As the CEO and producer of The Game Kitchen, Mauricio Garcia has played a pivotal role in the independent Spanish developer’s success since it was formed in 2010. And whilst there have been numerous ups and downs along the way, the developer is finally in a good place after having released Blasphemous 2 in August this year.
In a wide ranging interview that covers many subjects, I spoke to Mauricio Garcia about his time within the games industry (including The Game Kitchen), and was able to get his opinion on a number of industry issues – including Game Pass. At the same time, I was able to find out as to what his advice would be for those who are also looking to set up their own indie games studio, and why he decided to partner with Team 17 for the Blasphemous franchise. Enjoy!
The Blasphemous games have a reputation for being Dark Souls in a platform game. Why do you think there’s been such a popularity for really hard games to come about over the last few years? At the same time, I know that the Blasphemous games have been able to carve out a reputation for being side-scrollers, which weren’t that popular at one point, but why do you think the style and genre has become so popular since?
I would say that the popularity of Blasphemous comes from its uniqueness when it comes to the theme. For us, we like to work on projects which we can personally identify with. When we developed the first instalment, we were looking for ways to create something that was unique and something that only we could bring to the table. We noticed that there was no-one before us who had used the folklore of the south of Spain to create our concept. We did a couple of experiments with this idea and liked the result. We liked it so much that we went for it. We decided to base the universe of Blasphemous entirely on this folklore. And as a result, I think it has a very unique personality.
You decided to partner with Team 17 as your publishing partner. In terms of their publishing portfolio and DNA, a lot of their games aren’t similar to the kinds of games that Blasphemous is. What is it about them as a publisher that made you want to go with them – as opposed to someone like Merge, PQube, or even someone else?
There were a few components to their offering… The first one is that we grew up with their games on the Amiga and in the early PC gaming scene. We were fans of their work. They made Worms but they also made some games of a much more darker tone back then…
Yes, Alien Breed comes to mind… But we trusted them because they have this developer background, and we were very fond of their products. In early 2017, when we discussed the possibility with them, they told us that they were going to move away from family friendly games, and shape their brands towards much more darker toned games. So they really convinced us, and we liked what they were going to offer with our titles, and the titles that came after ours. Basically, it was a compelling offer from their end.
Being from Europe also makes things a little bit easier, because you don’t have to stay late to have phone-calls when you work with people from across the world. This is a factor that you have to consider. It’s not the main one, but can become quite important, because you have to talk to these guys very often, especially at the end of development.
So it was a gamble for us. We were very lucky to discover that we made the right decision, because when it came to marketing the game and get the word out, and to put our title on the most relevant channels, they did a really excellent job. They treated our game like how we thought the game deserved to be treated.
What’s Spain like in terms of its development community? What’s the culture like from a gaming and development perspective, and how does it compare to the rest of the world’s gaming hubs?
Game development in Spain is getting quite significant and big. The number of studios and productions have grown significantly in the last few years. And there were many interesting products and themes that were already going on for the last 10 years, but right now, the interesting shift is that the indie company that was started 10 years ago has now become a mid-size company. And they are bringing incredible propositions to players. Year after year, our games are getting valued more, selling more… We are getting awards and recognition from all across the world. So I’m very proud of what my colleagues and fellow Spanish developers are achieving. I’m absolutely humbled to be part of that movement. So I couldn’t be happier for the industry. At this point, I think we are having the best moment ever, and we aren’t not going to stop there. There’s going to be some amazing titles coming out this year from Spanish developers, and more to come next year. So I would advise everyone to keep an eye on Spanish developers, because we are creating great stuff.
What’s your background in game development?
Initially, I started as a videogame programmer. I moved from business programming into videogames because I love videogames. My first company was Pyro Studios, the creator of the Commandos series. I was there for a couple of years in Madrid, and then I went back to my birth city (Seville) to set up The Game Kitchen – the studio I founded where I also worked as a programmer for seven years.
It’s only when we started working on Blasphemous that I was asked to stop programming, and instead take responsibility of producing the game – because we needed a producer and there was no-one up for it. So I became a producer. And after the Blasphemous DLCs, and after how well the game did, we decided that we needed to grow a bit more and become a multi-project studio. So at that point, I delegated the production to David Erosa who has done an amazing job in producing Blasphemous 2.
Now, I’m focused on directing the studio, running the multi project strategy, and making sure that all the projects have the resources they need and that they are all on track… all that kind of boring stuff.
Given the fact that you founded The Game Kitchen, how long has the studio been going for?
We found the studio in 2010.
So 13 years?
Yes. But the thing is that the first half of our life, like six years, we were doing work for hire and contract work for other studios. That enabled us to become professionals, to work within a schedule and budget, and it gave us certain abilities. We then took to start creating our own IP. Our first game was The Last Door, then we did the second season, and then we did Blasphemous.
What are the biggest lessons that you’ve learned as a studio head over the last 13 years since the company’s inception? And what tips and advice would you give to other company founders who are in the same position as you, or who are looking to start up their own studio?
Well, the biggest piece of advice that I always give, especially if you don’t have a track record, and if you’re going to be doing your first project, is to start small. Do a small game. Something that you could put out on the market in something like six months. Very straight forward and to the point. Don’t try to be too ambitious too early. Try to deliver a small project, because every time you close a project, you have the opportunity to look back and reflect on what you did wrong and learn from that, and start doing things better. And doing lots of small projects early on is a great strategy to gather some experience and resources, and you can then work towards creating something much more ambitious later on.
That worked very well for us with the work for hire projects that we did, and The Last Door was also pretty small. We created foundations with The Last Door, and without those foundations, we wouldn’t have been able to do a game as ambitious and as polished as Blasphemous. If we had tried to do Blasphemous in 2010 when we started, it would have been a failure for sure. So starting small would be it.
What would you say the biggest successes or failures during your time in the game development industry?
Not following my previous advice… The first thing that we tried to do was a two year project in the studio. It was a massive failure. Nobody played it. It was released for XBox Live…
What was the game called?
It was called Rotor’scope. We did manage to win development contests. They gave us one of these big carton board checks for the contest. And then the game came out, and it just didn’t sell, basically a couple of 100 units. It was a massive failure.
Do you know why it was a failure?
Because we didn’t pay any attention to the market. It’s just the game that we wanted to make. It wasn’t a product. It was just a game. That’s the problem. There are so many games coming out that you need to take into consideration as to who the game is for, and what exactly these people want, and how to communicate that your game has what they want very early in the development. We didn’t do any of that. So it was a failure waiting to happen. After many contract work projects, we learned to do all these things. The Last Door was the first time that we kind of did all the necessary things for the first time, and it kind of worked. It didn’t really work like Blasphemous did a few years later.
But I will say that we were going in blind and without looking at the market. We didn’t really have someone who had a production business role on the team. We were all programmers and artists back then. So not having someone with enough dedication and time to figure out all these other things was also a very big reason for the situation that we had. So we fixed that. I removed myself from the programming team and I started learning how to do production, how to run the business properly, and how to care for the product side of things. Luckily for me, I have my counterpart, I have Enrique Colinet who is the creative director of the studio. He cares about the message and the artistic aspects of the game. So all these aspects are very much well taken care of. But we needed someone taking care of the other ones. So it was me who had to do it. And in the end, it was the right call, because it changed everything.
Talking about the lessons that you’ve learnt from the market, what is it about the first Blasphemous game that people liked and didn’t like that you were able to work on and then incorporate into its sequel?
I think they liked the narrative, the world building, exploration, and how shocking the characters and the situations in the games were. That’s what made Blasphemous what it was. For the sequel, we made sure to keep all of that and to amplify it. But there are a couple of things that people didn’t like so much, such as the precision of the platforming. For the sequel, we nailed that. We made sure that the platforming was paramount. The other thing that we changed was the instant kill on the spikes. We changed that. It’s nothing like that in the sequel now, where it made a lot of damage, but it’s not as unfair as in the first.
Another thing that people really asked for is to be more Metroidvania, so we did that. We made Blasphemous 2 more Metroidvania in that sense. I think overall, the goal for Blasphemous 2 was to give everyone a more refined version of the first game, but hyper refine it, fix all the issues that we had, but lose none of the identity that we had for the first game.
What are your future goals for The Game Kitchen?
We are going to be introducing different games. They are a secret so far. They will be released by their respective publishers at some point.
So you’re working with a number of other publishers apart from Team 17?
Yes, we’re still working with Team 17 for the sequel. But we have some other games with other publishers.
What’s your reason for working with multiple publishers as opposed to just sticking with Team 17?
Because their games are different. They are not based on the Blasphemous IP. We wanted to find the best possible match for every type of game that we are creating. For Team 17, these games are not the ideal fit, but we continue to work with them for other projects. It’s just for these ones, we could find better fits in other houses.
Microsoft and Sony have both been hell-bent on acquiring studios recently. You mentioned that you’re working with a number of other publishers that include Team 17. Have you ever thought about being acquired by a bigger publisher – like Microsoft? Where maybe you have that degree of stability, and where you no longer have to worry about budgets or marketing? You’ve got that security and can also just focus on your projects… Given that you’re a producer, you can then put yourself in a position where you don’t have to worry about where the money is going to come from… Have you ever thought about maybe putting yourself on the market that way?
I’ve seen this happening to other studios in Spain. Studios that are just a little bit bigger than us. It’s something that I don’t completely rule off. Maybe it happens for us. But the reality is that right now, we haven’t really grown the ambition of our projects. It hasn’t grown that much. We are kind of comfortable doing projects that are the size of Blasphemous and Blasphemous 2. They are AA titles, and are big enough to be ambitious, but are not too big to need such a huge amount of money.
So right now, we don’t see the need for this kind of association. But I cannot tell about the future. Maybe we would want to do a 3D game in five years which would cost 10 times more that what we would be able to afford, so we could probably do that in the future. But right now, all the projects that we are doing are not that big. So instead of growing the complexity of a single project, we grow by having several projects at the same time. And all of these projects are of a similar complexity to Blasphemous 2, so we know that we can manage that.
We have room with all the money that we currently have, and thanks to the millions of players that Blasphemous had, we’ve been able to do this. And since we own our own company, and don’t have any investors to give the money to, we reinvest all of the money. We don’t really have to look for profit, and we’re not really profit driven. I can tell you that all the money that Blasphemous has made has gone back into the studio, and into more projects. We are in a very good position where we can can hold our own future, where we can make all the calls, and where we can make all the decisions. We like to be in that position. If we can stay like this, we will. But if we ever have the urge to wanting to make a super ambitious project, like 100 developers or something, then we will have to explore the possibility of associating with bigger brands. But for now, we are pretty good where we are.
How many people worked on Blasphemous 1?
In Blasphemous 1, it was 17.
In Blasphemous 2, it was 25.
So pretty small teams then…
Some indie developers have stated that subscription services like Game Pass are a godsend for them, because it allows them to be able to recoup some of their invested cost in their game’s development. It also allows them to be able to market their games to a bigger audience. What’s your opinion on Game Pass and subscription services? Do you think they’re good for the industry? I know they’re good for the players, but as we’ve learned with say, videogames journalism, what’s good for the goose isn’t necessarily good for the gander, if that makes sense. The quality of games journalism has rapidly decreased over the last few years since it became “free”, and this is the same for music. I don’t personally think that this is good, but what is your opinion on games becoming “free”?
I would say that if it ends up becoming the norm, and all the platforms end up working like that, then it wouldn’t be positive. Especially if you start paying by the number of hours, and how you retain your players. But hopefully, it’s not the case. Like right now, I think it gives more flexibility to the publishing strategies of the studios, and helps them cover production costs. So I think that’s positive. But I think there’s a danger if it becomes a de-facto model, as it would transform the industry to a point where all the games that are made would be made with specific characteristics that work best on those platforms. And all the other genres and games will be banished or be forced to disappear.
In a way, if you’re talking about playtime, you’re ultimately encouraging games that follow the GAAS (Games As A Service) model, as opposed to encouraging narrative driven games that have a beginning and an end – like adventure games or RPGs. So if I play a game that’s been designed to be completed in 8 hours, and I complete it in 8 hours, I’ve no reason to play that game again – which is why I don’t play that game again. But using the Game Pass model, you only get a certain amount of money from me. You don’t necessarily get the £20-30 which I would have spent on the game otherwise. I personally believe that games need to be paid for, and am definitely of the opinion that this is the strategy that Nintendo took when they were able to successfully resurrect the depressed videogames market after the 80’s crash. They didn’t devalue their games, and they didn’t give their games away. They raised the price of their games to £40, and kept the price of their games at £40. We never see Nintendo games drop below £40, and that’s one of the reasons why gamers and industry folk perceive their games as being the best games, even though I don’t. Because Nintendo’s games are worth £40. There’s that sweat equity, and one values what they spend their sweat and money on. If you’re spending £40 on a game, it could be the worst game on the planet, but you’ll always think that it’s the best game on the planet, because you spent £40 on it. So when a game is given away for “free”, even if it’s the best game on the planet, it will never get the same level of respect that a Nintendo game will get. I think that it’s counter-productive for the industry to start giving away its games for “free”, to people who will ultimately be trained into not paying for them, and who will also be trained into not valuing them psychologically…
Luckily, I think our industry has a massive amount of consumers. They are very diverse. Somehow it makes all these different models compatible. They can coexist. They bring synergy that benefits the consumers and the developers. But yes, if this model were to become the de-facto standard, it would change games as we know them. But I’ve seen some very good games coming out on Game Pass, so it doesn’t necessarily need to mean that the quality or perception of the games becomes less, or that they are devalued by being free. They’re not actually “free”. You’re still paying a subscription fee.
On the other hand, we have what happened with the mobile market, where right now, 90% of the games are glorified machine slots, and where free to play has resulted in micro-transactions and advertising and very addictive mechanics. All these weird things that have really made the videogames as a medium worse. Hopefully, we don’t have to see this happening to PC and console games as well. But right now, we are living in a very good mix of different models. It’s very healthy. It gives all kinds of different choices to the players. It’s an excellent moment to be a videogame player. Because you have choices for all budgets, and games of all genres are doing pretty okay. We are in a very sweet moment, and hopefully, this doesn’t break.
Mauricio, do you have any last words?
I’m very optimistic about the industry. I think we are in an industry that values creativity, and message over money – especially when it comes to my fellow indie developers. So I just love being an indie developer. I hope that everyone that plays Blasphemous and loves it, is proud and likes what we did with the sequel in Blasphemous 2.
Is there going to be Blasphemous 3?
I don’t know. It depends on what people want. For us, I think the team wants to do at least something different, but if people want more, then eventually there will be more.
Thank you so much.