Stickability, stress and creative courage: how a small studio finally established itself
Stickability, stress and creative courage: how Toronto’s Drinkbox Studios finally established itself
The founders of Drinkbox Studios admit that it took some time to locate its niche. The Toronto-based indie was born from the ashes of developer Pseudo Interactive, best known for vehicular combat games Cel
Damage and Full Auto and their sequels. In 2008, the Ontario studio was working on several games simultaneously, but when the axe began to fall for Eidos Interactive, its biggest ongoing project was cancelled and it was forced to close its doors. As soon as it became clear that the shutters were about to descend, a team of programmers discussed starting a new company. Ten staffers attended the first meeting. Gradually, that number whittled down to three as the rest dropped out.
“There were a few people that you’d hope to work with because you’d been through some projects with them and you knew what they were made of, so you knew what would happen if things got tough,” Chris Harvey, Drinkbox’s co-founder and technical lead, recalls. Along with producer Graham Smith, the two established the new company while a third potential founder, Ryan MacLean, promised to consider his options during a trip to Japan. “He was playing hard to get!” Smith laughs. Shortly after his return, MacLean agreed to join the others, and Drinkbox was born.
It would be three years, however, before it was in a position to release its first game. With little capital to support it, the fledgling firm had to work on a series of external projects (including
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 and Sound Shapes) to maintain a steady cashflow. This contract work was enough to support three new recruits, all of them from Pseudo Interactive. With a creative lead, an art director and another programmer, Drinkbox had a new team that could start to develop a new game, while the three co-founders concentrated on work-for-hire material. With more work offers coming in, the studio’s desire to express itself creatively was at odds with its need to stay afloat. “In a way, it felt like a pet project or a side project,” Harvey says. “Everybody on the team at one point or another during that period was on work for hire – sometimes there were no programmers on it, sometimes we had a programmer but there was no design work or art – so [development] was just kind of trickling.”
The concept for what would eventually become Tales From Space: About A Blob was the product of a series of group discussions among staff, establishing a studio tradition that survives to this day. This particular conversation took place in Smith’s family room: for the first six months of its existence, Drinkbox was operating from his condo, in an upstairs bedroom Smith had converted to an office. “I distinctly remember sitting on Graham’s couches talking about it,” Harvey tells us. “A lot of ideas got thrown out – one idea was about a blobby monster, and then other people on the team had different ideas. Our art director suggested a B-movie or a cheesy ’60s vibe.” Everyone agreed it should be colourful and light-hearted: a conscious pushback against the trend towards dark and grimy aesthetics in the big-budget games of the time.
After eight months, Drinkbox relocated to the basement of the same building it still occupies. Meanwhile, Sony had shown a strong interest in About A Blob, which was now headed to PlayStation Network as a PS3 exclusive. “We had experience developing on PS3 and Xbox 360 and, at that time, getting on Xbox 360 had become very difficult. With Sony – well, let’s just say they were more open to it.” Keen to eat into the lead Microsoft’s marketplace had established, Sony’s senior producer Rusty Buchert had been seeking more quixotic, inventive fare to showcase on the platform holder’s digital service. “I think Rusty was trying lots of different stuff, because there were all these weird and interesting games that were coming out on PSN at that time,” Harvey explains. “I guess he decided that we would be one of them.”
About A Blob finally launched in February 2011, and was well received, though Smith concedes “there were a lot of things we were unhappy about”. Soon afterwards, Sony told Drinkbox that it was set to release a new portable console within the next 12 months, and the studio sensed an opportunity – not only to gain attention by producing a launch title for a new platform, but also to right the wrongs of its debut. A sequel was the most workable idea within that timeframe, but it still didn’t leave Drinkbox much room for manoeuvre. Keen to avoid the disjointed development that had affected About A Blob, the studio expanded to a dozen staff.
But another idea had simultaneously captured the studio’s imagination. Concept lead Augusto Quijano had produced a one-page pitch sheet for an isometric brawler that would later evolve into Drinkbox’s biggest hit, the luchador-themed Metroidvania Guacamelee. Again, the team was split, with half the studio working on early prototypes for Guacamelee, leaving Mutant
Blobs Attack understaffed for several months. “I think this is true of Chris as well, but about five months before we shipped that game, we both played it, and we both thought it was terrible!” Smith laughs. “We were freaking out.” Harvey sheepishly corroborates the story: “It was September that we played the build, and I just remember my heart sinking. So basically everybody piled on to Mutant Blobs Attack, and I guess the whole energy of everybody working on it together managed to make it work. But it was very stressful. That’s probably part of why, when we were about to release, we weren’t sure how it would be received. Five months before, we’d been thinking, ‘This is going to be a bloodbath!’”
They needn’t have worried. The game received a warm reception, with a review
“WE WEREN’T SURE HOW IT WOULD BE RECEIVED. WE’D BEEN THINKING, ‘THIS IS GOING TO BE A BLOODBATH!’”
“THEY BASICALLY SAID A GAME WITH LUCHADORS HAD RECENTLY GOT TERRIBLE REVIEWS, SO THEY WEREN’T INTERESTED”
average that was beyond the most optimistic internal hopes. “Whenever we get close to the end of a project, one day I’ll come in and say to Graham, ‘What’s our Metacritic?’” Harvey laughs. “I thought, ‘You know what? I think this game can break 80,’” Smith replies. “But that was with my fingers crossed. [The score] was way above what I expected.”
By the time Mutant Blobs Attack launched, Drinkbox already had a vertical slice of
Guacamelee to show to publishers, though no one was biting. Smith recalls one offering a scathing assessment that it looked like a Flash game, while others simply didn’t understand the concept behind the game. “I specifically remember feedback from one publisher – they basically said a game with luchadors had recently got terrible reviews,” Harvey says. “So they weren’t interested in this one.” When former partner Sony came in with an offer from its Pub Fund programme that the founders considered too low, they knew they needed a better pitch. Drinkbox took the game to PAX East in 2012 for an early public showing, and the audience response was glowing. “A lot of people were interested in talking to us after that,” Smith grins.
A cash injection from the Canada Media Fund together with an improved offer from Sony meant Drinkbox could self-publish for the first time. It was a landmark moment for a studio that had previously been forced to keep one eye on the balance sheet. “For the first couple of projects, we were constantly asking, ‘What is our minimum return at the end of this? What can we do to maximise that minimum return, just to survive?’” Harvey says. “The number-one fear was that we’ll put too much money into a game, it won’t do well, and then the company will be gone. Our general feeling was backed up by other people we talked to – that it’s important to keep kicking that can, and put yourself in a position where you can survive project to project in the hopes that eventually you’ll start to figure it out, and things will start to turn profitable.”
Guacamelee was a hit, and an enhanced version – the Super Turbo Championship Edition – arrived on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Xbox 360 and Wii U the following year, before work began on what Harvey says was Drinkbox’s toughest project since its debut. Severed was another Augusto Quijano proposal, and was originally devised as a relatively short palate cleanser. “It was supposed to take maybe ten months, with part of the team, while the rest worked on preparing the next project,” Harvey explains. “That didn’t happen.” In fact, development of Severed took more than twice as long as the original plan. A demo, showcased at Sony’s PlayStation Experience in 2014, was greeted positively, but expanding a 15–20-minute slice into a six-hour game while avoiding repetition was proving troublesome. “It felt too much like the original Punch-Out, where if you figure out the attack pattern, you’re done with that guy. But in our game you were going to end up fighting that [enemy] around 50 times. And you don’t want to fight Glass Joe 50 times!”
Unwilling to break the bank for a single game, Harvey admits that some difficult conversations took place: “We were so stressed about the state of the project and kept asking ourselves, ‘What if we just tied it up and shipped it in a month or two from now?’” But the desire to maintain the studio’s reputation meant Severed was pushed back to accommodate extensive tuning to the flow of combat, and a few new monster variants. A few negative reviews acknowledged the problems Smith admits still concerned him when the game shipped, but others rated it as the studio’s best game to date.
Its mournful tone might set Severed apart from its predecessors, but it has one thing in common with previous Drinkbox games: its completion stats are further proof of the developer’s ability to hold the attention of its players to the bitter end. “One of the reasons Severed’s development took so long is that we try to make sure that we’re never retreading the same ground in our games,” Smith says. “I think as a side effect of that we’re able to keep players around for longer.” Harvey, meanwhile, believes the secret lies in “moments of delight – where the player knows to expect a certain thing, and it’s at that moment that the designer flips it around on them”.
The studio’s keenness to maintain the high standards it has set for itself may have occasionally taken a toll. Still, as anyone who’s conquered the formidably tough El Infierno levels of Guacamelee will doubtless verify, Drinkbox Studios is a developer that clearly relishes a challenge. The kind of determination and perseverance players must demonstrate in mastering its games is deeply embedded in the studio’s DNA. It’s that very tenacity that’s enabled it to survive – and, more recently, to prosper – in an unpredictable and competitive market.
FROM LEFT Drinkbox co-founders Graham Smith, Ryan MacLean and Chris Harvey
Smith: “Fledgling studios have to offer something different, [otherwise] it’s hard to get people talking about your game”
“If you ask different people at the studio they’ll each give you different answers for which game [of ours] they want to revisit!” Smith laughs. The Drinkbox co-founder suggests Switch could be a potential outlet: “It’s a console that’s well suited to the kind of games we make”