Interview with Nathan Vella of Capy Games, Part 1

Nathan Vella at Gamercamp (photo by Gavin Hay)
Nathan Vella at Gamercamp (photo by Gavin Hay)


We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Nathan Vella, co-founder of Toronto-based game developer Capybara Games. Capybara Games’ Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes for the Nintendo DS was released in Canada yesterday, and their excellent puzzle-game Critter Crunch is available on PlayStation Network.

Will, Nathan, and I met downtown at Capy’s offices—Queasy Games (Everyday Shooter), Spooky Squid (Night of the Cephalopods), and Micheal Todd are all nearby—to talk about Capy, how it got started, and what it’s been like developing games in Toronto.

Lucas: You come from the Ryerson Image Arts programme, which focuses on film and photography. How did you get from there to games?

Nathan: Kris Piotrowski, Tony Chan, and I: the three of us from Image Arts started the company with two other guys who weren’t from Image Arts.

I went to Ryerson because film was the closest thing I could think of to video games. At the time it was, like, ship yourself way the fuck out to Vancouver and go to DigiPen—if you get in, which you won’t. Some of our guys are from game schools, so I’m not knocking them at all, but game schools didn’t really exist, so we went to film school.

At film school I met Kris, our creative director, and we basically just got intoxicated and played video games and talked about making video games. We had a class where you actually could make a video game in Macromedia Director. We managed to make a game, just a simple little puzzle game, and it snowballed from there.

We graduated, went and worked jobs. I was working in television post-production. I actually had started what would resemble a good career, but it was editing shitty Canadian TV which is not the most gratifying. I had to edit women’s fitness shows and the Canadian Country Music Awards. I did edit a cool skateboard show. I used to skateboard so that was, like, the best thing ever, but other than that I didn’t work on that much great stuff.

Chris and I were living together, in a house full of creative people, and we just had a beer one night and said, “We have forgotten what we were trying to do.” So me, and Chris, and Tony packed up the car and drove to San Jose for the Game Developers’ Conference: 52 hours, non-stop, in a rented car.

I had an hour-long discussion with the art director from Rockstar. I was a nobody. I didn’t have a card, I didn’t have anything. I just went up and started talking to him, and he sat there and talked with me for an hour. It opened our eyes wide. So then we said, “Let’s go back and figure this out.”

At the same time, other people were having those same thoughts and it started out on the local IGDA website. There was a forum post called “The Toronto Game Industry” and people came in, there were 30 people on the forum talking about it. It was really a great coming together of a lot of like-minded people from a city full of insanely talented people with nothing to do.

At the time there was Pseudo Interactive, I think Rockstar had just started out in Oakville, but they had fifteen people or something like that. There was nothing. We were all fighting over one job every six months. So we said, “Okay, we could all fight over that one job or we could just start a studio and figure it out.”

Lucas: Do you find that a lot of people at your company come from film background, from programming backgrounds?

Nathan: Well, our programmers, a fair number of them that are Waterloo or U of T grads, and there are some other good schools. That’s where the tech side comes from.

The creative side comes from, well, I think you’re hard pressed to find a more creatively interesting or talented culturally-versed city than Toronto. The city has got an amazing art scene, an amazing music scene, an amazing underground zine, comic-book scene, and all this stuff is so applicable to the world of video games whether people can see it at face value or not. I love that.

We’re young as shit: I think the oldest person is 33. For a lot of our people, this is their first job; definitely their first game-industry job. We only have one or two guys that have ever worked in games before. We just learned as we went.

That’s why making cellphone games was kind of cool, because it was like game school: five-, six-month projects, small team. I think we made some really good cellphone games, but the expectations of quality are not insanely high, so even when we didn’t necessarily nail a game, it still came out better than a lot of stuff on the platform. It really gave us confidence and helped us figure out the process so that when we decided to make the jump to iPhone, DS, and PSN, XBLA, WiiWare, we already had a lot of that worked out.

Lucas: You mentioned GDC and IGDA: the Game Developers’ Conference and the International Game Developers’ Association. Wow, I got my alphabet soup there.

Nathan: That was good.

Lucas: Were the GDC and IGDA helpful for getting started, or were they inspirational? When you went there, did you already know what you were going to be doing, or did you go to get a sense for what you could do?

Nathan: We had no idea what to do. I think that GDC provided us a lot of inspiration but also a lot of understanding, in the sense that we could actually figure it out—somehow. We got that through talking to people, learning how they got into the industry, how a lot of it started by having people with no idea what to do, figuring it out as they went.

For the IGDA, it was an amazing meeting place. At the time, there were a lot of people who wanted to be in games, but there were no options for them in the city. It provided that hub, that jumping off point. We never would have met any other way.

Of the 12 people that we started Capybara with, I only knew two and a half of them. That’s a very small portion of the initial twelve. I think that’s one of the strongest benefits of the IGDA and now also the Hand Eye Society. I haven’t had a chance to go lately, but I love what Jim Munroe is trying to do with it: just get people together. If they’re in the industry, if they’re not, if they’re a one-person studio, super-indie, or if they’re a 23-person studio working with publishers. Just get everybody together and talk about video games.

That’s how the IGDA helped us in the beginning. We started meeting once a week at a bar—at Pauper’s—we’d push picnic tables together, drink beer, and talk about video games. That’s pretty much the best starting point for anything creative.

Will: That sounds familiar.

Nathan: It is. Anything that involves any amount of passion combined with anything creative: just get together and talk about it. It’s the way so much good shit happens.

Lucas: What about the part that isn’t all fun: the actual programming and talking to cell phone providers to get your games on their services?

Nathan: The whole cell phone side of it sucked. I’m extremely happy that we don’t have to deal with that any more. I have no intentions of ever dealing with that again.

I totally respect our roots. I talk a lot of shit about mobile gaming because we’ve been there, we’ve seen it, we’ve watched our studio make great games and yet barely survive. There were a lot of growing pains in there, and a lot of lessons learned the hard way—especially on the business end.

It really proved to us that, in some areas of gaming, quality isn’t the be all and end all. A lot of the best selling iPhone games are shite.

Will: They sell.

Nathan: Yeah, they’re still selling. Whereas, I think, on the DS, PSP, and console downloadable, if your game’s good, even if it’s not selling crazy good it’s still profitable, whether it’s through gaining credibility or community love.

So, even though Critter Crunch‘s sales are not bad, not great, I still consider the game a fucking ginormous success for us, because it reviewed well, it put us on the map, it got us talking with people that really matter. Now, we get people digging up our projects. It means people give a crap about what our studio is doing. It’s a pat on the back.

Lucas: So as far as mobile gaming, it was a good place to learn the ropes.

Nathan: Yeah. The cost of entry was a cell phone. We made two projects part-time. I was editing ten, twelve hours a day, and then coming home and putting in six hours doing art for the game. Everybody else had full-time jobs.

The first real project we did was a game for the movie Cars with Disney. It was like going from zero to sixty, for us. We learned a ton. I think that if you’ve worked in similar industries, whether it’s software or film or television or whatever, you still have to deal with deadlines, you still have to deal with organization, you still have to deal with producing high-quality work under pressure.

It sounds crazy, but there are a ton of other indie studios out there that did the same thing. Cloud, the first game by thatgamecompany, they were kinda learning on their feet. Cloud was awesome to start with, and then to have flOw come right after that, just proves there are a lot of people out there that can pick it up because they’re inherently good at what they do and they’ve got a good idea.

Lucas: It’s interesting that you can have people that come at it from a more creative point of view. I mean, if you look at games that came out even ten or fifteen years ago, they’re much more from a technical point of view.

Nathan: That was programmers-as-designers, right? Nowadays, I think it is different: the respect level and appreciation of interesting design is higher now than it’s ever been. Go back to thatgamecompany. flOwer is a game that, five years ago even, would not have happened. I think we’re at a point where it having something creative really matters.

Critter Crunch, I think, is a great little example of that. At its core, it’s an ode to an old-school arcade-style puzzle game. I think if we had pitched that to Sony five years ago, it would’ve been like “I don’t even know what to do with this. I don’t get it.” But when we showed it to them, they were like “I get it: it’s creative and it’s a little different and it makes total sense.” I think now is a good time.

Will: The distribution methods are already there, so now developers can focus more on the aesthetic concerns.

Nathan: Totally. Gamers are interested in something a little different, and I love it. I think that’s fantastic.

Screenshot of co-op play in Critter Crunch
Screenshot of co-op play in Critter Crunch

Lucas: Speaking of Critter Crunch, that’s a game that was first out for phones, but is now on PSN.

Nathan: Cell phones, to iPhones, to PSN. Which is an ass-backwards way to do it. At the time, we were getting frustrated with just doing license work, because that’s what the mobile space is. Our creative director, Kris, had this idea for a puzzle game that kinda made sense for the mobile platform. So we did it.

It ended up winning the first ever Independent Games Festival Mobile Awards. In the beginning, no carriers would pick it up, but because it won a whole bunch of awards it kinda snowballed from the IGF, some carriers, particularly Verizon in the States—if you want to sell mobile games, Verizon’s the most important one—they decided to pick it up and feature it. So it actually got played by some people.

Publisher X, approached us and said “Hey, do you want to put this on an iPhone? We can get you up for launch.” So we did that, which was kinda cool. I mean, it did really well for us too, it introduced the game to a bunch of other players, but the whole time we were making it we wanted to make it for one of the consoles. We wanted to make it crazy HD.

So when we finally had the currency that we could go to a publisher and say, “okay, we’ve paid our dues in these different areas, here’s this game. What do you think?” We kinda thought they would laugh at us a bit for showing them a cellphone or an iPhone game, but Sony was all about it. They were super supportive, and that’s why the game ended up being on PSN. We wanted someone to back us that actually trusted us a bit… Puzzle games are not the easiest thing to get behind on this platform.

Lucas: You’ve mentioned Dr. Mario and Magical Drop as influences. Are there any other specific influences for Critter Crunch?

Nathan: It’s interesting because when we were first talking about the game, we didn’t actually draw the Magical Drop comparison. I think a lot of people pass off Critter Crunch as closer to Magical Drop than it actually is. At the same time, that game’s bloody awesome, so I don’t mind the comparison.

I respect the crap out of the Pop Caps and Big Fishes and all those super-casuals, but we didn’t want to play them much because we didn’t want to be influenced by them. We wanted Dr. Mario: an old-school arcade puzzler. We wanted to make sure it was fast and quick and super simple to start with but super deep.

That’s what we found in a lot of those older puzzle games. They were exciting, know what I mean? There was always lots of flash and lots of crazy shit where you think you’re dead but you pull something off and all of a sudden you’re back to being okay—and that happens eight times in every level. That’s the biggest inspiration for it.

Will: I started playing the game, I got the basic mechanics, but you kept adding things: new abilities, new things to worry about, new types.

Nathan: I think the power-ups helped a lot in that. Even the multiplayer side, that’s where some of my favourite power-ups are.

Lucas: Critter Crunch has a very cutesy look. Was that something you were worried about, that it wouldn’t catch on?

Nathan: You’re always worried that the same dudes that are giant homophobes on Xbox Live are feeling bad about buying an anime, cutesy, Totoro-style character game. But, at the end of the day, you like it and if you’re passionate about it as a studio, it comes across. I think we got a lot of people playing it that wouldn’t play it had we not pushed it so far, been so passionate about it.

We’re obviously really influenced by the Miyazaki’s and a lot of Japanese stuff. But we were very careful to not move it into the realm of super-Kawaii stuff. We wanted to keep it cute, but still kinda stylized.

Lucas: It has a Japanese look, but it’s also Japanese with its sense of humour and its tight arcade-y game loop. It’s not trying to tell a story, it’s more about what’s going on: immediate and bright flashing lights and vomiting.

Nathan: All of our games have come from—at least in the very beginning—Kris, our creative director. He’s obviously very influenced by a bunch of older Japanese games.

The Neo Geo, and early Nintendo, Super Nintendo, even the Sega stuff, that’s the kinda stuff we grew up on. That’s tough to get away from when it’s that important to you, when it played that big a role in your early experience with video games.

So when we said, “let’s make a game that hearkens back on that arcade puzzle style” it was kinda hard not be influenced, on all fronts, by early Japanese games. It wasn’t necessarily something where we sat down and said “let’s make a Japanese style game on all fronts.”

You play with it a little bit, you figure it out. In a lot of cases, a game like Critter Crunch, a simple loop makes the most sense. I think a lot of puzzle games get over complicated at times. It kinda sucks.

Will: Critter Crunch does get pretty complicated.

Nathan: A lot of our feedback so far is that, at times, it actually does get too complicated. We were a little naïve in how far we could push it. We made it hard, and we wanted to make it hard. We might’ve made it a little bit too hard. That was our intention, and some people don’t dig it, and I totally appreciate that criticism. It is what it is.

Lucas: As it moved from mobile to iPhone to PSN, how did it change? How did your ideas about the design of the puzzle game change?

Nathan: We didn’t really get any feedback from the cell phone version. And the iPhone feedback in the reviews are “Great game. Would buy again. A++” like eBay.

The second we started playing it with a controller, we cut out the analog stick right away. We were like “screw this. It doesn’t feel like an older puzzle game if you can just sit there with an analog stick and slide.” One of the most heavily iterated things in the game is how Biggs moves. We had him running smoothly from column to column. You know the load screen in the bottom right-hand corner? That was actually his run animation for a while.

We knew that the entire experience had to be written with a controller, with a much more hardcore and experienced player in mind. The expectation that we had for players was a lot lower on those other platforms—not that we thought that they were imbeciles. It’s a totally different style of play. It has to take into account the different controls.

Right from the very beginning, we knew that multiplayer was going to be a huge deal. We knew we could do something awesome with versus. We knew we could riff on the Super Puzzle Fighter-style, “fuck your friend” gameplay mode. That’s how we put it.

Lucas: Yeah, that’s why I scream every time Will gets the trip-out mushroom.

Nathan: Ha. Yeah. It’s still rated E for everyone, but that got in somehow.

I think having a co-op mode is interesting too. Tetris Splash on WiiWare has one, but I don’t know that many other puzzle games that have co-op. I think it turned out to be kinda cool. We never meant for it to be this big meaty game mode. We meant for it to be something you could just sit down with your girlfriend and best friend or someone else online and just have a kinda weird, kinda puzzle-ish arcade-y experience.

Lucas: You said, moving from phones to PSN, you got to fill the whole screen and do an HD thing, like you had in mind from the beginning. Did you add things, like the explorer, Hank?

Nathan: Hank is actually our studio mascot. He’s been in every original game we’ve ever done. He’s even in the Ubisoft-published Clash of Heroes game. He’s hidden somewhere.

When we named the studio Capybara, we decided, later on, that it’s a cop out to have a company named after an animal and have that animal be your mascot. It’s so obvious. So we made a dude that was inspired by Tom Selleck. That’s where Hank comes from.

Back when we were doing all the cellphone stuff, we used do our concept art in pixels. We love pixel art as a studio. So at the beginning of Critter Crunch, a lot of it was concepted in pixels. When we decided to bring it to PSN, we just decided it was time to figure it all out.

One of our artists, he just liked doing crazy, off-the-wall sketches. Once we finally got the deal, it started coalescing it into a different style. We had always thought of it in HD, but we never sat down and spent the time to concept it because we were always too busy—until we decided to pitch it to Sony.

Will: Why PSN over XBox Live?

Nathan: It has everything to do with just how cool Sony is with it. I’m not saying Microsoft wasn’t cool, but Sony totally got it, you know? They all understood what we were trying to do with the game, rather than just put another puzzle game up on the server.

They understood we were trying to make a stand-out game, despite the fact the puzzle genre is, in general, not a stand-out genre. I think the last time there was a big stand-out puzzle game was Lumines? Meteos? We really wanted to make a game that could hold itself up to those.

They wanted us to self-publish it, they were cool with us doing PR and just figuring that out as we went, helping us to do it. They gave us bloody screens at E3. That’s crazy. That was huge for us. I can’t understate how important that stuff was.

Will: You just don’t think of that when you think Sony, this big, movie-making corporation.

Nathan: I knew that they got it when they signed Jon Mak (Everyday Shooter) and thatgamecompany. You don’t sign those people if you don’t get it. You don’t get games from people that awesome unless you know what’s going on. In the end, we’ve always said it, it’s an honour to be on that platform.

Lucas: PSN has been called a boutique because it’s all very carefully chosen stuff, and even the stuff that is not necessarily original like Shatter has high production value and a lot of iteration on a known set of mechanics.

Nathan: Shatter is an awesome game, and it’s doing a lot of what Critter Crunch is doing. We’re not trying to make a revolutionary game. Shatter is not revolutionary. It’s trying to do a really solid evolution of something we’re familiar with. And games like that are fun as shit.

I love my revolutionary games, don’t get me wrong. I love stuff that pushes it as far as humanly possible, but I also love games that take something I’m familiar with and twist that knob a little bit in a different direction.

Lucas: How do you guys feel about the audiences you’re getting? It seems that Capy’s games, up until recently, have gone for non-gamer audiences.

Nathan: Even when we were making games for cell phones, we were subconsciously and consciously making games for gamers. The main reason we got the fuck out of mobile was so we could make games for the people we were trying to make games for.

Clash of Heroes and Critter Crunch just ended up having those puzzle influences because that was just something that, for those projects, we were passionate about. Them both being puzzles games was not something we sat down and decided. Some of the stuff we’re working on next has nothing to with any of that.

Adam Saltsman, the guy that did Canabalt, his big thing right now is making casual hardcore games. He wants to make really simple games that appeal to the hardcore. And it’s kinda in line with the stuff that we’re doing.

When I first started out doing pixel art, I used his stuff as reference. Now I consider him a good friend. Totally off topic, but it’s proof how amazing the independent games community is. It’s probably the best part of being in video games right now.

Seeing the successes and talking to those people and learning from their mistakes and successes, all that stuff helped tip us over that line. “You know what, now is the fucking time to do something that we genuinely care about.” I think one of the reasons why Critter Crunch is well received, why people like it, why reviewers like it, why the community generally seems to very positive in its response to it is because we actually gave a shit about it. We really tried to make something awesome. We cared about it, a lot, because we knew a lot was riding on it.

Even the bigger independent games—Castle Crashers, flOwer—those games are so awesome because when you play them you know the people that made them were passionate about them. It’s a lot of what motivates our studio.

Check back later this week for the second part of our interview with Nathan Vella, in which we talk more about Clash of Heroes and the Canadian indie gaming scene.