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Pushing PixelJunk beyond pixel art

With a market for "AAA indie" titles forming, Q-Games and Dylan Cuthbert are bringing their biggest franchise to the third dimension

When Dylan Cuthbert started Q-Games in 2001, mid-size independent game development studios weren't terribly rare. That began to change over the next decade, as the move to HD platforms drastically increased the cost of development and large publishers adopted a "fewer, bigger, better" approach, relying more on internal teams to produce a smaller array of big-budget titles.

That transition effectively made the mid-size indie studio an endangered species in the industry, but Q-Games persevered. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz at the Game Developers Conference in March, Cuthbert explained where the strategy that carried the studio through that time came from.

"The HDMI cable," Cuthbert said. "Up until that point, there'd been no way for people to play games with high-resolution graphics on their TV, from a console, with the proper range of colors. That was really the key. The PS3 was the first console to have HDMI support by default, so that combined with the Full HD and the fact that we could actually self-publish at last on a console because of PSN, those three things combined to make me think, 'We can actually reinvent things here because we can give people a 2D experience they haven't had before.'"

That was the genesis of the Pixeljunk series of games, an assortment of 2D games from a variety of genres, tied together by a common approach to taking some nostalgic gameplay and updating it with the technology of today. The strategy clicked with gamers and the series spawned a number of hits, including PixelJunk Shooter and PixelJunk Eden. But the biggest of the lot was PixelJunk Monsters, which combined tower defense gameplay with direct control of a player character in a colorful world and went on to sell 1 million copies.

"Now everybody's doing 2D games and now they're everywhere so it doesn't feel quite as fresh"

Q-Games is returning to its biggest PixelJunk hit next week with the launch of PixelJunk Monsters 2 on PC, PlayStation 4, and Switch, but its doing so with a new remit for the series.

"Back when we started PixelJunk, there weren't many 2D games," Cuthbert said. "So when [the first PixelJunk game] Racers came out, there really weren't many. Braid, World of Goo, maybe a couple other games. So 2D felt very fresh and new, and for me personally, it felt like a chance to go back to the games I grew up with, but reinvent them in HD with proper colors and lots of pixels. And that was the whole premise of the PixelJunk series at the beginning. But now everybody's doing 2D games and now they're everywhere so it doesn't feel quite as fresh."

Starting with PixelJunk Monsters 2, Cuthbert says the series is going to focus on "very high-quality 3D" experiences that he characterized as "triple I, or AAA indie-type games." For Monsters 2, that means giving the game a makeover with a "Saturday morning" art style inspired by Aardman Animations' Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep.

"Some of the titles we're going to be building next in the PixelJunk series are going to be new, funky ideas that are primarily probably in the 3D space," Cuthbert said. "We'll do maybe a couple 2D games as well, but it won't be like PixelJunk was before, where it was all 2D. It will just be whatever fits best; we're now OK to do that." While the PixelJunk brand was built explicitly around 2D experiences, Cuthbert isn't concerned that moving the series to 3D will weaken its identity or turn off existing fans.

"Even if it's 3D, I think the core ideas that are in PixelJunk still come from the old days, in a sense, the old Sinclair Spectrum and the old Commodore 64," Cuthbert said. "And I think that essence will still be there."

The old approach to PixelJunk helped Q-Games survive a difficult period for indies of its size (Cuthbert says the studio employs about 45 people currently), but the games industry is always shifting, and the company founder believes market conditions have become favorable for mid-size indies of late.

"I think it's definitely a lot more interesting," Cuthbert said. "You're getting the indie experimental things, but with AAA quality. That's where we are. We don't want to do anything that doesn't have a really good visual quality with a lot of impact."

Digital distribution is largely responsible for many of the shifts that favor mid-size indies more these days, and while it was also around during the more difficult times, the speed at which audiences have embraced it has picked up pace greatly in the last few years.

"Especially on the Switch, I think it surprised Nintendo that they got so many download sales," Cuthbert said. "They've tried it for years with 3DS and DSi, and they've never really got there. But with Switch they finally got there.

"One thing is probably that with the Switch, you have to have an SD card, and until now, there hadn't really been a need for it. And that's probably kicked people over a little bit. And people are a little bit more used to buying stuff online now anyway, so they get to [the Switch] and say, 'I don't want to keep swapping the card when I want to change a game. I just want to select it.' And the convenience of that has finally gone over the threshold of the inconvenience of going through the rigamarole of buying something online."

With greater acceptance of digital distribution and a bit more opportunity for mid-size studios, Cuthbert's ambitions are likewise growing.

"Now I want to make slightly bigger games, which means it's much harder to fund them ourselves," he said. "A lot of the indie world is getting funding now, either from Indie Fund or other small publishers. In order to create the vision you want to make, you need to work out different ways to get the money to make it. It's almost like the indie movie business. You have to get your group of people together who are going to pay for it, then you go ahead and make it."

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