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The Rise Of Capy Games

A chat with the co-founders of the Toronto-based indie (Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, Critter Crunch) about their development style, the local scene, their future, and more.

Capy Games slipped into the consciousness of hardcore gamers with the PlayStation Network release of its puzzle game Critter Crunch. Originally a mobile title, the game burst with color, personality, and humor.

The Toronto, Canada based studio, co-founded by president Nathan Vella and creative director Kris Piotrowski then released its first packaged game, Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, for the Nintendo DS. Both games were critical successes, with Critter Crunch currently resting at 87 on Metacritic, and Clash of Heroes at 86.

Here, Vella and Piotrowski discuss the evolution of the studio from an unknown mobile game developer to an indie with fans, how they pick, choose, and pursue projects, what the support of the Toronto indie scene means to them -- while touching on issues such as pricing, the benefits of polish, and why working on multiple game projects at once is essential for inspiration.

You guys recently announced you're doing your Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes or Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network.

Nathan Vella: We had finally got the game finished on DS. We were waiting for it to come out. We were always thinking about -- after we figured out the core battle concept in the game itself, once we started liking it, we were like, "Okay, well, we're already doing Critter Crunch on PlayStation Network."

We really like the fan base in general. The people who play digital download games, I think in general, are a very cool subsection of the video game-buying public. So it made a lot of sense to us.

Ubisoft was really receptive of it. We'd been talking back and forth about it, and they were just as gung-ho about it as we were, which was really nice. We didn't have to fight to make it happen; it was actually a really cool process. So we actually got to start on it before Clash even came out [on DS].

It's something that we had to do, you know? The idea of having someone else make Clash of Heroes on XBLA and PSN -- take our idea, and go somewhere else with it, and run the risk of it being a shitty XBLA and PSN port... Because I think there are a bunch of shitty XBLA and PSN ports.

Kris Piotrowski: Yeah. The trend tends to be that people kind of quickly upscale and get the game out there. We wanted to give it the Critter Crunch treatment, which is it's not an upscale; it's completely, from top-to-bottom, brand new art, brand new music, and all that kind of stuff. That's something that I don't think we could ever trust anybody else to do. (Laughs)

NV: Fuck no. We had that experience on Critter Crunch: taking cute pixel art with personality and then bringing it up from like teeny-tiny screen to huge HD...

KP: It's not just blurry pixel art.


Critter Crunch

You did such a good job. The art in the PSN version is beautiful.

NV: Thank you. We're a very visual-focused studio. A lot of the guys just started to come from that background, and just, as a company, that's what excites us. So to do the same 2D, HD, hand-animated, fun-time Clash of Heroes version is exactly what was right to do.

KP: Yeah, and it's also something that we're focusing on, too. Right now, it's one of the defining features of the studio -- this expertise in 2D HD stuff. So this gives us kind of another opportunity to work out that muscle, and hopefully we can actually do some more awesome stuff after with even more of the sort of experience that we're going to get from this project. So it makes a lot of sense for us to do it that way, as well.

Before we started the formal interview, you said that Clash of Heroes for DS might be the only boxed product that you guys ever do. Do you really believe that?

NV: As a studio, we've done the "make games for other people" thing. The first three and a half years of Capy was making games for other people, aside from one or two projects, the entire time. But the space that is the easiest to do the ideas we actually want to do, the ideas that we care about, are the digital spaces.

Small teams; smaller budgets; don't need to necessarily go to a publisher -- that's where it's going to happen. That's why I think there's a good chance that we won't have another retail game, because that space is so much more conducive to the types of projects that we love to make as a studio.

I'd love to do another DS title; we've got great tech just sitting there, you know what I mean? But at the same time, the process of getting those retail games made is just so much different, and there's so much extra work involved.

KP: And the benefits aren't always there. You're setting yourself up for something that's significantly more difficult and stressful, and the rewards on almost all levels -- financial, creative, and everything else in between -- are usually not worth it, basically, especially when we've had a taste of developing games for downloadable stuff, and you're missing like 70 percent of the bullshit. It's just not there! (Laughs) Game development is stressful enough, anyway. (Laughs)

NV: For sure. The whole selling things in an actual box... It was such a big professional moment for us, because we all started the studio because we actually just really wanted to make games, and a big part of that is remembering our childhoods, and getting a Super Nintendo and plugging the cartridge in, and keeping the box, and putting it on our wall and that kind of stuff; so having our first and maybe only retail game being on a Nintendo handheld...

KP: Yeah. That's magical.

NV: It is. It is. We were probably more excited about that than people who played the game were excited about playing it. The actual process of developing something like that, for us, was... Only two years ago, it was unfathomable. It didn't make sense. And now, to see a game wrapped in cellophane that has a manual that someone printed and see our little logo -- our teeny-tiny, itty-bitty little logo on the back of the box...


Now, Critter Crunch came out on PSN. How do you feel about its reception? What about sales?

NV: The reception has been awesome. It was better than we even thought. We put the extra effort into Critter Crunch. We could have put it out earlier, less polished, less finished, with less of the features that we had, and sales-wise it might not have affected it very much. But I think that the people who played it and appreciated it appreciated the fact that we made it a tightly polished, complete package.

On the sales side, we all wish it was a giant smash super-hit.

KP: Sure; I'd loooove to be rich.

NV: It hasn't been selling phenomenal, but, compared to a lot of other puzzle games on PSN and XBLA, it's doing all right; we really can't complain at all.

People have been very supportive of the game on internet communities or the press sites or just teeny-tiny little forums or Twitter or whatever. People have just been very vocal about their love for the game. I hope that that's kind of the pinnacle for developers; I hope that that's the main goal.

Sales byproduct is great; it helps you keep going. But if people are talking about the game and evangelizing the game and trying to get their friends to play it, I think that's the best-case scenario for a project. The fact that I think we got that is really, really cool. I think everybody in the studio is super proud of that.

KP: And surprised, too, I think; the reception on the critical end was beyond what we expected. That's done huge things for us in terms of helping us actually establish the studio as something that some people might actually care about -- like a "wonder what they're making next" kind of thing.

There was a whole thing about someone hunting down this prototype for this game called Zombie Tactics that we were just working on the prototype for. The fact that that's something that someone would do now -- someone sleuthed the internet to try to find some extra cool stuff... Two years ago, there would be no reason whatsoever.

NV: Yeah, we're so genuinely amazed that people care.

KP: And they care now because of Critter Crunch and Clash of Heroes. Hopefully, down the line, that'll actually matter more and more, so that's cool.

What do you think about pricing? I know you guys particularly picked Critter Crunch's price-point, and I think the last time I heard something about it was kind of closer to release. Do you have any insight into it? Because it's still a huge question, right?

NV: It is, and it's something that I don't think that we even really know if it worked or if it didn't, necessarily. The big thing for us was that Critter Crunch was a game that we really wanted to make as a studio, but it was also a game that we were very conscious of the fact that it's the first thing that anybody will actually play that our studio has made. We wanted to do everything we could to make sure that as many people as possible could play it.

Flower is a $10 game -- fuck, I'd pay 20 bucks for that. I'd pay a full retail price for that game. There are certain games on digital distribution platforms that are very worthy of that $10, $15 price-point, and I don't know if Critter Crunch provides the same experience that those games do.

KP: It's a beautiful puzzle game; it's not... Let's be honest. It's not Flower. (Laughs)

NV: I think we were very conscious that there are levels of digital download games. I used this in another interview, and I'll use it again because I think it's a good metaphor: It's like meal sizes.

There's appetizer games that are like five dollars. Noby Noby Boy is, I think, a great appetizer. You play it for awhile, and you're immersed; but when you're done you want to play something else. And there's the meal games that are like $10 games: Flower and Castle Crashers and those type of games that you play for a sitting and then go do something else because you've used up your game-playing time.

I think Critter Crunch and games like Shatter, as well, fall in between these two. They're not Flower-type experiences, but they're not little itty-bitty things. We were very conscious about trying to find that middle ground, and it's good that we can do that on PSN.

It's good that we can define a price-point -- that Capy can actually say, "Here's how much our game costs." We talked to Sony a bunch about it, but, in the end, they just kind of said, "Your project. You made it the way you want to make it; you price it the way you want to price it."

KP: Yeah. We would have to have balls of steel to price the game at the level where Braid or Castle Crashers are, because it's not that kind of game.

NV: It isn't. It's like a large appetizer. If you're not really hungry, you can eat that and you might leave some on the plate; but if you're starving, you might want a little bit more after. It's kind of in between.

KP: The next game's going to be in the bigger category.


You mean Clash of Heroes, or you mean your next next game?

NV and KP: Next next game. (Laugh)

NV: Clash of Heroes, Ubisoft will define the price-point, and we'll smile and nod because that's their job and our job is to make it amazing. But our next games... like Sword and Sworcery on iPhone, we get a chance to do what we want to do with pricing there. Heartbeat we'll get a chance to price the way we want to.

Then, the next big project that we're working on -- we're going to be constantly making a bigger game, so we'll definitely adjust and figure out that price-point as well.

The whole price-point thing is just kind of crazy. It's such an interesting part of the video game landscape that we exist in right now where small, independent studios get a chance to define the financial component of their own game.

Well, there was a little shockwave when Adam Saltzman didn't make Canabalt cost a dollar. Like, "Oh! You can do that!" It sounds funny to put it that way, but everyone seems to be really grasping at straws to find what the pattern is.

NV: Totally.

KP: Yeah. I think it's mostly about just being honest about what kind of game you're making, but also I think it's important to make sure you're not devaluing games in general by saying, "Here's my awesome game! It's going to be 99 cents!" That does no good for anybody.

NV: I think overall, pricing is something that comes out of understanding the type of project you're making. We don't have to sit there and do sales forecasting and all this kind of crap. We need to make sure that we make our money back -- hopefully; cross fingers -- but we don't have to be scientific about it. We can just be honest about it.

How do you decide what projects to pursue? You have Heartbeat; you have your "next next game," which will be a big part of your efforts moving forward. But how do you identify big versus small projects? How do you settle on them and make them go?

KP: Actually, I think it's a little bit of an organic process. We sort of just go with the flow, and there's constantly discussion about different games that we'd want to make. We're constantly talking about our next next next next next project.

There's a big, long list at Capy of the games that we eventually want to make, and it's a combination of where the opportunities are coming from and also, I guess, what we just feel like we need to make.

Coming out of Clash of Heroes and Critter Crunch, we cautiously wanted to make two games that were not puzzle games because it's kind of just ended up that way.

You don't want to get pigeon-holed, or you just got bored?

KP: Yeah, exactly; we don't want to be pigeon-holed into "That's the puzzle game studio." So that was part of the motivation for Sword and Sworcery and Heartbeat -- but definitely not the full motivation for them. It's hard to pin down. We get very excited about an idea; we'll just go with that.

NV: We've had ideas that have come out of a meeting where we're like, "Let's pitch an idea" or "Let's get together and talk about ideas," but we've also had ideas come out of having a few beers in a bar and somebody makes a joke and that joke turns into something we actually think could be cool. Or we'll be sitting there, riffing on an idea just for fun at midnight one night, and something will just pop out of Kris's mouth and we'll laugh at it.

I think a lot of ideas that we have come out, at least in some way or another, from our sense of humor, but I think the idea of being able to just have ideas coming constantly so that we do have that list and can say, "Yeah, that idea that we came up with six months ago doesn't seem as appealing now; but this one that we had three years ago or whatever -- what if we did this with it?"

Just making sure that we always know that there's always an open opportunity to pitch an idea for a game... It's so easy to do when you're small and comfortable, when that's just the norm -- that's the culture: to just have ideas.

KP: And a lot of it I think just comes from the kind of games that we actually want to play. That's a big thing, at least for me. Clash of Heroes was one of those things where I wanted to play that game on DS; that's what I wanted to play. That's kind of where it came from. Our next next game is kind of like, what do we want to play on PSN or XBLA? When you log on, what's that one game that you'd love to be playing right now? I really want to play the games that we pursue.


You said, "it's easy when you're small." How small is small?

NV: We're 25; we're not really small small. But I think we're 25 because Clash of Heroes is on two platforms. Even when we're at 25, we're still small, and we still operate as a small studio.

KP: We're big by indie standards, for sure; we're not big by game studio standards. But within Capy, though, there's a bunch of teams that are working on different things at the same time. We generally do maybe three to four projects at once.

NV: One of them is larger, and then we're always like, we'd love to do that. Like Kris was talking about, kind of rolling off Critter Crunch and Clash of Heroes, we'd like these larger-scale projects, but we also need to...

KP: Cleanse the palate.

NV: Yeah. Flex the creative muscle. Also, I think it's an advantage that we have in a way that we can kind of do these longer games combined with these two smaller games so that there's just constantly something percolating.

KP: Yeah. It's good not to have the entire studio locked into one project for two years because that can really drain. Even if you're on a big project and there's a little project happening beside you, it keeps things fresh and good.

NV: I totally think so; I totally think that, even just seeing it happen, the motivation that's come out of Craig's pixels and Jim's music for Sword and Sworcery, on other projects, or just listening in when Kris and Kenneth and Andrew are working on Heartbeat and the music's blaring and people are talking about it -- even though I'm not even working on that project, I'm still inspired by it, and I take stuff away from it. It's been really cool, and I can't wait to do more of that in the future.


Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP

What happened to the "bara" in Capybara?

NV: It's still there! It still exists. So we went through this whole process, and the studio got named, and blah, blah, blah. It ended up being Capybara, and we stuck with it. But we found whenever we were talking to people about it, they either didn't get it or couldn't pronounce it.

KP: It's a tough word. And always internally, almost from day one, we always called the studio "Capy". We ended up just going, "Fuck it. The 'bara' is hard to say."

NV: It was kind of an important thing for us, too, because we had gone through all this mobile stuff as Capybara Games, with this different logo that nobody really loved, but we just kind of had.

The current logo, and the "Capy", came out of us saying, "That part of the studio is over. Now, we need a quirky logo, a logo that we all genuinely love and really we feel actually represents what the studio is." Then the whole "Capy" part was like, that's how we talk about ourselves. We see ourselves as that.

KP: It was like Capybara 2.0. Like, "Okay, guys. We're releasing Critter Crunch on PSN, and we're releasing Clash of Heroes. It's a new era."

NV: We're gonna do collaborations with Superbrothers and Jim Guthrie. We're gonna make two-person games for WiiWare. The studio was something that we didn't want it to be, and we actively changed it.

KP: Yeah, it was a pretty strong course correction. (Makes creaking sound effect) Not that way; this way.

NV: And I think a lot of that came out of seeing local Toronto people like Metanet, when Mare and Raigan did N+, seeing Jon Mak. Being friends with them; having them set this really crazy bar.

We almost felt like, personally, like we'll always be friends with those guys -- they're fantastic people -- but, professionally, having people that are our friends making stuff like that was inspiring. It was like, these guys have proven that what we wish we could do you can actually do, and in most cases it's actually creatively, financially, professionally better.

KP: Yeah. I'd say definitely those guys are a huge motivating factor for us. You can't hang out with your peers when you're making crappy mobile games and they're making Everyday Shooter.

But now you can hang with them!

KP: Now we can hang with them. (Laughs)

NV: It was never a deal with them; they didn't care at all.

KP: But for us, internally, it was like, ugh. They're doing such amazing crap, and we're doing crap crap.

NV: It's just nice to always be with people who take pride in their work.

KP: Yeah, and make awesome stuff.

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