The Challenge of Trying to be an Indie Within Ubisoft

By Julian Benson on at

Game designer Eric Chahi first began talking to Ubisoft in 2006, telling them about a world in perpetual motion, driven by music, and volcanoes.

Despite becoming famous in the '90s for games like Another World and Heart of Darkness, it was not easy to convince the big publisher to take on his small-scale god-game, From Dust.

There was months of presenting, Chahi tells me over Skype, to promote the Kickstarter for an English translation of his biography. Ubisoft said things like "'Oh no, we're not used to working with auteur' .

"They rejected at first but, eventually, they changed their mind. It takes time, it's a big company so there is a lot of inertia between different departments of editorial, business, legal." All told it was "one and a half years from first contact to final contract", says Chahi

It was a new experience for Chahi, getting into bed with a publisher. Throughout the '80s and '90s he had worked independently. "Most of the games I created were self-financed and the revenue from the previous game would finance the next game," he told me. It was easier, though: "The money needed to make a game was lower than today. And games would be created from weeks to several months, to a year sometimes."

"Many games at the time were not produced," he continued. Games were "self-produced by the developer. They'd do a game on their side and show it to publishers and the publisher would say 'OK' and give some advance, or maybe not, only a percentage on the royalties and that's it."

Comparing the modern games industry to what it was like when he began, Chahi says "it was different and similar at the same time." It was "very different because there was more isolation between developers but it was similar because it was a time full of indies, almost only indies in the '90s". Today, "there is more connection between indies".

In fact, when pushed, Chahi says "at the time it was not an industry [on PC]. The console was already an industry because it came from a big company. But, for the PC market, it was very small market with passionate people."

another world

The first French publishers, Chahi recalls, were shops that ran a publishing business on the side. "At the beginning it was people that were selling hardware and software in a shop and then they decided to make a publishing company because they saw there was a lot of people buying software in their shop, but they had no experience in this."

In 2006, when Chahi wanted to begin work on From Dust the industry had changed. The indie scene had largely disappeared and Chahi knew his game was too large to make on his how. "I didn't feel comfortable to create a company and form a team by myself and I thought it could be nice to work with a big publisher."

Yet, when he started work within the publisher, he did things differently: "The team was not very large," Chahi says. "We were between 15 and 20 so it was very small for a big company like this but it's a big indie team. So we can sit as an indie team inside Ubisoft." It's a model Ubisoft has continued with projects like Child of Light, Grow Home, and Valiant Hearts – letting small teams sit within the framework of something larger.

It wasn't easy, however. Chahi knew From Dust wouldn't factor high on "the scale of profitability ... a game like Assassin's Creed, it sells many million of copies [and] pays thousands of people". From Dust very likely wouldn't share that sort of success. And, while From Dust did sell very well (Chahi wasn't sure if could reveal exact numbers) until launch he had to defend the project's existence.

It wasn't easy, Chahi said. "[Y]ou have a team so you discuss [the design] with your team but you also have the directors, the editorial, the many people who are outside of the project but check on its progress. You have to do some presentation every six months. Sometimes you're stuck between the hammer and the anvil." He'd find himself making changes and explanations to the higher-ups one week and then having to redress, explain, and discuss direction with his team the next. "You have to make everything match so that everyone is happy. Sometimes it is very hard."

Despite these struggles, maybe because of them, Chahi and his team at Ubisoft were able to make the exceptional god-game that is From Dust.

From Dust doesn't play like other god-games, you don't control your people beyond placing totems that send a group of scouts to explore. Instead, you mould and shape the terrain of the world – raising mountains to block rivers, summoning up a storm to fill a dried out basin with water, or poring lava into a tumultuous ocean to raise a sea wall. It's a game about broad strokes.

Within large moments, like trying to foster a set of tribes on a map where regular towering tsunamis wash away any villages that get in their way, are wondrous snapshots. Your villagers are able to find knowledge which they can bring back to their village and share with their neighbours. This knowledge lets them protect their homes from high waves or creeping lava.

In that level with the tsunamis I would watch a wall of water bear down on my village and hear the sound of drum beats rise to a cacophony, as the water reached the village it broke around an invisible shield. Music in Chahi's world had physical power. It was a simple system but one of the game's most memorable.

The role of music in From Dust is a point of pride for Chahi. He had to fight to keep "such an exotic idea as to have people playing music to push back water" in the game. "It was in there since the beginning. It could have been more at the centre of the game but it was the part of the main concept. The main concept was an environment in perpetual motion and a tribe surviving in that environment and using the music to interact with it and that music is knowledge.

"The thing I most regret," Chahi says, recalling a feature that had to be cut, was that "the people were supposed to be ephemeral, so they would be born, grow, become adult, and grow old in several minutes. It couldn't be at the centre of the game but be at the background".

It would be a microcosm of the cycles that were evident throughout the game. Everywhere in From Dust there are loops of life and death: rains would fall on the maps and then the sun would dry the water away, volcanoes would erupt and waves would cool their lava. Even the structure of the campaign is a loop, leading you back to the the first level as you complete its missions. But it had to be cut.

The experience of working with Ubisoft has left its mark: "Today I want to work alone," Chahi says. "I mean, without any constraints. I just want to be 100 per cent responsible for the life and death of a project because when you're working with a publisher they can say 'I'm sorry but this project is killed', 'we have no money' or 'we don't believe in this', or 'we need some resources for another project'. There are many things that can kill a project, so I prefer to work with a smaller team and control everything."