We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Alexandre Fiset, CEO and co-founder of Parabole Studio. Founded in 2012, Parabole is a software development company based in Québec, Canada. Their first major game title, Kôna, is described as an episodic, atmospheric survival-adventure game that takes place in the 1970s Northern Quebec, Canada.
Before the Storm
Alexandre entered the gaming industry as a humble Quality Assurance Technician. as he worked his way up the production ladder, his ambition grew to create something of his own.
“I worked at Activision,” he tells us, “Beenox studio to be precise. I worked on The Amazing Spider Man and Spider Man: Shattered Dimensions. I started as a QA tester, with really basic quality assurance work on Dreamworks licenses like Madagascar and Ice Age. I also worked on Monsters vs. Aliens.”
“And then I was put on a leading role in QA,” he continues, “I had a team of six testers on Shattered Dimensions. So I had to communicate with other departments about QA, but for a development purpose — not for like finding bugs, but more deeply involved in the development. And then after that I had been associate producer on The Amazing Spider Man, where I managed tasks for the “city team,” which took care of building all the gameplay and environment for the city in the game, and also on the boss fights that were across the game. And on user interface also — that was a team of like two, so it was really small.”
With the production experience of Beenox under his belt, Alexandre started thinking bold. “The idea came in 2012 I think, but even before I had this idea of creating my own studio, because I believed at that time… It was not that popular, digitally-distributed titles and shorter games… The goal was to create a studio that could do shorter, cheaper, and digitally-distributed titles, pretty much exclusively. At first I wanted to integrate that at Beenox, like in Activision, but it’s a big machine — that’s not a bat thing, they have their own purpose, their own goals. So I decided, as I was young and single and everything at the time, I decided to start Parabole with two other friends.”
Alexandre explains that convolution can sometimes be the death of progress within the AAA world. “At a large company, if I wanted to buy like a light bulb, for example, I would go through a process of filling forms and asking permissions to buy a two-dollar light bulb. When you have this, think about buying a software that costs like $150. It was nearly impossible. So when it comes to innovation, there are blockers. You have to go through the process of buying things, getting those things approved by the general manager. Everything needs to be signed and treated in the workflow of the company.”
Compared to Beenox, Alexandre finds that running his own company is refreshing in many ways. “Here, it’s mostly like ‘Hey, it would be great to have this, so let’s buy it,'” he explains, “We’re not rich, but there are things that are cheap that really increase the quality of the game, and we can just buy it and not care about it.
“This is one of the things that struck me the most when we started,” he continues, “That we have this flexibility, we are agile. A lot of companies always say ‘We work with agile methodology, we are strong,’ and they say those buzz words, but they don’t mean it because they don’t do it. They are not agile, meaning that if your company is going to fail, you can just turn around and do something else really quickly with the market, adapt to your clients, adapt to external situations. These are the kind of things we can do as a small team that the big ones cannot do.”
“I think right now I would not be happy to be a manager of a big firm,” he says, “Because you can see those small companies popping up everywhere, and they do crazy things with less.”
Parabole didn’t jump directly into the production of Kôna. First, they had to establish stability as a company. “We started with this vague idea of doing that crazy dream,” he recalls, “And then we started facing challenges like money. So we started doing contract work for other companies and building up our reputation, starting to accumulate money on the side to create our own project. And then came like two projects that we trashed, until we got Kôna, which is now on its way to being our first shipped game on the market.”
Alexandre describes how he went about assembling the team of Parabole, and what he expects from his team. “We look mostly for attitude. What matters is that the people we hire, our associates, those people must be able to do work on their own. At Beenox we were a team of eighty on a game, but here we’ve been like three for a year, and even now with six it’s still a pretty small team, so we have to be careful. If we hire, we need those people to work and not take our time. We need people who can do things and think for themselves.”
“So that’s the first thing we look for, and certainly the portfolio is important, but it’s not the most important thing, because even if someone is really good at crafting a good-looking portfolio, if he’s an ass then we don’t want this person working with us. I think the first thing is the attitude, the way the person talks and reacts to your criticism, and the way they see the industry overall. And then after that there’s talent and everything, but it’s all in one deal.”
Today, Parabole has stabilized and is fast approaching the full realization of its first title. “Right now we are six full-time working on the game.” he says, “I am less and less directly involved in the production — I am more like doing a lot of management, and you know, making sure the future is bright. Other than that, it’s five full time on the development of the game, and six if we count myself when I do that work.”
A Thirst for Innovation
Many of the projects that Parabole has done up to this point would be described not as games, but rather as interactive digital tools. They have created interactive programs meant to educate the user by transporting them directly into the given topic.
“We really like those kind of contracts,” Alexandre explains, “The only complaint we have with those kind of things is that sometimes we do it for cheap, but that’s the only complaint because everything else is really good.”
As an example, Alexandre explains the premise of “It Doesn’t Just Happen to Others,” a project created for Quebec’s Commission on Health and Safety at Work. “We did an awareness-raising campaign with a government office, to raise awareness on work accidents to young people. So we developed an augmented reality thing, where it puts layers of wounds on your face, and swaps your face with someone on a hospital bed, and it tells that 32% are victims of work accidents each day. It’s really a way to pass a message through something interactive.”
Alexandre feels that having worked on these non-game projects has broadened Parabole’s capabilities and changed how they approach their projects. “Those kind of things made us think a lot about how interactivity can have an impact on people, on culture, and everything,” he explains, “It’s not that it directly influences the way we make games, but it does open our minds to other industries and other things than games. That’s a really great way to know what you’re doing, because you have those kind of people with different perspectives and different goals, and you have to create something for them.”
“It’s the same with games,” he continues, “Sometimes we do games not for ourselves, we do them for people, so we have to question ourselves about what they want, and also what we want, but we have to find the sweet spot where the game will sell and wee will be proud of it. So it’s the same kind of mentality, but when you do things for clients, it gives you more experience.”
With Kôna, Parabole is implementing virtual reality, which their previous projects have helped them gain mastery of. “We’ve worked with virtual reality, also augmented reality systems, Oculus VR,” he recounts, “And I think what it really has is the field of view. It’s the most amazing thing with VR, that you can see all around yourself, so it really brings the immersion to a brand new level. So that’s the biggest thing for us, is that when you play Kôna with an Oculus kit, you get this sense of being there, a sense of presence.”
Virtual reality presents a whole level of immersion, but it requires extra attention to detail surrounding the player’s perspective and interface. “What we’ve learned is that you have many challenges to overcome when you are present in a game, because the way we’ve made user interface for the past ten years, for example, will change in VR because you cannot put things in front of the player like icons on screen. It cannot be in two dimensions — everything has to be three-dimensional. It made us rethink the way we implement user interface, and the way we do the graphics, with full-body awareness. We have to make sure you can see your hands and your feet to increase this presence.”
“So it’s always a never-ending questioning,” he explains, “And also the manufacturer, Oculus itself, is always changing things in their way of handling the new device. It’s a new thing, and I think we cannot right now see what it will do. Maybe in ten years we will see what VR really is, but right now we’re just tracking something new.”
An Interactive Tale
The premise of Kôna came together bit by bit. It began with a simple and oddly specific simulation that would end up defining the setting before anyone had realized its potential.
“We started with a snowmobile just for fun,” Alexandre told us, “We built this vintage snowmobile because it looked badass and we liked to just jump with it… It was not supposed to be something really big, it was for fun.”
“After a while, we decided maybe we could do something more with it,” he continues, “So we added a context and started thinking of what universe we wanted to be. We already had the vintage snowmobile, and it was a 1969 model, so it made sense to look around these dates — like maybe it could have been in 1980. But then in 1970 there were a lot of things going on in Canada with the Native American community, and also with Quebec, so there is a lot of lore not really linked to the story but for ambiance — like TV and radio, all these references, there are a lot of things we can work with to make sure the universe is credible. Even if it’s a surreal thing, we want the player to feel that it’s real. So we have a lot of references we can use, because 1970 was a big year in Quebec.”
“It’s mostly a decision of making sure we have creative freedom, and a lot of things we can take influence from. It also looks beautiful — like the film industry in those years, it has that vintage look and feel. All those kind of things really inspired us. 1970 Quebec was really a no-brainer at this point.
The player’s role in Day One is that of Carl Faubert, a private detective hired to expose a case of theft and vandalism on behalf of a wealthy industrialist. This simple case turns into a bleak mystery when he arrives and finds that his client and everyone in the local town are missing.
Carl has a basic detective’s kit that the player will use to piece together this mystery, but he will have to find other tools along the way. “He has a journal, in which he writes about what he sees. He also takes pictures and sticks them in his journal with some information, so he obviously has a camera. You can take pictures of evidence, and then that will add details to the story. He has cigarettes, because he’s a smoker… He has a flare gun in his pickup truck… He does not have a gun, like, out of the box, I mean he’s not American [laughs]. He does not have a gun on him at the beginning of the game, so he has to find those things.”
Importantly, Carl is not the only character seeking to crack this case. Alexandre was kind enough to let us in on another character who will jump in after Day One. “Carl is the main character of the first episode, but there is another character in other episodes, which is a Cree woman — I won’t say the name right now, but she is a Native American woman, and you see two sides of the story.”
“So basically that’s why there is a narrator who isn’t the character, it’s a third-person narrator telling you the story, because there are multiple aspects to it. So the main character is the one you play in the first episode, but there’s more in others. It’s meant to be a story about this region, and not the character.”
Parabole made a point to use caution and seek authenticity when creating this second character, given the stereotypical stigmas that fictional Native Americans are often saddled with. “We started discussion with the local Cree community,” Alexandre explains, “We wanted the character to be built more by them than by us. The character is really important to us. It’s the same way we built Carl — he is built by Quebecers, by people who would best understand the character. So it is a logical step to do the same thing with the Cree woman.”
“It’s really the next challenge on our calendar, but right now we’re really focusing on the first episode. But the second one, we really want you to feel like you are a Native American woman, so it’s all part of the plan to talk with those people and make sure that they have their icon in the game. It’s not meant to be like a critique or anything. It’s a Cree woman, and she encounters the same things as Carl, but with a different perspective. There’s no secret about that. We wanted to say that there is a second character because it is important, but what she is and what she does in the story is for you to discover.”
Kôna is a blend of genres. It is survival and exploration, mystery, and even a bit of horror. The survival elements and overall aesthetic paint it as a very realistic game, especially when paired with its Oculus VR compatibility. However, from the little we know about the story so far, it is set to involve some decidedly paranormal elements as well.
“We call it a surreal interactive tale,” Alexandre explains, “There are things going on that are obviously not real, like a Wendigo which has never existed… I mean maybe, but… The thing is, it’s all about the story but I cannot spoil anything, but the people there disappeared, so starting from there it cannot be something really real, unless there’s someone kidnapping everyone. I mean, you find them frozen in a blue weird ice.”
“When you play the game it goes on with a realistic feel,” he continues, “At the entry level you are in northern Quebec, and everything feels real and in place, and as you explore you find out that it starts to unfold in this surreal way. You feel that it is real. I mean, it is important for us to have this realism with graphics and treatment, to make you believe that it’s all real.”
“When someone tells you a story around a campfire, even though it’s not real, the guy is so convincing that you are in the story, and that’s what we want to achieve. And then what happens with the Wendigo is all planned in the story… When you play the game, you will understand.”
So Kôna is made to subtly make us question what genre we are actually in. “We want to surprise the players. When you see the game, we don’t want you to say, it’s a point-and-click, or it’s a survival. It’s not an action title, it’s not a horror game… It’s an interactive tale. So basically we tell a story, and you better be prepared to see and do things that are unexpected.”
There is an element of puzzle-solving to Kôna. However, it will never manifest an obvious puzzle with a single answer, as we often think of when we hear that term. Surviving the brutal snowy wilderness is one big puzzle, and the “answer” is the sum of every decision you make.
“So basically you have, for example, you have to cross a two-mile stretch of woods,” he describes, “But the character came into the north with not really a warm coat — he wasn’t prepared for that, because it is in October, and it’s not supposed to be that cold and this snowstorm was unexpected. So he cannot cross the woods on foot. Basically the kind of things you have to do are finding clues and trying to explore as much as possible. You have to find a way to cross the woods and to prepare, so this is kind of a mix of puzzle-solving because you have to think about, ‘Where can I find something warm?’ or ‘Where can I find something that will help me go through the deep snow?’ So you have to find those objects or upgrades to make sure you can cross the woods.”
“We don’t want you to search on Google and say like, ‘How do you get through this door?’ There’s no like, ‘Align these four pillars with the sun and then the door will open,’ there’s no such thing. It’s all about the story, the character, and his development.”
“So there are some puzzle aspects to it, because you have to think,” he continues, “But it’s more ‘I can go outside for two hours without a coat.’ That’s the kind of thing you have to think about, because it’s all about realism, about character development, and about, you know, ‘Why should I go to this house, if I have no particular reason to go there?’ You should think about, maybe there’s someone there who can help you unfold this whole mystery. You will also have real encounters, you will encounter NPCs, and they might need something… I cannot say much about that, but they might ask you for things in exchange for other things.”
Of course, there are dangers other than the climate in the Canadian wilderness, and the game will provide multiple avenues by which to deal with these threats. Combat is an option, but it is never the only option, and even if you do choose to defend yourself, it will never feel like an action-adventure encounter. “We did it in a pretty natural way. If you encounter wolves, it won’t be this like Far Cry encounter, where the wolves just keep attacking you. If you’re in a pickup truck, they will be afraid… If you shoot in the air, they might flee… If you give them food, if that’s what they want, they will be satisfied.”
“You don’t have a particular need to fight,” he explains, “If you want to avoid those combats, there is always a way. Maybe later on there might be something that changes that, but even then, you could be kind of like the hide-and-seek kind of player, where you don’t want to fight so you just try and avoid as much as possible. But it’s all about how you might react in real life. You might have a gun, but if you don’t want to kill wolves, then don’t kill them. But at some point you have to choose, and if there’s a wolf attacking you, you have to choose if you want to survive. At that point, maybe you shoot. But it’s not meant to be like an endless shooter, where you just shoot at wolves. It’s really a subtle part of the experience.”
The hope then is that the mechanical seams and classifications of the game are virtually invisible; that it stops feeling like a game and starts feeling like an experience. “What we are most proud of… It’s doing this whole blending of genre, and supporting a story with many diverse elements,” he continues, “Like, there is combat, but what we want to say to people is that we’re really not going to have this kind of Mass Effect thing going on, where the character says ‘Here comes the next wave of enemies.’ It’s meant to be natural. So what we are proud of is that we are building something that is not centered around gameplay mechanics. You should not really feel the mechanics — there are no upgrade trees, or things like that. It’s a game, like a lot of other games, but it’s meant to be atmospheric and really immersive, so you don’t have a lot of mechanics that get in the way of that.”
Kôna could not have come to fruition without help from a Kickstarter campaign. 1,304 backers pledged $44,271 to help bring this project to life in a campaign that ran in August and September of 2014.
“The biggest challenge I think is behind us,” Alexandre says, “The Kickstarter campaign was kind of a pain in the ass. I mean, it was a big, stressful event where we didn’t know if we would be able to make this game. But once we had the funding, everything went like butter-smoothly.”
“We got the funding, and then the government invested — I mean it’s not the government exactly, it’s private companies and the government working together for what is called an “innovative fund,” to fund innovative interactive titles. They won’t give you 100% of your budget, but if you already have some of your money, they will contribute. After that we got more and more money and we were satisfied with the budget we have to do the game.”
“The biggest challenge was making sure we had the money to do what we wanted to do, and then one we had it we could do it with creative freedom. I’ve had good experience with publishers, but I know they have goals, and sometimes with indie developers they are really strict on the guidelines and deadlines. Now we have the flexibility to shoot for this day to release, and if we’re not satisfied we can push it back, because we want quality over quantity. So the biggest challenge is behind us, and now we are focusing on making the game, and that’s great.”
Kôna’s initial funding goal was $40,000, which they did end up surpassing. “What was hard was to reach that goal,” he tells us, “Two years ago, or three years ago, we would have done the same game on the same platform, and I think it would have raised twice as much. Now I think there are more people, even AAA developers going to Kickstarter, so we really have to stand out. That was difficult for us, but also a good thing, because we had to question ourselves and our project and make sure it wasn’t something that had been done before.”
For a while, it looked like the campaign was not going to succeed. “At some point we put a gallery of images on Imgur, and it made the front page, and then the backers started coming in at a crazy pace. But this happened in like the last week of the campaign, so at some point we thought ‘Ok, I guess we’re going straight to failure.’ But then that happened.”
Running a Kickstarter campaign is a lot of work, and it doesn’t subside once the project is funded. If anything, it intensifies, as responsibilities to the backers take a front seat. “For the first month, we worked like one hundred hours per week on the campaign, on the game, on making sure we deliver and send updates to the public.”
Despite the seemingly high numbers, game developers almost never ask for enough money on Kickstarter to actually make a whole game. “$40,000 is not enough to make a game,” he explains, “We weren’t completely honest with the people. We said we could do something with $40,000, and yes, we could, but the goal was to take that money and go to the bank and say ‘We have this, we have those people behind us,’ and then it would help us add more money, enough to do the game.”
“I think Kickstarter is a really great platform. What we really would have liked to have is something to give back to our backers, you know, other than the game itself. What would have been great would be if we had a platform where you say, ‘This is the company, this is the project, this is the vision, if you want to be part of it give X amount of money in exchange for shares,’ for example. But this is coming in the future. I think it would fix the issue we had with Kickstarter, because some people feel that they don’t want to contribute — they feel it’s charity. I mean it is, in a way, charity.”
“Kickstarter is a challenge,” he says, “It’s a risk for everyone involved — the developer, the backers, everyone. So those backers, we are truly thankful to them. But what we have to give them now is T-shirts and a game. What would have been great is to have let them be more involved, but I think that will be the next step for crowdfunding.”
It can be intimidating looking at the recent trends in Kickstarter-funded games. So many projects have fallen through, or been exposed as ingenuine or ill-managed in some way. Kickstarter campaigns are held to an extreme amount of scrutiny, and sometimes even a lackluster PR effort can spell disaster for a game. “We have like the best backers in the world,” Alexandre says, “I mean, I see a lot of other projects with people complaining. We do have one or two people who will say ‘Hey, it’s been a while,’ but when it happens we react and we send an update. We’re working full-time, and I think they understand and they see that. We’re not like running away with the money, we’re just trying to give them more return on their investment, more than what was planned, so it’s all good.”
“I think what they want to hear is the truth, and this is what we give them through our updates. We pushed the game release back twice, and there is a third time coming, the last one. We plan on releasing the game in January, and it’s not because we are lazy. It’s because we decided to make sure that it’s really good and polished, and also we didn’t want the game to be released at the same time as Fallout 4. It’s a business decision, but it’s something that’s good for the future of the series, and I think it’s good for our backers.”
“We will communicate all that through updates, and in fact starting November first we will have a full-time community manager who will provide weekly updates, Facebook posts, Twitter, etc. This is an important investment for us, making sure that we always communicate with the community back and forth.”
Kôna: Day One is planned for release in January 2016. You can pre-order the game and keep up with its progress and future episodes on the Kôna blog, and check out a preview trailer below.
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