Interview with Nathan Vella of Capy Games, Part 2

Capy's recent release, Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes
Capy's recent release, Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes

In the second part of our interview with Nathan Vella (be sure to read part 1), president of Toronto’s Capybara Games, we talk about game publishers and Ubisoft’s new Toronto studio, as well as independent game development in Ontario.

Lucas: You’ve seen Capybara Games move away from mobile games and licensed work to larger and more creative projects for hardcore gamers. How does Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes fit in? That’s a big series with a lot of history and it’s on the DS, a small system.

Nathan: Well, I mean, I think the DS is a hardcore gaming system. I think the people that play them are, in general, much more game-versed than any other platform we’ve developed for prior to that, comparable to PSN and Xbox Live Arcade. I think both Critter Crunch and Clash of Heroes in a way are games built for gamers that, fortunately, are accessible enough that non-gamers can pick them up.

The Might & Magic thing was interesting. With Clash of Heroes, we started with the battle system. We sat playing with a grid and coloured coins and figured stuff out with pen and paper. We made a board game in order to figure the game out.

We pitched the battle system to Ubisoft, and we spent so much time trying to figure out the battle system that we sort of poopooed the story. We just wrapped the battle system in some typical whatever. Ubisoft had been trying to bring Might & Magic to DS. They’d tried two or three times, but nothing was sticking. So they asked us what we thought of turning the game into a Might & Magic game, using the universe, using the history and the lore that they’ve built up.

We didn’t see it as a sacrifice in the slightest. It’s Capybara design, written and created by us, but we got to put it in a world that had some video game history to it. In the end, I consider Clash of Heroes a Capy game.

Will: What was it like working with Ubisoft?

Ubisoft was surprisingly cool. It’s not easy to develop for the DS. We had to figure it all out, and Ubisoft gave us the space to design and iterate on a concept that had no precedent. There was no game to draw similarities to.

You know, developers love to talk shit about publishers. It’s fun, and it’s true in a lot of cases. But we’ve been lucky with Ubisoft and the team in France we worked with. They were super cool. They understood the process, they understood the difficulties that we were going to go through in making something different and they helped us. It was the same thing with Sony. We must have a giant horseshoe up our ass because we’ve been lucky.

Don’t get me wrong, we’ve eaten tons of garbage from publishers in the past. But, on the games that matter the most to our studio, we’ve been lucky to have publishers that have supported us. They saw what we wanted to do, and gave us creative freedom to make our own game.

Will: What kind of effect do you think Ubisoft Toronto is going to have on the Toronto game-development scene?

Nathan: The canned answer is: game development in Toronto, of any form, is good. Period. It’s more people staying in the city, making video games, whether they’re there for big-ass 800-person studios, or doing it all by themselves like Michael Todd and the various other guys that are working solo. It’s awesome. It’s good.

I think that it’s going to be a bit disruptive in the beginning. I am afraid of some of our potential candidates being picked up, because there’s no way in hell we’re going to be able to pay them the same thing that Ubisoft is going to pay them.

We’ve been very lucky that we’ve had a very indie-focused city with no major publisher. Koei’s probably the biggest here, and they’re seventy-people or something like that. That’s in the city, and outside there’s Rockstar in Oakville. There’s not a lot of big stuff going on here, so we’re working in a bubble.

We didn’t have to worry that much about big studio stuff in the past, but now that they’re here, it makes Toronto a normal business ecosystem where there’s giant rich motherfuckers that small poor motherfuckers will have to compete with. It’s just the way of the world.

I also think there’s going to be this suck-in: Ubisoft is going to inhale lots of talented people, and then when they let their breath out, some people are not going to like big studio life. If they don’t, Capy is probably down the street, Queasy games is not far away, same goes for Drinkbox. There are tons of opportunities—or they could just start something of their own.

That’s what I think is going to be the interesting part: seeing who gets spat out. If you look at the guys like Phil Fish, who used to work for A2M, now he’s at Polytron and they’re making one of what will be one of next year’s coolest fucking games: Fez.

Nathan Vella of Capybara Games
Nathan Vella of Capybara Games

Lucas: To what extent do you see Capy being part of an indie scene?

Nathan: Every day we’re in it. A lot of indie game makers, from the small guys all the way up to the most world-famous, are really cool people and they’re very supportive. I think that all we can do is be thankful that we know these people, and try to help them out wherever we can.

I think that just knowing other game makers is good. There’s a lot of love in this city: Metanet, Queasy, DrinkBox, Spooky Squid, and Little Guy—there’s a trillion of them. Expanding outwards, Fez is in Montreal and Infinite Ammo is in Winnipeg, and there are a lot of guys in Vancouver. Canada-wide and industry-wide there are just so many good people, people that give a shit.

That’s where I think Capy fits in that whole scene, another one of those guys in there trying to do something good and giving a shit. We’re really trying to make stuff that we’re proud of and games that we’re passionate about, rather than make someone else’s games.

If we end up some day being one of those marquee guys, cool. That’d be fantastic.

Lucas: So, does Capy have a manifesto?

Nathan: Not really no. I’m not necessarily as worried about defining what we are, and more interested in having our studio associated with cool, creative and different games. So, really when it comes down to it: we like jokes, we like creative weird shit. Those are the things that motivate our studio.

We’re just trying to make games that we give a shit about. We’ve done games that we don’t care about. It’s not fun, and it’s not why we started the studio. We’re at the point we’ve been trying to get to for years. We have good relationships with Sony, and we’re doing XBLA, PSN, Wiiware, and DS stuff.

Lucas: Capy gets financial support from the Provincial government, right?

Nathan: Oh yeah, we’ve gotten a substantial amount of support from the Ontario government.

Lucas: Is that difficult to get? Do you rely on that funding?

Nathan: That money doesn’t make or break our studio, but what it does is it provides support to work on our ideas. It helps us get Ontario-owned, Ontario-made projects off the ground. I think a lot people overlook that because they see what happens in TV with the federal government paying for, in most cases, utter shit.

In the video game scene, the Ontario government helped N+, and that’s mind-bogglingly awesome. It helped Everyday Shooter, it’s helping fund some of the most amazing games made by anybody, and they’re made in this city. Critter Crunch got help from the government.

The funding organization, the Ontario Media Development Corporation, provides programs you can apply to. They gave us a grant before we had a studio, or computers, or a payroll. they helped us get to GDC to get in front of the publishers. It’s a government organization that actually understands the benefit of helping small companies, and doing so intelligently. They get it, which government-wise typically doesn’t happen.

It’s awesome because it’s competitive. You have to have a good idea, prove that it’s good, pitch it right and then back it up with like 120 pages of documentation. There’s no fucking around: if you’re going to apply to these things you have to know your shit. They ask me questions. They’re interested in my opinions and the opinions of all the other indie studios in Toronto.

The whole Zombie Tactics got leaked because OMDC provided us with a small portion of money. We put in money and they put in money to prototype the game.

Will: That’s right; they publicize all the projects that they’re funding.

Nathan: Yeah, I don’t necessarily agree with that and I think they’re reviewing that. Our title was a working title, but they also published details of the game. That was where we kind of got pooched.

Lucas: When you hear about new games from larger developers, more often than not, they’re very secretive about what they’re doing. Indie developers seem to be keener on cross-pollination. Do you have any concerns about that? It seems like a positive thing, but aren’t there drawbacks?

Nathan: When you put that much money on the line for video games, I can totally understand everything needing to be perfectly orchestrated. You can’t slip up when you’ve got twenty, thirty, forty million sunk into a game.

When the Zombie Tactics leak happened, all of a sudden people were hearing about a game that we’re literally just toying with right now. For us, it sucks that it’s out there, but what’s the point of not talking about it?

We can talk about out stuff. Heartbeat is a game that Kris and our tech director Ken and another programmer Andrew worked on. What we submitted it to the Independent Games Festival was an early iteration. It’s a great way to get an idea out there, whether or not it’s a full, perfectly chiselled sculpture. It’s just a kind of block of clay that we’re molding.

Lucas: What about convergence? A lot of indie games share themes: a lot of time travel, a silhouetted look, etc. Do you worry that, whether or not they’re games of quality, the quantity of things that are inspired by one another other will water these ideas down?

Nathan: We’ve talked about it, but I’ve never thought about what I feel about it. I guess that is a risk you run.

A lot of the people that get into independent games are the people that are really interested in style. They’re not looking for photo realism or space marines with giant rocket launchers for faces or stuff like that. Sometimes you just happen to fall on something that other people are falling on as well.

As long as it doesn’t get to the point where someone isn’t jacking another idea, it’s all in fun. A lot of games fall on that stuff because it’s cool. If you do it well, time travel is fun. The beauty of it too is, out of that time travel theme, you’ve got Braid and you’ve got PB Winterbottom which is two very different takes on it.

Lucas: Sometimes you can look at a game and tell that it’s an indie game, much in the same way you can tell it’s a AAA title because you see a bald space marine. Big publishers are converging on what sells, whereas it seems that indie games are converging on what is indie, rather than being a truly exploratory area.

Nathan: I agree. There are a lot of complications that come from the success of this movement. People see the success of World of Goo and Braid and Castle Crashers and flOwer, so you do run the risk of people trying to “me too.” At the same time, that matters less. People are making games that they’re passionate about and they are similar? So be it.

Whether or not they’re going to make something totally, completely original, or be inspired by something is secondary. I think the most important part is people making their own stuff that they give a shit about.

Wow, that came out really well.

Nathan's dork shelf
Nathan's dork shelf

Lucas: Our site is called Dork Shelf: the shelf where you keep your miniatures, your comic books, collectibles, and other dorky stuff. So, what’s on your Dork Shelf?

Nathan: You know Gashapons? They’re little toys from Japan that come in a bubble out of vending machines. I have the whole series of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass Gashapons. I’ve got a whole collection of zombie army men. I have all of the games that I haven’t opened yet on my shelf and a stack of Game Developer magazines.

We’re collaborating with some people who shall remain nameless for now, and they’re really into moody folk metal, like Dark Tower so I’ve got some of those CDs.

I’ve also had the pleasure of reading The Road recently, which is also on my shelf. I was reading the book at the cottage. I read it start to finish with three or four beers and at the end I had a single tear in my eye. So powerful.

Thanks to Nathan for taking the time to talk with us.