DrinkBox Co-Founder Talks ‘Guacamelee!,’ ‘Mutant Blobs,’ And Being An Indie Dev

Last week, the release of “Guacamelee!” helped to reinforce what kind of quality work can come out of Canadian, indie developer DrinkBox Studios. “Guacamelee!” marked the third major console release for the studio, and the first to not star a mutant blob. Deeply influenced by classic games from the 8 and 16-bit eras, “Guacamelee!” was clearly a labor of love for the small studio, which is headed up by Co-Founder Chris Harvey. To celebrate the launch of such an epic game, Mr. Harvey gave us some insight into the development of the game, as well as what it means to be an indie developer in today’s gaming world.

MTV Multiplayer: How has the indie development community’s support contributed to the creative process for “Guacamelee!”?

Chris Harvey: The indie development community talks a lot – people are always providing advice or insight into their own process. Things like the Indie MegaBooth at PAX have created these interesting gatherings of indie developers showing their newest work that give everybody a chance to reflect on how they do things. I think for us, being part of that community has really helped reinforce the need for a clear and unique vision in the games we make, and has convinced us that refining the elements of our games is more important than the number of features.

Multiplayer: How did the success of “Mutant Blobs” effect your perspective on the PlayStation Network as a viable venue for releases?

Harvey: The Vita has been a great success story for a number of independent developers, including us. For small developers who aren’t pushing the PS3 hardware to the absolute limit, it’s now possible to ship basically the same game for both PS3 and Vita through PSN. It might seem like a small thing, but actually it’s a big deal. There’s a lot of overhead associated with getting your game on a particular device and into a particular store, and the fact that PSN has two devices that indie games can be successful on is a big bonus. It makes us view PSN as a strong channel for releasing games.

Multiplayer: How did the development of “Guacamelee!” differ from the “Mutant Blobs” games?

Harvey: One thing is that during the “Blob” games the team was doing a lot of work on other projects in order to make ends meet. That kind of work gives you a lot of insight and experience with game development, but as far as making your own game it’s a major distraction. We did many fewer external projects during “Guacamelee!” and it helped keep things focused.

We were also starting from a much stronger game engine position with “Guacamelee!”. With the “Blob” games we were creating the game engine from scratch as we made them. With “Guacamelee!” we felt we were at a good starting point for the platforming, which let us explore other things in more detail, such as combat.

Multiplayer: There are a lot of inside jokes and (not so) hidden homages to classic games in “Guacamelee!,” where did that idea come from, and which is your favorite?

Harvey: Our art director is the source of that idea. It’s something he’s done in all our games up to this point. We try and let people on the team have a certain amount of free rein to try things on their own, and this is something he came up with. Since then of course other people on the team have gotten involved with suggesting ideas.

My personal favorite references are the “Journey” reference late in the game and the Mega Man reference made out of bricks in the second town.

Multiplayer: Why Luchadors?

Harvey: The original concept for the game was suggested by one of the team’s artists, who is originally from Mexico. He had this idea for a Luchador themed brawler with crazy colours and over the top moves. He had all these pictures of Mexican folk art mixed with Luchadors in business suits, and the whole team got attached to it immediately. After all, Luchadors are bizarre, strange, and crazy, but also awesome.

Multiplayer: How did you come up with the eclectic cast of characters that Juan interacts with throughout the game?

Harvey: Some of the characters are part of Mexican folklore, like Xtabay or the Chupacabra. Others are inspired by Mexican folk-art, like the giant Alibrije. But there are also a lot of elements in the game that came through random group discussion. We often have review meetings that go a little off-track. People will start throwing around ideas and making jokes. It’s often just the group having some fun, but sometimes neat ideas come out of the fooling around. For example, Flame Face is a joke character that ended up becoming a boss in the game.

Multiplayer: Have the IndieCade and IGF honors put more pressure on the game since they were bestowed prerelease?

Harvey: Strangely no, not really. If anything they might have relieved pressure. Those nominations provided positive feedback that we were doing something right, and they were really helpful in creating awareness for the game. I think we’ve submitted to the IGF nearly every year of our company’s existence, and often received rather negative feedback from judges—including on “Mutant Blobs” just a few months before it was released. So I take the attitude that we submit to the competitions in order to set goals for ourselves, with the off-chance of a nomination coming out of it. As a result, the nominations are really a bonus, something awesome and unexpected.

Multiplayer: How do you balance the game’s humor with its story?

Harvey: In many ways the game is homage to the 16-bit games from our youth. That’s the story’s starting point—the awareness that this is an old-school inspired game—and provides the underlying template. At the same time, Augusto, who initially proposed the game, had a number of story elements and themes he thought were interesting and important for creating a texture to the world. I think we tried to use those elements, like when Juan recalls being bullied, or when we learn the origin of Calaca, to help give the player some attachment to the characters, but at the same time kept general conversations and interactions light and self-aware.

Multiplayer: 2D sidescrollers seem to be making a comeback – how does “Guacamelee!” stand out in this increasingly crowded market?

Harvey: First, I think stylistically “Guacamelee!” stands out. We really wanted to try and do something visually unique with the game, in a novel setting, and I think we accomplished that.

Second, the game is very combat-oriented, which I hope separates it. It’s a platformer, but also a brawler. I think the complexity of the combat and the challenge of the platforming is an uncommon combination, especially because of how the combat moves are used as part of platforming challenges.

Multiplayer: “Guacamelee!” has been described as a “Metroidvania” style game – Do you think that’s a fair assessment?

Harvey: Well, maybe I shouldn’t say this because we’ve been using the term Metroidvania in our description, but personally I think “Guacamelee!” is more like a “Zelda” game in many ways. Like “Zelda,” the game has open areas and towns with a number of dungeons or temples that you complete in a specific order. Plus, like “Zelda,” the game is guided by a story that keeps driving you to the next location. The sidescrolling platforming is certainly Metroidvania, but the structure of the game is more “Zelda”-like.

Multiplayer: Why wasn’t it called “Enchilaventure”?

Harvey: Hmmm… we may have to put that question into our post-mortem. When the concept for the game was suggested, the name “Guacamelee!” was part of the proposal. It seemed to fit so well that we never looked back.

Multiplayer: Do you have any advice for indie developers looking to make a splash with their games?

Harvey: Here are a couple of things that I think have worked for us, or we’ve seen work for other indie developers:

First, quality is more important that quantity. I suppose that’s true of all games to some degree, but it’s especially true of small scope games. People will always complain about short length, but filler content is much worse. I think AAA games get away with a lot more filler content because the production value is so high—it’s just a pleasure to walk around many of these games. Indie games don’t have that luxury.

Second, don’t hide your game. Get it out there in competitions and shows, even early on in development. Public showings help create awareness for your game, and that’s something indie developers desperately need. Since small developers aren’t really in a position to pay for advertising, a slow build-up of awareness is really valuable.

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