Benoît Hozjan

Kheops Studio

Posted by Joseph Howse, Philip Jong.
First posted on 05 April 2008. Last updated on 21 October 2008.
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Benoît Hozjan
Benoît Hozjan is the cofounder and director of Kheops Studio in France.

All images are courtesy of Christine Pestel, Nobilis Group © 2007.

Benoît Hozjan is the cofounder and director of Kheops Studio, an independent game development company based in Paris, France. Founded in 2003 by former employees of Cryo Interactive Entertainment, Kheops Studio specializes in the development of graphical adventure games with historical or literary settings. Between 2004 and 2006, the studio has already released 8 games, and it has 3 more currently under development.

We are privileged to have this interview with the prolific game developer. In the interview, Hozjan speaks about video game development in France, the signature style of Kheops Studio's games, the rapid development process that goes on behind the scenes, and what the future holds for his company.

How did you, personally, get started in the game development industry? Before you cofounded Kheops Studio, what kind of experience did you have in the game industry, particularly in game development?

I started in 1995 at Cryo Interactive Entertainment in the R&D department. So my first experience was focused on the technical part of the game development. The technical department was there to provide engines, libraries and different tools for all the production teams. Cryo became Dreamcatcher Europe in 2002 and I was then in charge of this department.

Around the time when Kheops Studio was founded, many French game developers were facing considerable difficulties. How has the industry's situation changed since then? How strong is the game development community in France and specifically Paris? How does this environment influence your company, both economically and artistically?

When Dreamcatcher Europe decided to close the internal production studio in 2003, it was a hard time because the prospects for continuing to work in the game industry in France was low. In a few years the number of employees was divided by between 3 and 5 in France, depending on the sources. It wasn't the easiest period to create a new studio but we have found our niche. Finally, it was a necessary difficult period to reach maturity and there are now less "eccentric" studios or projects in France. In the last months, we have seen more job offers in France and we hope that the situation will continue. The downside of this situation is the difficulty to work on very original projects. Publishers are more conservative and if a studio wants to be sure to sell a project, it's easier to follow publishers' criteria. That's why we can see more and more titles fully guided by marketing services, sequels and licences. Another interesting point is the fact that studios are helping each other and the Parisian cluster "Capital Games" has done a great job for that.

Kheops Studio's games have been described as "cultural entertainment" in genre, since the settings in most of your games are drawn from historical or literary sources. What factors have led your company to focus on this genre? What are some of the special considerations in developing and marketing this kind of game?

It was a well known genre for the whole team, so it wasn't a very risky choice even if the adventure genre is a difficult one. We used to look in two directions, first we try to fit the marketing requests from the publisher, to help them to push the title and second we try to make choices with an interesting background on which we can build a story and create a good experience for the player. But we are also working on new concepts not based on historical or literary sources.

How familiar are you with historical and literary adventure games by other developers (such as Frogwares Game Development Studio)? When using stories which are already the subject of many adaptations, such as Jules Verne's novels or Dracula, how does Kheops Studio seek to differentiate its games from other developers' games on the market?

We used to buy all the adventure games because it helps us to improve some parts of our games. When a publisher asks us to create an adventure game based on a Jules Verne novel or to create a sequel to Dracula, we first try to appropriate ourselves the universe to serve the game at best. We avoid working on the same novel if a studio has already developed a game. Concerning Dracula we have discovered too late that we were two studios working on the same character, but I'm sure that both titles will be different enough to find their public.

As in games from Cryo Interactive Entertainment, your games also let the player see in pre-rendered, first-person, panoramic perspective. However, Kheops Studio has departed from convention in developing an elaborate interface for certain puzzles, such as knotting ropes, or assembling and disassembling complex objects in inventory. How much extra programming effort goes into implementing such features? How have the players reacted to your interface innovations and the related puzzles? What interface developments, generally speaking, do you have in mind for future game?

We have continued to develop games with first-person panoramic view because this kind of view is very intuitive for casual gamers. Ergonomic interfaces and small edutainment content are also common features in our games. So every game is an opportunity to develop these aspects. For instance, for Destination: Treasure Island, the game designer was looking for an idea to use nodes inside the game. He has presented to the team some options and after some iteration we had a puzzle that teaches step by step how to make knotting ropes very easily. We also had a very good feedback with the interface from Return to Mysterious Island and the ability of assembling and disassembling complex objects, that's why we have seen this inventory in Voyage... and also Destination: Treasure Island. Implementing interfaces, inventory and puzzles need lots of time in game design and code. Every game is an opportunity to create a new interface and in a near future we hope to show an interface to solve an investigation. We are also experimenting different ways to deliver objectives to the player.

You have mentioned publicly that Kheops Studio has developed (but not yet used) an engine for games in third-person, pre-rendered perspective. What will be the first game developed with this engine? How will its target market differ from that of your previous games?

We have a project with a murder in an abbey, the targeted market will be the same but we have seen that some territories were allergic to first-person view and prefer a third-person view.

Many of the puzzles in your games have an educational component, insofar as the player must learn to do something with historical tools or in accordance with historical customs. What approach do you take to researching such puzzles? Judging from players' feedback, are certain demographics playing your games in part to learn about history?

You are right, this is a very common point in our games, and we all work hard to find puzzles or challenges built around the background of our games to improve the immersion. We use Internet and our memory, based on what we have read, seen or done in the past. We were also helped by real expert for some productions. I don't think that people are playing our games to really learn something like in a documentary but I'm sure they know that we have done our best to be as accurate as possible or that our historical fictions are fair.

You have stated publicly that Kheops Studio keeps tight production schedules, with just 8-9 months to develop each game. What are some of the challenges of such rapid development, for example in terms of integrating content from subcontractors, and leaving time for QA (quality assurance)? What content pipeline and integration software does Kheops Studio employ in the development process?

Instead of waiting for the whole completion of the game design to start the production, we have an iterative process of development. So we can start the graphical production earlier and keep in our mind that small adjustments will be necessary. It's also possible to implement some parts very early without final content. QA is a very important point for us, each member of the studio are testing the game to find bugs, to improve ergonomy and to have a seamless game as intuitive as possible.

Of Kheops Studio's games to date, which game has had the greatest commercial success? Did it achieve particular popularity in any single country? What influence has this game had on your design philosophy?

I guess that Return to Mysterious Island is our greatest success worldwide, mainly with a very good word of mouth among adventure gamers. Secrets of Da Vinci had a great success in France but not in North America because it was almost impossible to find it in stores. When the reason of the success is identified, we try to keep good features or recipes for a future title.

Like Kheops Studio's first game, The Egyptian Prophecy (set during the reign of Ramses II), Cleopatra: A Queen's Destiny revolves around an Egyptian ruler's fate. Although the games are set 12 centuries apart, do you consider Cleopatra: A Queen's Destiny the sequel to The Egyptian Prophecy in certain ways? Were you able to reuse any elements (such as the style of the graphics or music)?

This is not a sequel, the game is graphically different, the music too. It takes place in Alexandria during the civil war and we have introduced a replayability feature using astrological signs. Depending on the sign chosen at the beginning, some parts of the game will be slightly different.

Kheops Studio has also announced the development of Nostradamus: The Last Prophecy. (Destinies and prophecies are important themes here, aren't they?) What can you reveal about this game? How far currently is the development? What is the tentative release schedule?

We have finished the development last August, we have also done some localizations. The French release date is November 8th. It takes place in the south of France and you will have to investigate about murders that seem to follow a Nostradamus quatrain. This is the same game designer as Secret of The Lost Cavern and Secrets of Da Vinci. We continue to work with external talents, with a little training, they know how to deliver information to be as close as possible to our common production pipeline.

What books (literature or history) have you read recently? How much influence do books have on the design of your games (perhaps even future games)? What else helps give you game ideas? Movies? Travel?

We have all seen or read many things around Dracula. You are right, we are influenced by books, movies, TV series and of course travels. I used to take some pictures using a digital camera or even my cell phone. I have recently visited the catacombs of Paris, this destination was clearly oriented by our current project, Dracula.

So far, Kheops Studio has focused on rapid development of games with moderate design complexity. (The puzzles tend to be very elaborate, yet the number of locations and characters seems to be kept under relatively tight constraints.) Do you foresee Kheops Studio diversifying into adventure games with the highest levels of design complexity? Under what conditions? What would be your “wish list” (in terms of story, setting, and game features) for an adventure game of high design complexity?

The number of locations and characters used to be moderate but it is always balanced by a higher density of interactions by area. This is our way to optimize resources but it is also a big challenge. It is easy, but expensive, to have long and useless transitions locations without anything to do... except cross it. It's often a way to create artificial lifespan and we try to avoid that. Considering the feedback we have through forums, reviews and our permanent online survey on our website, players seems to approve our choice for the density, the level of puzzles' integration and the high level of graphical quality even if our productions are sometimes considered as too short. I guess it's better to hear that the experience was short but good! What do you prefer? A long but so boring movie that you choose to leave the theatre?

I also would like to add that some of our games are nonlinear which is far more complicated to create and tune. We have discovered with these experiments that players who like to be well guided prefer our more linear titles because the freedom offered by nonlinear games may generate the feeling that you don't know enough what you have to do next.

For some of our latest productions, we had sometimes a bigger budget to offer more to the player. For instance, with Nobilis, we have included more cinematics in Cleopatra: A Queen's Destiny.

In a near future, we hope to work with a publisher interested to push adventure games on new platforms with innovative gameplay features.

You have mentioned publicly that government support is an important factor in fostering independent video game developers. Due to the possibility of accessing additional government support, is international co-production an attractive option to independent game studios? What experience, if any, has Kheops Studio had with international co-production?

The French "Assemblée Nationale" has voted last February, a tax reduction law to help our industry to minimize the gap with other countries like Canada. We have the support of both French Ministry of Culture and Industry but we are still waiting for the approval of the European Parliament. We are also penalized by the currency parity between US Dollar and Euro, this parity was 0.95 in January 2003 and is now less than 0.70. It means that for a constant cost from our part, it's now 40% more expensive than 5 years ago for a North American publisher. So we strongly hope that it will be very soon possible to apply the cost reduction.

For the moment, we have exclusively done national co-productions but we are open to explore international co-production.

What do you see in the future for the adventure gaming community? Can you offer any words of wisdom? What directions will Kheops Studio take over the next 5 years?

We plan to test new concepts, new platforms and maybe new business model. We have also opened this summer our own Web Shop to be able to deliver the games we have developed directly to players, especially to people who can't find our titles anymore. I hope that it will be soon possible to deliver digital versions at a more attractive price than the retailer price to push this business. We also need the support of the adventure community to have a chance to propose bigger projects, there is always too much piracy today and when a publisher sells more units, then he may finance a bigger project later. Thanks to players who continue to take the time to answer to our permanent feedback survey on our website, it helps us to understand their expectations.

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