What’s wrong with the French gaming ecosystem?
“What did you just say to me?
Who the fuck do you think you are?!?”
October 23rd, 2018, the French gaming industry is gathered in a Parisian bar for the ten-year anniversary of the SNJV (the French union for video game entrepreneurs), celebrating ten years of success and the current momentum of the French video game industry.
Some people in the back of the bar are preventing me from listening to the speech.
Passably drunk, they are talking and laughing loudly, ruining the speech for people unfortunate enough to be in that area of the bar. After several minutes of ongoing annoyance, I decide to speak up and ask them to lower their voice.
No reaction. I ask a second time. Still nothing…
Third time is usually the charm, but to make my point stronger I decide to take it up a notch, turn back and ask them politely to either stop their conversation or continue it outside.
As I begin to speak, I realize that one of these people is a famous and successful founder, revered for his great achievements in the French gaming industry.
“What did you just say to me?
Who the fuck do you think you are?!?”
Shocked and flabbergasted, I stay silent and just get back to the speech.
Out of shame, I take off my Oh BiBi jacket for fear of retaliation against my company.
In a stream of very conflicting emotions, something quickly hits me.
If I were to take this kind of abuse at a public event as a successful and privileged entrepreneur, what must it be for people working for this guy?
What do his employees have to endure and above all what does it say about our ecosystem and its culture?
And, ultimately, do I want to inspire my daughters to work in an industry that tolerates and encourages that kind of behavior?
2018 has been an incredible year for the French gaming industry, Ubisoft was finally able to push back a hostile takeover, Voodoo raised $200m — already inspiring other successful studios and entrepreneurs in France and around the world.
But on the other side of the coin, France also made the headlines for the wrong reasons… From accusations of harassment and toxic behavior to unprecedented strikes in major studios, our ecosystem has been challenged to its core and some affected studios have yet to fully recover from these traumatic events.
Some of these accusations have probably been blown of proportion, but I feel we have to own up to our responsibilities and address issues that have been happening to some extent in every corner of the French gaming industry.
Working at Gameloft prior to Vivendi’s acquisition, I was trained and raised in an extremely vertical organization where people were little more than gears, talented gears, but gears nonetheless.
Gameloft gave me my first job in the industry, I got to work with amazing people (including what would become my future partner) and I had some incredible opportunities that I probably would have never had anywhere else.
But at the same time, I experienced pretty terrible development practices and also suffered from very challenging working conditions, driving me close to leaving the company and the game industry as a whole for good.
In the end, it made me the person that I am today and launched me in a, so far, successful career and I should be nothing but grateful to the people who gave me that opportunity. And I am… But I’ve always wondered if there was not a better path and if I could not have enjoyed even greater success within a kinder and more collaborative organization.
Leaving Gameloft after 10 years (and after basically inventing mobile game design), my partner, Stanislas Dewavrin, created Oh BiBi and its first game, Motor World Car Factory, on his own (everything from code to graphics — and even fart sound effects — were made by him).
When I joined him in 2013, we knew we needed to transform his successful one-man company into a fully-fledged game studio. Coming from an extremely top-down organization, we wanted to achieve something completely different, but having only known one kind of organization we were bound to reproduce it. During the first two years, we recreated the same old beast, using people as tools, running a very authoritarian company, lacking any sense of humbleness or openness. That is, until we faced our first true failure…
As a good student type of kid, I had never really known failure. I knew I needed that kind of experience, but I did not know what it really meant.
Investing $2m in a two year and 25-person project, we ended up with a game called Monster & Commander, a Japanese-inspired turn-based role-playing game.
A beautiful, polished, but ultimately boring piece of gaming.
To this day, that game has generated only $400k. One year after its release, we had lost more than 50% of our employees. They just left us…
That’s the kind of loyalty you get when you run your company like an idiot.
In 2016, understanding that we were in an “adapt or die” kind of situation, we decided to do the complete opposite of what we had done so far. We split up the company into 5-person teams, set up a 6-month deadline and made sure we were working on fun games (it might seem obvious but believe me it’s not).
Success did not come easy, we failed on another game in the process (RIP Star Crew, a game that was my brainchild, part of the issue I guess…), but ultimately found organizational and commercial success with SUP Multiplayer Racing (and its 35 million players to date) and became convinced that if we wanted to succeed we had to start trusting our people. When you don’t trust your teams, you ultimately create a pyramid structure, killing creativity, agility and ownership in the process. The objective was clear, we had to fully embrace the flat organizational structure: let our people take responsibilities for their work, empower them to be part of the creative and decision-making process, remove all unnecessary overhead and supervision and inspire them to take huge creative and business risks!
How to get there was the main issue…
Obviously, we were curious to know more about the country that spawned this kind of developmental revolution. Leveraging the incredible Gameloft Alumni Network, we were invited by the crazily kind and talented Jonathan Dower to visit Supercell and meet some of its people and founders.
What immediately struck us was the incredible humbleness of these people. They had a true interest in sharing and giving back along with a crazy level of ambition and focus.
What we realized then was that Supercell (or Rovio, Seriously, NextGame, Small Giant, Remedy, Frogming to name only but a few of the amazingly successful studios operating out there) could never have happened in France. If Finland could grow giant plants, it was not only thanks to some crazy seeds and more importantly a healthy and rich soil! More than 10 years ago, Finnish game developers started to meet up on a regular basis. Game studio’s founders would have breakfast together each month, events and conferences would be organized all year round by game studios in the spirit of giving back and nurturing the community. In fact, on average there was more than 1 game event per week in 2017 in Finland. Most, if not all, free of charge. By collaborating and sharing between studios, it set a tone that would spread throughout other companies, sending a simple but powerful message: we’re stronger together!
Despite strong clusters and organizations such as the SNJV, making their best to push the ecosystem forward — through initiatives such as the Game Camp or Women in Games. The French gaming ecosystem has lacked any kind of cohesion to date. City-like companies such as Gameloft or Ubisoft have been mostly concerned with their own imperial dominion, leaving France out of the equation — out of its 6,000 employees, Gameloft only employs 100 people in France. With close to 15,000 employees, amongst which 3,000 in France, Ubisoft is more concerned about strengthening its own culture than its home country’s — while the actual ecosystem crystallized around historical independent console/PC game developers, fostering a culture of secrecy and sometimes downwards hostility towards newcomers or new platforms. This market has for a very long time been considered a zero-sum game and professionals have been very skeptic towards new companies, mobile games and the free-to-play industry as a whole. A lot of initiatives have been taken over the last 10 years in France to make game development a more competitive industry, developing subsidies and strong tax incentives, but too little has been made to turn France into a talent magnet. The recent backlash shows that by forgetting the people side of the equation, we’ve only travelled 50% of the journey and that if we want to be as competitive as the European or North American studios, we’ll not only need better financial support but above all a cultural shift. If you were to ask French talents why they chose to move to Canada, the UK, or the Nordics, they will not answer higher pay but kinder bosses, flatter structures and overall better work conditions.
Having recently raised $21m, Oh BiBi has set out on an incredible journey to become the next big thing in mobile gaming. What I’ve realized over the last few months though is that we won’t be able to make it on our own.
Not only will we need to continue hiring and nurturing the best people, if we’re to be sincere and true in our approach, we must also turn to others and make a true collective effort. In our journey, we’ve been lucky enough to meet incredible mentors and entrepreneurs, from Pretty Simple, who gave us incredible help in our infancy, to Supercell, who recently showed us that we could and should do better! Today we feel that it’s our time to give back, to help others who might not be as lucky as us, to inspire entrepreneurs and professionals to create not only better games but also a richer and kinder ecosystem.
That’s why we’ve decided to create the Pro Evolution Society, a free and open club for every game developer who wants not only to become a better professional but also a better person. So that secrecy, abuse, toxicity, ego-centrism and old school practices can little by little make way for collaboration, exchange, inclusivity and ultimately success, for our companies but most importantly for our people!
France has some amazing talents and incredible success stories, Ubisoft being a continuous source of inspiration for us all, but if we want to take France’s impact further, we can’t just rely on the giants to spearhead the charge, we’ll have to do it all together!