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PixelJunk Interview

Dylan Cuthbert.greyscale Dylan Cuthbert has been working in videogames for more than twenty years. He started his career at Argonaut, where amongst other things he made the original Star Fox game on the SNES with Nintendo. After working with Sony of America and Sony Japan, he eventually founded his own Kyoto-based developer, Q-Games, one of the few studios in the world to combine Japanese and international talent under one roof. Working closely with both Nintendo and Sony, Dylan’s company has worked on all manner of unusual projects, such as the audio visualisation applications on the Sony PS3 (the “earth from space” is a particular favourite at ihobo). I caught up with Dylan to ask him about his company’s PixelJunk brand, which has already attained something of a cult status.

Chris Bateman: I understand the PixelJunk series was created to explore what could be done with traditional two-dimensional gameplay on a high definition screen. What motivated you to explore this?

Dylan Cuthbert: I grew up learning to program and develop games on the very first 8-bit computers like the Sinclair ZX-81 and Spectrum. The sheer range of ideas and games back then was great!  People didn't care so much about how the games looked, so it let people experiment a lot more in the systems that make a game interesting.  I grew up with all that and started feeling that the games I was seeing around me weren't showing the sheer breadth of creativity that existed back in those 8-bit days.

So, I started PixelJunk to explore what else could be done with 2d, but on top of that I wanted to bring modern technology to the table, and with the advance of HDTV and, more importantly HDMI (that gave us a digital signal and proper colours at last!) we had the chance to do something new again in the 2d arena.
Chris: With the first game, PixelJunk Racers, you had a variety of challenges based around slot car racing, and the second game, PixelJunk Monsters, was a neatly polished tower defence game. What attracted you to the Tower Defence genre?

Dylan: I have always been a huge RTS fan, since the days of Dune and the very first Command and Conquer. Even now I play Red Alert 3 every lunchtime without fail with anyone who is willing to be beaten here at work!  What I saw in Tower Defence games was a chance to bring RTS’s to the regular, casual gaming public in a way that it hadn't been brought to them before.  Right from the start I made it a character based game, and had elements like the dancing to upgrade your towers, and the dropping of coins, all of which worked to give casual players a comfortable interface for what is actually quite a hardcore game.  I think this is why casual players and hardcore players alike really enjoy Monsters.

Chris: Then we come to PixelJunk Eden. The aesthetic behind this game is quite unique, with the strange animated plantlife that serve as platforms, and a trippy electronica score. Which came first, the visuals or the audio?

Dylan: The visuals came first – Baiyon showed some of his art and immediately one of the pictures leaped out at me, and that was a strange collage of spacey plant-life. From that picture we iterated and evolved the look of Eden.  The music came in a bit later, although we were already playing it alongside our earliest demos of the game.

Chris: At heart, Eden is a platform game, but it doesn't play anything like a traditional 2D platformer. Did you begin with the idea to make a 2D platform game, and then come up with the idea for collecting pollen to open seeds that grow new plants for you to jump to, or did the idea for the platform elements come later, after you'd tried some other ideas involving the seeds and plants?

Dylan: I don't like doing anything too conventional, and we started with a jumping "spider" because I wanted to make a game with elements of an old ZX Spectrum game called Bugaboo the Flea that I really liked.

Chris: Bugaboo was never on sale in the States, I think, but it was a big hit in its day in Europe, getting rave reviews back in 1983. Anyone who had a ZX Spectrum tends to remember it.

Dylan: As we implemented the jumping spider idea we found that as the screen got more crowded with plants the spider would keep hitting them, so that's when we introduced the grip mechanic to let the player decide when he wants to just go right on through a plant.  We already had floating "prowlers" in the game right from our very first demo and smashing them to generate pollen was also in there from an early point, but the auto-filling of seeds happened quite late on in the project.  Initially we just had it so you had to collect the pollen as your score, but then it struck us that it would be very fluid looking to have the pollen fly to the nearest seeds around you, overflowing to fill the seeds near them etc.

Chris: One of the unique aspects of the platform play of Eden is the fact you have access at all times to both jumping and spinning on thread, a form of rope mechanics. Was there ever any idea of using the 'ropes' without jumping, or the jumping without the 'ropes'?

Dylan: Initially there wasn't a rope (or silk as we call it) but it was one of the earliest things we added along with the grip mechanic as we iterated the game mechanics and play-tested the game.  It just felt natural to have the silk in the game.  We did do some tests around that point where we removed the silk, but it steadily became integral to the game, especially when we introduced the mechanic that it can destroy the weaker prowlers and collect pollen.

Chris: It’s interesting that you added that later, since spinning to pop prowlers and collect pollen is a basic tactic in the finished game.

Dylan: As I say, we have a very iterative design process.

Chris:  The Grimps, the cute avatars in the game, were apparently a last minute addition. What did you have before, and how did they come to be added?

Dylan: We had a nondescript "blob" and an odd elephant-like creature that stood on its hind legs.  Luckily we settled on the Grimps and I am really happy with the way their "floppy horns" flap around when you are jumping here and there.

Chris: PixelJunk Eden is a lot of fun single player, but you also have a three player co-op mode. PixelJunk Monsters also plays in a great two player co-op mode – which my wife loves, much to my surprise. Is co-operative play something you were keen to explore in the PixelJunk games?

Dylan: Co-operative play is great fun, for Racers of course there is no co-operative play, but I think with Monsters we started realizing how much fun co-op was so we will always try to implement it if we can.  We have received lots of mails from couples, fathers & daughters and so on, who have all really enjoyed playing our games together.

Chris: In the three player mode of Eden, the players get penalised heavily if one of them falls off, as the camera often follows the falling grimp, "popping" the others and causing a loss of pollen. It forces players to work as a team, but it also frustrates players who aren't used to working in this way. Was there an internal logic behind this design choice? (And what is the logic behind the camera behaviour?)

Dylan: We fixed the camera logic in the patch in January, so now it simply follows the highest player on the screen.  Initially we were trying something more complicated because sometimes a leap of faith was required sideways or downwards and the camera wouldn't follow them.  But in the end of the day that motion appears to feel more natural so we simplified it, so now the camera will stay with the players that are highest on the screen, just make sure you grip something.

Chris: That was one of several fixes in your recent update for PixelJunk Eden. Another was making the game easier by slowing the rate that time ticks down, and giving more time for collecting the big crystals. Was this in response to criticisms the game had received for being too tight on the time requirements?

Dylan: Well, the game was a little too difficult so we softened it up slightly; at least the hardcore gamers got their fun out of it before we did that!  I personally enjoy it more at the original hard setting but I'm a bit of an old-school hard-core gamer and sometimes I forget that (laugh)!

Chris: PixelJunk Eden has been entered into this year's Independent Games Festival – I’m not certain, but I think this is the first PS3 exclusive to make it into this competition. How do you feel about Eden being in the IGF?

Dylan: Well, Flow and Everyday Shooter before they were moved to PS3 both won the IGF in several categories so I think it's pretty cool.  PSN is still a fairly new service and it is giving a lot of power to indie devs such as ourselves.  We've also been nominated for the GDC Choice awards.

Chris: So what do you have planned for the fourth PixelJunk game?

Dylan: Something interesting!  It's still secret but it will be something that invokes old memories yet has something completely new and unused before in it too.

You can vote for PixelJunk Eden in the IGF Audience Awards, but the voting ends on Friday 20th March so get your skates on! All the PixelJunk games are available exclusively from the PS3’s online store.

Sheri Graner Ray vs Videogames Industry


For some time now, I’ve been less-than-subtly pressuring Sheri Graner Ray into blogging, and this year she has finally thrown her hat into the ring with a new blog, FEM IRL (female in real life). To celebrate, I decided to interview Sheri about her career in videogames, and why the industry is still struggling to understand the benefits of gender-inclusive game design.

Chris Bateman: You've worked for some of the major companies in the games industry, including EA, Origin, and Sony. At some point, you became the de facto spokesperson for women in the games industry – how did that happen?

Sheri Graner Ray: I’ve always like games – both table top and computer games – and I consider myself to be a pretty typical girl. So I didn’t understand why there weren’t more women playing computer games. Out of curiosity I began to do a little research. It quickly became very apparent that as an industry we were making some pretty major mistakes that actively kept women out of our games.

So, thinking the industry would want to know how to make more money, I began to talk about what I’d discovered. Imagine my surprise when, instead of a positive response, I was greeted with derision – one guy actually stood up in the middle of a talk I was giving at GDC (CGDC back then) and started calling me names.

Chris: How rude!

Sheri: Well I guess I’m just stubborn because instead of dissuading me, this behaviour just made me more determined to get the word out. So, I guess basically I’m just a game designer that can’t keep quiet when I think we, as an industry, are making big mistakes!

Chris: Well since then there has been significant progress, hasn’t there? Female players now make up 40% of the market for games, and 25% of the console market. That's a huge step up from where we were, say, ten years ago.

Sheri: Oh please be careful with those numbers! I hear them so often now and usually it’s from publishers patting themselves on the back saying “See? Our game audience is now 40% female. We can relax now and not change a thing!”

Chris: So you don’t think there’s been an improvement?

Sheri: There’s definitely been an improvement, but like most lies, damned lies and statistics, the numbers are very misleading. The reason these numbers look so good is it’s an average – the traditional game market is still less than 20% female. However, the “casual” game market is 70% female. Average those and you get 40% female audience over all. But that does not mean 40% of the players of Gears of War are female!

Chris: But if the casual games market is doing so well courting female players, what’s the problem? 

Sheri: Most of the development capital is still in the traditional titles, and these are still missing out on a huge chunk of the market.

Chris: By traditional titles, do you mean console videogames?

Sheri: Mostly, but don’t forget that MMOs are still focused mostly on the PC market. By the traditional titles, I mean all the big titles – it’s where the money is and where the best jobs can be found. If we continue to keep women out of those titles, we will continue to keep them out of the industry and the industry overall will suffer for it.

Chris: Is there still a fundamental misunderstanding about women gamers, in that people think you need to make games especially for them? I ask, because it's becoming clear that huge brands like Final Fantasy (which has sold 85 million games across all its iterations) and Mario (201 million games) – not to mention The Sims (100 million) – have all succeeded in part because they appeal to both men and women.

Sheri: The game industry has long been looking for the “silver bullet” that one magic title that all women will play. They thought they had it with the “pink” Barbie games. Then they thought they had it with the Sims games. Currently they think they have it with the “casual” online games. Each of these categories of games has made money, but each time it results in the same thing, the entire market of “women” is re-categorized as one genre.

Chris: As if people can’t get their head around the idea that there might be as much diversity among female players as there is in male players… Although sometimes I wonder if the industry has even got their head around the diversity of male players, to be honest!

Sheri: If anyone is familiar with the history of the women’s suffrage movement, you will see some surprising similarities with the way the games industry looks at female players. One of the big “fears” about giving women the right to vote was that they would become one huge homogeneous voting bloc that could, in theory, control the outcome of every single vote. Of course, this proved to be completely untrue as, lo and behold, women did not all believe the same thing, want the same thing, nor vote the same way. Thus, there was no monolithic voting bloc that upset all politics as we know it.

It’s the same in games. There is no, one monolithic audience called “Women” who all want exactly the same thing in games. It actually is one million markets… each one with its own tastes and wants in entertainment. The only thing these markets share in common is a particular chromosomal make-up! 

Chris: But you’re not saying that you can’t target a specific female demographic?

Sheri: No, of course not – the female market is certainly a valid market for making targeted products for: the romance book market has figured this out, as has Hollywood, with the “chick flicks”. However, you can’t just say “this is for women.” You have to categorize and analyze your target demographic just as you would for any other demographic. You need to say, “this is for women between the ages of 10-18 who like backpacking, camping and other outdoor recreational activities” or you need to say, “This is for men, ages 25-50 who live in suburban areas, are college educated, and own at least one classic car.” 

The better you can define your market, the better you can pinpoint what that market wants, what they need  and how you can the better target your product to them… regardless of gender!  

Chris: We recently processed the data on people's favourite games from our last player study and found that role-playing games are hugely popular with both men and women – 20% of the male players and 20% of the female players surveyed listed RPGs among their three favourite games, more than any other genre. And this wasn't just Final Fantasy but also the Elder Scrolls gamesand even older games like Baldur's Gate – all beloved by both male and female players. Why do you think RPGs have such cross-gender appeal?

Sheri: I think it’s because they provide the more flexible play styles. In other words, they appeal to a broad demographic because more people can find their preferred play style in them.

Chris: Another thing the player study showed up was that while first person shooters were hugely popular among the male gamers (about as popular as RPGs), they didn't interest the female players at all. And in fact, RPGs and RPG-like games that used guns like Deus Ex and Fallout rated okay with male players but not with female players. Do you think there's something about guns that female players find off-putting, or is it just that fantasy settings are generally more appealing to them?

Sheri: Neither. I think you’ll find that the vast majority of female players have never tried a FPS. So to say they inherently don’t like them is a bit like saying female don’t like the food served in strip clubs. How can you know that? Very few women go there!

Chris: But there are women who play and love FPS’s, of course.

Sheri: Well I should give my disclaimer here! When I say something is “female” or “male” I mean it is predominantly a trait of that gender. It is not exclusively that gender. Everything is a bell curve and there are people who fall in all areas of that curve. If you are female and a lover of FPS, then the generalisation is obviously not pertaining to you.

Chris: But you agree there’s a disparity of some kind here.

Sheri: I would say it has nothing to do with the guns or the violence. All research I’ve done has shown that girls have no problem with violence. What they do have a problem with is violence for violence sake. In other words, violence isn’t bad because it’s “icky” but because it’s boring.

Chris: Happy to beat someone up as long as there’s a reason for it!

Sheri: Something like that. I suspect the reason few women play FPS games has less to do with the guns or the violence and more to do with the barriers to access in the titles today. Inherently weak stories (which mean little reason for the violence), male-only avatars or female avatars that are hyper-sexualized, a focus on head-to-head competition, punishment for error models... all these kinds of things are less appealing to most women, and therefore are barriers to access for the titles.

Chris: What about the Grand Theft Auto games? Although these were marginally more popular with male players, an awfully large number of female players rate one of these games as a personal favourite, especially San Andreas. Is part of the appeal here that Rockstar North (I still think of them as DMA design, I confess!) just make really fun virtual worlds to play in?

Sheri: The GTA games are open, virtual worlds thus, much like the RPGs we talked about earlier, appeal to more people because more play styles are able to be expressed. It’s a bit like the difference between a playground and a single theme park ride. You can do what you want in a playground. With a lone themepark ride, it’s a one trick pony.

Chris: It seems to me, looking at the games that have been succeeding in the wake of what you might call "the casual revolution" that part of the success of the casual games movement has been that games are being designed either for female players, or at least in a way that doesn't exclude them. I look at the huge success of hidden object games like Mystery Case Files, for instance, and think: these were made for a female audience!

Sheri: I agree. However, please be careful by calling them “female games.” As I mentioned before, there are as many different wants and needs in games as there are women, so we must be careful categorizing anything as “for a female audience” Note that we don’t call regular games “for a young male audience.” We say the “Traditional” audience and all assume it’s young males ages 12-21. We need to come up with terms that are more specific to the demographic than “female audience” if we want to avoid the problems the “pink games” had back in the 90’s.

Chris: Is this perhaps the secret to Nintendo’s recent success? When I look at the games that Nintendo have been selling in huge numbers, it seems clear that female consumers are part of the equation – I'm thinking specifically of Nintendogs (22 million), Brain Age (17 million), Wii Fit (14 million) and Animal Crossing (11 million). None of these games appeal solely to women, but it's hard not to imagine that a large number of women have bought them, and Nintendo's marketing reinforces that impression.

Sheri: Yes! These games are successful because they target other demographics beyond the “traditional” game demographic. It is about time the game industry figured out they can make games for other demographics and be successful.

Chris: Do you think we're heading for parity in the market – an even split between male and female players?

Sheri: I hope so. We aren’t there yet. As stated above, the “40% of gamers are female” number is quite misleading. We still put the majority of our money into developing titles for that one single demographic: young white males. And, with the exception of the Wii, most console titles are still aimed squarely at that market. The game industry has to come to realize two things. Firstly, the female market is not a single monolithic market and secondly, they can access a huge number of new players by addressing barriers in their current titles. If both these problems can be overcome then we will begin to see parity.

Chris: Even though the female players are only 25% of the PS3 and Xbox 360 market, that's still more than 12 million players. When you think that selling a million is still considered a success in our industry, doesn't it seem like there's a lost opportunity here?

Sheri: Of course. The industry needs to look at their titles and address barriers to access and they can begin to reach more players. And not just female players, either but other minorities as well. There is still a huge untapped market out there. We’re effectively throwing money away!

Chris: Why do you think the console market has a smaller share of female players?

Sheri: For two reasons. Firstly, they are risk adverse. Come on now, if your job depended on selling 2 million units of a game, which would you want? A game that is just like the last game you sold 2 million units of – that you are comfortable with the concepts, the channels, the retail strategy for? Or some new game that you don’t really understand, don’t necessarily know the channel for and can’t really put numbers to. Obviously, you are going to go with what you know. However, that’s leaving a huge amount of money on the table.

Chris: And secondly?

Sheri: The industry continues to produce games without thought to barriers to access. Because some of the current games are selling in good numbers, few people think to look at what might be built into the games that might be keeping other markets from interacting with the product. The bikini-clad, heavy bosomed woman on the cover sells to that post-pubescent boy… marketing departments don’t even consider the fact that if a woman isn’t going to want to pick up the box, she isn’t going to buy the game for herself.

Chris: I think most marketing departments fear that changing the appeal of the box designs to allow for a female audience will weaken the appeal to the young male audience they are so intently focussed upon.

Sheri: So in the name of “it’s worked before", the industry as a whole continues to slam the door in the face of a number of markets that are tech savvy and have large amounts of disposable income to spend.

Chris: Well it’s clearly not a clever strategy, but it’s safe, and large corporations come to rely upon the safe options.

Sheri: Right up to the point they declare bankruptcy because some more agile competitor beat them to the punch on a new opportunity!

Chris: It’s a crazy business! If you could change one aspect of the games industry's development culture to make it easier for companies to profit from this large pool of female players with a love of games and money to spend, what would it be?

Sheri: The recruiting attitude and hiring practices of the industry, definitely. This sounds very strange, I know, but our industry has terrible hiring habits. We put ads in places only game industry folks will see, thus we advertise to the same people again and again. We refuse to consider skill sets, only experience, so, once again, we only hire from those who have been hired before,  and when we interview, we send the candidate through a full round of interviews with each team member, telling the team “tell us if you like this person” – which translates to “is this person just like you?” 

We never hire outside our comfort zone. Thus, we end up a very homogeneous work place. We are an industry of young white guys making games for… surprise! Young white guys! 

Chris: But it has to change at some point. Every other successful industry eventually hurdled these kinds of barriers.

Sheri: I think the biggest change will come from diversifying our work force. To do this, we have to actively recruit in non-traditional places, be willing to look at skill sets rather than explicit experience, and support those organizations that do outreach and mentoring for minority groups in the industry. If we want to build diverse products that reach broad, diverse audiences, then our workforce has to reflect that.

You can read more of Sheri’s unique perspective at her new blog, FEM IRL, and also in her chapter on designing for female players in Beyond Game Design. Spread the word!

Noah Falstein on Insult Swordfighting

One of the best aspects of working on the new book, Beyond Game Design, was the chance to work with some of the great names of the videogames industry. Noah Falstein, who writes the bookend chapter which ties it all together, has had a career that would be the envy of any game designer, having worked for some of the most innovative and influential developers in the history of videogames, including seminal arcade developer, Williams Electronics, and the king of adventure games, LucasArts. During our email discussions while working on the book, this anecdote came up; I thought I would share it with the few surviving adventure game fans.

Monkeyisland Ron [Gilbert] managed to forget the origin of the insult swordfighting idea [in The Secret of Monkey Island], not surprisingly as it meant more to me than to him, and of course I wanted to grab all the credit I could! The full story is pretty amusing.

We'd collaborated on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and one of my contributions to that game was a boxing mini-game that Indy uses in his college (a scene with the college boxing ring was actually in the script we used as our Brand Bible, but it was cut from the movie) and then we used the same interface to fight various Nazi guards as I mentioned later in the chapter. I borrowed Sid Meier's swordfighting system from his original Pirates! game, figuring it would be disguised enough in the boxing game that no-one would mind, but somehow neglected to mention that to Ron. 

Then Ron was working on Monkey Island and came to me one day with the idea, “You know, I was thinking that boxing interface you came up with would make a fantastic Pirate Swordfighting interface.” So I had to confess, and as often happens in brainstorming, the pressure of having to come up with a replacement actually pushed us into an even better idea, via The Princess Bride first swordfight scene as an inspiration. The real crowning touch, though, was the idea of having the climactic fight with the Swordmaster involve different insults, letting the player realize that they could re-use specific rejoinders to match the new insults. That bit was not my idea - I'm not sure who came up with it, but I think Hal Barwood and Orson Scott Card did most of the insult writing.

More ramblings from the Beyond Game Design authors in the months to come.

Tale of Tales Interview Chris Bateman

Tale of Tales, the inventive Belgian developer behind The Endless Forest and The Path and long-time client of International Hobo, have posted an interview with our Managing Director and Creative Overlord for their company site. Michael and Auriea's latest "art game", The Graveyard, is also in this year's Independent Games Festival.

There's a short introduction on their company site, with a link to the full interview.