As the studio that brought you Critter Crunch, Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, Super Brothers: Sword & Sorcery and Super Time Force, Capybara Games are renowned as being one of the most accomplished indie developers working in the games industry today. And with their upcoming Below being shown at this year’s GDC Europe and Gamescom, I was lucky enough to speak to the studio’s Creative Director – Kris Piotrowski – and ask him as to if (and when) Below will be getting released on Microsoft XBox One’s rival platforms. Enjoy!
Below is a game that’s been getting quite a bit of press over the last few months, more now as opposed to before… One of the things that people talk about is its distinctive art style, even though it’s harks back to the days of yore when 2D games were en vogue. What was your inspiration for using the kind of art style that you’re using right now?
Well, the initial idea for the game was to make a game that had a very small tiny character. The very, very first idea was that we wanted to use the kind of HD resolution in a different way. We wanted to basically fit an entire dungeon on a single screen, and that’s sort of where the idea began. When we started to work with that kind of scale, we knew right away that the most important thing would be to still maintain clarity and allow people to just, at a glance, understand information about creatures or animals or enemies. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out an art style that had the right sort of mood and tone, but also allowed us to give players all the information they need, without giving them the desire to squint at anything feeling like they’re maybe zoomed out too far or something like that. Also thematically I wanted to make a game where you really felt like a small character in a large, oppressive, mysterious world. You play a very capable and skilled character, but you are very fragile and that’s something we wanted to communicate just at a glance. The game really isn’t about being a super powerful hero that gets awesome armor and becomes stronger and stronger. It’s really a game where the focus is shifted away from the player and the character, to the game world. The game is about the island, and the art style kind of enforces that.
You’ve obviously had to do quite a bit of work on the art style in terms of nailing down its distinctive look. You can’t turn an apple into an orange… Did your team of artists ever have to compromise their work flow patterns in order to ensure that the game came to the look the way it did?
Well, yes. The interesting thing about Below in terms of its art style is many of our other games, the looks sort of come from an artist style that already exists. For example when we worked with Super Brothers and Jim Guthrie on Sword & Sorcery, we approached Craig Adams from Super Brothers and asked him if he wanted to make a game with us because we saw his pixel art style and we thought it was beautiful. When we started working on Sword & Sorcery, of course that art style developed from the beginning to the final product but Craig already had that style developed, he was ready to go. With Super Time Force, for example, that art style is sort of our Capy art style, but it really is a style Mike and Vic Nguyen already had, that was their pixel art style. With Below, nobody on the team… the style that the game is right now isn’t anyone’s style. We didn’t start with that, nobody drew that way already and nobody was exploring that.
Is that a weakness? Asking people to essentially work in a way that isn’t necessarily something that they’re familiar with?
No I don’t think so. I think strong artists are also versatile, and so I’m fortunate enough to work with three amazing artists on Below. Qiqo for example is an amazing 3D and 2D artist, he did the animations for Clash of Heroes HD and Critter Crunch, and he also has been exploring 3D as well. Sylvain has a very sort of painterly style, a very moody style. It took us a while to find this style, but I think everybody knew what we were trying to arrive at. We knew what the style needed to provide for the game, in our case it was a two-fold requirement, it was to get the mood that we wanted and get the tone that we wanted, but also there was a very strong emphasis on clarity at that zoom level. I did a talk at GDC Europe about how we found that art style and it wasn’t easy by any means, but now it’s sort of second nature. It’s not anyone’s art style in particular, but everybody understands how to create work in that style now.
Below in some ways looks a lot like Hyper Light Drifter which is another indie game that’s coming out soon. To the casual observer it plays in a similar way as well. Even though the indie marketplace is a vast arena where loads of copycat games come out on a very regular basis, how are you ensuring that your game, apart from its art style, is able to distinguish itself from everything else that’s out there, where people go “you know what, I haven’t seen this before”?
Well, I’ve played Hyper Light Drifter. I know the guys making the game and I think it’s similar to Below in terms of maybe where it’s coming from, or what type of game they’re trying to make. You can see sort of a Zelda influence in Hyper Light Drifter, but in terms of the actual style and the way the game feels, Hyper Light Drifter is a much faster game. It’s very frantic, it’s an excellent game, and I love it. I think when you sit down with Below, our intention is to make you approach the game in a lot slower fashion. It’s really about crawling around very carefully and making all the right moves. I also think narratively we’re pretty far apart. People like to find comparisons where there are none. But in this particular case I think being compared to Hyper Light Drifter is a great compliment, I think it helps people find the kind of games that they’re looking for. If they find this game interesting then they might find our game interesting as well. We moved away from pixel art with this game, you know we have this combination of 2D and 3D with a whole bunch of different stylistic choices that I think allow our games, Below in particular, to stand out even if someone’s making a similar game mechanically or thematically.
Even though everybody’s been talking about the game style, how are you ensuring that the game not only has style, but also has a significant amount of substance associated with it?
Well, I’m really proud that when people start playing below they almost immediately begin to wonder what it’s about and what the game is trying to say. That is part of the point of this particular game and it’s great to see it even though the game isn’t done, and we’re still very much working on everything. There are certain things that I was worried about not being clear and not coming through, but those things are actually working and people seem to come off of playing it wondering and questioning what it is they’re doing in the game. I think that’s a very hard thing to get right and sometimes you don’t even know if you got it right until somebody tells you that they’re feeling something from the game.
What is the objective of the game?
I can’t really say, but part of the game experience that I hope players get that they’ll discover everything on their own.
So it’s an exploration game?
It’s an adventure game. The game is about exploring the game world and exploring the mechanics and then sort of learning how to become more skilled at the combat, but also over time understanding the baseline logic of how the game flows and how certain wildlife such as animals or plants can be used to help you explore even deeper. That’s something that you know if you were to arrive on an island, you don’t really know what the flora and fauna do, but over generations people would pick up on the knowledge and it can help them explore deeper.
Is this like ‘Lost’?
It’s not like… Yeah, I mean there could be a comparison. I’m a huge fan of ‘Lost’.
Did that have an influence in the game, where ultimately you don’t know really know what you’re doing?
I mean, ‘Lost’ is an amazing example of a show and a world that is just in every single direction filled with mysteries and questions. That’s something that I’m not really sure if it consciously had an influence on it but I did love watching that show. I hated the way it ended, but it’s something that I think they managed to create a single space that was just one of the most interesting settings I think in television history. I wouldn’t say it’s a direct influence, but with that kind of storytelling, it’s almost more interesting to provide questions than it is to provide answers. That’s something that I’m definitely interested in creating.
When is Below coming out?
Our plan is to release it in 2015, as early as possible in 2015. It’s our most ambitious game, the game world is vast and there are a lot of systems of at play, there’s a lot of moving parts and it always takes us a while to figure things out. Also, we work on two games at once so in the middle of making Below we also focused on completing Super Time Force Ultra. We always kind of fall back on that kind of Blizzard or Valve style mentality where you know, it’s done when it’s done. As long as we can maintain that, that’s our plan with Below. I really want to make Below the best game that Capy has ever made. I want every element of it to be resolved and interesting, so there’s still a lot to do, but it’s getting there.
What platforms is Below coming out on?
It’s coming out for Steam and XBox One.
I can’t really say.
Is it a timed exclusive?
We announced that the game is timed exclusive. Super Time Force is also timed exclusive, but we currently have no official plans beyond XBox One.
No Vita then?
Well if it ever comes to Vita it would probably be one of the last platforms that we hit. I personally love the Vita, I love all the games that are coming out for it, but with the Vita the audience isn’t quite there.
No, I don’t think it will happen. I love the Wii U, but it’s something that for us, as an independent studio, we have to weigh the pros and cons. Nintendo has always been my biggest inspiration. Right now though, we’re working with Microsoft and we have no other plans for anything beyond that.
Has Sony approached you to maybe consider porting Below to their platforms?
We have to consider everything as an independent studio, but we also have to take it one step at a time.
How do you think the possibility of Below coming out on a Nintendo platform would be affected by fact that Dan Adelman has left Nintendo?
Well, number one… I’m almost certain that Below won’t end up on a Nintendo platform and that’s not related to any of that at all. I love Nintendo and I would love to make games for Nintendo platforms, but we also have to choose the right platform for the right game. I really don’t want to knock Nintendo, I love Nintendo. They’re the biggest inspiration for me and I look at their work as the strongest pillar in gaming and whether the Wii U is doing well or not, I believe Nintendo is always a console maker that surprises people. In my opinion you [can] never count Nintendo out, they always make the best games and that’s what sells platforms.
Given that Sword & Sorcery came out on the iOS platform, and given that your lineage is rooted more toward mobile, do you think we’ll ever be seeing Below on the iPad or some major tablet in the future?
Well, Below is game that is very much designed for a controller. The combat system requires precision, it requires skill and dexterity that only a controller could provide. I love iOS for certain kinds of games, and I believe that other kinds of games just don’t work on it. I think bringing Below to iOS is probably an impossibility unless there’s some sort of controller thing that comes out that actually looks good, feels good, and plays well. I don’t see it being an iOS game, I think it’s a bigger and meatier game that requires a certain level of skill. It’s something that I really want players to play on their PC or in their living room with their XBox One with their sound up and their lights down. That’s something that is very hard to do on iOS. We’re working on a couple ideas for iOS, but when we work in that direction we think about what works for that platform. Sword & Sorcery is a game that was very clearly designed for the things that iOS can do well, and I think that bringing a game like Below or Super Time Force to iOS would compromise its quality and we’re not interested in doing that.
Even though you’ve got two games in development, do you have any other game ideas in the pipeline that you’d like to work on in the future?
Always, yeah. Definitely. After we’re done with Super Time Force Ultra we’re going to be working on another project while we’re still developing Below.
Do you want to describe it?
No, we haven’t made any announcements, but we are thinking about a smaller iOS project with a lot of extra Capy sensibilities and that’s about all I can say.
Kris, thank you.