The CEO at Digixart Yoan Fanise talked about the studio's recently released game Road 96, discussed the game's art direction, and explained how the team managed to combine narrative-driven gameplay with procedural mechanics.
Hello, I’m Yoan Fanise, I studied at the University of Toulouse as a Sound Engineer back in 1999. I made sounds for movies and anime before being proposed to make sounds for a game called Beyond Good & Evil at Ubisoft. After that, I stayed 14 Years at Ubisoft between Montpellier and Singapore. I had the chance to create Raving Rabbids and Valiant Hearts. In 2015 I decided to co-found my own indie studio with my wife Anne-Laure, and Digixart was born, right now we just released our 3rd title called Road 96 on PC and Nintendo Switch.
We started right after 11-11 Memories Retold' at the end of 2018, I wanted to make a road trip game for a long time, and the team wanted to find a structure that would not be classical branching, something that is truly unique for each player, so we started to make a lot of prototypes.
On each run, the player is in the shoes of a different teenager and will feel the wide-open road, the nostalgia of being far from home, the vast and peaceful landscapes, the solitary buildings, the unsafety of certain encounters, and a sense of wonder in the ever-changing world around you. Thanks to the procedural narrative system that took Digixart more than 2 years to develop, in Road 96 no one's road will be the same. On each game playthrough (which usually lasts between 30min and 1h), you'll have dozens of choices to make regarding your means of travel, your interactions with the inhabitants, and if you manage, or not, to solve puzzles and stay alive. All the decisions you are making alter your experience, closing options, opening some others. Your choices matter, unveil more of the stories and secrets of this nation's troubled past.
Mixing Narrative and Procedural Mechanics
The biggest challenge was to mix narrative-driven games with procedural mechanics, so we prototyped with texts only, added choices, introduced money, energy, game overs to see how the flow is evolving. We did very early playtests, almost like real-life role-playing where I was telling the tester what happens in this location, what were the choices he had, etc. And progressively we saw that we had to simulate more walkthroughs because things like game overs had a strong impact on the game length and scope needs. So by night millions of “players” were running the game, and each morning we analyzed this big data. We only really started to dig the story theme after months of pure structural research. It was a good choice in the end because when we started to make 3D, designing the world and characters we knew already that the system was working with text only.
I worked with different Art Directors, Bastien and Jessica Grivet first, to get the first concept arts, and then when it came to 3D I worked with Charles Boury, Erwann SIgaud, Guillaume Lauer, Damien Levaufre, and other very talented people. The inspiration was a colorful dystopian America, stuck in the 90s, a collapsing economy, but in a very saturated treatment, very stylized to express more emotions with the characters' strokes of paint. I also love the minimalism of places pictured by Joel Sternfeld, a photographer I really appreciate.
Tech and Tools
We use Unity 3D HDRP mode, which is quite powerful but still very young, and we use Blender and Substance software for the creation of the assets, we are big fans of Blender and we hope soon to pass even the animation team on it to get a full Blender pipeline, that would be terrific.
The good thing with Unity is that we can focus on the game and not the engine, we know the limits and we try to make the best out of it. I spent too many years before dealing with engine choice issues and needing a huge low-level programming engineers team, even for a simple game.
Another tool that we use extensively in Unity is Flow Canvas, a node asset where we made our own nodes, for dialogs, for example, to have a real-time instant sound in the game, that was key for the rhythm, the writer Ian Reley directly wrote the game into those nodes and was able to make very complex structures of dialogs, and by just pressing play, hearing them with robot voices in the game.
Business Side of Indiedev
We managed to finance each project with a mix of public subsidies and private partnerships, like OMEN by HP for Road 96 who really believed in the potential of the project at a moment where all publishers were not really ready to take the risk. In terms of promotion, we made all the trailers in-house and it was a very good experience to self publish, the launch was a huge success and now we know we made the right marketing decisions, that was scary when we made that choice. And now we decided after 6 years to join Koch Media group, which is a really solid gaming actor in Europe and that will enable us to solidify the team and grow for the next projects. There are many things we want to create, very innovative and that require strong investments, now we have the power to do it, that’s really exciting.
I would say the narrative system was the main challenge for us, it is very complex, with tons of parameters, many of which are defined by player actions during the first hours of gameplay, starting with the questions the player is asked at the very start of the adventure. Explained in a simplified way, we attach a color to each narrative bubble, and that way the system takes care of not having 3 sad sequences or a lot of action sequences in a row, for example, and that way we want to find a good balance in the variation in the narrative and emotional pacing. I don't like it when, in certain games, you have only a particular type of emotion (color), so it makes things more predictable from the beginning to the end.
We have a list of sixty initial sequences, with 4 different variations for each one and different dialogs. Each bubble/sequence can appear at the beginning or the end of the game, also at any moment in the day, that is something we took very much into account when writing the dialogues. We have some conditionals in the scenes, that modify things depending on some factors, like for example, if Election Day is getting closer or not.
The development of the logic part of the game took almost 2 years. Like what happened on titles like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which had prototypes in 2D before they became the final 3D title, we did something similar in a much more basic format as our main goal was to test the system. Half of the production time was dedicated to finding the system itself through different prototype iterations and playtesting. We had text-based prototypes (that we called the "prototext"), and we invited people to come to our office. I was like a Dungeon Master in a tabletop RPG game, my role in the playtests was to be the "narrative engine", reading what the environment looked like and giving the player different options. That experience of playtesting the game in the text was really exciting for us and for the testers, so one of our main goals was to keep that feeling in the transition to the final game.
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