People in the industry talk about the “democratization” of making games these days. But even if development engines and other tools are practically free and designers are popping up all around the world, this boom is leaving whole continents behind when it comes to the high-end consoles.
But now you can include Central America among the PlayStation 4 community. Fair Play Labs of Costa Rica is getting ready to debut its first console game, Color Guardians, on PlayStation Network. The studio has been a work-for-hire and mobile game house for nearly 10 years, but this nonviolent platformer is the culmination of why Claudio Pinto founded a studio in the first place — and a true sign of the democratization of game development.
“We finally made it,” Pinto said of Color Guardians, which debuts May 12. “This has been our objective all along.
Color Guardians was on track to be the first PS4 game from Latin America, but its Fair Play Labs pushed its release date back to May. This enabled Ilusis Interactive of Brazil and its Krinkle Krusher to stake the claim of “first PS4 game from Latin America.” And tomorrow, a second from the region debuts when OPQAM of Argentina releases Project Root.
And for Fair Play Labs, it’s journey to the PlayStation 4 all started with a kid’s idea and the restrictive policies of … Nintendo.
A house that … Nintendo kinda built
Fair Play’s story begins, oddly enough, with the founding of a business-management software company. Pinto was a cofounder for Exactus Software, a firm that Softland later acquired. He grew interested in games thanks to his then-7-year-old son. They were playing a strategy game together, and his kid asked if he’d want another job — one in video gaming. “He said he’d design them, and I’d program them,” Pinto shared with GamesBeat in an interview over Skype.
This led to Pinto founding Fair Play Labs. The fledgling firm started work on a role-playing game for the GameBoy Advance, but Nintendo rebuffed it when the studio applied for a development license — it was the classic “no experience, but how do you get experience” trap. So Pinto and gang started working with public-domain tools and even showed a demo at the Game Connection conference in 2007. They got good reception, but by this time, Nintendo had kicked over the GameBoy Advance development scene with the DS. The feedback, Pinto said, was positive, but they were told to come back a year later with a DS version.
So while working on outsourcing projects over the next year, Fair Play started tailoring its game for the DS. Nintendo again rocked its house in 2008 with the announcement of The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass.
“We got mild interest, but we were not going to try to compete with Nintendo on its own platform with an RPG,” Pinto said.
Fair Play’s got blindsided again in 2008 — and this time, the shock helped the game studio into making its own IP. Enter … Apple and the iPhone.
Above: The color-based gameplay gets more difficult as you advance.
Image Credit: Fair Play Labs
Fair Play was feeling low. It had tried twice to get its RPG published on a Nintendo handheld. It had five levels for its game. It keep the money rolling with work-for-hire projects. Then everything changed in April 2008 — Apple announced its platform and App Store, and Fair Play pivoted to become a mobile developer. Its first game intellectual property, WackyLands Green, debuted in November 2008 for the iPhone.
“Basically, Apple turned the gaming industry upside down. Up to that point, we were trying to become a licensed dev for Nintendo, but it was a vicious cycle. To this day, they don’t provide you with dev tools unless you proof you have experience — it’s the old story, how to get experience. We were stuck … with Nintendo. Apple opened the market.”
Fair Play went on to make six apps — including the official game for the Real Madrid soccer club. And in 2011, it finally broke into console development with when its port of WackyLands Boss hit the PlayStation Network.
Fair Play heard about Sony’s Latin American development program in 2008 and got a dev kit for the PlayStation’s PSP handheld. It ported its 2010 iOS game WackyLands Boss as a PSP Mini. While it didn’t sell all that well, it was a landmark moment for a studio that had been trying to make console games for years.
“We had become a licensed developer for a console, among the first in Latin America to be Sony-licensed,” Pinto said. “We joined its incubation program early on.
“We had finally made it.”
Sony provided what Nintendo hadn’t: dev kits, publisher support, and more. In 2013, Fair Play got PlayStation Vita dev kits. And Sony asked if Fair Play wanted to bring Color Guardians to the PS4 and again provided the hardware to help make it happen — provided that the game was ready to show at the Latin Dev summit in Mexico.
“We said, ‘Yeah, sure. Porting is not a big deal,'” Pinto said. “And then we realized at the summit that it looked like a Vita game running on a PS4.”
A year later, Fair Play had Color Guardians working on the PlayStation 4, and it’s debuting shortly as a digital download on PSN. It’s a fun game — you Color Guardian must repaint a black-and-white world, running down one of three lanes in a sidescrolling adventure. You grab balls of paint, switching colors to leap from one lane to another. It difficulty ramps up the deeper you get. The best thing it has going for it is that it’s a family-friendly platformer, with no violence. I’m eager for my 5-year-old to play it.
But Color Guardians signifies something more than just a victory for Fair Play Labs and Latin America — it’s another missed opportunity of the Xbox and Wii U.
“Sony helped us break the vicious cycle. Microsoft and Nintendo don’t even have contracts set up in Latin America,” Pinto said. “I think Sony is going to beat them to the punch — for indies in Latin America — working on their platform.”