Exclusive interview with Jehanne Rousseau, CEO of Spiders Games, creators of Mars: War Logs
We talk voicing on a budget, favorite RPGs, and publisher relationships with the creators of downloadable aRPG Mars: War Logs, Spiders Games.
You might know Spiders Games from collaborative efforts with other studios, bringing you popular Focus Home Interactive games to home consoles. They recently expanded their efforts with Of Orcs And Men, a tactical RPG in collaboration with Cyanide Studios, (creators of A Game of Thrones: The RPG); a game that took an independent approach to the political realities of a fantasy kingdom, and the oppression of race, creed, and species.
Since then, Spiders have been tasked with creating a game of their very own. Their brain child, Mars: War Logs, is a downloadable aRPG for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Set on Mars, War Logs chronicles the journey of Roy Temperance, a mysterious ‘Technomancer’ come prisoner, as he escapes his prison colony to face the harsh environment of Mars.
War Logs is a relatively unique game, because it promised to squeeze a full, AAA RPG into a RRP of only £14.99 – £20 less than the average RPG. Indeed, at the press event where I got a first look at the game, I asked the games’ associate producer Walid Miled “how much RPG can you fit into £14.99?” A question he was comfortably quick to answer: “Well, I’m about to show you!”
His relative cool wasn’t without justification, because what I originally criticized as a relatively clunky experience has reached post-launch as an unexpectedly polished, fluid, and dynamic RPG with all the requisite hallmarks of the genre. Each of my criticisms were addressed; combat was heavily improved, and even things as little as making operable doors more noticeable was fixed. The combat of War Logs is now very reminiscent of The Witcher 2, and certain aspects of the game surpass some of the most recent RPG efforts.
For instance, War Logs features an integral crafting system, allowing Roy to survive the hostile environment of Mars’ landscape and dank cities. A little Bladerunner, and a little Red Faction, I was incredibly impressed with how far the game had come since February, so I reached out to the studios head, Jehanne Rousseau, to find out exactly what makes this small team special enough to fit £34.99 worth of RPG into £14.99 – something they have in some ways succeeded to do, with our forthcoming review revealing all.
For now, let’s take a look at what she had to say, now their game has launched. As ever, fewer questions, longer answers! Please note that English is not Rousseau’s first language, mon amis.
Who are the Spiders? Since the release of Mars: War Logs, a lot of people have been asking the same question I asked Walid at the press event where I met him: “How much RPG can you fit into £14.99?” We’ve played War Logs, and one thing we noticed was that the player decisions in the game really did affect the journey we experienced. This is something a lot of AAA RPG’s actually try and reduce, but you managed it with a lot less resources. How did you do that, and, in your view, what makes Spiders special enough to be able to create a whole RPG experience at such a small cost?
Rousseau: We are a small indie studio based in Paris, and created in 2008. Since it’s creation we’ve launched Faery legends of Avalon, a small RPG, Did the port of two Sherlock on 360/PS3, produced Of Orcs and Men for Cyanide, and now just create Mars : War logs.
I think that a lot of companies (big and small I’m not sure it’s the problem there) considers that the combat system, progression and strong cinematic story is what is important to make a good RPG. On our side we consider that the choices are even more important. Without the decisions of the player, we think we lost a lot of his real involvement in the story. And on a more personal side, I love stories where my decisions are not just a way to check if I’m not sleeping in front of my computer, It reminds me the pen and paper RPG I love. Of course it has a cost to develop, but I’m not sure it’s that expensive compared to amazing cut-scenes for example.
The combat, as you know, is something I care deeply about – but combat isn’t always the most important thing in an RPG, nor should it be. In your view, how important is the dynamic and flow of combat in RPG story telling? Do you think it should be innovative outside of the genre, or are there rules and regulations – iterative mechanics you should try to emulate. What was your main focus when it comes to Mars: War Logs’ combat, skills, and structure
Rousseau: Combat are important in the flow of the story of course, it gives experience, and should give the player the feeling he masters his character and he progresses of course, and it adds rhythm to the whole game experience. There is plenty of ways to develop the combat part in an RPG, and I think that it depends a lot on the type of RPG, universe and so. The gameplay on my point of view is always linked to all the rest. On faery for example, where the universe was more “cute” and based on faery tales we decided to go into a turn based and low paced fights. In Mars, based on the universe we had it sounds logical to go into a more action and fast paced combat. It’s always possible to innovate but on that game we preferred an already known system with some minor innovation here and there, than to think into a whole new way of fighting. We preferred to have a fine and well balanced combat system than to try something completely knew, as we had already a lot of things to take care of with a small budget!
When writing the story for Mars: War Logs, where did the inspiration come from? It says “Using the same universe as our previous project, we rewrote a story, adapted to a “short” format for digital, and came up with new characters. We also re-thought the gameplay to make it solidly RPG,”but there’s no further explanation of that. Exactly what aspects of the story and format of Mars: War Logs were iterative, and where did they come from?
Rousseau: In the very first version of the game (that is now far from what we’ve got) the RPG aspects were maybe not enough developed, but the universe was here. At this time all the backstory of the world (the tumult, the mutants, the different water companies and so) was already written. But the story of the game itself was completely different. It was about an abundance soldier facing the first marks of mutation. It was a long story (with more than 75 different locations !) and we couldn’t make it without a far bigger budget. So I began to think into another story, a shorter one. Most of my inspiration comes from books and accounts of the resistants in the WW2. The great (but old) movie : the army of shadows (by jean-pierre Melville) was a strong inspiration.
Given your game retails at such a low price, how did you go about recording all of the dialogue with actors? It’s an expensive process, so how difficult was it to manage resources enough to make that a reality? Were any significant compromises made?
Rousseau: On Faery even if a budget game too a lot of players complain about the lack of voices, so even if it’s very expensive indeed we really wanted to offer voices on that game. But we didn’t have a lot of time to record everything and of course a short budget to do so. We found a studio in France with whom we had already worked that was able to recruit American actors and sent two of our guys to follow the recording. To be honest it was a mess : we realize at this moment that some of the sentences where poorly translated or out of context, and try to change some of them during the session, we had underestimate the length of texts to record and had to ask the main actor (the one playing Roy) to come back another day etc…
At the end we have a full voiced game, but the quality of the English texts are alas under our expectations, we really hope we’ll be able to improve that part on our next game, with a higher budget, but at least players can experiment a game with voices, and we know that it’s a very important point for immersion.
You seem to have a strong relationship with your publisher, Focus Home Interactive. It’s not difficult to see that Focus Home Interactive are at the forefront of funding small but ambitious projects, so explain in brief your relationship with the French publisher; do they “give you enough resources to hang yourself with”? (the words of Greg Zeschuck) In other words, would you describe your relationship as one of creative freedom, or are the horror stories of publishers true (I say this empathizing with the popular view of readers)?
Rousseau: We are lucky working with Focus. No other publisher wanted to take the risk to do an RPG set in a different universe than the usual fantasy setting, and believe me we tried ! We’re coproducing the title, means that part of the budget of the game came from us (from our previous games most of all) and we knew since the beginning that we wouldn’t be able to have bioware levels of budget.
They supported us a lot, with tests, intelligent suggestions, PR and marketing of course. Of course we would have loved a higher budget, but being able to publish the game was already very great, and they really did a very good job without interfering with our creative freedom. In most of the relationships between developers and publishers, the higher the budget, the smaller the freedom. As was saying Milton : better to reign in hell than serve in heaven (but of course I’m not saying that working with focus is like being in hell, there are very nice
If Mars: War Logs is successful, do you see a bigger, more expanded sequel in the near future? After all, Mars is a very large place. Perhaps Spiders will explore it before Dutch reality TV get their hands on it?
Rousseau: The universe we created for Mars is deep and rich, we could create plenty of stories in that setting. And of course, as it’s a very important world for Spiders, if we are successful with our first game, we would like to create others. Maybe not really sequels or prequels, but stories set in the same universe, bigger stories would be great. I already have plenty of ideas !
A lot of our readers know my theories on the differences between European and American RPGs. Without giving away too much about mine, what differences – aside from funding – do you see, if any? For example, is there a different tonality, sense of humor, and varying emphasis on emotion and cultural references?
Rousseau: There are of course differences between European and American RPGs (and I’m not talking about Japanese !) I think that the subjects first are always influenced by our culture. If you look at the two witchers for example : they took inspiration into the books of a famous polish author where the references to the eastern Europe folklore are very strong. On our side we looked into books and movies that are European too (even if not only). It’s difficult to avoid, as an author, to find inspiration in his own culture, and in a way I think it’s great : it allows variety of subjects, treatments and so.
Finally, I’d like to know what RPGs mean to you, personally, and understand a little bit about your drive to create them. What have been some of your favorite RPGs of yesteryear, and what do you think an RPG should entail? Be as subjective as you like.
Rousseau: I played a lot of RPGs, really a lot. From Daggerfall to planescape, Kotor, Baldur’s or even the old might and magic I think I enjoyed a lot of them. I really enjoyed the Witcher series (and I’m waiting for the third opus), I liked skyrim too even if I think I’m still nostalgic of Morrowind, was a little disappointed by Dragon Age 2 (and really hope the 3 will be better), and by the fact in Mass effect that your choices where finally not that important.
What I’m waiting for an RPG is of course a strong scenario (which is missing in the TES), freedom to make real choices, immersion in a different universe (and I like bizarre universes) and a good progression system. But to be honest even if I can point here and there some points I would like to be improved in other games, I love RPGs so much that I’m buying them all…
You can get your hands on Mars: War Logs on Steam today, coming to Xbox 360 and PS3 soon. If you’d like to wait for our review, that’ll be coming in the following days.