Q: Hi there Bernard! Let’s kick things off with a question often answered while lying on a couch: can you tell us a bit more about your youth?
A: I was born and raised in Eeklo, a small city somewhere between Bruges and Ghent. Apart from going to school, I used to play outside quite a lot with my friends, and enjoyed taking arts and piano classes. As I grew up I also became very active in a local environmental organization, where I mainly edited the quarterly magazine and organized excursions to local nature reserves.
Q: When/where did you first come into contact with video games?
A: My oldest and fondest memories about video games are related to our home computer in the late 80s and early 90s – a Macintosh SE/30. I recall playing various games on this computer, including Crystal Quest, Uninvited , Shufflepuck Café, and Scarab of Ra. This must have been when I was about five years old.
I do have some faint memories of other games played at friends an family – including Super Mario Bros on the NES and Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards on a computer with a yellow monochrome monitor. Since Leisure Suit Larry is an adventure controlled by text input, and I didn’t learn how to write yet, I watched my teenage brother and sister trying to flush the toilet and buy condoms at the bar by entering simple phrases.
Q: When did you get the idea of pursuing a career in games/software development?
A: As I grew up, I maintained a fascination for games as well as for computers. I was very curious, playing around with all kinds of software shared among friends (pre-Internet era). As a teenager, this lead me to start to experimenting with 3D modeling and animation in Bryce 3D and later also Rhino 3D. Not much later a friend told me about DarkBASIC and I found myself programming my first little games – initially aided by my late father, who was a computer engineer. I must have been about 16 at the time. That’s when I discovered that creating games could be even more fun than playing them.
“I must have been about 16 years old when I discovered that creating games could be even more fun than playing them.”
I didn’t have to think very long in order to choose to study Industrial Engineering in Computer Science. Meanwhile, I kept programming small game experiments as a hobby. However, it was only when I started looking for a thesis subject that I realized that a career in the games industry would be an option within reach. I found out that a friend of mine was working at a local company doing downloadable casual games and ended up doing my thesis – the development of a portable open source C++ framework for casual games – for them. After my thesis I was determined to enter the games industry, and I decided that if I wouldn’t be able to find a job in the budding industry in Belgium, I’d definitely start my own business.
Q: Where did you work before deciding to start PreviewLabs? Were you able to use some of that experience in starting up PreviewLabs?
A: I started out at a local publisher of children’s games, Transposia, where I learnt a lot of interesting things about the publishing side there (including intricacies of game testing and working with voice actors), but as there wasn’t as much programming work to it as initially foreseen, I left after just two months.
My next job was at Neopica, also based in Ghent. I worked there for two years on games for the Nintendo Wii and PC. We were a small team, so I was able to learn a lot – about the technical aspects dealing with low end hardware, but also about how to (and how not to) work with other people.
Even though I enjoyed the work I had done so far, I felt that my potential wasn’t fully utilized by doing programming alone, and that I’d be able to get further if I could for instance also throw my social skills in the mix. I also had ‘too many’ ideas which I couldn’t put to use during my employee work, so I decided to make the jump and start my own company.
Q: A lot of young guys want to become indie developers to make their dream game, not to help out others. What’s drawn you to prototyping?
A: The answer to this question is twofold. On one hand, I noticed I thoroughly enjoyed participating in game jams such as the Global Game Jam and Ludum Dare, in which you meet with other people to make small games in 48 hours. On the other hand, during my work at Neopica, I noticed I mainly enjoyed the start of the projects, as that’s when you see a lot of new things being built up.
Q: Can you describe what a typical day at the PreviewLabs offices looks like?
A: There isn’t really such thing as a typical day, at least not for me. As the founder of the company, I’m focusing on a lot of different things, but most come down to delivering an excellent service and helping us grow as a company. Currently this means I’m helping to get our new project manager Nicolas fully up to speed, so I can spend more time on bringing in new clients and to reflect on overall strategy. Things that are always part of what I do are helping my colleagues with their day to day challenges, such as looking for creative solutions when features don’t turn out as easy to implement, or discussing a complex project with a client.
Q: I’m confident there are plenty, but if you have to point out one, what’s the key reason a company should work with PreviewLabs?
A: I’d say the key reason would be that we’re able to capture their needs very well, act in their best interest, coming up with creative ideas and verifying them in actual prototypes.
“Now that the PreviewLabs concept has been proven, I’m aiming to grow the company from 5 to about 15 people in a few years.”
Q: PreviewLabs has turned 5 years old recently. What’s the next big thing you want to achieve with the company?
A: Now that the PreviewLabs concept has been proven, we’re going to take it to the next level, helping out more people with their prototyping needs. I’m aiming to grow the company from a team size of 5 people now to about 15 people in a few years.
Q: What inspires you to get up every day?
A: Variety, definitely. Due to the focus of PreviewLabs, we work on a wide variety of projects, for a variety of people, living in a variety of countries, and having a variety of goals. This helps me stay sharp and creative! Since PreviewLabs was founded, we worked for clients in 16 different countries. That’s something I’m particularly proud of and I’m definitely on a quest to increase that number! Also, our clients are very inspiring as well! They’re always very motivated about the new projects they want to start, and this enthusiasm transfers to me, resulting in a lot of interesting ideas.
Q: In 5 years you have worked on a ton of projects. Can you name one that particularly stands out? Why (not)?
A: Hard question. Since I like variety so much, there’s no clear answer. However, there are many memorable projects, which all stand out in one way or another.
One of them is a prototype for a MOBA, featuring 8 vs 8 multiplayer gameplay on PC. It was a particularly huge project and needed a large amount of features to get the key points across. Details on this project are still undisclosed though, but I hope to be able to share more in the next years on our blog.
“The fact that Blizzard comes up with one succesful game after another isn’t coincidence. These guys must be prototyping a lot, and are proving that the approach works with every game they release!”
The prototypes we’ve done for Walt Disney Imagineering are also all stand-outs, but can’t really be disclosed. The nice thing about working for them is that they try out the most crazy concepts; one of the key ingredients which allows them to create real magic!
Q: Running your own company requires a lot of devotion. Do you still have some spare time and if so, how do you choose to spend it?
A: As I work long hours during the week, most of my spare time is restricted to the weekends, when I can often be found renovating the building where I live (which also happens to house the PreviewLabs office on its ground floor). When I’m not renovating, I’m visiting family and friends, trying out new board games, enjoying a nice beer or (more than) two, or enjoying a walk in the countryside.
Q: Apart from that, do you still find the time to play video games? What’s the last game you’ve played properly?
A: I’ve been playing World of Tanks quite extensively from the moment I bought an Xbox One, which is about a month ago. It’s one of those games I didn’t play when it was released, but since it’s still popular today, I don’t feel silly mentioning it. I focused on exploring the different tank classes and gameplay modes, and to get a feel for why this game is so popular.
The last AAA game I played until seeing the credits was GTA V in 2013, but I only was able to do this because I had to stay home for a few days after a minor surgery, that took place on the date of release. I couldn’t have asked for better timing. I did complete a lot of smaller mobile games though since, including the magnificent Monument Valley.
Q: If there’s one company or organization you’d love to come up with a game concept for, who would it be? Why?
A: Blizzard would definitely be on this list. The fact that they come up with one successful game after another isn’t coincidence. These guys must be prototyping a lot, and are proving that the approach works with every game they release! Of course, having a huge fan base also helps.
Q: What do you look for in a video game?
A: Even when I play games in my spare time, it’s usually either having fun with old school AAA gameplay (enjoying a variety of games including shooters and racing games), to try a highly successful game while being very open to experience why others enjoy it so much, or to look for original gameplay.
Q: What game is so good you would’ve really liked to have worked on it? Why?
A: I’d like to have worked on the first ever versions of Bejeweled or Tetris. These games were so influential, spawning a lot of success. They’re gameplay gems, requiring no narrative. Games in its purest form.
“I’d like to have worked on Tetris or Bejeweled. They’re both gameplay gems, games in its purest form.”
Q: Final question: imagine you’re living in a parallel universe where computers haven’t been invented. What would your life look like?
A: I’d probably fly around by flapping my arms, while being able to be faster by airplanes, but without experiencing cold. I’d maybe also want to fix a few of the world’s key issues – hunger, global warming, just to name a few – by snapping my fingers. Parallel universes are fun, aren’t they?
They sure are, but we do hope you like this reality just as much. Thanks a lot for your time and good luck with the growth of the company. Want to read more about the games Bernard plays? Follow him on Twitter (@brnrd_frncs).