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Few studios have the track record of PixelJunk, Q Games' PlayStation Network-exclusive downloadable series. PixelJunk Racers, PixelJunk Monsters and PixelJunk Eden firmly established Q Games as someone willing to take risks, combining bold artistic design with sound gameplay -- and usually backed by a killer soundtrack. PixelJunk Shooter, perhaps the most traditional of the PixelJunk releases yet, continued that streak of elegant innovation, as Q Games released its own twist on the action game. I got in touch with Q Games founder Dylan Cuthbert over e-mail to discuss reaction to PixelJunk Shooter, how he's approaching the sequel, and concerns over the pricing of digital games.
G4: PixelJunk Shooter is out. The reviews are in. Consumers have voted with their dollars. How have you felt about the reaction to the game so far? What's been surprising you?
Dylan Cuthbert: The reviews have been outstanding! Everyone mentions the length (shorter than Eden and Monster due to the nature of a shooting game) as a negative thing, but I think the main problem is the game is so catchy it leaves you wanting for more!
I also have really been surprised by the consistent praise we have been getting. Quite often at least one reviewer somewhere will absolutely hate you but this time around I haven't seen that at all which is great!
G4: Where did the idea for PixelJunk Shooter come from? Has it been kicking around for very long?
Dylan: Yes, it has been kicking around since the inception of PixelJunk, and maybe even from when I was a bedroom coder in the 80s because I was always trying to get particle fluids working even back in the 8-bit days (unfortunately 1 frame a second wasn't too conducive to good gameplay). There are some concept shots in Famitsu from around the beginning of 2007 which show the original PixelJunk concept art even back then.
G4: What's the biggest difference between the original concept for PixelJunk Shooter and the finished product that ultimately appeared on PlayStation Network in December?
Dylan: The addition of survivors as the structure of the game I think. Back then it was just a rough shooting concept with caverns, liquids, gas and the like. Apart from that it pretty much stayed on course.
G4: How difficult was it to develop the liquid physics? The dynamic, procedural nature of the physics are what drive much of the joy of exploration in PixelJunk Shooter. It's hard to imagine what playing the game would be like if the physics had been explicitly scripted.
Dylan: This was the core of the engine, it took about 6 months to develop, and 6 months to get perfectly right and optimized for 1080p/60fps. The whole premise of the game's core concept revolved around getting these particle fluids working well so that was our sole focus for a long time. There are still lots of ideas for things to do with the fluid engine which we hope to include in the sequel.
G4: Adopting different forms for the ship is one of the game's highlights. Were there any ship designs left on the cutting room floor and might we see them reappear down the line?
Dylan: Actually, we managed to put in all the ship "suits" that we thought up this time around, but there will be a number of new suits to make use of some of the brand new ideas for fluid gimmicks you may or may not see sometime soon.
"The ending is tongue in cheek...even if we weren't going to make a sequel we would have put that in"
G4: PixelJunkShooter is the most action-oriented of the PixelJunk series. You're actually blowing up enemies. How much of a change in design philosophy did this action slant necessitate?
Dylan: I've always enjoyed making games with a shooting element in them -- from Star Fox back in the day, to Blasto on the PlayStation, so it wasn't that much of a stretch to add shooting into our design. PixelJunk is about being as flexible as possible with regards to ideas and genres so shooting was a great dynamic to explore for us.
G4: I had a great time with the cave-oriented first and second worlds, but felt the game became less explorative, more twitch-based in the third area. Was that an intentional transition?
Dylan: As in Mario games, the final stage was designed to be a bit different - which is why we threw in the magnetic liquid too. Also, due to the nature of it being more of a "factory", the game's dynamics naturally match the mechanical theme, with switches to pull rather than stone to blast, and the black liquid homing in on you all the time. I really enjoy the enemies in the third world, too, as they are a little more sophisticated.
G4: Gamers have expressed some disappointment over the way the game ends on a cliffhanger, suggesting a sequel or downloadable content is coming soon. Do you feel the criticism's fair?
Dylan: No -- because obviously the ending is tongue in cheek (as is the whole game with the cheesy b-movie storyline, etc.). Even if we weren't going to make a sequel we would have put that in -- as you know, it's a surprising and funny ending.
G4: You've released several downloadable games now. Gamers are a fickle bunch when it comes to the prices of these games, especially so for expanded content. What's been the biggest lesson?
Dylan: I think we're still learning -- the biggest lesson though has been not to release a demo immediately. Gamers are very quick and eager to feed their habits, and sometimes, even though a demo is fun, they will be partially satisfied with it (especially with smaller games like ours) and not buy the full game even though they enjoyed it a lot, which is a big shame as they miss out on all the cool stuff later on in the game. I think it is better to build up trust with the fans, so they know that they will be getting something unique and original when they buy PixelJunk and get their money's worth no matter what it is.
G4: To some degree, does the perception of what downloadable games are (or can be or need to be) need to change amongst the very audience that's purchasing them, gamers?
Dylan: This does affect the way they purchase games to some extent, but it is still early days and there are even big 3D games such as WipEout HD and Battlefield 1943 hitting the downloadable games market (not to forget Burnout Paradise).
G4: How much influence do you have over the pricing of your games? On the PlayStation Blog, just before release, you seemed to be wavering between $10 and $15. What tipped to to $10?
Dylan: I think if we had spent another 6 months or so adding a couple of new levels we would have had to go to the 15 dollar price point. We love making these games but we have to make sure we don't go bust doing it!
G4: PixelJunk Shooter also marks your studio's debut into Home. Most hardcore gamers seem to have written off the service. Have your interactions with Home been a positive experience?
Dylan: Yes, Home is kind of fun actually -- we have some other new stuff for it that we are making, such as a little model Monsters kit, with trees, towers and little monsters to place in your apartment -- you should be able to make your own little mock-up maps on your apartment floor. It's surprising how much fun it is doing this kind of interior decorating.
G4: Could we see this latest one appear in an expanded format on PSP, too?
"I just don't think many people hook their PSPs up to the PSN store yet"
Dylan: At this time, we have no plans for more stuff on the PSP. My comments regarding piracy were taken out of context in the past (all I said last year was that there were some pirates playing the game in one of the online lobbies for Monsters), I don't think it's piracy that has deflated sales, I just don't think many people hook their PSPs up to the PSN store yet. We only enjoy making games if at least a few people play them! So everyone, hook your PSPs up to the store and download some games!
G4: You've mentioned a desire to create a sequel to PixelJunk Shooter. That'd mark the first time you've invested in a full-on sequel. Is there a reason you've avoided sequels in the past?
Dylan: Normally sequels are just a re-hashing of the ideas in the original, but for PixelJunk Shooter we still have a ton of ideas on the drawing board and the engine has lots of potential we want to use before moving onto our next idea. It would be a waste not to use it to try out more stuff.
G4: So, what's next for the PixelJunk series?
Dylan: Lots of fun stuff of course, but all entirely secret.
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PixelJunk Shooter is now available via PlayStation Network for $9.99
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