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Dontnod Entertainment has become one of the leaders in storytelling games. If there’s any doubt about that, consider its release schedule. Microsoft published Tell Me Why in August and September. And Dontnod is self-publishing a second game, Twin Mirror, on December 1.
It’s a big deal when a company launches back-to-back games in a busy season. And Dontnod isn’t slowing down, as it is adding a new studio in Montreal to enable the company to do more narrative games at once, said CEO Oskar Guilbert in an interview with GamesBeat.
Like its games about diversity and inclusion, Dontnod is spreading out, acquiring different perspectives, and diversifying the stories that it tells. It is this approach to diversity that ultimately may help the company become a stronger business. And it raises the questions: Can diversity be your business model, and will it lead to diversified revenue streams?
“Our studio is growing, with six games in production now,” Guilbert said. “Our recent releases have been very successful in terms of press reception and player reception. I’m very proud.”
He thinks of Dontnod’s diverse characters as honest games about life. When it comes to spreading its wings, Dontnod is getting there the hard way, with original stories that don’t lean all that much on the games that came before them. The team in Montreal, headed by executive producer Luc Baghadoust and creative director Michel Koch, is working on a new intellectual property. The team includes members who worked on Dontnod’s flagship series, Life Is Strange.
Dontnod has future projects mysteriously described as Project 8, Project 9, Project 10, and beyond. The goal is to carve out a leading position on narrative games based on original intellectual properties. And the new team in Montreal should help the company get there.
“For us, [a Montreal studio] was really important because we obviously wanted to be closer to our players in North America, but also because the biggest part of our player base is in North America and our games like Life Is Strange take place in North America,” Guilbert said. “Montreal is also one of the biggest video game ecosystems in the world.”
Many Montreal residents also speak French, and that’s important for communication with the Paris-based Dontnod team, which was started 12 years ago by industry veterans from French studios. All told, the company has more than 250 employees. The Montreal studio should add another 50.
The expansion will be interesting to watch, as Dontnod focuses on story-based games, but it is branching out from its core Life is Strange franchise, which was first published by Square Enix. The recent Tell Me Why is a new franchise, published by Microsoft, and so is the self-published Twin Mirror.
“It’s important for us not to have all our eggs in one basket,” Guilbert said.
The mechanics of all of Dontnod’s games are similar. They look beautiful, and the characters are deep. The voice acting is superb and the music is often soulful. And the themes often have to do with a combination diverse perspectives and supernatural events that put intense pressure on the characters.
But their action is often slow-paced, with traditional gamers and critics saying the games are like “walking simulators” or soap operas.
While hardcore players may not be fans, Dontnod’s games have found their own dedicated audience. Life Is Strange, which debuted in 2015, sold more than 3 million copies. The studio’s stories appeal to a broad audience of older adults, teens, and women. And Guilbert believes the company has hit upon a genre and demographic that has been underserved. And so he thinks the company is just getting started with creating games for this market.
“It’s important to create different stories, with different directors in different parts of the world,” he said. “Independence is important for us. And we want to self-publish our own games, and reach different platforms.”
Many of the games are episodic, coming out one at at a time. Tell Me Why is a game about two twins — one of whom is transgender. Microsoft published all three episodes with just a week part between each installment. It generally got good reviews, but Dontnod hasn’t said how it sold yet.
While many fans like the diversity approach, there are plenty who don’t like it, as we can see in the difference between red and blue politics in the U.S.
As it expands, Dontnod would be wise to remember the fate of one of the game companies that it replaced, Telltale Games, which pioneered episodic games and produced outstanding works like its The Walking Dead series. Telltale stood still with its game engine for too long, and its cartoon-like graphics began to look dated as Life Is Strange came along. And Telltale started doing too many games and botched its transition to mobile. The company eventually went under in 2018 and was bought out of bankruptcy.
Dontnod was one of those that put a nail in Telltale’s coffin, by racing ahead of it.
“This is something we take into account,” Guilbert said. “We learned from seeing [Telltale], and we know it is important to renew the mechanics, the look and feel of our games, and not merely change the narrative.”
Teaming up with Microsoft on Tell Me Why
Writers such as Michel Koch love television shows such as The X-Files, The Walking Dead, and Twin Peaks. And they wanted to do episodic games that resonated with people in the same way. Guilbert and the company leaders agreed, and so did Square Enix, which became Dontnod’s first publisher.
Life Is Strange established a great franchise for Dontnod. But it was a classic film, Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashomon, that set Dontnod up for its collaboration with a publisher beyond Square Enix and beyond Life Is Strange.
The company set a model for working with others as it engaged with Microsoft, which became a new publisher for the studio’s developers. Microsoft supported the storytelling freedom at Dontnod, which wanted to make a game with true-to-life characters, said Tell Me Why director Florent Guillaume.
Peter Wyse, the general manager of publishing at Xbox, said that Microsoft had a chance to get involved at the very beginning of Tell Me Why, about three years ago. It was interested in the story and the universe that Dontnod was creating. Joe Staten, a former Halo writer and experienced creative director, helped out as a sounding board — but not as someone who had veto power over the story. Microsoft helped Dontnod embrace a different model, releasing the episodes just one week apart. It turned out to be a change that benefited fans who didn’t want to wait months for an episode.
Guillaume said at the outset of Tell Me Why’s development that the team wanted to make the game about family and the bond between twins. These characters were separated when they were kids. They reassess their relationship and revisit the traumatic event that tore them apart. In the meantime, one of the sisters became a transgender person.
“We thought that was the right thing to do for our players and we did not want to shy away from that,” Guillaume said.
He said the team was careful not to make the game about an emotionally damaged person who was disturbed because of their transgender identity. There are those who don’t accept the person, but the core of the conflict comes from the revelations about the past and their mother, as well as unresolved conflicts between the twins themselves.
It isn’t a story about transphobia or a deranged transgender person. It’s a story about memories and how they differ for each person, and this story happens to involve transgender characters. Dontnod brought in transgender developers to work on the game, and Xbox also brought in transgender developers as well, including the transgender actor August Aiden Black, who voiced Tyler.
“It’s really a story about the intimacy of these characters and their bonds,” Wyse said. “Microsoft was supportive of our choices. Our fans were as well. The reaction was positive. We had some conservative feedback from people on Twitter, but the majority of the community was excited.”
The writers needed their space. Dontnod and Microsoft gave it to them. And the end result turned out to be a game that showed the power of video games to change attitudes about a minority — in this case, transgender people.
Wyse said, “If people want more stories like this, I would love to hear that, and if people want more out of this partnership and collaboration, I would love to hear that,” Wyse said. “We’re so proud of this game. It’s a game that deserves to be seen.”
What’s a Dontnod story?
Now, as the company expands, Guilbert believes that you should recognize a Dontnod story when you experience it.
“There is something about the values that we try to convey,” Guilbert said. “We are not shy. We talk about some themes that are not often used in video games. We can link the values of the studio to more than one franchise, beyond Life is Strange, like with Twin Mirror. Something that is shared is inclusivity and respect for minorities. This is something you can feel in our of our stories.”
The views on sexuality are also more modern, and Guilbert said this is really important. The transgender character, Tyler, is central to the story of Tell Me Why. He’s normal and doesn’t count on the supernatural power he shares with his twin sister. That normalcy is intentional, as it can help the audience come to terms with accepting transgender people as a normal part of society, Guilbert said.
“That is really important for us. Our younger employees who come to the officer or work on computers every day, they need to have some meaning behind what they do,” he said. “They believe in the games they develop. ”
Topics such as suicide, panic attacks, and other emotional subjects come up regularly in these games. Even if you don’t experience these things yourself, you can walk in the shoes of characters who do experience them, Guilbert said.
“What does it mean when you kill someone? What would happen to the children, or the spouse? This is how we try to talk to the players,” Guilbert said.
While gamers can behave notoriously bad, Dontnod hasn’t been subjected to very much negative feedback, he said. Shielding employees from such feedback can be important. But it’s also critical that the teams get the budgets they need and the time to make their games with a sense of freedom. Guilbert said he doesn’t have to teach his writers and game makes to be unafraid.
“No,” he said. “They really have full freedom. They want to tell stories that are meaningful for them. I don’t have to push them. A very good example in the industry is Pixar, with the way they manage creativity.”
Dontnod hasn’t shied away from putting Donald Trump’s wall on the Mexican border in Life Is Strange 2. And that doesn’t necessarily mean the game was political.
“I don’t want to do politics,” Guilbert said. “I just want to tell good stories. You can see it when you play. The wall is there, but not in the same way you would think.”
Dontnod will self-publish its next game, Twin Mirror, on the Epic Games Store. In this case, Dontnod gets to keep 88% of the revenue, as Epic Games doesn’t keep as large a percentage as publishers usually do. Dontnod also retains its IP rights, and it has a minimum guarantee for royalties on the game. Dontnod is also co-producing a game with Focus Home Interactive.
The new consoles represent a challenge for Dontnod, which will benefit from the faster speed and better loading times. But the competition will be fierce and Dontnod will be under pressure to make its graphics better and its worlds more expansive, as it makes its own modifications to the Unreal Engine.
Guilbert said that we may see some surprise from Dontnod, possibly in the action role-playing game genre. It is also interested in interactive fiction, which is a hybrid between videos and games.
“We don’t want to stick to the same thing every time,” he said, wary of Telltale’s fate. “We innovate. We are reinventing ourselves in terms of quality, mechanics, and technology. Finding new ways of telling stories is really important.”
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