When I try to get in touch with Jason Cirillo, founder of Robotube Games, he's in line trying to buy a bento box, somewhere in New York City. He's starving and needs to eat, so I try again later. This time, he's stepping onto a train.
I'm sure he's had his fair share of hectic days: Gaijin Games (of Bit.Trip fame) has recently acquired his studio, which specializes in mobile and online puzzle gaming. Robotube's two most popular games -- Bloktonik and Zyrx -- can both be found on the Apple and Android app stores
But I know Cirillo as a professor from Connecticut who spends his spare time making funny videos about old gaming arcanae*, which doesn't exactly explain why WiiWare's most popular and most successful indie development studio suddenly scooped them up.
The relationship between the two companies -- or more specifically, Cirillo and Gaijin Games founder Alex Neuse -- goes back to early 2009, when Bit.Trip BEAT was released. "[We] became aware of each other almost simultaneously because of his work on the Bit.Trip series, and my work on the Bit Museum show," Cirillo says. "Both debuted around the same time. We're both huge fans of videogame history, so we got in contact initially to shoot the shit about that."
The two teams joined together for Blip Festival's annual Game Jam in 2009. The task: to design and build a game in 24 hours. "I think Gaijin are just masterful designers, and Robotube has a lot of experience with Flash games and can turn them around pretty quickly," Cirillo explains. The result was Bit.Tonik, "80% of a game," as Cirillo described it at the time. "We ended with some bugs and some weird gameplay issues, but I think we created a clever and fun mechanic that we'd like to further explore."
From there, Cirillo and Neuse started throwing ideas around and, apparently, drinking together. "After that, we talked about how else we could do work together, and this zany idea came up that we could turn Robotube into an outlet for Gaijin," explains Cirillo. Gaijin were looking for a developer to help them make smaller games, and Cirillo's team fit the niche. "And now here we are... many, many whiskies later," he says. "We just work well together."
Cirillo describes his company as a subsidiary of Gaijin Games, explaining that "I look at Robotube as becoming a sort of lab inside of Gaijin where really awesome stuff gets made that has shorter development cycles." He continues: "Robotube's games are, if nothing else, experimental and quirky, so it's the perfect outlet for that sort of thing."
The two companies have certainly been rather flippant about the whole affair: Gaijin's press release on the issue called it a "hostile take over" (scare quotes included), and Cirillo told me that his own motivation for partnering with Gaijin is that he and Neuse "share similar hairlines." The cold calculations of business aren't on Cirillo's mind yet: "Indie gaming is coming into its own, and what it means to be independent is taking on a new meaning," he explains. "Philosophies and attitudes toward game development are really what define an indie developer. The term ... transcends mere business practices.
"I think indie game devs do and make whatever want and act on inspiration and passion. In that definition, I think Gaijin and Robotube remain as indie as they ever were," he says, even if his corporate structure suggests otherwise.
As the newest part of Gaijin Games, Cirillo now has resources that were unavailable to him as an indie. Robotube were working on a WiiWare port of Bloktonik, for example, but Nintendo wouldn't give them access to a devkit. "Our relationship with Gaijin allows us to do more and create more for sure, Cirillo says. "It's uncertain if we will revisit some of those earlier projects, but we've got so many new ideas that we're excited about that we have to sort of re-prioritize."
So much for Blocktonik WiiWare, I suppose. And so much for the last 20% of Bit.Tonik. Instead, Robotube's first game under the Gaijin umbrella is Bakuhatsu Panic, "a total re-envisioning of a nearly 10-year-old classic Robotube property," that Cirillo is "extremely stoked about."
In the meantime, I'm glad that Cirillo can maintain his indie cred without also being a starving artist -- he tells me his bento box was pretty good.
*A new Bit Museum website is under construction, but coming soon.
[Image credit: Ty Dunitz]