Industry Spotlight: Graham Smith, DrinkBox Studios

Earlier this month we started this feature with an interview featuring Ryan Phillips of NIS America, now we turn our attention to Graham Smith of DrinkBox Studios. Sit back and relax as we talk to Graham about DrinkBox, the perks of a smaller studio, and his advice to those aspiring to join the ranks of the gaming industry.

PSLS: What is your official position at Drinkbox?

Graham Smith: I wear a lot of hats at the company, but the simplest thing to say is that I’m one of the co-founders of Drinkbox, and I’m the producer on Guacamelee.

As co-founder of DrinkBox and the producer on Guacamelee!, what is a normal day at the office like for you?

I don’t know that I ever have a “normal” day at DrinkBox.

Yesterday I wrote a post up for the PlayStation Blog (and spent a lot of time answering comments), got a press release approved by Sony, interviewed a potential new employee, helped fill out some paperwork to help us get cheaper USD <-> CAD currency conversions, and did a bunch of Production work on Guacamelee. As a small company I need to wear a lot of hats! It can be stressful at times, but it is certainly never boring 🙂

How long have you been in the gaming Industry and what did you do before you co-founded DrinkBox.

I’ve been in the gaming industry since 2004, when I first joined Silicon Knights to work on Too Human. Before that I was working in the financial/insurance industry programming applications for use in large call centers (very boring work but paid very well). I had always been a gamer, and after a few years of the financial stuff I couldn’t take it any more and had to get out.

I left Silicon Knights after 3 years and moved to Toronto where I began working at Pseudo Interactive. I was there for 1 year before their project got cancelled, and they closed down in early 2008. At that time, a few ex-Pseudo people decided to start up DrinkBox Studios.

What is your favorite part of your job?

The best part is reading positive coverage and feedback from people in the weeks after a game comes out or we go to a trade show (e.g. PAX). This really makes all the hard work worthwhile. I also really enjoy the creative process at the company, and the fact that no idea is too crazy to get into our games.

On the flipside, what is your least favorite part?

Every second Friday I write all of the company pay-cheques by hand. One of these days we’ll get direct-deposits but this still has not happened yet!

As a smaller studio, what are the biggest issues you face and the best perks?

The biggest perk is that everyone on the team has an opportunity to contribute to the design of our games in some form. We take every suggestion seriously. If the idea is good and not too expensive, it will likely get into the game.
For me, the biggest issue has been trying to learn to do some very important roles properly. I’m referring to the business, production, marketing and financial side of things. Being small, we have had to learn to do many of these things ourselves, without any formal training, and have made (and learned from) a lot of mistakes along the way. It feels like we are slowly getting better though, which is good!

With people jumping on the smartphone market, have you had any desire to go the same route with DrinkBox?

We have talked about this, and may try dabbling it this market in the future. Personally I don’t have much interest in iOS games (there are some exceptions) and I often look at them more as time wasters than as substantial experiences.
Also, having a primarily console heavy background, it’s also a bit outside of our comfort zone. E.g., the whole Free-to-play model is really different than what we are used to, and I have no idea how to market an iOS game. If we do try something for iOS I think we would plan for our first game to be a total bomb, and just try to use it more of a learning experience that would help us out on our second attempt.

In your eyes, what is the future of gaming and where does DrinkBox fit in?

Having recently tried OnLive and being very impressed by the technology, I can definitely see things going that way in the future. Imagine a world where you never have to buy another console again, and the games keep getting better and better.

Even though you are a busy man, you have to find time to game right?  What games are you currently playing?

I try to game whenever I can (which is not that often). In the last few months I finished Journey and Fez, and am now playing Trials: Evolution/Minecraft on Xbox, and Pinball Arcade/Patapon 2 (PSP) on Vita.

What advice would you give someone looking to get their foot in the gaming industry door?

It kind of depends on the role you want in a company. If you want to be a programmer or artist, I would say first get yourself an education (e.g. get a degree in the appropriate field), and find some people to work with on a game that you can show as a demo to prospective employers.

If you want to be a designer, you should be playing and learning from as many games as you can, and also trying to design your own games. You can be making mods, or even just designing levels using in-game editors. You really need something to show at an interview that will make an employer remember you and want you on their team.