SwapTales: Léon!: the Making of a Family Video Game

A look at the making of SwapTales: Léon! an award-winning game designed to appeal to young and old alike. The concept: changing the storyline by inverting words...

When discovering an original yet oh-so-obvious form of entertainment, you might have wondered: “Now, why hadn’t anyone thought of that before?” That’s exactly how I felt the first time I tried SwapTales: Léon!

The concept is simple, clever and elegant all at once. In short, the game gives you the power to redefine little Léon’s world simply by reversing the order of various words. Here’s an example:

Simply by sliding your finger on your tablet, you are able to get Léon to escape the attention of his babysitter. And so your adventure begins, as you join Léon in his quest to grow up.

SwapTales: Léon! went through a lengthy and somewhat eventful development process. Yet the basic storytelling idea has remained the same since the days when the game was but a student project.

From the classroom to an independent studio

It all began when Charlotte Razon decided, after studying screenwriting at a Belgian film school, to enrol at ENJMIN (the École nationale du jeu et des médias interactifs numériques) to learn about video games. At the time, Léon was actually called Michel, but the basic concept had already been set in motion.

Charlotte then teamed up with a game-design student. After learning more about the habits of young tablet users, they found in that special moment between parent and child, when the former reads a book to the latter, the inspiration to create the “word permutation” device.

Charlotte Razon: “My goal with this student project was to create a game that would be as much fun to kids as to their parents. I wanted to provide an experience that the entire family could share, as a way to avoid this tendency for parents to simply put a tablet in their child’s hands – without paying much attention to what they’re watching.”

Then came the need to structure the concept around something more tangible. Graphic design student Orson Favrel came up with the idea of creating a dishevelled, barefoot, mischievous kid living in our current modern world.

Charlotte Razon: “I loved that idea. Usually, when developing a project aimed at children, images of fairy tales pop to mind. In our case, the story would take place in our own world – which would give even more of a magic feel to the words as they reverse order. If you do this in a fairy tale universe, the magic aspect starts to pile up!”

SwapTales: Léon! art direction

Three months later, an first version of the game was completed. Its success was quite significant among students, and it garnered several awards for its original and innovative concept. Its creators, however, felt that the game was far from perfect. A new and improved version was required in order to maximize its potential.

Charlotte Razon: “By observing children and their parents playing with the first version of the game, we were able to identify ways of improving it. Among other things, we had initially placed the illustration at the top and the text at the bottom, since to us it reflected the pages of a children’s book. What we realized was that kids tended to put their fingers on the illustration, and their parent had to move it in order to be able to read the words…”

Despite such improvements, however, the planning process remained a challenge. Indeed, delivering an upgraded version of the game required both time and resources. Each member of the team started on their own separate career path, and talks with various youth-oriented book publishers and France Télévisions led nowhere.

No longer satisfied with remaining idle while waiting for the right partner, the team decided at the end of 2014 to take action.

Charlotte Razon: “In our spare time, we created a small prototype. I also found out about this contest launched by the Magic Festival. Few people even knew about this bizarre contest, and yet it gave us a deadline by which to complete the prototype. And what do you know: at the start of 2015, we won the contest! Our prize was 100 000 Euros, which helped us set up our own studio.”

Words, drawings and technology

Thanks to the Magic Festival prize money, the team set up an independent studio, and the project gained traction in September 2015. In all, nearly four years went by until the game was ready to enter the production phase.

First order of the day: write more content and create new enigmas. The basic concept of the game remained unchanged: certain types of words (verbs, nouns, adjectives or adverbs) within a sentence are interchangeable.

From a content perspective, the challenge thus became to find various combinations of words that still made sense. This turned out to be quite a time-consuming process. Some pages even took Charlotte and Patrice an entire week to complete!

Fabrice Hagmann: “What took a lot of time was trying to find sentences that remained logical yet funny regardless of the way the words were interchanged. Just as hard was creating illustrations on which any content can appear without overlapping.”

Content and images are intimately linked in a project such as this. Therefore, both must be developed simultaneously. That’s why Fabrice and Charlotte had to create each enigma together. They were thus sometimes forced to throw out a good idea when an image couldn’t properly illustrate the written content.

Charlotte Razon: “There was this one page where I wanted players to move Léon. Problem was, at the time, he was huge. So it had to be possible to move him around without breaking everything around him. We thus had to find a way to clearly show where Léon could fit, but also where he could destroy everything. Fabric was the one who had to come up with a way to make everything work from a graphic perspective.”

After much trial and error, this is what they managed to accomplish:

The team took the game at several events and festivals – and put it through a play test – in order to identify and correct any bug or imperfection. A lot of time was spent creating a tutorial that would be comprehensive enough to properly explain the game, yet short enough so as not to deter players – which is what happened the first time around. Some of the enigmas, which tended to slow down the progress of younger players, were also streamlined.

While some of those decisions were heartbreaking for the team, everyone understood that they went a long way in making the game more accessible for the targeted users, namely families.

In designing SwapTales: Léon!, a huge number of drawings had to be completed. Some pages involved over 200 different iterations, when considering the game is available in five languages (indeed, wordplay that works well in one language might be quite difficult to adapt literally in another language – and so entirely new enigmas and drawings had to be created)!

Drawing of Léon as it appears on the Cintiq tablet

In order to be able to integrate both content and images in a tablet app, the team ended up developing its own tool. They were thus able to automatically import their Photoshop and written work (in .json files) to the Unity game engine. Art Director David Hart, who couldn’t handle everything by himself, led a team of programmers in perfecting the system in the most appropriate way possible.

Without knowing all the intricacies of this rather complicated tool, should anyone be tempted to create their own version of SwapTales, it might be a better idea to team up with the Witty Wings people than to go at it alone…

Charlotte Razon: “We designed the engine as a way to make it possible for an artist, should we decide to develop a similar project, to handle everything using Photoshop – no code or technical work required.”

This sort of foresight would turn out to serve Witty Wings Studios pretty well, both from an artistic and financial standpoint. To be continued…

Getting an independent game in the hands of families

Francis Ingrand, who distributed the game through his company Plugin Digital, readily admits it: family games are among the most challenging in terms of promotion and sales.

Francis Ingrand: “The reason it’s so difficult is that this particular group isn’t used to paying for games, since a lot of quality content is readily available for free on various platforms. Also, children, that is, the target audience for whom the licence is the most important, will want to play a game like Peppa Pig just because it’s Peppa Pig – even though it’s a terrible game. Those companies who hold the biggest licences have cornered the market, and so it becomes quite hard to stand out.

Obviously, there’s always a possibility. That’s what’s so great about cultural products! Yet generally, unless you can rely on a big licence or the ability to produce games at low costs, this type of project simply doesn’t make financial sense. Unfortunately!”

Knowing the uphill battle they were facing, the SwapTales: Léon! team is quite aware of the fact that their work has turned out to be nothing short of a small miracle. Indeed, they managed to create a high-quality product and distribute it in a market that didn’t particularly welcome such initiatives, to say the least. Reviews were great. Sales, not so much.

Charlotte Razon: “Everything under our control was a success. People really enjoyed the game. Ratings were positive. The media was enthusiastic. To us, that’s synonymous with success.”

At $5, the app’s price tag was deemed high enough to reflect the quality of the game, yet low enough so as to avoid scaring off cost-conscious parents. Still, SwapTales: Léon!’s “niche market” approach hardly translates into big sales.

For creative reasons, the game is only available on tablets. Also, it’s trying to carve out a spot in a market that’s already broken down into many segments (for example, the App Store doesn’t allow a game to be featured both in the 6-8 year and the 9-11 year segments simultaneously).

All this makes for a highly complex environment indeed. Add to this the fact that the game must be purchased by busy parents who are quite hard to reach through targeted communication initiatives…

Revenues from the game thus remain modest at Witty Wings Studios for the time being. Still, from an artistic standpoint, the success of their product is indisputable when observing a reaction such as this:

A boy playing with SwapTales: Léon! at a video game fair.

Benjamin Hoguet
Benjamin Hoguet is a writer and a designer of interactive and transmedia works. He has contributed to many interactive documentary, fiction and comic strip projects. He has also written for Éditions Dixit four books on new forms of storytelling that make up the La Narration Réinventée collection.
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