Manchester, UK-based Pixelbomb Games is a relative unknown in this industry. The startup studio is looking to change that, however, with its first game, a third-person mech shooter called Beyond Flesh and Blood. The title was first announced at E3 as part of the ID@Xbox program and it's now slated for Xbox One, PS4 and Steam by the end of the year. Pixelbomb was formed just over two years ago, and rather than start small as many indies do, the team decided to go big, risks and all.
"When we formed, we literally started with four people and as we built we decided not to make a regular indie [project], but we wanted a chance to do AAA indie. Basically, we built the game the way we wanted to," lead designer Lee Blacklock (pictured) explained to GamesIndustry.biz.
Beyond Flesh and Blood may be the first game for the studio but Blacklock has shipped numerous AAA games in the past (Harry Potter, Transformers). His AAA experience is complemented by lead coder Phil Muwanga who comes mainly from an indie background. Muwanga was surprised by the ambition Pixelbomb had from the start.
"I came onto the game as a freelance coder...and I was shocked by the scope of the game that they were trying to make. The entire time that I've been an indie you try to make your first game and you come up with a crazy idea without having any idea of how much work it'll actually take to do it. And you normally don't finish your first game, you start a smaller project, and the projects get smaller and smaller until you finally reach the size of a project that you can do and actually do well. When I came here, they were trying to knock the ball out of the park," he said.
"One of the advantages of being on the console is the market isn't swamped as the PC market can be at the moment"
It's certainly a risky endeavor to shoot for AAA out of the gate, but it helps that Pixelbomb managed to find an interested investor - the team isn't scrapping together its own funds from savings accounts as some other poor indies have. "We have an angel investor who has quite the irons in the fire and he's quite keen to get into the games industry and we are the results of that," noted Muwanga. "[He's] quite keen that if we make a game we make the biggest, best game that we possibly can and we've been lucky to be granted the time to be able to do that."
Pixelbomb and its anonymous angel investor have also been smart about how much money to pour in; the studio has carefully been examining its reception to early builds of Beyond Flesh and Blood and adjusting accordingly. Blacklock noted that "investments have been tiered based on how successful or how well we've been received at events."
Muwanga added, "We've only had a full team for the past 8 months. The first part of it was just working on the vertical slice and to prove that the concept actually worked. Our major turning point was when we first went to EGX and we put the game in the hands of the public, and based on the response we've been allowed to expand our team to propel our ambitions... Our investor understands that making any game is a huge risk but there is a reason he's invested and we've had to prove ourselves through various milestones to unlock additional funding."
As excited as Blacklock and Muwanga are about building up the scope of Pixelbomb's first commercial product, the team has had to make a lot of hard choices when it comes to content. Ultimately, the studio has to keep in mind that it's still a business.
"Even though we tried to scale back our ambitions, we had to cut a lot of content just to get this game out, because there comes a time when you have to stop adding things and actually put a game to market. You don't make money by making games, you make money by shipping games and we're at the stage where we just needed to get a title out just to prove it as a business model, and then as long as that does well then we can do all the stories that we wanted to tell," Muwanga said.
While Sony during this console generation has received more credit for its indie outreach, Pixelbomb actually chose to lead with Microsoft. Despite Sony's reputation, for whatever reason the company was far less receptive than Microsoft, Pixelbomb discovered.
"We had a few meetings to talk about what we were doing and they were very open and friendly and genuinely interested in what we were doing as an indie dev," Blacklock said. "From my personal experience as a gamer or as a consumer, watching E3 2014, I totally looked at Sony thinking, 'wow, these guys are showing it's a place for indies and a very friendly atmosphere to go to.' ... [but] we've not really had the same contact or reception with Sony."
Beyond Flesh and Blood may actually have a better chance of success on consoles, Pixelbomb feels, as the PC side has almost become too crowded, said Muwanga: "Steam is obviously the largest marketplace and almost everyone on the team plays games on the PC. One of the advantages of being on the console is the market isn't swamped as the PC market can be at the moment. While Steam Greenlight has been great because it's allowed anyone to get a game on Steam, it used to be quite an arduous chore that involved a lot of backroom dealings unless you were a well known brand. It has opened the floodgates, and we're currently planning how we can do our marketing to stand out on Steam."
"One of the joys of being a studio the size that we are is that as long as we achieve a reasonable amount of success we will be afforded the opportunity to try other things out"
As for standing out on consoles, the studio could also look to leverage Microsoft's big Windows 10 push. Phil Spencer has repeatedly said that he sees more cross-platform opportunities around Windows 10 and Xbox One. "Windows 10 is Microsoft's shiny new toy so anything that you can do that incorporates features of Windows 10, they may be more likely to push you to the front of the store or shine a spotlight on you," acknowledged Muwanga.
As Pixelbomb has grown its team from four to 19, Muwanga and Blacklock have had to adjust their day-to-day expectations. Coming from the small indie world, it was especially an adjustment for Muwanga. "We must take a bit of a backseat with the actual making of the game because we spend time just doing project management, making sure everyone is doing work that is up to a standard and they're all coming together as a cohesive whole. That was quite a shock to me," he admitted.
Sometimes learning to trust your team and let go is the most important lesson to learn, added Blacklock: "I think if you're an indie and you want to do something a little more adventurous... I would say it's difficult to allow other people to help you with a game. When you hire people, you just place trust in people to help you make that game, if you will, and not try and take on everything yourself."
If things go well with Beyond Flesh and Blood, Pixelbomb will be ready for the future. The studio already has ideas in place for further titles and multiplayer extensions. "We can't tip our hand, but in order to keep going, you have to start planning for the future and know roughly what you're going to be doing next. So we actually are going to be looking at doing a small multi-player game set in the same universe as Beyond Flesh and Blood," Blacklock said. "Now that we've got all this work into our game's design we can really take advantage of that in sequels. We can make the next game faster and it also allows us to add extra features, things that were missing from this title that we had to pull out."
Muwanga added, "We came up with the idea and the story because basically we're huge nerds. This is what we talk like in the pub while we're drunk. It is quite an expansive new world and obviously you dream about what huge things can happen and so on. In a perfect world, this is the first episode of a series of games set in the Beyond Flesh and Blood universe. Our investor is quite keen for this to become a franchise."
While Pixelbomb is shooting for AAA quality, the nice thing about being a right-sized indie studio is that AAA success isn't a necessity for survival. The studio isn't going to be hurt if Beyond Flesh and Blood sells under 5 million copies.
"One of the joys of being a studio the size that we are is that as long as we achieve a reasonable amount of success we will be afforded the opportunity to try other things out. Our overheads are not so great that we have to churn out a game every year just to cover the costs of the studio," said Muwanga.