February 2, 2008 4:00 PM | Simon Carless
[Here's another interview with an IGF Mobile finalist - and when people complain about cellphone games being a bucket of suck, they do a great dis-service to folks like Capybara, who are making some great titles - and, yes, are coming to DS, XBLA, PSP and Wii-type devices soon, they are threatening.]
As part of its "Road to the IGF Mobile" feature, Games On Deck's Mathew Kumar talks to Capybara Games' Matt Repetski, Sean Lohrisch, and Kris Piotrowski about the IGF Mobile 2008 Best Game, Achievement in Art and Audio Achievement finalist Critter Crunch, an original mobile puzzle game with a unique "food-chain"-based puzzle mechanic.
What kind of background do you have in the game industry or in making games?
Capybara Games: We didn't have much industry background before starting Capybara in 2003. At that time, there wasn't much opportunity for breaking into the games industry in Toronto, but it was pretty clear that there were a lot of talented folks around. Many of them seemed to be posting (and ranting) on our local IGDA chapters' web forum. Out of the forums and IGDA chapter meetings sprang a group of around 25 people who met up every week to discuss what kind of games we wanted to make, while figuring out an actual plan for making them. Over time, people came and left until we'd shrunk down to a svelte 13 who decided to officially form a studio. We eventually settled on Capybara as the studio name, which in case you don't know, is essentially a giant South American guinea pig.
We chose mobile because it was an emerging market, and was a very practical place to start, especially since we were unfunded. With a PC, a cell phone or two and some free development software, we were able to begin. On top of that, the inherent limitations of the platform forced us to be ruthlessly focused in our game design. We didn't want to fall into the cliché startup pit, which is to just start working on the craziest, biggest idea you can think of and hope to God that you can eventually finish it while working part-time.
For the next two years we kept our day jobs and worked like crazy on our first two games. We held weekly meetings at a local pub to polish our ideas and work on Super Shove It! (published by Starwave, and available on carriers now!) and S.M.A.B.U.: Earth Wars (hidden in our secret vaults).
We headed out to the GDC and started showing off our 2-game portfolio which was printed in color and everything. We got Disney's attention and they took a chance on us to develop a racing adventure game based on Disney-Pixar's Cars (thank you, Disney!). Fast-forward to 2008, we're a bustling studio with 24 employees and 11 titles under our belt. Now our walls are lined with some glorious awards and we eat gold sandwiches for breakfast. Just kidding, gold isn't edible.
What motivated you to make your game?
CG: As mobile game developers we felt it was our responsibility to hold a mirror up to society. We felt that the current North American obesity epidemic was a topic that has been all but ignored since Pac-Man. We decided to make a game that could be viewed as an analogy for that issue... and hopefully lead to greater awareness.
Another important thing that motivated us was that we really wanted to create a game that would make us a great deal of money. We took a moment to dream up a sure-fire context which everyone would find appealing, and we found that literally all of us knew people that ate food. In fact, we could not find a single person that did not eat! So we eventually arrived at a really powerful equation: Casual Puzzle Game + Food = Money in the Bank.
Where did you draw inspiration from in its design and implementation?
CG: After having locked down the game's raison d'être the next step was to make sure that it was incredibly fun, super addictive, and unique enough to stand out in the crowded puzzle genre. The food-chain puzzle mechanic was inspired by our grade-nine understanding of biology, though our Creative Director, Kris, claims that the idea was actually based on the lyrics to a song he made up in the shower one day.
For art inspiration, we then spent six weeks googling variations on the words "cute", "monster", "Japan" and "eating." Initially, the search wielded some really disgusting filth, which almost made us quit. Thankfully we persevered and our lead artist Vic created the amazing characters, animations and the overall "feel", while background artist Dave (aka "Tish") created the lush environments.
What sort of development tools have you been using in the production of your game?
CG: To get our designers up and running, we developed a custom level editor which allowed us to create levels for the various game modes. We also have a really great art pipeline that was developed in-house and which helps our artists be super-efficient when cramming the game full of eye-popping visuals. Kenneth, one of the programmers on the project (and creator of Max Payne Kung Fu!), developed a library of amazing procedural effects using what can only be referred to as "mathemagic." We have also developed an in-house J2ME-to-BREW porting tool to help automate a lot of the BREW porting process. Aside from that, we used Word, Excel and Thunderbird for our documents and emails.
What do you think the most interesting element of the game is?
CG: Well, we definitely feel that the puzzle mechanic and creature types make Critter Crunch really stand out, but one thing that we found really interesting was how playing the game for excessive periods of time really had an effect on the player's perception of reality. Everyone knows what happens when you play Tetris for 14 hours straight and then go out into the real world; you get the weird sensation that your brain is still trying to reorganize objects into little boxes and rotate stuff and form lines. It really messes you up but for just little while, you're not playing Tetris anymore... you ARE Tetris. Same with Critter Crunch.
We're also pretty proud of the way that the core gameplay leads to two almost totally different games. The Adventure mode is about quick reactions and fast feeding. The Puzzle mode is all about efficient thinking and figuring out the weird ways that the mechanics can interact. Even in the office, we're divided into two viciously feuding camps about which is the better mode.
How long have you been developing your game, and what has the process been like?
CG: We spent about a month putting together a prototype before shopping it around and getting the green light for full production. It took around 6 months for a team of 5 to finish the game across the J2ME and Brew handset lists.
Because we were developing a new type of puzzle mechanic, the game required a lot of iteration on the rules and gameplay. Thankfully, our programmers had the foresight to put in quite a few handy switches that could turn different rules on and off while testing. Being able to try a lot of different gameplay configurations really helped us zero in on the best combination, and for the most part, the development was a really fun experience.
If you had to rewind to the start of the project, is there anything that you'd do differently?
CG: We'd liked to have been able to prototype the food chain mechanic with actual magical creatures, but, unfortunately, the combination of creature types and power foods do not exist in nature.
What are your thoughts on the state of independent game development in the mobile industry, and are any other independent mobile games out now that you admire?
CG: The mobile industry has been great to us; it allowed us to get our feet in the door and we've been fortunate enough to work on a lot of really great titles. That being said, it is difficult to be a studio focused on original titles when the industry is presently driven by either recognizable brands or knock-off titles. While we're going to keep making mobile games, we've also decided to move our studio towards platforms like the DS, PSN, XBLA, and PSP.
We really admire all of the IGF Mobile finalists' games - making quality original mobile titles gets our respect. We also admire the work of French studio DeValley (really tasty sprite art) as well as 5th Cell, who have been able to make great original mobile and DS titles.
Outside of mobile, we have to give a "shout out" to our local indie game pals Mare and Raigan over at Metanet and Jon AKA Queasy Games. Also, Jim Munroe is cool because he started the Artsy Game Incubator in Toronto.
You have 30 seconds left to live and you must tell the mobile game business something very important. What is it?
CG: Track down my killer and avenge me!!! AVENNNNNNGE MEEEE!!!!!!!