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Postmortem: DrinkBox Studios' Guacamelee!
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Postmortem: DrinkBox Studios' Guacamelee!

September 23, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

In the fall of 2010 as our first game, Tales From Space: About a Blob, neared completion, we started talking about new game ideas. Prior to creating About a Blob, DrinkBox Studios did primarily contract game development work to get the company up and running. Nearly three years later we were finishing our first internally developed game and while there was a lot to be proud of, there were some mistakes we didn't want to repeat. With that in mind we had a number of high-level goals for our next project:

  • A game with immediate appeal. People must "get it" right away and be excited about the concept
  • A setting and style more grown-up and hardcore gamer-centric, but that still stood out as unique
  • A clear vision for the gameplay and overall game design that was well-defined before we entered full production

Fast-forwarding to April 2013, we believe we accomplished our goals with Guacamelee!. When Guacamelee! was released on PSN it became the top downloaded game for both PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita for the month of April, including both retail and download-only games in both the Americas and Europe. Along the way Guacamelee! was nominated at IndieCade and the IGF, and received recognition at PAX East, PAX Prime, and E3.

This success was a huge relief at the end of a long road, but while the results were great the development wasn't without its hiccups.

What Went Right

1. Game Design Vision

During development of our first game, Tales From Space: About a Blob, we struggled to define a clear vision for the gameplay. Was it a platformer or a puzzle game? What was the game really about and how should levels be structured around that? We thought we'd figured out answers by the end of development, but that process took the duration of the project and as a result wasn't fully reflected in the final game. For our next project, we didn't want to repeat that mistake.

Guacamelee! was born out of team pitch sessions that started taking place in the fall of 2010. We spent a lot of time talking about the kind of project we thought would work well for the team and discussed the high-level mistakes we felt we'd made with our first game.

Early concept images for Guacamelee!

Once we developed a sense of the kind of game we wanted to create, we asked everyone to put together single-page pitches for each of their own ideas. Guacamelee! was initially proposed as a pure brawler by our concept artist Augusto Quijano, who was originally from Mexico. We gradually combined other gameplay mechanics, including attack moves doubling as locomotion, overlapping parallel worlds and a Metroidvania structure.

Adding these elements to the brawler concept created a debate about whether too much was being combined. We wanted to ensure the game stood out, but at the same time we were concerned about spreading ourselves too thin over multiple ideas, or possibly basing the game around a mechanic that didn't work. We spent a lot of time on our previous title trying to get the basic mechanics to work together, and that struggle hurt the final product because it limited the time we had for refinement and polish.

In this case we concluded that the different mechanics for Guacamelee! were interesting and complemented each other within the Mexican theme, so we tentatively decided to use them all. However, in light of our concerns we decided to be cautious and avoid committing to making the game until we knew it would really work. One of the first things we did was create a concept video in Flash.

Concept video

This concept video was one of the most useful things we did for the project. It helped us quickly visualize the world and let us develop a concept for the combat system. We came up with the basic attacks (dash, uppercut, slam and throw) through this process and explored how they would be used for both combat and platforming. It's striking to look back at the video and see how closely it matches the final gameplay, but with a few key differences.

We followed up the video with two incremental demos. The first was a combat demo that let us explore how combat would work, how wrestling moves might fit in, and let us experience the special moves as both attacks and locomotion.

First combat demo

Our next demo added in a free form, dimension-swapping mechanic, simplified the basic combat moves, and was built as a vertical slice. By this point, all the key mechanics of the game had been developed and proven to work.

Trailer after vertical slice

Although questions remained, the game was well defined. This was accomplished using a small group and rapid prototyping, with the freedom for people to try different things. We considered this a major accomplishment in the context of our previous title and it gave us the confidence to move into the full production of the game.

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Dane MacMahon
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Thanks for the article. I hope you found success in sales.

On the exclusivity thing I have to say even as a PC only gamer it doesn't bother me at all if a game has a short exclusivity window in exchange for promotion which helps it succeed. I've got plenty of other stuff to play while your game is not on my platform. However I have to admit, it makes me less likely to purchase day one when it does come out. Once I ignore that early PR and hype to wait for my platform to receive the game you lose that same PR and hype drive to purchase when the game does go on sale. This leads to "wait for a sale" behavior, which I have to admit is where I am with your game.

Not saying everyone is like that, just food for thought.

P.S. Thanks for releasing on GOG. I know their sales are much lower than Steam but many of us appreciate having the DRM free option.

Josh Bowman
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I don't think i ever consciously thought about it quite like that, but you're absolutely right. It not a matter of feeling insulted (like a vocal minority gamers do when they don't get the same release date as other platforms) but of forgetting about what games I should to be excited about.

Thomas Happ
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Awesome in-depth article. You probably can't disclose your budget, right? Anyway, I hope to see more from you guys. :)

Rob Kay
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Thanks for both a revealing postmortem and truly fantastic game! I found Guacamole combat, level design, and theming inspirational, and look forward to whatever DrinkBox does next.

Justin Leeper
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I played through Guacamelee a few months back, getting 100% of in-game items.
I was not a huge fan of the art style, though I appreciate doing something less common. Maybe living in LA, I see that Dia de los Muertos aesthetic too often. Perhaps characters could have used more frames of animation, too; there was no slow movement for the main character.
There were certainly tough patches. The thing is, most of them were on optional content. Only once or twice did I really get frustrated. For a dozen-hour experience, that's fine.
References to other games aren't the tickler they used to be, but I enjoyed that they were in the context of the world.
I haven't reviewed games professionally for about 6 years, but I'd probably rate Guacamelee a 4 out of 5. I certainly had fun and was motivated to see/do everything. It wasn't magical, but was very solid - perhaps a hair below Dust, which to me had a better story and writing. But the world definitely needs more good, true Metroidvania titles.

John Wise
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My sons and I enjoyed the heck out of the memes scattered throughout. They were subtle enough to blend in until one of us pointed it out, and then we were all searching for them afterward :)