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
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
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
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
Dylan: As I say, we have a very iterative design
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.
This article was originally posted on ihobo.com on 18 March 2009. Since this interview took place the fourth PixelJunk game, Shooter, has been revealed.