We are in the early 1990s. Little 8 year-old Thierry spends hours in front of his console exploring the world of Ninja Gaiden. Amazed by this video game, the boy begins to dream about his own ninja story... Fast forward 25 years. Thierry Boulanger, now a programmer, meets Martin Brouard, an executive producer. The two video game enthusiasts, then colleagues at Frima Studio in Québec city, were far from suspecting that their meeting would lead to the creation of one of the greatest successes of the year 2018 in their industry: The Messenger.
Martin Brouard and Thierry Boulanger (Photo by Stéphane Bourgeois)
Thierry Boulanger had learned programming hoping to create his own productions one day. He had wanted to materialize his vision for a long time: to launch a video game in tribute to the games of his childhood where the main character, a young ninja, must travel a world invaded by demons to deliver an important message.
Thierry and Martin, who had rubbed shoulders while employees at Frima, had never worked together as such. Nevertheless, the two colleagues knew each other well enough to develop great respect for their respective skills. Martin Brouard remembers: “Thierry introduced me to his prototype game to get my opinion. He had to take it out of his system! I liked the idea and I trusted his talent. So I didn’t hesitate: I told him that I was ready to leave my job to start a business with him to do this project. We got to work. I really believed in it.”
The Messenger - image by Sabotage
And so, based on one idea, the independent game studio named Sabotage was founded in April 2016. But what seems to have been launched on a whim was, in fact, a precise plan, well presented and well executed as the co-founder points out: “We had to convince people because many told us that it would never work. But we know our niche well since we are passionate about retro games ourselves. We’ve also been able to count on the trust we’ve built in the industry over the years, before founding Sabotage.”
The two co-founders managed to bring together about ten quality people to complete the project, as Martin Brouard explains: “We put together a group of really experienced former colleagues, seniors in their field of expertise, all very talented and very knowledgeable. A true dream team!” Everyone's experience was recognized to such an extent that it allowed Sabotage to gain some credibility from the beginning, as Martin Brouard says: “Two weeks after starting the business, we won a Numix award for the most promising video game studio.” With such a craze, it was necessary to deliver the goods.
The Messenger on Nintendo switch - image by Sabotage
And it was done. On August 30, 2018, just two years after the foundation of Sabotage Studio, the game The Messenger was launched with a phenomenal reception, several awards, fans all over the world and excellent reviews. How did such a small team manage to produce such a high-quality game in such a short time? The executive producer is convinced that the quality of the members of his team plays a major role, starting with his co-founder: “Thierry is a creative director with a very clear vision, able to communicate it, which means that we don’t waste a lot of time. Also, since the structure is small, we don’t need to deal with the input of several stakeholders, so we move much faster. Thierry is still very open to everyone's suggestions. Therefore, the team members feel very invested in the project. It's their baby too, even if it's Thierry's vision.” This atmosphere of team proximity to the story and to elements of the game is very different from what is often seen in the major corporations in the industry. A principle very dear to Martin Brouard: “We adhere to the punk philosophy, with an horizontal, non-hierarchical structure. Respect, passion and art come first. We wanted to do this project for the sake of video games first and not necessarily for the money.”
At the Sabotage studio (Photo by Stéphane Bourgeois)
The creators wanted The Messenger to be more than a tribute to retro games, as stated by the executive producer: “It's a love letter to the games of the early 90s. The nostalgic aspect is the catch; many people are attracted to retro. On the surface, that's it, but we play with expectations by offering a lot more. There’s a story, surprises, humour, fantasy, a historical side of games, turnarounds. The game moves from the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) era to the Super NES at the graphic, musical and genre level.” Thus, The Messenger aims to combine the best of yesterday and today, combining various forms of technology. “At the end of the day, we want to create value so people get their money’s worth. At Sabotage, our vision is to have a retro aesthetic, but with modern design and technology.”
This way of doing and seeing the games was a winning strategy, allowing Sabotage to develop a great reputation worldwide, as Martin Brouard tells us: “The Messenger is very popular internationally and exports well. We have great visibility in most European countries. Our sales are mostly done in the United States and China. We also have a great recognition in Japan while the Japanese are usually very demanding of games that are not designed at home.” To top it off, while The Messenger was inspired by Ninja Gaiden, the Sabotage team, in turn, received a tribute from those to whom they had paid tribute: “The creators of Ninja Gaiden played The Messenger and they loved it! The composer of the original music even composed two musical pieces inspired by The Messenger!”
Game interface - image by Sabotage
The Sabotage team has something to be proud of: Thierry's dream came true and the result is faithful to his vision. The game is on several lists of the best game of the year 2018, both for design and writing. “We managed to create a high-quality game with all the passion and rigour that we want to associate with Sabotage. To date, more than 150,000 people play The Messenger.” Let's bet that it's only the beginning.