Drink it in: Small Toronto game developer makes big splashWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s rather appropriate that Toronto-based Drinkbox Studios’ most famous game — the wonderfully entertaining action title “Guacamelee!” — focuses on a protagonist who rises from the dead, imbued with more powers than ever before. In a weird way, that’s the story of the company that created it, as well.
“Drinkbox Studios was formed after the founders were left with no job after their previous company Pseudo Interactive went belly up,” said designer Chris McQuinn in an interview with Toledo Free Press. “At the time there was no other game studio in Toronto offering video game positions, so they decided to start their own studio.”
The resulting company is small — only about a dozen employees appear in the official staff photo. But the work that has resulted from this handful of talented designers is nothing short of extraordinary. Taking old school 2-D side scrolling game design as their jumping off point, the creators at Drinkbox have made a series of games that have garnered them praise and fans around the world.
“Our approach to new titles is a fairly horizontal process initially,” McQuinn said. “All team members are asked to give a little pitch of game ideas they think would be good, then everyone votes on these pitches, and we see which ones are most popular. At that point there is an evaluation for feasibility — and then usually a champion emerges.
“Smaller studios like ours have an easier time taking risks on the types of games that we make versus a larger developer’s. We don’t need to appeal to a mass audience.”
But that doesn’t mean a mass audience won’t take notice if a title is fun and engaging. Such has been the case with Drinkbox’s history. Its first title, “Tales from Space: About a Blob” was released on PlayStation 3 in early 2011. A wickedly fun sidescroller built around the idea of being a monstrous blob that slowly consumed all it touched, the game spawned a spin-off — “Mutant Blobs Attack” — for Sony’s handheld Vita system in 2012.
“I think the challenge of making a protagonist (the Blob) a rolling amorphous multi-treaded object that could absorb objects was an attractive design challenge for some members of the team,” McQuinn said. “The physics behind the movement of the character is actually a bit complicated and required some interesting programming solutions. Apparently programmers like difficult challenges.”
That spirit of tacking the difficult carried over to Drinkbox’s next game, its most famous to date — “Guacamelee!” A Metroid-style sidescroller set in a fanciful world inspired by Mexican luchadors (wrestlers), the game is an amazing example of what can be accomplished by combining classic 2-D mechanics with modern hardware.
“The game mechanics for ‘Guacamelee!’ again came from various members of the studio — each contributing important ideas that ended up meshing together well. The setting for the game came from our animator who grew up in Mexico, and thought that a luchador world would be a great place to tell a story,” McQuinn noted.
Though every game that has emerged from Drinkbox follows a similar aesthetic, that doesn’t mean the team is resting on its laurels — its next game, “Severed,” is a marked departure for the developers. While the game, a role-playing game set in a dream world, maintains the Drinkbox look and feel, it’s clear the style of play and universe are a world apart from either “Tales from Space” or “Guacamelee!”
“I think there is always a risk of starting a new franchise, this is why you see so many movies made as sequels,” McQuinn said. “But in order to keep the creativity going full steam I think it’s important to try new ideas.”
Drinkbox is also putting the finishing touches on the “Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition,” a special re-release of the game on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and Wii U. In addition to seeing release on more platforms, the new version will add more levels and enemies into the existing game.
“Luckily our internal game engine already can deploy ‘Guacamelee!’ for most platforms so it was really a matter of finger adjustments,” McQuinn noted. “The new addition was actually a treat to make — we were able to include a lot of ideas we were forced to originally cut due to time constraints — so the process of putting these back in was a bit vindicating.”
As for the future, McQuinn shunned the idea that Drinkbox will ever become a “big” player in the gaming world — the minds behind the studio seem to be content to remain the size they are now.
“Once a company goes above a certain size you end up spending more time managing than actually making games. We’re pretty happy at our current size and don’t see ourselves getting much bigger.”
Tags: Chris McQuinn, Drinkbox, Drinkbox Studios, Guacamelee, Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition, Mutant Blobs Attack, Pseudo Interactive, Severed, Super Turbo Championship Edition, Tales from Space, Tales from Space: About a Blob, Toronto