Interview with Capybara Games – Part One

After their appearance at the Edinburgh Interactive Festival, Keith Murray from Console Arcade was privileged to be granted a audience with Nathan Vella, President and one of the founding members of Caypbara Games. Here’s the result of the meeting, conducted in one of Edinburgh’s more plush hostelries.

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Keith Murray: Nice to finally meet you in person Nathan. Tell us about Capybara Games – who are you and tell us about how it got started?

Nathan Vella: About 6 years ago, I was working in television and a bunch of other people working in different areas randomly got together and said “let’s make some games”. We started through the Toronto IGDA chapter forum, and at the time there wasn’t that many game studios. We all wanted to make games but we were fighting over two other studios that don’t even exist any more, so there wasn’t that many opportunities in Toronto. So through the IGDA we met some other people who were interested in making games and it grew from there.

We started by meeting at a bar once a week, pushing a couple of tables together and as the meetings went on they became less organized, mainly through beer *laughs* There was twelve of us in the very beginning and it just so happened there were programmers, artists and a couple of sound guys, people that could follow the main disciplines. We decided to make mobile phone games because the barrier to entry was nothing and at the time there was a big buzz as it was just starting out. So we thought “hey, let’s try to get in on the ground floor, small team means small development cycle”.

For a year and a half we worked on a couple of games in our spare time. So I’d be putting in ten hours with my day job and then come home and put in maybe 6 more hours getting the development of our mobile games up and running. We ended up with a couple of really good games, and shopped them around which convinced people we could do it. We didn’t have a studio, payroll or enough computers but we managed to convince Disney to let us develop a mobile game for Cars. When that happened everyone put their money in as quickly as they could! *laughs* It was a crazy time for us, but we had a really good pitch for it, the games were good. For the next two and a half years we made a whole bunch of mobile phone games, a lot we thought were really good, but it’s not the place for a small independent creative focused studio to be. It’s a terrible market because the people who play the games don’t care much, since most purchases are impulse buys, etc. We had always looked at the mobile market as a stepping stone and as we gathered momentum and won awards (the IGF Mobile awards among them)we decided that the time was right to shift up a gear. So we developed a Nintendo DS game which Ubisoft picked up and at the same time we decided to put Critter Crunch onto consoles, whether on XBLA, PSN or WiiWare.

We ended up going with Sony because we knew we could fund it ourselves with a little bit of Government help…

KM: So you get actual help from the Canadian Government?

NV: Yeah they (the Ontario Government) have been a huge boost to Capybara and I can’t speak highly enough of them. It’s split into two components: Tax breaks and competitive grants, which  Ontario based companies can apply for. You put together an extremely detailed project plan and a jury decides what works and what doesn’t. It’s a big process but importantly its run by people who understand video games, so you don’t have to pitch to movie makers or TV producers.

This is how Critter Crunch ended up on PSN as we said we wanted a console partner for our title that was as excited as we were. We didn’t want to be just another game on a platform, we wanted to have a relationship with the console manufacturer. At the time we didn’t expect it to turn out in our favour as we were pitching a mobile iPhone game for consoles, but Sony were real Gung-ho about it, as it plays different, looks different . They‘re also very keen on supporting small developers such as ThatGameCompany, Q-Games, and Jonathan Mak who’ve all had titles on PSN that where quirky yet successful.

KM: So as soon as you met up with Sony, you knew they were the company for you?

NV: Yeah I was surprised and I could spend four or five hours speaking about how good it`s been working with Sony, especially Nate Bosia  who’s been our third party relations guy. He helped introduce us to all the marketing department and this culminated in Sony giving us screens at E3 2009 to promote Critter Crunch. We found ourselves amongst illustrious company, with PixelJunk Shooter on one side, and Fat Princess on the other. It was such an awesome moment, I almost cried! We had come such a long way from this tiny company making mobile phone games to demoing our PlayStation Network title at E3.

KM: So the confidence gained from working so closely with Sony will in turn help you push on because Capybara feel included in their plans?

NV: For sure. Already from people seeing the first Critter Crunch trailer, the responses have been overwhelming. We expected people to think it looked fun, but they are really intrigued by it which makes us happy as you can never tell what kind of reaction a title will receive.

KM: In my opinion, when you see something like Critter Crunch which has gone from an iPhone title to this high resolution PlayStation Network title, there is a real leap in quality, something that is a reoccurring theme for PSN titles; quality over quantity.

NV: Very true. I think in general, Capybara is privileged to be in the company of so many awesome games on PSN. Whether it’s Flower, Fat Princess, and the PixelJunk series. Everyday Shooter is another example. I could go on for hours, but the main point is we’re happy to be in such illustrious company and we hope Critter Crunch is successful, but we have so many other ideas for titles we want to put out on the PSN. Sony have been super helpful, whether it’s the community on the PlayStation blog, or even on sites like NeoGAF, which aren’t necessarily PS3 focused, there’s a real positivity around the platform which makes you really want to keep on making games for it.

Puzzle games, especially on the downloadable services, seem to get a bad rap and we want to address that. Maybe it’s because they don’t stand out that much. So with Critter Crunch we want to address that by giving it personality, some character, all those things that makes games so enjoyable and which will make people really want to pick up the demo or just buy the game.

We’re big fans of puzzle games, titles like Puzzle Bobble, Magical Drop and Bust a Move, all those kind of arcade puzzle games that were seen as being just as hardcore as Super Mario Bros back in the day. So we’re looking to give Critter Crunch that type of personality and include story, cut scenes and have loads of crazy trophies which will give players lots to sink their teeth into. Critter Crunch will be under £10/ $10 when it releases and will include four different single player modes, two different multiplayer modes and if you combine the different number of levels it’s in the 300`s. We hope to give people a reason to pick up at least the demo, because we just want people to try out our game.

As a studio, I think we have a lot of good ideas and if people like Critter Crunch they`ll like some of the other crazy ideas we have for other titles as we don`t see ourselves as a run of the mill studio.

KM: So PSN gives you the opportunity to expand upon your ideas?

NV: Totally, we’re already seriously talking about our next PSN title. Our creative director came up with this concept which we’re all super excited about, something that I don`t think people will be able to equate it to other titles as it’s so different to what’s out there. Much like our WiiWare title we’ve been working on, which is at the prototype stage but has turned out pretty well, so we’ve put it into full production with a small team. It’s along the same lines as our other titles, a little different, a little quirky and it’s called Heartbeat. We’re not talking about it much just yet but that’s our studio in a nutshell; we’re not afraid of doing interesting stuff within small teams. Critter Crunch was, at its smallest four people. At it’s biggest, six.

KM: Yet to look at it, Critter Crunch looks like it had a lot of people working on it, even on the animation, which is jaw dropping.

NV: Yeah it makes my jaw drop sometimes. Our Art director, Qiqo, is crazy insane *laughs*. I always like talking about him and Sylvain who did the amazing backgrounds, UI and stuff is his domain and he puts together crazy stuff. But everyone on the team puts so much of themselves into the game, from the coding team to the sound people; they work so hard on every aspect of the game.

KM: So there’s a real enthusiasm throughout the whole team, which makes it easier for you to talk about it?

NV: Totally. We added in the barfing feature to Critter Crunch and it was something we weren’t too sure would work out. We were trying to be good little developers and get the game polished, not taking too many risks. The coding and art guys managed to hustle it into the game and it worked. When you see that kind of commitment going on you can’t help but be excited.

KM: What more can you tell us about what to expect from the PSN version of Critter Crunch?

NV: You can expect fast paced, addictive arcade puzzle game which harks back to old school puzzle games. You can expect crazy animation. But what makes it special for me is, it’s the first puzzle game you can use to sell a HDTV. You can put it up on an HDTV and it will purr. You can definitely expect a lot of character, off the wall weird shit and add into that a ton of content. There’s Single player and Multiplayer consists of local and online via PSN, which is split into two different modes, versus and co-op, the latter being something that isn’t traditional in a puzzle title. The beauty is that it takes so little time to learn to play, but there are so many new critters and power ups and challenges along with the themed levels and all kinds of stuff, so there’s a lot in there. You can play for five or forty five minutes and enjoy it, as there’s always something new or strange going on.

KM: So do you feel that Critter Crunch is in the mould of those classic Puzzle games where you can play it on a certain level and enjoy it, but if you are one of those people who really rips the mechanics of the game to pieces, their scores and position on the leaderboards will create a real competition between others?

NV: Oh definitely. I think even with versus mode you’ll see a real level of competition with people, all vying to be the best. But it’s not just basic online, because every time you beat an opponent, you gain a little bit of experience and each time you reach a certain plateau you level up and gain access to bigger and better power ups. You have your power foods and start out with watermelon seeds which you can spit to explode a single critter and Garlic breath which, if the stack is too low, it’ll push it back up a level. The hot pepper is handy as it destroys a whole row, but as the player ranks up they can earn power ups like lightning strikes and Anvils which drop on a players head and mess up their controls. Or a poison mushroom which coats the screen in this crazy kinda abstract art. But the game is still rated E for everyone! *laughs*

As you get better, you gain access to better power ups but crucially, if you’re a lower ranked player and you beat a higher ranked player, you’ll get a ton of experience points for doing that. So if people really want to get hardcore with the mechanics, they’ll get a lot out of versus mode, or even with people in co-op, powering through the single player campaign. Also there’s the survival mode and every so often the gameplay will speed up. In the studio our creative director got up to level twelve and our QA got a little bit further, but I’m interested to see a player last twenty rounds. I’m really excited about how people will get into it, whether on a simple level or really hardcore, we think the game supports it. We’ve been asked a lot about the pricing, but because we’re controlling the publishing of the title, we control the price. So we don’t want it to end up being £9.99, $9.99 etc, we want it to be priced correctly across the board. The only audience who might end up a bit put out is the Canadian one, as the currency fluctuates wildly at the moment so we`ll try and lock it down.

KM: It sounds from what you’ve said that you felt the PSN was the natural place for Critter Crunch moving off the iPhone, as opposed to something like XBLA or WiiWare?

NV: As I mentioned before, Sony`s positivity and excitement about the game was crucial. We also wanted to use this as a start of a partnership with a console, making sure we could put a lot into a game and have a company like Sony to appreciate that work. I also think Critter Crunch`s quirky factor is at home on the PSN. On top of that, XBLA has a lot of puzzle titles, but on PSN there are less puzzle orientated titles to compete with. Sure there are ones like Lumines, Droplitz and Puzzle Fighter but Critter Crunch isn`t exactly in that category, so being on PSN helps make us stand out a bit more. When we talked to Sony we instantly knew they were where we wanted to be.

One of the best parts of being a small independent studio is that you don`t necessarily have to go after the almighty Dollar. I mean don’t get me wrong, I hope it sells well, but we don`t have to worry constantly about return on investment which a larger development studio might have to. It allows us to concentrate on making the games we wanna make.

KM: It must be nice for you as you don’t have to worry about the Points system that is on other platforms, something which people seem to get themselves really worked up about. By setting a price in pounds and dollars you dodge that bullet.

NV: It means you have a lot more room to navigate, as you dictate a currency price point, as opposed to a set price in Points.

KM: A good example of points dictating people’s perception of a title was Lode Runner. When it was released on the XBLA mistakenly at 800 points everyone leaped on it, but when the price was corrected everyone went “F-you Microsoft” which just ends up hurting the developers, not Microsoft.

NV: Another example of that is the Madballs game, made by Playbrains who are based in Ottawa, and who are super talented but got screwed over due to a misprint that the title was 1200 Points. So that 1200/800 Points thing kinda messed them, and also it was released just before the Summer of Arcade.

KM: Were there any significant challenges in moving from iPhone development to the PSN?

NV: Definitely, we threw everything we had out. *laughs* So we started completely from scratch. Part of that was because it’s such a different platform and also we want to make the same mistakes we had noticed on past iterations of Critter Crunch didn’t get made again. While nobody else would notice it’s something we definitely see like, in the PSN version, when you start a really big chain you can actually grab Critters and add them to the chain while they`re popping, but in other versions it’s really hard to do this. We also had to make sure that everything was multiplayer friendly, so kudos to the programmers on the game as they`ve really done a great job. Especially in the past few months, it’s gone from being solid to being really tight. Drew and Frankie at the studio have worked really hard to make sure that the multiplayer is tight as there is so much going on, so many Critters.

In Co-op it’s important to have a player who has a good connection as there is so much going on, but even when we’ve tested it across different continents it’s performed well, so we’re happy with that.

Also, one of the other hurdles is to translate the pixel art and its character to HD hand animated, 60fps 1080p art, which makes for a real challenge. This was made easier with the PhryeEngine, with Sony Europe being super supportive with that particular aspect.

KM: So you found the support structure of immense help in getting everything together quickly?

NV: Oh yeah, for us it was an amazing help. We had circumstances where, because we’re small and not so well off financially, but Sony has various options for development kits which makes it helpful for small studios such as ourselves. When we had a problem and we wanted to get to the bottom of it they sent a guy out from New Jersey for the day. He drove up to the studio and helped us out. It`s little things like that. We also talk to the guys who constantly work on the PhryeEngine who ask us about our experiences, seeing if they can make it better for everyone who uses it.

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