I met Simon, from Phantom 8, during one of my trips to Berlin. It was the occasion to talk about the release of their first game, Past Cure. Roman, the managing director of the studio, was working before in the construction field, yet he decided to invest his money and get involved from the start of the project.
GamersFlag : Let’s start with the beginning, when and how did you set up the studio Phantom 8? What was the starting point?
Simon : A good friend of mine came to me and said “hey, there is this one guy Ivan, he came to me and pitched me this game idea” and he [my friend] as a gamer he thought it was a very good idea but he didn’t have the money to fund it. So, he said “I only know one crazy guy that will be interested in doing this”, and that crazy guy was me! So I met Ivan and asked him for the pitch.
So at first I was like … « hum yeah, it’s a really good idea » but I wasn’t sure if I can do this. I also looked at his business plan behind it and thought “Hum it’s probably not the best one and it will cost a lot more money than he expects”. But finally we decided to give it a try. I also wanted to give Ivan the chance make the game because it’s a real passion for him. So we finally decided two year ago now, in January 2016 to set up the studio. We started the development progress in March 2016 with three developers, an environment artist and a character artist. Then we [the team] slowly grew to six in the middle of the development stage. But in the end we were eight people that’s why the studio is called Phantom 8.
The developers come from all over the world, we have a Turkish guy, people from Belgium, Egypt, Romania, England, Macedonia. So it’s a real international team. They are very young, but they are very talented and have a lot of potential and they are all multidisciplinary people so most of them have at least two skills that we can work with. They could always help out another person, so if the character artist had nothing to do on the characters he could jump on cutscene or cinematic. So it was a well chosen team in the end. Otherwise we could not have achieved the quality that we have right now. So that’s the beginning!
GF : So it took two years to develop and produce the game?
S : Yeah.
GF : I was about to ask if Past Cure was the first project you’ve worked on, but I already know the answer now!
S : Yes it is. But it was the case for all of them, nobody had ever shipped a game. They had worked on a couple of games but didn’t get as far as we got. Finally we shipped it, with a worldwide release. We are also on retail, we are on three platforms, PC, Xbox and PlayStation. Our Xbox build was not the best. Which also bring us a lot of bad reviews because the Xbox build has a lot of bugs and a lot of the reviews we have are based on Xbox.
GF : Wasn’t it difficult to develop for three different platforms?
S : Well … The Unreal Engine is quite good for this. In the end we did a lot of stuff, we had a very wide scope so it is true that if we had decided to focus on just one gameplay mechanic like action or military or stealth or horror and only one platform then it would have been much easier to get to the stage we are at right now. But we decided to do this [to develop it on three platforms -ed] and we are really proud of what we have achieved. In the end, we shipped it to every platform.
GF : So that’s why you chose to develop on Unreal Engine? Because it was the easiest to develop for three platforms?
S : Yes, but I also think with Unreal we could achieve the best quality, the kind of cinematic style we wanted to achieve. It’s also very flexible for these three different platforms. It’s easily accessible and it’s free to use at the beginning.
GF : So it was Ivan’s idea to go for a psychological thriller type of game or was it something that appealed to everyone?
S : Well, Ivan had this basic idea, the story pitch. But finally we hired someone professional who wrote down the story and the dialogues because nobody was able to do it, we had some of them try but in the end we decided to use someone professional. We should probably have done this earlier on, we decided to do it during the development process … it’s wasn’t the best idea.
GF : Well that’s something you’ve learned!
S : Yes! We really learnt a lot during the development.
GF : The game reminds me a lot of Get Even. Have you played it? What was the inspiration for Past Cure?
S : No we haven’t played Get Even. The main inspiration that Ivan brought to the game was Silent Hill and Metal Gear Solid. The game should be a bridge between action stealth and survival horror. That was the main goal. But now we’ve heard a lot of Heavy Rain, Max Payne … we have heard of so many titles that we are compared to.
On the one hand it looks really cool if someone says “hey it looks like Max Payne”. But in the end if somebody plays Max Payne and then plays our game then he will find out that Max Payne is a triple A and a ten million dollar production and then he will play Past Cure and say “Okay that’s shit”.
So we don’t want to make a bad triple A game, we want to make a good indie game. That was our aim. But I think the expectations grew a lot when we released our trailer and cinematic and a lot of guys were curious about what Past Cure will be like. So they thought they’ll get the next Remedy Game [Max Payne] or the next Quantic Dream [Heavy Rain] and at the end it was only Past Cure.
GF : When the game was released, we were talking about it earlier, the game had mixed reviews. Do you think people misinterpreted the game, thought it was a triple A?
S : Hum, I think it’s not the only point. I think there are different layers we need to look at. At the end there is the gamer who pays 30 dollars or euro for a game and he decides if the game is worth the 30 dollars. So he will compare us to same priced games. If he doesn’t like it he will say that 30 dollars is too much. And he will compare us to other triple A games because it looks like a triple A game. You can’t manage it.
But I also think that the expectation management from our side was not good enough. Telling people “Hey we are indies, we really are indies, self funded, self published” is something we didn’t want to talk about, because we felt a little bit … not bad but … We didn’t want to make ourselves out to be so small and say “please please buy our game we are so small indies” it was not our goal. We wanted to try to be both.
We wanted to inspire other indie game to also be ballsy, dare more with technology and do something more that they would have done on their last games. Make them realise that the technology is also accessible for them. Yeah … It’s David versus Goliath probably at the end but what feels really good is that there are guys outside that realise what we have done. That’s what makes us proud.
GF : Listening to some French video game podcasts, a lot of game creators say that the period to see if a game is successful or not is around one year, including the sales. Do you know how many copies you have sold so far?
S : No we haven’t got all the numbers so far, but we are on a lot of retailers like Steam, Fanatical, Green man gaming, Xbox, PlayStation and the copies were shipped all around the world. But yes I think the lifetime of a product can be more than one year and there is a lot of work to do now like meeting with you guys. Talking about our game and finding people who’ve never heard about the game and want to give it a try. But we don’t need too many copies sold to be successful. If you look at the all gaming industry, I think there are 60 million or 70 million PlayStation 4 out there so if we get only a small piece of it, it will be really good.
GF : Is it too private to ask how much was the budget for the game?
S : Yes a little bit, I can tell you it was not a million dollar budget.
GF : Okay, Do you have plans for the future? Are you still working on Past Cure?
S : So of course, as I told you, the Xbox build was really buggy. We need to say sorry to the reviewers a little bit. It was our plan to do a day one patch on Xbox but we failed because of an easy mistake. So we need to work on the Xbox patch. There are a lot of bugs we want to correct in the next patch. There are also some feature improvements that we want to work on. There is a lot of community work, we want to have feedback from our community. We have a list of improvements and we compare that with what people tell us so we can focus our energy on these improvements. We’ll do a bigger patch in a couple of weeks.
Of course we have an idea for another game, we’re currently working on the pitch. But this time we want to learn from the past. We want to … cure the past (laugh).
GF : I guess that with what you’ve learnt on Past Cure it will be much more easier to work on a new project next time.
S : In the middle of last year we said “Oh man, fuck this! We shouldn’t have start that”. But we said “Ok, let’s finish this one and bring our experience to the next game”. I know now that we’ll start completely differently next time. That’s what we are doing right now, trying to build a more experienced game. We are working with this guy who has more than ten years experience in the industry. From what I see now, we are on a good path. I think we can do something special again.
It depends on the reviewer and how the reviews go… I think it was also a mistake to aim for the biggest coverage. I think we got a lots of reviews from reviewers that were not our target audience. I think we’ll choose our reviewers a bit more carefully next time and won’t go for quantity but for quality.
I think we are really good with youtubers and twitchers, we got quite good feedback from them. It was fun to watch them, I watched a lot of streamers and they were really happy that we went on their stream and answered their questions. I think we’ll work more with streamers than before. I think we’ll do another round of streamers, we have 4 000 requests from streamers. There was a lot of interest but before we do the next step we want to improve the game a little bit.
GF : Well, I wish you good luck for fixing the bugs and for the next round
S : Yeah, if we see the bugs, the team will be able to fix them. There is some visual stuff we can’t fix because the team is too small, we need to live with this. Also, because we had to retail the game, we couldn’t fix everything on time.
GF : Yes, especially if you needed to ship it …
S : Yes that was the problem, but we are working on key bidding right now. You know, the best feedback is the negative feedback because we can learn a lot from it. We just need to learn how to handle it.
GF : I think that’s also something we the [reviewers] need to work on, because when one writes a negative review it’s easy to be mean or use words that hurt. That’s something we should be careful about because even if it’s a bad game (in our opinion) it’s still work that people have spent time on for years.
S : You know, there are reviewers that are harsh and give a lot of criticism, that’s okay for us. Especially for me, I can really live with it, but it was a little bit harder for the team who felt a little bit down. We told them the good reviews … and I think in any case we can find a way to utilise this experience for us.
GF : Well, thank you for meeting me and answering my questions!
S : It was a pleasure!
We wish to thank Maya for her thorough re-reading of this article.