Interviewing Pixelbomb Games feels somewhat different in comparison with other smaller, relatively unknown indie studios I’ve spoken with in the past.
For starters you’ll find yourself speaking with Jane McConnell, their Head of PR, which can be viewed as unusual in itself. Often promotion for smaller studios is handled by the developers in their downtime, or someone’s wife, or mum, or… in any case, it almost feels like a statement of intent from the studio, that they’re determined to get big by thinking like a big studio from the off.
“We feel indie should be taken more seriously,” begins Jane, “and Pixelbomb Games have resourced up appropriately.”
We couldn’t agree more.
From resourcing the team, we then talked about another vitally important resource that the crew at Pixelbomb have relied upon during the development process – community feedback – based on the free-to-play demos that have been released along the way.
“The guys have been busy re-artworking a reptilian enemy class called the screechers,” Jane tells me. “Based on feedback we were told they looked ‘crablike’ which nobody was really shooting for, so we’re trying to be a bit more subtle. Of course, all of the art is getting an upgrade: the team are in the process of upgrading from Unreal Engine 3 to 4…”
This gives another indication of the size and scope of the project, and the ambition of the team at Pixelbomb Games, led by Phil Muwanga and Lee Blacklock. I ask Jane what sort of impact that will have, and she tells me it is likely to extend development by three months. The extra workload from this may also spell the end of the freely available demos, and could push back the PS4 and Xbox One ports, but it is testament to the commitment of the team do do what a bigger studio might do in their situation, and more importantly, to do it properly.
I then got the opportunity to put some questions to Pixelbomb’s project leads, Phil Muwanga and Lee Blacklock…
Thumbsticks: Pixelbomb Games will be a new name to most of our readers; can you tell us a little about who you are, and the history of the studio?
Phil Muwanga: Sure. We’re a video games studio based in Manchester, and we’ve been going since 2011. The studio is fairly nomadic – we move office spaces from time to time but we’ve always been based in Greater Manchester.
Being a small studio means we can keep the ethos indie in the sense that we are an alternative. We recruit fairly locally which helps us out immensely; and as an indie studio we want our devs stay with Pixelbomb.
We’re new, but we’re hoping to make a real impact on the scene in the North and globally.
Thumbsticks: At a time when retro pixel-art titles on mobile platforms are prevalent among indie studios, Pixelbomb Games took the ambitious step of building a third-person shooter, with the Unreal Engine, for PC and Linux (with consoles to follow). How has the development process been? Would you have done anything differently, with hindsight?
Phil: Making games is hard. Coming from and indie background, I understand why most indie games pick the art styles that they do. You leave uni, all bright eyes and fresh faced, full of hope and design the most ambitious game that you can conceive then just start to make it which our really understanding the herculean task that you have undertaken. What normally happens is after a year or so you realise just how much work is involved and start again on a more manageable project, salvaging what you can. Rinse and repeat this a few times and most indies start to design smaller, more focused games with a more manageable story and art style and a lot of ‘coder’ art.
One of the reasons that I’m so excited about this project is that were trying to fly in the face of popular option. We’re trying to knock it out of the park here and make the ambitious game that we can and a game that we want to make, Obviously we need to be aware of our limitations, we are still a small indie studio not a triple a behemoth, so we’ve tried to use the lessons that Lee and myself have learned over the past ten years to create an efficient pipeline to allow us to hit the quality bar that we want with the team that we have.
As for what we’d do differently? Hindsight is always 20/20, so it would have been better if we spend less time iterating on ideas that didn’t quite mesh with the product as it stands now. But then this is game development, it’s a constantly evolving process. You have to try some things just to see if they will work and some of our favourite features in the current build came to life as “bugs” (features) that we encounter developing different, binned features. Oh and changing engines is as painful a process as everyone makes out, don’t do that unless you really have to.
Lee Blacklock: We’ve got a big love of anime and mechs; we love mechs from Japanese and Western tradition. I guess it’s surreal to bring that concept to Manchester, a UK city rather than what are seen as more conventional locations.
Phil: Since Last November, we’ve moved over to Unreal 4. We could have moved over earlier, but we’ve used our project management skills to make this happen. Everything was originally in Unreal 3 but Epic has made it easy to transfer the assets – and free!
Also if Rob from Epic is reading this, we’re still waiting to hear what you think about the game. We’d love to know!
Thumbsticks: You must have been delighted when Beyond Flesh and Blood was Greenlit by the Steam community! The response seems to have been overwhelmingly positive, but did you ever have any doubts?
Lee: It was fantastic, we were Greenlit in just 13 days which is good going! Yes there’s always doubts, but you don’t let them overtake what you’re trying to achieve. If we weren’t Greenlit, we would not be making this game.
Thumbsticks: Was there a ‘Plan B’ if Beyond Flesh and Blood hadn’t been Greenlit? Did you ever consider running a Kickstarter campaign, for example?
Phil: We did have a Kickstarter in 2013, but it didn’t work out – we’ve learned since then about promotion, marketing and how to making sure that people can understand just how interesting Beyond Flesh and Blood really is as a concept.
Thumbsticks: Obviously one of the unique things about Beyond Flesh and Blood is its Manchester setting, but what came first; did you need somewhere to stage your mech-based shooter, or did the dystopian vision of the North West start the ball rolling?
Lee: I think we’ve answered this one! We’re a collective of artists and developers from the North who live, work and breathe Manchester, and we always wanted to set a unique, alternative, UK sci-fi single player experience in a post-apocalyptic version of our city. We want to make it epic.
Phil: We’re not showing much of the full story yet because it would give the actual game away. Let’s just say that it does take place in Albert Square, Deansgate, the Triangle, possibly the Arndale and a few other-worldly areas…. via mechs, grisly gory action and something that brings the intensity and immersion – yes even for a third-person shooter, from PC gameplay to console.
Thumbsticks: As a former resident of Manchester I find playing Beyond Flesh and Blood both compelling and unsettling, and I haven’t lived there for almost ten years! How does it feel, living and working in a city that you have ravaged and destroyed? Any double-takes, nightmares, or weird moments out on the street?
Phil: Well, living in Salford for the past ten years has definitely given me some ‘inspiration’ for the game. But on a serious note, its great making a game about our hometown. The route that I walk home with Lee features in the game so we constantly argue where would be good placed for an ambush to take place or take reference pictures for the artist to use to make our prefabricated buildings with.
One of the hardest things for us is not adding things to the game as feature creep can be a bitch, but there are so many cool buildings and areas that we’d like to get into the game. Some ideas have had to be held back for now. It’s been great being able to take some of our favourite haunts and put them through the beyond flesh and blood filter. I’ve spend a lot of time in the Oyster Bar over the years and our reimagining of it makes me smile.
Plus the game being set 200 years in the future allows us the creative freedom to indulge in a bit of urban replanning, like putting the big wheel back where it belongs in the Triangle, not Piccadilly gardens where it currently resides!
Jane McConnell: There are certain members of the team that have full, loud conversations with fictional Mancs, or generally walk around while they sleep…
Thumbsticks: Are you aware of the controversy that surrounded Sony’s 2006 title, Resistance: Fall of Man, and the Church of England’s objection to the inclusion of (what appeared to be) Manchester Cathedral as a playable location? Do you anticipate any such controversy with Beyond Flesh and Blood?
Jane: Very aware!
Lee: We are not using the Cathedral, the exteriors or inside, as game locations.
Phil: It wouldn’t make sense in the world we’re creating.
Thumbsticks: Beyond Flesh and Blood is due out in late 2015; what comes next for Pixelbomb games? Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
Lee: There are plans, stories, artwork, scripts. But we are keeping quiet on those.
Phil: We’ve got to get this first game out there. You could say it’s the first game out of a few…
Thumbsticks: And finally, the question everybody is asking; can you give us anything more precise than simply “late 2015” for the release of Beyond Flesh and Blood?
Lee: There will be some announcements very soon.
Phil: We are working very hard – it is Q4 2015. But there is some official release news coming.
Jane: There is. I’ll keep you posted!