Solo Dev Julien Eveillé

Julien Eveillé, creator of Threshold

Formerly of Arkane Lyon and currently working as a level designer at Crytek, Julien Eveillé is a developer who is now trying his hand at game design with his first game: Threshold. Inspired by PSX aesthetics, but also by the themes and influences of Stalker and Russian cinema, this game promises a unique experience. So it was a natural step for me to talk to him about the production of his first game.

Point’n Think: Hello Julien, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start by talking about your background. How did you get started in the video game industry?

Julien Eveillé : Hello ! I started by studying game design at Bellecour Ecole in Lyon, where I did a three-year bachelor’s degree. Being in the first intake, we were faced with a lot of challenges, which taught us to be resourceful. Then I got a job in QA at Arkane thanks to a chance meeting in a bar with Arkane employees. I started in QA, a role that’s often underestimated but crucial. You have to have an analytical mind, understand how a video game works and prioritise bugs according to their criticality. It’s a great way into the industry. After a year, I expressed my desire to move into design. I observed various teams and was particularly attracted by the level designers. During the Dishonored 2 crunch, I started creating maps, and eventually my efforts were noticed by the leads who gave me my chance.

PnT: I can imagine that it must have been fascinating to work in this department on such a game.

Julien: Completely, it’s one of Arkane’s core disciplines, and it’s a real pleasure to work with such competent, very human people. All these leads are no longer here, they’re all at Wolfeye, Raphaël Colantonio’s new studio. They’re lovely people, who are very open to new things, but who are also very well supported by their experience, by the pillars of immersive sim, and that creates a really cool mix. After that I moved on to Dishonored 2, Death of the Outsider, Wolfenstein, Youngblood, Deathloop and Blade.

Solo dev Threshold

PnT: And after that you started working at Crytek, is that right?

Julien: That’s it, then. After two burnouts, I left to work for the Germans at Crytek in 2023. I quit Arkane in May. It’s been almost a year now, and things are going really well. They’re very cool people, but they don’t have the same philosophies at all. Crytek is much more diverse, it’s more multicultural. There’s a lot of disparity in the profiles, and that’s really cool.

PnT: When you arrived at Crytek, did you already have the idea of making your own game, or did the idea come about while you were working there?

Julien: I feel like it coincides with a lot of things. I quickly realised, especially at Arkane, that I didn’t just want to do level design. I had a lot of ideas for game mechanics. At Arkane, I came up with a few, but each time it was a bit complicated. At Crytek, I came up with a lot, and some of them I’m taking forward. I also want to do sound and lots of other things. It was frustrating for me not to be able to do all that.

Solo dev Threshold

PnT: You told me off the record that you’d applied to other studios, can you tell us more about that experience?

Julien: Depending on the studio, you have up to 7 interviews with more people each time. And if one person vetoes you, you’re out. It’s complicated. With one studio, I got through 5 out of 7. And they’re Americans, so it’s very special. They’re very cold, they’ll scrutinise you without saying anything, silent treatment all the time. It’s not very pleasant. But I loved the way they worked. They have a really horizontal structure, which has its faults, but it’s also quite healthy I think. And it means you can touch a bit of everything. 

PnT: So you decided to create your own game as a personal challenge?

Julien: That’s exactly what I thought. I thought, I’ll show them. I already had an idea that I’d started to prototype at Arkane. I thought it had potential. At Crytek, it was something I wanted to see straight away. Is it possible to work on something of my own? They have a sidelining policy. You tell us what you do in your spare time and if we like it, we sign an agreement. As long as it doesn’t affect your work at Crytek and you don’t take any of their technology, they’re just being logical. It’s a company that trusts its employees. It’s cool to honour that trust.

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PnT: Can you describe Threshold for us?

Julien: It’s a game that’s meant to be political. We’re doing a job that looks like the most boring job in the world, but at the same time the riskiest. That’s what you see in the first few minutes. I already had an idea that I’d started to kick around a bit at Arkane, just to prototype. And I thought it had potential. From the moment you start the game, from the moment you start your shift, the timer resets to 0. There’s something that goes off in the background and is counted throughout with the country you chose at the start of the game. That’s all I can say. 

PnT: This is a very specific idea, how did it come about?

Julien: I don’t like doing things that have already been done before. It’s cool to make a small iteration of a project or a game, but I find it really annoying to spend 5 years of our lives working on something that looks like something that already exists. I want to bring something more to the world, something that hasn’t been seen before, something that’s a bit disorientating, that makes you feel something. It doesn’t have to last very long each time, but it does leave you with something.

Solo dev Threshold

At first, it was going to be a 5-minute game, just enough to prove the point and show something very visual. But then I thought that it might be a bit too much of a ‘joke game’, a game that you don’t pay any attention to. Originally, I wanted to offer it almost for free, but I thought that a free game doesn’t have the same resonance. A lot of people will immediately think that this game is not to be taken seriously. I had the idea of offering it at a very low price, and even telling people not to hesitate to ask for a refund afterwards. In the end, I won’t do that because I spent an incredible amount of time on it.

PnT: There’s a real desire to include a design philosophy, like that found in games like Stalker and Pathologic. Can you explain this to us?

Julien: It’s a philosophy of trade-off at all costs. At every moment, you make a choice that will have a huge impact on what happens next. Every decision is a sacrifice, like choosing to save the life of this person rather than that person. You’ve got to know them or you feel responsible for them. In Pathologic, for example, you’re a doctor and you feel responsible for lots of people. You have lots of tasks and you don’t have time to do them all. It’s a real game of priorities. Am I doing the right thing? You always feel like you’re missing out on something, that “fear of missing out” feeling. The game tells you that if you’re not there, you’re going to miss something, and I think that’s so cool. I feel something where games that let me do what I want all the time, in the order I want, without any time constraints, captivate me less. I understand why this is done and I respect it. I know there are players who prefer that.

Solo dev Threshold

I want the whole game to be a crescendo of unease and tension. It’s not very pleasant, but it’s deliberate. That’s why the subtitle of the game is “the most boring and stressful job in the world”. It’s a game that tries to make you feel a bit conscious: it’s boring, you do repetitive tasks, and fortunately it’s not very long, because it’s quite simple. You’re pressurised, the tasks are alienating and stressful with constant beeps and solicitations. This whole part of the game came as an afterthought to create a build-up to the final climax and increase the number of countries I could integrate. The longer the game goes on, the more countries I can add, which makes sense at the end of the game.

PnT: We can really feel the Russian inspirations in your work, whether it’s games like Pathologic or Stalker, or even Russian cinema. Was this a deliberate influence?

Julien: Russian cinema and video games have a very harsh and arid approach that I love. These are works where you don’t have the usual points of reference, and it takes a while to get into them, but once you’re in, you’re in for dozens or hundreds of hours. This aesthetic can also be felt in the artistic choices made for my game, which is reminiscent of the PS1. This was a deliberate choice, not only for technical reasons, but also because I’m not an accomplished visual artist. I think I can create something impactful with simple graphics and a strong atmosphere.

I love directing. I grew up with Kojima’s games, and they’ve influenced my work enormously. I like the goofy feel, and there are elements of that in Threshold. Kojima’s team also puts a lot of emphasis on sound, and that’s something I’ve adopted. Sound is crucial for immersing the player in the environment and giving weight to the game’s elements. That’s one of the reasons why I like Eastern European games so much, as they often have a very elaborate soundtrack and a unique atmosphere.

PnT: Speaking of technique, what game engine do you use and why?

Julien: I use Unreal Engine. I really like Blueprint, their visual programming system. It’s very easy to learn and you can do a lot of things very quickly. I didn’t want to go back to the C# of Unity. Blueprint is intuitive and I’m more familiar with the engine, which means I can concentrate on other aspects of the game without getting bogged down in technical details.

Solo dev Threshold

PnT: How did you approach the other facets of game development, such as graphic and sound design?

Julien: It was a lot of iteration. In video games, the key is to try and try again until you get it right. At the beginning, it’s never perfect, no matter how good you are. For the sound, for example, I took out a subscription to a sound bank and remixed them a bit on Audacity. A sound designer recently recommended another free tool that I might try out in the future. For the moment, I’m sticking with Audacity because I’ve got everything set up on it. I tackle each new task bit by bit. If you try to learn everything at once, you soon feel overwhelmed by the amount of information. It’s more manageable to concentrate on one very specific project at a time.

PnT: How do you go about organising your work? Are there any particular tools you use?

Julien: I’ve kept a notebook for a very long time, even just in my head. I try to remember it until the next day and then I put it into practice. I don’t have a very good memory either, so I have to hurry (laughs). Recently, I thought I should start using Trello because it will be more practical for tracking down bugs, the latest tasks and trying to organise myself a bit more. I tend to be a bit of a mess and quickly get off on the wrong foot. Trello isn’t bad. I’m starting to use it a bit more systematically.

PnT: What do you think of the notion of auteur games? It’s something we’re more used to seeing in film, but solo devs are much closer to this notion at times.

Julien: I’m not alone either, as you said. You’re never on your own. I get a lot of friends to review my work. And discussing the problem helps to find solutions. So they contribute directly to that, even very directly. Author, I don’t know. Personally, I don’t have a precise definition of what that means. I think it’s easier to understand what it all means when you see it in pictures. I managed to remain vague, but the idea was to contribute something. And I think that’s what kept me going over the long term: having a project with a real message to convey. I’d like to go all the way and tell this story.

Solo dev Threshold

PnT: And in terms of marketing, you’re doing something that’s becoming increasingly common among solo devs: you’re communicating a lot about your game, particularly on Twitter. I have the impression that as soon as you have a breakthrough, something you’ve found, a bug or whatever, you share it. Is that something you enjoy doing? Is it also content that you like to look for?

Julien: I don’t know how you experienced playing it, but I really like the fact that there are lots of little discoveries that are a bit special. It’s very difficult to hide them and not show them to keep a bit of flavour for people who are going to discover it for the first time. When you already see it in a trailer, it’s not as cool as discovering it for yourself. As it’s a fairly short experience, and I want to have an impact, I would have preferred not to have to do too much publicity and to be able to release it in shadow drop mode and hope for the best, but I think that’s a bit too risky.

So you really have to talk about it a lot, show yourself, because no one else will do it for you. And I’m flattered by that, obviously, I’m not going to lie, it’s nice to see that people follow me because of that. But on this particular game, I’d perhaps have preferred things to have gone differently. That I could have Shadow Drop and watched, but people have to see it, they have to know it exists, so I have to play that card a bit. I try to play it a bit finely, keeping the flavour of the thing, in other words not making too many jokes about the atmosphere and all that. I remember when I’d gone through a wishlist, I’d done Moe, one of the characters, dancing, and I thought that might be a mistake in taste. It’s difficult to find the right tone, you have to try and stay in the atmosphere you want to sell.

PnT: I understand, it’s a delicate balance. Would you be looking for a publisher, or at least a company to help you with the marketing side of things, to get the game into festivals, for example?

Julien: I’d love to bring gaming to life at festivals. Every time I go to a festival page, I think I could show my game there, but it’s always closed. There are so many festivals going on all the time, and in order to find the right slot at the right time, your game has to be out at the time, you have to have a trailer ready, it’s really hard to get the timing right. I’m completely at a loss when it comes to that, and I’m a bit sad, because I seem to be missing out on a lot of things.

Solo dev Threshold

I have the impression that it’s not worthy of being published. That’s how I feel. It’s too junky. I don’t think I could translate it into other languages. The script is very particular. It’s going to be a real pain if I want to translate it into several languages. There are all these things that cause problems. Maybe I’m putting barriers in my own way. But also, I don’t necessarily tell myself that it’s going to be a lot of work to go out and find publishers. It’s just energy. I have no idea how to go about it. I’m a bit overwhelmed. I have to pick my battles and I don’t think this will be one of them. I don’t know who to turn to.

PnT: Do you want to set up a demo for Steam Fest in June?

Julien: So it will be a prequel. It’ll be like a separate game. It’s going to allow me not to include all the mechanics, to leave some mystery.

PnT: To conclude, do you feel like continuing with the solo dev?

Julien: It’s really cool. I’m having more fun than I do at work every day. Because things move faster. Triple A has its benefits, and its advantages too. But it’s a lot less stimulating because there’s a lot of inertia. You don’t have your hands in everythingI want to have my hands in everything. I wouldn’t mind sharing the work. There are a few mates I’d like to do things with, in a small group. These aren’t projects that are going to last 5 or 6 years. We can do compact experiments.

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