When The Game Is Not Enough
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 4 (April 2008)

When The Game Is Not Enough

The French, as they would be the first to point out, are different. In this particular instance, the French have carved out an approach to multimedia that’s unique in the world market. French facilities are having very good luck developing cross-platform titles. It could be argued that the ability to ramp up projects on several fronts may even be part of the national character. The French love media: They fancy movies, they adore animation, they prize video games, they’re mad for manga, and they treasure television. What’s really fascinating is the way in which it all comes together.

When talking about multimedia, it’s probably helpful to define what types of media are falling into this rather large bucket. In the case of France, it’s pretty much all forms of media—movies, animation, interactive drama, mobile phone applications, graphic novels, online games, disk-based games, and console games. On a recent visit to France, I visited three companies that are developing cross-platform projects: the unfortunately named IP4U (Interactive Project for you), Ankama, and Planet Nemo. IP4U focuses on developing titles for mobile phones that also stretch across to television. Ankama has developed the popular Dofus MMORPG, and Planet Nemo develops TV shows and online properties. All three companies are supporting their titles with cross-platform content, and they are representative of the French companies working in media and entertainment today.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, really. The French were instrumental in the development of multimedia. The Lumiere brothers, Louis and Auguste,  invented the portable movie camera. In fact, the Lumieres are credited with creating the first movie-comedy when they used their new invention to film their gardener. Louis stepped on the hose, the gardener went to have a look at why it wasn’t working, Louis took his foot off the hose, and voilá, the next thing you know, you’ve got Martin Lawrence.

It has been argued that the first filmed animated cartoon was Fantasmagorie, made by French director Émile Cohl in 1908. The French did not invent digital games (which began in 1958 with Will Higinbotham’s Pong), although Ubisoft, Vivendi, Eden, and Ankama are world leaders today in computer-game development. Apparently the Swiss invented the comic strip with Rodolphe Topffer’s “Adventures of Oba­diah Oldbuck” in 1842, but the French redefined the graphic novel with Heavy Metal, or Metal Heurat, and the world has never been the same.

Today, French companies are bringing it all together, finding inspiration in other media and combining media as a way to build brand for a title—and this is something the French have been very good at all along. Consider, for example, France’s entry in this year’s Academy Awards: Persepolis, the movie interpretation from Sony Pictures Classics of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel about a young girl growing up in Iran during the early days of the revolution. The film was interesting on several levels—on its willingness to use simple line-drawn animation that looked like its paper-based progenitor, and its use of animation to tell a very human story. It’s simply one of many examples of the French’s very idiosyncratic approach toward entertainment media. And it’s an approach that is finding a world audience.

The Animation Trail
Animation is one of the fastest growing areas of entertainment worldwide. The number of animations coming from Hollywood are increasing every year, but other countries are building their own animation businesses, as well. Western European countries are creating animated stories in a variety of styles and often with a more regional appeal to counter the slick product coming out of Hollywood.

There are almost as many strong animation regions as there are countries. Eastern European animators  helped show the way. First, they were a source of low-cost labor; now they are a source of talent. The same process is occurring in Asia. Countries that once provided the labor for animation in the West are hoping to create their own media franchises for their children. Among the Western European countries, France has a head start. 

Ankama is one of France’s leading game developers, having garnered success with its widely popular Flash-based Dofus MMORPG. The company is currently working on another title, Wakfu.

Unlike some countries that may be just building a homegrown industry, France’s animation industry is well established, stylistically innovative by definition, and routinely singled out for awards (the Oscar-nominated The Triplets of Belleville being another international hit). One of France’s most well known animated exports, Astérix, has been teaching school children French via comic books and entertaining them via animated features. Moreover, French multimedia companies are hiring every single graduate produced by the leading French animation schools, such as Les Gobelins in Paris, Supinfocom in Valenciennes, and CNDBI in Angouleme. A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor proclaimed France as “Pixar’s latest rival.”

It’s tempting to make comparisons to the US Hollywood establishment, but it would not really be accurate to do so. Actually, French media companies are taking a very different approach to creating franchises compared to US companies. While animation is a strong component of French multimedia, it’s only part of the story. It is more common for French companies to create cross-platform projects from conception, and it’s easier for them to do so.

The relationship between the creative community and the media business community has developed differently in France. In the US, much of the creative control is in the hands of the networks and the studios, which are, of course, grounded in traditional media—TV and movies. Studios buy and own properties and franchises. In contrast,  intellectual property always belongs to the creator in France, and the rights to the IP can never be bought outright. As a result, projects don’t usually originate in studios and networks. Rather, all parties meet to put together a deal, and very often government agencies are part of the funding package. As a result, projects are allowed to develop more organically.

Planet Nemo
Planet Nemo is developing a project it created in-house called Groove High. The company has a deal with Disney for a series of 26-minute animated shows. But even before the deal was sealed with Disney, Planet Nemo was able to begin building a brand for Groove High with comic books that have developed a loyal audience for the show.

Much of Planet Nemo’s content is developed for kids from pre-school age to 12 years old. In France, Planet Nemo Animation has made a name for itself with its work on the cartoon show Bali—about a cute doggie-like creature that negotiates an urban environment—which is designed to appeal to pre-schoolers living in big cities. Groove High, meanwhile, was developed for an older audience, the 8- to 11-year-olds.

Multimedia developer Planet Nemo creates TV shows and online properties. Its latest project is Groove High, which caught the eye of Disney. Before the deal was sealed, though, Planet Nemo began building an audience through comic books.

“It’s difficult to build a brand for 8- to 11-year-olds if you don’t have a lot of money for marketing,” says Frédéric Puech, Planet Nemo’s CEO. As it turns out, however, graphic novels are a good way to reach young audiences. Planet Nemo sold more than 100,000 Groove High books in 14 months. “That helped us in our negotiation with Disney,” notes Puech.

Planet Nemo has a second project in the works with another US company. The studio is working with the Discovery Channel on “Aloutah,” a cartoon series that will include two-minute Flash-based shorts. The shorts can be used as interstitials between the televised programming, but they will also be used as Web content for YouTube shorts, and may be exchanged as mobile content.

However, Puech is proceeding cautiously. The audience for “Aloutah” is younger—in the 7- to 12-year-old range­â€”and while children of that age are increasingly getting cell phones, they are usually inexpensive versions with limited multimedia capabilities. Instead, Planet Nemo is much more interested in the possibilities of kids creating their own short content for “Aloutah,” which they can then trade, show on YouTube, or even show on TV.

IP4U, founded in 2004 and located in Valenciennes, is coming at the multimedia opportunity from another direction. The company originally was founded with the idea of creating mobile animation and games with cross-platform support from graphic novels, Web content, and TV, albeit with the intent to create content for mobile phones, TV, and online portals. The company has developed games for other companies, including Vivendi, and is now working on its own projects. 

IP4U is also creating animated shows for French TV, and has projects for national broadcasting. Lulu La Peste, one of IP4U’s major projects, is also being published as books. In this instance, the company is working with co-producer HLC.

Because much of the content is destined for mobile, IP4U does a lot of Adobe Flash development. However, as the company adds 2D TV animation to its lineup, it is also turning to traditional animation tools, such as those provided by Toon Boom Animation.

The French, in particular, are savvy when it comes to extending a property to other media channels. IP4U is developing Catman for cell phones, its main media, but is extending the title to the Internet and television as well.

Catman is another IP4U property that has been developed from a completely different angle. Of course, the Catman content will be delivered for cell phones—IP4U’s main playground—but it is also headed for the Internet and television. The very stylized drawing style supports a cool character—a cool cat who’s a detective.

According to the description of Catman on IP4U’s Web site, “Catman is sensitive, fearless, asks a lot of questions about life, and doesn’t know much about the world around him”—just like your average teenager. Catman is a philosopher, and the producers at IP4U hope to see the combination of cool graphics, a little Eastern mysticism, and lots of action pay off for international audiences.

Of the three companies, Ankama is probably the most established. The studio has one of the most successful massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) on the market with Dofus, a smart, funny place for young teens. In fact, Ankama claims that Dofus has made it the third most successful game developer in France behind Ubisoft and Eden.

Ankama, based in Lille, has created Dofus—whose characters live in Amkana (a play on the company’s name)—for a 12- to 15-year-old audience. Dofus is a Flash-based online game with more than five million players and 500,000 paying subscribers who pony up approximately $50 (US) a year. The game has evolved into several modes of play, including some with free content. Primarily, however, the company derives money from Dofus as a pay-to-play environment. Its popularity in France has inspired a cartoon show and a spin-off, Wakfu, which, as of this writing, is still in beta.

Dofus supports the expected modes of play for a current MMORPG, including player versus player (PvP) and player versus environment (PvE), and players may join guilds. Dofus was designed to have a complex ecosystem that enables more complicated interactions than simply fighting. For instance, people can have jobs as alchemists or farmers, and they can profit from these activities. Furthermore, there is a system of tax collectors, and the developers introduced a mode of transportation, Dragoturkeys, which can be raised and nurtured.

An even more complex ecosystem is envisioned for Wakfu, in an attempt to add a little more freedom of expression within the MMORPG for players craving  more variation (and, of course, there are people who have never gravitated much toward games because they don’t enjoy the fighting aspect as much). Tellingly, about 20 percent of Dofus’s audience are girls, and Ankama is trying to attract even more young females. Furthermore, Wakfu will be supported by an animated TV series and a Web site. Players will be able to unlock clues and find information from the TV shows and the Web site to further them in the game.

Ankama’s creators are great punsters; thus, character levels have names based on inside jokes, product names, and so forth. However, marketing manager Cedric Gerard smiles ruefully when asked if they were aware of the American word “doofus.” “No, I wish we had known that,” he responds with a laugh. Knowing the company’s love of puns then, the name of the company’s comic book, Mutafukaz, is clearly no accident. 

After finding success with the MMORPG Dofus (shown above), Ankama is now developing a more complex ecosystem for Wakfu, which will be supported by an animated television series as well as an online site.

All three of these companies are addressing difficult markets—young teens and pre-teens primarily. The children’s market is an important one. Kids are avid consumers of media, and they are influencers, as any parent who has been frog-marched by their children into a Toys R Us can attest. But they are no longer a sure bet. You don’t find as many kids glued to the front of the TV these days. Kids, just like their older siblings and parents, are increasingly turning away from the television as their sole source of entertainment. They are playing games on their computers and on the Web, and they’re visiting friends in online communities (see “Commercial Space,” March 2008, pg. 23).

Thus, US television broadcasters and studios are becoming exceedingly interested in ways to build and bolster brand through cross-platform productions. Just recently, The New York Times profiled new projects coming from Michael Eisner, including an Internet/cable series called the All-For-Nots, about a struggling indie band. It’s sponsored by Chrysler and Expedia. Also, Disney has announced its own digital production studio.

After several spectacular failures at creating interactive titles and games in the 1990s, studios have had to admit that they themselves aren’t so great at cross-platform development, but clearly they are regrouping and taking another run at it. In the meantime, they’re giving the French a shot. These innovative French developers represent the next wave of content creators who are evolving along with audiences. It won’t be enough to develop yet another reality-based TV series, Saturday morning cartoon, movie, or game. Consumers will expect a rich environment that lets them interact with content wherever they are and regardless of the medium at hand.

In some parts of the world, that means business models have to change, and in the US, we’re seeing some companies adapt faster than others. The result is not only richer media, but also content that breaks the mold. 

Crossing the Cross-Platform Chasm

Cross-platform development has several meanings. It can entail developing for different device platforms, such as TV, cell phones, and the Internet. And it can imply developing for different operating system platforms—Windows, Mac, Linux, Symbian, and whatever else is coming down the pike.

The two different types of cross-platform development used to exist in separate spheres: One worried about operating systems on the PCs and media types for entertainment. Forget that; now it’s a matter of capturing those shrinking attention spans wherever they might be directed.

It’s a new ball game, but no one is going to retain possession of the ball for long. The arrival of broadly deployed high-speed broadband connections has turned the Internet into a viable network for entertainment content. The arrival of phones with powerful multimedia processors has suddenly made the idea of a phone as an entertainment device go from one that is really stupid to one that is really brilliant, almost as soon as Steve Jobs told us he thought of it. And TV is everywhere, albeit in somewhat different forms. So, now the most talented companies in the world are squaring off against one another to deliver the tools to remake media.

Guess who else is caught up in the Web? Microsoft. In fact, Microsoft threw itself a little party in March, the annual MIX08 event, and invited developers and designers, a group Microsoft has designated Des/Devs, to try out new tools and see what they think. This is not the big, mean, rough, tough Microsoft of old. It’s a new Microsoft with tatts and attitude, and a whole lot of former Adobe and Macromedia employees.

Microsoft’s new cross-platform development strategy is based on Silverlight—its competitor to Flash—and the company is complementing Silverlight with development tools such as Blend and a revamped Visual Studio. It also hopes to woo designers with new graphics and Web tools; however, the company has a lot more work to do along those lines. Designers live in an Adobe world, and for now, Microsoft is letting them do it and hoping they’ll deploy on Silverlight.

Meanwhile, Adobe is scrambling to revamp its tools. It has expanded the capabilities of Flash with the AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime) platform. The company has added onto its tool set with Thermo, which, like Blend, allows the integration of different media types and programming. It is competing with Microsoft head-on with the Adobe Media Player (AMP). And Adobe has worked behind the scenes on its venerable graphics tools, updating them for a 3D world and an interactive/multimedia world at that. Adobe tends to think of its customers as designers—but is giving them development tools.  

But here’s the really revolutionary part of the whole Des/Dev equation: This new generation of creative person might feel more like a designer than a developer, or vice versa, but that person also understands both sides of the story. At MIX08, creatives talked about the need to work in the same formats and try and avoid throwing content over the wall to each other. They talked about collaborating in design and development earlier and needing to work in the same formats. They were generally young, and they were generally just getting started in their careers.

That’s a dramatic change in just the last two years or so. Way back then, it seemed that IPTV meant either the cable companies taking advantage of the Internet to do the same old thing or the Internet companies attempting to take over from broadcast to do the same old thing. With the arrival of Rich Internet Applications, such as Google Earth or Adobe’s Kuler (color picker), or even those annoying widgets that wind up on our Facebook pages, it’s starting to look like the entertainment of the future will have more in common with games and Internet sites than the I Love Lucy Show.

People not only want all kinds of media available at all times, they want media appropriate to the situation. And there is the growing network of interconnected people who are in constant, if superficial, contact with each other via the instant messaging app Twitter or Facebook, or just chatting in Halo 3. It is no longer enough to have access to a movie camera and a few million bucks. Content development will increasingly be conceived of as a multiplatform creation that can be chopped up, repurposed, and redefined according to the situation of the consumer. The tools are already pretty far along to make it all happen, but they’re not there yet. And then there are human considerations, infrastructure considerations, and the reluctance of the old guard to go quietly into that good night.

Microsoft has been building .Net as an underlying infrastructure for developers working on applications for different devices and networks—Internet, phone, and home networks. It’s got a head start with Windows for PCs and phones, but it’s got some work to do in terms of the search and content development tools. Adobe has a head start with Flash—it’s on everyone’s computers and just about everyone’s mobile phones—but there’s quite a bit of connective tissue missing.

So far we haven’t even mentioned Google or Apple, but they, too, are playing the same game. Google isn’t worrying so much about the tools—it points the way to open source and says “Anyone can play, we’ve got the network.” Google’s got search, it’s got advertisers, it’s got consumers. Apple’s got the iPhone, the iTouch, the iPod. It needs more development tools, but it’s got a nice, cozy, closed sandbox for developers to play in.

What comes next is the deluge. And you can bet that media is never going to be the same. —Kathleen Maher

Kathleen Maher is a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, CA-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and is also editor in chief of JPR’s “TechWatch.” She can be reached at Kathleen@jonpeddie.com.