Chances are, you've unwittingly played a Wizarbox game before, even if you've never heard of them. Actually, I should clarify -- you've probably played a game that Wizarbox has worked on, and you've never heard of them. You see, Wizarbox are the unsung heroes of video game development, a cloak-and-dagger studio whose primary function lies in ports, localizations, conversions, research and development, and other ninja-esque, behind-the-scenes ventures.
However, Wizarbox is now in the process of finishing their first in-house game, an old school point-and-click adventure game that hearkens back to the Monkey Island era of yore.
I met CEO Fabien Bihour at the Electronic Sports World Cup in Paris, and he invited me to take a tour of Wizarbox studios. So a week later, I made the fifteen-minute walk to his studio in Sèvres, France, just outside of Paris to talk about Wizarbox about its up-coming adventure title, So Blonde.
But, we'll talk about So Blonde tomorrow. For now, check out what Bihour and his team have to say about what it is they do, the adventure genre, and what it takes to break into the big-budget world of videogame development.
Wizarbox was founded about four years ago and specializes, as I said, in conversions, ports, outsourcing, and the like. The Wizarbox portfolio includes the PC to Xbox ports of Arx Fatalis and the Panzer Dragoon franchise. Wizarbox has also worked very closely with Paris-based Ubisoft, handling numerous ports (most recently, Scrabble and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic) and sending a team of developers to Sweden to work on Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2.
Besides So Blonde, Wizarbox are developing a handful of titles for the DS, as well as an unnamed PC to Xbox 360 port. I asked if it happened to be the new Dark Messiah, but which Bihour replied, "No, I wish. I tried really hard to get that one, but Ubisoft is handling that one themselves."
Other interesting projects that Wizarbox is up to: talks with Atari, and a collaborative project called Play All. Play All is essentially a government-sponsored research and design project intended to push the French gaming industry by pooling the collective resources of Wizarbox, Kylotonn, Darkhorse, Load Inc., and White Birds Productions. If the project works as planned, the result will be a wealth of R&D that could lead to a new class of better-trained, better-equipped, and more-experienced developers.
Starting out as a middleware company, Wizarbox has had a chance to make a wide variety of games, from Arx Fatalis to Scrabble to Winnie the Pooh. Bihour sees the "wide range of games" as one of his company's selling points: "We're very lucky here at Wizarbox -- we're not pigeonholed. Video games ... they're the first worldwide pass time. We have an opportunity to touch everyone, and we're very open. What's important is that people enjoy themselves without being boxed in [to one genre]."
This universalist approach is exactly what led Wizarbox to make their first original game, So Blonde, anadventure game. "People want to hear a story, to follow a scenario," says Bihour. "We think that there's still a large public for [adventure games]." He goes on to say that he's been hearing people ring the death knell on adventure games for 15 years, but responds that there is a still a large adventure fan base. "We've managed to captivate a fairly large audience. These are games that have a crazy community that are very loyal."
Install base aside, Bihour says that he wanted to make a game that "developed the imagination," he says. "Technologically, games have evolved a lot, but at the bottom, they're exactly the same. To make a good product, to present a project, to create a beautiful story ... it's a lot harder to make your mark in a market that's saturated with first-person shooters," he continues.
Indeed, breaking into video game development is difficult, and Wizarbox should know best. As a middleware company, Wizarbox has had to bail out many a small developer. There was one case in which a studio went bankrupt in the middle of a game and called Wizarbox to finish and release it.
With that in mind, So Blonde was developed in about 10 months. "Right from the start, we made the product we wanted. We wanted to reduce the risks," says Bihour. "This was our calling card, a demonstration, showing people what we could do. So many companies fail after one game ... " By avoiding the pitfalls of big-budget developing, Wizarbox hopes to make some headway with So Blonde before moving on the bigger projects.
The visit ends with a condemnation of the mindset Bihour and his company are trying to change: "People congratulate themselves for making a clone of last year's games. People need to not be afraid of new ideas and new stories."
[Image credit: Atolm]
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