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Interview with Ankama Studios

The CMP Game Group (producer of Game Developer magazine, Gamasutra.com, and the Game Developers Conference) established the Independent Games Festival in 1998 to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize the best independent game developers. They saw how the Sundance Film Festival benefited the independent film community, and wanted to create a similar event for independent game developers as well as the student population of game developers.

Oli Wilkinson speaks to Thomas Bahon of French independent game developers Ankama Studios about their IGF competition finalist game, DOFUS. Nominated for two awards, Innovation in Visual Art and the Seumas McNally Grand Prize, it's inspiring to see a small team developing a game of such a challenging genre, the MMORPG.

Hi, for the benefit of our audience can you please introduce yourself and describe your role in Ankama Studios?

My name is Thomas Bahon, communication officer at Ankama Studios; I am in charge of all communication and public relations. In short I am here to market and promote Ankama's games and answer all your questions!

DOFUS is a finalist in two categories this year - including the grand prize - how do you guys feel about that?

During the past 4 years, we have worked very hard to develop DOFUS. I can tell you one thing: this has not been an easy project! But it was really challenging and it motivated us. Moreover, we are completely independent, from the creation of the game to its distribution. Being a finalist, especially for the grand prize, is already a good reward for us. We will now wait the results of the competition…

Is this your first game to be entered in the IGF competition?

DOFUS is our first game at all. So I would say yes! :) I have a good hope that it won't be the last.

what made your team enter the competition this year?

Firstly, DOFUS would have never been selected if it wasn't an independent game. As I mentioned previously, we are completely independent. We have created, developed and published the entire game ourselves.

Secondly, DOFUS is a top quality game that includes all the features of the best MMORPGs. Furthermore, the innovation in the graphics mixing cartoon style and heroic fantasy design and offbeat humour make DOFUS really different from other games.

Tell me a little bit about DOFUS, what exactly is a DOFUS?

There is not only one DOFUS but several; the DOFUS are the eggs of a Dragon. Those magic eggs (of course they are magic!!) have disappeared and it has led Amakna and its province to the chaos. It is said that the person that would retrieve these eggs would become so powerful that he could rule over all provinces, so thousands of Adventurers rapidly rushed to retrieve these DOFUS in order to either enslave the population or bring peace back.

This heroic fantasy story is only a starting point to a humoristic adventure within the “World of the Elevens” (in name of the eleven gods).

What sets DOFUS apart from the other MMORPG games out there?

As I said previously, DOFUS is based on a classic MMORPG storyline. However, the spirit of the game is completely different. In general, role-playing games are more serious; in DOFUS humour is omnipresent, its graphics are funny and original and the game play is very specific. Indeed, the tactical turn based fighting system is unique for a MMORPG. It is not rare that a player wins a combat against a higher level player who plays without any strategy ;)

In short, take a blend of heroic-fantasy games and cartoon design, add a touch of off-beat humour, put the whole in a tactical MMORPG and you obtain DOFUS.

DOFUS also differentiates itself from other RPGs by the importance given to the social and economic interactions between the members of the DOFUS community. Everything has been made to enhance the relations and mutual aids within the community (guilds, party playing, interactions between professions, group quests) A player that keeps solo playing won't grow as easily and quickly as a player that is part of a group.

What is your main target demographic with DOFUS?

DOFUS does not take itself seriously” - however, we do not make fun of role playing gamers. DOFUS is humoristic in order to make it more accessible to casual and non role players. Thanks to its originality, fresh humour and atmosphere DOFUS draws gamers aged from 15 to 30. Our target is girls and boys in their teen age and young adults (men and women alike) who are either hardcore or casual gamers. Finally, the low price permits us to target households with a medium income.

Your turn-based combat system is pretty fun, how did you decide on that particular method of combat in the game?

On one hand, almost all MMORPGs are hack'n'slash games now; we wanted to focus more on strategy and tactics rather than on strength and power. On the other hand, at the very beginning, our objective with DOFUS was to develop a player-versus-player oriented massively multiplayer game. The primary idea was to focus on the tactical aspects of combat.

Gradually, we added a map (instead of an opponent search interface), some monsters to train, professions, quests… and DOFUS has become what it is now: a MMORPG. But although it's changed somewhat, it has kept its tactical aspects for fights. For instance, players from different classes can ally together to build really powerful groups (e.g. long range attackers allied with close combat specialists and healers).

The turn-based system really brings an element of tactics into the game, was this intentional?

Yes, this was done intentionally. Turn-based feature is a full part of the strategic element in DOFUS. The turn-based system allows us to “sublimate” the tactical aspects of the game. Players can anticipate the reaction of the opponents, prepare tricky attacks during several turns, draw them into traps and so on.

How long, roughly, has DOFUS been in development?

DOFUS is our first game, so development was also a learning phase for us (and we constantly learn). During the development we have learnt much from our mistakes and have become more and more effective in our work all along the development process. The first official version DOFUS has roughly taken 3 years to develop, including 1 year of beta-testing.

Being an independent studio, did you ever have technical, community or other problems that made you think DOFUS would never see the light of day?

At the time of DOFUS' creation, the French market for MMORPG games was not very developed so investors were not eager to put money in the project. They were even less eager to invest money in a MMORPG developed in Flash.

We encountered some technical problems with the flash technology; even if Flash provides a lot of advantages, the massively multiplayer aspects of our game were a real challenge. The great work of Camille Chafer, Boris Beaulant and all the others members of our team has allowed us to overcome this difficulty.

The spirit and atmosphere within the DOFUS community has never been a problem. A unified community has been created really quickly, even since the first Alpha tests.

Last but not least, we had to overcome the opinion the press had about our game. For a long time, many saw DOFUS as being a “flash game” only or criticized the fact that it was designed in 2D without even playing it. Fortunately, some did not criticize without any idea of what DOFUS was. Of course, they did not consider DOFUS as the best game ever, but they gave us the chance to show our abilities and encouraged us. When the first magazine, Joystick (French magazine), talked highly about our game it was still in beta-test, we jumped for joy and knew that we were on the right track.

One of your finalist categories is Innovation in Visual Art; when I first played DOFUS it stood out as having a wonderfully cute and quirky, graphical style. It's often more like watching an interactive cartoon than playing a game! How did you develop your style? Were your team influenced by any particular cartoons/comics when developing the graphics for DOFUS?

The origin of the graphical style of the game is much about the passion of the Ankama team for the colourful Manga artwork. We were also highly influenced by classic European comics, Japanese animation and cartoons (but no particular ones). Many of us are also fond of arcade games and their original graphics. We wanted also to develop a style in line with the atmosphere we wanted to create, that is to say fresh, lively, humoristic and breezy.

Has DOFUS always looked the way it does now, or has it changed over the development cycle?

Contrary to the original concept of the game, the visuals of DOFUS have not changed much in their graphical style. Indeed, we wanted to keep the unique atmosphere of DOFUS.

At times, the graphics remind me of the classic Dragon's Lair series of games - was this intentional? :)

Thank you for the compliment, but it was absolutely not intentional :). Our inspiration for graphics comes “only” from comics, cartoons… However, now that you have talked about it, I admit there are a few similarities in the graphical style!

One thing that strikes me about DOFUS is that the client is entirely coded in Flash; for a MMORPG game this is pretty innovative, why did you decide to use Flash?

Flash technology is very practical and allows thousands of possibilities. Two of the goals regarding the technology of the game were “simplicity of use” and “cost”. We also chose the Flash format for the client because we are specialized in flash technology :)

Secondly, the Flash format is very convenient for our players. They do not need to download or install neither Direct X nor the Java Virtual Machine to run the game; they just have to download the Flash plug-in. Thus, DOFUS is playable at home, at school or even in your office ;)

Does Flash have any specific features that you just could not live without? What makes Flash a good tool for you to use over, say, C++ or another language?

The best feature of Flash is its simplicity. Indeed, Flash runs equally well on Windows, Mac, or Linux. Moreover, Flash does not run only on the best computers, so players can play DOFUS with a Mac or a PC (Linux/Windows) even if it isn't endowed with cutting edge components. Finally, Flash is the most downloaded plug-in in the world.

Were there any specific limitations to Flash that you had to overcome to get DOFUS up and running?

There were not really any limitations, except the implementation of the massively multiplayer aspect I mentioned previously and many minor problems that occurred all along the development of the game.

When playing DOFUS I noticed that the world is literally alive - with many players running about, selling items, fighting monsters (and each other!) and going on quests - has the DOFUS world always been this busy? What was your principle method of getting people to join in and play your game?

The word of mouth worked quite well in France and the local servers have grown busy rapidly; but you have to keep things into perspective - the Francophone world was much smaller. On the international server, the audience is much bigger and the people are more spread out so the figures seem less impressive. However, we're seeing more and more adventurers register every day on the international server, which is only 5 months old - 1 year younger than the Francophone server. We have also communicated about DOFUS to video games websites, magazines and on forums in order to get DOFUS reviewed or at least listed in the games directories…

We have not launched any advertising campaigns yet, for 2 reasons: Firstly, the community was growing constantly and we did not need to invest in advertising media. Secondly, we did not have the sufficient financial resources to make such campaigns. As we are not developing on the international market, we will need to create a greater awareness about DOFUS in order to draw more players.

How many regular players do you currently have? How long did it take to reach this number?

DOFUS counts an average of 2,500 new account registrations every day (a total of more than 400,000 registered members on the 31 st of December 2005). DOFUS currently has more than 30,000 regular players since the official release of the game less than 1 year and a half ago (about 10,000 diverse international players and 20,000 Francophone players).

When running around the DOFUS world you notice that there's a variety of languages being spoken, are your players largely from an international audience?

As I mentioned earlier, there are several servers: 2 Francophone (mostly French, Belgian, Swiss and Quebec ) and 1 international. I find the international server wonderful; it is a real melting pot. There are players from everywhere in the world. Of course, the largest portion of these international players comes from the USA (about 30%) and Canada (15%) but other players come from everywhere: a lot of Brazilian, British, Australian, German, Polish and Asiatic. People from over 200 countries are playing on a single server, mixing their own languages (when they speak to each other) and English (for trading, doing quests, finding new mates…) making the game even livelier.

DOFUS is largely bilingual (French/English) have you faced any problems with maintaining these two distinct versions?

At the beginning, translation and localization has been a problem. We are now fixing the language issues.

What would you say that the biggest challenge was in creating DOFUS?

DOFUS was itself a very big challenge. We had never developed a game before and none of us had much experience in video games industry. We had to learn as we were developing.

What has been your best experience about creating DOFUS?

Last year, we were competing for 2 prizes at the Paris Flash Festival and we won those 2 prizes. This was one of our greatest moments since the creation of DOFUS as we have been the first game to win 2 prizes since the creation of this festival. We lived some our best experiences in games fairs and festivals when we met our players in real Life. It's very exciting to see what players look like and to hear what their feelings are or simply chat with them.

Finally, do you have any advice for independent developers who'd wish to tackle making a MMORPG game of their own?

Firstly, an independent developer should not fear to take up the challenge (but it's the same for any enterprise). Secondly, I think it is important to make the results of the work available to players early by starting beta-tests even with little content. The aid of players is really important to unveil mistakes or to avoid them. Sometimes however, you have to take decisions that are not in line with the opinion expressed on forums. Do not forget that players will see their interests first and maybe not the evolution of the game in the long term (as a player I am exactly the same).

It is also important to see the opportunities. Indeed, we did not plan at all to offer an English version of the game and go internationally. However, we saw more and more people who did not speak French at all playing DOFUS and thus we decided to translate the game in English.

Do you have any final comments you'd wish to add?

The IGF is a good springboard for young game-making enterprises. It permits them to be seen and get recognition in the bulk of videogames available since the wide development of the internet.

Thank you for your time Thomas and good luck in the IGF finals!

An overview of DOFUS

DOFUS is a cartoon-style tactical MMORPG. It has been in development for over 3 years and has over 30,000 regular players. It features a wonderful graphical style that matches the game well. DOFUS is up for two awards at this year's IGF finals; the Innovation in Visual Art category and the Seumas McNally Grand Prize. DOFUS is available now, from http://www.dofus.com

Interview conducted by Oli Wilkinson

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