Toronto's Drinkbox Studios: Further proof of Sony's commitment to indie games


In part one of my week-long series on independent games in Canada, I talked to Justin Kwok, founder of Toronto-based Blot Interactive. Working on his first indie game, Chat Fu, Kwok is understandably optimistic about what the future holds.

Today, we visit Drinkbox Studios, another Toronto operation that is considerably further along in its evolution. Drinkbox is a studio on the rise, having achieved some success last year with Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack for the PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 3. Its recently released game Guacamelee for those same consoles is an even bigger hit, garnering not just critical acclaim (I thoroughly enjoyed it), but also financial success. Like Kwok at Blot, Drinkbox co-founder Graham Smith is excited about his company’s future.

Smith’s back story is similar to many indies. Dabbling in computer games since he was a kid, he ended up getting a master’s degree in computer science from York University. After graduating, he designed call centre applications for insurance companies, but found that to be a boring vocation even if it did pay well.

In 2003, he took a job at Silicon Knights in St. Catharines, Ont., the studio responsible for such console games as Too Human and X-Men Destiny, for a third of the salary. He enjoyed the work considerably more and rose through the ranks quickly because of his dual computer and business experience. After a few years, though, his wife got a job in Toronto and they moved back. He tried commuting but it didn’t work out, so he landed at Pseudo Interactive, one of the bigger Toronto studios at the time.

In 2008, the company was forced to shut down when the project it was working on was cancelled by publisher Eidos. Smith and four of his friends decided to form their own studio, and so Drinkbox emerged from the ashes.

Like many startup indies, Smith and his crew took work-for-hire contracts to get on their feet. Using their old Pseudo contacts, they landed a job designing the multiplayer component of Activision’s Marvel Ultimate Alliance. All the while, however, they were applying for government grants and tax credits in order to design their own game.

The applications came through and in 2011 they released Tales From Space: About a Blob, a downloadable side-scrolling platforming game for the PlayStation 3. The game’s performance was ultimately disappointing because of the time it took to make relative to sales. The team also didn’t have many media contacts and didn’t really know how to sell it.

“We started a company and had no experience doing marketing. We were just learning as we went along,” Smith says. “Some of those lessons were expensive and painful.”

The sequel, Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack, was created with a smaller team and took less time to make, and it also saw a sales bump being one of the launch titles for Sony’s new Vita handheld console, all of which made it a considerably more profitable project.

Guacamelee, a Mexican-themed side-scrolling fighting game that took two years to develop, is where everything started to come together. Smith hired a PR agency to get the word out on the game, and it paid off with a slew of media coverage after the annual PAX conference last year. The game launched this past April and sold more in its first month than Mutant Blobs Attack did in its first year, he says. Here’s the trailer:

The game itself was funded by Sony’s Pub Fund, an advance on royalties offered by the console maker to indie developers. The Drinkbox principals originally pitched the game to Microsoft for release on Xbox Live Arcade, but didn’t get much of a response. Sony, after seeing the PAX press coverage, came back to the studio and offered them more money through the fund, which ultimately made the game possible.

The experience backs up what a lot of other independent developers have been saying—that Sony has over the past few years become the most indie-friendly of the console giants. This became especially apparent Monday, when Sony announced it would let indie developers self-publish through the PlayStation 4.

“I don’t know what Microsoft’s plan for indies is at all,” says Smith. “Sony does really feel like they’re actively courting indies.”

Like many of their cohort, Drinkbox’s founders don’t measure their success financially, but rather by their ability to survive and to continue making the games they want. Smith says that feeling of accomplishment is starting to set in at the 10-person operation, since they’re working almost solely on their own projects, which currently consists of some downloadable add-ons to Guacamelee. One employee is still spending half his week working on an outside contract job, but when that wraps up in a few months the studio will be entirely focused on its own games.

Indie developers are the lifeblood of the medium, Smith says, because of how the mainstream industry has shifted further upmarket. With big publishers increasingly avoiding risks and therefore pumping out more sequels, it’s up to the smaller developers to continue moving the art form forward.

“I feel we’re really doing a lot on that side of things,” he says. “I can’t wait to play [Jonathan Blow’s] The Witness because I know it’s going to be really interesting. Those are the types of games I get really excited about playing and I think a lot of people feel like that.”