Aurelien Regard isn't perhaps a name which will be instantly familiar with gamers. While fellow countrymen like Éric Chahi and Michel Ancel attract plenty of attention thanks to their famous titles, Regard has been dutifully plugging away in the shadows. Formerly of the now-defunct French studio Arkedo — whose biggest title was the Sega-published Hell Yeah! Wrath of the Dead Rabbit but also made DS titles like Big Bang Mini — Regard has since departed in order to quite literally create games on his own. The Next Penelope is Regard's first venture, and he's handling every element of production, from coding to art and music. This unique shooter/racer hybrid has already been confirmed for the Wii U eShop, and we were lucky enough to sit down with Regard to chat about his inspirations, his decision to leave Arkedo and what the future holds for his games.
Can you tell us a little about your previous experience in gaming and design?
Aurelien Regard: I started as a graphic artist for flash cartoons, mobile games (way before the smartphone era — remember the black and white Nokia?) and even designs for children's magazines. Keep in mind how there were no video game schools at this time; it was nearly impossible to jump right in. So I basically took every chance I had to get closer from the video game industry, slowly, step by step. This explains why sometimes I was able to draw some funny characters for various brands, and sometimes my work was... well, making internet websites for fridge freezers!
How did you come to be involved with Arkedo?
I co-founded it, actually! I was working on clunky mobile games and fell in love with the very first Nintendo DS console. I was a huge fan of games like Project Rub / Feel The Magic and Electroplankton, and decided to leave the company I was working for to play with this wonderful machine. I found someone crazy enough to give the money and the skills to handle the serious business stuff, while I was handling the creative part on the games. Fun fact: he was Camille Guermonprez, the boss of the company I was leaving, and left it too so we could start Arkedo! Without him, I probably would still be making home-brew stuff only playable on weird flash cartridges.
Why did you decide to leave Arkedo and form a new studio?
We decided to shut Arkedo down because we loved to craft niche games, but couldn't find enough money to produce them as the entire team that we had become — around 7 people. That's the main reason I'm making The Next Penelope alone — I'm cheap! So I can make niche games again, and I don't even need to sell many copies to be happy! Oh, and as you may already guessed, "A new studio" is maybe a bit strong; it's just me, actually. I'm making The Next Penelope alone — everything from the art, code and music will all be done by me! However, that means I also have to deal with the more serious, boring stuff I wasn't prepared to deal with before. But at the end of the day, it's pretty fun and I can do whatever I want! Even so, while I'm writing this, the game development doesn't progress! I've got to spend my time very carefully so people won't be disappointed when The Next Penelope does eventually come out.
What games provided the inspiration for The Next Penelope?
Micro Machines, F-Zero and a tons of 16-bit shoot 'em ups, I guess. That said, my favourite games are imperfect ones; sometimes obscure or even completely broken, but featuring memorable levels. I like racing games with mini cars and item boxes on the track, but I always wanted to give a try at a different one, with some special moments in it. Most of the time, you don't even know why you're racing — you just guess you have to win a generic tournament or something. Story, characters and bosses could bring something different and that's what I'm trying to do with this game.
What other games have provided visual inspiration?
The more colours in the games I play, the more happy I am. So you can list tons of arcade games with blue skies, bright colours and flashy bullets in it. And of course, the flat polygonal rendering of SNES games like Star Fox — I'm a huge fan of the very first one.
The concept of racing and shooting is similar to the Japanese arcade title Kingdom Grand Prix - is this a game you're familiar with?
You have very good tastes! Yes, I know it, it's a very good game indeed. It's too bad such a few people are aware of it — it was very innovative at the time it was released in the arcade.
What's the basic storyline behind the game?
Picture the classic, Greek Odyssey, but set in the future. Then switch Odysseus for his wife, Penelope. Unlike in the original book, she's the true heroine here, and will have to face various characters on each planet she will visit; some will be friendly, others pretty hostile. You can explore the galaxy in any order, and on each planet you'll gain a new permanent ability. The whole point is having a goal, something you care about, so your progress in the game isn't just about beating your score on various tracks.
The game also reminds us a lot of the French / Japanese cartoon series Ulysses 31 - is this intentional? Does the series hold a special place in your heart?
Yep, it was one of my favourite anime series when I was young! I'm trying to catch that vibe for the story part, not because I think it will be a selling point — I don't think Ulysses 31 is very popular worldwide, and first feedback from the US sounds like "what is this thing?" — but just because I really like it. In France, we have all grown up with that graphic style; Ulysses 31 was one of the only Japanese / French anime co-productions. It was the most weird, cool, unexpected anime too at this time, mixing Odysseus and Sci-Fi, with awesome disco music on top of it!
Can you tell us a little about the gameplay in The Next Penelope? What makes this title unique from other racing games out there?
It's maybe more an action game than a pure racing game. Half of the levels aren't races but challenges based on shoot 'em up skills or boss fights. Also, the races rely on a demanding weapons gameplay mechanic. There aren't power-ups to pick up on the track; players always have these items ready to fire. However, using all these special abilities costs a lot of vital energy, and players will be on the edge of death very often! Maybe you remember how tense it was to waste your life bar in the last lap of a F-Zero X race, so you can boost a bit more? That's what I'm trying to do — I want the player to be in this risky situation with every single ability he or she gets in the game — which includes teleportation, projectile cancelling, mines, boost power, harpoon and much more!
Why did you choose to develop the game in Construct 2? What benefits does this give you as a developer?
It allows me to do everything alone, and to be very fast when prototyping a new gameplay idea. I tried other frameworks, but found nothing as fast as Construct 2. It's not for everyone — hardcore coders won't like it, but If you have a graphic artist background, you'll have a lot of fun. While the engine is more made to publish small HTML5 games, I'm trying to push its limits to make a "real" full game with shaders and all the trimmings.
How many modes will be included?
The story mode is the main one. Then you'll get additional — and very difficult — missions, and a local 4-player arena mode so you can toss bad words at your friends on the couch.
Racing games have traditionally be driven by intense, pumping music. What kind of soundtrack will the game have?
Electronic music mainly, but I'm trying very hard to not produce that boring techno you hear sometimes in Wipeout clones. You'll hear as many guitar solos and disco sounds as you will electro beats!
How do you plan to make use of the Wii U's dual-screen setup?
Mainly for the multiplayer part of the game, but it's a bit too soon to talk about this. I don't want to promise things I can't deliver. Keep in mind this is the first time I've coded a game, and I'll go through a lot of failures and play-tests before I get something really nice to play.
Where does the Wii U version fit into your release plans?
After the Steam version. The Next Penelope will be available in early access at the end of January on PC and Mac, and will be released featuring the full story mode. From here, I'll make the multiplayer mode on Wii U and PC at the same time, then I'll have to jump into all the Nintendo process hoops. That's quite something for a sole developer, but I'm lucky: Nintendo of Europe has been very helpful since the beginning of development.
Could we possibly see a 3DS version of the game in the future?
I really like the 3DS, but before thinking about any new platforms, I have to make sure the Wii U one is great. Maybe in the future, yes, but for now, I have to keep focused.
Beyond Penelope, do you have any plans for future titles that you can tell us about?
I won't let Penelope down any time soon — I plan to release tons of free updates on this game next year. Then, the sales will tell me if the players have allowed me to start another one, or I have to find myself a real job! The first case would be a dream come true, which sounds very cheesy thanks to my bad English and my lack of fancy synonyms; but yes, it would be awesome for me.
Thanks to Aurelien for taking the time to speak with us!