After time away from the game industry, Arkane founder, Raphael Colantonio, and former executive producer at Arkane, Julien Roby, have come back together to form a fully decentralized game studio.
Making games is hard. Building a studio is harder. But twenty years after he founded Arkane Studios, Raphael Colantonio is back to studio building with a brand new venture, WolfEye Studios. He's bringing a friendly face from his days at Arkane: former executive producer, Julien Coby. Colantonio will be assuming the role as studio creative director and president, while Coby will be resuming his work as executive producer and taking on the title of CEO.
The pair are keeping quiet about the game they've quietly been working on and where the investment is coming from, but we'll be hearing more around The Game Awards on December 12.
We caught up with Colantonio and Coby to talk more about WolfEye and what they've been up to since they left AAA development.
Colantonio's departure from Arkane in 2017 was a bit shocking. He'd built the company from this scrappy underdog team of French developers into the powerhouse studio that it became. He'd relocated from France to Austin, TX after the Bethesda acquisition, but he wasn't fully satisfied in his work anymore. He wanted more time to spend with his son and figure out what was going to come next.
"...it is time for me to step out to spend some time with my son and reflect on what is important to me and my future," he wrote on the Bethesda blog. "I’ve lived many magical moments. I’ve also been through the hard times. But, I can say that joining ZeniMax took things to the next level and gave Arkane the opportunity to emerge as a world-class studio. ZeniMax enabled us to make the best games that we’ve ever made. And I know there is even more to come."
He wasn't wrong. Arkane has gone on to continue to make excellent games like Dishonored 2 and continue to improve upon the Prey experience.
Colantonio has been taking it easy for the last couple of years, thankfully. He's done some consulting here and there, but the focus has been on recovering from 17 years at the helm of a studio and spending quality time with family.
"Most of the time, I was enjoying my time with my son, playing music, just traveling or relaxing," Colantonio told us. "I think when you have the personality that I have, like very adventurous. I also like to create things. As soon as you stop, you get bored or relaxed... then, ideas start to poke and it's hard to ignore them for too long. I think that's pretty much what happened to me."
Coby's trajectory after leaving Arkane was slightly different, as he ended up working at 2K Games and Hangar 13 Games to finish up Mafia 3. But AAA development had worn him down, too (a common refrain, it seems), so Coby took some time off after 2K to move back to Perth, Australia and soak up the sun.
"You just take time to relax, think about what to do next, and so on. Unfortunately, I kept on talking with Raf so that's what happened, Coby added with a laugh. "I wanted to get back more into a space of working on games that are closer to my personal sensibilities in term of design and as a player. Also, I was burned out by years of crunch. I just wanted to move back to Australia, take a day off and then take some time to decide what to do, but apart from the whole idea, I wasn't sure of what to do."
It's hard to ignore the siren song of making games when you've spent the vast majority of your adult life enmeshed in it. But both Colantonio and Coby are dedicated to pushing the creative envelope again, now that they're independent.
"I found myself, of course, playing games during this downtime," Colantonio said. "I found myself more excited about the independence space. I just realized as a gamer, and of course, also, my developer side of that but as a gamer, I find innovation in smaller games. Big games tend to be-- It's been like two or three generations of hardware now that I'm playing the same game, frankly. If I want fun or if I want interesting new ideas, that actually comes from the same ideas in bigger games, but then, I find myself looking in smaller games. That's been something telling for me."
So after talking together for some time, Colantonio and Coby decided that they were both ready to get back to the business of making games, but they had no desire to work themselves into the ground again. They wanted to do something different and they wanted the approach to making games to be different, too.
That's where WolfEye Studios was born from. The pair established the studio as fully decentralized -- there's no physical headquarters -- and got to work on their first game, the details of which are under wraps until The Game Awards on December 12. WolfEye is an unusual name (no more so than Arkane), but just like you'd expect, there's more to the name than you think.
"The wolf is a smart, independent animal," Colantonio began. "It is careful, but at the same [time], it is really communicative and it also works in packs. It's [the] animal I think we liked and the eye because it's the vision, it's the knowledge, the precision, and all that."
Regardless of the creative bug biting the two men and luring them back into the realms of game development, they were both reticent to start a studio right away. Building a studio can be just as difficult as, if not more so than, making games.
"I think we resisted for a while because creating companies is a lot of stress and in a way, I moved away from stress so the question [was] why go back there?" Colantonio admitted. "I think in 2019, there was a context that made sense for us to actually do it. This time, with the understanding that we would stay small and away from any of the things that has led to unhappiness in the past."
Decentralized work environments can be tricky to manage, especially if backgrounds have been in meeting-heavy AAA development spaces. But Colantonio and Coby were insistent that the overhead wasn't worth it and neither was the stress of having rigid structures around working time.
"I think that is something that Julien and I have always been very open to in the Past," Colantonio noted. "Even when in our previous company, we were very early into using video conference to work with the best people wherever they were in the world. It is something that we felt comfortable with.
"Julien is in Australia, I live in Austin. We thought it's a modern world, we have to evolve. We are not worried about not having enough space so it's actually more of a way to get great people. I think hopefully, bigger corporations that have been resisting working from home and that fear of what it means. It just means that you need to work with very responsible people. It's respectful to them, they respect you as well and we don't count hours, we don't even count vacation. We don't have that type of infrastructure to monitor what people do, so as long as your work is done, I think it's a nice, mutual, respectful way to work."
Coby was looking to align his work with how he wanted to design his life, which required more flexibility than what the typical AAA studio would be willing to give on a regular basis, because so much of the larger pieces of the game industry are resistant to giving people more autonomy and freedom if it means fewer hours with "butts in seats."
But along with that need for freedom and autonomy is the ability to work with the best people for the jobs. Unfortunately, this has meant that WolfEye is pulling from a pool of known players, many of which are bringing similar ideas and similar worldviews to the creative table. Diversity and inclusion are important hiring practices, especially when working remotely.
Coby admitted that this is something that WolfEye will be working to correct as they continue to staff up, since the bulk of their original team is rather homogenous.
"We talked about [diversity and inclusion] a few months ago, when we started looking at people we will be working with," Coby said. "We wanted to work with people we know and could trust because of the context of the company. Instinctively, we turned to people we knew from the past and that doesn't necessarily make it diverse or inclusive.
"It’s something that we realized and we wanted to work on for our future [hires]. It's definitely something we want to be more on top of because trust is a value we believe in but also, we feel like people from different backgrounds, different walks of life and so on will bring different perspectives to the game, not only in terms of the content we are doing, but also in the way to do things. It’s always good to have different perspectives on whatever is being created."
Managing the day-to-day operations of decentralized studio is a bit tricky, but Colantonio has it to a well-oiled rhythm.
"From a day to day operation, it's as you might expect because we have people in different time zones, then we figure out a core hour when we know that everybody's going to be online," Colantonio explained. "We use Google Meet. It's very solid, works very well, and it allows us to [connect]. Even if we're not having a meeting, we put it on and everybody is on, whoever is on right now. You can just see other faces around and having a chance to either overhear ongoing conversations about like, 'Hey, I found this bug' or whatever or … it emulates the presence of [being in an] office space, frankly, which is really cool. Other than that, it just means we travel a little more and we sometimes meet in offsite meetings or we will go to shows together and things like that."
"[It's the difference between] the friends you see all the time versus the friend that you see once in a while," Coby added, noting how special it is to see the team at industry events. "It's always great to see them as opposed to you're seeing them every day and then getting mad for whatever reason."
Part of "not getting mad" at WolfEye team members (and working in this different studio paradigm) is embracing some of the hard fought (and hard learned) lessons that their mutual time at Arkane had instilled in them.
For Coby, the lessons that he wants to bring forward from Arkane are all positive things, mostly related to how the team made games together.
"One of the key takeaway from Arkane that was positive and that we want in our dataflow and DNA is that working on a game is a very, very iterative process," Coby noted. "We don't really believe in things being set in stone at the end of our production and it's [the] constant work of analyzing what we're doing, retesting and going back to things and changing them when you need to change them. Things are going to change and production must be orchestrated around it with total flexibility."
For Colantonio, it was more about channeling the creativity that made Arkane such a special place to make games and about tapping into his passion to keep that engine going, even when the team would hit roadblocks.
"... something that frankly paid off at Arkane was [creating] the games that I wanted to make, maintaining my passion," Colantonio admitted. "At the end of the day, I don't see the point of making a product. I'm making an expression of my passion, I'm making something that hopefully will touch people the same way I was touched when I was younger and playing these kinds of games for the first time, whatever they were.
"It's the flame that I've always had and that eventually, even though it was hard at the time because we were independent, and the games were not very successful commercially, but people always respected us in spite of were we making millions of sales or not. People respected us and eventually, we had a few big hits. For me, it's the biggest lesson and I want to keep it with me because I wouldn't see it otherwise. I don't see the point of just making, 'We're going to make this game in 18 months. Who cares if it's good or not as long as we're making millions of dollars?' It's so not us."
As a result of these shared experiences at Arkane, and a combined commitment to pursuing the games that they want to make again, a big chunk of what both Coby and Colantonio value are naturally ingrained in the culture at WolfEye.
"It's hard to fully extract all those [cultural] values [for WolfEye], since they are in our behaviors and are deeply rooted in our beliefs more than a book but in general, we definitely have a very strong game design mentality, and arts as well. Experiences, I know, [are] very important to us. It's the game first, always. It's probably [why we commit] to [making] one game at a time. We like to be focused."
Colantonio knows that the one-game-at-a-time mentality isn't necessarily good for the studio's bottom-line, since there's nothing in the hopper when a game is finally released to market. He knows that he's subverting years of studio best practices by maintaining the integrity of his team's creativity by ensuring that Game A is finished before Game B is. Colantonio and Coby are both far more interested in ensuring that Game A is as good as it's going to be before moving onto Game B.
"... we want to work on games that we like, as players and designers," Coby added. "It's always driving all our decisions, I guess, in terms of what we'll be working on. Also, the kind of games that try to push the boundaries a little bit in areas that we feel are important, mostly in player expressions and interactivity and so on."
All in all, WolfEye Studios has a lot going for it: great design and development pedigree derived from the years at Arkane, a commitment to making unique games, and the passion to take it all across the finish line.
"I'd like the company to be known as the company that created a game that left always great memories," Coby said, when asked about what he wanted WolfEye to become known for in the industry. "Something that they take away with them from the game that they make their own and there's that little moment of adventure in our work."
"I hope that there’s a few companies and there’s not that many but there are few of them that have impacted people that like a specific type of game," Colantonio added. "I hope that this new company will spawn some of that same passion in some young generations that want to make games, too."
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