By Nicole Pacampara
Nestled in a former gramophone factory in St-Henri, a neighbourhood just outside the rustle and bustle of Montreal’s downtown core, lies the studio of Compulsion Games. Since Guillaume Provost founded the studio seven years ago, it has grown both in size and reputation following the release of their 2013 debut game, Contrast, and their upcoming game, We Happy Few.
Two weeks before the Early Access launch of We Happy Few [when players can pay to access the game while still in development], I sat down with the team to talk about the studio’s origins, the struggles and challenges of building an independent studio, and their quest to make games “about real people in sometimes ridiculous worlds.”
While it’s hard to imagine now, Montreal wasn’t always a hotbed for the video game industry. When Guillaume first entered the industry in the late ’90s, job openings were scarce. Everyone was fighting for the few positions available and the city was not an ideal place for a budding developer.
“I left Montreal because I didn’t think I could ever make video games [here],” says Guillaume.
Landing in Toronto, he found work at Pseudo Interactive. Originally, he started off as a programmer for games like Cel Damage. During the next eight years though, as his experience grew, his responsibilities eventually shifted to being a producer on games like Full Auto and Full Auto 2.
In 2007, an opportunity in France with Arkane Studio beckoned. Making the move, he took over as an executive producer for the studio’s production office in Lyon. About a year later, he started freelancing and leveraged years of industry experience and an extensive network of industry contacts. This laid the groundwork for the beginning of Compulsion Games.
It all started with a phone call.
While still working in Europe, Guillaume received a call from a contact in Taiwan who told him: “I got millions of dollars for you to start a studio in Montreal!”
“I was very stoked. My wife left her job. We even got the containers to put all our stuff in and we got the movers.”
What happened next, however, was something Guillaume couldn’t have anticipated. It was 2008, the year of the financial meltdown. “The money disappeared. Here we were, six weeks from moving continents with ‘millions of dollars to start a game studio’ and suddenly, there was no money and no job,” he recalls somberly.
Despite the setback, they still went for it. With a three-month old baby in tow, he and his family moved back to Montreal. Once there, Guillaume landed an unlikely first contract that became very popular with his daughter.
“I got a contract to write the AI code for Wedding Dash for the Nintendo DS, which is like Diner Dash but at weddings instead,” he says chuckling. “I went from working on Half-Life 2 episodes to Wedding Dash.”
To keep the studio afloat during the first few years, Compulsion Games would split their time working on their first game (Contrast) while doing contract work for games like Wedding Dash, Dungeons & Dragons Daggerdale, and Darksiders 2.
Those early adventures were housed in the most humble of spaces: Guillaume’s house. Whitney Clayton, the studio’s Art Director and first employee, admits that after a few months of working there, it became apparent there were too many people working at the house. Soon after, the studio moved into a tiny room down the hallway of what is now their current space.
Sam Abbott, the studio’s Chief Operating Officer who joined the team in 2012, recalls the room being as big as the studio’s current playtesting area. In what is now a humerous anecdote in the studio’s early years, Sam even recounts winter problems plaguing the office. “One time, an employee came up to me and told me there’s a [leaky pipe]. I looked down and there’s a big lake underneath his desk,” he says in disbelief, “I asked how long the leak’s been going on and he says, ‘a few days’. I was sitting behind him and I didn’t even notice!”
It’s easy to forget the humble beginnings of a company. When you see the studio now — with its airy digs and an expansive floor space housing a kitchen, playtesting area, meeting rooms, and countless work stations — it’s a marvel to hear the team talk about those early days. As with any success story though, one often finds stories of dogged persistence in the face of ridiculous odds and struggles.
“It was always in our heads that this can’t last, that this is impossible,” says Whitney of those days. “But [Guillaume]’s really incredible, stubborn, super smart, and he’s just like, ‘we’ll bulldoze through it.’”
As an independent studio surviving on their own, I ask Whitney if there was ever a point where they were scared the company could go bust. She tells me that while there was one period where the studio did take an emergency contract, Guillaume’s steady leadership and experience calmed the team. In fact, he even went as far as programming for other companies and splitting his salary to pay for his then 4-person team.
“[Guillaume] is a bulldozer,” she says. “It was definitely stressful at times but he’s really good at not putting it on people too so [as an employee], I was just happy to have a job.”
With the faith of his studio resting on his leadership, I ask Guillaume if he ever felt pressure in founding and building the studio in 2009. His response surprises me, but speaks a lot about the lessons he learned as an industry veteran. When it was time to start Compulsion Games, his expectations were already tempered. He didn’t see that moment as the founding of a studio but rather just the start of a project.
“In 2009, it wasn’t obvious that you could survive as an independent game studio.”
With 2000 to 2009 being “some of the toughest years” for the independent development scene, he explains to me that back then, you could only sell games through retail channels with physical boxes. Not only that, but you had to convince big stores like Wal-Mart to put your games on their shelves.
As a result, there was real pressure to grow with every new project. “Every studio I’ve worked at, they had to double in size with each project cycle,” he says. “You can imagine the financial pressure that puts [on a studio]. Not only do you have to be successful but you have to take all the money you’ve made, put it in your next game, but suddenly you now have to also double your staff for the next game [which had to be big enough to be relevant to put on store shelves].”
The other major issue? The need for a publisher.
Guillaume explains that retail channels like Wal-Mart dealt with bigger publishers like Electronic Arts leaving smaller studios in the lurch. Any chance a smaller studio had in widely distributing their games rested on working with big publishers. “Typically, those middleman deals were really bad. They were choke points. Those three or four publishers made a lot of money from us,” he says grimly. “It was not a good time to be a developer.”
In 2010, the Canada Media Fund opened its doors. As a non-profit organization providing financial support to Canadian-based digital media projects, it led to a breakthrough in Compulsion Games’ fortunes. With a working prototype demonstrating the mechanics of Contrast (where you “shift between the 3D world and your shadow in 2D”), the application amazed the CMF committee and became one of the earliest projects funded by the organization.
Asked if the CMF had any hesitation in funding the studio’s first game, Nathalie Clermont, the CMF’s Director of Program Management tells me this:
“It was a big risk for sure, they were asking for a lot of money and we gave them more than $600,000 at the time — which is something [big to ask] for a new company without personal experience as a team [to make their own game].”
She tells me, however, that the CMF exists to support situations like these — where it not only supports bigger companies but also startups who can grow their own intellectual property and keep it in Canada. Despite the studio being new with an inexperienced team, the presence of Guillaume (“a seasoned producer who has worked in different places around the globe”) as well as the complementary skills found within the studio’s ranks were enough to quell their concerns. “Even if we took the risk on a young team, we saw that on the technical and creative side, they were so strong (at least on paper), that we didn’t hesitate.”
With CMF funding secured, Compulsion Games finally had the independence and financial stability they long sought. Guillaume tells me that CMF played a key role in their initial (and continuing) growth as an independent studio. Before these government support structures were in place, the business of financing games usually entailed going to a publisher or venture capitalist. Guillaume wanted to avoid either options to maintain business and creative control.
“I’ve worked many years dealing with large publishers. They would sometimes stick a 20-year-old producer who really wants to design and [might, for example] try to explain why The Smurfs should be pink and not blue,” says Guillaume of the potential headaches, “I just had enough of that.”
The CMF funding was “critical”, and along with money raised through outside contracts, it allowed the studio to “buy their independence” both creatively and financially. Contrast was going to be wholly their own vision and now, they could work on it full-time.
Four years after the studio’s founding, the studio released Contrast in 2013. Looking back, Guillaume discloses in a recent post how the game “was never intended to be a blockbuster title.” Yet, as one of the launch titles for PlayStation 4 (and one of the first PlayStation Plus free games on PS4), the game garnered over 1 million downloads and would go on to win the “Best Game Innovation” award at the 2013 Canadian Videogame Awards.
The success was enough to put a spotlight on the tiny Montreal-based studio and their ability to craft visually arresting environments and characters with novel gameplay. As Guillaume later posts, “it cemented our team’s creative and artistic values, and helped us build a place where it was safe to try and experiment with new ideas.”
One of those new ideas was procedurally generated cities — a feature that would become a cornerstone for their upcoming game.
Playing We Happy Few feels like stepping into a nostalgic memory of the “good old days”. Bright colours abound in the British town of Wellington Wells as smiling people mill about. But, this is not a game about a wondrous Utopian world. As you soon find out in an unforgettable scene with a piñata, the world isn’t as bright or as joyful as it appears to be.
As Contrast was winding down, Compulsion Games took stock of its strengths. They saw they had strong visual direction and excelled in creating atmosphere and telling stories. These were elements that were needed to be kept for their next project.
Yet, while Contrast was well-received, it did have a shortcoming: its replayability. Fans clamoured for more content but additional content meant additional cost to the studio. For their next game, Guillaume wanted to add more replayability where the game could essentially “build itself for [him].”
“We were a small team and I wanted to make big games,” he says. “How do we punch above our weights? How do we make games that seem bigger than our team size could build?”
Procedurally generated cities seemed like the answer. While there was previous work by Introversion on the subject, there hadn’t been a successful application of the concept. Guillaume was curious. It felt different and it excited him: “To me, [I loved] that compulsion of saying ‘I’m going to start a new game and there’s going to be new stuff’…which is a little bit of what the procedural element brings to the world.”
While he admits it was a good call to push for the concept, it kept the team on “edge” during the game’s development. The studio would spend a gruelling 18 months to get the code and technology working, debugging gameplay, narrative, and direction issues, as well as simply re-thinking the way they approach their work.
Typically, game development follows a process of creating a small portion, then testing and tweaking. When you pass this, it proves your base works and you can then start expanding the game. But, with a procedurally generated world, the world “doesn’t really take shape until the procedural generation is done.” For the team then, “until [the tech] works, you don’t have a game.”
Technical challenges aside, other departments also had to adapt to what the system entailed. In terms of the narrative, you couldn’t simply create a “well-crafted path from point a to point b” because every map would differ on where and what these were. In fact, Guillaume recalls players struggling in the game’s early playtests because they were “completely overwhelmed” and did not know what they had to do. The team then had to understand and balance ways to create these “moments, stories, [and] quests” that would help the player navigate the world and would be satisfying from a story point of view.
Likewise, the art department faced similar struggles. “It was a challenge for Whitney [the studio’s Art Director] too,” admits Guillaume, “she’s very proud and a perfectionist when it comes to art. But now, she’s no longer in control in how things are laid out. There’s a piece of code somewhere generating those road meshes…”
Whitney agrees and tells me how the whole system has pushed the artists to think differently about how they design their pieces. They are learning to use the generation system that Matt Robinson, the studio’s Technical Director, built. In the process, they are also learning to tweak it so “things are [procedurally generated] in a more artful way.”
For example, she tells me of one instance where they worked around the issue of buildings with curved streets. In the game world, the generator ended up creating these odd gaps when they had curved streets with square-shaped buildings. To address this, the artists “made squishy little buildings of different widths” which were then put into the system by Matt. Now, depending on the gap’s size, the generator chooses the closest building size and stretches or pulls the building to fit the gap. “There’s a lot of wacky technical things that people have to come around to,” says Whitney of these workarounds. “There are tons of technical challenges too but luckily Matt is a super genius.”
Despite all these challenges, Guillaume likes the project precisely because of the close collaboration that was fostered between the departments. “Designers couldn’t just be in their design barracks, artists in their art studios, or programmers in the basement,” he says with a laugh. “It was a really good team-building exercise helping to bring everyone to work closely together.”
In June 2016, a month before the scheduled Early Access release of We Happy Few, the gaming world was set ablaze when Compulsion Games stood out at E3 (an annual video game industry conference) among a sea of bigger budget titles. “It’s weird to be sitting [as an independent game] in the middle of a bunch of sixty, seventy, and eighty million dollar games,” says Guillaume. He admits the reaction was “a bit overwhelming” and also “a little bit terrifying” since as a studio, they want to be able to match people’s expectations of what the game is.
This fevered attention on the game though leaves Guillaume philosophical:
“Hype is a strange beast. It’s not something that happens by accident and it’s not something that you can control either. It can grow by itself if you take the right steps to nurture it along the way. Some people grow viral but there are generally some elements that help become a catalyst.”
He tells me that E3 was just the leading event in a year-long campaign the studio leveraged to build momentum. Tracing the numerous stops along the way, Guillaume points out that the first seeds of building the game’s community happened in early 2015 during the game’s first appearance at PAX East, a Boston-based video game festival. From there, that community follow them to their mid-2015 Kickstarter campaign which netted them over $300,000 and an even larger community. This led to a deal with Microsoft which in turn led to their appearance in another video game event: Gamescom.
“You start small and use your community to grow bigger every time,” says Guillaume. “It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you build enough attention and excitement over the game, you build the conditions for you to succeed at building the game.”
As I left the studio and saw the team go back to prepping and testing the game for its big release, I looked back and saw parallels between the studio’s own life and their upcoming game. If We Happy Few is a survival game about bucking the status quo while hiding in plain sight, here is an independent studio surviving, thriving, and producing highly original and polished works (seemingly rivalling those from big studios with big budgets) despite only being a 20-person team. While they may be few, they sure have made a lot of us happy.