This isn’t Chris Harvey’s first time in the ring. For the DrinkBox Studios co-founder, leading a development house that represents one of Toronto’s most successful independent games studios, a third-round takedown may be just around the corner.
After two PlayStation successes with Tales From Space: About a Blob! and Mutant Blobs Attack!, Harvey and DrinkBox are powering up with Guacamelee!, a side-scrolling adventure-brawler inspired by Mexican wrestling and folklore.
A critical hit at E3 and PAX Prime 2012 with best-of-show praise from Destructoid, IGN and GameTrailers, Guacamelee! has gamers expecting a knockout from the DrinkBox team.
Indeed, it’s Harvey and Guacamelee!’s second year at Gamercamp, the annual Toronto game festival that took place at Victoria College earlier this month. It’s also far from Harvey’s first time at the University of Toronto — he attended Victoria College as an undergrad in mechanical engineering. “Yeah, it’s really weird being back here,” he laughs, moments after giving his Gamercamp talk to a packed crowd at Isabel Bader Theatre.
This year, DrinkBox is presenting a freshly chopped Guacamelee!, replete with subtle improvements to its recipe.
“It has improved a lot and a lot of things have been added,” says Harvey. “But I think the core is basically the same as when we started it in spring 2011.” Since its founding in 2008, DrinkBox has evolved into an organized and efficient team — as Harvey described in detail in his Gamercamp talk — with a focus on designing critical elements of games early on.
“That has been our specific goal; don’t leave any of the risks until later on, and make sure all the key elements are in,” continued Harvey. Such key elements are centered around the “Metroidvania” genre on which Guacamelee! is based, with a large open-world map, fluid movement, hidden puzzles and an action-adventure feel.
A new game in a new genre means new challenges, including balancing the combat and exploration. “The combat system was originally very complex,” said Harvey. “In the original demo, we had blocking, which was taken out and replaced with more of a parrying system which kept the pace up.”
But with two successful Blob-based game successes behind them, why step up to a new challenge?
“Part of it is that the team is just bored. We made two Blob games and it’s like, ‘Enough with the Blobs! Let’s move onto something else.’”
Luchadores – a type of Mexican wrestler – and South American culture in general represent a territory that is rich in creative, colourful expression. But it’s also one that’s rarely been explored to much effect in games, beyond stereotyped luchador fighters in the Tekken or Street Fighter series, or the Day of the Dead theme in the classic adventure game Grim Fandango.
“I think we were taking a calculated risk,” said Harvey. “But Latin American players we’ve talked to feel that the game has a genuineness to it and that makes me really happy.”
It doesn’t hurt that the concept of Guacamelee! was actually conceived by a DrinkBox artist who originally hails from Mexico.
“If we didn’t have him, we would never have themed it this way. There’s the risk of offending, but also on the surface, luchadores in the US and in Canada are considered more comedic, less serious. When [the artist] talked about it, you could tell that it was a serious subject — very serious.”
Involving an artist — rather than a strict game designer — in brainstorming the entire concept of the game is part of what makes DrinkBox work so well as a studio. For his Gamercamp talk, Harvey detailed a three-part cycle that DrinkBox uses to organize its game design.
“Open” design is where all members of the team contribute and explore new and interesting ideas. This is followed by “closed” production, where team members concentrate on meeting design milestones and stick to a strict pipeline. The third, reflective stage, is where the team playtests, reconsiders, and re-approaches design decisions from new perspectives.
“It’s really about organization, and respecting different parts of the process,” says Harvey of this system. “And especially respecting the exploration side.”
Respect is a vital component of how the DrinkBox team works together, explains Harvey. If one team member is in love with a particular idea for a game, the rest of the team will do their best to see that it makes it through. Guacamelee!’s two-player co-op was one such feature that a certain team member was adamant should be included.
“We all have different personalities, and one of the things that’s changed over time is that we make decisions really slowly now, whereas before we used to make decisions really fast,” says Harvey. “That’s just paid off — we’ve rarely been bitten by making decisions slowly.”
Vividly drawn, oozing with charm and with a technically impressive mixture of complementary game design elements, Guacamelee! certainly appears to have benefited from DrinkBox’s unique production philosophy.
Guacamelee! is due for release on the Playstation Network in early 2013.