B.A.T. II: A conversation with Hervé Lange
Hervé Lange was the designer, writer and principal programmer for the classic French adventure/RPG/simulation hybrid B.A.T. (1989) and its sequel B.A.T. 2: The Koshan Conspiracy (1992). He founded the Computer’s Dream team and later co-founded Haiku Studios.
With their unusual mix of game mechanics (including an embedded programming language), unique comic-strip look and attempt to simulate a sci-fi environment, both B.A.T. games stand out as original, complex game experiments. The following conversation explores their origins, scrutinizes gameplay elements and provides historical context.
This interview with Hervé was conducted by Christian Schmidt on Saturday, October 6th 2018 via VoIP call. The recording was originally published as an audio podcast on patreon.com as bonus material for supporters of the podcast
Stay Forever. Here’s a link to the recording: click. Prior to the interview, Gunnar and Christian, the hosts of Stay Forever, had played through B.A.T. 2 over the course of two months and published weekly updates about their progress in the form of audio podcasts as part of their “Stay Forever Spielt” format. Stay Forever is Germany’s leading retro gaming podcast.
The audio interview was cooperatively transcribed by two members of the Stay Forever community: Anym & ClausB.
We cannot thank them enough for their diligent work! The transcript was subsequently edited for clarity and brevity.
If you quote, please link to this page and mention Stay Forever.
Stay Forever: Hello and welcome to a special episode of the Stay Forever podcast! Over the past weeks we’ve been playing through the game B.A.T. II: The Koshan Conspiracy, a French game published by Ubisoft in 1992 and created by a studio called Computer’s Dream. Today I am very happy to welcome the co-founder of Computer’s Dream, Hervé Lange. Hervé, so glad to have you on the show!
Hervé Lange: Hello Christian! It’s a pleasure to be here.
Stay Forever: Before we dive into the history of your studio and your games, I need to ask: How do you pronounce the game? Is it „Bat“ or „B.A.T.“ or something else entirely?
Hervé Lange: That’s a great question. I think in France it was „Bat”, short for Bureau des Affaires Temporelles, which has been translated as Bureau of Astral Troubleshooters by the marketing department of Ubisoft. I think in the US they said „B.A.T.” all the time. So both pronunciations are correct.
Stay Forever: Okay, then I’ll go with Bat, also because that’s much easier for me. So, Hervé, you were the designer and writer for the games B.A.T. and B.A.T. II. These two will be our primary topic today, but they were not the first games you made. How did you get started in the games industry, and what did you do prior to B.A.T.?
Hervé Lange: I started in the game industry in 1982, when my brother purchased an Oric-1, one of the very early microcomputers. I started right away to write programs, games. I was studying electronics at school. My brother Thierry met Ubisoft, I think it was in a shop in Paris somewhere, and they were looking for developers, so I jumped right away. I wrote their second game, Fer et Flamme or „Iron and Flame”, a role-playing game on Amstrad CPC. It was quite successful, so this convinced my parents that I could continue to stay away late at night doing some programming and design and at the same time working for school and preparing my engineering degree. It was an amazing time. For Fer et Flamme, I was doing everything, the design, the programming on Amstrad CPC, the graphics, a bit of the sounds. It was really a complete kind of job.
Stay Forever: How did you go from working alone on Fer et Flamme to building the team that would then work with you on B.A.T.?
Hervé Lange: We started to look at new computers that were coming on the market, like Amiga and Atari ST. In France, Atari was the most popular one at the beginning, I would say. When the Atari came on the market, it was amazing to be able to use more colors than the four colors on Amstrad CPC. So it started to be … I wouldn’t say a problem, but how you can do everything that you have in your head alone? I never wanted to be alone, I liked to work with people. So at school I met Olivier Cordoleani. He was a graphic artist. At that time, Ubisoft was trying to do an Atari ST version of Fer et Flamme with another programmer. I didn’t want to do the port; I wanted to do a new game instead, a cyberpunk game. I met Olivier and he started to do some graphics for Fer et Flamme. It was so good, I said: „Stop Fer et Flamme and join the team!” And it started like that.
When I had started programming, I had worked for a company called France Logiciel, whose founder was Philippe Derambure. Philippe was mostly a businessman, but he was doing some programming. At that time, everybody was doing everything. So when we started with Olivier and myself, I quickly realized that I needed some help. Philippe was closing his company, so I said: „Philippe, if you want to join the team, it would be amazing.”
And it’s important to also mention the fourth guy that worked on the game, Olivier Robin – another Olivier. He was at the same engineering school as me and Olivier Cordoleani, and he was a musician, a composer. He wanted to do games too. We met, he had great ideas, and we said: „Join the team and do the music and all the sound effects”, because we wanted to have life on that side.
And he came quickly saying: „Well, the Atari ST is not so good, look at the Amiga, it’s much better in terms of quality.” „Yeah, yeah, but you know, we work with Ubisoft and they prefer Atari for now.” We were at an electronics school, so we though: Why not develop something? So we came up with the idea to add audio capabilities to the Atari ST with a little card to try to match what you could do on an Amiga. We very much wanted to have that card, either as something that came with the game or that you buy additionally. Ubisoft wanted to have it in the game and also use it as copy protection.
Stay Forever: I think we have to explain for those of our listeners who are not aware of the fact that the original Atari ST version of B.A.T. I came with a little piece of hardware in the box, a dongle that you plugged into your ST’s serial port and that then acted as a simple sound card. The ST then had 16 sound channels available instead of the normal 3. And as you mentioned, that card also served as a copy protection for B.A.T.
Hervé Lange: When I was doing Fer et Flamme on Amstrad CPC, Yves Guillemot, the president of Ubisoft, told me: „You sold 10,000 games in France. That’s amazing. It’s one of the most successful games we had on Amstrad CPC. But you have to know that there are 10,000 illegal copies also. So you have been paid half of what you should have been paid for your work.” I remember that. I never had bad feelings with pirates, I think people can play the game the way they want, but it was hurting, because I had spent a lot of time and a lot of energy and in the end, it’s like 50% of your salary is going away.
So when we came back, ready to put in the dongle, for us it was more about improving the music, but for Ubisoft it was a way to handle that problem. It became a problem for abandonware though, because now it’s hard to get a version of the game, I believe, that is working perfectly.
Stay Forever: Coming back to the origins of B.A.T. – you assembled that team with the two Oliviers and Philippe, and that’s when you founded Computer’s Dream?
Hervé Lange: No. After Fer et Flamme, I worked on another game for Ubisoft called L’Anneau de Zengara, another French game. It was less successful, but we had a good understanding, and Ubisoft said: „We like your games, we want to work with you.“ They offered me a room in their office. I didn’t want to have a company, I wanted to create something like a label. So I said: „Guillemot, you don’t have to pay the room. We pay the room. We pay the computers. Just find some people!” We were all students, living at home.
Stay Forever: Where did the name Computer’s Dream come from? What does it mean?
Hervé Lange: I think the name Computer’s Dream came from me. There was a famous paper RPG in France called Rêve de Dragon – Dragon’s Dream. I mixed that with the English title of Blade Runner from Philip K. Dick, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”. It became Computer’s Dream – what computers would have liked to have as games. I think Olivier loved the name and he did the logo, the C and D. I don’t know if at the time we were already thinking of CDs. It was probably coming.
Honestly, it was not very serious. We wanted to be recognized by our games more than a logo or a name. I think Ubisoft at that time, they were also pushing branding of developers, with the château, the castle in Brittany that they welcomed a lot of developers to and started to form some groups. I think Ubisoft was seeing that lone developers were not the future. They needed teams.
Stay Forever: So were you working in that famous Ubisoft castle?
Hervé Lange: No, because we were students, we didn’t want to go to the château, we stayed in Paris. And I had to do my French military service. In France, at that time, it was obligatory. You had to do your French military service…
Stay Forever: Yes, same in Germany.
Hervé Lange: So, I was sent to Germany, to Speyer, Spire, how you call it?
Stay Forever: Speyer.
Hervé Lange: Yes! For a year. And Olivier also, Olivier Cordoleani, he was somewhere else, somewhere in France I think. We spent one year doing our military service. When I was at school, I had to manage doing the games plus doing my studies. And during that year, I had to do the game plus all the exercises they were asking for all day long.
Stay Forever: So how did your collaboration work? Was there a lot of cooperative design and shared decision-making, or was each of you working more or less independently on their parts of the game?
Hervé Lange: We were all working on our own stuff at home and met, I think, two times per week. It could be in the office, it could be in my room, it could be in Olivier’s room. On week-ends we spent the whole night together. B.A.T. II was after our studies, so we started to work more at Ubisoft.
Stay Forever: Let’s talk a bit more in-depth about B.A.T. Hervé, the manual of the first B.A.T. game states: „No one can describe the type of game that B.A.T. is.” You as the creator seem to me to be the most qualified person to try regardless, so – what type of game is B.A.T.?
Hervé Lange: I would qualify it as an adventure RPG game. It’s an RPG game with a strong storyline – and I’m not saying the storyline is good, I’m saying it’s very present on the RPG side. Does that make sense?
Stay Forever: Yes.
Hervé Lange: But it’s not only an adventure game, it’s not only an RPG – it’s a world. You have the impression to be immersed in a world. So I would say it’s kind of the early sandbox game. We were very proud of that. On the other hand, it was very tough to develop, it was very complex, because the world in the background has its own processing and everything was in assembler, so it was quite tough to get all we wanted into the game.
Stay Forever: What was your inspiration behind B.A.T.?
Hervé Lange: At that time, on Amiga, there was a company in the US called Cinemaware. They did amazing graphics and games. I was super inspired by that, but I found the games too simple. I wanted something more dynamic. So Olivier and myself started to craft what we called the „Dynorama” in B.A.T. It was inspired a lot by comic books. The idea is that on the screen you always have graphics everywhere. But because of the limitations of the machine, you can’t have full screen graphics all the time, so we started crafting a system where you play in part of the screen, but the other parts are telling a story.
Stay Forever: The setting that you chose for B.A.T. is science-fiction with a darkish edge, leaning towards cyberpunk. What inspired this setting?
Hervé Lange: Cyberpunk was what I wanted to do at the beginning. But when Olivier Cordoleani came on, he wanted to have more humour. He wanted to have something more in the vein of the LucasArts games of that time, something less dark and closer to Star Wars, with funny characters and things like that. So we blended it a bit, and it became a kind of positive cyberpunk, I would say. It’s cyberpunk, but it’s not dark. It changed with the coming of Olivier for sure.
Stay Forever: Your partner Olivier once said in an interview that B.A.T. is a mixture of James Bond, Impossible Mission [This is a misquote – Cordoleani actually says Mission: Impossible – Ed.] , Blade Runner and Star Wars. That’s a mouthful.
Hervé Lange: Yeah, maybe. I don’t know about Impossible Mission, but there was some James Bond in it, because you are an agent and you have a mission and there’s a bad guy. In the second game it starts to become a bit more complex. I don’t think it was the initial intention from my side to be inspired by James Bond, but at the end it was the case.
You know, Christian, I wrote a third B.A.T. as a scenario. My goal was to write at least six, maybe nine episodes, because the whole story of B.A.T. from the beginning was that the agents discover that the B.A.T. itself is not a good organization and manipulates you.
Stay Forever: It’s very interesting that you say that the B.A.T. agency is evil, because one of the things that surprised Gunnar and me is that the plot of B.A.T. II is so cold and cynical. Our mission in the game is essentially industrial sabotage and then turns into straight-up insurgency. So as an undercover operative we’re causing a revolution on what one may call a third-world planet, but not because we want to topple the oppressive regime – that doesn’t matter to us at all –, but because we want to secure a valuable resource for our side. That’s all that we and our agency B.A.T. care about, and all the collateral damage that we must cause is just accepted. We had to think of the CIA’s operations in Nicaragua for instance, or the USA’s interest in the oil in Kuwait and Iraq in the Gulf Wars. This is an unusual story for a game to tell, one that does not cast us as a hero at all. How did that story come about?
Hervé Lange: Even in B.A.T. I you kill a bad guy, Vrangor, to secure a resource. When you read the storyline in the manual, it’s about ultra-capitalistic billionaires which can’t stay on Earth because they deplete all the resources. So they build spacecrafts and discover a way to travel through space with black holes and the Einstein-Rosen singularity, but they don’t know where they will land in the end, because it’s black holes. So you have a very explosive type of universe where you don’t know where they are located, and you have these planets owned by billionaires and they recreate what they want. In B.A.T. II they create a kind of “Ancient Rome plus cyberpunk” world. For me it was an opening for every kind of idea, any kind of amazing world, to blend what I want. I always wanted to blend the past and the future, so it was allowing me to do that.
In the end they are super-capitalistic, they want all resources and they use the B.A.T. as a tool to that end. But at the beginning, you don’t know that. You just have a mission. You do the mission. You succeed, and everybody is happy. But I think I wanted to introduce in the third game that you start to really realize that there’s something wrong, and all you did before was not helping freedom, but was helping these people get more resources. That was the idea.
I was not against capitalism, but I wanted to bring the player to think: Why am I doing that? Is it good or bad? I think good and bad is always a big question we have in the game industry, right? How much of the actions that we ask players to do are actually good ones? If you don’t think and you do as you’re asked on your mission, you may succeed, you may be very good, but is it really ethical? And I think it was getting there with B.A.T. If we have time, one day I will tell you about the scenario of the third one, if you’re interested in that.
Stay Forever: I’d be very much interested in that indeed! Now, if I look at B.A.T., I would say that the defining element of both B.A.T. games in terms of gameplay is the variety of different systems that get mixed into each other here. And to be honest with you, Hervé, this was a boon and a bane for us. It was very exciting at first, but almost always we ended up disappointed, because so many of the systems in the game are actually hardly used or hardly useful. It really pains me to say this, but I know very few games where there is such a huge gap between what the game wants to be and what it ended up being. B.A.T. wants to be an RPG for instance, but the character attributes barely matter at all. It wants to be an exploration game with room for improvisation and multiple solutions to problems, but in reality both games are pretty linear, there’s really not too much to discover and we regularly reached choke points where there’s no way to progress unless we do exactly what the game wants us to do. So through its systems, the game keeps making promises which it then doesn’t keep.
Hervé Lange: I take the criticism positively. I think you’re right. It was very ambitious, and the balance of the games was probably not very good. It’s better in the second one, because I think we put more time into trying to make sure that the alternative systems could add something of value. But the problem for these games was that at that time, they were so complex that we didn’t have the capabilities to really expose all of the stuff to the players. They had to figure it out. It may not be clear a lot of the time.
Stay Forever: Learning how the systems work was not really a problem for us, that’s kind of expected for games especially of that era, and it may even be part of the fun once you started to understand how the game ticks. The much bigger problem in both B.A.T. games is firstly balancing, as you already mentioned – many things are unnecessarily obscure or complicated. And secondly, even when you figured out how the systems work, there’s often no use for them really. I think the most striking example is combat. Here is a list of all combat-related systems in B.A.T. II: Character skills such as reflexes and vitality; equipment, namely armor and weapons including ammunition; companions who can participate in combat; a system of body damage including heartbeat and bleeding; and two different combat modes, a strategy and an arcade one. All of these pay into combat, so you would expect it to play a major role in the game; but in reality, in the first game you have to fight exactly two times, and in the second game it’s only a single fight that you need to do to progress in the story. Beyond that, there’s no point or benefit in fighting at all.
Hervé Lange: I think we didn’t want to have a storyline where people have to fight to progress. We didn’t want to have a game based on fighting, but it was part of the world for us. We didn’t want to omit violence. It was part of the universe. But the more you killed people, the more you become a bad guy. In the game, we constantly create new characters, and the more you kill people, the more you will create policemen for example. Fighting is thus bringing you more and more fighting. I don’t recall how many times you have to fight in the first one and the second one. I’m surprised to hear you say two times and one time, because I thought it would be more.
Stay Forever: In the first one it’s just the two bosses that you have to fight, that Merigo henchman and then the final boss, what was his name…
Hervé Lange: Yes, you’re right, in the first one it’s two, you have Vrangor at the end and Merigo, his assistant, in the middle. In the second one it’s only one?
Stay Forever: Yes, the only battle that you have to fight in the storyline is when you leave that company building in the industrial district, Welco, where you discovered the body of that manager who was murdered, and then you are ambushed outside by the two guys who killed him. That’s the only one.
Hervé Lange: There’s the gladiators section also.
Stay Forever: Ah yes, but that doesn’t really count for me because that’s an entirely different mini-game in itself, and it doesn’t use the normal combat mechanic at all, it’s a self-contained thing. But you’re right, that is a combat part that you have to do in the second game, and there’s no way around that, you have to fight in the arena. But, you know, that’s just another example of an additional system: You already had two combat systems in the game, and then you added an entirely different third one to it. It made us wonder why and how this came about; because a game that’s a mix of so many different elements as the first B.A.T. game is, not to mention the second one, sounds to me as if it grew organically to some extent. That is, you did not sit down at the concept stage and say: “Okay, this will be an adventure game with RPG elements, an arcade game, a 3D maze, a flight simulator and a programmable hand computer”, but rather, you added many of these things as you went along. Is that correct?
Hervé Lange: You’re partially right. I think one thing to consider is that we wanted to have no end. That’s why we added mini-games. The goal was that when you finish the main storyline, you can go back and continue to have fun with the simulators or the mini-games. In B.A.T. II it’s even better, because the mini-games are really games you can play, with levels and stuff like that. But I agree with what you said. We didn’t craft everything from the beginning. Building the games, we added stuff, depending also on the technical opportunities that we had. I wanted to do some stuff in the scenario that was not possible, so we replaced it with something simpler.
Stay Forever: Like what for example?
Hervé Lange: I remember for example that the dance in B.A.T. I was not planned at the beginning. I wanted to do something different. I don’t recall exactly what, but we came up with a simple dance.
Stay Forever: So for our listeners who haven’t played B.A.T. I, it’s sequence where you have to press the left and right arrow key alternately as quickly as possible so that your character performs dance moves on the dance floor at a club to impress a lady.
Hervé Lange: Yes, so it was simple. I agree when you say it was very organic. It was very organic. Some people liked it very much, it was like: „If I don’t want to play the whole thing because it’s too complex and I don’t understand what I have to do, I can still play the game.“ And some people hated it.
I would really say it was an experiment. I will not pretend to have done a great design. It was very experimental. In my mind, I wanted to figure out a way to … you could say „simulation“, but we didn’t try to simulate something, it was more like: „This will bring life to games.“ The „biogame“. It was really that with a storyline, which was very ambitious. So, yeah, it’s not perfect for sure.
Stay Forever: It’s not perfect, yes, but as you said, that conglomeration of gameplay systems that the B.A.T. games are also makes them interesting. For instance, there’s B.O.B., your arm computer, which also contains a simple micro programming language with which the player can automate some functions of the game. Why did you put that in?
Hervé Lange: RPGs were a lot about numbers to understand the skills of your characters. I didn’t want to have a lot of numbers. I wanted to represent that as something more fun. You’re in a cyberpunk world and you have a computer in your arm, it can process these numbers for you. You don’t have to look at them all the time. And you can program what you want, because at one point you’re interested in one characteristic and at another point in some other characteristic. I think B.O.B., the computer in your arm, is the screen on top of the RPG, in a way.
Stay Forever: We were a bit confused because the B.O.B. computer is essentially a customizable interface, it’s used in both games to display contextual messages such as „I’m hungry” or „The time is so-and-so” and to translate alien languages – essential information that could have just as well been provided by the UI to begin with.
Hervé Lange: I think the goal was to let the player decide when he needs to manage some of the numbers. For example, you have to eat, you have to sleep. Maybe a bit tedious to do that, so you can do a program to help with that. You know, what we wanted is that there’s not one way to win the game. One is more fighting, one is more maybe more hiding and stealing stuff, one is more talking to characters. We may not have succeeded well on that, I totally accept that, but if you let players play like they want, you may let players define what kind of information they need. That’s why we introduced that programming language. It was a very simple language. I think it was inspired by NeXT computers. There was a way to program with icons. I thought maybe it could also be a useful tool for players to start to understand programming. But it was about letting players define which information they need.
Stay Forever: If we continue with the list of systems in B.A.T., there’s one in particular that we haven’t mentioned yet that puzzled us quite a bit, and that’s the flight simulation part. In the first B.A.T. there’s one flight simulator sequence near the end of the game, and in the second one there are four different vehicle simulations from a hovercar on a street to a flying taxi over the city to a spaceship that allows you to go to space. And the strange thing about that is that it uses a different technology than the rest of the game, namely 3D vector graphics. The entire RPG adventure part, that’s all 2D pixel graphics, but then there’s a 3D engine in there only for the flight part, which, let’s face it, is really not essential for the game, it would have worked just as well without it, the more so because the flight sim is completely unconnected to any of the other game systems, it doesn’t use your skills for instance, doesn’t need any equipment or anything. So why on earth did you put that in?
Hervé Lange: I think in France they said: „It’s too much!“ *laughs* And it may have been too much. We wanted to have a clear separation between the different places of the world, so it was like a bridge. And when you end up somewhere else, it’s very different. You know, when you travel, you take the plane, and when you arrive you have a different feeling.
In the first game, by the way, we had at least the two simulators, one was in the desert and the end and one was a labyrinth, a maze.
Stay Forever: Yes, the underground maze.
Hervé Lange: Not really a 3D simulator, but it was very close to Dungeon Master in terms of gameplay. For the second B.A.T. we developed a 3D engine. We re-used it for all the different simulators in the game. We thought it was a good idea. Maybe it was too much. And by the way, I’m the one responsible, it’s my fault. As a designer, I wanted to blend different gameplay, and I thought it was a good idea. But I realized that people like to have one gameplay. If you like to play an adventure game and you get to a simulator, you wonder: „Why do I have to do that?“ It was a problem, I agree. It’s better now in modern games, you can explore and then jump into a vehicle. At the time of B.A.T. we were not able to do that.
Stay Forever: The funny thing is that we didn’t necessarily mind the flight simulators being there; in fact I quite enjoyed the taxi part where you fly over the downtown of Roma II. That part works well; it provides a nice overview of the city and gave me a sense of location. I appreciated that. The problem is more the lack of focus that comes with all these parts and the lack of connection between them. There’s so much stuff in B.A.T., it’s like a chocolate box of game systems, like, „Here, we have something for everyone, take your pick”.
I think what is apparent if you look at both games is the enormous ambition that you had. I mean, the manuals for both games say things like „The game can be considered a life simulation” or „It took two years to create one of the most perfected games of today”, and they promise „incredible adventures”. And I read that and think „Wow, these guys are selling this really well, they sound like they’re proud of what they created”. But I guess you know that both games ultimately don’t live up to this, that they’re far from being perfected. Did you overreach?
Hervé Lange: Yes, it’s what I meant, people said: „It’s too much! Why not invest this time in building a better adventure game?“ Things like that. Of course, it was hard to make all these things well-integrated, because it was so diverse – at that time; I’m not comparing to the games today. But at the time it was so diverse. I think I was always thinking to have more ways for people to achieve the goal, but bringing in more possibilities affects the balance of the game.
I accept the criticism that it’s not balanced well, that some systems appear to be not useful and that we missed some points. We did our best, and we also just learned how to make games, I guess. We were very young. It was very passionate coding, and game design was not much of a theory, so we were adding a lot because of our passion.
I like the analogy of a chocolate box, because you may love some chocolates and you don’t like others. If you don’t have some kind of explanation which ones may be interesting for you, it’s a problem. We had a lot of different ideas on how to offer people lots of possibilities to play, lots of possibilities to solve a challenge their own way. It was super ambitious, I agree. Maybe too ambitious!
Stay Forever: You know, I have a soft spot for French games of that era because they were often experimental. French games of the late 80s and early 90s have a certain reputation, and that is that they are often beautiful and even avant-garde, but tend to value style over substance. I would consider both B.A.T. games perfect cases in point, because they are visually impressive and intriguing in their mix of technologies, game systems and narrative ideas, but all these elements don’t come together very well. What do you think about this assessment?
Hervé Lange: I don’t know. For my case, I tried to mix both, to bring some substance on the table. For me it was the artificial intelligence mechanism, the „biogame“, on top of a storyline. This is very hard, because you have something which has no rules, in a way. So yes, maybe it wasn’t the right tool to make sure the substance is good. I would say I’m responsible for the substance and Olivier is responsible for the style, so I may have done a bad job and Olivier a very good job. *laughs*
We tried to match these two things. I wanted so much to express the AI in the graphics and it was very hard, because at the time we didn’t have much memory. Olivier did an amazing job to add a lot of detail and animation. It’s very visible on the Atari ST version of B.A.T. The Amiga and PC version of B.A.T. I have been ported and they didn’t have time to do everything, so it’s lacking on audio, it’s lacking on animation. But on the Atari ST, there’s so much little animation. We developed a tool for it! So, I don’t think it was conscious to push the style versus the substance. We just maybe succeeded more on the style side and less on the substance side.
Stay Forever: I was just wondering because games of that era were often produced with the home market in mind, and they thus tend to form specific archetypes and patterns according to the audiences’ taste; Germany for instance at that time produced a unproportionally large amount of no-nonsense management games that tended to be rather dry, whereas France seemed to produce a lot of games that were visually vibrant and often surprising, but difficult to play.
Hervé Lange: I think what you said is very good, because the critiques we had in England for example were very harsh. It was really categorized as a French game. We sold a good couple of games, it was selling well, but the articles were tough: „It’s French, and these French are doing this kind of game.“ We didn’t want to do that. We didn’t even know. We were just doing what was inside our hearts and stomach. But there is maybe something French in it, I agree, because when I’m looking at other games, it’s sometimes as you said, style over substance. As a designer I wanted not just a linear storytelling thing. I wanted different ways to play, with life in it, you’re in front of your computer and there’s a world living behind. So for me, this is the substance part, and I totally accept if people say “You failed on that”.
Stay Forever: If I were you, I wouldn’t worry about whether I failed or did a bad job, because at least you tried to achieve something new! And from what you’ve been telling me so far I can see that you had a vision for your game and that you were – and are – passionate about that vision, and I respect that.
You know, I liked what you said earlier, that the B.A.T. games were an experiment in a sense. And yeah, that experiment didn’t succeed the way that you may have imagined it would. But you know, one thing that we were really impressed with for B.A.T. II in particular, but which is also true for the first game, is the attempt to build a world. B.A.T. II has a backstory which comes in its own separate manual, its planet Shedishan and the capital Roma II have a history; it has all of these references to Roman culture, it has institutions and celebrities, and you went out of your way to create a system of measurements, a local coinage, a hierarchical caste system for Roma II, all of which provides this wonderful illusion of a deep and interesting world. In the first game, the manual has a dedicated section on the clothing style of the humans in Terrapolis, the fabrics and materials used, which again gives depth to this cyberpunky future place that we’re exploring.
So yes, B.A.T. may not be up there among the top games of its time or its genre, but it most certainly is not your typical clone game or me-too fare, it has its own distinctive style both visually and in terms of gameplay, and that makes it interesting to this day.
Hervé Lange: Thank you! By the way, if we come back to how the games were made, I think this is the kind of game where we lacked testing a lot, because we had no testers. We were the testers. You know, when you look at what Nintendo is doing, they spend the same time on testing as on building the game. It was the kind of game where you needed that. We were probably lacking a lot of testing to be sure we achieved what you’re mentioning, that it has a good balance and that what’s in the manual or the idea was reflecting in every part of the game. So for that kind of complex game – and again, I’m saying complex for its time, I’m not comparing to current games – at that time, for that kind of platform, and with the knowledge we had about game design, it was probably not enough testing. It was not a game we had mastered, it was more like trying to get somewhere with an idea.
Stay Forever: You mentioned that the first game sold very well?
Hervé Lange: Yes, it was very successful, even in the US, surprisingly, except we had to change a few things. But yes, B.A.T. I went very well. B.A.T. II was … do you know that there was a CD-ROM version of B.A.T. II: The Koshan Conspiracy?
Stay Forever: Yes, your first project with your new company, Haiku Studios.
Hervé Lange: We decided to build a company and to jump on the CD-ROM bandwagon, because it was allowing us to have more graphics and more stuff, and also because our studies were done. So we built a company, Haiku Studios, and the first contract was that we said to Ubisoft: “We manage our business ourselves now, but we’ll give you a CD-ROM version for B.A.T. II on PC.” We did a pass on the game and added more animations and voiceovers, and we were one of the earlier guys to adopt 3D Studio and do 3D cinematics. Olivier knew someone at Discreet Logic at that time, he had a version of 3D Studio and he was able to create pretty cinematics. But it was not a big success.
Stay Forever: So if the first game was successful, and that came out in 1989, why did it take until 1992 before the second game followed? That’s quite a long gap for that time.
Hervé Lange: For B.A.T. II I wrote the whole scenario, but we didn’t do the game at the beginning. Computer’s Dream actually had a second team. We formed the second team to develop B.A.T. II, and we had another game in mind. The name was Xanathan. It has been never released, so nobody knows about that. We were on that, on Amiga, because I was in love with the Amiga, I wanted absolutely to do Amiga. Ubisoft wanted us to continue on Atari ST and do B.A.T. II. I had written the scenario when I was in the army, and I said: “Yes, I got the scenario, I got everything, got the design, now we need a team.” I met a couple of students at my school and brought them back to Computer’s Dream. I think it was two guys. They started B.A.T. II and we, the four original members of Computer’s Dream, worked on the other game. But quickly they failed. It was not very good, so we had to jump back to finish B.A.T. II, because it was more important to Ubisoft, because they wanted to leverage B.A.T. I as a brand. We did B.A.T. II at the same time on PC, Atari ST and Amiga. At that time we were all in the same room, because we had to deliver the three versions quickly. I remember that I wrote the whole Amiga version of B.A.T. II almost alone, porting most of the code from Atari ST and trying to convert all the graphics in like four or five months, because it was very, very late. It was a big deception, because Xanathan was amazing and we were super excited about that, bringing more life, more animation and things like that. It was a hard decision to abandon that and move back to B.A.T. II in a hurry.
Stay Forever: Your story actually explains a lot; the fact that you were under this kind of time and production pressure in the end is probably a big factor in the game’s lack of seamlessness and polish. You know, that’s a story that we keep hearing over and over again for those games in history which had intriguing ideas but just didn’t come together in the end; it’s often the most trivial of explanations – we ran out of money, we ran out of time, we ran out of disk space.
Hervé Lange: That’s true. It was a young industry, and at Ubisoft, they didn’t know exactly what was a good game. It was very opportunistic: We have a game, it worked – good, it didn’t work – bad. It was like: You have ten games, two will work. So even on their side, there was not … well, any interest to make sure these games would be the best ones. They were relying on the creators, and of course time was limited. And again, it was rocky for B.A.T. I, because we had to go to the French army and we were students at the same time.
But to be very honest, Christian, even we didn’t know what a good game was. We were trying stuff. And it was not possible to send the games to people to get feedback. It was just like a foray into the wild and cross fingers, and if you’re lucky you may do another game. It was very … in French I would say: infantile. I’m talking about France, by the way.
B.A.T. was quite successful in the US for a French game, and so in I think 1992 we were contacted by Activision. They had just signed a contract to port Blade Runner as a game. So they contacted us, Computer’s Dream, to say: „Are you interested? Because we have the guys from Infocom who did Return to Zork. They have an amazing language for building and crafting games, but what you guys built in B.A.T. with the animation system, that had a lot of life.” They wanted to have that, because Zork may have had a better story, but less impression of life. They wanted to blend these to build Blade Runner.
We spent six months in Los Angeles to start craft the Blade Runner game with the Infocom system, bringing the tools I developed for B.A.T. II. But they lost the contract. So we went back to France. It was a good experience, because when we went to Activision, we realized how organized these guys were, with pipelines, writers … and when we came back to France, we started to put that in place for Haiku Studios as well.
I also just realized how hard it is to expose or visualize AIs. When you have an AI system in the background, you need to make it visible. And I think one of the problems in B.A.T. I and B.A.T. II is that it’s invisible. People love the idea that there’s an AI, but at the same time, they don’t like the idea that they don’t understand what’s going on.
Stay Forever: You have a good point there. You know, we played the second game for eight weeks straight until we managed to finish it, each of us put at least 30 or so hours into it, so we really dove deeply into the game, we tried to understand its systems. We even went so far as to make an Excel sheet of the population of Roma II and their randomized inventory to calculate the drop rate of each type of item, and by the end, I think we had a pretty good understanding of the game and its systems – with one exception.
There are stores in the game, and each store has an inventory of items that they sell, and that inventory is partially random, so some items may not be available right now but may become available later on, and so on. And that can also apply to quest items such as the climbing gear which you need to progress, but the store may just not have it in stock. You would have to wait for it to be restocked. But we never figured out what triggers that change in store inventory, because simply waiting in the game doesn’t work. We walked around and slept for days in the game world, and the store just wouldn’t change stock. We don’t know how it works. That’s a perfect example for a very frustrating intransparency in B.A.T. II.
Hervé Lange: There’s probably simple rules we put in place for that. But we don’t expose these rules. You and I just discussed how the game could have been better, but maybe a missed opportunity for the B.O.B. computer was to expose more of the rules of the game.
Stay Forever: Yes!
Hervé Lange: I didn’t think about that. It would have been a very good idea to just use that device to help people understand how they should interact with some of the systems. We missed that.
Stay Forever: I agree, that would have been a wonderful use for the B.O.B. arm computer. There’s actually one instance in the second game where you do have to use the B.O.B. computer to reveal something, namely when you use it to read the contents of a memory chip. But the fact that B.O.B. can do that is never explained anywhere, and so it is in itself an intransparent system again.
But speaking of understanding things, Gunnar and I were actually left with a few open questions when we had finished the game, and I thought I’d pose these questions to you. Maybe you can shed some light on them.
Hervé Lange: Yes.
Stay Forever: So the first thing is, if I take the spaceship and launch from the astroport in Roma II, I don’t need to travel to space immediately, I can also first cruise around the surface of the planet and explore Roma II and its surroundings. There’s a lake next to the city, and next to that lake there’s one of the few 3D objects in the landscape, and that object is a giant electric guitar rammed into the ground. What’s that?
Hervé Lange: *chuckles* Okay, so that’s my fault. I was doing the modeling, and the tools that we were using for 3D in B.A.T. II had names of famous guitar players. I was listening a lot to Jimi Hendrix, Yngwie Malmsteen, Eddie Van Halen. And I think it’s probably the guitar of Eddie Van Halen. I think „Eddie“ was the tool we used for modeling. I wrote the tools and was making the models of all these objects while I listened to that music which inspired me a lot, and I wanted to put an Easter egg in. I don’t think it has a function; you can’t do anything with it, right?
Stay Forever: Yes, that’s right.
Hervé Lange: It’s an Easter egg and I think it’s the guitar of Eddie Van Halen.
Stay Forever: So while we’re speaking of 3D objects, there was another one of those that puzzled us. When you fly over Roma II, you can also see that one prominent feature near the city is a volcano, which is also fully modeled. There are not many 3D models on that map, so naturally as a player you assume that the ones which are there have some kind of purpose. The more so because the volcano also features on the cover of the game; there’s a guy in front of a futuristic cityscape, and in the background of that city is the volcano which is just in the middle of an eruption. And in the city itself there is at least one location, the park, where you can again see the volcano in the background. So we of course assumed that that volcano would play a role at some point in the game but … it didn’t. We never got there, it never erupted, it just sits there.
Hervé Lange: I think it’s another thing we were not able to achieve. I think we were planning that the volcano is starting to erupt and so time is limited, but we didn’t achieved that. It was too difficult. It may be a reference to the ancient Rome and the Vesuvius.
We used a famous graphic artist for the cover of B.A.T. II, [Luis] Royo, a Spanish graphic artist that Olivier Cordoleani loved a lot, and I think he did the cover before we removed that part of the story. I am not sure. We may have changed part of the design.
Stay Forever: Well, this may actually already be the answer to my next question, because both games have a progress score which, we assume, goes from 1 to 100 and indicates how much of the game we’ve played through. At the end of B.A.T. II, when you’re at the final puzzle, that score is 75. If the maximum is indeed 100, we seem to be missing a quarter of the game. Was there another part planned?
Hervé Lange: Ah, no, no, no. It should have been 100%.
Stay Forever: So it may be that we get the missing 25 points through solving the last puzzle.
Hervé Lange: I don’t recall how we compute the score, but the only thing may be that depending how you played the game, maybe …
Stay Forever: Ah, so you mean we may have missed something?
Hervé Lange: … yes, maybe something has been missed somewhere.
Stay Forever: Okay, then I would be curious what that could be. But anyway, another thing that puzzled us is currency. In the first B.A.T. game you have two currencies, you can exchange one into the other and both of them are useful. B.A.T. II also has a local currency, even with different kinds of Roman coins, but you can’t pay with it, it’s not used for anything. So we wondered whether that too is a relic of sorts and you had originally intended to do something with that currency.
Hervé Lange: There’s the native population, the Shedish, and the goal was to give the impression that there’s no value in this population. It’s a kind of caste. So I think the intention here was to say the money has no value, you should not use it. But it was this kind of invisible intention where we didn’t explain some of the things.
Stay Forever: The final unsolved question from our playthrough is one where I’m not sure whether you will remember the answer, but I’ll try anyway. So our contact person on Shedishan is Sylvia; we meet her in the beginning and she then gives us tasks throughout the first part of the game until she gets murdered. And then the second part of the game is about us getting blamed and thrown into prison and so on. By the end of the game we are pardoned, but … we never learn who actually killed Sylvia. Do you remember?
Hervé Lange: I think it’s a droid who killed her. I don’t recall. Is it not explained …?
Stay Forever: No, there’s no context on who killed her or rather who wanted her dead.
Hervé Lange: Ah, you mean not the one who did the murder, but who commanded the murder, right?
Stay Forever: Right.
Hervé Lange: Yes… *pauses* To be honest, I don’t remember. It may be the B.A.T. As I said, the idea was that the B.A.T. was manipulating agents and creating more problems than actually trying to save the universe.
Stay Forever: That’s an interesting option that didn’t cross our minds! But you know, it did seem suspicious to us when we were in prison and killed the Shedish king who then turned out to be a droid and suddenly we are proclaimed to be the new king, which is all in all a pretty surprising turn of events, and then immediately we get contacted by our superiors at B.A.T. and they tell us, like, „Hey, we kind of planned for that situation, here’s an alternative king that we happen to have ready, and here’s a complete plan of what you have to do next because, let’s not forget, you’re here to destroy the Koshan company.” We thought this was ridiculous! But it’s starting to make a lot more sense if B.A.T. were the ones who got us thrown into prison to begin with, and they eliminate Sylvia as a liability at the same time.
Hervé Lange: You know, for me it was a progressive story arc. The first game is more like James Bond, the second is a bit fuzzier, greyer, but you’re still an agent and solve a problem, and the third one that was on my mind was where you start to understand you’re, from the B.A.T.’s perspective, not supposed to rebel or to not do what they want you to do. So, I think in the second one I wanted to start to bring back that idea that something is wrong; someone is manipulating you, and it’s not the bad guy. So it may have been B.A.T. I’m not 100% sure and anyway, I think the Koshan Corporation was also something very close to B.A.T. It was something like that.
Stay Forever: This does sound intriguing. So if you had such a clear vision for the overarching storyline of what essentially sounds like a franchise, why didn’t you continue with B.A.T. III? Why instead move to graphic adventures with Down in the Dumps?
Hervé Lange: We didn’t work on B.A.T. III because B.A.T. II was not so successful and I realized exactly what we discussed: If I’m doing these big worlds, it takes a very long time, and how can I really improve the visibility of the systems? At the same time, 3D was coming on the market, CD-ROM was there with more graphics. We had 3D Studio, so we decided to focus more on graphics. Down in the Dumps was really about the style.
B.A.T. also was Ubisoft. As a company we were signing with other companies like Philips Media or Virgin, and so it was not easy to continue to do B.A.T. without Ubisoft.
The goal was to study these new technologies, see where we can get more animations on the screen and possibilities in terms of graphics. But I started to work on another game which was also very important for me. It was based on [H.G.] Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. There’s a doctor on an island, he’s transforming humans into beasts and he’s considered a god. It was an island with animals, they have rules, and the player is someone getting to the island. The doctor is trying to control the animality of these creatures and it’s failing. It was very interesting because it was less complex than B.A.T. in terms of the environment. It was an island and lots of creatures. And I thought it was the best place to start to revise the way AI could be exposed.
Moreau was coming from Sony, Psygnosis. They wanted to have strong adventure games on the PC on CD-ROM. So we signed a contract and started to build the game. At the same time we were developing Down in the Dumps and also a 3D racing game for Philips Media called Demon Driver. Just a year and a half after, the PlayStation 1 came and completely changed the strategy of Sony. They didn’t want PC anymore, because they saw their console as a more important driver for business. So they asked us to do a PlayStation 1 version of Doctor Moreau. It was very hard because it was planned for the PC. We didn’t succeed, and they cancelled the game. Philips Media closed just after because they were not successful on CD-i, so Haiku closed also. I never had a possibility to do B.A.T. III. It was too late.
Stay Forever: That’s really unfortunate. What did you do after the end of Haiku Studios?
Hervé Lange: The failure of Haiku Studios was very hard, because we had debts. We were paying everyone for a year, so I had no money. But for these games, Moreau and another game I was planning, we developed a technology based on 3D and splines, and we met some people in the movie industry. They wanted to do CGI movies in France, and they started to realize it cost a lot, and they were looking at video games to prepare the movie. To do storyboarding in 3D, stuff like that. We met these people, we showed the technology, they fell in love with the technology and they bought it.
So for four years, I ran the R&D department of a studio called Duran Duboi. They made Immortel, the first computer graphics movie in France. After that, I built another small company for the movie industry leveraging game technology. I went back to the game industry for a few years. I built some games for Behaviour Interactive in Canada, worked a bit for Warner and Ubisoft in Canada. I’m still in the computer graphics industry as a software architect for a company called Autodesk. They build the tools for most people using games today: [3ds] MAX, Maya.
Stay Forever: So would you ever be interested in returning to the game industry and creating that third B.A.T. game?
Hervé Lange: Yes, I’m thinking about that, but you know, I have a family and I see where games are going. I would love to see more storytelling games. I think it’s coming, but it’s always the question that we tried to address with B.A.T.: How to tell a story in a fully interactive world. For example, when I’m looking at what Ubisoft is doing with Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, you have a kind of overarching story, but there’s a lot of little missions you can do in the world. I don’t want to appear pretentious, but I think it’s not far from the idea that we had at the beginning.
To put it another way: You know Tolstoy’s War & Peace? It’s about a main overarching story that you have no control over: war. Events are going on, and you’re just a victim of it. But Tolstoy is not interested in that. It’s Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, he’s not really interested in that. He’s interested in all the little stories, all these characters that are forming a more social layer of stories, and I’m super interested by that. You need that overarching story because you need to have big events and you have to change the world and the environments and you need to stimulate the little stories.
I’m not super fond of Assassin’s Creed in terms of the theme and there’s too much combat for me, but I love the idea. And I’m happy to see that companies like Ubisoft are continuing to try to push these ideas about freedom in games plus stories, because stories are obviously something super important for everybody. So, yeah, I’m thinking maybe, but I’m not sure my ideas could be turned in a good game. It’s still a good question.
Stay Forever: Well, your ideas are fascinating, Hervé, and I appreciate that you shared them with us, because I now have a much better understanding of the vision that you had for the B.A.T. games. And I do agree that many of the ideas that you had in mind for B.A.T. and which are already partially in the B.A.T. games are now commonplace in games, in particular in open world games. So in a way, the B.A.T. games have been … maybe not trailblazers but precursors, early experiments of this kind of design. And that makes them notable, even if as games – well, I can only really judge the second game because we’ve been playing that – it’s less than perfect. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad game or that it doesn’t have a place in history, I do think it has, and I know that there are people out there who adore the B.A.T. games and consider them something like cult classics.
Hervé Lange: Yes, that’s true. And you know, David Cage of Quantic Dream, his first game, Omicron, was a tribute to B.A.T.
Stay Forever: Oh really?
Hervé Lange: Yes, I met him in Paris maybe four years ago. I went to his office at Quantic Dream, he had invited me.
We sit down, and he says: „You know, Hervé, I know you.“ – „Ah, yes?“ – „I think it was in London at a game show, you were presenting B.A.T. and I was there, we shook hands, you showed me the game, and I never forgot about that. I love your ideas.“ He was saying thank you for that, and I was amazed. That’s cool. Quantic Dream and the games they are doing are also a kind of French-style games, but you know, I was happy to see there were some people starting to find a lineage between what we tried to do in these early days and now.
Stay Forever: Well, that’s a wonderful compliment for your work, and pretty cool story that the B.A.T. games link to the early work of David Cage. I for one am happy that we played B.A.T. II, and I’m particularly happy that you took the time to speak with us and shared your insights on the making of the game. It was both interesting and enlightening. Thank you so much!
Hervé Lange: You’re welcome! Thank you very much for your time!