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How a Veteran DreamWorks Animator Went Indie and Developed Ghost of a Tale

Mar 20, 2019
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Lionel Gallat might not be a name familiar to you and yet, odds are you’ve definitely seen his work in the field of animation.

His credits include high-profile movies like The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado, Spirit, Stallion of the Cimaron, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas and more, all made during his long career at DreamWorks. After a brief stint at Universal, where he worked on Despicable Me and The Lorax, Gallat completely changed his horizon. He transitioned from making triple-A animated movies with huge teams at his command to developing his own first game: Ghost of a Tale.

He embarked on this new endeavor all alone, at least to begin with, before recruiting a few trusted developers along the way. Now, Ghost of a Tale has launched on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One after garnering lots of praise on PC last year. Francesco just reviewed the unusual no-combat action roleplaying game and loved it, except some camera issues and performance issues on PlayStation 4.

We’ve recently had the pleasure to chat with Gallat about a great multitude of subjects, from the making of Ghost of a Tale to game engines, the recent ‘War of the Digital Stores’ on PC and much more. Brace yourself for a very long, yet (hopefully) interesting read.

First of all, I wanted to go a bit into your own background as a game developer. Ghost of a Tale was your first game, right?

Yes. Yes, it was.

So what drew you to the industry to make Ghost of a Tale?

Let’s say that what I’ve always been a gamer so I started playing on very old machines, like the MSX, I started playing on that. And it was mostly 2D games. At the time, Konami games were very popular. And then, you know, I started working in the animation cinema business, and I worked for DreamWorks for many, many years on many, many movies. And then one day I just decided that it would be time for me to try and create some different again. So that’s when I started looking at game engines and try stuff for real.

Many indie developers tried to pursue their own projects like you did. But they also used, in many cases, platforms like crowdfunding. How important was that for you?

Yes, that was actually the very first step for me to be kind of certain that this could work because, as you know, I mean, I had zero experience in creating games. I had never worked on a game in my life before. So I had to learn how to program and how to create, you know, everything that you need to make a game and so I quickly decided to do a crowdfunding campaign, which was on Indiegogo. I don’t remember exactly when, I think it was probably in 2013.

That’s when I did kind of a quick prototype for Ghost of a Tale. I started working on this stuff and then when I could do a video showing actually what I had in mind, that’s when I decided to do the Indiegogo campaign and that was the very first test to really find out if there were going to be any people interested in this stuff. During the campaign, I made it very clear that I had zero experience in that domain but this is what I had in mind.

Ghost of a Tale launched about a year ago or so on PC. I was wondering about the commercial performance so far, was it successful?

It was, though it’s not an indie darling. You know, those games that everyone has heard of, like Firewatch. I mean, we have zero marketing, we don’t know anybody. So a lot of people did not hear of the game. That being said, there were very, very few people working on the game. I was first on my own and then I was joined by one and then another person after that, but we are a very, very small team. It means we don’t need a huge financial success in order to feel comfortable with what we do so that’s what I would say, that yes it was good, it was not a mind-blowing success, but I’m okay with that.

I mean, it’s not like a lot of people have heard about the game, but I think it’s fine. We are doing okay and when we launch for the consoles, more people will hear the game by the same token.

Why did you decide to make this kind of game, though?

I used to love games like Gothic, the German RPG series. I really like this concept of being small into the world and having to look around you and learn stuff and see how the world functions. So that was the main point, then I wanted to do something that is pretty visually and I also wanted to do something that is not completely the usual kind of game meaning that you do not have to destroy, to kill enemies in order to progress, that was important.

And then having worked on animated movies, very often we used to work with animals or inanimate objects, make them look like they’re alive.

I was drawn to that stuff, also because of movies that influenced me as an animator, like the old Disney movies. That kind of older stuff was influential. I guess I could also talk about the fact that it was maybe a reaction to the medieval games out there.

When you thinking of a medieval game it’s always about, like muscular guys or, you know, sexy babes and stuff. And we can all enjoy that, it’s fine but I knew that I was going to have to work on the game very hard. So I did not want to spend all this time and energy trying to do something that looks like other games.

Yeah, I understand of course. And given your background, you know, with DreamWorks, it was wondering if you think that helped you create, you know, a visually interesting game because I think Ghost of a Tale is arguably, you know, one of the prettiest games made in Unity.

That was part of the equation. I really felt I gathered a lot while working on movies. And I wanted to put that to the surface of a game. Although it’s my first title and I learned everything working on it, and I did all the mistakes, you know, it’s also at the same time the result of the career that I had before. It is a mixture of at the same time me being a newbie as a game developer and at the same time having lots of experience on the movie and animation business, so it’s a strange mixture of that.

You must have certainly evaluated the other engines as well at some point, so why did you pick Unity to make Ghost of a Tale?

Games development was always kind of attractive to me but too complicated and too fussy. The engines were not getting to the level where I was really interested enough to say ‘Oh, that looks pretty and I could do something with it’.

But when Crysis was released, that’s when I realized that games have really made huge progress. And just playing with the editor, I saw that this was going to be amazing to do something in it. So I tried looking at the engine, and I spent a lot of time trying to do some modding there, to the point where I got invited by Crytek. The guys were very nice and invited me to Frankfurt to show me their stuff. They were working on Ryse at the time. I looked at that and it was really amazing, but I also realized in a few months that I was not getting anywhere because the CryEngine was just too difficult for me. At least at the time, you needed a couple of people working with you.

Actually, one of the Crytek guys suggested that I’d look at Unity as an option. That was when they were about to release version four, that’s when they introduced tessellation and DirectX 11 features that improved the visuals. After spending some time with it, I could see that I was willing to accept the fact that it might not look as amazing as what I had hoped but it would actually become possible for me to do it.

It is possible for one person to do a lot of stuff in Unity and then of course, later on, I met the four folks who are now my close collaborators. Engine wise, Unity was the engine that for me really clicked, though I also looked briefly before that at the Unreal Engine. At the time they didn’t have Blueprints yet, though.

Also very important for me is that Unity looked and felt very much like Maya, which was my go-to software for many years, that’s what we used at my old Hollywood studio.

This may be a bit early for you to say, but are you already thinking whether you’re sticking with Unity for your next game or maybe evaluating other options?

I’m always looking at stuff because I’m not married to anything, an application, an engine or whatever. I’m not unlike a mercenary in that regard. I just go wherever it’s easier, I don’t care about the brand, all that I’m interested in is to be able to work and do my stuff in the simplest way possible. So if one day another engine, like the Unreal Engine maybe has evolved enough to be easier to use than Unity with better results, then, you know, I will go to that. But so far, I haven’t seen anything that tops Unity.

I think you also did a lot of the coding on the game. So I was wondering, I mean, you probably know about it coming from DreamWorks. The movie industry and especially animated movies have been using stuff like ray tracing for years. but now it’s being introduced to games. It’s in the latest preview build of the Unreal Engine and I think Unity is also adding it some point, so what do you think about this development in the graphics area?

I’m very happy to see NVIDIA push this forward. I’m not certain that you need this special hardware to really make it work, but so far, you know, that’s the way it looks like.

I’m really waiting for basically a solution that as a game developer will allow me to just place lights and make them work right away, that’s what I’m looking for. This would be, I think, the Holy Grail in terms of visual stuff in video games, something where you don’t have to bake stuff anymore. I hate baking stuff. And that’s why in Ghost of a Tale, everything is dynamic.

There is nothing baked. So obviously it’s suicidal to do something like this again because when you look at stuff, especially on consoles, you’re supposed to bake stuff.

Of course, then it’s not dynamic, but it looks great. And that’s all that matters. However, I was interested in flexibility, right? That’s why I didn’t want to do it. I think baking stuff was great in the 1990s, because there was no other way. Today you can do stuff entirely dynamic so that you don’t have to wait to see the result of your work and that is extremely important to me.

If ray tracing stuff can give me something like that, I would be extremely happy even if it’s not perfect. If it just means that we don’t have to worry about this kind of stuff anymore, that would be a great step forward.

Yeah, definitely. And of course, Ghost of a Tale is coming out now on consoles and it probably won’t look quite as good as it does on PC…

You know, just before the call, I was looking at the PlayStation 4 version and I can tell you it’s exactly that, it looks exactly the same as PC so I’m very happy because that was really very important for me.

The only thing is that on the base Xbox One, we had to lose the volumetric lighting because it was too expensive, we were really asking too much from the console. But the PlayStation 4, PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X.

But the PlayStation 4 version of Ghost of a Tale looks almost exactly like on PC so that’s really impressive. This version was made by a studio we hired because we had the money to do it and they did a great job, so I’m really looking forward to seeing the reaction of people.

Of course, you were able to make Ghost of a Tale run on the Xbox One PlayStation 4 but did you look at the Nintendo Switch at all or is that too underpowered?

Yeah, that’s the whole issue, how would it look like. One thing is for sure, if that happens, I’m not going to be the person doing it, meaning that we would do the same thing we did for the PlayStation 4, we would just hire somebody to do it. But sincerely I’m just not entirely convinced that it can be done. It’s so demanding on the hardware, also because basically, it was my first game. Today I would not do it the same way that I did because I know more things, I have learned in so many ways to do the same thing better looking and better performing. All I can say is I would be very, very curious to see it.

I mean, to be fair, they did port the likes of DOOM and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus to the Nintendo Switch.

True, but Ghost of a Tale is different. It’s not really optimized to be that kind of stuff. The mindset is more of an open world. The world, of course, is fairly small, but it’s not a linear thing.

In the games you’ve mentioned, we’ll just go from point A to point B and then you move on, right? With the illusions to make you believe that you’re not in a corridor. On the other hand, in Ghost of a Tale, you can see the forest far away at a certain point.

Yeah. I mean, the only thing I could add is that aside from the technical aspects, Ghost of a Tale itself I think could be well suited to the Nintendo Switch audience.

Yes, I agree with that.

Maybe if Ghost of a Tale is successful on the other consoles and you get enough funds

Of course, it’s going to be very important for us to see if there is a market for retail on consoles because that’s going to be the first test. And since we do not have any marketing or publisher, it’s going to be very, very simple for us. You know, not that we’re not impressive, but usually publishers want to own the intellectual property, they make changes. Yes, they bring in money for the development, but there is a cost, which is you have to do as you’re told, and you do not have the freedom. And one of the reasons why I did say is that I wanted to be able to do what I want, right? You know, even if I do mistakes, you learn from your mistakes. And we have learned and I’ve learned so much over the last few years now, I don’t want to go back into a mode where you’re working for whatever big company owns you. I’ve done that for many years of my life. I just want to have fun doing stuff and trying things.

Let’s switch gears a bit while staying on the topic of financial success. Being an independent developer, I think you must have heard of the so-called PC store war that’s going on between Steam, the Epic Games Store, and even Discord created its own store. And of course, the newcomers have promised greater proceeds for the independent developers and some have decided to go exclusive (at least temporarily) for the Epic Games Store or Discord Store. What do you think about this situation? You know, from your point of view.

For sure everybody agrees with the fact that monopoly is not good for the players or for the developers. It’s not good for anyone except for the ones enforcing it.

Now from a very practical point of view, I haven’t looked at all yet into getting on to the Epic Games Store. I haven’t looked at it at all. And I’m sure at one point we might, but the reality of the competition is that Steam is the gold standard. It’s been great for developers, it’s great that they exist and they allowed us to flourish.

It’s also fairly simple to use, I would say. So that is a very, very big thing. Now, in terms of proceeds and sharing with the developers, that’s another thing because I think that what they have been earning (30%), it’s really a lot because they spent the money over the years, they have a system in place now and they do not have to innovate anymore. Yeah, I think now it is time to do better. They have no incentive to do better on their own.

They tried to do that for very, very successful games. And while I understand, it reflects badly on them from the point of view of indie developers. They could have done that for very small developers, they could have said ‘yes, we’re only going to keep 20%’ but they did not do it because they didn’t feel like it, because they can do whatever they want, so it doesn’t reflect in a nice way on them. I wish it would be different but nothing is forcing them to do that.

I don’t know. I don’t know how long it’s going to take for them to come down, right? Y

Yeah, Epic have been literally buying exclusives you know even big ones like Metro Exodus and they also got exclusives of independent games. For example, the next Soper answer game by Zen Studios. So what if, you know, Epic knocks on your door tomorrow and says ‘All right, your next game after Ghost of a Tale will be an Epic Games Store exclusive on PC and we give you a couple million dollars to ensure that’? How would you react?

Well, if I can do whatever, there are no strings attached to this deal…. The main thing I don’t want is to be bought like some people were bought by Microsoft, right?

Unless people throw money at me and say yeah we don’t care Just do your stuff we will give you the money that’s very rare, you know? It doesn’t happen, ever. So

that will be the perfect now in terms of exclusivity it would be to make sense but right now it does not make sense.

Right, though there is a flip side in that right now as you said the visibility on Steam is quite low, it’s difficult. On the other end, on the Epic Game Store, it’s not difficult at all because there are very few games listed right now.

Yes. You need to choose what really matters and I know that what matters is that more people discover the game and play the game, I don’t want it to be like churches, as if you had to go to the church of Steam or the church of Epic Games, it shouldn’t be like that. Anyone should have a choice, you should be on whatever will work for you. I don’t know at this point if cutting yourself off of so many players just to be seen is better? I don’t know. Yeah, maybe it would be different at the very beginning of the development. But now for us to resound

with quite a few people have heard about it. And I know that now we kind of exist. Yes, we have a very, very small footprint. I think that at least a few people will pay attention to whatever we do next and that’s a very, very important thing.

Yeah. And on that note, of course, I need to ask if you’re already thinking of a sequel to Ghost of a Tale or maybe something different altogether.

I really want to stay in the game business because I have freedom, because I can do what I want, so that’s crystal clear to me. Now I cannot tell you anything too precise of course, and about a sequel, it’s much too early to say that as we’re waiting for the console releases to see if this really going to work.

Do you think you’re going to stay relatively small or maybe add a few more people to your team if you have the chance to do so?

Yeah, but that would have to remain very small. At one point in my career, I was an Animation Director for an entire movie so that means having to take care of a whole department of animators.

I’m not looking forward to doing something like this again, I still want to do stuff myself. That was also a reason leading me to do games, because once you reach such a level in any field of profession it becomes less about you working and more about you overviewing people doing work for you. Which is fine, but at this point I wanted to go back to do the stuff myself. That was very important for me. Now, yes, if I can get more people in order to spend more time on the game design or the level design, why not? You know, if it’s growing organically that’s something that I would totally be able to consider. I’m not looking to get to a big studio with 20 or 30 people working on it, anyway. It needs to remain small and personal.

You know, to get talented people to work along with you because they believe in you, because they believe in the project that you’re working on, that’s fantastic. That’s really great. But I don’t want to become the boss and not do anything anymore except managing the company.

That makes sense. Thank you for your time!

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