Spanish developer Tequila Works is still a relatively young developer, having been founded in 2009. Its first title, a survival horror game called Deadlight, put Tequila Works on the map with its unique visual style and dystopian atmosphere. More recently, the developer partnered with Cavalier Game Studios in Guildford, UK to release murder mystery adventure title The Sexy Brutale. Tequila Works is also set to release Zelda-like adventure Rime (with help of publisher Six Foot) and will soon be dipping its toes in VR waters with The Invisible Hours. There's nothing typical about the kinds of games Tequila Works creates, and that's certainly a conscious choice, studio CEO Raul Rubio tells me during GDC.
"The approach we're taking with Tequila Works is a little bit like the Nintendo way. So we try to create our own path," he says. "How do we do that? First, we try to avoid all trends. For example, the motto of Tequila is 'creating with gusto'. That means that we have very simple goals. We are always trying to look for the beautiful and the crazy. Because again, you can make a beautiful game, but it can be horrible.
"And you can have something that is really crazy, in a Japanese way, but maybe it's meaningless. It's just crazy. So we try to mix it all together so we have something that is meaningful at the same time that it's compelling... So we basically are a studio that doesn't look at the games as genres. We look at them as unique universes, opportunities for us as creators to create something unique."
Thanks to the democratization of game development with easily accessible tools, almost anyone can start making games as an indie nowadays, but becoming successful as a small studio is a whole other challenge entirely. It may be tempting to look at the leading games on the market and create something similar, but that's a soul-sucking endeavour if you ask Rubio.
"We respect all trends, but for us it's hard to understand why people want to copy others. Where is the beautiful in that? The craziness is in being bolder and trying something unique," he says.
Rubio has a certain charm about him, even when practically scaring me out of the interview room by admitting that he had a 108-degree Fahrenheit fever only a couple days earlier. When asked to counsel fellow indies in the industry, he answers, "As they say, advice is like prophecies. They only make sense when it's already too late. But I will do my best."
The key to finding success one day, Rubio suggests, is to make sure you're passionate about the projects you're working on. "Every day you need to think [about] why you started making games. Because my father was a wise man and he only gave me one [piece of] advice: 'Son, I don't care if you are a lawyer or you dance and sing on the street. It's not about doing what you want. It's about loving what you do. Eventually, you will burn out. So, at least enjoy the journey.' That is my only advice to indies: Enjoy the journey."
From the studio perspective, Rubio acknowledges that developers on a small scale like Tequila Works can't compete with AAA productions, but being small has its own advantages.
"First, we don't give a shit about titles. And, second, once we put the ideas on the table, they are everyone's ideas. That's the beauty of a team"
"We have a very small core team. And that is very important to being an indie. I mean, you need to be very agile. That's the biggest difference with a AAA studio. You are weaker but you are faster," he notes. "In a basketball team, everybody knows the others. Everybody knows how the others play... So, for us it's the same. We know each other, not only as friends, because we have worked together so long, [but] basically, all of us are experts in our respective areas. So we have this gentleman's agreement not to step in the other's grass."
There had been discussion around Valve's flat structure years ago, but Tequila Works appears to truly embrace this idea to wonderful effect.
"So for example, nobody can go to our art director and discuss anything about art... I can comment on anything, but, to give you an idea, even though my title says CEO and creative director, [if] my ideas are not good for the project, they are not good for the team, they are not good for anyone. And that's good. Because first, we don't give a shit about titles," Rubio continues. "And, second, once we put the ideas on the table, they are everyone's ideas. That's the beauty of a team... because if everyone can play, deconstruct, even destroy the ideas, that means they are doing it for the better of the project. And if we are improving the project altogether, in the end, the result is something that is not only better than one person's sharing an idea, but also is more personal, because there's a big difference between design by committee and collective higher mind.
"Our goal, and it took us lots of years and challenge, was creating a structure where everyone had a voice but there was one final decision taken. And Rime is the result. When people say, 'Oh, it's a very personal project. Was it your idea?,' I say, 'No. It wasn't my idea.' There are my personal memories of childhood; they are in the game. But I am just a contributor to this collective idea. The thing is that many personal touches are in the game and that's why you always feel it's personal. Because, in the end, we created a fable where you project yourself into the gaps of the story, and that's why it feels so personal for everyone. That was not easy."
As my conversation with Rubio goes on, it becomes quite evident that he is a man who thinks outside the box. Considering his studio's first title involved a dystopian tale of doom and gloom, I wondered out loud if recent political events, unabated climate change and other global scenarios might affect creative individuals like those at Tequila Works. After all, most entertainment ultimately reflects the society it's born into; why should games be any different?
Rubio notes that as a child of the '80s before the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended, "We all were 100% sure that nuclear war was going to happen." Pointing to Rambo and other flicks, he says, "Those movies were reflecting a very fantasized version of the war." The global politics of 2017 and beyond will undoubtedly have an impact of its own on entertainment, and games as a medium are now ripe enough to reflect that, Rubio believes.
"Indie games and indie creators are a natural source for that," he says. "Again, you may have noticed the last year, in game development, that we are reaching the end of our childhood. This is a very Asimov quote, but it makes a lot of sense because we are starting to change. Not only physically. We are going to change in our way of thinking. We are starting to question ourselves, our place in the world, why we are making games: 'What's the purpose of those games?' That's why you are seeing deeper things in games.
"...we are reaching the end of our childhood... We are starting to question ourselves, our place in the world, why we are making games: 'What's the purpose of those games?'"
"That's why you have games like That Dragon, Cancer or Papers, Please, because they're not trying to entertain you and that's one step above Hollywood cinema. We're trying to transmit you a message. And our message doesn't need to be a political message. It's our personal message. So, yes, considering the situation, you are going to see more games that are dealing with these messages in particular...I think people will get more involved. Games are not isolated from the world."
At a time when seemingly everyone is investigating the potential of VR, it comes as little surprise that Tequila Works' next project is for virtual reality headsets. The Invisible Hours is unique in that it employs something Rubio calls spherical narrative. It's a result of Tequila Works experimenting in VR for the last of couple years to find something that fits the studio's focus on immersion.
"All [our] games are very atmospheric so if we don't get the right atmosphere and immersion it makes no sense for us. The second [thing for us] is how we encourage your curiosity and how can we make this a personal experience, because again all our games are very personal. It's not about saving the world or universe," Rubio says.
The goal with The Invisible Hours, which will be published by GameStop's GameTrust label, is to provide each player with a completely different experience at any given time.
"We had to create a new format because otherwise it doesn't fit very well. It's like trying to adapt a book to a movie. It doesn't work literally. We created this format that is taking inspiration from immersive theatre," Rubio explains. "Immersive theatre is basically this performance of actors, for example, in a warehouse where the audience instead of being in seats, they are inside the play. They can move freely anywhere they want so you have simultaneous stories happening. So if I go with my wife to the play but I decide to follow this path, her experience will be different than mine. So we have defined this narrative format that literally everything is happening around you, so the world is not waiting for you, unlike a game.
"But unlike a movie it's not linear, because everything is happening in real-time simultaneously. So when you move and you explore you start defining your experience and your perspective, which is limited by VR - what you see and what you hear is defining your truth, and depending on your truth the genre of the story itself can change. So it could be a murder mystery or it could be a love story or it could be a comedy or science fiction or horror, depending on what you witness. It's like life - I mean, right now there are many stories happening in this press room that we will never be aware of, in this building, city, world, galaxy... hopefully. So that's spherical narrative."
Rubio is excited about VR, but his studio is certainly not diving into it the way some others have. As has been discussed at length over the last year, the financial risks involved with VR development are still too great for any sizable investments. But that's not a problem for Tequila Works.
"...if your whole company depends on a VR title and you are not being financed, you're in trouble. Unless you're Resident Evil 7 you're not going to sell millions of copies"
"When we started on VR two and a half years ago, we already knew that it would be at least five years from 2016 until there would be a real market. So we were aware that there would be a niche market, but for us it was OK because we were experimenting; we were not expecting to release anything," Rubio says.
"The title we're announcing now, it's a narrative experiment - we want people to try it and see how they respond. It's not critical for us because... if your whole company depends on a VR title and you are not being financed, you're in trouble. Unless you're Resident Evil 7 you're not going to sell millions of copies. And RE7 is not a VR only title. 150,000 users on VR is a lot, so the maximum you can aspire to right now is around 100,000 or 200,000. Depending on your budget, you should try to do it small."
No matter what project you're working on, Rubio definitely believes in fostering positive relationships with fellow indies. It's something he'd like to see more of within his home country of Spain, which he says has too many old guard companies that don't believe in it.
"In Madrid, which is where we are based, we have good relationships with all the small [companies] but not with the big ones; not good or bad, but we just have no relationship because they are old-school and they don't believe in community. That's a shame," he says. "The size of our industry is too small and we have five game associations, and we should have one. So yeah it's difficult. My dream is we gather Mediterranean [studios] like Nordic Game where basically Spain, Italy, France and Greece gather together. That would be pretty cool...
"That's the indie spirit. I mean you always give more than you receive; when we started there were two people and two companies that helped us a lot. Sean Murray from Hello Games and Tim Schafer from Double Fine. We will always be very grateful to them. Since we cannot give them anything since they are rich and famous, we try to follow the example and help others."