“I was just playing with random words related to the game, and I kept combining wizard with orb,” said Jonathan Lavigne, one of the only three employees at Montreal-based Tribute Games, during a recent Skype conversation. “At first it was a working title, but it stuck, so I kept it. That’s about it. Nothing really special about it!”
Players start off in a ruined town, with villagers begging for a savior. Who will save them? You will, wizard! How? By transforming from a wizard, then into an orb, and finally into a paddle that moves across the screen and shoots balls at blocks and bad dudes. You know, like every other video game.
Tribute Games is made up of three guys--Lavige, Jean François Major, Justin Cyr--that met at Ubisoft. Cyr and Lavigne have actually known each other for going on 10 years, having worked on black-and-white cell phone games for Gameloft, then working on Game Boy Advance and DS releases for Ubisoft. Major joined while making Open Season, and they quickly formed a bond over old, challenging, 2D video games.
Those qualities also make up the backbone of Tribute Games.
“I think it’s important to have games that people can actually master,” said Cyr. “Some games have co-op, which proves who’s actually king of the hill, but older games used to be much smaller in scope. When you got good at it, you could finish a game in an hour, but it took many hours to get to that level.”
After many years at Ubisoft, they got the feeling management no longer wanted to make the same games they wanted to.
"It was always kind of hard to convince our superiors to do these kinds of [games]," he said, "and yet, these games always prove to be modestly successful, so tired of wanting to convince people all the time to do something like that, we figured ‘Well, let’s just strike it out on our own.'"
There was talk of leaving Ubisoft, but the opportunity to make Scott Pilgrim vs. The World came up, which became a loving tribute to the side-scrolling beat ‘em ups of yore. And, yes, it’s just as cheap and challenging as your nostalgia recalls.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World also offered them the chance to work with Paul Roberston, the absurdly talented pixel artist who made a name for himself with Pirate Baby’s Cabana Battle Street Fight 2006, a 12-minute animated video featuring a litany of anime and video game references.
“We got to know him personally, and he was a really cool guy,” said Cyr. “After Scott [Pilgrim] was done, he was eager to keep working with us, and it worked out so that he could do the lion’s share of the animation on this game. He’s a cool guy, and certainly the best animator I’ve ever known.”
After the game digitally shipped, they took the first steps toward forming Tribute Games.
The studio’s goal is to produce one game per year, hoping to build a brand players can follow and regularly expect games in the vein of Wizorb--old school with a twist. Wizorb itself was actually built in just a couple of months, amidst the complications of finding office space and figuring out how to run a company.
The whole endeavour is a big risk for all three of them, as well; there are no outside sources funding Tribute Games.
“It’s completely self financed,” he said. “It’s difficult, no doubt, but at the end of the day, it’s more about wanting to do what you want to do and seeing if if it’s viable.”
Cyr didn’t sound especially worried, and said the launch of Wizorb has been successful so far, and an already vocal set of fans has been influencing tweaks made to the game, including the controls.
One of the biggest issues for any game with Arknanoid-style gameplay is getting the feel of moving the paddle around right. These games were originally created to be controlled with knobs, not analog sticks and d-pads--it's not precise enough. Tribute Games spend an enormous amount of time making sure Wizorb felt right, but admitted it was a design of compromise, one that may not please everyone.
If you’ve found it difficult to manipulate on a controller, however, perhaps wait for the PC version.
“As we’re working on the PC port, we’re finding that playing with the mouse almost seems like the game was made for the PC to start with,” said Cyr.
A title update fixing some issues was recently released for the Xbox 360 version, a PC port could be out before the end of the month, and the studio is investigating bringing Wizorb onto other devices. It'd definitely work on a touch-based device.
For now, they're all just taking it a day at a time.
"When you go independent, you have to be expected to do a little bit more," said Cyr. "What a day might consist of is sometimes very different and odd, but you take it as it comes. You do your best, and hope for the best in the end, I guess."
If you’d like some wizards and orbs in your life, you could do much worse with $3.