Though the company only has two shipped titles under its belt so far, Arkedo Studio has already made a name for itself producing quirky, colorful games for the Nintendo DS.
The small Parisian developer's debut product, Nervous Brickdown, was a curious revival of the Breakout formula, taking advantage of the DS's two screens, touchscreen controls, and even its microphone to modernize the brick-breaking genre with ten vibrant modes that had players bouncing balls off submarines and exploring haunted mansions.
Big Bang Mini, Arkedo's recently-released newest title, again applies wild splashes of neon color and a novel approach to a familiar genre, shooters, while looking to attract a broader audience that the "core" category usually repels.
Players use their stylus to help an in-game ship dodge incoming bullets, also making flicking motions to fire back at enemies -- an oddball cast of parachuting turtles, pirate penguins, and skeleton marionettes.
Here, Arkedo head and co-founder Camille Guermonprez talks with Gamasutra about the challenges of bringing Nervous Brickdown to Japan, creating a game for both casual and core groups, and Big Bang Mini's "friggin' sharks with friggin' laser beams."
How did you start Arkedo?
Camille Guermonprez: I had a little bit of spare money, thanks to the fact that I sold my company -- even though I was fired. After that, [artist] Aurélien Regard and I decided to found a new company together.
Our first game was sort-of a Break Out clone called Nervous Brickdown, but we tried to make it a little bit fresh with the DS, using the stylus and stuff like that. We had pretty good fun doing that. It takes us around, like, fifteen months to do a game -- there were three of us at the time.
How many people work at Arkedo now?
CG: Oh, twenty-five percent more! Four. That's enough to make a DS game, so that's quite cool, actually.
I heard that when Success released Nervous Brickdown was released in Japan, some people were saying, "Oh, well, here's a Western game that actually doesn't look completely unappealing!"
CG: Yes! We were really happy about that. We were, at first, really honored to be picked up by Success, because [we were allowed to keep our IP]. I always tried to keep my IP for the company. Since we are funding the whole development, why shouldn't we keep the IP at the end of the day?
It's the kind of thing that's made possible by the fact that we are a very small company. You don’t need millions of dollars to fund a game, and you don't even have to get to the demo stage and then afterward look for a publisher. You can go and see the publisher when the game is almost done, so it gives you creative control, and it may give you control of your IP, which is what we have always done so far, knock on wood.
We kept the IP on our first two projects, as well as the next one, which is already signed.
That's why we went to Japan; we wanted to be able to have an excuse to go there, and to try and see if we were going to be laughed at or not. And luckily enough, we didn't get laughed at too hard, because Success agreed to do that! The problem with the company, of course, is that you don't have that many people who speak English in the company; usually you have one.
You mean in Success?
CG: In Success or in other companies. Many companies have just one guy who speaks English. And when they leave, they don't tell you exactly what's going on, which actually happened to us. The person who was in charge of speaking with us left a month before, and no one picked it up, and there were... I don't know; it was a little bit weird.
We didn't know what happened, but at the end of the day, they didn't make that many boxes in Japan. We were supposed to make like ten thousand boxes, and they made half of that, and they didn't really want to tell us, because it was awkward, you know? I can understand that.
With our new game, Big Bang Mini, we wanted to make a shoot'em-up with fireworks, using the stylus. [We wanted to give fans of] hardcore shooters something fresh to chew on, and wanted to say, "Okay, guys, look: We know you love this kind of D-pad arrangement and stuff like that, but maybe the stylus adds something, or makes something fresh and new. Precision? Enjoyment?" Because you shoot your fireworks just like you're striking a match.
Some people were a bit lost in Nervous Brickdown, because they liked some gameplay elements they and they wanted to keep playing it, but then it was gone in the next stage and they didn't like that so much. So, here we have focused on one gameplay style, and we are just adding some features in one world, and then another feature in the next world.
It's an interesting kind of system you've got set up -- because of the speed of the bullets, you have a shooting time and a dodging time. How did you balance that? Was it like that from the very beginning?
CG: Yes it was; it was pretty natural. In the prototype, we had this already, and we wanted to check two things: the playback time, and that moving the ship and shooting were fun and accurate. We weren't sure about that at all, so we tried it with basic geometry, and it worked out pretty well. So we said, "Okay, let's do it."
What made you decide to do a shooter? Largely your personal interest?
CG: Yeah, definitely. It was not business-driven at all. And to be completely honest, the other two guys on the team wanted to make a shooter from the very beginning, and I said no, because I just wanted the company to live on.
Ultimately, all the work that we did was toward making a shooter that would have the broadest appeal possible. And we had, of course, Aurélien’s drawings, which were quite in that direction, trying to make it fresh and cool and quirky.
At the same time, the gameplay mechanics that we found -- the more you shoot, the more powerful your weapons are and the more payback you get in the end -- were kind-of a very core, automatic balance of the gameplay, because you could snipe, or you could be hardcore.
And that's true for the first world, of course; when you're entering halfway through the game, it gets a little bit hardcore. We haven't been thinking in terms of, "Is it going to be some kind of casual game or hardcore game?" It's a Nintendo game, you know? People who like games, hopefully, will like this game. It's not easy, but it's not damned hard. It's just a game.
Actually, the Arkanoid style gameplay of Nervous Brickdown is almost a shooter in itself, because you're moving something that's like a ship, and you're bouncing a thing that's like a bullet.
CG: Exactly. Funny you say that, because we made some kind of a postmortem for Nervous Brickdown. We wanted to review all the gameplay that we put in Nervous Brickdown and say, "Okay, what's the most enjoyable feature? What's the feature that was most intricate and that could only be done on the DS?"
And funnily enough, there was one boss in one world, which was a shmup in Nervous Brickdown already. We liked this one the most because the stylus was really precise, and we had a lot of fun doing that.
Basically, you're right, the fact that Big Bang Mini is a shmup was already there in our previous game, which was Nervous Brickdown. So it's quite close.
Pretty much only you, EastAsiaSoft, and Shinen are making more traditional shooter-type games in the West.
It's good to see.
CG: It's sad!
It is sad. But there haven't been that many good Western shooters to begin with, except in the old days of Defender or so.
CG: And we didn't want even to try to pretend to make a real shooter because we are not qualified enough for that.
Right; it's not a scrolling-type shooter; it's quite different.
CG: Exactly. That's why we are trying to do it with a twist. We are taking the shooter's dodging gameplay, and we try to take away all of the things that make it only appealing for a very specific kind of person who loves them, and then try to add stuff that could make it appeal more to a broader audience.
The colors, the fact that the enemies look so funny -- we want you to die just because you laugh at the enemies; it's a way for us to make you lose lives by enjoyment. Because it's like, "What's going on there?", and you die while just looking at the baddie that came down.
Though it does seem like players will just glance at the top screen where the enemies are, while largely focusing on the bottom screen. That was my experience playing it.
CG: You are correct about that, but I think it's something that goes away with time. The first hours of play, you will mainly try to stay alive, but then afterward, you have a strange feeling like you know exactly where the bullets are going to be and you don't need to look at the bottom screen that much. "We have friggin' sharks with friggin' laser beams?" So, that's a thing.
How long did you spend developing this?
CG: Fifteen months.
Just like the last?
CG: Yeah, yeah. Even financially, it would be stupid to take more time than this. We are a small team; we like to take our time and polish the game, and not release it before we think it's good. It's easy to do that on a very small project, and that's why we really believe that small is beautiful for us.
Plus, it means we're all in the same room, and we're doing the game as it goes, and we try and we put a lot of things into the trash -- that's the basic thing of how we work. Like, fifty percent of what we do, we'll just [makes a dismissal sound].
CG: Yes. I mean, if it works, then it does; if it doesn't, you trash it.
Then you also do a lot of prototyping?
I know that Mekensleep, developer of Soul Bubbles, prototypes a lot -- I assume you must know those guys also.
CG: They are friends; we have lunch with them like twice a month. You know, there are not so many French studios in Paris, and we are all trying to do it our way, and we are making friends quite easily.