“Quality over quantity” Interview with Xavier Marot, Head of Line Production at Focus Home Interactive

Xavier Marot is the Head of Line Production at Focus Home Interactive that published popular projects Vampyr, A Plague Tale: Innocence, and the recent SnowRunner. We talked to Xavier and found out how game development changed over time, how Focus Home chooses projects to work on, and what publishers appreciate in translators the most.
The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of Xavier Marot and do not necessarily represent the views of Focus Home Interactive.

“We really try to find developers with original ideas”

— Xavier, you are head of line production at Focus Home. For those who don’t know, like me: how does working line production differ from tasks producers in gamedev usually do?

— It’s quite different, actually. When you work with a game development studio, you have producers that deal with artists, coders, designers, and day-to-day tasks involved in making a game. We are on the producing side at Focus, so our goal is to support and help the dev studio create the game. And we need them to coordinate everyone that is involved in the making of the game, such as Localization Managers, QA testers, Business, Marketing. So we need a main point of contact on the production side to coordinate and manage everyone. That’s the task of the line production team, this is the team I manage. And we are here to be the voice of the dev studio, at Focus, and for everyone else involved. So it’s kind of different, it is really two jobs.

— How many tasks a day do you usually have?

— It depends on the day, but the line producer might get builds that they will have to evaluate and give feedback on. They might also get some text to be translated, or some requests from the marketing team. They will have to ask the business team which language we will use for the game. So it is a lot of tasks per day. There’s also communication with the studio: calls, Skype, Skype video calls, and stuff like that. Meetings, also, to report progress made on the game to top management. So it will vary over the course of production. We don’t have the same tasks during pre-production that we do in production, or post-production, or life support of the game. So again, a lot of different tasks. In my team, line producers and associate line producers usually work on two projects at the same time, so they also have to juggle priorities.

 I also have some questions about production at Focus Home. Unlike other publishers, Focus Home works with games in different genres like “Vampyr”, “Farming Simulator”, and “Insurgency”. How does Focus Home choose projects to work on?

— We have an acquisition team that is composed of people from the marketing, editorial, business, and production teams. They are there to evaluate the projects that come in. At Focus, we work with developers who bring their own ideas. We don’t contact a developer and say: “Okay, we want to make this game, please do it for us”. We really try to find developers with original ideas, and we are here to help them and support them throughout the production process. That’s our philosophy at Focus.

Right now, we are really focusing on quality over quantity. We are trying to find… as you said, we are not really focusing on one specific genre, all we want is something different, something original, something that will appeal to gamers and make a difference in the video game world.

 So if any developers are watching this video, they can come to your company with their original ideas and ask you if it’s possible to work with you.

— Absolutely. And the fact is that we are getting a lot of requests from different developers.

 I can imagine.

— I think we evaluate something like three hundred projects per year. So it’s a lot. Lots of work for the evaluation team. But yeah, you’re right, absolutely. We are looking for developers.

“Players are more and more demanding”

— A lot of people talk about game development becoming more and more complex nowadays. For example back in the day, a team of ten people could make a ААА project, which would be impossible nowadays. What parts of game development have become easier today?

— Good question. I’m not sure that anything is actually getting easier. I think that players are more and more demanding in terms of visual gameplay quality—their expectations are much higher compared to expectations players had in the past. We also have more powerful devices to use, better hardware, which means we really need to raise the bar in order to give players a good experience. One thing that is getting easier is that I think the video game industry is being rationalized. It is getting more and more rational. And so we have now companies, like yours, that really take care of localization, and now we have better processes and better tools to use, things that make it a bit easier. And now we have, for instance, editors, like Unreal Engine or Unity, that didn’t exist thirty years ago. People used to have to make their own engine before being able to start making games. Nowadays, that is no longer the case. At the same time, the market is growing and there are more and more competitors. You really need to shine to exist. So, yes. You have more tools to use, but in the end I think it is more complicated.

— And could you talk a little bit about your Magic Projects Web Tool? I know that there is one.

— Oh! Yeah, true. I didn’t expect this question. It’s a tool that I made on my own. I made it for one of my previous companies, Magic Pockets. At that time, I was working in a dev studio as a producer. When you work in production, you know what all your needs are. And at some point I realized I couldn’t find a tool that really fit my needs.

 And do your colleagues use this tool at Focus Home?

— Not at Focus, because at Focus we are really on the publishing side. It’s not a tool that fits what publishers do. As we said, being a producer on the dev side is different from being one on the publishing side. So we don’t use it at Focus, but some other development companies do still use it. It’s free and open-source, so it’s really made for everyone. The goal of it is to make producers’ lives easier.

 Also on your LinkedIn page, I read your production notes, which seem quite useful. Are you planning to continue writing about the process of game development and producing?

— I’d love to. I’d love to. Whenever I have some free time, I try to compile notes. I think it’s a good thing that people can share their own experience, and share it with everyone. The open source philosophy is the same. So, yes, if I can, I will continue writing this.

“We’re working on 25 or 30 games at the same time”

 How does working in a major development studio affect your gaming experience as a player? If something is wrong with something like localization or voiceover, is it impossible to play like an ordinary player would?

— When you play a game, at some point you will notice, you will wonder, “Oh, okay, they did that because they probably didn’t have enough time”, or “Oh, they were smart enough to save some money or effort on this”. Or you will just think, “I wouldn’t have done that this way”. So yeah, it’s complicated, but I think you can always manage to get back to a real player mindset when you get into it. If you really enjoy the game, you will just forget about your work and really get immersed in it. Most of the time that’s the mark of a good game. One that you can just enjoy as a player while forgetting about your own experience.

— As a player, what games do you prefer to play?

— I was a huge RPG gamer in the past. I play less now that I have kids. That always makes things more complicated. I hope I will be able to play more when they get a bit older.

— Play with them?

— Play with them, absolutely. I was a big fan of RPGs, action, platformers. I played a lot of them when I was younger. And now I mostly play on mobile: Clash Royale, Clash of Clans. And currently, actually, I’ve been playing a little Shenmue 3, that was a recent once, but again, you know, it’s a nostalgic game. I was able to get it and play it a bit.

Screenshot from Shenmue 3

 And what is your favorite Focus Home game project — I mean, to work on, and to play?

— That’s like choosing between your children, it’s really difficult. Right now we’re working on something like 25 or 30 games at the same time. So we have many games that are all very different, and really, I couldn’t pick one. The great thing about working at Focus is working with so many different projects and different teams that are all unique. And so it’s always enjoyable. Different methods, different problems, and stuff like that. Working on all these projects is really, really great. I am really blessed to work on so many interesting projects.

“We appreciate when translator asks questions”

 I wanted to ask about the way Focus Home handles localization tasks. Do you have different localization teams for particular projects?

— Yes. Localization management at Focus is handled by the line production team: line producers and associate line producers. We work with different localization companies, and the line producer or associate line producer is the main point of contact for the localization company once we have signed a contract. And they will deal with coordinating the development studio, the localization manager, and Focus. So that’s for game localization. We also have a marketing team that deals with localization for things like community posts and trailers, and they deal with their own contacts for localization. But when it comes to games, it’s all done by line producers. When we start the localization process, usually around the alpha stage, when we already have a strong and solid localization kit, they will initiate the process, send localization kits in different batches, get the translation, get it back, pass it to the developers, make a build, test it, there’s also LQA to work on. And in the end, make sure that we really have top-notch localization quality.

— Another popular question. Vendors, freelancers, or in-house localization?

— We don’t have in-house localization, but we do like working with vendors that preferably work with their own in-house translators. We believe it’s very important to have people that are prepared to join the project, focus on the project, and really care about the quality that they provide. And, usually, from what we’ve seen, it’s a bit better when the vendors have in-house translators.

— Is there anything game developers have to deal with that localization vendors and freelancers never think about when working on their projects?

— It’s always difficult, because when you get the localization kit, it’s full of small sentences that are sometimes out of context, and it’s difficult for translators to really make sure that they are translating the right way. So what we really appreciate is when the translator tries to understand, and asks the dev studio questions, when they’re proactive about that. Also if they play the game at some point, to make sure the translation was correct and fits into the game well, into the particular game context. Unfortunately, we don’t have that much time. But that’s something we would really enjoy, to have that level of communication and make sure that everyone thinks, “Ok, I’m doing the right thing for the game”. And understand, even understand the game. Sometimes it is just a matter of understanding: what is the setting of the game, what’s the mood, the general mood, to help them out.

— So it is very important to get involved with the project to understand how to make it better for the players.

— Yeah. That is something that we really appreciate.

— Can you think of any examples of projects where the localization or translation turned out to be better than the original? Not necessarily games, maybe literature, or movies.

— No, I couldn’t find any instances. I know some authors that write in a language that’s not their native language, for instance, that write in French. But it’s really difficult. I remember the original creator of the Simpsons found that the French voices were really great, almost better than the English ones, even. So that’s one instance. But I’m not sure, he might say that for every translation of The Simpsons, just trying to be polite. But that’s one of the instances I can think of.

“My first contact with video games was really my sister”

— Some last questions about yourself. If you had to compare success with a fruit, which fruit would it be?

— I would have to think about which fruit, but it would be a fruit you have to really care for. To make sure it grows properly, that you pick it at the right time. And timing would be really important. Because to me, that’s what makes a good project. A project that you need to care about—not a project that just happens on its own and everything’s okay, no. Good projects are the ones that you need to get hands-on with. And you have to release it at the right time of the year, because the competition always makes it hard. So we’d have to find a fruit that fits that description.

— Maybe an orange?

— Maybe an orange. But that’s kind of… It could be an orange, or maybe a cherry.

— A cherry. Success is a cherry! Okay. And since you have many tasks to do every day, what do you do to recharge?

— Sports, I think that’s really important. Recently I’ve been commuting to the office on my bike. Even though it takes more energy when you bike to work, you feel more energized. So that’s one good thing. I really think everyone should do sports, be at the right activity level, and obviously, sleep well. But when you get back home and you have children to take care of, usually you’ll have no choice but to sleep well at night, because you are just so tired.

— Yeah, I understand. And speaking of sports, I saw on your website that you used to play tennis?

— Table tennis, actually.

— Table tennis! Do you still play table tennis?

— I don’t anymore, but whenever I have the chance, I try to. Because I really enjoy it. I played for a long time.

— Do you remember the first video game you played?

— Yes. I have an older sister, and she got a Master System. We have the same mother, but not the same father, and her father bought her a Master System. But at first it was only at his house, so all my sister could do was explain the game to me—I couldn’t play it. Because we didn’t have it at our house. And the game was “Alex Kidd in Shinobi World“.

So my first contact with video games was really my sister telling me about this game. In my mind, it was something magical! Everything she was describing, I was like: “Oh! That’s crazy!” And finally, she brought this console to our house and I was able to play it for myself, to discover it. And that was the beginning of my long history with video games.

 When did you decide that you wanted to work in the game industry?

— I was quite young, actually. I was around 11 or 12. At some point I just thought, “Ok, that is the thing I want to do!” I was gaming a lot at the time, and I decided that was what I wanted to do. Everyone around me was like, “You’re still young, you’ll see, you still have time to decide”. But since I’m really stubborn, I stuck to my idea, and so I grew up and took the proper courses and studied to finally get into the video game industry.

— Besides games, you are also interested in philosophy, as I recall. You have even written a book, called “Les pensées d’un gamin“. When did you write this book?

— Between the ages of 15 and 18, actually. I was really fond of philosophy as well as video games, and I really wanted to work in video games to try and combine the two.

I think that video games are a good medium for people to try out different ideas and confront systems. With video games, it’s also creating a system. You create your own rules, your own world. So, lots of connections with philosophy. But at that time, I wasn’t working in the game industry, so writing a book and creating my own philosophy system was a means to fulfill my own desire to create a system.

 And in the future, are you planning to write anything else based on your actual experience working with games?

— I’d love to. I like writing. I’m not saying I’m a good writer, but I like writing. You’ve seen my notes on my LinkedIn. So it’s really a matter of finding free time to be able to do that. But yes, I would like to, definitely.