Stu­dio Pro­file

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



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”

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