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How Drinkbox Studios' grit raised an indie developer and got Guacamelee funded

The plan was always to create its own games, but it took years of work for Drinkbox Studios to earn that privilege.

In 2008, the game development studio arose from the remnants of Toronto-based developer Pseudo Interactive. When its final game lost funding, Pseudo laid off about 90 percent of its staff, and dismissed the remaining skeleton crew a few weeks later. Toronto's independent developer scene wasn't as vibrant then as it is today, and many former Pseudo employees fled Toronto for work elsewhere.

But Chris Harvey, Ryan MacLean and Graham Smith, three former Pseudo Interactive programmers, stuck around. They founded Drinkbox Studios to build the development house they wanted to work at and create the games they wanted to play. Within a few weeks, the trio hired a senior artist and designer, creating what would be the five man core of the company during its formative years.

But the path to creating its own games wasn't straightforward, and it would be years until the studio had built up enough collateral to create that opportunity.

Though it had come up with the concept for Tales from Space: About a Blob not long after the studio's founding, Drinkbox spent its first few years leveraging its programming expertise to help other companies make games like Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale and Sound Shapes. It wasn't the studio's ultimate goal. Working on these projects and establishing relationships with developers and publishers was a means to an end.

"The money from working on external contracts was pretty good," Drinkbox's Graham Smith told Polygon. "We were able to start paying ourselves some salary after a few months of the company — some low salary. But we were basically trying to build up a bankroll that we could use to fund our game and to hire more people to work on the game."

All told, Smith said Drinkbox has worked on about 20 different projects since its inception. During its first years, Drinkbox wrote code, saved its money and used its savings to finance About a Blob, its first original game, which the company released in 2011 on the PlayStation Network. The game was self-funded by Drinkbox and released as part of Sony Computer Entertainment America's Pub Fund program, which provides developers funding and profit sharing in return for timed exclusivity on Sony platforms. As it had been for years now, Drinkbox was building relationships that not only kept the studio afloat, but also set it up for future opportunities. The studio had proven that it could produce original content and shipped its first game. Now it was time to do it again.

Drinkbox started brainstorming again.

At the end of 2010, as the studio wrapped up development on About a Blob, Sony approached Drinkbox to develop an original launch title for its unannounced handheld. At the same time, Drinkbox brainstormed a sequel to About a Blob to coincide with a deadline for a funding program through the Ontario government. The timing worked out in its favor. Drinkbox received funding for Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack from the government, with hardware and support from Sony, and released the game as a launch title alongside the PlayStation Vita in early 2012.

When it was time to work on a new game, Drinkbox started brainstorming again. Everybody at the developer — about nine people at the time — pitched a game, and Drinkbox narrowed it down to two possibilities. The studio did some initial work on both, and began shopping the games around to developers at GDC. They learned quickly that interest in Guacamelee, a side-scrolling platformer infused with a luchador sensibility, was near universal. They returned to Toronto armed with this knowledge, began work on Guacamelee, and showed the prototype for the game at E3.

By now, the studio had been executing on its funding plan for years, and it was important for Drinkbox to determine its own destiny. In the context of an indie developer, that means self-publishing. After Guacamelee's successful E3 showing, the studio talked with publishers. One of the publishers was Sony, which approached the studio with a Pub Fund offer. Confident in the game's value, Drinkbox balked at Sony's offer. The studio turned it down.

"When we were presenting it to all the publishers, one of the people was Sony, and we were submitting it to the Pub Fund," he said. "They had come back to us with an offer that was pretty low. Compared to us self-publishing, on our own, [and] on XBLA, the offer just wasn't that appealing."

As Drinkbox continued to work on Guacamelee, it applied for a grant from the Canada Media Fund, a half-public, half-private partnership formed in 2010 to finance projects like films, novels, and video games. The CMF requires those who apply to have some funding in advance, which Drinkbox had in place from the years the studio had spent working on games and saving for its future projects. Before Guacamelee had partnered with a single publisher, the studio received a CMF loan totaling about $500,000. The studio continued to control its own destiny. Drinkbox could now afford to self-publish Guacamelee.

The bigger the publisher, the more slots are available to it.

Almost. The studio could self-publish the game on PlayStation 3, and PC without a problem, but Microsoft's Xbox 360 presented a challenge. As Smith explained it, Microsoft allows publishers a certain number of slots to publish on the Xbox 360 platform. The bigger the publisher, the more slots are available to it.

Publishers receive these "tokens" whether they publish a game or not, and if Drinkbox was going to bring Guacamelee to the 360, it needed to partner with an established developer with free slots. So it continued to work on Guacamelee, bringing it to more trade shows, building buzz surrounding the game, and playing potential publishers off of each other.

The strategy worked. But Drinkbox and its potential publishing partners were at odds about how to split the royalties. Though Drinkbox's offer was for publishing the Xbox 360 version of the game, each publisher wanted a cut of profits from other versions. In the publishers' view, the marketing they'd be doing for the Xbox 360 version would inevitably move units on other consoles. Publishers felt they deserved a cut of those royalties, too.

That was not ideal.

Drinkbox disagreed.

That was not ideal, but the larger problem, as far as Drinkbox was concerned, was that the marketing was promised, not explicit in the contracts the publishers provided. And for a studio intent on controlling its destiny to the greatest extent possible, promises didn't cut it.

Drinkbox had already planned on doing most of the marketing itself, grinding it out on trade show floors to build public awareness just as it had built publisher awareness. In fact, many of the offers that Drinkbox had received were a direct result of the studio's self-promotion at trade shows. Now, the studio was at an impasse, determined to bring Guacamelee to the Xbox 360 but unwilling to take publishers' offers on faith.

After a successful showing at PAX East, the studio started negotiations with a few publishers that were wiling to forgo the profit sharing from other platforms. That's when Sony, which had already submitted a lowball offer that Drinkbox's had rejected, reentered the picture with a new offer. This time, Sony not only bested its first, failed attempt to lure Guacamelee to its platform but effectively doubled the maximum Pub Fund limit by offering separate funds for PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita versions of the game.

Now, although the game would launch on fewer platforms, Drinkbox had an offer that was in line with what the studio had expected to receive from an Xbox Live Arcade port.

"And the amount that they were offering for the PS Vita SKU was comparable to what we expected we would get for the XBLA SKU if you factored in the cut that Microsoft would take and the cut the publisher would take," Drinkbox's Smith said.

Drinkbox had already partnered with Sony on About a Blob and Mutant Blobs Attack, and it knew that the Pub Fund decreases the studio's overall risk by guaranteeing a certain amount for shipping the game. There was no talk of minimum guarantee for the XBLA version.

"So basically we flipped PlayStation Vita for XBLA and decided to go with the Pub Fund instead of these publishers," he said.

Drinkbox signed a contract with Sony a few weeks after PAX East. The studio, already wary of publishers' willingness to market the game, didn't expect what came next as Sony immediately started to include Drinkbox and Guacamelee in the company's events, like E3, Gamescom, a GameStop event and smaller Sony shows in New York. The studio's determination had paid off.

"It turns out [that], on top of getting the Pub Fund deal, we're also getting a ton of marketing from Sony, which we didn't even expect," he said. "That didn't happen for us when we had the Pub Fund for About a Blob, so things have been going really well — way better than what we expected when we signed up for the Pub Fund, actually."

That willingness to embark on new grounds is in Drinkbox's DNA, and that grit keeps paying dividends. And it's serving Drinkbox well right now, as the studio continues to develop Guacamelee, an indie game that Drinkbox developed on its own, built up grassroots excitement for, had enough faith in to turn down multiple publishing offers, and that ultimately found a home at Sony. At Drinkbox, persistence pays off.

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