Capybara leads Toronto’s indie gaming charge with ingenious, unabashedly weird titles.
“It’s a rodent from South America,” explains Sean Lohrisch, audio director and co-founder of Toronto’s Capybara game studio, when asked about the company’s name. Chosen by committee when their office numbered just a dozen people, the name reveals plenty about Capybara: it’s distinctive, singularly weird and pitched from way out of left field.
Capybara’s payroll now supports 22 or 23 employees, by the hazy estimation of co-founder, president and self-described “resident yoga master” Nathan Vella. He’s just returned from a whistle-stop tour of the West Coast, bouncing between half a dozen meetings and conferences, with a final stop at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in L.A., the mecca of trade shows for game developers. Though he’s fighting off a cold, Vella speaks with the speed-freak velocity of a big-time caffeine addict—or someone who’s just super-enthusiastic about his work.
Vella helped lay the groundwork for what would become Capybara in 2003, when he was occasionally employed as an editor, working on what he calls “shitty Canadian TV shows.” He was constantly thinking about games in his free time. “There was no real videogame development in the city,” he says. “We just began making games in our spare time.”
In 2005, the Capybara team inked a deal with Disney to develop a cellphone game based on the Pixar kiddie flick Cars. They rode that money into more cellphone projects (cranking out titles bearing the Happy Feet and American Idol brands). After spending three years developing games based on other companies’ licences, and excited by the work being done by local indie types, they released their own title, Critter Crunch.
“We saw other people doing well, and we wanted to do well,” says Lohrisch, who ditched his day job as a chemical engineer to work full-time at the company.
Since then, Capy (as it’s known for short) has been developing downloadable games for cellphones, iPhones, iPads and the PlayStation Network, as well as Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes, a retail title for Nintendo DS. Clash of Heroes, like its oddball puzzle game Critter Crunch and its musical problem-solving retro-adventure title Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery, has netted Capy plenty of awards and recognition from go-to gaming sites like IGN, pushing it to the centre of Toronto’s vibrant indie game development scene.
Vella compares the city’s gaming culture, not inaccurately, to the indie-music scene that rose here last decade: like-minded, creative people who work and play well together. But unlike a lot of musicians (or filmmakers, or whatever), Vella and Lohrisch don’t perceive their “indie” status as existing in antagonism to some larger corporate behemoth (for example, Toronto’s recently established Ubisoft studio).
“It’s naïve to think you’re not going to have competition,” says Vella. “Even though it’s an amazing culture—and for us it’s always a culture first—it is a business. You can’t go through life thinking you’re going to be this great indie haven that nothing’s going to threaten.” This level-headed, unflappable attitude is what makes Capybara, and the whole indie gaming culture in Toronto, so refreshing. Granted, it’s super dorky, requiring fluency in the history of gaming, several programming languages and a thorough knowledge of the bestiaries of every Final Fantasy title. But if Vella and Lohrisch are any indication, it’s a culture that’s at once laid back and hyperactive.
And while Capy’s stock keeps rising, the company harbours no ambitions of becoming the next Ubisoft, or of expanding its open-concept loft space near Queen and Spadina into some Hogtown Googleplex. Vella even sticks by the name. “We learned afterwards that a capybara’s basically a giant guinea pig. And we’re a large studio full of people who had never made games before. We’re like a large guinea pig.”
_Capybara’s Greatest Hits
Critter Crunch: Described by Nathan Vella as “Miyazaki meets Disney,” Critter Crunch is a screen-clearing action puzzle game in the style of Dr. Mario.
Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes: Mixing role-playing game elements familiar to Might and Magic players, Capy integrated a strategic puzzle-based combat system that impressed gamers and critics.
Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery: By far the weirdest title in Capy’s stable (so far), Sworcery’s an abstract retro adventure title.