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Back in Time: Life of Pixel interview

It’s not uncommon for an independent game to cast an eye to the past but none has embraced the history of games quite like Life of Pixel.

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Life of Pixel

It’s not uncommon for an independent game to cast an eye to the past but none has embraced the history of games quite like Life of Pixel.

Ostensibly a fast-paced – and often beautifully cruel – platformer, Life of Pixel takes the player on a journey through game platforms of the past.

Using the graphical and musical styles of systems including the Atari 2600, the ZX Spectrum, SNES, the game is part museum piece, part Super Meat Boy.

Life of Pixel was born on the now defunct PlayStation Mobile platform before making the journey to PC in 2014. It was recently released on Wii U and an Xbox One version is also planned.

We spoke to Richard Hill-Whittall, Super Icon’s Creative Director, about revisting gaming’s past and the challenges of being an independent developer.

Thumbsticks: Did Life of Pixel start life as a platform game or did you lead with the retro museum approach and then choose the most appropriate genre to explore that idea?

Richard Hill-Whitttall: Life of Pixel had an odd beginning – we had agreed to do two PlayStation Mobile (PSM) games for launch for Sony – both 3D using our internal 3D engine tech from that time. What happened was a disaster, and we couldn’t convert the tech in anything like the timeframe we needed.

Quickly I decided on a Plan B – which was to go 2D. I had the idea to do Pixel – a unique approach to a platformer at the time, whereby you visit lots of different classic machines. The main reason I chose this storyline was because I really wanted to explore creating pixel-art graphics using the limitations of the old machines. Gameplay wise games like Super Meat Boy were popular at the time; tough challenge with lots of deaths – so that was the approach I went with.

It was just great fun to create levels and graphics within the various system limitations. I hadn’t done any pixel art for years at the time, so it was a case of re-learning old skills and enjoying the creative process.

Life of Pixel

There have been a number of games that have played with various retro aesthetics but Life of Pixel also evolves the game play as the hardware progresses – moving from single screen, to multiple screen and eventually scrolling stages with more complex interactions. How did you decide on which elements to introduce and when?

I put together a list of my favourite 8-bit machines, and chose a selection from the earliest through to the more advanced. If I recall I started on the early ones first too – ZX81 levels being the first ones I designed. Once we released on Steam, we then began a free update – which added all the 16-bit machines. It was very much a case that there were more and more machines I wanted to play with – and with each different machine there were certain technical limitations.

I tried to make sure I kept as close as possible to what those machines could handle, but there were some liberties taken; for example the movement I kept smooth rather than say the more character based movement you would have had on a ZX81 (whereby the player would move a few pixels at a time).

Which particular piece of hardware proved the most challenging or fun to recreate?

I really enjoyed creating the Atari 2600 levels; the resolution and colours were interesting to work with. Spectrum was cool too – dealing with the single colour per block limitations (the colour clash was added later for the PC release). I also loved working with the 2×1 pixel resolution on Amstrad and C64 – I’d actually done some pixel art in the past on the C64 – so it was like catching up with an old friend. And NES too; loved the colour palette and experimenting with more parallax effects. 

Life of Pixel

Life of Pixel evokes a great number of games from the past. Which are most influential and why?

For me I’d say the C64 and Spectrum games – Uridium, Paradroid, Jet Set Willy, Atari 2600 Pitfall, Castlevania, Megaman, BBC Exile, C64 Ghosts’n Goblins – those were some I had in mind right from the concept stage. In terms of gameplay, I kind of did my own thing with Pixel, especially given the limited time frame. Looking back, it would have been fun to experiment with different gameplay from various different games, but that would have been a far bigger project.

The double jump is a supplementary move in many games but in Life of Pixel it’s an essential component of the game play – particularly when combined with mid-jump manoeuvres. What was the reason for this approach?

It just kind of happened, I had a very limited time to get something up and running. I put together a list for the coder of features I wanted – double jump being one – and he added those and I ran with the level design once they were in. So from the very beginning, levels were designed with double jumps in mind, because it was in there. Looking back, I really like how it influenced the gameplay – for me it allowed the levels to be a lot more fiendish, the double jump gave far more flexibility with both jump distance and destination. It also felt like a far more old school development process – you add something in and go with it, rather than a more contemporary focus testing style approach.

Life of Pixel

The game has an affectionate sense of humour – the appearance of a drivable Sinclair C5 being a wonderful example. It’s a reminder that games no longer seem to revel in being slightly quirky. Was this aspect important?

Absolutely – to be honest I could have created about 6 games with all the stuff I wanted to add and all the little bits and pieces from the various systems. And looking back now, when I think of each machine and each level, I think of all the other games and little touches I’d like to put in there.

I’m just about to start a new set of machines which I’m really looking forward to – the original MSX, Atari ST, EGA PC, PC Engine, plus one or two others. So I’ll be adding plenty of new bits and probably revisiting a few of the original levels.

You worked with composers including Gavin Harrison and Ashton Morris on the game’s chiptune soundtrack. My particular favourite is the Amiga music by Alex Mauer, which recreates not only the sound but the musical style of the time perfectly. Can you explain a little about the process of creating music from each era?

Originally, the very first PSM release of Life of Pixel had only a couple of public domain chiptunes. Very repetitive they were – and rightly panned by the first reviewers. I decided to do a big update (Version 1.1 in BIG LETTERS!). I fixed a lot of stuff that reviewers complained about (some stupid blind jumps for example). I also posted on a couple of music forums looking for chiptune musicians. The response was great, more than I expected, so then I had the idea of working with different musicians, with each one specialising in specific machines audio hardware. I was really knocked out by the tunes they created, they really enhanced the game.

Life of Pixel

The game was recently released on Wii U and you tweeted that sales numbers have been below expectations. Do you accredit this to the size of the Wii U audience or it’s make-up? Based on the Miiverse comments of those playing the game, it seems pretty much loved.

I’m not entirely sure. I love the Wii U, and Nintendo have been brilliant – so I’ve been really upset by the poor figures as I was hoping to do plenty of Wii U stuff going forward. Right now, given the numbers, I can’t afford to develop for Wii U as we are running at a loss. This makes me sad – as I have so much respect and admiration for Nintendo. I suspect it is the case that most Wii U owners tend to primarily buy Nintendo games, and let’s face it – their games are incredibly good. We’ve just submitted Vektor Wars to Nintendo Lotcheck, but beyond that – we’ll have to see.

With the independent sector growing bigger by the day making a great game is only half of the job. Getting visibility is now almost as important the development process. What is your experience in gaining exposure for your titles?

Terrible. We have failed so incredibly badly. We just can’t get coverage that makes any difference to sales. I just don’t know how to crack the visibility issue – and I know many other indies feel the same. I haven’t really earned a living wage for a few years now, it is seriously tough.

Life of Pixel

Life of Pixel is out now on PC, Mac and Wii U and is due for release on on Xbox One. Any news on a release date?

We’re also looking at a Vita releases – primarily to improve cash flow a little as Sony Europe are great payers. They are unique among platform holders in that they pay monthly, which really helps keep a studio like ours afloat.

What do Super Icon have in development for future release? Is there potential for Pixel to have more adventures, or a Life of Polygon perhaps?

We have a couple of games in development right now – the first is Best Buds VS Bad Guys, a game I am creating with my son Lucas. It’s a run and gun in a retro Arcade machine style – lots of nods to classics like Bionic Commando, Ghosts’n Goblins, Green Beret, Black Tiger, Rastan, etc… LOADS of blasting, secrets, multiple routes and a story about the bond between two best buds. It is very much a game created from the same mind-set as Life of Pixel. You can read a little more about it here: http://www.supericon.co.uk/bestbuds/

Then we have Beasts – a 2D platform blend of Doom, Castlevania & Diablo with a ton of gore, wonderfully dark hell levels and a whole realm full of evil, twisted Beasts to destroy. We should have plenty of info on both of those very soon.


Life of Pixel is available now on Wii U, Mac and PC either direct or via Steam.

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Thumbsticks editor, and connoisseur of Belgian buns. Currently playing: Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Pinball FX3, and Red Dead Redemption 2.

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