Pixel Men

If you’re a PC gamer, then you no doubt spend a lot of time on Steam.  If you’re a PC indie gamer, then you’ve no doubt spent at least some time browsing Steam’s new Greenlight service, which represents Valve’s new crowd-sourcing distribution model for releasing games on the platform.  Greenlight went live in August, and has since seen a flood of game submissions all competing for gamers’ votes.

It can become overwhelming hunting through the pages upon pages of submissions, but if you’re dedicated, you can find some some truly creative projects buried deep in the mire.

One such game is called Pixel Boy.  A top-down roguelike dungeon crawler with a twist, Pixel Boy has been in development for just under a year by a dedicated two-man team.  After throwing everything they had into building what is now a mostly complete game, developers Giant Box Games are potentially facing the hardest part of the process yet – finding enough support among an increasingly fickle gaming audience to see their game released on the PC.

I had the great pleasure of speaking with the entire Pixel Boy team – that is, artist David Nickerson and programmer Dominic Obojkovits – about the peculiar story behind the origins of Giant Box, the victories and failures that come with indie game development, and what it, if anything, it all means.


Bridging the Atlantic

It takes a special kind of mind to design a video game, and the two minds behind Pixel Boy couldn’t have come from more different worlds.

“I’ve always had a huge passion for video games,” says David, who grew up in Vancouver, where he currently lives.  “And back in high school I used to do 3D animation, because my brother had a copy of 3D Studio Max, like way back.  This was maybe when I was in Grade 8 or 9.  I took a huge interest into Pixar and all animated films at the time, and I hadn’t even considered games at that point.  I was into the art side of animation and I just loved messing around with 3D software.

“It was actually closer to the end of high school that I realized I should put those two passions together ’cause I loved playing video games and I used to actually design some stuff when I was even younger.  So instead of going to a visual effects studio, which was originally what I was going to do, I changed to game design and went to the Art Institute for 2 years and got my diploma in game art and design.  Then shortly after that I got hired as a contract on Grand Theft Auto IV, and I did environment art.”

After GTA, David moved on to several smaller projects, including making child development software, and working at a company called Atomic Robot which was composed of ex-Need for Speed developers from EA, working on a Days of Thunder contract for Paramount Pictures.

“We ended up being really close to the end of the deadline and they pulled the plug on that.  And that was basically the beginning of the end of that company.  Then I went through some pretty… well, not dark times, but some pretty sad times because I didn’t really know what to do with myself because I’d put so much into that project.  You just get tossed away in the AAA industry, especially if you’re an artist.”

It was then that David decided that it was the right time to start an indie game project.

“Everything about game development is about restrictions, about how much you really can do.  At the same time, when you’re working for ‘The Man’ – when you’re working at a big AAA studio, or even a smaller pump-out studio that gets a game done every month, it’s really difficult to have that extra passion because you never know.  You could have a guy come up and be like, ‘Oh sorry, we’re not bringing you back for this next project,’ and it has no merit on how hard you work.”

David reached out on the Unity forums, looking for a passionate programmer, and found Dominic Obojkovits, then a 16-year-old high school student from Tzaneen, a small town in South Africa’s Limpopo province.  But David didn’t know all of that right away.  “I’m pretty sure you told me you were 21 the first time I met you,” he says to Dom, laughing.

“Yeah, I’m not… No one’s gonna take a 16-year-old seriously on the forums!”  Dominic is 18 now, and the night I spoke with him happened to be the night of his high school graduation.

“ I currently live in, well, literally, I live on a farm,” says Dom.  “The town has a population of maybe 4,000 so it is ridiculously small, and I drive an hour to get to my high school which only has 300 kids.”

I ask him if there’s much of a game scene in a 4,000-strong South African village.  “Not even close,” he says.  “It’s a farming community so everyone does not understand me.”

“What’s funny about that actually is, I entered an IT Showcase, like a national competition right?  I entered Pixel Boy as a project and I won the IT Showcase.  I found that so ironic that this kid who’s grown up on a farm beat all the city kids in South Africa.

Dominic talks about his early years of discovering game design as years of mostly figuring everything out for himself.

“When I was in second grade I fell in love with video games because I had an old-ass computer and my uncle installed a few games like Diablo and Warcraft III on it.  And I started messing around with that.  I loved playing games but I enjoyed creating my own content a lot more.  I used to fiddle with the Warcraft map editor often, and eventually I decided I wanted to make video games very young, and I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how to make video games without ever coding, because I thought coding was the devil and you should never program.

“So I went through a whole lot of expensive 3D studios like Cinema 4D and these other environments, and they were all terrible.  And I’d Google these really bad game engines that would use no code to create stuff.  And then in Grade 9 in high school my teacher said ‘Why don’t you learn Java?’  I quickly found out I was a hell of a lot better at code than I thought I was, so I got very into the coding side of things, and I actually released my first iPhone app at 16, and then I was working on my second when I saw Dave’s post, because I was doing terrible artwork and I wanted to see if I could get an artist for that.  So I contacted him and I was like ‘Yo I got this platformer with graphics and stuff.’”

David laughs.  “And then we exchanged each other’s Skype info and Giant Box games was born!”


Birth of the Boy

David and Dominic have been working together for two years, but Pixel Boy has only been in development for around 9 months.  The first two years were defined by mishandled projects, and a lot of paint on the wall.

“The first game we made, we released an iPhone game together, and it had very similar gameplay as Super Meat Boy, and it got pegged as a clone,” David says.  “It just spun into a negative spiral and we moved on from it.  We just didn’t really want to move forward with something when we knew, not just that we could do something better, but it just didn’t have what we originally envisioned for it.”

“It had a Meat Boy art style to it as well.  It would be the difference between Doom and Quake,”  Dom adds.  “In total we made quite a few games.  Nothing got released, it was all just ideas that were floating between us.

“At one point I went to Cape Town just to get away from where I was staying, to clear my head,  and I started writing down a whole bunch of ideas in a journal.  I think the original title for Pixel Boy was going to be The Spirit of Adventure.  I had this idea of a randomly generated environment with a very dark atmosphere and very bright bullets which you could fire off rapidly.  I didn’t quite know how to code a random gen environment so I taught myself that algorithm in like two weeks without talking to Dave and I completed the algorithm and had the basic concept of a completely random gen dungeon and a character that would shoot these brightly coloured bullets into the dungeon.  And I phoned Dave up and I was like, ‘Dave, I think we’ve got a game.’”


Communication On a Broken Web

While trying to set up our interview, I learned very quickly that the internet is not always so dependable in other parts of the world.  This turns out to be a problem when trying to cooperatively design a video game.  In South Africa, I learned that cable theft can be a weekly occurrence.

Dom sighs.  “The internet, my bitter friend.  Yep, they steal our copper cabling fairly regularly.”

David and I can’t help but laugh.

“We don’t have a permanent phone because they steal the phone lines!  And the funny thing is they try and charge us a phone bill, and my mom’s like, ‘Fuck that!  There are no phone lines!’

“We got a satellite dish for our internet, and that only goes out when they’re brave enough to steal the transformer.  So someone has to take 20,000 volts of electricity through their body to give that a shot, and then try and take it.  Usually it’s just someone fries themselves on the transformer and people have to clean it up.”

Before I can question how ridiculous that all sounds, he reminds me that South Africa is the highest crime-rate country in the world.  It’s no wonder the internet is unreliable.

“The worst is when Dave and I are arguing over something,” Dom adds.  “The connection dies, and one of us thinks the other ended the call!”

Dave laughs.  “But you know what, it actually diffuses a lot of arguments.”


Pixel Boy

“The basic concept of Pixel Boy is that Pixel Boy was this 2D character living in this 2D world and he was very happy and content.  And one day, the world started turning 3D.  And all the townsfolk started freaking out about the changing world.  And they realized that this 3Dness was radiating from the nearby dungeon,” Dominic explains.  “Also, don’t question the fact that the only path into the town leads into the dungeon.

“It’s more or less a tribute to being an indie developer and how it’s so difficult for us to break into the 3D graphics scene because of the high fidelity of the work and how much time is put into it.  So we are usually pushed to 2D games, and it’s a commentary on that because Pixel Boy originally started out 2D.”

The transition to 3D was suggested to David by his close friend Russell Rice.

“If ever I’m in doubt for any development questions he’s the guy I turn to ’cause he definitely has seen it all,” David says.  “He started a number of studios, he was one of the original BioWare guys, he was the art director for BioWare for like the first eight years.  He won art director of the year I think on MDK 2.”

Dominic laughs.  “Any time Russell says anything Dave does it.  It’s ridiculous!  Russell’s like ‘Hey Dave, you should make a game 3D.’  Next day the game’s 3D.”

In Pixel Boy, you travel deep into a dungeon to shoot monsters, gain levels, and collect loot.  The loot you collect is in the form of power-ups that augment your firing abilities – spread shots, homing attacks, and a ton of other abilities that can drastically change the way your character plays.  You can collect up to three power-ups at a time and stack them to concoct some truly crazy combinations.

The dungeon is also home to items that will randomly alter your stats for better or for worse, giving you maybe more health, or less range.  The combination of what is most likely several hundred power-up possibilities and a partly random character progression system makes each playthrough a totally different experience.

And you will most likely start many playthroughs very early on, since your character build can so quickly get out of hand it encourages you to just roll again.  But this isn’t a bad thing.  This idea of impermanence and rebirth is a core implement to the gameplay.

“We wanted to have infinite replayability,” says Dom.  “In fact, in the original design you couldn’t load a game, and Dave had huge arguments with me about putting a load game feature in.  ‘Cause I said, ‘No, someone dies, they die!’”

Before working on Pixel Boy, Dominic was still very new to coding.  With the team constantly challenging themselves to add new features, he’s had to learn how to master many aspects of game design very quickly, including implementing multiplayer modes.

“Dave’s constantly challenged me,” says Dom.  “The multiplayer was a weekend spur of the moment thing, Dave and I were celebrating having added a new feature, and Dave was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we added multiplayer to this game?’ and I was like, ‘Haha, that’s fucking crazy!’

“And then Dave was like ‘I bet you can’t add multiplayer!’  And then I programmed super, super basic multiplayer, and I said ‘shit, network code’s not that hard.’  Then I started implementing it into Pixel Boy and it became this massive thing.”

Pixel Boy is now going to include 4-player co-op and deathmatch multiplayer.

“Dom and I are both really big DOTA players,” says David. “A lot of the game design from DOTA that we love, we wanted to have the same type of feeling, like every game it’s gonna be different.  But if you’re thrown into the same sort of stuff you can pick it up.”


Stopped on a Green Light

Pixel Boy is on the road to completion.  Giant Box plans to release the game as a four-level demo and allow customers who pre-order to buy the full game at half-price.  The team plans to finish the game in a month or two as a beta and release new content as it gets finished.  But for that to be successful, people need to know about the game.

Steam Greenlight has a low barrier of entry, and leaves it to developers to market their games to consumers who will vote so that they can hopefully get green-lit.  This isn’t always a simple task when you’re a small two-man team.

“It’s something that completely takes away from our game dev,” says David.  “Greenlight essentially is saying that you need a 200,000 person fanbase to get to 100%.  That’s madness for an indie developer.  All we need to do is just make enough money just to make our next title.  We don’t need to be Ed McMillen.  We don’t need to sell a million copies.”

“You’ve got to realize different people have different tastes and that’s a big thing that’s not being taken into consideration,” says Dom.

“Well and that’s the niche market,” David says.  “They’re looking for this hidden gem of a Minecraft-type game.  That’s what I think their whole game plan is here.  But they’re not gonna find it because the only games that are being noticed right now are the ones that already have a preexisting fanbase.”

The struggle an indie game faces right now is breaking through the ranks of the first-person-shooters and platformers that make up most of the popular vote on services like Greenlight.

Today, games like Pixel Boy have a fight on their hands to earn their audience.  Games are transitioning from an era of big-publisher blockbusters to an era of crowd-sourced independent labours of love.  The entire industry will have to change in ways it hasn’t changed in decades in order to keep up.

And as David, Dom, and any other developer that has found themselves competing on a platform that only a year ago never even existed can tell you – the change has already begun.