Nine Dots Studio is an indie development team based out of Québec City. I recently had the opportunity to talk to Guillaume Boucher-Vidal, the manager for the development team. In this interview he’ll reveal how the company got started, discuss their upcoming Xbox 360 game Brand, and talk a little about where they hope to go from here. Enjoy!
Brandon: Can you get us started by telling me a little bit about your studio and your role within it?
Guillaume: Nine Dots Studio is a team of 5 guys located in Québec City who had little to no experience developing video games. We’re still at our first project, and we’ve been working full time on it for 9 months now with no salary, so I can safely say that we’re very committed. We gather at my apartment and work from my office 5 days a week.
Our studio has for main goal to have a positive impact on the video game industry. We’re concentrating our efforts on two aspects, which are having healthier business practices regarding how developers are treated and making video games as a mean of expression rather than as a toy or as a service driven by market data.
As for my role, I founded the company and I’m responsible for game design and administration. Usually, if something needs to be done that isn’t related to programming or visuals, I’m the one in charge of either doing it or finding someone who can.
Brandon: It sounds like your team is very committed to seeing this through. How did you all come together to start this project?
Guillaume: It started as just me in late November, figuring out what exactly that I wanted to do, elaborating my business plan and doing my homework on everything I had to learn in order to run a business. Once I was sufficiently prepared, I started looking out for people to join me.
One funny thing about the team is that I didn’t know them personally before recruiting them, aside from one guy I had studied with years ago. I just roamed in local events, especially student gatherings, speaking with everyone interested about my project and ambitions. It wasn’t actually that difficult to find the people I needed because I was patient. I didn’t want to fill a spot, I wanted to find people who were talented and who had a vision compatible with mine. It’s a shame that I can’t pay a salary to anyone for now as they are clearly hiring material, but we’re going to split revenue for now until I secure the funding for the business. Besides, they are well aware of the possible advantages of being part of a start-up.
More importantly though, I think that Nine Dots offered an opportunity that is genuinely interesting to any developer starting his career: a place in a small group where everyone would have a very big influence on the project, the certainty of working on games they are really passionate about and doing so for the good cause of building a workplace where developers aren’t forced to crunch time for little to no recognition. It’s a high risk, high reward scenario.
Brandon: Well you guys are getting your start with the upcoming title Brand for release in the Xbox Live Indie Games market. Can you tell me a little bit about the game?
Guillaume: Brand has a concept that was relatively easy to pull off and build upon. It’s a 2D adventure game with 3D graphics in which the goal is to increase a sword’s power until it is deemed strong enough for the King. The twist is that there are many different ways to make it stronger and you can’t max out every skill, so you must choose carefully in which powers you want to invest. Almost all new powers bring something new to the table in terms of gameplay. For instance, “Demon Blood coating” doesn’t add +3 darkness damage on your weapon, it changes your block ability into a new way to attack enemies while draining your own life force. Some of these powers even combine together to create new abilities. In order to unlock these sword upgrades, you need to complete quests in three different levels in a Metroidvania fashion (albeit rather simplified) by looking at your map, finding switches for doors leading to new areas, etc. The game is challenging but never cheap and patiently learning your enemies attack patterns will get you through any situation.
Brandon: You mentioned the Metroidvania style which is a design I’m really fond of despite the fact that it’s been around for a couple of decades now. Are there any other games that you feel have influenced the development of Brand?
Guillaume: While the Metroidvania influence had a big impact on the level structure, I’d say that there are even more in this game that was inspired by Mega Man, even though there isn’t a lot of shooting. I’ve been trying to nail the kind of challenge from that franchise: neither cheap or ludicrous, but always keeping you on edge and punishing impatience. You can get through any situation without any new power, but it definitely helps to have them around. If you learn the patterns from your enemies, you can abuse them without taking a single hit. You can select to do the levels in the order you want (according to which quests you select) and there is a tougher challenge once you’ve gathered the powers you need. There isn’t any kind of rock/paper/scissors logic of weakness or resistance to specific powers though, because I wanted to make sure as many build as possible would be viable.
It also has some similarities with Dishwasher: Dead Samurai as well, being a 2D action platformer featuring mostly close range attacks with a melee weapon, so it features my own take on a few moves from that game, like a dashing attack and a teleport. It doesn’t play the same way and it doesn’t have the same pace, but just like in that game you need to be up close to your enemies and dispatch them one by one, instead of just spamming quick attacks to reach out to any enemies going your way.
Of course, those are just a few conscious influences. There must be quite a few subconscious ones as well since I’m a very varied gamer and I have a lot of baggage from twenty years of gaming. I still feel that Brand is its own thing nonetheless.
Brandon: It sounds like you have a really solid game here from a mechanics-perspective, but what wowed me from the trailer was the actual look of the game. It looks more like an XBLA game than an XBLIG title. Fun mechanics are fine, but I really feel like it’s a great presentation that separates quality XBLIG titles from all of the crap that gets shoveled into the market. What can you tell me about the work that’s gone into the art design and animation, and how do you feel this game stacks up to the rest of the XBLIG titles out there?
Guillaume: Well it’s reassuring that you would compare our game to an XBLA title because that’s the kind of top tier platform we are aiming for in the future. Brand is a pilot project, meant as a practice shot before trying something bigger. Straight from the start, our goal was to make a title that would undoubtedly stand out from the crowded XBLIG marketplace. It’s not necessarily a fair comparison though, since most XBLIG titles are developed by one or two persons on spare time, while we are a team of five, including three persons dedicated only to visuals. There are tons and tons of very talented 3D artists looking for a job in Québec City and it was important for me to take advantage of that, I hate seeing their skills going to waste!
Etienne Vanier, our lead artist, reached a very clear vision for the look of the game after having done quite a few sketches and tests. He established the color palettes, the semi cartoon style, the personality for the monsters, etc. Nothing was done at random and the pre-production phase paid off. Robin and Gabriel both had a clear direction while working on their respective tasks but they still had some breathing space to come up with their own interpretations.
Brandon: With all the hard work you’ve all put in, what are your plans post-release? Do you plan on continuing to support Brand or are there other projects you’re all eager to jump into?
Guillaume: We do intend to support Brand by bringing it to more platforms, especially on a few different online distribution services for PC. We’ve also received quite a few contributions from our ongoing RocketHub campaign and we will add some content to the game according to the rewards they bought and the amount we receive. We’re very thankful for their support and we want to make sure it was worth their trust. Meanwhile, we’ve already started pre-production on our next project and we can safely say that it will be much bigger than Brand and probably much more profitable as well. It should take about a year to develop and I’m thinking of making the team slightly bigger. Another programmer wouldn’t hurt… As the only programmer on board, Pierre-Tuan has quite a lot on his shoulders right now.
Brandon: Well thank you for your time and best of luck with the launch of Brand. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers who might be considering picking up the game?
Guillaume: It’s been a pleasure! I don’t have much to add, I’d just like to mention that there are quite a few XBLIG titles that are worth your time and money. They can sometimes be hard to find, but they are cheap. You can buy a few games just by purchasing the minimum amount of 500 Microsoft Points. If you can encourage the XNA community, they certainly could use the support!
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