Chasing Goats On Montreal's Juicy Beast, Toto Temple, and the perils of "good enough"

Toto Temple Deluxe is almost ready for prime time.

Maybe.

We think.

The four man team that comprises Juicy Beast isn’t really sure yet. The game itself has, for the most part, been finished for months. Sure there are little tweaks and changes they’ll add when inspiration strikes them, but from a design point of view, this game is a done deal.

It will be their first release on major home consoles; the first game to put them in the spotlight in front of ‘core gamers.’ Before this, they’d made their bones as Flash games developers — and after that, they even managed to stand out in the overcrowded mobile market.

As I meet with the studio’s co-founders, Yowan Langlais and Dominique Nault, on a particularly chilly April morning in Montreal, the team are working their way through the unique challenges that Toto Temple Deluxe’s console debut presents. They’re aiming for a simultaneous release on PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, and Steam.

And as you can probably imagine, playing with the big boys comes with a whole new set of rules.


mask_idle_p1@1.5xWhile I’d been to Montreal as a child, this was my first trip to “La Belle Province” as an adult. As one of the most prominent pins on Canada’s map, I must admit, I take some shame in this admission.

The city is a maze of hills, and like my own hometown of St. Catharines, its layout conforms to the waterways that made it so vital a place to settle centuries ago. I might have quickly lost my way if not for Dom’s foresight. Hearing how lost I was at the suggestion of meeting at notable locations like Place des Arts, he kindly offered to meet in my hotel lobby and give me a brief walking tour of the city as we journeyed to meet Yowan for coffee.

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We made polite conversation as we walked the gentle incline of Rue Ste-Catherine. It would be the first (but far from the last) time I asked myself, “how is every direction in this city uphill?”

I try not to talk too much about Toto Temple Deluxe before we meet Yowan. A good journalist should have their tape recorder (or in my case, iPhone app) rolling before they ever ask a question, and it wouldn’t have been right to try and squeeze out Dom’s side of the story before explaining to both Yowan and Dom why I was here.

But we games journalists are a special breed. Unlike the mainstream news media, we’re what is sometimes called “the enthusiast press.” In short, this means that we write about video games because we love them. And sometimes? That means professionalism flies out the window.

It wasn’t long before I found myself asking Dom about the current state of Toto Temple Deluxe.

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This is the first time I learn that, much to my surprise, the game is more or less done. If this were one of their early Flash games, it would have long ago been out the door. But when dealing with a major console release there are plenty of hurdles in place — most of which Juicy Beast are experiencing for the first time.

As we talk, I learn about the thing that’s been taking up the bulk of Dom’s time lately: game ratings. To see release, Toto Temple Deluxe will need to be certified by the ESRB, PEGI, and the ratings board of every region in which they want it to be released in. A quick glance at Wikipedia suggests there are at least 15 of these organizations around the world (though Juicy Beast may not be applying to all of them), and most of these will require separate submissions for every platform they want to be certified on.

When people dream of making games, their minds don’t usually stray towards so much paperwork.


t_jaune_win_011@1.5xIn fact, the team at Juicy Beast didn’t go to school to make video games. Not primarily, anyway.

Most of them were taking the same course at Cégep de St-Jérôme: Multimedia Integration. It was a program tailor made to turn out a digital jack of all trades. As part of an assignment, Yowan and a classmate were tasked with creating a detailed business plan, right down to the cost of renting office space. Their idea? A Flash games portal where instead of buying games from a third-party, Yowan and his peers would make the games themselves and connect them together. Completing a goal in one game might unlock an item in another.

The project sounded ambitious to say the least. When I shared that opinion, Yowan laughed. “It’s not ambitious, it’s stupid.”

Could a cross-item ecosystem really work?

For a company that’s just starting out, a cross-item ecosystem seems like a wild dream rooted more in fantasy than reality. But for a developer with a few years experience under their belts? It’s more than just a possibility — and the St. Louis-based developers/brothers Butterscotch Shenanigans are living proof.

Best known as the creators of Quadropus Rampage, they introduced a cross-platform, cross-game ecosystem last year that they’re calling BScotchID. The system allows players to save their games to the cloud so they can continue the experience on a different device — but more importantly, it lets players complete achievements in one game to unlock content for another. For example, if you manage to get to space in Flop Rocket, you’ll unlock that ship to use in Roid Rage.

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“No matter how successful one of our games became, we had no way to leverage that success for the next game,” Adam Coster tells me. “So each game would only be able to find success on its own, and success in the mobile markets is entirely dictated by the app stores in which they reside (or by having a massive marketing budget, which we absolutely do not have). We needed a way to gain independence from the whims of the market and the app stores. We needed to remove all barriers, and add incentives, for a player of one of our games to become a player in another.”

BScotchID was the answer.

“Our cross-game rewards work for players who own multiple games, and they unlock truly interesting cross-game content. New weapons and pets in Quadropus Rampage, for example. And a cross-game, cross-platform social network shows what games your friends are playing and how many Perks they’ve unlocked.”

“Once a player buys into the network, the relative value for that player to buy our other games goes up successively. Since BscotchID was deployed (December 2014) we have managed to collect 33,000 registered players, nearly all of whom are subscribed to email-based announcements for new games (15x our original newsletter volume). These players have created a large friend network and bought each other hundreds of gift game copies. Our stats show that 1-8% of players who boot up the game go on to log into it with BscotchID (depending on the game/platform). 25-35% of logged in players go on to try other Butterscotch games (>6x our original cross-game playing).”

“In short, we made a service that was valuable to the player, and that increases in value with every game we add.”

Learn more about BScotchID, and sign up for your own at the Butterscotch Shenanigans website.

  

While the scope of the project eventually proved too large (and too incompatible with their changing goals) to realize, the idea behind it was enough to turn things from a school project into a fully-fledged company. “Our teacher thought we should maybe give it a try, see how it goes. And coming from that teacher specifically [that] was a big thing. He’s the kind of guy who’s not afraid to tell you what you do is shit,” said Yowan.

“If something’s not good enough for the market, he’ll tell you,” adds Dom. And while they didn’t know it at the time — and they may not even realize it now — that very attitude seems to have shaped the spirit of Juicy Beast. “Good enough is never good enough,” they later tell me.

But more on that in a bit.

Dom had gone to school with Yowan, but finished a year earlier. By the time the Juicy Beast project was underway, Dom had already graduated and moved on to an internship at Gameloft.

“I contacted Dom because we used to make all of our projects in school together and worked well together. [I asked him] ‘do you want to quit your job and start this crazy thing with us?'”

“Uh… sure?”

Don't worry, Dom. It all works out in the end.
Don’t worry, Dom. It all works out in the end.

At this point the company was already in flux. The classmate that Yowan had been working on the project with was exiting. Dom was coming on board. Soon they’d go back to their school to find a great programmer, in the form of Alexandre Dazé-Hill. “Usually if you were working on your project, you wouldn’t want to go see [Alex’s] because you’d get demoralized,” Yowan tells me.

In other words, they found the best of the best.

“We approached a lot of different illustrators as well,” says Dom. “We have a school specializing in traditional hand-drawn cartoons in Montreal. So we took the list of graduates and said ‘hey, we like your style. You want to be a part of this?'”

Most of them said no — and yet every no brought them one step closer to the perfect yes in Jean-Philippe Côté, or “JP” as they call him. And with that, the four-man team known as Juicy Beast was born.


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As we cross towards the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal, Dom stops me and points. “Look over there,” he tells me. “It’s Yowan.”

At first I can’t quite find who he’s talking about. But after a few moments, I can pick a face out of the crowded plaza. With a bit of scruff and a backwards hat, he’s instantly recognizable; it’s as if a face were molded from the caricature of him that JP drew for the Juicy Beast website, rather than the other way around.

It says a lot when the faces of your friends are a living testament to your art skills.

After shaking hands and having a quick chat, the two share an exchange in their native tongue. Like my guilty admission about Montreal, I admit to both gentlemen that my French isn’t great. I can read a menu and follow along with keywords, but for all intents and purposes I’m illiterate. 10th Grade Ontario French can only get you so far in life.

Also, it didn't help that my teacher was a pineapple.
Also, it didn’t help that my teacher was a pineapple.

I tell them, half-jokingly, that if there’s anything they want to consult on before answering a question they can just speak French and I’ll be completely lost. This actually turned out to be a pretty great system. It only happened once or twice, but it seems like just knowing they could maintain a certain level of privacy if needed made them feel comfortable to tell their whole story.

Or maybe that’s just who they are. Everyone I met in Montreal has a very comfortable openness about them; as if this is where the spirit of the free love generation went to retire. The Juicy Beast boys seemed truly unguarded when we spoke. In an industry built on secret keeping (don’t talk about this feature, don’t talk about this date, don’t answer this question), this was a refreshing change.


coinAs Flash developers learning the ropes, their early days weren’t exactly profitable. Their first release, Gobtron, earned just $50. A lot of studios would have taken this as a sign to pack up shop, but instead Juicy Beast took it as an opportunity to grow from their mistakes.

“It was a test. We learned a bit,” says Dom. “We aimed to do another game that was part of our big project.”

Their early investors were made up entirely of friends and family, so instead of being concerned with profit, the team was serving backers who believed in their vision. “They never asked us ‘when are you thinking about making money?’,” Yowan tells me. For Juicy Beast, the choice to bypass formal financiers gave them room to fail.

It would take a few more attempts before they truly learned the ins and outs of the Flash gaming business.

“At first, we had no idea how to make money in the Flash market,” said Yowan. Their second release, the demo version of a game called Dale & Peakot, netted them $400 — but they were still very much in the dark on how to monetize properly. “We didn’t know how much a game was worth,” says Yowan.

Dale, Peakot, and their trusty friend the shotgun
Dale, Peakot, and their trusty friend the shotgun

Knowing what they know now, he tells me, they would have asked for at least $20,000. This knowledge level began to grow once they started to build friendships in the community. Berzerk Studio, fellow Flash game developers based out of the not-too-distant Quebec City, struck up a fast friendship after playing Juicy Beast’s earlier games. “They started teaching us like ‘no, that’s not how you make money! You’ve got to use this website, FlashGameLicense.'”

Now known simply as FGL, Yowan describes the service as something akin to eBay; an auction house for Flash game developers to sell to portals. More than a great alternative to cold calling (which is how they ended up with $400), it’s effective. The full version of Dale & Peakot sold for $25,000.

It was Juicy Beast’s first success.


t_vert_loose_043@1.5xYowan, Dom and I made our way to a small, trendy coffee bar that, as we quickly discovered, had little seating. We decided to grab a coffee to go as we went in search of a place where we could sit and, as it would turn out, order more coffee.

Listening back to the tape, it seems as though I too had become a caricature; my speech had the urgency and pacing of a NASCAR race. I was, for lack of a better description, every bad sitcom portrayal of “too much coffee guy.” I’m relatively new to the world of frappuccinos, cappuccinos, and, well… anything that’s not soda. In retrospect, this might not have been the best time to experiment with my caffeine intake. Our interview ends up sounding like two kindly indie developers being interviewed by the Micro-Machine Man.

Still, if they noticed my erratic interviewing style, they never let on.


With a better understanding of the Flash gaming world, it didn’t take long for Juicy Beast to develop a solid reputation in browser-based games. Eventually they even netted a sponsorship from Adult Swim Games, who published their title Burrito Bison Revenge under their banner. But as their reputation grew, so did something else: mobile gaming.

Dom & Yowan give a talk on developing for two markets at once

  

The gameplay norms of successful mobile games, especially in the early days, closely mirrored what worked so well in Flash. Angry Birds would have been a huge hit as a Flash game (and, one might argue, owes much of its inspiration to the 2009 Flash hit Crush the Castle). With that in mind, it’s little surprise that mobile publishers would show an interest in Juicy Beast’s work. But their first venture into mobile came not through a big publisher, but a friend of Dom’s. “He contacted me and said ‘Hey, Gobtron would be great on iPhone.'”

The ball was rolling, but the journey would be fraught with problems.

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“It was just too complicated,” said Dom. Coming from the Multimedia Integration program, no one at Juicy Beast had the knowledge needed to create a mobile game at that time. In fact, the bulk (if not all) of their schooling was done in the pre-smartphone era.

They were dependent on the team Dom’s friend was working with, and they just weren’t hitting the mark.

“I spent maybe a year on that project,” says Dom. “I wrote a document of over 100 pages to tell them what was not right … [I would tell them] ‘look at the Flash version; if it’s not the same, it’s not good.'” The developers handling the port didn’t agree, arguing that it was “good enough,” even when the folks at Juicy Beast couldn’t complete the game.

According to Yowan, the Gobtron experience wasn’t an isolated incident.

“We’ve heard that, like, twice. ‘Oh yeah, the game has reached a point where it’s good enough to release.’ It’s not. We started to learn that this is how it worked.”

What was the inspiration for Gobtron?

“It actually came out just as an idea from JP’s business card. It was like this funny, silly, monster face on this card,” Dom tells me.

“And if you flip it over, you had his butt crack showing at the bottom of the card,” adds Yowan.

jp_carte_daffaires

“We had no idea what to do for a game, so we just started messing around with the card, adding arms and a little scene around the guy. And it just shaped up from there. Gobtron was based on JP’s business card.”

  

The team later went on to publish Burrito Bison on iOS through Ravenous Games, and while this is the only other mobile game Juicy Beast successfully released through a publisher, there are always the games that never made it out of the gate. 2010’s Feed the King, a game born in 24 hours from an in-office game jam, was supposed to appear on mobile, too. But while the license was sold, nothing ever materialized. “It was kind of sad,” said Dom. “It was a really great game for mobile.”

Feed The King combines elements of Stacker and competitive eating. Delicious.
Feed The King combined elements of Stacker and competitive eating

Experiences like these all came together to paint a very clear picture for Juicy Beast: they needed to keep control of their properties in-house. They needed to self-publish.

As a company that started life wanting to create a portal to host their own games, deciding to self-publish seemed almost poetic. Of course, publishing on mobile still presented a serious challenge for a team unfamiliar with the platform. Lucky for them, Unity was quickly becoming the go-to game engine among indie developers.

Supporting everything from Flash to the PlayStation 4, building a game in Unity meant that it could be be readily ported to different devices to suit a developer’s needs. And for their next project, that meant iOS and Android.


toto_redFor their first self-publishing effort, Juicy Beast decided to revisit a Flash game that had started life as a pitch for a client: Knightmare Tower. “The project got canceled and we were left with a prototype on our hands,” Yowan told me in an earlier interview. “We really liked the gameplay (we spent nearly as much time playing it as we spent developing it) so we decided to push it further and make a complete game out of it.”

The Unity-revamping of Knightmare Tower first appeared to the public as part of the OUYA’s launch day line-up, and was heralded as one of the system’s few must-play titles. It transitioned flawlessly to touch screens later the same year, though the move to mobile devices provided its own unique set of challenges for the team.

knightmare tower

“We hate games where you control with tilt — so [we said] ‘let’s try to make it tilt, but good,'” Yowan says. “It took awhile, but finally we got something that worked. But that concept messed up the whole upgrade system, because you had an upgrade for the speed of your character and stuff like that … It messed up the whole balance.”

Had they been going through a publisher, they’d likely be hearing the “good enough” mantra again. But since this was an entirely in-house project, they were able to work on Knightmare Tower until they got it just right. “We’re not going to release a game until we’re proud of it,” Dom tells me.

A year after their success on mobile, they decided to try Knightmare Tower once more without tilt: the game launched on Steam on June 16th, 2014. It was their first title on the service, but it won’t be their last.


toto_blueAs you might have guessed from the title, Toto Temple Deluxe is an enhanced version of Toto Temple — a little game that you’d be forgiven for not having played.

Toto Temple began life as an entry in the 2013 edition of TOjam, Canada’s largest game jam that takes place every Spring in Toronto. The event’s theme that year was “uncooperative,” encouraging developers to make games that foster competition and antagonistic gameplay. Looking back, it seems like fertile ground for a game like Toto Temple to take shape.

But Toto Temple wasn’t what Juicy Beast was planning to make going into the event.

“Our first idea was more appropriate to the theme,” says Yowan. “It was a four-player game, and you were all working for the same temple god. He was instructing you to place traps in his temple to defend against small AIs, like Indiana Jones.” In addition to defending against AI opponents, the game would see players competing to be the better trapmaster, often trying to make sure other players fall into your traps.

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Listening to Yowan and Dom describe it, this sounds like a game I’d want to play. When it was in the planning stages, they’d have no doubt said the same. But in practice, things don’t always work out. “We tried it,” said Yowan. “It wasn’t fun at all.”

Still, not all was lost. The game featured a punch/dash mechanic to push people into traps. “We had more fun punching people than playing the game,” said Yowan.

If you’ve seen Toto Temple in action, this mechanic should sound eerily familiar.

toto temple deluxe in action


Toto Temple (and its soon-to-be-released “deluxe” counterpart) is a multiplayer party game about holding a goat for as long as you possibly can. The opposing players will give chase, attacking with the aforementioned dash in an attempt to steal the goat away. The longer you hold the goat, the higher your score at the end of the round.

While a bit simpler than what Juicy Beast had originally aimed to do at TOJam, Toto Temple seemed to fit the theme of “uncooperative” quite nicely. They even managed to pay homage to the festival itself, and that homage will stay with the game through to its eventual home console release. “We wanted to fight for something, so we thought ‘let’s use the goat,'” says Yowan. “Every year they ask for us to add the goat to the game. It’s their running gag.”

Watch the TOjam version of Toto Temple in action

  

I first spoke with Yowan shortly after they’d completed the jam version of Toto Temple in 2013, long before our coffee meetup in Montreal. And while he seemed excited about what they’d made at that time, it didn’t seem as though they had big plans for the project. Like Knightmare Tower, he thought it might be a good fit for OUYA. And after one public showing at Toronto’s now-defunct Gamercamp festival, OUYA seemed just as interested in the idea as Juicy Beast.

As the only living room device that could support controllers from other consoles, OUYA had a unique advantage in the world of multiplayer games. OUYA gamers could simply connect a mish-mash of PlayStation DualShock controllers, Xbox 360 controllers, and more to create a party gaming session from whatever devices they have lying around the house. It’s the one trick the Microsofts and Sonys of the world couldn’t (or wouldn’t) pull off.

With the success of Towerfall (created by Vancouver’s Matt Thorson) on their microconsole, OUYA knew they’d found a niche for themselves in local multiplayer. And with an early hit in Knightmare Tower, getting a multiplayer game from Juicy Beast must have seemed like a no-brainer. “They financed the whole development of it,” Yowan says. “OUYA came in and said ‘you want us to help you make it bigger for a limited time exclusivity?'”

Toto Temple Deluxe launched on OUYA at the end of 2014. But while they’d fulfilled their end of the contract, delivering a far more polished, complete experience than their earlier game jam release, they just couldn’t help but keep tweaking. “When we were done doing the version as we were supposed to ship, we continued adding stuff. And stuff. And stuff.”

It was time to introduce their goat to the world.


goat_lv1@1Toto Temple Deluxe‘s ramp-up to release is in the final stages now, but for a small team still learning new ropes all these years later, those final stages can prove the most gruelling. As we sit talking over coffee, I’m reminded that the team had just returned from PAX East a few weeks earlier where they successfully raised the profile of the game by giving away $17,000 worth of it. There’s a great write-up on the experience over at the Juicy Beast website, but the short version is this: they gave away Steam keys after finding a way to engage the spectators who would gather to watch people play.

“Except for a big AAA million dollar booth, there wasn’t a crowd as big as ours.”

Yowan tells me they’re not too worried about losing those sales; few people are looking to play a multiplayer game on Steam, so those that enjoyed it will likely double dip and purchase on a console.

Their participation in the event was part of Up North Indies, a new brand that sounds a little like a Canadian alternative to Indie Mega Booth. I make a note of this; it’s a brand that may warrant further discussion here on Ookpixels. Any group that’s looking to celebrate and promote the accomplishments of Canadian game developers is a brand we can get behind.

A cameo from another Canadian indie: Starwhal
A cameo from another Canadian indie: Starwhal

Juicy Beast has also spent some time in the last few months introducing a “hat” system that will replace the goat in the game with indie gaming superstars that you can unlock as you play. While the studio didn’t ever become the flash portal they dreamed of, their hat system almost seems like an accidental tribute to those early days, inviting characters and developers from other games into their own.


mask_idle_p2@1.5xAs we finish our coffee and part ways, Yowan and Dom are nothing if not cordial. They mention they’ll be in Toronto for TOJam again the following week, and would be happy to invite me to the showcase. They offer to connect me with Up North Indies for a potential future article. Yowan even offers me a lift back to my hotel. I politely decline this last one; after all of my walking uphill, I was looking forward to the long walk back down.

Two days later I’m back on a train, heading to Toronto. The WiFi isn’t great, so I give up any real thoughts of working for the day. Instead I turn to the tape. A two-hour recording that covers every moment of Juicy Beast’s story. I put in my bargain headphones and turn up the volume.

“Oh jeez,” I mutter to myself. “I sure drank a lot of coffee.”

When I stop listening to my own voice and start listening to theirs, though, I hear more than the story they’re telling. I hear how they’re telling it. They may not have set out to become game developers, but you can tell it’s the job they were destined for. When they compare their own hacking of Flash to run a game to the way Nintendo developers would stick memory inside cartridges for games that pushed the limits, you can hear the excitement in their voice.

Upon further investigation, I can’t seem to find evidence to substantiate that Nintendo claim.

I open up my laptop to take notes. Typing on this beast of a machine is a particular challenge on the train; doubly so when the folding table on the seat in front of me is missing a pin.

As I listen and write, one theme keeps turning up again and again.

Juicy Beast may have veered away from the business plan they created as part of their classwork all those years ago, but in their souls you can still hear a faint echo of the teacher that pushed them to try it in the first place. “If something’s not good enough for the market, he’ll tell you.”

Toto Temple has been refined time and time again, from TOJam to OUYA to its impending console release. There’s no telling how the public will respond until the game has launched, but regardless of how it’s received, there’s one thing of which I have no doubt: “good enough” won’t ever be good enough. This is the best damned Toto Temple they can make — and they won’t release it if it isn’t.

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