Life is good: Dontnod on the success of Life is Strange and what comes next

2015 featured a number of rather different games that went on to enjoy both critical and commercial success.

Solo developer Sam Barlow launched search engine-driven narrative Her Story, while Psyonix released car football title Rocket League. Meanwhile, French studio Dontnod – which made 2013’s Remember Me – teamed up with publisher Square Enix to release Life is Strange, an episodic adventure game starring an otherwise ordinary teenager who discovers the ability to travel in time.

The title launched in January 2015 and went onto receive a Metacritic score of 85 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and – as of July 2015 – had sold in excess of 1.2 million units worldwide. Not only that, it was nominated for a seemingly endless number of awards, taking away the new games IP and use of narrative prizes at the Develop Awards, while it won Performance of the Year at the Golden Joysticks.

We didn’t really have any expectations for Life is Strange,” co-game and art director Michel Koch tells MCV.

Of course we wanted people to like and enjoy the game, but we honestly didn’t anticipate that it would be so successful. We simply wanted to create a coming of age story that would be anchored in reality in a way that we could talk about characters dealing with real life issues and facing difficult choices – a kind of slice of life at its core. Something that feels real enough that people could relate to it. We think we’ve achieved this goal, and that’s probably played a huge part in the success of the game.”

Co-game director Raoul Barbet adds: When we started to work on the game, we never really thought about marketing, we just knew that we wanted to make this game and tell the story of those characters. We tried to shy away from overthinking things like: ‘will it sell? Will players like the setting?’. We are extremely happy to see that we found a public and that there is a real broad market for this kind of ‘different’ project. Square Enix played a really big role in making sure the game found an audience, the partnership couldn’t have worked better.”

"2015 was the most successful year we’ve had so far."

– Luc Baghadoust, Dontnod

Though Dontnod didn’t have any expectations for Life is Strange, the title went on to give the studio its biggest year to date.

2015 was the most successful year we’ve had so far and we fully intend to build on that,” producer Luc Baghadoust says.

Life is Strange has been a huge success with both fans and critics alike and the love is also backed up by strong sales. And we started this year with the release of a physical edition of Life is Strange (more on that in Strange Packages) and that is a really big landmark for any digital title. But the fact we’re a brand new IP that has a really strong foothold is even better.”

For Life is Strange, Dontnod adopted an episodic model, something which presented a number of issues when it came to the development process.

The episodic model was an exciting challenge from a design point of view, and we learned during the past year that it was a difficult one in all the production aspects,” Baghadoust explains.

Business-wise, we actually expected each episode to sell less than the previous one. In a traditional game, you lose players little by little along the progression, and only a fraction actually complete the game.

To compensate for this, an episodic model can sometimes allow your game to be in the spotlight for several months instead of a single big launch, if you manage to keep a steady pacing between each episode release.”

"The episodic model is a double-edged sword,
as it’s hard to recover if the first episode has poor ratings."

– Luc Baghadoust, Dontnod

And of course, if one episode is of a poor quality, it can have a massive impact on future sales, and result in a lower attach rate on subsequent episodes.

The episodic model can be a double-edged sword as it’s hard to recover if the first episode or episodes have poor ratings and sales,” Baghadoust says.

This wasn’t the case for Life is Strange at all though – we actually grew in unexpected proportions with each new episode release and the initial attach rate to season pass was really strong and it just continued in that way – it’s as if people really fell in love with the game straight away, which is amazing.”
And now the game has launched on the High Street, too.

"The game had a great reception and there was a lot of demand for a physical edition,” Baghadoust says.

It’s a huge landmark for a digital title to get a physical release. Loads of people said they’d wait for a boxed version from the start but we never knew if it would happen. And many people who played the digital version now want a physical version for their collection – we’ve had reports of people buying multiple versions to give to friends. That’s the first time we’ve come across that.”

Despite Life is Strange’s huge success, Dontnod’s next game isn’t going to be anything like that title. Rather, the firm’s next project is RPG Vampyr published by Focus.

Vampyr is led by a different team and they hold their own aspirations and creative vision,” Koch says. The strength of the studio is in its creative freedom. We love challenges and working on as action RPG seemed a good choice and in accordance with the publisher’s wishes. But of course, storytelling is at the core of Dontnod’s DNA, and you can expect this for Vampyr, too.”

But that’s not to say that Dontnod doesn’t want to return to Life is Strange, or its 2013 action game, Remember Me.

We’d love to do a second season of Life is Strange, but time will tell,” Barbet teases. And we love the Remember Me universe that we created in Neo-Paris and there are so many ways to create new experiences. But Capcom owns the rights to Remember Me so it’s up to them to allow new projects.”

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