Tequila Works Founder Talks About Crunch, Stadia, Gylt, VR and More

Raúl Rubio of Tequila Works sat down for an interview where he talked about the company's origins, its culture, and released games.

Tequila Works is a Spanish game studio that has been around for roughly 15 years. And even though they don’t have the same sort of reputation as other, larger studios, they still have a lot of experience, as founder Raúl Rubio said in an interview with SegmentNext about the studio.

Tequila Works is a boutique studio founded 15 years ago with the goal of creating with gusto. Our philosophy is one of craftsmanship in an eternal quest to find the answer to the questions “where’s the beauty? where’s the crazy?” where all our interactive creations must deserve to be made and raise a question to the player, respecting its time and dedication.

All of that time and dedication requires a lot of people, and that’s something Tequila isn’t lacking in. Ironically, the studio has grown far more than Rubio said that it would when Tequila was first founded back in 2009. However, despite its growth, the studio still has its original company culture.

We are around 120 people now and growing, 90% permanently remote. As you can guess that’s a huge challenge as we were around 75-ish in-house and less than a dozen remote in 2019. Ironically, when we set up Tequila Works as a boutique studio I promised we’d never grow beyond 48 people (laughs). So in order to keep our culture and style intact, it’s not a single 120 team but several smaller ones that interact with each other and merge or split based on the needs of each project. So far we have managed to grow steadily without losing our mojo…which doesn’t mean we haven’t been transformed in the process. I hope for the better (laughs). Tequila Works is best known for developing games like the side-scrolling zombie apocalypse adventure game Deadlight, or the adventure puzzle game Rime. However, an upcoming game of theirs is Song of Nunu, a League of Legends licensed game, which has dozens of characters. Rubio gave an explanation as to why they focused on Nunu in particular, rather than anyone else.

Riot gave us the opportunity to choose our champion, plain and simple. And even though Runeterra is filled with mighty champions on epic quests, we found the beauty and the crazy in
the wrinkles that make them humans.

The story of this little child looking for his mother in a harsh and inhospitable tundra resonated more with our sensibilities than any heroic feat. We wanted to know more about Nunu, Willump, Layka, Lissandra… Yes, the Freljord is fragmented by political intrigues and eternal civil wars, and an ancient world-ending extradimensional power awaits enclosed in the walls of true ice… but this child and his best friend, who happens to be a magical yeti, just want to have the best time together while looking for the former’s mom.

While League of Legends is one of the biggest MOBA games currently on the market, the various side games, including Legends of Runeterra and Ruined King: A League of Legends Story, have also proven to be fairly successful. Tequila knows about successful games, to the point where Rubio can’t pick one that might be its most successful.

Hard to say. It’s probably between Deadlight and RiME. The Sexy Brutale was comparatively very successful too. That said, RiME will always be a very special title for all of us and our fans. It was quite a journey but in the end RiME managed to touch and impact many players, helping them to find their question in a way we could never anticipate. That’s the real reward for us as creators.

Of course, Tequila Works has also had a few missteps, even in its success. For instance, one of its most recent games, GYLT, was originally released exclusively on the now-defunct Google Stadia. However, GYLT will be able to continue its success on other platforms, and despite Stadia’s downfall, the game was still, apparently, a success.

We really have no accountable data on the number of players but as an exclusive launch title we were told that GYLT was one of the most successful titles on the platform, and remained that way over the years. Let’s not forget that GYLT was included for free with the Stadia subscription. I must say that working with the Stadia team was a great opportunity for us, just as working with Xbox, PlayStation or Riot Forge right now let us learn so much.

Now, you may ask if the shutdown had something to do with the decision of porting GYLT to other platforms. The truth is we had decided to go multiplatform soon after the release and thus asked Stadia for their blessing. They were very open to Tequila Works to get back the IP rights and in fact we had taken the decision of porting it long ago. This way GYLT could reach the highest number of players including many fans that could not or would not play on a single platform.

However, GYLT isn’t being ported by Tequila themselves. While they can’t mention what else they’re working on at the moment, Rubio did imply that Tequila is developing other games besides “Song of Nunu” as well, even if he couldn’t say anything about it.

Ah, the eternal question. As SEGA used to say “we are always working on the future”. GYLT is being ported by an external dev and supervised by us so you can guess that some of the teams are working on other projects. But that’s all I can say for now…

As every gaming developer learns, technology is also constantly evolving. Most recently, virtual reality is starting to really take off as a video gaming medium, which Rubio is aware of. However, unlike other game devs, he tempers his excitement with caution and realism.

It has a great potential but the technology was simply not ready beyond early adopters and professional applications. A bad first experience in VR can mark you for life and not everybody is physically fit for VR; for example: I successfully endured 10fps VR in the 90s and the legendary Toscana demo in a VR cave and then the first Oculus prototype… yet now that I’m older I get sickness whenever I spend more than 30 minutes on a modern headset, which is several levels of magnitude better.

VR, AR, XR will democratize when the experience is useful and above all, seamless. Maybe contact lenses or retina projection or neural synapse that can trick your senses… which are incredibly complex engineering challenges. But maybe the answer is social: wearable computing is something perceived as geek, not mainstream. Compare any MP3 player in the 90s with the iPod, how it was seen, how it transformed the industry. But in order to get mainstream you need to overcome many issues which require a ton of R&D and investment… or just find the right application for it to develop till it reaches a point where it’s marketable.

Obviously gaming is not the answer when the device costs thousands and the investment in development cannot be higher than indie or mobile developments, millions away from the AAA gamers have grown accustomed to. I guess architecture, engineering, medical, military, space exploration, etc. are the usual suspects but that’s a totally different question.

With various virtual reality headsets being extremely expensive (including Apple’s recently-unveiled Apple Vision Pro, which costs 3,000 dollars), it’s not surprising that Rubio still thinks that virtual reality isn’t ready to get into the wider gaming market. This even extends to putting out games in virtual reality, such as Sony’s Playstation VR 2, which at the moment the studio has no plans for.

Only a few minutes so the honest answer is not yet. We are too busy with GYLT and Song of Nunu: A League of Legends Story! I think it’s a clear improvement on the previous generation while keeping the cost quite contained. But in the end it’s all based on perception: it’s ok to spend one grand on a smartphone yet spending hundreds on a gaming device plus more hundreds on extra hardware seems more difficult. I’m not gonna judge, it’s just the perception.

Alongside new technology like virtual reality headsets, Rubio also has opinions on other kinds of changes coming to games, such as streaming services like the Xbox Game Pass system. Rubio says that while these things can be appealing to the community and developers in the short term, it’s not profitable for most beyond that.

I think I already talked about this when Stadia was released. At the time I tried to explain that one thing was the streaming technology and another the business model. Back in 2018 we already predicted that subscription models would be very attractive for the community, and in the short term, appealing for developers. Holders would reach the big names, auteurs or outright acquire specific talent (as it has happened) to keep filling their service with content to attract new subscribers and/or prevent the current ones to cancel their subscription. In the end it’s a battle for time, doesn’t matter if it’s interactive content, music, movies or any other audiovisual content. It’s time and once you enter that loop it is hard to get out. That’s the difference between a product and a service. For a small personal 2-hour indie title? Not profitable if they are going to pay you per time played or just an outright flat rate (as it’s a filler, not an attracter). Either you are too small to feel the impact or large enough to endure it. But it may be more difficult for mid-size independent developers. This was one of the reasons why we decided to grow. Of course it’s not so catastrophic and the market should stabilize in a decade or so, just like the US cable TV industry evolved in the late XXth Century.

While games can have a great deal of exposure through a cheap thing like Game Pass, various games, even if they’re popular on the service, will run the risk of not turning a profit because of the service, such as Hi-Fi Rush several months ago. And Tequila knows all about creative, popular games, especially since they encourage creativity in the studio.

Creativity is like gardening: it takes a lot of energy and effort just to keep everything the same (laughs). As Tequila Works we fostered an environment where everyone must make the game their own. Contribution is not only encouraged, it’s mandatory. As Creative Chief my mission is nurturing that creativity, finding the strengths of every team member and minimizing their weaknesses so they can be the best version of themselves. Many people think that creative directors are egotastic “idea guys” but in reality it’s a nexus of creativity, a collaborative effort to solve problems where concepts and proposals, once they are on the table, are there for everyone to play with them, stretch them, even break them. So it’s a little bit like a kindergarten. And like a great teacher, it’s not about putting little stars on your class’ face, it’s about inspiring them to grow and beyond.

And thankfully, Tequila Works leaves a lot of room for people to be at their best, and most creative selves. As part of the final question, Rubio went into detail on how the studio operates, including how it addresses the mental health of employees, mainly by getting rid of that scourge of video game developers everywhere: crunch.

The studio has a strict no crunch policy. Human resources just sent the latest revision of our protocol! Deadlines are defined by each person themselves. Extra time must be notified and approved by human resources and production, and even then within strict limits so you cannot make more than a fixed number of yearly hours, if it’s justified (because no matter how well you plan everything, there are always external factors that will force you to adapt). Those plannings are reviewed by production every day within a two week sprint, monthly, quarterly and so on.

Of course we do have a plan for the whole project but if you believe that whatever you put on an excel for that Wednesday in 2 years time is going to be accurate, well, life’s gonna kick your ass. Adaptation and flexibility are key, it’s an expedition, a marathon. That means you must prioritize health and morale, not the other way around. The “think of the glory!” days of the 90s some of us had to live are behind, and should stay there. Passion should not be confused with carte blanche. I have made great sacrifices pursuing my passion yet I won’t dare to request others to do the same. It’s simply not fair. I prefer to make my teams understand why even before what so they can reach their own conclusions and course of action. We hire highly intelligent and crazy people, it would be disrespectful to tell them how to proceed.

One example: when we set up our hybrid model during the pandemic the term was not in general use yet. Talking to other studios I soon realized that “hybrid” meant something different out there, as for us it meant that some people were free to choose to work permanently on remote, yet were free to come to the studio whenever they wanted. When they asked me “how many days they must go to the studio?” I didn’t understand as for us it’s not mandatory at all; in retrospect I guess my answer (“whatever flies your boat”) was even more confusing for them. It’s simple: we take mental health and the toll a creative project has on ourselves and those around us really seriously. This is a dev studio created by devs, so it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to not learn from what we suffered in the past in other companies, right?

With that small but significant number of game releases under its belt, and a company culture that puts the developers and their mental health ahead of profits, hopefully Tequila Works can release another successful game with Song of Nunu, and continue to do so for as long as the studio keeps going.

Hunter is senior news writer at SegmentNext.com. He is a long time fan of strategy, RPG, and tabletop games. When he is not playing games, he likes to write about them.