It's an almost stereotypically gorgeous springtime Saturday in Paris, breezy and bright, and the bistros near the Porte de Versailles are spilling lunching locals and tourists all over the street. But the kids arriving by the tram-load, confused mothers in tow, aren't here to eat crepes, promenade or play football. They're filing into the angular, modernist and cavernously huge Paris Expo hall - familiar to your correspondent from Blizzard's gigantic Worldwide Invitational event in 2008 - to pay pilgrimage to the biggest game you've never heard of: Dofus.
What's more - despite the travel chaos caused by volcanic ash from Iceland this weekend - Ankama, the French game developer and animation studio hosting the event, is expecting 20 to 30,000 of them. And that isn't even the most eyebrow-raising figure we'll hear over the course of the day.
Ankama was a small web design firm based in the north of France when it launched Dofus in 2004. The unassuming online game belonged to a genre entirely of the studio's own devising: a tactical, turn-based MMORPG running in a lightweight Flash-based client, presented in isometric 2D, and graced with winsome artwork in an anime style. (If the latter seems an odd culture-clash to you, remember that France has had a much longer-standing and more overt love affair with Japanese comics and cartoons than any other Western nation. Hayao Miyazaki is practically a national hero here, and how else could Ulysses 31 have been brought into the world?)
With no experience of or access to the traditional videogames business, and no marketing or PR of which to speak, Ankama set about building its game organically by word of mouth among its fanbase of young French players. Dofus spread the way games used to - in the playground - only the playground was now connected, and the game itself was social. The barriers to entry were low - it would run on any old PC or laptop (or Mac), and you could play a substantial chunk of it for free. If you wanted to carry on, there was a subscription to pay, but it was pocket-money cheap: €5 a month.
In 2008, things really started to take off. There was an international boost from the launch of translated versions of the game, particularly in Spain and Latin America, but Dofus remained, and remains, a mostly domestic phenomenon. 60 per cent of players are in France, and the game is popular in the French-speaking communities of Switzerland, Belgium and Canada, too.
In the Anglo-centric eyes of the mainstream videogame business, that sounds marginal, but nothing could be further from the truth. Dofus boasts 30 million registered players, an insane figure even by the standards of free-to-play games, and approaching half the population of France. A million play it every day, a quarter of a million are playing it at any one time. But here's the truly significant and head-spinning fact: 3.5 million are paying subscribers. That's a full third of the audience for Blizzard's globally dominant subscription game, World of Warcraft.
Like so many MMO success stories - CCP, the Icelandic iconoclast behind EVE Online springs to mind, as does the UK's Jagex, creators of RuneScape - Ankama is an independently-minded outfit that has made up its own rules as it went along and completely ignored commercial convention. To this day, it still doesn't advertise, and it exists in a bubble with its community of teens, tweens and youthful otaku. It's just that that bubble is vast. And it's getting hard to ignore.
Ankama has been a hive of busy expansion since 2007 as it seeks to build an interntaional, cross-media empire encompassing animation and comics as well as its beloved games, and founded on the strong appeal of its art style. It has five new games in development. One of them - Dofus' sequel Wakfu, currently in beta - already has a spin-off animated TV series with two seasons under its belt and a mind-boggling million viewers per episode on French national TV. The animation is all done in-house in France, and is of startlingly good quality.
Dofus has an accompanying series of manga, the best-selling in France in fact, with 800,000 copies sold. Rather than license this out, Ankama, being Ankama, naturally chose to found its own imprint, and now publishes a strikingly cool selection of other comics and bandes dessinées under its name (one of the stranger sights at the convention is the standees advertising Jamie Hewlett's classic Brit-punk comic Tank Girl). Ankama has also opened an office in Japan, localising the games (Dofus will launch there and in Russia this year) and working on new anime projects. There's a Wakfu trading card game produced by Blizzard's partner, Upper Deck.
But we're here for the games. (Well, that and the heart-warming spectacle of entire French families in cosplay outfits and 12-year-old boys literally hopping with delight. For a games journalist, it's refreshing and all too rare to find yourself at an event aimed at children, gaming's first, oft-forgotten constituency.) We've already documented our love of Dofus, so let's move on - after noting that it has a gorgeous new 2.0 client, with all-new art, and an expansion due this year called Frigost (even MMOs have an obligatory ice level, it seems).
Of the five new and unreleased games, two are spin-off diversions. Dofus Arena, due to launch on 21st June, is a free player-versus-player version of the monster MMO. Players create teams of characters from Dofus' 12 classes under a "coach" avatar, then pit them against each other in turn-based strategy bouts in a closed arena. Cards with special abilities can be traded in-game and there are international leaderboards.
Wakfu: The Guardians is Ankama's browser-based gateway drug, aimed at the youngest fans of the TV series. Presenting a streamlined and streaming version of Ankama's trademark tactical multiplayer gameplay for a team of four, it features characters and stories from the cartoon and runs alongside it in seasons. It's completely free to play at the game's website, albeit only in French as yet. Both these games unlock items and achievements in Dofus and Wakfu through Ankama's centralised account system.
The main attractions, though, are Wakfu itself, the Xbox Live Arcade game Islands of Wakfu, and Slage.
Oddly, the centrepiece of the sprawling, multimedia Wakfu project is Ankama's least casual game to date: an involved, recherché MMO building player politics and a simulated ecology onto Dofus' turn-based tactical foundations. Wakfu is three years into development and over a year into beta, but Ankama isn't letting the runaway success of the related anime rush the release of this ambitious game.
It's billed as the sequel to Dofus, but that's only in terms of the game design and timeline - it's set in the same world, 1000 years later - Ankama being in no hurry to replace its cash-cow. The basics may be the same, but Wakfu has such a different, liberal and novel structure it should happily co-exist with its older brother.
Its landscape is divided into 500-player islands. Each will have a player governor, elected by the local player population every two weeks, who will set the rules that govern the challenges doled out by NPC clan chiefs (we see a fat, buddha-like panda presiding over a dojo of kung fu pandas, or a wizened wolf-god). The players' actions in these quests then affect the balance between man and nature on that island, the governor deciding whether he or she prefers a tendency towards harmony (Wakfu) or imbalance towards plant, monster or man (the confusingly-named Stasis).
This won't move at the glacial pace of many MMO meta-games, however, Ankama saying that a group of 20 well-organised players could change the alignment of a zone in just 20 minutes. There's a strong PVP element too, with neutral territory expected to change hands frequently, although the main player villages will be very difficult (though not impossible) to capture. Governors can spend money to delegate powers to other roles like diplomat, or head of militia. Character development is more free-form than Dofus' epic levelling curve, with spells increasing in power according to how much you use them.
Built on Java, Wakfu has even more detailed and comely art than Dofus, married with a dreamy, surreal atmosphere and some exquisite animation. 2D gaming rarely comes any prettier than this - nor as bold and forward-thinking.
Islands of Wakfu
You might not know it from the familiar look of the screenshots, but the biggest departure in Ankama's line-up is this offline, real-time action-adventure for Xbox 360: a game of light exploration and puzzle-solving blended with frantic 2D combat against multitudes of enemies. Even while it heads in new gameplay directions, Ankama is sticking to digital distribution (via Xbox Live Arcade) and unifying Islands of Wakfu with its other games; link your gamertag to your Ankama account and achievements will unlock rewards in the sister titles.
Ankama's fans will want to play it to be filled in on the prehistory of the company's fantasy universe, the game set 10,000 years before Dofus. Everyone else will be drawn in by the luscious art, two-player local co-op and old-school action. The two leads are a young dragon and his humanoid sister Nora who can be switched between at will by one player or controlled independently by two (sharing the same health and Wakfu resource to ensure balance).
The dragon can strafe and shoot fireballs using twin-stick controls, while Nora gets in close, executes rapid melee combos and uses a neat teleport, targeted with the right stick, to dodge and surprise enemies from behind. It's all about crowd control as the pair battle through mobs of deranged wildlife, and by the end of the third level there's already a fairly long and complex boss battle to deal with that seems to owe as much to MMO design as the retro shmups and beat-'em-ups Ankama is referencing.
With open progression across multiple quests, lots of collection, stunning presentation and beguiling music, Islands of Wakfu has enough charm to carry the apparent simplicity of the action - but knowing Ankama, there could easily be more here than meets the eye. It has no release date, but is apparently complete and merely waiting its turn in Microsoft's release queue.
PC title Slage also strikes out from Ankama's comfort zone, this time into the world of the online action-RPG. As a Diablo-style, randomised dungeon-crawl for four players with massively multiplayer lobby zones, it shares a little more of Dofus' gameplay DNA than Islands.
The big changes here are technological and stylistic: it's Ankama's first game in 3D, and the art is pulling in two different directions, taking the characters even further into the realms of saucer-eyed super-deformation even as it covers the screen with liberal splashes of gore (Ankama calls the look "brutal kawai"). Still, an overhead camera and some light cel-shading ensures the family resemblance.
With a strong focus on co-operative team-play across the Dofus universe's 12 character classes and a required connection to Ankama's servers, Slage isn't really going to be a solo hackandslash. It is pretty streamlined though, players asked to choose a deck of just four skills at a time plus left and right mouse-button attacks. Skills can be swapped around at the 'phoenix zone' checkpoints to answer particular challenges of the dungeon or bring the party into harmony, and use of the powerful Wakfu spells is rationed by a very limited points system.
Epic boss fights, quick reactions, tactical co-operation and spatial crowd management are Slage's touchstones, and the game is all business - although there will be social areas, there will be no crafting or other distractions from looting and murderising in the randomly-generated dungeons. It's designed to run on an average PC - albeit one, for the first time in Ankama's history, with an actual graphics card - but the bright cartoon style will scale well and it's already a solidly pretty game.
Ankama hasn't decided on a business model for Slage yet, although there definitely won't be a subscription to pay. There's no release date.
For all things Ankama, visit the Ankama Games website.