We look at how the Sword & Sworcery and Clash of Heroes developer turned a game jam prototype into an Xbox Live Arcade game.
Over the course of an hour discussing his team's latest, little excites Capybara ("Capy") president Nathan Vella like the suggestion of marketing a game with only a teaser trailer. No previews. No spoilers. A Blair Witch for games.
"Fuck I would love to do that; that would be amazing," says Vella, a former video editor who grew up cutting student films.
"I think you need a lot more clout than we have to do that ... I think Double Fine, or the people who have not just studio clout but also a personality, like a Tim Schafer or a Cliff Bleszinski, [could do it]."
If our recent feature on the clout-building Capybara is anything to go by, this group may get there before too long. But in the meantime, the team has dipped its toes in that water twice by debuting Sword & Sworcery and the upcoming Super Time Force with noncomittal, style-driven teaser trailers, then shifting to traditional promotion plans after. A compromise. An experiment turning into something slightly more normal.
Which, really, is also an easy way to describe Super Time Force; a game that over the past year has gone from a three-day experiment to a Microsoft-published Xbox Live Arcade title, seemingly almost by accident.
In many ways, it's surprised the developers at Capybara as much as they've surprised us.
What just happened
The Super Time Force experiment started with three people over three days in May 2011, when Capybara programmer Kenneth Yeung and artists Mike and Vic Nguyen entered the Toronto, Ontario Game Jam ("TOJam") where hundreds of local developers met to speed-prototype games around a central theme.
The theme in 2011 was the intentionally vague phrase "what just happened," the idea being that everyone participating would interpret it their own way and come up with something loosely connected to what was being created around them.
One team made a game about starting at the end and working your way back to the beginning. Another made a game about finding out who a killer is "by amusing innocent people." A third made a game called "Ass Nose Best" where "two players control the same dog, vying for sniff victory."
Yeung thought about it in the context of time travel. And after some brainstorming, the trio came to a conclusion about the game as a side-scrolling shooter: "OK, it's like a Contra game where you can go back in time."
Soon after, the team settled on the main feature: Every time the player died, they would fight alongside ghost versions of themselves doing what they had just done before they died. If the player died once, they'd have a co-op partner that moved and acted exactly like they did seconds earlier. If they died five times, they'd have a team of five former selves doing the heavy lifting for them.
As Yeung describes it: "Gunstar Heroes meets that one level inBraid."
"There's a lot of run and gun platformers in games, and there's a lot of time manipulation in games, but I haven't played a game that's put them together," says Vella.
Following the TOJam prototype, the trio returned to their day jobs and at first didn't know if the game would become anything more than that experiment.
"It was weird," says Vella. "Right around that time, we had had some shitty luck as a studio, and some stuff was really up in the air, and we didn't know if we could actually do it." He says the success of Capybara's previous small side game Sworceryhelped, both from a financial and a motivational perspective, and the team decided it was an experiment worth exploring.
After adding a fourth team member - designer Greg Georgiadis - and musician Jason DeGroot, the group got to work: "We tried out this thing where we had our main projects that we worked on, and then every Friday we would spend some time on this and see what happened based on that."
"It was probably like four or five months working one day a week, so like 20 days total or so," says Vella. "And after 20 days, it was pretty clear that it was gonna become something. But what it was actually gonna become, we weren't sure. We always had that in the back of our head - whatever it ends up being, it's cool."
Teasing with a trailer
Fast forward those four or five months to October 17, 2011, and a Super Time Forceteaser trailer appears online. It opens with the sounds of children cheering, and shows eight clips starring mobs of playable characters in what looks like a giant chaotic game of co-op Contra.
Few watching know exactly what they're looking at, and Capybara doesn't intend to tell them. Message boards and comment threads light up with confusion.
Capybara offers a description on Vimeo:
"For the elite soldiers of the Super Time Force, Past, Present and Future are mere weapons in their arsenal."
"But also they have guns."
"And one guy has a sword."
"History better watch its ass."
Later, when uploading the video to YouTube, the developers add:
"Also, there's a cat."
Despite, or perhaps because of the lack of details, Capybara fans flock to the video. The team's reputation, combined with a Sworcery-like pixel art style and lots of action garners excitement. The only downside comes from the teaser letting people see what they want to see, giving false hope to those interpreting it as a 10+ player co-op game.
"I had so many direct messages on [game forum] NeoGAF of people guessing what the gameplay was," says Vella. "I'm really interested in the concept of a teaser actually teasing something, rather than coming right out and saying it."
"I feel bad if people are disappointed that it's not a massively multiplayer pixel shooter or something like that, but at the same time, I want people to think about it a bit," says Vella. "Hopefully that speaks to the right people - people who would be interested in that style of game. And who knows - maybe we should make a multiplayer pixel platformer out of it for the sequel, 'Super Time Force Ultra.'"
"In a way I don't regret it, because we still don't really know what the game is," says Yeung. "It's not [10+ people at once], but I like the fact that we didn't really say because we never really know. Three months from now, the game could totally change and be something else."
To date, this teaser trailer is the only thing that appears on the game's official website.
Microsoft at the Independent Games Festival
Poke around online, and you'll notice that when the Super Time Force teaser went live, it went up as part of a listing for the 2012 Independent Games Festival. After chipping away at the game over the course of 2011, the team thought it was time to start taking things a bit more seriously.
"We decided, 'Hey maybe this is a good opportunity to put a little extra time into it, polish it up, and see what happens,'" says Vella.
As it turns out, Microsoft saw the game, and liked it enough to give it the IGF "XBLA Award." Which in practical terms meant Capybara 'won' a publishing deal to put the game on Xbox Live Arcade.
For those keeping track, this marks the second time that Capybara had something nice fall in its lap. First, the TOJam "what just happened" theme handed them the game idea, and second Microsoft handed them a publishing deal. Whether the team was ready for it or not, things kept moving forward.
"The whole ending up on XBLA thing - that was never a plan," says Vella. "It wasn't something where we said, 'This is an XBLA game.' We just made something cool and put it in some IGF judges hands, and Microsoft played it, and that evolved out of us just wanting to make something fun and have fun making it."
Learning by doing at PAX East
With a publishing deal in the bag, Capybara turned its attention to PAX East 2012 - one month after the IGF - where Super Time Force would make its proper debut.
Keeping with the Blair Witch Jr. plan of teasing players and then putting a game in front of them before they knew much about it, Capybara showed up, turned the game on, and let anyone who showed up sit down and play.
This was, essentially, Capy's way of eating its cake twice. Or arguably three times, depending how far you want to take the comparison. They got one surprise out of the teaser trailer, and a second by letting players discover the game by playing it. All in service of marketing.
"I LOVE LETTING PEOPLE BE INTRODUCED TO SOMETHING BY PLAYING IT."
"One of the unique things that we actually explicitly wanted to do [with the teaser] was not let people know what it is, so that people at PAX - the players - the first chance that they had to experience it, it wasn't totally spoiled," says Vella. "Now when people play it and they die for the first time, there's a real sense of discovery. And I think that's really cool ... I love letting people be introduced to something by playing it."
Vella adds that this semi-sneaky approach is part of his desire to cultivate a small group of loyal fans, rather than to make a game that appeals to many - the same topic that he recently brought up at GDC China regarding Sworcery.
"I love speaking to [a small group] - instead of trying to talk to everybody, I want to try to talk to that 10% of people that are going to totally get it, and let them help us evangelize the project, and get them interested in it," he says.
Shouting from the rooftops
Since PAX, Capybara has done a 180 on its bread crumb marketing, with playable versions of the game showing up pretty much anywhere games have appeared in public - on a 25 foot screen at the IAM8BIT art gallery in Los Angeles, at Polygon's E3 party, and even, oddly enough, at fighting game tournament Evolution 2012.
It would appear that the teasing is over. Though Yeung cautions that even now, he's not 100% sure what the game will be when it's done.
"I still think we don't really know what it is, and that's the cool thing about it," says Yeung. "It's constantly evolving and changing, and we're finding new things to add to it."
Capybara made that possible by setting up a deal with Microsoft that eliminated specific deadlines.
"We said, 'We want to keep making it a pet project; we're not going to give you a time when it's done; we don't really want your money either,'" says Vella. "And they were like, 'Yeah, no problem - we love your game.'"
Of course, that part about the money probably informs the part about the flexibility, right?
"It does, for sure," says Vella. "But at the same time, I think they were keen enough on the game that we might have been able to make that work. I don't know. I think the whole landscape for 'where do small studio games go' - it's very different now than it was awhile back, and I think that the platforms have to come around to that. And for me personally, at least, Time Force is a big step."
Notably, Super Time Force isn't Capybara's only game in development - it's just the only one announced. Yeung's day job, for instance, is on Capybara's "next big project," according to Vella, who also mentions that the company has a deal with Sony to publish a game. And he says that deal, like the Microsoft Super Time Force agreement, is set up less like a traditional publishing deal and more because Capybara needs Sony to be involved on its platforms.
"We really wanted to get to the point where we were making nothing but Capy's games on Capy's terms," says Vella. "And Sworcery enabled that in a lot of ways, as did the past work that we did with Clash of Heroes and Critter Crunch ... it was all a process to get here."
With any luck, maybe the next step in the company's evolution will give it enough clout to release a game with just a teaser.