[UPDATE] DrinkBox Studios talk games, blobs and beer with PS3 Attitude
DrinkBox Studios is an independent Toronto-based game developer that was founded in April 2008, following the closure of Pseudo Interactive. The company offers various professional game development and consulting services, and has recently released its first ever original title.
Tales from Space: About a Blob came out yesterday in North America, and is available exclusively on the PlayStation Network. In our review, we described it as ‘a great first title from this promising indie developer’, and we thoroughly recommend you download the demo the next opportunity you get (after you’ve read this interview, of course).
Chris Harvey, lead programmer and CTO at DrinkBox, was kind enough to take some time out to talk to PS3 Attitude about the developer’s first release.
[PS3 Attitude] Being a brand new game, some of our readers regrettably may not know that a game called Tales from Space: About a Blob actually exists. How would you describe the game to someone who has never heard of it?
[Chris Harvey] Tales from Space: About a Blob is a game about a little blob that grows and grows until he eats the whole world. You play a blob that can absorb any object that’s sufficiently small. Along with absorption, the blob can run, jump, slam, and spit out objects. Your goal is to reach the end of each level by finding things to eat, by solving puzzles, and by defeating enemies. As you progress through the game the blob gains the power of magnetism and the power of electricity, which opens up new gameplay options. You start about the size of a marble, but by the end of the game you’re eating buildings and mountains, and eventually the entire planet.
[PS3A] The PlayStation Store is home to a number of independent development teams such as Q-Games, thatgamecompany, and now yourselves at DrinkBox Studios. What do you think it is about the PlayStation Network that appeals to indie developers?
[CH] I think Sony has actively courted these developers and looked for ways to get them on PSN, and PSN remains very open to independent teams that want to self-publish. Our experience has been very positive when interacting with Sony. They’ve been friendly and forthcoming, and they provided genuinely useful feedback on the game right from the beginning. It’s very encouraging when you feel like you’re getting meaningful interaction from a publisher or platform holder, beyond just being told yes or no to questions.
If you look at the PSN Store I think you can see that Sony has embraced unique ideas. Besides games from Q-Games and thatgamecompany, PSN has really distinct titles like Everyday Shooter, Linger in Shadows, Echochrome, and Noby Noby Boy. I think they’ve been willing to take interesting risks, and that’s encouraging to small developers who have to try and make distinct games on a small budget.
[PS3A] DrinkBox Studios is made up of many game development veterans who previously worked for industry giants such as Rockstar. In recent years, why do you think so many game makers have chosen to leave big companies in order to set up their own independent studios?
[CH] For us the transition was circumstantial. In early 2008 the company that the founders worked at dissolved. Each person’s situation was different, but basically we weren’t willing or able to leave the city (Toronto). For me, starting a company was something I’d always wanted to do, and given that leaving the city to join another team wasn’t in the cards, it was a good time to try it.
As for the general case, I think most developers are in the game industry to make compelling games, not just to make a living. For programmers, for example, working in games is not the smartest financial move—the hours are long, the pay is lower. You make games because it’s something you really care about.
I think that if you’re already in that mindset, then if you’re not happy where you are (maybe you don’t like the games you’re working on, maybe you want more control over what you do, etc), then starting an independent studio is a natural step. And now that there are a variety of avenues to distribute small downloadable games, it’s quite feasible to make successful games with a small team. Of course the leap is not for everyone—I know people who have worked in games for a long time and have no interest in being part of a small independent studio.
[PS3A] Your very first title, Tales from Space: About a Blob, is exclusive to the PlayStation Store. In your opinion, what are the advantages of launching a game on a single platform, and what were your reasons for doing so?
[CH] We were fortunate enough to get into Sony’s Pub Fund program. The program guarantees you a certain amount of money some time after the game is released. What it amounts to is that we get to own and publish our game, and although we have to pay for the development ourselves we know the minimum amount of money we’ll make when all is said and done. In exchange for the guarantee we have a period of exclusivity with Sony. Joe Danger is another game that also went through this program.
Our alternative would have been to self-publish on PSN with no guarantee, or to work with a publisher and try and release on both PSN and XBLA. Around the spring of 2010 it was time to make a decision. We were happy working with Sony, and we knew we could pay for the rest of the development ourselves, so a guarantee that we weren’t going to lose our shirts after releasing the game seemed like a good fit.
[PS3A] About a Blob initially launches on 1st February for PlayStation Plus subscribers, before having a wider release a week later. Do you think that PlayStation Plus is an effective way to introduce PS3 users to a new game, and what do you think of the service in general?
[CH] As a developer, one nice thing about PlayStation Plus is that it’s a specific place for people who buy and play a lot of games, so there’s a sense that it’s worth it to try make an effort and give those users some extras. I think we’ll get some additional advertisement by releasing on PlayStation Plus first, and since we’ve been encouraged to do this by Sony, and since Sony has a direct interest in the game doing well (because we’re in Pub Fund), we’re guessing it will be useful. The truth is that we’re pretty new at all this, so we’re willing to try things and see what happens.
As a user, I think PlayStation Plus is a good thing. If you buy a lot of games there are lots of deals there to make it valuable. You get access to special demos, early access to some games, and there’s PlayStation Plus-only content. It feels to me like a good upgrade for hardcore players.
[PS3A] Is there any news to report about a release date for Europe, and can European PSN users expect the title to launch on PlayStation Plus first, in a similar way to North America?
[CH] For a variety of organizational reasons the release in Europe is not going to begin on PlayStation Plus. I believe the release date for Europe has been set, but I don’t think I should announce it myself. I can say that the delay between the North America and European release should be very short.
[PS3A] From the game’s style it is clear that About a Blob has been influenced by classic 2D platformers of the 80s and early 90s, and yet it still feels unique in its own way. Was it your intention from the beginning of development to create an old-school style title with a modern twist?
[CH] One of our motivations from the start was to make something both familiar and unique—so I’m happy to hear you say that. Most of the people on the team are old school gamers and played a lot of 2D platformers growing up, so yes I think we were looking for a way to create a modern game in that genre. In my mind I have this idea that while some people will always embrace the strange and the odd, a lot of people need a bit of the familiar mixed in to make a game easier to connect to.
That idea extended to our gameplay, which you mentioned, but also to the art and sound. The art-style went through a few changes in development. It started very illustrative like old 50s magazine ads, became more like Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and ended somewhere in between. Similarly the music started like 50s big band, and ended up intermingled with old B-sci-fi movie music. The hope was that people would see the game and recognize the look and feel as something they’d sort of seen before, but not necessarily in a particular game.
[PS3A] During our time with About a Blob, we were reminded of several other PlayStation titles such as LocoRoco and Katamari. Are there any current games/developers you admire, and have any of them helped inspire About a Blob?
[CH] I think you’ve hit the two big ones—Katamari Damacy and LocoRoco. There’s also inspiration from Gish, which is an independent PC game from a few years ago.
Although the game is not inspired by them, we really admire what the team at Q-games does. They’ve released several great downloadable games that are all very different from one another—which is really impressive. Their downloadable games do a great job at not relying on tons of content, and are really focused and fun. They are definitely one of the developers that we look at and think, “What can we learn from them?”
[PS3A] Finally, can you give us any hints about what you’re working on next, and can we expect to see more Tales from Space?
[CH] I think we’d be happy to make more games that fit into the concept of Tales from Space. It depends a bit on how people like About a Blob. I could see us do a sequel, or I could see us do another kind of game that’s based around the blobs but uses a different style of gameplay.
At the moment we’re actually working on DLC for About a Blob. I think we should have some more formal announcements about that in a few weeks. As for the very next game we work on, that’s actually something we’re trying to figure out right now! There are a few ideas we’re thinking about but nothing is locked in yet—it takes us a while to make decisions about these sorts of things.
[PS3A] Actually, one last question. When not working hard on About a Blob, what do the good guys at DrinkBox do to entertain themselves?
[CH] There are a lot of heavy game players here. When StarCraft II came out there was a lot of strategy discussion.
Another thing we do around the office is Beer Friday. In the afternoon some people go out and get beer for the team. It’s a nice way to relax before the weekend. When I go out to get the beer I like to choose a popular beer and a weird beer so those in the mood can broaden their beer-horizons.