This interview has been edited and condensed.
For a young man barely eighteen, it’s often considered foolhardy to quit traditional school in order to study by one’s self. Though it’s not unheard of today, dropping out seemed to carry a greater risk at the turn of the 21st century. However, in the summer of 2001, in Toulouse, France, a young Ludovic Servat decided to forge his own path outside of the school system. Rather than continuing his studies in university, Ludo instead began doing odd jobs, saving his earnings for his own computer.
He had always been a creative. Ludo had an enduring talent for art, which would later develop into graphic design and video game artwork. He was mesmerized with the video game industry since 1998 [EN: That’s also when this game came out, by the way], and he wanted to make his own mark on the scene. It was a difficult path to tread by one’s lonesome, as he had neither friends nor allies who knew what he had struck out to accomplish. Luckily, his decision came at a time when the internet was slowly becoming stocked with information he could use to his advantage. The keyword here is “slowly”; at the time, just 7% of internet users worldwide had broadband.
Ludo persisted. After creating a few video games which went unpublished, along with one that was published to a quiet reception, Ludo finally produced a title about which he was boundlessly happy and proud: Pharmakon. It was something on which he had spent years working. The first year of development, Ludo used a prototype concept he had created out of cardboard to better envision the future of his project. On the heels of the exciting release of Pharmakon on Steam, Ludo took the time to respond to a few questions about his past hardships, his growing success, and even his preferred junk food.
How big is your development team?
I am the only developer working on Pharmakon. However, Janek Roeben of U-GameZ made the music of the game, and Tasmin Thorpe translated the game from French to English. And, a bunch of people gave me useful advice and feedback during the development process, but (they) didn’t work directly on the game.
What are some of the tools you use, and why? What are the limitations or challenges of the software you chose, and how do you work past them?
I think the thing I did the most was filling notebooks and online documents with ideas: I used Google Docs, Workflowy, and Notability. During the development of Pharmakon, I used around ten different graph notebooks. One was just filled with things I was learning about programming. Another one had gameplay concepts or project-related thoughts. I constantly had a tiny graph notebook that I constantly carried with me at all times in case I had an idea. The software and the notebooks were useful to clarify blurry concepts, to share, and to get feedback — as well as not forget any ideas.
Being an art designer first and foremost, I have used Adobe Photoshop for more than fifteen years to make art for various game projects. It’s the software with which I feel the most comfortable. (However), Photoshop is not well equipped for easy animation purposes. It requires a lot of effort to make good animation without redrawing every frame of the animation. That’s why I used Spriter Pro. It’s simple but efficient, (and you can) create and rapidly edit the animations thanks to the ability to animate elements separately. It also provides easy ways to export animation the way you want for your game.
Even though I didn’t make the music, I did make the game’s sound effects, so I had to record and edit sounds. I used Audacity, which is a free, quality audio software. It was perfect to cut, change speed and tone, add effects, and much more.
So, in order to learn programming foundations correctly, as well as work on Pharmakon at the same time, I used the stricter C Sharp (C#) language and Monogame framework (XNA Microsoft descendant). It was perfect. However, when I started to use Monogame in 2015, it was poorly put together and lacked tutorials. So, I started to use the long-established but well-organized XNA and, at some point during the project, switched back to Monogame [EN: Nice configuration management, bro]. It was very stressful to switch from one to another because many functions were handled differently. This required huge parts of the game to be remade but, in the end, it was a really good choice. Thanks to this, I learned to program in two years — and am still learning!
Lastly, Discord has been very handy and easy with which to use to talk with other people. That’s the reason why I used Discord to establish my community. (I have everything) on a server where I share Pharmakon details, game development facts, and casual discussions. That helps to gather information about everything in one place and keep interested people close by.
Do you see your game reaching a broad and international audience?
Honestly, I don’t see it (laughs). Pharmakon is a very niche game. It’s the only title offering the kind of gaming experience that it does, and players are intrigued yet hesitant when looking at it. Today, with the amount of games on the market, being original can be a good thing. But being too original means there is a high risk of not matching with current playing trends and habits. Many players prefer to play within the same genre to decrease the chances of being disappointed. Sometimes, they don’t want to learn a new way to play a game because it requires effort to understand and learn. (This is why) I think Pharmakon needs to find curious and invested gamers looking for new challenges. I am pretty sure there is a public for it, but it’s not the general — and lazy — one.
What interesting challenges have you faced and overcome on your own during development?
Learning programming all by myself was a big challenge. Programming was like dark magic to me. Understanding how everything is structured, linked, and done in a whole new program was complicated to learn (solely) from the Internet. The most difficult thing about it was finding relevant explanations when I didn’t know what to call the information I was looking for because I had never used it before.
Another big challenge was not losing the direction I wanted to take with the Pharmakon concept. Many players and developers encouraged me to change the game in order to fit with gaming trends. But from my experience, I’d seen a lot of games becoming bland in order to match with everyone’s tastes — some to the point of being incoherent. Making a harmonious and sincere game was really important to me. That’s why I know: Pharmakon is Pharmakon.
But the biggest challenge was to moderate myself in order to keep good quality. Unfortunately, I can’t clone myself; I had to choose wisely about the aspects on which I would work in order to (ultimately) make my game.
Each aspect developed for Pharmakon had to answer these criteria:
Does it make sense in the game?
1. Do I know how to do it? Can I learn how to do it? If not, can I create my own solution to do it?
2. Can I do it without ruining the quality of the game?
3. How long would it take to do it?
4. Am I ready to endure it?
(I think this is) a good way to maintain a quality when you work alone and don’t want to become exhausted because of a project’s size. At the beginning, my list of objectives wasn’t very accurate. But with experience, it became very useful. It prevented me from drowning in tons of features I could have made.
How long have you been developing video games? When did you start, and how?
I think I have been working on video game projects for about nine years. However, 2001 is the year I started learning how game artists work, and trying to do the same. Yes, I am an artist before a programmer — here is an outdated portfolio. But I first decided to work on games in 1998, after I played Metal Gear Solid on PlayStation for the first time. It was a mind-blowing game experience. And, hooked by its good story, meaningful mechanics, and perfect production, I was like “Okay, I need to make games now.”
I wanted to start creating video games as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford a computer until my 18th birthday in 2001. That was around the time my best friend chose to invest in me. He helped me buy my first computer and was the first person to truly believe in me. That same year, I left school and started getting random jobs. It was insanely risky. I was inexperienced and uneducated about the concept of video game creation. After work each day, I would spend nearly all my time digging up any information I could (on the internet) about making games. This is how it went for many long, chaotic years.
Finally, I joined a small slew of amateur game projects. I took on the roles of both artist and game designer. I also assisted in creating various levels within the games. But we overestimated ourselves. We neither had the necessary time or experience. Our far-reaching goals seemed unattainable. At the same time, I was still trying to find a suitable team with which to work. But the more I searched, the sooner I realized that it was essential to do all of this on my own. Otherwise, my chances of releasing a game would have been impossible. Thus, I became a multi-faceted game developer. Learning and working by myself was a necessary component of the project if I wanted everything to work.
Video game development can be long and arduous work. But, is there a certain facet of development that is your favorite?
Tough question! The first time I saw the pointer of the mouse moving in a Pharmakon prototype, I got chills. So, I guess seeing an idea become realized and interactive in a game is what keeps me working. But I think my favorite is to see someone else playing with the system I created. I enjoy seeing it make sense for them. In the end, let's just say that the aspect I love accomplishing the most is creating interactive harmony.
What have been the reactions of your friends and family to see your hard work coming to life?
It’s difficult to say. My family has been distant from computer stuff. They were also afraid of the instability of making games for a living. So, after years of work without financial success, my family was like “ Finally! I hope you didn’t waste your life for nothing.”
On the other side of things, my close friends have been very supportive. They are really happy for me. They know that I have been working hard for years in order to do this. I think they never told me it was a bad idea because they felt it was a profession which suited me perfectly.
What was the inspiration behind Pharmakon?
People think Tetris was one of my inspirations, but I’ve barely played two hours of Tetris in my life — and I disliked it! It’s a good game, but I am bad at it. Actually, pieces of the drone are shaped like tetrominoes only because balancing the game pushed me to make shapes that way. (It helped) give the right tools to equip the drone in any case.
In Pharmakon, you combat numerous elemental beasts. How did you come up with their design?
The world in which the player evolves is very formated. Everything is organized around fighting elemental beasts. The agents working for that purpose are educated in a very straightforward context. Therefore, in order to represent beasts as “beings at the wrong place,” it was a good choice to make them morphologically weird enough to make the player think “Damn, what is that?”
Aside from this, I had to shape beasts based on their elements. For instance, water beast have elephant- or dolphin-like skin and are a bit fat, to store liquids. Fire beasts have reptilian skin to soak up heat and they have holes to evacuate heat pressure. Ice beasts are covered with thick hair and they constantly produce ice. Earth beasts look like worms and are blind because it is useless to see under the ground. Electric ones have horns to get lightning charges. They also have feathers because… well, because birds hang out on electrical lines without any problems. What? It doesn't work that way? Oh, my bad!
How does this game compare to other games on which you have previously worked?
Before this game, I worked on a game called Lavapools and several other unpublished games. For most of these projects, I was a member of a team, so I wasn't alone like I was on Pharmakon.
Over the years, I have devised a list of my most obvious pros and cons about being in a team.
- Others motivate you
- When you see the good work of a teammate, you are inspired to do the best you can to match with their work
- The feedback from others can lead to better ideas — and you can learn from the work of others
- You can focus on one aspect of the game to make it shine almost as much as you like
- Some might not be as motivated as you are
- By extension, when you see the bad work of a teammate, you are let down once you see the difference between your own investment and the teammate’s investment
- Others have their ideas and they may not understand what you are aiming for, especially if you fail at explaining yourself or your vision
- If someone leaves the team and you can’t replace them, your project could disintegrate
- You dislike when others try to teach you your job the wrong way, and you could lose precious time and energy debating or explaining why a task should be done in a certain way
What were your goals for this game during its creation? Would you say that you achieved these goals?
My first goal was to satisfy the younger me with a game that brought the joy — and challenge — of deep thinking. But regardless of age, the game fits perfectly with people who love to think, calculate, adapt, coordinate, optimize, combine, and anticipate.
The second goal was to not lose players in excessive content. A lot of developers add content to extend game length, but in the end the player’s choices lose their meaning. The third one was to maintain a strong harmony in which the players can experience the “that makes sense” feeling. Essentially, I created Pharmakon in order to bring a simple, coherent, and precise panel of possibilities to solve an evolving problem.
Last, but not least, I had a hidden fourth goal. (I wanted to) create a game with which I was happy. A game done the way I wanted, without regrets.
What was your favorite snack (read: comfort food) to eat while you were working?
Potato chips. Very healthy.