The business of I Am Alive [Interview]

25 Nov 2011  by   Paul Younger
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Some games are like myths; whispered about, long heralded and keeping the rumour mill spinning all by themselves. First due as a disc-based game, now confirmed as a download-only release for XBLA and PSN, I Am Alve is one of those games.
This is a game more famous for its drawn out development and boxed-to-digital pre-release route then it is its gameplay, story or characters. In the first part of a two-part interview with I Am Alive’s creative director Stanislas Mettra, we talk business – the reason for going digital, the unique challenges that poses and the apparent lack of a PC version.
IncGamers: We’ve known about I Am Alive’s existence for quite some time (the first trailer launched back in 2008), but actual info about its content has been thin on the ground…
Stanislas Mettra: Yeah, when you hear about a game and then you don’t hear anything for a long time it often means that it’s being completely redone. Perhaps two or three times. That’s exactly what has happened with I Am Alive.
The first build of the game was done in France and then, sometime later, it was taken to Shanghai. That was because we knew it wasn’t good enough to release and we had to deeply reconsider some elements that didn’t work well enough. This was after a lot of work had been completed; all of the levels were there already. But it’s really hard to create something believable and emotionally attaching.
After we released that first trailer and observed the feedback we knew we needed something human-centric, a game that would really make you care about the main character. There were some things that just didn’t work with the initial setting and concept that meant it was hard to believe in the story and the world. So we rebooted the game for the digital market.
IG: Why the digital route?
SM: To be true to our promise of a providing a realistic survival story in a post-disaster setting we’ve gone for a dramatic setting and a tragic feel – it’s not necessarily a fun story. Because of that we needed to drop some levels and we didn’t think it was going to be properly compatible with today’s mass market gaming tastes.
So we thought Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network were good platforms to test it out and make something a little bit smaller. There’s no multiplayer mode, for example; we’re really focusing on the core single player experience and creating something new within the setting we’ve chosen.

IG: Just how far along was the game when the decision was made to switch the production to the Shanghai studio?
SM: It was very nearly totally completed. It was a very complicated situation but we really did need to reboot the game and create something that was more unique and something that lived up to that original CG trailer. 
IG: Does the approach differ between making a download-only game compared to a disc-based product?
SM: Yeah, for sure. Firstly we can go a little further in creating something different and really pushing what makes I Am Alive unique. Download allows us to focus on the core story and not worry about having to include loads of side-missions and optional quests.
The games on Xbox Live Arcade don’t have to be so massive to be successful and enjoyed, but we still know we have to provide a full 3D experience. We can’t do a 2D game with the kind of grand concept we’re aiming at. Some people can go down the 2D route and create a great game but that just wasn’t going to work for us.
Another key element in making a download game is keeping it to a fairly small size so that people can download is easily without it taking over all of their hard disc space. We’ve managed to keep it below the 2 gigabyte mark.
IG: Was that difficult to achieve?
SM: It became a creative constraint that actually helped us define the way we introduce the cinematics. The video sequences we use are shown through the view screen of a camcorder, so they’re a little smaller than normal and they’re in a grainy format which works for the feel of the game and allows us to save memory.
The environments are very dusty which limits your line of sight. This also works great for the gameplay and helps keep memory requirements low.
Creative constraints are generally always a good thing as they force you to concentrate on what is essential. Focusing on the immersion and the tone of the game helps us create a main character that you actually care about. For example, all of our objectives make sense, our cut-scenes are focused and the architecture of the buildings has been designed with the core tone always in mind.
All of the details that we aimed for are still there and the constraints of releasing via digital helped us to shape those. But it’s not a short game, it’s around six to eight hours long. The game itself is virtually finished, but at the height of production there were around 30 people working on it.
I suppose that with the size of the team and the narrowed down focus of the concept it’s probably most comparable to the way games were made a few years ago in the PlayStation era.

IG: Was one of the reasons you went down the digital-only route because it allows you to easily update the game and provide extra post-release content?
SM: That’s a great aspect, yeah. We don’t yet have a solid plan to do things like that, it will all depend on how well the initial release does. Unless the game is successful it’s going to be difficult to get any more money for this game than has already been spent on it. It’s one thing having players say that the trailer is cool but they have to buy it if it’s going to continue.
IG: Why is there no PC version?
SM: The decision isn’t official. But making a PC version has a cost associated with it and PC games are all selling so poorly nowadays. We have to make sure that the game will sell on PC before we decide to make it.
We’ve heard loud and clear that PC gamers are bitching about there being no version for them, but are these people just making noise just because there’s no version or because it’s a game they actually want to play? Would they buy it if we made it?
It’s hard because there’s so much piracy and so few people are paying for PC games that we have to precisely weigh it up against the cost of making it. Perhaps it will only take 12 guys three months to port the game to PC, it’s not a massive cost but it’s still a cost. If only 50,000 people buy the game then it’s not worth it.
Part two of this interview focuses in the gameplay, story and setting of I Am Alive. It will be published early during the week of 28 November. This page will update to provide a link at that time.

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