The surprising story of the French Bread studio
Published on the 20/08/2018
It is in November 2016 that we met Nobuya Narita and Kamone Serizawa. The former has been studio manager since its inception, and the latter is planner, which in Japan designates project managers. The society French Bread was founded in 2004 but its origins date back to 1995 with Watanabe Productions.
However, as soon as we approached this topic, the interview took an unforeseen turn: "There is a discrepancy between what we were doing back then and what we are doing today," states Narita straight away. Cautiously, he adds the following as a way to close the topic: “Watanabe was a doujin circle that did everything and anything, including things we prefer not to mention anymore. We really went in all directions at once and the circle had grown way, way too much. We thought that we may run into issues if we kept going that way."
In Japan, the term doujin mainly refers to self-published amateur works and doujin soft refers to video games of the same type. Thus, even though today's French Bread is a traditional company of around 10 employees, its origins are rooted in a culture that did not exist in the West at the time. The doujin aims to create content referencing but also diverging from an intellectual property, sometimes without licensing.
One need look no further to understand why Narita is acting so cautiously. As the company’s living seal of quality, he doesn’t want the company’s origins to be misunderstood by its business partners. Yet French Bread's history and products are inseparable from doujin culture and the era which saw the birth of the studio.
Doujins for everything
Given their status as unlicensed commercial products, doujin softs are technically illegal items; some precisions are due to explain why they are tolerated and we must try to understand their origins. Admittedly, amateur circles create games under license, without a contract, but the distribution of these titles remains extremely confidential, as the copies are sold only during Comiket.
Comiket, the biggest comic book show in Japan which has been taking place twice a year ever since 1975, honors amateur authors and offers them a space to exhibit their work. While some of them sell original productions, others take advantage of this opportunity to sell doujin creations of their favorite series. Unofficial scenarios and illustrations (sometimes involving radical changes in the type of narrative or visual style) are common adaptations that we can still find up to this day.
According to Otaku culture specialist Aurélien "KuramaTengu" Laureau, "the second boom of doujin took place at the beginning of the 80s, between 1982 and 1984." Laureau says it’s "the arrival of female artists doing more or less erotic adaptations of works from the nekketsu genre who started it. Minami Ozaki and her work on Captain Tsubasa adaptations are the prime example of this. It ended up being so successful that some doujinshis were selling more than the manga they were taking inspiration from!"
Traditional publishers then recruited doujin authors to create new series as soon as the late 80s. Ozaki dropped her Captain Tsubasa parodies and recreated them under the name Zetsuai 1989, removing any references to the original material. Marketing also took up the idea of derivative products and formalized it, as with Fly in 1989, the official adaptation of the Dragon Quest role-playing game series. "At this time people realized it was easy to sell derivatives products or encourage their creation. Some even adjusted their works to make it easier to create doujins from it." KuramaTengu explains.
This commercial recipe also appeared in fighting games. The arrival of Sakura in Street Fighter Alpha 2 and the creation of Lilith, a younger spiritual clone of Morrigan in the Vampire series, demonstrated the desire to please an audience demanding different but referential content. "You rub your fans up the right way" summed up KuramaTengu.
Watanabe Productions is indeed not an isolated case, but a product of a time which has seen the birth of many others. There is no doubt of the filiation when reading the full name of the company: Soft Circle French-Bread. A literal translation of the words 同人 / doujin (meaning coterie, circle) and ソ フ ト / soft (software).
Even if it is impossible to dissociate French Bread from the Otaku and the amateur game culture, the company practices have radically changed over time. The initial shift came in the early 2000s, with the idea of launching a more ambitious project respectful of the original material and, on that occasion, in cooperation with the right holders of the involved license. This project came to be none other than the MELTY BLOOD series.
"When creating MELTY BLOOD, we decided to do things properly." Narita recalls. MELTY BLOOD is the adaptation of a visual novel named Tsukihime, a text-based adventure game with multiple choices. This cultural shift on Watanabe Productions' behalf was not trivial because Tsukihime was itself... you guessed it, an amateur game made by the TYPE-MOON circle and sold at Comiket.
"In the late '90s, a lot of visual novels were still focused on sex," explains Yonathan "Yoka" Bartak from MonoType France, a website dedicated to TYPE-MOON productions. While doujins referring to licensed series are numerous, the scriptwriter Kinoko Nasu wrote a game with a completely original scenario and universe and sold it at the 2000 Winter Comiket. "Tsukihime is a very interesting game. It features five parallel and independent scenarios as opposed to a long common trunk branching out for each heroine's stories. These are interesting and the lore is very elaborate," says Yoka.
Among the most notable things is the relatively tiny proportion of adult content. Yoka explains that you had to live up to people's expectations: "They later admitted that the reason they put pornographic scenes in is because it sells, but it was not what they wanted to recount and it shows. The complete game lasts between 70 and 80 hours for a total of 4 hours of pornographic scenes.”
Thus Tsukihime has the appearance and commercial circuit of an amateur game, but the stature and content of a professional product. It was created by only four people and has been a tremendous success. "They sold the most copies during the 2001 Comiket. They came with a lot of stock, and went from a tiny stand to an open one to handle outside queues," explains Yoka.
THE CREATION OF MELTY BLOOD
It is hard to know if it was TYPE-MOON's feat, the culture shared by the two circles, or even the ease of negotiation but the consequences were immediate for Watanabe Productions. They stopped creating projects without permission and settled down. They had a newfound desire: devote themselves to a fighting game adaption of Tsukihime.
Narita explains the situation between these two amateur groups: "We wanted to make a Tsukihime fighting game, so we did, a little bit as a joke, a document presenting the project and submitted it to TYPE-MOON. At the time TYPE-MOON was still an amateur circle but in the process of professionalization and they liked the proposal, they approved it."
The development was launched in 2000, without any funding. "We made the game as amateurs on our free time", laughs Narita. But difficulties showed up shortly after. The lack of time was an obvious factor, the need to respect the base material was another. How do you transpose characters, so far portrayed by text and drawings, into animated sprites? What fighting style should be given to each fighter? "All Tsukihime characters are supernatural beings, very powerful, and we had to reproduce this aspect in the game," Narita explains.
"We put ourselves in the shoes of Tsukihime fans to imagine what kind of technique each character would use in a fight. We have discussed a lot with TYPE-MOON on that matter".
The game came out at the 2002 Winter Comiket on PC. With 16 characters including one original design, a story mode mixing combat and visual novel taking place one year after one of Tsukihime's unreleased endings, it met an immediate success. Not knowing how the fans would react, TYPE-MOON disassociated themselves from the game; there is no mention of their involvement in the game’s credits.
This concern soon dissipated as MELTY BLOOD was very well received by fans. A few months later Watanabe Productions was dissolved and French Bread was created to take care of the sequel.
TIME FOR PROFESSIONALIZATION
Meanwhile Tsukihime started to grow and became a trademark. During the creation of their new visual novel named Fate/stay night (which will become a huge hit with multiple games and derivative series), TYPE-MOON placed a deal in 2003 for the creation of a 12 episodes animated series named Shingetsutan Tsukihime. A good idea on paper but which caused them a lot of trouble.
"TYPE-MOON sold the rights when they were still amateurs," says Yoka. "They poorly negotiated, so that in the end, whatever products associated with the name Tsukihime, required to have part of its profits redistributed to the production company Geneon Entertainment, with which they signed at the time." A harsh lesson that led TYPE-MOON, as it was becoming a company in 2004, to seek more expensive legal advice afterwards.
Meanwhile French Bread kept working on a sequel, and finally released it in 2004. MELTY BLOOD ReAct offered a more refined gameplay than the first version, greatly improving the game system and differentiating similar characters from each other. This version was made in collaboration with TYPE-MOON, now a company named Notes, which was this time even more involved in the making of the game's story, creating new characters and allowing the developer to use protagonists from their other series.
2004 is also the year French Bread became a company and quit the doujin game scene. "The PC versions were still amateur games, but for the arcade release it was necessary to create a company and that's where Ecole Software fit into the loop," tells Narita.
This arcade version named Act Cadenza, co-funded by the arcade publisher Ecole Software, arrived in 2005 and was honored by a Playstation 2 release. The series even made its debut at Tougeki in 2006, the most prestigious tournament in Japan at that time. The situation stabilized for French Bread, which continued to develop new versions of the title to expand its fanbase. As such, Actress Again marked a milestone in the team’s understanding of the genre. In this version, each of the 23 characters were playable with three different variations which changed the character’s moveset, resource bars, and available game mechanics.
In the late 2000s, French Bread came to be a talented developer with a solid game and fanbase. It was time for a sequel! After all, the arrival of new home consoles and technological changes in the arcades (where games in 4/3 on CRT screens were gradually replaced by LCD screens in 16/9) left little room for a modest title like MELTY BLOOD. Not to mention the competition with Arc System Works who announced BlazBlue in 2008, a title still using 2D sprites but entirely built for HD resolutions and of impressive quality for the time.
Only one problem: No one was ready for MELTY BLOOD 2.
THE ARRIVAL OF UNDER NIGHT IN-BIRTH
On the TYPE-MOON side, Fate/stay night was a huge success, propelling the company to the top. In 2006, an animated adaptation was born. A prequel named Fate/zero was started. Collaborations of all kinds were in the pipes, especially in the video game industry, where Cavia (Drakengard, Nier) and Capcom made 3D fighting games with the license.
French Bread, in the meantime, remained a capable studio but only achieved one successful commercial game under very particular conditions. More than just creating a new game, French Bread had to face strict technical and production constraints to remain in tune with the market.
Narita, about that hypothetical new game: "It had to be in HD but we had no idea of the production costs for such a game, so we were afraid that by making an HD version of MELTY BLOOD, we had to stop for lack of funding. We needed an experience in creating this kind of game, and we also wanted to make an original title, something for ourselves as well."
French Bread started working on a new title. Serizawa, then project manager, remembers the encountered issues: "With HD screens we went from 4/3 to 16/9, which changes the game mechanics a lot. For example, if we adapted MELTY BLOOD, we would have to take into account the width of the screen for combos and we would need to create mechanics but in a different context.”
The development lasted two years and the title that came out in September 2012 was called Under Night In-Birth. If there is any TYPE-MOON influence, especially due to the urban night atmosphere, then it is likely because both games portray a story about superhuman beings in a contemporary setting. Yet French Bread chose to set themselves apart.
Starting with fresh character designs; varying sizes, ages and fighting styles, it allowed French Bread to demonstrate their expertise in a different fashion than with MELTY BLOOD. Giant fighter, deformed creature, and token hero with a sword, the game launched with varied archetypes.
While most characters fill known archetypes, designer Seiichi Yoshihara created a constant aesthetic where each character has a palette of colors subtly used to create details and avoid that aesthetic overload which was trendy at the time, especially in Arc System Works games. While the whole is obviously reminiscent of the aesthetic simplicity of the doujin culture, Under Night In-Birth is a more subtle and elaborate creation.
The animation also underwent a redesign. MELTY BLOOD’s smooth animation style, inspired by Street Fighter 3, gave way to a more energetic rendition which emphasizes key frames before and especially after an impact, numerous moves essentially do not have a sprite during impacts as a way to maximize their effect. The result is a rhythm close to MELTY BLOOD but a very different result overall.
Finally, the combat system moved away from MELTY BLOOD's aerial focus, leading to more grounded fights. The game system is halfway between several schools of thought. One can find a bit of Street Fighter in space control and some King of Fighters with hops. The combos and resource management bear the French Bread brand.
A successful gamble
Under Night In-Birth was well-received during its launch, but problems related to its overly permissive game system (mostly poor balance and some infinites) prevented it from reaching its potential. The title finished maturing with the following version released in 2014, EXE Late, which then became the game we know.
EXE Late also marked the arrival of a new partner for French Bread. The Arc System Works studio, flagship of independent 2D fighting games in Japan, became French Bread's console publisher. Along with them, French Bread once again had to raise its standards. "Ecole (publisher of French Bread in Arcade) was not very demanding as to what we were doing and we had a lot of freedom. With Arc System Works it's quite the opposite!" Narita laughs. "It's not really that Arc System Works is strict or wants to control everything. They have an ideal of what a fighting game should be, the content one must be able to find in there. It's sort of a standard they've applied to themselves and applied to us, not a dictatorship of technical specificities."
This quality standard will be crucial for the future, as French Bread wishes to work for other brands like they did with TYPE-MOON. The upscaling of their production standards allowed them to sign their first major contract as a studio for hire with the Dengeki Bunko brand. Specialized in light novels for young adults, some of their novels got anime adaptations such as Sword Art Online. Narita says: "We were approached to make the game and we made a proposal to the license owner. This proposal pleased, the timing was right for everyone so we did it."
Published by Sega, Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax is a crossover fighting game featuring characters from the brand's young adult novels.
Released in March 2014 and pretty well received by the press, it had an update in 2015. The same year, French Bread also updated Under Night In-Birth to the Exe Late[st] version and started working on the console port that came out in 2017 in Japan.
The future, and French Bread’s philosophy
When asked if he thinks the studio has matured and freed itself from its amateur status, Narita answers unequivocally: "Clearly, the fact that we released an original game is a proof and will help us in the future."
Regarding the future, nothing is set in stone yet! Will they finally manage to work on a sequel to MELTY BLOOD? Will they find other contracts from Otaku culture partners who need a fighting game? Narita would love marking a Kantai Collection fighting game ("I'm a fan!", he admits), while Serizawa wants to do a title mixing anime characters that he finds would be a good fit for the genre. No doubt the studio's ambition, resolve, and maturity will allow them open new doors.
What will not change however is how they envision fighting games, which they want to be as accessible and as fun as possible. "I consider fighting games as communication tools." explains Serizawa. "If we release arcade versions, it's because it's a place where person-to-person relationships are very strong. We try to make sure that French Bread games are neither too rough nor too complex. A game that starts from an affordable difficulty for all and where little by little, while having fun, the player starts to discover its qualities as a fighting tool. It's our ideal when we design games."
The decline of arcades and the professionalization of the genre through eSports are obviously points to take into consideration, but Serizawa refuses to lose sight of what makes a game, a game. "We're coming to an age where professional players are making the genre very serious. But you as a player, are you having a blast? That is the most important thing."
Special thanks for Stéphane Lapie who made the creation of this article possible and to our patrons for funding it. Huge thanks to Karsticles, Dahbomb, Vincent, Hélène and Christophe for their translation help, as well as Anne and Kumubou for their feedback.