Listen to Camille Guermonprez for long enough and you may end up deciding that a good indie developer needs the pluck, resilience and impractically optimistic outlook of a Warner Bros cartoon character. Guermonprez is the co-founder of Paris-based Arkedo Studio and, as he tells it, his company’s history is one of ingenuity and disaster: a cycle composed of astonishing successes and terrible, impossible failures. People have flung bags of money at Arkedo, but they’ve also flung frying pans. Back in late 2010, for example, the situation was so bad that, even as Guermonprez packed up a demo of his team’s latest work and took it to Game Connection Lyon in order to pitch it to publishers, he was ready to declare his company dead. “It was the last fireworks for us,” he laughs. “Our last fireworks while the boat was sinking: put on bright clothes, a smile and clean teeth. We’re a bit of a romantic firm here. If you’re going to die, let’s do it in style. I was prepared for that.”
Guermonprez co-founded the studio along with artist and designer Aurélien Regard in 2006, after he had been forced out of his last company, a developer of mobile games. “That team grew to be about 60 or 70 people throughout the course of its life,” Guermonprez remembers. “I stupidly raised some VC money around year three or four, and when I managed to do that, the guy who put the money in took extra care to fire me within a few months. Then they fired the guy who fired me, and then they couldn’t find a third guy to fire.”
Guermonprez had shares in the developer, and cashed out with around £300,000. It would have been enough to cover his old company’s payroll for just 17 days; he founded Arkedo determined that it would fund a new team of three for over a year. “We wanted to make real games by ourselves, games that came in a box, and we wanted to spend at least 16 months doing it,” he says. “That was a very strong drive. I think you need some kind of failure in order to put yourself forward.”
At the heart of Arkedo Studios were two sacred principles: stay small and retain IP, both simple concepts that can be enormously tricky to pull off. “Staying small was easy because of what I did before,” laughs Guermonprez. “I had started small and then followed the classic, accepted course of companies: if you’re successful, you should be bigger. We hired a lot and raised money; I lived through moderate success and hated it.
“That said, Arkedo’s small size would not be possible without Aurélien. He’s really playing many parts in the band. He’s my partner, he’s a graphic designer, he was a producer until a few months ago, he’s the game designer and level designer, and he keeps everyone happy and smiling. If you have someone like that by your side, it’s your responsibility to provide the means for him. I’m funding the thing that he can do, that’s how I see that.”
And as for retaining IP? “I made sure that it was not a question that would be allowed to be asked,” Guermonprez explains. “With our first two games, I took care to only see publishers once the game was done. I was a CEO for six years, even if I was a bad one, so I can talk business a little. I wanted to meet the higher-level people and say: ‘This is a distribution deal. There’s no risk – what you see is what you get.’ It’s good to say, especially when us French guys are very famous for over-promising and under-delivering and having very big mouths. This was my way of saying, ‘I’m French, but listen anyway. The game is done!’”
For Guermonprez, holding on to IP is about more than just money. “It comes down to this: if our games are bad, we want it to be our fault, and not because someone asked to add a zombie survival element or whatever,” he argues. “What we’re selling is being different. With Arkedo, I say we’re small and we have our own colour – let’s say bright yellow. You can be big and me-too, but you can’t be small and me-too. When you’re talking with publishers, there are so many opinions flying around, it’s like everyone comes in with their own colour. When you have too many colours together, you get brown. Brown and small is not possible. Ninety-nine per cent of people hate bright yellow, but we’re going to make bright yellow games for the bright yellow crowd. Small games break even quickly. It works, and it doesn’t work if everyone else adds a bit of their opinion.”