Luc Bernard, Chief Creative Officer of development studio, Arcade Distillery, has many games under his belt. You may recall ones like Plague Road, Mecho Tales, Death Tales and the upcoming Skull Pirates (Spring 2019). Additionally, he has a game in development, Imagination is the Only Escape, that focuses on the Holocaust, a subject matter that has caused much controversy. Finally, Bernard is one of the only North American developers still supporting the PlayStation Vita, with Skull Pirates still set to release on the platform next year.
We recently spoke to Bernard about misconceptions about game development from both consumers and journalists, and got his opinion on everything ranging from season passes, game pricing, and the Telltale fiasco. Here’s what he had to say.
Joseph Yaden of Twinfinite: What’s a common thing you hear from consumers pertaining to development that is totally wrong? And how do you think that can be fixed?
Luc Bernard of Arcade Distillery: I honestly don’t really listen to negative comments; I block them out. But in general, I would say that people complaining – like how they complained about Mass Effect 3’s ending or Mass Effect Andromeda’s graphics – the developers of that game [Mass Effect Andromeda] didn’t have enough money to make every single character mo-capped or the programming created some bugs.
Games cost so much nowadays, it’s kind of near-impossible to create an RPG with so many characters, unless you’re like the developers of The Witcher who are based in Poland where it’s cheaper to make games compared to Canada or America.
Twinfinite: Interesting. I never thought about that.
Bernard: Yeah, if they [CD Projekt Red, developers of Witcher], for example, receive money from across the world, they’re going to make a lot more money in Poland than say, someone up in Canada would. Ubisoft does great with the Assassin’s Creed games, but there are thousands and thousands of people [working there].
I would say I’m really fond of mid-ranged games like Focus Home Interactive’s games, where they aren’t too big or too small. I wish that consumers wouldn’t go and jump on some big budget games that don’t have everything perfect like Mass Effect Andromeda. Which I think the press also helped push that, too.
Twinfinite: It seems like some consumers lose sight that it costs money to make games. Do you think this is an issue with the developers not being transparent enough with consumers?
Bernard: I don’t think they need to be transparent. Look at film budgets – no one is completely transparent with where all the money goes. I think it’s as easy as ‘If people don’t like the games, they shouldn’t buy them.’ That’s how I feel. Like, if I don’t like a certain film I don’t go and watch it, or if I don’t like a certain TV show, I just move on with my life.
I think because gaming is internet-based and a lot more people are using the internet – that’s why you hear more complaints, compared to any other form of media. People don’t really bitch about songs because they’re usually around three minutes long. No one is going to spend that much time typing for hours about how much they hate a song. With a game, I feel like once people spend $60.00, because it’s more expensive– It’s a bit like when people complain about Destiny. People complain about Destiny after playing it for 100 hours. “Mate, you know you’ve spent $60.00 on this game and you’ve been playing it for 100 hours? You’ve gotten enough entertainment out of it at this point.”
So, I don’t think people will ever really understand how everything works. It’s a bit like when people bash some films or bash Michael Bay or those kinds of things. I don’t think consumers will understand how all of the business works. But I don’t think they necessarily NEED to.
Like the whole Star Wars thing – EA really fucked up with that – they really appeared like evil people [laughs]. “We’re going to put the powers behind random paywalls.” Of course, that got people pissed off. [But I still] think most games can survive. They’re still making money and still doing okay. I just think you don’t need to be number one. I’d like for the industry to not make so many big blockbusters – trying to be number one, if that makes sense.
I’d much rather us go back to more mid-ranged games. Everyone is doing an MMO sort of game, expecting you to spend 100 hours just with that one game.
Twinfinite: That’s a great point. Is there a common practice in the industry that you wish would go away? Whether it’s from the consumer’s side or developmental side.
Bernard: I wish [developers] would stop spending 300 million – 400 million on games. That’s just me, of course. Don’t get me wrong, I loved playing Assassin’s Creed Origins – that was one of my favorite games of the past year, you know? It’s good to have these huge games, but I just wish they [developers] would do more like Focus Home Interactive, where they release smaller games – They released the Cthulhu game, the Vampyr game. Yeah, do a bit more games that are different and not so expensive.
Like that pixel art game on the Switch by Square Enix, Octopath Traveler. I’d much rather there be a lot more games like that.
Twinfinite: That’s a great point because if a developer spends so much money making a game and it bombs, it means they just lost a lot of money.
Bernard: Then it’s like THQ all over again.
Twinfinite: Exactly. What is something you wish more consumers knew about development?
Bernard: Well, there’s budgets, there’s the publisher, there are time-frames. You can spend years making the best game ever, but eventually you have to release it, so the company can make money and pay its employees. It’s like a shop – if the shop doesn’t sell any merchandise, the shop goes out of business. Same thing with games, pretty much. It’s like films in a way, or TV shows. It’s hard for people to understand that, you know?
Twinfinite: Is there anything journalists commonly get wrong or miscategorize about development?
Bernard: I think that a lot of journalists nowadays jump from journalism into the gaming industry after and realize how hard it is. I think there are journalists and bloggers and YouTubers. It’s so different now, it is. I wish some of them would not be so aggressive and always make clickbait [content].
But it’s just what we’ve entered. Everyone wants the clickbait-type Buzzfeed [kind of content]. For example, I think Polygon is great. Polygon is a proper journalistic website, it is. Kotaku just feels more like a blog – peoples’ opinions. That’s why it’s good they don’t do review scores, you know? They’re just like, “I like the game, or I don’t. Thumbs up or thumbs down.”
I think Metacritic, honestly needs to kind of…go away. Just because – I don’t really think that many people care about Metacritic. I think they’re shifting more towards YouTube, streaming, or this kind of thing. It’s all sort of changing.
So, I don’t know if I can mention too much about the journalistic landscape because it’s completely shifting compared to years ago. Like, years ago you’d have to actually get your game out to the press and nowadays the thing that only matters is if you get featured on the store.
You can ignore the press completely. Like with Fortnite, they just released a Battle Royale update and there wasn’t much buzz from the press and it took off on its own.
Twinfinite: I know you’ve released your games on major platforms like Xbox One, PS4, Switch. Is the process of releasing a game on those platforms similar? If not, what’s different about them?
Bernard: No, each platform has their own set of rules and submission processes. The easiest so far has been Switch. I can’t mention much because of NDAs, but that’s the easiest one. [They’re] fast with E-mails, easy to get a hold of with developers – Nintendo has done a complete . They’re pretty much how Sony was years ago. Sony was at the height of the indie scene and now it’s become kind of Nintendo who’s like that.
Twinfinite: Is there a platform that is more difficult to work with?
Bernard: Well…now I know how to work with [all of them], but PlayStation isn’t as user-friendly. That’s the most I’ll say.
Twinfinite: How does an indie developer go about requesting for a game to be released on a platform?
Bernard: It has changed a lot. I don’t know how it is now, but I’ve noticed more and more people are getting [their games] up on platforms now. Before, you kind of had to know people and be a popular developer and show some games you’ve done and that kind of thing. It was really about connections before – Kind of like a private club. I’ve noticed there are a lot more games now.
Twinfinite: From the looks of it, although there are some fantastic indie games available, it seems like there is an overabundance of Shovelware released on current platforms, making it harder to find good games. It seems like there isn’t much of a Quality Assurance process to approve games being released. Do you think this is impacting you and other Indie developers?
Bernard: It depends. Like, on Switch I think there [are] a decent amount of games, but I haven’t found much Shovelware. On PlayStation, there’s one or two that pop up from time to time. I think it’s actually okay – I don’t think it’s like the app store or Steam.
Twinfinite: Certainly not, but I have noticed that each week it seems like there are dozens of games released and it makes it hard for a particular game to stand out.
Bernard: We haven’t really had that issue because our [games] kind of stand out. [I haven’t noticed that] in terms of competition. I think it’s because we do things really differently. That’s why I don’t view anyone as competition.
A lot of people don’t like the games I direct. If I look on Twitch [I might see], “Fuck this game and fuck him.” So, there’s only been one or two I’ve seen on PlayStation [that are considered Shovelware], like that Life of Black Tiger game – That was a weird, awful-looking student project or something.
Yeah, there are a lot of games because there are a lot of studios, but it’s also a bigger market now. So, a lot more people have consoles and games and all that. I think there’s enough space for everyone.
Twinfinite: What’s the process of selecting a release date like? It seems like a lot of times, games don’t sell as well because of their release date.
Bernard: It depends. For our ports, we just sort of release them whenever [laughs]. It’s best to negotiate with the platform-holder. “When can you give us a feature? Can we release it first with you guys and can you give us a feature?” But if you’re a big-budget studio that has millions of dollars for marketing, you can dictate when you want to release it, you know?
Twinfinite: Have you experienced or know of anyone who has experienced some back and forth with the release date?
Bernard: Yeah, it does happen often. Like with [our game], Skull Pirates, we decided not to release it this year because it would just be silly. There are too many games coming out right now. That’s why we pushed it back to Spring. It will get more visibility and we can spend more time making the co-op really good. We’re kind of pushing the Vita’s limits because there are a lot of 3D elements, so it will take a bit more time.
Twinfinite: Do you think games should be more expensive?
Bernard: No. Think about a game with a season pass – It’s like $100.00. I suppose online games like Destiny shouldn’t have a season pass. I think it should be free updates with lots of microtransactions.
Twinfinite: Do you think we should do away with season passes, in general?
Bernard: For online games, not single-player games – Not for RPGs. Give me more and more of those season passes. I actually wish [developers] could continue them forever. But for multiplayer games I think they should ditch the season passes.
Twinfinite: The reason I bring up the price of games is because they haven’t gone up in price in over 10 years. Back in the PS2 days, games were $50.00 and went up to $60.00 with the Xbox 360 generation. Accounting for inflation and current cost of development, I wanted your take on the price of games.
No, because then it would just be too expensive. Imagine, [it being] over $100.00 for a game. I think it’s good the way it is. I think [developers] should just stop making them so fucking huge.
Why do you think there is so much hidden from consumers? Do you think this is justified? Is there a way you think developers/publishers could be more transparent with consumers?
Bernard: [Think of] movies – They don’t reveal everything to consumers, either. You have to let the creative process [flow]. It’s not a free-for-all. When you release a game, then you can bring the community onboard. For example, if someone went to McDonalds and saw how their food was made, they would never go to McDonald’s. EVER. Or your iPhone, right? If you saw how your iPhone was made, you might see kids in factories and you’d [say], “Oh, god, I definitely don’t want an iPhone.” Of course, video games aren’t that bad.
But [developers] don’t have to show everything. When it comes to big publishers, no. They make their games and release them. There would be no mystery [if we knew everything] – You’d play the game and know everything about it.
Twinfinite: But maybe if consumers knew more, they’d be more understanding when things don’t go 100% according to plan.
Bernard: Yeah, but really, no one fully understands the creative process – Like how books are written or how films are made or music – You have to be a part of it to understand, you know? Each development team has a method. I think it’s fine how it is – I’m actually quite happy with how the industry is right now.
Twinfinite: What do you make of the Telltale situation? How do you feel about unionization of development studios?
Bernard: With the Telltale thing, I’m looking at it from a business point of view. They really fucked themselves by only having licenses. They don’t have any original IP, right? So that made their company not valuable. That’s why they couldn’t save it. They couldn’t sell the company. Everyone was amazed. “What the fuck, Telltale? Why didn’t Microsoft or anyone buy them?” They don’t own anything. They’re pretty much a shell of a company.
There was that and then I think they grew too fast. 250 people? Holy shit, that’s a bit too many people. So, I think they grew too fast and had nothing that belonged to them and that’s where they went wrong. I think they would have avoided this if they actually had IP. They were obviously not making enough [money].
It’s a very sad situation. I don’t think any of the founders were like, “Haha we aren’t going to pay anyone.” They probably thought they’d be able to save it and they didn’t manage to, you know?
[In terms of unionization] I think for big developers, yeah, they should do that. It’s not like with small companies, where everyone cares about one another.
Twinfinite: Is it common for studios to work super long hours, like with Telltale?
Bernard: Well, everyone who works at my company – We all work super long hours, even on weekends. That’s because we’re passionate about what we do. We’re also a smaller team – This is our life, you know?
With indies, yeah. It’s a small company – A startup, everyone has shares in it. You’re building up your own business. If you aren’t willing to work the long hours, no one else is. If the owners aren’t willing to work the long hours, why would anyone else want to work for you? It’s entrepreneurship. It’s different than working for a big studio where you just get paid money to do your job and go to bed. But, with the big companies, yeah, they should be protected and unionized.
Twinfinite: Do you think the fan response (anger and disappointment) to the Telltale issue has been fair? There have been a lot of peoples’ hot takes about it from all angles and I wanted to see how you felt about that.
Bernard: Well for what happened with Telltale, I don’t know what happened exactly. But I’m sure the owners of the company did not want it to happen and tried doing everything they could to save the company and peoples’ jobs.
That does it for our QA interview! Special thanks to Luc Bernard for taking a few minutes out of his day to come speak to us!