How Canadian indie game makers are taking on the world: Peter Nowak

Capybara Games is one of them.


In parts one and two of my special week-long series on Canadian indie game developers, we visited Blot Interactive and Drinkbox Studios, two Toronto operations where things are looking up. In part three, I spoke with Untold Entertainment principal Ryan Creighton about the tribulations facing indies, while in part four Klei Entertainment’s Jamie Cheng talked about the challenges facing game makers in Western Canada.

We head back to Toronto today to close out the series with a look at Capybara Games, a studio that is finally achieving its goals after almost 10 years of grinding it out.

Capy started as a gleam in the eye of a trio of film school students, Kris Piotrowski, Nathan Vella and Anthony Chan, who were unsatisfied in their various workaday jobs. After spending a year plotting and scheming in bars, the trio decided to officially make a go of it in 2004 by making games for cellphones. This was the pre-iPhone era, so the games weren’t exactly high art.

With little actual programming experience, the trio managed to cobble together Super Shove Shove and SMABU: Earth Wars, a pair of relatively simple time-wasters that they pitched to various publishers. They met an agent who got them hooked up with Disney, and their games impressed enough to land a contract to do a cellphone game tied to the Pixar film Cars.

That led to what Piotrowski calls a miserable existence—an endless cycle of unfulfilling contracts that had Capy working on four to five games at a time, spending about four to five months on each. The jobs were paying the bills, but the work was stressful and no one was enjoying it. Making games for cellphones was the worst place to be, he says, since they had to deal not just with demanding publishers, but also with wireless carriers that knew nothing about games.

“Publishers are bad enough at choosing good creative projects and bringing them to life. But then when a publisher has to deal with something that’s even worse, like a phone carrier, it’s atrocious,” says Piotrowski. “By the time the money trickles down to the developer, there’s nothing left.”

But then, around 2007, things started to line up. Capy’s friends Jon Mak and Mare Sheppard made and published Everyday Shooter and N, respectively, two downloadable games that were met with respectable critical and commercial success. Apple launched the iPhone and completely changed the world of mobile games, allowing developers to circumvent both publishers and wireless carriers in releasing their products. The studio also got a grant from the Ontario Media Development Corporation.

Putting it all together, Capy developed Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery, an adventure game released initially on the iPad, then on the iPhone and PC and eventually Android. It was a sublime and unusual mobile game in that it asked players to sit down for an hour or more at a time, which was unlike most peer releases that were designed for quick, bite-sized sessions.

The game won all sorts of accolades, tying with Eidos Montreal’s big-budget blockbuster Deus Ex: Human Revolution for most prizes at the 2012 Canadian Videogame Awards. The biggest kudos, however, was the Game Developer Choice Award, a peer-decided Oscar handed out at the annual Game Developers Conference.

“It’s sort of the award,” Piotrowski says. “That meant a lot to us.”

More importantly, the game’s financial success finally allowed Capy to break free of its work-for-hire subsistence. Now, the studio is up to about 25 employees and working on a trio of its own original games, starting with Super Time Force, scheduled for release this year on Xbox Live Arcade. Here’s the trailer:

The company also got some major profile from Microsoft at this week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, with another of its games—Below—being announced for the Xbox One. Microsoft Studios general manager Phil Spencer wore a Capy shirt on-stage while doing so.

The importance of making their own games is incredibly personal for Capy’s founders, but it’s also important to Canada in general, Piotrowski says. Canadians are making amazing games such as Assassin’s Creed and FIFA while working at big multinational studios such as Ubisoft and EA, but ultimately those games don’t  belong to them or the country. When games such as Sword and Sworcery—or those from the other companies profiled in this series, such as Chat Fu, Guacamelee, Spellirium or Mark of the Ninja—are made here and kept here, the intellectual property behind them also remains. That means Canadians can stay in control of the destinies of their own creations and reap any resultant rewards.

“The launch of a game is the very first step of what’s going to define that game’s success, but it’s the last step when that game isn’t yours,” Piotrowski says. “When you’re done, everything is available to you, which it isn’t when you’re working with a publisher.”

This is where games differ from most other creative businesses. In music and film particularly, Canadians often have to first succeed within Canada before they can hope to catch a larger break. Games are a global and digital business, though, meaning the artists involved in it don’t have to leave Canada to make it.

“Somehow, video games have managed to dodge that bullet.”