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PSLS Presents – Nathan Vella, Capybara Games

November 16, 2009 Written by Anthony Severino

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Critter Crunch released October 8th in North America to much acclaim from many top gaming publications, earning an extremely positive metascore of 86. Critter Crunch is due to launch in Europe and Australia on November 19. To coincide with Critter Crunch’s PAL launch, we caught up with Capybara Games’ Nathan Vella to talk about all things Critter Crunch as well as the history and future plans for the Toronto-based development team.

Read the full interview after the jump…

Critter Crunch

PlayStation LifeStyle: Tell us a bit about the history of Capybara Games? How large is the team? When were you established?

Nathan Vella of Capybara Games: Capy was started way back in 2003 and has grown to a 23-person studio. At the time, Toronto Canada had very little development studio’s, and all of us that wanted to make games were fighting over the 1 or 2 jobs that opened up every year. Fortunately, we all were getting frustrated at the same time, and it culminated with a thread on the Toronto IGDA chapter forum soliciting interest in starting a game development group.

That development group went from 30 interested folks to 12 solid folks, and we set out to make a couple cell phone games. None of us had dev experience, but we all believed we could (probably) make something cool. In the end, we all kept our day jobs and worked in our spare time making our first 2 projects. When they were done, with the help of Flashman Studios, we got in front of Disney who agreed to fund us to make a cell phone game for the Disney/Pixar film Cars. We didn’t have an office, or computers, or staff… but we sorted that all out. That was late 2005, and by 2007 we had made 15+ mobile games, many of which won a bunch of awards and all of which, no one reading this has likely played.

Now Capy works on iPhone, Nintendo DS™ and the downloadable console platforms, all of which are awesome platforms to develop for.

capybaraPSLS: Capybara Games… Where did the name come from? Did the name come from the semi-aquatic mammal from South America?

Nathan: For the PSLS readers not familiar with the Capybara, it is indeed a semi-aquatic rodent that can be found in South America. It’s basically a really, really big guinea pig.

As for how we ended up naming our studio after a big-ass rodent, it ties in closely with how Capy was started. The 12 founders needed to all agree on a name, and despite having some amazing ideas (and some terrible ones), everyone’s second pick was Capybara. So, in short, our name was chosen because everyone didn’t hate it.

PSLS: Critter Crunch was released on the PlayStation Network just over a month ago, are you happy with the acclaim it’s received?

Nathan: We are really proud, happy and humbled by the critical and community response. We always believed in Critter Crunch, and so did SCEA, so when it received the amazing review scores it did, we were both ecstatic.

When we were crunching (pun totally intended) to get the game out, we kept telling ourselves that the hard work and love we put in would pay off. It’s unbelievably gratifying to see that come true.

PSLS: Once people try the demo, they’ll be hooked on Critter Crunch’s fun and addictive gameplay. Where did the concept of Critter Crunch come from?

Nathan: We certainly hope so! Anyone who isn’t sure about the game should really grab the demo – it has a good amount of content and really introduces you to many of the game modes.

The initial concept for Critter Crunch came from the brain of Capy co-founder and creative director, Kris Piotrowski. Since he does a lot of his thinking (and gaming) in the bathtub, I am going to go out on a limb and profess that he thought of the initial idea there.

The original idea was to make an old-school-inspired arcade-style puzzle game – something akin to the early Nintendo and NEO-GEO games that we all loved profusely as kids. We wanted to make one of those puzzle games that you could picture in an arcade – something fast and frantic and fun.

PSLS: How did you come up with the $6.99 price point? Which is a steal by the way. Our wallets thank you for that.

Nathan: And to your wallets we say, “You’re welcome”. The way I always explain it is that on platforms like the PlayStation®Network, there are classes of games, like items on a menu.

Games like Flower, or Braid, those are meal games, those are your entrees. When you are done playing, you are full. Those meal games are the ones that are $9.99 USD or over. Then there are games like Nobi Nobi Boy that are snack games, appetizers – you play them in snippets but they don’t tend to replace meal games. Snack games are the $4.99 games on PSN.

We always saw Critter Crunch in between the two – sort of a “large appetizer” game. It might not be enough to fill up every gamer, but it’s still a substantial amount of game.

In the end, we decided that $6.99 USD was a good pricepoint, and we’ve been really happy to see people so pleased with the price.

phyreengine-newgamesPSLS: Did you build your own engine, or was a third party engine used?

Nathan: We used PhyreEngine™ as our graphics engine, and it really was a great experience for Capy – our 2D pipeline integrated with it smoothly, so our artists could use the system they were familiar with, and the support was truly top-notch.

So many other awesome PSN games use it as well – Flower, Shatter, and many more. It really is a great option for indie PSN developers.

PSLS: Was Sony supportive of this venture?

That’s why you see Critter Crunch as a PlayStation Network exclusive – when we were looking for options to bring Critter Crunch to the console downloadable space, SCEA was extremely excited about the game. In fact, they were just as excited as we were, and that was really what we were looking for. We’ve worked with a lot of publishers before, and we weren’t keen on having one for Critter Crunch – fortunately for us SCEA was on the same page and were even excited about us self-publishing.

I could probably write a short novel about how awesome SCEA have been to Capy. They treated Capy with respect and nothing but positivity.

PSLS: Are you planning on releasing additional titles to the PSN? It’s ok, you can tell us. We wont tell anyone…

Nathan: Are we ever! While I can’t go into detail… yet… I can say with certainty that there will be more games by Capy on PSN in the (hopefully not so distant) future.

PSN really is a great service, full of some of the best games of this generation. We are pretty happy to be on the same platform as games we adore like Flower, Everyday Shooter, Shatter and many more. We’re huge fans to say the least.

psp-minisPSLS: With the recent launch of the PSPgo, and the accompanied PSP Minis, does Capybara have any plans to release any PSP titles, or PSP Minis?

Nathan: I love the idea behind the PSP Minis – I really hope it shapes up to be an interesting venue for indie-developed games, with a focus on creativity.

In the short-term, Critter Crunch won’t be seeing a PSP release… we have to finish our new projects first! However, depending on the demand from fans and how well the game does over its first 2-3 months on PSN, it might make sense for Capy to bring Critter Crunch back to being a portable game.

The PSPgo is the first digital-download only gaming console, how do you feel about the gaming industry’s move toward digital downloads?

PSLS: Do you think Sony is taking the PlayStation Network in the right direction as far as digital content is concerned?

Nathan: I absolutely think the PlayStation Network is in the right direction. Any service that signs developers like thatgamecompany and (Toronto’s own) Jon Mak to make creative, interesting and original games in the indie-spirit is bang-on in my books.

I love that games like Shatter have found a great home on it as well, because without PSN we might have missed a great new iteration on the arkanoid game style.

In short, I really have trouble faulting the amazing quality of many of the PlayStation Networks titles, and I really believe they are taking the platform in a great direction.

PSLS: What was the most consumed snack during development? We know Capybara eats grass, water plants, and leaves. What are the staff’s favorite food?

Nathan: The 3 major food groups during Critter Crunch development were:

Soda, Orange Juice and not-so-great Canadian Burritos.

It is unbelievable how impossible it is to find a really high-quality Burrito in Toronto. Spending time in San Francisco and LA has really tainted my experience on the burrito front. But we still ate a ton of them during Critter Crunch.

PSLS: Were there any particularly humorous staff moments during development? Anything embarrassing? Give us dirt!

Nathan: We were once asked “What inspired Critter Crunch” by a journalist writing for one of the largest mainstream press outlets. Capy co-founder Matt Repetski jokingly responded that Critter Crunch was directly inspired by the North American obesity epidemic. He explained that Biggs using his tongue to set the foodchain in motion was a veiled commentary on Western society, and that Biggs was so tubby to mimic the obesity rate in the West.

They did not get the joke, and printed it as a key part of the article – something along the lines of “Small studio aims to fight obesity through Critter Crunch”. We decided at that point to no longer joke with non-gaming press.

PSLS: Other than gaming, what are some other hobbies of the members of the Capybara Games staff?

Nathan: My personal hobby right now is being a mediocre Cammy player in Street Fighter 4. The Capy team has lots of different hobbies around the office, from music, to art, to sports.

Right now one of the studio-wide hobbies is preparing for the birth of Critter Crunch and Might & Magic Clash of Heroes writer Dan, and his amazing wife Jen’s, baby. We do things like suggest names (such as Smalls, or Hank Hudson), offer to join him at ultrasounds, that sort of thing.

PSLS: It’s been a pleasure working with Capybara since Critter Crunch was first announced. Are you always this nice?

Nathan: We are always nice. Even if you punch our mothers, we’ll probably get you ice for your hand. But please don’t test that.

On that note, I’d like to thank PlayStationLifeStyle and its amazing audience for supporting our game from the very beginning. You guys are great.