Edinburgh Interactive Festival: Game Canada
Buffeted as it was on the high winds of hectic festival scheduling, you could forgive Nathan Vella’s demonstration of two new releases from his development team (Toronto-based Capybara Games) to be a little worse for wear: we evidently hadn’t been the first to play through the charming Critter Crunch on PSN and the idiosyncratic Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes for Nintendo DS with the in-demand company president, and we wouldn’t be the last, with several interruptions taking place during our game time to shuffle appointments around with a host of interested journalists. Truthfully, it was half expected that he might be curt with us.
Small but Mighty
Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes is a fresh take on the famed strategy franchise for DS, with visuals strongly reminiscent of SNES-era JRPGs. Capy approached Ubisoft with the idea a couple of years ago, and contrary to their expectations the publisher were only too happy to accept. Wrapping role-playing elements around puzzle strategy combat - or is that puzzle elements around strategy role-playing? - the game itself is unlike much else. Battles are lengthy affairs with basic colour matching drapings accompanying the turn-based tactics, the seemingly complex system in fact pretty simple to grasp; well, according to Nathan Vella. Multiplayer is promised, and we’re informed that it’s incredibly addictive. Certainly another one to watch out for.
Not so. Vella was in reassuringly light spirits when we met with him, eager to share his experiences of Capybara’s newest products in the informal, breezy tone he has apparently been conducting all of his business with throughout the festival.
And why not? The Canadian native has much to be chirpy about. His is a business which has received the necessary high profile backing to turn itself from a group of a dozen bedroom coders plugging away at simplistic mobile phone games (Vella describes the experience as “Almost like videogame programming school” but “not necessarily the best place for a studio that‘s all about trying to create something cool, creative and fun”) to one of the most exciting developers to grace the Playstation Network this year. As much as the team’s collective feet might have the world beneath them, however, it’s well understood that they’re firmly on the ground.
With the assertion that he “…Has to give Ubisoft credit for handing a small, independent company with little experience of making games outside of cell phones the freedom to do what they think is right with the Might and Magic series,” Vella reasserts a lot of the positive feedback we’ve been hearing about the behemoth publisher from the considerable Canadian presence at the event. Having just opened a new studio in Ontario, resulting in the creation of 800 jobs for the region, Ubi seem to have invested in a tight knit community which is already overflowing with creative talent, and look set to provide a further benevolent force for gaming in the frozen North - so long as they act local.
“I think (large publishing companies) are good for this type of community if they are interested in integrating and sharing our attitudes (to videogame development),” suggests Ian Kelso, company president of Interactive Ontario. He doesn’t seem worried - even the most insular of publishing houses have been known to open up in the vast geographical spread and cosy social trends of Montreal and Vancouver, and there’s no reason to suggest that Toronto will prove any different. After all, companies large and small are all enticed to the area for the same reasons: deep talent pools brought about by healthy dialogue between the industry proper and a collection of highly respected universities; pleasant working conditions helped by continuous iteration between coding teams; and elaborate financial potential as a result of low costs of land and high tax incentives.
Critter Crunch is a spectacularly odd visual and practical take on traditional puzzle game elements, with “match X amount of coloured Y” familiarity being replaced with a challenge to complete food chains of differently sized critters. Featured power-ups allow for instant destruction of singular animals, and there’s enough unique distractions along with the addictive playability to throw a curve ball at even veteran puzzle gamers. Intense multiplayer provides a chance at madcap adversarial fun, and the animation throughout the offering is consistently splendid. Nathan’s take on the usual blob-matching action of the genre is in keeping with Capybara’s ambitions: “Why not add some character?”
A number of these factors are born of an attitude to the gaming world not as a slightly seedy, if lucrative, pastime to be milked dry and otherwise ignored almost completely, but as a genuinely worthwhile artistic and cultural endeavour which makes up an integral part of a country‘s media output. Thus, companies which otherwise may never get off the ground are seen as worth subsidising by the government for huge potential returns and to create work for a determined, skilful section of the workforce. This in turn allows these videogame studios to create content and attract further investment from the private sector, as business developer Larry Mackinnon explains: “… Because we’re such a large land mass but such a small population, we really have to get out there and show people just what we can do. Nobody’s going to come to us.” It seems that one some occasions, success is not a case of government handouts or close links between education and the job market, but simply one of being a good-natured group of people with a hard working attitude towards what you do.
The regional advantages the Canadians harbour are well renowned at the festival. Whether you talk to Eidos president Iain Livingstone about the tax breaks he’s been lobbying our own government for throughout his career, or MacKinnon himself on where in the world interactive creativity best meets capitalism, the country draws glances of both an admiring and jealous nature with a frequency few other nations seem to. When a puzzle game based on helping colourful, overweight animals devour smaller ones before vomiting into your son’s mouth can get out of Nathan Vella’s mind and into production on both the iPhone and later the Playstation Network, it’s clear that there‘s something very special going on.
“It’s a game that we’ve worked on, nurtured, and loved,” Vella concludes about his team’s first big release. “It’s kind of like our baby.”
Perhaps. But with weighty backing and what looks to be a deliciously promising little package both aesthetically and in execution, look for Critter Crunch and other babies of the Canadian games industry to grow up very quickly.
Thanks to Fraser McMillan for his help in writing this article.