Tires squealing without a sound, a dragon roaring silently, weapons firing without so much as a hiss... video games deprived of their sound would definitely not have the same flavour. François Fripiat and his team at Demute Studio are experts in the field of sound.
"I wasn't really familiar with the world of video games," says François Fripiat, who began his professional career in the film industry, where for nearly ten years he worked on the sound for commercials, dubbing, documentaries and other feature films.
THE VIDEO GAME EMPIRE
However, since 2020, Demute Studio has successfully turned to video games. More precisely, the team of the Brussels-based studio now handles the entire 'sound' vertical for video game projects, from the creation of the main sounds (the fire-breathing dragon, the plane crashing, etc.) to the programming of the triggers in the game engine, so that the right sound is heard at the right time, including the music and all the hidden sounds (wind, acceleration noises, etc.).
Its customers include some of the world's leading video game studios. "We realised that in Belgium the market for video game creation is very small and that we had to look abroad. Today, 70% of our turnover is generated abroad: France, USA, Canada, England, etc." Most of its customers either need additional staff to cope with their workload or do not have a sound engineer on their team. "This is the originality and sometimes the complexity of our role," explains François Fripiat. "To work on projects that change from week to week, or even day to day, you have to be constantly adapting, combining the modularity of the external team with the involvement of an internal team. There are only about ten studios in the world that offer this type of service. It's exciting but radically different from the way things are done in film."
A YOUNG TEAM TRAINED IN THE FIELD
François Fripiat has obviously surrounded himself with a team to provide this five star service to the industry's major players. "Our 'gaming' department has six in-house employees," he says. "All of them are aged under 30 and are in their first job at Demute Studio. Aged 35, I'm the oldest!"
"There is no training for this kind of job in Belgium. In addition, we are gradually developing a rather special working method. We therefore prefer the system of internships of at least four months. We try to identify interesting profiles among our students, then we hire them, train them and integrate them into our team at a rate of about one new starter per year. In addition, there are two people in the cultural department, which is not yet profitable." And he insists: "Even though I am the boss and the company's only shareholder, I really think that we make a success of it all together. I want everyone to be empowered and I want to make sure that everyone is focused on what they want to do. We try to move forward like that, a bit like a collective. Staff turnover has to be very low for the business to run at its best because we invest a lot in training the team."
The development of a real strategy has also proved necessary. "Our motto is fail fast," explains François Fripiat. "This allows us to determine very quickly what needs to be changed. Simply talk to other entrepreneurs, investors, etc., and you'll realise that committing too much energy and money to a project that won't work is the number one mistake of first-time entrepreneurs. Not being in love with your idea and asking yourself objectively if it has a chance to succeed is clearly good advice for entrepreneurs. If the idea works, we continue. If not, we change. That's what we've been doing for the last four or five years. Every four to six months, or even every month, we change our strategy."
AN AVANT-GARDE PROJECT
This is the culmination of a process that began in 2016, when François Fripiat embarked on virtual reality, "which was", he explains, "the reproduction in 3D of what I was doing in cinema in 2D."
One of his first projects, in association with Innoviris and the ISIB (Industrial Engineering Institute of Brussels) research centre, was an audio augmented reality headset adapted to cultural tours. "We wanted to recreate sound in an ultra-realistic way," he describes, before observing with great clarity: "The technology works but it has not found its market because we were still too focused on our 'technical' excitement as engineers, without noticing that the concept did not meet the market's requirements."
"Entrepreneurs have an intrinsic need to find a solution while researchers need to research. The two objectives do not necessarily align. The biggest lesson we learned from this venture was certainly that we must focus on the public's expectations, on what consumers need or want. We failed on this point. In addition, the technology has remained expensive, even though we were banking on a price decrease. And to top it all off, we were faced with the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic." All the conditions were there for a change of course and Demute Studio's successful entry into the world of video games.
FROM INNOVIRIS TO HUB.BRUSSELS
François Fripiat has been quick to turn to the various aids available. "We've worked with Innoviris in several different ways," he recalls. "We've created various innovations: a zoom system in the sound sources for virtual reality experiences, a microphone tracking system, and of course the audio augmented reality headset project born from a joint project with the ISIB research centre and for which Innoviris supported us with €400,000."
"I also asked hub.brussels for help with international prospecting, participation in trade fairs and exhibitions where we have been present a lot even if it is not the ideal prospecting ground for us. The Covid-19 crisis has shown us that we don't need physical prospecting, that it is easier to make contact virtually."
ENTREPRENEUR BY CONVICTION
François Fripiat seems to have the entrepreneurial spirit running through his veins. However, he confesses: "I never had the ambition to become an entrepreneur, it didn't particularly excite me. I was predominantly a creative, a technician. I had the opportunity to create the Demute studio in partnership with my former bosses."
"Over time, I realised that this relationship was not working due to opposing visions from a human perspective, innovation etc. It was mainly the lack of questioning and intellectual curiosity that struck me and pushed me to make a move. So I decided to create my own organisation and be completely independent. This was done a bit on the job with the aim of creating the necessary means to achieve my goal rather than out of personal ambition and a desire to become an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship is very fashionable. But let's be clear: it's not easy and it takes time!"
Interview: Catherine Aerts