions such as shouting or moving close to a fire. In any event, it was combining those disparate mechanics that made Sang-Froid the unique game that it became.
Fortunately, it's not necessary to travel the globe or risk your life to create original games. The proof is that Conflicks, our most recent game, was inspired by a much less perilous life experience… Friends had simply invited me to spend a weekend at their cottage, but rain forced us to stay indoors. Fortunately for us, in the shed of the cottage there was an old "pichenottes" table. Pichenottes is a traditional game vaguely similar to billiards, but played by four people with small wooden disks. The principle is very simple. You just have to sink the disks of your opponent in a pocket by flicking your disks with your thumb and forefinger. Ultimately, this intuitive and accessible game helped us pass the time enjoyably in spite of the gloomy weather. When I got back home, I told Vincent about this “experience” and that's how we got the idea of transposing that game to a space context, replacing the wooden disks with vessels armed with lasers. We thought it would be fun to flick a vessel and see how its trajectory was influenced by the gravity of a planet or a black hole. Unlike the original pichenottes game, the goal would not be to sink the disks of the adversaries in pockets, but rather to ram the enemy vessels to make them crash on planets and asteroids, or in corrosive nebulas.
The most important thing for us was to reproduce the fun atmosphere in my friends' cottage around the pichenottes table. For example, when I missed a shot, I felt less frustration than with a mistake in a more "cerebral" game such as chess. It seemed to me that the disappointment was mitigated by the fact that there were four players rather than two and that, very often, a surprising bounce could change a poor shot into an unexpected success and vice versa. I thought that even though it was possible to improve from one match to another, it would take a lot of practice before one player could really stand out from the others. It seemed that the game of pichenottes, while being competitive, did not take itself too seriously and it is precisely this festive lightheartedness, no doubt attributable to the chaotic nature of the game, that inspired us throughout the development of Conflicks.
In fact, it was to increase the entropy of the game system that we chose to change from a turn-based approach to a real-time game. Our first prototypes functioning with turns were certainly entertaining, but the wait for adversaries to take their turns was sometimes too long, and as soon as we started experimenting with real time, we observed a significant increase in the occurrence of comical and/or unexpected situations, no doubt caused by the quick pace of play and the simultaneity of the moves. This switch to real time took us farther away from the original pichenottes game, but it brought us closer to the festive atmosphere I experienced when I played at the cottage with my friends. A side effect of this change was obvious comparisons between Conflicks and the RTS genre popularized by games such as Warcraft, Command & Conquer, Supreme Commander, etc. This is how, without realizing it, we opened a Pandora's Box…
The "RTS" effect was felt very quickly after the switch to real time. The players testing our prototypes suddenly began to make new requests such as the option to select several vessels at once to pichenette them simultaneously. Even though we tried to explain to them that such a selection mechanic could not work in the context of a game where you had to aim, we constantly ran into this response "But that's what other RTS's do!" The worst thing was that our testers were right! The speed at which Conflicks was played now created new needs for the players and we had to respond to them. However, since the starting point of our game was different from that of traditional RTS's, we had to find our own solutions since, very often, the solutions invented for other RTS's were not applicable. For example, the problem of multiple selection was resolved by adding a "tractor beam" on certain vessels (the frigates), giving them the option of towing other allied vessels located nearby, while allowing the player to aim with only one vessel.
This is a good illustration of the challenges of creating a game drawn from real-life experience rather than based on established genres: the solutions to problems are not all ready-made! On the other hand, we find it is an excellent way to stimulate our creativity.
I've only discussed the game mechanics until now, but the fact that our creative process took inspiration from the world and life more than other video games also influenced other aspects of Conflicks, such as the universe of the game and the visual style. In taking inspiration from the history of the Renaissance of the 16th and 17th centuries, we quickly set ourselves apart from other space-themed games. For example, we made the choice of representing the stars by drawing them with points, as they're shown in old maps of the heavens. We also drew from stained glass art to draw our characters, with thick outlines and a flattened perspective. As well, the interface elements are based on old illuminations and gothic-style ornamentation, embellished with futuristic touches. It's this sharp contrast between a real historic past and an imaginary future that gives the visual style of Conflicks its originality.
Finally, it's interesting to note that our method of creation definitely benefits from the agnostic nature of the Unity game engine that we used throughout the production of Conflicks. While other engines were created jointly with the development of a certain specific genre of video games, the neutrality of Unity permitted us to combine mechanics belonging to different genres as we wished without having the feeling of going against the tide.
All this builds up to the core point, while Conflicks is marketed as an RTS and Sang-Froid as a Tower Defense hybrid, this is on the basis of the final products and not our initial intention. Even though they propose virtual universes, video games don't exist in a vacuum, unconnected to the real world. They're first of all, if you will allow me a simplification, systems of forces that relate to each other according to certain rules. Nature is full of ecosystems governed by laws, from ocean currents to the courting rituals of animals. Thus the world, and by expansion our lives, are an inexhaustible source of ideas for original games! From this perspective, the whole corpus of video games from the past, while substantial, is like a grain of sand on a huge beach. Why, then, should we limit our inspiration?
We at Artifice Studio will continue to turn our gaze to the world around us, its history and the people who inhabit it, to draw on the creative energy found there in a raw state and distill it in our game mechanics and game universes, without worrying too much about following the established conventions.