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Interview: An Audience With Q-Games' PixelJunk Team

Interview: An Audience With Q-Games' PixelJunk Team Exclusive

January 13, 2009 | By Jeriaska

January 13, 2009 | By Jeriaska
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[Continuing with a series of interviews exploring alternative looks at gaming, Gamasutra sits down with some of the creators of the PixelJunk series at Q-Games discuss the making of the eclectic PlayStation Network downloadable games.]

Kyoto-based developer Q-Games has recently announced that it will be bringing Playstation 3 tower defense title PixelJunk Monsters to the Playstation Portable console in 2009. Meanwhile, PixelJunk Eden has received three nominations for this year's Independent Games Festival Awards: Excellence in Visual Art, Excellence in Audio and Technical Excellence.

From the process of pitching ideas for new game concepts, to the stage of designing additional content after launch, openness to discussion and a desire to break new ground has motivated the company's staff.

In this interview, we hear from two of the studio's directors on how the evolution of the PixelJunk games has been informed by the collaboration of innovative graphic designers, music composers, and other significant contributors.

Kentaro Yoshida is the studio director of Q-Games. Previously he worked as an artist for Sega on Panzer Dragoon Orta. Shouichi "Tomi" Tominaga is the director of PixelJunk Eden. Working closely with Baiyon, the visual artist and composer on the project, he oversaw the game's overall design. In discussing their roles at Q-Games, the two creators offer an inside perspective on the unique course that has been set by the PixelJunk series of games.

Shouichi "Tomi" Tominaga, Director of PixelJunk Eden

In terms of the appeal of PixelJunk Eden, what many people seem to have responded to is the novelty of the gameplay and the distinctive character of the design. What is it that you personally have found to be the most satisfying elements, working on the production side of the game?

Shouichi "Tomi" Tominaga: Upon setting out on the Eden project, we had conceived of the game as a continuation of the PixelJunk series, of course, but at the same time it was also an opportunity to explore the unique situation of working with Baiyon as an artist.

At the very onset it presented us with the question: "Just what can we accomplish within the framework of this collaboration?" As a director my thoughts often turned to this question of how precisely to reveal the art through the game. Looking back at what emerged from this situation, I'm most happy with how the game world is a direct expression of Baiyon's art.

The gameplay element of swinging around on a thread of silk to collect pollen lends a unique quality to the game. While there are other titles that involve a swinging mechanic, it is not the same as what you find in Eden.

ST: You know, we started off without there being any kind of a playable character at all. The idea was to have a kind of rhythm-action game with plants swaying to the music. It was interesting to look at, but it was really lacking any kind of gameplay challenge. We then thought about what might happen if we brought in platforming elements, if within this world of vegetation there was an action game taking place.

That was how the game's central character came about. We didn't have the silk either at the beginning, but we were running a lot of programming experiments, one of them being this ability to fly around on a string of silk. It turned out to be a lot of fun, so we put it in the game.

What do you think of how the central characters of the game, the Grimps, turned out?

ST: I love them. I don't know what their tentacle is exactly, but it's adorable.

Have the opinions of those who have played the game influenced its development over time?

ST: Something we got quite often was people telling us the game was really hard. That kind of took us by surprise. I think they were coming in observing that this was a really artistic videogame, that Baiyon's graphics and sound designs were strong artistic concepts, and they weren't really expecting there to be such depth to the action elements.

The first gardens are fairly simple to get through, but once you progress about halfway through the game, there really are some challenges. Some people said it was too tough, especially getting trophies. We really had no prior examples to look at in the case of trophies.

Because they were so new, we had to figure it out entirely for ourselves. While it's true that we ended up setting some high standards, you could also say that it brings about a greater feeling of accomplishment when you finally match them.

How does Q-Games interact with the companies responsible for game consoles?

ST: Our company's games are supported by Nintendo and Sony. At times they will suggest a broad theme to work with, but all the specific details are decided upon within Q-Games. At that point, everyone comes up with a variety of ideas, and we progress from there.

For PixelJunk Eden, Baiyon was involved not only in directing the graphics and sound design but was offering ideas on all aspects of the gameplay mechanics as well.

How directly did the programmers play a role in the development of PixelJunk Eden?

ST: The programmers really occupy a key position in designing the title. Without them you cannot hope to make any progress, so their ideas and sense of how the game operates is indispensable.

Specifically on Eden, you have gravity, entropy and the force of momentum operating in a way that is elegant and feels natural to the player. This was a singular accomplishment on the part of the programming.

Who came up with the name "spectra"?

ST: That was Dylan [Cuthbert]. He has a knack for this sort of thing. "PixelJunk" was his idea too.

The multiplayer mode of PixelJunk Eden is a big part of the game, if you want to get the full experience. Was this something you started working on early in the conceptual stages, or did it take shape later on after the levels had been designed?

ST: We started out with our first priority being to make the game fun for just a single player. Once we felt we had that firmly in place, we began thinking about the particulars of the multiplayer mode. While it's grounded on all the same objectives, how to adapt the camera to fitting more characters on the screen took some work. I think it opens up new ways of experiencing the game, both in pursuing goals of teamwork and competition.

What are some of the advantages of developing for the Playstation Network?

ST: The obvious advantage is that game players around the world can access the PSN. For a small-sized company like ours, it reduces all the risks of packaging our titles and making sure they are in stock. It has proven to be a great means for us to distribute our games.

Kentaro Yoshida, Studio Director of Q-Games

Thank you for taking the time to talk with us about your work on the PixelJunk series. First off, could you tell us a little about your time on the production of Panzer Dragoon Orta for the Xbox?

Kentaro Yoshida: I began my career in game design on the Panzer Dragoon series. It was shortly after leaving Sony and going back to work for Sega that I joined the team developing Orta. Because I had just come back, my duties were on low-level 3D graphics design, delving into processes that were rather new at the time, such as modeling, creating textures and animations.

Orta was developed by Smilebit, and the director was someone who had worked as a designer on Panzer Dragoon Azel. Otherwise, much of the Panzer Dragoon team of the Sega Saturn days had departed. Partly my duty was to ensure thematic continuity from the earlier titles. Eventually we ended up having a mixture of familiar and brand new content.

How did it come about that you began working at Q-Games?

KY: Around the time that I left Sega for Sony Computer Entertainment, Dylan was working on a demonstration of the hardware capabilities of the Playstation 2. I was put in charge of the graphics for the duck demo, which was how we met. Later on I heard that Dylan had created a game studio in Kyoto called Q-Games. Occasionally I would visit the homepage, and we exchanged emails from time to time.

More and more video games have been developing into ambitious, larger scale projects. As a producer it was important for me that my role reflect these ambitions. This was how my thoughts came around to contacting Dylan. As it turned out, he was looking for someone with previous experience in the industry. It all worked out and that is how I came to work for Q-Games.

What can you tell us about the approach of the art designers at the studio who have contributed to the look of the PixelJunk series?

KY: The concept for Racers was by Paul. PixelJunk Racers is 2D, but it incorporates 3D graphics using Maya. As for the look of PixelJunk Monsters, there were these concept illustrations created by Andy, the artist.

The style of the drawings had something of the feel of 8-bit sprites, but it also suited the high-resolution visual quality of the Playstation 3. He created a very detailed forest graphic during the conceptual stage of Monsters and it had such a mysterious quality to it. We were all taken by the design. The game slowly emerged from Andy's initial idea and went in new directions.

It is true that we could be restricting ourselves to trends in computer graphics, but following artistic styles like this one that are different and that speak to us I think is a more interesting approach.

What has been your experience working with an international team of video game designers at the Q-Games office?

KY: The PixelJunk team has a lot of artists from outside of Japan, including the programmer on Eden. Everyone on the team has their own approach to game design, while sharing a love of Japan and video games. This makes it easy for us to work together.

The drawing styles of Andy and Paul are quite different from Japanese artists, yet the titles still have a quality of games designed here in Japan. Everyone studies Japanese, so we find that communication has never been a problem.

Takashi Iura and Sachiyo Oshima, the musical duo Otograph, are responsible for the score to PixelJunk Monsters. You spoke with them for an interview on the official Playstation Blog to announce the release of the soundtrack Dive Into PixelJunk Monsters for the Playstation Network. Was this a successful method of encouraging feedback from those who had played the game and listened to the soundtrack?

KY: I wrote the questions for the interview and we did receive a lot of feedback from people in English-language territories who had played the game. I didn't have the chance to read these responses carefully, but Dylan looked them over in depth, sometimes replying personally.

I think it is very useful to the activity of game creation to have that kind of space, where there can be communication between the developers and players.

As a company that has demonstrated continued innovative game design, has receiving user feedback always been a high priority?

KY: During Racers, we didn't get much feedback, especially in Japan. It meant that we did not have the chance to adapt to how game players were responding to the game. However, for Monsters, we received quite a large amount of feedback, allowing us to get a clearer picture of just what kind of experience players were having.

We knew exactly what people wanted to see more of, and that's why we immediately dove into work on PixelJunk Monsters Encore. There were positive opinions, but there were requests as well. We always consider the feedback when working on new projects, so we are very receptive to hearing all manner of opinions from people who play the games.

The latest PixelJunk Eden patch responds to the requests for easier modes being available in the game. What have been the responses to difficulty balance in PixelJunk Monsters?

KY: The game's balance appears to have really helped involve players in the game. Setting the learning curve was implemented by several planners, and feedback on their work has been very positive. For PixelJunk Monsters Encore, we had a different level designer from the original.

That may be why the game is a bit more challenging than the original, while still enjoyable. Overall, the difficulty balance was one of the most successful achievements of the game design.

What can you tell us at this point about the future of the PixelJunk series?

KY: A new team has started in on the next PixelJunk project. We have not yet begun publicizing the game, but it is on schedule to be released in early 2009. Another title in the series is Dungeons, which we announced at back at the Game Developers Conference.

This is a PixelJunk installment, but we are planning to spend more time on the development, so the release will follow after the fourth PixelJunk game in the series.

2D graphics have been a hallmark of the series so far, but we are looking to incorporate 3D graphics and take the series in new directions.

[Images courtesy of Q-Games. Photos and interview by Jeriaska. Translation by Ryojiro Sato. This text is available in Japanese in articles on PixelJunk Eden and PixelJunk Monsters on Game Design Current.]

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