Interview with Quim Garreta and Jaume Carballo of Cubus Games
Last week, we were lucky to get a few minutes with some of our favorite mobile game developers - the indie studio Cubus Games from Barcelona. A team of creative, talented people with a knack on good read and engrossing games, Cubus Games attracted our attention more than once last year with its Heavy Metal Thunder gamebook and the Necklace of Skulls, and this year with HMT's amazing sequel Sol Invictus, read our review. Both HMT and Necklace of Skulls are on our list of best adventure gamebooks in a very good company. Now, Quim Garreta and Jaume Carballo share their dreams, aspirations, creative processes and a little insight on our favorite games' sequels.
Tell us about Cubus Games – how did it start and when? How many people are in your team?
(Quim Garreta) Cubus Games is a team of imaginative people with a need to create, and that have a deep passion for unique experiences. We are five people fully involved with this adventure, that begun just a year ago (February 2014). Everyone on our team has their own addictions -- such as video games, movies, and music -- and we wanted a way for all of us to express that passion collaboratively. Gamebooks first, and different kinds of interactive storytelling later, were the perfect outlet for this. We love this stuff!
(Jaume Carballo) Well, we grew up reading this kind of interactive books, the CYOA collection, The Time Machine, D&D gamebooks, Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf... We're a bunch of freaks & geeks so this niche seemed the right one. We realized that's a small niche but full of loyal fans. And we love storytelling and games, so here you are: gamebooks!
What games/developers inspired you in the first place? Is there a paragon in the industry for you?
(JC) In the beginning we were always looking to Australian Tin Man Games. They're one of the kings, adapting to the app format old collections as Fighting Fantasy and creating their own ones as well (The Gamebook Adventures Saga). Inkle Studios is another king. These gentlemen do awesome design, awesome games, and they've managed to create interactive storytelling beyond the "gamebook niche". They designed Dave Morris' interactive novel Frankenstein, for Profile Books. It's a novel, but it has game mechanics, all of them well hidden below the text layer. Inkle did the adaptation of Steve Jackson's "Sorcery!" gamebook, creating an awesome GAME. Realize that I say GAME, not gamebook. With "Sorcery!", Inkle has achieved to open their market, to arrive to the "gamers", not just to the "gamebookers". From our POV, Tin Man Games and Inkle Studio are the kings to dethrone, but right now we just adore them ;) The paragon: we have to move out from the gamebook's niche to talk about it: they do pure delightful interactive storytelling. They're the Swedish vikings of "Simogo". These guys are pretty crazy, they mustn't be mentally sane. Such a stuff like "Year Walk" is too good to have been done by mentally sane humans. These people isn't from Sweden, but from other planet.
How do you choose your stories/authors?
(JC) Spending hours and hours surfing the Internet searching for high quality stories and good authors. Then, spending hours and hours of communication, talking with them about the gamebook we could do, the adaptation to app format and about the royalties and "serious contract terms."
Are some genres (like sci-fi, fantasy) more popular than others?
(JC) In general terms, sci-fi is quite popular right now (we see dystopian futures everywhere!), fantasy keeps its power, horror and zombies do it too
Tell us about the illustrators – who they are, how you find them? Are they resident authors, or do you find a dedicated artist for each project?
(JC) The Sinister Fairground illustrator is Pedro Belushi, the illustrator of the original paper book. There was plenty of illustrations already done for the "analogical version", so we caught it, commissioning to Pedro more illustrations to complete the "digital version". "Heavy Metal Thunder" and "Sol Invictus" illustrator is Marc "Gons" González, a good friend of us. His style, dark but full of contrasted colors, fits perfectly with this kind of product, so the bet was clear. "Necklace of Skulls" illustrator is another friend of us, Xavier Mula. When Dave Morris, the original author of the gamebook, saw the first design test with Xavier's work, he felt stunned. Xavier chose a color palette full of reds, oranges, vivid ocres... and beautiful blues and turquoise to balance the final result. Our illustrators aren't resident authors. We commission the work for each product to them.
Who makes the music for your apps? It is so engrossing and eerie, my dog goes outside when I play Sol Invictus without headphones.
(QG) Music is fully composed and recorded in our little studio. By now I’m the one who does this task, but the funny thing is that we are all musicians in different bands and projects! Jaume played the bass in some kind of trash-death-metal-grincore band, Jordi and Enric are bassists as well! Albert is drummer and I’m guitarist... One day we’ll create the Cubus Games rock band!
Your first gamebook Sinister Fairground launched in two languages English and Spanish; the other three HMT, Sol Invictus and Necklace of Skulls in English only. Any plans to translate to other languages, including Spanish? Are there other markets (India, China, Russia) that look attractive to you?
(QG) It depends on the demand. Since we develop narrative driven games, translation to other languages is very expensive and also the process is not so easy. However, it would be great to release our products in those markets. Hope we can afford it in a future!
What is the most difficult part in developing a gamebook?
(JC) Marketing! Well, I don't know if you will consider marketing as a "developing part", but believe me, you should. Once you have the product finished, the hard part begins. To build is hard. To sell is hell. We have learn so much in this year of existence!
Can you give fellow developers a little inside on the technicalities - the choice of engine, how hard is the branching and what software (sticky notes?) do you use to draft the branches?
(QG) Our engine is build on C++, the branching is still crazy-punk managed, and the software is... eeehm... these Jaume’s notebooks: http://www.gabriellaliteraria.com/como-se-escribe-un-librojuego/.
Are you planning to do a desktop/browser port of any of your games?
(QG) Our technology allows this in an easy way, but it’s not planned in a near future.
What elements needed to be adapted/edited in the mobile gamebooks as compared to their originals?
(JC) All of them... We don't make a port "from book to app". We read the entire book, trying to see which is the best way to create an app with it. We change every element that we think must be changed, whether it is a simple object or the entire combat system or the whole general design.
How do you estimate the success of your apps? Which one resulted to be the most successful?
(JC) We're very happy with what we've achieved in this year of existence. We have received awesome feedback from the users (that's something we really appreciate) and very good reviews from the media. (QG) By now, the Heavy Metal Thunder series is the most successful in terms of downloads. However, since each Cubus gamebook is so different (horror, sci-fi, adventures...) and our engine has a variety of features, we consider that, in certain way, each app has brought little success to the Cubus know-how.
What challenges do you face now?
(QG) We want to continue developing new interactive storytelling for the world, but also show our products (and possibilities) to the Catalan and Spanish audience. For the first year we’ve been focused on spreading the word outside our frontiers, and now it’s time to ‘conquer’ our own country.
What monetization schemes have you tried, and which resulted to be the most efficient? Are you planning to try the freemium model?
(QG) That’s a really tough point: to market gamebook apps. The fact is that we’ve been doing different tests (freemium model as well) to know which is the best monetization scheme to market these kinds of narrative-game apps. It depends on many many factors... Also, it’s not the same to sell apps in Spain than in other countries. For this reason, we keep searching for the best way to arrive to people, with a premise: we want to offer quality apps for little price. Market is changing so fast and we have to be flexible.
Is there anything in the works at Cubus Games right now? Any sneak peek on the author, or the estimated launch date?
(QG) We are in a very interesting point right now. Many things are happening at the same time, so in few months we’ll have some great news I guess. Besides, we’ve been preparing a special KickStarter campaign with a steampunk essence...
Will there be more game-books in the HMT, Sol Invictus series? (please, say yes!)
(JC) Sure! Kyle B. Stiff, its author, the most badass motherfucker in the whole galaxy and abroad, is already working on Heavy Metal Thunder Book 3, Slaughter at Masada.
Is the core team at Cubus Games working full time on your projects, or do you guys have side gigs?
(JC) Full time! There's no other way to get professional, to search for success, that working full time in your company. We've done our best to keep this dream going and the fact is that, step by step, we're achieving our goal.
I understand the keys to success are hard work, quality product and lots of marketing – that is what most developers tell us. What is the hardest part – making the game, or promoting the game? Do you have any secret ingredient?
(QG) Marketing is the key, but we’ve realized that we have to do every single thing in the best possible way. Hard work (and quality product) is a must in all the steps and tasks of all the processes that involve the development of a game. It’s really hard to be competitive, and we keep it clear on our minds.
(QG) Yes! Our main goal for this first year was to get noticed as quality gamebook developers. We think it’s already accomplished. We've got some awards (Heavy Metal Thunder got the Pocket Gamer Silver Award, Top 50 Android Games 2014, one of Best Adventure Gamebooks for Mobile... Necklace of Skulls got the Pocket Gamer Bronze Award, was the 2nd Best Indie Game 2014... Sol Invictus got the Pocket Gamer Silver Award, the Best iOS Game January 2015 and Top 10 Best Android Games January 2015...) and good reviews from both media and users. The goal that’s still there is to show to lots of people what interactive storytelling is (or can be) in their digital devices. Also, one of our goals was to learn. Learn a lot. About the business and the game development as a great discipline. We are learning and enjoying, and this is the main goal now!
(QG) I love Valiant Hearts, Monument Valley, Year Walk, Unlocked!... Jordi is playing Dungeon Keeper every day instead of working... Albert prefers Plants vs Zombies and the epic Banner Saga. Jaume likes The Wolf Amongst Us and Device 6...
How do you disconnect from the tech? Or, do you ever?
(QG) We disconnect with office-table tennis matches that are absolutely engaging. We’ve even improved the normal rules of this great sport: we have applied some additional gamification to make it really funny! We are really hooked by its magic!
Do you have any productivity hacks?
(QG) Not at all... We let our creativity flow individually, so we feed from different sources. As we talk a lot every day, we contaminate each other with ideas, images, sketches, music, short stories, films... whatever. The schedule and milestones do the rest.
Any advice for the fellow indie developers aspiring to find a spot in their niches?
(QG) Passion is the true driver behind any worthwhile goal. Do what you really want to do. Go for it with no excuses!
Have you had any experience crowd-funding your projects?
(QG) Not with Cubus Games, but other musical projects. The experience was nice, so we think crowd-funding is a good way to make some dreams come true, whatever the project is.
I can tell by your games you aim very high, and that is where I want to see you – on the pantheon of game-book developers because your games have become resident go-to treats on my devices. What are Cubus Games' ambitions?
(QG) Thanks for your kind words. We ‘only’ want to see Cubus Games to be recognized as one of the world’s best gamebook developers and new media storytellers. We also want to help this genre grow, to keep creating great products, and to gain the respect of readers (and gamers). Another worth goal would be introducing gamebooks to people who’ve yet to discover interactive storytelling. And last but not least, we would like to do something related to serious games and education.
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We thank Quim Garreta, Jaume Carballo and all of Cubus Games' staff for this fun, sincere and insightful interview, and wish them the best of luck and inspiration in their work!