Grappling with Guacamelee [Interview]

27 Oct 2011  by   Paul Younger
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When Drinkbox Studios revealed a game that combines a Luchador protagonist, metroidvania style gameplay and the Mexican Day of the Dead festival, we knew we had to find out more.

Graham Smith, producer/programmer on Guacamelee, stepped up to wrestle with our hard-hitting questions about chickens and inter-dimensional travel.

IncGamers: Give us a quick overview of Drinkbox Studios; who are you guys, and how many people are involved in making Guacamelee?

Graham Smith: Right now we have about 6.5 internal people, and three external people working on Guacamelee. Some of the external people are part time (audio and music).

IG: You’ve cited ‘Metroidvania’ in reference to Guacamelee’s gameplay, which can sometimes mean a few different things. What will it mean here?

GS: You’ll unlock new powers and moves as you play through the game. These moves/powers will allow you to access areas you could not previously reach in the world. For example, once the “Rising Rooster” uppercut is learned, in addition to using it in combat, you can use it to break through weak ceilings, or do it while jumping as a double jump to access ledges that were previously inaccessible. There are also plenty of secrets that you will be able to access as you re-traverse through sections of the game with newly unlocked powers.
IG: With a Luchador protagonist, there’s going to be a fair amount of brawling involved; tell us a bit more about how the melee combat will work (whether it leans more tactical or towards button mashing).

GS: We’re still experimenting with this. We want the combat to be more on the tactical side, but in practice the more tactical we have made the combat the more difficulty players have had with it. For our Independent Games Festival (IGF) submission the combat is leaning more towards the button-mashy side because through playtesting we found this to be accessible to a larger audience. I think we’ll continue to iterate on this, and I expect that finding the ideal controls balance for combat will be one of the harder problems to solve for the project.

IG: It looks (and I’m going from the trailer here) like we’ll be able to turn our hero into a chicken at some points in the game. Why exactly would we want to do that, and is it an allusion to Luchadores taking on the identities of creatures symbolised by their masks?

GS: Ha! Nothing so deep as that I’m afraid. The chicken ability came about when we added chickens to the Town area to make it feel more alive. Teddy (one of the designers at DrinkBox) discovered that in the game editor you could hook a controller up to a chicken and run around. It just worked. Everyone thought running around as a chicken was a lot of fun and so we incorporated it as an unlockable power in the game, added some Luchador-to-Chicken transformation animations, and integrated a chicken quest. As a chicken, you can squeeze into small tunnels that you cannot enter when in your larger Luchador form (similar to the morph ball in Metroid).
IG: Just me being over-analytical then! Is chicken-morphing the most bizarre ability we’re likely to see?

GS: Maybe the most bizarre player ability, but I think there will be even more bizzare things that happen throughout the game. We have a lot of “interesting ideas” planned.

IG: There aren’t too many games with the Mexican Day of the Dead as a backdrop (the excellent Grim Fandango is about all I can think of); what inspired that as a theme?

GS: Augusto, our Animator / Concept Artist is from Mexico. He pitched the story/concept of the game to us when we were wrapping up the development of About a Blob [Drinkbox’s first game]. The team loved it. Mexico has a huge wealth of history and culture to draw upon for inspiration.

IG: How do the different dimensions (“The World of the Dead” and “The World of Nightmares”) affect gameplay, and can the player switch between them at will? During co-op, does Player One have primary control over this?

GS: At first the player will travel between the dimensions only through portals. Later, the player will gain the ability to do this in a more free-form way. The worlds overlap in space, and are similar in layout, but do have some differences, often forcing the player to swap between them to solve environment puzzles. Some enemies will exist simultaneously in multiple dimensions, but may be weaker in one of the dimensions, forcing the player to swap while fighting. During co-op either player can swap dimensions.
IG: Sticking with co-op, who does the second player control and how does that alter gameplay (can you combine moves to either defeat foes or solve puzzles? will there be a greater volume of enemies?)

GS: The second player plays as “Tostada”, El Presidente’s other (lesser known) daughter, and sister to the girl you are trying to rescue. In the game’s story, she died a fiery death at the hands of Carlos Calaca, and the main player character Juan finds her in the World of the Dead. She ends up joining forces with him in a crusade against her killer. We’re still finalizing what will change when a second player is present in the game, but there may be some increase in difficulty, and some 2-player specific moves.

IG: What’s the Spanish guitar track that plays over the reveal trailer? Is that licensed or done by one of the Drinkbox team?

GS: The song is called “Spanish Passion and Fire” and we picked it up from a royalty free music site. I spent several days scouring the internet for placeholder royalty free music that fit well with the game, while at the same time holding auditions with music composers for the music in the full game. The guy we ended up picking as our composer is really good, and we’re excited with the direction the music will be taking.

IG: It looks like you guys are working on two titles at once (Guacamelee and Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack for the Vita), does that mean Drinkbox was able to expand on the back of your first game (Tales From Space: About a Blob)?

GS: We’re only slightly bigger than we were when working on About a Blob (only 1 or 2 more people). During About a Blob, we were doing alot more external contract work to help bring in money to fund the game. With revenues from About a Blob, and support from the Canada Media Fund and the OMDC, we are able to focus more on internal projects now.

IG: Are you approaching anything differently this time around, based on your experiences releasing TFS: About a Blob?

GS: For Guacamelee, we had a much longer pre-production period to help us iron out most of the questions of what the game would actually be, and help us avoid false starts on the project. We are also doing a lot more focus testing in the early stages of development, and are finding the feedback to be very useful for tweaking many aspects of gameplay.

IG: It seems there are more outlets than ever for getting a title out there, and quite a few ‘indies’ seem to now be on a stable financial footing; but does the ease of entry risk over-saturating the scene or making it too competitive?

GS: It does feel pretty competitive right now, especially on iOS. The barrier of entry to making a game seems to be much lower than it has been in the past with iOS, XBLIG, and even direct PC download available to everyone. The IGF had a record 570 entries this year! However, I don’t know how financially stable many of these companies are though. It’s very hard to get your game noticed in such a crowded market. I think many people are working for very low salaries, or making their game “on the side” with real jobs or contract work supporting them financially.

IG: Time to get the divining runes out: where do you see the independent game scene going in the next few years?

GS: With the barrier of entry to making a game continuing to get lower, and the resources available to game developers continuing to increase, I think we will continue to see amazing new ideas coming from indie developers on pretty much every platform available.

IG: Without necessarily giving specific figures, what are the Xbox Live/PlayStation Network publishing deals like for indies? Do you consider them reasonable?

GS: PSN has a fair royalty split, and allows indies to self-publish their games as long as they can pass the Concept Approval process. We’ve really enjoyed working with Sony. XBLA is a bit more difficult because they no longer allow indies to self-publish, and so you either need to be first party, or get a publisher involved.

[2D Boy’s] Ron Carmel wrote a very good article recently comparing the two platforms from the perspective of indies, which is definitely worth checking out.

IG: If it’s possible to reveal this yet, what platforms is Guacamelee heading to and (roughly) when can we expect it?

GS: We can’t really say for certain yet, we’re still working these out.

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