In 2007, Simon Darveau was a young designer at Ubisoft. When he realized the incredible potential of a game he was working on, he convinced senior management to assign him a research and development team to create prototypes that would up the gameplay level to match the amazing sophistication of the game mechanics.
The truth is, Simon really had no idea how to proceed, neither in how to guide a team, nor how to develop a game scenario that would live up to his expectations. Some would call it sheer recklessness. In reality, Simon Darveau was about to unleash some of the greatest creative potential ever in video game development.
The experience led Simon to develop a methodology all his own, which in turn led to founding Scavengers Studio and, as they say, the rest is history.
“I was in panic mode when I discovered the tremendous potential of rapid iterations. One of the fundamental rapid iteration principles is best illustrated in a study of two student classes, each given the task of building furniture. The first class was given the task of building the most beautiful shelf possible. The second class was given the task of building as many shelves as possible. Turns out the second class not only built the most shelves possible but also built the most beautiful shelf as well,” Simon says.
Instead of spending time thinking and philosophizing about the first shelf, the second class immediately got to work and built one, then a second better one, and a third one even better…and so on and so on. “Done is better than perfect,” as they say.
Applying shelf-building theory to video games
Simon Darveau explains how he put shelf-building theory to work in video games. First off, take all the mechanics of the game and all their possible interactions into consideration, and then try the imaginable and the unimaginable to achieve as many combinations as possible between them all. Many studios are constantly trying to develop new game mechanics. Darveau and Scavengers Studio take a different approach. Why not simply exploit the game mechanics you already have to their fullest potential?
The only way to really understand the most interesting interactions between several mechanical options is to continually iterate until you find the ones you like best. And the only way to discover which combination makes the most sense when a number of options interact is to keep on iterating until you come across the combination that works best for a particular game.
Take the tennis analogy. “In terms of basics, tennis is a game with a bouncing ball, a racquet, and a net for the ball to bounce over,” Simon says. “And if we get back to the basics, that’s really the most fun you can get from that matrix and that’s why, of all the possible options, the universally popular tennis game we have today is the optimum result.” The upshot: the only way to understand a game’s full potential is to keep tinkering away until you find what works best, whether it’s tennis or a video game.
“You have to think more like an inventor than a creator.” – Scavengers Studio founder Simon Darveau
Unable to see the forest for the trees
Creating requires two things that are generally contrary to inventing. Creators are very close – often too close – to their projects. They also have a vision of what the project should be, a bias towards what they believe to be the best – or the only – possible way to go. It can be extremely difficult for them to watch a game grow and to accept the fact that it has veered off the course they had in their initial vision. “It’s a lot like raising a child,” Simon says. “You can have a vision for a game in its infancy, and you can try all you want to keep it evolving towards the vision you have for it, but you will never be able to take it to the next level if you don’t fully understand what gaming is all about. Because before you know it, the game has taken on an identity all its own.”
Simon says that one of the great challenges is to go beyond the vision when working on a project. “A lot of people have a hard time starting new projects. They imagine something. They have a vision. And if their vision isn’t achieved, the project’s a failure in their mind. The thing is I don’t believe that the initial vision can ever be achieved in the first place.”
As far as Darveau is concerned, if a project doesn’t work out as planned, the fault is all his. It’s his fault because he wasn’t able to effectively communicate his vision, or he wasn’t able to point his team in the right direction. He admits that he’s 100% accountable but also 0% guilty. Every failure is really just as an iteration, an opportunity to improve the game, the team, or his own leadership skills. You just have to roll up your sleeves and start again.
The idea is to define a framework for the game so that it can shine, while accepting the fact that it will be transformed during the development process. That’s the philosophy behind every Scavengers Studio achievement – including the Darwin Project – and the many ongoing projects still in development. For Simon Darveau the task at hand is always the same: simplify and keep bringing everything back into focus.
Darveau sees his studio as a well-armed strike force. The key is to continually refocus the battle plan based on the strengths of each project.
Commandos to the core
“You need an army to create a game that looks like every other game on the market today. To create a game that looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before, you need a team of commandos. And you’re not going to get there if you don’t have all the right elements in place to make it work,” Simon says.
Darveau has been working with the same team of developers since starting his studio 12 years ago which is truly unbelievable given how much poaching goes on in the video game industry. He says his loyal commandos are the real key to Scavengers Studio’s success. “They’re a brilliant, tightly knit team, agile, fast, flexible, innovative, not afraid of anything, and they keep moving ahead relentlessly like a Greek phalanx.” In fact, it’s the commandos that have allowed the studio to accomplish things that continue to make the major studios so jealous…and with a fraction of their resources. It’s certainly been the case for the spectator interaction mechanics behind the success of the Darwin Project.
The commandos have continually allowed Darveau to get the maximum out of his methodology. And, of course, there’s his partner, Amélie Lamarche. She’s been the guiding light behind his vision since day one.
Putting creation ahead of production
The new focus in the video game industry has shifted from creation to production, two opposing values, as far as Darveau is concerned.
“Pretty much everything was invented between 1980 and 1990. From the 1990s to the PlayStation 4, there really hasn’t been anything to write home about. Sure, game production and performance paradigms continued to evolve, but that’s about it,” Simon says. “And the only way to maximize production value, is to cut back on the gaming experience. We’ve reached a critical mass in terms of team size and that must now morph into something smaller and more innovative.”
‘It’s only when we shed the production mentality and switch back to creation mode that we can get out from behind the wave and really become leaders in the field,” he says.