[The Critter Crunch (iPhone, PSN) creators tells Gamasutra about moving to consoles, why mobile sucks for indies, and future studio plans, including details on their upcoming WiiWare title Heartbeat.]
Capy is a small independent game studio from Toronto, now 23 people strong. I met most of the company’s founders at the 2003 GDC as OkayFun -– a small team with a very odd idea for a game (competitive skydiving), and no development experience, but a lot of heart and intelligence.
Since those days, the company became Capybara, and released a number of games on mobile devices over the years -– some of which were great, but none of which anyone actually played.
Now, the company has reached its fully evolved incarnation as Capy, the studio behind Critter Crunch for the iPhone and PSN, and the upcoming Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes, the best DS puzzle/RPG hybrid that nobody’s heard of.
Hot off the critical success of Critter Crunch we spoke with Capy principals Nathan Vella (lead artist, and also the new business guy), and Kris Piotrowski (creative director and designer) about high res 2D art, making games for people who actually care, and the horrors of mobile games -- including why mobile games mean death for indies.
On Critter Crunch, PSN, and WiiWare
From an art perspective, how difficult was it to move from lower-res on the mobile to the very high-res PSN Critter Crunch?
Nathan Vella: The thing that I think was actually kind of cool about it is the art pipeline that we've been working on in the studio for our 2D pixel-y stuff translated pretty well to HD, so we didn't have to go back to scratch and relearn a brand new system. We could actually just modify and tweak.
In terms of the actual artist time, I think pixel art, for a lot of our artists, they learned it at our studio. They were already regular 2D artists -- some of them had even done some 3D stuff -- but then they came in, learned pixel art, and were able to apply that to our games. And then when we said, "Okay, PS3, let's go 1080p," they were like, "Oh, phew. Back to normal."
It's funny, Sony's not doing so many 1080p games nowadays after they pushed for so many games to be.
NV: Yeah, for us... Tech-wise, we're not pushing the thing to its limits, so doing 1080p at 60 FPS was relatively easy for us. We had the game running at 120 FPS at one point. We had to like cap it off so it wasn't crazy with the animations.
This is PSN-only, right? Why is that?
NV: Even before we did the iPhone version, we decided that we really wanted to put the game on one of the console downloadable spaces. So, we put together the pitch and went out and showed Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. Sony's reaction was exactly what we were looking for.
Basically, we figured this isn't a game that we have to go out there and think about nothing but money. Instead, we kind of looked at it as, "Where can we use the game to help build the relationship that will help the studio move out of where it was and move into being a real developer of interesting things on the downloadable console space?"
And so when we talked to Sony, we were like, "Look, we want to bring this mobile/iPhone game and make it into 1080p and add all this shit." It seemed like it was kind of a tough sell, but Sony totally got it, and they treated us really well even though in that space, we were a bunch of nobodies because we'd never done anything on console.
To get that kind of respect and to have that kind of reaction to have the third party we were working with totally get it right off the bat was awesome. So, we just said, "Okay. We're done looking. We'll put it up on PSN."
And then on top of that, it does kind of help that PSN has a lot of the games that we as owners of the studio think are super fucking awesome. I mean, it's motivating to be on that platform with cool games. Especially with Jon Mak, who’s a friend of ours. We see his awesome game that we love go up on there, and Sony kind of backing him on that was really cool.
All that stuff kind of combined into us saying, "Yeah, that makes perfect sense." We were proven right, because Sony treated us super well, respected us, and treated us like we weren't a small nobody developer from Toronto. They gave us screens at E3, put us all over the PlayStation blog, put us on Pulse, got us in touch with people, and helped us out. When we had some problems that we couldn't fix, Sony fucking shipped a guy from New Jersey all the way up to our studio to help us.
How did they have a guy in New Jersey that can help you?
Kris Piotrowski: They have people everywhere, just waiting. [laughs] "We got another call. You gotta go on a plane!"
"I want one from Nebraska, please."
NV: They have tech support people all over the place supposedly, which is really cool. And then on top of that, Sony also has PhyreEngine, which is a free-to-developers engine, which for an indie studio is awesome because we don't have to spend any money building a rendering engine, we don't have to buy any tech.
Sony says, "Here you go." They support the living shit out of it, and they support it really well. Any of the parts that are inside Phyre that we didn't know how to fix or we had an issue with, they would fix it for us in a day. Overall, I think Sony's doing a lot of right stuff for small independent developers.
Yeah, it's true. The only thing they're not doing that well is talking about the PSN service to where games can really sell well.
NV: I do know that games now on PSN are actually selling significantly better than they were even a year ago. I think part of that has to do with more PS3s being out there. Part of it has to do with more notable games coming onto the service.
I think it will just... It's still a fraction of what XBLA is doing, and we know that, but that's okay for us because they let us do what we wanted to do. It should mean a lot. I think to some studios, it doesn't mean a thing, but for us it did, for sure.
What's your plan for the studio going forward?
KP: Definitely continuing with downloadable stuff. Another game for PSN, if all goes well. And Xbox Live would be great for sure. I mentioned that we're doing a WiiWare game, so let's see how that goes. Maybe we'll take that WiiWare game to other things if possible. That's the main kind of direction for us.
NV: The way that we've found works best for us is, A, don't try to be like a real professional super-awesome business studio. Just be content and really play on the strength that we have as being a small, independent, and creative studio.
To that extent, the WiiWare game we're working on, Heartbeat, is going to be a game made by a few people. We're also going to keep doing that.
We want to make some really tiny, tiny games and something like smaller but not super small games all on the downloadable platforms, all three of them. I think it's cool that we can kind of make games for whatever platform, the ideas that Kris or other people come up with, and put them on the right platforms.
Not be like, "We are an XBLA developer because that's what our financial people say we have to do, because the most money is being made on XBLA, so that's all we're doing." We can actually say Kris will come in and pitch us a really niche, strange but interesting idea for WiiWare. We can all get it, prototype it, then make it with three people. On top of that, we'll probably still end up doing some work with publishers because we need to make money as well.
KP: Yeah. That's the other side of the coin to help us float the boat until we have Mega-Hit X.
You've finished Might and Magic for DS and Critter Crunch for PSN. Can you talk about other stuff you're doing?
KP: Yeah. One of the games that we're making, which Nathan mentioned, is called Heartbeat, and it's a WiiWare game. I can't really say too much about it mainly because it's still ridiculously half-baked, but it's going to be a kind of music creation thing, sort of like the idea of passive gameplay where you can kind of watch it and enjoy it or hop and start playing it with no kind of set goal.
Is this kind of like a software toy?
KP: No, I'd say more it's... It would probably have an interaction level of, say, something like Flow, where you're not ever under the stress of losing the game, but it's got a different flow than a classic sort of arcade-y setup where you're going for points or the sort of standard goal.
So, that's one thing that we're working on. We're working on a new iPhone project that I can't say anything about yet, but it's going to be pretty cool. It's a collaboration with someone in Toronto that I don't want to mention because it will just give it away, but it's a pretty cool thing, because we've never actually collaborated with anybody outside of Capy aside from publishers obviously.
I also have another puzzle battle idea that I want to explore at some point, but that's not in, like, the immediate queue of games. I'd like to do one more puzzle game, but I think we're going to try and stay away from puzzles because we don't want to be that to be...
KP: Yeah, exactly, something that defines the studio. It just so happens that we ended up with two puzzle games that are going to be interesting, I think. People hopefully will like them. Afterward, we want do a whole batch of games that have nothing to do with puzzles just so the studio can be seen as something other than some puzzle powerhouse or whatever. "What's the next puzzle game you're going to make?"
About the Studio
How many people are working at Capy now?
NV: Right now, it's 23 people. We were a little bit bigger when we ramped up for Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes. But even 23 feels huge. It feels very big. But it kind of allows us to do the strategic work on a publisher game then work on smaller original stuff, so we're never really in worry of...
NV: Yeah, if a project gets canceled or something, we still have other projects...
KP: Knock on wood.
Do you want to talk about why you've rebranded the studio? It’s possible that this may be the first some people have heard of you guys.
NV: I think in terms of the actual rebranding thing, we decided to do it probably before anybody had ever heard of us. We did all that mobile stuff, and the audience for the mobile stuff that we'd done, most of that is like the complete opposite people to the stuff we're trying to make games for now.
For us, it made a lot of sense to do it now, to just kind of say, "We're still the same studio. We're still Capybara Games, but Capy is always what we say ourselves as."
It better en-capy-sulates the studio.
KP: Yeah, and I think like... Now that we're releasing games that people are actually going to play, people are probably going to know us as Capy more so than as Capybara.
NV: Which is good.
KP: Which is good because Capybara is hard to say when you're drunk and yelling at people at GDC.
NV: It's also harder to say to people who've never heard of the animal.
KP: Yeah, and it's also hard to spell sometimes.
Yeah, that's true.
KP: [both laugh] It generally doesn't...
NV: It's pretty much the best/worst name out there, in my opinion. [laughs] It's a cute, awesome, and weird animal that's original and fun, and no one knows it.
KP: Just like us.
NV: It's so terrible and impossible...
Just like you guys! [laughs] Well, it seems like you've kind of paid your dues in the mobile space and are now able to move into what you really want to make happen.
KP: Yeah. We definitely feel like mobile was paying our dues. It was also like going to game school as well, because everything has to be fairly simple in mobile, and none of us had any experience making games, so it was kind of fortunate that we started there because we were actually able to figure out how to do this before we started making bigger games and making huge mistakes.
We made a whole ton of little mistakes and a lot of big ones too, but the stakes aren't so high when you're working on something like that. Whereas now, it's like if we start to make gigantic mistakes making bigger games, than we can actually get into some real trouble [laughs]. As opposed to lots of little things.
I don't know. Mobile was terrible. We made some good games, but I think pretty much everybody at the studio almost started hating making games, making mobile.
KP: Yeah. So, it's a good time. When we finally decided to go do DS, we were all basically sick of mobile. It was like, "We can't do this for another year or else we'll go crazy." Luckily we got out of it, so that's good.
Let's talk about why mobile sucks for independent studios, which you hinted at earlier.
Nathan Vella: Yes, mobile sucks for independent studios. Well, mobile excluding iPhone because iPhone, as everybody knows, is actually really awesome for independent studios.
The actual mobile market was... It's basically like if you're a tech shop with a lot of QA, it'd be a great place to start because that's pretty much all it is, but we made a game called Monkey On Your Back that's still one of the better things our studio's ever done, and it's a fucking phenomenal game, in my opinion.
We just got our first ever royalty check off of it. This game was published... and the royalty check was for $12. It was downloaded by like 500 people in the entire world. I honestly think it's a really cool game.
KP: It was the funniest check we ever got.
You should just frame it instead of just cashing it.
NV: Yeah, we totally should. We didn't cash it. It's just sitting on my desk. I think it's kind of crazy because you look at IGF Mobile last year, and there were like two cell phone games on it. All the rest was iPhone, one DS, and one PSP. It's just not like ... We got lucky.
It really helped us as a studio to have a six-month development cycle, small team. Since none of us had development experience beyond mobile, it was good on that front. It's a market driven by people that don't care about video games, so why would you want to make video games for them.
KP: And also, I think on the business end and the consumer end, you’ve got people who don't really play proper video games. So, whether they're playing whatever bullcrap, or something actually good -- they probably wouldn't know the difference. Also, it's practically impossible to make... There's maybe 10 good mobile games in a sea of like seven trillion billion.
The other thing about that's horrendous is that it's hard actually to make good games because you're not just focusing on one game. You're not trying to make one game good. You're making a game, and then you're taking that and porting it to like seven trillion devices. The range of power for those devices is so insanely vast... You have something that's like iPhone quality up here, and then there are things like worse than...
NV: Commodore 64.
KP: It's just the worst shit on Earth. Stuff that like barely has any memory, Can't play a sound or music. Can't play two different buttons at once.
NV: No diagonal movement.
KP: It's ridiculous.
NV: Yeah. 5th Cell came from the mobile background, we came from the mobile background. I know Trip Hawkins with Digital Chocolate, they're moving a ton of stuff into iPhone because all their games, which are some of the good mobile games, made more in two weeks on iPhone than they did on their full tenure on mobile. It just goes a long way to prove that you can't really make money, especially as an independent studio.
KP: The good ideas aren't what are pushing it.
Deck placement is another huge issue.
KP: That's why indies can't do anything there. On iPhone, you can actually just go directly to Apple and work with them and get your thing placed somewhere on their deck, but if you're actually in mobile, there's no way you can get in.
You have to have a publisher that has a relationship with a carrier and blah blah blah. It's this big chain of bullcrap that is impossible to deal with as a small developer unless you have ridiculous hook-ups with some dude at Sprint who drives a Lamborghini.
NV: Yeah. It's funny because when we started the studio, we all wanted to make non-mobile games. Mobile was just kind of our foot in the door. It's really gratifying for us to be able to do Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes with Ubisoft and to do Critter Crunch on PlayStation Network.
Those are games where if somebody else made those games, we would play them, you know what I mean? Coming from where we came, I think we respect it a lot. I think all of the guys that have been there the whole time come into the studio happy now that we know that our games are going to be played by people that can actually discern between utter garbage and something that's kind of cool.