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The grind keeps going almost a year after ‘Grindstone’s release

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Grindstone continues to be one of the best games on Apple Arcade, and its latest update dropped on Thursday to keep the grind going strong almost a year after its release.

It’s a puzzle game that doesn’t quite feel like other popular mobile puzzle games. Instead of crushing candies or swapping gems, you control a beefy barbarian who delves further and further into a mountain, slicing up adorable, bouncy creeps in color-connecting puzzle rooms. As you progress, the challenge grows, and new enemies, biomes, and helpful items keep the action fresh. It is achingly addictive.

With the new update, there are about 50 new levels, a new rotating daily challenge to test your skills against other players, and a new gear to spend resources on and spice up and personalize the gameplay.

In a video call with Mashable, Capybara Games game director Dan Vader discussed some of the new elements that have been added to Grindstone, looked back on the studio’s history and the genesis of Grindstone, and talked about the Apple Arcade ecosystem and the future of games.

Mashable: So what’s new in the latest Grindstone update?

Vader: It’s our third update perhaps? Time’s a blur now.

It really is.

We have around 50 new levels. We’ve had a couple other updates where we put levels higher and higher up the mountain for people who made it that far to keep progressing, and the idea behind this was to sprinkle new levels throughout the spine of the game so that people at all levels of the game, regardless of their progress, could get some new content. We actually had a really fun time with that because it wasn’t just focused on one entity or one new theme… It was like, how do we take all of those things, jumble them all up and do these kinds of remixes where things from other biomes collide? That was the idea behind those new levels. That’s the one big chunk — new levels, new gear, a new kind of element to the economy as a form of resource. 

And now we have a daily challenge mode which is really exciting because I think Grindstone really lends itself well to a kind of quick-hit-something to take on every day and see how you stack up… We’ve added a new building to the bottom of the mountain. It’s the Shrine of Greed and it’s a daily mode where a random selection of levels get grouped together and you have to take on that set of levels with one life. As you progress through each level we’re giving you random choices of gear. You’re choosing from a limited set — maybe not your favorites, maybe ones you haven’t even unlocked before — and then seeing how well you can grind. Your score’s based on collecting grindstones, killing jerks, stuff like that. We have leaderboards for tracking who’s the best grinder of the day.

As a color-connecting puzzle game, Grindstone exists in a very tight space. How is it coming up with new ways to spice up the game while staying in that narrow sphere?

I think we launched with 150 levels. I was kind of like, ‘What else can we possibly do with this 7×7 grid? I think we may have exhausted all of our options.’ When it came time to build new content, I was like, ‘Really? Is there enough meat here to keep supporting new levels and new ideas?’ Now it’s swung the other way. Having made a whole bunch of new content, I actually think with the stuff we have, the mechanics and this space is limitless. I keep surprising myself not just with my levels but with other designers’ in the studio… And then forget about when you add new gear types on top of that, how that changes the experience. So there’s always the ideas of getting more ambitious and breaking out of that mold, but I think the game is — like you said — so tight and feels so good the way it is. With the level design possibilities and the malleability of the mechanic, I feel like we can endlessly make content with what we have.

New takes on areas in 'Grindstone' keep things exciting in the puzzle space.

New takes on areas in ‘Grindstone’ keep things exciting in the puzzle space.

Capybara Games started with making mobile games, and more recently that hasn’t been the focus. Can you talk about the genesis of the idea for Grindstone?

Grindstone popped into our creative director Kris Piotrowski’s head around the same time as we were launching Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes [(2009)] and Critter Crunch [(2007)], he was thinking about those same kinds of puzzle mechanics and he came up with the base concept of Grindstone. So we put a little prototype together but, like I said, we just found ourselves chasing other opportunities. Grindstone kept being this thing that bubbled up in the background of the studio. Every once in a while, when things were slow, a couple people would grab that prototype and work on it a little bit. People kept carrying it forward a little bit each time and we all knew it was really fun. We all really enjoyed it. 

We just had to put our foot down like, ‘Let’s just make this game proper now. Let’s just commit to this and release it.’ Because it had always been hitting as a mobile touch experience, it made perfect sense to try to go for an iOS launch or mobile launch. It has its roots in our mobile days and also in our puzzle games, then it just needed the willpower to reignite the project and resurrect it.

When I think of classic mobile puzzle games, I think of bright, poppy aesthetics. Grindstone has a different kind of mood to it, between the music by Sam Webster and the juxtaposition between the gore and the bouncy, adorable creeps.

As a studio, we like cute and gross. Those are our two moods and we like when we can smash those together. Grindstone was always going to have this kind of Viking setting, this brutal world, the idea of snowy drudgery and misery. But we’re not the kind of studio that makes testosterone-y macho stuff so we wanted to undercut that barbarian aesthetic with silliness and cuteness and fun. It has the kind of hulking warrior and blood-spatter all over the screen, big heavy swords, but then we naturally undercut that vibe with dumb jokes, silly visual gags, and a lot of color and cuteness. That comes from our art team, who are cute people. They just like that kind of stuff.

We just keep doing that again and again. Super Time Force was like that, it’s got this really colorful aesthetic, but when you look at what you’re doing, it’s brutal. In this one level, you’re murdering angels in heaven, but it always looks cute so you forget what you’re doing is heinous. We do that a lot in our games, it makes us laugh.

As a studio, we like cute and gross. Those are our two moods and we like when we can smash those together.

Thinking about Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP, Super Time Force, OK K.O., Below, Capybara seems to make a lot of different kinds of games.

I’ve thought about that a lot. In some ways it would probably be a lot easier on us if we did one thing and did it over and over again and perfected it. It’s something we’ve talked about… I think we’re kind of restless and to do the same thing again runs counter to our personality as a studio. A lot of fun comes from, ‘OK guys, now we’re doing a beat-em-up! Never done that before, let’s see what Capy’s take on a beat-em-up is.’ 

I think Grindstone does fall into a category of something we’ve tried before and know we’re good at. I think it was comforting to go back to that space, but like with every game, it doesn’t matter even if we’ve done three puzzle games before. Every game is its own beast and you have to start at ground zero and figure out how to make that specific game work… We love a lot of different games, we have a lot of different tastes in everything. We want to bring that into what we do every day for a job. We naturally bounce around and go to different genres and styles. 

Grindstone launched alongside Apple Arcade. How has it been being a part of that ecosystem?

It’s really interesting. It’s been a great experience so far. I think the idea of games as a subscription service — meaning you have this audience that is paying to try new things and want to see new things — that’s a lot different than a regular marketplace where you have to convince someone to press that buy button, you know? It allows us to focus on making the game that we love, the kind of game that we as players want to play, and trusting that there are people there who have signed up and opted in and want those kinds of experiences.

When I’m on Netflix, it’s one button to try something that I normally wouldn’t. Right now I’m watching this F1 racing documentary on Netflix. 

I thought about watching that too!

I’ve never watched F1 racing in my life! I was like, oh, I can press the button and it plays and I find myself enjoying things that I would never touch if it required any other personal effort to engage with it. I think that’s an interesting way to Trojan Horse cool new ideas to people… In that way I think Grindstone has benefited and I think a lot of other games on the service have as well.

The other thing about it that is so cool and different from being on a store page somewhere is that there’s this feeling of the space being curated. Someone or some people picking cool things and saying here check out these. It is really neat. It’s gratifying to be alongside all those other cool games and knowing that they were all selected to be there together.

With Apple Arcade and other gaming subscription services like Xbox Game Pass, how does that change the way you look at the market?

The market rapidly changes. Once you think you have a read on it, it’s going to change. 

I’m a huge movie and TV fanatic and music fanatic and I look at the way that those markets have changed drastically. They moved toward this subscription service/membership model, and it seemed inevitable that games would go that way as well… I don’t know whether it’s ultimately going to be pure good or it’s not. I think it’s just going to happen. It is happening. Developers need to think about their game in that new context.

Subscription services let players try new, weird games that they might not pay for otherwise. Maybe even puzzle games like 'Grindstone' where you cut up little creatures into piles of guts.

Subscription services let players try new, weird games that they might not pay for otherwise. Maybe even puzzle games like ‘Grindstone’ where you cut up little creatures into piles of guts.

It’s a totally new way to reach an audience.

I think having an audience that is opted into a service and wants to experience new things is exciting. It means people can do unexpected things and deliver them alongside more traditional games. That same developer might have had to throw that game to the wolves and hoped that it could connect and land. I think the same thing is happening with movies and TV. I think people are paying for whatever they’re paying for whenever they get a Netflix or Amazon and then you inevitably go, ‘Hey, what’s that?’ It’s one click away from experiencing it and finding your new favorite thing. That’s really cool. 

The old way — we’ve made a lot of games that have fallen in this category where only a small number of eyeballs have found it and it has a small dedicated fanbase, but because someone had to press the buy button, a lot of people pass it over. I think that’s a shame. A lot of things get missed that way. I think there’s potential for a lot of new voices to get heard.

What’s next for Capybara Games?

We’re in this really lucky position — especially during these weird times — to keep working on Grindstone to some extent. That’s an experience that we haven’t really had, to release a game and then keep working on it and keep refining it and keep adding ideas that maybe we didn’t have time to add initially. It’s really a new and fun experience for us that I wish we would have had, frankly, on a bunch of other games.

We’re always cooking a lot of little things with the smaller teams at the studio so there’s some interesting things bubbling in the background just like Grindstone was one of those things in a pot on the stove that needed some time to cook. So we’ll see.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Grindstone is available on Apple Arcade.

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