You might be thinking "But Mr. Game Developer guy, Flappy Bird is only 5 years old", and you'd be right! So let me tell you the story of PIXELMAN...
The year was 2011. The place, Buenos Aires, Argentina. I was a Help Desk night shift leader at a multinational world renowned IT company. My job was reactive, so I'd only have something to do if one of my employees did something wrong, and the phone almost never rang during that shift. So it was loooong nights with almost nothing to do.
People deal with the night shift in different ways. Some chat with their co-workers, study, or do art. Most simply try to take a nap so that they can be sorta fresh the next day and have something close to a regular social life. The majority quit after a month or so because they just can't deal with it. Working nights is hard and it makes you feel like you're not part of society.
My ID Picture
I had that job for 10 years though. I'm a night person. I loved it at first, I was fresh, awake and ready to do stuff. The higher-ups saw that and promoted me super-fast. I was happy for the first few years, but then, once I knew everything the job had to offer, boredom started to creep in.
So I started playing games on my work computer...
I was always a videogames guy. One of my first memories is in the early 80s, walking into the living room at the house of one of my uncles while he was having a party, and seeing a lot of people bunched up around a TV. Something was plugged into it, an Atari 2600... and there it was, Pitfall! I couldn't believe it, I haven't seen anything like it in my short life and I LOVED IT. I only managed to play a few minutes that day, but that experience was burned into my brain. I was obsessed with that game for months, and since I couldn't play it again, I had to draw it and imagine scenarios for it, and I'd play them in my head. I didn't know it back then, but I was actually designing games.
A few years after that, I finally got my first computer, a Commodore 16 (“It's for school, dad!”), and since that day I’ve never stopped playing video games of some sort.
The idea of making my own video games was always festering somewhere in my brain, but I tried to learn programming countless times during my life and I always sucked at it. I simply don't have the brain for it (being bad at math and slightly dyslexic is a fatal combination for wanna-be programmers).
I was always good at computers (building them, fixing them, networking and basically making them do what they need to do), so that path eventually took me to that boring night shift job that I was starting to hate.
I was reading a bunch of video game websites one night in 2011, when suddenly one post caught my eye. It was about GameMaker, a software non-programmers could use to make games, since it was mostly drag and drop. OMG, I thought. That sounds perfect for me!
So I was all fired up with the newfound knowledge of this magical software that would let me make games without actually having to learn programming. All my life I wanted to make games and this was my chance! I had no idea what to do, but I was going to finally make a game!
At the time I was also obsessed with a flash game called "Helicopter Game" in which you simply had to click on the screen to keep a little helicopter flying through a green cave. It was horrible to look at, but at the same time the most addicting thing ever. I spent at least 2 or 3 hours a night playing it and competing with the people at work.
I thought that with nicer graphics and more stuff to do, everyone would want to play a game with those mechanics, and so I set up to do that. I was going to make it gorgeous and awesome. How hard could that be? (SPOILER ALERT --HARD, IT WAS GOING TO BE SUPER HARD).
I decided to replace the helicopter with a flying guy, and move the whole thing to a city. That would give me the possibility to draw a ton of buildings with different shapes and colors, make it super lively, and have a bunch of things going on to keep the player interested.
I also wanted to make it pixel art since I always loved the look of it, and I thought it would make it stand out (this was early/mid 2011, pixel art games were just starting to make a comeback, but it wasn't a huge thing yet).
I quickly drew a proto version of the main character and a series of buildings, but I immediately hit a brick wall trying to use GameMaker: it was way harder than I expected! It took me a couple of months of reading tutorials and trying stuff, but I finally had the seed of the game!
PIXELMAN Alpha build 0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.1 - 06/29/2011
Making that proof of concept taught me a lot of things:
1) Drawing assets that actually work in a game and look good is super time-consuming.
2) Real pixel art is way harder than it looks (by real I mean no cheating, no animation programs, no diagonal pixels. Just drawing pixel by pixel).
3) If there are no obstacles at the top of the screen, the player has no reason to go down. That's why they made Helicopter Game inside a cave! (This seems obvious in retrospect, but at the time I was absorbed in the whole process rather than focused on the design itself).
4) Game design is a full time job and you can't just pull ideas out of your butt and make them into a fun game.
4) GAMEMAKER IS NOT MAGICAL. IT'S HARD, AND YOU STILL NEED TO THINK LIKE A PROGRAMMER TO MAKE GOOD USE OF IT.
I just want to have my character moving!
At the time I started to talk to my friends about my first steps into the game-making world. One day, one of them told me about a co-worker of his who was a programmer and was looking for something fun to do. Long story short, we met each other, decided we could make a game together, and started to work on PIXELMAN.
It seemed perfect for me: I could concentrate on the game design and graphics, and let the programmer guy do his magic. Things started happening!
Between tests, revisions, improvements and many, many changes, 2011 ended and we were already mid-2012 when we had something that was starting to look like a game. We decided to move development to mobile since we started reading about big indie hits on phones. Also the game back then played with a single button, so it made sense to go that way.
Then in June 2012 suddenly all communication with the programmer stopped abruptly. He simply disappeared, taking the code and basically everything we worked on together for over a year with him.
First I didn't accept it was happening, and kept working on graphics and design. Then, after a few months of no communication, I despaired. I did almost nothing on PIXELMAN for the rest of 2012.
2013 started, and as one does, I made the resolution to learn how to code.
2013 went, and as usually happens, my resolution didn't even make it to February.
Then one day in early 2014 I was talking about PIXELMAN to Diego, one of my best friends. Diego is a techy guy like me. He's been tinkering with computers since the 80s and always worked with them in one way or the other. The main difference with me is that he actually has a programmer's brain.
For some time he also was making games on his free time, but he was having trouble with the design and graphics aspect. So we decided it made a lot of sense to join forces.
It was something like this, but with even more muscles
Diego was super stoked to start on a new game, and I was super stoked to continue working on PIXELMAN, so we got to it right away. We had a couple of meetings, we discussed some details and, after a few short months, we already had a playable build we were happy with.
The main difference of working with Diego was that, with the old programmer, 80% of my ideas would get shot down, and we were working under very constricting rules --everything was a compromise or a rotund "No, we can't do that".
With Diego however, since we’ve known each other for years, the exchange is always "Hey, can we do this crazy thing I just thought?," and he comes back with "Yes, it's going to be hard as hell, and I'm going to hate you and swear at you the entire time I'm doing it, but yes, we can do that." Or even better, sometimes just for the sake of doing something new and challenging, he'd make something way better than what we originally planned, and surprise me with it.
We were happy with what we had at that moment: the game was simple but fun, with super tight controls and nice graphics. Everything was going great.
Then we started optimizing it for phones, and that was a nightmare.
The most popular Android phone at that moment was the already years old Samsung Galaxy S (the original one), we couldn't count on people having a newer phone than that, so we had to test it on every phone we could get our hands into. We carried the APK file with us and tried it with everyone that would let us. Months passed until we were sort of confident that PIXELMAN would work on most phones.
We were in the middle of testing and optimizing for launch when it started happening. We heard a few rumors here and there about a game so addictive that people couldn't put it down. "It's about a bird… No, it's not Angry Birds… It's like Mario, with the pipes and all that, but you're a bird" is what we heard. I saw someone playing it and immediately dismissed it, I thought people mentioning it were just crazy. How wrong I was...
Before launch I started to get into some forums and gaming groups to show the game around. I knew nothing about marketing, but I wanted to get the word out about our game.
And then the first comment someone gave us was "Ugh, another Flappy Bird clone… at least you changed the graphics!"
I was baffled! At that point Flappy Bird was a huge megahit. It was everywhere! People were mentioning it on TV. Even my grandma knew what Flappy Bird was. But in my mind that game had nothing to do with PIXELMAN. The only thing in common was that the two main characters could fly.
Then we got more and more feedback, and even fellow game devs told us "Ah, so you're trying to get into the Flappy Bird clone craze." We couldn't believe it, the two games had nothing to do with each other. We were angry and frustrated, and we even thought about ending the project and starting over with a new game. We didn't want people to think we were making a clone; it felt insulting...
But then we thought: We already have a fun game and we're close to release, let's just add more stuff to it, make it nicer so people can look past whatever they think the similarities are, and go for it. Let's make PIXELMAN more awesome and release it!
We came up with about a dozen things to add to the game, and started working on it right away. We thought that would only take a few quick months to implement and test, but as we now know, every single thing you want to add into a game after it is fully formed, takes a huge amount of work. When you add one thing, you break 10; when you fix those 10, you break another 20! And when you're finally over with a single new item, then you have to start the process all over again with all the others.
Everything but the kitchen sink
A few quick months turned into almost a year of solid work, and in early 2015 we had to make the decision to keep working on the game and never release it, or to release it and keep adding updates down the road. We were anxious to have people play it, so we decided to go for it!
In February 2015 PIXELMAN was released for Android! The game sold and was downloaded over a thousand times during the first few days (we had a no-ad $1 version of the game and a free one with ads). We only expected a couple hundred downloads on our first game!
PIXELMAN was also consistently on the Top 100 Android charts in a lot of countries, and the game wasn't even finished! We were in heaven.
Our plan was to do monthly updates with all the features we wanted to add, and then when the game was finished, port it to Steam and consoles.
The game at that point only featured the main character Pixelman (the game is called PIXELMAN, but the main character's name is Pixelman… No, you're confusing!), and an endless city level that had two parts, the city itself and a tunnel, which was harder.
In order to consider it finished we wanted to add:
-A second character called Pixelgirl
-Two more levels to play in (Easy and Hard, with the city level being the Medium difficulty).
-A Shield Power Up (so things wouldn't kill you in one hit).
-And to finish it all, an Arcade Mode to tie it all together, with bosses at the end of every level and a proper ending.
We started working on those updates diligently, but at that point three things started happening...
1) We thought that with every update we'd get more and more players and interest, but in reality we'd only get teeny tiny spikes in downloads that only got smaller and smaller every time.
2) At that point we experienced what veteran developers call "Feature Creep": we started adding and adding. Our To Do list was getting bigger every day instead of smaller, there was no end in sight...
3) Before downloading the game, people would compare it to Flappy Bird and give us a hard time about it! (Lucky for us, the people who DID download the game were super happy with it, and we had only positive reviews.)
Getting fewer and fewer players on Android was disheartening, and at that point, in mid-2015, Steam Greenlight and Early Access games were starting to become popular. So we decided to pause development on the Android build for the time being, and move everything to Steam.
PIXELMAN passed Greenlight in less than a month, so we got access to Steamworks and started working on the Early Access build right away.
Keep in mind that both of us had full time jobs up to that point, so we could only work nights (days in my case) and weekends on it.
BUT, then the giant multinational company I worked for decided to move my area to another country. And, just like that, one day I was out of a job...
Also, my girlfriend and I decided that we needed a change of air, after me working for so long at that company, so we moved to Santiago, Chile (from Buenos Aires, Argentina where we originally met).
So suddenly my life was completely different: I was in another country, I was living during the day instead of long nights like I used to, and now I was designing games full time!
This was both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I could now work all day on PIXELMAN. On the other, I was running on savings now, so the pressure was ON!
We released the Early Access version of PIXELMAN in February 2016.
We had a million things to fix for this build, but the biggest one was that the Android build worked at 30FPS, and playing a game with fast scrolling on a big screen at that rate was getting people literally sick.
Everything in PIXELMAN (as in all games) works based on steps, and those steps are tied to the FPS, so if you simply change the FPS option in GameMaker it doesn't magically work. You need to touch every aspect of the game, especially all things based on physics, since those get completely out of whack.
The process was long, hard and painful. Diego was absolutely focused on that for months, while I was designing the new levels and drawing the new characters.
That 60FPS deal pushed back our whole schedule, but the game looked super slick at that framerate, so we didn't mind.
We also learned the lesson to start working in 60FPS for our next project...
1 of the 60 frames per second we fought so hard to achieve
I was working full time on the project, but Diego still had a "real" job to do, so I was moving super-fast designing assets and features, and he had days, sometimes entire weeks, when he couldn't work for a minute on PIXELMAN.
It got to a point where I had already finished everything I had to do on the project and Diego was months behind...
My savings were starting to dwindle, and since the full launch of PIXELMAN was months away, I had to take a few jobs here and there making pixel art for some other companies. The situation was getting desperate...
At one point I was running on fumes, and one day mid-2016, out of nowhere, I got an email form Arcanity Inc. (the makers of Tanzia) and, suddenly I had a full-time job again!
From that point on, I focused 100% of my workday on Tanzia and, out of necessity, PIXELMAN had to go back to being a weekend project. It was OK though, since this time I didn't have a boring soulless job at a faceless company, this time I was working with someone who makes video games for the love of the medium, wanting to tell a personal touching story.
So PIXELMAN was moving at a sluggish pace, but I was happy doing a job I love.
2017 was a hard year for Diego and me. His day job got more demanding, and lots of things in his personal life forced him to delay his work on the game. I was focused on the job that was paying the bills. And both of us were starting to get burn out from working on the same game for so long.
So as a sort of palate cleanser, we developed the demo for a completely different game (which we hope is going to take less than 7 years to make!)
However, little by little, we managed to put more and more time into PIXELMAN, and now we're at a point where we are finally happy with what we have.
We made 3 completely different levels, 3 playable characters, arcade mode and a million little details that probably no one is ever going to notice, but we’re super proud of anyway.
After so long… so many changes, so many mistakes made and so many lessons learned, today we can finally announce a launch date for the full version of PIXELMAN!
02/28/2018 …save the date!
And that's the story of how a game that has absolutely nothing to do with Flappy Bird took more than 7 years to make. During that long process it became known as a "Flappy Bird Clone" and we decided to not care anymore and let people play it and decide for themselves what PIXELMAN really is.
To end this very long post I want to mention some of the lessons we learned so they can hopefully be of help to the people thinking of becoming game devs:
Random Fun Facts of things that happened during the development of PIXELMAN:
If after hearing our story you're interested in PIXELMAN, go check it out on Steam!
That's it! If you have any questions or comments please post them in the comment section below.
Thank you for reading!