Canadian Developer Series – Interview With Dan Vader Of Capy Games
Continuing with our Canadian Developer Series this week, we focus on another wonderful studio from Toronto! This time we were lucky to talk to Dan Vader, a Game Director over at Capy Games, a studio with a long and prolific portfolio of games.
Each week, we’re talking to developers who are working with Apple and contributing to the new and exciting Apple Arcade subscription service, which is currently priced at $5.99 and is available on iOS, Apple TV, macOS and iPadOS. For the better part of two weeks, I’ve been addicted to playing Grindstone and Steve hasn’t fared much better on letting his addiction go. So we did our best and asked Capy to talk to us about how they made such an engrossing game.
Thanks to Capy for talking to us and be sure to check out Apple Arcade for one of the best line ups in gaming today!
Steve: Capy has a rich history in developing mobile games, going all the way back to games like Super Shove IT! and Critter Crunch. The studio still maintains its presence, but it seems like Grindstone is drawing back to the studio’s roots. Is that a fair assumption?
Dan: Yeah, definitely. First of all, I can’t believe you just said Super Shove It – that’s like, that is a deep cut right there! We’ve actually been trying to find a way to emulate it and play it again. As you probably know, we started making mobile games pre-smartphone, like back in the flip phone days and we made a ton of games for that back when a production cycle was only six months. And so many of the games are lost, like we can’t even play them anymore. But yeah, as for the question, for sure. I mean one reason why Grindstone seems to harken back to those days is that it’s actually had quite a long development history – sort of a twisty-turny path. And part of it was because we were at a certain point, in the company’s history, we were really focusing on puzzle games or we just were in that mode for a while until a lot of our ideas ran towards the puzzle game genre. Grindstone sort of came out and emerged from that idea. This was around the time of Clash of Heroes and Critter Crunch.
I think in our heads, it was “Oh, we’ll do this next,” It does make sense. But what happened is life happened and other opportunities came up and we moved into the console space. We did a bunch of other games and so, Grindstone was sort of on the back burner and just sort of lived as this pet project in the background; where every couple of years one or two people would pick it back up again and sort of fiddle around with it, and then we go “Oh no, we need you guys for this other project, come on over here.” So we pause it and so, in a way Grindstone is coming out in 2019 but I think you’re right and that it has its lineage goes back much earlier to those kinds of games we used to make.
Bobby: With such a long cadence in the mobile space, you’ve seen trends come and go. For Capy, what stuck out the most in regards to Apple Arcade? What made it so attractive from a development perspective?
Dan: When we were working on Grindstone it was always meant to be an iOS game and to be on the App Store. At another point, we were working on it right after Superbrothers Sword and Sworcery and that was sort of a very different time for The App Store. For us, we had a big splash with that game and it really seemed like “Wow, we can do a lot of weird and funky ideas on this platform and people will really embrace it, the way they might not on a console,” and then like I said, we got sidetracked.
I think at that time, the entire mobile gaming market changed and the free to play thing happened. Free to play was not really a prominent thing that was happening when we were making games on iOS and then it just sort of swept the entire marketplace. And so when it came time to pick Grindstone back up and really develop it in earnest and try to release it we were like, “Okay, now Free to Play is this thing we have to contend with. Do we want to join that trend or just try to release it as a premium game?” And then with Apple Arcade was announced and that opportunity came along, we didn’t have to wrestle with that really tough decision. From a business standpoint and a creative standpoint, we can kind of just focus on what we always want to focus on, which is not so much the business side or the marketing side of the game the gameplay and making the best game we can possibly make. And so Apple arcade gave us the opportunity to say “We don’t want to engage in that conversation – free to play versus premium.” We’re just making the game and we’re going to release it on this platform and hope this platform is the right place for it and it turns out, I think it definitely was.
Steve: Continuing off of that thought, and knowing that Grindstone would be launching on Apple Arcade, what kind of design choices did the studio make to ensure it was accessible to as many players as possible?
Dan: The truth of it is, and I see a lot of chatter on Twitter like “Oh I bet that this used to be Free to Play and they ripped out a bunch of mechanics,” but that’s actually not the case. We were sort of procrastinating on thinking about ads systems because we just don’t have any experience with it. So in truth, we were sort of like putting those things on the backburner and thinking we’ll do that at the end while we make the game. And when Apple Arcade came, it was “Oh cool, we don’t have to do any of that stuff.” And so, it didn’t really change our approach to the design of the game. We definitely had conversations about it being on Apple Arcade. We’re gonna get a lot of different people that might sample it instead of it just on the App Store.
People still think it’s probably a pretty complex and not a hardcore game but it’s a more challenging game than say your average match-three puzzler. We dialed back certain elements back even more because it wasn’t about people finding this because it’s their thing, it’s more like people are going to be on Apple Arcade and there’s buffet of things to try and they might try stuff that they’re not normally into it’s we’re going to maybe pick up our game. We don’t want to tell them to put it down due to its difficulty or its complexity. So there are a couple of elements at the last minute that we sort of dial back that didn’t affect my experience with testing or playing it. It was just like “Okay, that makes sense. We’ll go and dial back these kinds of elements.”
To be honest, that was the great thing about Apple Arcade opportunity and there was no “make this kind of game for Apple Arcade.” You see from the service, there’s a huge breadth of games. There’s a huge diversity of games and so we didn’t have to edit ourselves to fit in anywhere. It was just like we’re going to make our game the way we make it and hopefully find an audience on Arcade.
Steve: It was a natural fit!
Bobby: The studio has had quite the busy year, to say the least. Balancing the development and release of Below and now Grindstone, do you feel the studio thrives in that kind of environment?
Dan: Capy is large for an indie studio. We’re around 20-24 people and we’ve sort of been at that size for many years and in fact, a lot of us have all worked together for over a decade. And yeah, we’ve always worked on several projects at once. It’s never been 24 people on one thing and there have1 always been a couple of projects bubbling around in the studio. And so, it wasn’t a stretch for our team to be working on Grindstone while other teams worked on Below. But I think what that does is that sometimes you have your head down and you don’t even know what’s going on with the other game. Your blinders are on and you’re looking at your own game and so it’s fine. We often are getting feedback from outside the studio and then realizing Oh, the Below guys haven’t played Grindstone in a while, let’s get them to play it. We’ve become adept at balancing not just a number of projects but projects that are very different from each other.
Below is obviously super different from Grindstone and Grindstone is different from Below. We were making OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes while Below was going on. I think we’re just used to not really making the same game twice and everybody working on very different things at the same time.
Steve: One of the aspects of Grindstone that’s stuck out to me the most is how the game challenges you to strategize every step of the way. But it also eggs you on to be a little greedy, perhaps overstaying your welcome as things get hectic in a level. How much balancing did that require?
Dan: It actually was one of the features that we went back and forth on a lot. For six months, the game would be set up one way and then we’d go back on and we tried another way for six months. Early on in the process, the levels ended in a traditional sense like if you completed the goal for the level, the level would automatically end. But we all liked an earlier iteration where you as a player had to physically move out the door to be safe. But the thought is, is that intuitive for players or is that something they’re going to get it. Is it going to be annoying to players who beat the level goal but then died on their way to the door? And so we sort of had cold feet about it, we went back and forth but eventually, we tried it again and we started putting in these bonus objectives that come in at the end of the level completion goal.
You hit it right on the head that the idea of being greedy and seeing how much you can choose out of a level really became a really prominent colour in the gameplay that we really liked.
Think of it like this: low hanging fruit is just opening the door it’s challenging but it’s not the most challenging part of a level. Once the door is open and you’re seeing all those Grindstones on the board you can parlay into bigger and more Grindstones, where you’re seeing chests and then the greed kicks in and we really felt like that was a great character for the gameplay. You can leave whenever you want. How long are you gonna stay in and is your greed eventually going to get you in trouble? We found that a lot of the time when I was playtesting and I was dying, it was because of my own greed, it wasn’t because of an unfair board layout or anything like that. It was because I’d definitely stay too long on the board and I tried to get as many Grindstones as possible and that was my downfall and I would end up laughing. That was such a great feeling like I did it to myself and then I would do it again at the next level.
Steve: You become your own worst enemy.
Bobby: It’s my issue every time I play.
Bobby: Capy has always maintained high-quality standards and has the ability to create unique worlds and characters. Where did the idea behind Grindstone and its main character, Jorj, come from?
Dan: The original idea for Grindstone came from our Creative Director Kris Piotrowski. He came up with it around the time, as I said, we were working on Clash of Heroes and Critter Crunch, we were in that puzzle mode and it was his idea in that original pitch and an original prototype to take a sort of traditional colour-matching, match-three kind of game but then put a physical character on the board. A lot of games, there is no character. Your finger is the character. You know it’s just these abstract colours and you’re just swiping them together. I think that the idea there’s this guy on the board and you’re controlling his movement, suddenly was like this demands a world around him and a sort of implied story and he needs to be a character. It quickly became obvious that it should be brutal Viking-ish Berserker kind of character.
Then everything else fell into place after that and instead of it being coloured pieces that are just abstract shapes, we went with little gross monsters and we did that with CritterCrunch as well and Clash of Heroes. We have a lineage of that where we make puzzle games where it’s not puzzle pieces but they are characters or things and they have a little bit of a personality and they have a little bit of a backstory implied through their art. And so, with creating Jorj, very early on it’s actually stuck through into this game we released; the idea was that we want this muscle-bound, sword-swinging Conan type of character. But the kind of games we make in our studio personality, we are not into macho testosterone kind of stuff. We don’t want to make it literally a very brutal guy, we thought it would be funny if it was this is just his job, you know this is all he’s good at and it is the only way he can provide for his family.
We wanted to offset the sort of brutality and kind of grossness of the game with just the story that anybody can relate to like you’ve got to get up in the morning, it’s cold, you don’t want to go to work, but you gotta. And for some it’s filling in a spreadsheet, for Jorj, it’s just slicing through creeps and creating bloody carnage everywhere. That idea was very early on and it became a key point for us. A counterpoint to that sort of muscle tone of the game and luckily survived all the way through to the finished product.
Bobby: I loved Jorj and how he was designed!
Dan: The other thing that really drives the studio, we are a very art-focused studio and so you know the art went through many iterations over the years, the art direction from a number of people on the team really pushed the style and suggested a lot of the game design around
how things look and feel. That was thanks to Vic Nguyen and Kelly Smith and Ben Thomas, they’re all phenomenal artists, who every time you think of just a very simple enemy design they’d come back with a concept that had so much character and life.
Bobby: The art is wonderful, everything stands out and is like a comic come to life.
Dan: That’s that’s been a lot of games. OK K.O! Let’s Play Heroes! was like that and even with Super Time Force, which was pixel art, it wasn’t pixel art in the normal sense. It was a lot more vibrant and cartoony and we’ve always really influenced by animation and a lot of people in our studio have had a background in traditional animation. And so it’s natural for us to do that kind of hand-drawn 2D cartoon style. And I think it’s something we’ve been really successful with and really good at and we love doing it, it just makes sense both visually and aesthetically.
Bobby: Grindstone is a big departure from Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery, a game I spent a lot of time with back in the day. This is the complete opposite of that in many ways.
Steve: Apple Arcade offers gamers the chance to play games they wouldn’t regularly play for one affordable price, what was it about the service that drew you in? How did you get involved with Apple?
Dan: We actually have a long relationship with Apple because Critter Crunch’s first iteration was on a flip phone way back in the day. And then we made a really updated, gorgeous version for The App Store, and then, of course, put out Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP and that established a really great relationship with Apple. That game was featured when The App Store’s birthday, was given away for free to fans as a thank you and we just had roots with Apple for a long time and we maintain that relationship. Through production on Grindstone when we were dabbling with it and we let people in Apple and Apple Canada play the game, all the way through for a long time. And so when we heard of the Apple Arcade service, we were like this is where we want to want to bring it and luckily people at Apple agreed, it seemed like a natural fit.
Bobby: How does what you’ve previously worked on influence games like Grindstone and are there any Easter eggs hidden within the game?
Dan: A puzzle game is imbued with character and puzzle game that has these physical characters as puzzle pieces. I think we really just love that approach. In Clash of Heroes, you’ve got all these units that are little, living breathing things and you’re not lining up green or blue things, you’re lining up elves or lining up mages. They have really wonderful animations and it’s just a world view, just by their art and their animation. And so we can do that with Critter Crunch, where it’s like you’re matching colours but it’s got these creatures and there’s the ecosystem there that you can see visually on the screen, and so, we just really love that style and that was where Grindstone was born from.
We’re pretty good at this kind of thing where puzzle pieces are suggesting narrative and story and Grindstone was born out of that but there isn’t a direct lineage or anything like that, it was just where we were in that mode of thinking about puzzle games a little bit differently and so Grindstone came from that.
Steve: As a gamer, what games on Apple Arcade are you playing at the moment?
Dan: We were really busy trying to make the launch and so we had a lot of time to sort of speculate about what Apple Arcade was going to look like, and what other games were going to be on there. When I opened it up on launch day, I was like a kid in a candy store. I play more on the iPhone more than really anything else. You know, I’ve got two kids and I commute to work and so I don’t really have time to invest in a 60-hour RPG. So for me, I was shocked by how much stuff was there on launch day and how much quality was there, and how different everything was.
I was downloading until my iPhone storage filled up. I immediately tried What the Golf and I was blown away by it. You know it starts off and you learn the mechanics, and then by the third hole, you’re laughing your head because it subverts all your expectations. I just looked at my playtime on that, and I’m shocked. It must be a lie because it says 16 hours and I hope that that’s not true.
And in addition to that, I just finished Pilgrims. I thought that was amazing, and that one is made by Amanita Design and that was just such a lovely, little experience. I actually really love Super Impossible Road too, I have been playing a ton. It’s a racing game where there’s no but there are no guides on the tracks and it pushes you to cheat and jump your ball off the track and try to land back on it at an earlier spot. I can’t sit down to play it and I have to stand up and play and I pretty much am screaming while I play it.
I’m also playing the Get Out Kids, I really love that. I’m also playing Bleak Sword and it is phenomenal and the music is done by our friend, Jim Guthrie who scored Below and Superbrothers.Bleak Sword, I think it is a beautiful game and I love the aesthetic, too. I love the control scheme and the gameplay, the one-finger combat is so tight and so satisfying that they’ve knocked it out of the park. And then, just today, I just saw Manifold Garden launch, so I have to free up space and get that later today. It’s a very exciting time.