France's once-thriving video game industry has hit the doldrums, but there is hope on the horizon
"The body may be sick but the mind's alert... young and vigorous," says game designer and art director Nicolas Delaye, when asked to describe the French gaming industry. "There's a whole field of creativity there for anyone who wishes to create video games and come up with games systems that surprise the player. Or even destabilise them." Delaye, who heads Lexus Num?rique's second studio at Aix en Provence, is currently putting the finishing touches to Experience 112, one of the most hotly-tipped games set for release in 2007. He promises the game will be one of full immersion; the player, who is not represented by an avatar, suffers from "memory loss' and has to piece everything together, little by little, for themselves. This is the kind of gaming experience that players have come to expect from the studio who put out In Memoriam 2 last year. This game took off-screen interactivity to new levels, allowing players to communicate with private detectives via text messages. The aim was to "blur the distinctions between reality and fiction".
"It seems that big-budget games are no longer the norm in France, at least for the time being, but that doesn't mean that we should be apathetic as far as creativity is concerned," explains Delaye.
This seems to be the mindset of many game designers working in France. The country, which had a thriving industry in the eighties and nineties, has seen many of its emblematic studios close since 2000. It's true that French talent still gets noticed on the worldwide stage; Michel Ancel, the creator of Rayman, was asked by Peter Jackson to turn King Kong into a suitably spectacular game, for example. But the sector as a whole is moribund. The number of people working for its gaming industry has dropped by half in five years.
"With the advent of on-line gaming and with the gaming industry becoming more global in its approach, there was less room for local players," says S?bastien Genvo, a former games designer turned games industry pundit. "In France, you now find mostly smaller independent development studios and only seven of these have more than 35 people working for them." There are also multinational publishers, he notes, but an absence of medium-sized development studios. "The three main studios, Infogrames, Ubisoft and VUG, seem to eclipse the rest. And few of the country's studios that are developing projects are doing so with the main Japanese or US players."
This means that there are too few medium and small-sized companies to hire the young creatives graduating each year. These graduates have had no choice but to look for jobs abroad, a fact lamented by many in France. "If you look at the countries with thriving video games industries, you'll notice that they have governments subsidising those industries, one way or another," points out Guillaume de Fondaumi?re, president of trade organisation l'Association des Producteurs d'Oeuvres Multim?dia (APOM) and director of Quantic Dream. "This is because their governments have realised that there is a lot at stake economically, technologically and culturally with this industry."
APOM is waiting for Brussels to class video games as a cultural activity, thus making it possible for the French government to grant funding to the industry to bolster creativity. There are some sobering statistics to be addressed; locally-created games account for 85 per cent of the market in Japan and 65 per cent in the US, but only for 12 percent in Europe. The number of jobs in the sector is rising everywhere in the world except Europe, and France in particular is experiencing a drop.
"On a more positive note, French developers are now more mature and more organised than they were five years ago," tempers de Fondaumi?re. "There's an increasing number of studios working together, creating projects together or sharing resources and technological developments." This new "realpolitik" being practised by French studios sometimes results in innovation: games such as In Memoriam have left the console and burst through the mobile; interactivity is developing fast; game designer Eric Chahi has taken his successful Another World format and redesigned its graphics without altering its structure.
For an observer such as Genvo, author of Introduction aux enjeux artistiques et culturels des jeux video, this is an exciting time, at least artistically, for the industry. "In the future, we will have to be attentive to these modes of alternative creation we are starting to see. Recently, there have been several games that may at first glance seem banal, but whose creators are actually trying out new concepts, thus renewing with the kind of development you'd see in the eighties, when a handful of people would create a game with the intention of having it widely broadcast, but would create it with a minimum of editorial constraints. Or with constraints decided on by these self-same developers."
Companies trying to prove that small is beautiful include Hakabu Games and Arkedo. The latter have been feted for their Nervous Brickdown project and are currently preparing a followup. "Small teams allow projects to be financed easily, and greater risks to be taken artistically. And it works," explains Arkedo's Camille Guermonprez. "We get our games signed by the main publishers because we come to them with games that are finished, meaning they have zero risk when it comes to production."
There are other reasons for optimism, including the opening of the Ecole Nationale du Jeu et des M?dias Interactifs Num?riques in Angoul?me. This will allow future generations of designers to learn their craft using the means associated with the sector's nineties heyday. There are also an increasing number of festivals to showcase innovations. And, should Brussels and a future French government be so inclined, the sector may soon benefit from subsidies. "There are several initiatives taking form in France that show that the medium is now being considered as cultural and artistic," points out Genvo. "Once these start to bear fruit, there will be a creative rebirth."