GameBoomers Talks to Benoit Hozjan of Kheops Studio
by Becky Waxman
Kheops Studio has a remarkable portfolio of games to tempt adventure gamers: among them The Secrets of Da Vinci: The Forbidden Manuscript, Destination: Treasure Island, ECHO: Secrets of the Lost Cavern and Return to Mysterious Island. The studio is also currently working on three adventures that will release in the next few months -- Nostradamus: The Last Prophecy, Cleopatra -- A Queen's Destiny and Dracula 3.
GameBoomers recently approached the multi-talented (and very busy) CEO of Kheops Studio, Benoit Hozjan, in order to learn more about his philosophy of game development and the challenge of entertaining adventure gamers with different tastes from all over the world.
Iím interested in your background. How did you become an adventure game developer? How did you gather up the rest of the team at Kheops?
Benoit Hozjan: All the team was already in the game industry, at Cryo Interactive and later at Dreamcatcher. Some of us were in production and the others in the R&D department.
When Dreamcatcher decided to stop the production of games at their Paris office, it was an opportunity to create a studio and to continue to create adventure games.
Iím curious as to how you happened to develop Crystal Key 2. Did the developers of the original Crystal Key decide not to make a sequel? Did they have any input in the sequel, the way Cyan had input when Presto Studios developed Myst III?
Benoit Hozjan: In fact we just helped Earthlight Productions Inc. to finish the title. They were working on the sequel for many years and Dreamcatcher wanted to speed up the process. So we were in charge of the programming and the integration, hand in hand with John Matheson.
The gameplay in your games is impressive. Most recently, Iíve admired the clever, creative inventory puzzles in Destination: Treasure Island and the colorful, engaging pattern puzzles in Safecracker: The Ultimate Puzzle Adventure. How do you keep coming up with these fresh, unusual puzzles? Do you have a puzzle philosophy?
Benoit Hozjan: We always try to have a good balance between the story and puzzles and we work very hard to improve the integration of these puzzles. Puzzles serve the story and need to be solved naturally/logically. All the members of Kheops Studio try to propose new puzzles to help the game designer in his work on a game. We also work with different game designers, depending on the games, and it helps to have different sensibilities and ideas. To be honest, many of us take notes during a film or a picture or during vacations each time we see something we can turn into a puzzle for a future game! ;-)
In some recent games by other development studios, Iíve had trouble just moving around the game world. What do you do to make the interface so seamless in your games?
Benoit Hozjan: Gameplay, ergonomy, and interfaces are key points. The player doesn't need to fight against the interface. Everything needs to be as natural as possible. During the tuning and the game balancing, all the members of the development team play and test the game to give personal feedback and to propose improvements to the game designer, programmer or lead artist. Most of the time they follow our feedback.
How does basing games on classical literature (Mysterious Island, Treasure Island, for instance) affect the development process?
Benoit Hozjan: It gives to the game designer the background in which to begin digging, and it often becomes a tribute to the novel or the author. This is never a simple (easy) adaptation, but the basis for a creative, interactive story. At the end we hope that the player can feel the spirit of the original novel within our creations. I have an anecdote to illustrate this point. Recently, we received a message from a player of Return to Mysterious Island -- she said that after finishing the game she has decided to read the novel and she congratulates us on how we have used the novel to create this sequel.
What do avid fans of adventures want in their games? Can developers give this to them and still expand the base of game purchasers who have never played adventures?
Benoit Hozjan: This is a very complicated point. There is more than one category of gamer -- some of them would like a 3D environment in which they can move freely, but then others hate to encounter a collision issue! So we try to experiment with new features and then we analyse the result by reading the reviews, forums and our own survey.
In your opinion, what distinguishes a good game from an excellent game? Is it possible to create an excellent game without a large budget?
Benoit Hozjan: Unfortunately, "an excellent game" is not a universal opinion! ;-) So it's very difficult to satisfy the whole audience in terms of difficulty, originality, technology and so on. It also depends on the country; for instance gamers in different countries prefer a first person or third person viewpoint.
I prefer to say that it is always possible to be creative and honest with the player and to propose a high level of general quality without a large budget. But it is difficult to fulfill all the player's expectations inside one game. There are different kinds of players. For instance, the issue of linearity. Some prefer linear, straightforward games, while others appreciate more freedom. As you can imagine, it's difficult to propose both aspects in the same game... but not impossible!
How strong a relationship is there between game quality and game sales?
Benoit Hozjan: You can also add another criteria: marketing. I suppose that it is not so different from the movie industry! ;-) Well, it is easier in terms of providing quality, but I'm not sure that that is enough!
Is the environment for game creation different in France than it is in other countries, particularly the U.S.? How does this affect the games you develop? Does it affect marketing the games in any way?
Benoit Hozjan: I think that all kinds of games are developed everywhere -- FPS, RTS, MMORPG, Action, Adventure. But due to the size of the French market compared to the U.S. market, we are more focused on the idea of developing a game, not only for our country, but also abroad to make the game profitable. Compared to the U.S., the cultural dimension of a video game is maybe more important in Older countries, like France. I don't know if the U.S. Ministry of Culture supports the game industry the way the French Ministry does. Latin culture and European history are certainly deeper inside and around us, as evidenced by cities like Paris and Rome, or countries like Greece or Egypt where we feel the weight of our past.
Can adventure games also be educational experiences? What is the best way to teach new content or new vocabulary or new ideas in the context of a game? Should gaming broaden the mind of the gamer?
Benoit Hozjan: Yes, I think that it is possible to have a pleasant experience while playing a game and also to learn something! The best way is to keep the fun in a game. This is how children start to learn...by playing!
In our productions, you may learn how to make knots (Destination: Treasure Island), the name of prehistoric or antique tools/items (ECHO, Cleopatra), or how the numerical system of the Mayas works (Voyage). You will also learn more about the universe of a writer (Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson).
Can you give us a few hints about your upcoming game: Cleopatra Ė A Queen's Destiny? Will there be any unexpected surprises in the game, like the sequences with the Egyptian gods in the previous Egypt title, Egyptian Prophecy?
Benoit Hozjan: One gameplay surprise will be the fact that, depending on the astrological sign you have chosen at the beginning of the game, you will find some changes. Puzzles are also based on the culture and science of Ancient Egypt. The story takes place at Alexandria in 48 BC during the civil war between Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy.
We've also been seeing some tantalizing screenshots from Nostradamus: The Last Prophecy. Can you tell us more about the game?
Benoit Hozjan: This will be another collaboration with Totem Studio (the authors of ECHO: Secrets of the Lost Cavern and Secrets of Da Vinci) and Mzone Studio for the graphical production. Elektrogames will publish the game in Europe and MC2 in North America. The story takes place at Salon de Provence (South of France) in 1566. More information will be soon available from MC2.
Is there anything else about Kheops Studio that you would like our readers to know?
Benoit Hozjan: We have recently opened a store on our website. Destination: Treasure Island is available there via download, and more titles will be added later this month -- Secrets of Da Vinci and Cleopatra. We currently use Paypal for the payment.
We also strongly thank people who have taken the time to fill out our permanent survey for their feedback.
Thanks for supporting adventure games!
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