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Q-Time For Q-Games

Q Games' Dylan Cuthbert discusses work with Sony and Nintendo, and the thinking and technology behind the popular downloadable Pixeljunk game series.

Dylan Cuthbert programmed a 3D game for the original Game Boy -- and in doing so, caught the attention of Nintendo and was flown to its Kyoto headquarters to demonstrate the title. That meeting lead to a partnership which produced the original Super Nintendo Star Fox game. This was first 3D game published by Nintendo on one of its home console platforms.

These days, Cuthbert works out of Kyoto, where he has lived for years. He heads up the studio he founded, Q-Games, which works primarily with Nintendo and Sony. Not only do they develop games, but they also develop back-end tools and system interfaces.

They're best known, however, for the PixelJunk series, a line of downloadable games exclusive to PlayStation Network which have amassed a large fanbase since the platform's launch. The latest game to be released was PixelJunk Shooter.

Gamasutra recently had a chance to speak to Cuthbert about the history of the company, his work with Sony and Nintendo, and the thinking and technology behind the popular downloadable game series.

How many PixelJunk games are there so far?

Dylan Cuthbert: Four. PixelJunk Shooter is the fourth one. But we also released Encore extensions, as well. So in total there are six actual games out there, in effect.

Now that you've been doing it for awhile, how do you feel about PixelJunk? Is is a strategy for you? Is it something you enjoy doing the best?

DC: Yeah, it gives us a lot of range to try and push ourselves to make different games every time, and I think that's really cool. We don't get stuck in making one type of game, and so, when we're thinking about the next game to make, we try and make something completely different again.

You launched PixelJunk as a series. Did that really help to elevate it in people's minds -- they can look forward to the next PixelJunk game?

DC: That was the point when I first made the series. I didn't want to make separate games and have each one kind of disappear without anything linking them together. Even though the games are different, because it's the same people making them, obviously the tastes are kind of the same -- not the visual taste, but the game aesthetics.

I think it was really important to us to kind of link all together; it's important for the fans, as well, so that, when we release another PixelJunk game, they'll know roughly what they'll be getting: a quirky title, something a bit different; something that they won't expect.

There was a lot of excitement for Shooter, I think, just by virtue of it being a PixelJunk game, that you probably wouldn't have gotten otherwise.

DC: Yeah, I think so. I mean, that's the good thing; it means that people are learning what to expect or at least anticipate that the game will have a certain seal of quality to it.

I think that's cool. Our next game, as well -- of course, we can never let anybody down now, so we have to try really hard to keep the quality up and keep it going.


PixelJunk Shooter

You ran a naming contest for Shooter, and it ended up quite a prosaic name in the end.

DC: Yeah, we got about ten thousand entries and about four thousand different names to choose from. We listed them all up, and in fact the most popular name was Elements; but we couldn't choose that really because, for one thing, we couldn't choose a name beginning with an E. We decided afterwards that, if the name begins with an E, than it's the same as PixelJunk Eden, so we need to now name all of our games with a different letter at the beginning.

So that was one reason, but the other reason was Elements sounded a little bit too... I dunno, a little bit too much like a puzzle game; we wanted more of an action sound. Shooter had like ten or twenty votes for it, so we thought, "That's not too bad. Let's use that one." Basically, the whole team went through all the lists of all the names and started sorting them and put votes in; eventually we picked the right one for the game.

You guys are sticking pretty much to 2D gameplay.

DC: That's for Series 1, yeah. For Series 2, we're going to go for the weird 3D stuff, I think.

Is it mostly an aesthetic choice, or is it in terms of ramping up production?

DC: No, it's aesthetic; we wanted to do pure 2D, and so that's what we did with this series.

I think it's actually great that the download platforms have really allowed 2D to resurge, and I think everyone's realizing that. Not only are people realizing that we missed it, but you hear designers talking about the advantages of it, which I can't imagine that people talked about in the last 10 years.

DC: Yeah, yeah. No, that's what I really enjoy. It's not just PSN and XBLA; I think it's the fact that we have full HDTVs and HDMI. The visual quality of 2D now is so much higher than it was 10 years ago, and I think that that makes a big difference. It's allowed 2D to resurge, I think, so that people realize, "Oh! You can actually get really pretty pictures."

The funny thing is, particularly with Eden, using Baiyon's art, it was a 2D game that presented an aesthetic that would not previously have happened in a 2D game -- wouldn't have been possible.

DC: Yeah. There's a lot of technology in that game. And just all the physics of the plants and the way they grow and even the collision detection between the plants and the main player is actually quite complicated because it's all very pixel-perfect.

And the clean, crisp graphic design aesthetic, which I don't think could have happened very easily...

DC: It's very difficult to do, yeah. It's all clean and anti-aliased, and just looks really nice.

It actually felt really fresh; even though it's a 2D game.

DC: I think that's what's cool. We can reapply all the modern technology to the old 2D format and do a lot more with it.


You've been in the industry for a long time. I've found that some of the 2D games I played sort of in the interim while 2D wasn't in vogue seemed to lose some of the design expertise from the old days.

DC: Right. Pretty much everybody's moving into 3D.

All of the talented people sort of moved into 3D as they were on the cutting edge, and then more junior people were making the 2D games. You play GBA games, and they really weren't as good as Super Nintendo games. Is that talent filtering back in?

DC: I think as more people move back to 2D, you'll get a lot more of both ideas coming back in and the richness sort of coming back. But yeah, there was probably a period of time when all the sort of main developers -- all the really good developers -- were moving to the newest thing, which was 3D at the time, and so a load of people just moved over to 3D and didn't look back.

That's kind of where I was, as well. I started in the games industry 21 years ago, and I did 2D as a kid. When I got a job, everything was 3D even at that point. In 1989, 1990, I joined a company that's famous for 3D graphics, and I think, for me, I sort of missed that whole 2D making games thing. I really wanted to make 2D games, and that's another reason why I made the PixelJunk series; so I could actually go back and revisit 2D because I never got a chance to actually visit in the first place.

Not as a professional.

DC: Exactly. When I was a kid, I made loads of games that were 2D, but everything just went 3D as soon as I started in the industry.

Did you program BASIC?

DC: Assembly! I started in BASIC, and it wasn't fast enough; so I moved to assembly. I bought loads of books and learned, myself, how to program.

You haven't done a packaged game for awhile, right?

DC: No, not for awhile. No.

You've been doing a lot of DSiWare, though, right?

DC: Yeah, yeah. Nintendo released three of our games recently, and there's a fourth one coming up as well called X-Scape; it's a kind of 3D game.

Isn't that a refresh of an older concept that you worked on?

DC: It's a remake of the first game I made, ever; so way back in the day at Nintendo I made a wireframe 3D game for the the original black & white Game Boy.

In Japan, it's kind of a bit of a cult sort of hit because no one expected that the game could be 3D. I worked with Sakamoto-san, the guy behind Metroid and WarioWare, to do that.

Back in the day?

DC: Back in the day, yeah. It was a lot of fun.

When I first spoke to you some time ago, you said that that's what originally caught Nintendo's attention -- the quality of the 3D simulation.

DC: Yeah, the fact that we actually got 3D running on the Game Boy -- they were surprised to say the least. (Laughs)

In Japan you guys self-publish your PixelJunk games to PSN, but on the Nintendo side it's not self-publishing?

DC: No, it's Nintendo-controlled development. It's good fun; we work pretty closely with them to make our games. With our current set of games, the idea is they're entirely Q-Games, but we work with Nintendo to publish them and get the games developed.

What do you think about the DSiWare platform? There's not a lot of data out there about how it's taken off.

DC: Yeah, we don't get any data either, so I don't know. I can't really comment on that. Nintendo would tell me off. (Laughs) We don't actually get any data anyway, so.

Do you know sales?

DC: They come in a bit later -- because the games only just came out, so in a few months we'll probably get something. The reviews were pretty good for our DSiWare games. We were happy with the scores we were getting.

There are so many different download platforms now that I don't understand how anyone has time to pay attention to them all. Someone asked me this week, "Do you play everything on all the platforms?" I'm like, "What? Are you mental? Of course I don't; I can't keep up!"

DC: Yeah. You just have to pick the ones that kind of stick out, the ones that get good reviews. Unfortunately, it's the way it is, really.


How long has Q-Games been established in Kyoto?

DC: About nine years now.

How many people do you have at Q-Games?

DC: About 40 people. About half the company is doing work for Nintendo, and then the other half is doing PixelJunk, and also technology research.

You guys developed the XrossMediaBar interface for the PlayStation 3.

DC: Yeah, we did all the rendering technologies and everything, and also the wavy bar and the dust that's in there, and the music visualizers as well.

I know that you have a long background and obviously a good relationship with Nintendo; you guys got into this business of making games and sort of also being a backend company, too.

DC: I think it's because we've always enjoyed making technology. I think that's a huge thing for us; we like blending technology with games. With PixelJunk Shooter, for example, we use a lot of the PS3's power to do the fluid simulation, and it's actually quite a serious task to do that amount of fluid simulating.

Obviously, you're making these downloadable games, and, like you said, you made Star Fox Command for the DS, but would you guys have the resources to pull together and make like a AAA packaged game? Would that interest you?

DC: Not really, because you can't really make a AAA packaged game with the sort of esoteric feel that we have. We'd end up making something that's a bit more quirky looking or interesting looking or a bit more artsy, and unfortunately those kinds of games don't really sell to the huge mass audience, which are more into a gritty realism. There are those kinds of games, which are great to play and stuff, but they're just not what we make, so... It's a bit of a different market.

Yeah, it is, and I guess it's an exciting thing because we're getting all of these voices. Thanks to the way the industry's shifting now, a lot more people are being forced out on the streets and into the independent scene.

DC: Yeah, it's true. And, you know, the iPhone has helped, as people just quickly knock off ideas and get used to the cycle of making games quickly again -- because back in the day, you know, games were made very quickly; you wouldn't have a game that you were making for more than a year or anything, but now you have three-year cycles and five-year cycles.

At that rate, you can't really get used to the whole process of making a game from thinking up the concept to taking it to the final production. Another reason why I made PixelJunk was to teach the people in my company how to make games quickly in a fast, iterative process. I think it's quite important.

Who do you recruit for Q-Games? I assume mainly Japanese developers, as you're in Kyoto.

DC: It's about 70 percent Japanese, and we have about 30 percent foreign.

I'm surprised that it's that high; maybe most studios will have one or two guys.

DC: We have a few more. We have a couple of French people, a couple of Italians, a bunch of English people, and a Spanish guy, as well. It's quite a good range of foreign guys.

Do you find that most of the people you're recruiting have backgrounds in doing big, packaged software?

DC: No, they tend to be smaller, more creative indie-type people.

So it's not so much about learning from the sense of unlearning; it's more about just learning how to really execute it.

DC: Yeah, basically get used to actually having to ship a game -- actually taking a game from beginning to end and doing it repeatedly is quite a good process once you get used to it.

Japan has been very closed; companies don't even talk interdivisionally. It's very famous that different divisions within the same company won't talk, whereas obviously Western developers are open -- and as indie stuff takes off more and more and more open. The spirit of openness and collaboration is very high. What is your take on how things are in Japan right now, and do you guys have any influence? Are you trying to get things to flow?

DC: Yeah, we are trying. There's a Kansai (Kansai is West Japan) game developer group that we're kind of part of, and we kind of go for dinners and stuff to try and talk to other companies. There's about 30 different game developer companies that join in. So we try and open up that side of things a bit more, but it's quite difficult, especially with people in the big companies like Nintendo or whatever. They really don't speak to anybody.

[Ed. note: the Kansai region of Japan includes Kyoto and Osaka among other cities, and is home to major developers such as Nintendo, Capcom, Dimps, SNK Playmore, and others.]

Capcom's in Kansai; do they participate?

DC: They don't really participate, no. They're also quite big. There's lots of small developers, as well, like the developer who made Rez HD, for example. Hexadrive. They're based in Osaka. But they're the guys who run the event, the Kansai group.

They're working on The 3rd Birthday for Square Enix, the Parasite Eve game for PSP. They seem to be an interesting company that kind of came up out of nowhere. I'm assuming it's veterans.

DC: They're ex-Capcom. I think they are very much a technology company; they have lots of programmers. They're pretty cool. They're interesting. I think they're trying to build their own engine and stuff; they quite like the challenge.

About how long are the cycles on the PixelJunk games? Has it been consistent?

DC: For PixelJunk Shooter, for example, it took about a year to do; but we were experimenting a lot. They had lots of new technology in there for the fluids and stuff, and that sort of takes a bit more time to develop and get right, obviously, so. For example, PixelJunk Monsters was about seven months to make.

How much time and how much effort do you have to spend on the "getting right?" That's the hard part of game development.

DC: Oh, completely. Yeah. It takes... That's pretty much the entire project from beginning to end! (Laughs)

The level design and production processes are actually a shorter part of the overall process?

DC: We go into kind of a production mode at the end -- the last 30 or 40 percent of the project -- and when we go into that mode, that's when we start looking at things from the consumer point-of-view and not just the creative point-of-view. We try to refine the experience to really kind of build up all the elements and things that you do as you're playing the game. That's a key thing that we do; to control the flow of the game.

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