Dylan Cuthbert should be a name familiar to any real PS3 fan. Responsible for Q-Games, and their PixelJunk series of PSN games, the team has been hard at work at delivering unique experiences exclusively for the PLAYSTATION Network. Not only has the team delivered one truly stellar game (PixelJunk Monsters), it has worked on a few other technologies for Sony. Did you know that they're responsible for the Earth music visualization? We chatted with Cuthbert at GDC, and we're proud to present our interview.
I wanted to start with a topic that I'm sure no one has asked you about yet. Q-Games is responsible for the Earth visualizer, yes? Where did that come from?
Well, we've always had a close relationship with Sony. They came to us and asked us to make an intro for the PS3 before it came out. For the OS and everything. They had these ideas that were like the earth, and the PS3 logo were in a bubble. So we said instead of making a fake earth, we should make a proper rendering. We showed a prototype to them, but ultimately Sony wanted to go for a more simpler style. The intro became much simpler, orchestral. So we had a very well rendered earth and we didn't know what to do with it.
So we decided, why not make it a visualization? So our tech team spent some time on it. We hacked it at one point to use Google Earth so you could zoom in as far as you want. If you do hack Google Earth, you end up being blocked by Google, so we had a couple of interesting experiments behind the scenes. We ended up spending a lot of time refining the atmosphere, making it look really nice. It's something we've been working on for a long time, in the background.
Were you surprised to see how well-received the visualizer was?
Yes, we were really happy. We put a lot of effort into it. What we're really proud of is the fact that the whole visualizer fits into 2MB. It has to fit on the ROM, and we were worried we wouldn't be able to fit it. We have a higher resolution version back at the development office, and obviously the high resolution version looks better. But we think it still looks amazing, and we were happy with what we were able to achieve. Towards the end of it, I was up for nights, until the morning, setting all the preset cameras and views. I think I created about thirty. Setting all the parameters, the colors, positioning the sun, and HDR ... it was quite a bit of work.
PixelJunk Monsters has been largely praised by the gaming industry. However, PixelJunk Racers didn't meet the same fate. Why do you think there's such a disparity between the reception of these games?
One important difference is where we're coming from. [PixelJunk Racers] was our first title and we were trying to say "these are the kind of games that we want to make." PixelJunk Monsters is a bit more polished, easier to get a hang of, based on a more familiar genre ... after playing Monsters, we've heard people go back and play Racers and get a sense of what we're about.
Would you say PixelJunk Racers was largely misunderstood?
People were surprised. Some people are happy with surprises, while some people are like "I'm not sure about this." We got loads of fan mail from people that were addicted to PixelJunk Racers. They created these player circles, fill them with their friends, and every day they would choose a mode to play. Every day, someone would get the top score amongst their friends.
Racers, in some ways, it's a lot harder than Monsters. You do have to be a "gamer" to be able to unlock the modes in Racers. That's the way we make games. They're for gamers -- they're supposed to bring back memories of games back from when I was a kid. You go back and play Super Mario Bros. and the later levels in that are just so hard. I'd like to take games back to that, and not make them wishy-washy.
The game design takes from both Western and Eastern influences. Do you think your games have resonated more with Japanese gamers or American gamers?
Well in general, downloadable games aren't very popular in Japan. For some reason, they're just not getting it yet. Maybe they're not used to it yet. That being said, PixelJunk Monsters is one of the highest selling games on the Japanese PSN. The response we've seen on the Japanese message boards has been really, really good. The response in the US is also very, very good. It does resonate to both sides of the pond.
What can we expect from the PixelJunk Monsters expansion?
There are no details yet, but we are busy at work. Expect it sooner than later. That's all I can say.
Was it something that was planned from the get-go? Or was it due to the response from gamers?
It's definitely based on the response. People are really loving the game. My wife loves it, and she really wants an expansion. I have to try and do it to pacify her. She bothers me every day, "when are we going to see it?"
So your marriage is at stake?
Exactly! So I want to get it done sooner rather than later.
One of the best features of PixelJunk Monsters was Remote Play. Would you consider doing a PSP version?
We've considered it, but it's very difficult to sell a game like that at that price point on PSP, and I think that's the biggest problem. We're selling the game for under $10 here. If we were to release a PSP game, we'd have to make a profit off of a proper UMD-based game, and that's much more expensive. I don't see a market for it just yet. Not yet.
But PSP can now support downloaded content from the PLAYSTATION Store.
The thing is, in Japan, that's really not used at all. What we've always tried to do is not just make games for the US. I don't want to be pidgeonholed into working for the US market. For example, the Xbox 360 sells so badly in Japan. You can't get motivated; you can't tell your friends in Japan that you're working on an Xbox 360 game. We have a lot of Japanese staff, and they can't say it to their families -- "oh, we're making a PSP downloadable version of Monsters." But if no one is really using the service, it's hard to get excited to make something like that.
In Japan, echochrome is being released on UMD at twice the cost as its PS3 counterpart. However, it features twice the content.
It just seems, to me, a bit strange. Also, PixelJunk, in general, the series -- it's firmly geared to be a PSN series.
Due to the numbering system of the PixelJunk series, it appears that the entire series has been planned out. How many ideas have been in the pipeline and how long have they been there?
We originally came up with the idea of doing a series of PSN titles, rather than just doing one title. With such a small company, we'd just disappear in the sea of games. We needed to create a unique brand and that's really what PixelJunk is. We want people to recognize our games, see our logo and say "that's what PixelJunk is." It's what Nintendo does. It started around 2006, around there. That's when I started thinking about it, fleshing out prototypes. I went to the producers at Sony at last year's GDC and we had already started prototyping. We were always going to publish our games in Japan, so we're just really happy to have Sony on board to publish our games in the US. I have a lot of friends at Sony, and so we talked to them. I explained to them what I wanted to do, and it seemed to mix well with what they wanted to do with PSN.
We created cards with our prototypes -- I cut them all out, printed them on gloss paper. They had a picture of the game in HD, on 16x9. On the back, it had a description of the game. I had ten or twenty of these cards. I told them: "We're not going to make all of them, but we want to make as many as we can."
Unfortunately, our audio recording became a bit muffled at this point, so we cannot provide a proper transcription for the remainder of this interview. At this point, we chatted a bit about PixelJunk Eden, the next PSN title in the franchise. It looks unlike the previous two, looking very modern, in comparison to the rest of the series so far. The team has been working on the title for quite some time, as it is their most ambitious project yet. There will be SIXAXIS controls, however, how they work isn't revealed quite yet. We tried to press harder about the subject, but Dylan was quite secretive!
For the Japanese audience, one topic we discussed was the potential of bundling the various PixelJunk titles onto one Blu-ray disc for retail. It's something he'd consider -- but once he gets at least five or six titles released. We think it would be a great option for Q-Games to take.
The conversation strays to their next Nintendo project. But for some reason, being at the PlayStation Lounge, we felt compelled to stop. Thanks to Dylan for the interview. We can't wait to see more PixelJunk.