The country has more than 480 video game companies with about 4,460 employees, according to a 2016 white paper by a Spanish tech university and several government groups. Spain has had a major exit, with New York-based Take-Two Interactive buying Spanish mobile game company Social Point for $250 million. Spain was also the No. 2 country in game job postings in a survey by Indeed.com.
But the country is smaller than other European countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom, and France when it comes to creating jobs and prominent companies in gaming. I attended the Gamelab event in Barcelona last week, and I spoke about Spain’s growth in games with Raul Rubio, founder and creative director of TequilaWorks in an interview at the event.
He was hopeful about the future, but he candidly acknowledged that Spain is known for “soldiers, not generals,” when it comes to making games. In the long run, he wants Spain to develop its own Triple-A game industry, making games that the whole world can enjoy. Tequila Works is doing its part, with a 60-person studio that is churning out one game after another. Rime won seven awards at Gamelab’s indie game contest. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Tell me about your company’s history.
Raul Rubio: “Why Tequila?” is usually the first question. [laughs] It’s very simple. Most of us, most of the founders, are veterans from the triple-A industry. We’ve worked in games, movies, animation, or comic books. We wanted to create a boutique studio, applying all of our experience from triple-A to something that we can define as craftsmanship. We’re trying to make things with respect. That’s the model.
We’re not defined by genre. We’re always looking for the beautiful and the crazy. Our first game was published by Microsoft Game Studios. That was Deadlight, for Xbox 360, and now Xbox One, PS4, and PC. That was released in 2012. Then we made Rime, which won the award last night. Rime was initially made as a Sony exclusive, but it’s been released for multiple platforms – PS4, Xbox One, PC. A Switch version is coming this summer. We’re considering the new consoles like Xbox One X.
Our next production is Sexy Brutale, which is a co-production with Cavalier Game Studios. That was released in May. We’re working on the world’s first immersive theater VR experience, Invisible Hours. That’s our first experiment in VR.
GamesBeat: What’s the timing on that one?
Rubio: It’ll probably be released in the third or fourth quarter of this year. It’s for PSVR, Oculus, Vive, and we’re working with Microsoft on mixed reality.
GamesBeat: How many people are at the studio?
Rubio: We have 60 people now, in three teams of 20 people.
GamesBeat: What do you think of the game industry in Spain at the moment?
Rubio: I’d say there’s no industry in Spain. [laughs] But that’s changing. When I say veterans of the triple-A industry, the thing is that most of us are expatriates. Most of us worked at Blizzard or Double Fine or Pixar before coming back to Spain.
One of the things we were very aware of when we created the studio is that this is a global industry. It makes no sense for us to focus on just the Spanish market or even the European market. We can apply not only the experience we brought from the U.S. or Canada or Japan back to Spain, but we can apply our own roots, what defines us and makes and unique. We can bring that flavor back to a global product.
As I said, we’re looking for the beautiful and the crazy. We’re not trying to quote anyone else. We’re not trying to make the next space marine shooter. We think that what makes a global industry global is not the differences we have, but what we have in common. In terms of markets, that means emotion, human emotion, is universal. We’re applying the Studio Ghibli or Miyazaki philosophy to games. The stories we’re trying to tell are appealing to the whole market, no matter if it’s the U.S. or Europe or Asia. We’re trying create something interactive that can be understood by many people, but at the same time feel exotic and special.
GamesBeat: The interesting thing about Spain to me—there’s some good data on it now. The growth has been good. A recruiting site, Indeed, looked at job openings for games around the world and found that Spain was number three in job postings. That was surprising. SocialPoint got acquired, too. There seem to be good things happening for games in Spain.
Rubio: In terms of consumers, Spain has always been a big market. We know there’s potential. In terms of creators, thanks to the indie scene and the mobile market, the new companies are growing faster than the classic ones in the ‘80s. We’re reaching targets that are far beyond what was expected before. SocialPoint is a good example. They’re five or six years old, right? That’s very fast growth.
GamesBeat: It seems like the country is doing the right things to support the ecosystem. The government is doing what it needs to do. Mobile seems to help as far building awareness for games.
Rubio: Everyone has a phone, right? That’s a very big market. At the same time, not only the tools–the software for creating games is far more accessible. The means to sell your product is more accessible as well – the app stores, Steam. They can be accessible from my tablet or my phone. It’s a great market. It’s interesting in terms of development, how these new companies can grow so fast.
At Tequila Works we don’t have a preferred format, but at the moment we’re focused more on premium games for console and PC, as well as VR and AR.
GamesBeat: Can you find most of the people you need here in Spain?
Rubio: Traditionally, Spain – maybe because of bringing influences back when Spain was a big empire – we’re very good at art. We’ve always had very good painters, and now people who are good at animation and modeling and other arts. Many companies, like Gameloft for example, have had studios here in Spain that aren’t exactly outsourcing, but they’re focused on asset creation. We’re also quite unique in the creative aspect. We can offer ideas and concepts that are touched by what defines Spain. I’m not necessarily talking about Don Quixote or whatever, but ideas that can feel interesting.
On the technical side, especially on specialized platforms—for example, the biggest experts in building emulation tools were in Spain in the ‘90s, to the point where they were bought up by Sega. It’s better to say, really, what we’re not good at. In the Roman times the Romans had a saying: “The Spanish make excellent soldiers and very bad generals.” We’re not as good at management and organization. At the same time, we’re suffering a brain drain. All of southern Europe, across this part of the continent, we’re very good at art, but at the same time, all the crazy deals we’ve seen in this part of the industry so far involve money from elsewhere moving south.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like your company is swimming against this tide a bit?
Rubio: To some extent, yes. But one of the things you learn, when you realize this is a global industry and there are many big companies out there—we’re the soldiers and they’re the generals. We can’t pretend that we can fight them head-on and win. You can’t compete with Activision or EA as an indie studio, so we don’t do that. But being an indie means you’re agile. You can adapt fast and adapt easily.
That’s why we’re always testing new platforms. In virtual reality, when we presented at the GDC awards, we’d created a new narrative structure for VR. We’ve reached a point where we can be pioneers instead of just trying to follow other paths. That’s something you can only do if you’re very fast and agile. That’s the benefit of being small. Elephants can smash a bunch of mice, but a single mouse can scare the elephant. [laughs] We’re the mouse, by the way.
GamesBeat: Is there talent available here for VR, or do you feel that’s harder to do?
Rubio: No, absolutely. Back in the ‘90s, we had very technical people working on experimental content for VR. But of course, as you know, the technology wasn’t there and so there was no market. Most of the applications were serious applications, in the automotive industry for example. But now—this is another consequence of the hardware and the tools being far more accessible and less expensive than they were in the ‘90s. We have lots of talent that has adapted pretty well to VR.
The problem, obviously, is that when everyone has access to the tools and the software, you have a flood. For us it’s a question of where the blue water is and how we can differentiate ourselves. We decided to do something that experimented in narrative because there was nothing like that in virtual reality. That’s why, for example, when we presented the experience at Cannes, people in both the movie industry and the game industry were blown away. It was very appealing to technical people, but also to creative people.
We’re very aware of the dichotomy of the targets. Virtual reality right now is basically something—the market is very niche, and it’s mostly composed of early adopters. People who love technology, who invest in new technology. On the other side of the spectrum you have a more passive audience, basically moviegoers, who aren’t going to spend that much money on a device that plays games at all. That’s why we had to find something that could appeal to both targets.
When we explained that at GDC, how we created this narrative—my grandmother can play Invisible Hours, and at the same time, my hardcore gamer brother can enjoy it as well. We realized that it’s not a matter of size. It’s only a matter of ingenuity. Maybe we’re lucky, but right now Spain is blossoming.
GamesBeat: Have you talked about how much Rime and Deadlight sold?
Rubio: We’ve sold around 2.5 million copies of Deadlight. I don’t have data on Rime, because we only released it one month ago. But I know it’s selling pretty well, because we’ve sold out three rows of physical copies. We’re very happy about that.
GamesBeat: What do you think was appealing about Rime? Why did you win so many awards?
Rubio: Again, Rime is a good example of something that for us was very personal. Originally, when we started the project, we thought it would just be an ordinary adventure. Rime is a game about childhood and about loss, which is quite strange, but we wanted the player to feel like a kid again. That’s something we all have in common. We’ve all had ideas like that once. We wanted adults to feel like children, exploring a world and not being aware of the dangers of the world.
We took inspiration from the Mediterranean because it’s where we all grew up. For us, these colors, the light, the breeze, they’re all things we wanted to translate onto the screen. That’s how we see the world. What we realized as we worked on Rime, though, is that for us this was ordinary, but for other people overseas it was extraordinary. People would talk to us about how fantasy games usually tend to be influenced by things like Nordic fantasy, and we’d created something different, something that reminded them of Wind Waker and Ico.
Now, on the one hand, it’s great to be compared to those masterpieces. Those are very big games, and we’re an indie title made by 18 people. At the same time, why was it so special? People pointed out the pastel colors, the light, and they asked where our inspiration came from. Well, part of it is from the Mediterranean, and part of it is because the master of light was Joaquín Sorolla, a Spanish painter from the 19th century. He specialized in painting beach scenes. He was very good at painting light and the movement of the waves. It’s a natural inspiration for us because we all studied him when we went to art school. It was just another influence on us.
The other thing that makes Rime unique is we were bold enough to make a game with no combat at all. Again, we wanted the player to feel like a child. Relying on violence and frontal confrontation to create conflict made no sense. When you’re a kid you have to use your wits, because you aren’t very strong. I’m certain that most of us never used a sword to kill monsters when we were kids. Getting rid of violence and keeping true to what makes a kid a kid, that was the right decision.
There’s also no dialogue in the game – no menus, no text, no tutorials, nothing. You’re just in there alone. You, the player, are the one who needs to learn, just like a kid. You need to learn the rules of this world, because of course it’s not our world. It’s a very surrealist world. That’s another Italian influence. We use things like negative space. Like a child, you look at something and think, “That’s not very far away, I think I can grab it.” But you can’t do it.
In the end it was very well-received. Last night was a consequence of that. But what makes Rime for real—we created a story, a narrative, where instead of telling you the story, we created a structure so you create the story yourself with your experiences. You fill in the gaps and complete it. When you finish the game and reach the ending, it’s something that for you—your personal experience makes sense once you’ve completed it.
The sales and the reviews from critics are very nice, but what’s important to us are the letters we’re receiving from fans, sharing their personal stories with us. Those stories—some of them are quite dramatic and broken. But again, those letters – and this is very important – are from people all over the world. It shows that we managed to create a narrative that could appeal to a global audience. Telling a story with no words.
Disclosure: The organizers of Gamelab paid my way to Barcelona. Our coverage remains objective.