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"There's just no money in it anymore"

Gunmetal Arcadia and Super Win the Game developer J. Kyle Pittman explains why he's likely done with pixel-art platformers

There's a symmetry to Minor Key Games. Founded in 2013 by twin brothers David Pittman and J. Kyle Pittman, the studio has made a name for itself making two different types of games. David has made a trio of 3D first-person games in Eldritch, Neon Struct, and Slayer Shock. Kyle has made a trio of 2D retro platformers in Super Win the Game, Gunmetal Arcadia, and the stand-alone prequel Gunmetal Arcadia Zero.

But as Kyle told recently, that symmetry was by accident as much as design, and is unlikely to continue in the future.

"There was never a line in the sand where I was going to do these kinds of games and David was going to do those kinds of games," Kyle said. "Basically, we just ended up pursuing the games that seemed the most interesting to us at the time. He ended up doing a series of stealth-action roguelike games. I ended up doing a series of 2D pixel art platformers. It's funny it's turned into a very clear delineation of what his games look like and what my games look like, but I don't think that's going to continue into the future. I'm probably done with pixel art platformers at this point."

When asked why, Kyle was straight forward with his line of thinking.

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"Mostly there's just no money in it anymore, if there ever was," he said. "It's easy to talk about the successes there, games like Braid and Fez, but I've shipped three commercial games in the last three years and they sell a few copies each, but none have been big successes. And it's getting harder and harder to survive in the indie space without a big success. As much as I love those sorts of games and love to keep making those for years, I'm reaching a point where I know I'd be throwing money away if I continued to do that. I do have other interests, so there are lots of other things I can do."

Kyle said he's talked to other developers about pixel art platformer and heard a number of suggestions to take his work to consoles, where there appears to be a bigger market for games of this sort.

"We haven't yet shipped anything on console," Kyle said. "It's something we would like to do at some point, but the limiting factor there is we write all of our own technology, so there's not an easy solution, like Unity having tools to port games to any other platform. It would require rewriting core engine technology, and it's something I've looked into. For retro pixel art platformers, I suspect they do sell better on console than on PC, but I don't know if they sell well enough to offset the cost of development. I haven't yet felt comfortable taking that risk."

"It was a strange decision. Because I felt like I was pressed for time, I decided to make two games instead of one."

The idea of comfort with risk came up one other time in our discussion, when talking about his most recent release, Gunmetal Arcadia, a 2D action game that reworks the Zelda II: The Adventure of Link formula with roguelike elements. The risks taken with that project centered around its unanticipated ballooning into two projects, the full-fledged game and its stand-alone prequel, Gunmetal Arcadia Zero, which was released several months earlier.

"What happened was about a year and a half into the project, I started to feel like I was spending so much time developing tools and not making content that the finish line just seemed further and further away every single day," Kyle said. "And I had the realization that if I focused on developing some content, new enemies, weapons, bosses, all that stuff, I could make a prequel game. It would be something a little bit linear and smaller in scope that I could release sooner and hopefully recoup some costs on the way to making this larger scoped roguelike game... It was a strange decision. Because I felt like I was pressed for time, I decided to make two games instead of one. But I think it turned out well in the end."

One benefit of knowing Gunmetal Arcadia Zero would be followed closely by the proper release of Gunmetal Arcadia was that Kyle didn't have all his eggs in one basket.

"Being able to have this smaller, cheaper product leading into a larger product coming a few months later allowed me to feel a little bit more comfortable in taking that sort of a risk, where normally I'd want to be super protective of my new thing and not put it in any bundles ever," Kyle said. "It takes some of the pressure off to be able to try new things and see what works and what doesn't."

Super Win the Game was Minor Key's first commercial retro 2D game

Gunmetal Arcadia Zero launched exclusively for subscribers of the Humble Monthly Bundle in May of 2016, and was released for all on Steam in November. It also appeared in the Yogscast Jingle Jam 2016 holiday bundle. Kyle's not sure how much the prequel and its bundles helped market Gunmetal Arcadia's proper release, but he's confident it at least didn't undercut it, either.

"In the past, it was less about visibility among a number of games on the storefront so much as visibility among a number of games that were vying to be on the storefront. So there was still that competition..."

Even if pixel art platformers go out of style (again), Kyle may not abandon the retro world entirely. He has considered working on a project with deliberately PSone-style 3D visuals, right down to texture warping and other common quirks from Sony's first foray into consoles.

"I don't know if there's an underserved market, but it does feel like there's not a lot of competition in that space," Kyle said. "So if there is a market, it would probably be underserved."

Explicitly retro 3D games are no doubt dwarfed by their 2D counterparts at the moment, but games like Minecraft and Minor Key's own Eldritch have shown that audiences aren't necessarily averse to a low-poly 3D aesthetic.

To date, Eldritch has been Minor Key's biggest success by far, Kyle said. Part of that he chalks up to the game's inclusion on Steam before the Steam Greenlight floodgates opened up in a major way. And while the storefront is more competitive now, he's not sure that's necessarily a bad thing, nor is it really all that different from the way things were before.

"It's an interesting problem because there are lots of games and there will continue to be lots of games," Kyle said. "So the problem becomes one of visibility, which isn't a new problem, but it's becoming a more obvious problem. In the past, it was less about visibility among a number of games on the storefront so much as visibility among a number of games that were vying to be on the storefront. So there was still that competition in the past, but it was less visible to consumers, maybe, and probably less visible to developers as well. Overall, I would say Steam is in a better place than it has been in the past."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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